Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of cities and towns throughout Iran since December 28 in militant protests against the theocratic regime that has ruled the country since the 1979 revolution.
That revolution overthrew a pro-Western monarchy. But while the working class was its driving force, and trade unions and socialist organisations played a decisive role, it was hijacked by the Shia religious establishment. The new regime was as brutal and committed to capitalism as the overthrown monarchy — although with a foreign policy generally hostile to the West.
The latest protests have centred on economic injustices, but the slogans and demands quickly grew to target the entire system of the Islamic Republic.
There have been various comparisons between these protests and the anti-government protests that hit Iran in 2009. In terms of size, no single action in the current wave of protests has matched in size the 100,000-strong June 18, 2009, candle-lit vigil in Tehran.
However, the 2009 protests were very focussed on Tehran, whereas the current protests have been strong across the country, particularly in provincial towns and cities. There have been protests in places both with a recent history of industrial struggle or resistance by national minorities, and those regarded as the conservative heartland of the theocracy.
Protests of the poor
Whatever the size of the protests relative to 2009, they appear to have far greater depth, both geographically and in social composition. The protests are notably mobilising the working class and urban poor. The 2009 protests, by contrast, were more middle class and student-based in comparison.
Students may not be playing a major role, but the protesters are also mainly youth. Iran’s Deputy Interior Minister Huseyin Zolfeqali said 90% of detained protesters are under 25, Firat News Agency reported on January 2.
The protests have also been noticeably more combative than in 2009.
In both cases, the regime has responded brutally. According to the government, 22 protesters have been killed and more than 2000 detained. However, activists, human rights groups and Kurdish media are reporting daily the names of protesters tortured to death in detention, which are not included in the government’s figures.
The regime has threatened increasing reprisals. Firat News Agency said on January 2 that Tehran Revolutionary Court President Musa Gazanferi Abadi had warned: “It is clear that [the protesters] could be accused of ‘waging war against God’, which is punished with execution by hanging.”
However, resistance to the state’s brutality is greater this time around — including fighting back against the regime’s thuggish motorcycle-riding Basej militia. Basej bikes have been torched by protesters, as have police vehicles and even banks.
The current protests have also been accompanied by an ongoing strike wave.
One big difference between these protests and those in 2009 is that in 2009, the catalyst was a stolen election. The movement never went beyond supporting the “reformist” wing of the Iranian establishment against the more theocratic “conservatives”.
These protests reject both sides of the establishment. Slogans and demands reflect this.
One popular chant calls for the death of both President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, and “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei, the conservatives’ figurehead. Another declared: “Reformists and conservatives – your time is up!”
Other popu8lar chants include: “General strike”; “You attack we fight back!”; “Freedom of women = freedom of all society”; “We have nothing to lose but our chains!”; and “Jobs, bread, freedom”.
At the root of the protest wave is growing inequality. A combination of neoliberalism, US-led international sanctions against Iran, corruption and environmental issues have created difficult living conditions for many.
A combination of destructive capitalist development and climate change-induced drought has caused widespread migration from rural areas to urban centres, leading to growth in the urban poor. The unofficial unemployment rate is believed to be about 30%. Women and youth are hit hardest, with the youth unemployment rate estimated to be about 50%.
For those with regular work, wages are falling and many enterprises fail to pay workers on time, if at all. The strike wave that has accompanied the protests has built on already occurring industrial action, despite the criminalisation of trade unions.
Illegal trade unions have joined the protests. On January 1, five unions — the Free Union of Iranian Workers, the Association of Electrical and Metal Workers of Kermanshah, the Association of Painters of Alborz Province Labour Defenders' Centre and the Committee for the Establishment of Labour Organisations — put out a statement to demand:
• Stop subjection and repression of the people and close all jails.
• Free all political prisoners and bring those responsible for their jailing to justice.
• The banks should render the money to its rightful owners.
• Raise wages in accordance with inflation, and cut income inequality.
• Allow freedom of assembly for unions, parties, organisations and press.
• Swiftly meet the peoples’ demands.
The criminalisation of trade unions is just one of the ways that the repressive theocratic state enables economic injustice. People trying to scrape a living in the informal economy are constantly persecuted by the authorities. For example, cross-border traders in Rojhilat (Iranian Kurdistan) are frequently shot by security forces.
On the other hand, conspicuous consumption has become more visible among the elite. The boundary between the country’s ubiquitous corruption and the official economy is blurry. Politicians and their cronies are the main beneficiaries of privatisation. Religious institutions can legally help themselves to state revenue and this routinely becomes the basis for private fortunes.
The “reformist” and “conservative” factions have often tried to use economic grievances to outmanoeuvre each other. During former conservative president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s 2005-13 administration, he used measures such as housing projects to win poor rural voters away from the reformists.
At the same time, he corruptly skimmed the funds, resulting in shoddy construction. When the Rojhilat city of Kermanshah was struck by an earthquake in November, the poorly built projects collapsed, with more than 600 deaths.
Along with the failure of the government to provide relief or begin reconstruction, this is one reason Kermanshah has been an epicentre of the protests.
Rouhani won the presidency in 2013 with the promise that a more open attitude to the West would end sanctions and therefore improve living standards. However, the sanctions lifted by Barack Obama’s administration were limited, and the Donald Trump administration has tightened them.
What economic benefits were derived from the lifting of sanctions went to the elite. Rouhani’s neoliberal economic policies meant living conditions continued to worsen for the majority.
Ironically, the protests began in Mershad, considered a conservative stronghold, and were initiated by conservative politicians to mobilise popular anger against Rouhani’s government. But after the protests took a more radical direction, reformists and conservatives closed ranks, uniting against the people.
Predictably, the regime has accused the protests of being orchestrated by the US, Israel and other Western imperialist powers. Western leaders such as Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have helped them with statements supporting the protests.
However, the protesters have shown few signs of being taken in by such hypocrisy. Not only do these leaders make no secret of their disdain for human rights in general, policies such as Trump's visa ban disadvantage all Iranians. With Western-imposed sanctions are a major cause of Iranians’ economic hardship, Iranian protesters have little reason to take Western flattery at face value.
Western media has made much of chants opposing Iranian military adventures in Iraq and Syria, and its support to some anti-Israel resistance. However, rather than representing support for Western geopolitical aims, these chants reflect resentment at money being spent on foreign adventures while Iranians face increasing hardship.
Moreover, these chants compete with more internationalist ones. For example, a video released on social media on January 6 showed protesters chanting: “In Iran or in Gaza, death to all the oppressors!”
Expressions of concern for Iranians’ human rights by Australian politicians are particularly hypocritical. Those targeted by the regime who managed to flee are prominent among the refugees whose rights Australia is abusing through indefinite detention in the remote “offshore” concentration camps.
Many Iranian refugees have noted that their abuse at the hands of Australia is as bad, or even worse, than their ill-treatment in Iran.
Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani is known for exposing the horrors of Manus Island, where he is indefinitely detained. The ABC reported on January 6 that, speaking about the Iranian protests, Bouchani emphasised the role of Western sanctions in creating the injustices the protesters are opposing.
Bouchani said: “These events that are taking place in Iran are an uprising of the forgotten people … The middle classes in Iran have not really been an integral part of these protests, they started in the small towns ... especially in places where discrimination is extreme and economic hardship is intense ...
“They are people who do not receive mention in the media ... but they exist, and it is they who have experienced the most harm from the international sanctions.
“They have had to withstand systematic discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination from religion ideology in the past. And now is their time, they have grabbed an opportunity to say we are here, we exist.
“They are millions in number, millions of human beings, millions who have been crushed by the sanctions and the terrible economic policies in Iran.”