What to make of Iran’s demonstrations

Starting Dec. 28, 2017, Iran has witnessed anti-government protests in several cities and towns. The character and the demands of the demonstrations have varied greatly and seem to have already evolved over the course of a few days. From the beginning, Iranian government officials have stated that people have a right to demonstrate, but that acts of sabotage and violence would be dealt with forcefully.

The first few protests focused mainly on economic issues. Demonstrations were peaceful and marched down streets chanting slogans. These initial protests seemed to occur without major incidents. From there, some of the marches become more militant and aggressive, with garbage cans and police cars set ablaze. By the night of Dec. 31, 2017, protests took on the form of armed attacks on government buildings and police stations. By Jan. 3, hundreds had been arrested and 21 people have been killed.

Global and national context of the current protests

Predictably, the U.S. and other Western media have provided highly sympathetic and strongly exaggerated coverage to the demonstrations. Across the spectrum of U.S. ruling class politics, there is broad unity on the goal of regime change in Iran. They have an immediate solidarity with anything that could weaken the Iranian state. The one exception would be if there were an explicit socialist or anti-imperialist revolutionary opposition movement in Iran, of course, in which case the Western capitals would positively oppose it.

But in the here and now, the Iranian state’s independent political relationships and military interventions have been a persistent thorn to U.S., Saudi and Israeli designs in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Gaza. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian influence has only grown since the U.S. invasions and occupations — a phenomenon that U.S. foreign policymakers would like to reverse. Their grand ambition is to return Iran to the U.S. sphere of influence, as it was between 1953 and 1979, when it served alongside as Israel as the pillar of U.S. national security strategy in the region.

Therefore, Western media coverage about Iranian politics in 2018 is about as objective and informative as listening to the Spanish crown’s assessment of Inca politics in the 1500s or reading the British colonizers’ dispatches on political struggles in Africa in the 1800s.

Iranian society cannot be understood if reduced to the simplistic framework of “the dictatorial regime” versus “the suffering people.” This is the formula utilized to demonize foreign governments, to lay the groundwork for sanctions, war, regime change, assassinations and other punitive measures. It has nothing in common with the Marxist method, which looks at a society’s contending classes and class fractions, its political history and social reality.

Iran is a capitalist society where competing bourgeois factions jockey for position and control, dominating different state institutions and influencing different media outlets. The major axes of domestic struggle in recent years have dealt with the size of the social safety net, the potential relaxation of religious laws, the approach to ethnic and religious minorities, as well as economic development strategies. On foreign policy, major struggles have been waged on how much to confront the United States and directly engage in regional conflicts.

The competing camps do not align neatly nor fall into neat political categories like “right” and “left.” What the Western media calls “hardline” is typically more associated with those projecting confrontation with imperialism and a stricter interpretation of religious rule. The “reformists,” who controlled government during the early 2000s, take a more conciliatory line. Within both camps, there are major differences in economic program. These currents measure their strength through bourgeois-democratic processes, not a monarchical form or being “chosen” by the Supreme Leader as is sometimes suggested wrongly. The system is, however, overseen by a clerical authority, itself riven with struggle, which retains a veto power over policy and ensures that the level of open struggle and debate does not endanger the political system as a whole.

Protests are uncommon but not unprecedented in Iran. In recent years, protests have taken place on a number of issues, usually local in character, but in some cases in several cities, as with the protests against ethnic chauvinism, which carried on without major incident. The initial protests in the current wave likewise did not result in the deployment of the Revolutionary Guard, or meet repression until some protesters openly called to overthrow the Islamic Republic, and escalated into physical confrontation with the state. These can be understood as the Iranian state’s “red lines” in the toleration of the protests.

Corporate media hype

Following this corporate media coverage today, one is led to believe that these demonstrations reflect the will of the vast majority of the people. But there are few facts so far to support this. Corporate media reports put the number of total protesters at “tens of thousands.” Video clips posted on social media suggest quite modest turnouts, ranging from dozens to no more than hundreds. Even if there have been tens of thousands of protesters, for context, we have to keep in mind that Iran has a population of 80 million.

To be sure, all protests tend to speak for far more beyond their immediate participants, but the level of support is not so easy to determine.

Western media report these demonstrations in Iran as being the largest demonstrations since the mass demonstrations that followed the 2009 elections. This is technically true, even if we consider the likely more accurate estimate of “thousands” not “tens of thousands.” But the 2009 demonstrations were attended by hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. Even then, the people protesting the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not represent a majority of the population, as large as the turnout was. The recent demonstrations are not comparable to those in scale.

On Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, massive demonstrations took place in 120 cities. But these were demonstrations in support of the Islamic Republic, not in opposition to it. Ironically, they were planned in advance of the recent round of opposition protests, and in commemoration of mass demonstrations in 2009 by supporters of the Islamic Republic. The turnout for the Dec. 30 demonstrations was huge, totaling in millions across the country.

Several U.S. media organizations – e.g. CNN, New York Times – have used photos of the pro-Islamic Republic mass demonstrations for their articles on the opposition protests. These kinds of false media practices serve the purpose of giving their audience the impression that the anti-government demonstrations have had huge turnouts, even in cases where they later publish tiny corrections.

It is possible, although not likely, that anti-government protests will grow massively in the coming days. But, factually, as of this writing, the turnout to opposition rallies is quite small compared to the recent pro-Islamic Republic turnout, or the opposition turnout in 2009.

The character of the protests

When analyzing an opposition movement anywhere in the world, there are certain questions we must ask. What is the political character of the opposition movement? Does it have an anti-capitalist character? Is it a working-class movement? Does it represent an expansion of the country’s independence or does it promote its submission to the dictates of multinational corporations? U.S. ruling class institutions also ask these same types of questions and, based on the answers, provide or withhold support.

In the current movement there is not a clear organized leadership, nor are there clearly defined political demands. At this early stage, one can only make a preliminary assessment and note emerging trends.

At least initially, the primary demands appear to be economic. It has been speculated that the rapid rise in the price of eggs and poultry, an estimated 40 percent rise in recent weeks, has triggered the protests. This type of inflation, as well as high youth unemployment, were among some of the main complaints voiced in the protests. Similarly, the Rouhani government’s proposed budget for next year includes cuts in fuel subsidies and cash subsidies, which may also have contributed.

The very first demonstration was in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran near the border of Afghanistan. This was followed with a protest in Qom, in central Iran. Both Mashhad and Qom are holy cities in Shi’a Islam, the two biggest destinations for pilgrimage. This starting point could not be more different from northern Tehran where the 2009 protests were centered. This would suggest, and there are other reports to this effect, that the protests were launched, not by people wishing to overthrow the Islamic Republic but, by people critical of President Rouhani’s administration and in favor of a stricter form of Islamic government rule.

The political tendency grouped around former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has been strongly critical of Rouhani for the nuclear deal, which they consider to have been too concessionary to the West. Small protests also took place at universities in recent days along these lines, calling President Rouhani a “disgrace” and chanting “down with the dictator.”

Rouhani responded to the first protests by trying to turn them around on his “hard-line” opponents and synchronize them with his own political agenda about government waste: “People are not only criticizing [the government for] the economic situation. People have something to say about corruption and transparency. People want to know what is going on in the lawmaking, judicial and other sectors.”

In this sense, the initial protests can be understood as the struggle between political factions spilling into the streets and each attempting to mobilize popular support behind them. People with strong grievances, quite possibly with different and diametrically opposed political orientations, were drawn to them. As the protests have continued, regardless of the wishes of the individual participants, they have also provided space for the growing initiative of counter-revolutionary, pro-Western armed elements. This is not a completed fact, but is the emerging trend at the time of this writing.

Presence of reactionary slogans

For years, the omnipresent media broadcast TV channels, most prominently among them the BBC and Voice of America, have promoted the idea that economic problems in Iran are primarily, or at least partly, due to the virtually unlimited support that the Islamic Republic provides Palestine. According to this propaganda line, as long as there are economic needs in Iran, no support should go to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere. Rumor has it that truckloads of solid gold are headed from Iran directly to Gaza and Damascus on a regular basis!

This view was reflected in a commonly repeated chant at several protests. It is really the return of a common chant of the 2009 Green Movement: “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran,” or the even more chauvinistic variant: “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, Sacrifice both for Iran.”

As the days went on, overt demands for the overthrow of the political system were expressed through the chant: “Down with the dictator.” This amorphous slogan has been used by forces as diverse as Rouhani’s conservative opponents and the pro-Western liberals of the 2009 “Green movement” who desire the overthrow of the political system. It was widely reported that at some protests in the last week, the demand for the return of the Shah’s regime was openly chanted.

