The 1990s saw a peak in the Iranian movement for reform and culminated in the election in 1997 of president Mohammad Khatami. How does the reform movement today compare with that of the 1990s?
The reformist theoretician Saeed Hajarian has a famous phrase, “Reform is dead, long live Reform.”
This popular view accepts that while the eight-year period of reforms in the 1990s has ended, the movement is still alive and effective today. It also understands that bloody revolutions cannot be the solution for those fighting for reform today.
Instead there is a need for a long and peaceful process in which the organised forces of civil society, including the trade unions, can be strengthened.
Historic experiences have shown that this is the only way to end dictatorships and establish freedom, democracy, human rights, development and welfare.
The Iranian people have faced enormous challenges – including two revolutions and two coups.
The 1979 revolution ended the regime of the Shah, with the slogan of “independence, freedom and an Islamic republic”. Since then Iran has achieved a degree of independence but the essence of the other two slogans has changed.
The aim of today’s reform movement is, therefore, the establishment of “freedom and a republic”.
Iranians currently face a dictatorial current that supports a form of extra judicial rule. In its first phase the reform movement used elections to stop this but ultimately it was defeated.
It failed for a number of reasons, including the use of the military and security apparatus to limit the activities of reformers – the power of the president was limited and his position weakened, while activists and leaders were jailed.
Today the reform movement has learned from its past weaknesses and is working towards taking power through participation in the March 2008 parliamentary elections, and the presidential elections the next year.
What is the labour movement in Iran like?
The activities of trade unions in Iran should not be seen as separate from the reform movement.
Under the programme of “cultural development” Khatami’s government created a favourable space for activists to work. This led to the publication of many independent newspapers and magazines, and the expansion of political parties and civil society organisations.
Teachers, nurses and bus workers challenged the government with strikes, assemblies and sit-ins. Sometimes their demands were met with government intervention and sometimes not.
However, with the change in the ruling order in 2005 came a strengthening of a security atmosphere. Now those organising such challenges faced arrest, imprisonment and heavy sentences.
Other civil society organisations have faced similar treatment – all activists are accused of wanting “revolution” and instigating “foreign interference”.
Therefore we feel there is a need for a changed political atmosphere. We want the electoral institutions to be under the control of the real representatives of the people, including the trade unions.
Union activists are fighting to use the forthcoming elections to send their own representatives to the parliament.
This strategy has already been successful – in the present parliament, which is dominated by conservatives, there are at least two MPs from the unions and workers’ parties from Tehran.
The reform period also created a space for political debate within the unions, and, even in the present atmosphere, workers continue to press their demands and organise solidarity.
It is important to know that despite repression, it is not possible for the Iranian authorities to totally exclude or eliminate unions. It is, however, possible to limit their activities – especially with pressures of war and sanctions coming from outside.
There have been worrying signals that Iran is to be the next target in the “war on terror”. How has the movement reacted to the threat of sanctions and of war?
Events in our neighbouring countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, mean we cannot underestimate the threat of war on Iran. Despite the global opposition to wars on Iraq and Afghanistan the US warmongers attacked Iraq in the name of democracy.
We are suffering enormously as the result of the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and the imposition of limitations to trade and banking by the Western “democracies”.
These measures have created inflation and unemployment, which in turn have given rise to poverty, corruption, addiction and prostitution. With increasing US sanctions these conditions will worsen and could lead to terrible conditions for the poorer sections of society.
In December last year 333 political and civil society activists signed an open statement entitled “New call for peace by the people of Iran” which demanded that people around the world stand up against the continuing threat of war.
Reform movement activists in Iran have warned all sides to avoid war.
They are critical of their own ruling powers that may have increased tension by beating the drums of war. But they blame the neocons and George Bush for creating tension in the region.
The reformists’ most important message is that, “We are against any policies that increase the economic sanctions against Iran because this is a prelude for a war against Iran.”
Past struggles show need to prepare
If you need one more reason to oppose an attack on Iran try this – John McCain, now the Republican candidate for US president, recently amazed an audience by singing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the old Beach Boys hit “Barbara Ann”.
No doubt this kind of careless chauvinism appeals to the US right. But most people will be horrified and share the views of Isa Saharkhiz.
Many will also sympathise with the instinct of the reform movement in Iran. Iran has a long and effective revolutionary tradition, first against the British in the 1950s and then against the US-backed regime of the Shah in 1979.
The change that needs to come in Iran, and other regimes in the Middle East, is likely to need such a profound movement again. But the experience of recent revolutionary movements show some difficulties that need to be confronted.
The kind of peaceful, democratic movement that Isa argues for in this interview has some dangers – one is that it is too weak to confront its enemies effectively.
Of course everyone wants peaceful change but not very many entrenched regimes are willing to give it. In China in 1989 the peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square were simply and brutally repressed by the regime that is still in power nearly 20 years later.
In Chile in 1973 the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was crushed by a military coup backed by the rich Chilean elite and supported by the US.
But even in those cases where some democratic advance has been possible, those working for change have often been disappointed by the results.
The classic modern case is that of South Africa. After decades of struggle that included peaceful protest, strikes and a limited amount of armed struggle, the African National Congress that led the struggle against apartheid chose the path of peaceful democratic transition.
This inevitably meant that the economic structure of South Africa remained untouched while the political structure alone was opened up to the black majority. This of course was a major advance, but it also left much of the power structure unchanged.
The result is that exploitation, poverty, disease and inequality remain as bad for the black majority today as they were under apartheid. Of course the politicians at the top are black and racial discrimination has been largely dismantled in its most overt forms.
But it is also true that the most dynamic and effective revolutionary movement in Africa’s history has disappointed those who fought for economic equality and an end to exploitation, as well as for political equality.
This has been a pattern of some recent revolutionary upheavals in Indonesia in 1998, in Serbia in 2000 and in many of the post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Former elites often reinvent themselves as “democrats”, the old corporations continue their rule, the new governments kow-tow to the US and its allies, and too little changes for ordinary working people.
Most revolutionary movements, if they have the potential to change the whole political structure, also find they have the power to overturn entrenched economic and social interests as well. They have the potential to put working people in charge of their own destiny.
But to realise that potential those working for change must consciously adopt such a perspective long before the revolutionary crisis breaks out.
They must set social transformation as their goal and they must appeal directly to the working people who have most to gain from this kind of revolution.
To do so they need to assemble an organisation of like minded activists who will assist in the struggles for reform so that they can increase the confidence of those resisting to the point where a total change in the system becomes possible.