Mass protests in December and January shook Iran’s reactionary regime to the core. Although facing severe repression, they signal a new confidence and preparedness by workers and young people to fight for their rights, in opposition to systemic corruption, repression and inequality. ROBERT BECHERT writes. Originally published in Socialism Today, Issue 215 (February 2018), the political journal of the Socialist Party (sister party of Socialist Alternative in England and Wales).
The sudden, spontaneous and rapid eruption of protests across Iran at the end of 2017 transformed the country, putting the possibility of the end of the dictatorial Islamic Republic in sight. Clearly, these events are immensely significant for Iran and the entire region. The 1978/79 Iranian revolution against the Shah’s totalitarian, western-backed regime initially inspired millions. It was one of the first revolutions seen on television as it took place. Millions watched a mass movement confront and then undermine one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
At that time, the western powers said almost nothing about democracy; in Britain the then Labour government backed the Shah’s regime. But that was not really a surprise. After all, it was the US and British governments that had sponsored and helped organise the 1953 coup that overthrow the democratically elected government headed by Mohammad Mossadegh because it wanted to nationalise the oil industry. It was on the backs of this coup that the Shah built his brutal rule. Furthermore, during that ‘cold war’ time, less than four years after the final fall of South Vietnam, capitalist governments feared losing ground internationally against their non-capitalist rivals, the Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China.
After 1979, what seemed to be the final outcome of the Shah’s overthrow was depressing and confusing to many who had initially supported the revolution as a blow against autocracy. The revolution ended with the suppression of most democratic and social rights, severe restrictions placed on women, and the crushing of independent workers’ organisations. Most political parties were banned, followed by large-scale executions of opponents of the leaders of the new Islamic Republic, especially those on the left. The fact that it was in continual conflict with the US and its allies could not hide the fact that it was a counter-revolutionary regime which had come to power by establishing its own rule through crushing the workers’ and socialist organisations under the false banner of ‘defending the revolution’.
Now, for the first time since the days of the revolution, workers and youth took to the streets in many towns and cities in an almost nationwide protest against both poverty and the regime that has ruled for nearly 40 years. These were not simply protests on the pressing daily issues like food prices, non-payment of wages and unemployment. The slogans shouted included ‘No to inflation!’, ‘Leave my country alone, mullahs!’, ‘Clerics, get lost!’, ‘The people are begging – the clerics act like gods’, ‘Death to the Islamic Republic!’, and ‘Death to Khamenei!’ Other widely chanted slogans attacked the regime’s expensive expansionist foreign policy, contrasting it with poverty at home.
While this was not the first movement against the Islamic Republic, its scale and hostility to the regime marked nothing less than the beginnings of a revolutionary period. Significantly, the regime’s brutality in suppressing opposition is no longer completely successful. Many are losing their fear and are prepared to struggle. Over 20 died in the first round of protests, thousands were arrested and some have died in prison, but the regime is not confident.
This is because it was a rebellion across the country, involving most ethnic groupings, although in the capital Tehran the protests tended to be smaller. In some cities up to 50,000 protested while, in Ahvaz, a city with a large Arab population, 80,000 were reported to have demonstrated. Although there has been a decline in the mass street protests, new workers’ struggles, particularly over non-payment of wages, have continued throughout January. A new period of struggle, of revolution and counter-revolution, has opened up.
Iran is one of the key countries in the Middle East, with the world’s fourth-largest petroleum reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves. It has a large, youthful, overwhelmingly literate, urban-based society – three-quarters of the population live in towns and cities. Iran occupies a critical strategic position, one reason why rival imperialisms have been intervening in the country for over a century.
Today, in the aftermath of the 2003 US and British-led invasion of Iraq, Iran’s regional position has been greatly strengthened, something which lies behind Donald Trump’s and the Saudi dictatorship’s hostility. It is ironic that this is the result of US and British imperialism destroying Saddam Hussein, whose regime it had previously backed against Iran, particularly in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It is not accidental that the British government still keeps secret the documents relating to British weapons supplies to Saddam during the 1980s.
The demand for change in Iran has been building for some time. Recent years had seen a growing number of struggles, particularly by workers. In the last year it has been reported that at least 600 protests took place on issues ranging from non-payment of wages, working conditions, arrests of activists, to demonstrations against financial scandals.
