Heart of darkness

Mehdi Kia of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran discusses the crisis dividing the theocratic regime in Teheran and the significance of the recent 'reformist' election victories

I would like to begin with the nature of the 'reformist' opposition, its relationship with the Iranian people, the working class and the left, and what the tasks of the left are. If I sound pessimistic, that, unfortunately, is due to reality.

The 'reformist' opposition arose from the Bonapartist component of the regime created by the islamic revolution. During the war with Iraq and afterwards, the individual interests of some of the rulers gradually overcame their collective interests. State assets in the order of seven to eight billion dollars a year were expropriated and sold in a variety of ways. They were getting hold of dollars at the equivalent of 60 Iranian rials, and selling them outside at the rate of about a thousand. A huge rental class took shape.

After Khomeini died, the rental class in power - the exclusivists in the regime - got rid of the Bonapartists. A section of the ruling elite were thrown out of the leadership, or became oppositional within it - a process that made them look more rationally at the survival of the system as a whole. If you look at the key elements among the 'reformist' intellectuals within the regime, one of them was a leader of the so-called 'cultural revolution' which closed down the universities; one was an interrogator of political prisoners - he became a major theoretician of the reformist movement. One of the most outspoken journalists, who is now in prison, was a revolutionary guard. Another was minister of the interior when the Bonapartists were in power. These people have now transformed themselves.

What have they transformed themselves into? This elite group of reformist theoreticians contains three major groupings.

There is a section that wants reforms within the existing constitution, a constitution that is the republic's Achilles' heel, consisting of two incompatible elements: one pyramid - the republic itself - headed by an elected president, with an elected council and parliament. Then above that - another pyramid - is the religious establishment, on top of which stands the non-elected Khamenei, whose power is absolute. These are two parallel institutions within the one system, the major source of instability in the regime. The 'constitutional' reformists wish to keep Khamenei in power, with a slight redistribution of power between the republic and the Khallifate.

The second group also want reform within the constitution, reform focusing on the power of the Latifari. Some do not want the Latifari at all; others want to reduce its power, perhaps through elections. Their aim is to retain the dual pyramid, but with the republic dominant.

The third group - the majority of the reformists - have gone beyond this, demanding complete abolition of the Latifara, effectively working outside the constitution, calling for the dominance of secular over religious law, with total separation of religion from the state.

What about the people as a whole? I think the situation represents a coalition between the 'reformist' elite and a people who are intensely politicised - a coalition that is in transition and change. The people have used politics intelligently, are independent and are highly sceptical of the leadership. A year after they elected president Khatami, he told them, as a matter of religious duty, to vote for the rightwing mullahs' parliament. But 75% of the people boycotted the election. In the last election, they gave most support to those who put the greatest distance between themselves and the regime: those who spoke more about food, secularism and freedom than about god got the biggest vote.

As regards the countryside, 70% of all villages are empty. Iran is an urbanised society. The reactionaries get their vote mainly from smaller towns. At the last poll, nearly all the big towns went to the reformists.

Essentially, the people's movement rejects the regime. What they have done - cleverly - is to use the 'reformist' elites as a shield to protect them against the security forces. And it is interesting that the moment they went beyond that shield - in last year's student demonstrations - the regime was able to suppress their opposition.

The 'reformists' have captured the last bastion that could be conquered by elections: they have the presidency, municipalities and parliament. Everything else is non-elected. So they can deliver nothing else and can no longer serve as a shield. A gulf between the 'reformists' and the people is inevitable. One other important point: in the last election something like 75% or 80% of the people voted with one voice. This can give an illusion of unity, but it was a unity in negation, not a positive act. A mass can behave in a unanimous way when they are going to say 'no'. But when they are going to say 'yes', a number of different 'yeses' come out of that, and without an organisation to contain them, clearly they can stand in opposition to one another. There is no mobilisation, no structure: rather a network, aided by the 'reformist' newspapers, transmitting information.

There are two other elements we need to be clear about. The movement is evolving, it is explosive. We have seen riots, but they are individual riots, often triggered by trivial things. In early August a riot was triggered off when a mullah went into the shop of a cross-eyed grocer. He thought the grocer was eyeing his wife, so they took him out and beat him up for several hours. The town rioted. The police station and a municipal building were burnt down. This shows you the explosive nature of the situation. But it is a 'no' explosion, not necessarily a 'yes' explosion, and I think that is quite important.

What about the left? The left in Iran had a very important role in the revolution, downplayed by the bourgeois press and some of the left press as well. The guerrilla movement of the Fedayin organisation changed the whole atmosphere at a time when the shah appeared to be totally invincible. After the revolution the left grew explosively, but then we suffered two defeats. First, the defeat at the hands of the islamic republic; second, the historic defeat of socialism on a global scale. Our problems are worse than yours, in terms of coming together, because of that.

