Wildcat Germany on geopolitics and class struggle in Iran in summer 2005.
The defeat of Rafsanjani and the election victory of Ahmadinejad might surprise outside observers, but only if they had ignored the growing economic and social misery in the country or had considered the development a result of the “politics of the mullahs” and their economic compartmentalization against the West. In Iran itself even conservative intellectuals assess the social situation as much more explosive. In his campaign against the millionaire Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad promised to let the poor share the oil wealth. In fact, as mayor of Tehran he had the opportunity to win over the poorer layers. For years his conservative party dominated the city councils and was at odds with the “reform-camp.” Ahmadinejad’s party had a parliamentarian majority and against the opposition of Khatami’s governement had pushed for price stability policies. The party influenced and cooperated with the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and the paramilitary Basij, which had manipulated and shaped the election results, based on these group’s stances against U.S. aggression.
The highest authority in Iran (responible for foreign policies, the head of the judiciary, military leaders. And the head of radio and TV and Friday prayer leaders) is not the state-president, but the non-elected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Moreover, Rafsanjani, the West’s favorite, wields major political influence as chair of the powerful “Expediency Council.” However, with Ahmadinejad, the powerful in Iran now have a devoted appointee as president. Therefore, government will rule more effectively.
The U.S. strategic goal in the Middle East is a change of regime in Iran, either through war or a Ukraine-style Orange revolution. Le Monde diplomatique (January 14,2005) rightfully called U.S policy “Haunt, Encircle, Isolate.” The Iranian ruling class has no doubt that an Iran without nuclear weapons cannot act as the region’s dominant power and oppose Israeli and U.S threats. The question is just at what price i.e. risk of US embargo or war. With U.S. troops stationed in almost all neighboring states, economic and geo-strategic constraints show that in the long run, the Islamic Republic will not act as the regional hegemonic power without U.S. tolerance. In both the war against Afghanistan and Iraq Iran avoided a confrontation with the United States; in nuclear politics, it relies on cooperation with Europe.
The EU, Russia, China and India are major players in that game. The EU is Iran’s largest commercial partner. Forty per cent of all Iranian imports come from EU countries, with German imports alone estimated at a volume of more than four billion US dollars this year, and 35 per cent of the exports (80 per cent of which is oil) go to the EU. After negotiating with Germany, France and Great Britain, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s additional protocol on October 21, 2003. One week later French corporation Renault decided to invest 700 million Euros in a car factory, the first involvement of a foreign company since 1979. In July 2004. Volkswagen too jumped into the growing Iranian market. In the economic zone Arke Jadid, (close to the southeastern city Bam, still in ruins from an earthquakes in 2003); as a start Volkswagen is supposed to assemble 20.000 vehicles a year. The factory belongs to the Iranian company Kerman Khodro. Kerman Khodro had assembled cars for Daewoo until General Motors took over Daewoo and ended the contract because of the US embargo against Iran.
On the question of nuclear energy a triangle of China, Russia and Iran are positioned against the US. China and Russia deliver equipment and know how; in return, China now already gets 13.6 per cent of its oil imports from Iran. Last October China signed a contract with Tehran for about 100 billion US dollars to deliver 10 million tons of liquid gas (that is 150.000 barrels day). Recently Iran secured observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a relatively young confederation made up of China, Russia, and four Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). The SCO has started demonstrating greater independent polities; recently it asked the USA to shut its Central Asian military bases. Also India has started negotiations with Iran over long-term gas delivery. Despite threats of U.S. sanctions, both countries want to invest in oil field exploration. (The U.S. wants to prevent a 2600 kilometer-long gas-pipeline from being built from Iran through Pakistan to India.)
The boom and its social undersides
As a result of the Iraq War, not only has Iran increased its influence over Iraq, but the war has also generated increased revenues for the Iranian government because of higher oil prices. In 2004, economic growth was above 7 per cent, 90 per cent of that caused by rising oil prices. Petrol dollars still allow the regime the means to pacify the middle class. “Unemployment, Street Kids, Drug Abuse” was how “Die Zeit” (German liberal weekly newspaper) from June 1, 2005 described the “dark sides” of the boom. Real wages have declined since 1988 (at the moment, the average wage is roughly 110 Euros a month). The fifth Parliament abolished the labor laws for companies with less than five employees. In 2002, the sixth Parliament decided to do the same for the 300.000 rug makers. With the enacting of a law to adjust and modify the labor force (“Ta’ diel e Nirooy e Kar”) the textile companies just laid off 100.000 workers. Now, the seventh Parliament wants to remove labor law protection from workers with limited working contracts; this is the half of all workers! According to official statistics, in 1996 1.4 million were unemployed, today that figure is 3.2 million (independent sources count 4.3 million unemployed); that means a population growth of 18 per cent is coupled with a 130 per cent increase in unemployment.
