Hamid Alizadeh reports on the huge protests that have erupted onto the streets across Iran in the past week, and discusses the way forward for this nascent mass movement.

In the past week, Iran has seen the most widespread protests since the 1979 Revolution. While it is still smaller in size than the 2009 Green movement, it has spread far beyond the mainly urban areas of the big cities to which that movement was mainly confined. This is a sea-change and it has shaken the regime to its foundations.

In the past week, Iran has seen the most widespread protests since the 1979 Revolution. While it is still smaller in size than the 2009 Green movement, it has spread far beyond the mainly urban areas of the big cities to which that movement was mainly confined. This is a sea-change and it has shaken the regime to its foundations.

So far it appears that 52 cities in 27 provinces have seen protests since people first took to the streets of Mashhad on 28 December. The first protests took place in Mashad and were initially aimed at President Hassan Rouhani. In fact, it initially received the backing of the hard-line reactionary, Friday Prayer Imam of Mashad and custodian of the $15+ billion Imam Reza Endowment, Ahmad Alamolhoda.

However, the slogans quickly turned against the whole clerical establishment. Mashad, Iran’s second largest city, has always been seen as a conservative and religious city in which the hard-line political factions enjoyed high support. But in the past years the mood has changed in the city. In fact, the defining feature of all of these protests is the fact that they have taken place in areas and among layers where the regime has traditionally enjoyed higher support.

On the 29th, in the holy city of Qom, home to the highest clerical institutions, thousands of people took to the streets with chants such as “Death to Hezbollah” and “Seyad Ali [Khamenei] leave, let go of power” and “Death to the Islamic Republic”. At one point the picture of Che Guevara was also seen on the demo.

In the northern city of Rasht the crowds were chanting “Noble army, help the people”. In Hashtgard a large crowd were chanting “The only aim is the regime, this is [our] last word”.

Other slogans were against Iran’s interventions in the Syrian Civil War, saying “leave Syria, think about us!”

Yesterday the first small protests also erupted in Tehran, mainly initiated by youth around Tehran University. An eyewitness report in IranWire explained: “The slogans were centered around the economy. Unemployment, poverty and destitution have made people desperate. Then the slogans turned to political and civil rights including the right to be free ‒ individual freedom, freedom in thought and freedom for groups of people. University students joined the people because students are part of the people.”

The slogans raised at the demo in Tehran included “Death to the Dictator," “People are paupers while the mullahs live like a god” and “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic” - as opposed to Islamic Republic.

Other slogans included “We die, we die but we will get Iran back” and “Reformists and Principlists, the story is ending”, “Bread, Jobs, Freedom”, “Students and workers unite”. The police cracked down hard on the protest in Tehran and there are reports that at least 200 people were arrested, but eventually the protests spilled over into the streets where at one point a police van was attacked and the detained protesters inside were reportedly freed. Today the protests in Tehran are set to continue.

At the same time several banks, in particular connected to the Revolutionary Guards, have been attacked, prompting the police to deploy extra security to banks throughout the country.

Also in the city of Izeh violent clashes erupted between protesters, who at a point were reported to have expelled security forces altogether. Two people were killed in these clashes. State TV has reported 10 dead so far as a result of the crackdown. Nevertheless, the scale of the protests has generally forced the state to adopt a careful approach in order to avoid provoking an even bigger movement.

But it appears that the protests are set to continue regardless. While the protests in Tehran were small initially, there are signs that they might be gathering pace and could lead to larger manifestations today where new cities are also expected to join in.

Regime in crisis

The rapid spread of the movement has stunned the regime, which has been struggling to come up with an adequate response. After several days of silence, President Hassan Rouhani appeared on the television yesterday. He acknowledged that “people have the right to criticise”, but at the same time threatened that the regime was ready to crackdown in case of “violence and destroying of public properties”.

Meanwhile, hundreds of peaceful protesters at Tehran University were being beaten up and arrested en masse, while protesters were being killed in other parts of the country. Other liberal “Reformists”, such as Masoumeh Ebtekar have been outright calling for a crackdown to rein in the masses. These liberals will defend democratic rights ‒ but only to the extent that these rights are not actually used to formulate the real aspirations of the masses.

Rouhani came to power five years ago with promises of change. Millions of people from all layers of society rallied around his promises to end the securitised atmosphere, freeing political prisoners, increasing democratic rights, ending Iran’s isolation, and raising living standards. His promise of “not just turning the wheels of centrifuges, but also the livelihood of the people” resonated with millions of workers and poor. But four years later, ordinary people are still struggling. Unemployment has been steadily rising and although inflation in general has been brought under control, the cost of living has been steadily rising. Furthermore, the Rouhani administration is planning to cut subsidies on basic goods as well as cash benefits for the poorest even further.

