Events are moving rapidly in Iran. Despite massive repression, with over 200 killed, and thousands of demonstrators, and now strikers, arrested, increasingly revolutionary protests continue to grip practically the whole of Iran. These have lasted for more than four weeks and, in recent days, have widened in scope, especially as strikes in support of the protests have begun to break out. All this underlines the new quality of the movement that broke out after Jina Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the so-called ‘morality’ police.
Initially, the protests were led by youth, especially women and teenagers. The deputy commander of the so-called Islamic ‘Revolutionary’ Guards (in reality, the counter-revolutionary guards) has said that the average age of those arrested is 15 years old. Now there has been the spread of protest strikes in the key oil sector, a key resource, as Iran has roughly 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves.
Repeatedly, the streets have echoed to the call “Death to the Dictator”. In response, there has often been brutal repression and, in a few areas, exchanges of gunfire between security forces and protesters. But the military and security forces do not exist in isolation; revolutionary movements can affect them. While most have so far stood by the regime, significantly one video has shown riot police in the Nazi Abad district in southern Tehran walking, without their helmets, alongside the demonstrators rather than attacking them.
Protests have gripped the entire country. Despite its Kurdish origin, the slogan, ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ (‘Woman, Life, Freedom’) became one of the main slogans of the movement as it spread throughout the country. This illustrates how Iran’s ethnic divisions can be overcome on the basis of common struggles. Significantly, the regime has met the protests in areas populated by ethnic or religious minorities, like the Kurds and Baloch, with greater repression. To prevent the regime from using divide-and-rule tactics, the movement needs a concrete programme on the national question, which advocates equality and rights, up to the self-determination, of the oppressed nationalities while calling for joint struggle against the regime.
The explosive spread of the movement throughout Iran can be traced back to decades of fermenting anger over social injustices, regular repression of the opposition, rigging of elections by blocking candidates and, in particular, the regime’s brutal oppression of women. The regime has been steadily losing its support. This is the fourth major wave of protest in Iran since 2019. Since 2017-18 there has been a growing number of strikes, last year saw well over 2,000 strikes and protests in Iran. The turnout in 2021’s presidential election was just 26% in Tehran, down from 73% in 2017. Officially the national turnout was 48.48%, but the numbers actually voting for one of the officially allowed candidates was far less as 13.38% of those who voted cast invalid or blank votes. Reflecting the popular mood, the Financial Times reported that the “head of the semi-official ISPA opinion poll centre says ‘a considerable majority’ of Iranians harbour a dangerous level of ‘anger’ towards the Islamic Republic” (October 17, 2022).
The regime has also been undermined by economic crisis. Partly under the impact of western sanctions, the economy is between 4% and 8% smaller than it was in 2010. At the same time, it is ravaged by inflation, food prices are up 70% compared with a year ago and in the last 15 years, real household consumption has fallen by 29% in cities and almost 50% in rural areas. The government estimates that a third of Iran’s nearly 89 million population lives in poverty. The economic crisis has particularly hit women; the number of women working has dropped by 20% in four years and the unemployment rate amongst female graduates is double that of males (60% of Iran’s university students are female).
The result of all this is that youth, women and the working class are less and less prepared to live with repression especially as the elite’s widespread corruption alienates millions. There is much anger among young people that children of the elite study and live abroad; in May General Morteza Mirian, a senior ‘Revolutionary’ Guard commander, claimed on TV, that 4,000 relatives of “senior officials” live in the United States, Canada or Europe.
It is against this background that Jina Mahsa Amini’s death sparked off this mighty movement which, so far, has been mainly carried forward by teenagers and young adults.
Currently, there are regular street battles with police and units of the volunteer Basji militia, who are part of the ‘Revolutionary’ Guards. This shows how deep the rejection of the regime is amongst the youth. Many people around the world will have seen some of the videos circulating of schoolgirls removing their hijabs at school and clashing with Basji and police spies loyal to the regime, who are used by the regime to monitor religious rules in schools. The Coordinating Council of Iranian Teachers’ Unions has issued a statement on this issue. It called on students to turn classrooms into spaces for democratic discussion and to expel all forces loyal to the regime from classrooms. This Coordinating Council statement was issued the day before its third day of strike action during the ongoing movement.
The strikes in Kurdish areas, of teachers nationally and of sections of petrochemical workers, are important. These can be the spark to wider action that could show the strength of the movement and the weakness of the regime’s base. Some actions are developing through local initiatives. That is very positive but it is increasingly urgent for the protests to go to a higher level. The regime will not be brought down just by riots and demonstrations which it hopes to sit out. A combination of a 24 or 48-hour general strike, with mass demonstrations, would be an extremely important next step in giving shape to the movement. The formation of local bodies of representatives of workplaces, communities and educational institutes to organise such a strike would be an important step towards organising the movement and beginning to establish an alternative power to the regime’s structures.
