Resistance grows in Iran
Both Trump’s threats and the regime’s neoliberal policies are being forcefully opposed by the working class, reports Yassamine Mather
Predictions made by more hard-line members of the Trump administration, including John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, that Iran’s Islamic republic would collapse days after the imposition on November 5 of the latest wave of sanctions have failed to materialise.
Partly that is because some state department officials campaigned for and won exemption from the ending of the sale of Iranian oil to eight of its most important customers. As a result, Iran’s income from oil exports has been reduced only because of the current fall in oil price - a consequence of the glut created by the stepping up of Saudi production, at a time of reduced demand. But Iran’s economy is facing major difficulties, because international firms, including European companies fearful of US sanctions, have withdrawn from the county.
Yet government officials are upbeat. Foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has dismissed the threat of secretary of state Mike Pompeo to “starve” Iranians by insisting that the Islamic Republic would survive and even advance despite US sanctions.1
On November 20, in response to Trump’s bizarre tweet on the execution of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which started by condemning Iran, Zarif stated:
Mr Trump bizarrely devotes the first paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse Iran of every sort of malfeasance he can think of. Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests …2
In the same statement Trump refers to the Iran as terrorist - a bit rich, given the Saudis’ historic connections to jihadi terrorists. But this was not mentioned, even though it might be considered pertinent in the light of the current accusations about Saudi crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s involvement in the Khashoggi affair.
All this made for good publicity for Iran, whose leaders claim that the economy has now stabilised. They say the Islamic republic has survived the Iran-Iraq war, two Gulf wars, the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and decades of economic sanctions and so will also survive the next “two years”. Presumably they are assuming - wrongly, in my opinion - that Trump will not be re-elected in 2020. While their triumphalism is understandable, they fail to mention, of course, the growing poverty in Iran, or the increased strikes and protests. I will say more about such manifestations of workers’ resistance later.
In the second part of his statement, Zarif added: “There’s a key fact here: in this 40-year challenge, the defeated is the US and the victorious is the Islamic Republic.” This echoes what was said by supreme leader Ali Khamenei a few weeks ago:
This new US president ... has disgraced the remnant of America’s prestige and that of liberal democracy. America’s hard power - that is to say, their economic and military power - is declining, too. The challenge between the US and Iran has lasted for 40 years so far and the US has made various efforts against us - military, economic and media warfare.3
The comments relating to the decline of the United States have now been picked up by president Hassan Rouhani and his ministers. When Khamenei first made the comments, some of us joked that he must have been reading the Marxist journal, Critique, and its comments on the decline of the hegemon (unlike Trump, Khamenei is known to be an avid reader of scholarly books and journals).
However, if he had studied decline more thoroughly, he would have known that in the case of hegemonic powers and empires, it can take decades to fully take effect. And, just like during their ascendancy, such powers can and do inflict disastrous damage on states which challenge or resist their rule.
Of course, the Marxist left is not alone in talking of the decline of the US empire - many bourgeois commentators have made similar comments. For example, Jeet Heer, writing in The New Republic, analyses some of these comments:
As a porn star sues president Donald Trump over a deal to keep her quiet about an alleged affair, and his White House is drained of everyone but his family, it’s hard not to think that America is entering into a period of decadence that rivals imperial Rome in luridness. Even before the Daniels news, some historians and journalists compared Trump to famously degenerate Roman emperors.4
And in The New Yorker, David Remnick tells us:
Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome - to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.5
However, all this fails to take into account the important fact that the US remains the world’s number one economy - China is still a long way behind and both its dependence on US trade and increasing protectionism will hinder its progress. In addition, the US’s military strength - in particular its air power - is by far the most dominant and, despite Trump, the power of its cultural hegemony has not been hindered dramatically either. In fact, faced with the economic advance of China, the US government is planning to increase spending on the military, as well as on protectionism and surveillance.
In the long term - I am talking about decades or even a century - these policies might aggravate the situation and precipitate US decline. However, in the short term it will be countries such as Iran, which have dissed the US, and impoverished migrants - victims of the economic policies of US-led capital in the third world, as well as refugees from wars started by the hegemon power - who will suffer most. In some ways the return of rightwing political forces in the US and the acceptance of Trump’s presidency are signs that sections of the US population are nervous about the future of their country as the world hegemon. The slogan, ‘America first’, is actually about US dominance and it will take a lot more than an end to Trump’s presidency before we see a change in this trend both inside and beyond the United States.
In summary, US pressure will not be reduced in the foreseeable future - not after the new Congress is in place in January 2019, or even if a Democrat or a more moderate Republican wins the US presidency in 2020.
Death to America
It is understandable that Iranian leaders are frustrated by continued US hostility. After all, since 1988 and the end of the Iran-Iraq war, they have embarked on a major reconstruction of the economy along neoliberal lines. As the International Monetary Fund keeps telling us, when it comes to privatisation, restructuring the economy and abolishing subsidies year after year, Iran wins first prize amongst all the ‘third world’ countries.
However, when it comes to the slogan, ‘Death to America’, first of all let me stress this is meaningless. Of course, Iran’s clerics do not want to see the death of all Americans, but the slogan sounds aggressive and cruel. Furthermore, after Irangate, after Iran’s secret negotiation with the US prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, after the Iran nuclear deal, it is hard to believe that, even in the most hard-line of religious circles close to the regime, anyone really agrees with this stupid slogan.
