Iran: The movement one year after the rigged elections

12 June marks the first anniversary of the mass revolt that shook the Islamic Republic of Iran; a people’s revolt against the regime.

This was the biggest mass movement since the revolution of 1979, with up to 3 million taking to the streets. How the anniversary will pan out is still unclear, but that Iran can never turn back time to the situation before June of last year is a certainty.

The regime is already swooping into action and has started mass arrests of political activists, executions of well-known political prisoners, terror, oppression and increasing repression in the hope of scaring the opposition into silence.

Meanwhile, the mass protests and the economic crisis have widened the crack in the ruling class that first appeared during the election.

At the same time the western powers are increasing sanctions on Iran and the threat of an attack is rising. The result is a worsening of the situation of workers and poor people in Iran. The Iranian regime tries to use these measures by the imperialist powers to mobilise support.

The US led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as their support for their nuclear armed allies like Israel and Pakistan, show the hypocrisy of arguments of the imperialist powers. Iran is a growing regional power and its regime’s actions since the 1979 fall of the US puppet Shah, are an obstacle to the main imperialist powers. That is the source of the dispute between today’s governments in Iran and for example the US.

12 June 2009: Mass revolt against rigged elections

In June last year, a heroic mass movement developed, with people placing their lives on the line to defy the regime of right-wing political Islam. When the sitting president, Ahmedinejad, declared himself the winner of what was obviously a rigged election, three million took to the streets. This was a spontaneous mass movement with the slogan "give us our voice back", but the movement went beyond that demand and developed into a movement against the entire regime.

That the movement did not succeed with is goal of toppling Ahmedinijad and the regime was not due to a lack of bravery, self-sacrifice or struggle on the part of the protestors. It depended on a lack of organisation and leadership to develop new steps in the struggle. When this limited the evolution of the protests, this was used by the regime to brutally oppress the protests. This temporarily forced the opposition to retreat from the streets – conscious that one cannot protest against a regime that is armed to the teeth without a clear strategy.

Mass movements are not inexhaustible, they fight as long as the feel that they can attain victory or some kind of success. That is why a de-escalation was unavoidable. Even the activists needed to take a step back and discuss a new strategy for continuing the movement.

Situation one year after the start of the protests

The lack of revolutionary leadership has temporarily acted as a brake on the movement’s forward march. But that doesn’t mean that the opposition has died out or the regime secure. Beneath the surface there is a growing hatred and the current discussions mark a new phase in the movement’s political development. Political consciousness is today significantly greater than when the protests started in June and even greater than during the revolt in December 2009. The fundamental causes for the protests are still unresolved. The lack of democratic rights, religious oppression, the oppression of women, poverty, unemployment, housing shortages and corruption remain.

Iran is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. The millionaire mullahs have spent their time stealing and taking bribes to a widespread degree. The regime’s supporters have multiplied their riches at the same time as poverty among farmers and workers has increased in the wake of the economic crisis. The population starves and it is not uncommon for workers to be forced to take two or even three jobs in order to survive. The average wage is not enough to cover the food bill of an average working family. Ahmadinejad plans to cut the subsidies for several goods and increase the prices for goods of daily need.

The economic crisis has meant high rates of inflation and unemployment. This was the crucial reason for the extent of the protests – even if the election precipitated them. The discontent which still exists, was for example shown in April this year, when a speech by Ahmadinejad in southern Iran was interrupted by people shouting: "We are unemployed!"

Attempts to intimidate the movement

In November, the regime appointed a new agency for internet control and has given the majority share of the state telecom to a company owned by the elite military force – the Revolutionary Guard. That means that the Guard now has control over telephone and internet traffic in Iran. The dreaded Basiji militia has opened 6,000 propaganda offices in schools.

The recent executions of five political prisoners were motivated by the same reasons as when Ehsan Fattahian was executed November 11th 2009 for his political activism in Kurdistan – to intimidate people into silence. The five executed were radical youths, Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heidarian, Farhad Vakili and Shirin Alamhouli. They had been interned for several years at the notorious Evin prison in Teheran. They were sentenced for their political activity, for "moharem" – crimes against god. This was a desperate act on the part of the regime – but instead of instilling silence through fear, the barbaric act exploded in their own faces when massive protests erupted not only in the rest of world, such as the storming of embassies in Paris and Stockholm, but even in Iran and most of all in the Kurdish region.

Farzad Kamangar was a popular socialist and teacher, known amongst Iranians and throughout the world for his texts. At the request of Komolah, the Iranian Communist Party’s Kurdish section, which then received broad support in Kurdistan, a strike in protest at the regime was organised for 13 May.

Strike in Kurdish areas on 13 May

This became the largest strike in Kurdistan since 2005. The Kurds in Iran have a proud tradition of struggle and socialist traditions that stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century. This was expressed in the 1979 revolution. In the Kurdish areas, for the most part, it was the working class who held control during the revolution. In order to assume control over the country and crush the workers’ movement, Khomeini launched a full-scale war on Kurdistan. Trade union offices were stormed; all democratic organisations were torn to pieces and workers, students, socialists and communists were murdered.