The calling and carrying through a general strike is also becoming increasingly important against the background that ex-president Khatami has called on the repressive organs to take the side of the protesters and it appears that parts of the military have already referred positively to his statement.
Likewise, the now-detained former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi sent out a message urging the security forces to end the repression, saying “Armed forces! The powers vested in you are for defence of the people, not their repression; for the protection of the oppressed, not service to the powerful and mighty. The hope is that you will stand on the side of truth and the nation. Your duty is secure the peace for the millions and especially the downtrodden, and not to consolidate the power of oblivious officials.”
Divisions within the elite
Some within the elite recognise what is happening. Mohammad Sadr, a ‘reformist’ politician and member of the Expediency Council that advises the ‘Supreme Leader’ and has oversight over the government, said that Jina Mahsa Amini’s death had ignited “pent-up frustrations, demands and rage especially among the young generation,” adding that “you cannot rule by force.”
These are examples of divisions widening within the elite. While significant it also needs to be kept in mind that members of the so-called reformist wing of the regime, like Kathami, Mousavi and Sadr, are essentially concerned with saving the Islamic Republic’s basis. To do so they may, for example, abolish the morality police and the strict clothing regulations for women, but otherwise, leave much of the regime intact. Even if elements like this want to remove large parts of the Islamic Republic’s structures, it is clear that they would want to build a more ‘normal’ capitalist state, which would leave the economic and social demands of working people and youth unanswered.
But the more conservative elements in the ruling class have not given up; they try both to divide and crush the movement. The Speaker of the parliament, a former ‘Revolutionary’ Guard commander, has urged protesters not to allow the demonstrations to become “destabilising” while promising to “amend the structures” of the country’s morality police. He tried to appeal to workers not to join the protests by saying that recent teachers and pensioners’ protests over pay were “reform-seeking and not aimed at overthrowing” the system, adding an appeal to “all who have any (reasons to) protest not to allow their protest to turn into destabilizing and toppling” of institutions.
Faced with the growing strength of the protests, President Raisi has tried to appease the movement. On October 15th, the official Irna news agency circulated a statement by Raisi saying that the regime would “review, revise, update and, if necessary, revise” some of the laws in force in the country. He added that social dialogue is needed to dispel “doubts” within society and that “we should also see if we have achieved the goals set and if not, where the problems lie.” Raisi went on to say that the status of women should also be given greater focus. But this was all vague; he did not say specifically exactly which laws he meant and did not even mention the headscarf regulations. But the point is that the government currently feels it has to offer something as repression is not yet having the results it wants. Major General Bagheri, the military chief of staff, warned senior officers that “traditional approaches will not work anymore”, but this does not rule out more attempts at suppression like the recent deployment of ‘Revolutionary’ Guard riot squads to Tehran University.
Given the regime’s weak social base, shown in last year’s elections, and now the scale of this movement and the scale of the opposition the urgency is to organise the next concrete steps to be taken. The regime is actually depending on the movement starting to exhaust itself by continuous protests that are not linked to a strategy to involve more layers in struggle and challenge the regime.
The general rise in workers’ struggles and the growth of semi-legal independent workers’ organisations in some workplaces since 2017/18 indicate the potential power of the Iranian working class. On May Day last year, a joint statement was issued by 15 Iranian working-class organisations which listed a series of demands and also called for the creation of “a coalition council among all the workers, teachers, employees, retirees, women, students, and the unemployed proves to be of utmost necessity. This is not just a demand among others, but the urgent platform for aiming at a new organization of work in our society”. This statement ended with the declaration that “the emancipation of the workers is brought only by the workers themselves!”
The current movement has seen strikes in Kurdish areas, three days of national strikes by teachers and, most recently strikes at three petrochemical plants. However, it appears that during these protests there has been, so far, no common appeal for action by the organisations involved in the 2021 May Day statement.
The militant Haft Tappeh sugarcane refinery workers have issued an appeal for a “nationwide” strike”. Their statement argued that “the uprising of the girls on the street needs support. The girls of this land have decided to make a huge change, a change that will bring the liberation of women in other areas:
“This great and laudable uprising should be linked with the strike of workers everywhere in this land. To get rid of discrimination and oppression, to get rid of poverty and hardship, to have bread and freedom, let us not leave the girls of the sun and of the revolution alone. Girls of the sun and of the revolution; On the day of victory, the whole world will take off their hats in front of you – you gave everyone a lesson in standing up and resisting.
Long live the union and class solidarity of the workers for liberation! Towards a nationwide strike in the services and production sectors!”
