Iran: Rising of the Dispossessed

2019 Iran Protests Fire

A few years ago, a conversation was leaked between Qassem Soleimani, a top commander of the revolutionary guards, and a group of Basiji militiamen, discussing the Green Movement that shook Iran in 2009. In that conversation, Soleimani said something along the lines of “these guys [referring to the people in the Green Movement] are just uptown pretty boys, there is nothing to be afraid of, but once the barefoot people of the poor and destitute areas come out, that is when we have to be afraid.” Well, that day has come.

On Friday, the Iranian government made a surprise announcement of deep cuts to fuel subsidies, which is a vital lifeline for poor Iranians. Since then, thousands of youth have taken to the streets, clashing with the police, military and paramilitary forces. Starting out mainly in the southeast of the country, protests mushroomed everywhere on Saturday and Sunday, reaching every single major town and city. It is difficult to gauge the size of the protests, but the Revolutionary Guards-run Fars News let a total figure of 87,000 slip on Monday. This would be a conservative estimate.

Rage of the downtrodden

A report from today mentions the situation in several poor and working-class areas of Tehran:

In Islamshahr there is an uprising. In Shahre Qods there is war and there is shooting everywhere. They burned down the old mayor’s house. They burned down the houses of [Revolutionary] Guards, all the banks have been burned down. In Fardis, there was real war in the streets. Apart from Sepah Bank, they have burned 24 other banks. Andishe is the same. In Fardis, Shahriar, Shahreqods and Andishe many have been killed … the police forces are tired and don’t have the energy to stand up anymore.

The regime is trying to portray the protesters as a gang of thugs, looting and rioting. One headline in Jam-e-Jam read: “The disappearance of the voice of the people in the chaos of rioting.” But it is not ordinary shops and stores that have been targeted, rather it is gas stations and banks that have been burned down in their dozens (if not hundreds), along with a few government buildings and police stations, along with numerous pictures of Khamenei. In Yazd, the house of the Friday prayer imam, who is also a representative of Khamenei in the city, was attacked by an angry crowd. None of these acts are random rioting, there is a clear class element to the protests.

The reaction of the regime has been brutal. All internet has been shut down and communication has become extremely difficult. News sources have become severely restricted. Even citizen reporting for overseas outlets, which has always been relatively easy, has become almost impossible. More or less all armed wings of the regime have been sent onto the streets, carrying out a brutal suppression of anything reminiscent of protests. Many areas are said to have turned into war zones. One report from Shiraz claimed that, in some areas, helicopters were flying over protesters and shooting indiscriminately on them.

Many schools and universities throughout the country were shut down, although there were still protests inside many universities. One university was shut down due to “heavy fog.” In Tehran University, the armed forces closed off all entrances and almost all exits, leaving only one small door open for students to leave the premises. The regime is panicking, and fears the movement spreading to other layers. It is attempting to push the movement towards aimless rioting and clashes, which in turn would isolate it from the mass of the population. Up to now, that has not worked. While many people stay away, there is widespread sympathy with the youth on the streets.

This eruption is about far more than fuel prices, which have essentially tripled now. The areas where people first rose up were Khusestan, Kermanshah and Fars, all poor, underdeveloped provinces with high unemployment. Many of these areas are homes to Arab and Kurdish minorities whose protests have been dealt with under particular brutality in the past few years.

The youth taking to the streets spend most of their lives wandering from place to place, doing odd jobs if they are lucky, although many have simply given up looking for work. Those that haven’t are constantly met with the demand for “experience,” which is of course impossible to get if you don’t get a job. Crime rates are higher amongst these layers, who are often from extremely poor, working-class families.

In the past few years, many such families lost their savings after a series of banks went bust. In reality, these banks were nothing but high-level pyramid schemes and their well-connected owners have never been put on trial, although they are well known—hence the attacks on the banks.

