Once again the students have taken to the streets of Teheran and other cities. But the scope of the present movement is far greater than the movement last summer which we described at the time as "the opening shots of the Iranian revolution". This time thousands of ordinary Iranians, especially poor people, joined the students in clashes with the police and Islamic vigilantes.
Last July we said that the student demonstrations in Iran were the first shots in the Iranian revolution (See The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution). One year later, events have confirmed this analysis.
The revolutionary process in Iran reached a new stage with the election of a "reformist" government earlier this year (See Iranian elections: Last chance for the "reformers"). By propelling the reformist faction into power, the masses struck another blow against the reactionary mullahs who have held power for the last 20 years. They took advantage of the elections to demonstrate their burning desire for change. However, no change has been forthcoming. The reformist faction led by Mohammed Khatami is afraid to tackle the reactionary mullahs represented by the ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Chicago Tribune (July 10, 2000) commented:
"The new parliament, Iran's sixth since the revolution, convened May 28 and has spent most of its first six weeks quibbling over technicalities and avoiding real issues." The paper went on to quote Mohammed-Reza Khatami, a leading reformer whose brother is President Mohammed Khatami: "'Change in Iran will be difficult and gradual (...) Those who were expecting that everything would be solved in 6 months or 12 months must understand that deep social change takes many years."
"Meanwhile, the Tribune adds, "the reformers are cautiously feeling their way in the new parliament. They are a disparate lot--ranging from representatives of student groups to an organisation called the Association of Combatant Clerics--with no clear-cut agenda beyond fuzzy pledges of 'more freedom'."
As the saying goes: weakness invites aggression. Khatami and his supporters seek changes through peaceful legal means, while preserving the constitution and the principle of supreme clerical rule. This is approximately the same as trying to square the circle. Despite all the retreats and compromises of the reformers, the mullahs remain implacable. The notion that it is possible to lessen the contradictions in society by voting for reform has been shown to be a complete utopia. On the contrary. The antagonisms have only been raised to a new level of fury:
"The tone of the debate has been very hard and harsh. Neither side knows how to compromise. Compromise is seen as betrayal," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Teheran University. "Both sides are making it a zero-sum game, and this is a big mistake. The reformers have to show the conservatives that they can also gain by participating. If the conservatives see that they are not going to gain anything, they won't play the game," he said.
After their resounding defeat inflicted by reform supporters of the president in parliamentary elections last February, conservative clerics have used their control of the judiciary to hit back. Although militant conservatives control only about 30 percent of the seats in the parliament, they have fought a vigorous rear-guard action by challenging the results in dozens of races won by reformist candidates. About 20 seats remain undecided. The reformers control the executive and legislative branches of Iran's government. But religious conservatives still dominate the judiciary and other important centres of power, and they have shown they are ready to sabotage all serious efforts to reform.
While systematically obstructing and sabotaging reform, Khamenei, feeling the pressure from below, is obliged to tack and manoeuvre. He defends reforms "in principle" but demands clearly defined goals to avoid any "misconceptions". "We don't want everyone to advocate his own understanding of reform. If reforms move too fast they could lead to deviance," he has said. In other words, Khamenei and the reactionaries are hiding behind Khatami and the bourgeois reformers in order to control the movement of the masses. But his intention is to preserve the stranglehold of the mullahs over the state: "The constitution must be used as a covenant, in which Islam has a primacy over every law," Khamenei insists.
The only serious issue the reformers have tackled thus far is the press law that makes it easy for the judiciary to close newspapers. But even here the conservatives have made clear they will bottle up this initiative in the Guardian Council, a conservative body that has the authority to block laws it deems "offensive to Islam". They have used the power of the judiciary to shut down 20 reformist newspapers and magazines. They also have jailed dozens of prominent journalists and reform movement activists. Khamenei defended this assault on the freedom of the press: "Freedom is important, but poisonous materials [in the press] which mislead reforms at this sensitive juncture are forbidden," he said. "We will not allow the methods of our enemies to be used to carry out reforms."
