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The great mobilization that followed Iran’s disputed elections has transformed that country’s politics irrevocably. A blatant attempt to steal an election by incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has turned into a coup, creating a profound split in the Iranian ruling class. The regime’s ideological legitimacy and credibility has been shattered. To hold on to power, Ahmadinejad has begun a show trial of prominent reformist politicians while relying on vicious repression in the streets to maintain “order.”1
The clampdown may limit or prevent protests in the near term. But the consciousness of tens of millions of Iranians has already been transformed. Even after the initial protests against the election fraud were brutally attacked by police and the paramilitary Basij force, some 3 million people defiantly took to the streets of Tehran June 15. They were transformed from aggrieved voters into a pro-democracy movement—a movement that repeatedly reasserted itself despite the fact that thousands were whipped and clubbed, hundreds arrested, and perhaps dozens shot. Demonstrations took place in practically every corner of the city.
The more the competing factions at the top of society clash over the legacy of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator, the Shah of Iran, the greater potential for the popular movement to organize around its own interests. In this new period of struggle, the working class has the potential to recover the real history of the Iranian Revolution—one of the greatest working-class upsurges in world history before it was hijacked by reactionary clerics.
Now the specter of a new mass upsurge haunts not only the Iranian ruling class, but also the dictators and monarchs who run the Middle East. It will also shake up Islamist politics by exposing the gap between the religious rhetoric of equality and the reality of continued exploitation and oppression. But the impact of the Iranian struggle will be wider still: it is the first popular uprising of the worldwide economic slump. Millions of workers and the poor the world over have similar grievances to their brothers and sisters—and they will take note.
As the world knows, the crisis was triggered by the disputed June 12 election, in which the government made the outrageous claim that Ahmadinejad received more than 62 percent of the vote—24.5 million, compared to 11 million votes for his leading opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was gaining support in the closing weeks of the campaign. Just days before the election, Mousavi supporters had shown their strength by forming a human chain across Tehran. The mass protests that followed the stolen vote took place not just in upscale North Tehran, but spread to working-class districts. Demonstrators not only braved beatings and bullets, but also organized to fight back. The Revolutionary Guard Anti-Riot forces, and the paramilitary Basij forces assisting them, were pulled off their motorcycles and disarmed, while their motorcycles were burned. It was this resistance that led the authorities to raise the stakes with greater violence, using snipers, for example.
Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forcefully backed Ahmadinejad’s claim of reelection, calling it “divine.” (A strange lineup of U.S. neoconservatives and assorted leftists also embraced Ahmadinejad’s supposed victory on a “populist” basis, about which more below).
Savage repression carried out by security forces limited the number of protesters on the street for several days. But given the scale of the movement, the Mousavi camp was able to reassert itself—first using the tenth anniversary of the 1999 student uprising in Tehran University, then calling for a huge turnout to Friday prayers July 17, led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and ex-rival of Mousavi who backed the challenger against Ahmadinejad this time around. In the days afterward, further splits in the Shia Islam clerical hierarchy became visible. Emboldened, Mousavi then announced that his followers would launch a mass movement. The next major mobilization came July 30, on the fortieth day of mourning of the death of protester Neda Agha Soltan, shot to death by a sniper. Thousands marched through the streets of Tehran to the cemetery where Soltan is buried, despite attacks by Basij with clubs, chains, and tear gas.2 Such protests, tied to the rituals of mourning in Shia Islam, recalled similar mobilizations following repression in the last days of the Shah’s regime.
The failure of repression to completely quell the protests contributed to splits within the hard-line right itself. As this article is being written, Ahmadinejad’s camp is itself suffering from a serious crisis after two members of his cabinet quit and the president disobeyed an order from the supreme leader to fire a top official.3 A group of military officers were arrested because they reportedly planned to attend a pro-democracy protest in uniform.4With the situation so fluid, it’s impossible to predict the next turn in Iranian politics. But what’s clear is the split in the ruling class has destroyed the regime’s ideological legitimacy and credibility. This, in turn, will provide an opening for the various social forces and groups that have emerged over the last decade and that are the backbone of the protests—pro-democracy political groups, student organizations, organizations fighting for women’s rights, and the underground independent workers’ network—to spread the protests to wider layers of society.
The crucial question is whether the working class will revive its traditions of struggle and forge a political path independent of the rival wings of Iranian capital and the state, and fight for its own interests. This article will attempt to provide the background to the current crisis and the perspective for the emergence of an independent working-class movement.
Revolution and counterrevolution in 1979
If the hardliners around Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are seeking to crush the revolt in Iran today, it’s because they well remember the revolutionary potential of the Iranian working class. It was mass strikes that compelled the Shah of Iran to flee the country. “Indeed, the entry [into activism] of the working class made possible the eventual triumph of the Islamic Revolution,” wrote Ervand Abrahamian, a leading historian of Iran. He continues:
By the third week of October , a rapid succession of strikes crippled almost all the bazaars, universities, high schools, oil installations, banks, government ministries, post offices, railways, newspapers, customs and port facilities, internal air flights, radio and television stations, state-run hospitals, paper and tobacco plants, textile mills and other large factories. In effect, the working class had joined the middle classes to bring about a massive and unprecedented general strike…. The Shah faced not just a general strike but a political general strike…
[B]y December 25, a series of general strikes had again brought the whole economy to a grinding halt, and grassroots strike committees had occupied many large factories, government ministries and communications centers.5
These factory councils, called shoras in Farsi, were classic institutions of workers’ power seen in previous revolutions, similar to the Russian soviets in 1905 and 1917, the workers’ councils in Barcelona in 1936 and Hungary in 1956, and the cordones in Chile in the early 1970s. But the central leader of the revolution wasn’t the left, but the clergy and middle-class elements that looked to a senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. From the early 1960s, Khomeini—taking advantage of the relative freedom afforded the clergy under the Shah—appropriated some of the language and demands of the left, and crafted a populist appeal denouncing the Shah for corruption and for neglecting workers, peasants, and merchants.6After Khomeini’s return to Iran from exile in February 1979, revolutionary committees loyal to him set up an Islamist leadership parallel to the provisional government. While these forces dismantled the last remnants of the Shah’s state, they also dismantled working-class organizations and divided the left—and later, violently smashed it. Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, launched with the approval of the U.S., created a siege atmosphere that helped Khomeini and the clerics consolidate their power alongside the bazaar bourgeoisie.7
Post-revolution faction fights
After imprisoning, executing, or forcing into exile its opponents on the right and left, the new ruling class soon divided into rival political groupings. Central to the debate was how to manage the economy. Large sections of industry came under control of the state or religious foundations controlled by Shia clergy who were closely tied to the state.
