Iran: Riots over petrol rationing and price hikes

Growing opposition against Ahmadinejad’s regime

The following is the text of a leaflet produced by Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) for a demonstration against repression, and calling for the release of Mahmoud Salehi, an imprisoned workers’ leader in Iran.

Riots over petrol rationing and price hikes

On Tuesday night, 26 June, the Iranian regime, after several postponements, finally implemented their secret plan of rationing petrol and increasing the price. For most of the population, it came as a shock and immediately caused riots. This follows a spring with growing opposition against president Ahmadinejad’s regime, which has been answered with increased repression against workers, students and women activists.

Behind the petrol price crisis is the neglect of investment in the oil and gas industry, partly due to the US blockade of technique, but also because the regime is spending much of its income on repression and the military. A major gas and oil exporter, Iran is actually importing refined petrol. So far, Tehran has paid the equivalent of 37 euro cents per litre and subsidised the price so that individual customers pay 7 euro cents. With the new rules, a car owner can only buy 3.5 litres a day for the subsidised price – a price hike equivalent of 25 per cent. After the government decided on this course, the news media was banned from reporting on the planned price rise.

The immediate riots could have been predicted. The news agency IPS reports how, "angry car owners, but also profiteers and professional trouble-makers, rushed to petrol stations, creating long queues and chaos. Quickly, people started to chant harsh slogans against the regime leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i and President Ahmadi Nezhad. As un-guarded pump stations were set ablaze, riots spread. Cars, buses, public buildings and banks were torched in Tehran and all other big cities, triggering nationwide protests." At least 17 petrol stations were set on fire the first night. The regime’s first response was not to back off; some spokesmen blamed US-sponsored rioters. If these protests continue, however, they can force the president to retreat, fearing for his own political future.

Increased repression

In the recent period, the Iranian regime has been shaken by increased opposition and workers’ struggle. Well known workers’ leader, Mahmoud Salehi, was arrested on 9 April. Protests are now organised because he has health problems which could put his life in danger. In June, the bus drivers’ union leader, Mansour Ossanlou, was sentenced to five years in prison. Student and women activists have also been subject to increased repression. Hundreds of youth have been harassed, beaten up or arrested for "improper clothing".

Why is the regime acting in this way? The answer is that President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khameini fear the increased workers’ struggle. The Islamic regime uses repression against all attempts to implement democratic rights. In Iran, there are no rights for workers: no right to organise in trade unions, no right to strike; no rights for women. In the last few years, more workers than before feel that strikes and struggle are not only necessary, but also possible. Some of their old fears, generated by years of state repression, are beginning to disappear.

Iran’s rulers face opposition movements from broad layers – workers, students, women, national minorities. Alongside repression, the regime is exploiting the conflict with US imperialism to dampen opposition and dissent. Ayatollah Khameini has repeatedly called for "Islamic national unity" in the face of threats from George Bush and US imperialism.

The threat from US imperialism is a real danger for the population in Iran, fearing to become the object of the same military onslaught as in Iraq. George Bush and US imperialism are at present held back by the disaster in Iraq, but there is a wing within the White House, led by vice-president Cheney, that promotes the idea of an air force attack on Iran. Any intervention by the US, however, would not take place in order to establish "democracy" for the population in Iran, it would be done to promote US power and its access to oil. To campaign against the danger of a new military adventure is an important duty for socialists, workers and the anti-war movement globally.


In 2005, sections of the Islamic regime supported Tehran’s mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president because his populist rhetoric gained him support amongst parts of the Iranian rural population. He promised more jobs, lower prices and some of the oil incomes transferred to ordinary families. Nothing of this has come true – as socialists predicted and the population in Tehran already knew since his period as mayor. 70 per cent of the population live under the poverty line. Even according to official statistics, poverty has increased 12 per cent over the last year, to 12 million people. Unemployment is still increasing, and up 80 per cent of all workers are now on temporary contracts. Many strikes are of workers who have not received their wages for up to two years!

