Student protests reveal weakness of the Iranian regime

The student protests that began in Iran on June 9, have revealed how little support is left for the Islamic regime among not only the students and the workers, but also large layers of the middle classes. In spite of the harsh clampdown of the regime, it is clear that it is dieing. It is no longer a question of "if", but rather of "when" it will fall.

What sparked off the latest movement were the regime's plans to privatise the university halls of residence as well as some other university services and their decision to increase fees. This would affect wide layers of the students, many of whose families would find it difficult to keep their sons and daughters at university if these measures were introduced.

So far the movement has not been as big as it was in 1999 in terms of actual numbers, but what is most significant is that it has come at a time when other layers of society, in particular the workers, have also been protesting. There has been widespread sympathy shown by the wider population for the students.

Brutal reaction

Also striking has been the brutal reaction of the regime, which shows that it has nothing else to offer. Last time it could offer the illusion that the "reformers" would gradually introduce genuine democratic reforms and improvements in living condition. The masses have now seen through this as empty promises.

So this time they have unleashed the Ansaar Hezbollah and the Basij militia, (as well as the police). These people are fanatical elements loyal to the regime, in particular to the conservative wing. They are more akin to fascists, who play an auxiliary role in backing up the regime. But even these elements have been proving insufficient in holding down the protests.

Once the conditions have matured and a genuine mass movement gets under way repressive measures can have the opposite effect to the one that is desired. These measures can simply push the movement on to fight back. In the process the workers and youth involved start to draw conclusions.

We can see this simply by quoting some of the account the students themselves have been posting on the Internet. One of them describes what happened on the night of June 14. The students were chanting slogans against the regime. Then they decided to take their protest outside the university dormitories and were met by 100 riot police. After several hours, early in the morning 600-700 of the Ansaar brutally attacked the students, aided and abetted by the police who provided shields and other necessary equipment. (Information taken from an article with the title, The Blood of Iranians – Fighting our way to regime change, by Koorosh Afshar)

Down with all of them!

In reaction to these brutal measures, and as a result of the experience since the 1999 movement, the demands of the students and the wider public have gone further than simply calling for "reform". In the introduction to the above text on one site we find the comment of a student which says, "No more Khatami, not Khamenei, Not Rafsanjani... Total separation of religion [from] state... towards a secular democracy..." In fact the crowds have been shouting slogans such as "Death to Khamenei" and calling for end to Islamic rule. The masses have had enough. Their loyalties to any religious belief are not permanent. This regime represents the wealthy Islamic elite and it has done nothing for the masses. On the contrary things have got worse under the mullahs and now the people are reacting against it.

The regime has become increasingly isolated from the masses, and more than looking at the actual numbers involved, we have to look at the overall process. Iran has been rocked by a steady increase in the number of such protests affecting not only the students but also the wider public, especially the workers and urban poor. Since 1999 there have been other protest movements and it is merely a matter of time before the movement boils over and becomes unstoppable. Even if for now the movement seems to have receded this can only be temporary. Already they are worried at what might happen on July 9, which is the anniversary of the 1999 movement.

The events of these last two weeks have been reported extensively, especially on the Internet and therefore do not need to be repeated here.

Social and economic decline

However, it is worth putting all these events into the social and economic context of what Iran has become today for the mass of people who live there.

If we limited our analysis to simply looking at GDP growth, then one would wonder what all the trouble was about. Over the past two years GDP growth has averaged over 5% per annum. GDP per person in 2002 was 20% up on ten years ago. But a closer look reveals a completely different situation. In the 1970s GDP was actually 30% higher than now! That reveals the long-term decline which is really the explanation for the present revolt.

An even closer look at the economic and social situation reveals an actual nightmare for large layers of the population. Inflation stands at 17%. Official unemployment stands at 18%, but many admit that the real figure could be around 22-23%. The total number of unemployed today stands at 3.2 million, and is expected to rise to 7 or 8 million over the next few years. The population if Iran is a very young one, and 1.8 million people turn 18 each year. Each year around one million young Iranians enter the labour market, but there is barely room for half of them.

According to The Economist, 15% of the population subsists below the poverty line. But according to the CIA this figure could actually be much higher, as high as 56%! Whichever is the case, it is obvious that a large part of the population is living on the breadline.

Some other horrifying facts may add to the picture. Even the "Islamic" authorities admit that over two million people in Iran are taking drugs. Every month around a dozen policemen are killed in drugs related crime fighting. More than 60% of crimes are in fact related to drugs.

