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Mass Protests Rock Iran: No to All Wings of the Mullah Regime!
by League for the Fourth International Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009 at 5:55 AM
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For more than a week, Iran has been convulsed by mass demonstrations denouncing election fraud. Hundreds of thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets to denounce the government, which is now threatening, and beginning to carry out, a bloody crackdown. This time around, imperialist intervention is veiled: the White House feigns neutrality, the Western media go all out for the opposition, while in the background various agencies provide vital technical aid. In reality, all candidates in the presidential vote swear allegiance to the Islamic Republic, and the supposed moderate reformers are no less butchers and enemies of poor and working people than the conservative "populist" government. The situation cries out for revolutionary leadership independent of all factions of the theocracy, to wage a struggle for workers revolution against imperialism and clerical reaction.
JUNE 23 – For more than a week, Iran has been convulsed by mass demonstrations denouncing election fraud. Hundreds of thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets to denounce the government, which is now threatening, and beginning to carry out, a bloody crackdown. This time around, imperialist intervention is veiled: the White House feigns neutrality, the Western media go all out for the opposition, while in the background various agencies provide vital technical aid. In reality, all candidates in the presidential vote swear allegiance to the Islamic Republic, and the supposed moderate reformers are no less butchers and enemies of poor and working people than the conservative “populist” government. The situation cries out for revolutionary leadership independent of all factions of the theocracy, to wage a struggle for workers revolution against imperialism and clerical reaction.
On Friday, June 12, within two hours of the closing of polls, the state news agency announced a landslide victory for “hard-line” incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom they credited with more than double the vote for his main opponent, the “liberal” Mir Hossein Mousavi. A few hours later, the election commission followed suit, declaring Ahmadinejad the hands-down victor by a 64 percent to 34 percent margin. (Another “reform” candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, was given less votes than the number of spoiled ballots.) Mousavi supporters, who had expected to win big, reacted with disbelief and outrage, charging massive vote fraud. Both of the leading contenders uphold Iran’s theocratic regime, but the dispute quickly spilled into the street, where events threatened to spiral out of control.
On Saturday and Sunday protests and clashes between demonstrators and the police and the Basij auxiliary of the regime’s Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) broke out in the capital city of Tehran. There were burning tires in the streets and buses were torched. A number of critics of the government, including prominent “reformers,” were arrested. Then on Monday, June 15 a massive protest was held in central Tehran bringing out hundreds of thousands of marchers, with some estimates of up to 1-3 million. Curiously, many of the Mousavi supporters carried signs in English saying “Where Is My Vote.” Mousavi, who initially only wanted to petition the clerical hierarchy, finally emerged to address the rally.
The next day there were competing pro- and anti-government mass demonstrations, the former held in the Ahmadinejad stronghold of impoverished south Tehran and latter in affluent north Tehran. Both rallies chanted “Alahu akbar” (God is great), the main slogan of the 1979 uprising that overthrew the hated monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Anti-regime protesters wore green (denoting Islam), while government supporters waved the Iranian flag. Protest marches continued through Thursday, when Mousavi called a day of mourning for those slain to date (the regime admitted to seven, the actual number is at least several dozen).
In his much-awaited Friday sermon, “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who, backed by the “Guardian Council” of high-level Shiite clerics, is the real ruler of Iran – came down hard for Ahmadinejad and read the riot act to dissident leaders: “Nothing can be changed. The presidential campaign is finished,” he declared, threatening that if the “political elite” did not call off protests, “they would be responsible for the bloodshed and chaos” that would follow. At the same time Khamenei threw a sop to clerical factions backing rival candidates by scolding the president for accusing them of corruption.
With this, the battle lines were drawn. The next day, thousands of pasdaran and basiji occupied key squares in central Tehran, chasing out demonstrators. There were dispersed clashes with several thousand hard-core protesters who in different places managed to drive off government forces. Demonstrators and bystanders were shot, with up to 19 reported dead; an amateur video captured the wrenching agony of one young woman as she died from a bullet to the heart. Scores of wounded were arrested in the hospitals while others sought refuge in European embassies. But even this didn’t put an end to the unrest. On Sunday, June 21, there were new marches, this time with the main chant “Mag bar dictator” – Death to the dictator! Two days later, the Pasdaran warned protesters they would face a “revolutionary confrontation” if they continued to demonstrate.
Given the regime’s crackdown on news reporting (sending many foreign journalists home, confining others to their offices and arresting more than two dozen), restrictions on the Internet and sporadic blockage of cellular service, the world has mainly depended for several days on various “new media” for news. This had led to a lot of hype about a “Twitter Revolution.” If one believed the media one would think that every youth in Tehran has a Facebook account on their computer and is incessantly “tweeting” away on their cell phones in English. In reality, all this comes from a small and relatively well-off minority. Yet despite the rumors, speculation and disinformation, the deep fissures within the Islamic regime can no longer be hidden from view.
But there should be no illusions. Mousavi is not the soft-spoken debonair liberal architect the media make him out to be. Nor is the contest between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad about “democracy” versus “dictatorship,” whatever some of the former’s Iranian supporters may want. The “reformers” have no intention of ushering in a transition to Western-style bourgeois democracy, no matter what some imperialist pundits pretend. They merely want to streamline the theocracy and make it more palatable to the educated middle class. And just below the surface, this is all about settling of scores among the Islamic rulers: Ahmadinejad’s patron, Ayatollah Khamenei, is bitterly opposed by the force behind Mousavi, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, notorious as the symbol of the capitalist greed of Iran’s “millionaire mullahs.”
Mousavi himself is no newcomer to the intrigues and power politics at the top of the Islamic dictatorship. While various would-be socialists hail the “movement” for this pseudo-democrat, it should be pointed out that during his stint as prime minister from 1981 to 1989 he oversaw the slaughter of tens of thousands of leftists, members of national minorities, homosexuals and women. When Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for the execution of writer Salman Rushdie in 1989, Mousavi was head of the government that offered a bounty for assassinating the author. And Mousavi is no friend of working people. In the presidential debates, he went after subsidies, including for food and fuel, which are vital to the subsistence of Iran’s impoverished millions. In an interview with the London Financial Times (13 April) he called for “targeting” (limiting) “the huge subsidies we give for various commodities.”
This standard-bearer for Iran’s modernizing bourgeoisie and upper middle class is in fact a blood-drenched free-marketeer, which is why many imperialists would like to see him back in office. As for Mousavi’s call for a “return” to the principles of Ayatollah Khomeini, this is an appeal to conservative ayatollahs who consider Khamenei an ignorant upstart (he was jumped from hojatoleslam, a mid-level cleric, to ayatollah in order to be appointed Supreme Leader), and look askance at Ahmadinejad’s claim that the “Hidden Imam”, the Shiite messiah, guides him in running the country. Others are jealous that Ahmadinejad’s power base, the Pasdaran, have grabbed some of the juiciest plums in privatizing Iran’s state-owned industries.
In Iran’s electoral battle, both sides are utterly corrupt, and both are partisans of the most brutal capitalist exploitation. But the explosion of popular discontent is not just about the vote. The lid has come off the pressure cooker of social tensions that have been building up for years. Particularly among youth who have lived their entire lives under the rule of the mullahs, there is a mass desire to be free of the stifling controls of the clerical dictatorship. The question is, where will this outpouring of discontent lead?
Irrespective of the reported vote totals, Iran’s elections were a farce, because the candidates are always hand-picked by the Guardian Council and the country is subject to a mind-numbing system of religious and political censorship. For their part, the demonstrators were careful not to transgress the rules which forbid any kind of “anti-Islamic” gathering. Initially, as Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk reported in the London Independent (17 June), Iranian special forces police even prevented Ahmadinejad’s basiji from attacking the crowds of Mousavi supporters. But the loyalty of the “forces of order” will now be put to the test as Khamenei decrees what is “un-Islamic” and what is not (as Khomeini before him liquidated one rival ayatollah after another).
With Tehran poised on knife’s edge and information from outlying cities where there have been protests (including Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz) sketchy at best, it is impossible to say at this moment what the outcome will be. The regime’s thugs easily overwhelmed student protests in 1999 and 2003. The current protests have been much more broad-based, though still primarily middle-class, and sometimes demonstrators have fought back, torching basiji motorbikes. This means that it will take a much bloodier crackdown to squelch the mass unrest with repression. This prospect could induce various leading clerics in the theocratic “republic” to intervene, thus posing sharply the question of where the police and army stand.
But the one social force that has not entered the fray so far that has the power to upset the calculations of all wings of the rulers is the Iranian working class.
Over the last decade or so, thousands of Iran’s workers have lost their jobs, particularly in the large state-owned industries, as the government privatizes with a vengeance. In the early years of Islamic rule, after independent factory committees (shuras) were destroyed and worker militants jailed en masse, a corporatist “labor” apparatus of Islamic shuras and “labor” organizations was built up. In recent years, some independent unions have managed to establish themselves through tenacious struggle. They are subject to relentless persecution, as this past May Day when more than 150 labor activists (including 30 women) were arrested out of a demonstration of 2,000 in Tehran’s Laleh Park, as were another dozen in Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan. More than 90 are still in jail, and we demand their immediate freedom.
The independent unions have won some victories, most recently when workers at the giant Khodro auto and truck plant (workforce 30,000) successfully struck this May to win back wages and the conversion of several thousand temporary work contracts into permanent positions. (The government promised to do so before the election, seeking to defuse worker discontent.) During the election campaign, the militant Vahed Bus Company Union in Tehran and suburbs, while emphasizing that it didn’t support any candidate, posed a series of questions to each, beginning with where they stood on independent workers organizations. Naturally they got no response.
In the post-election turmoil, on June 18 it was reported that both shifts at the Khodro auto plant would strike for a half-hour against the repression. This was followed by a condemnation of the attacks on the protests by the Vahed union. At a rally, Mousavi called for a general strike in the event of his arrest, and the New York Times (22 June) reports that “opposition members were beginning to ask ... whether it was time to shift strategies, from street protests to some kind of national strike.” But would workers heed this call? The pro-free-market Mousavi and the other “reformers” have absolutely nothing to offer the working class, let alone the urban poor who largely remain loyal to Ahmadinejad.
In any case, a strike on behalf of one section of the mullah regime against its rivals should not be the goal. What is needed is independent class mobilization of the power of labor against all wings of the bourgeois rulers, whether they wear clerical robes or not.
The government of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei clearly intends to glue up the cracks in their regime with blood. The intense social pressure to which they are subject leads them to turn even on their own, threatening their rivals Mousavi and Rafsanjani by detaining the latter’s family members, albeit briefly. Protesters are now directly up against the “Supreme Leader” (velayat-e-faqih) who declares that he – and he alone – represents Islam. While up until now, various supporters of reform have become disillusioned with the Islamic system, even the rapid total suppression of the current protests would leave much wider sections of the population embittered. And there is no guarantee that a crackdown will work.
