As the dust continues to settle on the row over the captured sailors, a much more interesting and potentially earth-shattering story is unfolding in Iran. In Solidarity 3/109 Paul Hampton examined the description of the workers’ movement contained in a new book, Iran on the Brink* by Shora Esmailian and Andreas Malmby. Mick Duncan spoke to these activists and authors, who here expand on some of the themes of their book.
SE/AM: Iran has a long history of class struggle. The key dates of this history are :
• 1906: the Constitutional Revolution. The Shah was forced to accept the formation of the Majles (parliament) and “anjumans” (councils) took power all over the country.
• 1953: a coup toppled the democratically elected prime minister, Muhammed Mossadeq, who had nationalised the oil industry and instituted a series of reforms. He was replaced by Mohammed Reza Shah, the son of the hated Reza Shah, who instituted a dictatorship and brutally attacked the left.
• 1979: what became known as the Islamic Revolution. The revolution itself was one of the most massive popular revolutions in modern history. Its meaning has produced as much discord and divisions when it comes to interpreting the events as, say, 1917 in Russia or 1936 in Spain.
MD: How did the 1953 coup take place with such little opposition?
SE/AM: You will have hundreds of different answers depending on what Iranian faction you talk to: they will say this or that went wrong, the mistake was this or that, and everyone else is right-wing except for us.
But the failure in 1953 was basically that Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party) was entirely following the orders of the Soviet Union and heeded every command from Stalin. Tudeh was, for example, more interested in handing over Iranian oil reserves to Stalin than supporting the nationalisation efforts. And Tudeh wouldn’t mobilise the masses, or indeed their own military organisations and networks, against the coup — yet another failure of passivity at the crucial moment among the left.
The Tudeh was huge. It was the biggest revolutionary left organisation in the Middle East. It had a strong trade union federation and a network penetrating the military and the armed forces. They could reach right into the state apparatus because they managed to recruit a large number of officers and state employees of different kinds. So they really had a strong organisation.
MD: The CIA funded the Shah to mount a coup and roll back the gains made under Mossadeq. Were Tudeh even concerned about what this would mean for workers?
SE/AM: Well, I guess there was a lot of concern but they were basically subservient to the Soviet Union and the interests of Russia were to secure Iranian oil. I don’t think this is a unique thing. There are many parallels — the Communist Party in Germany failed to fight the rise of the Nazis and again in Spain they put the interests of Russia above the interests of the Spanish revolution, so it is not that unusual. Of course they would also be repressed — their leaders imprisoned, murdered or exiled, along with everyone else.
MD: And in 1979 the left would fail the test again. Was it possible for things to have gone differently?
SE/AM: Yes. It was a massive democratic explosion. The shoras [literally meaning councils or perhaps soviets – co-author Shora is named after these instruments of revolutionary democracy] ran vast areas of Iranian life — at both the factory and the community level. The workers, particularly the oil workers, arriving late on the scene, played a crucial part in the toppling of the Shah. But again the left did not know what to do. The Fedaiyan (guerrilla organisation influenced by Che Guevara) would eventually split in 1980, the radical minority seeing the shoras as useful insofar as they might aid in the building of a communist party, the majority joining Tudeh in calling for the dissolution of the shoras and the handing of all powers to the new Islamic state.
The left in the West also fell into the trap of failing to differentiate between the different factions in the Iranian revolution, preferring to see it in simple terms of a classic proletarian revolution.
In our book we try to explain the different strata of Iranian society — the Bazaari (professions of the Bazaar — merchants, money-lenders and others); the Mostazafin (“oppressed” or “deprived”); the clergy, the middle class; the working class and so on. These sections of society had very different interests but the Tudeh in Iran, and the left in Sweden [the authors are based in Sweden] and I believe in the UK failed to see this and ended up cheering for those who would be the main enemies of the working class in Iran.
MD: For the next 15 years or so the Mullahs would consolidate their power and the working class seemed to disappear from the radar. What happened then?
