The stormy street demonstrations in Iran are continuing and gathering strength. Anti-government protesters held another big rally in central Tehran today (Wednesday), which, to judge from photographs we have just received, has dwarfed even the massive demonstrations of the last few days. It defied renewed calls from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, to keep off the streets. Faced with vast protests, the ruling regime in Tehran is being pulled in opposite directions.
Late on Tuesday, Ayatollah Khamenei met representatives of the four candidates who ran in Friday’s election and urged them to maintain calm. He said no one should do anything that creates tension and all should clearly state that tensions and riots are not their demands. He said that if there was a need to recount some ballot boxes, this should be done in the presence of representatives of candidates. But the protesters are not heeding the calls.
The government, clearly nervous, has been clamping down on all information tools, including text messaging, social networking sites, and other internet outlets, in an effort to prevent the opposition from organising rallies. But a further sign of the divisions in Iran's leadership is the fact that the interior ministry ordered an investigation into an attack on university students which they say was carried out by militia and police. It came a day after Iran's influential speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, condemned the assault on the dormitory of Tehran University.
The demonstrations are meeting with sympathy from the population. There were, however, further signs of a crackdown today. Human rights groups said at least 100 people had been arrested in the city of Tabriz, a historic centre of protest and a Mousavi stronghold. Meanwhile, the prosecutor general of the central province of Isfahan warned that those behind post-election unrest could face the death penalty under Islamic law.
There were also unconfirmed reports that Mohammad Asgari, who was responsible for the security of the IT network in Iran's interior ministry, was killed yesterday in a suspicious car accident in Tehran. Asgari had reportedly leaked evidence that the elections were rigged to alter the votes from the provinces. Asgari was said to have leaked information that showed Mousavi had won with almost 19m votes, and should therefore be president.
The (Counter-) Revolutionary Guard said that news websites and blogs were encouraging rioting by spreading lies and fake allegations and organising unrest. These “illegal” acts, they said, were disrupting public order. The Guard said these “organised centres” were supported by American and Canadian companies and media affiliated to US and British intelligence services. This clumsy attempt to link the protests with US imperialism is too stupid to require comment. The problem the authorities face is precisely that these protests have no “organizing centre” that can be arrested. The spontaneous character of the movement is both its greatest source of strength and its greatest weakness.
Eye witness accounts
Ahmadinejad's supporters are desperately striving to mobilize. They held their own demonstration in Val-y-Asr Square. The television showed what was clearly an organized affair, with masses of people bussed in from outside Teheran. Many of the demonstrators were middle aged, and they seemed to lack the fire and determination of their rivals. It seemed a routine affair, with predictable slogans on the banners: “Death to the Traitor”, “Death to anyone who is against the Supreme Leader” and so on.
The official media dutifully carried reports of this pro-regime demonstration. But not a word was said of Monday's opposition mass rally, or of the street demonstrations in the cities of Shiraz, Mashad, Babol and Tabriz. Most Iranians have no knowledge of these events; thanks to the indefatigable labour of Ahmadinejad's censors.
In today’s The Independent there is an article entitled “Fear has gone in a land that has tasted freedom” by Robert Fisk. He has provided us with an interesting eye witness account of the behaviour of the Iranian Special Forces when confronted with two hostile demonstrations of protesters and Ahmadinejad’s Revolutionary Guard (Basiji):
“‘Please, please, keep the Basiji from us,’ one middle-aged lady pleaded with a special forces officer in flak jacket and helmet as the Islamic Republic's thug-like militia appeared in their camouflage trousers and purity-white shirts only a few metres away. The cop smiled at her. ‘With God's help,’ he said. Two other policemen were lifted shoulder-high. ‘Tashakor, tashakor,’ – ‘thank you, thank you’ – the crowd roared at them.
