The mass demonstrations and riots in Iran are the first shots of the Iranian revolution. This article points out the importance of these events, underlines the decissive role of the workers and explains the need to link democratic demands with a socialist programme.
"The situation in Iran is also explosive. After 20 years of the rule by the mullahs, the masses are beginning to stir. The fall in the price of oil has hit Iran badly (Iranian crude now fetches just $12 a barrel). Since oil provides 30% of Iran's total revenues and 80% of its foreign reserves, this threatens to destabilise the country's finances. Although the recent budget showed an increase of 16%, given a 25% rate of inflation, this represented a cut in real terms. If one considers that no less than 40% of the budget goes on education and that there are 20 million students in Iran, the potential for social upheavals is self-evident. Iran is already being affected by falling investment in industry, construction and the retail sector. The election of president Khatami was an indication of growing opposition. There is a clear split between the Khatami wing and the conservative Parliament (the Majlis). It is possible that an attack against Iraq might temporarily strengthen the fundamentalist wing, but such a development would be of a temporary character. The unleashing of a new wave of anti-US demonstrations has a logic of its own which the regime, under present conditions would find it difficult to control. (Imperialist bullying and the crisis in the Middle East, Ted Grant and Alan Woods, London February 13th, 1998)
We wrote these lines exactly one year ago. Now this prediction has come true. The events in Iran are like the situation in tsarist Russia in the Spring of 1905. 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 unrest erupted on July 8 after students protested against the passage of a law curbing press freedom and the closing of a popular left-leaning newspaper. Security forces stormed a dormitory at Teheran University that evening, beating students and pushing them out of windows. This attack had all the hallmarks of a premeditated provocation. Is was a well planned, carefully co-ordinated night raid by the hooligans of Ansar Hezbollah backed by Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and special units of the Intelligence Ministry. It seems likely that the intention of the reactionary wing of the regime, headed by the ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wanted to provoke the students into reacting, and then crush them. In this way they hoped to eliminate the "moderate" President Muhammed Khatami who had initiated a number of cautious reforms in Iran.
However, events did not work out according to plan. The savagery of the attack provoked a massive reaction which caught the mullahs entirely by surprise. The Stratfor Global Intelligence Update (July 13, 1999) carried an article under the heading "Iranian Student Unrest Threatens to Get Out of Control", which reported that "Iran's students have taken to the streets to protest press restrictions imposed by the country's conservative religious leadership. However, while the demonstrations began as a reflection of the struggle between moderate President Mohammad Khatami and conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, they have taken on a life of their own. As such, both leaders have moved to bring an end to the disruptions. Who brings the demonstrations under control and by what means will have as much impact on Iran's power struggle as the demonstrations themselves. If Khatami can rein in the students, he has a powerful bargaining chip. If he cannot, Khamenei can argue that his reforms have gone too far and threaten the stability of the regime."
Tens of thousands of student demonstrators fought with riot police in Tehran for five days--the first mass demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "The demonstrations", Stratfor explains, "began as small, peaceful student protests calling for press freedom after the closure of several liberal newspapers on July 8. They later transformed into widespread riots after riot police, sent in to break-up the demonstrations, injured dozens of students and arrested several dozen others." By noon the number of demonstrators in this area exceeded 50,000. Shopkeepers along the route of the demonstration shut down their businesses and joined the demonstrators. Demonstrators attacked the patrol cars of the State Security Forces, whose agents first fired into the air and then shot at the crowd. The SSF agents were forced to flee. Government vehicles in the area and along the route of the march were set on fire by the people. Furious demonstrators attacked Sepah and Saderat banks at Vali-Asr Intersection. Mullahs who ran into the demonstration threw away their turbans and robes and fled. Crowds of anything up to 100,000 staged demonstrations and sit-downs in the capital.
Initially, the students confined themselves to the limited demands for press freedom in line with the limited aims of the liberal wing of the clergy. But once on the streets, the movement rapidly acquired a momentum and a life of its own. The students began to feel their own strength and their demands grew bolder and more sweeping. In demanding full democracy, they were demanding the radical abolition of the present regime. But this can only be achieved by revolutionary means. This was not at all the intention of Khatami and the so-called reformers, who immediately took fright and turned against the students. This is entirely logical. Whatever differences may separate the rival cliques fighting for power at the tops of society, their fear of the masses unites them far more.
It was 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 and helped to get him elected president in 1997. As the Marxists understood at the time, this marked a decisive turning-point, not because Khatami himself would bring a change, but because it marked the beginning of an open split in the regime--the first condition for revolution. When a regime like that of Iran enters into crisis, it always tends to split between two factions--one says: "If we do not reform from the top there will be a revolution." The other says: "If we do reform, there will be a revolution." And both are correct.
The great French historian and sociologist Alexis de Tocqeville pointed out that the most dangerous moment for an autocracy is precisely when it attempts to reform itself. In his celebrated work The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, he writes:
"Thus it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest. This may seem illogical--but history is full of such paradoxes. For it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolutions break out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people that has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it. Thus the social order overthrown by a revolution is almost always better than the one immediately preceding it, and experience teaches us that, generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it tries to mend its ways. Only consummate states craft can enable a king to save his throne when after a long spell of oppressive rule he sets to improving the lot of his subjects. Patiently endured so long as it appeared beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds." ( The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, p.197)
These lines precisely describe the present moment in Iran.
Lenin explained that there are four conditions for a revolution:
1) The old regime is split and in crisis. The ruling class is not able to continue to rule with the methods of the past.
2) The middle class is in a state of ferment, oscillating between the ruling class and the proletariat.
