Yassamine Mather examines a regime in crisis and looks to working class forces for a solution
The continuation of demonstrations and protests against the Islamic republic of Iran, albeit on a smaller scale than two weeks ago, have fuelled further divisions at every level of the religious state: the Shia scholars of Ghom oppose the clerics in the Council of Guardians; leaders of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) are arrested for siding with the ‘reformist camp’; senior ayatollahs are divided, with Ali Saneii and Ali Montazeri declaring the election results fraudulent, while most other grand ayatollahs have remained loyal to the supreme leader.
Nearly a month after the elections, the political crisis in Iran still dominates events in the Middle East, while in the country itself most people, irrespective of their political allegiance, agree that the situation has changed so dramatically over the last few weeks that nothing in the Islamic republic will ever be the same again.
With the exception of isolated believers in conspiracy theories, no-one doubts that the Iranian people have expressed loud and clear their desire for an end to the current political system and – in view of the fact that the ‘reformists’ keep wasting valuable time, still expecting miracles from above – it is the entire Islamic order, not just the conservatives, whose future is called into question.
Let us be clear: most Iranians do not believe a word of government claims that the protests were organised from outside Iran. As far as they are concerned, this crisis has all the hallmarks of one made in the Islamic republic. The regime has relied on crisis after crisis to survive over the last 30 years, constantly using real and imaginary foreign threats as an excuse for failure to deliver on any of its promises of equality and prosperity for the masses. A victory for Mir-Hossein Moussavi, coinciding with a new administration in the US, carried the ‘danger’ of reducing, albeit temporarily, tensions with America, thus depriving the Islamic regime of its convenient external scapegoat. That could not be allowed to happen.
The supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, admits he favoured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and clearly as early as this spring, before the ‘selection’ of the final candidates, plans for an Ahmadinejad victory were in the pipeline. Our arrogant supreme leader could not resist the temptation of a premature announcement. From April he used a number of public occasions to declare his wish for, and confidence in, four more years of an Ahmadinejad presidency. Presumably this is when plans for the stuffing of ballot boxes were organised – boxes that were still being discovered in the corridors and libraries of the ministry of the interior last week.
However, at a time of conflict over the country’s nuclear programme, Iran’s rulers needed to demonstrate their legitimacy to the ‘international community’. Ignoring the level of dissatisfaction and opposition that existed in the country, once the number of candidates was reduced to four members of the inner circles of the religious state’s factions, an election show beyond anything seen in the last 30 years was sanctioned. The press and the media of the reformist faction were given a short-lived relative freedom. Within the framework of the existing order, all four candidates were allowed to expose the shortcomings of their opponents.
Corruption, incompetence, lies and deceit came out into the open, and even Ahmadinejad, certain of Khamenei’s backing, went beyond the normal red lines of the Shia state. But the elite of the Islamic republic, in both factions, underestimated the level of hatred and anger towards the regime amongst the young, who make up over 70% of the population. An Iranian sociologist, speaking from Tehran, compared this anger to a glass of water getting fuller and fuller: “We all failed to notice it, until the last drop – but then the election process caused it to overflow.”
Most Iranians were already familiar with the huge wealth, accumulated through corruption, of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, former president and current chairman of the Assembly of Experts. It was the foreign account of Khamenei’s close relatives (including his son, whose personal account of £1.6 billion has been frozen in London) and the charts showing the position of Ahmadinejad’s relatives in the most important financial posts that deprived the conservative front runner of any credibility. Looking back at the turbulent election period, clearly workers’ organisations and Marxist groups who advocated a boycott, at a time of mass hysteria around Moussavi’s candidacy, were right to do so.
It is obvious that Khamenei, surrounded as he is by subservient advisers, underestimated the fury that followed the dashing of hopes – otherwise he might have chosen a more modest percentage for the Ahmadinejad ‘victory’. But in order to establish Ahmadinejad as the truly legitimate leader of the Iranian people, Khamenei needed a higher vote than the 20 million claimed by Khatami in 1997.
Looking back at the election, it is possible that the Islamic order could have been saved had the regime decided to pull an Ahmadinejad victory with a smaller margin or even in the second round. Alternatively, a Moussavi presidency, despite the problems posed by his exaggerated promises of personal freedom within the religious state, would undoubtedly have lengthened the life of the Islamic regime by a few years, until yet another generation of Iranian youth, fooled by promises of reform, witnessed the ineptitude and unwillingness to change of our modernist Islamists. Once the results were announced, however, it soon became clear that Moussavi is a weak character – and his popularity continues to plummet, as he struggles to tail the mass movement.
According to reports from Iran, on June 13, as the Moussavi camp dithered, it was students and activists of the left who first took to the streets of Tehran in the initial protests. They were joined by demonstrators from working class districts of Tehran who hate Ahmadinejad.
