Iran: A New Period Opening Up


2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Despite the brutal suppression of the latest wave of protests, the dictatorial regime that came to power 40 years ago is now much weaker, facing a severe crisis. The crucial question is what should be the role of the workers’ movement in Iran and what program does it need to ensure that the inevitable mass protests that will develop further can succeed in ending this dictatorship.

Nina Mo, Socialist Left Party (CWI in Austria)

The instability of the Iranian regime was once again demonstrated by the protests that spread across the country towards the end of 2019, part of the wave of mass movements across the world against neoliberalism and corruption, not least in Lebanon and Iraq, which put the Iranian regime, as a regional power, increasingly under pressure. Especially in Iraq, these mass protests were explicitly directed against the role of the Iranian regime in the country.

At the same time, the targeted assassination of Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Baghdad by the US has once again put the threat of war back onto the agenda, which, if realized, would have devastating consequences for the entire region.

Soleimani was head of the pro-Iranian counter-revolution in Iraq, as in Syria, and a central organizer of repression and military intervention at home. Initially, after his assassination, the Iranian regime seemed to have regained short-term stability by taking advantage of the justified anger at the U.S. attack. Millions were mobilized to commemorate Soleimani. But under the surface, the situation was potentially explosive. When, after days of denial, the regime admitted that it had unintentionally shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran on January 8, new protests broke out against the lies and the cynical way in which the regime had dealt with the dead passengers.

See article “Iran: Trump brings region closer to war

Rise and fall of the regime

After the stolen revolution of 1979, the Iranian mullahs succeeded over a long period in building a relatively stable reactionary theocratic regime. The dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown by mass demonstrations, general strikes and factory occupations by the working class before the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were able to put themselves at the head of the movement and establish a new dictatorial regime. They were only able to do this due to fatal errors of the left and workers’ organizations during the revolutionary events of 1979. Understanding those events is crucial if we want to correctly interpret the development of the regime and the deep crisis it finds itself in today.

See article “Iran: When the masses deposed a dictator

Immediately after the revolution, the regime was actually forced by mass pressure to nationalize large parts of the economy and make other concessions, such as subsidizing consumer goods and providing free medical care. For several years after, Khomeini had to use strong, populist rhetoric to maintain his support.

At the same time, however, communists and socialists were persecuted and murdered, and the workers’ movement was crushed piece by piece. The war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, during which Soleimani established his military career, was another key factor in the consolidation of the regime, which in the following years consolidated a theocratic social system based on propaganda and repression.

As the economic situation deteriorated through the 1990s, protest movements continued, but the regime was not faced with the threat of being overthrown. In part, this is because it used propaganda massively exploiting the anti-imperialist mood within the population, which has been a decisive stabilizing factor to this day.

It is possible to crudely divide the regime into the so-called “reform-oriented” forces and the “conservative factions”. The former do not want to change much in the political and economic system, but argue for a partial opening of the economy to the West and a foreign policy based on a certain compromise. They are opposed by the ultra-conservative hardliners. As events have developed, illusions in one or other of these forces have been stirred up.

The failure of the “reform-oriented” forces, including those of the current President, Hassan Rouhani, caused bitter disappointment and led, in the absence of any alternative, to a conservative backlash. At the end of the 1990s, for example, a significant section of the working class and youth had great hope that Mohammad Khatami would implement democratic and social reforms. However, Khatami’s so-called “reform era” ended after initial concessions with a continuation of the status quo and without any new democratic freedoms or real improvements.

Mass protests and demonstrations against the regime, or at least against certain factions of the regime, have continued throughout its existence, but when the ultra-conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President in 2005, anger and distrust intensified. Ahmadinejad leant on the poorest sections of the population, using populist rhetoric to some extent, while promoting privatization and the transfer of state-owned enterprises to the military and Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) structures. This provoked growing anger, which culminated in 2009 in mass protests, triggered by the obvious manipulation of the election results. The “Green Movement” shook the regime dramatically. For weeks, people poured onto the streets demanding democratic rights and freedom. The country experienced its deepest crisis since 1979 until the movement was brutally crushed, partly due to the political weaknesses of its leaders, the low participation of the working class and the failure to expand the movement with strikes and general strikes.

