A few thousand people clashed with riot police on Wednesday of last week as they chanted anti-government slogans around the traditional bazaar of Tehran.
The protest was sparked by shopkeepers closing down after the Iranian currency, the rial, lost a quarter of its value in two days. While a dollar was traded for 9,000 rials in 2009, it had reached 35,000 rials by the end of last month.
This has pushed up the price of consumer goods, increasing the economic distress of ordinary Iranians who suffer from low wages and unemployment. The price of chicken, for instance, doubled during the first half of this year.
While government policies have harmed Iran’s economy, the sanctions imposed by Western governments are a major culprit. They have put ordinary Iranians between a rock and a hard place. They have hit the oil exports and the dollar reserves needed to import food and consumer goods.
Last week’s protest is a clear indication of the ongoing discontent among Iranians who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in the summer of 2009 to demand democratic reforms.
While that movement was repressed, the anger remains. Protests have continued on a smaller scale and the number of strikes is growing.
However, the economic sanctions and the threats of war are hurting ordinary Iranians and their potential to expand small protests into a genuine movement for social justice and democracy.
This is no accident, as we saw last week when Israeli, American and European politicians tried to hijack the protest in Tehran for their own imperialist project.
The far right Israeli minister Avigdor Lieberman, for instance, said the “Iranian spring” was around the corner. American pundits claimed the sanctions were finally triggering a popular uprising.
When Western powers started imposing sanctions on Iran in 2006 they said these would target the government and not hurt the people.
Now they acknowledge they intend to take advantage of the suffering of ordinary Iranians in the interest of regime change. But sanctions have always strengthened the control of the ruling elites.
After the protests, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced that Iran will not stop its nuclear programme.
As next July’s presidential elections draw closer, different factions of the ruling elite are trying to hijack the popular discontent for their own interests.
The billionaire conservative politician Habibollah Asgarowladi came to the defense of the bazaar merchants who had closed their shops last week.
The ties of influential merchants to the regime and their pro-market politics mean they can’t be an ally of workers.
Labour activists themselves aren’t allowed to organise openly in Iran. But in June they presented a petition with 10,000 signatories against the high cost of living and inadequate minimum wages to the ministry of welfare, labour and social affairs. They delivered another 10,000 in September.
Protests like this have the potential to grow into a mass movement from below. The protest around the bazaar attracted just a few thousand people in a city of 12 million, but millions of workers share their anger.
A movement that wants to put the Iranian working class at its heart needs to oppose both the West’s sanctions and Iran’s ruling class.