By Cathy Nugent
The demonstrations that took place in Tehran and other Iranian cities after the announcement of Iran’s Presidential election results on Friday 12 June were, up until Friday 19 June, growing bigger every day. We have seen the birth of a new political movement in Iran.
The movement is politically inchoate and lined up behind the “reformist” wing of the Islamist regime. But the movement is much more than the aspirations of its awful leaders. There has been in Iran for some years some grass-roots organisation — in the Universities, among the women’s groups and “civic organisations”. Those groups did, it seems, use the elections as a “political space”, going beyond casting their votes for particular politicians. That too contributed to the mood and the mass mobilisation.
Here were people struggling for political space, after years of being trapped in a world of fear, where everything from a struggle for rights at work to the right to show affection has been monitored and censored.
On Friday 19 June Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who for now has control over crucial sources of state power in Iran, made it clear that he backed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 100%. He admonished the former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as the “power” behind opposition candidate Mousavi. He condemned in anti-semitic language outside interference from the “Zionist” US and UK governments. He condemned the idea of a “colour revolution” (a movement for democracy as seen in Georgia and Ukraine) as alien to the Iranian system. He ordered the demonstrations stop. It was all a signal for a crackdown.
The day after Khamenei’s speech, protests in Tehran went ahead. Ten people were reported to be shot dead by the Baseej (auxiliary volunteer militia linked to the Revolutionary Guard). It could be many more. The murder of one young woman, Neda Soffani, was broadcast on YouTube. She has become a “martyr”, her death, a symbol of the regime’s oppression.
At the time of writing (24 June) maybe 500 people have been arrested. All of the “reformists” apart from the most senior leaders have been arrested. Many students have been arrested. Exams have been cancelled, the universities shut down. Special courts are being set up. Thousands of police are on the streets of Tehran. We have just heard of new clashes between protestors and police in Tehran. Mousavi has called for a general strike (including the closing of shops). There are reports that this call has been heeded in the Kurdish areas of Iran.
Even before a UK academic study catalogued widespread fraud in the election (e.g. in two provinces there was more than a 100% turnout), the demonstrators knew they were right to be disgusted by the result. Not only were the votes so obviously miscounted; many candidates were barred from standing by the Supreme Leader.
This anger will not dissipate. Mousavi knows it, so he continues to call for the cancellation of the election. Khamenei and the Guardian Council which backs him know it. They have absolutely ruled out any cancellation of the election. The stand-off continues.
The protests arose from the combination of two things.
1. A split within the clerical hierarchy about the direction Iran’s economy and society should take and its relationship to the world. The so-called “reformists” have been a feature of the regime since the reconstruction that took place at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
2. An outpouring of long-pent-up-grievances, a reflection of social change and a gap between the aspirations of an educated and urban population and the Islamist populism of the clergy which has held Iran together.
The Shi’a clerical hierarchy who are not part of the political class in Tehran, are based in Qom. Each member of the hierarchy is a “power” in his own right, collecting taxes from his followers. Khamenei has reportedly far fewer supporters among the hierarchy than his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini. So there is a complex power struggle going on, which extends beyond the clash between the “reformists” in the political hierarchy, those who want a “loosening” of the system, while still retaining its basic Islamist character, and the “hardliners” around Khamenei who want something closer to Khomeinist clerical-fascist rule.
Rafsanjani is head of the Qom “Assembly of Experts” and he has been trying to get support among the clerics. What does Rafsanjani want apart from more power for himself?
Rafsanjani is (probably) the richest man in Iran. He has interests in the oil industry and a huge financial empire. As President between 1989 to 1997 he oversaw the reconstruction of post-war Iran, backed up by neo-liberal policies of privatisation and foreign investment. That led to a decrease in state subsidies and rising unemployment. Under his rule there was also a licensing of limited social secularisation and liberalisation. After a time Rafsanjani’s pragmatic rule went out of favour.
With Ahmadinejad as their Presidential candidate in 2005, the hardliners sought to mobilise the poor of the towns and countryside — the people who had been affected by years of neo-liberalism. However, Ahmadinejad was not able to deal with Iran’s economic problems. Both inflation and unemployment have increased dramatically. Unemployment is particularly high among the young and among female graduates.
The people around Ahmadinejad built a new configuration of extreme Islamism around the Revolutionary Guards, the Baseej militia, Parliamentary deputies and theocratic institutions. It has the backing of the most conservative clergy, some of whom think any parliamentary democracy is “un-Islamic”. They created a new authoritarian environment, bolstered by the perceived external threat of the US under George Bush.
Despite the Iranian leaders’ protestations, Iran is now less threatened by the USA, and there is impetus for detente. But the centre does not want to move. To do so would risk unsettling their own power base and their regional political ambitions in Iraq and through allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Khamenei’s backing of Ahmadinejad is about preserving his power base. But, and this is a real threat now, he may feel he has to resort to stronger forces (crucially the Revolutionary Guard) to hold onto power. Martial law and the closing down of all democratic channels must now be a real danger. Will Khamenei be able to put down the reform-minded clerics or the capitalist and middle classes within Iran who want economic development? That remains to be seen.
With so many people arrested, will Rafsanjani and Mousavi manage to establish a new religious-political coalition? That also remains to be seen.
The protests also arise from the deep social changes which have been taking place Iran and the rise of political and “cultural” groups — not least the persecuted trade union movement — with different areas of concern from the demand for gender equality in the women's movement to people wanting freedom to produce rock music.
Whatever happens the work of those groups who want to steer an independent line — of those who oppose the whole system, consistent democrats, and socialists — is extremely important.
Both Mousavi and Rafsanjani are disgusting pig who want to line their own pockets and boost their own power. Ahmadinejad too, even if he has some solid support among some sections of workers, is no friend of the workers. This is a regime which has systematically suppressed the trade unions.
On the other hand it is clear from their determination to fight that the protestors understand that the election and its result is secondary. They need to fight for more, for full democratic and human rights.
The people of Iran have a right to clean, free elections, to choose a democratic assembly with the right not just to operate within the country’s political system but to remake it — a Constituent Assembly.
On Thursday 18 June we learned that the workers had begun, tentatively, to enter the struggle as an organised force — the Khodro car factory workers were organising a slow down. Even as the movement now subsides and is intimidated by the threats of repression, this shows the Iranian regime has been threatened. The basis of its power has been fundamentally questioned.
What the Iranian regime fears most is what we advocate. That the workers, students, women and oppressed national minority activists will link up and begin to reshape society.
On 26 June there will be a Global Solidarity Action Day to demand union rights for Iranian workers. At the end of last year the dictatorship arrested and jailed many union leaders. There was a simultaneous crackdown on Kurdish political activists. Mansour Osanloo, leader of Tehran's bus workers’ syndicate, is still in jail. He was sentenced to five years in July 2007. Whatever happens in the next days, socialists in the west should put a greater effort into building solidarity with the Iranian workers and socialists.
• Down with the clerical-fascist regime;
• For a democratic secular republic;
• Neither Mousavi nor Ahmadinejad, but a democratically elected assembly to decide a constitution for Iran;
• Support the struggles of students and women for human rights;
• Rights for the oppressed national minorities;
• Workers’ rights: the right to organise, to strike, to speak. Free the jailed trade unionists!
• For independent workers’ organisation and politics in Iran