Attempts to reform the Islamic regime have led into a bloody dead-end. The most basic democratic demands – freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly – let alone genuine equality for women, are counterposed to the Islamic order. While the “reformers” call for new elections, so long as the present rulers are in power the result would likely be the same. The demand for a revolutionary, secular constituent assembly is on the order of the day. But this could only come about through an insurrection overthrowing the Islamic regime and its “Supreme Leader” and “Guardian Council.” The sole social force with the possibility of carrying this out is the working class, which must simultaneously create the organs of its own class power – workers councils.
Many Iranian protesters today talk of returning to the “ideals of the Islamic Revolution” of 1979-80. But those “ideals” meant the wholesale slaughter of leftists, national minorities, homosexuals and women who refused to wear the chador. What’s needed instead is to return to the socialist ideals of the 1917 Russian October Revolution led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Many self-proclaimed socialists and even communists won’t say this, not only out of congenital fear of doing anything that would make them unpopular, but also because like many erstwhile leftists as a result of the betrayals of Stalinism they no longer believe in proletarian revolution. They prefer to drape themselves in Islamic green rather than Bolshevik red.
Yet from the time of Iran’s 1905 Constitutional Revolution against the Qajar monarchy, coinciding with the first Russian Revolution against the Romanov dynasty, there has always been a close connection between revolution and counterrevolution in Iran and Russia. The short-lived 1920-21 Gilan Soviet Republic was established with the aid of the Soviet Red Army, and was crushed by Reza Khan who seized power in Tehran at the head of a White Russian Cossack brigade and then proclaimed himself shah. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was installed as shah in 1953 in a U.S. coup as part of the anti-Soviet Cold War.
Russia’s Red October of 1917 confirmed the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution: that in the present imperialist epoch, even achieving basic democratic tasks including agrarian revolution, national liberation and democracy for the exploited and oppressed requires that the working class take power, backed by the peasantry and urban poor and led by a genuine communist party, to sweep away the capitalist state and establish a workers and peasants government to expropriate the bourgeoisie. This program is no less valid for Iran today, and would open the way to international socialist revolution, extending first and foremost to the Iraqi toilers subjected to colonial occupation by the U.S. imperialists.
Of course the protests have garnered massive sympathy and support in the imperialist countries, and the pro-Mousavi protesters have their numerous placards with slogans in English for international consumption. With their trademark spring green (as opposed to the Persian green of Iran’s flag), at first glance this looks very much like a U.S.-instigated color-coded “revolution” (orange for Ukraine, rose for Georgia). While the bulk of the reformist left, notably the British Socialist Workers Party and the U.S. International Socialist Organization, has lined up behind the Mousavi “movement,” those groups whose tastes run to “anti-imperialist” Third World despots, such as the Workers World Party, as well as conspiracy-mongering pundits like James Petras, have leapt to the defense of Ahmadinejad.
Certainly, the imperialists are up to their usual dirty tricks, although the White House has been at pains to give the appearance of standing aside. There’s a division of labor. The capitalist media, liberal and conservative alike, have mounted a non-stop propaganda blitz for Mousavi, painting him as a “democrat” and “moderate” as opposed to the dictator and Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad. Under pressure from the Republicans, the U.S. Congress passed a virtually unanimous resolution condemning the repression in Iran. For his part, Democratic president Barack Obama declared, “It’s not productive, given the history of the US-Iranian relationship, to be seen as meddling,” (Los Angeles Times, 17 June). But the key words here are “to be seen as.”
Barely a week earlier, Obama gave a major speech in Cairo, Egypt to declare that “America is not at war with Islam,” even as he continues the U.S.’ occupation of Iraq, escalates the U.S. war on Afghanistan and increases U.S. military strikes in Pakistan. He referred politely to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereas Bush placed it on the “axis of evil”; conceded Iran had a right to “peaceful nuclear power”; came out in support of women wearing the Islamic hijab (headscarf), even as many Iranian women are chafing at the enforced Islamic dress code; and said that the U.S. would not “presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election” in Iran. Add it all up and this is a diplomatic appeal for a “moderate” government of an Islamic regime in Iran.
Obama’s talk of “history” was referring to the 1953 CIA-backed coup against the country’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who had begun to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. (But at that time, the mullahs were used as CIA “assets” against Mossadeq.) The present regime in Washington engages in the same kind of skullduggery, just tries to hide it. The Democratic majority in Congress not only funded the occupation of Iraq, but in 2007 also agreed to Bush’s request for $400 million for a major escalation of covert operations against Iran. This gave the CIA a blank check to organize hit-and-run attacks on Iran. In the case of Jundullah, the Baluchi guerrillas in eastern Iran subsidized by the CIA, these are vicious Sunni Muslim reactionaries (who under other circumstances would simply be branded “al Qaeda”) who are opposed to Tehran merely because the latter represents the Shiite variant of Islam.
So while there is plenty of evidence that U.S. imperialism is still in the subversion and “destabilization” business in Iran, and certainly lots more that is not public, it is not staking everything on overthrowing Ahmadinejad/Khamenei. Washington is prepared to do business with the mullah regime, as it has in the past. Remember the Iran/contra deal, supervised by John Poindexter, now head of the CIA, selling U.S. Hawk missiles to Iran to get funds for Reagan’s mercenaries in Nicaragua. Or the 2001 U.S. invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, carried out in close coordination with Tehran, the Pasdaran in particular. And don’t forget that pro-Iranian Shiites acted as front men for the 2003 U.S. occupation of Iraq to overthrow Iran’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein.