The left also has to deal with some major ideological problems concerning the nature of the working class and how to organise it on a class basis. The left's approach to the class has been either preponderantly economistic, or preponderantly political, a division that still exists in Iran today. What the left needs to do is come together and work out a series of positions. When the Fedayin-Mujahedin organisations came to prominence in the 1970s, they argued for guerrilla warfare - it was wrong, but at least it was a vision, a policy. The left in Iran today has to have such a vision, tackling problems like the role of the state, and relations between the state, the party and grassroots organisations.

The biggest debate - because the 'reformists' have taken it up - is about the nature of civil society. They see civil society developing within the structure of the state as it is. In other words, the state gives you civil society. We need to argue that civil society is created from below, in opposition to the state and the law.

As for the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, we have been for left unity right from the beginning and for the overthrow of the islamic republic. We believe in absolute, total and unadulterated democracy. Left unity exists in certain forms already but is still very small, mainly because it was formed outside the country.

What about the situation with the working class? At the moment it is devastated by the economic crisis. The minimum wage is a quarter of the poverty level standard for a family of three. It is not surprising that last year there were 266 major protest actions, in large industrial units alone, 30% up on the previous year. We have no information about small units.

They were to do with basic things. Most were because of unpaid wages: some people had not been paid for a year and a half. The outcome of the majority is unclear - probably failure. As far as we know, only seven of them succeeded, and in nine there were major arrests. Half of them involved protests outside the factory, either by blocking the road, or gathering outside the ministry, or something like that. These attempts to involve other people were important: it was no longer just a strike within the factory. This is a new thing for Iran. Workers are beginning to understand that, unless they link in with the general movement, their actions are not going to make any difference.

There were also four national actions that happened across the country. All came at the instigation of the reformist leadership of the labour movement. Three of them were about the same thing - opposition to government attempts to disenfranchise units of five workers or less from the labour code. On two occasions - May Day and just before the New Year - the labour leadership came out against demonstrations, but the workers defied them. There are no trade unions in Iran as such - all the labour organisations are tied to the government, as indeed are all organisations. But the workers went ahead anyway.

There is, however, no doubt that if you look at the situation of the working class at the moment, the conditions are against any struggle on the economic front. So many workers are either unemployed or in the process of being thrown out of work. However, the situation is such that workers can link into the major political movement for democracy, to make major advances. I think that an understanding that they are not able to work for immediate economic demands, but can work within the democratic movement, is the key to the whole thing.

The left at present is useless, small and fragmented, without a clear political stance. What should the left be standing for? There are three separate groups, reflecting differing approaches to the 'reformist' movement. One group believes the 'reformists' can effect social change: ie, that the islamic republic is reformable, and a democratic republic will come out of it. The majority of the left belong to this group, including the 'official communist' Tudeh, the Fedayin and the social democrats. They support whatever the reformists say, and tell people not to rock the boat.

There is another group - predominantly the Mujahedin and the Worker Communist Party - who say this is a sham, that both factions within the regime are simply trying to save it from collapsing. This group's policy is clear - they oppose the whole thing. These two, diametrically opposite, positions are in fact 'two wings of the same bird'.

There is however a third position: this involves the understanding that the 'reformists' are part of an evolutionary process - a process involving splits in the ruling class - that must be used by the left. It can open up possibilities for the organisation of the working class, women and other democratic movements, exploiting cracks in the system that can lead beyond the islamic republic. This third position is difficult, because it requires constant analysis, not merely saying 'yes' or 'no'.

Of course, the absurdity of the 'reformist' position is clear: they have acquired every position that is legal, yet all power remains in illegal hands. All legal channels for reform are either closed or are closing rapidly. Hence, the gulf between them and the people; hence, there is no other route but for the people to go from legal to illegal means. Furthermore, the debate about civil society faltered at the outset, because it is clear that civil society in the current state is impossible.

The 'reformists' called the student demonstrators irrational, but it is the 'reformists' themselves who lack reason. The students understood that within this regime, reform is impossible, and their action changed the atmosphere. In the last year, there have been no political executions, though the regime would dearly love to employ them. The regime has been pressured into defending itself in public, spending huge amounts of time justifying the legal and islamic concepts of violence. Repression in the old way is no longer possible.

Since last year, people are more involved in politics on a spontaneous level. The task of the left is to help people move from spontaneity to organised mobilisation, by creating and extending grassroot movements. It needs to change from a dispersed movement to a much more unified one. The movement needs to go from a negative alliance on a 'no', to a positive alliance on a 'yes'.

Instead of relying on the 'reformist' elite, the left needs to create its own organic leaders to bring the left together and organise the working class into a national force. Without the working class, the left cannot go any further. But the working class itself must also realise that, to be able to get its bread, it needs to win its freedom. It must therefore be the force that transforms the freedom movement itself into one capable of bringing about a revolutionary transformation.

The working class is beginning to act nationally, but I do not think it yet understands its role within the democratic struggle. Nor has the left understood it either. It does not understand the links between immediate demands and the necessary preconditions to make those demands realisable. The left needs to formulate demands that will pit it against the regime, and will appeal not just to the industrial working class, but smaller producers, the service sector (especially the utilities) and the unemployed. Just such a coalition toppled the shah.