Gift for militarist faction

Last week, when the militarist faction in the Iranian regime realised they had captured 15 British marines and sailors, it must have seemed like a gift from heaven. Yassamine Mather reports

The timing could not have been better. At the start of the country's longest public holiday for the Iranian new year, the ministries, parliament and press in Tehran were all out of action, ensuring little or no criticism of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the military for creating such a dangerous situation at a time of major crisis.

However, for a government that thrives on permanent crisis, in the absence of rival factions and following the closure of what was left of the independent press and media, the seizure of the British marines was a publicity coup, even if it is one it may yet live to regret. In 2002-03, of course, Iran, eager to see the overthrow of its long-term enemy Saddam Hussein, welcomed the presence of UK-US troops in the Gulf.

After weeks of major protests, including the March 8 student action at many university campuses and the 10,000-strong teachers' demonstrations in the last days of the Iranian calendar old year, clearly some of Ahmadinejad's ministers hope to use British hostages as pawns in a nostalgic return to the days of the US embassy takeover in the early days of the islamic revolution.

Unfortunately for the government, however, very few in Iran, post-Irangate, believe the regime's anti-western rhetoric and even fewer have any enthusiasm for such adventurism. As one Tehran commentator wrote on Sunday, at a time when some US neo-conservatives and the Project for the New American Century are looking for any excuse to justify an attack on Iran, taking western prisoners and attempting to parade or humiliate citizens of the US's main ally can only backfire. In other words, Tehran's capture of the marines and sailors is a gift to the imperialist warmongers too.

However, some in Tehran have speculated that the imprisonment of the 15 UK marines is directly linked to the continued detention of five Iranian 'diplomats' by the US military in Iraqi Kurdistan and the current request by Austria for the extradition of one the detainees, Mohammad Jafari-Sahroudi, implicated in the assassination of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (who was at the time leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran) in 1989.

All this is happening at a time when the UN general council was agreeing a resolution which supported additional sanctions against Iran for continuing its nuclear programme. It targeted Tehran's arms exports, a state-owned bank (Army Bank) and the Revolutionary Guards. In response to the resolution Iran has already announced that it will limit its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Faced with the continued threat of US military action and with the escalation of rhetoric on both sides, the Iranian people are experiencing a very grim new year holiday. However, as the demonstrations of the last days and even the last hours of the year showed, unemployment, low wages, religious interference in people's private lives and lack of freedom remain the priorities of protesters in Tehran and elsewhere, despite the threat of war.

Hundreds of Iranian teachers were beaten and arrested in a rally at the education ministry and outside the parliament in mid-March, following a series of demonstrations on successive days. Around 70% of Iranian teachers live below the poverty line. Most are forced to take two or even three jobs to survive - often driving taxis late into the night or working in shops. Many teachers are paid hourly and are on short-term contracts - one of their main demands is the coordination and harmonisation of salaries.

The government's predictable response was repression - up to 1,000 teachers were arrested on March 14 and, although many were released after signing pledges not to "take part in illegal protests", 150 were still held by March 17 and many spent the Iranian new year in jail.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's clerical supreme leader, used his new year message to call for national unity. However, labour activists immediately responded by reminding him that the government wants to set workers' wages for the new year at 183,000 tomans (£100 pounds) a month, even though its own figures put the poverty line at 500,000 tomans (£275 pounds). Many Iranian workers have yet to be paid for work they did last year, as unscrupulous employers continue to use systematic non-payment of wages and bonuses to increase their own cash flow. The irony of Khamenei's appeal for classless national unity is not lost on Iranian workers. They are resolutely opposed to the imperialist threats, but they are not fooled by the pro-capitalist regime.

While most Iranians are deprived of a living wage, super-rich clerics and their relatives are gathering astronomic fortunes. Last week, as part of investigations into the oil company, Total, for allegedly bribing the son of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a French judge banned Total's chief executive, Christophe de Margerie, from meeting Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani or his father, the ex-president. There have always been doubts and questions about Total's gas contract in 1997 and French investigators are now concentrating on two accounts in Switzerland, from which Total made payments of nearly 100 million Swiss francs (€60 million, $80 million). Rafsanjani junior first gained prominence last year through a Norwegian probe into the national oil company, Statoil. Norwegian courts fined Statoil 20 million kroner (€2.4 million) in 2004 for trying to buy influence in Iran.

Even as Iran faces sanctions and a genuine threat of war and destruction, in the face of such disparity between the ruling clerics and ordinary people, who spend most of their time in a daily struggle to find a job or get by on poverty wages, it is impossible to envisage 'national unity'. Iranians are well aware that the empty rhetoric of the clerics in power is also part of the current bargaining between Iran and the imperialist occupying forces in Iraq on how to gain from the weaknesses of the pro-Iran government in Baghdad. Already rumours of secret negotiations between Iran and the UK have reached the media.

The genuine anti-imperialist struggles in Iran are currently being waged by workers, teachers and students. The solidarity of the left and anti-war movement should be with these forces, not those of the reactionary regime. All those who agree are urged to give their support to the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign.