Tag Archives: working class

Yassamine Mather: Our duty to Iran’s working class

(This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker)

It seems such a long time that there have been threats of military action against Iran without them being followed through that some people may have become a bit blasé. It is a bit like the boy who cried wolf too many times perhaps. However, the reality is that his time the threats are very serious.

The reasons why there are serious threats now have very little to do with the Iranian nuclear programme. Most people agree that the Iranian government exaggerates the stage it has reached and the west also exaggerates this – in regard to uranium enrichment, for example – both for their own reasons. I am not dismissing the nuclear issue altogether, but I do not think it is the reason why we are facing these serious threats.

There are other reasons. First and foremost there is the world economic crisis and the fact that the United States is in economic decline. It is feeling the pressure of both the crisis and the partial erosion of its hegemonic position – not to the extent that its hegemony is threatened by some competitor seeking to take over that role, of course. Because of that it cannot tolerate states like Iran – despite the fact that it follows every neoliberal instruction dictated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. The problem is that politically Iran is not playing the game that the hegemonic power wants it to play. For that reason it has to be taught a lesson.

Let me stress here – because within the Iranian left and opposition in general there is some confusion on this issue – I am not saying that the United States is threatened by China as a new emerging political power. China’s economic dependence on the US is well known, but, most importantly of all, China’s economic reserves are held in US dollars and in US banks: it would not be in the interest of the Chinese to wage an economic war against the United States; quite the reverse. And China too is very much affected by the economic crisis, just as many countries in the developing and emerging economies are facing its effects.

Leaving aside the effects of the economic crisis, the political reason the US needs to exert its power in the region arises from the fact that its position has been damaged by the two wars it has waged in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I am not using the word ‘defeat’ in this context, as it is more complicated than simply saying the US was defeated in Iraq: clearly it was not. But the outcome is certainly not what anyone in the US political establishment would have wanted: a political regime totally allied to the Iranian government. That must have been the worst-case scenario for American strategists. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under the Ba’athist regime was a staunch opponent of the Iranians and its downfall has strengthened Iran. The same is also true of Afghanistan. Iran was no friend of the Taliban, but the Karzai regime has distanced itself at times from the US and has moved to find better relations with Iran – both with the supreme leader and with Ahmadinejad. The rapprochement between Iran and Afghanistan gives Iran influence in a very strategic part of the world. This strategic importance is not simply about oil (though there is the additional issue of the oil-rich Gulf region), but about its geopolitical significance.

As the Saudis keep telling the US, the two wars have produced Shia governments all the way from the borders of Iran to the Levant, and that is a serious matter. In the regional context I know that some people in the Stop the War Coalition have said that if Iran is attacked we will see demonstrations in every Arab country, not least Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood will be up in arms. The reality is that there is now another very forceful voice in addition to Israel telling the United States to go to war against Iran, and that voice is Saudi Arabia – and, by extension, some of the Sunni Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Anyone who has any understanding of the Gulf, who knows the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, will understand that would be their position as well – the MB has expressed this in various interviews. The opposition to Iran from the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is poisonous and vehement: you can hear it and you can feel it if you watch Al Arabiya television for 10 minutes. For them it is clear that Iran is the main enemy; they have forgotten about Israel. In fact Israel, Saudi Arabia and the GCC now have a common enemy: Iran.

Also we have now seen Hamas distancing itself from both Syria and Iran, contrary to what hopeful, and I assume uninformed, members of the STWC are telling us. Hamas has been issuing statements saying that if there is a war between Iran and Israel it will stay neutral. As someone who has never supported Hamas it frightens me that it would make such a statement. But that is the reality of the regional context and no manner of wishful thinking can change this. Iran has influence in the Middle East, but also many enemies, and the United States knows it.

In addition to all this the US is in an election year and there is not a single primary where the Republicans do not voice concern about Obama’s ‘irresponsible’ attitude and ‘softness’ on Iran, which adds to the pressure. It is not simply a matter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supporting a Republican candidate instead of Obama: I assume AIPAC-influenced votes are divided between both parties. But constant allegations in an election year that the administration is not doing enough, that it is not showing its muscle and that it is displaying weakness can be added to the reality of a superpower feeling threatened by the economic crisis and its political position.

Sanctions

So the threat of war should be taken seriously. The people of Iran are certainly taking it seriously and for them it is a nightmare, a disaster. Whatever political opinion Iranians may hold, they consider the threat of military action a terrible reminder of the Iran-Iraq war – but they realise that this time it could be far worse and on a far larger scale. And in many ways it seems the war has already started because the majority of the people are suffering from the severity of the sanctions. These are not sanctions like those applied against South Africa. They are really affecting ordinary people in their day-to-day lives.

The effects are both psychological and material. For a few years there have been shortages of surgical equipment, of medication, of certain types of spare parts for cars and planes and so on. If your car needs a spare part and the part is on the US list of equipment which could potentially be ‘used for nuclear arms acquisition’, you will just have to write off your car. Alternatively people have attempted to make their own spare parts – and the state has attempted to do the same thing for aircraft – which has made things extremely unsafe. There have been serious accidents, with people endangering their own lives and their surroundings, as they try to work round the sanctions in various ways.

However, the most serious effects of the sanctions have been felt since January and there are two reasons for this. One is that the banking and foreign exchange measures have really hit home. Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), through which credit/debit transactions are run via member-banks, is now removing Iran from its list, which means that credit cards can no longer be used in Iran from next month. This is problematic for ordinary Iranians, but also makes it difficult for industry to buy raw materials. I was talking to some people who work in a factory and they were saying that the owner cannot get any of the material he used to buy. They said that usually the capitalists make up such stories as an excuse to sack workers, but in this case the stories are true – they cannot perform the necessary transactions. There have been some smaller banks prepared to bypass these sanctions, but these are being forced to comply.

Banking sanctions have affected the Iranian currency dramatically since January of this year. This was added to the EU decision to stop buying Iranian oil from July. But just the announcement of the banking sanctions brought the Iranian currency to its knees – it lost half its value in 10 hours. Apart from the psychological effect, this shows us how the capitalists both within and outside government circles have been losing confidence in their own state – so much so that suddenly nobody wants to keep their money in tomans (one toman equals 10 official Iranian rials). One dollar is now worth 2,000 tomans – up from 1,200 before the announcement. The state intervened, restricting currency trading and increasing interest rates, but, of course, none of this has had the desired effect and the value of the rial has almost been halved.

Iran’s economy is now one of an importing country, apart from oil. This has resulted from neoliberalism, as well as the land reform and privatisation that has taken place. Agriculture in Iran has been destroyed. The country now imports most of the fruit and vegetables that used to come from within. In most ‘third world’ countries you can usually say, at least food staples are relatively cheap, but this is not the case in Iran. Land reform has driven the peasantry off the land and into shanty towns in the urban areas. What is left of mechanised agriculture is utilised for export crops, which provide good foreign currency returns. Privatisation has resulted in widespread destruction of sections of the food industry, affecting staple foods. The price of rice doubled in January and the same is true for other grains.

In addition to that, imported food is being held up. Shipping companies have been told that if they offload their goods in Iranian ports they will be put on sanction lists. They are taking this very seriously and mostly complying. There are reports, for example, of a ship full of grain from the Ukraine refusing to offload its goods once it had docked. Its owners had second thoughts and told the crew to leave. It was better for the company to do this than be on the US blacklist.

These sanctions have nothing to do with stopping Iran’s nuclear programme. They are for regime change. The US has made up its mind to flex its muscles in the region and install a more compliant regime in Tehran. Now, many Iranians are very sympathetic to the idea of regime change, but they most certainly do not want this to come about through outside interference. Ironically a notion that is so distasteful to ordinary people inside Iran has appealed to certain organisations in exile, some of whom are so desperate for regime change that they do not stop and think about the implications of military action, or what would come afterwards. Could it be worse than the current situation? Yes, it could. The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan prove it.

National fragmentation

Things are indeed very bad for workers in Iran. Unemployment has rocketed, with youth unemployment particularly serious. Many workers are on contracts that allow for instant dismissal, and are often not paid for months. In addition to this, the struggle of Iranians against their own religious state is intensifying. What was, in some senses, a pluralistic dictatorship, is now becoming much more monolithic. This can be seen in the recent election results, combined with the defeat of the green movement in 2009.

Of course, there is strong opposition to the regime. But people do not want another state to decide the fate of their country, and in that sense I think the opposition to the war is so strong that it might actually strengthen the regime and help it survive. It is one of those cases where one does not know how far that process might go. Some say that the US is betting on the fact that the stepping up of sanctions will make the people so desperate they will rebel. But in my view they are wrong: it could have completely the reverse effect.

In some ways we saw this in the election results at the beginning of March. Of course, the regime exaggerated the turnout – I would say that at most one third of the electorate voted. This was despite the fact that the government did its best to make it an election against the war, claiming that voting was a matter of honour, of preserving the nation. One can see the how serious the situation is by the following conundrum: on the one hand, the regime stays in power and the threats increase. On the other hand, the regime change planned by the US would almost certainly involve the dismantling of the country we currently know as Iran.

