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The war in Iran has already begun. Its first victims are not laid to rest in the mournful martyrs’ cemeteries that dot the country, but locked up behind the concrete walls, barbed wire and steel gates of the Evin prison: the latest contingent of striking workers, imprisoned in the hundreds for serving the foreign enemy.
It is difficult not to feel a sense of deja vu. Twenty-seven years ago, the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran was the scene of tense stand-offs between armed forces rapidly augmented on both sides, mutual claims of border violations, violent incidents – pretty harmless initially – and, towards September 1980, regular exchanges of fire across the frontier. The Iraqi army eventually swept into Iran, allegedly to end Iranian support for Shiite rebels and interference in Iraqi affairs.
It was a blatant war of aggression unleashed by the Baathist regime, with US backing – and precisely therefore, paradoxically, it was a sheer gift to the Islamic Republic. For at that time, the nascent theocratic state was in the midst of a general showdown with the organised working class of Iran, and the foreign invasion proved the perfect weapon for dealing it a mortal blow.
After the general strike that brought down the Shah’s regime in 1979, jubilant workers seized factories, mines, oil refineries and workplaces in most other sectors of the economy, replacing the ancien regime with their own direct rule. The shora councils, based on general assemblies of all employees, assumed control over the Iranian economy. They ensured continued production amidst the revolutionary chaos, initiated radical reforms in work organisation and, during the year of 1979, developed into the focal point of a democratic restructuring of Iranian society from the ground up.
The shora movement embodied what is, arguably, the most comprehensive experiment of workers’ control in a third world country to this date. It also constituted – most definitely – an existential threat to the power of Ayatollah Khomeini and the sort of society he and his fellow Islamists were striving to establish.
As soon as they felt confident enough, the mullahs in charge of the state apparatus turned against the shora movement. It proved intransigent and difficult to subdue, however, as the promises of the revolution were taken seriously by major segments of the population – until, that is, the war broke out. When the Iraqi troops crossed the border, all internal dissent could instantly be branded as treason. It didn’t even sound like a very unreasonable argument: why go on a strike in defence of shora power when the nation’s existence was at stake?
Armed with this sort of reasoning, the state apparatus moved to crush the shora and regain control over the economy. Pasdaran, the very same Revolutionary Guards who recently held 15 British marines in custody, marched through the factories in the autumn of 1980, arresting thousands of unyielding workers and instituting ‘Islamic management’ at gunpoint. That was the beginning of the end of working class organisations in Iran. A few years into the war – which Khomeini refused to let go of, even as Saddam Hussein offered to give in, and rather escalated it on Iraqi soil – the last generation of labour activists was soaked in blood: executed in Evin prison and buried as anonymous dead in the cemeteries.
Since 2004, a new labour movement has emerged in Iran. It is the first sign of the return from the dead of a working class that has endured decades of unmitigated tyranny in the workplace. It is, however, very different from 1979. The autocratic state apparatus is not crumbling – on the contrary, it is perhaps stronger than ever; there is no revolutionary fervour in society at large; and no bold agitation, socialist, Islamist or otherwise, is pouring out from the universities.
This time, the labour unrest is a desperate outcry. The economic hardships, under the reign of ever more affluent millionaire mullahs, have simply become unliveable. Chains of fear and apprehension have been broken, not for ideological reasons, but because workers have found strikes and unions – though still considered illegal and haram – to be the only vehicles for enforcing bearable conditions.
The most dramatic battle to date occurred in January 2006, when up to 17,000 bus drivers at the Vahed company in Tehran went on strike. Their demands were humble: collective bargaining, a modest wage hike, two pairs of shoes for driving, recognition of the bus drivers’ union, and, most importantly, the release of their leader Mansour Ossanlou. A few weeks earlier, he had been locked up in Evin.
