Between Revolt and Repression in Iran

Bloody repression in the streets, political maneuvering at the top, and continued popular organizing from below signal a new stage in Iran’s post-election crisis as the country’s ruling class is increasingly haunted by the specter of revolution.

The crackdown intensified five days after the June 16 demonstration of up to 2 million people in Tehran protesting the disputed re-election claim of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Offices were shut down as large numbers of workers stayed away from their jobs.

This great outpouring recalled the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, the hated US-backed dictator. Many protesters revived the anti-Shah chant, “Down with the dictator.” Video and photos of the great mobilization inspired people around the world who support democracy and social justice, and set off alarm bells for despots in the Middle East. While the Iranian protests began over a stolen presidential election, their increasing size and intensity raises the possibility of revolutionary change in Iran and beyond.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared during Friday prayers June 19 that there would be “bloodshed and chaos” if the protests continued. “Street challenge is not acceptable,” he declared.

The basij militias, paramilitary groups that patrol the streets for supposedly un-Islamic behavior, such as immodest dress by women, made good on Khamanei’s threats, attacking supporters of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi the following day.

One killing captured on video — the shooting of 21-year-old Neda Agha Soltan on June 20 — quickly came to symbolize the human toll of the vicious crackdown. But as with previous attacks, protesters fought back, even though their numbers were smaller than previous protests.

As a university professor wrote of his decision to demonstrate that day, along with students:

“After the Supreme Leader’s fierce speech at the Friday prayers, we knew that today we would be different. We feel so vulnerable, more than ever, but at the same time are aware of our power. No matter how strong it is collectively, it will do little to protect us today. We could only take our bones and flesh to the streets and expose them to batons and bullets. Two different feelings fight inside me without mixing with one another. To live or to just be alive, that’s the question.”

He added:

Here’s a true battleground. And this time, it’s huge. Columns of smoke rise to the sky. You can hardly see the asphalt. Only bricks and stones. Here, people have the upper hand. Three lanes, the middle one separated by opaque fences, under construction for the metro.

The workers have climbed up the fences and show the V [for victory] sign. They start throwing stone and timber to the street to supply the armament. I tell myself, “Look at the poor, the ones Ahmadinejad always speaks of.” But the president’s name is no longer in fashion. This time, the slogans address the leader, something unheard of in the past three decades. It’s a beautiful sunset, with rays of light penetrating evening clouds. We feel safe among people moving back forth with the anti-riot police attacks.

That day, using batons, chains, knives and occasionally bullets, the basij injured and arrested hundreds of people. Security personnel also added to the death toll among protesters, which official reports put at 19 as of June 22.

The overwhelming security presence on the street, along with violent attacks on university dormitories and arrests of prominent opposition figures, made protest increasingly difficult the following days — police even prevented a funeral service for Neda Agha Soltan.

Despite the repression, the mass movement that took shape around Mousavi’s election campaign has already been transformed into a broader fight for democracy. It will not dissipate anytime soon, whatever the intention of the candidate and his handlers.

In Tehran, protesters unable to mount street protests have taken to literally shouting from the rooftops at night to show their continued defiance. The mass demonstrations may have subsided owing to the crackdown, but the movement has not been crushed. The movement may be regrouping, but it has not disappeared.

This pressure has pushed Mousavi, a moderate former prime minister, into the unlikely role of champion for democratic reform.

A Facebook page attributed to Mousavi stated that he is “ready for martyrdom” and called on his supporters to carry out a general strike if he is arrested. And in an open letter to supporters issued June 21, Mousavi declared that, if allowed to stand, Iran’s election fraud would validate criticisms that Islam and democracy were incompatible:

If the high volume of cheating and vote manipulation that has put a fire to the foundations of people’s trust is itself introduced as the proof and evidence of the lack of fraud, the republicanism of the regime will be slaughtered and the idea of incompatibility of Islam and republicanism would be practically proven.

Such statements reflect the enormous pressure that the mass movement has put on the reformist leader. “Poor Mousavi, we took the easel away from his hands and gave him a gun,” one supporter joked to the Financial Times, in a reference to the candidate’s turn to painting while he was out of the public eye for most of the last two decades.

Yet it is far from clear that Mousavi is willing to use the “gun” of wider mobilizations and general strikes to force a recount of the stolen election or a rerun vote, let alone thoroughgoing democratic reforms. As an establishment politician and an integral member of the Iranian ruling class, he will be extremely reluctant to call forth the semi-underground labor movement that has waged intermittent strikes and protests since 2004.

