Iran: Three weeks of revolutionary crisis

Splits in the ruling Islamist-capitalist class

The presidential elections in Iran, held on 12 June, triggered a revolutionary crisis. The ruling Islamist-capitalist class is deeply split over whether brutal repression or some concessions can stop the historic mass movement that has emerged. The rulers and increasingly the system have lost their legitimacy. Nationalist and religious propaganda have had little effect. Shootings, beatings and arrests are the last resort of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad apparatus. The absence of mass workers’ organisations and revolutionary mass party, however, is also a major factor in these events.

The mass demonstration of more then one million on the streets in Tehran on 16 June gave this new revolution global attention. People had lost their fear. The enormous hatred of the political system, and the anger towards economic hardship faced by working people, boiled over into mass protests.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his speech on Friday 19 June, threatened violence, repression and "bloodshed". This week, demonstrations have been attacked at their meeting points, limiting the possibility for mass demonstrations. Basij militia men on motorcycles attacked protesters with sticks and guns. Police and army use teargas and live ammunition. Reports talk of between 50 and 184 deaths. The state officially claims 475 people have been arrested, while observers talk of between 800 and 1,000. Reporters Without Borders said 26 journalists were detained, while other news agencies claim more than 100 student leaders have been arrested. A special court has been set up to interrogate and charge those held.

The split at the top of the regime in deepening further. Presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi – at the centre of the split of the regime, challenging Khamenei and Ahmadinejad – has been put under some kind of ‘house arrest’ and his newspaper was raided with 25 people arrested. His "godfather", Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and the richest man in Iran, has been put under pressure with the arrests of his relatives, including his daughter Faezeh Hashemi. Reportedly, Rafsanjani has gone to the holy city of Qom, in an attempt to gather support.

Khamenei forced to step down from his religious arbiter role and to some extent to push Ahmadinejad to one side, to make his threats, apparently worried that concessions to the protesters would increase the appetite of the masses further. The Council of Guardians admit some electoral flaults, but deny all possibility of a total recount, never mind new elections. That is why Khamenei’s answer is mass repression. So far, however, Mousavi has not responded by calling off protests citing the risk of a bloodbath. Politicians in the West "express fear" and "worry" over violence, hoping for a compromise at the top.

The mood of the masses, however, is not easily controlled. The mass demonstrations, last Tuesday – two million according to some observers – took place despite instructions that state forces should shoot and the call from Mousavi to stay home. At that stage, the state and the ruling elite were still taken by surprise. Policemen even protected protesters from attacks from the hated basij militia. This week, the roof protests – youth on roof tops shouting slogans at night – have become stronger for every day.

With his speech last Friday, Khamenei attempted to steel the state forces to attack in a similar way as he did against the student movement ten years ago. There are many decisive moments during mass movements and revolutions. Most likely, the protests have not reached an end. It is it still not settled how far the new movement is prepared to go. Mirhossein Mousavi on Saturday 20 June even called for a general strike, should he be arrested, something he predicted. Also, some of the underground trade unions have issued calls for a general strike.

Long build-up

There has been a long build-up to this explosion. The genuine workers’ revolution of 1979, supported by the urban and rural poor, was drowned in blood by the Islamist reaction. A brutal counter-revolution, continuing for many years, smashed all workers’ and democratic organisations. This was made possible partly by the role played by pro-Moscow communist party, Tudeh, which supported the Islamist leader Khomeini, as an "anti-imperialist", until Tudeh was crushed by the regime.

The student movement in 1999 was the first to really shake this regime and raise the hopes of the masses. But it also exposed the illusions about the then "reformist" president Khatami, who did not lift a finger in defence of the students against repression. Khatami represented a wing of the regime aiming to make changes – both domestic and international – but not to make any real changes. This year, Khatami is another of the main backers of Mousavi. Over the last few years, students have organised repeated protests at universities. Student leaders and editors of student magazines have been imprisoned.

