The Rage of the Poor in Iran
This article was first published on the website of Socialist Project of Canada.
The protests against the high cost of living in the cities of Khorasan province on December 28th soon spread to many cities of Iran incredibly quick and almost turned into a revolt within a week. The protests primarily targeted the high cost of living, financial difficulties and corruption. However, they quickly became politicized and began to target the foundations of the Islamic Republic (IR), namely the religious autocracy. The slogans quickly turned from “death to high cost of living”to “death to the dictator”.
These demonstrations and protests emerged as a result of the spontaneous act of the masses. Currently, it does not have any leading or coordinating center. It is still in its early stagesand needssome basic organs, such as local committees and councils to lead it to go further. Due to the present weakness of the progressive opposition forces in Iran, there is no revolutionary structure to lead the movement. But this spontaneity and being leaderless, for this moment, adds a great power to it. This power has deeply shaken the IR. The authorities of the religious dictatorship were almost astonished in the face of this power. Authorities which, under normal conditions, could immediately have linked such a movement to foreign forces began blaming each other.Later, when they realized the destructive power of the rage of the poor, they invited each other to come together against “the world powers’provocations”.In fact, the different wings and fractions of the IR are aware that this revolt has its origins in the economic difficulties of the people.But they are at a loss in understanding how they can control this uprising.
The origin and extent of the demonstrations
The demonstrations first started in four towns of Khorasan. The largest of these was Mashhad.Mashhad is Iran's biggest city after Tehran.Yet it is not industrialized as are Isfahan, Karaj and Tabriz, despite the latter being much smaller. Mashhad’s economy is based on tourism, as it hosts the Shiites’eighth imam’s tomb[i].It is a city that accepts labor force immigration and, consequently, there are large poor neighborhoods around the city.In recent years, the general economic problems, as well as a strained relationship between the Islamic Republic with the Gulf countries, have hit the economy of this city.Increasing unemployment rates, inflation and high cost of living were waiting for a spark to explode.On December 28th, a demonstration of which the origin was a subject of controversy[ii]revealed this spark.The protests in Mashhad quickly spread to other cities of Khorasan and turned into mass protests against the high cost of living and corruption.The police attacked the protests and tried to disperse the protesters with pepper spray.
The next day, the demonstrations spread to different regions and towns and there have been more than 80 cities involved in these demonstrations until now. On December 29th there were widespread protests in twenty cities and even some news that the people were clashing with security forces. Especially in the following days, the cities and towns where the Lori people[iii]live became the center of the armed conflicts[iv]. Though the number of those who participate in the protests is not so big, the anger that arises is huge. The center of these protests is the non-industrialized poor cities in Iran, commonly referred to as "the periphery". Although some protests have been held in big cities like Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan in the recent days, the locomotive for the protests is still small and poor towns. It seems startling to see that these protests are spreading rapidly, become politicized instantly , and the people's anger is so strong. However, if the difficult living conditions in Iran are taken into consideration, the situation is easy to understand.
In recent years, the high costs of living, high unemployment rates and low wages have been on the agenda even in the parliament. Worker protests and strikes were increasing steadily. Workers and public employees frequently voiced their long-standing demands in front of parliament and ministries. The state authorities were warning the Rouhani government for the possible breaking out of social unrest of the poor for a long time. Meanwhile, while the Islamic Republic was in search of a so-called solution, it was preparing itself for a possible revolt of the poor[v]. The regime was aware of the fact that this kind of social unrest is not that easy to overcome.
It is worth noting that the emergence of protests by the poor against the high cost of living in Iran is not a new issue. During the two presidential terms of Rafsanjani, under the impact of his brutal neoliberal policies, the great economic difficulties of the people were reflected into streets in 1992 and 1995. Those protests were suppressed by the sharp attacks of the repressive state apparatus and were prevented from expanding.
The bases of the demonstrations
The Islamic Republic prepared the ground for the mass protests with their own internal contradictions. On the one hand, the IR found it convenient to see the structural problems in its economy as accidental, and to postpone the crisis, which is understandable for a capitalist structure. On the other hand, the IR was pleased by and swallowed the long term silence and political stagnation of the working class, and only tried to please the bourgeoisie and middle class who declare their discontent frequently. The IR preferred to regard the poor living conditions of the working class as a secondary problem, making its solution dependent on other factors such the nuclear crisis with western powers.
