Iranian workers and the poor, mostly teens and unemployed young adults, have staged a wave of protests that is shaking the country, particularly the religious and political elite.
These are not the first protests against the Islamic Republic. In 2009, democracy activists built the Green Movement in opposition to then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigging of elections that returned the hard-liner to power. More recently, anger at growing class inequality has been the driving motive for strikes and actions over the last two years — against a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who is associated with reform forces. In many ways, these economic protests have culminated in the current dramatic protest movement that swept through Iran over the last couple of weeks.
Frieda Afary is an Iranian-American librarian and translator, producer of the blog Iranian Progressives in Translation and member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists. Afary was interviewed by Ashley Smith about the causes of the ongoing revolt and the nature and prospects of the new Iranian resistance.
Ashley Smith: The protests that have swept Iran have captured the attention of the world. How did they begin and how did they spread?
Frieda Afary: On December 28, over 500 people protested in the holy city of Mashhad to oppose the rise in prices of basic goods and increasing poverty. There are rumors that these protests were organized to target President Hassan Rouhani by factions supporting the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now out of favor, or the former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi.
Whether that is true or not, the fact is that the protesters in Mashhad went far beyond what any faction within the government would have wanted. They chanted “Death to Rouhani,” “Death to the dictator [Ayatollah Khamenei],” “They turned Islam into a stepping stone and made people desperate,” “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon; I sacrifice my life for Iran,” and “Leave Syria alone and think about us.”
The protesters used the internet, specifically the Telegram messaging app, to spread the news and call for more actions. And the demonstrations immediately spread to Neyshabur, in the same province of Khorasan, and then to Yazd in the neighboring province.
Other cities followed: Kermanshah (which has a mostly Kurdish population and was the site of a devastating earthquake in November), Ahvaz (in the southern province of Khuzestan, the site of important labor protests), Isfahan, Shiraz, Rasht, Hamedan, Kerman, Zanjan, the holy city of Qom, and the capital of Tehran. All told, as many as 72 cities had protests in the course of the first week of the movement.
The participants are mostly young people under 30, but in some cases, they have included parents with their children. So far, at least 22 people have been killed (including two in detention), and 2,000 (including 100 university students) have been arrested by heavily present security forces.
As the actions spread, other even more radical slogans were raised by demonstrators. They chanted “Down with the regime,” “The master [Khamenei] rules and the people beg,” “Bread, work, freedom,” “Reformists, principalists, this is the end of the story,” “Death to Hezbollah,” “Freedom for political prisoners,” and “The media have gone deaf; Worse than theft.”
On the other hand, there have been conservative and nationalistic chants as well, praising the first Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah.
Some government buildings and banks were set on fire by the protesters, and pictures of Khamenei, Khomeini and Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, have been burned.
What are the causes of this new uprising in Iran? Have there been precursors to this in terms of strikes and mobilizations against worsening economic conditions? How much do the protests have in common with similar ones throughout the Middle East in 2011?
The causes of this uprising are not only economic ones like poverty and unemployment, but also political and social.
About 40 percent of the population lives under the relative poverty line. Around 90 percent of Iran’s workers are contract workers without any rights and benefits. The minimum wage of $230 per month — which is one-fifth of what is needed to support a family of four — is not even enforced.
On top of these basic economic grievances, there is a growing awareness in the population that the Islamic Republic is spending billions of dollars to fund its military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and to some extent Yemen, by denying basic subsistence to the majority of its own population. So the protesters are angry at the state for its regional imperialism.
Furthermore, political repression in terms of lack of freedom of speech, assembly and the press, as well as social discrimination against women and national and religious minorities, is intensifying opposition in an ethnically diverse population that is increasingly literate, aware and connected to the world through the internet.
Sixty percent of Iran’s university graduates are women. Most university graduates are unemployed. Forty-five million Iranians out of a population of 82 million have smart phones. The literacy rate is 87 percent.
More specifically, the latest protests have been preceded by over a year of almost daily actions and strikes by workers against non-payment of wages and terrible working conditions. There have been demonstrations by impoverished retirees and those who have lost their meager savings in bankrupt banks.
