Editorial from Solidarity 458
Beginning on Thursday 28 December around 80 Iranian cities and towns saw a wave of demonstrations, amounting to the biggest protest against Iran’s authoritarian Islamist political system since the 2009 "Green" reform movement.
This has been a tremendous revolt with the issue of working-class livelihood at the centre. A revolt against years of super-exploitation and a vicious regime which exists to enrich itself and boost its own power.
According to official figures, at least 1,000 people have been arrested and 25 people have been killed (including, three suspicious deaths in custody). The protests have, for now, died down. However, the pressures behind the protests will not go away.
Demonstrations were initially sanctioned by regime hard-liners seeking to mobilise against the so-called centrist President Hassan Rouhani. But the demonstrators quickly went beyond the machinations of inter-regime rivalry.
By the people on the streets, Rouhani was blamed for not using the lifting of international economic sanctions to benefit ordinary Iranians.
Clearly, there is a lot of pent-up anger against the government. Unemployment stood at 12.4 per cent 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. Inflation stands at 9%. Last month's government budget slashed subsidies on basic goods and increased food prices.
Students joined the protests because of a dire lack of jobs for graduates. It seems the sort of people who coalesced around the Green Movement — the middle-class and liberals — were less involved, but they too will have been watching the protests with interest.
The protests involved a mix of economic and political grievances. This is 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 demonstrators slogans and action were Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Qassem Soleimani, one of the key architects of the Revolutionary Guards and the military head of the Quds Force, responsible for Iran's extraterritorial military interventions. The protesters also called for the Iranian government to pay less attention to its regional ambitions and more concern for ordinary Iranians.
Protesters have further reason 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. Some of the protests included invasions of government offices, as people looked for evidence of corruption.
There may also be local grievances. For example, in Kermanshah, there has been dismay at the government’s response to a recent earthquake. The demand to “free political prisoners” has also been raised.
But the most interesting and important element in the background to recent events 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 a protest (a petition demanding overdue wages) by workers in the South Pars oil and gas field in southern Iran. Reports indicate networks of workers, demanding unpaid wages and benefits, against sackings and for the right to organise, have developed in the last period. During the protests there have been fresh strikes, including by workers at the Persian Gulf International Transportation Company, Hepco Road Construction Equipment factory, the Ring car factory, as well as Haft Tappeh sugar workers and others.
An independently organised working-class movement (the unions and non-Stalinist socialists), is only social force which has the potential to create an overall society-wide alternative to Iranian reaction and capitalism.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution the workers’ movement has been weak, because it has been repressed. If it grows stronger and more confident, and can emerge from these events intact and ready to fight again, this will be a tremendous step forward.
Government rhetoric blaming "outside interference", and aimed at Saudi Arabia, intensified as the protests went on. They used Trump's entirely hypocritical support for demonstrators to boost and justify repression. In the main the regime used detention rather than violence by state forces or basij vigilantes to repress.
However, there are now hundreds of detainees, and this will be an important focus of our solidarity in the coming weeks.
We also step up our solidarity with the Iranian workers’ movement.
We stand with all working-class people in the Middle East against all the oppressive governments in the region and big-power bullies like the US, especially as Trump is now threatening to not re-certify the 2015 deal which lifted sanctions. Such sanctions will most hurt ordinary Iranians and we should oppose their reimpostion.
Above all socialists are clear that the Islamic Republic has to be smashed, not reformed. In its place there needs to be a genuinely secular and consistently democratic political system that includes not only free speech and human rights but the workers' right to organise independently.
The fight for a secular democracy is a way to help workers develop their economic struggles and organisations, and to grow strong enough to pose and win support for socialist aims.
Corbyn and Thornberry, back Iran protests!
Jeremy Corbyn's lack of vocal support for the Iranian protests is not wholly unexpected but it is disappointing. He has even won praise from such isolationist commentators as the journalist Peter Oborne for remaining quiet in the face of a fight against a brutal theocracy.
Worse than Corbyn's silence was the statement by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, who said, “It’s very difficult… to actually come to a conclusion as to what political forces are behind the current disputes...We don’t want to leap to judgement and say, well we don’t like the regime in Iran, these people are against it, they must be the guys with white hats, because it doesn’t work like that.” Thornberry is not a figure with a history of knee jerk “anti-imperialism.” She might have been expected to be able to read the serious commentary by Iranian academics, journalists and socialists who know what is going on in Iran.
The Labour Party manifesto of 2017 inspired many people to campaign on the basis of alleviating poverty, supporting the raising of wages and fighting against “the few” in favour of “the many.”
It was quite clear that the Iranian protests were the many striking out against the few. So, back protests which are calling for the freedom of political prisoners, the demands workers like the Haft Tapeh sugar workers, and for greater human and women’s rights!
But Thornberry's myopia is worse that that. For nearly forty years, since the victory of the clerics in the revolution of 1979, trade unionists have been imprisoned for organising, women have been stoned to death for “adultery” and gay men have been hanged for “sodomy”. It should be abundantly clear to the elected representatives of our labour movement, which side they are on.
Since making her initial comments Thornberry published a longer piece on Facebook, but it still failed to give clear solidarity to those demonstrating; rather it makes some criticism of the Iranian Government and calls on it to be fair to the demonstrators.
She cites the turmoil of “revolutions” in Egypt and Libya. So what? Does that mean that our labour movement should never get behind legitimate and just protests for freedom and economic security in the Middle East?
The fact that some protestors called for the restoration of the monarchy should not dim opposition to the regime, and nor should the fact that the protests began with manoeuvres by conservative hardliners in the regime. We should should call for the release of imprisoned political activists, an end to repression and for trade union, women's and LGBT rights.
In contrast to Thornberry, the TUC’s international department’s Owen Tudor has not only unequivocally sided with the protestors but highlighted the active solidarity that can be made with jailed trade unionists like the Tehran bus workers treasurer, Reza Shahabi, who recently suffered a stroke in jail. There have been daily protests outside Evin prison in Tehran, a prison that is now filled with the political prisoners of previous years and new demonstrators who are being arrested every day.
The media has made much of Corbyn’s previous associations with the regime. He has appeared numerous times in the past on Press TV, the Iranian-run broadcaster, as well as writing a soft-soap report of his January 2014 visit to Iran.
Corbyn will remain compromised by his associations unless he comes out explicitly in support of the protests.
The rest of the British left, from the Communist Party through to the SWP, has come down on the side of the protests, some with reservations about the backing of the protests by elements in the political establishment and Trump. But rightly they all report that the protests are popular mobilisations against a regime that cannot look after its own base.
It is the duty of the left and labour movement to stand solidly behind these protests and to show our solidarity, and it is time the Labour leadership got on board.