Iran protests 2019 new Image fair use
Elements that once supported the regime are now in revolt. / Image: Fair Use

The effects of US sanctions have also been devastating, and these families have already seen their living standards collapse in the last few years. Industries are bankrupt, there are no jobs. Those who have jobs are irregularly paid, if they are paid at all, and those who have small businesses are under constant pressure from spiraling inflation, which has been above 30 percent in the past two years (according to official figures)!

Industrial workers in Iran live in extreme poverty, they are not even able to afford housing in the industrial suburbs of the cities, but are confined to villages and suburbs, from where they journey great distances to work. These journeys which will become significantly more expensive now. Meanwhile, bosses and regime bigwigs get by just fine by using their connections to hollow out the economy.

The Haft Tapeh sugarcane business in Khuzestan, once one of the biggest producers of sugarcane, is an excellent example of this. The company was privatized for a song and given to a couple of 27–28-year-old men, who have been gutting the company while pushing the workforce to the limit. The workers have been on numerous strikes in the last few years to get the company renationalized under workers’ control. This has received a big echo in the region and beyond. The regime cracked down hard, fearing that such demands could find fertile ground across the country. The youth on the streets reflect the anger of these layers. Their violence is the response to the regular, merciless violence of poverty and decay in the Islamic Republic that they have endured every single day of their lives.

Imperialist response and brutality of the regime

In the last few weeks, the hardline faction of the regime, close to Khamenei and the revolutionary guards, had begun addressing some of these problems in the run up to the coming parliamentary elections. Sensing the growing mood of anger, they were attempting to channel it down electoral paths and to use to strike blows against the so-called moderate wing around Rouhani. Of course, once the movement erupted, the hardliners became moderate and the original moderates all joined hands to crush the desperate youth on the streets. The ruling class appears completely united at the moment in drowning the movement in blood.

At least 200 have been confirmed dead, along with 3,000 confirmed wounded. And yet it is the youth who are being accused of being violent thugs. Of course, the regime cannot deny what is spurring the movement. In the end, the layers on the streets today are part of the sections of society that have historically supported the regime. The latter cannot just dismiss these demands when all of society is sympathetic towards the protesters. But the rulers maintain—in a veiled threat—that, if people protest, the country will descend into chaos and civil war, as happened in Syria. They claim that the US and Saudi imperialism is attempting to use these movements to take over Iran and, therefore, protesting becomes an action in their interests. This is how they finally diverted the direct precursor to this movement, which shook the country in early 2018 and which caused aftershocks throughout that year. They use the threat of US imperialism to justify draining the lifeblood of the Iranian people. But this trick is wearing thin. Why can the rich and well-connected people do whatever they want with impunity? Why can their proverbial “tablecloth” be full, while the rest of the population is starving? Why is it the poor alone who have to sacrifice in the face of imperialist threats?

This line is also echoed by many people on the left who oppose the movement—and many prior movements—with the excuse that it will open a way for the US imperialism to intervene in Iran. The logic of these people is that, since there is no (Communist, Socialist, democratic, progressive etc) “revolutionary” party, then any movement will only serve to play into the hands of the greater evil—US imperialism. But, if anything, the result of this policy is to create room for monarchist groups, Mojahedin Khalgh and other counterrevolutionary movements, supported by the US and Saudi Arabia, who can take on revolutionary rhetoric and spread their poison. What is needed is not to cry and moan about the lack of a revolutionary party, but to build it! Faced with challenges and weaknesses we must not step back and accommodate to the interests of reaction. Our duty is to address the weaknesses of the movement and radicalize it by raising its level of consciousness and its level of organization. Our task is not to water down the demands but to call for more radical demands which puts matters on a clear class basis opposing both the domestic ruling class along with its international adversaries.

Others have illusions that the west and western democracy will solve the problems of Iran. But these protests have hardly been covered in the western press. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other western governments, have condemned the repressive measures of the state. But interestingly enough, none of them have condemned the austerity measures. Because these measures were recommended by the IMF itself—a western-based institution—as a means to regularize business relations in Iran according to the needs of the market. And from a capitalist point of view, they are correct! The Iranian economy needs to divest state intervention in the economy in order to become more attractive to foreign investments. One of the reasons for this is to weaken and atomize the working class, making it ripe for exploitation by industries who compete on a world scale. That is how capitalism works.

