On Thursday, 28th December 2017, in Mashhad the second most populous city in Iran, thousands of protesters gathered outside the city hall and chanted “Death to Rouhani”, the country’s President. Some reports have suggested that it may have been initiated by the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani's defeated rival in the May 2017 Presidential election. Later on, some others, including the senior officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, implicitly accused ex-President Ahmadinejad's circle being behind the recent protests. However it may have started, it quickly broke out of its intended framework and control and, in less than a week, spread to over 40 cities.
Then, increasingly they became anti-regime protests, targeting both conservative and the reformists alike. It did not even spare the “Supreme Leader”, and calls of “Death to the Dictator”, “Death to Khamenei” were heard loud and clear in most cities. These outbreaks are fundamentally a product of economic grievances and its root lies nowhere else but in the capitalist system itself and its long lasting crisis.
The Crisis Bites Ever Deeper
Ever since Rouhani's first term in office in 2013, most Iranians hoped, or were led to believe, that his diplomacy of negotiation with the West on the nuclear issue, would result in the lifting of sanctions, and hence the economy would drastically improve. That did not happen. Despite most voters’ disappointment and their loss of faith on him, Rouhani, in the election for a second term, managed to persuade a majority of them that to complete the unfinished task of lifting sanctions in a way that that would benefit the populace, he should be re-elected. He stressed that, not only would they enjoy a windfall from the lifting of sanctions, but his re-election would also keep the shadow of war away from Iran. As a result he was re-elected by a landslide for a second term in 2017.
Of course this could only be achieved through the regime's heavy propaganda. Anyhow, the months following the election, showed no sign of any improvement as far as the majority of people were concerned. The economic recovery just did not happen for many reasons. Not only did things not get any better, on the contrary the crisis bit even more deeply. Khamenei urged the government to implement the Economy of Resistance vigorously, a vague and non-starter policy that he has been preaching for many years. The implementation of this policy remained in the realm of Friday sermon, where it belonged, having absolutely no effect whatsoever.1
Things got worse, when several banks and financial institutions, sometimes run by such regime institutions as the Revolutionary Guards, brought investors who had lost their investment, on to the streets to protest in direct confrontation with the security forces.2 At the same time a campaign of "I regret having voted for Rouhani" filled social media for several weeks. More importantly Iran's involvement in imperialist proxy wars became more and more evident and costly, both economically and in terms of the human cost, as coffins of Basiji and Revolutionary Guards corps came home.
Finally, the government's draft budget3 which was submitted to parliament on 10 December 2017, brought further hardship by cutting fuel subsidies yet again. As usual, the proposed budget measures for the rich were a different story and extremely generous, in particular towards the official religious institutions.4
The unrest amongst the masses has thus been building up for while not helped by the much-hyped expectations which were not matched by grim reality. Two slogans that were shouted in most protests, "Death to High Prices", and "Leave Syria alone, do something for us" sums up this anger and disillusionment.
However, as always, the regime was a step a head of the opposition. Being well aware of the developing unrest, para-military Basiji and Revolutionary Guards started to flex their muscles in big cities. They pretended that their deployments were to protect the public from thugs! In fact their manoeuvres were the continuation of actions that started as early as a year ago. As usual, the real nature and purpose of these exercises escaped most of the reformists, who considered such manoeuvres to be "unnecessary", and as usual blamed it on the stupidity of the mullahs!
In general, nationally and internationally, the media and the opposition reacted to the outbreak of protests with surprise. In such a dire situation, is there actually any room for "surprise" since these protests did not fall from a clear blue sky. If there is any surprise or questions, then it should be about why it has taken so long. With the misery that the masses, and in particular the working class, had to put up with over the last few years, with the cost of living going up on a daily basis, where youth unemployment has reached at least 30%, hundreds of workers’ strikes have taken place just during the last year, where workers were barbarically flogged, how on earth could anyone be surprised?
In our article "The Crisis in Iran" in October 2012 we wrote;
"Witnessing sudden outburst and riots in the near future is almost certain, but the question is how to fight back."
The outburst and riot is now with us, but the question of how to fight back, the most important element needs to be focused on again. Looking into some slogans that have been shouted during these protests might shed light on the nature of protests itself as well as the destructive role of the opposition.
Encouragingly, there is an attempt, albeit in a very small scale to break away from the reformists and the religious mentality. Notably there was no sign of "Allah O Akbar" (God is Great). It seems that people are no longer concerned about the heaven up there any more and trying to deal with the hell that capitalism has created on earth. And the references to "Akhund Sarmayedar" (Capitalist Clerics), is indicative that the masses are beginning to get a glimpse of the capitalist nature of the regime. But not so encouraging, in some cases some slogans have been in favour of monarchy, for the return of the Shah! Interestingly these slogans were shouted in the holy city of Qom. Anyway as opposed to the Green movement, to a large extent it seems that slogans are against both factions but still by and large the slogans have remained within a reactionary nationalist framework.
Putting the surprise element aside, the reformists were split into two camps over these protests. One camp headed by ex-President Khatami, opposed the protests and supported the government. Presumably they consider this as a reform! The rank and file of this camp offered conditional support as long as the protesters kept within the law and its order! Does anyone still see the reformist movement as a step forward in the struggle? In an event such as this, haven't their roles been nothing but destructive as far as the struggle is concerned? Ex-President Khatami who is under semi-house arrest, managed to attend a meeting and give out a statement virtually condemning the protest, yet was reluctant to even suggest an inquiry into the deaths of more than 20 protesters and the fate of thousands who have been arrested with many being tortured in prisons.
