Demonstrations in Iran: strengths and limits of the movement

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On 28 December, the first sparks of a movement which brought to mind the “Arab Spring” of a few years ago began to shake the territory of Iran. The movement seems for the moment to have run out of steam as we write, although we are seeing other expressions of anger against the deterioration of living standards, such as in Morocco, Sudan and above all Tunisia.

A spontaneous explosion of anger

Iran is a country with powerful imperialist ambitions, where military expenses devoted to intervention throughout the Middle East have risen sharply. Although Iran is still suffering from the sanctions imposed by the USA, it has spent huge amounts of money in the war in Yemen, in supporting Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and its own armed gangs operating at the international level. And it has built up its stock of arms against Saudi Arabia. All this has meant austerity for the population. In a context marked by disappointed hopes in the wake of the deal over nuclear weapons agreed with the Obama administration, the economic crisis, aggravated by the international sanctions and the corruption of the regime, has plunged the majority of the population into poverty and uncertainty. For months now there have been demonstrations of discontent by pensioners, the unemployed (28% of young people are out of work), teachers, workers whose wages aren’t being paid. Finally, the 50% rise in oil and basic foods, like the doubling of the price of eggs - there has been talk of a “revolution of the eggs” – lit the fuse. The movement erupted in Mashhad, the second biggest city, in the north east, and quickly spread to the capital Tehran and all the main urban centres: north to Rasht and south towards Chabahar. In all the crowds openly rejecting the policies of the state, the working class was present, even if somewhat diluted in the rest of the demonstrators: factory workers, teachers, many unemployed especially young people: they were all there. Also many students. It is also significant that a large number of the demonstrators were women.

At the same time, despite the courage and fighting spirit of the protesters, the working class was not able to provide a real orientation to this struggle, was not able to affirm itself as an autonomous political force. And this was the case even if a minority among the students, notably in Tehran, came out against the reactionary nationalist slogan “neither Gaza or Lebanon, I will only die for Iran” with an expression of real proletarian internationalism: “From Gaza to Iran, down with the exploiters”. These elements also called for workers’ councils and rejected any idea of being dragged into the battle between the “reformist” and “hard-line” bourgeois cliques[1]. Such attitudes really scared the authorities and the students were particularly targeted in the arrests. And in general, despite the weight of democratic illusions and other political weaknesses, the bourgeoisie was extremely worried about this “leaderless” explosion of anger. The Supreme Leader Khameini was silent for some time and president Rouhani was more cautious than firm. The government even announced that the rise in fuel prices would be cancelled. It’s true that symbols of the political and religious authorities were targeted and in some cases burned down: banks, public buildings, religious centres and above all the HQ of the Revolutionary Guards, the regime’s militias. Violent clashes with the police led not only to arrests but to a number of deaths. Bit by bit the tone of the authorities, and their reaction, grew firmer. Rouhani and Khameini announced that violence and illegal actions by “troublemakers” would be severely punished. They accused the demonstrators of being “enemies of Iran”, of being in league with foreign powers, in particular the USA and Saudi Arabia.

And indeed, on the social networks like Twitter, many of the hashtags calling for demonstrations originated in Saudi; similarly, the Mujahadin organisation based in Paris, opposed to the Iranian regime and close to the Saudis, declared its support for the demonstrations. And of course, Trump with his provocative statements and the other rival powers want a weakened Iran. But this was a movement that has its origins inside Iran. Taking advantage of the movement’s lack of perspective, the regime could prepare the ground for repression. It mounted counter-demonstrations supporting the regime and its ayatollah, shouting slogans like “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” and denouncing “sedition”. The head of state could play on these divisions and announce that the alternative was “us or chaos”. By evoking the tragedy which followed the original protests in Syria and elsewhere, the leadership was clearly threatening the demonstrators, insinuating that their movement could only result in a similar chaos and bloodshed.

The difficulties of the proletariat in Iran

This spontaneous social movement is the most important since the social crisis of 2009, the year of the “Green movement”. At this time, there was a real danger of the proletariat being caught in the crossfire between competing bourgeois cliques. As we wrote at the time:

Opposing the bloody, corrupt elements around Ahmadinajad, we see people who resemble them like two drops of water. They are also in favour of an Islamic Republic and for building the Iranian atomic bomb. All these people are basically the same because they all stand for their own personal and nationalist interests”

Today, much more than in 2009, the movement is a real expression of the exploited and the disinherited themselves, but it is without a clear proletarian orientation, apart from a few minorities. The struggles of the proletariat in Iran have without doubt been part of the struggles of the world proletariat since the 1960s, especially in the oil industry, transport, education and so on, but even when the struggles reached their high point in 1978-79, when they precipitated the fall of the Shah, the political weaknesses of the proletariat made it possible for a horde of religious fanatics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, supported by the Stalinists and other left nationalists, to install themselves in power. Brutal repression came in the wake of the “Islamic Revolution”. Many militant workers were executed for taking part in strikes under the regime of the mullahs. The proletariat was also subjected to the terrible war between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988, which left millions dead.

Since then, there have again been some important struggles, such as during the year 2007 when 100,000 teachers came out in solidarity with the factory workers, but the underlying difficulties remain today. Despite a very strong fighting spirit, and the fact that the current movement was based on economic demands which are part of any proletarian struggle, the movement has waned because of a lack of a real class identity and perspective. At the same time, the workers are still very much faced with the permanent rivalry of different bourgeois factions, and there is a real danger of the class being dragged behind one or the other[2]. On top of this, Iran is surrounded by countries at war which makes it very difficult for the workers of Iran to win the solidarity of the proletariat in these countries and strengthens nationalism within their own ranks.

But in a more profound sense, the weaknesses of the proletariat in Iran are above all those of the world proletariat, since even in the most experienced sectors of the class we are seeing a serious loss of class identity, and above all a loss of perspective that would give a real meaning and direction to the class struggle.

Nevertheless, the bravery and militancy of the demonstrators in Iran should be an encouragement to workers of the world. Fighting against austerity, raising demands in defence of our economic interests, this remains essential if the class struggle is to again raise its head. But the real solidarity with our class brothers and sisters in Iran consists in reviving and consciously taking charge of our own struggle, not only against austerity but against the capitalist system as a whole.

WH (5 january)

[2] See our online article  ‘Iran: the struggle between bourgeois cliques is a danger for the working class’




Middle East