Defying the regime — Iran's people demand change

June 27, 2009

Daily protests have continued in Iran against alleged vote-rigging in the June 12 presidential elections, despite an intensification of violent repression.

The protests reflect the deep anger of wide sections of the Iranian people with the brutal anti-democratic policies of the regime. The street protests have been joined by important sections of the organised working class.

The Western media have largely portrayed the protests as pro-Western middle class youths, even labelling it a "Twitter revolution". This view was challenged by US freelance journalist Reese Erlich, just returned from Iran, in a June 26 post.

"I witnessed tens of thousands of mostly young people coming out into the streets in spontaneous campaign rallies in the days leading up to the election — most of whom had never heard of Twitter.

"They shared a common joy ... in being able to freely express themselves for the first time in many years."

After the election, "hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets in Tehran and cities around the country ...

"Contrary to popular perception, these gatherings included women in chadors, workers and clerics — not just the Twittering classes.

"Spontaneous marches took place in south Tehran, a decidedly poorer section of town and supposedly a stronghold for Ahmadinejad."

Erlich said the protests involved all classes and were not the result of a CIA plot — as the regime and some in the international left have alleged.

The unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose power is above the elected government, used a June 19 sermon to threaten protesters, declaring that the mass mobilisations had to stop.

The government has admitted 25 demonstrators have been killed. The real toll is probably much higher.

There have also been mass arrests.

The violence has succeeded in preventing protests of the size of those before Khamenei's sermon — the largest of which was 3 million-strong in Tehran. However, smaller protests have occurred continually in cities throughout the country.

'Death to the dictator'

At night, slogans such as "Death to the dictator!" are shouted from rooftops. Pictures of 26-year-old student Neda Salehi Agha Soltan, shot dead by the Basiji state-run militia on June 20, have appeared on placards.

On June 25, the BBC said opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi used his website to re-assert allegations that the June 12 vote election was stolen by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. He asked Iranians to continue "protesting legally" for new elections.

In his sermon, Khamenei declared that the only legal way of contesting the result was through submissions to the Council of Guardians, the theocratic state body that has authority over elections.

Khamenei blamed the protests on interference by Western powers, singling out Britain. The West's hostile stance toward Iran since the 1979 revolution overthrew the US-installed Shah dictatorship has included funding opposition groups.

However, the post-election mass protests do not appear to have been anticipated by the West.

Mousavi is part of the Islamic Republic's establishment — the selection of candidates by the Council of Guardians means he could not be otherwise. Out of 400 candidates seeking to stand for president, the council allowed only four to take part.

Mousavi was prime minister from 1981-89, during the Iraq-Iran war when hostility between Iran and the West was even greater than today. It was also the period of the worst repression by the Islamic regime, when the ruling clergy consolidated its rule through the massacre of thousands of opponents.

Media coverage may suggest the protests are in someway pro-Western, however there is hostility to the West across Iranian society.

The long history of aggression from Western powers toward Iran dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. A major source of anger was the British and US-backed coup that overthrow the elected government in 1953 after the oil industry was nationalised.

Iran shares borders with, and hosts refugees from, Iraq and Afghanistan. The bloody US-led wars in these countries serve as warnings to the whole Iranian people that Western-imposed "regime change" can be worse than even the most tyrannical regime.

Erlich said Iranians "are well aware that when Iran had a genuine parliamentary system under Prime Minister Mossadegh, the CIA overthrew it in 1953 in order to promote the Shah as dictator.

"I didn't meet any Iranians calling for U.S. intervention; that's strictly a debate inside the Washington beltway."

The Iranian regime uses anti-imperialist rhetoric in an appeal to popular sentiment. However, its economic policy is capitalist and increasingly neoliberal.


The overthrow of the Shah, a US puppet, was the achievement of a broad, popular anti-dictatorship and anti-imperialist uprising. A prolonged strike by oil industry workers was a significant factor.

However, the clergy succeeded in establishing its own dictatorial rule, accompanied by mass arrests and executions of trade unionists and socialists.

To assert its revolutionary credentials, the religious establishment adopted a hardline anti-Western stance. The US, which lost a major proxy in the oil-rich region when the Shah was overthrown, has never forgiven the regime.

The state played a big role in the Iranian economy during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. However, since then neoliberal policies, such as privatisation, have increasingly been implemented

The West's hostility to the Iranian regime has included some trade sanctions. In recent years, the US has used unsubstantiated allegations of a nuclear weapons program to threaten military attacks.

