Between revolt and repression in Iran

June 23, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the balance of forces in Iran's political crisis.

BLOODY REPRESSION in the streets, political maneuvering at the top, and continued popular organizing from below signal a new stage in Iran's post-election crisis as the country's ruling class is increasingly haunted by the specter of revolution.

The crackdown intensified five days after the June 16 demonstration of up to 2 million people in Tehran protesting the disputed re-election claim of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Offices were shut down as large numbers of workers stayed away from their jobs.

This great outpouring recalled the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, the hated U.S.-backed dictator. Many protesters revived the anti-Shah chant, "Down with the dictator." Video and photos of the great mobilization inspired people around the world who support democracy and social justice--and set off alarm bells for despots in the Middle East. While the Iranian protests began over a stolen presidential election, their increasing size and intensity raises the possibility of revolutionary change in Iran and beyond.

The Iranian government's crackdown on post-election protests has claimed numerous casualties
The Iranian government's crackdown on post-election protests has claimed numerous casualties (Faramarz Hashemi)

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared during Friday prayers June 19 that there would be "bloodshed and chaos" if the protests continued. "Street challenge is not acceptable," he declared.

The basij militias--paramilitary groups that patrol the streets for supposedly un-Islamic behavior, such as immodest dress by women--made good on Khamanei's threats, attacking supporters of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi the following day.

One killing captured on video--the shooting of 21-year-old Neda Agha Soltan on June 20--quickly came to symbolize the human toll of the vicious crackdown. But as with previous attacks, protesters fought back--even though their numbers were smaller than previous protests.

As a university professor wrote of his decision to demonstrate that day, along with students:

After the Supreme Leader's fierce speech at the Friday prayers, we knew that today we would be different. We feel so vulnerable, more than ever, but at the same time are aware of our power. No matter how strong it is collectively, it will do little to protect us today. We could only take our bones and flesh to the streets and expose them to batons and bullets. Two different feelings fight inside me without mixing with one another. To live or to just be alive, that's the question.

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Hear Lee Sustar at Socialism 2009 in Chicago and San Francisco, speaking on "The Economic Crisis and the New Imperialism" and "Iran: From the 1979 Revolution to Rebellion in the Streets Today." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

He added:

Here's a true battleground. And this time, it's huge. Columns of smoke rise to the sky. You can hardly see the asphalt. Only bricks and stones. Here, people have the upper hand. Three lanes, the middle one separated by opaque fences, under construction for the metro.

The workers have climbed up the fences and show the V [for victory] sign. They start throwing stone and timber to the street to supply the armament. I tell myself, "Look at the poor, the ones Ahmadinejad always speaks of." But the president's name is no longer in fashion. This time, the slogans address the leader, something unheard of in the past three decades. It's a beautiful sunset, with rays of light penetrating evening clouds. We feel safe among people moving back forth with the anti-riot police attacks.

That day, using batons, chains, knives and occasionally bullets, the basij injured and arrested hundreds of people. Security personnel also added to the death toll among protesters, which official reports put at 19 as of June 22.

The overwhelming security presence on the street, along with violent attacks on university dormitories and arrests of prominent opposition figures, made protest increasingly difficult the following days--police even prevented a funeral service for Neda Agha Soltan.

DESPITE THE repression, the mass movement that took shape around Mousavi's election campaign has already been transformed into a broader fight for democracy. It will not dissipate anytime soon, whatever the intention of the candidate and his handlers.

In Tehran, protesters unable to mount street protests have taken to literally shouting from the rooftops at night to show their continued defiance. The mass demonstrations may have subsided owing to the crackdown, but the movement has not been crushed. The movement may be regrouping, but it has not disappeared.

This pressure has pushed Mousavi--a moderate former prime minister--into the unlikely role of champion for democratic reform.

A Facebook page attributed to Mousavi stated that he is "ready for martyrdom" and called on his supporters to carry out a general strike if he is arrested. And in an open letter to supporters issued June 21, Mousavi declared that, if allowed to stand, Iran's election fraud would validate criticisms that Islam and democracy were incompatible:

If the high volume of cheating and vote manipulation that has put a fire to the foundations of people's trust is itself introduced as the proof and evidence of the lack of fraud, the republicanism of the regime will be slaughtered and the idea of incompatibility of Islam and republicanism would be practically proven.

Such statements reflect the enormous pressure that the mass movement has put on the reformist leader. "Poor Mousavi, we took the easel away from his hands and gave him a gun," one supporter joked to the Financial Times, in a reference to the candidate's turn to painting while he was out of the public eye for most of the last two decades.

Yet it is far from clear that Mousavi is willing to use the "gun" of wider mobilizations and general strikes to force a recount of the stolen election or a rerun vote, let alone thoroughgoing democratic reforms. As an establishment politician and an integral member of the Iranian ruling class, he will be extremely reluctant to call forth the semi-underground labor movement that has waged intermittent strikes and protests since 2004.

Iranian reformers--like, for example, former President Mahmoud Khatami--have always oriented to educated and upper-class liberals while pursuing economic policies detrimental to workers and the poor. As a result, Ahmadinejad was able to strike a populist pose to win the 2005 presidential elections--with the help of vote fraud to get into a runoff election, which he won handily against Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful cleric, former president and one of the richest men in Iran.