Under a constitution drafted by Khomeini’s allies, the ayatollah became the supreme leader, under his doctrine of the faqih, which held that the most senior Shia cleric should be the top leader while remaining above day-to-day politics. The constitution also created an Assembly of Experts of clerics to elect the supreme leader. The constitution further created a system of dual authority in which a body dominated by clerics, the Guardian Council, approved or rejected candidates for office and legislation in the Majlis, or parliament. Another clerical body, the Expediency Council, was created shortly before Khomeini’s death in 1988 to mediate disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majlis. While Iran was to be a republic, the supreme leader would appoint the heads of what are known as the religious supervisory bodies, which have authority over all other branches of government.8
The divided authority within the Iranian state made it easier for Khomeini to control and manipulate competing political factions of what became the Islamic Republican Party (which was ultimately dissolved in 1987 in a bid to forestall factionalism). There were three camps in the revolutionary leadership: an Islamist left, which maintained some of the social rhetoric of the revolution; an Islamist right, based around the most conservative clergy; and a moderate, or pragmatic right dominated by clerics like Rafsanjani who were close to, or had become part of, big business interests.9 Over the next three decades, these factions would repeatedly clash over how Iran should engage with the world, economically, politically, and culturally, culminating in the current confrontation.During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, the Islamist left was ascendant. Mir Hossein Mousavi, then prime minister, oversaw extensive state control of Iran’s economy. Government rationing was used to feed workers and the poor during periods of runaway inflation of food prices.
Mousavi justified his policies on religious grounds. “The way of Islam is to attend to social justice,” he said, adding elsewhere, “The security of the revolution lies in the eradication of poverty and serving the destitute…. Capital must not rule and the priority of the regime should be the poor and not the well-off.”10 But for the Islamist right, dominated by a clergy-merchant (bazaar) alliance, these policies were seen as dangerously left wing. When Mousavi’s government distributed coupons to prevent mass hunger during the Iran-Iraq War, the right denounced such policies as “Soviet Islam.”11But Mousavi’s social and economic program had a real impact:
By 1986, roads in rural areas had tripled and the number of water projects had quadrupled. The literacy rate in rural areas went up by 18 percent, the number of rural homes with electricity went from 24 percent at the time of the revolution to 53 percent in 1986, and the number of rural homes with piped water increased from 14 percent to 64 percent in the same period. Although religion did have a stronger hold among the rural and urban poor, it was the regime’s social programs that were decisive factors in cementing popular support in the early years of the Islamic republic. These real material gains, as well as providing the poor the ability to reach positions of power in the neighborhood committees, cooperatives and Revolutionary Guard, built their support for the regime.12Mousavi’s government adopted a five-year plan for economic development, patterned after earlier attempts at using state capitalist methods of national development, as pursued by Egypt under the Nasser governments of the 1950s and 1960s under the influence of the USSR and its satellites. The aim was to shift Iran’s economy away from its overwhelming reliance on oil by diverting oil revenues into investment in other industrial sectors. However, the pressure of the Iran-Iraq War—which left an estimated 1 million dead on both sides—made the plan targets difficult to achieve, as did a plunge in oil prices on the world market.
At the same time, the pro-market Islamist right pushed back against the planning to defend their prerogatives as owners of private property. By the end of the war in 1988, planning was rolled back. Rafsanjani, who would be elected president the following year, shoved Mousavi aside by pushing through a constitutional change to eliminate the post of prime minister. Postwar reconstruction under Rafsajani was based on limited but significant steps towards privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of finance.13 The state sold off key assets to the Shia religious foundations run by powerful clergy, but the foundations are themselves quasi-state institutions. Even so, Rafsanjani dismantled central planning and compelled the state enterprises to function as much like private companies as possible.14 The result is what Iran scholar Kaveh Ehsani calls “neoliberal state capitalism.”15 Workers’ living standards declined, leading to riots in 1992 and, despite savage repression, again in 1994-95.16
The struggle over the direction of economic policy was at the core of wider factional infighting that emerged at the end of the war in 1988 and with Khomeini’s death a year later. Rafsanjani, a staunch defender of private property, also favored more engagement with the West than had been possible under Khomeini. Rafsanjani had been a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Iran bought U.S.-made weapons via arms dealers in exchange for helping to get Western hostages released in Lebanon. The money Iran spent on weapons went to fund Nicaragua’s right-wing counterrevolutionary uprising, in violation of U.S. law. Later, though, the U.S. would intervene decisively on the side of Iraq.17With Rafsanjani barred by Iran’s constitution from seeking a third term in the 1997 presidential elections, his pragmatic right aligned itself with elements of the Islamist left in the run-up to the election. The two camps had begun to form a bloc during Rafsanjani’s second term. Apparently, the riots and popular discontent pressed some of Rafsanjani’s allies to take on board some of the Islamist left’s traditional focus on a social contract. At the same time, the Islamist left’s faith in state-controlled industry and central planning was shaken by the collapse of the USSR. Sections of the left shifted toward the pro-market, neoliberal policies that had come to dominate the world economy.
