Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Iran: Which way forward for the new revolution?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Splits in ruling Islamist-capitalist class deepened
The mobilisations of more than one million people on the streets of Tehran alongside open splits in the ruling Islamist-capitalist class marks a revolutionary crisis in Iran. People have lost their fear.

By Per-Åke Westerlund, CWI Sweden

The enormous hatred of today’s political system and the economic hardship of ordinary people has boiled over. The absence of mass workers’ organisations and revolutionary mass party, however, is also a major factor in these revolutionary events.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his speech on Friday 19 June made open threats of violence and repression, “bloodshed”. He opened the door to his challengers within the regime – Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, former president and the richest man in Iran, and his protege, presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi – to appeal for cancelling demonstrations because of the risk for a bloodbath. Politicians in the West also “express fear” and “worry” over violence, arguing for a compromise at the top.

The mood of the masses, however, is not easily controlled. The mass demos on Tuesday – two million according to some observers – took place despite both orders that state forces should shoot and the call from Mousavi to stay home. At that stage, the state and the rulers were still taken by surprise. Policemen even protected protesters from attacks from the hated basij militia.

With his Friday speech, Khamenei tried 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. Saturday´s repression against the smaller demonstration on its way to Revolution Square was not the end of the protests. It is it still not settled far both the new movement and the counter-revolutionary forces are prepared to go. Mirhossein Mousavi on Saturday even called for a general strike, should he be arrested, something he predicted. Between 15 and 35 people, according to different sources, have been killed by the state forces so far.

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 by the role played by pro-Moscow communist party, Tudeh, who supported the islamist leader Khomeini, as an “anti-imperialist” all the way until Tudeh itself was crushed.

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 improve relations – both domestic and international – 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 manifestation in the 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.

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 maybe be challenged by a more restrained conservative, some predicted. In 2005, Ahmadinejad unexpectedly defeated Rafsanjani with 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 U.S. over the nuclear issue.

Rafsanjani, himself a top 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 opposition and in relation to global powers. Instead, he wanted Mirhossein Mousavi. 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. If not supporting Mousavi, he was seen by the masses as the candidate that 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 input to his campaign. In the last week up to 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, only had smaller meetings.

The mood among the masses was upbeat and, with a 75 percent turnout, the youth expected Mousavi to win. But less than two hours after the polling stations had 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 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 came in, confirming districts with more votes than voters, polling stations that closed early etc. Instead of 24 million votes, Ahmadinejad was estimated to have received 7 million, to be compared with Mousavi’s 13 million. In a second round, voters of the defeated two candidates would also most likely have voted for Mousavi.

Protests started immediately, with Ahmandinejad ridiculing them as similar to riots by football supporters. But these protests were not only about the election result – they channeled 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 on students at the university campus at night, with deadly outcome, only increased the anger, culminating in the mass demonstrations on Tuesday.

Violence and propaganda that the U.S. was behind the protests did not work. Mousavi had to step back into the demonstrations, calling for mourning marches on Thursday and Friday. 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 anyway an unprecendented 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, the regime could be finished. But there are also major factors holding it back – the confused consciousness, 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 when Mousavi and Rafsanjani think they should return home?

Robert Fisk reported in the Independent 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.” And Fisk concludes correctly: “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 U.S. 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 also 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 been pushed to become a trigger. He has done his part in promising loyalty to Khamenei and the islamist republic at the same time sounding as an aggressive opposition leader.

It is most urgent for independent workers’ organisations to be formed and built on a mass scale. Independent from the state, religion, capitalists, liberals etc., they should show the way towards workplace 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 coordinated on a city wide and national basis.

The independent workers’ organisations already existing, as the bus workers’ union, correctly supported no candidate in the elections. All were religious-capitalist candidates in different shapes. None of them can deal with the unemployment of 20 percent (12.5 percent officially) and inflation of 30 percent (25 officially).

These organisations now have to be in the forefront – building their own 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 have shown the possibility to overthrow governments, but have not fundamentally changed the life of workers and ordinary people. This was also the lesson from the mass revolutions all over Europe in 1848, studied 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 in the 1979 revolution. It was the strike movement of the workers, rather than just 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, in order to disarm the Islamists, politically and militarily.


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