Pragmatism instead of reforms
Both outside conflicts and internal frictions in the country are often described as a fight between conservatives and reformers, as “tradition against modernism.” Behind that lies divisions within the ruling class over the question of how to guarantee conditions of exploitation. Khatami’s motto: “political development first, economic development later” was an attempt to intensify and control this exploitation by involving more groups from the bourgeoisie. In Iran all kind of NGO’s are allowed and supported. Now, 15.000 groups are operating. They are desperately needed to deal with, for example, the growing drug problem.
The reform movement became, so to speak, nationalized: bought off and influenced by the state; the radical movement ended up isolated and defeated. During the “power struggle between the conservatives and the reformers”, an agenda arose backing pragmatic collaboration between the ruling classes and the bourgeoisie from abroad. The women’s and students movements got stuck in the dead end street of the reform movement, their hopes for state concessions disappointed and their spokespersons disillusioned.
The ruling class cannot and does not want to forbid the little freedoms, for example, the everyday criticism of the regime that goes on in the markets, buses and other public places. Today in Iran, such criticism can be freely made. However, the state reacts mercilessly if people act against the system. Recently riots among the Arab population, who live in deep poverty and are discriminated against, were brutally suppressed, leaving 50 dead while the predominantly Persian human rights activists watched silently. Since Reza Shah and the beginning of the oil production, the policy of the ruling class toward the Arab population is resettlement, underdevelopment and eradication. The Arabs remain mostly poor peasants and unskilled seasonal workers living in villages and slums.
The union movement
For years, Iran attempted to cooperate with the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO provides technical and consulting help, especially in overcoming unemployment, and it tries to adjust Iranian labor law to international standards. In June 2002 at the 90th ILO conference, the Iranian labor minister demanded that the ILO should help remove obstacles to Iran’s admission to the WTO. On May 26, 2005, after years of veto, the US accepted Iran’s membership in the WTO, this happened one day after new negotiations opened over nuclear weapon program between Iran and three European countries. The delivery of spare parts for Iranian airplanes was also discussed. The ILO demands free elections of workers representatives, but still accepts the Islamic labor councils and the “Workers House” (something like an Islamic workers party) as legitimate representatives of the Iranian workers. In July 2003 the ILO and the Labor Inspection Department of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs declared that trade union free activity and independence should be guaranteed which caused protest from the Islamic labor councils and the “Workers House.” Soon the ILO wants to re-open its branch in Tehran, which was shut down 24 years ago.
Since the end of the workers councils, which arose during revolutionary times, worker activists and the left have argued over the “right” workers organization. During the Shah’s regime the trade unions were henchmen of the state. Workers at the big companies grasped this role of the unions, so no one spoke about founding trade unions, but instead about starting independent workers organizations. But practically every workers organization was outlawed anyway.
The trade union movement appeals to the “free workers” of the world respectively the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), to supply the solidarity missing from the inside with help from the outside. Also those workers opposing trade unions and for councils (in fact, German-style work councils, not workers councils) pin their hope on political influence from the ICFTU and protection by the ILO. Many party leftists and worker activists now see a historic opportunity to form free independent workers organizations. Not only because of pressure from the outside and acceptance of trade unions by the state and parts of the bourgeoisie, but also because of the weakening of the power of the Islamic labor councils and the “Workers House”, a weakening of power that was noticeable on this year’s May 1st. The May Day rally with a lot of propaganda and 12.000 workers in Tehran ended as an embarrassment. When the organizers started promoting Rafsanjani’s election campaign, the workers protested loudly. They shouted against Rafsanjani and the election, and left the demonstration. Rafsanjani could not speak at all and later he said that he cannot speak at a rally where anti-state slogans are shouted. He is seen as the architect of the “liberalization” and responsible for the wave of lay offs during his time in office.
In February 2005, the “Committee to follow up creation of Free Labor Organizations in Iran” emerged. More than 2371 workers signed a letter addressed to the Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Labor and Workers Organizations throughout the World and the ILO demanded accepting workers’ rights to build independent organizations and remove existing obstacles to their formation. A second committee named “Coordinating Committee to Form Worker Organizations” called for workers to self-organize and build a workers organization through their own power. The ILO would have the duty to force the Iranian government to put an end to the suppression of the workers’ activists and the Islamic Republic has to guarantee the security of the workers activities. Copies of the 3029 signatures went to the ICFTU and the ILO. Many unionists and a political spectrum from the Tudeh party to Worker-Communist Party of Iran support the first committee, which at the end of the day wants to found one big trade union like in Germany. Others see in the second committee a power which is far more left-wing and against wage labor, with the goal of founding a left political union or even workers councils. The two committees might differ in theory, especially in their political spokespersons and supporters. Nevertheless, practically one sees little difference by now. Both organize from above, collect signatures, and hope foreign trade unions will support them. Both have modest demands and use symbolic actions like May Day, which itself has a ritual character.