In office, Ahmadinejad was anything but a friend to the working class. He pursued policies of privatization to enrich his coterie around the national security apparatus and ruthlessly suppressed efforts at organizing independent unions. He tried to maintain popularity through a nationalist stance, defending Iran's nuclear energy program against pressure from the West.

And in the run-up to the June 12 vote, Ahmadinejad made much-publicized handouts to the poor and bonuses for government employees to boost turnout for the election. He apparently assumed that middle-class liberals, disillusioned by Khatami's failure to stand up to attacks on pro-democracy activists, would stay home, as they had in 2005.

BY 2009, Ahmadinejad faced a challenge from both Mousavi and Rafsanjani. These former rivals--Rafsanjani had ousted Mousavi by abolishing the post of prime minister in 1989--made common cause to stop Ahmadinejad from consolidating power.

The Iranian president, with the backing of Khamenei, had systematically installed figures from the basij and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into key positions in government and the national oil company, displacing or squeezing the big capitalists around Rafsanjani, who jealously guard that turf. Beyond personnel questions, however, Iranian capitalists are leery of Ahmadinejad's half-baked "development" projects that used state oil revenues to consolidate his base among the poor, rather than spending the money on strategic investments.

For his part, Mousavi was seen as an ideal candidate for the power brokers around Rafsanjani as well as the reformists. Having stressed the social justice side of Islam while prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, he can appeal to workers and the poor in a way that Rafsanjani never could. He also has credentials as a hard-liner: as prime minister, he presided over the execution of as many as 5,000 political prisoners.

Nowadays, though, Mousavi portrays himself as a liberal by championing the rights of women and national minorities--an effort that helped revived an interest in politics among Khatami's voters.

Mousavi's support, which surged into the streets of Tehran and other cities in the days before the election, forced Ahmadinejad to resort to massive vote fraud to claim victory.

According to a study by the British think tank Chatham House, the number of votes cast in the provinces of Mazandaran and Yazd exceeds the total number of eligible voters. The authors estimate that if Ahmadinejad really won 62 percent of the vote claimed by the authorities, he would have had to won the votes of all new voters, all the votes of his last centrist rival, plus 44 percent of those who voted for reformist candidates in 2005. This is so unlikely as to be absurd.

As the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, said on television June 20, "A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different from what was officially announced," adding, "Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate."

As popular pressure mounted, the head of the 12-member Guardian Council, the body of clerics that approves election candidates, issued a surprising report June 22 that votes supposedly cast in more than 50 Iranian cities were actually higher than the number of eligible voters.

The Guardian Council's announcement contradicts the earlier claim by Khamanei that Ahmadinejad had won a "definitive victory," and marks a retreat from the council's earlier position that it would only review 10 percent of the ballots.

Now there are even doubts that the council will uphold the election results when it makes its final ruling in the coming days. This vacillation partly reflects the influence of Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful members of the Guardian Council. But if the council reverses course and annuls the election or orders a recall, it will be because the clerics fear a revolutionary upsurge. Having hijacked a workers' revolution to take power 30 years ago, the clerics understand full well the risks they face.

At the same time, Rafsanjani is rumored to be trying to assemble an emergency meeting of the 86-member Council of Experts, which chooses Iran's supreme leader. The apparent aim is to remove Khamenei from power, which would decisively weaken Ahmadinejad as well.

Adding fuel to the fire is Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the country's senior cleric, who endorsed protests to "claim rights." According to religious criteria, Montazeri should have been the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding leader of the Islamic Republic in 1979, but was shoved aside and later placed under house arrest for several years.

IN SHORT, the competing factions of the Iranian ruling class are hesitating before they make irrevocable choices that could shatter the Islamist regime.

For Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the question is whether a crackdown would succeed in drowning resistance in blood--or provoke a wider revolutionary challenge to their rule. For Mousavi and Rafsanjani, the choice is whether to accept a humiliating deal that would greatly diminish their power, or encourage the rebellion, and try to ride it to victory.

Meanwhile, the potential for far broader struggle for democracy is apparent. The Tehran bus drivers' union, which has fought to improve wages and conditions, despite the beatings and arrests of union leaders, issued this statement June 20:

The fact that the demands of the vast majority of Iranian society go far beyond those of unions is obvious to all, and in the previous years, we have emphasized that until the principle of the freedom to organize and to elect is not materialized, any talk of social freedom and labor union rights will be a farce.

Given these facts, 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 union condemns any kind of suppression and threats.

To recognize labor union and social rights in Iran, the international labor organizations have declared the Fifth of Tir (June 26) the international day of support for imprisoned Iranian workers as well as for the institution of unions in Iran. We want that this day be viewed as more than a day for the demands of labor unions to make it a day for human rights in Iran and to ask all our fellow workers to struggle for the trampled rights of the majority of the people of Iran.

With hope for the spread of justice and freedom,
Autobus Workers Union

It's impossible to predict the next turn of events in Iran. But what is clear is that the struggles of the Iranian working class--not the maneuvers at the top of society--are the key to taking the movement forward.

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