With the protestors
Yassamine Mather counters the current misinformation about events
The protests and demonstrations that started in Mashhad and other towns in Khorassan province on December 28 were the culmination of months of similar actions by workers calling for an end to job losses, privatisation and the systematic non-payment of wages.
They were supported by many of the impoverished masses, including shantytown dwellers, some of whom have even been forced to sell their organs to pay for absolute necessities. It is not surprising that these demonstrations continued for many days in over 60 urban centres across the country. Despite severe repression, more than 1,000 arrests, 22 deaths and at least two ‘suicides’ in prison of young protestors, the demonstrations are continuing, albeit on a much smaller scale. The protestors are angry and fearless, and their grievances are reasonably clear.
Yet what began as outrage against rising prices, unemployment and poverty has evolved into something overtly political, with slogans against corruption and against the dictator, ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu might have picked up the wrong end of the stick, but everyone else, including Khamenei and his president, Hassan Rouhani, agree that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ - and, of course, in a dictatorship, be it a multi-faceted one, economic protests tend to be immediately politicised.
Basic food prices have sky-rocketed in the last few weeks, with the price of eggs rising by 40% in a matter of days. In some of Iran’s major cities, rents have risen by 83% in the last three years alone. Mass unemployment is a big issue - particularly in the provinces where the protests emerged. The rate of inflation may have fallen from 35% under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it remains at unsustainable levels.
Despite being controlled by the factions of the Iranian regime, the relative diversity of the media inside Iran has ensured that most people are aware of, and indeed well-informed about, the multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals, in which all factions of the regime are implicated. Rouhani’s government, senior ayatollahs associated with more conservative factions of the regime and the former populist president, Ahmadinejad (who claimed to be the defender of the disinherited), are all embroiled in corruption and embezzlement. Ahmadinejad and his close allies are currently facing criminal charges concerning major corruption. But the upshot of both factions exposing their opponents’ bribery and fraud is that Iranians are increasingly conscious of the venality of the entire Islamic regime.
Contrary to initial claims by Rouhani’s allies, the protests were definitely not part of a plot by “conservative factions” to discredit his government. In Khorassan province, it was clear that the main target of most demonstrators was Khamenei. In the last few days, the most common political slogans were “Marg bar dictator” (‘Death to the dictator’) , “Khamenei, haya kon mamlekato raha kon” (‘Khamenei, you should be ashamed - leave the country alone’) and the more polite slogan, requesting that Khamenei stand down: “Seyed Ali [Khamenei], excuse us. Now we have to stand up.”
In the northern city of Rasht there were initially anti-Rouhani slogans, but they soon became focused on the dictator himself. In Tehran, the student protestors’ chants were far more radical: “Na eslahtalab na ossoul gara” (‘No to the reformists, no to the conservative principalists’).Then there was ‘Student-worker unity’ and ‘No longer should there be a choice between bad and worse’.
So can we accept claims by sections of the Iranian government, including the supreme leader, that these protests were organised by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia? Obviously not. In the last few days leaders of the Islamic Republic government in both its factions have admitted that there is economic hardship, and that youth are dissatisfied … Of course, as expected, the security forces and some political leaders have also blamed foreign intervention for the fact that the protests spread so quickly. Such claims cannot be taken seriously. In fact it would be damaging to the government if allegations made last week by the leader of the Revolutionary Guards - that foreign powers had agents in more than 50 towns and cities in Iran - proved to be true.
Having said that, foreign media - in particular TV stations clearly associated with Saudi/Israeli funding, as well as Voice of America and to a lesser extent BBC Persian - have run a sustained campaign based on nostalgia for the era of the shah. The campaign reached new dimensions in the last few years. The Pahlavi era is shown, in footage taken from the 1960s and early 1970s, as a time of ‘women’s liberation’.
Of course, some of us know what the shah really thought of women, based on a interview he gave to Oriana Fallaci. In response to her question: “If there is a monarch whose name has always been associated with women, it’s you. And now I’m beginning to suspect women have counted for nothing in your life.”
The shah replies:
I fear your suspicion is justified ... I have fought strenuously to obtain equal rights and responsibilities for them ... But I wouldn’t be sincere if I asserted I’d been influenced by a single one of them. Nobody can influence me, nobody at all. And a woman still less. In a man’s life, women count only if they’re beautiful and graceful and know how to stay feminine … This ‘women’s lib’ business, for instance - what do these feminists want? What do you want? Equality, you say? Indeed! I don’t want to seem rude, but … You may be equal in the eyes of the law, but not, I beg your pardon for saying so, in ability.
Fallaci replies: “Aren’t we?” And the shah replies:
No. You’ve never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach. You’ve never even produced a great cook. And don’t talk of opportunities. Are you joking? Have you lacked the opportunity to give history a great cook? You have produced nothing great, nothing! Tell me, how many women capable of governing have you met in the course of interviews such as this?1
Another channel has produced films on the shah era’s cultural developments, featuring an entire hour on the setting up of a concert hall in Tehran. The film-makers do not tell the audience that the so-called cultural centre hosted events by European artists and theatre groups alien to 99% of the Iranian population. For La Comédie Française, playing Molière, the audience was almost entirely French-speaking, together with selected pupils from the two private French schools in Tehran. The price of a single ticket would have fed half a dozen families in south Tehran.