Since 2004, there has been a sharp upturn in strikes and workers’ struggles. Tehran bus workers, sugar mill workers at Haf Tapeh, teachers, textile workers and the car workers at Iran Khodro have organised strikes and struggles for jobs and wages – and for the right to form independent trade unions. They have also formed their own organisations and elected their representatives. In 2005, a national day of strikes and protests in July resulted in strikes even in the holy city of Qom. This year, more than 80 activists were arrested at the May Day demonstration in Laleh park in Tehran. The determination of the masses and the working class, in particular, has been shown again and again. The repression against the bus workers’ union and the imprisonment of their leader, Mansour Ossanlou, has not broken their organisation. After the arrests on May Day, workers and their families organised daily protests to demand the release of all activists.

Focus for aspirations

This year’s presidential elections became a focus for the aspirations of the masses despite most Western pundits stating the conservatives had strengthened their grip and the "reformists" had been broken. Sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be challenged by a more restrained conservative, some predicted. In 2005, Ahmadinejad unexpectedly defeated Rafsanjani on the basis of his promises of a fair division of oil incomes and improved living standards for the poor. Despite breaking these promises, Ahmadinejad has skillfully promoted himself and not been easily controlled by the capitalist mullahs. Instead, Ahmadinejad has supported capitalists among the basij and the Revolutionary guard, especially in the oil and construction industries.

Despite Ahmadinejad’s unorthodox style, Ayatollah Khamenei decided he was the best card in the presidential election. The other three candidates approved, of originally 475 applicants, by the 12-men Council of Guardians, were more priest-like and academic. Ahmadinejad had also shown that he did not hesitate from using repression or confronting the US over the nuclear issue.

Rafsanjani, himself a big capitalist and the leader of the Assembly of Experts (86 members) who select the supreme leader, took a different position. He regards Ahmadinejad as a liability both in provoking domestic opposition and in relation to the global powers. Instead, he wanted Mirhossein Mousavi to win. No-one, however, had expected the old former Prime Minister from a notoriously repressive period (the Iraq war, 1980-88), to get a mass following.

“The television duel between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad – watched by 40 million viewers – pulled the cork from the bottle and created popular reactions that most likely neither Mousavi nor anyone in the Iranian power machine had expected", wrote Swedish commentator, Bitte Hammargren. Although many voters found no real appeal in Mousavi, they still regarded him as the candidate who could defeat Ahmadinejad.

Thousands of young people, and particularly women, became Mousavi campaigners. Oppression of women is a cornerstone of the Islamist dictatorship. Alongside students and independent unions, women have organised to fight for their rights and many activists have been imprisoned or killed. When the wife of Mirhossein Mousavi, famous artist Zahra Rahnavard, attended and spoke at his elections rallies it gave an enormous inputus to his campaign. In the last week before the election, students could more or less freely distribute leaflets and hold meetings in parks and at the university. In Tehran, Mousavi gathered mass meetings while Ahmadinejad, who totally dominated and controlled state media, held smaller meetings.

The mood among the masses was upbeat and, with a 75% turnout, the youth expected Mousavi to win. But less than two hours after the polling stations closed, Ahmadinejad was declared winner. And the following day, Khamenei congratulated him, saying it was a "glittering event". Western politicians and commentators seemed to accept the result, referring to the rural support for Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, however, did not step aside and even less so did his supporters – or rather everyone who is against Ahmadinejad and dissatisfied with the system. Reports confirmed that electoral districts with more votes than voters, polling stations that closed early etc. Instead of 24 million votes, Ahmadinejad was alleged to have received 7 million, to be compared with Mousavi’s 13 million. In a second round, it is estimated that voters of the defeated two candidates would also most likely have voted for Mousavi.

Channelled mass anger

Protests started immediately, with Ahmadinejad ridiculing them as similar to riots by football supporters. But these protests were not only about the election result – they channelled all the anger over unemployment, low wages, the housing crisis and the lack of democratic rights, plus among activists the hope for revenge against the regime. The demonstrations became bigger. Violent attacks from basij on motor cycles and against students at the university campus at night, with deadly results, only increased mass anger, culminating in the enormous demonstrations.