As a consequence, last December Ahmadinejad’s candidates heavily lost the elections for city councils and to the "Council of Experts", the body selecting the supreme leader. His main candidate to the Council of experts, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, only got half the votes of former president and multi millionaire, Rafsanjani. This was not so much as a result of support for Rafsanjani, but in order to punish Ahmadinejad. In many cities none of Ahmadinejad’s candidates were elected. Officially, 60 per cent voted, which was an increase from last time. This spring, 150 of 290 members of the parliament, the Majlis, signed a letter critical of the president’s economic policies, indicating that Ayatollah Khameini might drop him at a certain stage. A leading newspaper even accused Ahmadinejad of using the nuclear power issue and the US propaganda war to derail the criticism.

Arrests of trade unionists

Mahmoud Salehi, who was the leader of the Bakers’ union in Saqez, became well known when he organised the May Day demonstrations in 2004. With six other leaders, he was sentenced to four years in prison, a verdict suspended subject to appeal this spring. In April, he was arrested in an attempt to prevent May Day demonstrations, particularly in Kurdistan. His wife and son have recently made public appeals to release him, since his health is rapidly deteriorating. Salehi has only one kidney and the other is only functioning at 50 per cent, partly as a result of rough treatment during previous arrests.

Also workers at the Khodro (Peugeot) factory have reported that management have sacked trade union activists. This is a plant with 40,000 workers, known for attempts to form independent unions and for several protests.

A common feature facing the families of arrested trade union activists is that they receive no information on their loved ones from the police. When Mansour Ossanlou, a leader of the bus drivers’ union, was on trial, even his lawyers were banned from reporting the prosecution’s accusations publicly.

May Day 2007

The authorities’ attempt to prevent demonstrations on 1 May by arresting Mahmoud Salehi, failed completely.

In Tehran, workers shouted down the speaker from the regime’s yellow trade union ("Workers’ House") and at least 700 of them organised a demonstration with slogans and banners demanding the release of Mahmoud Salehi and other trade union activists in prison. (Salehi was on hunger strike for 24 hours on 1 May.) The backbone of this group was workers from the Vahed Bus Company. Security forces attacked the demonstration and many were arrested. Such was the mood, however, that even the state television carried interviews with discontented workers on May Day.

In Sanandaj, Kurdistan, police using teargas, pepper spray and knives attacked a workers’ demonstration. Shist Amani, leader of the Union of Unemployed and Dismissed Workers, was among those detained by the police. Demonstrations of several thousands also took place in other cities in Iran.

Bus strike

In May 2005, state forces made an attempt to crush the formally illegal bus workers union in Tehran, attacking their centre and arresting leaders. But the attack failed and in December, security police arrested the bus workers’ leader, Mansour Ossanlou again. This provoked the solid bus strike in early 2006. The demands of the strike were the release of Ossanlou and other union leaders, and the recognition of their union. During the very militant strike, more than one thousand bus drivers, out of a total of 17,000, were arrested. Some of them have since been detained more than ten times. Ossanlou was released in August and than arrested again last November. When he was on trial, bus workers and their families demonstrated outside the court. This was despite the fact that the security forces have beaten up and arrested many activists’ family members, including children.

This June, Mansour Ossanlou was on a tour in Europe, invited by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). In a comment to the Labourstart website, he said he would not be intimidated by the recent sentence of five years in prison for his union activity. Following the ITF’s invitation of Ossanlou, trade unions globally should raise political and material support for the bus drivers’ union. Rank and file union support is very important since the top trade union bureacracy in the West does not put forward a fighting class alternative.

Teachers’ strike

On 4 February 2007, teachers gathered for a mass meeting in Tehran, demanding wage increases. Their wages are often below the poverty line. "Most teachers earn not more than €210 a month after tax and insurance. Our families are suffering and live in poverty, we are forced to drive taxis at night and weekends to survive", a teacher in Tehran told Offensiv (weekly paper of CWI Sweden) over the telephone in May.

The mass meeting in February gave the authorities a two-week deadline, but the regime answered by arresting teacher activists. They also delayed any pay rise by at least one year. Then the strikes started.

When the teachers’ union leader was arrested on 16 April, teachers in 80 per cent of the schools in the capital went on strike. He was later suspended from work for three months. Hundreds of striking teachers have been arrested during strikes since March.