This call for a national strike needs to be urgently taken up. Likewise, the idea of a “coalition council” mentioned in the joint 2021 May Day statement needs to become a reality. It is precisely a mass and organised intervention of the working class which is needed now to take the movement forward. This may require as the next step coordinated strikes from all semi-legal trades unions that can set an example and be rapidly further developed into a 24 to 48-hour general strike.
A campaign that prepares for a general strike is more necessary than ever. This needs to include a programme that links the immediate issues with the need for regime and system change. Immediate issues, like the release of all detained protestors, trade union and worker activists and freedom for all political prisoners, are starting points alongside the freedom of women to wear clothing and to work where they want to plus the abolishment of the morality police, the so-called ‘Guidance Patrols’.
But these are just the beginning. The right to freely organise, in the workplace and politically and the abolishment of all oppressive structures, organisations (like the Basji) and laws are essential. Economic demands such as the reduction of the working week and an inflation-proof minimum wage are immediately important.
The teachers’ Coordinating Council’s call for classrooms to become spaces for discussion can also help stimulate the necessary debate on the question of what comes after the current regime, which also needs to develop in workplaces and communities. Schools could become one of the venues in which such wider bodies could meet. Discussions in which the questions of how to secure democratic rights, what sort of society should be created, and whether Iran should remain capitalist or carry through a socialist break can be debated. But alongside discussions on programme, these bodies can begin to co-ordinate the struggle, including organising the defence of protesters and strikers from attack.
It is clear that sooner or later this regime will go, either being overthrown or being undermined by its own divisions. But that immediately poses the question of what next?
The current movement has a cross-class makeup in the sense that it encompasses different elements opposing the current rulers, however, once the regime is overthrown or even severely weakened, the question will be posed of who takes over the power.
Inevitability in every revolution this question of who rules comes up. There can be powerful calls for unity, or at least unity against the forces of the old regime, which are made in arguments for the formation of a ‘temporary’, ‘provisional’, ‘unity’ government to ‘secure’ the revolution, organise elections etc. Certainly, there can be unity of action against counter-revolution, but that is very different from the question of workers’ organisations collaborating with pro-capitalist forces in a government maintaining the capitalist system.
The workers’ movement needs to set its own agenda, a socialist agenda which combined together the immediate demands with the need to break with capitalism so that the working class and power can begin the socialist reconstruction of society. Today, the revolution needs to seize the opportunity to do this and not limit itself to only ending the decades-long repression by the counter-revolution that pushed the working masses aside and seized power after the mass revolt that ended the Shah’s dictatorial rule.
Amongst the bourgeois – liberals opposing the country’s leadership, or even the entire regime, there will be those who want a more ‘normal’ capitalist system without the constraints of the top religious leaders and apparatchiks of the Islamic state bureaucracies. But the continuation of capitalism means that the fundamental issues facing Iran will not be answered. Inevitably class struggles will break out, as the interests of the capitalists and the working class come into conflict. If the capitalist power is not broken this would pose the danger of counter-revolution, probably not on the same lines as 1979/80, but possibly like in Egypt in 2013, as the ruling class moves to secure its position.
It is necessary for the Iranian working class and youth to have no illusions about the role of western imperialism. Aware of the potential strength of the Iranian working class, western powers have long attempted to cultivate links with Iranian oppositionists and workers’ leaders, with a view to drawing them into a pro-capitalist orbit. These are false friends; they may now pretend to support democratic rights in Iran, but they didn’t do so in the time of the Shah and have long supported other dictatorial regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
The alternative that the workers’ movement needs to stand for is the replacement of the present regime by a provisional government made up of representatives of the working class, youth and poor which immediately takes action to implement the revolution’s basic demands. At the same time, it needs to encourage the development of local democratic bodies which can become the foundation of a new regime. Such bodies could be the basis for the election of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly to decide the country’s future.
To achieve this, there needs to be a socialist force, a revolutionary party, which can argue for these ideas. This was the case in Russia in 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, after the February revolution refused to join the pro-capitalist provisional government and instead campaigned to win majority support amongst the working class for the socialist revolution. That is the example which needs to be followed by Iranian socialists. Such a policy, the basis for the October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, is in contrast to the many “all-party” governments established after revolutions in other countries, which resulted in socialist opportunities being lost and capitalism continuing to rule.
The developing new Iranian revolution is a tremendous development; it is already starting to inspire youth and workers in other countries. If successful, it will have an electrifying effect in the Middle East and beyond. The energy and bravery of the young people are an example to all. What is needed now is the widening of the movement and a clarification of the concrete steps necessary to both defeat repression and open the way to real liberation from oppression and all the ills of capitalism.