Nor has the conflict been confined to words. The reactionaries have shown repeatedly that they are prepared to resort to violence when it suits them. An assassination attempt in March that critically wounded Saeed Hajarian, a key adviser to President Khatami, was carried out by a gang of Islamic vigilantes, almost certainly with the approval of the reactionary clerics.
Cowardice of Liberals
Faced with such violence, the reformers merely try to bury their heads in the sand. Their main preoccupation is to prevent at all costs a movement from below. When faced with the threat of a mass uprising, they inevitably compromise and close ranks with reaction. In an attempt to dampen down the mood of rebellion, the Liberals are doing their best to lower expectations: "Don't be impatient!" "We cannot do everything at once!" and so on and so forth. Tom Hundley, the Chicago Tribune's foreign correspondent comments: "The high hopes of a few months ago have faded. With a clearer understanding of how the game is going to be played, the reformers who swept Iran's parliamentary elections in February are now trying to lower the expectations of their supporters." (Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2000)
Leaders of the reform movement--including some famous "students" of the previous generation who led the 1979 occupation of the US Embassy--continue to urge restraint and patience. "Some people who are frustrated may seek other means to achieve their goals, but we are urging this segment not take any illegal means, especially now that we have the power to achieve these goals through legal framework," said Khatami, the president's brother.
Hamid-Reza Jalaipour played a prominent role in the movement to oust the Shah. His reward, at age 21, was a provincial governorship, but over time he grew disillusioned with the clerics who were ruling the country. These days he publishes reform newspapers. This Liberal is very anxious to distance himself from revolution: "This is a movement to create a civil society. It's a peaceful movement, a soft movement, not a revolution," Jalaipour has said. This former student leader turned wealthy newspaper publisher in his 40s, prefectly expressed the standpoint of the Liberals: "One revolution was enough"'
Is this not familiar to us in the West? It reminds one forcibly of those sorry middle class ex-radicals who demonstrated on the streets of Paris in 1968 and are now comfortable reformists and bourgeois politicians who do not hesitate to refer to their "revolutionary" credentials (of thirty years ago), while urging the new generation to "be patient"--that is, to bow their heads before the inevitable triumph of capitalism. Like the Russian Cadets before the Revolution, their fear of the masses is a hundred times more potent than their hatred of the reactionaries.
But such weasel words cut no ice with people who are tired of waiting. The feeling is growing that "nothing has changed" and that therefore an impulse from below is required. Violent clashes between pro-reform students and Islamic vigilantes on the weekend of 8-9 July suggest that patience is wearing thin, especially among the young. The youth is the key to the Iranian revolution. Nearly 60 percent of Iran's population of 65 million are under the age of 25. They have no real memory of the Islamic revolution or Khomeini, are clamouring for freedom and are growing impatient with the slow pace of change.
For months, President Khatami and his allies have appealed for calm in the face of the hard-line agitation. In remarks published on Saturday, Khatami had warned of a social "explosion" if criticism was quashed by force. "It is wrong to expect the people to do as we tell them, and to suppress them if they don't," he said in comments marking the anniversary of the July 1999 raid. "We must not act in a way which would widen the gap between people and the government, something could eventually lead to an explosion," Khatami said in remarks published early Saturday. "People must be permitted to speak freely and criticise their government because if they are not allowed to so this, public dissatisfaction will eventually lead to an explosion."
The Liberal Khatami was trying to warn the reactionaries of the danger of a social explosion unless they agreed to reform. But, as usual, such well-meaning warnings from the Liberals fell on deaf ears. The reactionaries have decided that the phantom of revolution must be exorcised with blows and bullets, not reforms.
The masses take to the streets
Once again the students--that most sensitive barometer of social antagonisms--have taken to the streets of Teheran and other cities. But the scope of the present movement is far greater than the movement last summer which we described at the time as "the opening shots of the Iranian revolution". The leading student movement, the Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU), organised a peaceful event to commemorate the hundreds of students injured in a 1999 attack on a student hostel, calling on supporters to distribute flowers under the slogan of "smile to reform". Reformist leaders held a seminar at the hostel where one year ago Islamic thugs attacked and beat up students. The aim of the seminar was to urge non-violent tactics in the struggle for greater freedoms and democracy. But many students ignored such peaceful gestures and official bans on rallies, taking to the streets on their own and attracting many ordinary people to join their cause. As soon as the mass of the students were on the streets, the demonstrations took on an entirely different character.
