Yassamine Mather celebrates the continuing mass protests, recognises their limitations, laments the parlous state of the left and urges unity around the basic principles upheld by Hopi
(This article is based on Yassamine’s talk in this video)
You would not know from the media that the protests are continuing – they are now entering a third month. They are widespread, militant and still large.
The ‘reformist’ faction of the Iranian government – and their allies in what I call sections of the ‘reformist left’ – have been saying that there is a slight dip, but I cannot see any sign of it. I can understand why they are saying this, because it fits their agenda of promoting a ‘peaceful resolution to this problem’. But I do not see any way in which the current crisis can be resolved peacefully, given the anger on the streets and among young people. On the contrary, we are witnessing a rise in some forms of protest that did not exist before. The actions on university campuses are quite remarkable and clearly there is now some level of coordination: there have been nationwide protests on the same day, for instance.
However, there is no doubt that the repression is continuing. A large number of teenagers – mostly school students – have been killed by state forces. In Tehran alone, there are 1,000 detained protestors – at least according to the government. Opposition figures are much higher – some of those arrested have been released, and some have been rearrested. But I have to stress that the government has not yet used its full might. A quote from Kiumars Heydari, commander of Iran’s ground army, is helpful, even though he might have said this for obvious propaganda purposes: he claimed the state has held back, because “Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t want us to use the kind of force we want to deploy”. In one sense we can take this comment with a pinch of salt, since at least 300 protestors have been killed. However, maybe it is true that they could have done worse over the last 60 days and killed thousands.
Security forces are mainly using metal baton rounds which are different from live ammunition, in that, while they inflict horrible pain, incapacitate, cause internal injuries, they do not normally result in death. If Heydari’s claim is true, we have to say that supreme leader Ali Khamenei is more astute than the shah, who unleashed the army against protestors, leading to a huge number of casualties. But Iran’s current ruler is planning for the long term. Of course, he wants protestors to be punished and is prepared to see many killed, claiming that what they are doing is all the work of the US and its allies. At the same time, though, he is clever enough not to escalate the response to a stage where there would be general slaughter.
There is currently a debate about if and when the Islamic Revolutionary Guards will be fully deployed. Would it be worse for them or for the demonstrators? It can be worse for them because, a bit like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, who proudly announced that he had merged the far-right, volunteer Azov Brigade into the army, the Iranian government has also brought the Revolutionary Guards into its army. But using both the conscript army and Revolutionary Guards can lead to a situation, when it comes to shooting down protestors, where some soldiers will refuse to obey orders.
Throughout Iran, women are now being seen without headscarves on the streets, at work, in coffee shops, in banks, on the metro … So the regime’s attempts to enforce the wearing of the hijab have failed. A good number of Iranian sportswomen have also refused to wear the hijab during competitions or when receiving medals – even inside the country. There is a corresponding rebellion against sexual segregation. On university campuses students have torn down the partitions separating males from females in canteens and other social areas.
All this shows how ordinary citizens are gaining confidence in their own power to oppose repression. Moreover, we are seeing novel forms of protest, for example, ‘amameh parani’. Teenagers approach a mullah from behind and push off his turban – some clerics are saying they no longer wear their religious garb when they walk the streets.
There are, given everything, all sorts of splits and divisions opening up above. For example, Molavi Abdolhamid, a senior Sunni cleric who leads Friday prayers in the Sistan and Baluchistan province, has openly challenged the propaganda of the Iranian rightwing press, which is insisting that there are no mass protests.
That said, I think we have to keep pointing out the limitations of the current protests – the absence of serious political organisation, the lack of programme, no authoritative leadership, etc. In these circumstances we are seeing clear attempts by the US state department to concoct, promote and insert its figureheads. The US was originally backing the son of the former shah, but that did not work. Student and youth protestors have been chanting anti-shah as well as anti-regime slogans. Then the US tried to promote a presenter on Voice of America, who supported former president Akbar Rafsanjani and then his successor, Mohammad Khatami. But that did not work out either. Then there is the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which is promoted mainly by Saudi Arabia. But again there is a slight problem. You cannot successfully promote a religious cult whose leader wears a headscarf, whose Tirana-based members are mostly in their 60s and 70s, and whom no-one inside Iran takes at all seriously.
Last week the US representative at the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, took Iranian-born Nazamin Boniadi to the general assembly. She lives in California, is a British citizen but supposedly represents the protestors in Iran. Her claim to fame is as a film and TV actor. She is also a former girlfriend of Tom Cruise (he sent her to the Church of Scientology for religious education). But people in Iran are not that stupid: as soon as her UN speech was broadcast, they Googled her and were astonished at the Biden administration’s strange choice! She has only ever visited Iran once – as a teenager.
