Iran: the movement has been repressed, but the struggle is just beginning

Two weeks have passed since the eruption of protests all over Iran after the regime introduced a surprise cut to fuel subsidies. Despite a heroic struggle by the people on the streets, the movement was crushed by the regime within five days. But this was far from a triumphant victory for a regime that is now weaker than ever before.

As the suffocating internet blockade was lifted and reports began to come in from around the country, a gruesome picture of unprecedented levels of state violence is emerging.

One video, which was widely circulated, shows a group of state forces repeatedly beating a young man with an axe and then shooting him three times. Another report explained how a known local government supporter dumped the charred body in a pharmacy. Following the events, all the people who were present in the pharmacy, and who recognised him, were arrested.

Amongst those killed were many youngsters between the ages of 12 and 13, along with the reported killing of a seven-year-old girl. In some places, regime thugs indiscriminately opened machine-gun fire on peacefully protesting crowds and passersby, while in one instance in Behbahan, a tank was reportedly used against the protesters. Many areas were similar to war zones, with all paved roads exploded and broken up.

While the regime and international organisations such as Amnesty International put the dead at between 100-200 people, the real figure is far, far higher. One of the many reports which circulated after the lifting of the internet blockade read:

“My wife works in the operating rooms at one of the hospitals in Isfahan. Last week, many of her co-workers who were on the afternoon shift were kept until the morning. Through our connections we found out that they had brought many killed to the hospitals, but because of the chaos there were no proper statistics of these... When [my wife] came back from her shift she said that there were many dead. She was crying. She had never seen anything like this. People who work in the operating theatre are somewhat used to seeing people dying, but they saw so many heinous scenes that [she] was completely in shock. She said that they had received 20-25 such people in those two days [Saturday and Sunday 16-17 November]. These were people who had died on their way to the hospital. She had no information about people who had been killed on the spot and their corpses taken away. And this was only from one neighbourhood Malak Shah in Isfahan. Even if we [assumed this particular hospital was a special case], considering that Isfahan has more than 20 hospitals, the figures are terrifying. Furthermore, the amount of wounded [at the hospital] was about 140-150.”

Another report from Shiraz and Ahvaz hospitals put the figure of deceased at around 100-150 for those cities. Similar figures have been cited from Tehran. These numbers come from either hospitals or police sources, which only paint a partial picture, dealing with people killed on the spot, on their way to the hospital. Furthermore, there have been no reports of how many died from their injuries later on. The real figures nationally could be 500 or more. The regime is demanding exorbitant rates to deliver the corpses of these to their families.

At the same time, the regime itself has released figures of 4,800 wounded. Again, these are conservative figures, not counting those who did not go to the hospital, where state forces were camped, arresting those who sought care for their injuries. The amount of injured is so high that healthcare institutions have been issuing emergency calls for people to donate blood as reserves are running very low.

Furthermore, one member of parliament claimed that 7,000 people have been arrested. Many of these have been placed in the notorious Fashafuyeh prison, where 15,000 criminals are incarcerated in barbaric conditions, predominantly for drug-related crimes. It would not be wrong to assume that around 10,000 people were either killed, injured or arrested by the regime in the crackdown. These figures are even more shocking considering the total figure of people on the streets, as reported by the regime, to be no more than 170,000-200,000 people. The persecution is still going on, and young people who were believed to have participated in the protests are being hounded all around the country.

These (predominantly) young people have experienced a lifetime of violence in the form of unemployment, austerity and poverty. They have been left to rot with no future in sight by a ruling class that does nothing but loot and scheme. And when they finally begin to air their pain and grievances (and, yes, burn down a few gas stations and banks, which are key institutions in the looting frenzy of the ruling class), they are met with the utmost brutality. And now we are told that these people are the thugs and criminals.

What is astonishing is in fact not the violence of the protesters, but the restraint they showed considering the conditions they were forced to tolerate. The vast majority of the protesters were in fact peaceful and unarmed. Furthermore, many of the banks and gas-stations burned down were actually torched by regime provocateurs themselves. A citizen report from one incident in Karaj, an industrial city outside of Tehran, claimed that the armed forces arrested a large group of people, and then proceeded to burn down a nearby bank.

The response of the regime was anything but peaceful and restrained. This is the most violent crackdown by the regime since the counter-revolutionary terror it carried out in the 1980s. It was a far more violent crackdown than that against the 2009 Green Movement, which at its height had millions of participants. What it reveals is the extreme isolation and fear of the regime. Videos to confirm this have been circulated by employees of the judiciary, special forces and elsewhere.

