December saw a return to massive protests in Iran. The funeral of ‘dissident' cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets and by the time of Ashura widespread confrontations between protesters and the security forces were occurring across the country, resulting in 15 deaths on that day, according to Iranian state TV, and thousands of arrests in total. Reports coming out of Iran suggest that the death toll is much higher than claimed, and there have been some stories of police refusing to fire on protestors and joining protesters, as well of protestors attacking and taking over a police station.
Despite the fact that it is difficult to know exactly what is going on there at the moment, it is important for communists to try to analyse and understand what is happening. Perhaps the best way for us to start is by outlining the approaches that we reject, and what we see as the problems with them.
The first thing to say is that we see the approach taken by some so called ‘anti-imperialists', particularly in the Western countries as being completely reactionary. At its worst this comes across as support for the Iranian state in putting down a ‘petit-bourgeois CIA backed movement'. To us it is obvious that although the CIA are of course trying to influence this movement, the sheer amount of people involved in it suggests that this is not something cooked up in Washington, but is a movement with genuine widespread support within Iran.
On the other extreme we don't fall into the same trap as those leftists who are now cheering ‘people power'. There is an immense difference between a working class revolution to bring about socialism and the series of ‘colour' revolutions, with the events in Iran already being crayoned in as the ‘green revolution', that we have seen across Europe in the last twenty years or so.
Supporting different factions of the ruling class as they squabble over who should control this or that state offers absolutely nothing to working class people. Mousavi and the opposition can certainly be characterised in this way. Mousavi was prime minister of Iran for eight years in a government, which was well known for its refusal to tolerate dissent, in the early years of the Islamic republic and is even related by blood to the ‘Supreme leader', Ali Hoseyni Khamenei (Mousavi's grandmother is Khamenei's paternal aunt). Although he talks about ‘reforming the system', he is very much a part of it himself.
And yet his campaign has attracted widespread support and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, risking life and limb in the protests. Of course not all of this can be put down to support for Mousavi. Many people are simply dissatisfied with the regime, and have used the anger resulting from the state's obvious rigging of the election results to express that dissatisfaction. Of course there is also support for his programme, particularly amongst women. With women making up 60% of the student body in Iran, and Mousavi promising to disband the so-called morality police force and ensure that Iranian women are treated equally, this goes at least part of the way to accounting for the huge participation of students in the protests.
The question of whether victory for Mousavi's movement could make any real changes in workers' lives is also one that we have to ask ourselves. Certainly on the economic front it can create little difference. Political parties of all colours can do little apart from attempt to manage the crisis, and the only way to do this is by attacking workers' living standards. Whatever promises are made on this front cannot be anything except empty. Even if one sector of the working class is spared from a particularly brutal attack, it only means that other sectors must be attacked more harshly. On the social from it seems likely, given his past record, that for all the talk about women's rights even if he did come to power Mousavi would be forced to make compromises with the state, and little would actually change. The religious conservatives in the regime wouldn't just go away with a change of President, just as Tayip has found in Turkey that becoming Prime Minister didn't get rid of the Kemalists from the state apparatus. Besides, there seems to be a general, if extremely slow, move towards liberalisation within the state itself. Certainly walking around Tehran these days and seeing how people dress compared to a couple of decades ago gives that impression.
So where do the communists stand on events in Iran today? That the Green movement is a completely bourgeois movement with nothing to offer workers seems to us very clear. Also it seems that it is also losing momentum. While the initial protests brought hundreds of thousands out into the streets, the numbers today seem to be getting smaller and smaller. It seemed possible in the early days of the struggle that the working class might make impose itself on the situation. After the repression used by the police against demonstrators in Tehran, workers at the massive Khodro car factory walked out on a twenty four hour strike, not in support of either candidate in the election, but against the violence used by the state. But apart from a few statements from the bus drivers' union, this was the limit of workers' participation in the movement as workers. Yes, of course there were many workers involved in the protests, but they were there as isolated individuals, not as a collective force. In these situations, in a cross-class movement, which all of the various reports coming out of Iran from different leftist groups seem to agree that it was, without acting as a collective force, workers can only be submerged in the great mass of ‘the people', a mass that is being used by other class forces to further their own interests.
What the ICC wrote in 1979 commenting on the Iranian revolution still rings true today. In fact the absence of the working class from the struggles of the last year confirms it: "For all the talk of people in the streets overthrowing the regime, what was clear in 1979 was that the strikes of the Iranian workers were the major, political element leading to the overthrow of the Shah's regime. Despite the mass mobilisations, when the ‘popular' movement - regrouping almost all the oppressed strata in Iran - began to exhaust itself, the entry into the struggle of the Iranian proletariat at the beginning of October 1978, most notably in the oil sector, not only refuelled the agitation, but posed a virtually insolvable problem for the national capital, in the absence of a replacement being found for the old governmental team. Repression was enough to cause the retreat of the small merchants, the students and those without work, but it proved a powerless weapon of the bourgeoisie when confronted with the economic paralysis provoked by the strikes of the workers."
It is likely that the Mousavi movement will slowly fade away, possibly with some of their demands being incorporated into state policy. Iran is not on the verge of any revolution. The coming months will see the death of the ‘Green Movement', not that of the regime. This could be a very bloody process, but unless workers can enter the struggle in their own interests, not those of bickering politicians, it is what inevitably must happen.