Mahsa Amini’s killing at the hands of the morality police sparked protests in every province. The young, in particular female students and school students, refuse to be ruled in the old way. However, the Islamic regime seems determined to keep on using mass repression, fear and the cloak of religion, says Yassamine Mather
The first question to ask is this: why are we witnessing such widespread, nationwide protests? My answer is that the religious state’s interventions in every aspect of people’s private lives has led to a situation where the overwhelming majority of the youth are refusing to be ruled in the old way.
Most contemporary dictatorships are quite cunning, in that they suppress their political opponents, and do not allow people to organise, to mobilise. Strikes are banned, political gatherings are forbidden and so on, but such regimes do not usually interfere in people’s private lives. Under the shah’s dictatorship, for example, you could not have a political party opposed to him, you could not even hold a small study group in your university, but you could do what you wanted in your personal life. You could dress the way you wanted, drink and eat what you wanted, get entertained in any manner you wanted. In fact the state’s aim was to divert attention from politics by allowing you to live your private life as you wished. In this respect Iran’s Islamic Republic is very different. It wants to dictate what people wear, what they eat, what they drink, how they socialise and so on. This is what has helped mobilise the youth in particular.
There can be no doubt that the current protests have created a very difficult situation for the regime. On the one hand, it cannot easily back down on the hijab, despite the fact that some ‘reformist’ factions are saying: ‘Let’s give up on this issue, it’s not that important, it wasn’t in the Koran’. But the supreme leader and the current president cannot do that, though they have reneged on just about every other promise of the 1979 revolution. This, remember, was a revolution calling for independence from the western powers and, of course, that did not happen. In reality Iran is economically dependent on global capital and the US-dominated world order. Nor is China a hegemon power which can take Iran under its wing. But let us also remember that the Islamic revolution happened during the Cold War era. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s slogan was ‘Neither east nor west – Islam is the only answer’.
The other issue raised by pro-Khomeini forces in 1979 was the claim that this was going to be the government of the disinherited, the poor. Well, that has become a joke nowadays. The rich are getting richer and they are mainly those associated with the government, those who are related to ayatollahs or those who have connections to ministers and top officials. Iran has a Gini factor of 42, one of the highest in the region.
So Islam is more or less the only aspect of the 1979 revolution they can use to claim legitimacy, to justify staying in power. I do not think even supporters of the Islamic Republic give any credence to its anti-US rhetoric – they know it is just empty sloganeering. Relatives of senior ayatollahs and officials are all busy applying for US green cards. So they are left with Islam and they try and maintain their ever-shrinking base with claims about ‘remaining faithful to the Islamic aspirations of the ’79 revolution’. That is why they cannot back down easily on the hijab.
It is interesting that the protest wave comes after two or three years when the Rouhani government was taking a more relaxed view regarding the hijab. Many women, of course, took advantage of this. Here we are not talking of well-to-do suburbs, but everywhere – many women felt able to go around without a headscarf. I recently spoke to a number of students who came back from Iran and they were telling me how many women do not wear a headscarf any more – all this until Ebrahim Raisi and the re-imposition of strict hijab rules, that in the midst of a period of high tension and widespread despair. The nuclear negotiations have failed, there is a serious economic crisis, leading inevitably to the escalation of protests and clashes with security forces.
The Islamic Republic imposed repressive measures on women as soon as it consolidated its power. However, as with many other issues, the regime’s attitude has been contradictory. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s rulers want to appear on the world stage claiming they believe in ‘gender equality’. Indeed, as some of their ‘left’ apologists in the Stop the War Coalition used to tell us, Iranian women have held important positions in the Islamic government – deputy president, leader of the Majles. While that is true, what they failed to tell us is that these were all women who were very close to the centres of power (often relatives of senior ayatollahs).
The reality of women’s life in Iran over the last 43 years has been one of gross inequality. The legal system – either based on Sharia law or retained from the shah’s era – is thoroughly misogynistic, especially when it comes to marriage, divorce, inheritance and labour rights. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei and president Ebrahim Raisi are keen to maintain the support of fundamentalists within the regime. That is why we have the strange obsession with what women do or don’t wear on their heads.
Meanwhile, although 60% of university students are female, most cannot find proper jobs – female employment, according to government figures, is a mere 13%. In fact, the total rate of unemployment is very high, because of the terrible economic situation – as a direct consequence of industrial shutdowns caused by sanctions, relentless privatisations and corruption.
