Protests challenge the regime

Across the whole country, in every city, in every town, there is revolt. But does ‘post-nationalism’, rather than class politics, provide the solution? Yassamine Mather investigates

Anti-government protests in Iran following the ‘morality police’ killing of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for nothing more than wearing her headscarf too loosely, have now lasted two weeks. They have spread across all 31 provinces and almost every city and town is affected, despite the use of military force, including the Revolutionary Guards. The government has also closed down parts of the internet in an attempt to avoid coordinated action and the reporting of the rash of protests and demonstrations.

Both in New York, where he was speaking to the UN general assembly, and on his return to Tehran, president Ebrahim Raisi blamed “conspirators” for inciting unrest and pledged to crack down on “those who oppose the country’s security and tranquillity”. I doubt he is stupid enough to believe his own conspiracy theory, yet I see some western ‘anti-imperialists’ are repeating the same nonsense: apparently there are no demonstrations in the wonderful Islamic Republic - it is all western propaganda!

In reality tens of thousands have taken part in protests, often risking their lives, as they faced state forces using live ammunition, tear gas and pepper spray. So far dozens of demonstrators have been killed and hundreds have been injured, while journalists, students, labour activists, social media users who have defended the protests have been arrested. Yet the protests continue.

All this amounts to a serious challenge to the Islamic Republic, but we should not underestimate the strength of the forces of repression - the regime will use everything in its power to suppress the movement.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has so far failed to issue any statement in response to the protests and there are rumours that he is unwell. However, I am always suspicious of such claims and it is likely that, sooner or later, he will appear on TV to condemn it all as a dastardly conspiracy. But the good news is that the protests have created further divisions amongst all the factions of the regime. The ‘conservatives’ are blaming former president Hassan Rouhani for the more liberal attitude to the wearing of the hijab in some urban areas during his presidency, while others are calling for the relaxation of the rules about head covering for women - and, of course, the hard-liners know that any retreat will cost them dearly.


The demonstrations are largely spontaneous - no-one takes seriously those who claim they are leading them. Such claims have come from rightwing groups, such as Mojahedin e-Khalq - the loony Islamist grouping supported by sections of the US neocon Republicans - as well as individuals who support the son of the ex-shah (he is also backed by neocons). As many Iranians have pointed out on social media, it is ironic that opposition groups who are financed by anti-abortion rightwingers in the US are showing concern for a woman’s right to choose their dress code in Iran.

Some of the slogans, such as ‘No shah, no sheikh!’, are very good - especially useful when the ex-shah’s son tries to take advantage of the protests. One of the most popular slogans on recent protests is ‘Death to the oppressor, be it shah or “leader”!’ (a reference to Khamenei), and another is ‘Death to the dictator!’

All this is positive, but spontaneity has its limitations. Some comrades inside Iran have pointed out that these protests are ‘post-nationalist’, meaning that the murdered woman, Mahsa Amini, was Kurdish, but protests are occurring in Farsi-speaking towns, in Azeri and Baluchi cities, with the same fervour as those where Kurds form the majority, and, of course, this is highly positive.

But other aspects are more problematic. For example, another of the main slogans is ‘Woman, life, freedom!’, which was originally used against Islamic State in Syrian Kurdistan by the YPG - the darlings of the soft left and sections of the anarchist movement. In my opinion, however, it is not a progressive slogan - which class of women, for example? As I wrote last week, the issue of policing the hijab in Iran is a class issue. And ‘life’ for whom? Capitalists, clerics, landowners or the working class? Even if the reference to freedom relates to very superficial forms, such a call is meaningless in a developing country without dramatic economic changes. Otherwise, after a short period of tolerating some liberties, the new order could well impose repression and another dictatorship to control economic unrest.

However, as the protests continue, new forces are now joining them. Some university lecturers have cancelled classes, announcing they will not resume teaching until arrested students are released. The Iranian teachers union is calling for strikes, and on September 29 university staff and students announced a nationwide strike of the higher education sector. Workers in the Haft Tapeh union have issued statements in solidarity with the protests and there are calls for a ‘nationwide strike’ - although at this stage it is not clear if those calling for such a strike have anything concrete planned.

Another positive aspect is the fact that women who themselves observe the rules on the wearing of the hijab have joined the protests. This shows that the protests are not just about the hijab, but a woman’s right to choose what she does in every aspect of her life, after 43 years of political and religious oppression.