Thus, one important current of the Islamist left morphed into reformers who emphasized political freedoms, human rights, and an easing of the regime’s version of Islamist behavioral norms. And with the backing of some of Rafsanjani’s supporters, the reformist candidate, Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, a former minister of culture, unexpectedly won the 1997 presidential vote by a landslide.
The reformers’ failure
Like the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, Khatami offered society a deal: more political freedoms combined with an economic restructuring that would be painful—at the very least—for working people. “In the process of liberalizing Iran, privatization, trade liberalization, the removal of monopolies, the promotion of foreign investment and a unified exchange rate became policy goals,” writes Ghoncheh Tazmini. “On the other hand, to appease his allies on the left and to maintain his mass appeal, Khatami pledged his commitment to social justice and the equitable distribution of income. “18
Khatami’s biggest economic success during his two terms in office (1997–2005) was opening Iran to greater foreign trade and investment, particularly with the European Union (EU), which by 2004 accounted for 44 percent of all imports to Iran.19 This growing economic relationship is at the root of the differences between the U.S. and its European allies over how to deal with Iran.
Khatami’s efforts to reform the domestic economy were mostly thwarted, however. Privatization was resisted by state officials who ran the government-owned enterprises, as well as by the heads of the Islamic foundations that controlled other big companies. Plans to diversify the economy got nowhere and job creation programs flopped. Poverty persisted: some 50 percent of the rural population lived under the relative poverty line, as did 20 percent of their urban counterparts. The World Bank found that the wealthiest 10 percent of the population received 34 percent of the national income, compared to 2 percent for the bottom 10 percent. The official unemployment rate remained at 11.5 percent.20 And in his first two years in office, Khatami cut subsidies by more than Rafsanjani achieved in eight years. The price of bread and milk soared by 50 percent, while rice and fuel shot up by 75 percent.21Khatami’s efforts to expand political freedoms were also blocked, but only after they opened the floodgates for ideological debate, and organizing from below. Newspapers and new journals flourished. New books flooded society and Iran’s new film industry thrived. Womens’ and student organizations put down roots in the society and Iran’s independent workers movement found the political space to organize in the open for the first time in years—all of which necessitated a crackdown by the right.
The Islamist right had the backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who was chosen for that post following Khomeini’s death in 1989. Thanks to Khamenei, the right controlled all key government ministries and stymied most reforms. Khatami also failed to protect students in the pro-democracy movement, whose protests in 1999 were violently attacked by police and the Basij. Five students were reportedly killed. But Khatami said little about the clampdown and did less. A few months later, eighteen of twenty pro-reform newspapers were shut down by the authorities. When reformers in the Majlis debated a new law to protect freedom of the press, Khatami ordered them to drop it.22
Nevertheless, popular opposition to the conservatives was so great that Khatami won a second election in 2001. But the right was still able to derail his program, from pressuring him to appoint conservative ministers to his cabinet to closing reformist newspapers. In 2004, the clerics’ Guardian Council, which must approve candidates for office, barred about 2,000 reformers from running for the Majlis, including eighty incumbents. The intellectuals and middle-class elements who had high hopes in Khatami felt disillusioned, if not betrayed. Large numbers stayed home on election day or cast spoiled ballots, opening the way for a conservative electoral comeback. When Khatami visited the University of Tehran, the students’ chants gave a sense of the bitter disappointment of the reformers’ performance: “Khatami, Khatami, shame on you;” “Khatami, we detest you” and “where are our promised freedoms?”23 This disillusionment led to the widespread abstention and withdrawal from politics that prepared the way for Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005.Yet while there was cynicism about mainstream politics among students and intellectuals, there was also the emergence of protests and social struggles that set the stage for the eruption in the 2009 elections.
A new workers’ movement
Even as the Iranian economy stabilized in the postwar era, workers often found their wages and working conditions under attack. Unemployment and persistent inflation added to workers’ misery.
As the Khatami era wound down, workers began to make their own voices heard through a series of struggles that defied the ban on independent unions. In January 2004, 1,500 workers at a copper smelting plant near the village of Khatonabad went on strike and occupied their plant when management fired all but 250 of them. After eight days, security forces shot into the crowd from helicopters, killing as many as fifteen workers and injuring three hundred. Eighty were arrested; upon their release, they showed signs of torture. Rather than having a chilling effect on strike action, the repression spurred similar action across the country in a variety of different plants, including a strike at the important Khodro auto assembly plant in Tehran. Khodro became the scene of several job actions over the next several months as the movement spread nationally. Workers often organized these actions by setting up hiking clubs and workplace-based charity committees that served as underground unions. Also in 2004, a third of Iran’s teachers—most of whom are women—also went on strike.24Sometimes, the struggles ended in victory, with fired workers reinstated under pressure and concessions made on pay and working conditions. In some cases, workers revived the shoras that had first emerged during the revolution. One worker described such a struggle over a reduction in piece rate pay at a brickyard factory near the city of Tabriz in October 2004:
The day before the strike started, all of us, 3,000 workers, gathered in the desert outside the mill. It was like Karbala! [the Iraqi city visited annually by Shia pilgrims]. Candidates stood up, and a strike committee was elected by a show of hands. Since we brick-makers carry our homes on our backs, our strike naturally meant that we occupied the mill. After one week, the army arrived and started threatening us representatives and the others. But no one listened. Strikes may be banned, but in situations like this the law cannot be enforced—3,000 united workers are strong. The owner goes to the army and complains, and the soldiers come and fire off some threats, but nothing more.