What can we say about the intervention of rightwing Iranian groups? In the absence of an organised working class it is no surprise that dubious, often reactionary, groups say they initiated these protests. There is a diversity of groups from conflicting backgrounds claiming to be behind recent events, but the fact is, none of them has emerged as the main organiser - evidence that all of them are at the very least exaggerating their influence. No doubt adverts on social media - paid for courtesy of Saudi and Israeli funds - were encouraging mindless violence, but very few Iranians took their recommendations seriously. For all the claims of exiled groups in the extended publicity they receive from sections of the media, including BBC Persian radio (but, interestingly, not BBC Persian TV), these protests have nothing to do with royalists or the Mujahidin.
It is apparent from social media that pro-shah slogans have only appeared in very isolated cases, such as in the religious city of Qom. On one occasion, in Rasht, some in the crowd shouted slogans in favour of the shah, prompting others to respond by calling for an Iranian republic (as opposed to an Islamic Republic). Indeed, protestors are countering possible royalist influence by shouting “Na mir na rahbar, na shah, na rahbar” (‘No kings, no shahs, no supreme leaders’). On many occasions crowds have shouted down pro-shah slogans.
The fact that the protest in Mashhad coincided with a call on television made by one of the pretenders to the throne, Reza Pahlavi, should not be taken seriously. He issues such calls on a daily basis and these are very rarely heeded. No, the catalyst for the demonstrations was the hunger and suffering experienced by Iranians, leading several protestors to claim that dying is better than continuing to live as they are now.
No future in the past
However, for those Iranians who think that there was no poverty or hunger under the shah, it might be worth reminding them of a quote by empress Farah Diba. When informed by her advisors that ordinary people were complaining they could not afford to buy meat, she responded in true Marie-Antoinette style by telling the nation that it would benefit from vegetarianism.
As for corruption, it is true that the shah’s mistrust of everyone, including former ministers, meant that only a limited circle of individuals close to the shah and the court benefited from rampant state fraud. But the multiplicity of factions in the Islamic regime means that a far larger group of individuals and their families are beneficiaries of global capital’s riches for the wealthy in the third world. Moreover, the so-called ‘targeted sanctions’ imposed by the west between 2007 and 2015 allowed sections of the Islamic Republic with access to both foreign currency and internal black markets to amass astronomic fortunes. As such, the Islamic Republic is in many ways even more corrupt than the shah’s Iran. But we live in different times.
And corruption is certainly not unique to Iran or even just to developing countries. However, in many such states, those wanting to reject corrupt leaders have a chance to elect political rivals. And, although it takes a relatively short time before the new rulers surpass their predecessors’ corruption, the whole process at least provides the illusion that the population has some control and can again test new leaders. But after 39 years of being in power, all factions of the Islamic Republic are steeped in corruption - even when they are in opposition.
As for democracy under the shah, he merged what he called the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Of Course’ party into one: Hezb Rastakhiz. Iran had only two daily papers, Keyhan and Etelaat. Both were pro-shah, and the lack of oppositional factions within the regime ensured that there were no exposés of dodgy dealings by the shah’s opponents.
When it comes to repression, let us remember that the shah’s security force, Savak, shot opponents of his rule. Amongst many, my friend, Catherine Adl, the paralysed daughter of his own physician, was shot by the shah’s security services while she was sitting in a wheelchair. Although she was born in an elite family, she opposed inequality and injustice in Iran. You can guess what he did to opponents with whom he was not acquainted. However, Catherine’s death politicised so many of us who were pupils in her former school and we remain determined to expose the shah’s regime.
In the last few days millions of Iranians have used social media to express their disgust at the extreme wealth and opulence shown by a family who almost four decades after losing power not only continue to live in extreme luxury, but can also afford to pay for unlimited publicity in social media and on satellite TVs, no doubt thanks to foreign funds. In fact in this respect the ex-royals are losing the support of some of their closest former allies, such as Ardeshir Zahedi (the shah’s son-in-law, ambassador to the United States, then foreign secretary, and son of general Fazlollah Zahedi, the man who organised the coup that allowed the shah to come back to power in 1953). With unusual candour, Zahedi junior branded anyone accepting Saudi funds as no better than a thief.
Some Iranians, no doubt prompted by constant Israeli and western-sponsored media outlets, blame Iran’s interventions in Syria and Yemen for the worsening economic situation. There is an element of truth in this. The government claims it has no funds to increase the salary of teachers, nurses and other public servants or to pay for overtime, yet there seems to be no limit to its military spending in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. This has led to nationalist slogans, such as ‘No to Gaza, no to Yemen’. However, the students and youth of Tehran responded to these slogans with their own: “Ham Iran, ham ghazeh zahmtkesh taht setame” (‘The poor are oppressed both in Gaza and Iran’).
