The real character and meaning of mass protests in Iran

Burned out gas station in Iran
Aftermath of Iranian fuel protests in November 2019. Photo: Fars News
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Iran is a brutal capitalist police state run by a misogynist theocracy. Independent unions are illegal. It’s illegal for women to attend sports events, to go out in public without a veil, to ride bicycles, or apply for a passport or hold a job without the husband’s permission. There are no laws against domestic violence or sex harassment. Religious and ethnic minorities are denied equal rights. Homosexuality is illegal and can be punished by prison, flogging or execution.

Mass protests broke out in Iran on November 15 after the government raised the price of fuel by 100-300%. The price increases reflect economic pressures caused by U.S. sanctions and adoption of neo-liberal policies by the Iranian regime. 

The protests come on the heels of two years of increasing strikes by workers over unpaid wages and arrests of labor leaders – and of increasing mobilizations by women. As described in the new Freedom Socialist article by Afra Rajabi and me, knowledge of the imprisonment, torture, and violence against women radicals had sparked such sympathy from the Iranian people that the government freed several well-known female prisoners at the end of October. But this was only release on bail while they pursued appeals. And at least one of the freed women was immediately re-arrested when the new protests broke out. There are reports of some people shouting monarchist slogans during the protests. Some Iranian leftists say this reflects the nostalgia of the middle class for a time when life was less regulated. 

But this was not the general character of the uprising. Targets of the protesters included banks and government buildings. The scope of the protests is described in a statement from Iranian revolutionary socialists inside Iran that Radical Women (RW) member Afra obtained from contacts in Germany, and which she helped translate to English. It is titled “The Urgent Responsibilities of Communist Political Forces in Relation to the 2019 Uprising.” It was issued by the Javad Nazari Fathabadi Committee, named after one of the first young protesters killed in the uprising. They say:

The people’s confrontation with the regime has taken the offensive: setting up street barricades, attacking anti-riot guards, killing more agents of the repressive apparatus, attacking security cameras around town, many instances of attacks against police stations and government centers.

The government shut down the internet throughout the country for more than a week in order to keep it from being used as an organizing tool and to keep the world from knowing the scope of the repression. The government opened fire on protesters with live ammunition. Moderate estimates now coming out from the New York Times and Amnesty International are that hundreds were killed, 2000 wounded, and 7000 arrested. Afra says there are reports of much higher numbers including a massacre of perhaps a thousand in the Arab minority southern section of Iran, where there has been a strong political opposition.

Without the internet, there was virtually no press coverage in the U.S. The BBC was covering it, so the U.S. media’s silence clearly was intentional. During those eight days, the only news stories about Iran were Trump’s sword-rattling accusations against Iran for munitions and influence in Iraq. It was only after the protests had been shut down in early December that the NY Times began to write about it.

As the protests erupted, Afra contacted me to talk about how people were being slaughtered and no one seemed to know or care. The Seattle Radical Women Executive Committee tried to find out about protests locally. None seemed to be happening, so we launched a social media support campaign that included links to information about what was happening. 

The campaign was supported by all the branches. The demonstration of solidarity was very moralizing to Afra and our Iranian contacts, and to Afra’s many Iranian Twitter contacts. It was very much appreciated by Frieda Afary and the circle around the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists. 

As I read up on what was happening in order to post updates, I noticed a disturbing thread among postings by some of the radical Iranians. They were terribly angry at the silence from moderate Iranian exiles and so-called “anti-imperialists” who only wanted to talk about U.S. sanctions rather than holding the Iranian government accountable for its attacks on its own people. These critics did oppose U.S. sanctions and were anti-imperialist themselves, but I began to understand that they were talking about sectors of the U.S. and international left who see the Iranian regime as a victim and who barely raise criticisms of it as a misogynist police state. This is because Iran’s theocracy came into power by claiming to be anti-imperialist and raising populist slogans about equalizing wealth, providing free education, medical care and decent housing that was funded by a nationalized oil industry under government control.

