Iran: Workers' Strikes and Protests Continue

Today the slogan of Bread, Jobs, Freedom, Soviet Organisation is to everyone's surprise, if not disbelief, resonating everywhere. The support of other workers, teachers, office workers has ignited hope in the hearts of millions of workers and toilers. Against the regime’s drumbeat for imperialist war, our slogan is “no war but class war”. As the class struggle intensifies, the balance of power in Iran is being questioned for the first time since 1979.

Submitted by Internationali… on December 3, 2018

Eleven days ago we posted a first article1 on the strikes and workers’ protests in Iran in which the idea of independent soviets or councils (in Farsi “shura”) was first raised. Since then, despite all the regime’s desperate efforts to deal with the workers’ movement by engaging the help of the opposition, so far, it not only has failed to curb the movement, but rather the reverse has taken place. The strike movement and workers' demonstrations are not only becoming more widespread across the country, and occurring on a daily basis, but their militancy and radicalism is increasing. Faced with such a situation, the next step the regime seems to be preparing in order to halt the protest movement is the adoption of more intense "anti-imperialist" declamations and more warmongering speeches with the aim of imposing more "war-time" conditions on the country, to achieve their malevolent aims.

Strikes and Demonstrations Continue

The focus of the strikes and demonstrations continues to be the Haft Tapeh Sugar refinery in Khuzestan (south west Iran). This factory is in many ways like a microcosm of all that stinks in the Islamic State. The factory was originally built in 1961 by the Iranian State under the Shah (with US companies naturally getting the construction contracts). Occupying a site of 24,000 hectares covered with modern roads, farms and covered water channels it was regarded as a “state of the art” mega-project by all who saw it. After the ayatollahs took over it remained nationalised, and in 2002 reached a record output of 100,000 tons of refined sugar.

However, just a few months after Ahmadinezhad became President in 2005, the tariff on imported sugar was drastically and mysteriously reduced. From that time on it was rumoured that one of the top ayatollahs and his family, who had backed Ahmadinezhad for President held the monopoly for importing sugar (later they were known as the Sugar Mafia). A year later the customs duty on sugar was reduced to zero, and in 2007 it was announced that, unsurprisingly, the factory was making a loss. In 2012 a plan for restructuring production was started and in 2015 it was sold to the private sector for 218 billion Toman. The new owners (age 28 and 32!), two construction companies (Zeos, Aryak) had only to pay a small fraction upfront, 6 billion Toman, of the total agreed price in order to take it over. From then onwards, the two new companies who had absolutely no expertise in that field, have tried all sorts of tricks, from currency fraud, loan fraud, and construction fraud, to trying to sell off the factory's land, and have almost destroyed it to the extent that apparently most parts of the factory are idle, yet it still employs 5,600 workers. The workers have, of course, been at the sharp end of their fraud, often being months in arrears with their wages and seeing their pension rights cut. The owners received the equivalent of $800,000 from the state but this has simply disappeared and the only action the owners have taken has been to lay off more workers.

Strikes have thus been regular occurrences. There have been three this year, in February and August and the current one. In 2008 the Syndicate (“Sendica”) of the Workers of Haft Tapeh was re-founded. Although its leaders were immediately given one year gaol sentences as “threats to national security” it has continued to exist and elects its own delegates. The current spokesman for the workers is Ismael Bakhshi who has already been arrested many times. In our previous article it was he who we quoted raising the question of forming a “shura” or soviet (council). Since then the movement has developed.

There were rallies on Friday, November 16th, which ended with the disruption of Friday prayers. The day after – the fourteenth day of their strike, the workers of Haft Tapeh were confronted with the special anti-riot police. In spite of their provocative presence, workers chanted: "Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, we are all together". They continued to march on towards Shush city centre.

