Protests by restless workers, students and farmers spring up across Iran

Although the youth movement that shook Iran in late December and late January has died down, nothing has been solved. It is evident that the movement merely anticipated a far deeper mood of anger and resentment, which has been building up for decades.

On Sunday, three students from Tehran University were sentenced to a total of nine years of imprisonment for their role in the recent protest movement. Mohsen Haghshenas, Sina Rabi’i and Leila Hassanzadeh, and were sentenced to one, two and six years in prison for the crime of ‘anti-regime propaganda’.

This sparked off a protest outside the gates of Tehran’s prestigious Amir Kabir Polytechnic University. Hundreds of students gathered singing revolutionary songs and chanting “Free the political prisoners, Free the political students” and reading out a statement, which according to some reports had been circulating amongst the students for a few days.

Boldly criticising all factions of the regime, including the liberal wing in government, the students’ statement read:

“While there are many claims that independence and academic freedom exist in the university, and the government pledges to create non-security atmosphere at the university, we now see that every criticism by the university students and staff faces most intense interference and attacks by the security institutions, and students...are dealt with severely and are under the most intense forms of attack...”

The protesters demanded the release of all students who had been rounded up during the previous months and the cancelling of the heavy sentences of those who have stood trial. Pro-regime forces immediately mobilised Basiji students (carrying yellow flags) to attack the crowd but they appeared ineffectual and, as can be seen from the videos, students passing by even started cursing at them, chanting “Dishonorable!”.

In Tehran’s University of Social Sciences the students plastered the university area with posters with similar demands as those in Amir Kabir University.

Today the protest at the Tehran universities seems to have continued, although for now it has been confined to indoor areas.

The students’ protest, however, is just one of a rising trickle of actions that have been taking place since January.

The farmers of east Isfahan have have been protesting for more than three weeks due to the allocation of insufficient water for their crops and general use. Thanks to mismanagement and under-development, Iran is going through a serious water crisis due to the largest lakes and some of the most important rivers of the country drying out. One of these is the famous Zayandeh River, which flows through Isfahan and has been the lifesource of its agriculture. With the drying out of the river, the farmers affected have become increasingly desperate. The people of eastern Isfahan province have been demanding more allocated water for over a month. The video below appears to be from one of the early protests where people are chanting “Don’t be afraid, we we are all together”:

Starting off as small peaceful protests in the small town of Varzaneh, the movement has accelerated in particular after it clashed with security forces on Friday, 9 March. Below is a video of a very radical speech made by one of the farmers, in which he denounces the authorities and amongst other things says that “a donkey could administer better than you guys” and raises the slogan “death to dishonorable authorities”:

Following the clashes, the protests moved further into Isfahan city itself, with crowds chanting slogans such as “Today is a day of mourning, the lives of the farmers are [in a state of chaos and] hanging in the balance”:

Similar to the students, they also raised slogans of freeing of political prisoners chanting “Imprisoned farmers must be freed”:

They also approached the bazar appealing to the bazaaris to join their just struggle:

The conditions of the Isfahan farmers are not isolated to Isfahan. The water crisis and general chronic misery and poverty have pushed the rural population to the edge. The same layers that used to be the social base of the regime have lost patience and are desperately looking for a way out.

In Khuzestan in the South West of the country another struggle has been in the news recently, that of the Melli steel group, where 3500 metalworkers and hundreds of retired workers have been on strike since 18 February after not having received wages for three months. The workers have fought for their rights for several years, but the recent strike seems to be their most radical action yet.

This video from 25 February shows the workers marching through Ahvaz chanting "if our problems are not solved, there will be an uprising in Ahvaz":

Taking to the streets every single day since the beginning of the strike, they issued a statement yesterday calling for a new gathering. The statement outlines the struggle and explains that for 21 days the workers have been on peaceful strike and protest. And except for raising the slogan of an uprising, they have done nothing about this. But, the statement continues:

“[F]or more than two years we have [tried to deal] with [our] problems and have been everywhere and approached everyone. But our law abiding and honest approach has unfortunately been abused and led to us being seen as harmless workers whom they see as sloganeering for two hours…”

Seeing the lack of any response by the bosses or by the authorities, the statement ends by saying:

“But the time for vain sloganeering and dragging out of time [is no longer enough]. It is time for action.”

What this means is not clear, but it is evident that this is the feeling of a rising layer of workers and poor throughout the country.