When students gathered Saturday at the university, they were met by police and Islamic vigilantes. Clashes erupted and quickly spread through central Teheran. Islamic vigilantes had attacked an earlier demonstration by students chanting slogans in support of reform and political freedoms. Witnesses said police did not intervene as the vigilantes punched and kicked students in the face. The violence of the police was met by an explosion on the streets later in the day. Hundreds of people, many armed with rocks and chanting "death to dictators", fought a vicious battle against dozens of hard-line vigilantes armed with rocks, chains and automatic weapons. The vigilantes were chanting slogans supporting hard-line supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Witnesses saw demonstrators injured when militants of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah, or Friends of the Party of God, charged with chains, clubs and broken bottles around the central Revolution Square, close to Teheran University, where pro-reform students had held a day of peaceful protests.
The Chigago Tribune reported that police and vigilante thugs arrested many demonstrators from a crowd that numbered several thousand at its peak. Some protesters retaliated with stones:
"The crowd that marched on Revolution Square appeared to be a mix of students, onlookers, and possibly radicals opposed to the clerical regime. Riot police firing tear gas barred their way but the Islamic vigilantes, chanting slogans supporting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, broke through and attacked the crowd.
"The students had earlier held a day of peaceful protests, handing out flowers to passers-by and organising seminars of non-violence to mark the first anniversary of a crackdown by security forces on student demonstrations, during which at least one person was killed (É)
"Reporters said police fired warning shots near a student dormitory but it was unclear whether they were using live ammunition. The violence was largely unexpected. Leaders on the both sides of Iran's political divide--supporters of pro-reform President Mohammed Khatami and his conservative rivals--had emphasised the need for calm."
Then a real street battle commenced. Bystanders fled the scene after police moved in and fired tear gas. Police fired into the crowd when demonstrators turned on them. It was not clear if police were firing live ammunition or rubber bullets or whether anyone was hurt. The violent actions of the police and Islamic thugs infuriated the demonstrators. Thousands of people soon began rampaging through area streets, damaging shops and smashing bus windows.
A report by Hassan Sarbakhshian (Associated Press) describes the scene:
"Police fired bullets and tear gas Saturday at rioters who smashed bus windows and shouted slogans against Iran's Islamic government in the latest outburst of political unrest here.
"Screaming 'death to the clerical government', the rioters burned bundles of hard-line newspapers, shattered shop windows an damaged the shutters on downtown businesses."
Witnesses saw dozens of people arrested, thrown into police cars, vans and trucks that kept pouring into the district. Forces of the Basij volunteer militia that supports the hard-liners also roamed the streets on motorcycles and in vans, wielding clubs and working alongside police. By late Saturday, thousands of riot police were roaming the again-quiet streets around Teheran's Revolution Square. Shattered glass, sticks and stones littered the area.
The clashes between protesters and vigilantes left scores of demonstrators arrested and many on both sides badly wounded. It was unclear how many people were injured in fighting between the two groups, but at least a dozen people were seen being driven away in private cars, most with head injuries. Less violent protests erupted in the southern city of Shiraz and central city of Isfahan. But events have already shown that the truncheons of the police cannot halt the movement. On the contrary. Once a regime has outlived its historic usefulness, attempts to preserve it by means of violence have the opposite effect. Every act of repression serves only to deepen the hatred of the regime among the masses and widen the abyss that separates the contending classes. This, in turn, serves to undermine the efforts of those who seek to paper over the cracks. The school of the streets has provided the masses with a valuable lesson on the nature, not only of reaction but of Liberalism as well.