One thing is very clear: only the royalists and the Mujahidin have welcomed the support of Trump and Netanyahu for the protests. No-one inside the country wants Iran to become Syria. No-one in their right mind wants ‘regime change from above’. The threat of war is real and any intervention by the United States, Saudi Arabia or Israel will strengthen the Islamic Republic government, as every outside intervention has done. As I have said before, Iranians prefer to live in the prison that is the Islamic Republic, as opposed to the hell created by imperialism in the region. The question remains: how long can the regime suppress the growing protests of the hungry and the impoverished masses?
Those who support the protests in Iran should also campaign against the threat of war and imperialist intervention against Iran.
The real reasons for Iran’s current economic situation are more complicated than military expenditure in the Middle East. The promised economic boom following the nuclear deal has not materialised and now doubts about the future of the deal - particularly given Trump’s outspoken opposition to it - have created despair, especially amongst young Iranians.
In responding to the riots, Rouhani claims that poverty, unemployment and inflation are not unique to Iran. This is certainly true, but what he fails to mention is that, for all its anti-western rhetoric, the Islamic Republic is an ardent follower of the neoliberal economic agenda. Rouhani’s government of technocrats is rightly blamed for dutifully adhering to the ‘restructuring’ programmes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank - part of the explanation for the growing gap between rich and poor. This gap is a reflection of a government that constantly strives to keep up with global capital’s demands for the abolition of state subsidies (food subsidies have been slashed) and for privatisation. The official rate of unemployment (12%) is a joke - the real figure is much higher, even if we take into account low-paid, precarious employment. No-one has job security, unless, of course, they are associated with a faction of the regime or the security forces.
2017 might go down as the year when neoliberalism faced serious challenges in advanced capitalist countries. But in Iran it was a year in which neoliberalism was going well - Rouhani’s government was praised for its economic performance by the World Bank and IMF. There can be no doubt, then, that this wave of opposition took the government completely by surprise. The ministry of information’s pathetic demand that those wishing to come out on the streets request ‘permits to organise protests’ seems to have been ignored, for nobody believes that the state will allow them officially.
And it will certainly not allow the working class to begin to assert itself: there are calls for strikes by teachers , sugar-cane and steel workers, but the reality is that the ‘capitalist mullahs’ (as people are calling them in the streets of Tehran) have managed to decimate the organised working class. Steel and oil workers are no longer employed by single, state-owned industries. Large industrial complexes are subcontracting every aspect of work to smaller contractors. As a result, organising industry-wide strikes, let alone nationwide strike action (a significant factor in the overthrow of the shah’s regime) is far harder.
As things stand, therefore, the protestors’ demands are quite diffuse and there is no single organising and coordinating force which can set out an alternative for the struggle. As events unfold, such a force will become all the more necessary.
Signs of fracture
On the face of it both factions of the regime are singing from the same hymn sheet: accepting there is dissatisfaction, while blaming ‘unrest’ on foreign powers. However, the slogans directed against the ‘reformists’ - against both ‘bad and worse’ - have shaken them so soon after Rouhani’s re-election as president.
More damaging for the conservative factions and the supreme leader is the fact that in the last few weeks a video has emerged of a closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts, meeting in an emergency session after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. After some deliberation, the meeting chose a mid-ranking cleric, Ali Khamenei, as Vali Faghih (Guardian Jurist). What we did not know, however, is that:
1. Khamenei insisted that he should not become Vali Faghih, even as a caretaker. This is what he says in the recording:
It is technically and fundamentally undoable and against the law. I have already categorically told his eminence, ayatollah [Akbar] Hashemi [Rafsanjani, who was chairing the session], I will not accept such an offer.
Ironically it was Rafsanjani (the hero of the reformist movement) who convinced Khamenei to take on the post.
2. It is very clear from this clip that Khamenei was nominated as a ‘temporary’ caretaker replacement for Khomeini - the decision taken was that he would be replaced in one year.
In his own words, Khamenei says:
Regardless of the fact that I do not truly deserve to occupy such a position, installing me as the caretaker has technical problems. [My] leadership would be formal [and only on paper], not a real one. Well, based on the constitution, I am not qualified for the job and from a religious point of view many of you [all clergy members of the Assembly of Experts] will not accept my words as those of a leader. What sort of leadership will this be?
When the debates finishes, Rafsanjani calls on members of the assembly to stand up if they approve Khamenei as a temporary leader until a permanent leadership is elected through a “referendum”! Hashemi Rafsanjani is then the first to stand up and the majority of the clerics follow him.
The release of the video is important at this time, as it undermines further the position of the ‘Vali Faghih’. It was clearly leaked by someone close to the corridors of power and it makes the supreme leader’s position even more untenable - at a time when the crowds are shouting “Death to the dictator”.
There are three main things that we can do in order so support the protests in Iran:
- Show solidarity with those arrested, support the relatives of those killed by the security forces and draw attention to the government’s repressive measures.
- Remind anyone with illusions in the previous regime that it was no better than this one and provide clear examples rather than just repeating slogans or insulting those who entertain illusions in the past.
- Expose the true nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while reminding everyone that Iran, far from being a ‘regional power’, is, like any other third-world capitalist country, at the mercy of the diktats of the IMF and World Bank. Its leadership is unpopular and weak, and the only reason it remains in power is the fear of going from bad to worse