In the words of a leaflet by Iran Khodro workers, his “exhibitionist distribution of cash in the poor districts of major cities is an insult to the Iranian working class”. Oil workers in Tehran state that Iranian workers, whose strikes in 1979 brought down the shah, do not want charity and remind us of their demands over the last four years: the abolition of ‘white’ (temporary) contracts, an end to mass unemployment and low wages, the prompt payment of wages, better housing – the real grievances of the poor and the working class. Workers in Iran are well aware that Ahmadinejad’s government cannot and will not respond to such demands – it is still seeking to maintain its position as the IMF’s model for the implementation of neoliberal economic policies.
Iran Khodro workers warn of the disastrous consequences of printing money during hyperinflation and compare Ahmadinejad’s economic policies with those of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Addressing fellow workers, they say: “It is the Iranian working class who will pay for Ahmadinejad’s mad economic policies.”
In fact right from the beginning it has been workers, unemployed youth and students – who have suffered under four years of military presence on campuses – who have been in the forefront of the protests. Young women in particular hate the regime for its constant interference in their daily lives. They are the ones whose early presence on the streets of Tehran on June 15 encouraged hundreds of thousands of people – including, yes, people from Tehran’s middle class districts – to join the protests, which prompted Moussavi to attend the demonstration himself late in the afternoon. They are the ones who are continuing the protests even as the repression intensifies. In the absence of any clear direction from Moussavi or fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, these are the forces that have called for demonstrations on July 9, the anniversary of the student protests of 1998.
No-one can doubt the significance of June 15. For years Iranians had felt isolated, demoralised and fearful of the regime. On that Monday, according to Tehran’s mayor, around three million people were on the streets of the capital. In Isfahan, the historic Shah Jahan square – one of the largest open squares in the world – was jammed with protesters. Shiraz and Tabriz saw similarly huge demonstrations. The Iranian people had finally spoken and the solidarity they found in those protests has given them unprecedented confidence and the sense of victory.
As in 1979, it is this confidence that encourages them to confront the most brutal forms of repression with courage and determination. Unarmed demon-strators confront the Bassij, apparently with no fear for their lives, and those who claim that such courage and determination are a feature of the middle classes have no understanding of the realities of Iranian society. Last week during a protest in a shanty town near Tehran, where the regular battles of those living beyond the official Tehran border with the authorities has resulted in the deployment of the Bassij (the hated Islamic militia used against protesters), the crowd shouted “Death to the dictator”, attacked the Bassij and succeeded in forcing them to retreat, leaving behind their motorcycles.
In working class districts of Tehran, groups of people have been throwing paint on photos of the supreme leader, writing slogans under his portraits and using every opportunity to taunt the religious militia with slogans such as ‘Death to Khamenei’ and the rhyming chant, “Rahbar ma ola-gheh – ye dastesham cholagheh” (“Our supreme leader is an ass – one of his arms is paralysed”). Iran’s state television is also under attack after broadcasting the ‘confessions’ of young demonstrators, who, bruised and exhausted, are shown on TV admitting they are ‘agents of foreign powers’.
If the middle class districts of Tehran have been quiet during the day (at night people do go on rooftops throughout the city), the working class districts – in the factories, mines and shanty towns – have been the scene of impromptu protests. On July 1 thousands of workers in a mine in Khouzestan province started a strike and when security forces arrived to disperse a sit-in, the workers shouted “Death to the dictator”. Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers restarted their strike on Sunday July 5, accusing the authorities of failing to deal with their previous demands.
Discussions about a general strike are continuing and last week after almost three weeks of organising demonstrations, an organisation calling itself the Workers’ Committee in Defence of Mass Protests issued a number of statements regarding the organisation of demonstrations – security measures that should be taken, advice on what to do if the Bassij attack, as well as detailed suggestions regarding civil disobedience.
With every day that passes the two reformist candidates are losing support. Having spent two weeks hoping for a breakthrough with the cleric-led Guardian Council, Karroubi, Moussavi and finally former reformist president Mohammad Khatami issued statements calling the election results, together with the new government, illegitimate. However, ordinary Iranians are furious at Moussavi’s reference to the current debacle as an argument “within the Islamic family”, while the reformists’ ally in the Council of Experts, ayatollah Rafsanjani was seeking the vote of enough ‘councillors’ in order to demote, or at least put pressure on, the supreme leader.
As always, the reformists are aware that their destiny is tied to the that of the regime, yet by seeking solutions within the ruling circles, while promising the impossible to the crowds in the street, they are digging their own graves. They know they only gained support in June 2009 because many Iranians decided to opt for the lesser of two evils. Once the clerical regime denied this limited opportunity and slammed the door, the days of support for Moussavi and Karroubi were numbered. However, no-one should underestimate the effect this unprecedented schism at the highest level of the Islamic regime will have.