Teachers and nurses have staged strikes. Many political prisoners, including Reza Shahabi, a labor leader, have been on hunger strike off and on for several years.
Here are just a few examples of labor protests:
In Agh Dareh in the province of Western Azarbaijan, Kurdish gold miners struck, and the bosses’ goons responded by flogging them in the summer of 2016.
In Yurt in the province of Golestan, following a mine explosion that killed more than 40 workers and injured many others in May 2017, workers protested against Rouhani’s campaign appearance outside the Yurt mine and prevented him from giving his speech. They banged on and jumped on his car, expressing their anger and frustration with unbearable working conditions, lack of the most basic workplace health and safety standards, and nonpayment of wages and benefits.
Larger labor protests have involved the Azarab and HEPCO industrial workers in Arak who were beaten and arrested by anti-riot police in September 2017, and the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation workers in Khuzestan, whose strikes have been continuing off and on for several years. Both the HEPCO and the Haft Tapeh workers have gone on strike again as of a few days ago.
Teachers’ strikes in March have demanded not only better pay, but also improved education for students. Nurses have protested against the severe pressure of their workload, as well as low wages.
All of these protests are very similar to the 2011 protests that began in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. They are a response to both economic impoverishment and political and social repression. They have the added feature of opposing the military interventions of the Iranian government in other countries of the region.
How is this uprising different from the Green Movement in 2009? Is there a difference in the class character of the movement?
The Green Movement that swept Iran in 2009 was against the fraudulent presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. It was led by the reformist section of the establishment, had a predominantly middle-class base, and had hopes for the reform of the Islamic Republic, not its overthrow.
Today’s protests are different in several important respects. They directly oppose poverty and systemic corruption and are not supporting some leaders within the regime as their possible saviors.
They include the wide participation of the working class (both men and women) as well as the unemployed. In 2009, most participants were from the urban middle class. The working class did participate in those protests as well, but not en masse.
The demands this time are far more radical. As I noted before, they include calls for an end to the Islamic Republic, death to Supreme Leader Khamenei, death to President Rouhani, death to the Revolutionary Guards. In 2009, the demands were mostly limited to a fair election and reforming the existing system.
Today’s protests also have a more internationalist consciousness. After six years of Iran’s military intervention in Syria, almost 40 years of presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and almost 15 years of presence in Iraq through various militias, demonstrators are explicitly demanding an end to Iran’s military interventions.
There also have been more explicit challenges to the state’s repressive gender policies. In some cases, individual women have bravely taken off their headscarves or veils in public places and have encouraged others to follow them. In general, women have had a very strong presence in these protests, as in 2009, but there have been more working-class women.
Whereas the 2009 protests mostly took place in major cities such as Tehran and Isfahan and were larger (reaching up to 1 million in Tehran in June 2009), the current protests have started in the smaller cities and are smaller in size (numbering hundreds or at best a few thousand). But the demonstrations have been far more widespread this time.
In fact, Tehran has been relatively quiet in comparison to other cities. Small protests have taken place at Tehran University and other locations. However, the largest number of arrests (450 out of 2,000 so far) have been made in Tehran. Some of those are leftist university students. Some of those arrested have not even participated in the latest protests. They have been arrested in their homes by security forces.
In comparison to the 2009 Green Movement, the slogans are much more radical. They oppose poverty, repression, Iranian military intervention and the whole regime.
However, slogans that would oppose patriarchy, misogyny and the oppression of national and religious minorities such as Kurds and Bahais are still missing. Such demands are urgently needed to strengthen the progressive content of the protests.
How have the different factions of the ruling class and state bureaucracy responded to the uprising?
State police and security forces as well as plainclothes forces have had an increasingly strong presence at the protests, but they have not been as violent as in 2009. The military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have attributed the protests to US imperialism, the Trump White House, the CIA, Israel and the Western media.
On January 9, Ayatollah Khamenei announced that the protests were a conspiracy of the alliance of the US, the Gulf states and the Mujahideen Khalq. He said he was witnessing the “battle between Iran and anti-Iran, Islam and anti-Islam.”