Ismael Bakhshi addressed his fellow workers at the mass meeting:

“Gentlemen, we have just come to express our disagreement, in a very peaceful way. We have been coming here for a few days, and when we walked through the city, everyone was happy and sympathised with us, and no one was harmed or injured, and nothing was damaged, and we asked for nothing more than our rights and the settlement of our demands. So why have they brought the special anti-riot police to confront us? I do not know, but I will ask you, please, like the previous days, to protest without violence and anger. I know that all of us are angry, yet do not engage in fighting with them. We are just protesting for our demands.”2

The next day the protest continued. Speaking again at the end of the rally, he said:

“...Dear brothers, today is the 14th day of our strike, you must pay attention, you need to know a few basics since they have unfortunately begun to line the special anti-riot police up in front of the gate without any reason. Be careful, we are all angry. They are using an old dirty tactic. They bring in the special anti-riot police to make angry people even more angry, so we will confront them or do something, then they will take a film/clip from that small particular confrontation, then they’ll show it in their filthy and anti-people's State TV (demonstrators' cheered) and claim that we are the troublemakers and rioters. How stupid can they get? (demonstrators' applaud) Brothers, in the last few days instead of solving our problems, they keep spreading lies. The governor and the minister have come to you and they said that Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory, is a bankrupt company ..... ... I ask you not to be deceived by these tactics that they have begun to use. Do not do anything to provide the national TV with an excuse for destroying our significant and peaceful strike. Ours is a just cause, with all the people of Iran and Shush, the entire working class, teachers, students, families and everyone supporting us ..... We will continue our strike...

Bread, Jobs, Freedom – Soviet Organisation! (a slogan repeated by the protesters)

Brothers, I want you repeat this slogan very loudly, so that this special anti-riot police force that they have brought in here, whose salaries are paid by us, and who now point their guns at us, who have not taken our slogan seriously, so repeat it loudly so they realise that: Neither Threats nor Prison are Effective any Longer (the slogan was repeated by the protesters) ..... now on my death, the only will that I have is this: If for whatever reason, Ismael Bakhshi dies, no one has the right to bury his coffin. You will bring his coffin to strikes, rallies, my dead body will ....”3

The workers have found their courage in their despair. The regime is now saying that they will get one month’s wages but they are already owed four. As Bakhshi also pointed out they have reached the point where the bakeries can offer them no more credit for bread. In the face of starvation they have to fight. After his speech, Ismael Bakhshi with 18 other workers and a female reporter/social activist, Sepideh Ghalian were arrested. This was followed by a few more days of protests, then some were released, but five of them still remained in detention. A couple of days later, the Ministry of Labour announced that those who had not been released, have “a security issue” with the authorities! It is alleged that Bakhshi and others have been tortured but it has not intimidated the workers thus far.

It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is that this strike is linking up with other strikes and gaining the solidarity of workers. It is encouraging that in the last few days we have witnessed solidarity right across the country, not only symbolically but also on the streets and in industrial units. The slogan of the Ahwaz steel workers’ demonstration, "Foolad, Haft Tapeh, a Happy Unity"4 illustrates the tireless activities of the workers in this very difficult situation. As we noted in our previous article women have also been in the forefront of the struggle alongside the predominantly male workforce. Similarly, the students’ slogan of "We are Children of Our Workers, We Stand By You" has been a great slogan for working class families as a whole to rally around. Even the shopkeepers of Shush (who have been extending credit to the workers for months) shut up their shops in solidarity with the workers.

A Corrupt Regime Has Nothing to Offer Workers

The regime has nothing to offer. Nothing has changed from what we wrote in May this year, and if anything, things have got worse.

“For many years, the regime has been able to blame economic problems on Western hostility and this has managed to provide an economic lifeline for the regime at the expense of the lives of several generations of workers and toilers. Now the situation both politically and economically, internally as well as internationally, is getting critical for the Islamic Republic. The nuclear deal has not delivered anything tangible. The financial system is totally bankrupt (using Islamic terminologies for ‘interest rate’, ‘investment’ ... etc. didn't help after all!). There has been a rapid increase in the number of unemployed and inflation is the order of day.”5

And everywhere the workers can see the corruption and divisions within their capitalist class. The collapse of many small banks last year revealed the depth of involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in a whole host of dodgy enterprises whilst the regime turns a blind eye to the various mafias that have arisen. In addition to the “sugar mafia” mentioned above the common talk is of the “oil & gas mafia” (around the family of the late President Rafsanjani).

