In the past 15 years or so we have seen growing economic problems facing the regime in Iran, combined with the beginnings of a revival of the workers’ movement, an eruption of youth protests and a corresponding decline in support for the Islamic regime. The lack of leadership is what has allowed the regime to stumble on from crisis to crisis, in spite of the immensely favourable conditions for its overthrow.
The revival of the workers’ movement
In the Iranian workers’ movement in the nineties the situation was one of complete despair. All organisations were crushed and existed in a state of complete disintegration. This created a situation where you could find tendencies of syndicalism and anarchism within the most advanced layers ‑ ideas that belong to the early days of the workers’ movement and that have long been proven to be a dead end.
In spite of this, in one way or another, the worker has to eat and to live. And if he has to organize and fight in order to eat, then that is how it will be. Although there are not yet any major trade unions or workers’ parties in Iran, the working class has come a long way. The contradictions that are magnified in a decaying capitalist society, combined with the fact that there is no dead weight of a reactionary labour bureaucracy, has served to accelerate the formation and development of embryonic workers’ organisations through the numerous impressive struggles among all layers of the working class.
We have seen the revival of the workers’ movement in Iran that had previously been bloodily suppressed, together with all other forms of organisation, in the early 1980s. The beginning of this trend could be seen with the strike of the oil workers ‑ that vital part of the Iranian working class ‑ back in 1997. This was a strike for demands of higher wages and collective bargaining agreements. That strike put an end to nearly two decades of confusion and heralded a new era of working class struggles.
In the years since then, workers’ actions have rapidly grown with numerous strikes and protests every year, the chief among these being the struggles for a union of the Tehran Vahed Bus workers, and other disputes such as at Iran Khodro Dizel, Alborz Tyre, of theTeachers and Haft Tapeh Sugarcane workers and more general attempts to form a union. There were even attempts to organise workers’ councils that were always met with the harshest response.
One of the examples of the anti-worker crimes of the Islamic Republic was in 2003 when workers at the Khatoon Abad mines in Shahre Babak organised a large gathering to fight for employment and which demands about job security. This gathering was broken up by the police forces and a number of workers were injured and arrested. Subsequently a large demonstration of people at Shahre Babak was organised, which led to raids from the ground and air that killed a number of workers.
After all this, however, the bulk of the working class in Iran remains extremely disorganised. This is currently the greatest weakness of the workers. The working class, because of their cohesive character, their decisiveness in action and their relations to the means of production, have an enormous potential, but as Karl Marx said, without organisation the working class is merely raw material for exploitation. Attempts to form a union still involve only a very small part of the Iranian workers. This state of isolation, combined with the general decay in society leads to a workers’ movement that can develop very quickly, but also in an uneven manner with the greatest advances together with huge gaps and shortcomings. In this process, the development of a narrow small circle mentality has developed within some leaders and activists in the movement. This sometimes has led to situations where these “vanguard workers” have failed to lead the workers in carrying out their burning tasks, .i.e. linking up the struggle for demands for improvements in the immediate conditions of the workers to the more general struggle against the Islamic regime and for a Socialist society.
1999: First Shots of the Iranian Revolution
The students and the youth, as many times before in non-revolutionary periods, have been the most radical layer of society, showing the true tensions brewing within the consciousness of the masses. The movements of youth usually are a reflection of deeper processes going on in society. They placed themselves at the forefront of every significant movement throughout the nineties. And they are bound to play a crucial role again. They have borne the brunt of some of the worst forms of oppression under the Islamic Republic with its infamous and stifling regulations that have controlled and policed every single aspect of their lives for the last 30 years. What has had similar effects has been the intense sexual discrimination and oppression against women. They have been treated as second class citizens under Islamic rule and it is thus no surprise that they currently form one of the most courageous and crucial sections of the movement.
The clergy may have thought that by beheading the revolution with the mass executions in 1988. Instead all that they achieved was the creation a new army of revolutionaries. The children of those who were executed and defeated grew up in Iran during the nineties with a hatred for the regime and with a deep-seated desire for revenge brewing inside them. That generation became the main pillar within the youth movements that took erupted at the end of the nineties.
This movement that had started brewing in the bowels of society for some time found an opportunity to come to the surface around the presidential campaign of Mohammad Khatami in the late nineties. The lack of a mass alternative forced the students and youth gathered around this so called reformist to air their anger towards the regime. But Khatami was himself a part of the ruling establishment. He could not even introduce small improvements in the democratic rights of the people. At the beginning of his presidency the mass movement that had been set in motion during his campaign was calm. They were giving him time to prove himself. But in 1999 the pressure became too big. Apart from the loosening of the laws concerning head-wear requirements, nothing had fundamentally changed. Oppression and impoverishment continued and the corruption of the regime was as obvious as ever. Big demonstrations took place, especially of the youth, but also drawing to itself many middle class people who had once been the social base of the regime.
