Protest movement continues to haunt the Iranian regime

After a brief ebb over the course of the Iranian new year holidays, a steadily rising stream of local protests, which began in the aftermath of the nationwide protests in January, has surged yet again. Farmers of the Isfahan province protested for 50 days until Saturday 14 April. Starting from the small town of Varzane, the movement has taken its protests to the city of Isfahan and dragged in people from all over the east of the province.

The protests centered around the right to access water from the Zayanderood river, which the local population have enjoyed for centuries. This year, this ancient right was denied to the farmers by the state planning institutions due to a severe drought. Over the Iranian new year holidays, the farmers kept their movement going by staging street protests where they decorated the traditional new year cloth – which is normally adorned with fresh grass, apples etc. to celebrate life and the coming of spring – with withered plants, toy soldiers and empty gas canisters fired at them by security forces. After the holidays concluded on 3 April, the movement picked up again with daily marches through the city of Isfahan.

13 April march: women section of the march chants: "They are wrong when they say America, our enemy is right here."

Chanting: “A farmer dies, he does not accept hardship”

Throughout the 50 day period of protests, the protesters grew increasingly emboldened due to the echo of support they received from around the country, coupled with the relatively mild reaction of the regime, which was terrified of provoking a bigger movement if they cracked down on it. Seeing the tide was not ebbing, however, the police increased repression and flooded the streets with security forces from 13 April onwards. At the same time, the local commander sent a text to all Isfahanis threatening all participants in “illegal” protests with criminal prosecution.

Disorientation and counterattack

Without an organisation and a clear plan of action, the movement has temporarity receded under the confusion which was sown by the sudden change of tone by the regime. This allowed the regime to counterattack. Dozens of farmers’ homes have been raided over the past few days, demolishing any sense of loyalty that these deprived people may have had left towards the regime. While the regime thinks it has subdued the Isfahani farmers, nothing has been solved. The hungry and thirsty farmers are bound to take the course of struggle again once they have regained their feet.

The disorientation caused by the heavy security buildup has temporarily pushed back the movement in Isfahan, but another similar protest erupted almost immediately in the neighbouring Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provinces. They are protesting against the planned redirection of the Zayanderood, which is set to be channeled towards some areas of Isfahan. The new movement has picked up where the Isfahan movement left off, with large mass protests taking place in a more organised manner.

 

Students in Saman, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province chanting: “They keep saying America, our enemy is right here!”

The below video from a protest on 17 April in this province shows a speaker saying “do not give up until the minute you get your rights. As long as you stand behind each other no one will bother you, but if you stop standing together they will take you away one by one. Stand together! Stand together!”

Drought inflames Iran

Iran is suffering the worst drought in 50 years. This is being exacerbated by criminal neglect and corrupt mismanagement by the regime, which has depleted all major water reserves. The largest lakes in Iran, such as Lake Urmia, are all but dried out, the major rivers are also drying up, leaving fishermen and farmers, most of whom live in deep poverty, in a dire situation.

According to official accounts, out of 177 dams and water reservoirs in Iran, 73 percent have water levels below 40 percent of their capacity, while a further 17 percent are at between 40-50 percent capacity. With this year set to be the driest of the past half-century, we will witness a big crisis not only in terms of the water supply but also electricity generation.

According to officials, in Isfahan province alone 5 million people will not have access to clean drinking water from July onwards. Meanwhile the economic crisis leaves very few options for small farmers and rural people to find a means of subsistence. With the meagre monthly state benefits remaining at a static level, and thereby gradually eaten up by the high inflation in the country, the poorest are at breaking point. Hence the water crisis is only set to become an increasingly important factor in the instability and growing class struggle in the next period.

Protests elsewhere

Meanwhile other protests also persist. In the ancient city of Kazeroon, the proposed changes to the administrative boundaries will divide the city into several governmental districts, pushing Kazeroon below the threshold for city status in administrative terms. This will remove a whole host of benefits and jobs the city has received for many years.

On this basis, the population of the city, led by the local imam of the Friday prayers, has taken to the streets for almost a week. The imam Hojjat Islam Mohammad Khorsand attacked the dodgy plans of the authorities as well as the local parliamentary deputy, who is seen as the person behind the plan. He said, “unfortunately the division of the town has been based on lack of transparency and without taking into consideration the opinions of the experts.” He also accused the authorities of trying to sow divisions amongst the different parts of the city.