State violence in response and propaganda that the US was behind the protests did not stop the protests. Ayatollah Khamenei had to make a partial retreat and call for a recount – only in a few districts and to be done by the Council of Guardians – but nevertheless an unprecedented gesture. But there should be no illusions – alongside this, Khamenei and the regime started to arrest critics and prepare for a clampdown whenever that is possible.

It is a massive and powerful mass movement. If it knew its own strength and potential, the regime could be finished. But there are also major factors holding it back – the confused consciousness of the masses and the lack of independent workers’ organisations. The masses will learn through these historic events, but will the movement go far enough? How far will the masses go after, for example, Mousavi and Rafsanjani may decide they should return home?

Robert Fisk reported in the Independent (London) on 19 June: “Tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters marched in black through the streets of central Tehran yesterday evening”. He quotes a participant: “We cannot stop now. If we stop now, they will eat us.” That fighting mood is probably typical and it can in itself force repression to one side. But the same marcher continues: “The best is for the United Nations or some international organisations to monitor another election.” To which correctly concludes: “Upon such illusions is disaster built.”

No-one in Iran should put any trust in the UN or any Western ruling class. When president Obama says he is worried, it is the revolutionary character of the masses that worries him most. Obama has made it clear that he has no preference over who is the president of Iran, as long that president is prepared to listen to the US. The "reformers" have so far not been more open to the White house than Ahmadinejad. The mixed mood is also seen in the "green" anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations where religious slogans are shouted.

The mass movement has already affected others layers in society. Some policemen defended demonstrators and were cheered as heroes. Newspapers have been forced to report on the demonstrations. University professors have resigned in opposition to fatal shootings on campus.

Khamenei has now threatened increased repression. But if the mass movement continues for another few days, he can be forced to give up Ahmadinejad and try to reach a compromise with the Rafsanjani camp. The split in the ruling class is a sign of revolutionary crisis and the rulers will struggle to overcome it. Mousavi is no real alternative, but has become a trigger. He has done his part in promising loyalty to Khamenei and the Islamic republic, at the same time putting himself forward as opposition leader.

Working class

The most urgent task is for independent workers’ organisations to be formed and built on a mass scale. Independent from the state, religion, capitalists, liberals etc., they should show forward for workplaces and neighbourhood committees. Like the shuras of the 1979 revolution, committees of workers should deal with both self-defence and workers’ control of production and the economy. Unlike in 1979, they need be co-ordinated on a city wide and national basis.

Some workers’ organisations do already exist, such as the bus workers’ union, which correctly supported no candidate in the elections. All the candidates were religious-capitalist candidates, in various guises. None of them put forward any policies that can end unemployment of 20% (12.5 % officially) and inflation of 30 % (25 officially).

Workers’ organisations now have to be in the forefront in mass resistance – building unions, forming broader defence committees and seeking support from students and other activists among the urban poor. But above all, Iran needs a clearly socialist party. So-called “colour revolutions” in other countries, over the last few years, have shown the possibility of overthrowing governments, but when this has occurred the new pro-capitalist regimes have not fundamentally changed the living conditions of workers. This was also the lesson from the mass revolutions in Europe, in 1848, which were closely followed by Marx and Engels, laying the basis for their insistence on the working class organising independently.

Mass movements are not tireless – they fight as long as they think the struggle can and will give results. The fight for democratic rights must be linked to the fight for political and economic liberation. The capitalist mullahs have to be overthrown and their wealth confiscated. Only a democratically controlled economy, a democratic socialist plan, can offer education, jobs and living wage. Iran has a strong working class tradition, going back to the revolution in 1906-11, but above all during the 1979 revolution. It was the strike movement of the workers, rather than only demonstrations in the cities, that overthrew the strong state apparatus of the Shah. The major lesson from that revolution, learnt in blood, is the need for a mass revolutionary socialist, workers’ party, to disarm the Islamists, politically and militarily.

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June 2009