I attended a demonstration today in central Brighton in support of the protests of Iranian women. There were about 200 people there comprising a mixture of forces, including supporters of the Shah of Iran and those who believe that the United States and western imperialism will come to their aid.
It is not surprising that after 43 years of this repressive regime that many have illusions in the good intentions of the Western imperialists. If such illusions were to persist after the overthrow of the Mullahs, Iran’s population would exchange the frying pan for the fire.
And that is precisely why the anti-imperialist left in the West has a duty to support the current struggle because it is only on this basis that our warnings against trusting Biden, Israel and western imperialism can be trusted. To side with the Mullahs would only convince Iranians that the left is their enemy.
It would also be a terrible mistake to believe, as some on the Left do, that the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the Iranian regime demands that we sacrifice the democratic and social rights of the Iranian people for the greater good of the people of the Middle East.
The overthrow of imperialism in the Middle East cannot take place on the backs of the repression of women, national minorities and workers. Quite the contrary, the struggle against Iran’s corrupt and brutal theocratic regime is perfectly compatible with the overthrow of US imperialism.
It is clear that the United States and Israel support the even more murderous regimes of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Egypt. They are hardly likely to be a supporter of democratic and workers’ rights in Iran.
It is in any case a mistake to see the Iranian or Syrian regimes as anti-imperialist. They are regimes which would be happy to make their peace with US imperialism and Israel if they had half the chance. The problem is that the US and Israel want no challenge to their regional hegemony.
Demonstrations in Iran
The sanctions that the United States has imposed on Iran have not hurt the corrupt clerics but the people of Iran. It was the same with Iraq. Sanctions killed ordinary people not Saddam Hussein. The United States has no interest in freedom for the people of Iran.
Some people have forgotten the Iran Contra deal under Reagan when Israel supplied Iran with billions of dollars of weaponry in return for money which was used to fund arms to the Contras who the United States were using to try and overthrow the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.
Also forgotten is that under Jimmy Carter the United States came to the aid of Ayatollah Khomeini in ensuring the loyalty of the Shah’s army in order to ward off a workers’ revolution.
On 27 January 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini… the man who called the United States ‘the Great Satan’ sent a secret message to Washington.
If President Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini… would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.
At the time, the Iranian scene was chaotic. Protesters clashed with troops, shops were closed, public services suspended. Meanwhile, labour strikes had all but halted the flow of oil, jeopardising a vital Western interest.
Persuaded by Carter, Iran’s autocratic ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, had finally departed on a “vacation” abroad, leaving behind an unpopular prime minister and a military in disarray – a force of 400,000 men with heavy dependence on American arms and advice….
Khomeini told the White House not to panic at the prospect of losing a strategic ally of 37 years and assured them that he, too, would be a friend.
“You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” said Khomeini, pledging his Islamic Republic will be “a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind”.
Khomeini’s message is part of a trove of newly declassified US government documents… that tell the largely unknown story of America’s secret engagement with Khomeini…
This story is a detailed account of how Khomeini brokered his return to Iran using a tone of deference and amenability towards the US that has never before been revealed.
This is the background to the ‘anti-imperialism’ of Iran. The Iranian clerical regime is a byword in brutality, from hanging Kurdish freedom fighters, gays and others from cranes to torture and brutality. The economic policy of the mullahs could be taken out of Thatcher’s playbook. Privatisation and corruption are the order of the day.
The Iranian workers movement has consistently fought the regime of Ayatollah Khameini. Workers representatives have been repeatedly arrested, tortured and in some cases executed. There is nothing progressive in this regime.
The Iranian regime would happily come to terms with the Zionist regime in Tel Aviv given half the chance but Israeli leaders prefer confrontation as a means of ensuring their regional hegemony.
Of course the politics of the protesters in Iran differ enormously. There are supporters of the Shah, people who believe that Biden is sincere when he pledges his support as well as revolutionary workers and students. What is essential is that workers and students in Iran retain their independence and don’t align themselves with forces which will undoubtedly turn against them when the time is right.