It has become an empty gesture, aimed at providing a good story for the foreign press, but is a source of ridicule inside and outside the country. Iranians know the history of this slogan: the clergy which had manoeuvred itself into a position of leadership of the anti-shah protests of 1978-79 knew how much ordinary people were opposed to both the shah and his US backers. They knew that Iranians rightly blamed the US for the 1953 coup that brought the shah back to power. However, the last thing the clergy wanted to do was to mimic the anti-imperialist slogans of the left: they did not want to be ‘tainted’ by leftist terminology, which was associated with an anti-capitalism that would have alienated the bazaari allies of the clergy. That is why they adopted ‘Death to America’ - late in the day and in direct competition with the left.
A government whose economy is totally dependent on western imports, investments and trade cannot seriously be against the United States in any meaningful sense. Forty years after coming to power, the regime has failed to present a model capable of replacing the trashiest forms of US cultural dominance.
In the height of the cold war it was extremely difficult to survive as a politically independent country - non-aligned states managed to distance themselves from the USA by buying arms from and negotiating major economic deals with both east and west, while avoiding anything deemed to be insulting to either. Their aim, although doomed to fail, was to balance their economic dependence between east and west and today it is Iran’s economic dependence on the US and the west that has enhanced the dramatic effects of the current sanctions, paralysing sections of the economy.
Occasionally Khamenei tells the Iranian people that they will survive punitive sanctions if they adopt the principles of the “resistance economy”. What is proposed is the reliance on locally produced goods instead of imports, a reduction in the dependence on oil exports, attempts to safeguard domestic industries from foreign competition and an increase in barter trade.
Again, these are impossible goals, as those who know the role of various sections of the Islamic state in creating an economy dependent on foreign imports will be aware. Even as far as basic food items such as tea, sugar or rice are concerned, at least for the last two decades privatised companies (often with connections to the ruling clergy) have been allowed to import goods and sell them at a much lower price than the locally produced produce - to such an extent that local concerns have often been made bankrupt. The import of ‘western’ electronic or luxury goods is largely controlled by religious financial conglomerates: for example, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee imports luxury cars! Added to which, embezzlement and corruption are so widespread that no-one can take claims of building a “resistance economy” seriously.
If a country wants to stand up to a global superpower, lesson number one is to be able to rely on its own people. It should do its best not to alienate its own working class. Yet the Islamic republic’s wholehearted adoption of a neoliberal economic doctrine means that inside the country it faces a challenge far more serious than the one posed by Trump: that of the Iranian proletariat. Never more so than now, when, in the face of foreign threats and sanctions, the working class remains vigilant and combative.
Take the example of the Haft Tapeh sugar mill in Khuzestan province, where workers have been on strike and waging protests for almost a year. In the last few weeks many of the workers, accompanied by their families, have staged marches in the city of Shush and regularly gathered near the governor’s office to highlight their demands. Their protest is against privatisation, which has resulted in delays or even the failure to pay salaries.
The sugar plant was once a profitable state-owned company and it was privatised under suspicious circumstances. The company, set up in 1962, employs about 4,000 workers and the city of Shush depends on the continued functioning of the plant. The current owner owes a large amount of money to the government for the substantial loans it has made.
As for the workers, in March they were demanding the payment of salaries for the months of January and February, together with better conditions for contract workers and the payment of pensions on retirement. Since then their salaries have never been paid on time and today workers and their families have been carrying banners saying they are hungry. Their representatives have proposed either a takeover of the company by the workers or joint ownership with the state, where they would have a voice in the day-to-day running of the business.
A number of labour activists from Haft Tapeh have been arrested during recent protests and five of the imprisoned workers are under investigation for alleged “national security offences”. So far the authority’s response has been to send units of riot police to all the company’s entrance and exit gates. Last week the Workers Syndicate at the sugar mill reported that two of its representatives - Esmail Bakhshi and Mosslim Armand - had been arrested.
But Haft Tapeh is only the most prominent of current disputes. In October Iranian teachers went on a nationwide two-day strike demanding better working conditions, and more spending on education. The protest was repeated in November, as teachers demanded educational reforms and an end to mismanagement.
Faced with continuing workers’ protests, the government is also trying to strengthen its own so-called workers’ organisations as part of a long-term policy of divide and rule. The syndicate of Tehran bus workers recently issued a statement condemning a “government security-inspired project” to create yellow syndicates. Activists associated with these projects claimed on social media that I was one of the leading figures (amongst others on the left) behind such ‘unpatriotic’ attitudes at a time of national crisis. For the record, neither I nor, as far as I know, any of the left activists outside Iran named have had any role in the wave of current workers’ protests engulfing the country. Rather than looking for the enemy abroad, security forces trying to divert workers’ struggles should look to their real cause: the neoliberal economic policies that have led to the current levels of dissatisfaction.
The regime should be made aware that these strikes will not go away. They demonstrate the determination of a working class which remembers how it played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s dictatorship. A class that remains independent of capitalist and imperialist funding - funds that have corrupted, indeed destroyed, so many political, human rights and women’s organisations, as well as those associated with national minorities. This is a class that understands politics, knows the importance of organisation and programme and, even when it is weak and deprived of basic rights, emerges as a force challenging both the Islamic state and its neoliberal economic policies, as well as being determined to resist Donald Trump and any imperialist aggression. However, for these workers imperialism cannot be resisted by shouting empty slogans about the United States.
We must show solidarity with this class, which alone has the potential to stand up to both their own regime and the threats posed by the US president.