The above protests are far from isolated. In the past months there have been countless protests and clashes throughout all provinces and involving all layers of the masses. In Tehran clashes between the authorities and the Gonabadi Dervish religious minority in February led to several arrests and at least three police casualties. The arrest of a teacher trade unionist, Mohammad Habibi , by plain clothes security forces on 3 March has led to protests amongst teachers throughout Iran who have boldly posted their pictures on social media demanding the freeing of Habibi:

Yesterday, hundreds of Zamyad auto workers staged the second day of strike action, demanding unpaid back wages to be paid immediately:

Hafez tile and ceramic workers in Shiraz and Khorramabad railroad agency workers have also been protesting months of unpaid wages along with the traditionally militant Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers .

In Rasht, a group of clearly lower class women who were victims of one of a dozen or so bank crashes last year were protesting today chanting “You have no honour, if you are a man stand by your licence”. This is a reference to licences given to regime insiders who have set up a wide network of financial institutions that have been functioning more or less as ponzi schemes. Having attracted the savings of millions of people, a series of these went bankrupt over the past two years. Thousands of people have lost everything, while the perpetrators are walking free. The placards of the protesters reveal the effect that the countless events like this have had on the consciousness of the working masses.

It reads:

“In the country [where the justice of] Ali [rules] the thieves are free [while] those robbed are threatened, arrested, imprisoned and taken to court. This is the Justice of Ali.”

There are many more protests similar to the ones outlined above taking place every single day. According to officials of the national security council, the period of March-December of 2017 saw around 5000 protests throughout Iran. But this figure which was already an increase on previous years is sure to increase.

The experience of the early January movement was a very important accelerant of this process. Not only did the movement reveal the general and national character of the dissatisfaction, but it also revealed the weakness of the regime. It was clear to all during the movement, that the regime was trying not to crack down too hard so as to avoid drawing in larger layers of the masses. Also, it also subsequently conceded a whole series of demands such as the removal of austerity measures from the new budget and an opening up in the democratic sphere and the tolerance of a certain level of protests.

All of this added to the confidence of the masses who can feel the regime is weak and crisis ridden. Each new protest encourages new layers to come forward with their demands and complaints. Starting from defensive isolated struggles, however, these movements are immediately politicised and focused against the core of the clerical order.

The regime is terrified of this development. In a revealing interview with the domestic daily Hamshahri , Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, had to admit that in spite of all the attempts of foreign and domestic political forces to gain influence over the protest movement in early January, none of them were successful, essentially because the protests had deep seated class roots. Sounding the alarm over the state of society, Rahmani Fazli said:

“We can look at two sets of causes [for the dissatisfaction in society] one is immediate and one is more distant. The immediate causes for the protests can be seen in the economic, social and political spheres and one spark is enough to light them afire . But [...] the problem is even deeper.”

Not only is the regime facing an immediate rebellion, but also a general decline and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of all layers of society. In particular, it is afraid of the core of the youth and working masses, which are from a generation that did not experience the 1979 Revolution and the demoralising defeats that followed.

One wing of the ruling class is wary of the coming explosive social situation and is looking to reform from above to avoid revolution from below. In particular, they are looking to give minor symbolic democratic reforms to allow the masses to blow off some steam. In the interview, Rahmani Fazli said that the media should move ahead of social change in order to “manage [this] change” instead of following behind. That is, he is calling for a certain degree of loosening of restrictions on the press so as to use the influence of an “independent press” to divert the coming movement down democratic paths which would not fundamentally alter the power of the ruling class.

In February, President Rouhani put the same idea more clearly, saying :

“The previous regime, which thought that its rule would be lifelong and its monarchy eternal, lost everything because it did not listen to the voices of criticism, advice, reformers, the clergy, elders and intellectuals. The previous regime did not listen to the voice of people’s protests and only listened to one voice, and that was the people’s revolution. For a government that only wants to hear the sound of revolution, it will be too late.”

Although it was left very vague, Rouhani has even proposed a referendum to determine the future of the regime. This has been echoed by a wide range of liberal political and cultural personalities. The liberal wing of the ruling class is warning the conservative wing: ‘if we don’t reform, there will be a revolution and we will lose everything’.

When a regime starts talking about reforms to avoid a revolution, as the French historian, Alex de Toqueville pointed out, it is often already too late. The conservative wing of the regime is aware of this. It is warily watching how each protest is radicalising and embolding other layers. But neither crackdowns nor reforms can restore stability in Iran because the contradictions run much deeper. They reflect the sclerotic and impotent state of Iranian capitalism and its capitalist class, which is tied up in the complex web of its own contradictions. It is is incapable of solving any of the fundamental problems faced by society. In the end, this is what lies behind the present crisis.