Iranian reformers — like, for example, former President Mahmoud Khatami — have always oriented to educated and upper-class liberals while pursuing economic policies detrimental to workers and the poor. As a result, Ahmadinejad was able to strike a populist pose to win the 2005 presidential elections — with the help of vote fraud to get into a runoff election, which he won handily against Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful cleric, former president and one of the richest men in Iran.

In office, Ahmadinejad was anything but a friend to the working class. He pursued policies of privatization to enrich his coterie around the national security apparatus and ruthlessly suppressed efforts at organizing independent unions. He tried to maintain popularity through a nationalist stance, defending Iran’s nuclear energy program against pressure from the West.

And in the run-up to the June 12 vote, Ahmadinejad made much-publicized handouts to the poor and bonuses for government employees to boost turnout for the election. He apparently assumed that middle-class liberals, disillusioned by Khatami’s failure to stand up to attacks on pro-democracy activists, would stay home, as they had in 2005.

By 2009, Ahmadinejad faced a challenge from both Mousavi and Rafsanjani. These former rivals (Rafsanjani had ousted Mousavi by abolishing the post of prime minister in 1989) made common cause to stop Ahmadinejad from consolidating power.

The Iranian president, with the backing of Khamenei, had systematically installed figures from the basij and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into key positions in government and the national oil company, displacing or squeezing the big capitalists around Rafsanjani, who jealously guard that turf. Beyond personnel questions, however, Iranian capitalists are leery of Ahmadinejad’s half-baked “development” projects that used state oil revenues to consolidate his base among the poor, rather than spending the money on strategic investments.

For his part, Mousavi was seen as an ideal candidate for the power brokers around Rafsanjani as well as the reformists. Having stressed the social justice side of Islam while prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, he can appeal to workers and the poor in a way that Rafsanjani never could. He also has credentials as a hard-liner: as prime minister, he presided over the execution of as many as 5,000 political prisoners.

Nowadays, though, Mousavi portrays himself as a liberal by championing the rights of women and national minorities, an effort that helped revived an interest in politics among Khatami’s voters.

Mousavi’s support, which surged into the streets of Tehran and other cities in the days before the election, forced Ahmadinejad to resort to massive vote fraud to claim victory.

According to a study by the British think tank Chatham House, the number of votes cast in the provinces of Mazandaran and Yazd exceeds the total number of eligible voters. The authors estimate that if Ahmadinejad really won 62 percent of the vote claimed by the authorities, he would have had to won the votes of all new voters, all the votes of his last centrist rival, plus 44 percent of those who voted for reformist candidates in 2005. This is so unlikely as to be absurd.

As the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, said on television June 20, “A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different from what was officially announced,” adding, “Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate.”

As popular pressure mounted, the head of the 12-member Guardian Council, the body of clerics that approves election candidates, issued a surprising report June 22 that votes supposedly cast in more than 50 Iranian cities were actually higher than the number of eligible voters.

The Guardian Council’s announcement contradicts the earlier claim by Khamenei that Ahmadinejad had won a “definitive victory,” and marks a retreat from the council’s earlier position that it would only review 10 percent of the ballots.

Now there are even doubts that the council will uphold the election results when it makes its final ruling in the coming days. This vacillation partly reflects the influence of Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful members of the Guardian Council. But if the council reverses course and annuls the election or orders a recall, it will be because the clerics fear a revolutionary upsurge. Having hijacked a workers’ revolution to take power 30 years ago, the clerics understand full well the risks they face.

At the same time, Rafsanjani is rumored to be trying to assemble an emergency meeting of the 86-member Council of Experts, which chooses Iran’s supreme leader. The apparent aim is to remove Khamenei from power, which would decisively weaken Ahmadinejad as well.

Adding fuel to the fire is Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the country’s senior cleric, who endorsed protests to “claim rights.” According to religious criteria, Montazeri should have been the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding leader of the Islamic Republic in 1979, but was shoved aside and later placed under house arrest for several years.

In short, the competing factions of the Iranian ruling class are hesitating before they make irrevocable choices that could shatter the Islamist regime.

For Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the question is whether a crackdown would succeed in drowning resistance in blood, or provoke a wider revolutionary challenge to their rule. For Mousavi and Rafsanjani, the choice is whether to accept a humiliating deal that would greatly diminish their power, or encourage the rebellion, and try to ride it to victory.

Meanwhile, the potential for far broader struggle for democracy is apparent. The Tehran bus drivers’ union, which has fought to improve wages and conditions, despite the beatings and arrests of union leaders, issued this statement June 20:

The fact that the demands of the vast majority of Iranian society go far beyond those of unions is obvious to all, and in the previous years, we have emphasized that until the principle of the freedom to organize and to elect is not materialized, any talk of social freedom and labor union rights will be a farce.