The plight of Iran's children is also terrible. There are 200,000 "streetchildren", i.e. children that have been forced by one circumstance or another onto the streets to survive, and this is according to the official figures of the regime.

The position of women is no better, especially among the poorer layers of society. In fact under the rule of these pious mullahs the scourge of prostitution is alive and well. According to some calculations there are at least 300,000 prostitutes. This can be explained by the fact that there are 1.7 million homeless women, with two-thirds of them getting no kind of state support whatsoever. The mullahs on this question reveal an infinite ability to be flexible. There is the phenomenon of temporary marriage, or the sigeh. This is a marriage with a defined time limit, which can even be of a few minutes! As long as it is a registered temporary marriage, then it is not regarded as prostitution!

All this has been compounded by the rapid urbanisation of Iran over the last thirty years. Tens of thousands of villages have been abandoned as the population has been driven into the cities to seek some form of employment. Of its 70 million inhabitants, 67% now live in the cities. Tehran is now a city of over ten million people. Thirty years ago it only had two million. This rapid urbanisation has not been catered for with improvements in housing and infrastructure.

The situation facing the young people of Iran is indeed a desperate one. The population of Iran is extremely young, with two-thirds of the total being under the age of 30, and half under the age of 20. Young women are also playing more of a role, in spite of the attempts to confine them to the home. Last year 63% of fresh students were women. Although still low compared to more advanced industrial countries 12% of the active workforce is now made up of women, and in some sectors they represent the majority.

New generation fighting back

It is this new, fresh generation that is now spearheading the protest movement. The numbers are so high that the regime simply cannot hold back the inevitable for much longer. Already back in 1999 the first signs of discontent were evident. These marked an important turning point in the situation, and although they did not lead to any major change in the regime, they indicated that the beginning of the end was here for the mullahs. (See The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution, by Alan Woods).

At that time there were some illusions in the "reforming wing" of the regime. These were seen as "liberal reformers". It was in fact the promise of press freedom and other democratic reforms that persuaded the students and other people tired of the rule of the mullahs to back Mohammad Khatami in 1997. This is what helped to get him elected president that year.

It was inevitable that after such a long time (two decades) of oppressive rule there should be some illusions in the possibility of gradually reforming the system through such figures as Khatami. But, as the saying goes, nothing is wasted in history. These past few years since 1997, including the important events of 1999, have left their mark.

Support for mullahs has plummeted

In 1998 Khatami's popularity still stood at over 75% according to opinion polls. As recently as 2001, when Khatami was re-elected, 69% of the electorate turned out. But by August of last year Khatami's support had already fallen to 43%. Now it has plummeted even further. On February 28 of this year local elections were held in Iran. The turnout was a miserable 25% on average. In Tehran the fall was even more dramatic with only 12% of the capital's voters bothering to turn out. On this low turnout the "conservative wing" was able to win and oust the so-called "reformers" from many local councils.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the population has lost all confidence in the regime, and in particular the "reformers" have lost the support they had. In Tehran the "conservatives" may have won, but the councillor who emerged as the most popular figure was only elected with the support of 4% of the voters!

The problem with the "reformers" is that they wanted to reform the system without changing it fundamentally. Their preoccupation was not to really to defend the interests of the youth, the unemployed, the poor, the workers. No, what they wanted was to channel the discontent and give some minor concessions in order to avoid an even bigger movement that would inevitably topple the whole regime. To do this they would have had to mobilise the masses. This is the last thing they wanted to do.

The programme of the "reformers"

What is worse with the "reformers" is that their economic programme is even more severe than that of the so-called "conservatives". It is based on widespread privatisation and severe cuts in subsidies. This is in line with the demands of western imperialism, which wants the whole state structure dismantled and placed in private hands, and also wants big cuts in social spending. In fact Khatami's 2000-2005 "five-year plan" envisages privatisation and deregulation of the economy. If we consider that 60% of the Iranian economy is still state controlled and another 10-20% is in the hands of parastatal companies, then these proposals would affect large layers of the population. Khatami plans to sell off 538 state-run companies. Such food items as wheat, rice, cooking oil and sugar are also heavily subsidised.

To implement fully this programme would mean provoking a massive uprising of the whole of the population. Khatami is very aware of this fact and may explain why, in spite of his avowed "market" principles his government has been doling out $1.1 billion in the form of loans to employers who take on extra workers. This is much to the annoyance of western commentators who see this as merely keeping defunct companies alive. The problem is that the advice of the west is difficult to implement.