Moreover, as Obama told the press, on a host of issues concerning U.S. imperial interests, there is little to choose from between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. On economics, the latter’s embrace of free market capitalism would perhaps allow more U.S. penetration, but Ahmadinejad is no less committed to privatization and foreign investment (see below). Under every prime minister and president, the mullah regime has always been a model pupil of the International Monetary Fund (the IMF praised Tehran for its divestment program in its May 2008 review). On foreign policy, while Mousavi attacked Ahmadinejad’s general clownishness and anti-Semitic remarks, the differences are mainly stylistic. In the end, both will talk turkey with the U.S.
The Iranian nuclear program has been the pretext for many imperialist war threats, including by Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton, as well as by his opponent in the 2008 U.S. elections, Republican John McCain, who now feigns concern for the Iranian people while a few months ago his campaign rallies resounded to the chant “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” On this key issue, the positions of the Iranian contenders are identical. Ahmadinejad, Khameini and Mousavi all insist on building up Iranian nuclear power capacity, which Iran has every right to, and all three say they are not building a bomb (the former two going so far as to insist that atomic weapons are contrary to Islam).
Despite the Iranian leaders’ rhetoric, and decades of U.S. hostility, the Iranian theocracy is not fundamentally opposed to the imperialist system. The history of relations between the mullahs and the West is complex. Israel’s Zionist war hawks and their “neo-conservative” allies in Washington actually prefer Ahmadinejad to serve as a bogeyman, and say so. But the fact that today the Obama administration wants to talk with Iranian rulers, whoever they are, doesn’t mean that tomorrow it won’t revert to coup-plotting or outright military attack. It’s just that for now the imperialist commander-in-chief, who is in trouble militarily in Afghanistan and bogged down in Iraq, doesn’t think it’s “smart” to start yet another war in the region.
In the face of U.S. attack or war threats, while giving no political support to any wing of the mullah regime, revolutionary Marxists are duty-bound to defend Iran as a semi-colonial country, using proletarian methods of class struggle. We demand an end to all U.S./NATO/U.N. sanctions against Iran. And we insist that Iran has the right to obtain nuclear or any other kind of weapons to defend against intervention or invasion by U.S. imperialism – or its Israeli Zionist allies, who have hundreds of nuclear warheads and are crazed enough to use them.
Imperialist pundits consider it smart marketing that the Iranian opposition has insisted on identifying with the Islamic regime. But Mousavi and his backers – longtime pillars of the Islamic establishment – needed no U.S. coaching for this. In the campaign, Mousavi was confronted by students over his responsibility for the mass executions as prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989. At the University of Zanjan (in his home region of Azerbaijan), they disrupted his speech asking, “Where were you in 1988, and how many people did you kill?” One placard read “Khavaran's soil is still red,” referring to the Khavaran cemetery (now bulldozed), where thousands of victims were buried.
So let’s spell it out: the repression began almost from the minute the mullahs took power in February 1979. Women were attacked on the streets for not wearing the chador, the head-to-toe shroud “recommended” by the clerics. Kurdish leftists were shot. Homosexuals were stoned to death (as were women accused of adultery). But the bloodbath really began in earnest as the clerical regime consolidated in the wake of the Iraqi attack in 1980 and clashes with the Islamic Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (People’s Crusaders). Mousavi became foreign minister in August 1981 and prime minister that December. During that period almost 2,000 were executed, mainly Mujahedeen but also Guevarist leftists of the Fedayeen Minority, who broke with Khomeini, and Peykar, a Stalinist split from the Mujahedeen.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of leftists were arrested along with militant workers as the clerics went all out to exterminate independent labor activity in the plants. The estimated number of executions totaled 5,000 by 1985 as the war with Iraq dragged on. Upwards of 300,000 Iranians died in this reactionary war, where the carnage resembled the imperialist World War I. Mousavi bears criminal responsibility for this senseless slaughter and insists to this day that it was right to continue the war after Iran retook Khorramshahr in May 1982 (Tehran Times, 24 May). Partly as a result of his role as head of government during the war, Mousavi has some support among the paramilitary pasdaran (Republican Guard) and even the basiji vigilantes.
With the end of the war in August 1988, a horrific new wave of killings took place as a result of a secret order, in which Rasfanjani reportedly played a key role. After the ceasefire with Iraq, which sealed a defeat for Iran, the mullah regime feared upheaval at home, so it decided to wipe out any possible leadership for the unrest. This time the victims went far beyond the Mujahedeen to include virtually every leftist group in the country. Prisoners who had been in jail for almost a decade had their cases retried and were sentenced to death. Even organizations that had loudly backed Khomeini were not spared, including Tudeh (pro-Moscow Stalinists) and the Fedayeen Majority. An estimated 12,000 were slaughtered, according to Ervand Abrahamian (Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran ).
Then there is the issue of corruption among the clerics. Mousavi’s most powerful backer, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a body of Islamic jurists which is supposed to monitor Khamenei and theoretically could even depose him. Rafsanjani has been called “the mighty spider in the intricate web of the Islamic Republic” (Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War ). He is the key link between the Islamic regime and the commercial capitalists of the Iranian “bazaar,” and is reputed to be the richest man in Iran. The pistachio king’s family interests include a joint venture with Daewoo, one son manages the construction of the Tehran subway, another has been director of the National Iranian Gas Co., etc.
In one of the more notable events of the electoral campaign, Ahmadinejad slammed Rafsanjani by name for corruption during the televised candidates’ debate, which earned him a rap on the knuckles from Khamenei. Denouncing the illicit enrichment of leading clerics has won the incumbent president popularity for years, along with provision of subsidies for the poor. In the debate Mousavi attacked Ahmadinejad’s “charity economics.” But even Khamenei has declared that the sharp fall in oil revenue is going to mean drastic cutbacks. In a speech calling for austerity (March 22), he declared that this would be “Improved Consumption Patterns Year.” Since the Supreme Leader pointed to Iranians “squandering” both bread and water, it is clear whose “consumption patterns” are targeted!