The United States and Israel don’t want to see a revolutionary workers’ regime replace the regime now in power. They wish to replace the theocratic regime with a regime that does their bidding whilst keeping the repressive apparatus of the state in place.
Above all it is for Iranian socialists and communists to make this point and win over the Iranian masses. No revolution is pure and the protests in Iran are taking on a revolutionary form. However to support the reactionary rulers of Iran is the precise opposite of socialist solidarity and anti-imperialism.
The current wave of protests began on September 16 after the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, following her arrest by Morality Police for not wearing her hijab ‘properly’. Since then, dozens of videos posted online show schoolgirls protesting in their schools and in the streets, chanting, waving, and burning their head coverings.
Nika Shakarami was 16 when she burned her headscarf at a Tehran protest. She was last seen alive on September 20 being followed by security forces. The government claims she fell from a building, the same fate of Sarina Esmailzadeh, also 16, in Karaj, west of the capital on September 24. According to media reports, both families were pressured not to contradict the official story.
As of October 11, the Iran-based Society to Support Children claims that 28 children have been killed during the protests, most in Sistan and Baluchistan province, and 9 children have been named by rights groups and media outlets as having been killed by security forces.
I do not see how anti-imperialists and socialists can condemn Israel for shooting dead children and civilian protestors and then turn a blind eye to Iranian state repression. Socialism is not built on hypocrisy.
The deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps stated on October 5 that “the average age of most people detained during the protests is 15.” This in itself should tell people something about the nature of the protests. It is as much a youth rebellion against the Tyrants of Tehran.
The repression has fuelled outrage among Iranian youth. Videos on social media show that in Saqez, the home of Mahsa Amini, scores of schoolgirls marched through the streets in protest, while girls in Karaj crowded a man, an official – out of their school gate, chanting “Dishonorable.” In another video on Twitter, schoolgirls remove their head coverings and chant against a man from the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force that is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who had come to the school to speak about the Mahsa Amini protests.
Senior officials claim that youth have been “trapped” by exposure to the internet, but videos posted online indicate the schoolgirls’ stand is earning solidarity: men and women are seen joining them, and boys are burning headscarves too.
In July, a video began circulating online of an altercation between two women on a Tehran bus. One, in full hijab, attacks the other, a 28-year-old called Sepideh Rashno, for not wearing a hijab.
In the weeks leading up to the incident, footage of similar episodes had been spreading with increased frequency online, evidence of the growing pressure being exerted on women by the regime. But this particular video went viral, and led to Rashno being arrested, abused and forced into making an apology on state television.
For a few weeks, Rashno was the face of a crackdown on women’s freedom in Iran that has intensified, sometimes violently, in the last year. Her arrest was
“a turning point for many women who had been resisting the morality police and fighting the mandatory hijab and slowly pushing the limits of what the state considered proper attire
said Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist and political analyst.“But this was a reminder of the state’s violent enforcement of the mandatory hijab on women. It was seen as a message to those who resist the state’s mandatory dress code. But it had the opposite effect, and anger and fury that had been slowly building up over decades eventually exploded with the subsequent death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police,”
“It takes immense courage and bravery for any woman to do this, but especially for young girls who are risking arrest, expulsion from school, and even death when joining these protests,”
Among the over 200 people who have been killed by Iranian state security during these protests is Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old whose death has been shrouded in disinformation. Her family have described being threatened for going public about her death.
Her mother told journalists she received a call from Nika who said she was running away from security officials before her phone went dead. The family went looking for her at hospitals and police stations but were told they had no one with that name. Meanwhile, videos of her singing and joking around were shared around the world.
Nine days later, the police showed images to her mother to confirm that the dead body in the photograph was Nika. “Her cheeks were broken. Her teeth were broken. She had received a severe blow behind her head, and her skull was dented,” her mother said.
The Iranian government says Nika was thrown from the top of a building and died and that it is a criminal matter and has nothing to do with the protests and security forces. In her burial certificate, obtained by BBC Persian, the cause of death is stated as multiple blows caused by a hard object.
“This has been part of the regime’s playbook in previous crackdowns of mass protests where security forces commit brutal violence against protesters, while denying that violence and those who are killed by it. It happened in 2009 with the state trying to deny that Neda Agha-Soltan and other protesters were killed by security forces, it happened again in 2019.”