After two weeks there was a new negotiation with the boss. Now he conceded to our demand! As we went back to work the shora was dissolved, but we elected representatives remained active and stood up against the boss when he delayed our payment.25
In the northeastern town of Gilan, workers fighting privatization in 2004 created shoras, to occupy and temporarily run an estimated thirty plants that were slated for privatization and/or closures.26By the following year, the workers’ movement had demonstrated its national character, as workers’ committees around the country set July 16, 2005, as a deadline for the government to step in and end bosses’ delays in paying wages. In their 2006 book on Iranian popular struggles, journalists Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian describe the scene:
Mass strikes were coordinated in Bushehr, Yazd and Shushahr; production at Iran Khodro once again came to a halt, some 10,000 factory workers held a strike in Goelstan, 17,000 rallied in Ilam, and the holy city of Qom was reduced to chaos when transport workers joined the strike. The event signaled a national convergence of demands, as the scattered collectives aired the same grievances: overdue wages, temporary contracts, and no forums for representation.According to one estimate, there were 140 strikes in October 2005, with another 120 the following month. By comparison, there were only forty-one strikes between May 1999 and May 2000.27
Perhaps the best-known Iranian workers’ struggle outside the country is that of the Tehran bus drivers, who have braved beatings, arrest, and imprisonment for fighting to create an independent union. In 2005, the 17,000-member Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company refused to accept riders’ fares to protest fare hikes and bad working conditions. Union leader Mansour Osanloo was arrested. Upon his release, he led another strike in 2006 and was imprisoned soon afterward.28
Under Ahmadinejad, systematic repression has been ratcheted up against workers who attempt to organize independently of the state.29 A 2009 May Day demonstration of some 2,000 in Tehran was violently broken up by the authorities, and several workers jailed.30
Rebellion of the national minorities
Just a bare majority of Iranians are ethnically Persians. The rest—Kurds, Arabs, Balochis, Lurs, Azeris, and others—are integrated into Iranian society in different ways, with some suffering longstanding oppression dating from the Shah’s rule and earlier.
The oppression is felt most keenly by the Kurds, a people whose land is divided among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. A massive Kurdish uprising helped topple the Shah in 1979 but was crushed by Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq War. The region was left undeveloped; Kurds were seen mainly as a source for cheap construction labor. But in July 2005—just as Ahmadinejad was preparing to take office—the murder of Kurdish activists by Revolutionary Guard soldiers sparked a rebellion across the region, put down by 100,000 soldiers. Around the same time, in April 2005, there was an uprising of ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan protesting their displacement in a government campaign to Persianize that oil-producing region.31 Meanwhile, Iranian police and troops regularly came under fire in poverty-stricken Balochistan, a region that straddles the Iran-Pakistan border where drug smuggling is rife. There were also riots in the city of Tabriz as ethnic Azeris protested the publication of a racist cartoon about them in a major newspaper.32 These ethnic uprisings were a window on the social discontent in society that lay beyond electoral politics.
The Iranian regime attributes the actions of its restive national minorities to intervention by the CIA and other minorities. Certainly the U.S. will attempt to manipulate legitimate struggles to its own ends. In the aftermath of the 2005 riots in Iranian Kurdistan, a new guerrilla organization, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, according to its initials in Kurdish, began attacking Iranian police and soldiers. PJAK is an arm of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is banned and repressed by U.S. ally Turkey. But the PJAK is seen as friendly in Washington as long as it shoots Iranian soldiers rather than Turkish ones. One of the group’s top leaders visited Washington in 2007.33Moreover, U.S. ally Pakistan is the home base for Jundallah, an armed Sunni Muslim Balochi group that carried out a bomb attack May 28 on a Shia mosque in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan, killing twenty-five.34
The new women’s activism
One of the main forces that pushed Khatami to ease up norms of Islamist behavior was activism by women, both secular and religious. Women who accepted the veil and limitations on their employment on religious grounds became skeptical of the regime’s claims that men and women were equal under Islam. Vastly improved education also expanded women’s horizons: from 1976 to 1995 the literacy rate for women increased 160 percent, while for men it increased 120 percent. By 1999, nearly half the medical students in Iran were women, and just over 50 percent of students entering universities were female. Women began to be elected to the Majlis in small numbers, and Khatami appointed a woman to his cabinet. When elections were held for local councils in 1999, there were 5,000 women candidates running for 200,000 seats. Many were elected. Women began to form their own organizations and clubs. Some were conservative and religious in nature, but their very existence marked an important shift in political and civic life.35
During the Khatami administration, networks of educated women and some male supporters met publicly to commemorate International Women’s Day. Women frequently published magazines and newspapers, while women representatives in the Majlis called for ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This shift must be seen in context, of course: Iranian law still not only mandates the hijab or other covering, but also makes women legally inferior to their fathers and husbands. Still, one of the former women representatives in the Majlis, academic Elaheh Koualee, argued that the “women’s movement in Iran has emerged from the accumulated women’s demands and is continually expanding.”36
“Real men want to go to Tehran”
While social and economic cracks were emerging in Iran, the U.S. was doing its best to ramp up the pressure. Less than six months after Iran helped the U.S. carry out its 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Iran found itself as part of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” A year later, Iran repeated the favor for Washington, using its influence among Shia Islam parties and militias in Iraq to help the U.S. secure its takeover of that country. Nevertheless, Iran remained in Washington’s crosshairs. As an unnamed British official said during the run-up to the Iraq War: “Everybody wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”37
U.S. imperialism’s desire for regime change in Iran, and methods to achieve it, have been discussed in earlier issues of this magazine and elsewhere.38 Essentially, the U.S. has seized upon Iran’s failure to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it had begun developing its capacity to enrich uranium, the material used in nuclear weapons. While IAEA treaties allow such development, Iran’s failure to keep the agency appraised of the effort gave the U.S. the opening to pursue sanctions beyond those in place since the 1979 revolution. Under that pressure, Khatami agreed to suspend the enrichment effort, but soon after taking office in 2005 Ahmadinejad renewed the program. Now the Obama administration is offering Iran a choice: end the enrichment program in exchange for international assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program, or face further sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council and/or the U.S. and its allies.39
Yet however badly the U.S. foreign policy establishment wants to prize open Iran, Washington is forced to rely on that country to hold together the occupation of Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. This has given the Iranian regime more than a few good cards to play against the United States. As an Iraqi politician said last year, “There really is an Iranian-American condominium ruling Iraq these days.”40 Moreover, the Israeli military’s failure to defeat Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 highlighted the importance of Iran’s strategic alliances in the region.