The other camp, which includes the leftist of all shades, despite their tedious preaching about the significance of the ballot box right up to the last election, and their vigorous opposition to any one who dared to talk about anything but the election, now all of sudden are in favour of street protests and give credit to its "independence" and praise it for not having "leadership"!
Above all, it seems that the various policies of the various political factions, including the reformists, towards these particular protests, have been worked out with an eye to the post-Khamenei period. Internal faction fighting within the regime is gathering pace very quickly. It has been reported that Khamenei's cancer can no longer be treated nor contained. Now all factions are preparing for a post-Khamenei period, with a possible election or maybe just the selection of a new leader by the Assembly of Experts. The recent activities of the circles around ex-President Ahmadinejad who have attempted to appear as opponents of the regime (!) is a good example of this. The absence of Rafsanjani5 and his usual intrigues and manoeuvring, may prove to be critical in the near future for the Islamic Republic. On top of this, imperialist rivalry, with the election of Trump is getting sharper.
On the international scale, the US was very quick to openly support the protests while the EU remained somewhat neutral. The regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Israel welcomed it with a great pleasure, while the Turkish government sided with the Iranian government. Russia and China predictably stood on the regime’s side. Of course, as far as the protest itself is concerned, the support, or lack of it, of the various imperialist powers, amounts to the same thing. They are all there just to sabotage it in one way or the other.
Foreign meddling has substantially increased since Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi and Israel in May 2017. It has become vitally important for both Saudi and Israel to contain Iran's imperialist advance in the region. Supporting the protesters has provided a golden importunity for them, to put pressure on Iran. Hence they hypocritically cry out against abuses of "Human Rights" in Iran! To the same degree, Russia, China, and Turkey who support the regime for their own benefit, and gain from Iran's new enhanced role in the region, equally hypocritically call for respect for Iran’s "sovereign" right which should not be interfered with.
However, in the US, Saudi and Israel camp, the motley crew of Trump, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Netanyahu are more likely repeat the Bush scenario by strengthening the Iranian regime rather than harming it. US policy under George W. Bush’s administration got rid of Iran's arch enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, and thus paved the way for Iran's imperialist advance in the region. It suits all these imperialist regimes to posture and bluster since it allows them all to play the nationalist card back home. Trump’s untimely tweets have been seized on by regime to demonstrate its “moderation” as well as play the nationalist card against US imperialism once again to maintain support for the regime.
The Working Class Must Fight
In this situation fighting back, right from the beginning, has to take on an internationalist perspective. Let’s start with the street protests, which were both inevitable and necessary. As well as spontaneous. However to praise and to single this spontaneous reaction out as the only way to fight back is harmful, and in long term futile, as such struggles without a revolutionary consciousness encapsulated in a class political organisation will be accommodated by the capitalist system everywhere. This is more so in Iran, where by the way that regime evolved from the 1979 uprising6 , as well as being capable of using extreme violence through their ever-present thugs or so called plain clothes operatives, is also capable of organising counter-demonstrations. Within a few days of the protest erupting, the regime launched its own demonstrations in most cities. To this extent, despite being in political crisis, the regime will contain them for no other reason than the street demos that are not linked to anything other than virtual social networks, will gradually fade away without leaving any trace in the sense of giving its fighting experience an organisational dimension. The last 3 decades of the working class struggle in Iran strongly reveals this weakness. Communists and workers militants should be single minded towards it and stand resolute, without wavering, that the future belongs to soviets not parliaments. As we have said before:
“The only way out of this situation is to intensify the class struggle and recognise the fact that our emancipation, as a battalion of the world proletariat lies in the emancipation of all the other battalions of the world working class. At no point in history, has our destiny been so intertwined as it is today and never before has the formation of an internationalist party been so vital and so necessary."7
"Now, the Iranian capitalist class, from the current government factions to the reformists, monarchist and lefties are talking about the precarious situation in Iran, disintegration of the country, civil war, occupations, unity of the nation … etc , just to mobilise the working class for further sacrifices. The only way that the working class can break the vicious circle of being used by the capitalist class is to start to fight back from its own domain and raise the banner of class struggle once again. This is not just an ideal aim, it is the only practical option open to working class. The rest is just illusion. For that, the formation of new political vanguards who are starting to settle accounts with the counter-revolutionary role of the reformist organizations and in the process exposing the limitations of the demand struggles is the first priority, and the immediate step and task which we will call for again and again.”8
- 1For details of Economy of Resistance see leftcom.org
- 4Before the regime shut down the Telegram app someone posted "We have to shed tears for ourselves, our families,and our country when the budget for the Food and Drug Administration [2 trillion rials] is less than the budget for the insurance of seminary scholars and unemployed clerics [2.9 trillion rials]". Under Rouhani (since 2013) spending on Islamic propagation and other religious bodies has increased by 26%. Over a fifth of the budget goes on defence, of which about one third goes to the Revolutionary Guards. [See "Spotlight on budget stokes anger in Iran" Financial Times 17 January 2018]
- 5Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, billionaire cleric and former President of Iran was regarded as the “kingmaker” of the regime. He was a supporter of both the appointment of Khamenei as Supreme Leader and Rouhani in the 2013 election. He died in January 2017.
- 6See Thirty Years of Islamic Iran – A Warning from History at leftcom.org for more on the original “revolution”.