Unrest in Iran


Demonstrator displays socialist tattoo

Demonstrator displays socialist tattoo

by John Edmundson

What is going on in Iran? The recent outbreak of massive demonstrations and subsequent repression by the Iranian state, in particular the Basij militias, has left many people confused. For all of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s faults, he has stood up to US imperialism over the years, refusing to bow to hypocritical US and international pressure over Iran’s nuclear programme. He has established close links with progressive governments in Latin America. Perhaps most importantly, he has stood firm on support for the right of the Palestinian people to fight for their homeland. And now he has become the subject of huge demonstrations, accusing him of rigging this month’s presidential elections, which he won with a landslide vote of over sixty percent. 

Supporters of the Iranian regime, both within Iran and around the world, have accused the demonstrators, who have adopted green as the symbol of their movement, of manipulation by Western interests, the same interests who sponsored the other “colour revolutions”, such as the orange revolution in Ukraine and the rose revolution in  Georgia. Certainly there is no doubt that the same Western interests that orchestrated those “revolutions” in Eastern Europe would like nothing better than the demise of the Iranian revolution and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They would like nothing better than the replacement of the current theocratic state by a pliable pro-Western leadership that would open up Iran to world capitalism and give imperialism (and Israel) a free rein in the Middle East. So what should the left make of the latest developments? Are we watching the latest case of a CIA engineered “colour revolution”, intended to roll back thirty years of Iranian revolution; are we seeing a new and genuine revolution of the Iranian working class and peasantry; or are we seeing something else? 

To make any sense at all of the latest events in Iran it is important to know something about the nature of the Iranian state itself, and its somewhat mercurial relationship with global capital and imperialism. The Iranian revolution that overthrew the US sponsored Shah in 1979 was the outcome of a huge mass movement that had been building for years. Key actors in that revolution were were the Iranian revolutionary left, the Mujihadeen, and the religious forces under the leadership of the Mullahs, or high ranking leaders in Shi’a Islam, focused around the leadership of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then living in exile in Paris. The common interest of the clerics and the secular left did not survive the triumphal return of Ayatollah Khomeini. The religious forces within the revolution were able to eliminate the left in a series of murders and arrests, with the remnants being forced to flee into exile or sent to the front to die in the US sponsored war against the invading Iraqi army. The hopes of the Iranian people for an end to the tyranny of the Shah were dashed with the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a state with an elected parliament and president presided over by an unelected supreme council of religious leaders.  Democratic workers’ shura councils, likened in some ways to the Soviets of the early Bolshevik period, were destroyed and replaced by Islamic shuras. Revolutionary left organisations were banned and independent trade union organising outlawed. Strict Islamic law was instituted and women have experienced humiliation and denial of rights. Homosexuality, traditionally tolerated to a degree in Iran in the past, was ruthlessly repressed. At the same time, Iran took a strong and vocal stand against US imperialism in the region, although this too was less principled than it might have been. Suspicion of the Taliban in Afghanistan meant that Iran’s relationship with the US thawed when Iran offered to cooperate with George Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom – the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. 

At the same time, the revolution did free Iran from the direct influence possible under the rule of the Shah. Iran’s economy was freed to a degree from its previous subjection to the West. Ahmadinejad himself has been described as a populist in touch with the interests and needs of Iran’s rural population. But the rhetoric and the reality have not matched. Rural Iranians have not seen the benefits Ahjmadinejad promised in campaigning before his first election. Increasing numbers have migrated into the cities, meaning that Iran is now sixty five percent urban. Iran’s economy is a modern capitalist one, with local capitalists protected to a great degree by the nationalist policies of the Islamic Republic.

The elections may well have been stolen, as the demonstrators claim, but in fact they were stolen well before they were even held. The banning of secular politics devalued the elections and ensured that the results would be no threat to the status quo. Of over two hundred prospective presidential candidates who were nominated, including forty two women, only four men passed the scrutiny of the unelected religious authorities. All four met strict religious criteria and were deemed loyal to the existing state structure. None represented a significant break with the theocratic nature of the Iranian state, or offered a promise of real change. 

The demonstrations that followed the announcement of the election results have moved rapidly though from simply demanding a recount of the vote, to a demand for greater freedom and an end to “dictatorship”. Factories have gone on strike in support of the demonstrations. Critics of the demonstrations have expressed suspicion at the use of English on placards and in the movement’s contact with Western media, with their use of a colour to brand their movement, with their support for a “pro-Western” candidate in Mousavi, and with the alleged predominance of privileged students from North Teheran. They have been branded the Twittering classes due to their use of instant messaging to report on their demonstrations. But these characterisations are simplistic. The demonstrations have drawn much broader participation, with urban and rural, young and old, student and worker support. This does not mean that a new Iranian revolution is nigh. It does not mean an end to theocratic rule is coming soon. But it does mean that this movement must be taken seriously. It must be seen as more than simply the creation of Western agents. It is just possible that what it does represent is the beginning of a shift in Iran, a country with a much repressed, but traditionally strong and militant working class; a shift towards the rebuilding of a revolutionary movement that can complete the tasks left unfinished by the Iranian revolution of 1979.