As in Syria, where some leftists defend the regime as socialist, the Stalinist left and others have refused to criticize the Iranian government. This includes Code Pink and Trotskyists, including Socialist Action. FSP International Secretary Stephen Durham told me that in 2012 at a United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) conference attended by the New York branch, Iranian immigrants brought a resolution to protest U.S sanctions but also oppose the repressive policies of the regime. UNAC and Socialist Action voted to not criticize Iran on the grounds it was anti-U.S. imperialist! 

This schism between siding with the Iranian revolution or counterrevolution goes all the way back to 1979 when FSP and RW were among the few who opposed the rightwing Khomeini regime and defended socialist revolution in Iran and the Iranian women who were fighting for own liberation. For this we were called CIA feminists. (See this article from 1979)

Currently FSP, RW and people around the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists seem to be virtually the only people willing to criticize the regime! 

Here’s what a bunch of international intellectuals and Stalinists had to say in a “Letter against U.S. Imperialism” that came out just a few days ago:

the United States’ imperial sanctions regime has opened the space for neoliberal economic institutions such as the IMF to facilitate the ravaging of the Iranian economy.

This project is not without its Iranian native informants and cheerleaders, who serve as functionaries of U.S. imperialism. These functionaries seek regime change no matter the cost, even though Iran has only recently stabilized after the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War. [Note: this war ended in 1988.] … 

Such functionaries are supported in their cause by Iranian native informants, so-called intellectuals who opportunistically appropriate the protests under the guise of supporting human rights and liberal democracy…

We believe that if the Islamic Republic falls under the weight of the U.S. sanctions regime or as a result of Israeli and American aggression, not only will the Iranian nation suffer catastrophic losses, but whatever form of government that follows will be far more violent and destructive, considering all the external pressures on Iran.

The people of Iran are resisting the economic, political and militaristic violence imposed on them both by international and domestic elites. The majority of the Iranian people do not seek regime change… 

Iranians seek economic and political stability, and above all, they seek to maintain their national and individual dignity. We stand by them and their calls for domestic reform, and as people in the United States, we demand the end of the sanctions regime and U.S. and Israeli interference in the lives of the Iranian people.

This appalling denunciation of the uprising was signed by 84 individuals from the U.S. and other countries, including Angela Davis and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, plus numerous Iranian, Arab and other academics. Eight organizations have signed including the National Lawyers Guild, BAYAN, Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and a representative of the Lebanese Communist Party. [The letter has now been taken down from most sites, probably due to outrage from supporters of the uprising. It can still be read here.]

You have to ask yourself why there is such blatant treachery from the Left. And why the silence from the U.S. media until it was all over?

I think it’s because the U.S. doesn’t want revolt in Iran, which would really destabilize the Middle East by inspiring uprisings in other countries. The U.S. doesn’t want people here to sympathize with the Iranian people, which would undermine our government’s painting them all as the devil. The U.S would rather have a reliable police state to point to as Public Enemy #1. 

Perhaps it’s the potential for actual revolution in Iran that has caused the Stalinists to denounce it so strongly. Here is the self-critical and urgent analysis from the Iranian revolutionary socialists inside Iran:

For various reasons (excusable and inexcusable), we have not been able to create organizations and media on par with right-wing propaganda establishments…. This lack cannot be overcome overnight or for instance through spreading class and Marxist consciousness among the masses in the very moment of street protests. 

Our Urgent Tasks:

As we reach the end of this cycle of protests, we need to prevent despair and not limit ourselves to emphasizing the scale of the repression through reporting the number of those arrested or killed. We need to “draw meaning” out of these protests as “one step forward” toward “victory”. We need to draw the manifestations of our revolutionary ideology out of these narratives… 

Discussing and promoting our ideas is critically important in this period. People in the streets have gone beyond the stage of “needing a consciousness that would arouse them to revolt against the current relations”. This can be partially seen in debates on “tactics for street battles”. We have seen amazing initiative on the part of the people. What needs repeating is the move toward creating “local-ethnic-labor-women’s associations” to preserve solidarity, intensify anger, learn from previous struggles and shorten the gaps between cycles of protests. 

We need to view ourselves as living in a war zone… We need to create committees that could find each other in the course of the battle, in the time of attrition, reconstruction and future offensives…

It is very moving to read this critical self-evaluation from radicals in the midst of a rebellion under siege. Far from looking to restore stability, they are preparing for how to lead the next, more effective uprising against the police state.

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