It is natural, given the amount of violence, media propaganda and threats of turning Iran into a new Syria, that many people did not come out in the protests. In fact, given the lack of any form of organisation, leadership or efficient means of communication, it is a testament to the strength of the movement that 200,000 still came out. According to the Revolutionary Guards, the majority of these were young, poor and unemployed men and women from working-class areas. But these layers reflected the same anger and dissatisfaction that is prevalent throughout the working masses. These moods have only been deepened and spread to wider layers by the scale of violence used by the state.


But the regime’s “victory”, triumphantly declared day and night across all TV channels over the past week, appears to be a hollow one. After stamping out the movement, the regime attempted to consolidate its victory by organising a series of “spontaneous” pro-regime rallies of “the people” against “troublemakers”, to take place on Monday 25 November. These were on the same lines as the pro-regime marches on 30 December 2009, which were used as a means to crush the Green Movement, which had reached its peak a few days earlier. Back then the participants in the pro-regime demonstrations were counted in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions.

This time, however, the rallies, which were promoted for four to five days in most of the media, and which had behind them the full force of the state apparatus, turned out to be a huge flop. In Tehran, the protest, which was between Enghelab Square and Ferdows Square had, by the most generous calculations, no more than 100,000 people on it, a very small number for Greater Tehran, which has 15 million people! Even then, besides public workers who would have been forced to come out, most of these would have been poor people bribed to attend. Even then, the regime had to carry out a series of desperate measures to “fill the street”. For instance, all metro lines were mysteriously stopped – for “technical” reasons – when they reached nearby metro stations. Schoolchildren and university students were also taken onto the demo by their teachers. One student reported that someone burst into the nearby university library where he was studying, telling them that the library and all nearby institutions had to be closed and people had to leave. Meanwhile, many people who were portrayed as protesters in the media were ordinary passersby. Such was the humiliation that, in spite of many news helicopters in the air, no aerial footage was shown on TV. Most of the images in the newspapers were taken from the front of the demonstrations at a very narrow angle to give the impression of a street full of marchers. In Tabriz, a city of 1.5 million which was one of the few places singled out and thanked by President Rouhani for coming out in defence of the regime, less than 500 people came out!

Hassan Rouhani Image PoRRouhani won in 2013 by promising higher living standards and increasing democratic rights. But in the last week, he probably carried out harder attacks than any president in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic / Image: PoR

The Green Movement of 2009 was dominated by middle-class elements and was led by the liberal Reformist movement, who had no appeal amongst the poor. The regime used this, along with its usual anti-imperialist propaganda, to rally these poor layers behind itself. This time, however, it is the poor and the hungry who are on the streets. And the regime, in spite of all of its usual bribes and threats, could not mobilise any significant force. While at this stage there are no significant pro-imperialist sentiments amongst the people, it is also clear that the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the regime is not working as it used to. Decades of attacks on living standards by the mullahs, who live extravagant lives themselves, have hollowed out the ground under them. Their pious pretence is completely out of sync with the daily corruption and nepotism that they carry out in plain sight. Added to this is the brutality unleashed on the poorest and most vulnerable layers in society. All of this has struck an irreparable blow against the regime.

In the past, the regime used to switch between the hardline conservative governments and more liberal Reformist governments in order to direct the dissatisfaction in society down official channels. But the true nature of all of the political camps became completely exposed last week, when all of the factions came together to repress the movement.

President Hassan Rouhani himself came to power on the back of a huge anti-establishment mood, which was threatening to boil over. Presenting himself as a liberal-democrat, he won in 2013 on the basis of promising higher living standards, freeing political prisoners and increasing democratic rights, in particular freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and opening up the internet. But in the last week, he probably carried out harder attacks on living standards, taken more political prisoners and restricted democratic channels, including the internet, than any other president in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic.

All the top Reformist politicians also rallied behind the regime. The most popular one of these, former president Mohammad Khatami, who has been promoted as a man of peace, democracy and human rights, did not issue any statements until Tuesday, 26 November. Even then, he supported the regime line, with a few caveats along the lines of “we need to see how many were foreign agents and how many were ordinary Iranians on the streets.” This reveals the true treacherous nature of the liberal democrats, who always fear the revolutionary movement of the masses far more than the most reactionary dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the position of the hardline wing of the regime around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, is no better. Not only did they fully endorse the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, but they were at the frontline of the crackdown, with some of their prominent mouthpieces, such as the editor of Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari and former hard-line presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, calling for the execution of those arrested. Other hardline Islamic “pundits” have been on TV demanding that their arms and legs be amputated.

The loss of legitimacy has thrown the regime into a deep crisis and splits are beginning to appear at the top. Hardline politicians and officials have increasingly attacked the government for not carrying out the cuts “in the right way” and not preparing the population. Meanwhile, Reformist politicians have attacked the hardliners for censoring the media. In parliament, which is up for elections in a few months, there have been a series of clashes. The maverick MP Ali Motaharri has introduced a bill of impeachment against the interior minister for his handling of the protests. Meanwhile, hardline MPs are pursuing the impeachment of the oil minister for not curbing petrol smuggling, a factor which was used as an excuse to raise fuel prices. The minister of education is also risking impeachment, while the minister of agriculture resigned earlier this week to avoid impeachment for not having curbed the inflation of agricultural goods, amongst other things.