Ahmadinejad’s rule ended in 2013. After eight years of the so-called ‘reform-orientated’ Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and then eight years of the ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad, Rouhani was presented as a compromise candidate between the hardliners and reformers when he won the 2013 election, creating illusions in his presidency with democratic promises. Many saw his election victory as a victory over those forces that had brutally crushed the “Green Movement” in 2009.

He promised not only the liberalization of relations with West, seeking to end sanctions and the country’s isolation. He also promised to take steps towards improving women’s rights and freedom of the press and expression. But despite initial euphoria, his promises turned out to be no more than hot air, his re-election in 2017 was more due to a dominant mood of ‘lesser evilism’. The working class – especially a new, young generation – has since then become increasingly estranged from the rotten regime, much more so than in 2009.

Economic Situation

The Iranian regime has long used foreign policy escalations and war scenarios to distract from the social situation within the country. This has deteriorated so massively in recent years that the emergence of mass protests was foreseeable. An important factor in the outbreak of the protests in 2017/18 was the publication of Rouhani’s government’s budget in December 2017, which included massive cuts in social, educational and health services as well as a 30% increase in military spending.

The latest gasoline price increase in November 2019 was announced in the context of a sharp drop in oil revenues and was at the same time part of a structural economic agenda of liberalizations and privatizations. Rouhani and his political camp were from the outset in favor of an increasing economic opening towards the West. Privatizations in Iran also serve to secure the loyalty of the ruling elite, the Revolutionary Guards, high officials, functionaries etc. and their families to the regime.

Clerical capitalism in Iran has special structures which cannot be fully outlined here, but which are important for understanding the connection between economic and democratic struggles. An important basis of the Iranian economy is the export of crude oil. As a rentier state, in which extra high, unearned profits are due to monopoly control of the oil business, the regime has been able to keep parts of the poor population relatively passive through subsidies for food, grain, energy and fuel. However, numerous subsidies have been cut in recent years. As a result of US-imposed economic sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal of the nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran’s oil exports have shrunk, intensifying class polarization in the country as well as the conflicts between the regime’s various factions.

The bourgeoisie was very weak under the Shah’s regime, and after the revolution the clergy took control over the big companies, either directly through the state institutions or through religious foundations – bonyads. The bonyads are large, profit-oriented economic enterprises which control the most important areas of the economy and which are supposed to co-finance social services from their profits, thus enabling them to build a certain social base. They have their own structures and answer only to the “Supreme Leader” Khamenei. Despite their informal ties with the state apparatus, they are formally not part of the state.

Through the structure of the bonyads, the Revolutionary Guards control more than a third of the Iranian economy. Like most other Iranian companies, they are not competitive on the world market. For this reason, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have no interest in an economic, or even political opening of the country to the West and are trying to block the process. In addition, because the IRGC control all border crossings, they earn a lot of money by controlling the smuggling “necessary” to break through the sanctions. For this reason, they feel no immediate pressure to make concessions to get rid of the sanctions. In this way, the IRGC is both the strongest armed wing of the regime and the most important sector of Iranian capitalism.

This is a peculiar feature of Iranian society and means that fundamental changes in Iran can only be implemented against the vehement and armed resistance of the IRGC. A “smooth transition” to bourgeois democracy is impossible. This can already be seen in the suppression of the protests in November 2019, which give a foretaste.

The neoliberal course of the regime in combination with the economic sanctions has led to a dramatic deterioration of the economic situation of the working class in recent years. For two years now, the economic crisis in Iran has intensified dramatically, increasingly plunging the regime into a crisis of legitimacy. Almost half of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line. For the first time in decades, the government has been forced to issue food ration cards. Rouhani justified the recent increase in the price of fuel by saying that the money would be used to support poor families financially, although people stopped believing promises from the corrupt regime a long time ago. People understand that rising fuel prices lead to price increases in all other areas. As an example, in 2014, the Iranian Ministry of Trade predicted that a ten percent increase in fuel prices would be equivalent to a 2% increase in inflation.

