Mullahs rejected

Mehdi Kia assesses June's rising and the state of the opposition

The students could not wait for the demonstrations called to mark the fourth anniversary of the July 9 1999 uprising. Hearing reports that the universities are to be privatised, they protested.

And their protests were taken up in the streets outside the university, and way beyond, by large numbers of ordinary Tehrani residents. For five nights the streets and adjacent freeway were blocked by hooting cars, while tens of thousands gathered. This time the slogans were not just directed at the supreme leader, the hated Seyyed Ali Khamenei, calling for his removal and even death, but also at the ‘reformist’ president Khatami.

If any proof were needed of the utter fizzling out of the ‘reformist’ movement within the islamic regime, this was it. Even those ‘reformists’ who had tasted prison or survived death sentences were sidelined. The people had given the thumbs down to the reformists in the recent municipal elections by staying at home in their millions, handing the city councils to the ultra-conservatives. This time they verbalised their rejection in the slogans, ‘Khatami, resign, resign’, ‘Free political prisoners’ and ‘Tanks, bombs, basiji have no effect any more’.

The basiji are the thugs in civvies who roam Tehran on motorbike, mobile phones in hand, beating up demonstrators with chains and clubs - and who are now frequently getting beaten up themselves. The street skirmishes have caused hundreds of injuries, some serious - scores have been admitted to Tehran hospitals as a result.

Within a few days other cities followed. Shiraz saw women taking off their veils and dancing in the streets. They were attacked and one person was shot dead. In Isfahan, Mashad and many other towns demonstrations followed, not just in the universities, but with the support of the public.

Initially the security forces merely watched and blocked roads leading to the university. They left the thuggery to the chain-wielding basiji. But after four successive nights, Khamenei intervened and ordered the security forces to move in. His tone was vicious and blunt. Never before had he ordered a crackdown in such harsh terms.

And crack down they did. Hundreds were arrested. Hooting cars were smashed up. Demonstrators were beaten mercilessly. By the sixth night - significantly all the demonstrations had taken place after dark - Tehran was relatively quiet. But in many other towns the protests continue to this date. In Hamedan the thugs attacked students with clubs and knives. Three students died.

One of the features of the demonstrations is their palpably spontaneous and uncoordinated nature. The reasons are not hard to find. The student movement has not recovered from the massive repression after their magnificent 1999 uprising, which saw large sections of the inhabitants of the capital following suit, threatening the very existence of the regime, ‘reformists’ and all. This led to the fragmentation and virtual collapse of what was called the Khordad 2 (May 23) movement - the movement for reform around Khatami’s election campaign for the presidency.

In fact there is no serious organised movement of opposition to the regime. The labour movement has yet to find its trade union voice, let alone a national, political one. The students are fragmented and, worse, all those ostensibly working for democracy do not see the essential need to link in with the labour movement. The latter too, despite its amazing record of resistance, has neither formed trade unions nor joined forces with the democratic movement. Meanwhile there are potentially catastrophic tensions within the various nations making up Iran, fanned by chauvinists within the administration (including the so-called reformists), as well sections of the opposition abroad.

A further major weakness is the tragedy that the revolutionary discourse in Iran has found itself in a 20-year time lock. It exists in a bubble totally isolated from the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements. Furthermore, many intellectuals and political activists, including in the student movement, have illusions in the ‘liberating’ role of US imperialism in the region. They have noted the events in Iraq and look to the US to get the Iranian movement for democracy out of the impasse it finds itself in. This is best illustrated by the resolution of the Students of the Office for Consolidating Unity, which saw US intervention as a lesser of two evils - the usual story of ‘bad and worse’, which inevitably leads to disaster.

The monarchists, various republican and even some ‘left’ currents too are looking to the Americans as their conduit into power. In a televised press conference on May 19, US senator Sam Brown unearthed a $50 million budget to aid the Iranian ‘opposition’. Rumsfeld moaned about Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme, and Bush used his meeting with Putin to bully him into downgrading his support for the construction of a nuclear reactor in Bushehr, Iran. The international atomic energy commission gave official warning that Iran was indeed engaged in producing weapons-grade uranium in Natanz - the Iranians have refused access to the site for inspection.

Bush then intervened directly, asking for the arrested demonstrators to be released. The picture given to the outside world appears to be of a coordinated effort to get the mullahs out and - as the monarchists hope - to get ‘crown prince’ Reza in as the next ‘elected’ shah.

The reality is more complicated. Nowhere on the streets were there any slogans of support for the aspiring monarch. This is not to say that the monarchy has no roots inside Iran. In the absence of a coherent opposition, and specifically of a social movement for radical change, the way is open for whatever demagogue has the ear of the people. And the monarchists have their television programmes satellite-beamed into the country and widely watched.

If the left does not get its act together, it faces a much longer period in the wilderness. The generation gap between the pre-revolutionary left - now dead or 20 years in exile - and the new generation of Iranian youth, who are frustrated and angry but without clear ideological direction, is one factor. The other is the nature of the fragmented left itself - it badly needs to clean up its own house. One part is beguiled by parliamentary democracy - without any understanding of what that means in the ‘new world order’. The other is stuck in a Stalinist stone age, bickering and in disarray, and equally incapable of mounting a challenge. The left has yet to learn the importance of grassroots democracy, to think pluralistically, to transcend narrow national horizons and see the global picture.

Above all the working class is still not a class in itself, while the broad, multi-faceted, but fragmented democratic movement does not understand that the fight for democracy is futile without one for equality. This truism is more relevant than ever in our interdependent world.

Defend Iranian students

International Campaign in Defence of Iranian Students petition

Since June 10, Iranian students at the universities of Tehran, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Shiraz and many others have protested against theocratic dictatorship as well as plans to privatise higher education in Iran. On a number of occasions protesters have been attacked by the security services and fundamentalist thugs wielding clubs, with many students badly injured.

We, the undersigned,

To sign the statement or for more information, contact Alan Clarke: alanmclarke@postmaster.co.uk; 07880 968640.