Thursday, 4 February 2010

Iran: The Movement, The State & The West

My article for the Socialist Review.

Iran: The Movement, The State & The West

In July the Iranian people took to the streets to demonstrate against tyranny and were met with brutal repression. Six months on, the very same people have refused to give up their fight and continue to defy an increasingly violent state response. The stakes are high but so is the resolve and fight of the Iranian masses. At the same time in the plush fortresses of global leaders, plans are circulating to capitalize on the unrest. The people of Iran are not only facing the struggle of their own leaders but also the threat of crippling foreign sanctions and military engagement.

The Movement

The disputed Presidential election of last July was the catalyst that led to the instant emergence of a dynamic and mass opposition movement that was prepared to take on the might of the Iranian establishment. Whilst they need no excuse to continue the protests, they have used every opportunity to do so.

The latest round of protests began on 7th December on Student’s Day. A date used to remember three students killed during the protests against the notorious and bloody coup of 1953, in which the democratically elected Dr Mossadeq was replaced by the dictatorship of the Shah. In cities across the country, students turned commemorative rallies into mass demonstrations, clashing with security forces and the state pro-government Basij militia. Reports from Iran claim that almost every single day the universities are alight with student protest.

On December 19th the news broke of the death of a leading opponent to the government, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. Montazeri had been a leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and at one point was widely believed to be the named successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. However, in the post revolutionary years Montazeri became increasingly critical of the lack of human rights inside Iran, as well as the subjugation of women.

His funeral took place in holy city of Qom and was marked by huge anti-government demonstrations. The slogans could not be more poignant as Montazeri was laid to rest in the shrine of Hazrate Masoumeh, one of the most revered female saints in Shi’ite Islam. “Dictator: This is your final message – the people of Iran are rising!”

A week after the death of Montazeri the religious festival of Ashura took place. Ashura is a massively significant time for Shi’ites as it remembers the killing of Imam Hussein in what is seen as a cruel and oppressive act. His death is seen as an example of a small minority standing up to tyranny and oppression in the face of huge adversity. It was this spirit that encapsulated the mood of the protestors as they took to the streets once again to challenge their modern day oppressor.

Before the festival the government and conservative clerics had made menacing warnings to ‘crush’ those who wish to ‘exploit’ a religious festival. Yet the warnings were not heeded and in all the major cities across Iran hundreds of thousands came out to rally against oppression. Sadly, the ominous threat from the state was not an empty one and security forces and the Basij were let off their chains to attack the protests.

Hundreds were arrested and nine people were killed, including the nephew of Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. The state then continued with its crack down, arresting more activists, journalists and others.

What this recent explosion of revolt shows is that this movement is certainly strong enough to continue to mobilize and brave enough to face the repression. But perhaps more importantly the continued resolve shows that the demands now go beyond the disputed election. In the original wave of protests much of the slogans concentrated on the vote rigging and it was hard to decipher what the wider demands were.

However, now the movement has begun to create a number of unified demands that extend beyond the election and are searching for democracy and even a separation of religion from state. There are of course still various strands to the movement, as the reform movement has always been a wide grouping. The election provided a momentary rallying call for all reformists in Iran but it seems now they are trying to go further to create an alternative vision.

At the beginning of January a manifesto was released by five prominent Iranian exiles. The program claims to support the pluralistic nature of the Green Movement. The basis of the manifesto of course calls for the immediate resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President as well as the abolition of the clerical voting system and vetoing of candidates. However it also calls for the recognition of law-abiding political, student, non-governmental and women’s groups; labor unions; freedom for all means of mass communication; and an independent judiciary, including popular election of the judicial chief.

The creators of this manifesto admit that there are still many more demands but this was a modest attempt to theorise the movement. What is true is that if any of these demands were to be met, it would certainly be a radical step for a country so blighted by a lack of freedoms.

The State

From the outset the movement has caused huge ruptures at the top of Iranian society. Given that many of the movements leading figures, such as Mousavi himself, have come from the ruling class, it is no major surprise that they have been affected. However cracks in the regime are not a new phenomenon.

Before the protests sprang into life, debates had already been on going about the nature of Ahmadinejad. Many in the political establishment feared his ‘provocative’ attitude towards the West ad saw him as reckless, particularly in the face of threats from The Bush regime as well as Israel.

But for Ahmadinejad, standing up to the west has been a political tool rather than a dogmatic principle. When he was first elected in 2005 the Presidential hopeful had promised to end corruption and distribute wealth, as well as standing up to ‘the Great Satan’. However with corruption on the increase and inequality wider than ever, he has relied more and more on goading the west to consolidate support at home.