In Iran 80% of the population is urbanised. Peasants have been forced to migrate to shanty towns as a direct result of the economic policies of the Islamic Republic. Two of the country’s staples – also produced for export – were rice and tea. In the last two decades, unscrupulous capitalists closely associated with senior ayatollahs and officials have flooded the market with cheap rice and tea imported from abroad (only to raise the prices later). This bankrupted domestic producers. People have been buying pasta to replace expensive rice and bread, but now there is a shortage of pasta too! Suffice to say, buying and preparing food for the family usually remains the responsibility of women.
Given the worsening economic situation (sanctions, 40% inflation, a currency continually falling in value, and now the war in Ukraine), many Iranians are forced to have two or three jobs just in order to survive. In most families women have to work, even though they end up in lower-paid, temporary and less secure jobs – at times accepting low-paid jobs working from home. So you could say that this female labour force is facing far higher degrees of exploitation.
Add to that the threat of the morality police punishing them for failing to cover their head properly! In some cases, as with Mahsa Amini, you get arrested for showing a couple of centimetres of hair – what the morality police call ‘poor hijab’. No wonder working class women are so angry.
But in fact students, youth as well as older working class men are supporting the women, because they too are fed up of with food shortages, rising prices, low and unpaid wages, mass unemployment, abolition of food and fuel subsidies. Of course, job losses were in no small part caused by massive privatisation, and the abolition of subsidies were amongst the conditions accepted by the Islamic Republic in return for loans from the International Monetary Fund. Iran, it should be noted, keeps trying to come top of the list of so-called emerging economies that adhere to the neoliberal dictates of global capitalism. All factions of the regime – ‘reformist’ as well as conservatives – have followed IMF and World Bank dictates as if they came straight from the Koran.
Alongside mass poverty, there is unbelievable wealth amassed by a tiny minority – sons and daughters of senior ayatollahs and leading figures in the regime. This group flaunts its extravagant levels of luxury consumption on social media, with Instagram pages such as #RichKidsofTehran including photos of themselves wearing flashy clothes and posing next to Ferraris and swimming pools. Such arrogant ostentation has fuelled anger amongst the majority of the country’s younger generation, who yearn for change. Of course this is the generation of mobile phones, apps and social media, so they are more than aware that young people globally do not face the kinds of crazy restrictions they have to endure over their private lives.
Then there are workers such as those of Vahed Bus Company and the Haft Tappeh sugarcane agro-industrial complex. They have regularly been striking over the last few years against privatisation, jobs losses and non-payment of wages – unsurprisingly they have joined the protests. So too have steel workers from the Ahvaz plant and petrochemical workers – workers in the oil industry who staged strikes throughout the summer, complaining about terrible working conditions, lack of safety and low wages. Now they are also shouting slogans against the dictatorship.
The Syndicate of Iran’s Teachers is another group taking part in the protests – many of its leaders have been arrested. Teachers have been in a dispute with the government for at least a year and this is not just about salaries: they are fed up with government intervention in the curriculum; ministry bureaucrats telling them what they can teach and what they cannot; how they should deal with students who are not ‘properly dressed’; and so on. Their semi-legal trade union has, in particular, supported pupils who have removed their headscarves. There is a short film on social media showing girls barracking and chasing a government official out of their school after he tried to tell them about the virtues of wearing a headscarf. Teachers did nothing to stop them.
Lawyers are also protesting … especially against corruption. They know that to get a successful judgement in Iran requires bribing the judge (often a cleric) or some other government official. They too were on the streets last week.
Such examples show the extent of these protests. Many of those taking part are young – some are school students – and they are not afraid. All this means that the old way the government deals with protests – sending in the police and security forces – has not worked so far. In rare cases members of the security forces have broken ranks. I have been sent a very touching video of an old woman who takes the hand of her son, a soldier, and tells him: “It is not worth your life” and they both walk away. However, I have to stress that at the moment such cases are very rare.
Mir-Hossein Moussavi – leader of the Green movement in 2009 – has called upon soldiers and the police to “stay with the people”. I do not know exactly what that means, but it surely implies opposing the government. He is not saying that explicitly, but, of course, he is still under some form of house arrest. The problem is, he should have made such comments in 2009, when much larger crowds were on the streets of Tehran and other major cities, after the disputed presidential elections. However, Moussavi, like other ‘reformists’, cannot break from the Islamic regime – he remains part and parcel of it.
