Permanent Revolution and HOPI Steering Committee member Stuart King on the largest period of social unrest in Iran since 1979.
Following the announcement of “an overwhelming victory” for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 12 June Presidential election and the defeat of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, up to a million people poured onto the streets in a series of protest demonstrations. For almost a week the capital and the regime was paralysed as masses of people marched against what they saw as a stolen election.
The demonstrations, which centred on Tehran but also took place in some other major cities, united the many opposition forces in Iran. Students and women played a prominent role but they were joined by workers, the unemployed, small traders and even some clerics. The demonstrations continued for several days and were subject to increasing repression.
On Monday 15 June seven people were killed by the Basij militia, an auxiliary of the Revolutionary Guards and a power base of President Ahmadinejad. Student dormitories and universities were attacked and students beaten without mercy. Hundreds of leading oppositionists and academics were arrested, often in the middle of the night, and held for short periods.
Despite this repression the mass movement developed its own means of organisation and defence. The use of SMS, blogging and twitter helped to organise the demonstrations against a powerful dictatorship. Indeed, so scared was the regime that the night of the election announcement the government had the entire mobile phone system in Iran closed down in an attempt to prevent mobilizations against the regime.
Support for Mousavi?
The protests were a symptom of the deep crisis of the Islamic Republic and its widespread unpopularity amongst young Iranians, 60% of whom are under 30 and have grown up since the 1979 revolution. The elections revealed a deep split in the Iranian ruling class and it was because of these divisions that the masses had the confidence to pour onto the streets and confront the regime’s repression.
This was going to be a run of the mill, rigged Iranian election. The four presidential candidates were carefully selected by the unelected and deeply conservative Guardian Council which vetoed anyone who they felt was the slightest threat to the regime. But things went badly wrong when the candidate’s confronted each other on TV.
It became clear that Mousavi represented a faction of the clerical regime that felt threatened by Ahmadinejad’s economic policies. Bankrolled by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mousavi attacked Ahmadinejad’s incompetence in economic management and his dangerous foreign policies. Ahmadinejad replied in kind, denouncing the corruption of the clerical elite, like Rafsanjani, that had come to power in 1979 and made itself rich.
Both sides tried to mobilise sections of Iranian society in their support. Ahmadinejad appealed to the pious Muslims from the smaller towns and rural areas by demanding stricter enforcement of Islamic rules on the wayward youth and women, and offered bribes and subsidies to the reactionary security services. Mousavi, a former prime minister and die-hard supporter of the Islamic Republic, offered a loosening of the Islamic controls for women and youth in an attempt to win their votes.
The mass of Iranians had no interest in siding with either of these two supporters of the status quo. But the open divisions between the leaders allowed them to rally behind Mousavi after the stolen election as a means of breaking the power of Ahmadinejad and the security services – it was an “anyone but Ahmadinejad” movement.
This is what gave the movement such a dynamic and radical character, in demanding “who stole my vote” they challenged not only the results of this election but the very rigged nature of all Iranian elections – the legitimacy of the regime itself. It was summed up in the slogan shouted from the roof tops “Death to the Dictator!”.
This is why Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s “supreme leader”, was so intransigent in refusing to annul the elections, as demanded by all three defeated candidates. To have backed down when the masses were on the streets would have proven a major victory for the demonstrators. They would have gone on to demand the opening up of the elections to democratic candidates, the freedom of political parties, of trade union organisation, and of the press.
Recognising this, Khamenei threatened at Friday prayers on the 19 June that demonstrators would be met with the full force of the state. Playing for time he had offered an “investigation” into the vote-rigging allegations. By Tuesday this week, despite the fact that in 50 areas of the country the ballots amounted to more than 100% of the electoral roll, the election results were confirmed. The security services had done their job and the demonstrators had been intimidated and beaten off the streets. The immediate threat to the regime had been overcome.
While the opposition to the Islamic regime has been driven off the streets for now, the movement is far from over. The divisions within the ruling regime remain and will get worse as Ahmadinejad and his supporters try to punish and remove from power the people behind Mousavi – like Rafsanjani.
Hundreds of thousands of youth and women have experienced the exhilaration of marching on the streets despite the dictatorship. They have shown their power and ability to organise – something not matched by the candidates they were marching for. The democratic façade that the regime likes to present has been discredited before large sections of the Iranian population. This movement for democracy and change will be difficult to force back into the bottle however much repression is directed at it.
No doubt the opposition movement will be learning the lessons of the last weeks battles and reconsidering its strategy. The demonstrations were limited to the capital and several large cities; the opposition must now widen its geographical and social base. While sympathy was shown by the workers, few took strike action alongside the demonstrators – the hospital workers at the sharp end of the massacres were the exception.
Without the workers and their ability to paralyse the transport, construction, manufacturing and oil industries the mass demonstrations will lack real muscle. The workers have no reason to put their lives on the line on behalf of Mousavi who offers more of the same neoliberal policies and trade union repression as Ahmadinejad.
The opposition must offer a common struggle for democracy, trade union rights and economic security. This means developing clear socialist aims for the movement, offering a real socialist, revolutionary alternative to the clerical neoliberalism of the Islamic republic. This is the task of the next stage of the struggle.