Defend Iran's workers, not its rotten regime

Over the last two weeks, although Iran is facing a major military attack, protests and demonstrations against harsh economic conditions have escalated within the country. Yassamine Mather reports

Despite the daily threats of aggression by a major superpower, the Iranian population shows huge mistrust and disdain for its own rulers. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hopes of using the threat of war to divert attention from political and economic difficulties at home have backfired, and many within the inner circles of the Tehran theocratic regime are trying to distance themselves from the current government's policy of blaming everything on the US.

At the same time, however, Iran's supreme religious leader, ayatollah Khamenei, has approved of secret and open negotiations with the US - both via intermediaries like Saudi Arabia and directly, such as the talks held between Iran's ex-president Mohammad Khatami and senator John Kerry in Davos.

Inside Iran, the threat of sanctions and dramatic economic mismanagement have both contributed to a 15-20% inflation rate, exacerbated by high rates of unemployment. Preparations for the budget for the Iranian new year in March have included drafting a parallel budget for 2007-08, which would come into force in the event of an "extraordinary incident" affecting the country's heavily oil-dependent economy. The 'shadow budget' assumes an oil price of less than $30 a barrel, compared with $33.7 in the actual budget proposed by Ahmadinejad earlier this year.

Meanwhile, prices for vegetables have tripled in the past month, housing prices have doubled since last summer - and, as costs have gone up, more Iranians have started to lay the blame squarely on Ahmadinejad.

The increase in the number of protests reported by leftwing student and worker activists shows that radical opposition to the regime is gaining momentum. On January 24 workers from Chapar Abad dam in Oshnouye, northern Iran, went on strike in protest at non-payment of their wages and bonuses for over six months. Over 1,500 workers of the Zigurat and Parleed companies at the Simreh dam in Darreh Shahr township were also protesting that they have not been paid in over four months. Non-payment of salaries has become a systematic way of increasing the rate of exploitation of workers by both the public and private sectors in Iran.

On February 2, Iran Sadra shipyard workers' representatives were arrested in the southern port of Bushehr, accused of organising a strike by 150 workers over the firing of 38 of their comrades. When the shipyard management complained to the government that the workers were disturbing public order after the strike forced the shutdown of the company, the state sent in its security forces to arrest and intimidate workers.

Last week workers from the Sarit cement company in Mazandaran were staging a sit-in against government policies that have led to the privatisation of their factory. Until last week workers covered three shifts, but privatisation will undoubtedly lead to job losses and the sale of the premises by the new owners.

News headlines form the Iran Labour News Agency for one day, January 27, show the current state of labour unrest in the islamic republic:

l Workers at the Asghari Farid fertiliser factory were protesting because they had not been paid for three months.

l In the Mojdeh Vasl factory, Shiraz workers have not been paid in four months.

l Workers at Lorestan's Boojan refrigerator factory were continuing their protests.

l In the Iran Yasooj sugar factory workers were taking action against non-payment for four months.

Of course, the neoliberal economic policies of the pro-market islamic regime lie at the heart of the current economic situation. However, things will only get worse once the proposed sanctions take effect. It will be the workers, the poor and the underclass who will pay for the UN-imposed sanctions approved on December 23 2006, while the wealthy - including the super-rich clerics - are busy moving their money to safer east Asian bank accounts.

One would have thought that the current scenario in Iran would provide the anti-capitalist, anti-war movement with the best opportunity to oppose imperialist aggression and war in the Middle East. It could point to the determined protests of the largest secular working class movement in the Middle East as a sign of hope for another world that can be built on the strength of the opposition of ordinary working men and women, not just against imperialism, but also against the theocracy. After all, 28 years after the birth of the first islamic republic, the political and economic failure of the religious state in Iran and its complete capitulation to world capitalism is plain for all to see. Surely this must have some significance for anti-war socialists and Marxists, as they consider solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East. Yet this great opportunity is being wasted by the Stop the War Coalition.

The February 10 STWC Scottish conference in Glasgow looks like being yet another example of such a missed opportunity. Despite the fact that the 'war on terror 'is more unpopular than ever before, the number of participants in anti-war demonstrations and meetings has fallen steadily since 2003. Under the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party the STWC has deliberately watered down the politics of the movement - to the extent of avoiding any critique of political islam, adopting the simplistic attitude of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' and taking up 'islamo-friendly' slogans and positions. Presumably the idea has been to attract support among wider sections of the population, but it has failed dismally.

The STWC has not only failed to gain new members and activists: it has great difficulty maintaining its existing support. In the UK, as far as Iranian leftwing activists are concerned, the STWC leadership lost all credibility once it took up the slogan, 'We are all Hezbollah now'. To many Iranian refugees, Hezbollah invokes nightmares of the worst periods in the islamic regime's repression. It was the 'original' Hezbollah in Tehran that went around, razor blade in hand, slashing the faces of women who dared show a bit of hair from under their headscarves. It was Hezbollah who attacked an oilworkers' sit-in in the southern provinces of Iran weeks after the coming to power of the regime. And it was Hezbollah that volunteered to attack civilians in Kurdish cities and villages, once ayatollah Khomeini had issued his first fatwa against the Kurds.

Contrary to what some SWP activists in the Stop the War Coalition believe, in fact islamists have much more respect for socialists and communists who refuse to take up opportunist slogans and who stick to their own principles and slogans when uniting temporarily in the anti-war movement.

At a time when the threat of war against Iran is entering a new and dangerous phase, the anti-war movement should certainly call for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of US-UK troops from Iraq and raise the slogan of a nuclear-free world and nuclear-free Middle East. However, this is also the ideal time to point out that after 27 years in power in Iran, political islam has proved itself to be neither willing nor capable of confronting the ravages of world capital. It is the ideal time to show solidarity with the struggles of the Iranian working class - both against imperialist aggression and against the internal, islamist defenders of capitalism.

The Hands Off the People of Iran campaign presents such an opportunity for all genuine opponents of war and oppression.