Given these facts, the Autobus Workers Union places itself alongside all those who are offering themselves in the struggle to build a free and independent civic society. The union condemns any kind of suppression and threats.

To recognize labor union and social rights in Iran, the international labor organizations have declared the Fifth of Tir (June 26) the international day of support for imprisoned Iranian workers as well as for the institution of unions in Iran. We want that this day be viewed as more than a day for the demands of labor unions to make it a day for human rights in Iran and to ask all our fellow workers to struggle for the trampled rights of the majority of the people of Iran.

With hope for the spread of justice and freedom,
Autobus Workers Union

It’s impossible to predict the next turn of events in Iran. But what is clear is that the struggles of the Iranian working class — not the maneuvers at the top of society — are the key to taking the movement forward.

Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 28th, 2009 at 2:59pm #

    so, why is west interfering in iranian affairs if clerics are privatising national riches? Isn’t that what US, et al want? Greater and greater americanization of also iran.

    the working class in iran must be for nationalization, more democracy, and abolishment of a theocracy; which, of course, wld occlude any fairness, freedoms, etc?!

    question arises then whether the west opposes clerics in iran solely because they want to establish a one binat’l state in palestine? tnx

  2. Max Shields said on June 29th, 2009 at 6:52am #

    bozh, “so, why is west interfering in iranian affairs if clerics are privatising national riches? Isn’t that what US, et al want? Greater and greater americanization of also iran.”

    You are exactly right! But of course, this makes too much sense for the twisted notions of rioters are “good”, government “bad”.

    Not one word about the hundreds of millions the US is spending to destablize and undermine the regime. This is simply buying Fox News hook line and sinker.

    This is not a Dissident Voice….this is MSM bait and switch. This guy knows what the majority of Iranians want?

    He, like the MSM, has taken the election issue and blown it out of factual proportion.

    Than this “writer” quotes fucking “Facebook”!!! Idiot.

  3. KL5 said on June 29th, 2009 at 1:44pm #

    Max Shields – “Not one word about the hundreds of millions the US is spending to destablize and undermine the regime. This is simply buying Fox News hook line and sinker.”

    FoxNews, “War on Terror”, has brainwashed Usan Blacks and Latinos, now it ‘s brainwashing iranian vagabonds in USA and Europe.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 1st, 2009 at 2:51am #

    Sustar’s piece has been rendered quaint, or worse, by the sequence of events, where the legitimacy of the election has been established beyond serious doubt, in accord with the pre-poll opinion polls. The collapse of the opposition has left Mousavi exposed, the ‘Twitter’ revolution has been exposed as Western organised disinformation, the death of the ‘martyr’ Neda looks more and more like a set-up, and the influence of the Western destabilisation apparatus, that has had billions at its disposal, from both US and allied government and emigre sources, can no longer be ignored. I must say it strikes me as an odd type of ‘socialist’ indeed who places any reliance on Chatham House, or who openly aligns themselves with US ‘regime change’ machinations. But then again perhaps tribal, racial or xenophobic motivations trump common sense and decency in these cases.

  5. Shabnam said on July 3rd, 2009 at 9:52am #

    This paper does not represent an accurate account of the situation in Iran and is mainly spreading propaganda to form public opinion against Iran and to demonize Ahmadinejad for further action. We have seen this kind of campaign in case of Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Venezuela and other country in the past. He writes:

    [In office, Ahmadinejad was anything but a friend to the working class. He pursued policies of privatization to enrich his coterie around the national security apparatus and ruthlessly suppressed efforts at organizing independent unions.]

    Ahmadinejad is not the architect of Article 44, privatization law, but Rafsanjani, a corrupt businessman and a pragmatist along with Khatami, a Reformist, who have close connection with the West are the main architect of article 44 where the highest number of privatization took place under Khatami where already where was initiated under Rafsanjani, NOT AHMADINEJAD. During Ahmadinejad, contrary to what the write, the speed of privatization process diminished due to impediments not accepted to Ahmadinejad.

