Mass protests put Iran’s regime on the brink

Iranian society has fractured. In December 2009, five months after brutal government crackdowns drove pro-democracy demonstrators into retreat, massive protests again erupted on the streets of Iran. Initial popular demands for fair elections have become calls to topple the ruling regime. In the eyes of many Iranians the moral authority of the Ayatollahs and the political legitimacy of the government have crumbled.
Evidence of vote-rigging in the June 12, 2009 presidential elections brought millions onto the streets demanding genuine elections.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by unleashing the Revolutionary Guard and the hated Basij paramilitary against the demonstrators. Scores of people were killed. Hundreds more injured and thousands arrested.
As the pro-democracy movement grew, sections within the movement produced their own demands. On June 18 the Free Trade Union of Iranian Workers issued a statement of solidarity with the demonstrators and demanded the right to strike, freedom of the press and an end to discrimination against women and foreign workers.
In an attempt to crush the movement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a staunch ally of Ahmadinejad, escalated the violence. Police raided and smashed homes, beating those suspected of involvement in the anti-government actions. 
Sections of the pro-democracy movement responded to the attacks by voicing their opposition to the clerical elite. “Death to the Islamic Republic!” was shouted as hundreds of thousands of Iranians remained defiantly on the streets.
By July the government crackdown had taken a sufficiently severe toll to quell the demonstrations. But discontent continued to simmer.
For many working Iranians, the struggle of daily life sits in stark contrast with the privileged lives of the clerical elite who preach egalitarianism.
Crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States coupled with corruption has widened poverty. Basic food items are now twice the price they were just four years ago while around one in four Iranians are unemployed.

New protests
On December 7, masses of students joined huge anti-government protests in Esfahan and Najafabad. Throughout December university campuses were the scene of almost daily political protests.
Emboldened, opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, then urged demonstrators to gather on mass in the holy city of Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a “reformist” opponent of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners marched on December 21 wearing the green that has come to symbolize the opposition “Green Movement”.
Days later, the Shia holy day of Ashura witnessed bloody street clashes in Esfahan and Najafabad. Government forces shot at tens of thousands of demonstrators marching under the slogan “Down with the supreme leader!” Up to 15 people were killed.
Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of the banned opposition Freedom Movement, said the violence had opened a “Pandora’s box” widening divisions within the Islamic state’s establishment.
The ruling class factions are at odds over how to deal with the upheaval as Ahmadinejad has stepped up the violence and increasingly targets his political opponents.
In the December 28 protests, a former regime foreign minister, three close aides to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate, and two aides to Mohammad Khatami, the former president, were all arrested.
Mousavi himself has become increasingly critical of the regime and has at times encouraged the demonstrations.
With a divided ruling class incapable of ending the crisis, opportunities for the movement from below have increased.
Calls to end the political influence of the clerics are becoming stronger. Demands for the recognition of labour unions as well as political and student groups have also grown louder. The gap between rulers and ruled in Iran has widened. Ebrahim Yazdi describes the “…rift between state and the nation [as]…the biggest crisis since the [1979] revolution.”
The regime is stepping up the repression. Two political activists were hanged on January 28. Nine more protesters have been sentenced to death with five of them scheduled for public execution.
Hundreds of journalists and other activists have been rounded up in the lead up to what is expected to be further anti-government demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution on February 11.
The stakes are high. History now looms large over the Iranian ruling class. There is potential for the Green Movement to develop into the kind of working-class-driven uprising that toppled the Shah’s regime in 1979. Increasingly the choice is not between one or another faction of the ruling class, but an open challenge to the regime itself and the chance of reclaiming the true democratic legacy of the 1979 revolution.

By Carl Taylor


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