3) The working class is ready to make the greatest sacrifices to change society.
4) The existence of a revolutionary party and a revolutionary leadership. (the subjective factor)
In Iran today all of these conditions exist, except the last one. The split in the regime has been manifest for a number of years. The present situation was sparked off precisely by the conflict between reformists and conservatives in the government. The profound discontent of the middle class is shown by the movement of the students and the manifest sympathy shown by the people of Teheran towards them. We will speak later on of the working class, which has already been involved in struggles before the recent events. All the conditions are maturing for a decisive showdown between the masses and the regime.
After 20 years the masses are tired of the rule of the mullahs. Originally, ayatollah Khomeini promised a pure and incorruptible Islamic regime, free from all exploitation and the pernicious influences of the West. But corruption is an inseparable companion to any bureaucratic regime. The bureaucracy of the mullahs was no exception. Indeed Iran is now one of the most corrupt countries on earth. The mullahs, particularly the middle layers, have cheerfully given themselves over to theft, swindling and bribery on a massive scale. The enrichment of the regime's supporters (who evidently cannot wait for the blessings of a future life in paradise) are in stark contrast to the growing impoverishment of the workers and peasants. The contrast between rich and poor is all the more galling because of the propaganda of the regime with its constant appeals to solidarity. The contrast between words and deeds, between theory and practice, repels and disgusts all honest people and creates a general mood of frustration and suppressed anger.
In the past, Iran's great oil wealth guaranteed a certain stability. The regime made concessions to the masses in the form of health, education and other services. Infant mortality fell from 104 per thousand in the mid-seventies to 25 per thousand in the mid-nineties. Life expectancy in the same period rose from 55 to 68. There are one million students in higher education, of whom 40 per cent are women. But a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth went to enriching the mullahs and their hangers-on. The Economist (18/1/97) described the attitude of educated Iranians:
"All very well, say discontented Iranians. So now we have roads and telecommunications, mechanised farms and primary schools, health centres and birth control, not to mention village women who are asserting themselves. But this is no more than our due as an oil-rich country with an ancient history, a glorious culture and a well-educated elite, geographically placed at the centre of one of the world's most strategic regions. We are not a third-world out-of-the-way dump, to be patronised by western newcomers. We want more than that...:
"Fine, they say, that the regime appropriated most of the wealth of the shah's old cronies, a new-rich class just as greedy and corrupt as the old aristocrats. Real incomes have shrunk savagely, particularly for the disappearing middle classes. With a teacher's pay barely covering the rent of a room, day-to-day living relies on dodgy improvisation."
The average take-home pay is not enough to cover the average family's food bill, and most people are forced to work in more than one job to make ends meet. Often a man has to take two or three extra jobs to survive. A university lecturer earns 500,000 rials ($110 at the official rate) but would need to do some additional tuition or research. A retired army general gets 170,000 a month. A primary schoolteacher starts at a miserable 120,000 rials (about $25). How can anyone live on these wages? And annual inflation is about 27 per cent.
The world crisis of capitalism reflected itself in the collapse of oil and other commodity prices last year. Although the price of oil has since risen by 80 per cent (for how long is another matter) it caused serious problems for all oil producing countries. The Iranian economy is now in crisis, with high inflation and unemployment, low investor confidence. The hated foreign debt stood at around $25 billion in 1997. 86 per cent of Iran's GDP comes from the state sector and a large part of the rest is controlled by the Mafia. The stench of corruption hangs over the whole economic life of the country.
In addition, there is a steep rise in crime, the absence of personal security and many freedoms. The oppressive nature of the regime is manifested in a thousand different ways. Those who want to be students or teachers are interrogated to see if they and their families respect Islamic values. The system is heavily weighted against women. A female student may be expelled if she is caught laughing with an unrelated man. This is supposed to represent a sensuous invitation to sin! The suffocating regime of the mullahs which interferes in all aspects of life, big and small, would be bad enough in itself. But when everyone is aware that the clergy is corrupt and rotten to the marrow, it becomes utterly intolerable.
This is not what the people fought and died for in 1979. The disillusionment of the students was commented on two years ago in a special report in The Economist (18/1/97):
"When a first-year arrives in a college, says a lecturer, half the students are ready to lay down their lives for the revolution. By the second year, they have doubts, by the third, they are mildly critical, by the fourth, they are in outright opposition."
The massive discontent with the regime was reflected in 1997 election when the reformist Muhammed Khatami won a sweeping victory. Predictably, Khatami's promises of reform did not amount to much. He was blocked at every turn by the powerful hard-line conservative factions under the direction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. But the split at the top acted like a crack in a dam through which the flood waters have now burst.
Masses lose their fear
Sixty-five percent of the people of Iran are under 25, and they know little of the revolution and Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. In vain does the regime try to appeal to the spirit of the war and martyrdom. The time for such speeches is long past. The youth of Iran will no longer tolerate empty rhetoric and speeches. They want jobs and freedom. The youthfulness of these new layers, coming fresh into the struggle, unencumbered with the dead weight of routine and tradition, is what gives the movement its extraordinary sweep and elan. Above all, these students feel that they are not alone, but speak in the name of the people: "The people live in misery! The clerics are acting like gods!" was one of the slogans chanted by the students on the demonstrations. The fear of the regime has declined to the point where the students felt able to defy the forces of the state. A Stratfor report states that:
"In the past, the students have dispersed at the site of riot police or Revolutionary Guards, which are both controlled by Khamenei. However, this time the students did not flee. In fact, the student protests grew over the anger of police brutality in breaking up the demonstrations."
