It took the popular uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon, following the earlier uprisings in Sudan and Algeria this year, for the Iranian masses, especially unemployed and student youth, to gain the courage to go out into the streets in large numbers again. For the first time since the December 2017–January 2018 uprising, they are mobilising to call for an end to the Islamic Republic.
What set off the nationwide protests was a 300% increase in the price of petrol, announced suddenly on November 15. This is a huge increase for the majority of Iranians, who have already sunk to extreme levels of poverty, due to the cost of Iran’s military and political interventions in the region, nuclear and missile development programs and the severe sanctions imposed on it by the United States.
Since Friday, tens of thousands of people have been protesting in 22 of Iran’s 31 provinces, representing 100 cities as well as some rural areas. Riot police and security forces have been battling the protesters. According to Amnesty International, more than 100 people have been killed by government forces, hundreds of people have been injured and more than 1000 arrested.
Government snipers have been shooting demonstrators in the head from rooftops and military helicopters are also being used to shoot demonstrators.
Police stations, banks, some public buildings, a few religious seminaries and many posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been set on fire. Demonstrators have blocked roads. Their slogans include: “Gasoline is becoming more expensive and the poor are becoming poorer”, “Khamenei is a murderer. His rule has expired”, “Death to the dictator”, “Death to this demagogic government”.
Some members of the parliament have resigned in protest.
The protests began in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan province, where protests had taken place the previous week following the death of popular dissident poet, Hassan Heydari, who had just been released after his arrest.
Khuzestan, which is an oil producing province with a large population of ethnic Arabs, has been a centre of labour struggles and a victim of the massive environmental problems related to pollution from oil production, drought and floods caused by dam building. Ethnic Arabs protested against discrimination and the summary execution of several civil society activists and writers last year.
According to the latest reports from Khuzestan, “the Iranian regime targeted unarmed protesters in the cities of Koura, known as Chamarn in Farsi, and Jarahi, known as Shahrak-e Mamku, in the Ahwaz region. The regime’s forces used heavy machine guns against unarmed protesters and have besieged both cities with tanks, killing at least 20 Ahwazi protesters, including women, all of whom were unarmed civilians.
“In this bloodbath, fierce clashes have been taking place in the Tanida neighbourhood in Jarahi city, between unarmed protesters armed only with sticks and rocks and the heavily armed military personnel of the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).”
According to the report, the IRGC is “assisted by plainclothes Basiji [Revolutionary Guard] thugs and Iraqi militia from the Popular Mobilisation Units or Hashd al Shaabi, who are all also heavily armed by the regime with machine guns and other weapons.”
Other intense protests have taken place in Shiraz and Kermanshah, a mainly Kurdish province. Parts of Kermanshah were damaged by an earthquake in November 2017, from which they have not yet recovered because little reconstruction and other aid is coming from the government. Earthquake victims still live in tents.
In the face of all these protests, Khamenei has announced that the people must tighten their belts and accept the petrol price rise. He has denounced the protesters as “evil thugs” and the protests as instigated by foreigners. The government has cut off the internet, which makes it nearly impossible to get reports from inside Iran.
Iranian socialist journalist, labour and women’s rights activist Sepideh Gholian, who was recently temporarily released after posting heavy bail, has been rearrested.
Saha Mortezai, an Iranian political science PhD student in has been rearrested along with other students.
Security forces are currently assaulting student demonstrators on the campus of Tehran University. The university gates have been closed to keep students inside, to facilitate the attacks against them. In some areas of Tehran and other cities, however, protesters have been able to take control from the police and security forces.
Labour protests and actions have been frequent in Iran during the past two years and have led to workers, teachers and activists being arrested and often temporarily released subject to huge bail costs. It remains to be seen whether labour protests, which so far have focused on demanding unpaid wages and opposing the privatisation of state-owned companies, will move to call for a general strike and directly challenge the state.
Expressions of solidarity from Iranians with the popular and mostly youthful protests in the region and around the world are very much needed. In Iraq and Lebanon, protesters have demanded an end to their corrupt, authoritarian, sectarian governments, which are either greatly influenced by Iran, through Hezbollah in Lebanon, or directly controlled by Iran, through the IRGC and Shi’a militia groups that dominate the government of Iraq.
A recent report just published by The Intercept, in partnership with the New York Times, based on leaked documents about Iran’s involvement in the Iraqi government, shows the extent to which Qassem Soleimani of the IRGC gives orders in Iraq.
It reveals the extent to which Iran and its Shi’a militia are involved in determining the leaders and direction of the Iraqi government and in repressing popular protests in Iraq. It also reveals the extent to which the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 actually helped Iran gain a dominant role in Iraq.
US President Donald Trump’s administration, despite its claim to support the current protests in Iran, has displayed its inhumanity and brutality toward the Iranian masses, in the form of war threats and severe sanctions.
Trump is in alliance with authoritarians such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Ben Salman, Isreali President Benjamin Netanyahu, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has no concern for the Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs, who have been fighting against the Assad regime and religious fundamentalists, or the Palestinians who, like the Kurds, demand self-determination, or the women of Afghanistan, who are fighting against the Taliban. Trump has taken the inhumanity and brutality of US imperialism under previous administrations to the extreme.
The Iranian regime has been hoping China would pull it out of its state of bankruptcy and turn it into an efficient militarised state capitalist regime in its own image. Just recently, Iran signed an agreement with China, which gives the Iranian regime a US$400 million in investment in oil, gas and infrastructure as well as 5000 Chinese security forces in exchange for oil at one third of the market rate. China in turn looks at Iran as a place for it to expand its hegemony in the region.
In the face of this reality, solidarity with the Hong Kong protests against Chinese government authoritarianism and with labour struggles, political prisoners and women’s rights and environmental activists in mainland China, is very much needed for Iranians.
It is also critically important for labour, feminist and youth activists around the world to express their solidarity with the current popular protests in Iran and their demand to overthrow the regime.
Unfortunately, some socialists in the US and elsewhere have sided with the Iranian regime and have even travelled to Iran to meet with foreign minister Mohammad Jarad Zarif and praise him, instead of trying to meet with dissidents and demanding the release of political prisoners.
It is very difficult for socialist activists inside Iran and Iranian socialists in exile to promote socialism as an alternative when some socialist activists either actively ignore solidarity with the Iranian protests or actually side with the Iranian regime as “anti-imperialist”.
This is a critical moment in world history in which the severity of the crises and the inhumanity of capitalism are pushing people onto the streets in various countries, to oppose poverty and repression.
We need solidarity actions that connect the labour, feminist, anti-racist and environmental struggles in the countries in which we reside, to those in the Middle East, North Africa, China, Chile, Haiti and beyond. We need to oppose both neoliberal policies and state capitalist models such as those of China and Iran.
[Frieda Afary is a member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists.]