The attempt by the regime to attribute the economic situation solely to the economic sanctions imposed by the USA and thus to divert attention from its own policies has clearly failed. Nevertheless, the effects of the sanctions have been a decisive element in the development of the economic crisis and the radicalization of the population.

Since 2018 Iranian exports have collapsed massively. Oil exports fell by more than 80% last year as a result of the economic sanctions. The Iranian currency is at a record low. Another consequence of the sanctions is the closure of some factories and non-payment of wages, one of the triggers of the wave of protests at the end of 2017. Nor are there any signs of economic recovery in 2020. There are no signs that the sanctions will be reduced and the effects of the shrinking economy will continue to primarily affect the living standards of the working population. Trump has already announced his intention to further tighten sanctions following the recent escalation. At the same time, small and medium-sized companies will also come under increasing pressure in this situation and workers will be forced to seek political alternatives.

The 2017/18 and 2019 protests against the regime

Iran has been like bubbling cauldron for some time now. Following the last major wave of protests in 2017/18, known as the “revolution of the starving”, there was almost two years of smaller-scale industrial action in various regions of the country, for example in the Haft-Tappeh sugar factory, in the education sector and in the steel industry.

In the early morning of November 15 the tripling of gasoline prices and a simultaneous rationing of gasoline was announced. Thousands spontaneously stormed onto the streets. The protests quickly spread to well over 100 cities. This far-reaching price increase is only the tip of the iceberg in a situation in which the inflation rate has already risen massively, there is one corruption scandal after another and food prices have been skyrocketing in recent years.

The first actions were blockades of roads and motorways, followed by arson attacks and civil disobedience. Gas stations and banks became the target for demonstrators as symbols of the fact that large parts of the population are impoverished while others are getting richer and richer, But religious institutions like mosques and Islamic schools as well as police stations and government and administration buildings were also attacked because of their ties to the regime. Students went on strike out of solidarity, oppressed national minorities took part in the protests, women and young people were in the front line.

Unprecedented wave of repression

The speed and brutality of the reaction of the security forces and the state apparatus to the uprisings in November 2019 was unprecedented. On the second day of the protests, Khamenei himself ordered “everything possible to stop them [the protesters]”. Police and security forces fired on the extremely young demonstrators who could only defend themselves with stones. It is now estimated that at least 1,500 people have been killed, thousands have been arrested and are in prison, and mass executions comparable to those of the 1980s may be imminent. As a result of the immediate wave of repression, active trade unionists have also been arrested. The revolt came to a bloody standstill after a very short time.

Since the clamp-down, the regime-controlled news channels and papers claim they have successfully regained control, but this is more because the protesters are in a short-term state of shock. Nobody expected such a reaction, which went far beyond the repression of 2009 and 2017/18. The regime’s fear of revolutionary uprisings and its willingness to go as far as possible to prevent them is obvious. It has come under pressure to test whether it is still capable of suppressing uprisings by force. And the fear is justified: it is significant that days after the regime reacted so brutally, people have continued to take to the streets.

Turning point and perspectives

With the protests of 2017/18 it became clear that we are entering a new period. The Committee for a Workers International explained that the entry onto the stage by the working class represents a new phase in the resistance against the Iranian regime. Especially in those cities and regions which the ultra-conservative wing of the regime – religious hardliners – consider to be their strongholds, support for the regime is collapsing dramatically. Both the spontaneity and the radicalism of the protests – as well as their social composition and political orientation – stand in massive contrast to the so-called “Green Movement” of 2009. The forms of protest have become more and more radical and collective.

The most important differences compared to 2009 are the loss of confidence in all factions of the regime, the expansion of the protests beyond the urban centers into the rural areas, the high participation of the working and poor population, the increase of actions of civil disobedience and of industrial struggles and the appearance of slogans linking economic and political demands.

Unlike ten years ago, this time the protests broke out not on the basis of political but economic demands. In a country like Iran, in which 80% of the value added is controlled by the economic monopolies of religious foundations, economic struggles and protests immediately become political ones.