The movement is already going beyond the boundaries established by the reformers. A report from Teheran by Reuters correspondent Mehrdad Balali (Sunday July 9) concluded: "The protesters went far beyond what Khatami's movement for political and social change advocates and crossed the so-called "red line" for political challenges." (my emphasis, AW) What was most significant about these events was that the demonstrators' chants were directed mainly against the reformers. "Khatami, Khatami, show your power or resign!" some of the demonstrators chanted at Saturday's rally. This is one of the first times reform activists have publicly criticised the president. "Khatami, Khatami, this is the final warning!" was another slogan.
These developments are indeed a turning-point. They mark a qualitative change in the whole situation in Iran. What is surprising is the speed with which the movement has passed from the parliamentary plane to the streets. This is an expression of the fact that the contradictions are too deep to be solved by parliamentary tinkering. The election of the reformists has merely served to expose their impotence. The movement on the streets was, in part, an attempt to push the Liberal majority in the parliament to go further. In vain!
As we explained one year ago, after 20 years of reaction under the rule of the mullahs, the masses are now impatient for change. The splits at the top are a reflection of the impasse of the regime. One wing of the ruling class says: "if we do not reform from the top there will be revolution". The other wing says: "if we do reform there will be a revolution". And both are correct. The struggle at the top, which is publicly displayed in parliament, provides an impetus to the movement from below. That is the real meaning of the latest developments.
After the demonstrations, Khatami's people have (naturally) distanced themselves from the protests. "The reform movement believes in peaceful and rational approaches. It condemns any act of violence and tension," said Hayat-e No daily. In fact, the protests were held not only in defiance of an official ban on rallies but also despite reformers' pleas for calm in the face of a conservative backlash against liberal activists. This fact adequately expresses the true nature of the reformers as the left boot of reaction. The reactionaries oppose demonstrations with police bans and truncheons, the Liberals with appeals "not to provoke reactions". But, at the end of the day, both factions are hostile to the movement of the masses, which they fear as the devil fears holy water.
Conservative newspapers described the protesters as "hooligans and anti-revolutionaries", calling on mainstream student groups to set themselves apart from them. As usual, the reactionaries try to blame the demonstrations on "foreign enemies". This is neither new nor original. In just the same way Kerensky accused the Bolsheviks of being German agents. But such slanders have no effect once the masses get on the move.
As occurred during last year's protests, we see a kind of united front between Khamenei and Khatami against the mass movement. The reactionaries do not mind the reformers as long as they confine their activities to "constitutional channels", as long as they accept the rules of the game invented by the reactionaries, as long as they do nothing to rouse the masses--that is to say, as long as they do not lift a finger to fight for a change. "As long as the groups in the system do not clearly define their positions and do not expel radicals from their ranks, there is a possibility for the enemy to take advantage," said Entekhab, a Teheran daily.
The wrath of the reactionaries was directed not only against the demonstrators but also against the unfortunate reformist student leaders who had done their best to prevent the demonstrations and keep the movement within repectable limits. "The OCU's strategy of 'flower and smile' did not last long. Violence-mongers created another incident," the hard-line Resalat daily thundered. The leading Liberals lost no time in falling into line. "Those who go to extremes, are definitely not part of the student movement. Student representatives are those who distributed flowers on Saturday," said Meysam Saeedi, a member of parliament and former student "leader".
But the pathetic declarations of the reformers only serve to embolden the reactionaries, some of whom went further and blamed Khatami's allies and some government bodies for the violent protests. This is an obvious attempt to frighten the reformers (not a very difficult task!) and get them to condemn the mass movement (also not very difficult). Writing from Teheran on Sunday 9th July, in an article entitled "Iran Reformers Denounce Street Violence", Mehrdad Balali reported that "reformist allies of President Mohammed Khatami distanced themselves on Sunday from pro-democracy rallies over the weekend which took aim at the heart of the ruling clerical system". Reformist newspapers tried to play down the street clashes, instead giving coverage to the peaceful events to support Khatami's liberal reforms, strained by a conservative crackdown on independent press and liberal activists.