Things came to head on July 8, 1999 (18 Tir 1378 in the Iranian Calendar) when tens of thousands of students took part in massive demonstrations after a left-leaning Khatamite newspaper had been closed down. Security forces stormed a dormitory at Tehran University, beating students and pushing them out of windows. The movement continued and a few days later... “In scenes eerily reminiscent of Iran's revolution two decades ago, the police fired tear gas Tuesday at thousands of demonstrators and passers-by and fired pistols and submachine guns in the air as street battles raged through huge swathes of the capital.” (New York Times, July 13 1999)
As we wrote at the time, “The eruption of the students, that most sensitive barometer of the tensions building up in society, are a warning of the explosion to come. They are the first shots in the Iranian revolution”. (The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution, by Alan Woods, July 17 1999).
The movement that for the first time shook the mullahs’ regime was heavily repressed. It was especially the cowardice of Khatami that disarmed the movement because it led to key sections of the movement hesitating. But that defeat played a role, in that through this the "Reformists" and even the notion of reform lost a lot of authority. The main problem was that there were no alternative mass organisations to take the masses further. Although all the objective factors for a revolution were maturing, the subjective one, the revolutionary party was lacking.
Ahmadinejad ‑ rise of reaction
So as the movement was going down, the most reactionary faction of the regime was getting ready to settle into the presidential chair. The presidential elections of 2005 saw a participation of 48% of Iran's 47 million eligible voters in the second round, a decline from the 63% turnout reported in the first round of balloting a week earlier. In comparison, in 1997 80% of those eligible to vote did so. The final straw, that completely broke the mood of the masses, was the silence of the reformists, when all their candidates had been denied the possibility of running for the presidency beforehand. In fact, demoralisation was at such a level that no one reacted although everyone in Iran was aware of the fact that Ahmadinejad had largely won by rigging the elections, even then.
The regime had lost much of its support, but there was no one capable of putting up resistance to it in a period of appraisal and reassessment of the aims and methods of the movement.
Ahmadinejad also tried to appeal to the impoverished masses of Iran, specially the urban poor and sections of the rural middle classes, promising to end “discrimination”, to fight against corruption and “privileges” and to be more consistent against “world arrogance” (.i.e. imperialism). This might have initially helped him to gain some support (especially against the reformist-backed candidate, Rafsanjani, who is a symbol of corruption and of the “billionaire mullahs”) but this didn’t last long as the poor economic conditions faced by the regime did not allow him to give many long-lasting concessions.
During his presidency Ahmadinejad continued to lose support. In June 2007 the first cracks in his base of support started surfacing. A programme of fuel rationing caused widespread anger and many fuel stations were actually burned down.
Six months later there was an even greater shock, one that prepared much of the grounds for today's mass movement. During the winter of 2007 the extreme contradictions within Iranian society were brought to the surface, shaking every corner of the country. The Middle East Economic Survey writes, "In January 2008, with an unprecedented cold spell in northern Iran, gas shortage became the hottest political and economic issue. Iran, with the second largest gas reserves in the world, was short of gas even for its domestic sector. The supply to the Northern Provinces was either interrupted or experienced low pressure. Over 40mn people endured temperatures between -4° to -30° centigrade. Turkmenistan, which supplies around 9bn bcm/y, also cut its gas exports because of payment delays and price disputes."
The gas crisis, that some say cost many lives, was a huge scandal. It brought to the fore all the inefficiency and rottenness of the corrupt bureaucratic management of society and the economy. Spontaneous demonstrations started in front of government buildings and gas companies. If there had been even a small organisation of a few hundred disciplined revolutionaries inside Iran at that point, this crisis could have been the starting point of a revolutionary crisis. This was the final straw for many of the previous supporters of Ahmadinejad. In every taxi and every shop you could hear people cursing the regime, totally ignoring the fact that they could end in prison or even worse for doing so. But again the lack of a vehicle prevented the movement from developing further.
Ahmadinejad and US imperialism
“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Lord Palmerston (English Statesman, 1784-1865) once said.
The rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the attacks by US imperialism on the IRI have led many to believe that this man is in firm opposition to US imperialism. This in turn has led the same people to think that Ahmadinejad is therefore on the same side of the oppressed masses who suffer every day under American intervention around the world. But reality is quite different.
First of all, the regime has used the hated image of American imperialism and Israeli Zionism as the main enemies outside the country in order to distract attention away from the problems at home. The hypocritical nature of the regime is perhaps best illustrated by the complete passivity of the Lebanese Hezbollah (controlled by the Islamic Republic) during the massacre of the Palestinian people of Gaza. Opening a front in the north of Israel could have seriously damaged and perhaps weakened the Israeli offensive, but Hezbollah was silent, firing only a single rocket "by accident".
