Iran: Next in Line for Regime Change?

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The student protests in Iran in June were part of the pro-democracy movement, involving secular and religious women, workers, student and the youth, which has been evolving since the early 1990s.

The media attempts to show the protestors as sympathetic to Bush, but Israel and the US's policy of Middle East domination is extremely unpopular in Iran. People in Iran, as in the rest of the region, are fully aware of the repercussions of the US and British war in Iraq through the Al Jazeera television coverage. Moreover, 1 million Iranians died and 1 million were disabled in the war with Iraq (1980-88), and people have not forgotten that the US armed Iraq and turned a blind eye to the gassing of Kurdish people.

The demonstrators are not responding to appeals to implement Bush's neoliberal model of democracy. Many Muslim women who are engaged in the democracy movement are not going to burn their hejabs. Liberation for them does not mean destroying their identity, religion and culture. Alongside secular women, they are demanding the right to choose what to wear. Most importantly they are struggling in their own way to dismantle the Islamic laws which enforce women's subordination.

Between 1996 and 2003, women, students, workers and young people have campaigned and won some of their specific demands. In the process, they have become aware of their power to erode the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the conservatives and to promote democratic issues. The pressure is particularly from those religious working class women and men who supported the Islamisation of state and society in the 1980s, and later realised the limitations of the Islamic state and institutions. Many Islamists were radicalised by economic and political developments since the 1980s. The 1980s were the years of the Iran-Iraq war and political repression. The state ruthlessly defeated the secular movements including the independent workers' shoras (councils) which were replaced by Islamic shoras and Islamic associations.

Simultaneously, the Islamic state distributed the wealth by confiscating the property of the Shah and his allies - the private domestic owners of capital and their counterparts who had fled the country. The shantytowns were demolished and the people housed in the confiscated properties. The religious middle classes, the urban poor and the working classes who supported the Islamic state were given priority in employment and education. For many Islamists who were alienated and marginalised by the processes of development in the 1960s and 1970s under the secular regime of the Shah, the Islamic state gave them access to material and ideological resources and a space to exercise power.

The war with Iraq ended in 1988, war reconstruction began and the oil money generated funds for economic development. Education and employment expanded and absorbed many religious men and women including the working classes in urban and rural areas. The imposition of the hejab and the policy of sex segregation was originally designed to limit women's access to the public sphere of life. Ironically these policies opened up opportunities for many religious women to go to university, to work and participate in political life. Today 80 percent of the population is literate. Some 74 percent of women are literate, 64 percent of higher education students are women and female employment in the formal sector is 2 percent higher than in the 1970s, the height of westernisation and modernisation.

The years 1990 to 2003 have seen Iran's further integration into the global market. Liberalisation, adjustment policies and cutting of subsidies have resulted in high inflation and unemployment. As a result, there has been a significant number of workers' protests against delays and non-payment of wages, health and safety issues and redundancies. The workers' demands are not limited to economic demands. Many Islamist workers joined the growing reformist and democracy movement and argued for independent workers' shoras and associations. They argued that the term Islamic for workers' organisations will lead to the exclusion and alienation of non-Muslim workers and weaken the shoras. Secular and religious women have been cooperating to demand reform of the sharia Islamic law, mainly affecting family law. They have had some success. The reform of the laws concerning marriage, divorce, custody of children and property have been particularly beneficial to poorer women.

Women and students' political participation in the 1997-99 presidential and local council elections resulted in the defeat of the conservatives and a landslide victory for the reformers in the parliament, the government and the local councils. In February to May 2000 the conservatives, who control the judiciary, responded by closing down reformist newspapers and arresting a number of journalists, students and intellectuals.

From 2000 to 2003 women and men continued their struggle for further reform, but were disappointed by the low level of support from the reformers within the government. The 2003 local elections demonstrated the demoralisation of many within the democracy movement. They boycotted these elections which led to many reformers losing their seats. However, in 2003 we have seen students' protests against the arrest of university lecturer accused of blasphemy by the conservative judiciary. International Women's Day, on 8 March, was celebrated in Tehran and thousands of women and men demanded gender equality. The 1st of May was celebrated by thousands of workers demanding better pay and conditions and in June the students' demonstrations, supported by other movements, demanded the end to the autocratic regime.

Iranians are bravely fighting to establish true democracy. Many were impressed by the millions who marched against the war in Iraq. They believe that the US and their allies are preparing the ground to attack Iran. They notice the linking of Iran's nuclear energy industry to the so called weapons of mass destruction; and both the Shias' resistance to the occupation of Iraq by the US and the resistance to the occupation of Palestine by Israel to Iran. They see this as warning that the US will steal their natural resources and destroy their culture. People in Britain and the west should support their movements by strengthening the anti-war campaign before the war extends to Iran and elsewhere, and by fighting the Blair government for tailing the US imperial project.