The movement of the students immediately got an echo among the general population. Ordinary Iranians joined the ranks of the students, and the protests have spread to Tabriz -- where one student was killed by security forces over the weekend -- and to Yazd, Khorramabad, Hamadan and Sharud. The potential for an all-Iranian revolutionary movement was rapidly looming.
In an attempt to stop the movement. the Governor of Teheran had announced on Monday an official ban on all demonstrations. Bravely defying the ban, the students took to the streets early Tuesday morning facing several thousand Islamic militia, (estimated by some sources at more than 50.000) many of them brought overnight to Tehran from other towns. This detail is significant. It shows that the regime did not have sufficient trustworthy forces in Teheran and had to bring in backward elements from the provinces to do the dirty work.
That day Teheran resembled an armed camp with large numbers of LEF and Intelligence Ministry's forces occupying the city centre, while helicopters hovered above, issuing appeals from loudspeakers "for calm and order"--a call that was drowned out by bursts of police machine guns firing in the air and explosives used to frighten and disperse the demonstrators.
"By mid-day," writes Safa Haeri, "the Iranian Capital looked like a war-torn, occupied city, as Ansarshock troops and security forces would check passers-by, private cars and taxis. Demonstrations were scattered and fighting sporadic, yet everywhere, even in downtown Tehran, where protesters attacked a bank, set fire to two buses and several official buildings, tried to occupy the offices of the hated dailies 'Keyhan' and 'Jomhouri Eslami', the former the mouthpiece of the Intelligence Ministry and the second speaking for ayatollah Khameneh'i, the dailies first founder, owner and editor."
The next sentence is extremely important. The writer continues:
"Curiously, shopkeepers at the sprawling central bazaar, traditionally a conservative stronghold, shut their business and joined the young demonstrator, whose ranks had swelled into thousands thanks to ordinary population of both sexes.." (My emphasis, AW)
Traditionally, the bazaar was a stronghold of the mullahs. If even this most conservative layer of Iranian society joined in the students' demonstration, then the conclusion is inescapable: the days of the regime are numbered.
Older journalists who had covered the 1979 revolution described the scene as 'an exact replica' of those days and months, with almost same slogans but changed according to new circumstances, and the same tricks. 'I shall kill, kill, whoever kills my brother". Other slogans explicitly named the objects of the people's anger: "Jannati Molla Omar--Execution! Execution!", comparing the secretary of the Council of Guardians and a close friend of the leader with that of the Afghan Taliban. "Death to (Mohammad) Yazdi! Shame on Khameneh'i". Others chanted: "O People, the revolt has started, the end to 20 years of tyranny is heralded" And slogans against the mullahs: "Freedom of thought, Is not possible with beard fleece"
A report in the New York Times dated Tuesday, 13 July 1999, states:
"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.
The chaos and violence closed hundreds of stores, banks, gas stations, shopping centres and office buildings and finally, extraordinarily, even the vast bazaar in the south of Teheran.
The clogged streets smelled of fear and confusion as the worst unrest in the Islamic republic's history was countered by tens of thousands of uniformed and plainclothes security police, soldiers, anti-riot forces in shields and face-covering helmets, Revolutionary Guards, intelligence operatives, vigilantes wielding long green batons and ordinary street thugs."
On the streets Tuesday, the smouldering hatred of the regime exploded into anger. The New York Times quoted a number of people:
"I pray that we get rid of the savages who beat our children," said one middle-aged woman as she watched baton-wielding men on motorcycles chase pro-democracy demonstrators on a street corner in central Tehran. "Savages, hooligans, that's what they are."
The woman said she had seen a dozen vigilantes beat two women with clubs outside the university late Monday night.
Another bystander said he had seen vigilantes attack a small group of young men who were chanting, "Khatami, we support you!" The demonstrators were badly beaten with long batons, the bystander said, and another man who was walking by was beaten as well.
"I just want to get rid of the filthy regime," the man said. "Anything would be better than these clerics, even the worst criminals."
It also confirmed that ordinary people were joining in the demonstrations: "Ordinary people with no apparent grievances silently moved in and out of the fringes of the demonstrations."
The New York Times also described how the police left most of the dirty work to the ruffians in the so-called Islamic militias:
"When thousands of people refused Tuesday night to leave Enghelab Square, one of Teheran's largest intersections, hundreds of baton-wielding vigilantes, many of them riding in two's on motorcycles, swooped down, witnesses said. The vigilantes indiscriminately arrested, threatened and beat people in the crowd, following them as they ran through the streets in search of refuge, the witnesses added.
Uniformed security officials stood by and watched, blocking off large areas so that the vigilantes could roam freely. By allowing their surrogates to break up the demonstrations, the security forces seemed to be trying to distance themselves -- and the government -- from the crackdown."
But these tactics did not succeed. Throughout, the crowds showed themselves to be utterly fearless--in the best Iranian tradition. They displayed the same indomitable revolutionary spirit that toppled the monstrous tyranny of the Shah. Among the slogans borrowed from the 1979 revolution was: "Army brothers, why kill your brothers?" This is an appeal to the troops to come over to the side of the insurgents. It must have sent a shudder of fear in the ruling circles. To neutralise the clouds of tear gas, liberally employed by the security forces and Islamic vigilantes, the demonstrators set fire to tires.
When one crowd estimated at more than 2000 reached the metal gates of the Intelligence Ministry, the demonstrators chanted: "The incapable Leader, Responsible of all crimes, Supporter of Criminals" and then "Khameneh'i, shame on you! Vacate the Throne" And: "O student, Crusher of gods, Crush the big God." Facing the security forces, they shouted: "Tanks, Cannons, Machine Guns, All are useless" and to the Islamic hoodlums of Ansar, they would chant: "Down with the Ansar! Down with the Basij" (the armed lumpenproletarian gangs used by the mullahs to crush dissent) .
