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.