Since Iran’s shambolic presidential election on 18 June, with the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution of just 48.8 per cent, the country has again been rocked by protests and strikes, especially in the province of Khuzestan.
On 19 June, thousands of casual and short term contract workers in the massive oil and petrochemical complex in Asaluyeh (in the South, on the Persian Gulf coast) began their strike. The strikers used a unique tactic of walking off their job sites but staying in their dormitories and shared residential areas to make it harder for the company to replace them.
Within three days, workers from many different sites and from different companies joined the strike. All of a sudden, they started organising themselves and connected with each other via social media.
From the beginning they have had four major demands, which are historically significant because in 1979 striking oil workers sealed the fate of the Iranian revolution. These demands are:
1. Double the wages and set the minimum wage at 12 million Tomans ($AU700) per month. And pay all delayed wages immediately.
2. 20 days of work and 10 days rest must be implemented from the first day of work (as it is for permanent workers).
3. Improve the living conditions in workers’ camps and lunch sheds to a dignified standard. Also the safety and well-being of the camp’s environment must be enforced.
4. All agreements must be officially written and the government must force companies to comply with what has been agreed upon.
The strike grew rapidly, and four weeks in, nearly 20,000 workers from more than 100 sites and companies had stopped working, and were staying in their places of residence. This tactic reminds us of a famous quote from Marx’s Capital: “That the beds never get cold.” In this case the beds never go to “scabs” and are always kept warm by strikers. These and many class conscious acts show us the rich political understanding of Iranian workers.
Thousands of oil workers in Khuzestan province–where many oil rigs, complex crude oil pump stations, pipelines, gas and oil refineries are located–joined the strike, giving the strikers a huge boost of solidarity and strength. Khuzestan, and especially the city of Abadan with the biggest oil refinery in the world, was at the centre of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
By this time, with the experience and memory of the historical and decisive strike of 1978-9, workers got more organised, and for the first time they started to publish statements in the name of “Strike Organisation Council (Showra) for Oil Contract Workers”.
Many of these workers live in different parts of the province and the majority of them are ethnic Arabs or Bakhtiaris.
The strikers have received strong solidarity from other workers, including the workers at the Haft Tappeh sugar cane factory complex, who undertook one of the longest and eventually successful strikes in Iran’s recent history. Fundamentally their strike was against privatisation of that company, which is the same for the oil contract workers who are also exploited by private companies, often owned by state officials and their relatives.
Meanwhile, on 15 July protests against water shortages erupted in many cities around Khuzestan province. The majority of the protesters were Arab people and they chanted slogans about water, mismanagement, and anti-Arab discrimination. Many non-Arab people joined the protests. The regime responded violently and killed five people in the first two days.
The province had been suffering a major drought since March. It not only contains massive oil and natural gas fields, it is also home to almost a third of Iran’s freshwater rivers. Three major rivers (Dez, Karoun and Karkheh) run through the very fertile land of this province. Yet the Iranian government has built 18 massive dams on the Khuzestan rivers, diverting water for industries and agribusiness in other provinces, while the country’s military and economic elites profit. The majority of farmers are poor ethnic Arabs who spread from the Iran-Iraq border in the west of the province to the edge of the Zagros mountains.
Khuzestan has been home to an Arabic population since ancient times. Today Arabs account for nearly two million of the province’s 4.5 million population, but they are marginalised by the central authorities. Jobs in administration or the service sector are mostly reserved for the Persian population.
The discrimination against not only Arabs, but other ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, Turkmen, Lurs, has its roots from the mid-19th century. Before the revolution, the regime tried to relocate the Arab population close to the border with Iraq, and replaced them with people of Persian background from central Iran. The regime even named a newly created town Yaze-Nov (New Yazd, which refers to the ancient Persian city in central Iran).
Changing the Arab names of historical cities and districts into Persian ones was a simple way to deny the identity of Iran’s Arab minority. Regimes before and after the revolution also discriminated by denying them education in their own language in schools and universities. People are forced to speak Farsi to qualify for many jobs in the state bureaucracy, or in education, health, and even normal daily activities like retail. The state also encouraged jokes and slurs in popular culture against Arab people and their way of life, and mocked their accents when they spoke Farsi. Almost all appointed governors, government officials, and even top managers are from non-Arab backgrounds.