What we are witnessing now is a rebellion of these layers: the poor, the dispossessed, the lower middle classes and sections of the working class. Coming from conservative areas, these layers have held their heads low for decades, accepting their lot. In fact, many of the people on the streets are from the same layers the regime has often leaned on. But that is clearly over.

Of course, at this stage, the slogans are very confused, ranging from economic demands and "death to the dictator" to praising Reza Khan. All of this reflects a deep-seated anger against the whole rotten Islamic Republic. People are hungry and tired of unemployment, inflation and corruption. The pious and clean cover that the clergy traditionally hides behind has been tarnished by decades of rotten and corrupt rule.

Meanwhile, Western regimes and the Saudis, as well as Israel, have lined up in trying to gain from this movement. Donald Trump has been tweeting his support for the “Iranian people”. Clearly Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel are following a regime-change tactic with regards to Iran. But the Iranian people have not forgotten the crimes of western imperialism against them, the latest one being the brutal economic war the US has been waging on the Iranian masses.

It is not clear what will happen after today. It is possible that the movement could temporarily die down. But one thing is clear: this is the beginning of a process of the reawakening of the Iranian revolutionary masses. A new layer of the masses has entered the stage and the crisis of the regime is deepening. These are the first tremors of great historic events that will send shock waves throughout the whole region and radically change the balance of class forces.

Originally published on In Defence of Marxism, 1st January 2018

Revolutionary ferment in the depths of Iranian society

By Hamid Alizadeh

Yesterday protests carried on for the fifth straight day throughout Iran. Meanwhile, security forces have adopted a harder stance. The protests seemed to have decreased slightly in size, partially due to the increasing crackdown and partially due to the lack of a tangible focal point for the movement. The regime has also heavily reduced access to internet and communication, and it is also clear that many protests are not being reported, in particular from smaller towns and suburbs.

These protests are unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. Never before has the regime seen such a widespread a movement, and never before have any of the big protest movements expressed such a radical and uncompromising mood. In the deeply conservative city of Hamedan hundreds of people were chanting: “Khamenei is a murderer, his government is void”.

In Ardabil one of the slogans, which has also found an echo elsewhere, was “Hossein Hossein, is [the regime’s] slogan, [but] rape is its delight”, referring to the religious hypocrisy of the theocracy. In Ahvaz protesters charged the police after it attempted to arrest some of them.

Kermanshah, home to a majority Kurdish population, which recently suffered a devastating earthquake, has seen very heavy clashes over the past few days. Mismanagement and corruption was the root cause of many avoidable deaths after the earthquake and much of this anger is bound to be expressed by the oppressed Kurdish population in this movement.

In and around Tehran protests have continued, also leading to heavy clashes. Crowds in Tehran have been chanting: “Overthrow overthrow, the [mullah] republic”.

A heavy presence of security forces meant that large crowds could not gather, and yet protests continued throughout the night.

More importantly, the protests also spread to the industrial towns and villages around Tehran. In Karaj, an industrial bastion just outside of Tehran, what appears to be some thousands of people took to the streets which and clashed with the police. In Abadan, crowds were chanting “death to unemployment”.

In Shiraz, a video surfaced of crowds chasing away security forces on the streets. Meanwhile, in Masjed Suleyman a huge protest took to the streets with some rumors saying the people temporarily took complete control of the city. Another video from an unknown place shows how the masses are approaching security forces trying to win them over, saying “don’t be our enemies”.

In the city of Rasht, a woman on the edge of one of the protests expressed the desperate situation of the working poor, many of whom are struggling daily with non-payment of wages.

“My brother’s child is working there, he hasn't received wages for three months and they have expelled him. He goes to the department of work...it's like this everywhere. Department of work! it belongs to the workers! How can it be that the state doesn't know [what is going on]. They have expelled everyone! How can it be that [the state] doesn't know!? [[A woman says something ]] They are telling us not to speak! Why shouldn't we speak?! He's come home with a pregnant [girl]. How can he afford that? [You are telling me] they don't know that the factories are not paying wages? They don't know? And then they tell us not to speak? Why should we not speak?"

There were also protests in at least Zanjan, Tuyserkan, Arak, Saveh, Amol, Sari and Qazvin. These are all ‘peripheral’ areas with high unemployment and ordinary non-student youth seems to be at the head of the movements in most towns.

The unemployment rate among those aged 15 to 29 is well over 24 percent and that is only the official figure. It is even higher among urban youth and women. Many of these were counting on some kind of relief from the Rouhani government. But in spite of 4.2 percent economic growth last year – the first year of real growth in many years – unemployment and living costs have kept rising.