The extent to which the demonstrations had spread to other regions was impossible to determine since, after reporting widespread protests in 18 cities on Monday, the official press suddenly fell silent on Tuesday. This fact probably indicates that the movement was in fact spreading.
Cowardice of the Liberals
As always, the Liberals have played the most cowardly and treacherous role. Like the Russian Cadets in 1904-5, the reforming wing led by Khatami wanted to lean on the students as a lever with which to wrench concessions from the hard-liners. Their aim is not to overthrow the regime but to force the conservatives to move over and make room for them. Their methods flow directly from this aim: not the revolutionary movement of the masses, but endless manoeuvrings and intrigues at the top. If they could achieve their aims without any participation of the masses, by means of peaceful reform or a palace coup, they would be happy. But the reactionaries grouped around the Ayatollah Khamenei have not the slightest intention of surrendering their power and privileges without a ferocious struggle. Since the Liberals' fear of the masses is a thousand times greater than their hatred of the reactionaries, the end result is a foregone conclusion: a rotten compromise with the forces of reaction which will leave the old regime firmly in position.
No sooner had the students begun a serious struggle against reaction, than the Liberals came out in their true colours. From the first moment, Khatami wanted to halt the movement, appealing to the students to keep the demonstrations peaceful. This hypocritical language cannot hide the fact that the violence was not started by the students, who were merely demonstrating peacefully for democratic rights, but by Khamenei who, on July 11, issued a statement in the name of the Supreme National Security Council against "illegal rallies" and sent the police to break up the demonstration under the pretext of "trying to avoid clashes and restore calm."
When policemen and Revolutionary Guards blocked off access to central Tehran's Val-e-Asr square and attempted to disperse the demonstrators by force, the students replied by throwing stones. The police arrested at least 20 demonstrators and injured another dozen. The next day, July 12, President Khatami again appealed for calm and warned students to be wary of "provocations" from opponents of reform. "There are those who want to create provocations and clashes," he was quoted as saying. Khatami appealed to students "not to fall into this dangerous trap," saying, "We must be the first to oppose tensions and violence." In this way a united front was established between Khamenei and Khatami, as the right and left boots of reaction. The first tries to disperse the demonstrators with truncheons and tear-gas; the second tries to do the same thing with hypocritical speeches. But the intention is exactly the same.
The President's statement was distributed by the Iranian official news agency IRNA as follows:
"Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said here Tuesday that the Tehran university dorm incident Thursday has now led into aberrant developments that are markedly against the large-scale policies of Iran's political system and his own administration.
"President Khatami who was speaking at the end of a meeting of the special high committee of the National Security Council said at a television interview here that the dorm incident was specially bitter for him.
"He said after a few days the incident had taken a suspicious turn.
"He said those who had steered the original incident into its present form did not want good for the nation, but intended to sweep the country with unrest and instability.
"He said riotous events work against the political system and against the good of the people, adding that some of the people who had been arrested over the past few days were not college students.
"President Khatami said his administration is committed to peaceful behaviour and avoidance of violent acts.
"He said his administration was trying to deal as peacefully as possible with the current violent incidents in the interest of the large-scale policies of the government.
"President Khatami also appreciated those of the Iranian newspapers and magazines that had looked at the incidents discreetly and astutely, and condemned violent behaviour.
"He called on the print media in Iran to continue to maintain their wise outlooks of the current events in the country". (My emphasis, AW)
The President said rather more than he intended to! It is a fact that in a few days of demonstrations and clashes with the state forces, the people were already beginning to draw the most far-reaching revolutionary conclusions that certainly are directed against the present political system which Khatami defends. It is also true that the demonstrations were acquiring a very wide sweep and that a large part of the country was being caught up in "unrest and instability." Last, but not least, the fact that "some of those arrested were not students" is a valuable admission that workers and other citizens were beginning to join the demonstrations. This last fact is certainly a "sinister" development from the standpoint of the regime, which feels the ground shake under its feet.
Safa Haeri reports the angry reaction of the students:
"Minutes after his stunning statement reached the University campus and dormitories, hundreds of angry students who had just returned home after a day of violent clashes with Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), Intelligence Ministry's special Anti-riots Units and thousands of members of the conservatives-backed Ansar Hezbollah returned to the streets to be met by a huge barrage of security forces who charged them with machine guns, tears gas, iron bars, knives, metal cable and chains.
" 'There are many, many wounded, some seriously. It's like a real body to body war', one witness told Iran Press Service at around midnight local time.
"The news of the firm condemnation by the President badly shocked and hurt the students, particularly his supporters, those who, during the past 5 days of the protest, had pinned their hopes on him to see the authorities accepting their demands." (13th July, IPS)
The start of the revolution is always accompanied with a certain naïvely on the part of the masses, who look for saviours among the "big names" who appear to stand for reform and progress. Only through a painful process of trial and error do the masses learn to distinguish friend from foe and to see which leaders, parties and programmes really represent their interests and which are false, hypocritical and treacherous. In Iran this process has already begun. As yet the masses--even the most militant layer represented by the students--do not clearly know what they want. But they know very well what they do not want. They do not want the status quo. They do not want the regime that has brought them so much misery, war, unemployment and suffering. And now they have learned a new lesson. They do not want false friends and lying Liberals who, hiding behind hypocritical talk of reform, only want to cling to power and maintain the old regime with a little face-wash. This is a most important lesson!