Apart from the demagogy, the relationship between the US and Iran is a complicated one. Sections of the regime, especially those around Rafsanjani, are very keen on establishing relations with America and also getting closer to the IMF and the World Bank. This threatens the position of other factions within the regime (like the people around Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards) who have their main allies at home. But this does not mean that the Ahmadinejad is an all out enemy of the US. In fact Iran has been very loyal to imperialism. Without the cooperation of some sections of the regime, (especially the Revolutionary Guards who control many terrorist groups) the humiliating developments in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been a hundred times more severe for the Americans. The actions and manoeuvres of both the Iranian regime and US imperialism are, in the final analysis, decided by their desire to gain, consolidate or defend a stronger position within the world market. Bearing this in mind, it is very natural that in some moments they can clash and in others they can cooperate.
For now it seems that the Americans are trying to reach a deal in order to allow Iran to use its considerable influence in Iraq to stabilise the country and thereby allow for an easy withdrawal of the Americans. The Iranians are squeezing them, but they will eventually sign an agreement. This could ease relationships or even bring the rulers of the two countries closer to each other for a while, but beyond that point the development of the relationship is difficult to predict. The enormous tensions that have been building up during the last decade have been further sharpened by the world economic crisis and the Iranian mass movement. There is not a single stable regime left in the Middle East.
On the question of a war on Iran there are many domestic and international factors to take into consideration and the development of these factors is quite unpredictable (for example the positions of Russia, China, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and Syria combined with the movements of the masses in these countries, all have an influence on how things will develop). A military attack by Israel on Iran is not completely ruled out. The Israeli ruling class cannot allow another nuclear power to emerge within the region. Israeli imperialism is a junior partner of US imperialism in the region but it also has its own interests, and its policies are not always determined by what is best for US imperialism. An attack would provoke huge turmoil and mass movements across the whole of the Middle East. That would not be US imperialism’s preferred option, but Israeli imperialism may have its own ideas. What is clear is that nothing in the Middle East can remain as before ‑ the house of cards is fragile and a revolution in Iran would definitely blow it down.
What is evident is that despite all the internal disputes within the capitalist classes, they will always unite against the movement of the masses. This was well illustrated by the complete silence of the Obama administration and other "world leaders" during the huge attacks on the mass movement in Iran in June 2009 and also by the fact that the US has now effectively accepted Ahmadinejad as the legitimate president of Iran.
The roots to the present situation
The extreme rottenness and incompetence of the clerical bureaucracy further magnifies all the downward trends of the capitalist system. On the other hand, Iranian society hardly benefited from the global upswing of the past decade.
In fact for the last couple of years there has been a process of accelerating decline in the fortunes of the top echelons of society. The need to increase accumulation by the most powerful layers, the economic crisis and economic collapse on the horizon, the social tremors that indicate the beginning of the end for the regime, the huge and inefficient bureaucracy, and all these factors impacting on each other, fuels this process of decline. Especially the understanding by many elements at the top that the days of this regime are numbered, urges them to think more in the short-term and to forget about providing for their social base. A lot of these people are packing their bags and they are not leaving the silverware to the staff.
At the bottom end of society another type of decline is taking place – that of the size of people’s stomachs. Officially the unemployment rate in Iran is 12.5 percent, although most experts say that the real number exceeds 30 percent. And even with a job most Iranian struggle to make it from day to day. Inflation is rising rapidly, and according to The Economist it currently stands at over 30%.
With the world economic crisis hitting hard and the price of oil falling, Iran’s GDP growth has gone from 6% to 0.5 % annually. For some years Ahmadinejad’s government was able to keep the main wheels running because of the high oil prices. He has been able to channel funds to a relatively small circle around the regime, providing them with better opportunities and cheaper goods. But those times are over, the price of oil has collapsed as a result of the world recession and the future is probably bringing the deadly mix of recession and accelerating inflation - stagflation. There will no longer be the funds to even provide for this small circle.
Almost 60 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. A large number of these have a university degree. In 2008 alone over 3.5 million students enrolled in the universities. But for a majority of these young people the final exam is just the final step before unemployment. Without any brighter future in sight the youth has been left to rot.
According to Mr. Mohammad Ali Zam, the head of Teheran's cultural and artistic affairs, who made a report on drug abuse and prostitution in 1999: "Drug addiction is the rage among schoolchildren, prostitution has increased 635% among high school students and the (growth) rate of suicide in the country has exceeded the record by 109%." The BBC World adds that, "the average age of prostitutes has dropped from 27 to 20 years over the past few years, with a growing but unspecified number of women involved." Today Iran has one of the highest rates of prostitution and drug abusers as a percentage of the population in the world. It is estimated that more that 4.000.000 people are addicted to opiates alone.
The advanced decomposition of society is breaking down all human relations. Unemployment, poverty, prostitution, violence, child abuse and depression are normal elements in the everyday life of every single Iranian. These factors are the true reasons behind the events that erupted in June 2009. And the brutal measures that the government has used to stop these events from taking place (incarceration of all opposition forces, a huge network of informers, etc.), only serve to prepare more explosions on a larger scale.
Website of Iranian Marxists: Mobarezeye Tabaghati (Persian)