ISNA, The Iranian official News Agency, put the list of mafias as follow:

“Football mafia, cinema mafia, wood mafia, paper mafia, book mafia, water mafia, currency mafia, drug mafia, cigar mafia, sugar mafia, automobile mafia ... And now, the situation is such that, if we hear that, to import, produce or distribute candy, a mafia has been formed we will not be surprised either.”6

As the exposure of these capitalist rackets becomes more pronounced the various factions are at each others throats. The Revolutionary Guards blame Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, since the nuclear deal did not relieve sanctions very much (since the US even under Obama would not give a guarantee that European firms dealing with Iran would not face sanctions in the US later). They are now trying to impeach Zarif who has responded by stating that money launderers (he means mostly the Revolutionary Guards) are the bane of Iran’s economy. Whilst those at the top are openly fighting because they have no solution to the current workers’ unrest other than outright repression, they leave it to their lesser leaders to do the talking. Like someone waking from a dreadful nightmare, they talk absolute nonsense. Complaining about the continuation of the protest movement and demands for Bread, Jobs, Freedom — Soviet Organisation, Ali Ashraf Puri Hosseini, head of the privatisation organisation, said in an interview reported by the Tasnim News Agency:

“No one utters such words, even in the most radical communist country on the planet. Was Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory confiscated by the private sector, for such things to be said? Even in the former Soviet Union, before the collapse of the workers' soviets, there were no such words as to hand over the factory to us, so if it makes profit, then that will belong to us.”7

That is true, sir, if by the most radical communist countries in the world, you mean Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea .... or even the former Soviet Union. Yes, it is obvious that such words were not said in those places, but those days are over. The scandal of the fake "socialism" of such countries is now common knowledge, and any attempts to re-use those corpses are nothing but expressions of desperation and helplessness. Yes, gentlemen, this is just the beginning. There is more to come!

And then came the reformist, Secretary General of the Labour Party, Hussein Kamali. He said at the meeting of the Executive Council of the House of Labour:

“In this current phase the country is not functioning. Where else in the world, when problems and protests occur, is the ideological base of that country questioned? Why are our officials not charged with responsibility for mistakes while Islam, the system and the leadership have to take the blame?”8

This hack has made equally stupid statements before, so it is not new, but now he is playing naive, pretending that he has not witnessed anything wrong, and that there have been no problems in Iran during the last 40 years, so he can now ask where else in the world is like this or where in the world is like that... The fact that in Iran people don’t even have the right to choose their clothes; or that the country has the highest execution rate in the world, where they execute people so easily for minor crimes or even when no crime has been committed... all seems to him to be absolutely normal... Of course, his “questions” are just to cover his fear and panic that the independent class struggle of the workers has created, not just in him, but amongst the whole capitalist class. They know very well that these protests can quickly develop into openly political protests and completely undermine this barbaric regime. The one card they have left is the nationalist one. That is why the next step for regime is to create a warlike atmosphere so they can demand national unity and put down all these movements that show no sign of disappearing.

Imperialist Manoeuvres and Mounting 'Anti-Imperialist' Rhetoric

In this sense Trump is a gift to the regime. With the arrival of the Trump government, the global imperialist line-up has become more transparent than ever. On one side there is the government of the Islamic Republic, which refers to its allies as the "Resistance Front", and which is also supported by Russia and China. On this front, Iran is pursuing its regional imperialist policy by relying on the government of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas and Ansar Allah in Yemen.

In a speech after the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Ayatollah Khamenei said:

“We emphasise that there will be no war, and yet we will not negotiate. Of course, they do not explicitly raise the issue of war, but they aim to create and enlarge the "Spectrum of War" to scare the nation of Iran or cowards. ... War will not take place because, as in the past, we will never be the one who begins the war, and the Americans will not start the attack because they know that one hundred percent, it will be to their disadvantage because the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian nation will inflict more damage on any aggressor.”9

Whether this was said for internal use in factional conflicts, or whether it results from an assessment of the balance of regional and sub-regional forces, one thing is certain, and that is the fact that the Islamic Republic has benefited immensely from these "anti-imperialist" slogans during the last 40 years, and now, with the rise of workers' militancy, it is natural for it to use this weapon more and more vigorously.

At the international conference "Protecting the Oppressed People of Yemen" in Tehran, the commander of the Air Corps, said:

“…although the US military bases in the Middle East were threatening us, today, there are opportunities for us…”10

While the Secretary-General of the The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, according to ISNA, Ayatollah Araky, also said at this conference:

“My own personal opinion is that the time of secret assistance has come to an end. We must publicly say that we are helping, supporting (Yemen) and we have the right to do so.”11

The timing of these statements is significant.