On 13 May, a complete strike was held where markets and shops remained closed. Cities and towns were glaringly empty and the regime could not do a thing.

"As good as all shops were closed in Sanandai, the Kurdish capital. I sat in front of the TV and shed tears of happiness when I saw the pictures of how many participated" said one exiled Iranian the day after the strike.

"Besides Sanandai, the strike was as good as 100% solid in Oshnavieh, Marivan and Bukan and only the most essential services remained open. In several towns there were reports of confrontations with the police and the security forces but the strike couldn’t be broken."

Since Ahmedinejad was elected president in 2005, thousands of strikes and workers’ protests have taken place. Today, there is a strike every fifth day. But these have been isolated actions at different workplaces. What is necessary is coordination between workplaces and towns. That is an important step on the way to a joint struggle of Kurds, Persians and oppressed minorities.

In Kurdistan, people have been reluctant to join the protests associated with the "green movement", as the protest wave after the presidential election in June of last year was known. It was regarded as a power struggle between the top Iranian echelons and not a part of any struggle against the regime that has oppressed the Kurdish minority for thirty years. But a taste of the "counter-revolutionary whip" made them take a step forward and join the struggle rather than retreat.

The suspicion of both Kurds, and many Iranian workers, towards the "green movement" is understandable. Mousavi, the main contender in the presidential election and portrayed as a reformer by the western media is no alternative to Ahmedinejad, He himself is a part of the regime and responsible for the deaths of thousands of students and political left wing activists. Mousavi is an executioner with blood on his hands since his stint as prime minister from 1980-1988.

Mousavi does enjoy a certain amount of support from the middle classes but the placards and banners of the protesters from an early stage showed that they were prepared to go much further. The "reformist" wing of the regime was itself taken by surprise by the resistance and the extent of it and involuntarily became a symbol of the movement without being able to control it. They simply had no other choice but to continue.

May Day

Even before the strike in the Kurdish area, 1 May was a success with massive protests, not as large as many had hoped, but with clear slogans and a high level of awareness. But the most important of all was the preparatory work done, with secret meetings on internet forums, amongst cells that met for discussions in woods and mountains with broad tiers of activists and workers from across Iran. This could be the start of a real organisation. What is new in the new movement is the discussion on the role of the working class. In the build-up to 1 May, there were now significantly more activists who saw that the regime cannot just be "protested away", that more is required.

The discussion touched on the question of the working class and its role in the 1979 revolution. Even the "Supreme Leader", Khamenei, warned of what could happen on 1 May and that all protests must therefore be stopped at all costs. The regime itself knows the strength of the working class and is petrified that the workers’ themselves will soon realise their power.

That is why even the regime’s own yellow trade union, Khanaye Kargar, (workers’ house, an organisation combining workers and employers, strictly under the control of the state) cancelled their annual celebration. In the build-up to and 1 May, thousands learned of the role of the working class, when they collectively took to the streets. None of the regime’s security measures or arrests succeeded in stopping the workers’ organisations from celebrating May Day. In cities all over Iran and Kurdistan, people gathered under red banners.

In total, a dozen workers organisations and socialist groups were involved in organising 1 May, including important trade unions, such as the Haft Tapeh sugar workers’ and Tehran’s bus drivers’ union. The adopted statements, which not only demanded the release of political prisoners, equal rights for women and children, opposed torture and the death penalty, but also acknowledged that the root of all this oppression lies in the capitalist system that is upheld by the dictatorship of right wing political Islam in Iran.

Until now, it has mostly been socialist and communist organisations and radical workers’ groups that have upheld the May Day tradition, but his year it was different, with a significantly broader gathering. It was not only broader layers of workers, but also shop-owners and students who come out onto the streets. The first of May became a true mass movement. Outside the University of Teheran, spontaneous protests erupted that then joined up with the workers’ demonstration under the slogan "workers’ and students unite!"

Even if the movement is not yet characterised by a socialist consciousness, the awareness of workers’ role has increased markedly. The struggle in Iran that has been taking place over the last year has many revolutionary attributes, but a revolution is not a single action but a process where the masses learn from how the struggle develops. It is with experience that the masses can turn their own struggle into revolution. The increased consciousness has not come about overnight but has grown from what the movement has learned during a year of successes and setbacks.

Development of the movement

It is a long struggle that has led the way to the protests we see today. One can say that the current movement started with the student revolts of 1999, continuing with the workers’ protests and strikes of 2004 and onwards to today. The mass strikes of Tehran’s bus drivers, teachers, textile, car and sugar industry workers in 2007 was the turning point. In that fight, the seeds were sown for future mass organisations for the working class. The courage of the working class has shown itself time and time again. But the mass of workers will not seriously involve itself in a struggle against the regime unless it is to crush it forever.