In the run up to new parliamentary elections, MPs on all sides are trying to distance themselves from the Establishment. Habibollah Keshtzar, MP of Behbahan, a poor area where many were killed in recent clashes, attacked the government by saying:

"Instead of squeezing your hands into the pockets of people, you could have saved money by curbing waste in the budget, stopping unnecessary costly trips abroad and combating extravagance by some members of your administration."

He also criticised Rouhani for making "the needy who yearn for bread, pay the price" for the government's schemes. Mohammad Golmoradi, MP of Mahshahr, another poor town with many victims, got into a fight in parliament after asking the government, in reference to the state violence: “What did you do to us that the idiot Shah did not do?”

All of these are signs of a regime fighting for its survival. In the next period, these divisions will deepen. Meanwhile, nothing has been solved on the ground, where the situation is worsening by the day. Contrary to the promises of the regime, the fuel price increases are already leading to price hikes. According to IRNA, the state-controlled news agency, the cost of transportation and the price of some items, eggs, fruit and vegetables, have already risen between 25 to 50 percent since 15 November. Another official outlet claimed that the purchasing power of an ordinary working-class family has diminished by 10 percent in the same period.

The regime has promised to mobilise the Basij militia to impose price controls, but that is utopian. Inflation cannot be controlled by force. If the regime attempts to introduce controls, it will only mean the dumping of the increased fuel costs onto the shoulders of small businesses, most of whom are already on the verge of bankruptcy. This is something the former Shah attempted shortly before he was overthrown. Needless to say, this would not solve the problems for the present regime either. The subsidy cuts are part of a plan devised by the IMF during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which the present government has taken over. After fuel prices, the plan aims to cut subsidies on other basic goods such as household gas. All of these attacks will increase the rising class contradictions and isolate the regime further.

A new period

Regardless of the immediate outcome, these protests have opened a new chapter of the class struggle in Iran. Vast new layers who had previously been either passive or even pro-regime in one way or another, are moving into sharp opposition. The reaction to the violent crackdown has gone from shock and disbelief to anger. This anger is looking for an outlet. In the past few days, a 15-minute video, made by an oppositionist former cleric, Hassan Aghamiri, has been seen by more than three million people on Instagram.

In the video, Aghamiri, who was recently stripped of his clerical garb and sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence for his anti-regime views, strikes a bitter and defiant tone, attacking the regime for only bringing misery to the masses with its corruption, arrogance and authoritarianism. While Aghamiri does not necessarily show a way forward for the Iranian masses, his popularity does reflect the mood amongst the masses. Given the extreme social and economic pressures, and the lack of any leadership of the working class, such accidental elements could be propelled to the fore and become a focal point for a wider movement.

It was exactly this lack of organisation, leadership and programme that in the end isolated the youth on the streets. These are understandable weaknesses for layers that have not seen any significant political activity for the past 40 years.

Iran protest update 1 Image fair useDespite their defeat, these protests have opened a new chapter of the class struggle in Iran / Image: fair use

The tactic of the regime was twofold. Firstly, it attempted to force as many people as possible to stay away from the streets, and physically prevent the movement from gathering in sufficiently large numbers to resist repression. Secondly, it tried to isolate the movement by pushing it towards more violent behaviour and claim that the movement was consciously or unconsciously playing into the hands of US imperialism. Had the movement been more organised, it would have been able to operate on a far-larger scale and avoid the many tragic deaths.

Furthermore, if it had a clear programme with social and economic demands appealing to all oppressed layers (in particular the working class), opposing US imperialism and pointing a clear way of taking power in Iran itself, it could have cut across the regime’s propaganda and led the masses to overthrow the system. The entrance of the working class onto the scene, with an open-ended general strike, would have changed everything and brought the regime to its knees.

As we can see, no matter how brave and self-sacrificing the youth are, there are limits to what they can achieve by isolated fighting on the streets. But defeated armies learn well. The bitter lessons mentioned above are being processed and absorbed by a new generation of revolutionary youth in the prisons and in poor and working-class areas all over Iran.

The struggle is not over. The present movement was defeated, but only at the cost of a deep crisis of legitimacy for the regime. This in itself opens the door for new movements to erupt in the next period. The urgent task of all Iranian revolutionaries is precisely to build the leadership lacking this time around! A leadership that can not only overthrow the present regime, but also the capitalist system, which is the root cause of all rot and decay in Iranian society.