The growing mood against the status quo was again reflected when president Hassan Rouhani, from the so-called ‘reformist’ wing of the regime, overwhelmingly defeated the conservative candidate when he stood for re-election in last April’s presidential poll. But, while disappointment with Rouhani was partly reflected in the chants of ‘Death to Rouhani!’ – heard in the recent protests, initially, and possibly encouraged by some hardliners trying to weaken him – it is significant that these were rapidly overtaken by calls for ‘Death to the dictator!’, and even explicitly ‘Death to Khamenei!’, Iran’s so-called supreme leader.
Falling living standards
The defeat of the so-called ‘hardliners’ in the 2017 presidential election may have contributed to the growing confidence that it was possible to make demands. However, the re-elected Rouhani was dashing the hopes of many who looked to him. The expectation that the 2015 nuclear deal – struck between the leaders of Iran, the US, China, Germany, the UK, France and Russia – would lead to an improvement in living standards has not materialised.
While the recent increase in the oil export price boosted Iran’s income this did not translate into higher living standards or provide jobs for the large numbers of unemployed. Indeed, on average, Iranians have become 15% poorer over the last decade. In fundamentals, Rouhani’s economic policy is neoliberal, based on cutting state expenditure and driving through privatisation, while giving more funding to the theocratic state’s religious-based institutions.
In recent years, there has been a toxic combination of rising inequality, conspicuous wealth at the top of society, increasing inflation, subsidy cuts, mass unemployment and rotten working conditions, and mounting poverty. According to official data for 2015, 40% of Iranians lived below the poverty line and 10% live on less than $5.50 a day. Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds rose to 30% in 2016, and around eleven million workers, half the workforce, have precarious jobs. Against this background, an estimated 830,000 people, 70% of them university graduates, are expected to start looking for jobs in the year starting from March. So it is no accident that over 90% of those arrested in the first round of these protests were under 25 years old. The regime is not offering them a future.
These protests differed quite significantly from the last opposition movement, the so-called Green movement in 2009. That was sparked by the rigging of that year’s presidential election and, centred in Tehran, had a mainly middle-class character. In contrast, the recent protests were overwhelmingly made up of youth and workers. Their demands were also very different from those of the Green movement. In 2009 the protesters looked towards one wing of the theocratic regime, the so-called ‘reformers’, to defeat the more conservative hardliners, sometimes called ‘principalists’. Now the protests were directed at the leadership and the Islamic regime as a whole, such as ‘Reformists! Hardliners! The game is over!’
Outrage at systemic inequality
The spark for this outburst of anger were sharp jumps in the prices of some basics like eggs (up 40%) at the same time as the Rouhani government announced large price increases for fuel (up 50%), and cuts in subsidies in the 2018 budget. Additionally, for the first time, the budget published details of the funding for the theocratic state’s religious bodies and institutions, ranging from seminaries to the Revolutionary Guards, which showed big increases in their financing.
The budget proposed giving various religious authorities around $850 million. This would have meant that real-term spending on Islamic propagation bodies and seminaries would have increased by over a quarter since 2012. The budget’s allocation for defence, $22.1 billion, was almost equal to the combined spending on education, health and social welfare, and $7.7 billion of the defence budget was allocated to the Revolutionary Guards. They are more than a military force. Through various institutions and foundations they control around 80% of the Iranian economy, a lucrative source of income and power to the ruling elite. At a time of continuing cuts this enraged large sections of the population and concentrated hostility towards the privileged, oppressive and hypocritical elite.
While each country has its own history and characteristics, at almost exactly the same time as events in Iran, the Middle East saw protests begin against cuts and inflation in Tunisia and Sudan – Morocco has seen continued protests since last October. One effect of this widening arc of protest was to hold back Trump from continuing to proclaim hypocritical ‘support’ for the Iranian demonstrations. It was one thing for Trump to back protests that may undermine a strategic competitor to the US in the region, it was another thing to risk endorsing movements against allies.
The autocratic Saudi regime, one of US imperialism’s biggest Middle East allies and deeply hostile to the Iranian regime, adopted a largely low-key approach of simply reporting the events. It had implemented similar austerity measures at the beginning of 2018. However, it was so scared of provoking protests that, one week after it raised fuel prices, cut subsidies and introduced VAT, the Saudi regime announced that a special $266 monthly cost-of-living allowance would be paid to public-sector workers for a year, soldiers would receive a $1,330 bonus, and students got a temporary 10% increase in their monthly allowance. The Saudi regime under the new crown prince had already shown its fear of revolt last year when it reversed the wage cuts introduced in September 2016. All of this illustrates what a tinder box the entire Middle East and North Africa is.
