Defiance grows

Immediately after the London May Day demonstration, Hands Off the People of Iran held a public meeting near Trafalgar Square. Hopi activist Torab Saleth introduced the discussion

Strikes and labour unrest has seen a big increase in Iran. A large number of oppositional committees have been set up: both in terms of the volume of protest and the intensity of their demands, there has been a significant shift.

However, the Iranian working class was heavily defeated after the 1979 revolution - a revolution that came about after four months of general strike. But the islamist counterrevolution resulted in the beheading of the working class, destroying all its organisations and forcing most of the left into exile.

Subsequently the marginalisation of workers as a class was reinforced by economic means: the bazaari ruling class, which financed the shia hierarchy in the first place, has had the effect of physically pushing back the working class, in the sense that the new ruling class prefers to buy and sell rather than produce - the bazaaris prefer to buy goods from abroad rather than produce them internally. So, while the population has doubled in the last 30 years and the absolute size of the working class has increased, its relative size has actually decreased thanks to petty commodity production.

Although there were sporadic struggles, nothing of much significance occurred for some time in terms of class struggle. But over the last three years we have seen a huge increase in the number of strikes. And, what is more significant, a number of initiatives in terms of organising the working class in trade union-type bodies. Just last week there was an attempt to bring together all the various committees that have been set up to organise workers into cooperation councils.

A prominent example of the new militancy is the current Tehran busworkers' dispute - the busworkers' union was disbanded by the regime, but they have tried to revive it and are standing firm against all the machinations of government. The regime suppressed the first busworkers' strike by raiding the homes of almost 1,200 worker activists the night before, arresting their kids and taking them hostage. And now union leaders have been arrested for calling a May Day demonstration. But the Tehran demonstration took place despite this and featured vehement calls for their release.

The current situation is an important turning point - there is a huge sentiment in the working class to organise and fight and to demand basic rights. There are, though, dangers too. The so-called 'reformists' have been marginalised by the hardliners and Ahmadinejad represents an attempt to militarise the situation, to prepare for a crackdown - there is a danger of huge suppression.

The International Labour Organisation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and other international labour organisations are attempting to set up, through 'reformists', a kind of tripartite system incorporating workers, employers and government. Patently, this is an attempt to divert independent working class organisation at this early stage, turning the movement for independent trade unions into class collaboration and consultative bodies.

But the political situation has changed significantly. The illusions of so many in the possibility of reform have been replaced by a huge wave of radicalisation among workers, students and other social movements. Iran's student population is large, since the proportion of youth is high: the average age in Iran is 25. Suddenly you see an explosion of socialist blogs among Iranian students - every day there are completely new ones. In addition, and equally important, the women's movement too has become very radical.

The strikes of busworkers and others demonstrate that the workers have gained in confidence. So much so that for the first time in many years a national strike, as opposed to local protests, is now taking place - that of the teachers. Even though the leaderships of such strikes may have illusions in reform, they are being pushed in a more radical direction.

Given this rising tide of militancy, the threat of war is, in a sense, a godsend for the Iranian regime. That was how ayatollah Khomeini openly described the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which he used to crush the working class movement and all opposition, consolidating islamist power. Similarly today the regime uses the threat against Iran to suppress any opposition, finding by that means a cover to change the balance of forces within the government in favour of the most vicious sections. Although the radicalisation that has recently occurred places limits on how far the regime can go, arrests still go on apace.

The Iranian regime is using the threat of war to actually militarise Iranian society. In response a number of statements issued by individuals and groups, despite being couched in the necessarily cautious Iranian way of saying things, have been undeniably speaking of opposition to both the imperialist threat and the theocratic regime. Encouragingly, a current of political thought that is expressing this more or less openly is becoming much more widespread in Iran.

Against a background in which the Iranian economy is going through a huge crisis, last year alone an estimated 300,000-350,000 workers were given the sack. Yet one result of the explosion in oil revenues over the last four years or so is that corruption is simply out of control. There are allegations of $5 billion being siphoned off from government projects. While those workers are being sacked, subsidies of $12 billion are being given out to small businesses.

There is officially 11% unemployment, but most Iranian estimates outside government suggest that a figure of 15%-20% is nearer the mark. As an indicator of how economic crisis is affecting the mass of people, Iran has now become the largest exporter of under-age sex workers in the whole region. Prostitution, like selling your kidneys, is a way of augmenting low wages to bring them to subsistence level. People have to take on two or three different jobs just to make ends meet. So the economic situation is getting worse and worse and the divide between rich and poor is getting more acute. No wonder the regime regards the threat of war as a godsend - it serves to actually strengthen the Iranian regime in this period of crisis.

We should emphasise that May Day is a day for international workers' solidarity. Obviously that does not mean solidarity with the regime, despite what some on the British left would have us believe. The left in Iran is dismayed by the idea that working class activists should behave as apologists for Tehran.

Nevertheless, the left in Iran too is programmatically and organisationally in disarray and as a result activists in the workers', women's and student movements could be fooled by current attempts to head off self-organisation by such international bodies as the ILO and the ICFTU. Indeed, Dutch and British governments are already among those funding these efforts, keen to put in place a regime change from above that does not repeat the mess in Iraq.

What is important therefore is an international solidarity movement precisely along the lines of Hopi - against the imperialist threat, against the theocratic regime.

Tehran report

Workers managed to intervene in the 'official' demonstration and gatherings of May 1 in Tehran. They also organised their own independent demonstrations after the official gatherings.

'Pro-reformist' speakers were booed and met with slogans such as 'incompetent minister, resign! resign!'

'Government, parliament stop your slogans, act!' 'End  contract work', 'decent wage!'

Many teachers and student activists joined the protests. Security forces tried to stop the protests but they were faced with workers who shouted: 'death to the supporters of capitalists'. In the ensuing street battles stopped traffic in Taleghani Avenue, one of the main streets in central Tehran. As the protests moved to adjacent streets at around 11am civilian and military security forces intervened to arrest known labour activists.

Mansour Ossanlou (president of the Tehran Vahed bus workers) was arrested. He was released after protests and  interventions by demonstrators and passers by. Yagoub Salimi of the Vahed bus company union was also arrested and is currently in custody. Subsequently 30 busworkers staged a sit in outside Tehran prosecutor's office demanding the release of their fellow worker.

Hopi campaign gathers support

Over the couple of months it has existed, Hands Off the People of Iran has been receiving support across a broad spread of opinion. For example, a few days ago Liz Lester, chair of Camden Unison wrote: "I send greetings to your May Day meeting that has been called to oppose imperialist intervention in Iran and in opposition to the anti-working class regime in Tehran ... This May Day, it is our duty to oppose any regime that attacks the democratic rights of "¦ workers, just as it is our responsibility to oppose the American and British governments when they prepare invasion plans."

The list of supporters has been strengthened by the addition of Diane Abbott MP, two Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets, author William Blum, musicians Dick Gaughan and Leon Rosselson, anti-war artist Chris Holden, filmmaker Ken Loach, scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern, journalist John Pilger and songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson.

To add your name to the list of supporters of Hopi, sign up on the Hopi website.