A new phase in Iran’s struggle

January 6, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at the impact of Iran's recent protests and street battles.

IRAN'S POLITICAL crisis has intensified in the wake of protests following the death of dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri last month.

The social base of the opposition demonstrations has grown, and the clashes are deepening the fault lines in Iran's ruling establishment, which appeared in June when right-wing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resorted to fraud to claim a re-election victory over challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi.

Protests culminated on December 27, the Shia Islam holy day of Ashura, when seven people were killed, hundreds injured and hundreds more arrested. The demonstrations began a week earlier to mark Montazeri's death, and follow big student protests on December 7, a traditional day of demonstrations marking the 1953 killing of three students, which this year served as an opportunity to protest Ahmadinejad and the regime.

Particularly alarming for Ahmadinejad were scenes of groups of Iran's Revolutionary Guard being trapped and disarmed by protesters, who then flashed the "V" for victory sign.

Iranian protesters flash a victory sign during demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian protesters flash a victory sign during demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (UPI)

With the Revolutionary Guard--Iran's most elite military force--proving less than reliable in carrying out repression, the regime has increasingly relied on the basij, a paramilitary force tied to networks of conservative mosques.

Central to the crackdown is Ansar-e-Hezbollah, a smaller but more fascist-type force that has been implicated in the murder of reformist politicians, and which specializes in attacks on protesters. Some 500 Ansar thugs wielding machetes and knives carried out an attack on university students December 31 in the city of Mashhad. Eight students were hospitalized and many others wounded by knife attacks.

THE REGIME signaled that even more vicious repression awaits the opposition when it next takes to the streets.

State television prominently broadcast the threats of a leading conservative cleric, Haeri Shirazi, who declared that protesters should be killed on the spot rather than jailed. "When they are arrested, it is bad; when they are captured, it is bad," he said. "Do not make victims out of them."

Shirazi claimed that killing protesters "is sanctioned by obedience to Allah and the prophet and is handed down to the Supreme Leader. When it is sanctioned by such a power, there is no need to go through the government powers." Coming amid a widening scandal over the torture and murder of prisoners detained in earlier protests, the blood-curdling speech couldn't be clearer.

The opposition leader Mousavi countered by accusing Shirazi of calling for civil war. That appears to be accurate, as the regime closes ranks around the upper reaches of the Revolutionary Guard--Ahmadinejad's base--as well as the most reactionary clerics surrounding Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This has posed a dilemma for Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, who had backed Mousavi in the June election. Rafsanjani--a powerful, conservative figure who is both a major capitalist and head of the clerical-dominated Expediency Council--has no interest in the movement becoming radicalized and spreading deeper into the working class.

Yet his wealth and influence are also threatened by the clique around Ahmadinejad, which has used the Revolutionary Guard as a launching pad for vast business networks and political clout. (To take one recent example, the Revolutionary Guard in November won a $2.5 billion government contract to build a rail network to a seaport.)

At the same time, Ajmadinejad, after using the recent spike in oil prices for populist handouts, is trying to use his tighter grip over the economy to try to maintain a popular base amid economic crisis and a growing opposition movement, even while removing price subsidies on staple goods. As academic Nader Habibi wrote:

In addition to expanding the economic reach of the [Revolutionary Guard], the ruling faction is also trying to increase its ability to distribute economic resources by enhancing its discretionary control over the proposed income support program. During recent parliamentary debates about replacement of current price subsidies with direct income subsidies, President Ahmadinejad has campaigned hard to make sure that the president's office will have discretionary control over the additional incomes of public enterprises after the removal of price subsidies on goods and services that they sell to the public.

Critics are concerned that the president will use this privilege to distribute the cash and income subsidies in a fashion to enhance his political base and deny benefits to households that might be sympathetic to the post-election protest movement.

In response, Rafsanjani, along with Majlis (parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani, are trying to create a center-right alternative to Ahmadinejad, criticizing protesters for going too far, but also opposing the regime's worst repression. "The question is whether Rafsanjani is more afraid of the military apparatus or the masses," said S. Sepheri, who visited Iran during the election crisis. "That's also Larijani's dilemma."

In the past, Sepheri said, differences in the Iranian ruling class and the political establishment would have been aired out in the majlis, resulting in a deal being made or an intervention by Khamenei, as was the case during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005. "But with the stolen election, that social contract broke," Sepheri said. "Now those fights are happening in the streets."

WHILE THE regime is determined to crush the opposition, protesters have shown increasing tactical skill and boldness in building blockades, and disarming the basij militias and burning their trademark motorcycles.

At the same time, the protests in Tehran have drawn increasing numbers from working-class neighborhoods, signaling a broadening of the movement's social base. While the opposition was always far broader than the middle-class, student-dominated movement portrayed by Ahmadinejad's domestic and international supporters, workers have yet to enter the struggle as a class with the kind of strikes and other economic actions that erupted in Iran in 2004-2006.

That may be changing--or at least, the regime fears it might be. In November, two trade unionists in Iranian Kurdistan, Pedram Nasrollahi and Farzad Ahmadi, were arrested. A couple weeks later, Mansour Osanloo, the jailed Tehran bus drivers' union leader, was fired from his job.

Even without widespread workers' action, the radicalization of the movement has forced Mousavi to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, he has stated he isn't afraid to die--and his nephew, Ali Mousavi, was among those killed December 27. Yet Mousavi also released a set of proposals for a dialogue with the government--a move that some opposition activists see as a concession. Others see Mousavi's initiative as an effort to expose the government as an emerging police state that's unable to tolerate any opposition.

But the questions for the opposition movement go far beyond whether to agree with this or that tactic pursued by Mousavi.

A former prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mousavi is himself a central figure in the political establishment. He represents a layer of politicians from an older generation who wish to see Iran pursue an economic policy geared more to national development, rather than Ahmadinejad's privatization schemes that benefit his small ruling circle.

But Mousavi isn't interested in seeing the emergence of an independent working-class movement. In fact, it was Mousavi's government in the 1980s that repressed the left and brought the workers' movement under state control.

What happens next is impossible to predict. Ahmadinejad may be preparing for some sort of martial law. But the opposition hasn't been cowed by the repression it has faced so far. On the contrary, the bloodshed, arrests and torture have only strengthened the determination of protesters. The struggle is bound to continue--and intensify.

Further Reading

From the archives