Today’s Iran is quite different from that of 1978/79. Its population has grown enormously from around 37 million to approaching 82 million. While this growth has slowed down recently Iran still has an overwhelmingly young population. Over 40% are under 24 years old and 1.2 million young people enter the labour force annually.
The recent protests illustrate how this generation, who have only known the ‘Islamic’ regime, are rejecting it. Faced with youth unemployment estimated to be anywhere between 25% and 40% there is huge anger against the regime and the wealthy elite. In a country where a majority have internet access this anger is fuelled by images of the lavish lifestyles of the rich displayed on sites like the Rich Kids of Tehran Instagram account.
Understandably, at the start of the movement there has been no clear idea of what to replace the regime with. There were widespread calls for a ‘republic’ or an ‘Iranian republic’, as opposed to the existing Islamic Republic. There were even a few calls for the return of the Pahlavi monarchy. In the past, it was clear that some Iranian youth looked to the US and, while Trump may lessen that feeling for now, some may still have hopes in the ‘American dream’.
In this situation, where a revolution is beginning, crucial political questions are posed. In all revolutions since the development of capitalism, the issues for socialists have been the need to build the workers’ movement and win it to the idea of striving for a working people’s government that will begin the socialist reconstruction of society.
The regime’s grip weakens
As socialists discussed many times last year, up to now the only occasion when a mass movement of workers and poor have achieved this was the 1917 Russian revolution. Tragically, the 1978/79 Iranian revolution was one of the many examples where an opportunity was lost to follow in the tradition of 1917. Instead, we saw a mighty movement of workers and youth overthrow a dictatorship but fail to use its potential power to begin to run the country. The result was that it was cut across by a counter-revolution led by reactionary clerics who suppressed democratic rights and freedoms, and developed into a privileged caste ruling the country along with a section of the traditional capitalist class and merchants.
The clerics did not achieve this immediately. There were struggles throughout 1979 and 1980 as the counter-revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini and using the cover of ‘defending the revolution’, sought to establish control. One of the first was on International Women’s Day 1979, when 100,000 women and men protested in Tehran against the hijab law brought in the previous day, decreeing that Iranian women would have to wear headscarves outside their homes.
Unfortunately, the theocratic-led counter-revolution was assisted by the mistakes of some on the left. Major sections of the left ignored the lessons from the experience of the Bolsheviks between February and October 1917. Instead, they effectively allied themselves – to a greater or lesser extent for different periods – with the leaders of the would-be Islamic regime on the grounds that they opposed the major imperialist powers. Other left groupings, while rejecting this approach, were not able to sink sufficient roots to help build a movement able to defeat Khomeini’s counter-revolution, a reaction assisted by the 1980 outbreak of war with Iraq.
Today, the regime is divided on how to respond. Some have an understanding of what is happening although that does not mean that they have a solution. In early January, Rouhani recognised that “people had economic, political and social demands”. Later in mid-January, he said that the “problem we are facing today is the gap between we, the authorities, and the younger generation. The youth sees the world and life differently from us… the majority of the country’s population is young which means we have to listen to the youth”. Seeing the economic and social roots of the movement does not mean that the regime’s leaders are able to deal with those issues.
It was noteworthy that the official television pictures of mid-January’s pro-regime demonstrations showed they were largely older, overwhelming male, and appeared to be public-sector workers who may have been ordered to participate. Certainly young people and women were conspicuous by their absence. In an overwhelmingly young country this is a warning sign to the entire regime. The youth who have grown up under the Islamic Republic are rejecting it. The regime will try both repression and concessions. Thus Masoumeh Ebtekat, one of Iran’s twelve vice-presidents, tweeted that Rouhani had called for all detained students to be released.
New revolutionary stage
Iran has entered a new stage, one of revolution. At the time of the mainly middle-class and student 2009 Green movement the CWI argued that “the question now is whether the working class emerges into the forefront of the struggle to take it forward”. (Iran: Where Now for the Iranian Revolution? by Tony Saunois) Today, the protests and actions are being spearheaded by the working class and poor.
Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the leaders of the Russian revolution, at different times described the broad conditions for revolutions to develop. In 1920, Lenin wrote: “For a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph”. (Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, Lenin’s emphasis) In 1931, Trotsky developed these ideas in notes on Britain: “A revolutionary situation… begins only when the economic and social prerequisites for a revolution produce abrupt changes in the consciousness of society and its different classes”. (What is a Revolutionary Situation?)
