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The new revolt in Iran

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Four weeks into the rise of a new protest movement challenging authoritarian rule in Iran, Tehran based socialist Sharif Amozgar spoke to Socialist Worker about the forces at play—and how it could develop. Nick Clark looks at the class forces that have shaped Iran’s politics and protests
Issue 2826
A woman in Iran standing on car on in the middle of traffic and protestors. She is holding a branch lit on fire with protestors clapping around her

Waves of protests spread through Iran after the killing of Masha Amini (Picture: Twitter/ Arash Ghiassi)

Who is organising these protests and how? And why did they spread after the police killing of Mahsa Amini?

A crucial feature of this round of protests—similar to other recent ones more focused on economic demands—is its spontaneous and unorganised nature. This in turn is the result of severe repression of dissident parties and workers’ trade unions and other non‑governmental organizations.

So there is a lack of organisation and clear positive political agenda in these protests making them even more vulnerable to state repression. People usually gather in specific hours in the evening on specific streets or neighbourhoods and wait for others to show up and start their protests. This is despite severe state repression in the streets.

There might be some small online groups to organise a handful of people but they have no nationwide influence. There are some Persian media and news agencies—mostly backed by Saudi Arabia or Western investors—promoting right-wing or Pahlavi royalist propaganda. They encourage people to protest.

There are also some leftist groups or parties outside Iran that are also advocating these protests. But they have no power or influence such as the wealthy media outlets. Fortunately, despite this imbalance, it can’t be said that protesters are sympathetic to either right wing or left wing politics.

There is deep frustration among the decaying middle class and working class about rising inequality, 50 to 60 percent inflation in prices of basic goods, unemployment, and low wages. The right cannot talk about and pursue seriously the cause of justice and economic freedom, or of a welfare state or redistribution of wealth.

That is an advantage for the left in these protests that ask for women’s freedom and democracy as well as economic welfare. The protests spread because Iranian society has been on the brink of bursting for at least the past five years.

We’ve had a decade of economic recession, and arrogance from the political elite toward a desperate middle class and an increasingly militant working class. That’s made the outburst on the streets just a matter of time. Mahsa Amini’s death in morality police custody was just a spark in a powder keg.

 

Who is joining the protests? Are they mostly young, mostly women, secular or religious—or is it a mix of different people?

It’s noticeable that there’s discontent here among layers even of the higher middle class. This is different to other recent protests that were focused on economic demands and appeared in poor and working class neighbourhoods or underdeveloped cities.

The majority of protesters are the middle class youth that is facing a bleak and precarious future of unemployment, falling purchasing power, and rising inflation. This dire economic situation is the result of Iran’s embrace of neoliberal policies since the early 1990s.

Older generations seem to be more conservative than millennials. This is simply because it is grotesquely difficult for the young generation to start a life and make a living in this dire situation. Women seem to be outstandingly more active compared to previous protests. That means this protest is defying not only the government but also a conservative and patriarchal culture.

It is not Islam in itself, but the Islamist ruling elite of Iran that is repressing women’s rights. Several official public polls show that most Iranian people—whether religious or secular—are against the compulsory wearing of the hijab.

So it is not an internal fight between religious and secular people, but between the majority of people and the ruling elite. And it is not merely about the headscarf, it is about economic justice and political freedom. Secular people are more present in street protests, while some religious people are sympathetic.

There is a small popular base who supports the ruling elite. That’s partly for their social and economic bonds and partly for believing in the politics of the regime. They think that their basic values and their national and religious identity are endangered if the compulsory hijab is removed.

 

Iran’s government says the protests are infiltrated or organised by ‘outside actors’. What is the attitude of the protests toward the US?

As I said, protests are rooted in long‑term economic development and triggered by factors such as the death of Mahsa Amini and the actions of the morality police. Outside actors have no power to ignite an uprising on such a scale. There are some Iranian royalist, liberal‑nationalist, and leftist groups or parties that try to promote some slogans and agendas. 

But they have no systematic influence on the protests. The US has already funded right wing and royalist groups and their media agencies. Some US Republican senators are advocating for more sanctions or even military intervention at the request of Iran’s people. This is the so-called humanitarian intervention of US imperialism which has torn apart the social fabric of several countries. That would be a disaster for the Iranian people.