Arab people in Khuzestan have a very rich culture, rituals and literature. They are ethnically the same people as on the Iraqi side of the border in cities like Basra. Like most people in Iran, they are Shia Muslim. They are mostly farmers and are very dependent on land and fresh water which has run through this fertile land for thousands of years. Despite so much inequality and discrimination, Arabs in this area are very kind, warm and welcoming people.
They call Khuzestan their own ‘’Watan’’ (Homeland), but there is no common demand to separate from Iran. However, Iranian regimes have accused them of separatism to misinform the rest of country and as an excuse to brutally suppress them. Unfortunately, the massive disrespect of the government and a system of semi-apartheid for decades has legitimised anti-Arab racism.
Four months after the revolution in June 1979, the new regime sent the army and recently created so-called ‘’Revolutionary Guards’’ to suppress the Arab uprising in Khoramshahr and Abadan. Armed forces indiscriminately killed tens, injured hundreds, and imprisoned thousands more. In this uprising people only wanted their basic rights and culture, and they had an organisation led by young educated leftists. I was a teenager and living with my family in Abadan, and on 30 June 1980, I observed the massacre known as ‘’Black Wednesday’’.
The ensuing brutal Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 was mostly fought on their lands. After the war, the government implemented its privatisation policy, which hit Arab people directly. Many natural resources, huge facilities like dams, and factories where they worked were put into the hands of corrupt private companies.
Like in the rest of the country, life for Arabs became harder and harder. Young Arabs have protested many times during the last 40 years and the regime came down hard on them by killing them in the streets, arresting them, torturing them while they served long prison sentences, and even executing them. But they rose again and again.
The mid-July wave of protest was the latest brutal and bloody episode in Khuzestan. The police, militia and secret services killed 14 youths under 30 years old, of which at least ten were Arabs. Hundreds were arrested and sent to unknown prisons. This protest lasted 25 days and spread to the west and centre of Iran.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed to understand the protesters: “People showed their discontent, but we cannot have any complaint since the issue of water in the hot climate of Khuzestan is not a minor issue,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.
But the regime’s only answers are division and repression. The government again accused protesters of being separatists backed by foreign powers like Saudi Arabia. However, these efforts to divide the movement largely failed, and Arabs and Persians marched together. The determination and continued daily protest in Khuzestan by frustrated Arabs brought respect among the Iranian population, who responded with solidarity protests in their cities. In Lorestan, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, as well as Tehran, demonstrators showed solidarity with the people of Khuzestan and the slogans became more radical. In many cities demonstrators shouted slogans like: “Death to the Dictator”, “Death to Khameneie”, “Khuzestan is Thirsty”, and “Free, Free Iran”.
The protests gained an international profile when Sajad Ganjzadeh dedicated his Olympic gold medal for karate to the people of Khuzestan (he was abruptly cut off from state-run TV!).
Across Iran, people are suffering under a corrupt and brutal regime, together with the West’s massive embargo and economic sanctions. The fifth wave of COVID-19 is killing more than 500 a day and the nation’s health infrastructure is inadequate. This explains why the Khuzestan solidarity protests quickly changed into anti-regime rallies.
The Iranian government temporarily blocked the internet, a move condemned in a statement signed by 55 reporters from the Journalist Union of Iran.
While the repression didn’t reach the levels seen in the November 2019 protests, when over 300 people were killed across Iran, Amnesty International reported many arrests and eight deaths, including a teenage boy, while scores of others were critically injured.
Ebrahim Raisi, the hand-picked presidential candidate of the theocratic regime, was officially sworn in on 5 August. He has huge economic and political challenges ahead of him, not least trying to have damaging US sanctions lifted.
He has promised to slash inflation, build four million homes in four years and create a million jobs per year. But with no real change to the theocracy’s neo-liberal policies, the deep discontent among Iran’s population is likely to intensify.
Meanwhile, the oil workers’ strike continues. On Thursday 19 August, the bosses in Hafshejan, where the workers’ council is strong, agreed to have talks with the workers. Both sides sent delegates for talks. Usually in Iran, this means that the bosses have capitulated. Some companies have agreed to all the workers’ demands. The two-month strike may end soon.
Now the “Strike Organisation Council (Showra) for Oil Contract Workers” is saying that the achievement and final agreement by the Hafshejan workers’ council could provide a model for all contract oil workers, and most of the other local worker councils agree.
History tells us that in Iran, if the all permanent full time oil workers in Iran join these workers on their next strike, this anti-worker, anti-people, anti-women regime can be kicked into the garbage bin of history.
By Behrouz Jalilian and Mark Goudkamp