“This was phenomenal. The armed special forces of the Islamic Republic, hitherto always allies of the Basiji, were prepared for once, it seemed, to protect all Iranians, not just Ahmadinejad's henchmen. The precedent for this sudden neutrality is known to everyone – it was when the Shah's army refused to fire on the millions of demonstrators demanding his overthrow in 1979.”
This remarkable report, together with yesterday’s report from the same journalist, shows the degree to which the hot breath of Revolution has affected the morale of the armed forces, even the elite Special Forces. This is a most disturbing development for the regime, which must be receiving daily and hourly reports that cast doubt on its ability to rely on the armed forces to put down the movement. This is indeed reminiscent of 1979!
Fisk describes an extraordinary scene when the two demonstrations confronted each other:
“Plain-clothes cops – perhaps at last realising the gravity of a situation which their own obedience to Ahmadinejad's men had brought about – persuaded middle-aged men from both sides to meet in the centre of the road in the middle of Vanak Square's narrow no-man's-land. The Mousavi man, in a brown shirt, placed his hands around the arms of the bearded Iranian official from the Ahmadinejad side. ‘We cannot allow this to happen,’ he told him. And he tried, as any Muslim does when he wants to show his desire for trust and peace, to kiss the side of his opponent's face. The bearded man physically shook him off, screaming abuse at him.
“The two rows of police were now standing shoulder to shoulder, their linked arms holding both mobs back, as they stared at their own comrades opposite with ever increasing concern. An American-Iranian a few metres away, shouted at me in English that ‘we've got to prove they can't do this anymore. They can't rule us. We need a new president. Either they get their way or we get ours’.
“It was frightening, the absolute conviction of these men, the total refusal to accept any compromise, one side demanding obedience to the words of Ayatollah Khomeini and loyalty to the ghosts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the other – emboldened by their million-strong march on Monday – demanding freedoms, albeit within an Islamic Republic, which they had never had before. Maybe they now have the police on their side; if last night's example was anything to go by, either some senior officer – or perhaps the cops themselves, appalled at their behaviour over the past four days – decided that the special forces would no longer be patsies to the frightening power of Ahmadinejad's ever-loyal bullies.
“Yet this is not a revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Both sets of demonstrators were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ – ‘God is Great’ – at Vanak Square last night. But if the Iranian security forces are now taking the middle ground, then Ahmadinejad is truly in trouble.”
In January 1905 the Russian proletariat made its first appearance on the stage of history, carrying in its hands icons and images of the Virgin Mary. This reflected the heavy burden of the past, a thousand years of stagnant life in the villages, where vodka and the Church were the only forms of relief from the terrible drudgery of hard toil and exploitation. When the Russian peasant left the land in search of a better life in the towns, he was hurled into the seething cauldron of factory life, which revolutionized his outlook. The religious prejudices remained, but that did not prevent the Russian workers from taking the revolutionary road. Nor will it in Iran.
Fisk also reports on the contradictions that are emerging even in the Ahmadinejad camp:
“As the fume-filled dusk fell over the north Tehran streets, the crowds grew wilder. I listened to a heavily bearded Basiji officer exhorting his men to assault the 10,000 Mousavi men and women on the other side of the police line. ‘We must defend our country now, just as we did in the Iran-Iraq war,’ he shouted above the uproar. But the Ahmadinejad man trying to calm him down, shouted back: ‘We are all fellow citizens! Let's not have a tragedy. We must have unity.’”
Only hours earlier, seven men killed by the Basiji at the end of Monday's march, were secretly buried by police in Cemetery 257 in unmarked graves. No word has been sent to their families of their fate. In what must be an unprecedented step, the pro-government newspapers in Tehran have reported the deaths of the demonstrators. One even gave its front page to the outraged condemnation of Tehran University's Chancellor at the Basiji invasion of the campus on Sunday night, when the security forces killed seven young men, wounded several others and smashed and looted the university dormitories. Farhad Rabar said he would pursue the killers through the courts, adding that “the invasion of the University of Tehran, which is the symbol of higher education... has caused a wave of sorrow and anger in me”.