The angry people of the city, supported by many teachers and students, have taken to the streets in their thousands chanting powerful slogans such as “Cannons, tanks and firecrackers have no effect [on us] anymore”.

Yesterday riot police were sent to face the protesters, but the powerful stance of the people on the streets made any serious intervention virtually impossible.

Elsewhere, in the west of the country, a rising number of Kurdish majority towns bordering Iraqi Kurdistan have seen protests led by traders and merchants against the closure of several border crossings and rising border tariffs. In cities and towns such as Miravan, Saghez, Baneh and Piranshahr, Bazaaris have gone on strike, symbolically spreading empty table cloths - usually used to spread on the floor to serve food - in the streets to show the desperate situation they are in.

In Baneh, the advisor of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei was met with angry crowds who demanded their problems be solved by the regime. In the below video a member of the crowd told the former presidential candidate:

“(...) let me speak honestly to you Mr. Jalili, we have been on strike for four days. In four days of strike the [local] commander has not come down to ask us, ‘what are you doing? What is bothering you?’ [Instead] he’s sending us anti-riot police. [Commotion] He sends a few gentlemen, so-called inhabitants, who go amongst people and shoot in the air goading and provoking [our] youth so they can arrest a few people and thereby scare people. [But] the people are no longer afraid of these things. If the pocket is empty…For my family I would do anything. From a soldier all through to the highest ranks, I would kill them for the sake of my wife and children. One is capable of anything, is that right or not? But it's been 20 years now, and have you seen a single disturbance in Baneh? No you have not… because people were working. If there is work there is no problem.”

These bold words show that people have reached a limit of what they can take. The protests on the border come on top of weeks of demonstrations and clashes with the police in the Kurdish majority city of Kermanshah after the January movement, which swept through Iran.

In Ahvaz as well there have been a series of protests. Starting with 3000 Ahvaz steel mill, workers whose demands were met after more then 40 days of strike, but whose main activists were subsequently arrested and the agreement annulled. Subsequently, an incident on national TV, in which all Iran’s nationalities were mentioned except the Arabs, resulted in a very large and bold mass movement erupting amongst Arabs across all of the Khuzestan province, of which Ahvaz is the capital city. The Arabs have always been among the most oppressed nationalities in Iran and although they live in the oil-rich south west of the country, they are completely barred from the economic life of the region and forced into deep poverty.

After the initial eruption of the movement, the regime managed to crack down and arrest a number of people, but once again it is clear the problem will not go away. The masses have been on the streets and have felt their collective power; it is only a matter of time before some accidental event will push them back into action.

Aside from the major protests cited above, there have been countless strikes and smaller protests across the country. These include protests by unpaid workers, pensioners, farmers, teachers; and the militant strikes of the Haft Tapeh sugarcane plantation, among others.

Attacks on fraud banks

Perhaps one of the most significant phenomena has been the resurfacing of nationwide protests in front of banks and financial institutions that went bankrupt last year. These financial institutions, which were closely linked to the regime, would promise incredibly high, 20+ percent interest rates, which they were never able to pay, in order to attract deposits, which they in turn would use to speculate for their own ends.

These deposits would ordinarily come from the poorest layers, who in conditions of poverty and unemployment had few other means of generating an income. The only way this scheme could continue was to attract more depositors, which was achieved by promising ever higher interest rates. Of course, this pyramid scheme was bound to collapse at some point and last year a dozen of these companies went bankrupt, with many questions remaining as to where the depositors’ money had gone. Now the desperate people who have lost everything are protesting in front of the institutions, demanding the authorities, who are correctly seen as being in bed with the schemers, rectify the injustice done to them.

On April 16 the victims of the scam staged protests in front of the offices of these institutions in Tehran, Mashad, Ahvaz and Rasht. In Tehran, the protesters gathered in front of the Sattar Khan branch of the Caspian credit institution chanting “No more promises, no more chances, only the money of the nation!” and “Caspian steals, [while] the government supports it!”