Sanctions are directly against ordinary people and their basic needs and economic well-being. They’re designed force Iran to follow the US road to “democracy”, which is freedom for the capitalist class and oppression and inequality for most people. Leftists in the West should vocally fight against any more economic sanctions or threats of military intervention.

Sharif Amozgar is a pseudonym


In the shadows of 1979

Among the Western press and politicians, protest movements in Iran are often presented as revolts against a backward, conservative religion. Or they’re a movement for a liberal—implicitly Western—style democracy. That interpretation sits within a broader outlook that casts the West as a progressive force.

It claims freedom and democracy as exclusively “Western values” to justify its interventions. It smothers the agency of the people at the heart of the movement, and attempts to stamp on them ambitions for a Western‑dominated world order. It also ignores what’s really driving the movement.

The protests are part of a long tradition of resistance in Iran. There’s a direct connection between the movement today and the revolution in 1979 that overthrew the Western-backed dictator, the Shah. The Shah had run a regime that oversaw vast inequality with brutal repression.

The West liked him because he allowed them to use Iran as a garrison for the US military in the region. He did, after all, owe his rule to a coup orchestrated by the US and Britain in 1953.

But an economic crisis in 1977 triggered protests that developed into a revolt against the whole regime. It involved strikes and guerrilla struggle—and different sections of society and classes played their part. The movement overthrew the Shah in 1979, and for a time after, democracy flourished. But there was also a battle for leadership of the revolution. 

The Islamist movement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was just one of the forces involved. It promised new opportunities for a middle class that felt held back under the old regime, and social justice for poor people.

It tied this all together with an ideology that promised to reconstruct society along “Islamic” lines. This was a political interpretation of Islam that benefited the political ambitions of the new middle class.

Khomeini manoeuvred himself to the top of government and then launched a crackdown on rival political forces—including the left and workers’ organisations. He eventually became the president after Iraq—backed by the US—invaded Iran in 1980.

Khomeini’s project was to crush the revolution and install a new capitalist order for Iran’s industrial middle class. As the US set out to strangle Iran with war and economic isolation, the regime supported itself with large scale state intervention. This meant creating nationalised industries and banks, and state‑linked economic foundations. It also included social programmes to appease poor supporters.

Yet Iran remained a highly unequal society. The state‑controlled industry created a new ruling layer of managers and directors from the Islamists’ middle class base. The new regime survived. But Iran’s isolation held it back. So after the war, Iran’s government began a process of “opening up” the economy to the market in the 1990s, ending price controls and subsidies.

Privatisations gave the ruling class new opportunities to make profits. Often the people who benefited from this were those with state connections. Government or semi-government bodies would operate as businesses with their own economic interests. Corruption was a natural part of this process.

This shift impoverished ordinary Iranians. The gap between rich and poor grew, while privatised companies sacked workers, pushing up unemployment. It eroded popular support for the regime. At the same time, society was urbanising and becoming more secular, and the number of women in work was increasing. The people at the top were split over how to manage this.

Successive governments vacillated between intensifying authoritarian measures designed to crack down on dissent, and liberalising reforms intended as a safety valve for it. This combination provoked bitterness at the regime, but also opened up space for young activists to organise, especially on campuses.

These included women’s rights campaigns that brought together secular and Muslim people, socialists and feminists. The workers’ movement also began to grow from the 1990s, as the working class grew and became more concentrated in large industries. There have been some significant strike movements. Various administrations kept pushing free market policies, while the US has tried to contain Iran with economic sanctions.

There have been explosions of social movements, such as one in 2009 over alleged vote rigging. More recently there have been protests by poor and working class people over price rises, unemployment and subsidy cuts.

In each of these movements, there are politicians—both in Iran, and in the West—who try to manipulate them. But, though they take on the regime, none of them demand ties to the US or reject Iran’s independence from the West. Nor are they necessarily anti‑religious. 

As Iranian socialist Payman Jafari told Socialist Worker in a recent interview, Iranians—both religious and non-religious—oppose the compulsory wearing of the hijab as a symbol of authoritarian rule. “This is a growing sentiment of radical sections of youth that oppose the entire system because of both corruption and economic mismanagement and this infringement on political and social liberties,” he said.

And while the protests naturally focus on the government, in some places protesters have insisted on their independence with chants of “Down with the dictator—be it the Shah or the supreme leader.” Underlying this is a desire for a society that fulfils the promises of the 1979 revolution. And that’s a threat to both the West and the regime.

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