SE/AM: The movement for reform that brought Khatami to power came from the middle classes — from the students and the like. There were big demonstrations demanding more freedom and some reforms. Khatami did make some reforms and there was a brief thaw in the regime but he failed to change anything at the point of production. So the conditions for the workers, both their material living conditions and their position in relation to the “millionaire mullahs” who were getting richer and richer, remained unchanged.
The reform movement failed and Ahmadinejad came to power on a platform of populist rhetoric. He promised to do something for the Mosatzafin. But in reality the oppressed and the workers have seen little change. That is where the workers’ movement has come from.
The reviving workers’ movement is a response to the failure of the reformist project which promised to make change but delivered very little for ordinary Iranians. And it is also a counter-response to the millionaire mullahs’ change in tactic from attempting to incorporate the growing movement of the middle class, women and students.
It failed to satisfy those movements because the questions they raised ran deep into Iranian society. So, the mullahs adopted a new tactic — to beat down these movements for reform. Ahmedinejad appealed to the workers and the poor, especially to the “Mostazafin” (the “oppressed”, or “downtrodden”), promising to listen to the concerns of ordinary Iranians and coupling this populist appeal with a hardline “anti-(US)imperialism” and an equally hardline, conservative social programme.
But Iranian society is very disparate. There is a mainly secular middle class, a working class, the Bazaari, the Mostazafin, the mullahs… and the workers could see the oil fortunes flowing into the country and the millionaire mullahs getting richer and richer, and this combined with the failure of the reformists meant that the workers could see that they were not going to win anything out of this situation and they were going to have to do something on their own.
One interesting development now is that there is quite a radicalisation and a move to the left going on inside the student movement. The students are really trying to link up with the workers — the teachers and the bus drivers and so forth. In fact some of the students were involved in the bus drivers’ strike and were arrested along with the workers. There has been some kind of split in the main student movement, with one section a radical, leftist oriented faction. And this is really like a fresh start because these students are looking left, but they don’t really have a fixed viewpoint like the students did perhaps in the 1970s — they don’t have any established links to the Stalinist parties or to any other international tendency.
They are thinking for themselves to find a way but many of them have come to the conclusion already that you have to go beyond the discourse that says “we have to have a few more human rights” or “we need to make some small changes here”. They realise that they have to look to the working people and their ongoing process. And that is really good sign.
Just the other week, on International Women’s Day, there were several major demonstrations in Tehran that were suppressed quite viciously. At the same time there were demonstrations going on in the universities. So things are happening.
When the students were demonstrating in the 1990s, many of them were attacked and even shot. They had the support of the people but no one would go out to join them because they were too afraid. But now the students can see that the masses are not in the universities, they are in the workplaces.
When all these movements converge — the women’s movement, the student movement and the different trade unions — that’s when things will get exciting. What we have seen so far is the bus drivers striking for their demands, the teachers striking for their demands, Iran Khodro — the car workers — striking for their demands. The first strike that can transcend the factory gates and will include different workers collectives and sectors will be a crucial event. We hope it will come soon.
There are not yet strong links between these different struggles but we met some Iranians in London who are in contact with many different activists in Iran and they have been encouraging them to link up and to coordinate. There was a secret, illegal meeting of some people just the other week in fact to discuss how they can do this. But obviously it is hard for activists to do this and for us to encourage it. We just have to wait and see.
There is a very good website —
(www.iranianworkersbulletin.org) — where you can see different groups of workers have posted messages of solidarity to each other, saying, “we support the teachers” and things like that. There were about 10 or 15 textile factories in Kurdistan that displayed banners saying “we support the teachers”. So at that level workers are starting to co-ordinate and of course there are the May Day demonstrations but nothing permanent and solid.
MD: Currently this workers movement is caught between the exploitation and brutality of the millionaire mullahs at home and a sabre-rattling threat from the Bush administration and its allies abroad (notably Blair). The book takes the threat from the US (and Israel) very seriously. The second part of the book deals with this threat, how it is affecting events in Iran and our attitude to it as activists in the West.
