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As we show in our article ‘Demonstrations in Iran, strengths and limits of the movement’, although there are promising signs of working class resilience, the danger is very real, not only of bloody repression, but also of the manipulation of the popular anger by the different fractions of the ruling class. The old conflict between “reformers” and “hard-liners” within the “Islamic Republic” has entered a new stage. The reformers around president Rouhani are convinced that a major policy change is necessary in order to consolidate the considerable gains made by Iran in recent times. These advances have taken place essentially at two levels. At the level of foreign policy, the Shia militias and other forces supported by Tehran have made important advances in Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon (the so-called revolutionary sickle from Iran to the Mediterranean) and in Yemen. At the diplomatic level, the regime was able to make an “atomic deal” with the major powers, leading to the lifting of certain economic sanctions (in exchange for a formal renunciation of acquiring an Iranian atomic bomb). Today these advances are menaced from a number of sides. One of them is the alliance against Iran which the USA under Trump is trying to construct around Israel and Saudi Arabia. Another is the economic situation. Unlike at the military or diplomatic level, Iranian capitalism has made no economic progress in recent years. The contrary is the case. The economy is groaning under the cost of the operations of Iranian imperialism abroad, and weakened by the international sanctions. The United States has failed to lift economic sanctions against Iran as it had promised as part of the nuclear agreement. Instead, it has been obstructing the engagement of European companies in Iran. Now, under Trump, the US sanctions will even be reinforced. Another central problem is that the competitiveness of the Iranian national capital is being strangled by the highly anachronistic theocratic-clerical bureaucracy, which has no idea how to run a modern capitalist economy, and by the kleptomaniac system of the “Revolutionary Guards”. From the point of view of president Rouhani, breaking or at least curbing the dominance of these structures would be in the best interest of Iranian capitalism. It would also give Iran a more liberal image, better suited to countering the sanctions, the diplomacy and the rhetoric of its enemies abroad.
But on account of the dominant position of the hardliners within the armed forces, the reformers have few legal means at their disposal to put through their policy. This is why president Rouhani began to call on the population at large to formulate its own critique of the present economic policy, and of the corruption of the Guards and their business interests. The reformers were trying to use popular discontent as a lever against the hardliners. Such a hazardous policy reveals the backwardness and lack of suppleness of the ruling class in Iran, which is unable to settle the conflicts in its own ranks internally. It was all the more hazardous when one considers that Rouhani was perfectly aware of the popular disappointment once the promised economic boom which was supposed to follow the lifting of sanctions failed to materialise. Moreover, Rouhani was apparently not the only one taking chances. The president himself has accused his hardline opponents of having organised the first demonstration in Mashhad, which is the bastion of Ibrahim Raisi, the candidate of the hardliners in the presidential elections last May. The main slogan of this demonstration is indeed reported to have been “death to Rouhani”. But as soon as the protests extended, other slogans were heard such as “death to Khamenei” (the religious hard-line head of state), “down with the dictatorship”, or “What is free in Iran? Thievery and injustice!” The appearance of such slogans directed against the regime as a whole indicates that neither of the two main bourgeois fractions is able to manipulate the popular anger at will against the other.
This however in no way lessens the danger of the working people being manipulated by the ruling class. It is important, in this respect, to remember what happened in Egypt, where popular protest (“Tahrir Square”) involving mass meetings and demonstrations, but also workers’ strikes, swept away the Mubarak regime. This was at the beginning of the “Arab Spring”. But this was only possible because the military let it happen (president Mubarak intended to curb the influence of the generals on politics and above all in the economy). In Iran (as in Egypt at the time) foreign powers were also involved. The claim of the clerical leaders in Tehran today that the protests in Iran have been instigated by foreign powers (USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia) has enraged wide sectors of the population, since these claims arrogantly deny both their very real suffering and their ability to take the initiative themselves. This does not mean, however, that these and other rival powers are not trying to destabilise the Iranian regime. In an interview given in April of last year, the Saudi crown prince Bin Salman declared that the conflict between his country and its Persian neighbour would be fought out “in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia”. One of his think-tanks in Riyadh has been advising him to stir up discontent within the Sunni religious minority in Iran, as well as among ethnic minorities (one third of the population of Iran are not Persian). In Egypt, after the fall of Mubarak, a civil war between the two main fractions of the bourgeoisie – the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood – was only averted through the ferocious repression of the latter by the former. In Syria, the social protests triggered off an imperialist war which is still raging. Whether in Egypt, Syria or Iran, the working class is not only relatively weak, it is also internationally isolated on account of the present reflux of class struggle, class consciousness and class identity at a world scale. Without the support of the world proletariat, difficulties and dangers for our class sisters and brothers in Iran are all the greater.