After the protests the reformist leaders even tried to claim that the students were not involved. The Office to Consolidate Unity, the largest pro-reform student group, was quick to disavow the rioters. "The demonstrators were not students," the group said in a statement. "[Students] had nothing to do with this incident." This is a plain lie. The fact is that the movement was begun by militant students, but they were joined by many ordinary Iranians, especially poor people. The Guardian (10th July) reported:
"A new challenge to President Mohammed Khatami government has emerged in the wake of demonstrations at the weekend in central Teheran where thousands of Iran's poor joined university students in a battle with Islamic extremists.
"The spontaneous coalition on Saturday night of students and ordinary Iranians demanding improved social conditions marked a turning-point in the struggle to redefine the Islamic Republic.
"A year ago, it was mainly students who demanded more freedom and political reform. Now, the cries for change are coming from mainstream society." (my emphasis, AW)
This is an extremely important development. The movement that began as a movement for democratic reform is being transformed into a revolutionary movement in which the workers are joining the students on the streets, and filling the democratic demands with a class content. For the workers and peasants, democracy is not an abstract juridical question. The struggle for democratic rights only makes sense if it is linked to the struggle for an improvement in the material conditions of the masses. The real reason for the demonstrations, and the participation of the poor and oppressed alongside the students, was explained by The Guardian article already referred to:
"Even before Saturday's protest in Teheran, which left dozens seriously injured after Islamic vigilantes used clubs to beat back the protesters, demonstrations against electricity shortages and sub-standard drinking water had erupted in a number of cities, including in the oil centre, Abadan, near the Iraqi border." (my emphasis, AW)
The fact that the protests have spread to other cities, and particularly the oil-producing areas, must fill the regime in Teheran with deep foreboding. We must recall that the decisive blow against the Shah was struck by the oil workers in 1979. The masses have joined in the struggle of the students, but have added their own independent demands for improved living standards, wages and conditions. However, it would be wrong to assume that the real motive for these protests is the deterioration in the material conditions of the masses. The question of electricity shortages and bad drinking water--important though this is--is only the spark that has lighted a fuse prepared long in advance. After twenty years of rule by corrupt and reactionary mullahs, the working people of Iran have had enough. Nothing less than a fundamental change of society will satisfy them. This means that revolutionary developments are on the order of the day in Iran.
The events in Iran are being followed with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. Western diplomats regard the renewed violence as an expression of desperation of conservative elements aware that their power is slipping away. They doubted that Khamenei had sanctioned Saturday's move by the vigilantes. In other words, they fear that the whole situation is getting out of control. The stirrings among the masses pose a threat to their fundamental interests in a vital area of the world where instability is already becoming generalised. The idea of a new revolution in Iran fills them with horror.
It is no accident that immediately after Khatami's election victory, the Clinton administration spoke for the first time in nearly two decades of the possibility of a rapprochement with Iran. The Clinton administration lifted an import ban on Persian carpets, caviar and pistachios from Iran last March as an overture toward Teheran. For their part, the reformers would welcome US investors after two decades of frozen relations and is waiting for the United States "to make the first step", the country's foreign minister was quoted as saying. "From our side the way is open for American companies to come to Iran and become active here," Kamal Kharrazi told the German weekly Der Spiegel in a recent interview. But in contrast to European governments, the United States has still blocked major business deals, specifically in the oil industry. Reformers generally favour the restoration of normal relations with the US but it is a case of too little and too late.
President Khatami's visit to Germany is an indication of the real intentions of the "moderate" clerics. They would like to revive ties with Western Europe and the USA, broken since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah and Islamic militants held 52 Americans hostages at the US Embassy in Teheran for 444 days. Western Europe froze ties with Iran after a 1997 German court ruling that the 1992 slayings of four Iranian dissidents in Berlin had been ordered at the highest level in Teheran. But Kharrazi said that was all in the past now. "There's no question about that," Kharrazi told Der Spiegel. "We want to look to the future and would rather look at possibilities that can bring us closer together." Kharrazi invited Germany to boost economic ties with Iran, saying that current Iranian plans call for investments totalling $13 billion. "And we expect that such a range of projects is of interest for many countries, including Germany," he said.