It was in fact the proposal to privatise the universities and introduce fees that provoked the recent student movement. What we have listed above also explains why the movement of the students has had such a wide echo among the population as a whole.

As we said, he movement that started on June 9, has so far not proved to be as large as that of 1999. But what it does indicate is that the protest movements are occurring more often and they are infecting other layers. On June 13, for instance thousands of motorists blocked a main highway in Tehran publicly swearing against the "Islamic Republic", a clear act of defiance. More significant was the fact that people in the surrounding neighbourhood came out of their houses to cheer the motorists.

Plight of Iranian workers

This mood of defiance reflects the desperate situation that many workers in Iran are facing. There have been many strikes and protests over the past period, in particular concerning the question of unpaid wages. One example is what happened recently in Esfahan at the Tedjarat Company, Rahim Zadeh, Kohe Faht and Pars Fastony factories. The workers in these factories are owed between 6 and 8 months wages. About one thousand of them organised a march on March17, which ended up at the General Governor's office. The authorities replied by calling in the police who brutally attacked the workers arresting 12 of them. There is a long list of such cases, with workers being forced to protest either because of the long backlog of unpaid wages or because their jobs are at risk.

One of the most famous cases is that of the Behshahr textile workers. The workers there have organised a hunger strike because of the huge amount of unpaid wages owed to them. The number of workers facing a similar situation is constantly growing, so much so that now there are over 100,000 workers who have gone without pay for anything from three to 36 months!

Just as the students' movement has spilled over beyond the campuses themselves, the same thing happened recently with the Behshahr textile workers. On June 15, after ending their hunger strike these workers marched into the city of Behshahr. This turned into a mass demonstration against the regime attracting thousands of people. Again the security forces went in heavily against the demonstrating workers.

Another example comes from Esfahan, where according to some eyewitnesses anything between twenty and forty thousand people marched through the town calling for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. Similar events were reported in other cities such as Mashad, Khorram Abad and Shiraz.

In working class areas of Tehran there have been reports of the local population protesting about the big increases in the price of staple goods. Inflation in fact is growing very fast and ordinary working people just cannot make ends meet. Again these protests were met with the brutal intervention of the security forces.

This is bound to increase as the economic situation further deteriorates. Iran is heavily dependent on oil exports. Oil revenue still represents about 80% of export earnings and around 40-50% of the government budget. Thus next year's current account is expected to move into deficit as the price of oil comes down, adding to the pressures that the regime is under, and providing further fuel to the mass movement that will inevitably develop.

Mullahs are terrified

As we have already pointed out, what has been significant with this latest movement of the students is the brutal reaction of the regime. In spite of every commentator underlining that this movement is much smaller than that of 1999 ("piffling" according to the latest edition of The Economist!) the regime's reaction is indicative of the fact that they believe it could spread far wider than the university campuses, to the workers' districts, which have already been in turmoil, as we can see form the situation described above. There is so much combustible material that it could be like a match being thrown onto petrol.

Thus no longer able to hold back the movement with the illusions of "reform", they have turned to ruthless repression. But a mass movement cannot be held back through pure repression alone. Some commentators have pointed out that the regime can count on an unofficial militia force of around 400,000. But they forget that under the Shah, before his overthrow in 1978 by the mass movement, his dreaded security force, the SAVAK was also considered the most powerful in the region. It did not hesitate to open fire on the crowds from helicopters. But this did not save it from the wrath of the masses once these began to move in a determined manner. The same fate awaits today's security forces and unofficial pro-regime militias.

Splits at the top

The weakness of the present regime can be seen in the splits that have emerged at the top of the regime itself. Recently more than 25o lecturers signed a letter calling on Khamenei to "abandon the principle of God's representative on earth" and to accept that he is accountable to the people. Among the signatories were two aides of Khatami. In May 127 legislators called on Khamenei to accept reform before "the whole establishment and the country's independence and integrity are jeopardised".

What this means is that a wing of the regime is clearly worried that the movement could get out of control and lead to the toppling of all of them, conservatives and reformers. But these pious gentlemen are not really worried about the conditions of the masses. Their aim is to loosen the reins so as to avoid an explosion that will sweep the lot of them away. The problem is that in the conditions of Iran once the reins are loosened the masses will begin to move more freely and will not stop at some minor concessions. Their problems are too big and too urgent for them to be able to wait for better times when the reformers manage to find it in them to do something.

