IRAN IS being rocked by massive people power demonstrations-the biggest since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the hated Shah. Night after night, hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities to join protests against the rigged election win of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As the regime has brutally cracked down on the protests and rounded up opponents, Mousavi, the defeated “reformist” candidate has called for a general strike if he is arrested.
Ahmadinejad is a hated ruler-a religious and social conservative who has presided over growing unemployment, inflation, jailed unionists and bloggers while using police to enforce dress codes on women and crack down on students, women’s organisations and others critical of the regime. The people have seen clerics and their families grow rich from the privatisation of state-owned businesses.
On May Day this year, the police attacked a workers march, arresting over 150 people. Forty of them are still in jail. A campaign by international unions (see below) is demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all jailed trade union members and leaders including: Mansour Osanloo, Ebrahim Madadi, and Farzad Kamangar.
Since the election police have raided universities beating and killing students in their dormitories. Some demonstrators have been shot in the street. Reports indicate that least 200 people have been arrested. Yet the protests have continued.
The protests are not just about the election result. Elections in Iran are not democratic. The only candidates allowed to stand are those approved by the Council of Guardians. Mir Hossein Mousavi was an approved candidate. He is an establishment figure. He was the country’s prime minister during the 1980-8 Iran-Iraq war and played a key role in the rise of the Islamic regime following the 1979 revolution.
The differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi only emerged very late in the election campaign, when Mousavi, who also supports privatisations, started to promise to introduce social reforms.
He said he would restrict the much feared morality police. He promised to open the top posts in government to women and “review” the laws that limit their rights.
He said he would bring the police under presidential control, questioning the all-powerful position of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
It was these promises that saw Mousavi’s popularity rise in the polls. Until then Ahmadinejad was well ahead and expected to win the election. But it seems obvious now that as more people turned out to vote, the election was rigged to ensure that Ahmadinejad was returned.
In an unprecedented move the demonstrations have forced the Council of Guradians to announce a review of the elections. The review will not change anything.
The anger at the election rigging has become the lightning rod for the outpouring of pent up discontent against the corruption and repression of the Iranian regime.
Whatever the divisions among Iran’s rulers were before the election, the mass movement has caused even bigger cracks at the top of society and opened up even greater space for the democratic movement to build from below.
The revolution against the Shah
In 1979, a popular revolution toppled the Shah, a US-backed puppet installed as ruler after a CIA coup in 1953 had removed Mossadeq. The Shah talked about modernising Iran, but the gap between rich and poor grew larger and he ruthlessly used his secret police the SAVAK against anyone opposing his rule.
By 1978 protests against the Shah’s rule were growing. A strike by 30,000 oil workers was crucial to his downfall. It spread into a general strike, paralysing the economy.
Elected strike committees took over the running of workplaces and the distribution of food. Sections of the armed forces joined the protests. In January 1979 an insurrection defeated those security forces still loyal to the Shah, forcing him to flee to the West.
At this stage it wasn’t an Islamic revolution at all. Strike committees, or shora, ran the workplaces and peasants established their own shoras and began seizing land.
Power lay on the streets and in the workplaces. But the powerful left believed that Iran was not ready for socialism and argued for alliances with “progressive” capitalists to modernise the country.
In February 1979 key opposition figure Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and declared himself head of state. The clergy began denouncing the shoras as “un-Islamic”.
As the new government gained confidence repression grew. When the US encouraged Iraq to go to war with Iran, Khomeini seized the opportunity to take full power.
But the memory of 1979-the mass strikes, popular insurrection and the shoras-haunts Iran’s rulers.
Western sanctions and the fight for freedom
The mass demonstrations have shown that the Iranian regime is not all powerful and that, despite the repressions, the Iranian people are able to fight back.
The demonstrations actually prove what socialists have always argued-that sanctions on Iran imposed by Western rulers would do nothing to help ordinary people in Iran or deliver democracy.
Australia and other Western rulers have invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan to advance their own economic and imperialist interests. When the US used the excuse of Iran’s nuclear industry to make military threats and impose sanctions they had the same aims-controlling oil across the Middle East.
Democracy in Iran can only be fought for, and won by, the Iranian people themselves.
It is also tragedy that some sections of the left have seen Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist. Shamefully, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez was among the first of the world’s leaders to call to congratulate Ahmadinejad on the election result.
The chants of “Marg bar diktator!” (“death to the dictator”) which rang out against the Shah in 1979, are once again filling the streets of Tehran. Today’s demonstrations hold the promise of another revolution, this time, not to replace one dictator with another, but to win real democracy.
Regardless of what happens over the next few days and weeks, the people of Iran have shown their power and the possibility to win even greater freedom. Workers in Australia need to stand in solidarity with the demonstrations and their struggle.