Yassamine Mather celebrates the current wave of mass protests, the youth, the bravery. However, lack of serious organisation, coordination and a strategic plan is a real problem that must be addressed
The current wave of protests, which started almost two months ago, seem to be getting stronger with every day that passes.
They are by far the most widespread, important protests against the Islamic Republic – and, of course, those who remember the events that led to the February uprising in 1979 will know the significance of events that follow the traditional commemoration period for those who have died. Last week we saw the 40th day since the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. There were huge demonstrations in her hometown of Saghez, as well as in Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan. Immediately afterwards we had the 40th day since the killing of a teenage girl who was amongst the first to join the new wave of anti-government protests.
The number being killed by security forces is rising daily – we are talking of at least 350 dead, thousands injured and, according to government figures, around 1,000 arrested and detained during the recent protests. We can say with some confidence that protests will continue, with further local and national 40-day commemorations for those killed. University and school students in particular show no sign of giving up – on the contrary, there are, if anything, angrier, more determined protests on university campuses. A senior ayatollah has been quoted in the Iranian press after complaining that clerics (mullahs) have had to leave their cloaks and turbans behind when they go out for fear of being attacked.
Most of the regime’s ‘reformist’ factions have distanced themselves from the line promulgated by president Ebrahim Raisi and supreme leader Ali Khamenei. They insist on women wearing the hijab in public at all times. Mohammad Javad Zarif, former foreign minister, expresses hope that the situation can be resolved, declaring: “We will continue the dialogue in the coming days.” However, as others have pointed out, no “dialogue” has even started. More importantly, dialogue with whom? Everyone agrees that the demonstrators do not recognise any particular leader – in fact there is no centralised organisation challenging the legitimacy of the regime.
A surprising conciliatory call for moderation has come from a number of senior figures from the ruling faction. Prominent conservative politician, Ali Larijani, former speaker of the Iranian majles (parliament) and someone who was supposed to be a close advisor of the supreme leader, has called for a re-assessment of the laws regarding the compulsory wearing of the hijab. Larijani was reported by the news website Ettelaat saying:
The hijab has a cultural solution: it does not need decrees and referendums. I appreciate the services of the police force and Basij [paramilitary militia], but this burden of encouraging the hijab should not be assigned to them … The people and young people who are coming out on the streets are our children. In a family, if a child commits a crime, they try to guide him to the right path – society needs more tolerance.1
Larijani also distanced himself from claims made by the current president and sections of the conservative faction that the protests are all part of a western plot – the youth had genuine grievances, he said and “insistence on social values will elicit violent reactions on the part of the protestors”. In a sign of further cracks amongst the rulers, minister for tourism Ezzatollah Zarghami asked on his Twitter account: “What should the people do if they do not wish to be guided by the morality police?”2
This was followed by a comment from Gholamreza Montazeri, deputy chair of the majles cultural committee. He called for understanding of the new generation and expressed opposition to any violent crackdown on the protests.
Two weeks ago, Masih Mohajeri, editor of the important conservative daily newspaper, Jomhouri Eslami (Islamic Republic), together with senior cleric ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, urged the Raisi government to show a more tolerant attitude towards the protestors and to deal with the causes of dissent by bringing about the necessary changes to deal with the country’s problems.3
Taming the sheep
Last week, Mohammad Reza Rajabi Shakib, an academic in an Iranian university and social media activist, reminded us of a quote from ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who in 1980 compared the relationship between the government and the people with that between a shepherd and a sheep: after all, “the shepherd likes these sheep to graze in a good place”.4
Referring to these words, Shakib wrote: “Basically, you don’t need any skills to manage sheep except for two things: the skill of scaring and the skill of slaughtering.” Rajabi Shakib added on his Telegram channel that “after Mr Khomeini, the skill of fooling a child and creating an imaginary enemy was added to the previous skills. Now the next generations must give blood, so that these shepherds understand that they are not on the side of the sheep.” Of course, the very title of the supreme leader – Vali Faghih (guardian) – conveys the metaphor.
The problem is that the Iranian people never accepted the regime’s priorities and only brutal repression allows the Islamic Republic to survive. However, the current protests leave no doubt: the young generation is no longer tolerating the situation and the cracks amongst rulers show that previous methods have failed.