Take Balochistan. The US is clearly looking to separate it off. It has emerged that Israeli Mossad agents have approached the Balochi opposition pretending to represent the CIA and it was only a year later that the US found out. Then, of course, there was the flood of denials. The US is doing this with more subtlety than the Israelis, but the idea remains one of creating a ‘greater Balochistan’ standing between and in opposition to both Iran and Pakistan.

The Kurdish issue is also an obvious one. There is strong opposition to the repression of the Iranian state. But some of the Kurdish groups would be happy to see a Kurdish republic created under US supervision, presumably not realising where that would lead. It would be a worse outcome for the Kurdish people than the terrible situation they already have to endure under Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

It goes without saying that I support the Kurds’ right to self-determination. Kurdish areas in Turkey and Iraq, as well as in Iran, have been deliberately kept more undeveloped than any other part of those countries, first by western client regimes and then by subsequent governments. As a result there is a very small working class in these regions. For example, working class Iranian Kurds tend to seek employment in Tehran or Azerbaijan.

I would argue for a united socialist Iran with a united, autonomous Kurdistan as a federated part of it. That is a much more attractive proposition for the Kurdish working class than the establishment of a small independent country based on three separate, economically undeveloped regions all with a very weak proletariat. Because of the absence of a strong working class, the Kurdish nationalist parties tend towards pre-capitalist, feudal methods in order to maintain their support. It would be possible to unite these three enclaves into a single state, but that state would be dominated by reactionary forces. Would that be progress for the Kurdish people or the Kurdish working class? I do not think so. As much as I defend the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination – and it must be their choice – I would advocate a federal arrangement within a socialist Iran. That would be better in the long run than a small, impotent Kurdistan state.

Similarly the separation of the Arab regions of Iran has always been on the agenda of neighbouring Arab countries. There is strong sentiment involved: Iranian Arabs speak a different language, they have been repressed. Even when oil prices were at their peak the region was deprived, with people being racially abused and so on. However, becoming part of Saudi Arabia or other states of the Gulf Cooperation will not do them any good either, yet that is the plan. And then there is the idea that a big chunk of Iran should be incorporated into Azerbaijan – there is an understandable sentiment amongst some Azeri Turks in Iran that the idea of joining a bigger Azerbaijan republic would be better than remaining part of Iran.

But all of these scenarios would be profoundly negative – not just for the Iranian peoples, but for the broader region and the world as a whole. Decimating a country in order to make sure that the hegemonic state remains powerful and has no headaches in the region is not a solution. The fact that national minorities in the region have been badly treated is well established and this is a serious issue that must be resolved through the right to self-determination. However, as communists we must be honest and state clearly that the fragmentation of Iran into small, weak units would produce a far worse situation than the present one. As in occupied Iraqi Kurdistan, it is likely that lackeys of the US would be in charge – no-one can claim that Kurds in Iraq are in control of their own destiny. The demand should be for the voluntary union of Iran’s peoples on the basis of democracy and equality.

Anti-regime, anti-war

There are those on the left who say that now is not the time to raise our voices against the Islamic Republic. But opposing this war does not mean suspending our opposition to the theocracy. Within the Iranian opposition there are very few – whether on the left or right – whose opposition to the war leads them to cease opposing the regime. It is the Islamic regime which has created this appalling situation for its own people. The regime itself has imposed neoliberal economic policies that have produced the situation where sanctions are so effective now. It is the state that is responsible for this economically disastrous situation, where the country is becoming utterly dependent on imports for every basic food item. So we cannot say that it is not about the regime.

Then there is the idea that I hear from some Stop the War people that the streets of London are not the place to fight the Islamic Republic. This is an insult to us Iranians. I fought the Islamic Republic in Tehran, but I was forced into exile. I fought the Islamic Republic in Kurdistan, but I could not stay because of the war being waged there. It is my right and my internationalist duty to fight the Islamic republic on the streets of London and no-one from Stop the War can tell me otherwise. Yet it is very often the same people who then tell us that “We are all Greeks today” when it comes to the protests in Athens and elsewhere. What is the logic of that? How come we are “all Greeks”, or “all Egyptians”, but we must not be all Iranians. Oh no – better not say anything about the Islamic regime! Needless to say, I do not accept this argument.

However, I also do not underestimate those sections of the Iranian opposition that are soft on the threat of war. The danger posed by such oppositionists is a very serious one for the Iranian people. I have no expectations otherwise of the right – the royalists have been dreaming from their comfortable homes in Washington or California of regime change imposed by the US for 33 years. But there are groups even among left opponents of the regime that now say, maybe the sanctions are a good idea, because perhaps it will force the hand of the Iranian government. Whether they have that effect or not, they may well destroy the country and starve millions of Iranians in the process. Hardly a useful way to change a regime. You might end up with one that is even worse – perhaps a military dictatorship with a ‘reformist’ Islamist figurehead. Would this be a solution to the problems facing Iran?

There are also sections of the Iranian left that take the opposite stance. Time and time again we have told organisations that defend the Iranian working class – and there are many who have done a good job in raising the issue of workers being attacked and arrested, etc – you cannot do this effectively unless you also raise the issue of war and sanctions. They never took this seriously until this year. However, I am very glad that the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran has now issued a very clear statement against war and against sanctions. That is a good step. However, I must say that if they had joined us two or three years ago to build a serious campaign in defence of Iranian workers, while at the same time opposing war and sanctions, we would have been in a much stronger position.

I think, because of our principled position, Hands Off the People of Iran is in a unique position to lead the fight against this war. Now is the time to build Hopi, not as an alternative to the Stop the War Coalition – what a ridiculous suggestion – but as an organisation that has built up a reputation precisely because of that principled position. Personally I thought there was no point in Hopi applying yet again to affiliate to STWC, to be honest. But we can build Hopi because the Iranian working class needs us to and it is our duty to provide them with internationalist support and solidarity. But this is not just about Iran. It is about maintaining principle in terms of internationalism, in terms of dealing with the crisis, in terms of not falling for superficial slogans.

This is not just a repeat of the Iraq war: it is perhaps even more serious in some ways. These threats come at a time of economic crisis and it could turn out to be a war aiming to save capitalism. So let us build Hopi, make it stronger. Let us go nationwide. We have the politics, we have the comrades who have stayed loyal to the campaign and we have the correct arguments.

Opposition to imperialism does not mean support for Ahmadinejad

Mohammad Reza Shalgouni is a founder-member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar) and has been elected as a member of its central committee on a number of occasions. He spent nine years as a political prisoner in Iran under the shah and today is an active supporter of Hands Off the People of Iran. Yassamine Mather interviewed him for the Weekly Worker

Fight for freedom
Fight for freedom

Could you explain the origins of your organisation and the space it occupies on the Iranian left?

Before answering your questions, I see it as my duty to thank your party, and especially the comrades involved with the Weekly Worker, for your coverage of issues concerning the movement of the Iranian people and working class. I hope your efforts can help eradicate the obvious misunderstandings of large sections of the western left.

Rahe Kargar started its activities in the early summer of 1979 and those who founded the organisation were mostly ex-activists of the guerrilla movement, who during their incarceration in the shah’s prisons had come to the conclusion that armed struggle had not only failed to weaken the dictatorship, but that it harmed the relationship between the left and the working class.

Rahe Kargar was one of the first organisations of the left that pointed out the reactionary nature of the Islamic Republic and more importantly deduced from this that the Iranian revolution was defeated once the clergy took power. The clergy was a force that would undoubtedly suppress the movement and independent workers’ organisations, as well as all aspects of modern culture (without which socialism would have no significance). It was with this analysis that, in the midst of widespread general optimism stemming from those who considered the ‘massive popular presence on the streets’ as a definite sign of the victory of the revolution, we drew attention to the threat of fascism and the need to confront its formation.

From our point of view, it was important to pay attention to the characteristics of the new dictatorship and to confront the forthcoming threat. Unlike a substantial section of the left, we considered the clergy and their influence and government as the main threat and, inspired by Marx’s analysis of the ruling classes in England and France in the 1850s, we said that, although the clergy in power is defending the interests of the bourgeoisie against workers and toilers, it has its own interests when it acts as a governing caste. And that this is a result of a Bonapartist equilibrium resulting from the simultaneous weakness of both the bourgeoisie and the working class, the two main classes in society, at a time when neither can take political power.

Rahe Kargar started its existence in opposition to the Islamic Republic and has continued to struggle against this regime. But we have always had clear and firm anti-imperialist positions and we categorically oppose any imperialist intervention in Iran or anywhere in the Middle East. We have always been against the dependence of opposition forces on foreign powers.

From the beginning we opposed the dominant traditional position of the Iranian left, concerning the ‘stage of the revolution’ or defence of the bourgeois democratic revolution, and we have always insisted that a durable democracy in the specific conditions of Iran is impossible without the working class coming to power. That requires independent mass organisation of the class in the political, economic and social arena and this cannot be achieved solely through party organisations. That is why non-party, mass organisations of the workers and toilers can also play an important role. In addition, party organisation might take the form of a number of socialist and workers’ parties, which can form a united workers’ front.