The US is also promoting Hamed Esmaeilion, someone who, if I understand it correctly, lost his wife and daughter when Iran accidentally shot down Ukraine International’s flight number PS752 in January 2020. He spoke at the protest in Berlin, and he is now looking like a Zelensky double with the same kind of clothes and hairstyle. None of this would matter very much if the left was not tailing all these totally unconvincing Nato/US figureheads (in that sense one can detect the threat of a ‘colour revolution’).
The Saudi position is clear – as pushed ad infinitum on its Persian TV station. Saudi-Arabia wants to Balkanise Iran into any number of small ‘nations’ – it certainly does not want a powerful neighbour. If you listen to pro-Saudi commentators and analysts, as I did recently at a forum organised by the journal Foreign Affairs, you will find that their version of recent Middle Eastern history is truly bizarre. Iran should be blamed for every war and act of destruction in the region. Syria was the fault of Iran. Lebanon was the fault of Iran. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the fault of Iran. There was no mention of the Iraq war, of al Qa’eda and Islamic State, who were supported and financed by the Persian Gulf emirates, and no mention of Yemen, the US bombing of Libya and Syria, and so on.
Of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic is responsible for many of the atrocities in the region, but such a one-sided, false presentation of events is just nonsense. The amazing thing was that the politicians who were listening to this analysis seemed to accept this distorted version of history – I am not sure if it is historical illiteracy or just sheer opportunism. Lebanon’s Shia population long predates the coming to power of the Safavid dynasty in Iran who brought about the rule of Shia Islam – it did not all start with Hezbollah and Khomeini. The Saudi falsification of history is part of a narrative that tries to increase tension between Iran’s many nationalities. But so far, in the current protests, despite relentless efforts, their plan has not worked: on the contrary, there is unprecedented unity between the various nationalities. Leftwingers inside Iran talk of the ‘post-nationalist’ era.
Then we have Israel, once again under Binyamin Netanyahu, with its talk of ‘going to war’ with Iran, while in Iraq it is Muqtada al-Sadr who openly worries about the protests in Iran. As the senior Shia cleric in Basra, he is outraged by the ‘amameh parani’, as well as the defiance over the hijab – what if it spreads, he asked, to other countries? Here I assume he means Iraq, but, as far as I know, the government in Baghdad has not imposed the obligatory wearing of the hijab. However, thanks to the wonderful invasion that Bush and Blair managed in 2003, there are Shia strongholds policed by government forces where women cannot walk without a headscarf.
What about working class protests? So far workers’ actions have been sporadic and dispersed. As I keep reminding comrades who say the working class will ‘get there’, we have to be realistic. The Iranian working class is not in the same position as in February 1979. One important section – the oil workers – are no longer employed by a single entity, the National Iranian Oil Company – the neoliberal economic policies of the regime mean that we are now looking at hundreds of contract companies in the refinery section and even in the exploration of oil. Some of these privatised components of the oil industry are associated with and even owned by leaders of Revolutionary Guards. Therefore organising nationwide protests in the industry is much more difficult.
Having said that, we are seeing a number of oil workers’ protests, including the threat of a strike by those employed on permanent contracts – probably around 30% of this industry’s total workforce. We also have petrochemical workers who staged a short protest strike and Ahvaz steel-plant workers expressing their opposition to the regime. But we are not seeing major strikes – more the closure of shops and bazaars in Kurdish and other provincial cities. As you can imagine, the bazaar is not exactly a radical force.
The teachers union is very active and gaining support, while medics have also become involved – they are pointing to the horrific injuries people are getting from metal baton rounds. In addition 600 academics and lecturers in Iranian universities have been protesting against the presence of military forces on campuses and their mass arrest of students. They are calling for the release of all students.
What about the left? Here I think there is there is a parallel to Ukraine in some ways. On the one hand, we have a section of the left which is saying that the US is in decline, while Iran did its best to accommodate the nuclear deal between 2015 and 2018 – it was Donald Trump who walked out. Iran has no choice but to ally itself with China and Russia, they say, justifying this by claiming China imposes a lower rate of exploitation! Such arguments are supported by sections of the press inside Iran. If you look at websites such as Tasnim and Fars News, the intelligentsia of the rightwing, conservative factions of the Islamic Republic are saying the same thing: ‘It wasn’t our choice. The west didn’t respect the deal signed by Obama, and we have to live with new allies, such as Russia and China.’ The supporters of this line include an outspoken ex-Maoist and his followers, as well as Rahe Tudeh (a split from the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party). Then there are student activists in Iran who call themselves the “axis of resistance”, which came into being on campuses during the Trump era. They are definitely not Muslim and consider themselves to be on the left.
It is very difficult to give percentages, but I would estimate that the pro-Russia, pro-China Iranian left accounts for less than 5% of the left as a whole. The majority of the left – possibly over 80% – are pro-US, pro-Nato. They might not admit to that, but decades of neoliberal capitalism have influenced their politics, whether they realise it or not. And here I include people who say they are opposed to any military intervention by the US, even though it is obvious from what they say and write, and indeed the ‘alternatives’ they propose, that they are siding with the US.