The official position remains that of Khamenei, who told the nation that “these provocations are not spontaneous internal things”, but the work of “the enemy”. On October 28, an 8,000-word statement was issued, declaring that the protest movement had been created by the CIA and that the security forces would continue to use current methods to clamp down upon those taking part.
However, the continuing protests have shown that the government’s policy of intimidation and threats – combined with televised confessions, the humiliation and ridicule of prisoners, the dismissal of demands as stemming from nothing more than sexual and emotional frustration – have not been effective and the protests are actually more determined than before. The key slogans of the demonstrators are still aimed at the supreme leader and his government – they want to see the overthrow of the entire regime.
All attempts by both ‘reformists’ and conservatives for compromise have been ‘too little, too late’ and, even if the supreme leader makes a U-turn, relaxes regulations on the hijab, dismisses Raisi and asks the Council of Guardians to appoint a ‘reformist’ president, it is likely the protests will continue. The slogan, ‘Death to the dictator!’, and those such as “No to shah, no to rahbar!” (a reference to Khamenei), do not leave much doubt about their position regarding both the current ruler and the pretender to the Pahlavi throne.
As we approach the 50th day of protests, it is clear that by its own admission the regime is facing a serious danger, even compared to 2009. At that time former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and presidential candidate Mehdi Kahroubi – both long-time supporters of the Islamic Republic – called on their followers to reverse the “rigged presidential elections”. However, they had no intention of challenging the legitimacy of the Islamic regime; nor did they support slogans against the supreme leader. But today the protests are far more widespread – there is not a town in the country where they are not taking place. While the protests do not, as already pointed out, have anything approaching a clear leadership, on the other hand, they are not checked and limited by ‘reformist’ leaders, as was the case in 2009.
Back then the majority of protestors were from the middle class, whereas in 2022 they are from the working class and lower sections of the middle class. This means that not only are we seeing much larger numbers, but the working class demonstrators are younger and braver than 2009 – they do not seem to be deterred by the security forces.
The Arab media seems to be obsessed by the fact that the protests have not got a single identifiable leader and they remind us that such decentralised protests in Lebanon and Sudan, not to mention the Arab Spring, failed to achieve their aims. They ask if movements always need a figurehead and in my opinion the absence of a single figurehead is definitely an advantage. We have seen so many self-appointed or largely manufactured ‘charismatic’ leaders betraying mass movements, spreading confusion and, all in all, leaving nothing behind except broken dreams.
It is excellent that the current protests are not led by some rightwing individual or organisation, which could replace the Islamic Republic with an even more reactionary and repressive regime – if there is one lesson to be learnt from 1979, it is that you can replace a dictatorship with an even worse dictatorship. However, the lack of serious organisation, coordination and a strategic plan is a real problem – especially as the protests escalate and repression mounts.
I do not believe that clear political leadership will spontaneously emerge from within the ranks of protestors, which means that the outcome of the uprising remains totally unclear. But we must support the movement, argue for better, more class-conscious slogans and at all times oppose military intervention and more sanctions by the US and its Nato and regional allies.
However, most of the left in exile is failing to do this. No one was surprised that Tudeh (Iran’s ‘official communist’ party) has repeated its 1979 call for “a united front against dictatorship”. Those who have read about the February uprising of that year will know that this was exactly the same expression used to urge an alliance against the shah’s dictatorship. Even the dimmest member of Tudeh must know by now that the ‘front’ was an utter failure. Under orders from Moscow, Tudeh supported the reactionary leadership of the Islamic Republic, even when it started to massacre leftwing militants.
If the Soviet bureaucracy could be blamed for the 1979-84 criminal policies of Tudeh, this time we can only blame leading members of Tudeh itself. Who will be in this “united front”? Anyone who opposes the Islamic Republic and we all know this includes liberals, monarchists, pro-imperialist cults, fake leftists and all manner of reactionary odds and sods. First time round, the “united front against dictatorship” slogan led to tragedy – not only for the radical left and for Tudeh itself. Repeating it a second time, while having the appearance of farce, could lead to a far worse tragedy.