Two other issues that distinguish Rahe Kargar from other leftwing organisations in Iran are:

1. the attention we pay to the issue of nationalities in Iran (a multinational country); we defend the right of the country’s nationalities to self-determination, while emphasising the need for voluntary, democratic unity;

2. the destructive confrontation between tradition and modernity (a form of schizophrenia in our country) and putting an emphasis on the importance of keeping in touch with leftwing religious forces, which maintain a democratic and class understanding of religion and strive for a class alliance of workers and toilers.

In our opinion these are essential conditions for the class unity of the proletariat.

Can you give us an overview of the current situation, including the role of the reformists, the process by which sections of the movement became radicalised and the role of the working class?

In order to understand the dynamics of the current anti-dictatorship movement we must pay attention to a number of issues:

First, although this movement expressed itself in protests against rigged elections, its origins predate June 2009. In other words, in order to understand the situation we must remember that the gatherings in June in support of the reformists had nothing to do with people’s illusions about the elections or the reformists’ programme, but were mainly due to opposition to the institution of the vali faghih (Shia supreme religious leader). In fact these elections were similar to 1997, when people voted for Khatami mainly to confront that institution (the supreme leader wanted Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri to be elected at that time) and it should be said that at least during the last 10-12 years, the majority of Iranians have either participated in or boycotted elections as means of expressing opposition to the ruling dictatorship.

Second, the Islamic Republic has major differences with other dictatorships in the third world. We are dealing with a regime that came out of a mass revolution and for a while it did have considerable influence amongst the masses. The Iran-Iraq war (one of the longest of the 20th century) and political pressure by the United States and its allies throughout most of the last three decades have added to the regime’s need to mobilise its mass base.

However, the Islamic regime is also a rare entity amongst world governments in that the clergy has imposed religion as the dominant force in the state apparatus, denying people’s sovereignty even on a theoretical level and in its constitution. In addition, the Islamic Republic is a plural or multi-centred dictatorship, which so far has not succeeded in destroying its own factions and has not become a dictatorship run by a single individual.

Given the above, elections play a different and a more important role in this system compared to most third world dictatorships. Here the principal organs of power are not electable and elections are limited to the lower echelons within the power structure, which are controlled by the structures nominated by the supreme leader. Elections are above all a means to hide the absolute dictatorship foreseen in the constitution and to mobilise the masses, convincing them of a defining role in state policies. Elections are also a means by which the state organises relations between its own factions (its inner circles) and as a result of this the regime has no alternative but to take its elections seriously. So, once candidates have been screened by the Council of Guardians, there is less vote-rigging, compared with other dictatorships. That is why open electoral fraud disturbs the balance of forces in the regime, not only exposing its absolute despotism, but creating difficulties for regulating relationships between its factions.

Third, the Islamic Republic is a religious dictatorship. In this regime civil repression complements political repression. The regime considers daily and constant control over people’s lives as its raison d’être and this repression creates widespread popular resistance. Throughout the last three decades we have seen a weary, direct and indirect mass resistance to the regime’s efforts to impose sharia law and this has played an important role in the erosion of the regime’s support base. In this confrontation, middle layers of society have played an active role, especially in the major cities. That is why some foreign observers (erroneously) refer to the current protests as the revolt of the middle classes.

Fourth, although at the time of the revolution the religious leadership benefited from considerable influence and this was reflected in the support for the governments stemming from the revolution, the imposition of velayat faghih (guardianship by the supreme leader) created many contradictions, which not only forced the government into constant confrontation with society’s daily life and therefore confrontation with large sections of the population, but also created problems within the clerical hierarchy and the religious establishment.

These factors led to a situation where the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic was seriously challenged (in both the political and religious spheres) especially after Khomeini’s death and this precipitated the loss of it support base. In fact the appearance of the reformists (who mainly came from the ‘left’ faction of the regime, or the ‘imam’s line’ group in the first decade of the existence of the Islamic regime) and their victory in the 1987 presidential elections, has no other significance but a sharpening of this crisis of legitimacy. Efforts over the last 12 years by the office of the supreme leader to control the influence of government reformists were mainly attempted through the strengthening of organs under the direct control of the leader and rendering meaningless elected bodies. All this broke down the equilibrium that had previously existed, and it is no coincidence that the crises of the political and religious legitimacy of the regime have coincided.

The office of Iran’s supreme leader is not only in total confrontation with the people, but at the same time most of the Shia ayatollahs who are accepted as sources of religious guidance are trying to distance themselves from him. The truth is that the traditional Shia religious governance is a form of republic (in the way Engels refers to the Protestant church as the ‘republican church’ and the Catholic church as the ‘Royalist church’), but now vali faghih is trying to change it into a royalist system, making the independence of centres of guidance impossible.

Fifth, the vali faghih system is keeping all the real levers of power directly under the control of the supreme leader. In fact under the current constitution his absolute authority is unprecedented even in comparison to absolute kings. As far as religious matters were concerned, even the kings had to accept religious authority, whilst in Iran all the power of both religious and state authorities is concentrated in the hands of one leader. Given the needs of the revolutionary period and later the requirements of war, the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, tried to present himself as the embodiment of popular will, but during the last two decades, as the crisis surrounding the legitimacy of the regime increased, Ali Khamenei has been forced to use levers of power under his control to neutralise the general and inevitable inclinations of the people and work actively to destroy them.

As a result of this absolute ‘royalist’ power embedded in the constitution, the regime has been recognised as a naked dictatorship by ordinary Iranians. Nowadays all its armed forces are under the direct control of the supreme leader and the president cannot even send a policeman to someone’s door without his permission. The Revolutionary Guards are not only in charge of national security: they also control many of the country’s major economic activities. Today, Iran’s economy is not just divided between the private and the public sector: there is a third, very powerful sector controlled by foundations under the direct influence of the supreme leader – even the parliamentary accounts committee has no control over it. According to some estimates, the resources under the control of these ‘foundations’ account for a quarter of the country’s internal gross production. The broadcasting authority is a state monopoly under the direct control of the vali faghih. The supreme leader is in charge of one fifth of the country’s oil income.

The coincidence of the economic crisis with the anti-dictatorship movement is a sign of the explosive potential of the current situation in Iran. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, despite all the talk of ‘protecting the disinherited’, Iran’s economy has reached a more critical stage.

Unemployment is increasing at a frightening rate and, according to some estimates, amongst youth it has reached 70%. It should be noted that the 15-30 age group constitutes about 35% of the population. Before the elections, inflation was above 25%, according to figure released by Iran’s Central Bank (even after the manipulation of statistics), and despite the government’s denials it has gone up in recent months. In the first three months of Ahmadinejad’s presidency the cost of housing in most major Iranian cities rose by 1,500% and the cost of housing took up around 75% of the income of an average working class family.

Contrary to the illusions of some left groups outside Iran, Ahmadinejad’s so-called ‘pro-disinherited’ policies played an important role in worsening the structural crisis of Iran’s economy. The first term of the Ahmadinejad presidency coincided with an unprecedented rise in the price of oil and he spent a substantial part of the country’s oil income, as well as the country’s foreign exchange reserves, strengthening the social position of vali faghih. By injecting most of these resources into projects that had no economic value and only benefited the regime’s inner circles, the government created unprecedented inflation, the main burden of which fell on the shoulders of workers and toilers. It is enough to remember that, according to Ahmad Tavakoli (head of the research centre of the Islamic Majles, and one of the most hard-line Principlist-conservative factions of MPs), 46% of all the the ‘quick turnaround’ policies claimed by Ahmadinejad to confront unemployment never existed. In other words, all these claims were a cover for giving credit and low-interest loans (at times no-interest loans) to close associates of the vali faghih. Of course, had it been any different, it would have been surprising, because corruption is endemic in Iran’s Islamic Republic. In fact this regime has all the preconditions for relentless, institutional corruption. It is a rentier oil state and a brutal religious dictatorship, depriving non-believers of any rights.

Right now, according to figures released by the Central Bank, the country’s banking system is facing total bankruptcy, because the banks have provided 50,000 billion tomans (around $50 billion) in non-returnable credit, lost in handouts to the regime’s inner circles. Now, the banking system cannot even provide loans to small production units desperate for credit.

According to some evaluations, around 35% of the population live below the absolute poverty line. This means they face hunger and constant malnutrition. In addition to all this, as a result of the shortage of resources and considerable drop in oil income, the government has been forced to implement sudden measures to abolish subsides for all essential commodities, starting with the energy sector. The implementation of this policy will lead to a jump in the rate of inflation and increase poverty and destitution, making the lives of workers and toilers unbearable.

In view of all this, in my opinion the conditions are not suitable for reform. In general, reforms can only be achieved when the state is reasonably stable and the population is relatively calm and accepts the existing conditions. However, not only do people consider their situation unbearable, not only is there a lively protest movement, but the state is also at breaking point. In such conditions any retreat by the government will only encourage the people. That is why the reformists have little chance of gaining from the situation.

