Reflecting on the Iranian protests from the West

January 16, 2018
Protest in Tehran, December 30.

The demonstrations that erupted in Iran on December 28 and continued for days appeared to have died down. There have been clashes with the repressive forces, and more than 20 people have been killed and many arrested (there are widely divergent figures).

Conflicting reports from Iran and hasty conclusions from “experts” in the Western press have made it difficult to determine the facts. Also, the Donald Trump administration’s attempt to take over the narrative to demand the further international isolation of Iran, continuation of the many economic sanctions the US has already imposed, and undermining or threatening to drop the nuclear arms deal, has complicated the internal political dynamics in Iran.

Trump recently announced that if the European countries that were part of the nuclear deal did not agree to renegotiate it, he would unilaterally withdraw from it. This further heightened tensions with Iran and the region.

The top official of Iran’s nuclear program said on January 8 that if Trump scrapped the 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran will rethink its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is a not-too-veiled threat to perhaps restart Iran’s nuclear arms program. 

Cuts spark protests

Some things can be confirmed. The protests were ignited when the Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani released plans to cut monthly subsidies for those who earn more than US$194 a month, while increasing funds for religious organisations.

The Financial Times reported: “The move could directly affect 30 million people, many of whom are already struggling. Fuel prices are also expected to rise.”

The protests began in the second largest city, Mashhad, and swiftly swept through towns and cities outside the capital, Tehran. In the capital, the demonstrations were small and largely by students. Elsewhere, they were spearheaded by the working poor, especially young people, who suffer high unemployment.

The issues were largely centered around the economy, as Owen Tudor emphasised in an article published by the British Trade Union Congress (TUC).

The demonstrators were expressing anger over the economic situation. However, little has come to light about any concrete proposals to address it, other than repeal of the proposed cuts to subsidies to the working poor.

The protests took on anti-government aspects, especially over corruption. Different forces in the protests may be pushing different agendas.

The growing gap between the capitalist elite and working people in Iran, as elsewhere in the world, is also part of the background. An aspect is that the Revolutionary Guards are not only a repressive force, but also capitalist owners of a large section of the economy and a centre of corruption.

Contrary to some giddy reports in the Western press and even by some leftists, these demonstrations were not on the scale of the 2009 street actions against electoral fraud. Some commentators have noted the class differentiation between the 2009 events, which were “middle class” in the main, and recent actions, which had a stronger working class character.

Yet the small size of the protests in Tehran indicates that an important section of the working class, centered in the southern part of that city, was not mobilised.

I was in Tehran as part of a delegation of socialists from the Fourth International, working with Iran socialists during the 1979 insurrection that overthrew the US puppet regime of “Shah an Shah” [King of Kings] Reza Pahlavi. The centre of the massive demonstrations was the working poor of south Tehran.

For more than a year, they faced down murderous repression and spearheaded one of the most powerful general strikes in history. Their quiescence this time reflects the limits of the recent actions.

The rapid sweep of the recent demonstrations was not because of leadership direction — there was no coherent leadership. Observers on the ground attribute it to social networking, especially among the youth. Iran has a high percentage of the population with smart phones, and young people get most of their information from the internet.

Since Rouhani’s 2013 election, there have been many strikes and protests ranging from teachers, bus drivers to retirees over the ongoing economic torpor.


Rouhani was re-elected by a 70% majority last May, largely because of his role in securing the nuclear deal, which was opposed by the “hardliners”. Iranians hoped that the ending of economic sanctions, part of that deal, would ease their everyday struggle to make ends meet.

Those hopes have largely been dashed. Some sanctions imposed in response to Iran’s nuclear program have been lifted, but others remain that date back to US retaliation for the 1979 overthrow of the Shah — a key US ally in the region.

Washington under Barack Obama and Trump continued to penalise banks and other institutions from around the world for circumventing those sanctions. This policy prevented increasing trade with Iran after the nuclear deal. Along with the policies of the regime and the workings of Iranian capitalism, this worsened an already bad economic situation.

In recent weeks, a Turkish banker was arrested and tried in the US for allegedly circumventing these continuing sanctions.

The divisions in the Iranian regime have also become more apparent, between the “reformists” around the moderate Rouhani and “hardliners” who resist relaxation of harsh clampdowns on dissent.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has charged that the protests were organised by foreigners, singling out the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. He points to Washington’s designation of Iran as a “terrorist nation”.

This has resonance in Iran given the history of British and then US imperialist economic intervention in the country. This includes the CIA masterminding the 1953 coup against a democratically elected government and the imposition of the Pahlavi regime, whose brutal political police (Savak) was trained by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.

Trump’s rantings — supposedly in support of the protests but really aimed at re-establishing direct imperialist control — have played into Khamenei’s hands.

On the other side, some “reformists” have charged that the demonstrations were originally organised by the “hardliners” to attack the Rouhani government, but then got out of hand.

On January 8, Rouhani lashed out against his hardline opponents. Seeking to blunt the protestors’ anger over his plan to cut social spending, he said: “The people have demands, some of which are economic, social and security-related, and all these demands should be heeded.”

While not directly challenging Khamenei, he added pointedly: “We have no infallible officials and any authority can be criticised.”

During the protests, the social media platform Telegram, used by 40 million Iranians, was blocked. Rouhani has since reopened it. He defended this action, opposed by hardliners, which implies the internet shutdown angered many people.

Telegram is also widely used by self-employed Iranians to sell products online. “About 100,000 people have lost their jobs [due to the blockage of social media],” Rouhani said. “We cannot treat people like this. We have to heed public demands.”

He also referred to a generation gap. “The problem we are facing today is the gap between we, the authorities, and the younger generation. The youth sees the world and life differently from us … the majority of the country’s population is young which means we have to listen to the youth.”

The recent protests have shaken the government, even if they have for the moment been repressed and lost steam. They have sharpened the divisions in the regime. These can be exploited by more organised forces in the future to press demands for greater freedom as well as more rights for workers to fight for concrete economic demands.

Responding from the West

In the West, we have a responsibility to do more than applauding the protests from afar. As the TUC article emphasised: “We can show practical solidarity with those Iranians calling for a change in the rules governing Iran. That means backing the independent trade unionists who are suffering state repression for their views and activities.”

The TUC is coordinating solidarity campaigns in Britain on behalf of trade unionists currently imprisoned in Iran. Elsewhere socialists can do the same. There is good news. Esmail Abdi, a teacher and union activist, was released on furlough on January 11, no doubt as a result of the protests.

We have to also oppose all the imperialist attacks that have crippled Iran’s economy and are aimed at dominating Iran — especially with Trump’s increasing threats this becomes more important. Some on the left have failed to do this while supporting the protests. This is a mistake, and plays into Khameinei’s hands and makes it easier to falsely smear solidarity with the protests as imperialist-inspired.

Demands to end sanctions and re-establish diplomatic relations can, on the other hand, concretely aid the struggle.


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