Support the protests in Iran!

From a talk by Mark Williams at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group
(July 26, 2009)

. In June, the Iranian people took to the streets in a series of massive and militant battles against the brutal rule of the Islamic clerical regime. The actions were sparked by the recent presidential elections. The incumbent tyrant, Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner by a huge margin, but a large section of the masses considered the election results to be a fraud. The main electoral rival to Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, was no friend of the people, but himself a former tyrannical prime minister and ardent supporter of the theocracy. But he had promised to ease up on some of the severe social restrictions and painted himself as a reform candidate. When he appeared to have lost by fraud, large sections of the masses were outraged. All the anger and bitterness from three decades of theocratic repression boiled over. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, took to the streets of the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere. The regime responded with savagery, murdering about 19 protesters in an effort to quell the rebellion. But the masses anger could not be quelled. They faced off against the regime's police and paramilitary goons. On some occasions masses of protesters charged the police, forcing them to retreat, and seizing the streets from them for a time. There were reports of protesters attacking known regime thugs in the communities. Meanwhile, Mousavi, was forced to posture for a bit as a protest leader, calling for protests for a while. But soon enough he retreated, called on the masses to tone down their actions, and confined himself to appealing to the government to look into the fraud he accused it of organizing.

. The protests have died down for now. But they showed the shaky nature of the Iranian ruling clerics. They are hated by the wide sections of the population. And there are deep divisions between different factions of the ruling elite. The protests have taught the masses they can defy the police-state government. And this can only encourage further struggles so that one day the masses can topple the whole system of clerical rule.

. The Islamic theocracy that now rules Iran came into power in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew the hated US-backed Shah in 1979. The Shah had been put in power following a coup organized by the US against the democratically-elected reform regime of Mossadegh in 1953. (His main crime for the US and other imperialist powers was nationalizing Iranian oil. ) This was a great uprising of the masses, with the strikes of oil workers and mass protests by other sections of the masses delivering the fatal blows to the Shah. But the revolution was hijacked by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers (including both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi). They established the new clerical rule by a reign of terror against the organizations of the working masses, leftist activists, and even the liberal, secular bourgeois opposition.

. The new Islamic fundamentalist regime pretended to be revolutionary and anti-imperialist, but was a horror for the masses. The new governmental system was entirely subordinated to fanatical clerics who imposed their repressive social codes and anti-women oppression. The oppression of national minorities continued in full force.

. There was a pretense of democratic elections to a parliament and other offices, but the game was rigged so that the reactionary clerics were bound to win. For example, in the recent and previous presidential elections, only the candidates approved by the regime's Council of Guardians can run. They eliminated 400 candidates from the field before the elections. Half of this Council is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, the so-called Supreme Leader, who has dictatorial powers. The Council of Guardians also is allowed to veto any law passed by the parliament if it does not jive with their version of Islamic theology. Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader has sole control of the internal police forces and the armed forces and can use them as he sees fit with no oversight. In the economic sphere, a large state economy was set up. But this was controlled by the clerics, who used it to make their own fortunes. They coupled this with a few charitable programs to throw some crumbs to the masses, whose organizations they had destroyed. For several years, there's been an intense privatization campaign in which the state assets become the private property of the Iranian elite, inside and outside the government, and foreign investors. (More on this later. )

. This system has weighed down on the Iranian masses for 30 years. So while the election controversies led to the recent demonstrations, the underlying basis for them was decades of resentment against being held down by the theocratic dictatorship.

Undemocratic elections cast doubt about who won

. This is the background to the election protests. But what do we think really happened in the elections? One thing is for sure, the elections were not democratic. The fact that the candidates had to be approved by the regime is proof enough of this. And in fact past elections have not been democratic either. It follows that whether or not Ahmadinejad won or not is not the main issue, but that the masses took the opportunity to rise up against the regime that allows no really free elections.

. Whether Ahmadinejad actually won or not, we do not know with certainty. However, many serious questions about the voting totals have been raised. It's reported that polling observers were removed by the regime, and if this is so, there was no oversight to the vote totals they reported. There's also a shocking swing of votes in the countryside, where oppressed ethnic minorities have never voted for conservative candidates like Ahmadinejad. It's as if the Republicans suddenly got a big chunk of the black vote in the US elections. And the mere fact that there was a huge increase in turnout compared to 2005 when anti-Ahmadinejad forces chose to boycott the election fraud, also make the official results suspect, to say the least.

Ahmadinejad: anti-worker thug, fake anti-imperialist

. Whatever the true vote totals were, the fact is that Ahmadinijad is an enemy of the Iranian masses and the struggle against him and the rest of the regime is the order of the day. Apologists for him, and that, shamefully, includes certain groups which claim to be anti-imperialist, Marxist, etc. paint him up as Robin Hood who is raising up the living standards of the masses.