In the morning, hours before the strike commenced, Pasdaran swooped down on workers’ districts throughout the capital, pulling hundreds of bus drivers and their family members out of their beds and throwing them into Evin, followed up by a massive military operation to break the pickets and keep the traffic going. By the end of the day, 1,200 Vahed workers had been netted. They were roundly condemned as traitors in the state media, accused of acting on behalf of the US state department, which had just announced its intention to sponsor trade unions to foment regime change in Iran. The majority of the prisoners soon trickled out of Evin, but Mansour Ossanlou remained. The charge against him: ‘maintaining relations with and receiving financial support from a foreign power’.
In early March 2007, it was the teachers’ turn to taste the iron fist of the Islamic Republic. Teachers have suffered no fewer calamities than other workers. Eighty per cent of them are women; highly educated but generally barred from employment opportunities in the private sector, women have thronged the schools in recent years. A massive degradation of the profession has ensued, with salaries falling far behind the public sector average, and hourly payment and temporary contracts becoming the norm. Seventy per cent of teachers now find themselves living below the poverty line. Thus, after class, a teacher will have to dip into the reality afflicting so many workers in today’s Iran: a second job, or even a third, to secure an income that covers the most basic expenses.
The schools of Iran are also severely dilapidated. Fire accidents due to unsafe heating systems have killed numerous children; an estimated 45,000 classrooms run the risk of ceilings caving in; schools for some nine million students operate in two or three shifts.
At the same time, oil fortunes are amassed as never before. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victorious promise in the presidential elections of 2005 was to ‘put the oil money on the people’s table’. One of the teachers’ leaders recently told Iranian newspaper Rooz: ‘We have not breathed the aroma of the oil wealth. Our income has decreased during [Ahmadinejad’s term].’
In 2004, in the birth year of the new labour movement, teachers were among the first to enter the fray. In March that year, a third of all teachers – some 300,000 – participated in a nationwide strike, the first female dominated labour protest on such a scale in the history of the Islamic Republic. The strike was defeated, its leaders arrested, but facing ever-deteriorating conditions, teachers continued to organise. There is now an independent co-ordinating council, or Shora-ye Hamahangi, of 30 union branches covering virtually all of Iran.
On 19 February, they struck again. Threatening to unleash a nationwide strike to secure salaries equal to those of other public sector employees, teachers staged protests across the country. A string of mass demonstrations, with up to 10,000 teachers denouncing the failed policies of Ahmadinejad, took place in front of the parliament building in Tehran. They were grudgingly tolerated by the police and armed forces, until on 13 March union leaders were summoned to the education ministry.
Expecting negotiations, they were instead met by security and intelligence officers, who told the teachers that under the current climate of sanctions, military siege and threats of foreign invasion, all further action would be considered ‘security threats’. ‘The enemy,’ the teachers were told, ‘seeks to create internal divisions’. When some 10,000 teachers again gathered in front of parliament the next day, riot police and military forces cordoned off the demonstration, attacked the crowd with batons, and hauled at least 1,000 protesters into vans and buses, heading to various detention centres around the city.
More than 100 were held in Evin for weeks. They were eventually released on heavy bail pending their trials, but immediately replaced with a new contingent of teachers. On 8 April, following the decision by the Shora-ye Hamahangi to step up the national campaign and implement its threat by closing all classes for three days, to be followed by new rallies in Tehran, some 45 trade unionists from the province of Hamadan were arrested. At the time of writing, there are reports of harassment against teachers in several other provinces, while solidarity statements are coming in from all corners – including, remarkably, the generally compliant oil workers of Khuzestan. More on the labour front is bound to follow.
For the Islamic regime in general and President Ahmadinejad in particular, confrontation with the west is the method of choice, tried and effective, for striking against alternative centres of power. The new labour movement has developed into the most serious such centre since the 1980s, threatening to undermine the status quo of the Islamic Republic.
Unlike the reform movement of the 1990s, it is not a current within the state apparatus and cannot therefore be as easily controlled. Unlike the student movement, moreover, it has the potential to reach out to the population of ordinary, working Iranians. It is decentralised, prevalent throughout the country and emerging in all forms and shapes.