In fact one of the advantages of the current protests is that they are not limited by the timidity of the likes of Moussavi. However, the lack of any real nationwide leadership and coordination is a major weakness of the current protests – worsened by the success of the authorities in curtailing internet communications. Contrary to what ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his supporters inside and outside Iran claim, the protests are spontaneous – they are certainly not “organised by CIA or MI5”. Ordinary people have taken to the streets because they are angry, because they want change.
Another positive aspect of these protests, compared to the 2018‑19 protests against the abolition of subsidies, is that the demonstrators distance themselves very clearly from the previous regime of the shah. As soon as the students got involved, one of their main slogans was “Death to the dictator, be it the leader or Shah!” ‘Leader’ is a reference to Khamenei, whose official title is ‘supreme leader’, and there are various versions of the same slogan repeated up and down the country, leaving no doubt about their attitude towards the shah’s regime. Exiled royalists can take no comfort from today’s protests.
Mahsa Amini was Kurdish and there have been a number of strikes and other protests in Kurdish cities such as Sanandaj and Sagghez. However, contrary to the wishes of Saudi Arabia and its well paid media pundits, this has not become a ‘nationalist’ Kurdish movement. From day one, protests in Azerbaijan, Balochistan, Khouzestan, Isfahan, Tehran and other provinces have been just as angry, frequent and determined as those in Kurdistan. As pointed out by a number of left writers inside Iran, these protests are indeed ‘post-nationalist’ and there is no way you can detect separatist nationalist sentiments in any of them.
It has been a long-term aim of Saudi Arabia and neocon Republicans in the US to break-up Iran into various small states. That would solve the problem of having to deal with the enemy, ‘Iran’, as it exists today. The 50% Persian, Farsi-speaking core of Iran would be shorn of its national minority provinces, which would be made into an Azerbaijan Republic in the north-west, a Kurdish republic (probably as corrupt and pro-Israeli as the Kurdish authority in Iraq) and a pro-Saudi Arab Republic in Khouzestan. We know this is part and parcel of the Saudi plan, not least because the trashy, Persian-language, Iran International TV channel (dubbed ‘MBS TV’ or just ‘Saudi TV’) has done its best to promote this line and foment national divisions. However, inside Iran there is no sign of such divisions in the current protests.
Even more ridiculous is the promotion of the loony cult, Mojahedin e-Khalq, by Iran International TV. This is the Iranian organisation which sold itself to Saddam Hussein; then, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, sold itself to the US occupation force – only to end up in a claustrophobic block of flats in Albania, paid for by the Saudis; and supported by Trump allies such as Rudy Giuliani. Its ‘leader’ is hijab-wearing Maryam Rajavi, who divorced her husband, Mehdi Abrishamchi, and married the then MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, in 1985 (he subsequently disappeared). Female MEK members are fully hijabed. Many have had to go through an ‘ideological revolution’, divorcing their respective husbands and marrying other men – as determined by the cult’s leadership – often in mass wedding ceremonies. As far as we can tell, the group has few if any supporters inside Iran, and has certainly taken no part in organising protests.
Of course, in the absence of any coherent organisation, of any strategy, the protest movement faces severe dangers. Sections of the Iranian left share the illusion that, somehow by magic, spontaneous demonstrations will create a revolutionary, radical force that will defend the working class and promote a socialist alternative. Well, experience tells us that this will not be the case. Some sections of the Iranian left have been all over the place in the last few years – some of them supporting sanctions, some supporting US military interventions in the Middle East – and you cannot expect them to suddenly come to their senses.
The role of celebrities needs commenting upon. In the era of social media and influencers that should hardly be surprising. Every day over the last month Iranian actors, film directories, sports men and women – some of whom were working closely with the regime till recently – have used their social media platforms to express solidarity with the protestors. I am not saying this is entirely negative – there is a positive element to it – but at the same time it carries the danger of creating a diversion.
What about the slogans? I have already mentioned those against the dictatorship, and another very prominent one is ‘Woman, life, freedom’. I have previously written about my reservations regarding this slogan – coined originally by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey and taken up by its YPG co-thinkers of Syrian Kurdistan. It is devoid of any class character and vague enough to allow unprincipled alliances to be formed. Freedom for whom? Under what economic system? In fact it helps foster illusions that ‘freedom’ or women’s equality can be achieved under the capitalist system. If you are in a country like Iran, with its terrible economic conditions, the term ‘freedom’ excuses a popular, ie, cross class, front, including Islamic feminists, secular business people and regime ‘reformists’. Many on the left have adopted this as the only slogan, with no explanation, no attempt to give definite programmatic concreteness to the words.
