The protests in Iran following the police killing of Mahsa Amini have produced the biggest challenge to the regime in years. Protesters have raised the slogan “Unity, fight back, triumph”, one of the left’s slogans during the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Iran has been boiling with unrest since a wave of mass protests in November 2019, which involved more than 70 cities. In response the regime brutally cracked down on protesters, killing more than 1600 and imprisoning thousands of mostly young activists.
Western sanctions, and the impact of privatisation and government corruption, have led to surging inflation and severe economic hardship. But the outbreak of COVID-19 postponed further revolts.
Then on Tuesday 13 September, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini was arrested by morality police (Ghasht-e Ershad) while coming out of a metro station in Tehran. Her family, from the western city of Saghez in Kurdistan, were visiting her uncle for a short holiday.
For more than 20 years the regime has terrorised young people, especially women, for the clothes they wear, how they behave, and their make up. Mahsa was arrested because part of her hair was visible outside her hijab.
After the arrest, police forced her into a police van and took her to Vozara police headquarters, which is infamous for its brutal handling of arrestees. This police station was one of the killing and torture centres during the years of terror against the left in the 1980s.
According to police, after Mahsa was brought to the police station, she had a heart attack and collapsed. They took her to the Kasra hospital nearby where doctors declared her brain dead. Some reports say that CT scans indicated she suffered a brain injury following a severe beating.
As news spread, people started gathering in front of the hospital to protest. The authorities kept her alive with machines and ventilators until Friday (part of Iran’s weekend) in order to buy time, hoping the situation might cool down.
Mahsa’s family refused to accept the police explanation and publicly denied she had any history of medical problems. They took her for burial in her home city of Saghez in the western province of Kurdistan 600 kilometres west of Tehran.
Thousands attended her funeral, which turned into a protest where hundreds of women took off their hijabs and burnt them, marching towards the city centre. Protests then erupted in cities across Kurdistan and throughout the country, shouting slogans such as: “Woman, life, freedom”, “Death to the dictator”, “Bread, housing, freedom”, “We are all Mahsa”, “We don’t want the Islamic Republic” and “No hijab, no misogyny, equality, freedom”, “No King, no supreme leader, death to tyrants’’, and many others that show the secular and left-wing nature of the protests.
The protests have since spread to more than 150 Iranian cities. Women are taking the lead, removing their hijabs and standing up to attacks from the police.
Every day, mostly in the evening, people gather and start protesting. They have fought back against attacks from the riot police with anything they can find and freed arrestees from police. But more importantly they are posting footage of the protests to social media for the world to see. Predictably, the regime banned the internet to try to disrupt this.
So far, thousands of young activists have been arrested in the streets or in their homes. The police are even using data from electronic transactions—from buying items by bank card to or using metro or buses—to find the protesters. At least 83 people have been killed since the protests began.
In contrast with the October 2019 uprising, the middle class, who have lost out economically but still see themselves as middle class, are now participating in this revolt. Previously many of them supported the reformists running in elections. Now they see the need to side with the working class because they share their problems with the cost of living.
Iran is a rich country with major oil reserves. But Western sanctions, as well as government corruption and fraud, have caused a severe economic crisis. Just a few weeks before the uprising a massive $4.6 billion fraud was reported at the Mobarekeh steel plant.
Unemployment has grown and the cost of living is spiralling. Official inflation is at 48 per cent and 55 per cent of the population now live below the poverty line.
The public welfare system has almost disappeared. Free school education which existed for the last 60 years is now hard to find and the universal healthcare system no longer works unless you pay for health insurance.
Yet in 2020 the number of millionaires rose by over 20 per cent. Privatisation has seen government officials and their friends buy up many state assets and companies.
The morality police are also nowhere to be seen in the rich areas of Tehran, with their luxury cafés and restaurants, despite just as many women defying the rules on hijab wearing. The wealthy can always use their government connections to avoid arrest or police harassment, unlike the working class people of the city.
Looting and corruption saw thousands of workers lose their jobs at companies including the Haft Tape sugar plant, Hepco heavy machinery plant, Petro-chemical refineries, and the Ahvaz massive steel plant. Workers and their families fought back through long-running strikes and protests.
Many groups of workers have staged courageous strikes in the last year despite fierce repression, including teachers and nurses. Thousands of casual and short term contract workers in the massive oil and petrochemical complex in Asaluyeh on the Persian Gulf coast organised several weeks of strikes in June last year.
On Wednesday, the oil workers’ council that organised last year’s strikes threatened a general strike in the oil industry across Iran, unless the government ends its crackdown on protests. Teachers also unofficially called for a boycott on attending classes and for all of last week, students stayed away from primary schools and high schools.
Workers played a crucial role in the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, before Ayatollah Khomeini brutally suppressed the revolution to restabilise Iranian capitalism under the mullahs’ rule. Workers’ strike action has the power to shut down the economy and topple the current regime.
After years of repression, poverty and humiliation, Iran is ready to explode.
By Rouzbeh Abadan