The protests sparked on 15 November by fuel rationing and increased prices in numerous cities spread across the country, affecting at least 100 cities and towns by 18 November. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to follow developments, due to an almost total internet shutdown in the country. Amnesty International has confirmed that at least 106 people have been killed in 21 different cities across the country, but these are only fully named and confirmed victims.
An official of the security police was quoted on Monday, claiming the number of fatalities to be around 200, with 3,000 wounded. Since then, the numbers have risen dramatically. A nurse in a very small hospital in Tehran told us recently that at least 30 wounded were brought to the hospital every day. Meanwhile, there are a growing number of arrests, estimated to be in the thousands. It is clear that the security forces are targeting hospitals and arresting many of the wounded. Three members of the security police forces have been reported dead so far.
Reports of protests and casualties indicate that, although it has been a national phenomenon across many working-class towns and cities, the situation has been particularly intense in the oil rich, yet economically impoverished provinces of Khouzestan, and also those with a sizable Kurdish population. The slogans and actions of protesters have become increasingly bold and militant. Reports and videos on social media have attested to many anti-regime slogans, with many directly attacking the leadership, chanting “Down with the dictator”. Posters of the supreme leader have been set ablaze, in addition to a number of religious foundations, Basij militia headquarters, and banks. Security police officials have confirmed reports of protesters attacking the office of the representative of the supreme leader in the city of Yazd, which has previously been exemplified by the regime as a stronghold of pious conservatism. Similarly, protesters stormed the office of the supreme leader representative in Islamshahr on Monday, a working-class town close to Tehran. There have been unconfirmed reports of four people being shot dead in the process, with at least 40 seriously wounded. In total, at least nine such top religious institutions have been attacked.
In many urban centres, public transportation and schools have been closed since Sunday. University students held solidarity protests on Sunday and Monday amidst the heavy presence of security police, most notably in Tabriz and the capital city of Tehran. Isfahan University of Technology has reportedly been closed since Sunday. There were eyewitness accounts of over 200 security police surrounding the campus of Tehran University on Monday night, adding that many students had been arrested the previous night by secret police agents in civilian clothing. Sepideh Gholian, a student journalist covering the strike of the “Haft Tappeh” sugar refinery workers in Khouzestan, has reportedly been arrested. She has been a notable part of the most recent wave of students and trade union activists, who have become subject to a severe crackdown, receiving 10-15-year prison sentences. She was among a few recently released on bail. While it seems overwhelming, or even impossible to reflect on the scope, character or future of the current protest, few can explain them as vividly as this solemn text from the industrial suburbs of Shahriar, 50 kilometers outside of the capital:
“Hello, Hamidollah Gholi was killed 2 days ago. His body was given to his family this morning. His father spent 100 months fighting at the front line, returning home a 70% amputee. He has been buried today in the village of Bard Abad near Shahriar, in perfect silence with no more than 10 persons attending”.
Social media reports and media coverage have become increasingly scarce since Tuesday night, rendering a clear assessment of the situation impossible. Violent clashes between protesters and security police have been reported in Pakdasht county of Tehran province on Wednesday, without specifying the number of participants or casualties. In Malek Abad of Isfahan province, the local offices of the ministry of communication are reported to have been set ablaze. Violent clashes and repeated gunshots were reported in the city of Isfahan throughout Tuesday night. A short video from Tehran at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday shows a calmer picture, with three security police cars standing by. The reporter comments that, despite a calmer situation, the security forces show visible signs of fatigue. On the other hand, a number of news sources close to the regime issued statements on Tuesday night, calling on the people to demonstrate in support of the government. Newspapers close to many ruling class factions ran headline reports of those demonstrations in a few cities on Wednesday. The supreme leader and president Rouhani both issued triumphant statements, announcing the return of peace and order. This was the latest measure by the forces of reaction. It is not clear what state the movement is in at the moment. In some places it has receded, while it continues in others. What is clear is that this movement represents deep-seated anger underneath the surface of society. That anger will not go away.
In a speech on Sunday 17 November, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei supported the government measure and vilified the protesters as “thugs”, and threats to national security. Following the speech, other politicians in the parliament, judiciary and security forces all closed ranks, even those from rival factions who had criticised president Rouhani earlier with hopes of making political gains ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections. Statements from the revolutionary guards, IRGC, and other security forces threatened the protesters with more severe measures, vowing to restore order at any price. They went on to insinuate that the “revolting thugs” were paid agents of foreign powers and counter-revolutionary forces, an accusation echoed by the official media, many newspapers and official news agencies close to the regime.