Among self-avowed Marxists, there is a whole swathe of people who at the end of the day believe that the working class in Iran is ‘backward’, that a period of US-sponsored bourgeois democracy, however imperfect, will bring enlightenment. All you can say to these deluded groups and individuals is: ‘Yes, this worked in Iraq, didn’t it? It worked in Libya. So let’s have it in Iran too!’ In this category I would include a very large chunk of the organisations that calls themselves ‘left’.
But there are significant differences between such groups. On the one hand, you have the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fadaian (Majority), who are actually close to the ‘reformists’ in the Islamic Republic. They say, ‘Let us not have any violence by the protestors.’ But where is the violence from protestors? More’s the pity, the protestors do not have weapons; they are beaten, gassed, arrested, imprisoned, killed.
The latest, most idiotic argument I have seen – which actually shows how contagious this type of stupidity is, as it moves from Fadaian (Majority) into sections of what claims to be ‘the radical left’ – can be found in an article on the Rahe Kargar website, which states that the demonstrations in Iran should be about ‘life’, not death – implying we should avoid slogans such as ‘Death to the dictator!’ (Khamenei) or ‘Death to the shah!’ and here I think the author has moved so far to the right that his main concern regarding the slogan is not Khamenei, but the shah.
In reality, when the slogan, ‘Death to …’, is used in Iran, it does not literally mean that those specified should actually be killed. It means ‘Down with’ a particular system and its regime – so what is wrong with that? Since it is actually the slogan widely heard inside the country, why should we self-censor and only talk about ‘life’? How can we say this, when ‘life’ is not exactly great for the great majority of the Iranian population, many of whom are suffering from inadequate food and lack of medicines. And, apparently, we ought not to talk about the overthrow of all the various factions of the Islamic regime. This is the kind of stupid, passive, rightward-moving sentiment that is gathering traction when you look at the Iranian left.
It seems to me that most of the various four or five factions of the Fadaian minority, together with a number of factions within the Worker Communist Party, as well as both factions of Rahe Kargar, are echoing the same pro-western, soft, liberal message: let us confine ourselves to the slogan ‘Women, life, freedom’.
Fortunately I am no longer the only one who has written about the limitations of this slogan and I must emphasise that the rightwing tendency I have described is often limited to the leadership, while most of the members are opposed to such views. However, their websites, TV interviews and articles reflect the leadership position – against which the majority must now rally, because, if the crunch comes, the purveyors of such views would support foreign intervention. They would support more sanctions. All this arises partly from despair after so many years of exile, partly from the triumph of western liberal propaganda and partly from sheer ignorance of the current global situation.
In Hands off the People of Iran, we have maintained two slogans: ‘No to imperialist interventions’ and ‘No to the Islamic Republic’. I am pleased to report that increasingly members of the groups I have mentioned above, who are angry at the rightwing turn of their own leadership, are getting in touch asking to join Hopi. We are in a unique position to intervene in terms of solidarity with the current protests, in that we support calls for the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic, while exposing endless attempts by the Biden administration and its allies in Europe to manufacture an alternative state in exile, along with its idiotic attempts to manufacture pro-US leaders for the Iranian protests.
When it comes to the Tehran regime, change from above will be very different from that in Iraq or, dare I say, Libya. With the exception of Israel, no-one is talking of war or even limited military action, such as air strikes. The so-called ‘targeted sanctions’ have had little effect – except to enrich those in power and impoverish ordinary Iranians – and it is the same with propaganda pumped out by the US, UK, Saudi, etc, media.
Since my talk on November 12, upon which this article is based, we have witnessed an escalation of the demonstrations and protests on university campuses and in towns across the country. On November 15 a false claim that the Islamic Republic is planning to execute 15,000 protestors went viral on Instagram – major figures such as Justin Trudeau have helped spread this fake news.
Irrespective of the outcome of the current protests, over the coming months we in Hopi will need to organise solidarity from below, including from trade unions. We need to organise talks, seminars and debates that address the current global situation, including illusions about China’s economic relations with so-called developing countries. We need to explain also the shortcomings of liberal democracy, including the current state of women’s ‘equality’ in advanced capitalist countries. Iranian young people have many illusions about the ‘rule of law’ and western civil society, so we need to expose the profound shortcomings of such models, while at the same time stressing our opposition to the authoritarianism in Russia, China, etc.
We will have to deal with fake news – we can and should help comrades in Iran combat network limitations imposed by the regime, as well as helping them to hide their identity and encrypt their messages, so as to protect them from the prying eyes and ears of the regime’s security forces.
All this requires activist volunteers, and I hope that comrades who read this article will get in touch with Hopi at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how they can help.
First published in the Weekly Worker.