Up until not so long ago there was the illusion that some kind of democracy was close at hand. Now that illusion has gone. This can be seen from the demands being raised. They no longer appeal to Khatami, they call for his downfall and with him the whole rotten regime. It is significant that the demand for separation of Mosque and State is being raised.

The next stage

This shows that the movement is progressing to the next stage. The problem is that so far this movement has been disorganised with no clear point of reference or mass party emerging that is capable of uniting together all the forces, workers, students, small shopkeepers, etc. That is clearly missing.

It is not enough to call for an end to the regime, for the separation of the Mosque from the state. These are demands that Marxists support of course, but it is necessary to go further and also to warn the workers and youth of Iran. It is clear that so-called "liberal" bourgeois politicians are preparing to intervene in Iran. The old supporters of the Shah are also trying to get a look in through their satellite TVs.

The Bush administration in the US is clearly looking to these. What they want is "regime change" that would lead to a US-friendly regime. They want to exploit the mass movement that is developing to topple the regime and replace it with their own stooges. That also explains the pressures on the question of nuclear weapons. In this the European Union is also adding its weight demanding the inspection of Iran's military and nuclear hardware. They are trying to send a message to some of the leading figures in the regime which basically says; "either play the game according to our rules or you could end up like Iraq"!

The youth of Iran can see straight through this and have distanced themselves from Bush when he came out expressing his "support". The fact is that Bush really supports the economic programme of the "reformers". This means he is actually at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to the demands of the students. They are opposed to privatisation and cuts. Bush supports these measures.

No the solution to the problems of the Iranian workers and youth are not be found in any liberal bourgeois politician and certainly not in the capitalist west. What is needed in Iran is to coordinate the various struggles and bring them together under one banner. This means that the workers must build action committees in their workplaces. The same must be done on the campuses and in the neighbourhoods. These should elect delegates to wider co-ordinating committees. On this basis the workers and youth can hammer out a programme and decide on the next step in the Iranian revolution.

The bourgeois are raising the demand for privatisation. These committees should write clearly on their banner 'No to privatisation'. Sixty per cent of the economy is already in state hands, but it is run in the interests of the clique around the mullahs. Instead, what the action committees would call for is workers' control and management of these industries. Iran is potentially a very rich country with an educated and skilled working class. If the resources of the country were under the control of the workers they could use them to eliminate the scourge of unemployment. They could provide housing and jobs for all. Education could be free for all.

All this would be possible if the workers were in power. A first step towards achieving that would be a general strike of the workers, students and small shopkeepers. If all the forces of the workers and youth were brought out together the regime would be powerless to stop it. So long as the protests are sporadic and isolated to one town or another, to one factory or another, to one campus or another, then the regime can pick off each of these and attempt to terrorise the workers and youth. But if the movement were co-ordinated and generalised then the regime would come tumbling down. That is what happened to the Shah. It can happen again.

The role of the Iranian communists

But the lessons of the past must also be learnt. If the movement remains uncoordinated and leaderless then it can be hijacked by other forces. This is what the mullahs did last time. This was facilitated by such organisations as the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, the leaders of which at that time presented Khomeini as a "progressive" element. Thus they supported the mullahs. They paid a terrible price for this support. They provided the Islamic fundamentalists with a left cover, which they used to hoodwink the masses. After that the Communists were discarded and suffered terrible repression losing many of its members in the torture chambers of the Islamic regime.

There is no such thing as a "progressive wing" of the Iranian bourgeoisie. Those bourgeois and royalist elements in exile have nothing progressive about them. They merely want to exploit the situation to promote their own interests and trample on the Iranian masses once more.

There is a long history of class struggle in Iran, and also a long Communist tradition. Among the new generation of workers and youth now coming onto the scene of history there will be many who will seek this past tradition. They will be looking for genuine Marxist ideas. Already the Tudeh and other Communist groups, in particular the Worker Communist Party of Iran, have cells working on the ground and also many members in exile. Genuine Marxists would welcome the growth and development of such Communist Parties in Iran. But it is also time for a reappraisal of the past among the Iranian left. It is necessary to draw a balance sheet and develop the correct programme, strategy and tactics. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past in seeking the so-called "progressive elements". The working class, pulling behind it all the oppressed layers of society, would be an unstoppable force. The Communist movement must base itself on this central point and warn the workers not to trust any of the "reformers" or liberal politicians who are trying to regain their lost influence. Trust none of them. Count only on your own forces.

Now the workers and youth of Iran have been given another opportunity by history. Let us not waste it.