In fact, the Islamic Republic is struggling with long-standing economic troubles, but succeeded in delaying these troubles by different methods. In the 1990’s, the IR, with President Rafsanjani's neoliberal policies, aimed to move away from an oil-incomes-dependent structure (in fact the goal of the Islamic Republic was to move away from an economic policy pivoting around the public sector, which was one of the achievements of the 1979 revolution). These practices led to a relative growth in the Iranian economy, but they also established the bases for impoverishing the people. Reformists came to the power to thoroughly appease the protest and dissatisfaction that emerged throughout the country against Rafsanjani's harsh neoliberal policies. Under the leadership of Muhammad Khatami, this wing of the Islamic Republic claimed that it would be possible to carry the country to the utopia they have promised, with reforms within the framework of the regime. Reformists asked people to accept everything and not to object, emphasizing that political development would bring in its wake economic development. However, at the end of the eight-year reform government people's economic demands rose. Thus, Ahmadinejad took the stage with a populist economic justice rhetoric against the reformists’ liberal political theses. But, he became the most brutal implementer of neo-liberal policies in Iran. The pressure of the economic problems and the tension creating foreign policies started to show their effects[vi]. In addition to this problem, the regime faced another problem when widespread unrest spread across the country after reformist voters and politicians claimed the reelection of Ahmadinejad was massively fraudulent. Religious dictatorship had to offer a moderate option that could calm the high tension. So Rouhani emerged as the last solution to the IR problems.
The Islamic Republic was seeking solutions to three major problems after the 2013 presidential elections. The first one was the crisis of legitimacy that challenged the foundations of the IR (among both the people of the country and in international circles) after the popular uprising that followed the 2009 presidential elections. The second was economic problems that made the life of the people unbearable. The third was the international political crisis, such as the nuclear crisis with the West. In 2013 Rouhani’s campaign was established on a very simple assumption. The sanctions are the main source of all the problems and to relieve sanctions he promised to the people that he will solve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program through negotiations with world powers. According to Rouhani, the deal would open Iran's closed trade routes and normalize oil exports. The Islamic republic would have the ability to renovate old and worn out oil extraction facilities, or negotiate with major international companies for this purpose. And eventually, the country’s non-functioning industry would start to operate again. This would produce a flood of funds and with competent economic management would improve the living standards of the Iranians. When Rouhani was elected, the people celebrated the results chanting an interesting slogan: “dictator, thank you”. The national satisfaction and the international congratulations after the election pleased the regime.
During his first presidential term, Rouhani secured a deal with the West[vii]. The bourgeoisie was pleased with the results. Thanks to this agreement, the middle class, which had played an important role in the 2009 uprising, was also proud of its choice in 2013 election. It seemed that the Islamic republic had largely surpassed the legitimacy crisis that emerged with the 2009 elections. It seemed that the only problem left to be solved was the living standard of the people.
The expectations of the IR from the last elections in May 2017 were also very clear. It aimed to maintain the soft approach towards Iran, created by the nuclear deal; to give signals that its foreign policy will not change much; and to continue the stability that exists in the domestic ground. The regime hoped to ensure foreign investment in order to inject hopes to the masses that everything is going to be all right.
In spite of these, the living conditions have worsened in recent years. Economic stagnation has continued. The unemployment rate has increased steadily. Hawking in the streets has become the source of income for tens of thousands of people. Thousands of homeless people are living in the streets of the capital city, Tehran. Selling babies has become a normal thing among the poor. What poor people get is a piece of carton to sleep on or being hunted under the guise of the war on drug dealing. Accordingly, it was clear that the rage of the poor is going to erupt, eventually.
Did the elections change the situation? No, it didn’t. Because the regime only cares about the bourgeoisie and the middle class, which now have an organic relationship with the government. On the other hand, the regime is preparing its forces for a possible uprising of the proletariat. Recently, security forces have conducted exercises against feigned protests, so as to develop their defense of the bourgeoisie. The lack of organizations that can lead the working class obviously makes it easy for the dictatorship to suppress protest that remains local.
Surely, the external factors play a role in the emergence of Iran's economic troubles. However, the decisive factor is the corrupt structure of the Islamic Republic. Corruption, theft and attempts to make quick and easy windfall profits have paralyzed the Iranian economy like a disease. It is obvious that no medicine will be effective until resolving these problems. People have waited long enough to see that these diseases are going to be cured and when they saw there is no hope they eventually rebelled.
The difference with the 2009 uprising
The two uprisings differ in some very basic features. The 2009 uprising started in Tehran and later moved to remote provinces. The big cities actively participated in the uprising, and in the early days (especially in Tehran), demonstrations started with large masses flowing into the squares. The demands were mainly political, but did not exceed the demands of freedom and democratic rights for certain classes. The demands were not very radical until the last days and did not exceed the frame of the demands enforced by the reformist movement. In general, it had the character of a middle class movement so it could not absorb the demands of the working class.
In contrast to the 2009 uprising, this time the small cities and the poor regions are leading the demonstrations. Although the initial protests have emerged in Mashhad (the second largest city in the country), the overall distribution of protests shows that small cities are more active. The demonstrations didn’t start with large participation. Only on the third day it weakly spread to big cities and only on the fifth day big demonstrations took place in these cities. The poor are leading the protests and the demonstrations have rapidly radicalized. Despite being economic in the first place, the demands were rapidly politicized, and express the demands of large segments of society. They cover a wide spectrum, ranging from jobs and bread to social freedoms. The whole regime with all its components is targeted in the slogans of the masses and there is no distinction between reformists and conservatives. Interestingly, no slogan has been chanted about Mousavi and Karroubi's house arrest in these demonstrations.