The new labour movement is particularly dangerous to Ahmadinejad, as every union and strike is yet another proof of his inability to deliver. ‘Social justice’ was his sworn promise, but during his tenure Iranians have only seen unemployment soaring and inflation exploding, with the promised oil revenues as far from their pockets as ever. That is why Ahmadinejad has acted as if he was begging the west to whip him.
Flaunting theatrical antisemitism, forging alliances with enemies of the US, and stubbornly insisting on everything nuclear all amount to a consistent policy of inviting confrontation. It is a brinkmanship serving a twofold purpose: rallying the Iranian public behind the regime and against the common enemy, and obtaining an excuse for cracking down on dissent.
Under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran has undergone a process of profound militarisation. Pasdaran, the organisation in which Ahmadinejad himself made his career, has assumed more and more direct control, not only over the state apparatus, but over the economy as well – including, for example, the Vahed bus company. In the universities, Pasdaran makes sure freethinking professors and student activists are expelled. In the provinces, it regularly penetrates the heart of Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi land with massive military exercises. On construction sites, some 600,000 Afghan workers are currently being arrested and banished from the country, to be replaced with Iranian workers, often employed by companies owned by Pasdaran.
All of this is done in an atmosphere of war coming in from the west. In spite of this, labour unrest has continued unabated, attesting to the extreme deprivation and desperation. One wonders what levels the strikes would have reached by now had there been no threat of war.
And so, on 23 March, Pasdaran arrested 15 British marines. It was all perfectly logical from the standpoint of the Iranian regime, and the déja vu feeling even harked back to the greatest of all hostage dramas: the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in late 1979, with diplomats paraded in front of TV cameras. That crisis turned the tide of the revolution decisively in favour of the Islamic current.
This time around, on 9 April, barely a week after the end of the hostage drama re-dux, Ahmadinejad staged a histrionic ceremony to announce his nation’s most recent accomplishment: enrichment of uranium on an industrial scale. It was yet another show of Iran’s obdurate defiance of the west, designed to keep tensions running high after the short-lived conciliatory signals between Tehran and London.
This is not to say that the Islamic Republic is contriving the tensions out of nowhere. On the contrary, US and British forces are ominously fortified on the borders to Iran and there is circumstantial evidence that US and British agents are indeed using their positions to infiltrate Iran, spy and sow internal strife, or even outright terror, in the border provinces. From the Iranian point of view, when Pasdaran officials are being seized in Iraq, Pasdaran has every reason – even justification – for acquiring bargaining chips to secure their release.
Sanctions are also being imposed on Iran, without there being anything to substantiate the allegations that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and these sanctions hurt the Iranian economy. And last but not least, the highly visible preparations for war in the Persian Gulf, with new US vessels arriving virtually by the month, do give Pasdaran and the other military forces a good reason for being on guard. If conflict was not – as in the 1980s – to a major degree imposed on Iran, its rulers would not be able to act as the righteous guardians of the nation, and the popular acquiescence needed for implementing repression against dissenters could not be taken for granted.
It is precisely this logic that is crippling the labour movement and Iran’s other democratic forces. For every new secret agent that trespasses on Iranian territory, for every new restriction that is slapped on the country, for every thinly veiled threat of a US or Israeli air blitz, another trade unionist is being apprehended, another strike suppressed, another demonstrator beaten to a pulp. Through its aggressive posture towards Iran, the west serves the Islamic Republic with the ultimate pretext for persecution.
The US in particular has its own interests in encroaching upon Iran: they happen to converge with the interests of the Islamic Republic. The casualties are civilian, working and Iranian, and the prospects of a democratic Iran are becoming slimmer for every day this goes on.Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian are editors for Arbetaren, Sweden’s major progressive weekly, and authors of Iran on the Brink: rising workers and threats of war, which has just been published by Pluto Press
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