The safest bet at the moment is that the west is backing the monarchist movement for a future Iranian regime, based around Reza Pahlavi: the last heir to the former Shah, who was overthrown in the ‘79 revolution. These people talk very radically about the plight of the masses and of the need to stage a revolution, but not for a free and democratic Iran. Instead, they advocate for a new monarchy along the same lines as the previous one, which itself had not a little blood on its hands! Furthermore, such a regime will again make Iran a vassal state of the US. At least on this point, the mullahs are right. At the moment, no one seems to be falling for these tricks, but in the future, given the enormous pressures and the complete lack of an alternative, such reactionary groups could find an echo amongst some layers.

Revolutionary leadership required

The main weakness of the movement at the present stage is clear: it is completely unorganized and has no leadership. Despite attempts by the regime to derail the movement into senseless rioting, this has not happened yet. Nevertheless, the blind rage on the streets needs to find an organized expression if it is to avoid the many pitfalls ahead. There is only so long a movement can go on coming onto the streets and fighting with the police, and there is only so much that can be achieved by doing so.

First of all, it is crucial to become organized, by setting up democratically controlled committees in the neighborhoods, which can then be linked up at a regional and eventually national level. These committees can, amongst other things, organize selfdefense, both against the open repression, but also against agent provocateurs who are no doubt operating in many places. The committees must be spread to all schools, villages, neighborhoods and factories as a means to strengthen and expand the movement.

Secondly, the movement must formulate a clear program to draw in wider layers. First of all, it must be a program calling for the downfall of the regime, the dissolution of the militias, the separation of religious institutions from the state and the convening of a constituent assembly. This must be followed by social and economic demands, such as a reversal of all austerity measures in the past period, a living wage adjusted for inflation, opening the books in all the banks and major companies, and laying the foundations for the imprisonment and expropriation of all those who have proven to be corrupt. Other demands should include the renationalization of all privatized companies under workers’ control, and the introduction of such control throughout the state-owned economy, in addition to the provision of free, high-quality education and healthcare for all.

The movement must call on all the working masses who suffer at the hands of this regime to join it: be they unemployed, farmers, students or middle-class people. But above all, it is crucial, in order to win, that the movement draws in the working class as an organized force. We have already seen in the last few years that the workers are ready to struggle. A call must be issued for a general strike across the country to bring down the dictatorial regime. In 2011, it was the general strike that forced the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011. Likewise, this year, it was the build up to a general strike that forced the Bouteflika regime in Algeria and the Bashar regime in Sudan to fall. In spite of all the lies, it was in fact the general strike in 1978 and ‘79 that overthrew the shah himself, and not the divine abilities of Ayatollah Khomeini. Once the workers are mobilized, this regime will collapse like a house of cards.

Finally, the movement should issue an appeal for solidarity to the workers and poor of the whole region, from Iraq and Lebanon (where the masses are already on the streets), to the Arab Peninsula, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, where similar movements are simmering under the surface. Whereas the rulers of these countries are locked in bitter infighting, they are all united against the masses. Likewise, it is only amongst the working masses of the region that the Iranian Revolution can find its true allies. A revolution in Iran will no doubt spread like wildfire in the region and beyond.

The revolt of the Iranian youth on the streets represents the absolute dead end of Iranian capitalism. Neither imperialist domination, nor rule by the clergy has been able to solve any of the problems in Iran. On the contrary, in a country with immense natural and cultural treasures, the ruling class can only offer misery and decay. The whole edifice of institutional Islam is involved in the most disgusting daylight robbery of the poorest and most dispossessed. Previously, they could calm these people down by appealing to their religious beliefs, but this is not working any more. People remain religious, but under the impact of events, the fog of confusion created by the Islamists is disappearing and the class lines are yet again being brought out, preparing for another major clash of the classes.

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