Again, differences on economic policy between the candidates are quantitative rather than qualitative. The Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime has pressed forward with privatization and lowering barriers to imperialist investment:
“Iran will no longer make a distinction between domestic and foreign firms that wish to purchase state-run companies as long as the combined foreign ownership in any particular industry does not exceed 35%....
“Among the new incentive measures announced, foreign firms may also transfer their annual profit from their Iranian company out of the country in any currency they wish.”
–Press TV, 30 June 2008
The list of firms which have been, are being or will be privatized includes power companies, metals, most airlines, auto, banks and even elements of the oil and gas industry. The potential spoils are immense, and the Pasdaran are a major player. This organization is not only a militia but a far-flung economic empire and machine for dispensing patronage. It has muscled into countless firms in true mafia style, and is also accused of using its mandate to bypass U.S. sanctions in order to dominate the black market in cigarettes as well as the alcohol, narcotics and pornography it is supposedly combating.
Of course, the policing of morals has been an invitation to extortion since the beginning of history. The accusations of corruption hit all of the contending factions among the Islamic rulers. If Rasfanjani is notorious as the billionaire mullah, Ahmadinejad’s third Interior Minister in four years, Sadegh Mahsouli, is known as the billionaire minister. But rapacious as they are, the spoils of privatization do not fully explain why the gangsters of the Islamic regime have broken the “code of silence” and started to turn on each other. They are seeking desperately to either head off a looming social and political explosion, or alternatively to try to crush it in the egg. The two factions are thus oriented to different social clienteles.
In many respects the question of women was at the center of the election campaign. Where Ahmadinejad stands was never in doubt. This is the man who introduced segregation by sex in elevators in municipal offices when he became mayor of Tehran, and who as president has intensified the enforcement of the mullahs’ dress code on women. Mousavi, on the other hand, even though he has the backing of a number of senior clerics, showcased his wife Zhara Rahnavard as a symbol of female emancipation. (Rhanavard, however, although she was known as a leftist in the early years of the Islamic Republic, has declared that “in Islam, women have always worn the veil.”)
The potential clash between Mousavi’s mealy mouthed promises and women’s aspirations was shown by an incident in which a crowd of 1,500 of his female supporters in a south Tehran sports complex chanted “Stop the hijab police!” Mousavi lamely replied that he would “review” laws unfair to women and would “work toward” reining in these regime thugs who harass, brutalize and blackmail women for even the most minor infringements of dress and behavior codes. In the photos of protests, there were many women, but none without the obligatory head covering. Nor were “un-Islamic” signs seen. Secular leftists and liberals, though undoubtedly present, were invisible, having accepted the discipline of an “Islamic opposition.”
In the last phase of the election campaign, various discontented sectors coalesced around Mousavi as the voice of the opposition, however muted, deformed and distorted, even though he actually promised them very little. Indicative of this was a message to the Tehran Bureau web site reporting a conversation with a contact in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, who said “that they all backed Mousavi because he had promised that in provinces where there was a second language it could be taught in schools. He said – we are so desperate we are not even bargaining for autonomy or anything, just for our language to be allowed at school… Which I think sums up a lot of Mousavi’s support, he’s not offering a lot but he is the only one offering certain groups anything at all that they can relate to.”
The key potential social force that has yet to throw its weight into the balance is one which can expect nothing from either of the two Islamic factions: the 22-million-strong Iranian working class. It has faced heavy repression for decades. As noted earlier, the factory committee (shura) movement was broken in the period 1980-81. Pasdaran sized militant workers inside the plants and whipped them in front of their co-workers, when they were they were not simply dragged off to Evin prison and ultimate execution. It took almost a generation to recover.
But the privatization begun under the government of “reform” president Sayed Mohammad Khatami, from 1997 to 2005, leading to the closure of many factories, forced a series of struggles for sheer survival. These have continued under Ahmadinejad, since, despite his populist airs, the condition of Iranian workers has steadily worsened. Just as in the reviled “atheist”, “materialist” capitalist West, under the Islamic capitalist regime there has been a concerted drive to replace permanent employment with temporary contracts. When top prices for oil fueled inflation, there were continual battles over the minimum wage, which is well below the official poverty line. And profiting from the ferocious repression of every worker protest, many employers don’t even bother to pay the pitiful wages owed.
The current phase of labor militancy began when 15,000 workers demonstrated in Tehran on 16 July 2002 against poor working conditions, low pay and a new labor bill making firings much easier. The following year thousands defied a government ban on demonstrating on May Day. One of the first major actions came in January 2004, when construction workers who had been building a copper smelting plant in Khatonabad in southern Iran were laid off. After having been promised permanent jobs, they blocked the factory. Special police units intervened: up to 15 workers were killed and another 300 were wounded (Malm and Esmaikliam, Iran on the Brink).
There were also strikes by auto workers at Iran Khodro and in textiles that spring. In March 2004, schoolteachers (80 percent of whom are women) struck nationwide. Their salaries have fallen well below the public-sector average, and they are also subjected to temporary contracts. As a result, 70 percent of teachers’ incomes are below the poverty line. An attempt to organize a May Day demonstration at Saqez (Kurdistan) in 2004 was broken up by security forces. It was followed by May Day rallies of workers in other cities during the next two years.