SE/AM: It sounds a bit vulgar but I think it comes down to the oil reserves because the oil market is in crisis. It is boiling and the US needs the Iranian oil fields to open up desperately. They cannot simply wait for change in Iran because the millionaire mullahs will guard the oil resources very jealously and will manage them in a way that suits their own needs — just as Saddam Hussein did.
The US does try to foment internal opposition. The US State Department’s website even claims that they support Iranian trade unions and make financial support available. So there is a combination of strategies, but particularly military and political threats combined with support from minority national groups in Iran.
But they have problems in making a “purple revolution” in Iran. No trade union for example will accept American money. It would just be perceived as beyond the pale. Some minority groups do though, unfortunately.
Also, the presence of Israel in the region is important. Israel sees itself as a small country, surrounded by enemies. That is why it needs nuclear weapons. If Iran gets nuclear weapons that will upset the balance of power.
There are deep lying, material reasons for this current hostility and you should remember that this is rooted in 1979 and before that even. So there is a long pattern here. Some analysts say that this antagonism is the defining hostility in the Middle East and has been for 20 years or more. In the Iran-Iraq war, the US played both sides for a bit to the mutual weakening of both countries but even within that policy the weight of support was heavily stacked against Iran.
Even today though, you can meet some Iranians who insist that there will never be any war because the US and the mullahs are both bourgeois and there is no real difference between them — just as they insisted after 1979 that nothing had changed and the mullahs were no different from the old regime of the Shah and the “comprador bourgeoisie”. This is plainly wrong. The US and the mullahs are not friends.
MD: How do you see the prospects now for the workers’ movement?
SE/AM: Because of all the threats from the US it is much harder for the workers’ movement to organise. For example, during the recent teachers strike the mullahs were saying that, “we see every protest as a security threat, because we are under attack from America”. So they outlawed the demonstrations and arrested many of the teachers.
Workers in Iran see the US as the big enemy, so this carries a lot of weight. A bus driver told me once that, “yeah, we don’t care about the mullahs and what they say but if America would attack us we would unite and fight the enemy”. And that would be really bad. If the US or Israel were to attack it would take Iran back 10 years and people would become very nationalistic and would not have the desire and the energy to fight the Islamists. Some Iranians say that we can fight them both at the same time and win but I don’t think that is possible.
And what should we do as socialists in the west?
It is important also for trade unionists and others to make statements in support of these struggles that are taking place. When I read about the teachers’ strike, that despite the dictatorship and the threats they are still in the streets and demanding a pay rise — a very humble demand really but a radical one in its context — I feel so proud. We must feel proud of what the workers are doing and it is so important for the workers’ morale and for them to be able to keep going on, to struggle, that we express that pride and support to them.
Iran is the cornerstone of the Middle East. What happens there and to the left there is crucial to the whole region. The left must do all it can to support left and workers’ currents there. The education international and the International Transport Federation have been really good in supporting the unions in Iran. The trade unions are more sensitive to the plight of the workers there than the parties of the left, who seem to be more concerned with supporting the Iraqi “resistance”.
I read an interview with Ossanlou, the bus drivers’ leader. He said that when he was arrested they locked him up with some al-Qaida people who thought it would be nice to murder some Shia people and they would go to heaven. He found it a kind of torture to be imprisoned with these people who are part of the Iraqi resistance. I mean it is just so far from working class politics what major sections of the Iraqi resistance are doing
What we should see now is a major anti-war movement like we saw in 2003, but a movement that protests against the western policy towards Iran on the basis of solidarity with the labour movement inside Iran. We should be saying to our governments, “stop preparing to go to war with Iran”. Because even if you don’t actually do it you are already hurting the prospects for democracy there. You are already hurting our comrades there. The two issues are really one. To make solidarity with the Iranian workers we have to oppose the western aggression on Iran and vice versa.