To be sure, Iran’s military isn’t the juggernaut portrayed in the Pentagon’s propaganda. Iran’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in the Middle East, and less than half of that of Israel, even though its population is ten times greater.41 But by taking down both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, the U.S. effectively made Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, thanks to Iran’s economic and political “soft power.” Washington’s drive to change this state of affairs will be unceasing.
The rise of Ahmadinejad
Imperialist pressure, strikes, riots, nationalist uprisings, and reformists in office—all this combined to create a political opening for a revived Islamist right around a new generation of security personnel epitomized by Ahmadinejad. This grouping had already enjoyed the tacit backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei as they blocked Khatami’s reform program. In the 2005 presidential elections, the right would use all its clout to complete its takeover of key government institutions once and for all and deal with any and all threats decisively.
At the center of the hard right’s operation is a network of former members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite military force that had been created during the 1979 revolution as a more politically trustworthy armed force than the regular army. After the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC, under the tutelage of Rafsanjani, was turned into a major economic player, particularly in the construction industry. The IRGC became, as one writer put it, the “spine of the current political structure and a major player in the Iranian economy.”42In addition to being a fighting force, the IRGC controls a vast array of businesses, all without government oversight. Its holdings include a company that assembles Mazda automobiles as well as a leading construction firm. In 2006, an IRGC-owned company got a $2.4 billion contract for the Tehran Metro Company; in 2007 another IRGC company got an illegal, $2.5 billion no-bid contract to operate all public infrastructure in western Iran. The IRGC also controls unauthorized docks, reportedly used for smuggling. Favors from the Ahmadinejad government include privatization of state assets at below-market prices using no-bid contracts.43
Another pillar of the security establishment is the Basij, a paramilitary organization intertwined with, and funded by, the mosques. The Basij began as a volunteer force during the Iran-Iraq War, in which some 700,000 to 800,000 fought. The Basij were given official status by the Majlis in 1992. Later on, they were charged with enforcing religious laws known as Propagation of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice. “Essentially, this meant ‘unleashing’ the Basijis as the moral soldiers of the Islamic Republic, more specifically the conservative right factions,” writes analyst Mehdi Moslem.44
Under Ahmadinejad, the Basij’s influence would grow. According to its former commander, the force increased from 10.3 million in 2004 to 12.5 million in 2007. Of these, about 5 million are women and 4.7 million are school children. About 1.5 million can be deployed as an armed force, either for riot control or border patrol. This leads many to compare the group to Komsomol, the Young Communist League in the old USSR. Like Komsomol, the Basij provide political and economic connections: placement in university, access to certain jobs and more. Further, a law passed in 2008 made it possible for the Basij to enter business and compete for construction contracts. This gave added clout to a force that, as researcher Hossein Aryan put it, acts as the “eyes and ears of the Islamic regime. It is present in schools, universities, state and private institutions, factories, and even among tribes.”45
The IRGC and Basij helped build the careers of a cadre of Islamist student revolutionaries from the 1970s who had become members of the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq War. One of those war veterans was Ahmadinejad, whose political connections got him promoted from governor of a small province to appointment as mayor of Tehran, where he used the IRGC and Basij to build a political machine. Khamenei threw his weight behind Ahmadinejad as the right’s main candidate in the 2005 presidential election.46
The high rate of abstention from pro-reform candidates, plus some likely vote rigging with the help of the Basij, vaulted Ahmadinejad over reformer and former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi into second place in the first round of the elections. In a runoff vote against Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad presented himself as a populist with a modest lifestyle in contrast to the extremely wealthy Rafsanjani, whose political connections have enriched not only the former president but also his entire family.47 According to Forbes, the Rafsanjanis control several major businesses, including a copper mine, a pistachio export company, and an oil-industry engineering firm. Family members also hold key posts in major state enterprises.48
Ahmadinejad cut a very different figure. As Tehran’s mayor, he refused to live in the palatial house that comes with the job and insisted on driving his twenty-year-old car. On the campaign trail, he famously promised to bring oil revenue “to the dinner table” and promised to uproot corruption. Politically, he vowed a return to the fundamentals of the 1979 revolution—his faction is known as the “principalists.” His mentor is Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Misbah-Yazdi, a far-right cleric who believes that the Islamic Republic should be replaced with an Islamist government—a theocracy unalloyed by any democratic structures. He called Khatami “a betrayer of the Islamic revolution” and regularly called for violence against reformers.49
Ahmadinejad’s fake populism
The conventional media portrayal of Iranian politics is a contest between the populist Ahmadinejad, who has the backing of the rural poor and workers, versus the middle-class and wealthy backers of the reformers around Mousavi. Some on the international left have fallen for this line, portraying Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist and populist who legitimately won the election.