Earlier, the commander of the IRGC, Mohammad-Ali Jaafari, also indirectly accused former President Ahmadinejad of having instigated the protests. The IRGC’s official statement claimed that the protesters had been influenced by US and Zionist propaganda.
Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the powerful Council of Expediency, named Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani as the instigators. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda called the protesters “goons and hooligans.”
President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president, Ishaq Jahangiri, attributed the protests to a conspiracy of the opponents of Rouhani, and implicitly accused Ahmadinejad. Later, Rouhani announced that people should have a right to protest, so long as they are not violent. In fact, however, the strong presence of security forces has been aimed at stopping the protests.
A week after the protests began, the state also organized its own pro-regime protests in five cities. They did so to demonstrate that they retained a popular base and to intimidate anti-government activists. However, those demonstrations had much smaller numbers than ones previously organized by the regime.
And as I noted, at least 2,000 people have been arrested, and at least 22 people have been killed, including two in detention. The state has also blocked access to Telegram and Instagram instant messaging, and has limited access to the internet.
So the state is trying to run interference in the development of the movement. However, the crackdown has not yet been as severe and bloody as 2009 — perhaps because this time, the protesters mostly represent what has been, for the past 39 years, the mass base of the regime.
One of the striking things about some of the slogans of the uprising is their opposition to Iran’s assertion of regional power against its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere. What is the significance of these slogans?
The main slogans on this issue have been “Leave Syria alone, pay attention to us” and “Neither Lebanon, nor Gaza, I sacrifice my life for Iran.” The first does not have any nationalist overtones and has been welcomed by Syrians, who are being bombed by the Assad regime, with Iran’s support.
The second slogan, “Neither Lebanon, nor Gaza, I sacrifice my life for Iran,” opposes Iran’s military interventions from a nationalist point of view. Some have also objected to this slogan because it does not attempt to express sympathy for the Palestinians.
The fact that these protests are opposing Iran’s military intervention in the region is extremely welcome and is showing those suffering under Assad and Hezbollah that the Iranian government does not represent the wishes of its people.
The antiwar slogans can help to weaken the war threats against Iran by Trump, Netanyahu and Muhammad Ben Salman. However, the movement needs slogans that are not nationalistic, but ones that express international solidarity from below with the people of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen.
Another noticeable dynamic of this rising is the absence of coherent political leadership, at least so far. Why is this the case? Does this open the movement up to co-optation, either domestically or internationally or both? Are there signs of organizations forming that overcome this limitation?
There is a vacuum of political leadership for several reasons. The reformists have been discredited. Many analysts have criticized the latest state budget offered by the Rouhani administration, which massively cuts subsidies, increases prices, and increases the military and religious institutions’ share.
It also needs to be added that Rouhani, who had been presented as the alternative to the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has on many occasions made it clear that he is not fundamentally opposed to the IRGC or Iran’s military interventions abroad.
The IRGC, the government (both the president and the parliament) and the Guardian Jurist, Khamenei, are all united around the goal of preserving a strong state, with a smaller social welfare sector and a much larger military sector.
Socialists and Marxists have been distinctly absent from any kind of leadership role in the latest protests. Some have been involved in labor solidarity work that preceded the current wave of protests and have encouraged workers to call for an end to the privatization of state enterprises.
But this focus is too narrow and misunderstands the nature of the so-called privatization that is going on. The state has used the cover of “privatization” to transfer of capital from the state to the para-statal sector during the past 12 years. This has, in fact, concentrated and centralized capital in the hands of the state and its army.
The state has also used this faux privatization to enable these para-state enterprises to violate or avoid compliance with the meager labor laws that exist. For starters, then, socialists should actually argue that the IRGC and other para-statal institutions that hire labor without any regulations are part of the state and should be subject to its meager labor laws.
Another reason for the absence of socialists from the leadership of the current protest movement is that they have not taken a strong stand against Iran’s military intervention in other countries in the region, especially Syria.
Some have even supported Bashar al-Assad as an “anti-imperialist” or “the lesser of the two evils” in comparison to ISIS. Some have also backed Putin’s bombing of Syria.