The pro-bourgeois character of the Iranian reformers is thus quite clear and is not lost on the West. Imperialism would like to base itself on the Khatami wing to head off a revolution and, incidentally, open up a highly lucrative market. But this fact does not necessarily represent a plus for the reformers inside Iran itself. Anti-imperialist sentiment remains strong among the masses--a fact that the Khamenei wing seeks to use for its own benefit. To the degree that the reformers' pro-market economics adversely affects the living standards of the masses, it will only serve to accelerate their loss of support. Not for nothing did Khamenei blame the Western powers for the country's social unrest, saying they planned to destroy the Islamic republic as they had the Soviet Union. "Why is it that America and Britain, which are responsible for 50 years of misery in Iran, now advocate reforms?" Khamenei asked demagogically.
The very idea of the American or European imperialists acting as the champions of democracy in Iran is just laughable. These gentlemen were the champions of the brutal dictatorship of the Shah until he was overthrown by the Iranian masses. How can they claim to stand for democracy now? These hypocrites merely want to prevent a revolution in Iran in which power would pass to the people. They want to install a weak pseudo-democratic regime that would permit them to plunder Iran's oil wealth and reduce it to a satellite of the West.
The protesters, however, are not demonstrating for capitalism, but against the reactionary regime of the mullahs. In so doing, they are, in fact, challenging the basis of the Islamic system, calling for an end to clergy rule in Iran and demanding a referendum on democracy. This directly poses the question of power in Iran. The question is posed: who will convene a referendum? Who will guarantee the democratic rights of the people? All talk of democracy remains a nonsense as long as the state, the army and the police remain in the hands of the mullahs and their cronies. The pro-bourgeois reformers cannot solve this question. They are too terrified of the masses to lead a genuine struggle for democracy.
The only force that is genuinely interested in democracy in Iran is the working class and its natural allies--the poor peasants and urban poor, plus the lower middle class, the students, small shopkeepers, bazaaris and the like, who will look to the proletariat for a lead, once the working class is mobilised in the struggle to change society.
It is the task of all conscious members of the working class to fight for an independent class policy. In this way, the struggle for democracy can be the first step in the revolutionary struggle for the socialist transformation of society. The first condition, however, is for a total break with the bourgeois Liberals. No trust in Khatami! The working people must rely only on their own strength to put an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs!
The present protests were called on the anniversary of the student rebellion on July 8 last year. These protests ended in bloody repression and the arrest of the leaders. But, as we predicted at the time, the setback would only be temporary:
"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." (The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution, 17 July 1999.) This prediction has now been fully confirmed by events. The struggle will continue, with inevitable ebbs and flows, until a decisive settlement is reached.
The workers and youth of Iran have repeatedly shown a great revolutionary potential. What is required is to give the movement an organised form and a clear programme and perspective. Along the road of compromise and class collaboration no way out is possible. The prior condition for success is the independent movement of the working class, together with its natural allies, and a decisive break with Khatami and the bourgeois Liberals. It is necessary to set up action committees in order to organise and co-ordinate the movement on a local, regional and national scale. It is necessary to prepare for self-defence against the vigilante thugs, while appealing to the rank and file of the army to come over to the side of the people.
Above all, it is necessary to work out a concrete programme to link the struggle for democratic rights with programmatic demands to solve the most pressing problems of the working class, the peasantry, the unemployed and the women and youth. Such a programme will necessarily imply a radical break with capitalism and will place on the order of the day the struggle for workers' power and a movement in the direction of socialism in Iran. The prior condition for the success of the struggle is the active participation of the working class, particularly the decisive section of the oil workers. Once the working people of Iran have the power in their hands, they can begin a movement that will spread like wildfire through the region. It would have an even bigger effect than the Russian revolution of 1917, especially if it were led by a conscious revolutionary Marxist party. The creation of such a party is therefore the most urgent task before the vanguard of the Iranian workers and students. Armed with the correct ideas, programme and strategy, the Iranian working class will be invincible.