Following May Day 2005 and an attack by state forces on the bus drivers’ union, a national day of transport strikes was organized on 16 July 2005. This movement eventually led to a protest in which bus drivers at the Vahed company in Tehran refused to take passengers’ fares in December 2005, and then a strike in January 2006. They demanded in particular recognition of the bus drivers’ union (Syndicate of Workers and Employees of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company) and the freeing of their leader Mansour Ossanlou, who had been arrested after the first protest. Ossanlou was released, and then rearrested. Still in prison, his case has become an international issue. This year, as noted above, May Day demonstrations in both Tehran and Kurdish Sanandaj were again attacked.
The result of all of these hard struggles has been the emergence of a series of clandestine worker networks grouped around two poles. The first, Komiteye-Hamahangi (“Coordinating Committee to Form Workers Organizations in Iran”) puts forward a “council communist” line opposed to political parties and trade unions as inherently reformist; it periodically issues calls for workers councils in the abstract. The second, Komiteye Peygiri (”Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organizations in Iran”), pursues the illusory course of pressuring the Islamic regime for official recognition. It thus may rightly be considered the heirs of the capitulationism of the Tudeh and its allies of the Fedayeen Majority.
Both committees reject the need for a proletarian vanguard party to lead the political struggle to bring down the Islamic dictatorship through workers revolution. For its part, despite left rhetoric and a hard line against the mullah regime, the Worker-communist Party (which split in 2004) never really broke from the two-stage conception of first establishing bourgeois democracy, before going on to socialism. It is thus prone to calling on “democratic” imperialism to sanction the mullahs and has even on occasion raised the possibility of allying with the monarchists against the mullahs. In fact, a WPI spokeswoman recently called on the West to “isolate” Iran:
“What is clear from the protests is that there is a mass movement in Iran that can bring the regime to its knees and break the back of the political Islamic movement internationally. Now is the time for us in the West to exert pressure on our governments to politically isolate Iran’s rulers rather than legitimise them.”
–Maryam Namazie, spokesperson, Worker-communist Party of Iran, in the Evening Standard [London], 17 June
So here these self-proclaimed communists offer themselves up as stooges and cat’s paws for imperialist intervention!
Physically decimated and politically discredited, the bulk of the Iranian left organizations did not survive the 1980s, let alone the collapse of the Stalinist-ruled, bureaucratically degenerated workers state in the USSR and the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe. It is clear that those remnants of the left that did hang on are ready to begin the cycle of betrayal all over again. Thus the social-democratized Tudeh called for support to Mousavi and Karrubi [the other “reform” candidate] in the elections, and for unity of all “pro-reform” forces in the protest movement. These “popular front” politics of allying with a sector of the bourgeoisie are precisely what led the Tudeh to sell out the Iranian workers upheaval of 1978-79 and lead it into the deadly embrace of Islamic reaction.
In a country where even the most reactionary political forces call themselves revolutionary, it is not enough to call for a revolutionary party. In Iran where the Stalinist/Menshevik program of revolution in stages means binding the working class to a wing of the Islamic rulers, today led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, it is necessary to call explicitly for building the nucleus of a Leninist vanguard party of the working class, based on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution. This is the policy of the League for the Fourth International. It is not, however, the program of various other groups that falsely call themselves Trotskyist while in practice making political blocs with the bourgeoisie. This is not splitting hairs but a matter of life and death for the Iranian workers revolution.
To understand this question clearly it is necessary to go back to the events of 1978-79. For months strikes had rocked the country, particularly that of the powerful oil workers union led by the Tudeh party, extending from Abadan in the south to refineries in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz. Joined by rail and steel workers, this became a de facto general strike. The possibility of a workers revolution was clear to all, and to head it off, bourgeois forces began turning to the Islamic clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The February 1979 overthrow of the shah’s regime was in reality a transfer of power to Khomeini and his mullahs by the generals, designed to keep the bourgeois army intact. It was only marred by last-minute resistance by the shah’s Imperial Guard. The clerical-dominated mass marches were a means of pressure to this end.
The tragedy of 1978-79 was that the masses’ illusions in Khomeini and the other ayatollahs were reinforced by the shameful capitulation of the Iranian left to the clergy in the name of “anti-imperialism” and “unity” against the shah. The worst were the Moscow Stalinists of Tudeh, the only party with a working-class following, which came out in support of Khomeini at the behest of the Kremlin (Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran ). It’s not that they didn’t know what the mullahs were up to: three weeks before Khomeini’s takeover, the head of the oil strikers protested against the “dogmatic reactionary clergy” and “the new form of repression under the guise of revolution” (Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (1987). But instead of fighting it, he resigned!
Khomeini rejected the left’s “unity” offers with disdain. The day after taking power he ordered the workers back to work, and the leaders of the oil workers union were immediately arrested as “counterrevolutionaries.” The victorious Islamic rulers went on to massacre the left when the time was ripe. The factory committees which arose during the strike waves could have the basis for proletarian power, but since the left rejected the strategic perspective of socialist revolution, the committees were isolated and purged, either turned into or replaced by state organs for the Islamic regime.
At the time, genuine Trotskyists fought against both the shah and the rising Islamic clerical reaction. The international Spartacist tendency, from which the LFI originated, warned well before Khomeini took power that:
“The hundreds of thousands who are now marching behind the mullahs are by no means all Muslim fundamentalists. Many are primarily motivated by hostility to the real crimes of the shah. Many leftist workers have probably joined what they view as a potentially successful opposition to the hated regime. But the masses, particularly the workers, who are now supporting the Khomeinis and the Shariatmadaris can and must be won away from the present Islamic reactionary offensive in favor of a social revolutionary opposition to the shah.”
–“Iran in Turmoil,” Workers Vanguard No. 215, 22 September 1978
The Trotskyists warned that the alternative would be a catastrophic defeat, and raised the call: “Down With the Shah! Don’t Bow to Khomeini! For Workers Revolution in Iran!”
