The result of Iran's presidential election on 12 June set off a torrent of protests, with up to 2 million people on the streets.
After threats, arrests, beatings and torture, the street demonstrations have given way to night time roof-top protests, shouting "Death to the dictator" and "Allah-u-Akbar". Not since 1979, when the Shah was forced out of the country, have we seen such a level of protest, bringing to the surface the mounting popular discontent with the Islamic regime.
The level of repression tells us much. The regime held off attacking the initial and largest protests. Having come into being when protests and strikes undermined the Shah's rule, the rulers of the Islamic Republic were well aware of the danger of making martyrs of the demonstrators. But the following week the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued threats against the demonstrations at Friday prayers, and this has been followed by lethal attacks on protesters by the various repressive forces, the Basiji militia, the Revolutionary Guard, elite riot police and snipers (the death of Neda Agha Soltan, which was broadcast around the world, seems to have been the work of a sniper). There have been arrests of hundreds if not thousands, and the whole country has been electronically isolated - no email or texts could get in or out. Now there is a disgusting campaign calling on citizens to inform on neighbours, friends, brothers, sisters... anyone who might have taken part in the demonstrations. It takes real courage to show even the slightest opposition in Iran.
Divisions in the regime
The regime has not only turned on the ordinary demonstrators, but also threatened the rival presidential candidate Mousavi, warning him not to stir up protests, and briefly arrested the children of Rafsanjani, former president and known as Khomeini's side-kick after 1979. In short, there are deep divisions inside the Iranian ruling class. The ‘reformers' are currently riding the wave of the popular protests, but they are the hardliners of the 1980s and steeped in the Islamic Republic. They clearly have nothing to offer the population in general or the working class in particular except more of the same capitalist exploitation. But they clearly think they have something to offer Iranian capitalism. Although Rafsanjani has remained silent he "supports greater opening to the West, privatising parts of the economy and granting more power to elected institutions" according to the International Herald Tribune 23/6/9, and is trying to broker a compromise within the ruling class, part of his role on the Expediency Council.
Meanwhile when Mousavi states that "Protesting against lies and fraud is your right", he is not just fighting his own corner, but doing a service for the whole Iranian bourgeoisie. While they may not have wanted to unleash such a visible expression of the discontent in the country, Mousavi is working to keep it focused on the election result and taking sides on the divisions in the ruling elite, which is a complete dead end.
Where is the working class?
The repression has not put an end to the discontent, even if the massive street demonstrations have come to an end for the moment. However, without a significant struggle of the working class it will not be possible to put up any effective resistance to the repression. The militant Iran Khodro car plant went on strike against the repression - something the workers have experienced themselves in the wake of their own struggles. A union statement from Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company, which supports none of the presidential candidates but supports the protests, may give an indication of the mood among workers - against the repression, critical of both ruling class factions, but with illusions in democracy. Despite this, and the general strike called for 26th June, workers have not generally played a part in these events as a class, although they have undoubtedly been involved individually.
We should not forget the role of the class struggle 30 years ago. Strikes, particularly in the oil industry, played a crucial role in undermining the Shah's ability to rule: "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. Thus, even in a country where it is numerically weak, the proletariat in Iran showed what an essential strength it has in society, owing to its position at the heart of capitalist production" (ICC statement, reprinted in WR 322). This strike movement was not an Iranian event so much as an important chapter in an international strike wave that also included the ‘winter or discontent' in Britain, dock strikes in Holland, steel strikes in France, all of this culminating in the mass strike in Poland in 1980.
We have no doubt that the working class in Iran will participate in the present development of the international class struggle alongside its class brothers in Egypt, Dubai, Bangladesh and China as well as in Europe and the Americas. When it does so on a class basis, for its own interests, it will be able to offer a real perspective to the wider popular anger that has been so evident in recent weeks. The perspective that is required is not just that of getting rid of the current Iranian president, or the Islamic regime, but of the whole capitalist system.