Teachers organised days of action on 2 and 8 May, and are now also demanding recognition of their union.

In Sanandaj and others Kurdish cities, 4,000 teachers demonstrated on 2 May. Their demands were the release of imprisoned teachers, banning police patrols in schools, and for union rights. On 8 May, hundreds of teachers from all over Iran gathered in Tehran. This was despite the fact that the authorities prevented many coaches with teachers on board from entering the capital. 21 teachers were detained and 16 of them sent to the notorious Evin prison. During the struggle, the media was ordered not to publish any news about the teachers.

Students and women

When President Ahmadinejad in December visited the Amir Kabir (Polytechnic) university, he was heckled when he was addressing the students. Some burned pictures of the president and held banners against his regime. Since then, 29 students have been arrested, eight of them recently for "political activism", and 209 have been taken before disciplinary committees. Among them were editors of four different student newspapers and magazines. This is the biggest crackdown on student activists for many years.

In March, 30 women’s rights advocates were arrested. They were the organisers of an on-line petition for equality and against discrimination. The name and the target of the petition is "One million signatures". The annual sweep against "indecent clothing" in the early summer was also conducted in a more repressive way than for many years. The authorities boast that they have arrested 150,000 in this crackdown. Amongst the reasons given for arrest are young men wearing t-shirts that are too tight and young women wearing the hijab and the veil incorrectly. Even fashion shops have signs saying they will not serve women with "indecent hijabs".

While reporters for some years have spoken of a new ‘openness’ in Iran, the repression this spring seems to have taken things in the opposite direction. More people fear they are being bugged, satellite antennas have been taken down etc. Internet, however, is used as much as before. More important, strikes and other workplace protests continue and show a way forward.

The regime

Despite its Islamic and "anti-imperialist" rhetoric, the regime in Iran is implementing similar policies of capitalist globalisation as other governments. That means deregulation of the labour market and privatisation. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, with some of the ruling mullahs becoming super-rich.

Iran is the second largest exporter of oil. Any stoppage of Iranian exports would lead to rapid increases in oil prices. That position, plus its growing market for weapons and machinery, has given it friends, open or hidden, among other governments. China, India and Japan are involved in exploiting new oil fields. Russia is a big arms exporter to Iran.

But also in the West there is a link. In May, Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Sweden. Several hundred demonstrators greeted him. A massive police force could not prevent the demonstration, and the meeting had to be moved. Mottaki is a notorious representative of the Islamist regime in Tehran. In the 1979 revolution he was part of the Islamic death squads against workers and revolutionaries. He has since organised the repression in Kurdistan and been ambassador to Turkey, where he also attacked Iranian activists.

Why did the Swedish government meet Mottaki? The reason is simple. Swedish exports to Iran, just in the first two months of 2007, were equivalent to €60 million euros, an increase of 24 per cent! Swedish companies export more to Iran than to the eight member states of the EU and more than to Israel.

Ahmadinejad’s regime is conducting a complicated balancing act. It has not delivered on its promises. To increase economic growth and incomes, he is relying on foreign trade and the oil price. As a response to growing unrest and workers’ struggles, he has increased repression and linked it to the conflict and threat of war with US imperialism.

Ahmadinejad’s attacks on the US and anti-semitic attacks on Israel have given him some support in the Middle East and elsewhere. But to see anything progressive in his regime is to betray the fighting workers and women in Iran. The activists in the Iranian workers’ movement, on the other hand, do not have illusions about US imperialism. They have seen the result of the war in Iraq. Independent trade unions, clearly anti-capitalist in their outlook, have passed resolutions against any US military attack.

The regime in Iran is especially afraid of the opposition from the working class, the only force able to overthrow the repressive Islamic regime. Trade unions in the West should support their struggle and demand the release of all imprisoned workers’ leaders and full trade union rights. The struggle in Iran is a struggle against the Islamic regime and against capitalism. With workers leading the way, the youthful population and women activists will support them, uniting Persians, Kurds, Azeris and others in common struggle.

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