In reality, the electoral fraud, the removal of many reformists from power and the arrest of many of their leading figures was no more than a manifestation of the open bankruptcy of the reformist discourse in our country. It was not the reformists who rebelled against the vali faghih: it was the supreme leader who practically threw them out of the inner circles of the religious state.

In the midst of all this, the emergence of a self-instigated movement against electoral fraud propelled the reformists to the leadership of mass protests. That is the contradictory situation created by the rigged elections – reformists managed to lead the protest at the very time when the bankruptcy of the reform programme had become obvious. Clearly this situation cannot last long. We are now in the post-reformist era and the best proof of this is the growing gap between the slogans of the protest movement and the reformist discourse. The demonstrations that started with slogans like ‘Where is my vote?’ have now moved on to slogans such as ‘Death to the dictator’, ‘Death to Khamenei’, and even ‘Death to the principle of velayat faghih’.

The people’s protest movement started under reformist leadership for two obvious reasons:

1. the first protests were against election fraud and it was inevitable that candidates who lost should take pole position within them;

2. in periods of severe repression, protesters usually rely on some sort of cover to protect them – a cover that can reduce a little bit the cost of protest.

In any case, although the reformist programme was clearly bankrupt, the fact that reformists flocked to the ranks of the protest demonstrates the crisis within the regime. A phenomenon which is a necessary precondition for a revolutionary situation. Today, the presence of reformists on the side of the popular movement is a sign that the ruling order’s position is untenable. At a time when the regime cannot even tolerate reformists who abide by the velayat faghih constitution, we can see a sign of absolute dictatorship and despotism, reducing the regime’s chances of survival. Clearly this situation cannot last for a long time. However the reformists themselves have reached the end of the road – caught between the velayat faghih system and the anti-dictatorship movement of the masses, they are so hemmed in, they have lost the ability to take any initiative.

The brutal, repressive reaction of the regime in confronting the protests was one of the most important factors in the radicalisation of the protest movement over the last eight months. As I mentioned before, the protests against rigged elections (which was indirectly a protest against velayat faghih) disrupted the calculations of the regime. They had not expected mass popular interest in the elections and had even organised TV debates between candidates (a rare event in the Islamic Republic) to try and inject some enthusiasm and show the elections to be a real contest.

In the three weeks before the elections support for reformists candidates became so widespread that Ahmadinejad’s defeat was obvious to everyone. It was in this atmosphere that the vali faghih system, seeing a repetition of the 1997 elections, declared two days before the elections, via the Revolutionary Guards, that a ‘velvet revolution’ was being planned by western powers. On the day of the election itself the Revolutionary Guards staged a military manoeuvre in Tehran to stop this alleged attempt. The election headquarters of reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi was ransacked by plain-clothed security forces.

When the authorities saw the angry reaction of the masses after the announcement of the unbelievable results, they attacked Tehran University on the night of the election, killing a number of people and injuring more than a hundred. And again on June 15, when three million people were marching peacefully against the rigged results, they opened fire on defenceless protesters, killing more people and arresting hundreds. After that came the torture and rape of young boys and girls in prisons, and the death of more than a hundred political prisoners in detention. Illusions in reformism rapidly evaporated and slogans now clearly proclaimed opposition to all the main organs of the current order.

Throughout the last eight months, the shameless Goebbels-like lies of the regime has aggravated the situation. For example, they shamelessly claimed that Neda Agha Soltan, the young girl killed by the security forces, had died through a plot by a BBC reporter, even though witnesses to the attack arrested her killer and confiscated his security ID. When Massoud Ali Agha, a physics professor and supporter of Moussavi, was killed, they claimed he was a nuclear scientist and so Mossad had targeted him. All this, plus the escalating repression, has played a crucial role in reducing the reformists to a forgotten phenomenon and radicalising the youth (the main force behind the anti-dictatorship movement).

Contrary to the opinion of those who consider the movement ‘middle class’, there can be no doubt that workers and toilers have played a very important role in the current protests. For example, how can one say that the June 15 demonstration was only middle class, when Tehran’s mayor admits three million people joined the protest (in a city with a maximum of 12 million inhabitants). Of course, the workers were not raising their own slogans in this demonstration, but the same is true of other sections, such as women and the youth, whose participation in the protests is not in doubt.

We should not forget that we are currently dealing with an anti-despotic movement which is facing brutal repression. In such movements, political protests take the form of sporadic demonstrations, fighting here, fleeing there, and under such conditions workers cannot get involved in independent political struggle at their workplace or in the districts where they live. This is a point made by Rosa Luxembourg in her summation of the Russian uprising of 1905. The experience of the February revolution in Iran against the shah confirms this. In that uprising there was no sign of independent workers’ protests until the massacre of September 1978. It was only after that event (the police opened fire on demonstrators, killing large numbers), when street actions became more difficult and dangerous, that protests moved from the street to workplaces and gradually we witnessed important workers’ strikes. And, of course, at that time, until very close to February 1979, most of the workers’ strikes only raised economic and trade union demands.

At present too, despite all the arrests and repression of labour activists, workers’ protests in support of their demands has manifestly increased. A review of workers’ protests over the last eight months and a comparison of these with the same period last year leaves no doubt that the workers’ movement is on the rise. The least one can say is that without a movement based on workers, toilers and the poor (who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of the country) the current anti-dictatorship movement will get nowhere and in fact it is even difficult to envisage its continuation. Of course, the elimination of subsidies on essential goods (which is due to start in the first weeks of the new Iranian year, beginning on March 21) will no doubt lead to major workers’ protests and this can create suitable conditions for the development of class-consciousness.

We must also remember that under dictatorships people do not believe any of the government’s propaganda and in general do not consider the enemy of the government as their enemy (they are more likely to consider them as friends). In other words, that famous saying, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, gains legitimacy. In today’s Iran, where the regime’s entire propaganda is geared towards opposition to the United States, public opinion against the US is weaker than in most Islamic countries. A couple of months ago when Obama was discussing the nuclear issue with the regime, in one of the demonstrations people were shouting, “Obama, Obama, you are either with them or with us!”

However, this does not mean people are oblivious to the dangers of military action or economic sanctions. One can say with certainty that the majority of Iranians are opposed to economic sanctions and any military action against their country. In particular, the US military invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the general massacre and destruction it has created in our two neighbouring countries has had a profound effect on public opinion in Iran. There are even signs (unfortunately) that Iranians support the regime’s nuclear programme and would not even mind if their country possessed nuclear weapons. In fact the painful experience of the bombing of cities during the Iran-Iraq war and especially the indifference of western states towards the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s regime during that war created a sense of nationalist impotence which the regime tries to use. It is no coincidence that at present the state raises the nuclear issue in order to divide the masses.

How optimistic are you regarding the future of this movement? What are the prospects of the working class putting its stamp on any regime that follows the defeat of the theocracy?

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for this movement. In fact, even if this movement dies down today and its continuation becomes impossible, what it has achieved so far will have historic consequences.

The events of the last eight to nine months have left the Islamic regime with no future. Even if it survives for a while, it will never recover from the fatal blows it has suffered at the hands of this mass uprising. The young generation, the main motor of these protests, did not witness the 1979 revolution or the bloody repression of the first decade of this regime and until recently it was preoccupied with minor changes and certainly not thinking about social revolution. This generation is now irreversibly against the very existence of the Islamic regime.

There is no doubt that during the last three decades Iran’s economy has fared worse than other countries in the region. For example, in 1977 (a year before the revolution), Iran’s gross national product per capita was 60% more than Turkey and five times more than Egypt’s. Now Iran’s GNP, despite its oil income, is only 14% ahead of Turkey, and just twice that of Egypt.

The civil repression imposed by the regime will have consequences that will be with us for a long time. It is enough to remember that Iranian girls have been deprived of participation in sport for three decades and have not taken part in any major international sporting competition. The damage resulting from this is a tragedy that is occasionally referred to even within the pages of the regime’s own educational journals. The reason is that, according to the clerics, girls’ sporting activity must not be seen from people in neighbouring buildings, for example, and this makes any form of sport in girls’ schools impossible. The absence of any rights for women has turned half of the society into second-class citizens, as far as law is concerned.

Around 15% of the country’s population – the Sunnis, who are mainly Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmens – face double deprivation because of their religious beliefs and this endangers the country’s territorial unity. It is a weapon in the hands of the US and its allies.

For all its claims of supporting the ‘disinherited’, Iran’s Islamic regime is thoroughly corrupt, it is a parasitic state, pursuing brutal, anti-worker policies. According to many estimates, the current line of poverty in Iran stands at 800,000 tomans ($800), while the official minimum wage (which is often ignored and workers are paid less) is 300,000 tomans ($300). More than 80% of workers have temporary jobs and those in workplaces of less than 10 employees (ie, the majority of Iranian workers) are officially exempt from any labour legislation. For them it is the law of the jungle. Even those activists who demand the establishment of independent workers’ organisations or workers who fight for payment of unpaid wages are arrested and tortured.

It is revealing to compare the government’s attitude towards capitalists and managers compared to its attitude to workers. Last year when the government announced a two percent rise in tax for bazaar merchants, it faced a strike by shop owners in the Tehran bazaar and the state retreated immediately.