All these fanciful claims are clear attempts by the regime to portray the protesters as criminals and justify brutal reprisals against them in the name of national security, and the wellbeing of the general public. However, people who have watched their ruling class amass obscene fortunes, while offering them sermons on making sacrifices for their country over the last four decades, cannot be expected to stomach such hypocrisy forever. The rationing of fuel and price hikes were but a spark that ignited an expression of much deeper popular discontent. Suffering rampant unemployment and being crushed by the ever-increasing cost of living in a chronically stagnant economy, the empty claims of the government, which tried to present the recent policy announcement as the means of funding direct cash subsidies, simply rang hollow. People have learned to recognise the true nature of such austerity measures by bearing the full brunt of numerous waves of inflation caused by similar policies implemented by different governments from every faction of the ruling class over the past decades. It is no surprise that they have taken to the streets, just as the masses in Lebanon, Iraq, Chile and other countries have risen to fight back against austerity.
No illusions in imperialist lies
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, has been condemning the crackdown on protesters. But this rings hollow in the face of US aggression on Iran. Already plagued by stagnation and widespread unemployment, the Iranian economy suffered a fatal blow in the form of new, harsh sanctions unilaterally imposed by president Trump’s administration. They were a contributing factor in an estimated 10 percent decrease in the GDP and compounding the economic misery of the Iranian working masses, who are already suffering through growing economic inequality and rampant corruption of the Iranian ruling class. Furthermore, the hawkish foreign policy of the Trump administration, with open threats of military action, effectively threw a much-needed political lifeline to the Iranian regime. In the face of the attacks, the regime could rally the masses behind it against the attacks of US imperialism. It proved to be an effective way of intensifying their repression of union activists and striking workers, justifying them as necessary measures in defence of public welfare and national security as they have done time and again over the past four decades. They tried to criminalise the working-class movement and demoralise the masses, who had already expressed themselves during the mass protests in early 2018. Statements issued in support of the protests by U.S. officials, such as those by the secretary of state Mike Pompeo, cannot be judged as anything but the crudest display of cynical opportunism and hypocrisy, and should be firmly condemned. Those who actively and openly live off the assistance of the U.S. government, such as the remnants of the deposed Pahlavi Dynasty or the MEK, only expose their utter political bankruptcy. Others, such as the Democratic Party, based in Iranian Kurdistan, who have appealed for western support against the present crackdown, are merely playing into the hands of the regime, which will use this to isolate the movement even more.
The second day of the protests in Iran— Dav The Netherlands (@David56172423) November 17, 2019
Isfahan people protest for the second day. People want a better life. Internet in Iran is still disconnected.#Iranprotets #Iranprotets #IranRegimeChange pic.twitter.com/VhNs63ZEDu
To dispel any illusions in political support by the U.S., or economic revival from the U.S. or any other kind of foreign investment, one only needs to look at the recent international wave of mass movements over the past few months. Their common theme is a popular discontent caused by years, if not decades of austerity, to the detriment of the economic conditions of the working masses. In most cases, these austerity measures were imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the behest of the U.S. government, and in the interests of finance capital, as a precondition to foreign investment and becoming an integrated part of the global capital market. The recent wave of popular revolts is the clearest testament to the failure of such measures in providing any way out of the crisis of capitalism, except through even harsher exploitation of the working masses. Thus, the ruling classes everywhere find themselves increasingly incapable of finding any solutions that might curb this tidal wave of discontent. The current crisis in Iran may be complicated by certain factors, including inter-imperialist and geopolitical rivalries, but it is only a particular case of the same fundamental problem.
The current crisis only highlights the historical task facing the Iranian working class, as the only force capable of finding a way out of the present impasse while satisfying the needs of the popular masses. It can best rise to this task by strengthening the growing solidarity between the radicalising student movement and militant, working-class activists. The growing solidarity of students with the rising wave of strikes, as in the inspiring strike of the sugar factory workers of “Haft Tappeh” in Khouzestan, and their courageous participation in the May Day rally this year have already been great developments in this direction. The latest development on Wednesday – the bosses announcing an indefinite closure of the sugar refinery in an attempt to break the strike – highlights the inspiring potential of such examples of solidarity. They can certainly provide a solid basis for building towards a stronger working-class movement and organising a general strike.
As the history of the working-class struggle has proven time and again, a general strike will be the best way to win over the masses, and discredit any attempts to criminalise the protesters as “thugs” in order to isolate the movement through slander or violence. Organising locally elected committees of workers and youths will be essential to resist the violent repression by the regime. Putting forward clear and positive demands will also be a crucial task of the movement in appealing to the working masses and solidifying its popular support, and foiling any attempt by the forces of reaction to sow division and confusion. Such demands should include the immediate payment of back wages, living wages for all working people adjusted according to inflation, provided by nationalising major industries and the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control, transparent public auditing of all public funds, banks’ pension funds and other institutions, and the dissolution of the despised IRGC and Basij militias and putting their immense economic resources under democratic control of working masses, and also calling a constituent assembly by elected delegates to democratically decide the political future of Iran. Achieving these demands would only be possible by a victorious mass struggle, with the working class leading the path. Only such a victory can finally fulfil the true destiny and promise of the 1979 revolution and invigorate the heroic struggle of the toiling people across the Middle East and beyond.