Protests continue across Iran following the police murder of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September.
Universities are the centre of the ongoing rebellion. Students have organised daily protests across 120 campuses. Sit-ins, marches and hijab burning ceremonies are accompanied by chants of “Death to the dictator!” and “Mullahs get lost!” Protests at primary and high schools have also emerged across the country. Heroic scenes of young girls waving their headscarves and chanting “bi Sharaf!” (disgrace) at security forces have flooded the internet.
Organised teachers have gone on strike in solidarity with the youth uprising and in response to the state’s brutal crackdown on the campuses. This was followed by strikes of construction workers, sugarcane cutters and truck drivers. In a significant development, contract oil workers in Asalouyeh, off the coast of the Persian Gulf, and in the southern provinces of Bushehr, Khuzestan and Hormozgan, also went on strike.
The Iranian regime has attempted to crush the rebellion, but its actions have only fuelled the protests. Students detained in Evin prison, a notorious torture facility, summed up the mood in a few words: “We raise our voices louder than ever against tyranny and oppression. Our imprisonment has only inflamed our anger and strengthened our fight”.
University students have excit. In the capital, Tehran, and surrounding cities, universities have become hubs of resistance and protest, despite the state’s crackdown. “We are angry at the corrupt government, the lack of freedom of expression, the high cost of living, the murder of Mahsa Amini, all of it”, Farah (not her real name), a student from central Iran and a participant in the protests, told Red Flag.
The repression of students at Sharif University only inflamed this anger. A group of activists at the University of Tehran published a statement warning the government that repression won’t be enough to stop students from protesting. “Even when you pull our hair and knock our heads to the ground, it is you who are afraid of us”, they wrote. “We will continue to fight until justice has been reached.”
Student bodies across the country have issued similar statements in solidarity with imprisoned protesters and have called for nationwide strikes to cripple the regime. Students also continue to play an important role in inspiring other sections of the population to join the protests.
The politics of the student protests are messy, and there is no clearly defined leadership. But Farah noted: “There are socialists in some groups ... they also tend to be feminists. Most of the calls (for protests) go viral from them. They demand the release of innocent prisoners, freedom and, finally, revolution”.
Outside of Tehran, Kurdistan province is a hotbed of struggle against the regime. In the capital city of Sanandaj, women and ethnic minorities continue to lead militant protests day and night. Inspired by the creation of neighbourhood committees in Tehran, young women and men in Sanandaj, Marivan, Kermanshah, Naysir and Taghqan have formed similar committees.
“The brutality of the oppressors knows no limits”, the Women and Youth Committee of Sanandaj explained in a statement. “By creating neighbourhood committees ... as well as labour strikes at the point of production, we will move our struggle forward and wear down the forces of oppression.”
These youth committees are important for organising, coordinating and sustaining popular street protests against the regime. In Sanandaj, mass protests drove security forces from the city. The regime was forced to redeploy military from surrounding areas but has still failed to crush the resistance. The committees have also drawn support from marketers, a social layer that historically has vacillated between pro-regime and anti-regime sentiment. Across Kurdistan, marketers closed shops in solidarity with the nationwide uprising.
The popular protests have also deepened the mood of solidarity across gender, ethnic and religious divides. After the regime slaughtered protesters in Baluchistan province, in what has since been dubbed Black Friday, officials attempted to paint the massacre as a clash between the state and a local Saudi-backed Sunni militia. This attempt to whip up sectarianism backfired—thousands of people flooded the streets in cities across the country chanting “Long live the Kurds, the Arabs, the Baluchis!”
The Iranian working class has not led this struggle. But as the rebellion continues and state repression intensifies, workers have started to move.
The Coordinating Council of Teachers Trade Unions initiated a series of one day strikes during the first week of protests. Since then, the nationwide body representing teachers’ unions has continued to call actions, demanding the release of imprisoned protesters. Truck drivers, sugarcane workers and construction workers soon followed the teachers. But overall, there was limited industrial action in the first three weeks of the uprising.
This changed on 17 October, when around 4,000 petrochemical workers in Bushehr, Damavand and Hengam went on strike. They began blocking roads with rubble and set tires alight, chanting “Death to the dictator!” News of the strike soon spread across cities, reaching oil workers in Abadan, Bandar Abbas, Kangan and Mahshahr, who followed suit. The call to strike was given by the Organising Council of Oil Contract Workers, an independent body established by militant workers in the petrochemical industry.
“We had previously warned the government that the oil workers will not be silent in the face of killings and suppression”, the organising council declared. “We address our fellow workers, those in the official oil, gas and petrochemical projects, in all refineries, that now is the time to prepare ourselves for nationwide and back-breaking strikes.”
Oil workers are demanding the unconditional release of imprisoned protesters and labour activists, an end to all repression and the prosecution of Mahsa Amini’s killers.
The state was quick to clamp down on the strikes and has so far arrested more than 100 oil workers. But this has done little to crush their determination. The organising council released a statement warning the government that they will escalate strike action, declaring: “These arrests and threats not only have no effect on our determination to continue our protest, but these repressions increase our anger a hundredfold”.
Oil workers hold the heart of Iran’s economy in their hands. They were instrumental in bringing down the shah during the 1979 revolution and have been on the front lines of recent class struggle, including spearheading a strike wave in 2021. The oil workers’ strike is arguably the most significant development in the movement thus far.
But challenges remain. The petrochemical industry is divided between permanent oil workers and contract workers. Permanent workers are fewer in number but wield more industrial power and are paid significantly more than contract workers. Abbas (not his real name), a contract oil worker in the south of the country, told Red Flag: “They have the highest salary, the highest protection. But we are like slaves”.
Contract workers like Abbas are employed on temporary contracts, are the bulk of the workforce and endure horrible conditions.
The Iranian government’s divide-and-rule strategy is an obstacle to solidarity between permanent and contract workers. This was noticeable in the 2021 strike wave, when the regime offered pay rises to permanents, while dishing out repression to contract workers. For the struggle to advance and the regime to be dealt a serious blow, unity and solidarity between permanent and contract workers is essential.
The regime knows that it cannot stop the rebellion with bullets alone and has now turned to a stick and carrot strategy in an attempt end the movement. The repression is clear, targeting the campuses, the contract oil workers and the provinces with large ethnic minorities. But last week, the government proposed a wage increase for public sector employees and national and military retirees. The annual salary increase is equivalent to A$3,750.
Teachers recently held a three-day mourning period for protesters killed by the regime, and the coordinating council recently called for another two days of nationwide strikes and sit-ins across schools. So they are not going to be easily bought off. Concessions could even backfire on the ruling class by giving workers the confidence to fight for even more. But it remains to be seen if the strategy of repression and concessions can work to demobilise the struggle over time.
As protests enter their second month, the central question remains how to advance the struggle. Sugarcane workers of the Haft Tappeh union give a compelling answer: “Freedom from oppression and exploitation is only feasible with unity and solidarity ... This great uprising should be linked with the strike of workers’ everywhere ... To have bread and freedom, let us not leave the women of the revolution alone”.