In Rasht, people gathered in front of another branch of the bank throwing eggs at its facade and chanting slogans. In Ahvaz as well, protesters gathered in front of Melal and Arman credit institutions chanting “Khoozestani[s] will die [before we] accept tyranny” and [we] will die [to] get our money back. With up to 25 percent of Iran’s banking system being embroiled in similar dealings, the banking crisis is not looking to go away anytime soon.

Caspian protest in Tehran

Protest in Ahvaz

Again, in Ahvaz

The working masses are moving, and they are affecting all classes in society. As always, students and intellectuals are a good barometer of which way a society is going. While the student movement has not been the leading force in the recent events, a rising number of students are becoming radicalised. With Hassan Rouhani’s ‘reformist’ administration in power, illusions in the liberals are at an ebb.

Radical artists

Another indication of the mood has come from the art world. Long a refuge for political dissidents in Iran, it is clear that a layer of Iranian artists are beginning to reflect, in one way or another, the changing tide in society. In the last months, the Exit Theater group in Iran has translated and published a whole series of articles and pamphlets from www.marxist.com.

The latest of these, an article by Alan Woods on capitalism and art, which also deals with the situation in Iran, was surprisingly published by ‘Kaneh Teatr’ (Theatre House), the main civic organisation of the Iranian theatre world responsible for directors, actors, technicians and so on. This ‘union’, however, is also loosely linked to the Ministry of Culture. That a faction within this organisation is publishing an article of ours reveals that these recent movements have emboldened the middle-class layers. These are merely anticipations of the sharp and sudden political shifts we will witness in Iran in the next period.

alan persian articleArtists and intellectuals have become emboldened - as evidenced by new translations of our articles / Image: Exit Theatre

It is clear that the regime is trying to tread carefully in the face of these developments. It does not want to take the movements head on and risk provoking an even bigger eruption. Thus, their tactic at the moment is to wait until the movement tires itself out and then intervene with targeted crackdowns and arrests. But this will not remove any of the fundamental driving forces behind these events. Whatever the regime does, it will not be able provide bread and water for the poor and the deprived.

In fact, the situation will only deteriorate. The economic conditions are worsening by the day. With the announcement of a possible cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal by US president Donald Trump, combined with the already weak position of the Iranian economy, the Iranian rial started plummeting in March, losing almost 30 percent of its value against the dollar and reaching a record 61,000 rial to the dollar.

Fearing instability and spiralling inflation, the central bank has intervened, promising a 42,000 rial rate instead and warning against any black marketeering. Predictably, however, the central bank does not have nearly enough foreign currency reserves to maintain this rate. Thus, only one week into this plan, while the black market still trades dollars at around 57,000 rial to the dollar, most of those who opted to trade legally have had no currency supply from the state and have in many cases been forced to shut down trading altogether. If the central bank breaks, which is increasingly likely, we could witness a dramatic rise in inflation, which of course will hit the poorest hardest.

Revolution of the hungry being prepared

The Iranian regime is engulfed in crises. The economy is faltering, corruption is rife and its Islamic and ‘anti-imperialist’ demagogy is no longer enough to stave off the anger of the masses. The regime cannot provide even the slightest relief for the masses, nor provide the most basic necessities such as clean water. Pollution, lack of water, lack of jobs and rising poverty are pushing the poorest into the arena of struggle. A revolution of the hungry is being prepared.

Iran farmer protest 5 Image fair useThe Iranian regime is engulfed in crises and a revolution of the hungry is being prepared / Image: fair use

The only reason why the movements in Ahvaz, Isfahan and elsewhere have temporarily receded is the lack of organisation and leadership to keep up momentum, spread the movement and react with a clear plan of struggle when the situation changes. This is a lesson that the masses will have to learn by painful trial and error. At the same time it is clear that street demonstrations are not enough. The only force that can bring the regime to its knees is the Iranian working class, which has the potential power to bring the whole country to a grinding halt.

In spite of the brave movements of traders and farmers, these layers do not control the main levers of production – the workers do. The workers are looking at the current protests with sympathy and sooner or later they will move as well. The present situation is very similar to that in 1978, in which sporadic and localised protests erupted across Iran in anticipation of the 1979 Revolution in which, before it was defeated, the working class was moving towards taking power. Just like in 1979, the coming Iranian Revolution will shake the whole world and fundamentally change the situation in the Middle East.