On the other side of this line-up, is the United States with its regional allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel. Regardless of the turmoil and havoc that this heterogeneous triangle has created and keeps creating, it seems that, as in the Bush period, they will eventually unwittingly help Iran advance its policies in the region. The endless, unbridled, impetuous and tedious attempts by the Trump government to resort to any true or false (in most cases) pretext, seems to lead to greater isolation of the United States. An interesting example of this kind of unscrupulous attempt backfiring was the recent accusation that Iran is hiding chemical weapons stockpiles.12 Not only has this not got any support from Russia and China, it is unlikely to get much approval from the EU either.

This confrontation, whether it ends up in direct conflict or as a war of words, whether sanctions will intensify or the negotiation process will re-open, nevertheless will primarily affect the working class. Whatever these developments turn out to be, one way or the other it will be the people in general and the working class in particular who pay for it. For the working class the only way to contend with it, is to intensify the class struggle. The shining example is how the workers stopped capitalism’s First World War, in 1917-18.13 On the other hand, whilst US sanctions, which don’t exclude humanitarian items like medicine14 , will undoubtedly increase the misery of millions they will also arm the regime with the propaganda weapon that any resistance is equivalent to working with the enemy.

The Future of the Struggle

Today, the outcome of all the rhetoric of the opposition of all strands, from the current government factions to the reformists, from monarchists to the leftists, can be clearly seen. Those who continually talked about Iran's perilous situation, the collapse of the country, civil war, occupation, national unity... and saw the way forward to be participation in the elections and electing of Rouhani, or saw the solution of all problems in the JCPOA agreement... what do they have to offer now? In fact, nothing.

The courageous and magnificent strikes in Haft Tapeh, Hepco, Ahvaz, Zanjan, and Assaluyeh... have revealed all their appeals for the workers to just take more of a hammering in “the national interest” as futile. Today the slogan of Bread, Jobs, Freedom, Soviet Organisation is to everyone's surprise, if not disbelief, resonating everywhere. The support of other workers, teachers, office workers has ignited hope in the hearts of millions of workers and toilers.

Against the regime’s drumbeat for imperialist war, our slogan is “no war but class war”. As the class struggle intensifies, the balance of power in Iran is being questioned for the first time since 1979. Forty years ago the magnificent strike of oil workers was the main and the final blow against the Shah's regime. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, nothing changed for workers. If anything, our living conditions got worse.

This is not to say that the movement does not face a host of problems ahead. Alongside outright repression the regime will get up to the dirty tricks it has practiced over the years. Locking up the real leaders of class autonomy, infiltrating their own ideologies into the assemblies and isolating each group to fight on its own are all well known. Workers too will have to resist the confusions of the capitalist left who operate in an around the class movement. The trade unionists amongst them will try to reduce the issue to one of economic demands whilst the internal rivalries these sects promote will be a real danger to class unity.

There are already plenty of lies on social media and in the mainstream capitalist press about the aims of the movement, the most common being that the workers are simply demanding the re-nationalisation of the plant.

At the moment too the call for “councils” or shuras is only a call for workers’ self-management, for workers simply to take over the factories not the state. The assumption is that anyone would be better at operating them than the current bunch of clowns but it does not take into account that operating a capitalist enterprise in a capitalist crisis offers nothing more than desperate self-exploitation. The last thing the workers need is to occupy factories and try to make them workers’ fortresses. The regime can leave them there to rot, as the Giolitti Government did to the Italian works councils in 1919-20.

In reality the call for shuras, whether the movement recognises it or not, will not be acceptable to the capitalists of Iran. This then poses the question of where the movement goes next. Ultimately the call to administer production is also a recognition that the old system is failing. However to go further the vanguard of the workers need to form themselves into a political fighting force which not only provides a programmatic direction for the class as a whole but also seeks to link with the wider international communist movement. Still, the only guarantee of any kind of success is the massive spread of the struggle right across Iran (and beyond, if it ignites the flame of resistance elsewhere)…

D Saadati
29 November 2018