The veteran socialist, Ardeshir Mehrdad, in a short text written this week, tells us:

A woman takes off her hijab and stands on a wall surrounded by black-clad men. A woman sits on a platform looking at heavily armed policemen wearing boots and leaves her hair out with calmness ... A woman stands against a number of special forces of oppression; without the slightest fear or trembling in her voice, she calls them “murderers”.

No doubt women have been in the forefront of these protests and again this is very positive. Having said that, claims that this is a ‘feminist revolution’ are nonsense. This must be seen as part of the preparation for a revolution to overthrow the capitalist Islamic Republic of Iran, with all its factions - its clerical as well as civilian and military. The protestors are not just concerned about head covering. Of course, the death of Mahsha Amini initiated the current movement, but protests against this regime started in earnest a few years ago and they have since grown in size, duration and determination.

In fact Iranians have protested against dictatorship and the oppression of women, together with national and religious minorities, since February 1979. What makes the current movement different is that it has a material base: there are economic reasons for the way in which demonstrations are spreading and ordinary people are showing unbelievable courage confronting the oppressive forces. Protestors have also learnt from the riots of 2018 and demonstrations against the abolition of subsidies in 2019. Today, they are prepared to confront the armed forces - as opposed to the last two times, when they were much more timid.

The continuation of neoliberal economic policies by successive Islamist governments (‘reformist’ and conservative), in a country faced with severe economic sanctions, has created a situation where the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing daily; where the rate of inflation often exceeds 40%; where unemployment is growing and there seems no end to people’s daily suffering. In such circumstance women’s equality cannot be achieved simply by a change in government leaders. But the Iranian left seems incapable of coming up with any strategy, any long-term plan.


Two of the most important groups present in these protests are women and ethnic minorities, and, in what can be considered the ‘post-nationalist’ approach of these two groups, what we find is, in fact, nationalism - the culture, language, history and rights of different ethnicities is strongly emphasised. Basically, ‘post-nationalism’ interweaves with traditional nationalism.

It promotes equality that includes the presence of all nationalities and condemns any superiority of a particular group over others. This approach can strengthen the already existing unity of these currents, but it acts against the development of class unity. ‘Post-nationalism’ puts a strong emphasis on individuality, and this means it cannot consider any class over and above any other.

When it comes to the left in exile, we should not expect anything much from them - and, reading some of the recent articles written inside Iran, I am not sure there is much hope for the left there either!

Writing on the website, Naghd Eghetssad Siassi (‘Political Economy Critique’), Faegh Hosseini asks:

Can you trust street protests that are not led by a particular organisation or leadership? Yes! You can trust such protests, and political and social activists have to show this trust. This issue has two sides: firstly, the question is: can we hope in general to organise protests without any organisation behind it? Secondly, what facilities and needs are there to form these currents?

He then proposes councils and ‘post-nationalism’.

To quote a left group’s recent statement, translated from Farsi, ‘post-nationalism’

… recognises all people as equal, including immigrants, citizens, professionals, workers, men and women, and any ethnicity. Any socio-political thought that enters a region and culture must be changed according to the needs and characteristics of the target society, and the thought of post-nationalism is no exception to this rule.

The confusion in the above text shows the triumph of capitalist liberalism even in the thoughts of those who write on a left website. Class is equated with gender and nationality, while the reality is that, both amongst women and national minorities, class remains the most important defining issue. If we all unite with no understanding of class, it is obvious who will benefit from any change in government: those with economic power - the owners of land and capital.

Ex-‘feudals’ in Kurdish areas are nowadays either part and parcel of the current regime in Iran or they are, in Iraqi Kurdistan, benefiting from Israeli or Saudi funding. They are not part of the protests. Women associated with the leaders of the Islamic Republic and women whose families are among the super-rich are not protesting either. They have not suffered the oppression of the religious state, living in suburbs beyond the reach of the Gasht-e Ershad morality police. Then we have women associated with the many repressive organs of the Islamic Republic or its propaganda machine - they are part of the enemy. The officers of Gasht-e Ershad are often women and, for example, detention centres employ women to beat up female prisoners. We cannot talk of participants in a movement challenging the current order without referring to economic and political power - and here class and class allegiance is absolutely essential.

State forces might be able to suppress the current protests, but the ground beneath the Islamic Republic is gradually slipping away with generalised dissatisfaction, rising poverty, high inflation and neoliberal economic policies, such as the abolition of subsidies. So the protests will continue in some form or another and the Iranian people will surely succeed in overthrowing the Islamic Republic sooner or later.

Clearly the regime is getting weaker, but the question remains: who will replace the current bunch of corrupt, lying and sanctimonious clerics?