Safa Haeri continues, quoting an unnamed journalist in Teheran:
"Mr. Khatami's statement denouncing as aberrant the student's legitimate demand has now disarmed his own supporters vis-à-vis other students who would be favouring the continuation of the protest until the authorities sack the Commander of the LEF, Revolutionary Guard General Hedayatollah Lotfian they consider as responsible for the Thursday's night savage attack on their dormitories"
The students--unlike Khatami--take democracy seriously. They demand the purging of those responsible for the murder of their comrades. What else are they supposed to demand? This is a minimum that one would expect in any half-democratic regime. In fact, the prior condition for the achievement of democracy in Iran is a thorough purge of the army and the police force of all reactionary and anti-popular elements and the disbanding of all repressive bodies like the Anti-riot units, the so-called revolutionary Guard and the lumpenproletarian gangs that operate under the name of Ansar-e Hizbullah and the like.
And Safa Haeri correctly concludes that:
"Analysts speculates that there will be no comeback for him in the hearts of the Iranians, those millions of young, and old, men and women who, two years ago and afterward so wholeheartedly worked days and nights for his success against the conservatives.
By choosing the easiest way out, that's to side with the conservatives at such a sensitive moment against the bulk of the students, his only solid and formidable support base so far, and a population that during the last 2 years backed him unconditionally, accepting all the hardship, mostly economically, Mr. Khatami became a Judas, and by the same token, signed himself the death sentence to his political career."
However, it is not just a question of one man. It is a question of an entire political trend. The attitude of Khatami is not an accident, but faithfully reflects the outlook of all the Liberals. For example, the head of the newly elected Teheran City Council, the Hojatolesam Abdollah Nouri--owner of the liberal daily Khordad and one of the darlings of the students called the movement "highly ambiguous". One of Khatami's advisers was quoted as saying that "all officials, academicians, clergies and the national and religious personalities were unanimous that legitimate demands should be followed up legally and such moves should not strengthen those who are after toppling the system". (My emphasis, AW)
Alarmed by the movement, the conservative-dominated parliament has been compelled to distance itself from the actions of the police in attacking the student dormitory. On Monday, the Majles Committee regretted the attack on the dormitory and described it as "an illegal act contrary to Islamic ethics":
"The incident was a bitter and painful act which hurt the heart of the supreme leader of the Islamic revolution ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, the Iranian nation and officials". However, the Commission observed that the incident was followed by some "illegal gatherings, sporadic demonstrations and illegal slogans simultaneous with spread of rumours by enemies and foreign broadcasting centres", according to a dispatch by IRNA. And it went on:
"It has now become clear that the foreign enemy, counterrevolutionary elements and the infiltrators have targeted the national security and are to push the government and nation towards chaos and unrest. Creation of unrest, illegal moves and crisis are pre-planned schemes by the counterrevolutionary enemies especially the US and the Zionists in particular.
"The security in the country depends on the endeavours of the officers and the personnel of the law enforcement forces", the statement concluded. The "liberal" Khatami had used more or less the same words.
The masses draw their conclusions
The situation had moved far beyond what these people had anticipated. The students did not comply with Khatami's requests. On the contrary, they reportedly included him as a target of their demonstrations.
The fact that the students booed Khatami, the man who only yesterday was their leader and hero, is highly significant. In a revolution, the masses learn quickly. Lessons that would not sink into the consciousness of men and women in twenty years of normal social life are now burned on their consciousness in a matter of days or even hours. The exact nature of the state, the role of the police, the judges, the mass media, the schools--and the Church--hidden for decades, suddenly become clear. In this process, the policeman's truncheon can be a valuable educator. The brutal slaying of student protesters at the very beginning of the movement undoubtedly had a radicalising effect on the students. A line of blood has been drawn between the students and the regime. This cannot be eradicated by fine speeches and promises, or by more repression. At best, the latter can temporarily put the lid back on, only to guarantee an even more violent explosion later on.
The treachery of Khatami and the Liberals will not be forgotten. This opens the way to the winning of the best elements of the workers and youth straight to the programme of revolutionary socialism as the only way out. The student demonstrations began as part of the struggle between Iran's moderates and conservatives. Their initial aims were just to support the reforms backed by Khatami , and against the press restrictions imposed by Khamenei's conservatives. But now the movement has gone far beyond that. The students have received some valuable lessons, not only on the true nature of the so-called Islamic republic, but also on that of the so-called Liberal reformers. They will not be satisfied with pettifogging reforms that change nothing essential. What is required is a total, root-and-branch transformation. The old state must be overthrown. That much is clear. But what to put in its place?
What is needed in Iran is a revolution. This fact was instinctively grasped by the students who have significantly chanted on their demonstrations the slogans of the 1979 anti-Shah revolution. As an indication that they are learning in action, however, the students have introduced significant changes into the old slogans. Whereas in 1979 the demonstrators chanted: "Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic," now, the protesters on the streets of Teheran no longer call for an "Islamic" but an "Iranian Republic." That is a big step forward, but it is not enough. The people of Iran want democracy, the overthrow of the corrupt despotism of the Mullahs and a radical separation of state and mosque. People should be free to follow any religious belief--or none--without interference from the state. But that is insufficient. The people of Iran do not want to exchange one tyranny for another. They do not want to exchange the domination of the mullahs for the domination of the big bankers and capitalists and American imperialism.
Moreover, for the mass of workers and peasants, the question of democracy is not an abstract question of legal definitions and paper constitutions. It is above all a question of bread. The first question is whether a revolutionary government will stand for the interests of the workers and peasants, and whether it will solve their basic needs--work, bread and shelter. How is this to be achieved? Only by means of a nationalised planned economy, under the democratic control and administration of the working class. Therefore, the central slogan of the revolution must be: "The Socialist Republic of Iran."
