Since Thursday 28 December around 20 Iranian cities have seen demonstrations, amounting to the biggest wave of protests since the 2009 Green Movement organised around reforming Iran’s authoritarian Islamist political system.
On 5 November the Iranian Protestors Live Information Facebook group reported:
"Last night the families of hundreds of protesters arrested gathered in front of Evin prison singing folk songs... The government has been brutally cracking down any opposition. The Human Rights Activist News Agency has reported that in Tehran’s Evin prison alone, the authorities registered at least 423 detainees just between the 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018. Many of the hundreds of detainees are believed to be held in overcrowded conditions in the “quarantine section” of Evin prison, which only has capacity for around 180 people.
"Police and Intelligence Service have been calling up the families of social and political activists threatening them with arrest if they continue to come to the streets. Hundreds of activists are now imprisoned, wounded, tortured, there are reports that they've burned one of the prisoners' tongue, at least 21 people are dead including two children. The extremist IRGC (Sepah/Revolutionary Guards) have brought retired guards back into service in order to intensify repressions. Social media platforms continue to be blocked."
In 2009 the biggest demonstrations were in Tehran; in 2017-18 demonstrations have been scattered throughout the country. It is a tremendous revolt by people who have long been pushed down and exploited while a vicious regime enriched itself and boosted its own political power.
The protests may have been initially sanctioned by hard-liners seeking to mobilise against President Hassan Rouhani who is blamed for not using the easing of the lifting of international economic sanctions on Iran to benefit ordinary Iranians. Pressure on the government is intensifying as Trump threatens to not re-certify the 2015 nuclear deal which lifted sanctions. (See background article here).
The protests involve a mix of economic and political grievances - not surprising in a country where 80% of the economy is either owned by or strongly connected to sections of the government and state.
The targets of the protesters have been: centrist Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, one of the key architects of the Revolutionary Guards and the military head of Iran’s Quds Force which is responsible for Iran's extraterritorial military interventions. The protesters have called for the Iranian government to pay less attention to its regional ambitions and more concern for ordinary Iranians.
Another element in the background is a growing incidence of strikes across Iran in the last 18 months. Strikes and workers' protests have included enterprises where workers have long-organised, such as the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation, but have also included pensioners and, importantly, a protest (a petition demanding overdue wages) by workers in the South Pars oil and gas field in southern Iran. Hence wider networks of workers, demanding non-payment of wages and benefits, against sackings and for the right to organise, have developed in the last period.
Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in 2017, up 1.4 percent on the previous year. Some reports of youth unemployment put it at 25%, others as high as 40%. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million. Students have joined the protests; their particular grievance is a lack of jobs for graduates. Inflation stands at 9%. Last month's government budget slashed subsidies on basic goods and increased food prices.
Protesters have additional reasons to focus on the government, and the clerical hierarchy that stands behind it. Almost all economic growth in Iran comes from oil and gas production and all proceeds from that go straight to the various wings of the state. Not only is the state using cash to support wars abroad it also pumps money into clerical foundations. Many of the protests have involved invasions of government offices - this seems to be people looking for evidence of corruption.
There may also be local grievances. For example, in Kermanshah, there has been dismay at the government’s response to the recent earthquake. The demand to “free political prisoners” has also been raised.
Government rhetoric blaming "outside interference", and aimed at Saudi Arabia, has intensified as the protests have gone on. The government have used Trump's support for demonstrators to boost and justify their repression. Socialists should stand firm in solidarity with the demonstrators and all working-class people in the Middle East against all the oppressive governments in the region and big-power bullies like Trump's US.
Given the economic background, volatile mix of grievances, and the level of working-class participation, these protests will develop very differently to those of the 2009 Green Movement. The protests look, for now, leaderless, but demands which have been raised - such as “free political prisoners” - are important democratic demands around which a more coherent political movement could develop. Such demands should be particularly supported and amplified by socialists around the world.
Against Iranian clerical rule, for democracy and workers' rights!