The Other Iran

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Peyman Jafari examines Iran's recent history of struggle, and looks at the challenges facing activists today.

Hardly any analyst had anticipated the sweeping victory of the conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad in Iran's presidential election in June this year. What most Iranians rejected, however - even if it was in a distorted way - was their ruling elite and the hawkish rumblings from Washington.

The most important factor in Ahmadinedjad's victory was his campaign on a populist platform, pledging to fight poverty and inequality. His populist message struck a chord with Iran's workers, the poor and the disaffected who are sick of the class divide and corruption. According to Iran's official statistics around 20 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, but private estimates put the number much higher. Official unemployment is around 15 percent, although in reality it is more than double that. And high inflation of 20 percent has made life hard for the poor.

Ahmadinedjad's populist message was reinforced by his position as a relative outsider. He attacked corruption and talked about 'cutting the hands off the oil mafia'. Conversely, his opponent, Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the corrupt Islamic nomenklatura which has enriched itself in the past two decades. He owns large parts of the South Korean car company Daewoo in Iran, and is also the father of Iran's early 1990s privatisation programme.

Another factor in Ahmadinejad's victory was his firm stand against the US regarding Iran's nuclear energy programme. The right to develop nuclear energy has become a matter of pride for most Iranians, and the US military threats towards Iran have emboldened the conservative forces. They used these threats to whip up nationalism, strengthen the security forces and take repressive measures. Many prominent activists in the reform movement, like Saeed Hajjarian - a university teacher who was shot by a hezbollahi - have criticised the US. He said recently, 'To threaten Iran, nearly every day, America is looking for any excuse - the nuclear issue, terrorism, human rights, the Middle East peace process.' He urged the US to stop its threats.

Now the conservatives control all the centres of power in Iran - the presidency, the council of guardians, the religious leadership, and therefore the judiciary and the paramilitary forces. But this does not mean the end of the struggle for democracy. The contradictions of the Iranian state will continue to grow and deepen the fissures inside the regime, and open up new spaces for mass resistance.

From populism to liberalisation

After the 1979 revolution two factions emerged inside the new regime. The 'left' wanted to use the state to both enhance industrial development and protect the poor. The traditional conservatives opposed this line because it hurt the interests of the bazaaris (merchants) and the private industrialists. During this period, however, the war with Iraq and the conciliatory role of Khomeini united these factions. The bloody repression of Communist organisations and the retreat of the workers' movement meant there was no significant opposition.

From 1984 Iran's economic problems intensified with the fall of the oil price. Between 1977 and 1988 national income per capita declined by nearly 50 percent and urban unemployment increased from 4.4 to 18.9 percent. But the populist policies of subsidies and price controls reduced the impact of this decline for private consumption. The government also realised major improvements in basic healthcare and education, particularly in rural areas.

But due to the war and growing economic problems, such measures did little to safeguard the regime's popularity. From 1987 the religious leader Khomeini decided to take sides with the 'left' which favoured a strong state to tackle the problems. To win back legitimacy he spoke in favour of 'the Islam of the barefooted', and warned against the 'victory of the Islam of the wealthy and the arrogant backed by billions from both inside and outside [Iran]'.

By the beginning of the 1990s the economy suffered from lack of investment, and the government's foreign debt had grown to half its GDP. The business circles and the bazaar became more vocal in their opposition to state interventions in the economy. As the populists were losing ground, a new faction inside the regime was emerging around Rafsanjani, who became president in 1989. This faction became to be known as the 'modern right' or the 'pragmatists' - which had its social base among the technocrats in the state apparatus - aligned with the 'traditional right', after Khomeini's death in June 1989, against the 'left'.

Rafsanjani started talks with the IMF and the World Bank and embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation which meant that price controls and subsidies were scrapped, and the fixed exchange rate was floated. The economic expansion of this was a consequence of a rise in the oil revenues, averaging $19 billion in 1990-96. High inflation, redundancies in privatised firms and growing inequality were the real consequences of liberalisation, however.

This led to social unrest. There were six major protests in Tehran and other cities in the early 1990s. In 1995 there were three-day riots in a suburb of Tehran, following increases in bus fares and fuel prices. President Rafsanjani ordered helicopters to shoot at the demonstrators. Dealing with the growing opposition from below became a dividing issue for the regime.

The reform movement

The huge turnout at the 1997 elections which saw the election of the pro-reform president Mohammed Khatami signalled a new confidence among the masses to say no to the old regime. This new confidence stemmed from deep social changes that had occurred beneath the surface. The end of the Iran/Iraq War in 1988 and the economic expansion that followed higher oil prices increased the number of workers employed in large industries. This fed workers' confidence to fight back.

Women's growing participation in the economy had the same effect, creating tensions between the Islamist ideology and women's experience. More than 60 percent of university students are women. Female professional and technical workers make up one third of the total. Many former Islamist activists moved to challenge the repression of women. This significant development also applied to other groups. The participation of organisations with an Islamist background has been a remarkable characteristic of the reform movement. The main student union, Daftare Tahkime Vahdat ('Unity Consolidation Office'), which had helped purge the left from the universities in the early 1980s, has formed the backbone of the student protests. In the presidential elections it called for a boycott. The official trade union, Khane Kargar (Workers' House), is much more controlled by the regime, but its leaders have also been pressed to organise protests.