After the first upheavals, it appears that reaction is once again firmly in the saddle. But such a conclusion would be erroneous. The masses are pausing to take stock of the situation. The victory of the regime is extremely fragile, its base is narrower than ever before. At first sight this seems to be contradicted by the calling of a mass demonstration in support of the regime. This is the typical manoeuvre of a Bonapartist regime in difficulties. This was no spontaneous rallying of popular support in defence of the government. The state television and radio broadcast an announcement Tuesday from the Islamic Propagation Organisation, the country's biggest propaganda machine, calling on the people to take to the streets on Wednesday in a counterdemonstration to "defend the country's national security" and condemn "those people who want to drag the country into anarchy." Radio and television repeatedly broadcast a speech delivered on Monday by Ayatollah Khamenei in which he blamed the demonstrations on unnamed "enemies," particularly the United States.
But the most significant fact was not the size of the pro-government demonstration on Wednesday. The government has the means to send hundreds of thousands of people into the streets when it chooses, and has frequently done so in the past. This demonstration was not particularly impressive compared to past experiences. But what was striking was the fact that the regime had to ship in large numbers of people from outside Teheran. Most of the demonstrators were brought in from the rural areas and were drawn from the most backward and ignorant layers of Iranian society. The regime can still count on its base in the countryside. As always, the village lags behind the town, the peasant behind the worker. But sooner or later the village will catch up. In the meantime, in bringing these people to Teheran, the regime was issuing a confession of bankruptcy. The Ayatollahs no longer have the necessary reserves in the capital to organise a mass demonstration in its own support! This is a fact of first-rate importance.
Long ago Trotsky explained that it is impossible to maintain the masses in subjugation by repression alone. The police and the army are too narrow a base to hold down millions of people for any length of time. The experience of the Shah is a very sobering lesson in this respect. In the short term, it seems likely that the regime will attempt to keep itself afloat by resorting to a combination of concessions and repression. The aim of the reactionary wing was to establish a totalitarian regime and a bloody dictatorship like that of Soeharto in Indonesia. It deliberately provoked the students in order to crush them, and then eliminate Khatami and the "moderates" altogether. But things did not go as planned. The mass upsurge took them by surprise. Like the tsarist regime in Russia in 1905, they have been forced onto the defensive.
The attitude of the students towards Khameini was shown in a Stratfor report:
"Shocked by the students' defiance, Khamenei has moderated his stance and condemned last week's use of force by the police against protesters as 'unacceptable.' However, his speech, broadcast over loudspeakers at Tehran University, was met with boos from the crowd. Khamenei stressed that those responsible would be dealt with even if they are 'in the garb of law enforcement forces.' Indeed the two police officers who were deemed responsible for calling in the initial July 8 raid on the students were arrested. The Supreme Leader's remarks, quoted by the official IRNA news agency, are his first public reaction to the pro-democracy protests, and follow allegations by the students that he was complicit in the police action."
Reluctantly they have been forced to lean on Khatami for support. For his part, Khatami is terrified by the forces which he helped to call into being, like the Sorcerer's apprentice. He has thrown himself into the arms of the reactionaries. Like two drowning men who panic and grapple with each other, they will help each other to drown! The phase of pseudo-reforms has exhausted itself, but not before fulfilling its only positive role--that of arousing appetites it could not satisfy, and thereby opening the floodgates of revolution, in spite of itself. Now the Comedy is over.
As a serious political force, Khatami is finished. He will be hated by the students and despised by the reactionaries. It is the latter who are firmly in the saddle--for now. But they have had a severe warning. It is therefore possible that they will introduce a few reforms which will change nothing and will be purely for decorative purposes. At the same time they will try to crack down on all dissent. Those arrested in the demonstrators will be put on trial. . The government has threatened to use the death penalty against its enemies in an attempt to put the lid on future disturbances. But in this way it will only create martyrs and stoke up the hatred of the masses. Given the lack of leadership, repression may have the effect of postponing the movement temporarily, but only at the cost of causing an even more violent and uncontrollable explosion later on.
Decisive role of the proletariat
The key to success lies in the direct action of the workers. Already the action against the freedom of the press has led to the threat of strike action by more than 500 journalists. But the decisive element in the equation is the Iranian proletariat. There have been strikes in Iran. Towards the end of 1995 4,000 workers at the German owned Benz Khavar lorry plant struck over pay and holidays. The workers of the textile industry in Gaem Shar struck at about the same time. The possibilities of working class struggle are shown by the history of the all-important oil workers.
The Iranian Oil workers have a particularly decisive significance. In Iran and the Middle-East, industries such as oil and communications are the most strategic of economic sectors. This fact was demonstrated in 1979 Iranian revolution. While the Shah's regime faced massive street demonstrations, the declaration of national oil strike on the 5th of October 1978 was a major blow to the regime. Troops were called in, arresting 70 leading workers in Abadan refinery and the leader of the union of the Tehran Oil Refinery Workers. Following the arrests, the workers in Lavan, Bahrakan, Ahwaz, and other oil fields stopped working. The strike by 70,000 oil workers halted the production and export of oil. Within a month production declined from nearly 6 million barrels a day to nearly 2 million. This was the decisive element in the overthrow of the Shah. (Note: The information on the oil workers is from the Worker-Communist Party of Iran)
Under the dictatorship of the mullahs, the Iranian oil workers have seen their living standards under attack. Many workers' non-wage benefits and perks, as part of dangerous working conditions, have either been abolished, cut or were not up-rated in line with inflation. For example 15 day pay as part of travelling expenses were all abolished. Zero interest mortgage loan has been replaced with interest bearing loans which has reduced real income of the oil workers While the cost of living has been increasing by the day..