A movement whose most popular demand is opposition to Iran’s support for Palestine cannot be progressive. A movement whose idea of improved economic management is merging the country’s economy into the world capitalist system, dominated by the U.S. and its junior imperialist partners, cannot be progressive. Merely having legitimate economic and political grievances does not make a movement progressive. The question is what political force and program will gain initiative.

Here in the U.S., some of the supporters of Trump’s fascistic policies are workers with legitimate grievances against the capitalist economy, the political system and the Democrats. They feel squeezed and threatened by a system that has eroded their living standards and threatens to throw them into the ranks of the unemployed and the homeless. They hate the political establishment, the federal government and the status quo. Yet, in the absence of class consciousness, they buy into Trump’s racist, sexist and bigoted solution to the real problems. Despite having legitimate grievances, they are reactionary.

The Trump administration, U.S. politicians, and the corporate media quickly determined this to be an opposition movement they can throw their support behind. So have the Israeli and Saudi governments, the latter of which has been accused of generating thousands of fake Twitter accounts to amplify the movement’s reach worldwide. They are betting that the movement’s own trajectory will serve imperialist interests, or that it is amorphous enough that it can be influenced and guided, and a pro-imperialist current can be nurtured within it.

Is Iran’s economy really in shambles?

Western media coverage of Iran routinely portrays the economy as being in “dire straits.” “Deteriorating,” “depleted,” “going downhill” are common descriptors. This kind of characterization often serves as the background for the analysis to follow.

But an objective analysis of any country’s economy should be based on facts and trends, not subjective characterizations. The World Bank, which can hardly be accused of having a pro-Iran bias, writes: “The Iranian economy bounced back sharply in 2016 at an estimated 6.4 percent. Latest data available for the first half of the Iranian calendar year 2016 (ending in March 2017) suggest that the Iranian economy grew at an accelerated pace of 9.2 percent (year over year) in the second quarter.” This is hardly an economy that is about to collapse.

Iran’s is not a traditional, agrarian economy either. Nor is it a single commodity oil economy. As one example, auto manufacturing in Iran has surpassed annual production of 1.5 million, by far the largest in the region and 12th in the world. The economy has been growing steadily for well over a decade, with the exception of the peak effect of the sanctions – 2014-2015 – when it actually contracted by 2 percent.

Economic growth does not mean, of course, that people do not suffer economic hardship. It is not just a question of the total size of the economy but also the distribution of the wealth and the resources. Iran has a capitalist economy with a large and strong state sector. The size of the state sector somewhat moderates the harsh effects of the market on the working class. Still, it is a capitalist economy, which, by its very nature, causes the accumulation of wealth and extreme differences between the living standards of the capitalists and the working class.

In aggregate economic terms the number of people living in poverty has dramatically decreased since the 1979 revolution. Prior to the revolution, according to UN data, 55 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, the World Bank states: “Poverty is estimated to have fallen from 13.1 percent to 8.1 percent between 2009 and 2013.”

But the substantial growth of the economy in the years since the 1990s, following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, has not been shared equally by all classes, as might be expected in any capitalist country. There exists now a class of the super-rich, the members of which are part of, or have close ties to, the political establishment. Some members of this new super-rich layer of society make it a point to show off their wealth. They drive around in hundred thousand dollar cars, live in unimaginably opulent mansions that have elevators for their automobiles, and dress in fashionable clothes comparable to Hollywood celebrities.

Inequality drives resentment

Iran is not an impoverished country where hunger and destitution have reached a breaking point. While parts of the working class suffer through real and painful hardships, as far as capitalist economies go, particularly in oppressed countries, Iran is not a country in deep economic distress.

To the extent that protests are motivated by the economy, it is not absolute poverty or the worsening of the living standards. It is the growing gap between the filthy rich and the rest of society.

For the Iranian working class, and even more so for the middle class, the opulent lifestyle of this class creates strong resentment at the obvious social injustice. The presence of this parasitic class renders the existence of some progressive social safety policies superfluous. That periodically large-scale embezzlement cases are exposed in high-profile trials reinforces the impression that all the wealth is being stolen by the government and those close to it.

It is instructive to look at two issues that have reportedly prompted anger about the government’s proposed budget. Next year’s budget is scheduled to increase the price of gasoline. But this is not a country in which energy prices are breaking the backs of workers. In Iran, gasoline is heavily subsidized. The price of gasoline is among the lowest in the world, the sixth lowest according to the site Currently, the government spends approximately $100 billion per year on subsidies for fuel, bread, sugar, rice, cooking oil and medicine.