In reality, Ahmadinejad’s populism is a pose, notwithstanding his grab bag of local development programs and some highly publicized, pre-election handouts and bonuses for state employees.50 Ahmadinejad in 2008 tried to remove subsidies on staple goods for the poor, but the effort was defeated in the Majlis. And as left-wing Iranian-American scholar Kaveh Ehsani points out, shortly after Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election victory, Supreme Leader Khamenei himself gave privatization a major push by issuing an order reinterpreting the Iranian constitution’s support for a state-dominated economy. As a result, Ehsani writes, “the government was ordered to reduce its share in ‘non-essential’ sectors annually by 20 percent and to privatize some 80 percent of its assets in ‘essential’ sectors—mining, heavy industry, downstream oil and gas, banking, insurance, energy, communications and even some military industries.”51
Ahmadinejad pursued this privatization agenda with gusto. The Iranian president has already privatized the postal service, sold shares in two state-owned banks and 5 percent of shares in a state-owned steel company. According to the Iran Privatization Organization, a state ministry, some 247 state enterprises have been partly or fully privatized since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.52
Ahmadinejad has tried to camouflage the privatization process by doling out “justice shares” of stock in privatized state companies to the poor. The model is the crooked privatization process in Russia and Eastern Europe, where government-connected insiders were able to buy up the stocks cheaply from workers to create huge new private monopolies based on former state assets. (Just before being inaugurated for a second term, Ahmadinejad accelerated the process, announcing the sale of 40 percent of government stock in fourteen state-owned companies, including some of the economy’s crown jewels: “The National Iranian Gas Company, National Petrochemical Company, Iran Air, Iranian Oil Terminals Company, Iranian Tobacco Company, National Iranian Oil Products Distribution Company, and 10 percent of its shares in a number of oil refineries.” The sale will be conducted through the “justice shares” program.)53
This type of politics—populist in form, neoliberal in content—became familiar in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. While Ahmadinejad’s fan club on the international Left may imagine the Iranian president to be an anti-imperialist reformer like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ahmadinejad’s policies actually recall that of the former right-wing president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, who dissolved parliament with a “self-coup” in 1992. Fujimori anticipated Ahmadinejad when, while proceeding with privatization and other neoliberal reforms, “organized a raft of new social policies ostensibly designed to target the needy and avoid profligate (‘populist’) hand-outs…he was to be found in remote Andean pueblos, sporting poncho and woolly cap, winning the plaudits of the campesinos…all under the watchful eye of network television.”54Change the scenery and the clothing, and the description fits Ahmadinejad perfectly. His “populism” is a diversion from the real aim of his cohorts—looting the state.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s privatization program, the state still dominates the Iranian economy, with 500 big state-owned companies that account for 76 percent of the national budget and two-thirds of Iran’s GDP.55That means the real fruits of privatization have yet to be plucked by private Iranian capital—so the question of who will benefit from the sell-off of state assets was a looming issue behind the 2005 vote.
Indeed, if Ahmadinejad succeeds in handing the benefits of privatization to his allies in the Basij and the security apparatus, it could reconfigure Iranian capitalism. The Islamist right and the war veteran generation could make the transition from the national security apparatus and sanctions-busting smuggling operations into private capitalists, much as the Stalinist bureaucrats did in Russia during the 1990s. The security apparatus is well placed for such a transition. By 2009, eight of twenty-one positions in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet were held by former IRGC officers; five other posts were held by members of the Basij.56With such powerful political posts and economic interests, the IRGC has outgrown its original backers like Rafsanjani. Indeed, the IRGC is a threat to established business tycoons like Rafsanjani and his allies, who could be marginalized by new players. And at the same time, if Ahmadinejad prevails, the reformers around Mousavi would lose the strategic levers that they believe they need to restructure Iranian capitalism on a more rational basis.
Those on the international left and right who portray Ahmadinejad as a champion of the poor typically paint Mir Hossein Mousavi as a neoliberal eager to open Iran’s economy to the West and sell off key state enterprises. In fact, Mousavi’s program is more akin to that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador: use oil revenue to diversify and develop the national economy through strategic investment and development projects. Mousavi’s plan is a marked step away from the neoliberal policies pursued by some in Khatami’s reform administration.In a campaign document, Mousavi recalled the nationalization of the oil industry under the Mossadeq government that was undone by the Shah’s 1953 coup. But Mousavi complained that these days, even though Iran’s oil is once again under state control, Iran simply consumed oil revenue, making it dependent on foreign imports, even for goods and services related to the oil industry itself:
So it is in this sense that our oil has to be renationalized. If all the sectors of the country and the education regime of the country, before anything else are aligned to provide the needs of the oil sector, investment in the oil industry, can produce a multitude of demand in all other sectors, and demand for university graduates and the labor force. And it is in this way that the people will see the fruits of oil in their daily life.57This was not simply a dry commentary on economics. As the presidential campaign heated up, Mousavi increasingly drew comparisons between the Shah and the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei axis—and the Shah was of course seen as someone who robbed the people, in collaboration with foreigners, through his control of oil.
Indeed, throughout the election the Mousavi camp stressing the national/anti-imperialist content of the revolution versus the Islamic one. It has presented itself as the continuation of the nationalist current of Iranian history, from the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, through Mossadeq’s 1953 movement, to the 1979 revolution.
This is not an accident or just a PR job. The 1979 revolution was made by the working class, but eventually led by new urban petit bourgeoisie—educated middle-class elements who wanted a national development of the country. They saw themselves in opposition to an oligarchy that was siphoning the oil wealth into its own pockets and those of their cohorts, while being backed by foreign partners (chiefly the U.S.) for a price extracted in oil.