What is lacking is anti-authoritarian socialist organization opposed to private and state capitalism, military intervention, patriarchy, and ethnic and religious discrimination, while promoting discussion on a humanist alternative to capitalism.
That type of organization is needed as an active participant in labor, feminist and oppressed minority struggles, and as a catalyst for regional and international solidarity. Without such an effort, the current movement would certainly be open to co-optation, both domestically and internationally.
At the same time, many of the independent unions have supported the demonstrations. The Free Union of Iranian Workers, the Association of Electrical and Metal Workers of Kermanshah, the Association of Painters of Alborz Province, the Tehran Bus Workers Union, the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Workers, along with the Labor Defenders’ Center and the Committee for the Pursuit of the Establishment of Labor Organizations have all issued powerful statements in solidarity with the protesters and their demands.
This is extremely positive and offers an opportunity for a genuine left alternative to be organized inside the working-class resistance to the regime.
What lessons should the new uprising in Iran take from the movement in 2009 and the Arab Spring more generally?
The main lesson from both 2009 and what became known as the Arab Spring is that for a movement to succeed, it needs to not limit itself to reformism or even to opposing the existing regime.
The movement needs to develop an alternative goal to both private and state capitalism. And it must build strong ties between labor, feminist struggles and the struggles of oppressed minorities.
All of these elements are needed to build regional and global solidarity with anti-capitalist struggles that also oppose patriarchy, racism and ethnic or homophobic prejudices.
Reading and discussing Marx, as a political economist and as a humanist philosopher, is critical for movement participants. We have suffered enough from Stalinism and Maoism and have seen the non-viability of Keynesian types of state capitalism. We need to revive the ideas of a genuine revolutionary socialism.
You are active in a new formation called the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, which is trying to build solidarity among revolutionaries in the region. What are the aims of this project? How is this significant specifically for uprising in Iran today?
As we said in our founding statement of principles:
We have come together in an Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists on the basis of the following goals:
1. Opposition to capitalism, militarism, authoritarianism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy/sexism/heterosexism, racism, ethnic and religious prejudice.
2. Developing connections and active forms of solidarity between labor, feminist, anti-racist, LGBT, student and environmental struggles in the Middle East region and internationally.
3. Tackling the deep and historical problems of Middle Eastern socialism.
The region has been so plagued by the politics of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” that any effort to develop an affirmative vision of a humanist alternative to capitalism around universal concepts and goals has been missing. As a result, revolutionary or progressive movements that do emerge, most recently those that arose in 2011, have been destroyed by authoritarian capitalist systems, religious extremism and sectarianism, with the assistance of various regional and global imperialist forces.
We have come together to address these issues in a collective way in a joint website and through joint conferences and other possible activities. We see this Alliance as a place for debate toward the aim of finding real solutions that are not trapped within the capitalist mindset.
We hope that this Alliance will be able to help the current movement in Iran by publicizing its progressive demands, addressing its contradictions, helping to deepen its content, and promoting solidarity between it and other regional and international social justice struggles.
Finally — and this is important in the event of likely crackdown against the uprising in Iran — the Alliance has initiated a campaign around political prisoners throughout the region, highlighting a number of prominent cases. What are you asking solidarity activists to do?
The aim of this campaign is fourfold.
First, to shine a spotlight on the political prisoners who are labor, social justice, feminist, anti-racist and human rights activists opposed to war, imperialism, occupation, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism and extremism.
Second, to oppose all the global and regional imperialist powers in the Middle East: The US, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran.
Third, to demand that both state actors and non-state actors responsible for perpetrating war crimes in the Middle East be put on trial. We support initiatives meant to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity by enforcing universal jurisdiction, such as the cases filed in Spain, Germany, France and other EU states by local and Syrian lawyers.
Fourth, to show that demanding the immediate release of political prisoners in the Middle East is a crucial part of fighting the rise of authoritarianism and racism at home.
We are asking those who want to help to do the following: Invite a speaker from the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists to address your union or organization or classroom; choose a prisoner and write about them in your blog/website or your local newspaper; and join the sponsors of this campaign in organizing activities that connect labor, social justice, feminist, anti-racist, and LGBT struggles in your country to similar causes in the Middle East.