The Islamic republic is a complicated beast. Power lies in a twisted web of clerical, executive, judicial and military circles: the Guardian Council, the Council of Experts, the majles (Islamic parliament), Council for the Safeguarding of National Interests, the government led by the president, civil, criminal and ‘revolutionary’ (political) courts, the army/Pasdaran, Bassij, various Islamic associations (some calling themselves parties) …
Until now all of these forces, whatever their differences and factional allegiances, ended up obeying the supreme leader. In fact throughout the last 30 years the most important role played by both Khomeini and Khamenei, as vali faghih (supreme leader), was as an arbiter of power between the various factions. All this came to an end on June 19, when Khamenei declared the presidential voting results accurate and sided with Ahmadinejad. It is therefore correct, as Hamid Dabashi does in the Cairo weekly, Al Ahram, to identify the supreme leader as the principal loser in the current situation (June 25-July 1).
The second loser is Ahmadinejad – the incompetent racist who in the 1980s was an interrogator in Evin prison, often leading the post-torture questioning of leftwing activists, and who is in his element as the loyal servant of the supreme cleric.
The reformists are also losers in this process – every day that goes by, their support continues to drop. They are caught in a corner, trying to save an Islamic order that is not prepared to compromise even with them.
But there are winners too – the peoples of Iran, the demonstrators, those who risk their lives every day against the regime and its military might. The repression is severe, brutal and unlike anything seen since the 1980s. However, this only shows the desperation of the regime. The demonstrators are winning.
The creative way in which they have used every opportunity to voice their hatred of the current regime has given them hope and confidence, which makes it certain that the current conflict will not end until the regime is overthrown. It has made too many enemies, especially amongst the youth and the poor, for anyone to be able to contemplate its survival.
In the forefront of those who have defied fear and repression to go onto the streets of Tehran are women (many of them under 30) who will never forget how Pasdars arrested them for showing a fringe of hair and how they were subsequently flogged (in many cases 60-80 lashes) for this ‘crime’. Young men and women who over the last decades have been arrested, humiliated and imprisoned not just for expressing political opinions, but in hundreds of thousands of cases for failing to adhere to strict interpretations of Islamic dress or behavioural codes.
Students who are tired of the interference of the state in every aspect of their private and public lives; workers who have faced poverty, non-payment of wages; shantytown dwellers who are in daily conflict with the authorities over lack of water or electricity; relatives of those killed by the regime, and not just in recent protests, when at least 100 people have lost their lives, but also of those executed by the regime for their political beliefs in 1979, the 1980s and 90s (and let us not forget that the executioners of Iran’s political prisoners belong to both the ‘reformist’ and the conservative camp): none of them will forgive or forget the criminals responsible.
In the last few days parents of those arrested in recent demonstrations have been gathering every lunchtime outside Iranian prisons, demanding the release of the prisoners and justice for those killed by the Bassij. Too many people in Iran find another four years of Ahmadinejad too awful to contemplate – they will not stop their protests, with or without Moussavi and Karroubi.
The Islamic regime had the chance to entice people with promises of a slightly less repressive order under a Moussavi presidency, but blew it. However, faced with severe repression at home and the continued threat of military attack (a second Israeli nuclear submarine is now getting close to the Persian Gulf), the one kind of ‘solidarity’ the people of Iran do not need is the one offered by the imperialist states and their ‘regime change’ associates in Iran. The enemies of the Iranian working class – in the Moussavi camp, amongst royalists or within the confused left – will seek support from European states, the US administration, rightwing trade unions, liberal NGOs, media personalities … while the defenders of the Iranian working class will remain vigilant in choosing our allies.
In Hands Off the People of Iran we have maintained our consistent, principled, anti-imperialist, anti-regime stance, and we are in an excellent position to build a much larger campaign in support of the struggles of the Iranian people. In doing so we welcome the cooperation of all Iranian and international forces that share our principles. But let me be clear – we cannot unite with supporters of Moussavi or those who seek war or sanctions instead of, or as a short cut to, revolutionary change from below. We will not suspend our criticisms of those prepared to tolerate imperialist war or economic sanctions – measures that will harm Iranian workers first and foremost.
There are calls for political sanctions against Iran now being proposed by liberals such as Shirin Ebadi and by two of the three splinters from the Worker-communist Party of Iran.
It is not our business to advise Washington or London what measures they ought to take against Tehran – quite the opposite. We say they should stop interfering in Iran. Instead we seek solidarity from below – amongst workers, trade unionists and anti-capitalist forces – with the struggles of the Iranian people. That is the essence of our politics and we will not be diverted from it.