Today, the same people—now thirty years older—present themselves as those who want a rational national economic development of the country. While they talk of the need to restructure inefficient state enterprises and make other business-friendly pronouncements, the thrust of their policies are, to borrow a term used in Latin America, “developmentalist.” They see themselves in opposition to an oligarchy that’s siphoning the oil wealth of the country into its own pockets and those of their cohorts—Ahmadinejad, the IRGC, and the Khamenei clique. In their view, an Iranian ruling group is again being backed by foreign partners for a price extracted in oil and gas–only this time it’s China and Russia (and, if a deal can be struck with it, the U.S.).
For example, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Coordinator of Participation Front and an organizer for Mousavi campaign, said on June 20, the day before his arrest, in a speech that appeared on YouTube:
If a government that is conceding everything that is ours to foreigners, if it can’t show it can arrest a few students, and arrest a few activists, then how it call itself a government [in front of foreigners]? We have become the price of dealing and compromise [with foreigners].58
As if to confirm this analysis, the government’s introduction to the indictment of more than 100 defendants, including Ramezanzadeh, proclaims that the show trials are “a message to people worldwide that the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most secure and stable countries in the world for investment and progress in economical projects.”59
This is the root of the split in the ruling class that burst into the open following the June 12 vote.
Election, coup, and resistance
During the election campaign Rafsanjani went all out for his old rival Mousavi in order to stop Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Rafsanjani may have little enthusiasm for the economic plan outlined by Mousavi, but the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei privatization program is a mortal threat to him. At the same time, Rafsanjani gave a boost to a right-wing candidate, Mohsen Rezai, a former IRGC commander who apparently speaks for sections of the Guard who view the rise of Ahmadinejad’s cronies as a menace. Rafsanjani’s apparent plan was for Rezai to peel away enough votes on the right to deny Ahmadinejad a first-round victory and give Mousavi a chance to win on the second round.
Given the demoralization of the reformers after the Khatami debacle, a Mousavi victory seemed like a long shot. But then came the unprecedented live televised presidential debates. When Ahmadinejad made overblown, if not absurd, statistical claims about Iran’s economic progress, Mousavi challenged him bluntly: “Nothing is worse than when the government lies to the people—and today we are witnessing exactly that.”60
This aggressive strategy produced a late surge for Mousavi in the form of massive election rallies in Tehran and other cities. Young people were particularly energized—not only because of Mousavi’s promise of a more liberal stance on social questions, but because of their terrible economic circumstances. Some 35 percent of the Iranian population is between the ages of 15 and 29. Their prospects are grim. While university education has expanded, only about 15 percent pass the tough exams to enter. Even those who do graduate from college must wait an average of three years to get a job—youth unemployment has climbed from 15 to almost 25 percent over the past two decades. Those who do find work will be paid less than their parents.61 Thus the wellspring of youth support for Mousavi isn’t simply the expression of privileged middle class university students who want more personal freedom. Rather, it reflects the aspiration—and fighting spirit—of a post-revolutionary generation that’s fed up with a repressive society and its broken promises.This display of mass support for Mousavi panicked Ahmadinejad and Khamenei into announcing an overwhelming victory for the incumbent in order to avoid a second-round election contest between the two. Thus what began as a faction fight between two wings of the ruling class turned into a coup.
At the time of this writing, the splits in the Iranian ruling class have meant that the repression, while terrible enough, isn’t nearly as bloody as it could have been. That’s a sign that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are still somewhat tentative in their clampdown. The regime is trying to use repression on the streets—lethal but short of an all-out Tiananmen Square-type bloodbath—to batter protesters into submission. Early morning raids and arrests will be used to round up, beat, detain, and torture real and alleged leaders. The show trials of prominent Mousavi supporters will be used to try and bring opposition leaders to heel while reformers will be eliminated from their last remaining positions of influence in the state apparatus.
Being victimized by Ahmadinejad doesn’t make Mousavi a friend of the working class, however. As prime minister, he presided over the mass executions of socialists and militants and repression against strikers and supported the notorious human wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Even so, he has become a symbol in the fight for democracy in the eyes of millions. A very elementary demand of the mass movement—that the regime live up to its claim of being a republic and count people’s votes—has become a gateway for further radicalization. This will continue, whether or not Ahmadinejad and Khamenei succeed in stemming the protests in the near term.
The success of the crackdown is far from guaranteed. Even as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei moved to smash the opposition, they clashed over the composition of the cabinet, including the resignation of the intelligence minister. Khamenei, the supposedly religiously guided neutral arbiter in factional contests, has come down to Earth to back Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader is now just another right-wing politician. The monster Khamenei created, Ahmadinejad, now looms over him as well.
Whatever course Ahmadinejad and Khamenei take is fraught with risks. If they show weakness by making concessions to Mousavi and Rafsanjani, they risk encouraging the opposition movement. But if they move decisively against Mousavi and Rafsanjani with arrests and imprisonment, the regime would shed whatever legitimacy it has left and simply become a police state. The radicalization would only deepen.
There are rough parallels here with the revolutionary crises in Eastern Europe under Stalinism, such as in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. There, divisions between reformers and hard-liners led each side to try to mobilize mass support, thereby destabilizing the entire system. Ultimately, such splits led to paralysis and collapse in the revolutions of 1989.
In any case, Iran’s pro-democracy movement won’t simply evaporate under repression. The size and character of the mobilizations have already implicitly raised social questions, even if the protesters’ demands are still limited to questions of independence and democracy. What’s needed is the revival of the independent organization of the working class and the revival and extension of workers’ struggles that emerged in recent years—most recently, in the illegal May Day protests earlier this year.
The pro-democracy movement among students, the underground unions, and the street protesters that emerged in recent weeks all together have the potential to interact to create a new movement for democracy and revolutionary change. The international left must do all it can to aid that struggle.