The regime has used other methods--like casualisation--to cut pay and living standards. The Contract workers are constantly under pressure to do unpaid overtime. Any refusal to comply with management instructions will result in termination of their contract. The intention is clear: to break any strike and protest by creating a highly insecure working environment. In addition, there has been a process of militarisation of the workplace and the activities of the so-called Islamic societies through which the spies and trusties of the regime identify the organisers and activists make any kind of protest extremely difficult.
Despite this, the oil workers have continued to fight to defend their living standards. Immediately after the Iran-Iraq war, the workers in 1988 and 1989, after the war, the oil workers organised a struggle demanding the payment of wages instead of coupons. In May 1990, Esfahan oil refinery workers demanded "Double pay for overtime." Despite 30 arrests and a lot of pressure, the strike continued for two weeks which secured the release of the detained strikers and a promise from the government to increase wages. A government delegation visited the refinery to rectify the situation. The workers made it clear to the delegation that: "It is no use telling you our demands, while we have no right to organise." Thus, the workers clearly linked the economic struggle with the political struggle--for the democratic right to organise on the shop floor.
On 27 January 1991 the oil workers struck just as they did the year before, for wage rise and a number of other welfare demands. The strike began at the Isfahan and Abadan refineries with hunger strike and within days it spread to the refineries in Tehran and Shiraz. Their demands included:
- Wage increase in line with inflation;
- Clarification and rectification of thousands employees who are not covered by Labour Law;
- Implementation of Job Classification scheme;
- Provision of housing and increase in housing subsidy/benefit.
In the second week of the strike on 8 February 1991 a representative of the ministry of Labour visited the Tehran oil refinery and asked the strikers to end their strike and by electing reps, allow the government and the authorities to deal with their demands. The workers refused and demanded to see the minister of oil. Two days later representative of the Ministry of information (security) in Tehran oil refinery, by referring to the crises in the gulf region, threatened the strikers, "unless they end their strike, the security forces would move in." Yet again the workers, fighting for their interests, were confronted by the state. Despite this, the strikers won most of their demands. This strike--the first all out strike in the oil industry since the great strike of 1978/79-- involved tens of thousands of oil workers.
The government was careful not to encourage other workers to follow the oil workers' example. But it was unable to brush aside the wage issue which is the pressing demand of the whole working class in Iran. The strike forced the Iranian government to indirectly and through its Supreme Council of Labour concede a wage rise of 36% across the board. The effect of the strike and the importance of the oil workers as such was to the extent that even the Minster of oil did not allow Islamic Societies (set up by the government in some of the work places) to be established in the oil industry: "The president himself was aware of this fact and on his advice, in view of the sensitivity of having political organisation in the oil industry, this issue would be considered in due course and appropriate measures with a view to the interests of the system, would be taken. "
On the 19th & 20th August 1996 six hundred Tehran Oil Refinery workers, mainly from oil storage unit and central gas depot stopped work and without prior notice, marched to the Labour House (the central body for the Islamic societies and Councils) where they protested about non-implementation of collective agreement and the enforcement of labour law.
Oil refinery workers in Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz and Esfahan went on a two day warning strike on 18 and 19 December 1996 demanding recognition of the collective bargaining and agreement by the government. The two days strike was called as a result of government refusal to act on earlier ultimatum issued in August by the oil workers. The striking workers have declared that, failure of the responsible minister to act and agree to their demands will result in an all out indefinite strike within a month. In Tabriz Oil refinery the two day strike was followed by a go-slow for three weeks. This is a most impressive record of struggle, particularly if we bear in mind that the right to strike and organisation is not recognised in Iran. Striking workers face dismissal, arbitrary arrest, execution and military occupation of the workplace. It shows that the workers, like the students, are losing their fear and are prepared to fight against all the odds. This fact constitutes the principal motor-force of the revolution in Iran.
Iran and the world revolution
Western countries like the United States, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany and others that, a bit hastily, had voiced their support and "sympathy" for the "reformist" Khatami, recognising in him their best bet to install a more congenial regime in Iran. But the student movement has upset all their plans and calculations. Understanding the revolutionary potential of the movement--which represents a mortal danger to them in one of the most important areas in the world--they hastened to call on him to make concessions and "satisfy" the student's demands. But the leverage of imperialism in Teheran is extremely limited and their pleas went unheard. Horrified, the imperialists had to watch as the situation spiralled out of control. They undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the reaction re-asserted control. But they are under no illusions that this situation cannot last.
Khatami represents that wing of the regime which looks to the West and capitalism for a solution. It was being quietly encouraged by the West which would prefer to install a weak and subservient (bourgeois) democratic regime in Teheran which would be more pliable than the old regime. The present disturbances took them by surprise. The Americans are horrified at the prospect of revolutionary developments in Iran, which can have enormous repercussions throughout the Middle East, in Russia and even further afield.
Iran occupies a strategic position in the world, not only from the standpoint of US imperialism, but also from that of world revolution. The magnificent revolution of 1979 showed the world the heroism of the Iranian working class. The Shah's regime was equipped with the most awesome means of repression. At his back stood a huge army and a ruthless and efficient secret police, the Savak. Some people drew the conclusion that the state was too powerful to overthrow by direct revolutionary action of the proletariat. Instead they played with the discredited tactics of Maoism and guerrillaism.