    There are about three million impoverished women in Iran who weave carpets in their homes. It was not either Rafsanjani or Khatami to give them full insurance rather it was Ahmadinejad who brought a law to give them full insurance. Also, Ahmadinejad initiated distribution of some government-owned enterprises’ shares called “Justice Shares,” to redistribute state wealth to the low income Iranians. Justice shares are mutual fund shares of the state-owned enterprises that are privatized. Please correct your notes.
    Ahmadinejad was elected against Rafsanjni with 2 to 1 margin in 2005 election because he promised to fight corruption meaning rich families like Rafsanjani and Nouri and others who have enriched themselves using their influence in the government. He also promised to bring ‘oil money to people ‘s dinner table and protect Iran nuclear energy program, where was compromised during Khatami – many Iranians believed – and improve Iran’s security which is encircled with the biggest terrorist state on earth, the United States and its allies including Israel. He has fulfilled some of his promises, and need more time to work on the others. Ahmadinejad victory is legitimate. This is part of the coup that the imperialist and Zionist planned before the election because according to many polls they have conducted independently they knew the winner is Ahmadinejad by wide margin. A review of all the ‘color revolution’ around the world which started by calling the result ‘fraud’ when their puppet does not win, then they use their 5th column agents as well as their terrorist groups, such as MUJAHEDEEN-e-KHALQ, inside and outside the country to bring chaos and speed up destabilization process to fool their own citizens like MANY TIMES IN THE PAST for ‘regime change’ to take control of Iran resources and her destiny and expanding Israel influence in the region.

    For this purpose, the lawmakers’ call for greater U.S. support for the Iranian resistance groups — including the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), for regime change. The US and Israel have close relations with this terrorist group and many suspect that this terrorist and their supporters inside the country were involved in the recent riot in Iran. Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an Israeli think tank, is trying very hard to remove MEK from the list.

    At a Capitol Hill press conference on June 26th, Rep. Bob Filner, a Zionist Jew, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, argued the U.S. should explicitly side with Iranian “resistance groups”, including the MEK despite the fact its name in on the terrorist list of the State Department. Joining Filner in the call for greater U.S. support for the MEK was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who fought alongside the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet Union. Rohrabacher is a Zionist and friend of Abramoff, the Zionist thief who was convicted.
    American people must rise and force these Zionists out of the office and free occupied territories including WH, Senate and Congress. Shame on America.
    The Qazvin regional intelligence department reported that suspects had confessed to connections with groups including the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedeen, the armed wing of a France-based opposition group, the National Resistance Council of Iran. The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States, and Iran has repeatedly blamed it for inciting post-election unrest.
    [One killing captured on video — the shooting of 21-year-old Neda Agha Soltan on June 20 — quickly came to symbolize the human toll of the vicious crackdown.]

    Regarding the shooting of Neda Agha Soltan, I think Mr. Suster should handle this case with great care otherwise he will be discredited if Iranian Judiciary found that she was not killed by Iranian forces. We have been told SHE WAS TARGETED TO CREATE A FACE FOR THE OPPOSITON IN IRAN. This kind of fabrication is very common by Zionists and imperialist forces. The United States, biggest terrorist on earth, found fabricated a story in 1991 the first Persian Gulf aggression to fabricate evidence for Saddam brutality beyond any doubt in Kuwait when American thugs, according to CIA plan, said Saddam ordered his military personnel to throw all the embryos out of the incubators to kill them. This story was aired by a Zionist whore, daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat, to form public opinion against Saddam. Later, it was revealed that the story was fabricated by CIA under Bush administration. We also remember fabricated story of ‘yellow cake’ and related stories where it was leaked and someone, Mr. Kelly from Britain, gave his life for it and ICC, the zionofasicst judges, did not charge Blair for war crimes but instead they went after Al-Bashir who is trying to save his country from “Save Darfur” a terrorist group mainly made of zionist Jews formed and supported by Israel for ‘regime change’ in Sudan to help ‘the greater Israel’ project which is going from Mauritania to Afghanistan.
    According to Neda’s fiancé, she was not present in the main street among protester; rather she was in a street away from the protesters talking to her teacher inside a car. She got tired and in order to stretch her leg she got out of the car and it was at that moment that she was shot. No security forces were present in the street since it was away from the main street where protester was present. Furthermore, the type of bullet that killed her is not used by Iranian security forces, has been reported.
    Neda’s fiancé said her heart was hit with a bullet. However, there was a rumor that she was hit in the back from a short distance. There are many conflicting stories aound her case. No one really knows why Neda, a YOUNG and attractive WOMAN with a suitable NAME Neda, in Persian means VOICE, was targeted.
    Ahmadinejad has asked the Judiciary chief to conduct a thorough investigation into the death of Neda Aqa-Soltan, an Iranian woman who was shot dead in Tehran’s post-vote protests.

  6. Melissa said on July 3rd, 2009 at 10:17am #

    Thank you, Shabnam!

