Will Tehran be next?

Every day the media publish new information about plans for a military attack on Iran and, although many of these stories are simply recounting previous revelations, there is no doubt that the danger of (limited or extensive) military action by the US is now very real. Yassamine Mather reports

However, inside Iran ordinary people, although wary of the threat of war, can often seem more concerned with their daily struggle to survive in a religious, capitalist state. The threat of sanctions has already pushed up inflation to above 15%, although government officials still insist the annual rate will hover around 13%-13.5% by the end of the current Iranian year on March 20.

While supporters of US-style regime change in exile hail sanctions, Ahmad Zahedi Langaroudi, a young activist and writer, summarises the current effects of sanctions in an interview with Ben Lewis as follows: "Sanctions have sunk the country into unprecedented stagnation and depression, with direct consequences for the social and moral crises in Iranian society. Iran is today facing total economic devastation and dispersion. While the government is actually strengthened by the sanctions and uses them to excuse its own military activity, ordinary people face serious economic pressures.

"The Iranian working class can hardly pay for its most basic needs and many are surviving by eating bread alone. It is no exaggeration to say that the current generation of workers is facing one of the worst times in our country's history. They are sacked in their tens of thousands, as factories are affected by 'economic adjustment' policies, and the only way the state has found to stop their protests and rebellion is to turn them into drug addicts" (Communist Student No2, February).

According to a spokesperson from Iran's national statistics office, unemployment was at 10%-11% for most of 2006. Most economists, however, put the figure nearer 15%-18% amongst male job-seekers.

And this looks set to increase. All factions of the regime are keen to pursue the logic of the 'new interpretation' of article 44 of the islamic constitution, under which privatisation of "major industries vital to the national interest" was previously not permitted. The plans to sell off 80% of the government's stake in a range of state-run companies in the banking, media, transportation and mineral sectors are so far-reaching they amount to the complete abandonment of one of the regime's islamic economic 'principles'. As a result of this 're-interpretation' tens of thousands of Iranian workers could lose their jobs.

Over the last week several leftwing bloggers have focused on the regime's intention to precipitate the wholesale privatisation of "major industries" and speculated as to the consequences. Last week supreme clerical leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei claimed: "Privatisation will create a national will to generate wealth." As one young blogger reminds us, in reality it will only increase poverty and devastation for the workers, while potentially providing huge fortunes for entrepreneurs ready to buy state-owned plants, sack the workforce and sell off the land and assets.

According to the islamic government's own statistics, 7,467,000 Iranians live below the poverty line. The poorest sections inhabit the countryside, where in the Iranian year 1385 (2005-06) 9.2% lived well below the poverty line. In the same year the income of the top 10% was 17 times that of the bottom 10%.

Despite his populist promises, such as the 'fair distribution' of oil revenues, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heads one of the most pro-capitalist governments Iran has seen since the launch of 'reconstruction' in 1988, when Iran first accepted IMF loans. Every spring the IMF sends a commission to Tehran to verify the country's compliance with global capital's requirements and every year by mid-summer the Central Bank and the government propose further privatisation in the industrial, banking and service sectors - bringing further misery to tens of thousands of workers, the victims of the subsequent job losses and casualisation.

Of course, workers are involved in daily struggles against these policies - demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and occupations. Yet the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition has virtually ignored their protests and demands for fear of losing their islamist allies in the United Kingdom.

Over the last few weeks, young bloggers in Iran have also addressed the issue of the collapse of 'morality' in the islamic republic. Prostitution, drug addiction and the export of under-age sex workers to Gulf states are not usually associated with theocratic regimes, yet, 28 years after the victory of the mullahs, the realities of life in Iran contradict the stereotype of such states.

With corruption so rife and far-reaching, state officials and at times senior clerics are involved in the trafficking of drugs and prostitutes. One student blogger refers to the unprecedented rise in drug addiction among the youth and blames the regime for deliberately promoting drug use to avoid having to address political discontent.

Student groups in Iran are busy organising a demonstration for March 8, International Women's Day. For the last 28 years the Iranian government has tried to make women cover their hair. However, a recent survey carried out by the paper Etemad Melli in Tehran shows that only around five percent of those questioned considered the headscarf or hijab "important or very important for the health of society". Ayatollah Khomeini enforced the wearing of the hijab in March 1979 and the protests planned for March 8 are likely to be amongst the most important manifestations of the failure of the religious state to influence the generation born since 1979, which today accounts for more than 70% of the population.

According to another blogger, in the 1990s the student movement was influenced by a liberal ideology with illusions in western democracy. However, the total collapse of the 'reformist' faction of the regime, and the disastrous consequences of the US invasion of Iraq, have radicalised sections of the student and youth movement - although inevitably this has led to the enforced exile of some activists.

The slogans seen on the December 2006 student protests sum up the new militancy of the radicalised youth and their opposition to the USA, the threat of war and the islamic regime: "Students, workers, teachers - unite and fight." "Free all student activists in prison." "Freedom for political prisoners." "Sexual apartheid shows contempt for human beings." "The Taliban republic [Iran's regime] is a denial of human rights." "We don't want war, we don't want nuclear weapons. We just want a better life." "Socialism or barbarism."

The response of the government to all dissent has been to close down newspapers, arrest activists and ban websites. It has even taken steps against rival factions of the regime. The Baztab site was shut down on February 19 for posting video footage showing Ahmadinejad watching a female dance performance at the recent Asian Games in Qatar, in breach of Iran's prohibition on women dancing in front of men. Yet another example of the hypocrisy of Iran's islamic leaders.

The workers' and student movement inside Iran has inspired us in Britain to set up the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign. We have tried to remain faithful to their principal slogan: "No to imperialist war, no to Iran's islamic regime."

We are determined to support the struggles of Iranian workers, students, women and democracy activists - against war, against the Iranian government's neoliberal policies and against the imposition of medieval religious laws by the theocratic state. This Saturday HOPI will have its national launch meeting and that will be followed by a whole series of regional meetings up and down the country.

The voice of the genuine solidarity movement needs to be heard inside Iran. Any military attack, however limited, will only strengthen the regime and the most reactionary forces inside Iran. We cannot let this happen: we cannot let down Iran's workers and students.