In 2009, the regime was still partially successful in rallying the poorest sections of the population behind it against the liberal-dominated leadership of the Green Movement. In view of the economic situation, this is no longer possible now. The social base of the regime is now composed primarily of the ruling elites, the military, the Revolutionary Guards and parts of the petty bourgeoisie, while support from the working class has declined sharply.

In December 2009, for example, the regime relied on pro-regime counter-demonstrations to combat the Green Movement, in which hundreds of thousands of people took part. This time in Tehran, a city with 15 million inhabitants, only a few tens of thousands participated, despite massive propaganda by the regime.

Of course, the killing of Soleimani gave an opportunity for the regime to bring back mass numbers onto the streets. Renewed aggression and provocations by US imperialism can provide some leeway for the regime to whip up nationalism and mobilize its base. However, it is clear that this strategy has become less effective over time. The mass funeral marches in commemoration of Soleimani’s death were quickly replaced by a new explosion of anger targeting the regime for its lies over the shooting down of the Ukrainian civilian airplane.

At the same time, although illusions in US imperialism have decreased strongly since 2009, as has support for nostalgic pro-Shah ideas, which are still being pushed especially from abroad by supporters of the former Shah, they still represent a danger.

The question of how unstable the regime really is can only be answered conclusively, despite the factors described above, by taking an additional look at divisions within the ruling class. Even if many decisions, such as that to increase the fuel price, are not made without arguments within the political and religious leadership of the country and divisions among the ruling class have deepened in recent years, the conflicts between the various wings of the regime, which also represent different wings of the economic elites, do not yet seem deep enough to break out into the open when faced with the threat posed by mass protests. Nonetheless, we are seeing deeper conflicts flare up, for example in dealing with the shooting down of the passenger plane, which will intensify in the future.

Industrial action

Despite the massive repression and decades of persecution of the left, there exist organizations of the working class, including left-wing trade unions, but their size is difficult to estimate because they have to operate in the underground. Examples are the Free Union of Iranian Workers, the bus drivers’ union, the teachers’ union or the radical left union of Haft-Tappeh’s workers. For several years now, there have been repeated labor struggles and strikes, some of which have paved the way for the protests to break out in 2017.

One of the most important disputes, which also symbolizes the effects of the economic situation, is the struggle of the 7,000 Haft-Tappeh workers. When the sugar refinery was privatized in 2015, wages were not paid for months, which led to radical strike actions. The first signs of self-organization developed with workers’ councils set up, and workers sought to unite with strikers in other companies and areas.

Because of this radicalism, which has increased popular support for the demand for nationalization of privatized industries under workers’ management, the developments at Haft-Tappeh are a particular thorn in the regime’s side. Again and again activists and workers are arrested and criminalized. Like the workers at Haft-Tapeh, teachers have increasingly experienced repression for their trade union and political activities in recent years. Since March 2018 teachers in more than 100 cities have repeatedly been on national strike. Two-thirds of Iranian teachers live below the poverty line. The mostly female workforce suffers from the bad working conditions and low wages in the education sector.

The ongoing struggles in the work-places will be decisive in the coming period, because even if actions on the streets and civil disobedience represent a significant process of radicalization, to defeat the regime will require mass strike action. Despite the objective difficulty in organizing a nationwide general strike due to the fact that there are only a few, mostly state-owned, large enterprises in the oil, metal and automobile sectors and an enormous number of small workshops and enterprises in Iran, and especially due to the ban on independent trade unions, such a step will be necessary. Central to the extension of strike action to a general strike is the participation of workers in key industries such as oil and gas and also public services. These are also exactly the economic sectors that will be most affected by the economic situation in the coming phase.