. The facts speak against this. The workers and poor are groaning under mass unemployment and runaway inflation which is raising the cost of basic necessities. Here and there, Ahmadinejad offers a few sops to mitigate this. But the workers are denied the right to organize independent trade unions and other organizations that challenge the government and the capitalists. And when they dare to protest and organize for better conditions, he crushes them. Thus, for example, Ahmadinejad arrested the leaders of a strike of 17,000 bus drivers in 2005, and arrested them again in 2006. The president of that independent union still sits in prison today. In 2007 teachers protests were attacked by security forces and its leaders sent to prison. Ahmadinjad has also overseen a rewrite of 2006 labor laws allowing employers to toss aside employee contracts and dismiss workers for such crimes as not being as productive as they once were.

. Ahmadinejad's "jobs program" to deal with massive unemployment is to build up the paramilitary forces that attack the working masses. This is similar to the US where the working class youth find themselves recruited into the armed forces because of lack of job opportunities elsewhere.

. Ahmadinejad also has accepted the idea that the expansion of private capitalism and international capitalist investment will save Iran's economy. When the Islamic clerics took over, they created their own large state-capitalist sector, where the government owned much of banking and key industries. Part of the economy was also turned over to so-called charitable trusts, called "bonyads", which were in fact mainly havens for the enrichment of those members of the elite favored by the ruling clerics. The state sector too was not run for the benefit of society, but became a way for the ruling clerics to set up their own little economic empires within the state sector. This was a horrible system, and Ahmadinejad demagogically campaigned against those who had gotten wealthy under it, especially if they were backers of his political rivals.

. But now the state-capitalist system is being replaced to a large degree. The Supreme Leader, Khameini, is for privatization of state assets, selling them off to private capitalists. And Ahmadinijad is on board. One of his ministers even promotes this as an anti-imperialist measure, since it will supposedly undermine US sanctions aimed at weakening the economy. There are plans underway to privatize about 80% of the state companies. Rules restricting foreign investment have been loosened. And so the economy is being turned over to the market capitalists, at home and abroad, to do with as they please. In order to attract investors however, there is a drive to make companies more profitable, and this goes hand-in-hand with Ahmadinejad's efforts to make it easier to eliminate jobs and his general suppression of the workers.

. Ahmadinijad tries to give privatization a populist spin by backing the idea of selling shares of the privatized companies at discounted rates to the poorer sections of the masses. These are called "justice shares." How holding a few shares of stock is supposed to solve the problems of the masses is anyone's guess. If the companies they hold stock in become actually pay dividends to them, its only because the companies issuing such dividends have been more adept at cutting jobs, wages and benefits. Or the stocks may be worthless as are the auto stocks held by the retiree health care trusts run by the UAW. In any case, it's been noted that similar schemes were floated in Russia when its economy was privatized. This didn't raise general living standards, but helped create the new Russian economic oligarchy.

. Well, some of Ahmadinejad's admirers admit, he may not be on the side of workers economically, and he may enforce brutal measures against women, minorities, gays, etc. But, he's "anti-imperialist". He denounces US domination, doesn't he?

. Yes, he does. But the Iranian government is not on the side of the anti-imperialist masses, but sees Iran as a regional power wielding a sphere of influence in the Middle East. It is a rival for domination of the region, not an opponent of it. Thus, while it denounces US policies that weaken it, the regime has also cooperated with the US when it served their interests. It has at times cooperated with the US against the Taliban in Afghanistan because the Taliban challenges various pro-Iranian warlords in that country. And it was not too sad to see the US depose Saddam Hussein, who it saw as a rival regional threat. Indeed, in the '80s, the Iranian regime waged a bloody eight-year war because of this rivalry. Meanwhile, the US occupation has been an occasion for the Iranian government to befriend the pro-US Iraqi government and extend its economic influence in that country. The Iranian regime, including Ahmadinejad, does not oppose foreign capitalist investment, but is courting it, and it opposes US sanctions in part because it limits foreign capitalist investment and other economic ties. Meanwhile, officials appointed by him are cooperating with the IMF to reduce subsidies that help the masses survive and change laws restricting foreign capital.

. The Iranian government also presents itself as a proponent of liberation movements. It gives some aid Hezbollah, an Islamic fundamentalist group that fought the Israeli invasion into southern Lebanon a few years ago, and Hamas, the Palestinian group. But this aid goes to groups that undermine secular, progressive and working-class trends that are needed to advance the cause of liberation from imperialism and Israeli Zionism.

. Then there's Ahmadinijad's notorious anti-semitism, such as giving credibility to holocaust deniers. This undermines anti-zionism and anti-imperialism and gives Israel an easy way to pose as the put-upon party, not the aggressive menace it is.

Mousavi: an old enemy with new reform colors

. The main rival to Ahmadinijad, Mir-Houssein Mousavi, is portrayed in the mainstream media as a kindly, reform-minded gentleman. Actually, he has a notorious history. He served as the clerical regime's Prime Minister during the '80s. He helped bring death and destruction to the Iranian and Iraqi masses by pursuing the Iran-Iraq war. In 1988 he executed thousands of leftist political prisoners, dumping them in mass graves. He supports the merging of religion and the state like the present Iranian rulers and his own political trend touts its religious virtues. It is also widely known that one of the most powerful figures of the clerical rule, Rafsanjani, who used his position to become a billionaire capitalist, is one of his main backers.