Debates on the legitimacy of the demonstration of the poor in terms of regional balances
The rage of the poor has deeply shaken the Islamic Republic. But if we consider the position of Iran in the Middle East and its role in the regional balance of power, it is not difficult to observe that the effects of these demonstrations would not be limited to Iran’s borders alone. The emergence of such a vigorous movement is not a national issue in any country in the Middle East. It is therefore a natural process to assess this uprising in terms of regional balances or even broader international conflicts. Accordingly, a massive movement in Iran worries its allies and those who think this alliance has a progressive role in the region. Indeed, almost from the first day we have witnessed the presence of such concerns within the regional actors and even the international socialist movement. Some socialist movements immediately revealed their position on the first day and opted to support the Islamic Republic.
These concerns can be understood up to a certain point. US imperialism under Trump and its regional allies have long targeted the Islamic Republic and have the potential to try every way to break it down. Thus, question marks may arise about the origin of an uprising targeting the foundations of the IR. It is more comprehensible if we consider the dissatisfaction of Trump and Netanyahu on the latest developments in the Middle East. However, it becomes problematic when we only focus on the regional dynamics and ignore the connection between a social movement and its roots in internal contradictions. This perspective may be the approach of structures like the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, but it should not be the Marxists’ approach. Beyond an abstract anti-imperialist approach, Marxists should evaluate the events from the perspective of the ground for struggle that social contradictions create on the national level, the class position of the elements that drive the struggle, and the opportunities and consequences of the struggle.
Demonstrations in Iran emerged from the demand for the most fundamental rights of the poor but almost turned into a revolt against a 38-year old reactionary dictatorship. For years, this enemy of the workers, of women, of the different ethnic groups, of the environment and of basic human rights has not displayed anything other than oppression and massacre. A reactionary fundamentalist Islamist movement built this system, in its origin, by confiscating the gains of a popular revolution, established its dictatorship by pouring the blood of revolutionaries’, and subsequently survived by exploiting society and nature. Thus, the people’s revolt against this regime is unquestionably legitimate.
It is possible that the reactionary forces of society would confiscate the gains of such a movement[viii].Despite this, the possibility of overthrowing of a reactionary structure like the Islamic Republic with the uprising of the masses does not only provide the prospect of freedom for the masses in Iran, but also may pave the way for the overthrow of other reactionary structures in the Middle East. Eventually, it may open the road to a real struggle against imperialism and Zionism in the region.
It is not easy to predict the outcome of these demonstrations. It may progressively gain in strength or vanish in time. It is a spontaneous mass movement and there is not yet a strong progressive structure to lead it. Long-running mass movements can reveal their own various organizations such as committees and local councils that can protect the masses against the eruptive but disorderly action. If such organizations are properly guided, they can attain significant achievements. On the other hand, we must not forget the rich experience of the IR in suppressing popular uprisings. The IR will mobilize all its means to suppress these demonstrations. As a matter of fact, over the first weak more than ten deaths have been confirmed by official sources. This shows how determined the IR is in suppressing these demonstrations which have a great potential to turn into a widespread popular revolt.
It should be noted that, independent of its outcome, this movement will first of all instill a most needed confidence of defeating the environment of oppression and fear. The masses will remember the great feat of demolishing the Pahlavi regime, which was the main fortress of imperialism in the Middle East. Even if they are defeated, these actions will form the basis of new struggles. Here, the most important task falls on progressive forces from within the masses. Those who hear the voice of this rage should organize the masses against the Islamic Republic and drive the destructive power of the mass to destroy the reactionary repressive discriminatory capitalist regime on the national ground and to establish the foundations of the free and revolutionary Middle East on the basis of principles of solidarity and equality on the regional ground.
5 January 2017
[i] The structure that governs this type of building is known as Astan-i Gods-i Rezevi, the richest Iranian company known for its proximity to Khamenei. This company, which is a large landowner, banker, factory owner and executor of plenty of other economic activities, is enriched by the Shiites who visit the 8th imam, all the while it dispossesses the Mashhad people.
[ii] It is suggested that this protest erupted in the direction of objections by people who did not get what they wanted from the banks and the call was issued by the far-conservative section of the Islamic republic. Similar objections were made in many places that were long-lasting, but the slogans were aimed directly at the high prices even with the people gathered for the same reason.
[iii] Lori people is an ethnic group that speaks a dialect of the Persian language living in the Central and South-western part of Iran.
[iv] In the conflicts that arose in the town of Ize in the south of Iran, the people controlled state buildings for a short period of time.
[v] At the beginning of the new year, a security drill took place against the threat of workers' protests in the name of improving the defense of bourgeoisie's.
Araz Bağban is an Iranian revolutionary activist, affiliated to the journal Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism), published in Istanbul, Turkey.