In taking this stand, we not only went up against the Stalinists and Guevarist Fedayeen, but also against those who falsely laid claim to the mantle of Trotskyism, notably Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), whose British followers excluded Spartacists from protest demos because of our opposition to Khomeini. The various pseudo-Trotskyist currents called for an “anti-imperialist united front” with Khomeini (as did the British Workers Power group), or argued that the clerical leadership of the movement would simply disappear, or that even if the mullahs took power their regime would rapidly simply collapse (echoing the disastrous Stalinist response to the Nazis’ rise in Germany, “After Hitler, us!”).1
Many on the left today refer to 1978-79 as a “hijacked revolution,” as if there was first a healthy revolution against the shah that was some time later subverted by the mullahs. In fact, the ayatollahs seized control from the start as the “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” left abdicated. Why? Because their reformist program dictated a political alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie as the first “stage” of the revolution. As usual, it never went beyond that, and ended in a bloodbath of the left. What these opportunists are really doing is amnestying their own failure to oppose Islamic reaction when it could have been defeated. They bowed to their executioners.
With the outbreak of the reactionary war with Iraq, the Iranian groups affiliated with the USec (HKS and HKE) supported Iran. The HKE, aligned with the American Socialist Workers Party, even backed the mullah regime against the Mujahedeen guerrillas. British USec leader Brian Grogan traveled to Iran where he reported marching in a demonstration chanting allahu akbar. The American SWP grotesquely proclaimed the chador to be a symbol of “liberation.” But all this didn’t save their Iranian followers. Those who remained in Iran were arrested, and eventually several were executed. Today the United Secretariat is so discredited that it has no Iranian group. Meanwhile, ever searching for a new, non-proletarian vanguard, its leading section, the French LCR, has now discarded any reference to Trotskyism, dissolving into a New Anticapitalist Party.
The one ostensibly Trotskyist current that maintains some semblance of activity concerning Iran is the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) founded by Ted Grant and currently led by Alan Woods, which includes a small group of Iranian supporters, the Revolutionary Marxists’ Tendency. Woods’ calling card is a cynical tailism that presents itself as starry-eyed objectivism, forever discovering that some bourgeois force is about to lead the revolution, from Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (the IMT’s current favorite). On June 15, Woods breathlessly declared: “The masses are starting to move, and the movement will not easily be halted. We are entitled to say with confidence: the Iranian Revolution has begun!”
To explain the fact that this capitalized “Revolution” is under the leadership of a bourgeois Islamic leader, Woods blithely writes of Mousavi “he does not control events. Rather, events are controlling him.” This ignores the fact that while some of the demonstrators may be more militant, the mass of protesters still had political confidence, if not in Mousavi, at least in the possibility of peacefully reforming the Islamic regime – and that slogans against the regime were in fact banned, if only in the vain hope of averting bloody repression. Woods began to dream out loud about how the “movement” would evolve into a revolutionary, socialist one under the force of circumstances.
But the IMT did not leave things totally to chance: its main Iranian spokesman, Maziar Razi, penned an Open Letter to Mousavi, dated June 18, which charged “you have submitted yourself to Ahmadinejad’s government,” as if the question were one of tactical militancy. Razi makes no reference to Mousavi’s free market capitalist program. Neither Woods nor Razi refer to the question of women’s oppression except in passing (as was the case for the opportunist left in 1978-1979), not even mentioning the hated hijab police. Nor have they said anything about the fact that their hero Chávez was won of the very first to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his election “victory.” Opportunists often have trouble keeping straight the forces they tail after, or explaining it when they come into conflict. Ultimately for the likes of Woods & Co., they don’t care – it’s all just one big maneuver. But for the Iranian masses knowing who your friends are and who are your enemies matters, a lot.
In a second article, “The Iranian Revolution: what does it mean and where is it going?” (June 16), Woods trots out a false analogy used by much of the left to dismiss Khomeini, comparing Mousavi to Father Gapon, a figure from the 1905 Russian Revolution. Unlike either Mousavi or Khomeini, Gapon was genuinely incidental, a merely temporary leader. Woods keeps raising the comparison of Iran today with the 1905 Russian Revolution (“Like the Russian Revolution before 1905, the Iranian Revolution is still in its infancy. It has a long way to run...”). Interestingly, the very same argument was raised by Woods’ mentor Grant in 1979, who wrote:
“Support for Khomeini will melt away after he forms a government. The failure of his programme of a Muslim theocratic republic to solve the problems of the Iranian people will become apparent.... Even in the worst resort, reaction would prepare the way for revenge on the part of the masses, at a not too distant date. It would be 1905 in Russia over again.”
–Ted Grant, “The Iranian Revolution” (9 February 1979)
Thirty years on, we can say: it didn’t exactly turn out that way, did it?
Among the pseudo-Trotskyists there are certain formulas that keep turning up to cover their adoption of the Stalinist program of two-stage revolution. Back under Mandel in the 1960s and ’70s, it was to declare every left-talking bourgeois government, from Nasser in Egypt to Algeria in 1961 to Burma to be a “workers and peasants government.” The Grant/Woods variant is to join bourgeois parties and “movements” on the grounds that they are leading a “1905 revolution.” The patented slogan of another pretender, Nahuel Moreno, was to label every petty-bourgeois or bourgeois nationalist uprising a “February Revolution.” In each case, what they were saying is that they are not fighting for a new Russian 1917 October Revolution, that is for the working class to take power at the head of the rural peasantry and urban poor.