In reality tens of thousands have taken part in protests, often risking their lives, as they faced state forces using live ammunition, tear gas and pepper spray. So far dozens of demonstrators have been killed and hundreds have been injured, while journalists, students, labour activists, social media users who have defended the protests have been arrested. Yet the protests continue.
All this amounts to a serious challenge to the Islamic Republic, but we should not underestimate the strength of the forces of repression – the regime will use everything in its power to suppress the movement.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has so far failed to issue any statement in response to the protests and there are rumours that he is unwell. However, I am always suspicious of such claims and it is likely that, sooner or later, he will appear on TV to condemn it all as a dastardly conspiracy. But the good news is that the protests have created further divisions amongst all the factions of the regime. The ‘conservatives’ are blaming former president Hassan Rouhani for the more liberal attitude to the wearing of the hijab in some urban areas during his presidency, while others are calling for the relaxation of the rules about head covering for women – and, of course, the hard-liners know that any retreat will cost them dearly.
The demonstrations are largely spontaneous – no-one takes seriously those who claim they are leading them. Such claims have come from rightwing groups, such as Mojahedin e-Khalq – the loony Islamist grouping supported by sections of the US neocon Republicans – as well as individuals who support the son of the ex-shah (he is also backed by neocons). As many Iranians have pointed out on social media, it is ironic that opposition groups who are financed by anti-abortion rightwingers in the US are showing concern for a woman’s right to choose their dress code in Iran.
Some of the slogans, such as ‘No shah, no sheikh!’, are very good – especially useful when the ex-shah’s son tries to take advantage of the protests. One of the most popular slogans on recent protests is ‘Death to the oppressor, be it shah or “leader”!’ (a reference to Khamenei), and another is ‘Death to the dictator!’
All this is positive, but spontaneity has its limitations. Some comrades inside Iran have pointed out that these protests are ‘post-nationalist’, meaning that the murdered woman, Mahsa Amini, was Kurdish, but protests are occurring in Farsi-speaking towns, in Azeri and Baluchi cities, with the same fervour as those where Kurds form the majority, and, of course, this is highly positive.
But other aspects are more problematic. For example, another of the main slogans is ‘Woman, life, freedom!’, which was originally used against Islamic State in Syrian Kurdistan by the YPG – the darlings of the soft left and sections of the anarchist movement. In my opinion, however, it is not a progressive slogan – which class of women, for example? As I wrote last week, the issue of policing the hijab in Iran is a class issue. And ‘life’ for whom? Capitalists, clerics, landowners or the working class? Even if the reference to freedom relates to very superficial forms, such a call is meaningless in a developing country without dramatic economic changes. Otherwise, after a short period of tolerating some liberties, the new order could well impose repression and another dictatorship to control economic unrest.
However, as the protests continue, new forces are now joining them. Some university lecturers have cancelled classes, announcing they will not resume teaching until arrested students are released. The Iranian teachers union is calling for strikes, and on September 29 university staff and students announced a nationwide strike of the higher education sector. Workers in the Haft Tapeh union have issued statements in solidarity with the protests and there are calls for a ‘nationwide strike’ – although at this stage it is not clear if those calling for such a strike have anything concrete planned.
Another positive aspect is the fact that women who themselves observe the rules on the wearing of the hijab have joined the protests. This shows that the protests are not just about the hijab, but a woman’s right to choose what she does in every aspect of her life, after 43 years of political and religious oppression.
The veteran socialist, Ardeshir Mehrdad, in a short text written this week, tells us:
A woman takes off her hijab and stands on a wall surrounded by black-clad men. A woman sits on a platform looking at heavily armed policemen wearing boots and leaves her hair out with calmness … A woman stands against a number of special forces of oppression; without the slightest fear or trembling in her voice, she calls them “murderers”.
No doubt women have been in the forefront of these protests and again this is very positive. Having said that, claims that this is a ‘feminist revolution’ are nonsense. This must be seen as part of the preparation for a revolution to overthrow the capitalist Islamic Republic of Iran, with all its factions – its clerical as well as civilian and military. The protestors are not just concerned about head covering. Of course, the death of Mahsha Amini initiated the current movement, but protests against this regime started in earnest a few years ago and they have since grown in size, duration and determination.