This is precisely what has happened in Iran. However, the history of the last 100 years has shown that a successful revolution against capitalism needs more than a courageous movement willing to fight, it also needs a clear programme and an understanding of what concrete steps are required to achieve its aims. Such clarity can be forged through a combination of the experience of struggle and the activity of a revolutionary socialist party which clarifies what needs to be done at each point of the developing situation.
An article by an Iranian CWI comrade explained: “Despite its high level of militancy, this movement suffers from serious weaknesses. It is still in its very early stages and, with the absence of a revolutionary party able to propose a clear strategy, it faces the risk of losing momentum despite its rapid rise. Inevitably, this weakness, combined with the fact that this movement is in its very early stage, produces mixed and contradictory trends in the consciousness of the participants. Thus sometimes even slogans in support of the pre-1979 revolution monarchy can be heard, though this was not the dominant mood. The initial sphere of action of this movement was on the streets, and it has not yet fused with workplace protests. Only being in the open spaces and streets does not ensure the movement’s survival, it needs to shape itself around factories, workplaces, communities and educational institutions…
“While the current protests may wind down, they have fundamentally changed the situation in Iran. This experience can lay the basis for the building of a workers’ movement that can challenge both the regime and capitalism. First steps must be the bringing together of activists in groups and committees to co-ordinate activities and work out demands and programme. The left must start a dialogue to form a united front, as a step towards founding a democratically-run mass working-class party that can bring together workers, the poor and youth in fighting for an alternative”. (Movement of Workers and Youth Challenges Iranian Regime, 4 January 2018)
Bringing together activists would provide opportunities to discuss experiences, demands and plan the next steps. Demands on economic, social and political issues could be formulated. These would include immediate payment of all wages due, an increase in the minimum wage, opposition to cuts, jobs on secure contracts. The defence and extension of democratic rights, the right to form trade unions and political parties, genuinely free elections, an end to censorship, and opposition to the oppression of women, national and religious minorities should also feature. Calls for action against the elite and looters, fighting corruption, opening the accounts of nationalised industries, religious institutions and big companies for public inspection by democratic bodies are also important.
Ending corrupt rule
Above all, opposition to the Islamic Republic poses the question of what sort of Iran should replace it. The call for a genuinely democratic constituent assembly to decide Iran’s character is an important demand of the next Iranian revolution. Socialists call for an end to rule by the corrupt and privileged elite and the capitalists. That a new Iran must work in the interests of working people and the poor, and that this can only be achieved through a government composed of their genuine representatives ruling through democratic, popular organs of administration.
Preparation for the coming period should include discussion on when to call for and how to organise struggle, the role of demonstrations and general strikes as battles develop, alongside the important question of the self-defence of the movement. Linking together such groupings could become the basis of the rebuilding of the workers’ movement. These steps could also lead to a new development of the shora (councils) which briefly appeared in the 1979 revolution before being suppressed by the Islamic regime.
In all revolutions, building an independent workers’ movement with a clear socialist programme is key. The masses must be made aware of the danger of false friends, those who profess support for the revolution in order to derail it and prevent it carrying through the overthrow of capitalism.
A key significance of the recent protests has been its opposition to the regime. The splits within the Islamic Republic elite are significant but all its factions defend the basis of the system. An important aspect in the defeat of 2009 Green movement was its failure to go beyond supporting Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the candidate who lost that year’s presidential election through the rigging organised by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s faction. Mousavi was never going to seriously stand against the regime’s survival. He was a former prime minister responsible for repression against left-wing activists and probably viewed the huge demonstrations of the Green movement with alarm rather than joy.
Likewise, there are sections of the Iranian capitalist class who are hostile to the Islamic Republic, maybe because they feel squeezed out by the size of the Revolutionary Guards’ economic empire and/or they would like closer ties to US and other imperialist powers. As explained in the 4 January CWI article: “The left must warn of imperialist-backed intervention to subvert and divert the movement. Trump’s hypocrisy must be exposed, while professing ‘support’ for the Iranian people he embraces the Saudi dictatorship. At the same time, any illusions among layers of people that pro-western bourgeois alternatives may bring a better life for the people need to be combated with a socialist programme that explains what could be achieved if capitalism is overthrown.
“Only a society ruled by representatives of the workers and toilers can resolve the chronic crises in Iran, win democratic rights, and put an end to poverty and oppression based on gender, religion and ethnicity. A workers’ revolution in Iran will stimulate progressive, democratic and socialist forces in the Middle East and cut across reactionary Islamist ideas and forces”.