In Iran today, revolutionary Trotskyists would seek to intervene, where and to the extent possible in repressive conditions, on a series of democratic questions, including demanding an end to enforced Islamic dress codes (no to the veil!); for an end to sexual segregation and for full rights for homosexuals; for an end to all censorship of the press and all media; for full freedom of speech and assembly; for the right of self-determination for national minorities, such as the Kurds, Arabs, Azeris and Baluchis, including autonomy and independence if they so desire; for the right to strike and to organize independent workers unions free from state and religious control; and to free all jailed leftists, labor activists and protesters. Be aware that a serious fight for any of these basic rights and demands would send the Islamic rulers into a murderous frenzy
A key demand is for a secular, democratically elected constituent assembly as part of a revolutionary program to bring down the Islamic dictatorship. This is a demand that is appropriate in feudal or semi-feudal countries where the most basic democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution have not yet been achieved, or under bonapartist regimes that amount to military/police dictatorships. This latter is the case of Iran under the theocratic “Islamic Republic,” as it was under the pro-imperialist monarchy of the shah.
Clearly, the present rulers of Iran would fight to the death to prevent such a democratic body. The Islamic “reformers” around Mousavi would oppose it as well. It is also clear that the only force which could bring about a constituent assembly is the working class, leading impoverished peasants and slum dwellers. However, the workers must fight not just for “democracy” but for their own class rule. Thus proletarian revolutionaries in Iran would simultaneously seek to organize potential organs of workers power, from factory committees (shuras) to workers councils, fighting for a workers and peasants government to expropriate the capitalist class, and for a socialist federation of the entire Near East.
Above all, the Iranian masses today urgently need a genuinely communist party, capable of struggling against the reactionary social program of the mullahs and all bourgeois forces. Under the impact of the current crisis, and Iran’s convulsive history, revolutionary minded militants may be rethinking their outlook and program. The League for the Fourth International seeks to lay the basis for a Leninist vanguard party of the Iranian working class, armed with the program of revolutionary Trotskyism, that alone can point the way forward to the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed. ■
Internationally, there have been various demonstrations and calls for “solidarity” with those fighting the clerical regime in Iran, notably in worldwide demonstrations called for June 26. But beware – many of those who claim to support the demonstrators in Tehran are no friends of the Iranian masses.
In protests in Los Angeles, Washington and London, some carried the Iranian flag with the imperial lion of the murderous shah. Zionists, of course, are also quite prepared to call for “down with the Islamic Republic of Iran.” And some of those talking about “revolution” in Iran and calling for “intervention,” are the same people who only a few months ago were calling to “bomb Iran,” as journalist Stephen Kinzer has pointed out (“Democracy, made in Iran,” guardian.co.uk, 22 June).
Even some of the labor support comes from the likes of the (ICFTU) International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the American AFL-CIO, who backed the pseudo-unions of the shah while genuine labor militants were being tortured by the SAVAK. Class-conscious workers must make no common bloc against the mullah regime with these supporters of imperialism.
So what about vote fraud? While much of the bourgeois press treats it as a given that Ahmadinejad stole the election, some Western leftists (e.g., “Iran: What Fraud?” Workers World, 17 June) and even various geopolitical “experts” (e.g., “Western Misconceptions Meet Iranian Reality,” Stratfor, 15 June) dismiss this. What’s the evidence?
First, there is the timing of the announcement of the 64 percent total for the incumbent just hours after the polls closed, when given Iran’s communications it would be impossible to have vote counts from most of the country. Second, in at least two entire provinces more than 100 percent of registered voters voted. Third, representatives of opposition candidates were not allowed to observe the counting. Fourth, there is far less regional variation in the vote totals than in the 2005 election, with low counts for opposition candidates in their home provinces, even though many regime opponents sat out the last vote but voted this time.
It’s also not a given that Ahmadinejad is popular in the rural areas, as has been argued. A credible report posted to the Tehran Bureau about a village near Shiraz southwest Iran indicates Mousavi clearly beat the incumbent there as well. Iran has become a lot more urbanized in recent years, and the urban poor have been the president’s key constituency. Many are dependent on the commodity subsidies Ahmadinejad introduced. And the sacks of potatoes doled out by his election campaign, just as the Mexican PRI used to do with grain, can go a long way. Many poor youth join the basiji to avoid the draft and get loans and scholarships. But they are being pounded by inflation and unemployment.
There were few reports from plebeian south Tehran on election day, and those were contradictory. One, on the German ARD television network, painted a morose picture of residents complaining about the continuing lack of running water, one venturing to say, “But the parliamentary deputies and this president have done nothing for Islamshahr [a southern suburb of the capital].” Time magazine editorialist Joe Klein, on the other hand, reported: “The lines at the central mosque were every bit as long as they were at the voting stations in sophisticated north Tehran. There was a smattering of Mousavi supporters, but the Ahmadinejad worship was palpable” (Time, 29 June).
Clearly, the Western media barrage focused on the English-speaking upper middle class in north Tehran who led the protests, and just as clearly, this privileged layer is not representative of Iran as a whole. But while Ahmadinejad supporters say there is no evidence of widespread fraud, the opposition presented almost 650 cases of election irregularities. Even the government admits that there were no less than 50 cities in which total votes exceeded the number of registered voters, which could throw at least 3 million votes into doubt. But its cavalier response is so what, it’s not enough to invalidate the election.
A number of observers, including veteran Mideast report Robert Fisk (Independent, 20 June), have raised the possibility that although there was indeed substantial election fraud, “Ahmadinejad might have scraped in, but not with the huge majority he was awarded.” Or won a plurality, in which case there would have been a run-off ballot, which the government was determined to avoid at all costs.