All this shows that the current anti-dictatorship movement is the only hope for improving the plight of the working class and ordinary people in Iran. The continuation of this movement and expansion of its scope has created a suitable atmosphere for raising class-consciousness and the formation of independent workers’ organisations and no doubt will improve political conditions in favour of workers to such an extent that it will, in the words of the Persian proverb, learn in one night what usually takes a century. Of course, if the regime creates such an atmosphere of fear where workers’ participation in political and economic protests becomes more difficult and costly, there is a danger that the struggle will take a violent form, when the role of organisations associated with foreign powers would increase, initiatives from below by the working class would fade away and reactionary, anti-democratic forces would gain the upper hand.

Let us not forget that, unlike the shah’s regime, Iran’s Islamic Republic has many powerful enemies throughout the world who seek to find allies amongst the forces opposed to the regime. No doubt such a scenario will harm democratic and socialist forces within the movement and it will give the regime an excuse to link the people’s legitimate struggles with foreign powers. In my opinion the worst scenario in the current situation would arise if groups associated with foreign powers gained more influence within the opposition, because even if they do not manage to stifle the protests they will divert it from its democratic direction.

However, given the current awareness amongst social movements inside Iran, especially amongst the youth over the last 10-12 years, one can be hopeful that the anti-dictatorship movement will not be diverted from such a path. Of course, liberal discourse still dominates Iran’s political scene and the left has a steep hill to climb to overcome this problem. But if the protest continues and takes a revolutionary path, as the role of the working class increases, the conditions for the dominance of socialist thought will develop.

How do you see radical change in Iran linking in with political developments in the region as a whole?

The coming to power of the clergy in the February 1979 uprising in Iran undoubtedly played a significant role in the development of Islamic movements in the region. In my opinion, the overthrow of the Islamic Republic in Iran can play an important part in weakening the influence of Islamic movements.

The reality is that Iran’s Islamic experience is about 10 years older than other countries and so disillusionment with Islamism came much earlier than in other Muslim countries. The overthrow of the Iranian regime could increase that process in other countries, even though it might not necessarily lead to the coming to power of defenders of socialism in our country. Given the current situation in Iran and the region, such a perspective is possible.

It should be pointed out that, although liberal discourse is still powerful in Iran, the economic crisis engulfing world capitalism, the destructive effects of US military intervention, the bankruptcy of corrupt, pro-western regimes in the region and the fact that they are not tolerated – all this has created suitable conditions where, with the demise of Islamism, toilers in the region might turn towards more enlightened horizons. We are now witnessing the Islamic movements subsiding and if US military interventions stopped this decline would be faster. In none of these countries would liberalism be capable of responding to the stacked up problems of poverty, dictatorship and obscurantism, nor can it benefit from mass support amongst workers and toilers.

Right now in two key countries of the region, Egypt and Turkey, a powerful working class movement is rising and if in Iran the anti-dictatorship movement succeeds in strengthening the working class left (and in my opinion there is a strong possibility of that happening) it may be that a ‘strategic bloc’ would be created in these three key countries. A strong left in Iran, Egypt and Turkey would be in a good position to oppose not only the swagger about the ‘free market’ and neoliberalism, but also the obscurantist slogans of Islamism. In reality both currents are not as attractive as they used to be in the Middle East and if the left can learn from past mistakes and take up a democratic, radical, mass-orientated discourse, our region can move in a direction similar to Latin America.

The principal danger for the formation of such a perspective in our region is the destructive policies of the US. For example, Nato’s plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan might lead to the disintegration of both countries – a phenomenon that will be as destructive as an earthquake for the whole region, and especially Iran. Countries in the region have strong religious, tribal and cultural links and Iran has more than 2,500 kilometres of common borders with these Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tribal strife in Kirkuk could heat up dangerous nationalist strife in Iraq, strengthening such arguments in the region and producing disastrous consequences.

What are the role and tasks of the international solidarity movement with those fighting the Iranian regime?

Undoubtedly the solidarity of western organisations and parties with the Iranian people has an important subjective effect on political and social activists inside the country.

Of course, we must have a realistic understanding of this influence. The truth is that the Islamic regime has a monopoly when it come to the radio and television that is available to all and especially the lower classes. These media present everything in a distorted manner, with Goebbels-like lies, and constantly make use of the support of some western left groups who praise the regime’s anti-imperialism! This creates a certain hatred of the ‘international’ left amongst the population. Let there be no doubt: any support for the regime is met with nothing but animosity from the people it suppresses. Satellite radio and television, available to around 20% of the population, is mainly controlled by the US, UK or sections of the opposition directly or indirectly connected to foreign powers and most of them are anti-left and combine opposition to the regime with propaganda for the stance of the US and its allies.

Expressions of support for the working class movement in Iran from international progressive, leftwing organisations is mainly possible through the internet. However, although it is the most important means of communication for the majority of anti-dictatorship activists, inevitably it has a limited number of users – an optimistic estimate would be that 10% of the population has access to the internet.

Despite these limitations, though, support for the anti-despotic movement and, of course, for worker struggles plays an important role in strengthening the left and attracting the country’s youth towards socialist ideas. Let us not forget that there are already favourable conditions for the re-establishment of a strong worker-socialist movement and clear positions taken by socialist forces in the west help bring neoliberalism as well as Islamist ideas into disrepute. In my opinion the anti-war, anti-sanctions movement abroad undoubtedly has a positive influence on the Iranian people, because, as I said before, the overwhelming majority of Iranians do not want to see a repetition of the Iraqi or Afghan experience in their own country, and they have seen how it is ordinary people who suffer the burden of sanctions (Iran has already had three decades of sanctions).

But the important issue is that opposition to the imperialist policies of the US and its allies must not lead to support for the Iranian government. Unfortunately the position of certain ‘anti-imperialist’ forces in the west is as damaging as the stance of those who support military intervention and sanctions. It is vital to oppose war and sanctions, but it must never take the form of supporting the dictatorial, bloodthirsty and obscurantist Islamic Republic. We must not forget that any support for the Islamic regime discredits leftwing and socialist ideas and in practice strengthens the hand of the US and its allies. Whether they like it or not, leftwing apologists for the regime actually help strengthen the imperialist, pro-capitalist camp in our country.

Our readers have followed Rahe Kargar’s stance on many issues for over two decades. Could you explain the reasons for last year’s split in your organisation?

The reason for the split was that for quite a while a group of people had tended towards a kind of reformist anarchism and latterly they wanted to impose their anti-organisation model on the rest of us.

Of course, they were only a minority, but others who did not necessarily agree with them politically ended up supporting them organisationally, creating conditions which would have meant nothing but dissolution. This made coexistence in the same organisation impossible. Amongst the comrades who had more formulated ideas were those who followed an interpretation of John Holloway’s ‘change the world without taking power’. But they propagate a caricature version of this, portraying any organisation as stifling and they are opposed not only to the notions of a working class party and state, but even to trade unions and other workers’ organisations.

The conflict started around an article written by one of the comrades regarding the establishment of independent trade unions in Iran. This comrade warned workers that such an organisation would lead to hierarchical structures and claimed that unions, which limit their politics to economic issues, would benefit the liberals and pave the way for conciliation with capitalists. Those responsible for the website and the organisation’s paper, followed our internal rules and put this article in the ‘point of view’ section of the website and some comrades considered this discriminatory. The reality is that the Iranian working class is actually fighting to establish independent organisations and it is not our policy to leave the working class defenceless.

Another difference arose around Palestine, starting with Israel’s attack on Gaza. They thought the condemnation of Israel’s crimes must be expressed in such a way that it would not strengthen Hamas and, although this was not clearly expressed, they wanted us to condemn both sides (Israel and Hamas) equally. Our position was that Israel’s crimes must be condemned unconditionally and firmly.

Call for Hunger Strike at Isfahan Steel Complex

Class struggle in Iran
Class struggle in Iran

RAHANA – Last week, a flier calling on contract workers to go on a hunger strike was distributed at the Isfahan Steel Complex.

Contract workers have suffered wage and benefit cuts since they became directly contracted by the factory. Currently, their wages and benefits are significantly below those of the company’s regular workers.

According to the Ad Hoc Council of Isfahan Steel Workers, following the distribution of the hunger strike flyer, the director made the tour of the plant and promised the unhappy workers that he would address their demands before the new year (March 21, 2010).

Meanwhile, the factory’s security made their own tour of the workshops, threatened the workers and told them their wages are not supposed to be equal to those of the regular workers of the factory.

Security officials asked the workers in charge of receiving and distribution of factory meals to identify the workers who were on hunger strike. The employees in charge of the locker rooms where the flyer had been distributed were summoned to the security office.

Following the promises made by the director, the situation has become more calm, and contract workers are waiting to see the outcome of his actions.

The contract workers, who were previously employed by private contractors, had high hopes when they were hired by the factory [on a contract basis], but most of them have suffered between 30 to 100 dollar wage reductions, and their overtime allowance has been limited to 45 hours. Their previous employers did not impose a limit on the number of overtime hours.