. In recent years, Mousavi has gotten a facelift, and come out for a relaxation of some of the strict social codes enforced by the more extreme religious fanatics like Ahmadinejad. He also is know as a supporter of free-market policies and further integration into the world capitalist market. He considers Ahmadinejad's policies as an obstacle to making this happen. All in all, he is another enemy of the masses. His main campaign differences with Ahmadinejad were that he would slightly loosen up the restrictions on women. In international affairs he would use a more diplomatic approach toward the Western powers in place of Ahmadinejad's empty rhetoric. Overall he shares much with Ahmadinejad, however. Neither challenge a clerical dictatorship. They both are for privatization and market reforms. They both are for developing the Iranian nuclear program. They both denounce Israel and feign support for the Palestinian cause.

. Nevertheless, the election revealed a serious rivalry between factions of the ruling elite. There are different power centers among the rulers and bitter rivalries. There are a number of ideas about what is behind them, and I won't get into that right now. But what's safe to say is that the rivalry is not about who is on the side of the poor or who is anti-imperialist. Neither are.

US policy

. The Obama administration has condemned the regime's violence against the protestors but has not declared for either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi. This isn't because the US is suddenly against interfering in other countries' affairs, as Obama claims. No, just as under Bush, the US is waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan and meddling everywhere to one degree or another. The US remains an imperialist monster threatening the world. But in the case of Iran, the Obama administration has a somewhat subtler policy than Bush. Bush just declared Iran the evil empire and threatened it. Obama has maintained the sanctions and threats, but is also more amenable to diplomatic ties with the Iranian rulers. His administration would like to cooperate with Iran to deal with Afghanistan, for instance. So while it criticizes the regime, it does not want to cut off ties to the present government of Ahmedinejad or the power-structure that lies behind it. It wouldn't mind if Mousavi won either, and may actually prefer that. Previous US administrations had funneled funds to various oppositional Iranian forces. But the force propelling the demonstrations is not Obama or the CIA, and not even Mousavi. It's the rotten nature of the present rulers.

. Certain Republican politicians are yelling that Obama is weak on Iran, seeking to score political points. But it's mainly bluster, and they offer no real alternative except Bush-style rhetoric against Iran.

. The truth is the US cannot control what's going on inside Iran today, whatever it's wishes. That doesn't mean US imperialism is no longer seeking to dominate the Middle East. It strives to keep Iran in check today so that nothing may threaten US interests and the rotten regimes it supports there, especially Israel. But that doesn't mean that it can control everything that happens. Often, like in Iran now, it can not control the outcome of the elections or the resultant protests.

. Nevertheless it is clear that US policy in the region does threaten the Iranian people. US imperialism is still the big bully in the region. Its cries of outrage about the Iranian regime are hypocritical as the US's beloved friend, Israel, bludgeons the entire Palestinian population decade after decade. The main target of the current protests of the Iranian people rightly is the gang of thugs running their country. But that doesn't mean the US has become a friend.

Support the protests in Iran

. Workers and progressive activists in the US should enthusiastically support the struggle of the Iranian masses against the regime. Their actions are a step forward in the battle to overthrow the entire clerical structure crushing the people. The demise of the Iranian rulers will mean be a step forward for workers in Iran, it will free women from second-class status, and it will help the oppressed nationalities win their rights.

. For this to happen though, it's vital for the Iranian workers and poor to build up their own organizations of struggle. This is very hard under the dictatorship, but it must be done. Such groups can prevent the struggle from being hijacked by the likes of Mousavi, by exposing his role and providing a really militant alternative. The demonstrations themselves showed that the masses are willing to go farther than Mousavi. They raised slogans that Mousavi wouldn't dare raise that targeted the Supreme Ruler Khameini and the whole system he leads. While Mousavi lectured the people in the streets to not be angry with the police and paramilitary forces, the masses unleashed their anger upon them. No doubt a lot of Iranian people still have illusions in Mousavi at present. But Mousavi will not meet the hopes placed in him, and this will provide an opening for real organizations of the masses to begin to take root.

. While supporting the rebellious masses in Iran, we must also expose and fight the imperialist policy of the Obama government regarding Iran and the region. We should continue to fight against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and denounce support for Israel and other reactionary regimes. We should oppose US bullying and threats against Iran and US efforts to hijack the struggle against the Iranian regime. Liberation of the Iranian people can only be won by their struggle.

. In order to really support the Iranian people, activists here must also condemn those pseudo-leftists, who apologize for the regime. They claim that all opposition to the regime must really be a US plot. This shows they really have no faith in the ability of the masses to act in their own right. And standing with punks like Ahmadinijad will only make it harder to rally the working masses here against imperialism. <>


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Last modified on December 22, 2009.
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