On Student day 16 Azar, 16 December, the students defied the protest ban and forced the gates of the universities, defying mass arrests, riot police, tear gas and batons. Youths make up for a majority of the population. 60 % are under 30 and young people have been without doubt the spearhead of the movement. 16 Azar has been known as the day of students since 1953, when the Shah’s forces killed students at the University of Tehran. Today, the day is known instead for an expression of the struggle against the current regime.

In December, on the Day of Ashura, tens of thousands protested. The opposition uses such days because it is easier to gather and defy the protest ban. But since the regime has learned the tactics of the movement, these protests have been easier to stop, as the demonstrators, even if numerous, are themselves the only weapon.

11 February, the celebration of the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, was seen as a setback for the opposition movement, despite the continuation of the protests, because of the falling number of demonstrators and a failing to make the impression they had hoped for, but mainly because it was the forces loyal to the regime that set the agenda. There was a complete military occupation of the cities.

More and more people have understood that it is not possible to "protest away" the regime, but that they must be seriously challenged. That is why before 1 May, important discussions were held which increased in pace and intensity. How should the movement develop in order to be victorious? May Day became a day to re-launch the movement, this time with significantly increased consciousness. There were great expectations for this day and the regime was tense, they were not going to allow any manifestations of protest.

After the successful strike in Kurdistan in mid-May, the direction and the rhythm of the movement can change again.

Tasks for the movement

It is now important that the movement takes up issues such as the oppression of the national minorities, in order to unite all in the struggle against the regime. The regime’s inability to act against the 24-hour strike in Kurdistan was a tremendous setback for them and a victory, not just for Kurds, but for all the people of Iran. The regime was humiliated and it has been revealed that they can be defeated. In the eyes of millions, the Kurdish people have, with their strike, shown their strength in collective workers’ action.

How can one organise a pan-Iranian general strike? If such a strike could be organised on a national scale, then the days of the millionaire mullahs’ regime would be numbered. The regime itself is acutely aware of this and is terrified of such a development. In order to organise a general strike, people need to start organising themselves. The Iranian masses need to be mindful of the best traditions of the 1979 revolution when the working class used a general strike and struggle to bring down the Shah.

In order to bring the struggle to the next level with general strikes and mass actions, and in order to split the forces of the state and right-wing political Islam requires that the working class and the poor organise themselves.

One should not be fooled by the decrease in outward protest activity since last year. The fundamental problems are still there and beneath the surfaces the anger is growing, sowing the seeds for what could grow to be powerful workers’ organisations.

The protests have continued. The hatred and courage shown by young women in particular is not just a reaction to vote rigging, but is the culmination of thirty years of oppression. The Iranian masses know that they can only rely on their own strength and solidarity.

It is crucial that this is organised democratically through committees of the movement and of workers in the workplaces is crucial. Attempts to build independent trade unions or factory committees out of the protests in the factories are decisive.

Workplaces must be linked with the students, seek allies amongst the middle classes and tie their struggle to those of the rural poor.

However, the acute issue today is the need for a new workers’ party with mass support – a party capable of leading the masses to victory, showing and offering a way to a government of workers and poor to transform society. The weakness of the movement lies in its lack of such a party.

The masses can topple the regime without a party but they cannot retain power without it, as seen in the 1979 revolution. That is why there is a crying need for a new mass workers’ party to be established. And the conditions for that are better than they have been for a long time in Iran. Radical layers of workers and students are reaching out for an alternative and would welcome such a step.

Marxists have to contribute and argue for such a broad party and at the same time build and organise themselves within this movement, to be able to offer a socialist strategy to the workers’ movement and the movement against the regime.

The Iranian working class has a proud tradition of struggle but that history is written in blood and lessons must be learned. The regime must be challenged on all levels. The risk for bloody confrontations loom and the working class therefore needs to organise its own self-defence against the security forces of the regime. Both this, and the use and distribution of arms must be controlled by the trade unions and workplace committees, in residential areas and at the universities.

The struggle of today starts very often with democratic demands: for the freedom to meet; the right to protest, strike or contest elections. For the right to organise in parties and trade unions, for free and fair elections – but not only fresh elections under the millionaire mullahs’ regime. A revolutionary constituent assembly is needed, that can decide the fate of Iran. This has to be organised by committees and councils on a local level and in the factories to secure free elections, with the right of all people to form parties and stand candidates.

But in order for the struggle for democratic rights to be victorious, it must be connected to the fight against capitalism, the basis of the crisis in Iran, the region and internationally. We fight for a socialist Iran as a part of a socialist Federation of the Middle East and worldwide, with a planned economy, steered and controlled by the workers, small farmers and local communities – and socialist production to meet the needs of the population. The millionaire mullahs and the bosses must be toppled and their wealth confiscated. All attempts by multinational companies to enter Iran again must be stopped.

This requires a programme of action that can be connected to the movement’s current demands for social improvements, such as those for shortened working hours, housing, education and healthcare.

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June 2010