Later Fisk writes:
“It was on my way out of Val-y-Asr that I noticed a truckload of men, all dressed in camouflage trousers and white shirts, many carrying police clubs, setting off to north Tehran. They were followed by the newly energised Islamist demonstrators, off on the four-mile trek up to Vanak. Two conscript soldiers were standing amid the Mousavi supporters there when an old man asked their advice. Should he stay if the Basijis break through the cordon? ‘The Basijis beat people hard – very hard,’ one of the soldiers said. And he patted the old man on the shoulder and shook his head.”
Small incidents like these are worth a hundred statistics in showing the real dynamic of the movement.
In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:
“If you look only backward to past ages, the transfer of power to the bourgeoisie seems sufficiently regular: in all past revolutions who fought on the barricades were workers, apprentices, in part students, and the soldiers came over to their aside. But afterwards the solid bourgeoisie, having cautiously watched the barricades through their windows, gathered up the power.” (The Paradox of the February Revolution)
This is a story that is constantly repeated throughout history. The revolutionary masses do the fighting and dying, and the bourgeois Liberals and unprincipled professional politicians reap the fruits of power and betray the masses who handed the power to them. But the experience of the October Revolution shows that such an outcome is not inevitable. What is required is a revolutionary party like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky.
Of course, the masses cannot wait until the Marxists are ready. When the Party is lacking and the unbearable problems of the masses demand an urgent solution, they will move into action and attempt to solve their problems by direct action. Sometimes this can sweep all before it, leading to the downfall of the old hated regime. But in such case, the fruits of power will be snatched from their hands. This is what is being prepared in Iran. If the old regime cannot maintain itself with the old methods (and the reports quoted here indicate strongly that this is the case), they will resort to other methods.
The state does not only rely on open repression. It can resort to manoeuvres and trickery to deceive and defeat the revolutionary people. The protesters have demonstrated a colossal revolutionary potential. The masses have shown tremendous courage, militancy and determination. But the spontaneous mass movement also has a weak side. It lacks a courageous and far-sighted leadership. The regime, which is fighting for its life, possesses equal determination. It holds in its hands all the levers of power.
The masses have now had an intoxicating taste of freedom. Brought to their feet, they have learned to ignore the threat of state repression and to disregard and despise the clerical autocracy which in the past has terrified, oppressed and humiliated them. They have lost their fear now that they are confronting their political enemies in the street with courage, defiance, and even a strange sense of humour. If they had a half-decent leadership, they could take power without too much difficulty. But without a clear perspective, the initiative can swing the other way.
The leading role in these demonstrations has been played by the students, who also played a crucial role in bringing down the Shah in 1979. These courageous young people have shown great determination and ingenuity, using the power of modern telecommunications. But if the protests, which have primarily been in Tehran, are to succeed, they must spread to the whole country. If this were to happen, the momentum they generate could prove unstoppable.
At this moment, the situation is in the balance. The next few days will be decisive. It is possible that the regime, in an act of desperation, will strike out blindly, like a wounded animal. It may be that one of the mass demonstrations could end in a massacre, or that the attacks on student dormitories will end in tragedy. In the present electric atmosphere, this can spark off a wave of strikes and demonstrations that can lead to the overthrow of the government. Such an outcome would be the result of the victory of the hard-line faction that seeks to hold onto power by violent means.
If, however, the reformist wing of the ruling bureaucracy succeeds in convincing the ayatollahs that their best hope of saving themselves is to introduce cosmetic changes from the top to prevent revolution from below, a different outcome is possible. The masses cannot demonstrate on the streets forever. Either the movement is carried onto a qualitatively higher level through a general strike and a national insurrection, or eventually it will ebb and fall into uneasy quiescence – for a while.