Lee Sustar, labor editor for Socialist Worker, is a frequent contributor to the ISR, where this article originally appeared.
S. Sepehri is author of “The Geopolitics of Oil” (ISR 26, November–December 2002) and “Targeting Iran” (ISR 50, November–December 2006). He was an eyewitness to the recent protests in Iran.
1 Robert F. Worth and Alan Cowell, “Ahmadinejad sworn in for second term in Iran,” New York Times, August 6, 2009.2 A useful timeline of the events is available on Reuters Web site, www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUKTRE5741SM20090805.
3 Thomas Erdbrink, “Two ministers forced to leave Iranian cabinet,” Washington Post Foreign Service, July 27, 2009.
4 Robert Tait, “Thirty-six army officers arrested in Iran over protest plan,”Guardian (UK), July 19, 2009.
5 Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 518, 522.
6 Ibid., 425.
7 Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 255–56. The main left wing organizations in Iran were unable to assume leadership in the revolutionary struggle as a result of their central focus on guerrilla struggle, which cut them off from the day-to-day struggles and concerns of the urban masses who were the backbone of the revolution. (See Maryam Poya, “Iran 1979: Long Live Revolution!….Long live Islam?,” Revolutionary Rehearsals (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002), 133–34.
8 Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002), 33–35; 75.
9 Ibid., 50–67.
10 Ibid., 120.
11 Hooshang Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, 1990), 67.
12 S. Sepehri, “Iran at the crossroads,” International Socialist Review 9, August–September 2000.
13 Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition, 130.
14 Eva Patricia Rakel, Power, Islam and Political Elite in Iran (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2009), 85.
15 Kaveh Ehsani, “Survival through dispossession: privatization of public goods in the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Report, Spring 2009.
16 Rakel, Power, Islam and Political Elite in Iran, 86–88.
17 Ibid., 162–63.
18 Ghoncheh Tazmini, Khatami’s Iran: The Islamic Republic and the Turbulent Path to Reform (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 61, 76.
19 Rakel, Power, Islam and Political Elite in Iran, 233.
20 Ibid., 91–92.
21 Sepehri, “Iran at the crossroads.”
22 Tazmini, Khatami’s Iran, 98–110, 124.
23 Ibid., 110–17, 122.
24 Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and the Threat of War (London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006), 71–75.
25 Ibid., 76.
26 Ibid., 80.
27 Ibid., 82; 83–84.
28 A chronology of the bus drivers’ struggles is available at the International Transport Workers Federation Web site: www.itfglobal.org.
29 International Trade Union Congress, “ITUC annual survey of trade union rights violations,” available at www.ituc-csi.org.
30 “Iran: Workers arrest at May Day protest,” Green Left Weekly, May 9, 2009.
31 Ibid., 92–97.
32 Ibid., 98.
33 Eichard A. Oppel Jr., “In Iraq, conflict simmers on a 2nd Kurdish front,” New York Times, October 23, 2007.
34 Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Iran’s enemies are circling,” Asia Times Online, June 17, 2009.
35 Ali Akbar Mahdi, “Iranian women: between Islamicization and globalization.” In Iran Encountering Globalization: Problems and prospects (London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 63–69.
36 Shahla Haeri, “Women, religion and political agency in Iran” in Ali Gheissari (ed.), Contemporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 135–41.
37 “Beyond Baghdad,” Newsweek, August 19, 2002.
38 Saman Sepehri, “Targeting Iran,” International Socialist Review 50, November–December 2006. See also Lee Sustar “The case against Iran exposed” (interview with Scott Ritter), Socialist Worker, March 2, 2007.
39 Paul Reynolds, “Iran: New confrontation looms,” BBC News, August 3, 2009.
40 Patrick Cockburn, “Who’s really running Iraq?” Counterpunch.org, August 2/3, 2008.
41 “Iran’s defense spending per capita among lowest in Mideast,” Tehran Times, February 13, 2008.
42 Mehdi Khalaji, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Inc,” August 17, 2007, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=2649.
44 Moslem, p. 219.
45 Hossein Aryan, “Iran’s Basij force—the mainstay of domestic security,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 7, 2008.
46 Rakel, xi, 57–59.
47 Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran in the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 230–36.
48 Paul Klebnikov, “Millionaire mullahs,” Forbes, July 7, 2003.
49 Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution, 226.
50 Farnaz Fassihi, “Rivals in Iran’s election take aim at Ahmadinejad,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2009.
51 Kaveh Ehsani, “Survival through dispossession: privatization of public goods in the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Report, Spring 2009.
52 Billy Wharton, “Selling Iran: Ahmadinejad, privatization and a bus driver who said no,” June 28, 2009, Dissident Voice, www.dissidentvoice.org.
53 “Iran privatizes 14 more state companies,” Press TV, August 3, 2009, www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102386§ionid=351020102.
54 Alan Knight, “Populism and neo-populism in Latin America, especially Mexico,” in Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1998), 247–48.
55 Ehsani, “Survival through dispossession.”
56 Kambiz Foroohar and Henry Meyer, “Iran Revolutionary Guards amass power while backing Ahmadinejad,” Bloomberg News, June 29, 2009.
57 Farsi original from Mousavi’s Economic program downloaded from Mousavi campaign site http://mowj.ir/).
58 Ramezanzadeh’s speech in Farsi can be found on YouTube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sunUCvro0K0
59 A summary of the indictments by someone live blogging from the show trial courtroom, available at http://shooresh1917.blogspot.com/.
60 Kaveh Ehsani, Arang Keshavarzian and Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Tehran, June 2009,” Middle East Report, June 28, 2009.
61 Navtej Dhillon and Daniel Egel, “The many crises of Iranian youth,”Huffington Post, June 25, 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com/navtej-dhillon/the-many-crises-of-irania_b_220897.html.