However, once the movement exploded these splits became magnified in the face of a threatening opposition. Some sections looked to try to calm the masses through appeasement, although the official line from the supreme leader Khameni was clear; to crush the protests. Hence the brutal, albeit erratic, nature of the repression.

There has appeared to be mounting tensions between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the state itself. The revolutionary guards seem to be trying to take an increasing amount of control in the state and are using their necessity to the regime during the protests, to do so. The Guards were originally set up with the aim of ‘defending the revolution’ but in recent years have become a force of their own, taking control of certain industries during the period of rapid privatization in the 1990’s.

In the run up to the 2009 election, the conservatives in government had been far from united. A group of influential conservatives had pulled away from Ahmadinejad and created their own list of candidates. They were careful to not publicly display their differences in opinion but in reality a power struggle had emerged.

These contradictions and differences are continued through the top of a very unstable society. This is why the Green movement was able to knock the regime back in such an effective manner. Meanwhile, western leaders watch closely.

The West

It is no secret that The United States has been in confrontation for some time with Iran. For all the talk of engagement from Obama, in reality, there has been little change from the regime of George W. Bush. The former President may have preferred a more direct confrontation than Obama, but the conclusions are the same; to isolate and to pressure Iran into submission.

The main thrust of the accusations against Iran has been focused around Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s an issue that seems to keep appearing when it suits the United States to do so, and since the July protests began it has been a common theme. Iran is already under three sets of sanctions that have been placed by the United Nations.

The latest deadline fell on 31st December and a meeting of six major powers took place immediately to discuss the next step. Senior officials from Britain, America, France, Russia and Germany met, with China sending a lower level diplomat, signaling their reluctance to back tougher sanctions.

The official line from the meeting is that no decisions have been reached although tougher sanctions are certainly in the pipeline if Iran continues to ignore calls to halt enrichment expressing concern at Iran’s "insufficient cooperation" with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.

For the west the fear is that a nuclear Iran will seriously alter the power map of the Middle East, with a bitter enemy as a serious power. In addition Obama will not want to be seen to fail on one of his major policy objectives of dealing with the Iran issue. From the Iranian point of view a confrontation with the west is the ideal way to unite the divided population over a fairly popular policy.

Russia has increasingly become annoyed with Iran’s refusal to begin negotiations and the only obstacle to further sanctions seems to be China. It is well known that China, who have a veto on the UN Security Council, have a strong trading agreement with Iran in which China benefits from selling petroleum. China does not want sanctions to affect this business arrangement.

However, China itself will be wary of isolating itself within the Security Council, especially now as Russia appears to joining the sanctions bandwagon. What is clear is that at some point sanctions will begin to hurt the Iranian people. Both in damaging the movement, by providing an excuse for the regime to crackdown, and by causing problems afflicted upon Iraq when Saddam’s regime was under UN sanctions.

Between 1990 and 2003 sanctions had created a humanitarian disaster in Iraq with up to a million children dying as a result. Economic sanctions cause people to suffer, not leaders.

This leaves the Iranian people in a perilous situation. On the one hand they are courageously fighting their own regime and on the other they face the prospect of western sanctions. A real concern is that a false dichotomy will be created that already exists in other Middle-Eastern states, where to support the regime is to be anti-western and to oppose the regime is to support the west.

This is not what the Iranian people want. Thirty-one years ago they disposed of a dictator who was a puppet of the west. They rejected western influence but they also wanted democracy, civil rights and power. They achieved the independence but not the control they would like in their own country.

Whatever the next move from the west and the Iranian regime may be, it is clear that the people of Iran will continue to fight and not back down. Next month the annual ‘revolution day’ takes place, marking the 1979 revolution. More protests have been promised and whilst there may be many differences between 2010 and 1979 the resolve of the Iranian people is the same. Whether the regime opts for appeasement or repression, this movement will simply just not go away.

1 comment:

  1. " A real concern is that a false dichotomy will be created that already exists in other Middle-Eastern states, where to support the regime is to be anti-western and to oppose the regime is to support the west."

    Such a dichotomy has been used by the SWP in Stop the War against Hands Off the People of Iran ( We have argued for years that you can oppose war and sanctions and support the opposition movement at the same time. When we put this forward at Stop the War conference and at local STWC meetings we were called 'stooges' of imperialism. So Dominic, do you now think it is time to apologise for the treatment of comrades for saying almost identically the same thing you have written for Socialist Review?

    How come you have not talked about the working class movement and the need for an independant policy for the working class against the conservatives *and* the reformists. Mousavi and the reformists offer no way forward, it represent a pillar of the establishment. The 'reformist' leaders have already made moves to limit "radicalism", that is why large sections of the movement most notably women, workers and students have already dismissed these leaders and have gone beyond the limits of reforism and are calling for the end of the Islamic Republic altogether.

    Chris Strafford


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