It is important to note that women have been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy. On 12 June this year 1,000 women held a sit-in against the constitutional denial of women's rights. Organised by 90 groups, this was the biggest public protest since the revolution. The role that women and their organisations have played in the democracy movement in recent years contains an important lesson for other activists. Secular and religious women's rights activists have increasingly worked together, while maintaining different views on society as a whole.

The democracy movement that has emerged since the mid-1990s is the most exciting development for the left in Iran since the revolution of 1979. A new generation entered into political struggle. But while some on the left lined up uncritically behind Khatami, others took an ultra-left position towards the movement, standing aside and criticising its illusions in Khatami. In the last two decades the left was decimated, and many of those who survived became isolated from any real struggle and developed a highly sectarian attitude. A new left can only be built if socialists cast away the sectarian peel of the last two decades and take up the challenge of building the real movements developing in Iran. Writing on the revolutions of 1848, Marx described how democratic demands gather around different classes. Socialists should be in the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. But Marx also warned that as the movement develops, political differences begin to harden along class lines. And that is why socialists have to organise independently for working class politics to take the movement forward.

Democracy and class divisions

The biggest limitation of the democracy movement was that many activists hoped Khatami's faction could reform the regime from inside. They subordinated their own activities to the manoeuvres of Khatami, and neglected building independent organisations and linking different struggles. This also meant that the reformers inside the regime limited the demands of the movement to cultural reforms, keeping out the social concerns of workers and the poor.

In this way leading organisations and activists were able to contain the movement at crucial moments. In July 1999 a demonstration at the University of Tehran, organised by the pro-Khatami student union Daftare Tahkim Vahdat against the closure of dissident newspapers, was attacked by the police and ended up with six days of rioting in the capital city. In 2002 and 2003 large student protests started in Tehran and spread to other cities. Faced with mass mobilisation from below and the radicalisation of the demonstrations, Khatami condemned the protests, fearing that mass mobilisation and independent initiative undermined his reforms. The disillusionment with Khatami also led to the radicalisation of a new layer of activists, opening the possibility of organising independently of Khatami's forces.

For the first time these protests also highlighted the class divisions inside the reform movement. The student demonstrations had mainly political demands but, as Reuters reported of the 1999 protests, 'the riots that followed centred around poorer neighbourhoods with higher rates of unemployment, where students had less of a presence. Banks were looted and set on fire, and late model cars - a sure sign of affluence in Iran - were overturned and burned.' And then in June 2003 unemployed youth from working class districts joined student protests against privatisation of universities on a much larger scale.

Iran has a large young population (70 percent are under the age of 30), but unlike the picture presented in the western media, their sole obsession is not the western lifestyle. With 30 percent unemployment and poverty, most young Iranians are concerned primarily with jobs, housing and food. And workers seek freedoms like the right to free speech, to assemble and to organise so they can fight the miserable conditions they are living in.

The working class

There are now signs of a new mood developing inside the Iranian working class, defying not only the bosses but also government officials. In recent years there have been unofficial strikes, demonstrations and even occupations in which workers have clashed with the police. This has resulted in the deaths of several workers.

The year 2004 started with a sit-in and protest actions by workers and their families in Khatoonabad's copper smelting plants. Special guards brutally attacked protesting workers, killing at least four and injuring dozens of others. This led to growing solidarity among Iranian labour activists and the involvement of the international labour movement with workers' struggle in Iran. And so 2004 ended with a successful strike of hundreds of textile workers in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj against the unfair dismissal of their colleagues. A few weeks later nurses held a number of protest gatherings and sit-ins. On 16 July 2005 workers in Iran-Khodro, the largest car producer in the Middle East, went on strike demanding higher wages and safety in the workplace.

Workers have also moved to defy the authorities on the political terrain. In the past two years they have organised International Workers' Day demonstrations in several cities. Last year Reuters reported, 'Thousands of banner-wielding Iranian workers rallied in Tehran, marking Labour Day with sharp criticism of the Islamic republic's ambitious privatisation plans. "Stop privatisation, stop temporary contracts," workers chanted.' This year the official trade union tried to use International Workers' Day for Rafsanjani's election campaign, but the meeting was disrupted by independent activists and Rafsanjani had to cancel his visit.

The future

The presidential election will only lead to greater social and political struggles. Following the murder of an activist in the Kurdish city of Mehabad, protests spread to many other cities. The heroic hunger strike in May this year of the journalist Ganji, who was sentenced to ten years prison in 2001, has reinvigorated the democracy movement.

At the same time it is clear that this movement is facing two important challenges. On the one hand it has to stand up against the military threats from Washington, and in this it urgently needs the support of the global anti-war movement. On the other hand it has to get ready for a fierce confrontation with Ahmadinedjad's government. To win this battle activists have to find concrete ways of linking the struggles of students, women and national minorities with those of workers. The only way to take the movement forward from here is to create independent organisations, most urgently trade unions.

None of this will be easy, but engaging in the current struggles in Iran is the most exciting opportunity in 25 years to create a new socialist left and bring down the dictatorship.