Building a workers’ “third front” in Iran

Maziar Razi, a leading member of the Iranian Revolutionary Marxist Tendency, visited Britain recently and spoke at an informal question-and-answer session organised by Workers’ Liberty on 31 May. Notes from Maziar’s presentation, taken by Daniel Rawnsley:


Iran has a unique theocratic regime. Other states in the region have called themselves Islamic states, but in Iran, uniquely, the clergy is in power.

How did it come to power? The industrialisation and urbanisation drive by the Shah’s regime, linked to the so-called White Revolution, fell into crisis. The clergy wanted concessions from the Shah and were pushed into opposition. They managed to rally millions of petty bourgeois and pauperised petty bourgeois ruined by the economic crisis.

The left in Iran was drawn into the “anti-imperialist”, “anti-US” trap of backing Khomeiny. Only two left groups clearly opposed the clergy, Peykar and the forerunner of the IRMT. And we were defeated. The rest of the would-be Marxist left backed Khomeiny. Some even collaborated with him. Some of our comrades became political prisoners within a month of Khomeiny taking power.

The masses who had come on the anti-Shah protests did not want a regime like Khomeiny’s to replace the Shah. In 1978-79 we saw the formation of shoras (workers’ councils). They organised the general strike which broke the back of the Shah’s regime. However, because there was no adequate alternative leadership, even the working class accepted the leadership of the clergy.

The Islamic government has had an internal contradiction from the start. Its medieval ideas are incompatible with modern capitalism. Thus within the regime two tendencies have constantly emerged and re-emerged: the fundamentalists, and more directly pro-capitalist factions which want a quicker deal with the West. Every time the clergy and the fundamentalists eventually reassert control.

Rafsanjani started out in the fundamentalist camp, moved towards pragmatism in power, and was then pushed aside. Within Ahmadinejad’s camp now there is a trend seeking a more “moderate” approach to the West.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear programme is a secondary one compared to the longstanding internal contradiction. Fundamentally, the clergy have expansionist and sub-imperialist plans in the region.

Despite severe repression, the working class has staged strikes and protests continuously since 1978/79, with the exception only of the early period of the Iran-Iraq war.

“Underground workers’ committees” have developed, not tied to individual factories and workplaces. They are based on networks of people who may know each other as friends, family etc. They have been strong enough to organise May Day protests, and resourceful at finding ways to meet and discuss outside the control of the regime.

Politically, however, the activists in the workers’ committees have tended to have a syndicalist bent. They’d seen the “Marxists” backing Khomeiny, or turning to terrorist resistance, and they reacted against that.

Our main political challenge has been dealing with that syndicalist bent. We have had to be gradual about introducing the idea of Leninism. We also researched the concept of a “Leninist organisation”, and had to rethink it in some ways.

The workers’ committee activists have tended to conclude that they cannot bring down the regime, so they should aim to pressurise the regime to get some space in which they can gain concessions on trade-union issues. And in fact the regime has created a tripartite system of industrial negotiation system where a workers’ representative meets with a representative of the regime and a representative of the bosses.

The regime doesn’t want to give concessions. The syndicalists have fought bravely, but the regime’s tactic now is not to kill the worker militants but to exhaust them by repeated prison terms, harassment of their families, etc. It often works. For now the syndicalists are not very active.

We oppose ultra-leftist disdain for the syndicalists. We draw the lesson that organisation has to be clandestine, and that revolutionary organisations must keep their leaders underground.

We also have to go further than the ideas of syndicalism, and demand political freedoms.

How will workers respond if there is war between Iran and Israel or the USA?

At some times during the war with Iraq in the 1980s the regime was very popular. It was difficult for us to advocate our position of refusing to support Iran in the war. We said to workers that they should demand their leaders arm them, rather than volunteer to go and fight under the banner of the regime.

Today the regime is more isolated. Its solid base is around 12% to 15% of the population. These are supporters recruited from poor villages — Basijis — who are given a job that pays well, a house in the city etc. The regime has bought a section of society. They will be with the regime come what may.

But many who have been brutalised by the regime, or had family members raped or killed, are more inclined to welcome the prospect of a US invasion. We say oppose the regime, but don’t trust US imperialism, or the Israeli armed forces, to get rid of it. We believe we can construct a third front opposed both to the Iranian regime and to Israel and the US.

There is a good chance that a nationalist tendency will exist when imperialists attack, but the reactionary nature of the regime will limit it. A few years ago people demonstrated in great numbers in support of the reformists, and the regime responded with extreme brutality. A very deep hatred towards the regime exists in the population.

However, at present I think war is unlikely.

You can compare Iran with 1930s fascist states in Europe in some way, but there is a big difference between Iran and even the “clerical-fascist” regimes of the 1930s like Spain and Portugal: the clergy holds state power. In modern history elsewhere we haven’t seen the clergy come to power; it has been on the sidelines supporting the regime.

The percentage of business that is state owned is still very high, around 70%, despite a privatisation policy, and although it is difficult to get precise figures.

Economic sanctions have had an effect. Some factories have stopped producing because they can no longer get supplies. The most important industries are state owned: oil, petrochemicals). The biggest struggles take place in the car industry. Iran Khodro employs around 30,000 workers, and workers have won disputes there.

Turkish comrades whom we have discussed with [Marksist Tutum] argue that “sub-imperialism” has emerged, and cite Iran and Turkey as examples. Certainly Iran has a different position in the world from, say, Bangladesh. We need to discuss the Turkish comrades’ ideas more, but they seem to make sense.

The majority of people are religious and observant. Many syndicalists whom we have worked with are religious, and argue that the regime is not truly Islamic. Religion is stronger in the villages. Young people in Tehran, especially women, tend not to be devout. Young women bend the strict dress codes.

The situation is also different in Kurdistan. There, people have a history of resistance to the regime, and the political situation is more open.

The regime restricts the internet, reducing connection speeds at certain times for example, and monitoring people’s usage. But Facebook has helped us a great deal. We were able to use the internet to start discussions and meet some social democrats and anarchists online. We formed a Marxist sub-group to start discussions on the Communist Manifesto, and people in this online group set up physical groups where they live.

Twitter and Facebook have been important for demonstrations. During the protests two years ago the regime cut off mobile phone use.

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