In the murky power-struggle within the Islamic regime, the different factions are fighting like cats in a sack. But none of them wants a real change. Mousavi is no anti-regime revolutionary and has no interest in leading an all-out struggle against the regime that he served as a conservative prime minister through the Iran-Iraq war. He is a member of the conservative clique of Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The hardliners are resisting all change, although they have been forced onto the defensive by the furious assault of the masses. Now they will be bargaining like bazaaris with Rafsanjani (an expert at haggling for high office). They will try to reach some kind of deal that they hope will put an end to the protests. It is possible that the regime will ensure its survival by cutting President Ahmadinejad's down to size and forcing him to give some kind of government role to Mousavi in the name of “national unity”. Such an outcome would cause bitter disappointment in the masses, who, after a period of violent exertions, may fall into temporary apathy.
The masses can only learn from their experience, and it will be necessary for them to go through the experience of another “reformist” government in order for them to understand the real character of these leaders, who wish to change only the names and faces without changing anything substantial. The lull that would follow a sell-out would not last for long. The severity of the economic crisis does not permit any lasting stability. Sooner or later there will be a new wave of strikes and demonstrations that will be on a much higher level than this time.
Such a fraudulent result would be a betrayal of the passionate aspirations of the masses for freedom and democracy. But it would be very welcome to the imperialists in general and the Obama Administration in particular. Washington has been very muted in expressing its “concerns” about the reports of violence and vote-rigging. At no time has it expressed support for the demonstrators. That is because Obama has no interest a serious change in Iran.
US imperialism will be seriously worried about the extraordinary events of recent days. They will be afraid that the revolutionary overthrow of the mullahs will set an example that can tempt the masses in Iran's neighbours to try to do the same. Reactionary Arab regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are hanging by a thread, and others like Jordan and Morocco are not far behind. They would far prefer to leave things as they are, on the grounds that it is better to deal with the Devil you know than the Devil you do not know.
For the present, however, neither Khamanei nor Mousavi, neither Obama nor Rafsanjani, control the situation. The mass movement is what dominates all and it has a dynamic and a logic of its own. The Iranian Marxists will throw all their energies behind the mass movement and do their best to give it an organized and conscious form. The workers and youth will relearn the lessons of 1979. Let us remember that the overthrow of the Shah was brought about by the workers, who launched a strike-wave that spread across the country like wildfire.
The oil workers struck for 33 days, bringing the economy to a grinding halt. All attempts to send troops into the oilfields led to nothing. Millions of protesters marched in Tehran, demanding the overthrow of the Shah, the driving out of American imperialism and the arming of the people. The revolt spread to the soldiers, who began to desert.
The revolutionaries took over army bases, the parliament, factories, armouries and the TV station. The Pahlavi regime collapsed like a house of cards. The workers seized the factories, the peasants seized the land. The system of grassroots control through committees called “shoras” were in fact the equivalent of the soviets in the Russian Revolution. These are the real revolutionary traditions of Iran! This is the way to proceed!
The so-called bourgeois reformers are not to be trusted. We say to the workers and youth of Iran: do not trust Mousavi and people like him! Trust only in yourselves, your strength and organization! Establish committees of struggle – shoras – to organize and link your struggles locally, provincially and nationally! Do not allow the control of the movement to pass out of your hands! Reject all calls to demobilize and beware of all attempts to manoeuvre and do deals behind your backs!
It is impossible to say with any certainty what the outcome of this phase of the struggle will be; but one thing is clear: Iran will never be the same again. The scale of the protests and the vacillations of the authorities have placed a question mark over the very survival of the regime. The protests have a considerable disruptive potential that is alarming the regime. But it is not enough to disrupt society. It is necessary to pose an alternative.
Whatever happens, the current of history is now flowing strongly in our direction. There will inevitably be defeats and setbacks because of the nature of the leaders. But the workers and students will draw conclusions from their experience. Sooner or later they will draw the conclusion that what is needed is a fundamental change in society. What is needed is not just democracy but an Iranian Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic, which will set the whole Middle East ablaze.
London 17th June