6 Responses to Unrest in Iran

  1. Paul Drake says:

    Dear John: there seems to be a very wide varience of opinion on the left with regards to Iran.

    I read your article (above) last night and I have just been on the Green Left au. site.
    I read an interesting article titled “Made in Iran: defending the protests” by Reese Erlich.

    When I read the above I felt a little uneasy that the WP are siding with Ahmidinejad’s regime on the grounds that Ahmadinejad claims that he is supporting progressive forces such as Chavas in Venezuela and Bolivia, Palestine etc.

    OK. but that seems to contradict the fellow pictured wearing the Che tattoo Is he actually participating in the demonstration? Surely this fellow must know what is going on in his own country?

    And are we to take Ahmedinejad’s loyalties at face value? How do we know that these reactionary mullas are not manipulating the left for their own ends?

    I know that the US have done some pretty dirty work behind the scene when it comes to arranging coups of regimes it doesn’t like, but as Reese Earlich suggests this may not necessarily be the case in Iran.

    There is simply no evidence!

    Also in the 19th century Iran’s clerical regime were instrumental in opressing the Bahai movement killing thousands. This was a progressive movement that wanted women to be educated first so that they could be the first prime educators of the next generation.

    Have they changed their ways? I doubt it.

  2. WP Admin says:

    “When I read the above I felt a little uneasy that the WP are siding with Ahmidinejad’s regime”

    We’re not siding with Ahmadinejad. And I quote: Ahmadinejad himself has been described as a populist in touch with the interests and needs of Iran’s rural population. But the rhetoric and the reality have not matched.

    The article argues that a wide swathe of Iranians oppose Ahmadinejad, and they shouldn’t be judged as imperialist lackeys. Particularly given the Iranian secular left was quashed by the Ayatollahs who back Ahmadinejad.

    So to clarify, we side with the popular masses of Iran, opposing both Western imperialism and reactionary theocratic rule.

  3. John Edmundson says:

    I suppose I have to take responsibility if my article was able to be misinterpreted by a regular visitor to our site. So to reiterate, the WP does not support Ahmadinejad and the clerical state in it’s electoral dispute with Mousavi. We support Iran in any conflict it has with imperialism, but that is regardless of criticisms we might have of the Iranian theocracy.

    I started the article by stating that the repression has caused confusion due to Ahmadinejad’s “apparent” anti-imperialist credentials, which I then listed. I then noted that people have drawn parallels with the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, but challenged that simple correlation.

    I felt that by summarising the history of Iran since the revolution, and stating that the elections had been stolen “before” they were even held, I was making it clear that we are not siding with the theocracy.

    Since that message obviously didn’t come through clearly enough, I’ll take this opportunity to thank Paul Drake for raising this and thus giving us the opportunity to clarify where we stand.

  4. relic says:

    The start of the post needed two readings for me to determine the writers intent, that is now clear thank you. Ahmadinejad is a legacy of a religo/political system that is no workers friend. The ’79 revolution saw soon enough the near destruction of the Tudeh (communist) party of Iran via executions and imprisonments after initially being invited to participate in the new regime. Iranian communists had been basically underground previously for most of their existence. Every couple of weeks I seem to be sending off emails to Iranian government officials in response to appeals from various solidarity groups and union centres such as the Geneva based IUF, about imprisoned unionists beaten and denied medical care or due process. On May Day 2009 violence was employed against unionists trying to merely rally in the Iranian capital. It is pretty clear what the Iranian states actual position is towards the organised working class despite what their stated anti US imperialist position might be on certain international matters, not to negate the importance of the latter.

    The guts of this for me is really one of the defining issues for any marxist-namely their attitude to particular reforms (as distinct from supporting ‘reformism’ aka social democracy). Should they be supported at all? Or with what qualifications or provisos? Reforms can deliver some things to some people but at always at a cost. In NZ ‘Working for families” for example dropped a bit of cash on mid level families, ok for them perhaps, but, it let employers off the hook. Taxpayers funded what organised workers should have been squeezing out of bosses. Such measures disguise the true nature of capitalist exploitation.

    However in the case of Iran, how much should people have to suffer? Seeking a bourgeois democracy is a flawed step, yes, but possibly preferable to perpetuating a woman/gay/union hating theocracy. I say support immediate demands of the young Iranians (under 30s apparently now constitute the majority of the population) the Iranian working class, AND raise the banner for socialism.

  5. Paul Drake says:

    Thanks John that is a lot clearer now.

  6. salman says:

    im from iran. i can refer you to some of the leftist organizations in iran. they all fight for a soviet state:


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