A year of defiance
Despite countless protest demonstrations and at least 500 deaths the Islamic regime still clings to power. Yassamine Mather calls upon the left to think seriously about strategy, mass organisation and a party
The first anniversary of the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini - she died after being arrested by Iran’s ‘morality police’ - was marked on September 15 by very limited protests, as the government crackdown made itself felt.
Last week president Ebrahim Raisi’s administration warned that it will not permit any commemorations. During a TV appearance, Raisi ominously stated: “Anyone exploiting Mahsa Amini’s name to serve foreign agendas and create domestic instability should be aware of the consequences.”
The 22-year-old Amini was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab in an “inappropriate” manner. Naturally, the authorities have been blamed for her death, although the government insists she succumbed to pre-existing medical conditions. A claim that David Miller, an ardent apologist for the Islamic Republic, echoes in a recent tweet: “Mahsa Amini, in fact, was not tortured or killed by the Iranian state. Why can’t regime change advocates admit that fact?”
He quoted Seyed Mohammad Marandi, who has been described as “one of the main English-speaking propagandists of the Islamic Republic of Iran, generally presenting viewpoints that are aligned with the Iranian government”. According to Marandi, “It’s strange how a peer-reviewed medical journal can simply claim Mahsa Amini was tortured, while there’s absolutely zero evidence to support such an accusation. Maybe they could add that Iranians threw babies out of incubators too.”1
Of course, Mahsa’s family disputes such denials, but what Marandi and Miller fail to grasp is that the problem facing the Islamic Republic is not pro-US ‘regime change’ advocates abroad. Since September 2022, Iranians have demonstrated in their thousands in every town throughout the country against the forced hijab, the Raisi government and the dictatorship itself. At least 500 demonstrators have died and thousands of young Iranians have been injured by the metal baton rounds used by security forces - some of them have lost an eye or a limb.
No-one in their right mind can deny the strength of feeling against the authorities. By all accounts at least 20% of Iranian women have stopped wearing the hijab (in some urban areas the figure is much higher) and all demands to reverse their decision, all threats and punishments (including forcing women to wash the dead in a morgue, and forcing them to see psychiatrists to be ‘educated’ about the importance of the hijab) have failed. Although the hijab remains a very important part of the regime’s policy, people inside Iran tell me that government attempts to reverse the removal of headscarves are getting nowhere. As one woman put it, “That horse has bolted - it’s too late now to close the stable door.”
In the current absence of major protests inside Iran, we are finally seeing comments regarding the failure of the protest movement to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Here we have a diverse range of opinions. Reformists tell us it is because the movement tried to go too far: it was OK to raise the initial slogan, but a mistake to add slogans against Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Writing in the Middle East Eye, Shahir Sahidsaleth blames it all on “the conservatives’ triumph in securing control over all three branches of government”, adding:
While the protests initially began with the very progressive slogan of ‘Woman, life, freedom’, which strongly opposed the mandatory hijab, subversive and anti-dictatorship slogans, particularly targeting Khamenei, swiftly became prevalent within the movement.2
As if it was possible to promote a slogan about woman’s rights without confronting the supreme leader and his dictatorship.
Finally, however, some on the soft left have woken up to the reality that you cannot overthrow the Islamic Republic without strategic plans, organisation and a programme. But I can assure you, if we witness another set of street protests, such soft lefts will forget their current statements and fall back into the trap of predicting the ‘imminent’ overthrow of the regime, without the necessary means once again.
Unfortunately none of them seem to address the fundamental issue of the failures of the so-called ‘left’ - and even those claiming to be on the radical left - to take a principled position both against Iran’s Islamic Republic and also imperialism, neo-colonialism and Zionism. In my opinion this is because, despite the ‘Life, woman, freedom’ movement, there has been a steady drift by sections of the Iranian left towards a pro-west, pro-imperialist position. So we end up in this terrible situation where large sections of the Iranian ‘left’ are so influenced by western propaganda that the only issue they address is opposition to the Islamic Republic - as far as they are concerned, nothing else matters.
In some ways it is easy to understand the frustration and indeed the anger of the younger generation in Iran, who have heard nothing but empty anti-west rhetoric from the Islamic Republic, while being fully aware of the hypocrisy of such slogans when they come from a regime that actually wanted to align itself with the west, but was rejected. Today this younger generation, together with the overwhelming majority of the population, is facing a perilous economic situation, as well as constant daily interference in every aspect of their private lives: they can be arrested because they are not wearing the right clothes, because they want to socialise with the opposite sex, because they want to drink alcohol, listen to the wrong music ...
Add to all this the corruption of a state that considers the ban on alcohol - a ban that started in the first months of the Islamic Republic - as a pillar of its existence. Yet as early as the summer of 1979 - a few months after the revolution - sections of the state (border guards, police and Islamic security local committees) were the main distributors of contraband alcohol. We are talking of a country where alcohol addiction has become a major problem, where Alcoholics Anonymous has some of its largest regional branches.
After more than four decades of such corruption and hypocrisy, the Shia state’s attempts to win over the majority of the population have not succeeded and to a certain extent the religious authorities have accepted the double lives of so many. They know full well that what people do in private is officially forbidden. Now too it seems it has been forced to tolerate women removing their headscarves in public.
The demonstrations are clearly linked to the struggle to overthrow the Islamic Republic. However, unless the left can learn from the defeats of the last few decades, think strategically and plan accordingly, we can only expect a repeat of the current failures. Here one of the most important steps is to expose the rightwing opposition: royalists, the Mojahedin and pro-US republicans, as well as breaking from their close relationship with imperialism and even Zionism.
In early September Israeli intelligence minister Gila Gamliel met up with Iranian exiled journalists and commentators in what was described as preparing for “the day after”, when the Iranian regime weakens to the point of collapse. According to Al Monitor, “Gamliel participated as a keynote speaker at an online conference entitled ‘The path to a democratic Iran’, organised by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. In her speech, Gamliel expressed “support for the Iranian people and Iranian demonstrators.”3
Of course, the Iranian “journalists and commemorators” that Gamliel recently met in London can be described as her employees, as Israel finances the trashy, Persian-speaking TV stations broadcasting from the UK capital. Previously many such stations were associated with Saudi Arabia, but now the political rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh has changed things. Much of the funding now comes from Israel.
Ha’aretz has pointed out on a number of occasions, that such TV stations enjoy close relations with Mossad. Yet sections of the Iranian left seem incapable of drawing clear lines between their position and the Zionist state, or indeed imperialism and neo-colonialism. Even when they describe the repression and torture under the shah’s regime, they do not refer to the fact that he was a puppet of the imperialist powers.
The problem with this soft, pro-west position is that it is difficult to organise genuine revolutionary solidarity with the current Iranian protest movement, even though the rightwing personalities they promoted last year were largely irrelevant to start with and now have all moved on.
It is, of course, possible that we might witness the collapse or self-destruction of the Islamic Republic, or even its overthrow by western powers. But the left’s position must be based on opposition to both the Islamic Republic and imperialism itself.