Translation by: RAHANA

From Persian2Engish

نارضایتی کارگران قرارداد مسقیم ذوب آهن اصفهان

جمعه , ۷ اسفند , ۱۳۸۸ @ ۴:۴۶ ب.ظ

اعتراض کارگران قرارداد مسقیم به اختلاف فاحش حقوق و مزایا با کارگران رسمی و مهم تر از آن کاهش حقوق و مزایا پس از تبدیل وضعیت از قرارداد با شرکت های پیمانکاری به قرارداد مستقیم با ذوب آهن است.

رهانا: هفته گذشته در کارخانه ذوب آهن اعلامیه هایی پخش شد که کارگران قرارداد مستقیم را به اعتصاب غذا فراخوانده بود. اعتراض این کارگران به اختلاف فاحش حقوق و مزایا با کارگران رسمی و مهم تر از آن کاهش حقوق و مزایا پس از تبدیل وضعیت از قرارداد با شرکت های پیمانکاری به قرارداد مستقیم با ذوب آهن بود.

به گزارش شورای موقت کارگران ذوب اهن اصفهان در پی این اقدام مدیرعامل ذوب آهن درسرکشی به قسمت های مختلف کارخانه با کارگران قرارداد مستقیم به گفتگو نشست وبه آنان قول بررسی خواسته های شان را تا آخر اسفند ماه داد.

از سوی دیگر به موازات این اقدام حراست و انتظامات کارخانه به گشت زنی در کارگاه ها پرداختند و در چندین کارگاه در گفتگو با کارگران به تهدید آنان پرداخته و عنوان کردند که قرار نیست کارگران قرارداد مستقیم از حقوق و مزایایی هم سطح با کارگران رسمی برخوردار شوند. آنان از کارگران مسئول غذا که به دریافت و توزیع غذای کارگران شیفت می پردازند نیز خواستند اسامی کارگرانی را که اعتصاب غذا می کنند به حراست گزارش دهند. در اقدامی دیگر مسئولان رختکن هایی که در آنها اعلامیه توزیع شده بود به حراست احضار شده و تحت فشار قرار گرفتند.

با توجه به قول مساعد مدیرعامل مبنی بر بررسی خواسته های این کارگران تا حد زیادی از التهابات کاسته شده و فعلا آنان منتظرند تا مدیرعامل جدید نتیجه بررسی هایش را اعلام کند. لازم به یادآوری است که قرارداد مستقیم بستن با کارگران شرکت های پیمانکاری در آستانه انتخابات آغاز شد و امیدهای زیادی را در بین آنان برانگیخت اما در وضعیت جدید حقوق اکثر این کارگران از سی الی صد هزار تومان کاهش یافته و سقف اضافه کاری که در شرکت ها نامحدود بود به ۴۵ ساعت محدود شده است.

Declaration on the formation of the Provisional Workers Council in Isfahan's Steel Company

Workers Council in Isfahan
Workers Council in Isfahan

Isfahan’s Steel Company is and has always been one of the largest industrial complexes in Iran.  Despite this, and although workers  have been involved in industrial action to improve their working conditions,  Iran’s Steel Company workers  have never benefited from the right to form any type of trade union , workers organisation…  to defend their wages and, to pursue their just rights and demands.  In the current situation, as a result of severe economic hardship and the uncertain future, at a time when workers in this complex face many backbreaking pressures, as a group of workers of Steel Company we have decided to take the very first steps in the direction of defending workers right and consolidating our dispersed ranks hereby announcing the formation of the Provisional Council of Isfahan’s Steel Company Workers.   Since this step (the formation of the council) was taken in conditions of underground work, it is not based upon workers’ elections.  That is why the council has given itself the title “provisional” however, as a body it is committed to hold free elections with the participation of all factory workers as soon as suitable conditions arise.  Until such time, this council will endeavor to defend the  rights  of  all workers in this complex and we will  keep fellow workers informed of all our decisions through statements.

The council presents its positions and views as follows: 

1 – The council considers all workers equal and alike.  It believes that both the obvious and hidden discriminations between official workers and workers under contract (those employed directly by the company under contract or through contractor companies) are initiated entirely by managers and decision makers and workers are not responsible for this.  The Council believes that the creation of such discriminations amongst workers is a deliberate policy to divide workers in this complex. 

2 – Council believes that the right to strike is an absolute right of the work force, and, in conditions where the company’s workers have not received their wages (for between two to six months) going on strike is the only means by which the workers can struggle for their demands.  Therefore the council states its solidarity with courageous workers of Ehyagostaran Espadan, Nasooz Azar, Isaargarane-hadid, Nasre Bonyad and all the workers who have gone on strike to fight for the payment of their unpaid wages.   

3 – The councils warns workers to be aware of the delays of official deadlines for payment of their wages and monthly bonuses, There is a  possibility that management is trying to  reduce or abolish monthly bonuses ; that is why workers have every right to go on hunger strike, white strike (working less and disrupting production lines) and finally strike. Such actions are just and legitimate.   

4 – Council finds Plant’s policies of blaming workers for all the severe hardships they face ,  especially when accidents causes workers death or severe injuries leading to  handicap as an inhumane policies and, declares that  the main reasons for safety failures are  severe working conditions for the workforce, worn off equipment, old  technologies and pressure and expedition that the management imposes upon workers to increase production . 

5 –At a time when the official line of poverty in urban areas is declared (by the state) to be 800 thousands Tomans, the council finds maximum income of 400 thousands Tomans per month an obvious oppression towards workers and their families and expects gradual, step by step annihilation of discriminations between official workers and reset of the work force.

 6 – The council believes Privatising the Steel Company complex will have terrible effects upon the workers’ living conditions and their labour and considers the reconstruction period for privatization as definite proof that showed the effects of this policy on workers’ income and conditions; this is an experience we, Iran Steel workers are experiencing every day.

 7 – Billions have been paid for expenses and hundred million Toman contracts made and spent on the  Steel Company Football Team during the last few years at a time when official workers are paid with delay and rest of the workforce has  incomes  below  the poverty line. The Council’s view is that such policies are outrageous.

 8 – Council considers company’s weekly ATISHKAR as a management source use for self flattery and exaggerated claims.  The claim that the company produced and supplied   the railroad for the National Rail Company – is a blatant lie and every worker here is aware of it.  The Council expects ATISHKAR’s content to include reports about workers’ payment conditions and their protests, covering all incidents that cause death and disability, announcing the names of workers dying at work and also monthly reports about work accidents.

 9 – Due to not having aboveboard activities the council asks all workers to create their spontaneous workers nucleuses all over the Steel Company and, it believes without such units formed by workers themselves they will not have a chance develop their struggles and advance in them.  Role of such units is bringing awareness, unity and solidarity among workers and electing leaders for their struggles.  Such units can be formed around team of friends, recreation groups, workers welfare boxes and so forth.

 Fellow workers! We shake your hands in solidarity.

  Provisional Council of Isfahan Steel Company – January 2010

Against the status quo: An Interview with Iranian trade unionist Homayoun Pourzad

Against the status quo
Against the status quo

Despite unrelenting state repression, there have been rumblings throughout the 2000s of renewed labor organizing inside the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). One result of this upsurge in labor organizing was the May 2005 re-founding of the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs, a union that has a long history, albeit one that was interrupted by the 1979 “Revolution,” after which the union was repressed. The unions’ leader, Mansour Osanloo, was severely beaten and thrown in the Rajaei prison where he remains in a state of deteriorating health. Osanloo is an Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience.”

Another important result of the new labor organizing has been the emergence of the Independent Haft Tapeh Sugar Workers Union which launched an aggressive 42-day strike in June 2008 over wage-theft and deteriorating working conditions. In 2009, the regime imprisoned five union leaders in an attempt to smash the union for “acting against national security through the formation of a syndicate outside the law.”

Since the dramatic street demonstrations that so captured the international media’s attention beginning on June 2009, the direction of events inside the IRI has sparked considerable debate as well as confusion. The continuing rivalry between various power factions within the government lends itself to no easy predictions, while little is known of the internal dynamics of the Green Movement responsible for the demonstrations. The fate of an already vulnerable organized labor movement in this volatile environment is likewise unclear. Whatever the outcome of the current power struggles, the future of Iranian organized labor is now an international issue. Its right to organize is in desperate need of support.

Following the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference, and in order to better grasp this situation, Platypus Review Assistant Editor Ian Morrison sat down with Homayoun Pourzad, a representative from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, to discuss the current crisis and the effects of “anti-imperial” ideologies on understanding the character of the IRI. Morrison conducted this interview, which has been edited for publication, on December 3, 2009.

Ian Morrison: Before we get into the current situation, could you explain the organization of which you are a part, the Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU)?

Homayoun Pourzad: The idea for the NILU first arose about three years ago. Some of us already had union experience dating from before the 1979 Revolution. It upset us that, with millions of workers, there were no Iranian unions independent of the state, but only the semi-official Islamic Workers’ Councils. What gave NILU its initial impetus was the Tehran bus drivers’ actions led by Mansour Osanloo and his friends.