Another video which has circulated on Twitter is of a poor Iranian woman and sister of a martyr of the Iraq war. These people were previously pillars of support for the regime. Now the regime is accusing them of being paid by foreign powers to protest.

"I feel really bad. I went to Tehran twice to tell them about my problems. They didn't even spit at me. My brother went and martyred himself – [For what?] just so these guys could rule and his sister could prostitute herself? What does a martyr’s sister [have when] she doesn't have [anything] to give to her children? Fuck the honour of Iran, [it hasn't given me anything] or to those like me. We are not American's [unitelligible] I speak my mother tongue! Leader! [referring to Khamenei - ed.] look at these hands! Are my hands toiling or you? The children are sleeping hungry! [the rest is unintelligible.]”

These are the real conditions that millions of poor women are grappling with. Prostitution is something millions of Iranian women are forced into, and often fully sanctioned and organised by the clergy who use traditional ‘temporary marriages’, sanctioning prostitution in exchange for a quick buck. For four decades the working masses have kept their heads low and accepted their lot together with all the excuses of the clergy. There is not a day goes by without a major scandal involving top figures in the regime. The Mullahs have built up billion dollar empires and obscene lifestyles, while they have imposed austerity on the masses. This year the government is threatening to remove cash benefits to the poor and raise fuel prices by another 50 percent.

Meanwhile, immediately after the ‘calming’ and ‘reconciling’ words of Rouhani on TV yesterday, the crackdown has increased and the numbers arrested are now at at least 400, while around 20 people have been reported by officials to have been killed. At the same time, the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corp has announced that it is taking over security of Tehran from the police. This goes not only against the words of President Rouhani two days ago when he said that people would be allowed to protest peacefully -– but also his campaign promise five years ago to remove paramilitary troops from the streets of Tehran. These so-called liberal ‘democratic’ friends of the people are adopting the same exact methods that they claim to be against.

A taste of revolutionary events to come

Unfortunately, a thin layer of ‘leftist’ intellectuals has been echoing what many liberals are saying: that given the lack of a clear organisation and programme, this movement can come under the influence of reactionary domestic or external forces or that it might otherwise lose. Hence, they imply, we should not support or fully support this movement.

What they mean by this is that we should ask the hungry and desperate Iranian people to go back home and continue their fast and only come back out when they have an organisation worthy of our ’leftist’ intellectual friends’ support! Let us ask the mother to keep prostituting herself and send her children to bed hungry until enough academic papers have been written about a mass party that is pure and clean as angel tears, until one materialises out of thin air. Only then can the people come back out onto the streets. The distance between these ‘friends’ and the real world could not be greater.

But how is it even possible to build a fully fledged democratic mass organisation under such a dictatorship? Such a thing is highly unlikely, if not impossible. These ladies and gentlemen are the same ones who write off building an organisation because they do not believe a revolution will come and then, when it is set to occur, they write it off because it doesn’t have an organisation. Either way, they oppose the revolutionary masses whom they do not trust at all – and that is the essence of it.

Fortunately, the Iranian masses are not too bothered with these people. For 30 years the liberal ‘democrats’ and their social democratic hangers on have been preaching ‘reforms’ and ‘moderation’ every time the masses have taken to the streets. And what have they achieved? Absolutely nothing. 30 years of switching between conservative and liberal rule has led to precisely nothing. People are still oppressed, unemployed and struggling to survive. But the poor and uneducated of Iran have come to understand in three days what these gentlemen and ladies have failed to learn in three decades: that only a bold revolutionary stance will yield any results. The regime has clearly been shaken by the radical mood of these demonstrations, more so perhaps even than during many phases of the Green Movement in 2009.

Of course, the movement does need organisation and a clear revolutionary programme in order to succeed. The fact that the movement is completely raw and without a revolutionary leadership means that it is bound to meet many obstacles, which could potentially derail it. This remains a danger, in particular as long as the core of the working class has not yet joined it. Would not it therefore be all the more logical to support it even more vigorously and assist it in any way possible to develop such organisation and programme before it is derailed or otherwise compromised?

What we are witnessing are the first early stages of a revolutionary process. Some layers of the masses are taking their destinies into their own hands. In doing so they are anticipating events to come. They do not yet know what they want, but they know exactly what they don’t want - and that is, everything which stands in the name of the Islamic Republic. What they are reflecting is the inability of Iranian capitalism to satisfy the most basic needs of the people of Iran – not even its traditional core base of support.

Through the process of struggle this fact and the class divide will become ever more clear. The task of revolutionaries is not to stand on the sidelines and explain what “could go wrong if we lose” but, rather, how to win this struggle! We must participate in the movement and patiently explain that only by taking power into their own hands, can the people achieve their modest goals and aspirations.