In the run up to May Day 2005, the representative of the Coordinating Committee, Mohmood Salehi, addressed himself to the president of the ICFTU. The ICFTU then announced that they will watch events in Iran, in particular the government’s actions at the May demonstrations. In contrast to last year, this year all events and demos in Tehran and other cities ran without incident, despite red banners and singing of the Internationale. However, not only was the state restrained, so were the workers representatives. The bakers trade union in Sagges, with Salehi as spokesperson, participated in a rally with the “Workers House,” where first the governor of the city, then the chief of the job center and finally Salehi spoke to 1500 workers and their families. The more these activists negotiate officially with the government, the more they abstain from independent and radical actions.
The first legal trade union
Bus drivers are poorly paid and work in bad conditions. On top of driving they have to collect tickets and take responsibility for enforcing gender separation inside the buses, which is mandated by law. In 1970 a bus drivers union existed, but after five years of the Islamic Revolution, it was dissolved. For a long time, union activists tried to re-organize this trade union. When they gathered on May 9, 2005, they were attacked by the Islamic council, management and security and some unionists were hurt. On May 13, a second attempt to meet failed because of intervention by the secret police, security and a part of “Workers House.” The same day 3000 workers got together and demanded the disbanding of the Islamic Council. On June 3 there was another appeal for a work meeting. This time security forces prevented workers from getting to the meeting place. During the day, roughly 500 workers got together with banners. The police then gave orders to go back. Later on, during the workplace meeting, the Tehran Union of Public Transportation Workers was founded. Supposedly 5000 (of 14.000) workers participated in founding this first legal union.
Workers getting active
In 1997 2000 oil-workers had demonstrated in front of the oil administration in Tehran. The regime crushed the movement, more than 100 workers were arrested, and many activists were laid off. However since then strikes and spontaneous demonstrations have taken place, especially among textile workers fighting for their jobs and back pay. More than 80.000 workers in roughly 1400 factories participated in strikes, hunger-strikes in their factories, road blocks, spontaneous demonstrations in front of company offices and parliament and riots in cities, which mostly ended up defeated by the authorities.
One example: Shahr Babak
In January 2004 workers at the copper mines and copper processing facility in Khatoon-abad in Kerman province protested against lay offs and for several days organized sit-down strikes with their families in front of the mines. Security forces attacked and shot them, wounding several workers and their family members. members were wounded and arrested. In the city of Shahr Babak, where many of the miners live, a large wave of protest and solidarity against these attacks emerged. The inhabitants demonstrated in the streets and threw stones at banks and company offices. Security also used helicopters to open fire on protesters. At least four workers were killed and many more wounded and arrested. There is a new form of workers resistance: single workers kill their factory bosses with a gun, there is sabotage in the factory and so on...
Detroit of the Middle East
Since the mid-90s, the Iranian auto market has grown around 30 per cent a year faster than the Chinese. This year, car production in Iran will rise to roughly 1 million vehicles. After 38 years, production of the national car, the notorious Paykan, was discontinued. After the joint venture with Renault, the factories of Iran Khodro and Saipa are supposed to produce 300.000 Logans in 2006. The vice-president of Iran Khodro, the biggest car factory of the country says Iran will be the “Detroit of the Middle East”.
However, when compared internationally, the Iranian car industry is seen as outdated and unproductive. The industry’s boom is built on workers’ bones. Workers call Iran Khodro in Tehran a slaughterhouse. Last year at least eight workers died of work-related stress and accidents. The company is the biggest producer of vehicles in the Middle East and with more than 30.000 employees, the biggest plant in Iran. Since 1997 no workers are contractors anymore, but they sign only limited work-contracts. The sub-contractors and service companies which work for the company, pay poorly. The company forces the workers to work longer than ten hours a day and cuts holidays.
More and more workers die through accidents, hard work and over-time. Despite meetings and strikes being forbidden, now and then workers protested and went on short strikes. In September 2003 a worker at Peugeot assembly died from exhaustion in front of his coworkers. The workers on the line struck. After the strike, working conditions improved. During New Year (March 21, 2005), the management demanded workers come to work during the holidays and on the weekend to avoid lay-offs. Management canceled the yearly bonus and because of the shut-down of Paykan production, laid off the employees of line one. The workers protested and went on strike. On April 12, the electricity was cut off on assembly departments 1 and 3 and production interrupted for a few hours. The Harasat (factory security) detained one protesting assembly worker, Parviz Salarvand. The Harasat interrogated Salarvand in the factory basement and removed him later to an unknown location. He was accused of protesting against the wages of the temporary workers. After three weeks, word spread that a warrant was issued for Salarvand’s arrest on charges of “deliberate violation and sabotage” which he had confessed to. In a statement on May 18, 2005, the Coordinating Committee supported him, but rejected sabotage as an “adventurist tactic against workers’ interest.” According to a message from a group of workers at Iran Khodro, Salarvand was released after the protests of his coworkers and the efforts of foreign worker organizations. Because of the workers protests the management had to declare May 1 a holiday.
[prol-position news #4, 12/2005] www.Prol-Position.net