In fact Iranians have protested against dictatorship and the oppression of women, together with national and religious minorities, since February 1979. What makes the current movement different is that it has a material base: there are economic reasons for the way in which demonstrations are spreading and ordinary people are showing unbelievable courage confronting the oppressive forces. Protestors have also learnt from the riots of 2018 and demonstrations against the abolition of subsidies in 2019. Today, they are prepared to confront the armed forces – as opposed to the last two times, when they were much more timid.
The continuation of neoliberal economic policies by successive Islamist governments (‘reformist’ and conservative), in a country faced with severe economic sanctions, has created a situation where the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing daily; where the rate of inflation often exceeds 40%; where unemployment is growing and there seems no end to people’s daily suffering. In such circumstance women’s equality cannot be achieved simply by a change in government leaders. But the Iranian left seems incapable of coming up with any strategy, any long-term plan.
Two of the most important groups present in these protests are women and ethnic minorities, and, in what can be considered the ‘post-nationalist’ approach of these two groups, what we find is, in fact, nationalism – the culture, language, history and rights of different ethnicities is strongly emphasised. Basically, ‘post-nationalism’ interweaves with traditional nationalism.
It promotes equality that includes the presence of all nationalities and condemns any superiority of a particular group over others. This approach can strengthen the already existing unity of these currents, but it acts against the development of class unity. ‘Post-nationalism’ puts a strong emphasis on individuality, and this means it cannot consider any class over and above any other.
When it comes to the left in exile, we should not expect anything much from them – and, reading some of the recent articles written inside Iran, I am not sure there is much hope for the left there either!
Writing on the website, Naghd Eghetssad Siassi (‘Political Economy Critique’), Faegh Hosseini asks:
Can you trust street protests that are not led by a particular organisation or leadership? Yes! You can trust such protests, and political and social activists have to show this trust. This issue has two sides: firstly, the question is: can we hope in general to organise protests without any organisation behind it? Secondly, what facilities and needs are there to form these currents?
He then proposes councils and ‘post-nationalism’.
To quote a left group’s recent statement, translated from Farsi, ‘post-nationalism’
… recognises all people as equal, including immigrants, citizens, professionals, workers, men and women, and any ethnicity. Any socio-political thought that enters a region and culture must be changed according to the needs and characteristics of the target society, and the thought of post-nationalism is no exception to this rule.
The confusion in the above text shows the triumph of capitalist liberalism even in the thoughts of those who write on a left website. Class is equated with gender and nationality, while the reality is that, both amongst women and national minorities, class remains the most important defining issue. If we all unite with no understanding of class, it is obvious who will benefit from any change in government: those with economic power – the owners of land and capital.
Ex-‘feudals’ in Kurdish areas are nowadays either part and parcel of the current regime in Iran or they are, in Iraqi Kurdistan, benefiting from Israeli or Saudi funding. They are not part of the protests. Women associated with the leaders of the Islamic Republic and women whose families are among the super-rich are not protesting either. They have not suffered the oppression of the religious state, living in suburbs beyond the reach of the Gasht-e Ershad morality police. Then we have women associated with the many repressive organs of the Islamic Republic or its propaganda machine – they are part of the enemy. The officers of Gasht-e Ershad are often women and, for example, detention centres employ women to beat up female prisoners. We cannot talk of participants in a movement challenging the current order without referring to economic and political power – and here class and class allegiance is absolutely essential.
State forces might be able to suppress the current protests, but the ground beneath the Islamic Republic is gradually slipping away with generalised dissatisfaction, rising poverty, high inflation and neoliberal economic policies, such as the abolition of subsidies. So the protests will continue in some form or another and the Iranian people will surely succeed in overthrowing the Islamic Republic sooner or later.
Clearly the regime is getting weaker, but the question remains: who will replace the current bunch of corrupt, lying and sanctimonious clerics?
See also Beware of concerned neocons Yassamine Mather