As a result, some on the left outside Iran (including the leaderships of democratic revolutionary processes in Latin America), have agreed with Khamenei's allegation that the protests are the result of a Western plot.

Ahmedinejad's anti-Western rhetoric is part of an image of being a populist champion of the poor. However, just as in social policy Mousavi is no less a religious fundamentalist than Ahmedinejad, in economic policy Ahmedinejad is no less neoliberal than Mousavi.

Iran's poor majority have every reason to oppose the regime's oppressive religious-based laws, secret police and public executions.

The poor suffer from high unemployment, starvation wages and rising prices. Trade unionists are specifically repressed, and unionists make up the majority of Iran's political prisoners.

Divisions have emerged within the religious hierarchy. Like all institutions that wield power, the clerical bodies (that, despite religious trappings, are first and foremost state institutions) are marked by power struggles and factionalism.

The Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri said in a June 25 letter: "I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam ... is different from the behaviour of the current rulers.

"These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy."

With strict clergy control over candidate pre-selection, Iranian elections are usually relatively uneventful. However, the introduction of live candidate debates caused the recent vote to be marked by allegations and counter-allegations of corruption.

During the election campaign, candidate rallies became a focus for political expression that went beyond the narrow differences between the contenders.

In a June 20 Independent article, British journalist Robert Fisk argued that, based on his evidence, there was electoral fraud, but Ahmedinejad was likely to have won a narrow victory.

Under the Iranian electoral system, if no candidate gets more than 50%, a second round of voting takes place. It is possible that the clergy fiddled the figures and announced an overwhelming win for Ahmedinejad in the hope of ending the grassroots political expression that marked the campaign.

If this was the case, the tactic failed.

Workers take action

Outwardly, the protests have largely focused on the elections, including the wearing of green — the colour of Mousavi's campaign as well as of Islam. Mousavi has explicitly called on his supporters not to challenge the clergy's rule.

However, the protests have developed their own momentum. While most slogans are directed at Ahmedinejad, footage on the Workers Communist Party of Iran's website dated June 23 shows demonstrators chanting "Death to the Islamic Republic!".

Underground newspapers have begun circulating at protests. Khiaban ("The Street") has produced five issues since June 19. An article in the first said: "The ultimate demand of this campaign is far from presidency of Mousavi, even though its official colour is still green. Velayat-e Faqih or the 'Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists' is the red line which Mousavi has expressed he won't cross — this red line is now being crossed by those wearing green."

Significantly, trade unionists have joined the protests. Before the current upsurge, trade union activity was the main form of opposition to the regime. Unionists are routinely jailed, publicly flogged and sometimes killed.

In Tehran, workers from the Vahed Bus Company and the Khodro car factory have been prominent.

The Vahed and Khodro workers have recently been involved in important industrial struggles that, despite the heavy repression, have won some victories. A May strike by Khodro workers won unpaid wages.

The Vahed workers' leader, Mansoor Osanloo, has been in jail since 2004.

On June 18, the Khodro autoworkers issued a statement announcing industrial action in support of the protests, declaring: "What we witness today, is an insult to the intelligence of the people, and disregard for their votes, the trampling of the principles of the Constitution by the government.

"It is our duty to join this people's movement."

Before the election, the Autobus Workers Union of Iran criticised it for involving only pro-regime candidates.

However it has supported the protests, declaring in a June 19 statement: "In recent days we have witnessed the passionate presence of millions of women and men, the old and the young, and ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, people who want their government to recognize their most basic right, the right to freely, independently, and transparently elect ...

"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 June 18 statement by the Free Trade Union of Iranian Workers, supporting post-election protests, demanded a minimum wage increase; the abolition of child labour; unemployment benefits; the right to strike, protest, and assemble; freedom of speech and the press; an end to discrimination against women and foreign workers; as well as other economic, political and social demands.

A number of unions internationally organised an international day of solidarity with Iranian workers on June 26. A joint statement by 24 Iranian unions on June 25 said: "This declaration of international solidarity with Iranian workers is a significant historical moment in the struggles of the international workers' movement to achieve human rights for workers around world."

No doubt the US and other Western governments have their own plans to take advantage of the mass protests to advance their goal of installing a regime favourable to Western interests. However, the Iranian people have their own interests and goals — more freedom and equality, not a return to dictatorship like the pro-US Shah regime.

Elrich said the upsurge was "a genuine Iranian mass movement made up of students, workers, women, and middle class folks. It may not be strong enough to topple the system today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles."

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.