There was a nucleus of independent labor organizations in various trades, but the government always moved quickly to stifle that independence. Iran’s Labor Ministry and the Ministry of Intelligence have standing directives to crush independent workers’ activities, regardless of which faction is running the country. The government is very brutal in its attempts to destroy the nascent labor movement.

On the surface it looks like not much is happening with union labor activity in Iran, but even in the face of government oppression, many workers are secretly engaged in organizing underground unions. These efforts have not yet peaked. Also, organizers have to walk a fine line, since once you get too big you are more easily detected. So labor organizers have to be careful how they recruit, and how many workers meet together at once. But the nucleus of the movement is in place and once the situation allows for it there will be a huge mushrooming of independent labor unions. The NILU operates in two different trade associations. We are also doing our best to start publication of a national labor press. The task is to make labor news available and to begin to provide some political analysis.

IM: Could you explain the political crisis in Iran that has unfolded since the election and how it is affecting your efforts to organize labor?

HP: First of all, anybody who tells you that they have a full picture is lying, because the situation is very crazy.

There are at least five dozen, semi-autonomous power centers, factions, and groups vying for influence. Not even [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali] Khamenei knows for certain what will happen tomorrow. But this does not mean there is complete anarchy. Speaking generally, there are at present four major centers of power, or rather, three plus one. The first three are Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, while the fourth, the nascent popular movement, is of an altogether different character though is still remains somewhat amorphous. It is still finding its own voice, needs, and strengths — but it continues to evolve. For the foreseeable future, the first three powers will more or less effectively determine how things will turn out. This said, Khamenei is already weakened. This is for two reasons: He apparently has health problems and, more importantly, he has had made huge political blunders. In another country, people would probably say,

“He’s only human.” But, in Iran, he is not only human. He is somewhere between human and saint, at least for his supporters and propagandists. But saints are not supposed to make blunders, at least not so many in so short a time!

IM: What is the relationship between the NILU and the nascent popular movement?

HP: There is no organic relationship between them, just as there are no organic relationships to speak of between the different elements of this movement. Mousavi does not even have an organic relationship with his own followers because of the pervasive power of repression. So, the nascent labor movement’s relationship with the popular movement is tenuous by both necessity and because of the way things have evolved. That said, we fully support their goals and will participate in all demonstrations. We even support Mousavi himself because he has remained steadfast at least up until now in defending the people. So long as he continues to do this, he deserves our support. Of course, if he changes tack, that is a different story. We think this is a truly democratic movement such as we have not seen in Iran before, including during the Revolution. Every group involved with the Iranian Revolution, without exception, believed only in monopolizing power; democracy was nobody’s concern. But now there is a very mature movement in that sense, particularly among the young people, and the fact that it has withstood so much violence in the last few months shows that it is deeply rooted. Many people were worried at first that the protests would fizzle out, but the continuance of the actions up to this day vindicate our support. The Iranian government has really gone overboard with stopping the protestors — it has been very bloody and violent — and still they have been unable to squash the protests entirely.

IM: But do you think Mousavi stands for workers’ rights at all? He seems to have a checkered political history.

HP: We do not know what his stance is. He seems generally favorable to workers’ rights, but, at any rate, our platform is not identical to his. The movement supporting Mousavi is a broad national-democratic front; we are all working with a sort of minimum program. The movement has formulated no long-term plans, and it is now in danger of being decimated. We do not have any illusions that anyone in the leadership of the Green Movement is 100 percent on board with workers’ rights, but this is not the time to discuss that. Right now, we are fighting a dangerously reactionary dictatorship. Things will become clearer as time goes on, but right now we do not seek to magnify the differences among those opposing the dictatorship.

IM: There are some who see Ahmadinejad, because he is so anti-American, as anti-imperialist, and thus as leftist. What is your response to such characterizations?

HP: Well, the problem with this argument is that it assumes everyone in the world who rants and raves against the U.S. or Israel is somehow progressive. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Sada’am Hussein, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — these men are all more truly anti-American than any leftist. But the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and his ilk is all demagoguery, as far as we are concerned. Either it is in the service of power politics, or else it is just a fig leaf to hide the disgrace of their own politics, which in all these cases is profoundly anti-Left and anti-working class.

IM: Still, in the peace movement here some people are uncomfortable taking a stand against Ahmadinejad or policies in Iran because they think that this is tantamount to supporting American policy.

HP: Well, I can tell you how every democratically minded person in Iran would reply: Ahmadinejad is essentially creating the ideal situation for foreign intervention. He is deliberately provocative. For instance, there is no need to use the kind of language he uses against Israel; it is genuinely odious, his frequent comments about the Holocaust and the like. But he speaks like this for a reason: He is a right-wing extremist seeking to rally his people through fear and hatred. That is what he is doing. To us it is actually incomprehensible how anyone could support Ahmadinejad just because he rants and raves about America. It really makes no sense to us. When I tell people in Iran that there are some progressive groups in America that support Ahmadinejad, they think I am pulling their leg. It makes no sense to them. But I know that this goes on and, to the extent it does, it gives the Left a bad name.

IM: What is your take on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is very popular on the Left in America? He is interviewed in progressive organs such as The Nation, for instance. He appears on the mass media as leading a front against America together with Ahmadinejad.

HP: We really do not know. We are really confused as to why Chavez is Ahmadinejad’s buddy. It makes no sense to us. It has made it almost impossible in Iran to defend his Bolívarian Revolution. When you have people being beaten or tortured, and so on, and then tell them, “Well, there is this government that supports your government, but these guys are good guys,” it is difficult to fathom, really. We hope that Chavez changes his policy, because when there is a change of government in Iran it will be accompanied by a total rupture with everyone who supported Ahmadinejad.

IM: What in your view is fueling the current crisis?

HP: Well, let me go back to a point I was making earlier. Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his errors, has seen his status diminished. He no longer has about him the mystique that once so terrified and intimidated people. Then you have Ahmadinejad, who has turned out to be a rogue element for the regime, one that is perhaps doing more damage than good for them right now. Then there are the Revolutionary Guards, who have the bulk of the real power in Iran. They have made a power grab all over the country, so that now they control the economy, the political situation, and the Parliament. Still, Khamenei, Ahmedinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards are in an ongoing struggle for power. They unite only in the face of common enemies, whether internal or foreign, and not always then.

The current crisis in Iran is best understood as a set of concurrent crises: First, there is the legitimacy crisis, which I discussed just now with reference to Khamenei; second, is the political crisis where the various factions within Iranian “politics” cannot agree on anything; third, is the economic crisis which the ruling class is utterly incapable of addressing. The country was in recession even before the election. What will bring the economic crisis to a head is Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut all the subsidies, which are quite big, between 15 to 20 percent of the GDP (though nobody really knows for sure the exact amount, due to the lack of transparency in the administration). The supposed populist Ahmadinejad intends to cut the subsidies for transportation, utilities, energy, and even for staples such as rice and wheat. After this happens, there will be spiraling inflation, of course. The cut in subsidies for energy and utilities will force factories currently operating at a loss and/or below capacity to engage in massive layoffs. That is when we will see a number of labor actions. There may also be short-lived and violent urban uprisings. But rather than these riot-like urban uprisings, we are focusing on organizing labor to bring the country to a halt if need be.

Iranian labor is in a really awful situation, arguably the worst since its inception a century or so ago. With millions of workers in the formal sector, we still lack official, legal independent unions. On the other hand, the situation is ideal for organizing. The labor force is ready for independent assertion, though they need the kind of support that only comes from dedicated organizers.

Iran’s spiraling political and economic crisis coincides with another crisis that is only just beginning, the international crisis regarding the nuclear problem. Diplomatic talks are failing, as was inevitable. We feel that the regime is trying to build a bomb, but probably not testing it for a while. There is a clear danger that this might lead to an air attack or to some other form of major military intervention, which would divert attention from the internal situation. Indeed, as I said above, this is what this regime is hoping for. It would be a monumental mistake if there were to be an attack against Iran, since the nuclear program can only truly be stopped if the popular movement becomes more substantial and is able to change the government, or at least force changes in its policies.

IM: So your sense is that, with the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is actually trying to provoke aggression?

HP: Indeed. We condemn any kind of foreign intervention, but we also condemn Ahmadinejad’s provocative policies, in part because they are geared toward provoking just such an intervention. Anyway, we do not think the military route is the way to go with this, because it is not likely to succeed even in halting the nuclear program. We think the labor movement in Iran is poised to play a strategic role, even on the international stage, because once the working class organizes itself, it really can cripple the regime, especially given the current economic crisis. And, as I say, a major strike wave is looming in Iran.

The situation for Iranian workers right now is dismal. For the last 4 or 5 years the demand for labor has dropped. There is also the mania for imports that Ahmadinejad has encouraged for the last 5 years. The result is that across the country factories are facing shutdowns and bankruptcy. There is also an immigrant Afghan labor force of roughly seven hundred thousand, with whom we sympathize, and whose expulsion from the country we oppose just as we oppose the many forms of coercion and discrimination this government levels against them, but it is a fact that their acceptance of as little as 50 to 60 percent of normal salary exerts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. So, if you look at all these factors, you see that things are really awful for Iranian workers; their bargaining position is weak. In the current environment, once you go on strike or you have some sort of shutdown, they can easily fire you and find someone else.

