Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, was recently quoted in local media remarking that the country’s morality police had been “shut down”. Montazeri’s comments came as nationwide protests entered their third month, sparked by the police murder of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September.
The Iranian ruling class is currently faced with the most widespread and arguably deepest struggle since the 1979 revolution, which toppled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and abolished the monarchy. But it is clear that the government has no intention of disbanding the morality police. The regime has cracked down on nationwide strikes and protests with full force. According to a Human Rights Activists News Agency report, at least 448 protesters have been killed and more than 18,170 arrested since mid-September.
In the context of the ongoing and defiant nationwide rebellion, there have been gestures from some in the Iranian establishment that the regime could be open to conceding some of the protesters’ demands.
Former military officer and current Tourism Minister Ezzatollah Zarghami delivered a speech at Sharif University in which he suggested the need for reforms. Radio Farda quo Zarghami as saying: “Today our young girls and students walk in the street without headscarves. So what? Did the lack of hijab destroy the revolution and the system?” Similar remarks have been made by others, such as parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
But these offhand conciliatory comments by individuals remain in stark contrast to the daily reality. Protests are facing violent repression, which has increased over the last month. The regime is dragging protesters through military courts in what are essentially show trials. Mohsen Shekari was executed this month after being convicted for moharebeh (“waging war against god”).
The voices emanating from Iran’s military establishment reveal the reality of the regime’s attitude towards the rebellion. A top Revolutionary Guard commander, Ali Fadavi, accused protesters of being “stooges for the CIA” in a recent article published by state media outlet Fars News. Other Revolutionary Guard officials have echoed this line.
The thousands of arrests, hundreds of deaths and countless incidents of torture clearly indicate that the Islamic Republic is not interested in reconciling with the protesters, nor in conceding any of the movement’s main demands.
The protests have settled into a cyclical pattern of small, localised, daily actions interspersed with nationwide mobilisations. Often called by neighbourhood committees, student groups and some workers’ unions, these national days of action unite various rolling strikes and local protests.
In mid-November, three days of protests swept at least 62 cities, marking the anniversary of the 2019 uprising and honouring those killed in what became known as “Bloody November”. Flaming barricades were erected across Tehran, accompanied by chants of “Avenge our martyrs!” and “Death to the Islamic Republic!” Four thousand steelworkers struck in Isfahan, sparking a new wave of rolling strikes across the oil, steel and manufacturing industries in the south of the country.
Strikes and protests continued on a smaller scale until 5 December, when another three-day nationwide mobilisation began. Student Day, commemorating the murder of three university students in 1953 by Iranian police, protests took place in more than 80 cities. Thousands marched through the capital, Tehran, to Azadi (freedom) Square chanting “Revolution!”, while students in more than 100 universities staged campus protests and sit-ins. The Teachers Coordinating Committee, the Council for Organising the Protests of Oil Contract Workers (COPOCW), the Union of Truckers and Drivers and the Haft Tappeh Syndicate released statements calling for strikes.
The COPOCW urged workers not already on strike to join the movement, explaining: “This is a protest for all of us who are crushed by poverty ... for us there is no other way but united struggle to defend our lives. We all have the same slogan: women, life, freedom”.
The struggle is mostly led by the youth and concentrated on university campuses. Workers’ solidarity strikes are generally limited to the most militant and organised sectors. But since November, two important developments have emerged from the struggle: political and strategic debates taking place in neighbourhood committees, and the expansion of economic and political demands raised by striking workers.
As cross-class organising bodies, the neighbourhood committees are politically heterogeneous. Springing up around the country in late September, these committees organise and coordinate daily protests. The politics of each committee is influenced by a range of local factors, but all agree on one point—the Islamic Republic must go.
But there is debate over how exactly to achieve this. The Youth of Tehran Neighbourhoods (YOTN) argue that the regime will be ripped down by the bravery of the Iranian people protesting on the street. Their core message is that cross-class unity and persistence alone can achieve this. YOTN say that after the overthrow of the government, their goal is to call a referendum and submit to the will of the people. The absence of any mention of the working class, along with anti-political, liberal rhetoric, stands in stark contrast to arguments made by other neighbourhood committees.