Of course, it fits like a glove with the Tudeh Party – Iran’s ‘official communists’ – who are once again calling for a “united front against dictatorship”. (I say ‘once again’, because this was exactly their rallying call in February 1979, before the fall of the shah). We all know the terrible consequences of uniting with every reactionary who happens to oppose today’s dictators – reactionaries who want to impose their own brand of repression. You would have thought, after the disaster of supporting Khomeini in 1979 and their subsequent support for the Islamic Republic until 1983, when Tudeh and its allies began to face repression, arrest and imprisonment themselves, they would have leant the lesson. Clearly not, though.
Then there are the petrochemical workers of Vahed and Haft Tappeh. They are putting forward some of the old slogans of 1979 such as Nan, kar, azadi (‘Bread, work, freedom’), or other versions of it. Obviously much more advanced.
Meanwhile, there is the USA. Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said last week: “We are not talking any more about JCPOA” – the Iran nuclear deal. “We are only concerned about the protests.” Any US military intervention or additional sanctions would be a disaster. It would strengthen the regime, which at present is telling its supporters outside Iran that there are no major protests – it is all propaganda put out by the US, Israel, etc. Such outside intervention would ensure more brutal attacks by the security forces on demonstrators and weaken the protests. Clearly no‑one inside Iran is asking for any such intervention.
However, support from below is very welcome. Women in neighbouring countries – in Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as European and North American countries – have shown solidarity with Iranian women. No doubt a weakening of political Islam in Iran will have major consequences in the Middle East – of course, we are still a long way away from the fall of the regime, but the Islamic Republic of Iran is now facing a major challenge, more serious than at any time during the last 44 years.
The current protests are less organised and numerically smaller than those in 2009 (prompted by what the ‘reformist’ factions of the regime called a ‘rigged’ presidential election). However, they are more important, partly because they mainly have working class and lower-middle class support, and the average age of the protestors is younger – meaning that many of those taking part are less scared of the security forces. More than a decade after 2009, and after the failure of the latest round of nuclear talks, there is no immediate hope for any economic improvement. As many Iranians have been saying in the last few weeks, they have nothing to lose – Kard be ostokhan ressidhe (‘The knife has reached the bone’). In 2009 the leadership of the movement was provided by two of the regime’s ‘reformist’ factions. At the end of the day they wanted the Islamic Republic to survive. The current protests are definitely not so timid.
It is very difficult to predict the future of these protests, but we can certainly speculate about various alternatives. We might see the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia trying to transform the current protests into a ‘colour revolution’, promoting so-called ‘leaders’ from above. As things stand, that is unlikely to work, as we have already witnessed failed attempts to produce such figureheads. However, even if such a regime change occurs, the new state would face so many social, political and economic challenges that it would inevitably resume repression – repression that would start by attacking the poorer sections of the population.
Another possibility is that the Islamic regime and its supreme leader might decide that their own interests would be better served by changing their current policies. We already have two ‘grand ayatollahs’ in the religious city of Qom calling for compromise, and the ‘reformists’ are taking a similar position. The supreme leader can dismiss the current president and appoint an interim replacement – under such circumstances all we can expect are very superficial changes. The dire economic situation will surely give rise to new protests.
As far as the Islamic Republic is concerned, the most likely scenario is an increase in repression – for instance, the deployment of the elite brigades of the Revolutionary Guards with the aim of crushing all protests. On October 16 we witnessed a fire in Evin prison, where many of those arrested in recent protests are detained. The authorities claim that the fire started in the “non-political section” of the prison, while another version has it that there was “a riot that led to a fire”. The opposition says fire bombs were shot at prisoners in Evin (there is precedence for this – the fire at the Rex cinema in 1978 was initiated by supporters of ayatollah Khomeini). We will probably not know the truth in the near future, but at some stage we will find out who was responsible for the eight officially counted deaths in Evin. Ultimately the blame lies with the supreme leader, as those who died were prisoners in an Iranian jail. All this demonstrates the kind of brutal attack the regime can organise.
For the left the best scenario will arise if these protests continue. Every day we are witnessing new groups of workers joining. After a series of privatisations we can no longer rely on a nationwide oil strike (as in 1979). But the conditions are coming into being where we can build a serious organisation, with a serious programme. The sooner that can be done, the nearer we will be to the revolutionary overthrow of the rule of the Islamic Republic – with unprecedented consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire Middle East.