Importance of the internet shut down

The role of social media in organizing protests in Iran can be both over- and under-estimated. However, the regime’s almost immediate and very extensive internet blackout in November 2019 was a new qualitative development, serving to both interrupt communications between the demonstrators and minimize reporting of the brutal state repression as much as possible. The November protests began, as happened in the so-called Arab Spring, on Twitter and Instagram with spontaneous calls for protest. Especially under repressive regimes like the Iranian one, social networks like Telegram are often the only means to coordinate and to get in contact with activists and groups internationally. Due to the spontaneity of the revolt and a lack of organized political leadership, Telegram groups and other platforms replace structured organization based on the workplace. More than 64 million Iranians use mobile internet, and in recent years the use of social networks has increased massively. It is remarkable that the regime and the businesses it controls, which also depend on internet connectivity, accepted such a crackdown for more than ten days – with the potentially serious economic consequences in order to undermine the protests.

When at the end of December 2019 activists again called for protests in memory of the people murdered in the November protests, and for the release of the prisoners the regime reacted as a precautionary measure with another short-term internet blackout. The government is working hard to develop its own intranet, a national network, in order to isolate the population once and for all from international networks. The struggle for free Internet access is therefore also central to make international solidarity effective.

For a Socialist Republic of Iran

Capitalism is not able to reduce the economic hardship of the population, which in Iran in recent decades has manifested itself as corruption, mismanagement and a series of deep crises. These have dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor, with a few rich mullahs and supporters of the regime becoming even richer. Pressure from the global market economy, the IMF and others has exacerbated these developments. At the same time, neither the regime nor Western imperialism has any real interest in guaranteeing political freedoms, equal rights for women and men and for national and religious minorities. The struggle for “bread, work, freedom” must be led by the masses themselves and inevitably lead to the overthrow of the regime through a revolutionary uprising.

The extremely young population increasingly sees no future under this regime and has nothing more to lose. The role of young people and women in the protests is particularly significant, many were killed and imprisoned in the suppression of the November protests, because the regime knows that they will be the front line of future revolts. Many of these young people are familiar with left-wing Marxist ideas, some of them even call themselves communists.

Despite the fragmentation of the left, massive repression, persecution and executions, left ideas have never disappeared in Iran. What is missing is an organized force in the form of a powerful, independent workers’ party that can intervene in an organized and political way in the spontaneously exploding developments. In particular, the increase in industrial struggles in recent years points to the need to link up these currently still largely isolated trade union and political forces.

It would also be the task of such a workers’ party to develop an immediate plan of struggle as well as a political program for overthrowing the regime and building a socialist republic of Iran. The prerequisites for this have matured in recent years with the first signs of self-organization in the companies and at universities. Such a program would, among other aspects, include:

  • The release of all political prisoners and trade unionists
  • The rejection of any form of external imperialist interference
  • The rejection of war preparations and armament, an end to Iran’s military interventions in the region and abroad
  • The end of all restrictions on political and civil liberties, women’s rights, oppression and discriminatory laws against national and religious minorities
  • The extension of strike action with the aim of a nationwide general strike
  • The establishment of democratically elected councils of action in the work-places, villages, universities and so on to prepare for further political action
  • Social services must not be paid by religious foundations or organizations as a form of charity, but by the state
  • The nationalization of key industries under workers’ control and management, the reversal of privatizations with the expropriation of the Bonyads and the Revolutionary Guards and the takeover of industry by the workers
  • The overthrow of the Islamic regime and the establishment of a Socialist Republic of Iran under the control and management of the working masses and peasants

Against the background of parliamentary elections in February 2020 and the presidential elections in 2021, anger against the regime could once again be expressed in the form of mass protests. Sooner or later there will be major escalations and revolts, which the regime will find increasingly difficult to control.

Linking the mass movements in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and other countries in the region will be one of the most central tasks in the future. An overthrow of the Iranian regime by the working class would act as a beacon for surrounding states and a first step for a socialist transformation of the Middle East. The 2009 “Green Movement” was followed by mass uprisings throughout the region – it was the beginning of the “Arab Spring”. The counter-revolutionary setbacks in the region and the increase in war and destruction have slowed down but not stopped the revolutionary processes in a sustainable way. Because of the relatively large – and intact – industrial Iranian working class and the great traditions of the Iranian workers’ movement, it has a special role to play in building a socialist federation of the countries of the Middle East.

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