  7. Max Shields said on July 3rd, 2009 at 10:22am #

    What concerns me, Shabnam, is that this author writes for the Socialist Worker.

    We’ve had debates on this blog about the use of Socialism and whether it serves a purpose (not that elements don’t) as we emerge from a marketing of ideas which wash all meaning from them.

    Here, and apparently a Marxist organization in Latin America, has continued to push this wild and totally unsupported idea that Iran is in “revolt” and that it is a leftist/socialist one at that!!!

    Hogwash. When Obama was elected, that symbolism took the wind out of whatever little solidarity there was.

    By the way, a former Congresswoman and US citizen, and candidate for POTUS has been jailed by Israel. Where’s the US demand to release her and her Noble prize winning colleague? Where’ this Obama- rama guy calling for their release??

  8. Shabnam said on July 3rd, 2009 at 1:18pm #

    Melissa, Thank you very much. I hope people are more cautious before making any conclusion.

    I agree with you when you write “this author writes for the Socialist Worker.” As I wrote earlier I was shocked to see article after article where were appeared at Zmag website, more or less, were siding with Mousavi believing the elections was fraud. I am sure these people must have heard about number of independent polls where were conducted weeks before the elections including one by ‘the New American Foundation.’ We were told the elections was rigged because the result published early after people cast their votes not realizing that Iranian elections process, like other places, has been partly computerized, in addition to fewer number of candidates, 4 people this elections, running this time compare to last time where were 7 people.
    No one says Iran does not have problems. In fact, Iran has a real problem and that is schism, especially in Tehran which should be taken care of. Tehran is split between two different groups of people, one who has more internationalist worldview and cooperates with the west propaganda and the other group who has more nationalistic view and is suspicious of the west motif. Both, in my opinion, are exaggerating. The destabilization plan contributes to this division and makes it wider to put one against the other. Majority of NGOs who are active in different areas including, ‘women movement’, Labor movement, Youth movement or Human rights, are trained in different conferences in Persian Gulf, like Dubai, or Germany, India by a grant provided by the West to teach them how to push their agenda, live in Tehran.

  9. Deadbeat said on July 3rd, 2009 at 4:07pm #

    Shabnam writes …

    I agree with you when you write “this author writes for the Socialist Worker.” As I wrote earlier I was shocked to see article after article where were appeared at Zmag website, more or less, were siding with Mousavi believing the elections was fraud.

    I’m not. Zmag is a big promoter of Chomskyism and has been for years. Z-Mag, most especially Michael Albert, has been trying to persuade the Left away from Marxism for years (with his “Parecon” fallacy) and also disfavored Nader’s candidacy in 2004. Albert also has been a big promoter of the “War for Oil” canard and supported the discombobulation of the anti-war movement and threw his support for John Kerry.

    Since Chomsky and his ilk are signatories of Hopi it makes sense that they would favor Mousavi. Z-Mag is a very good reflection of the mindset of the Chomskyite “Left” and their tactics of obscuring the influence of Zionism on the U.S. political economy.

  10. Shabnam said on July 3rd, 2009 at 8:17pm #

    Thank you for your comment. I agree with you. I was shocked because Zmag did not present one article with an alternative position. I know for sometimes now that Zmag cannot be trusted. Majority of people who leave comments do not buy their position. This is one of the comments written under Mr. Lee Sustar’ article in Zmag:

    [“colour revolution”. The same old song as it was in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Even more so in Iran – and Z posts FOUR articles repeating imperialist media prop! What good for leftists come from such “revolutions” before? Not mentioning what good for “unwashed mass”? Zunes is notorious for his support for imperialsm-founded coups, and Dreyfuss support is for the people who could be in another time and place murders of captured communards. Really, Z could do better. Or coud it?]

    The Campaign for peace and democracy (CPD) has cooperation with Zmag. Chomsky has signed all their petitions written against Iranian government. Many have accused CPD is spreading disinformation and like HOPI has hidden agenda meaning ‘regime change.’ One of the co-editor of CPD, Joanne Lany, has been criticized by Louis Proyect in “Joanne Landy at it again”. He writes:
    [After the USSR disappeared, Joanne Landy and the New Politics milieu were forced to fish around for new causes upon which they could establish their Tolstoyan saintliness. It should come as no big surprise that Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro would serve as useful substitutes for the role that Josef Stalin once played. In two open letters drafted on the occasion of two separate wars with Iraq, they proclaimed their desire for peace and their utter antipathy to Saddam Hussein.]
    Joanne Landy like Noam Chomsky is associated with New Politics group.