Another point reportedly driving the anger at the economy is the planned reduction in the government’s cash subsidies. About 90 percent of the population receives direct cash subsidies. The way this works is that, every month, the government deposits money directly into citizens’ bank accounts. This amounts to about a $30 billion annual government expense. Many of those wishing Iran to implement what they see as sound economic policies like in the U.S. do not realize that subsidies for food, fuel and medicine are considered a gross violation of market economic principles. Cash subsidies for 90 percent of the population? Not a chance.

Role of agents

There is no doubt that the protests themselves reflect the frustrations of part of the population. There are widely felt grievances that many are demanding be heard and real problems they want rectified.

Given the long history of involvement of foreign agents in Iran, however, it would be nonsensical to assume that they would not again be working hard to try and seize hegemony over it. After the 2009 protests, several agents in possession of weaponry were arrested. Foreign agents (likely working for the CIA or the Mossad) successfully carried out several assassinations of nuclear scientists within Iran.

The United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, all sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, regularly contribute to anti-government forces and are not shy about acknowledging those efforts. Their strategists admit that riding the wave of, and influencing, a protest movement would be an ideal scenario for taking down the Iranian government. That some of the most well-funded and high-powered security agencies on the planet have as a top priority the undermining and overthrow of the Iranian government is not imaginary; it is real.

No foreign agent or foreign-funded organization can create an opposition movement where there is not an existing potential for such. But they can have an impact on its direction, how it is perceived domestically and internationally, and the direction in which street actions are led, particularly where there is no clear leadership or ideological cohesiveness among the protesters.

An example of a possible action by agents is a grizzly video which surfaced of two people lying on the ground, bleeding to death in the town of Doroud, in the province of Lorestan. This is a town with a population of about 150,000. Government officials have claimed that the police had nothing to do with these two deaths, nor had they even shot any bullets in Doroud. It seems improbable that in Doroud, the police would just shoot two people and leave their bodies on the street to bleed to death.

Similarly, armed attacks on police stations and government buildings cannot be the work of ordinary people or the spontaneous protest movement. Ordinary people do not have arms in Iran. So, while the importance of social discontent as the root cause of protests must be understood, the possibility of armed agents entering, influencing and even capturing the movement cannot be discounted either. This is especially so in a case of such rapid militarization of the civil conflict.

Trump, U.S. officials express support

President Trump tweeted on Dec. 30, 2017: “The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most….” Note Trump’s inclusion of the U.S. “vast military power”’ as a not so subtle threat.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement: “Iran’s leaders have turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”

Just so that we do not think these are empty words, we can look at comments U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made in June to Congress: The U.S. is working toward “support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”

Of course, the support Tillerson refers to is a violation of international law. No country has the right to actively support opposition forces, or the transition of power, in another country, peaceful or not. But active work towards the overthrow of the Iranian government did not just start with the Trump administration. It has been U.S. foreign policy for decades, with only brief periods of intermission.

Tasks of the anti-war movement

Understanding the line-up and character of the different forces in Iran is not an easy task for people in the U.S. It is not just that people have limited information and knowledge about what is going on in Iran. It is that the U.S. government and the corporate media deliberately misinform and obfuscate in the interests of the U.S. ruling class.

Further, unfortunately, a big chunk of liberal and progressive organizations routinely follow the lead of the State Department in deciding what is a democratic movement and what is not. Many will jump at the opportunity, without reservation or even close study, to support a “pro-democracy” movement in a country targeted by Washington. But they never quite find the time to take any action on victims of U.S. acts of aggression, say in Yemen, where arch-reactionary Saudi Arabia, with the material and moral support of the U.S., has driven the people into the abyss of death by starvation, infectious diseases and aerial bombings.

But the main task of revolutionaries and progressives in the U.S. is not to simply analyze developments in Iran, or elsewhere. Our task is to do what we can to stop the vast military that Trump boasts of from inflicting more death and destruction on the people around the world. Our task is to understand and teach others that the U.S. imperialist establishment, by its very nature, can never be an ally to the forces of revolution and progress.

The future of Iran is not to be decided by Trump, Tillerson and Haley, nor Clinton, Obama and the rest. The people of Iran have the right of self-determination. They are the ones who will determine their future based on their views, preferences and struggles. U.S. Hands off Iran!

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