Life itself showed the falseness of these arguments. The supposedly invincible state machine of the Shah was shattered in pieces once the working class began to move. The Iranian revolution was a classical proletarian revolution which was aborted for lack of leadership and hijacked by the only group that was organised, determined and knew what it wanted--the mullahs. Thus, the greatest revolution of the second half of the 20th century ended up as a reactionary theocratic state. This was the greatest abortion in the history of revolutions. And it was entirely unnecessary.
The Iranian proletariat in 1979 was far stronger than the Russian working class in 1917. It could easily have taken power into its hands. But it lacked the necessary instrument in the form of a genuinely revolutionary party and leadership, like the Bolshevik party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. All that was necessary was to set up soviets--democratically elected committees composed of workers, students, shopkeepers, peasants and soldiers--and the problem would have been solved. But the so-called Communist Party, the Tudeh, had no perspective of taking power. The Moscow Bureaucracy dreaded the prospect of a workers' revolution in Iran. The Iranian Stalinist leaders blindly subordinated themselves to the Liberals and so-called progressives. Thus, in the moment of truth, the Iranian working class found itself paralysed and incapable of playing an independent role. The revolution was delivered hand and foot to clerical reaction.
But now the wheel has turned a full circle. The regime of the Ayatollahs has exhausted itself and now faces revolution, just as the Shah did. This idea is already present in the minds of the students who at this moment are in the vanguard. But the students alone can never triumph against the monstrous state of the mullahs. It is imperative that they link up with the oppressed masses--the workers, peasants and urban poor--who are tired of the heavy hand of clerical reaction. It is also necessary to fight for the complete social and legal emancipation of women--that section of society which has had to bear the heaviest burden under the tyranny of the mullahs. The women of Iran are destined to play a key role in the coming revolution. Already a very important development was the magnificent participation of the women who played a very active role in the demonstrations in Tehran, and were everywhere at the forefront of demonstrations. It is also necessary to defend the democratic rights of the Kurds and other oppressed nationalities in Iran.
But with a programme that confines itself to demands for formal democracy, this is impossible. Of course, it is necessary to fight for every democratic demand--for freedom of assembly, the right to demonstrate and strike, the right to organise, for free and democratic elections and the convening of a constituent assembly etc. But this is not enough. It is necessary to put forward a programme of social and economic demands which reflect the needs of the workers and peasants. A job for all! A living wage and decent pensions! For the seven hour working day! For decent schools and hospitals for all! For a crash programme of house-building! For a socialist plan of production, under the democratic control of the working people!
In order to put this programme into practice, it is necessary to set up democratically elected committees of workers. Committees of action must be formed to organise the struggle against the regime and give it a conscious expression. The students can play a vital role in this if they organise around the revolutionary programme of Marxism and link their struggle with the working class. We must avoid the temptation to resort to the senseless tactics of individual terrorism and so-called guerrillaism which have led to disaster in the past. Not terrorism but organised revolutionary work in the factories, in the schools, in the workers' districts--that is the only way to prepare for the inevitable battles that impend.
The movement has gone far beyond the limits prescribed by the "moderate" leaders. The Boston Globe (7/13/99) commented:
"It has already become evident that students are not risking beatings and death merely to show support for the marginal reforms of Iran's elected president, Mohammad Khatami. He has issued a statement saying that the protesters have made their point and ''now students should cooperate with the government and allow law and order to be established in society.''
These are the first confused stirrings of revolutionary consciousness. The actions of the students are far more advanced than their political understanding. But under these conditions people learn fast. Consciousness lags behind, but it is the essence of a revolution that consciousness catches up with reality with a bang. A whole generation of youth have had little or no knowledge of Marxism. Their sole point of reference was the so-called Islamic revolution of 1979. It was natural that some of the students refer to Islam. But serious commentators are able to distinguish between form and content. The references to religion are only "the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism." The students compare the theory of a pure and incorruptible Islamic republic with the reality of a corrupt dictatorship of mullahs who have robbed, deceived and cheated the Iranian people for two decades. The Boston Globe continues:
"The slogans of the protesters suggest they are passing beyond calls for limited reforms. When officials attempted to read to the demonstrators a statement from the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, students drowned out Khamenei's messengers, shouting: ''Down with the dictator!'' and ''Either Islam and the law or another revolution!'' "
Above all it is necessary to form an organisation of cadres, educated in the ideas of Marxism-Leninism. And it is necessary to see that the Iranian revolution can only succeed if it inscribes on its banner an internationalist perspective. That was always the position of Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Iran occupies a key position. A revolution in Iran would send shock waves throughout the world. We already saw that in a distorted way after 1979, when the Iranian revolution--unfortunately hijacked and distorted by clerical reaction--gave a powerful impulse to the so-called Islamic fundamentalism everywhere. This led to a dead end, as we see clearly, not only in Iran but in Afghanistan, Algeria and everywhere.
The alternative to imperialism and capitalism is not fundamentalism but socialist revolution and proletarian internationalism. The second Iranian revolution will have an entirely different content and character to the first. The imperialists can see this and dread it. They understand that the whole of the Middle East is hanging by a thread. There is not one single stable bourgeois regime there. A revolution in Iran would cause them to fall like skittles. A successful socialist revolution in Iran would cause shock waves throughout the Middle East, in Russia, in the Indian Subcontinent. It would undermine the reactionary Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. Its repercussions would be felt in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And not only there. The example of a healthy regime of workers' democracy in Iran would have an even greater effect on the workers of Europe, Japan and the United States than did the Russian revolution of 1917. It could change the course of world history. Everything depends on the ability of the advanced guard of the Iranian workers and students to create the necessary instrument for carrying out the revolution to the end.