The Revolutionary Youth of Sanandaj Neighbourhoods (RYSN), located in Kurdistan, have marked themselves out as a force in the anti-capitalist wing of the movement. RYSN argue that the struggle to topple the capitalist theocracy in Iran hinges on the ability of the movement to develop clear political leadership and the necessity for the working class to come to the fore. In a recent statement, RYSN explained:
“We are witnessing strikes in the south, in key sectors like oil and petrochemical ... We hope that other sections of the working class ... will join the revolutionary movement. The joining of the labour movement contains the promise of advance and victory.”
Other committees, such as the Revolutionary Youth of Marivan and the Voice of Baluch Women, have voiced similar arguments about the centrality of the working class in the fight to topple the Islamic Republic.
The debates in these neighbourhood committees reflect the deepening of the struggle in Iran. But as RYSN rightly argue, any serious advance for the movement hinges on the working class leading the fight against the Islamic Republic.
There are signs that workers are beginning to move slowly toward a more serious intervention in the struggle. Since late November, sections of workers have not only continued to strike in solidarity with the protests, but have introduced additional political and economic demands. The Union of Truckers and Drivers has been on strike across cities since 26 November, calling for an end to the government’s fuel price policies.
Contract oil workers in Mahshahr, Khuzestan, went on strike on the morning of 4 December demanding an increase in wages and the abolition of contract work. Other workers across steel, motor, manufacturing and iron industries are on strike for a range of demands including wage rises, health insurance, shorter working days and safer working conditions.
There is enormous discontent about the various compounding crises of Iranian capitalism and a determination to fight. But large sections of workers in Iran remain disorganised. Establishing independent unions in each industry remains a key task for the workers’ movement. The most advanced workers—those in the teaching, oil, steel and sugar industries—have developed class consciousness and confidence through decades of battling for the right to organise.
Sugarcane workers of the Haft Tappeh Syndicate argue that the way forward hinges on the ability of workers to organise. In a recent statement, “Our Progress Depends on Organising”, they explain:
“Without having an organisation, workers cannot withstand the attack of our class enemies. The demands of the workers are the demands of the majority of people ... We can win only if we organise!”
The nationwide rebellion has drawn responses from governments across the globe. In mid-November the European Union slapped additional sanctions on Iran. Assets were frozen and travel bans put on 29 individuals and three entities, including the top security forces and officials leading the crackdowns on protests across the country. The US followed suit, recently announcing sanctions on three security officials.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was quoted by Al Jazeera advocating sanctions, saying, “The regime may have worked during the last 40 years, but it is not working now. And that is why the European Union has to take this first step”. The liberal establishment has likewise praised sanctions as a tool to put pressure on the Islamic Republic.
But it is unlikely that new sanctions will do anything to stop the regime’s bloody counteroffensive against the rebellion. Thus far, sanctions have simply made life more miserable for working people in the country, not the establishment. Jean Asselborn even recognises that the state has continued to rule in spite of numerous sanctions over the past 40 years.
In 2018, the US reimposed economic sanctions on the country, yet the regime continued to expand its military apparatus and imperialist interventions across the Middle East. The Iranian working class was made to bear the burden of these crushing sanctions, while the country’s elite reportedly enjoyed a “millionaire boom”, according to a 2020 report in Forbes magazine.
Western states often use heroic instances of struggle from below as an opportunity to grandstand about the supposed free and democratic West. US President Joe Biden recently proclaimed that “women all over the world are being persecuted” and demanded that Iran “end the violence against its own citizens simply exercising their fundamental rights”. Yet the single biggest attack on women’s rights in recent US history occurred just six months ago with the overturning of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court.
Pointing out the hypocrisy of ruling classes in the West is not to diminish or deflect from the crimes of the Iranian regime, which remains the single biggest threat and enemy of the Iranian working class. But appealing to Western governments to help the movement is a dead-end strategy.
The hope for the movement in Iran lies only with the Iranian working class leading a struggle to tear down the Islamic Republic. As the sugarcane workers of Haft Tappeh wrote in a recent statement on Telegram: “The demands and interests of workers who make up the majority of society cannot be provided by any force, any heroes, except us”.