Frieda Afary is a US-based Iranian socialist and a member of the recently formed Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists. She spoke to Green Left Radio’s January 26 show on Melbourne community radio station 3CR, on the significance of the recent protests in Iran. Her comments are abridged below and edited for clarity.
On December 28, more than 500 people protested in Mashhad to oppose the rice and prices of basic goods and increasing poverty. There are rumours that it was organised to target President Hassan Rouhani by factions supporting more hardline, conservative figures.
Whether that is true or not, the fact is the protests in Mashhad went far beyond what any factions of the regime would have wanted. They chanted both “Death to Rouhani” and “Death to the Dictator Ayatollah Khomeini”.
The causes of the protests are not only economic poverty and unemployment, but social and political. About 40% of the population lives under the poverty line. About 90% of Iranian workers are contract workers without rights or benefits. The minimum wage is US$230 per month, one-fifth of what is needed to support a family of four, and it is not even enforced.
On top of these economic grievances, there’s a growing awareness that the Islamic Republic is spending billions of dollars to fund its military intervention in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — and to a certain extent in Yemen — while denying basic subsistence to the majority of its own population.
Furthermore, political repression, a lack of freedom of speech, assembly and press, as well as discrimination against women and national and religious minorities is intensifying opposition. Iran’s ethnically diverse population is increasingly literate (with an 87% literacy rate), aware and connected to the world through the internet.
Sixty percent of Iranian university graduates are women and most university graduates are unemployed. Forty-five million Iranians out of a population of 82 million have smartphones.
The latest protests have been preceded by more than a year of almost daily actions and strikes by workers over the non-payment of wages and terrible working conditions. There have been demonstrations by impoverished retirees and those who have lost their meagre wages in bankruptcies of banks and other financial and credit institutions.
Many political prisoners including labour leader Reza Shahabi, have also been on hunger strike on-and-off for several years.
The latest protests in Iran are similar to the protests in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria that became known as “the Arab Spring”. They are responses to economic impoverishment, and social and political repression.
However, this response has the added feature of opposing the military interventions of the Iranian government in the region.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was started in 1979 as a branch of the Iranian military and was involved in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. At the end of the war, the IRGC began its involvement in economic activities.
The IRGC controls the Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters engineering firm. It has established companies involved in agriculture, mining, transportation, road building and export of oil and gas.
From 2004-2005, the economic and political role of the IRGC increased considerably. In 2006, under the order of Khomeini, 80% of the state sector was privatised. This in turn increased the control of the IRGC over the oil and gas, financial and telecommunications sectors.
The IRGC is the main force behind the Iranian military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. It is also used as a security force, repressing labour and other popular struggles at home.
For most young people, life is a struggle. A large portion of the population cannot afford meat and are now reduced largely to bread. In 2010, the government cut subsidies on basic foods that the population relies on. Working-class families have to borrow money to buy food and end up with large debts.
Prior to the protests, the government had announced a withdrawal of subsidies on bread as well, which may have something to do with the protests.
As far as the middle class is concerned, life has become more difficult. The average salary of a teacher is less than $800 a month, far below the poverty line for a family of four. The average wage for nurses is $600 a month.
Except for some cosmetic issues, both the conservative and “reformist” factions of the regime have supported cutting wages, subsidies and social services. Both support Iran's military interventions in the region.
As far as human rights are concerned, Rouhani’s record has been worse than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — more people have been jailed and have been executed under Rouhani. Iran has the highest execution rate in the world except for China.
The main difference between Rouhani and hard-line factions is that Rouhani has sought Western investment in the Iranian economy. The hardliners are more interested building ties with Russia and China. Rouhani wants to build such ties while also seeking Western investment.
Targeting the regime
Rouhani has been presented as a “reformist” alternative to the hardliners. Yet on many occasions he has made it clear he is not fundamentally opposed to the IRGC, nor Iran’s military interventions. Both are committed to maintaining a very strong state with a smaller welfare sector and a much larger military sector.
The “Green Movement” against electoral fraud that arose in 2009 aimed to support one wing of the regime, the “reformists”. Its predominantly middle-class base had hopes for reforming the system, rather than its overthrow.
Today’s protests are different, opposing systemic corruption and poverty overall. The protests are not supporting some leaders within the regime as possible saviours. The latest movement includes the wide participation of the working class, both men and women, as well as unemployed. Women have played a strong role in the latest protests.
The latest wave has not had much middle-class participation. The demands have been much more radical and have explicitly challenged the state.
Meanwhile, the left in Iran is very small and consists of university students, labour activists including some workers, and Arab and Kurdish intellectuals and activists. Women who consider themselves socialist have been involved in the broader women's movement, including protesting against the compulsory wearing of the veil and Sharia law.
One of the important developments in Iran over the past 15 years has been the number of translations of works on anti-authoritarian Marxism, as well as socialist feminism. These have had a very good reception and undergone various reprints in a short period, despite all the limitations imposed by the state. These have been part of the effort to break with the traditions of Stalinism and Maoism, which has been predominant within the Iranian left.
There hasn’t been any organised left leadership with the latest protests, which have been mostly spontaneous.
The left and national minorities
Socialists (who have long been repressed by the regime) have been notably absent from any kind of leadership in the current protests. Some have been involved in labour solidarity work that preceded the current labour protests.
Another reason for the absence of socialists in the leadership of the current protests is that they have not taken a strong stance against Iran’s interventions in the region, especially Syria. Some have even supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime as anti-imperialist or the lesser of two evils compared to ISIS. Some have backed Putin’s bombing of Syria.
In my opinion, there is a lack of an anti-authoritarian socialist organisation opposed to private and state capitalism, military interventions, patriarchy, ethnic and religious discrimination, while promoting discussions about a humanist alternative to capitalism.
Inside Iran, the Kurdish community has been actively involved in the labour protests, especially in the city of Kermanshah. In early November, there was a major earthquake in Kermanshah causing a great deal of damage. The government did little to help, causing widespread anger.
In addition, there has been a long history of oppression of the Kurdish minority in Iran. During the 1979 Revolution, when Kurds supporting the revolution demanded self- determination, they were attacked. There were mass executions of Kurdish freedom fighters.
Since then, the Kurds have been denied basic benefits. Kurdish areas are some of the poorest in the country. So the Kurds have been very involved in the protests.
Another national minority very involved in the protests is the Arab population. The Arab population in Iran are oppressed as a minority.
We need an organisation that would actively participate in labour and feminist struggles, as well as the struggles of oppressed minorities.
The movement needs to develop an alternative goal to private and state capitalism. It must develop strong ties with labour and oppressed minorities.