The labor status quo has also changed. Few people are aware of this, but Iran once had very progressive labor laws. In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was very hard to legally fire workers. But now, 65 or 70 percent of the labor force consists in temporary contract workers who lack most basic rights. They can now get fired and be deprived of their benefits quite easily. This is what makes the situation so very ripe for organizing, and makes organization necessary, despite the regime’s brutal repression. They do not allow for any labor organizations independent of the state, and they are ruthless. The least that could happen to an exposed labor organizer is that he gets fired and thrown in solitary confinement for several months.

This year is critical for the Iranian labor movement in many ways, and we need support of all kinds. Iran is in great danger. The government acts like an occupying army. It treats the country’s ethnic minorities — Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs — as though they were foreign nationals. The resulting national disintegration grows worse day by day. At the same time, extremist groups are finding it increasingly easy to operate. Among the Sunni minority, fundamentalism is growing.

There is nothing to be said in favor of this regime, after the election. Before the election, there were perhaps some disparate elements within the government working toward reform, but this has ceased to be the case. All that remains is extremely retrograde: the government is ruining the country’s culture and economy, while sowing discord among the people. They are turning minorities against each other and against the rest of the country — Shia against Sunni, not to mention men against women — all because the Islamic Republic state wants to retain and expand power. When these methods fail, they turn to brutal and undisguised repression.

IM: I am wondering about the comparison of what is happening today to the 1979 Revolution. There were mass mobilizations then, with various leftist groups and parties involved, but when the Shah fell, it left a power vacuum that was filled by reactionaries. First, is the comparison salient? Second, is there the possibility of there emerging a power vacuum, and what can the labor organizers do in this situation?

HP: You are wondering if, because there is not a clearly formulated platform for the movement, that it may go awry, and extremist groups come to power? Of course, this is a possibility. But I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Thirty years of this sort of psychotic, pseudo-radical extremism has really taught everybody a lesson. You have to be either extremely naive, or a direct beneficiary of the system not to see that the country has been harmed. In general, the young people are more mature than their parents’ generation. The youth do not have the same romanticization of revolutionary violence, which was one of the reasons things got out of hand in 1979. It was not only the clerics that were extremists, practically every group endorsed revolutionary violence of one kind or another; it is just that in their mind their violence was justified, whereas everyone else’s violence was “reactionary.” The new generation does not hold those beliefs. Iranian society has a strong extremist strand, but I believe that is changing now. There is a belief in tolerance, in wanting to avoid force, and in trying to understand one’s political opponents rather than just crushing them. This is something extremely important and not altogether common in much of today’s Middle East.

Let me also say, along these lines, that Islam has never really undergone a Reformation. But we are seeing signs of this happening in the IRI today. It is happening very quietly in the seminaries. It could only happen where Islamists have actually come to power and shown beyond all doubt the inadequacy or even the bankruptcy of their ideas and their ideologies. This forces healthy elements within the clergy — not those who are out there to enrich themselves, but those who are religious because they are utopian-minded — to go back to their books, to the Koran, to revise the old ideas. Such clerics are not in the majority yet they are sizable and they are spread throughout the clerical hierarchy from grand Ayatollahs to the lowest clergy. Earlier, the idea of reforming the medieval interpretations of the Koran and Islam came mainly from Muslim intellectuals, but now a considerable part of the religious hierarchy is coming to the same conclusion. Some are operating in very dangerous circumstances. There is a special court of clergy, similar to the Inquisition courts, that want to silence them. But such ideas cannot be silenced so easily.

If there is a military attack on Iran, it will set back the progress of many years. This is exactly what the regime wants, at this point, which is why Ahmadinejad is so provocative. He wants the Israelis to launch an air strike. The West cannot simply bomb a few installations and think that it will all be done. The current regime would strive to escalate that fight. Even if Obama verbally condemns an intervention in Iran by another nation, Iran will use it as a pretext to expand the fight and things will rapidly get out of hand. It would provide him with a new recruitment pool, which is drying up, because right now the best and the brightest of Iran do not go into the Revolutionary Guards. Their recruits today are opportunists or those who simply need the money. The people are turning against the regime. What could change all this is if we came under attack, if, as they would claim, “Islam is threatened.” The regime might then successfully stir up nationalistic sentiments, perhaps not so much in Tehran, but that is only 14 million or so. Most of the country lives in smaller towns, and the only news they get comes from state broadcasts. These people could become recruits, leading to all sorts of awful things. In the meantime, at the very least we will continue to see street fighting, riots, and so on. The youth will only endure torture and being kicked out of schools up to a point. As it is, the regime opens fire on peaceful street demonstrations — I have seen it myself. The government’s hope is that some of the young people will arm themselves and fight back. That is one of the dangers here.

IM: You are here for the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference. What sort of relationships do you hope to build with other labor unions in America and around the world?

HP: First, I want to communicate to them what is happening in my country, that there is a labor movement and that it needs support. More specifically, even though there is no guarantee that this will change what this government is doing, we hope with the help of our American friends to put together an international committee of labor unions in defense of Iranian labor rights. The Iranian state does not even pretend to care what the international community or the general public thinks of them. Still, they are weaker now than ever before, and the regime is concerned about what might come after a military action or major sanctions. So, for the first time it looks like they are going to be sensitive to what trade unions, especially those against intervention, have to say, or what they will do. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s government has been sending envoys to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and courting it assiduously. They go out of their way to placate them, whereas ten years ago they did not give a damn what the ILO thought. So there may now be some scope to pressure the regime to release imprisoned labor organizers. In addition to that, we would like to inform the American labor movement and the public at large of the dangers of any kind of military intervention.

IM: Do you think there are any possibilities for a party of labor in Iran? That is a problem all over the world. Different labor organizations meet up, and there are groups that believe in various trade union rights, and they release statements to that effect. But there is no political body that consistently stands up for working people.

HP: I may have sounded too much of an alarmist, for I emphasized the dangers. But the opportunities are also great. Like I said, you have almost eight million workers in need of organizing. They will even be able to organize themselves, if the situation changes. The Green movement holds promise, I think. It came totally out of the blue; no one expected it, from the Ministry of Intelligence to the opposition and the foreign governments. This means there are elements that could coalesce into a progressive and democratic labor party. It should not be forgotten that Iran not only has a huge working class, but also a tradition of left-wing activity going back some 100 years. The working class in Iran, moreover, is not semi-proletarian as it was during the Iranian Revolution. This generation of workers has advanced political skills and a mature political worldview. You are no longer dealing with peasants just come to the city. Iran is fairly industrialized in many ways and these workers have their own subcultures. We have a good situation in that sense. So yes, there is a good possibility that we will have a strong labor party. The conditions are there, but none of this will materialize without a strong, deeply rooted labor movement.

So what needs to be done? We must put across to other sectors of society what the working class stands for. The protest movement is now primarily middle class. That is its primary weakness. But once labor strikes get underway in the next few months, we hope they will change how the Green movement sees the workers, themselves, and their moment. It is our job as labor activists to put across a genuine working class platform and to familiarize the country with working class demands.

We cannot, as some Left groups do, start condemning the Green Movement just because it lacks a strong Left component. It is the Left’s job to influence the movement and to see that its demands and wishes are incorporated-not just with respect to Mousavi, but to the movement as a whole.

We cannot start condemning the movement even if and when it starts lurching to the right, because, again, it is the Left’s job to be there side by side with it. By being there, I mean, for example, our press must also reflect their concerns and their needs. We should not be supercilious, but rather have a healthy dialogue with all the different contingents within it. Above all, we should not speak from above in a condescending manner. Only when we are side by side with the people who are fighting on the streets will they listen to us. In the last six or seven months, there has been an incredible growth of interest in the Left. This has been very spontaneous, among young people. If anything, the old generation mishandled their political situation and turned young people off by looking down on them.

If the labor movement gets its act together, it could really help the present popular movement, which, on its own, lacks the muscle to stand up to the regime. With the workers on board there can be economic strikes. In 1979, for months there were people yelling and clamoring in the streets, but it was only when the oil workers entered the picture that the Western governments told the Shah to leave.

Because of all this and because of the fact that the labor movement, by its nature, tries to avoid extremism or revolutionary romanticism, there is reason to hope. The labor movement’s pragmatism allows it to stave off the dangers of extremism from both Left and right. The two main labor unions, the sugar cane workers and bus drivers, are resolute in protesting against the status quo and advancing their political and social agenda. They are supported by over 90 percent of the work force. If you talk to bus drivers in Tehran they are all upset about what has happened recently, but you never hear anything disparaging about the union leadership and what they have done. This shows the kind of work organizers have done. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing. They organized over several years and held many sessions with intellectuals who taught them constitutional rights, economics, and so on. But, of course, there have been mistakes, as is to be expected. But those mistakes were necessary in some ways, so that the rest of the labor unions will not repeat them.

 

Source: Platypus Review