The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Iran's Protests

Jun 22, 2009

After the Islamic authorities declared incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of the June 12 elections, every day hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest in Iran.

Ahmadinejad organized protests by his own supporters. But most demonstrators are supporters of two opposition candidates, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who both charged fraud. To forestall the movement, at first the Council of Guardians of the Revolution and its "Supreme Ruler" Ali Khamenei, the real power in Iran, proposed a recount of the votes. But opponents wanted Moussavi proclaimed the victor.

On June 19, Khamenei in a major broadcast came out clearly in support of Ahmadinejad, and threatened the protestors that if they did not stop their protests, there would be "bloodshed and chaos." This was the signal for the police and the paramilitaries to crack down much harder on the demonstrators. The number of protestors shrank to the tens of thousands, but appeared to resist several killings and many, many different forms of attack.

Three candidates chosen by the regime

The Islamist dictatorship, in power since the fall of the Shah in 1979, organizes elections to choose the president. But this post is only a sort of prime minister, who serves as a lightning rod in times of crisis. The true boss of Iran remains the "Supreme Ruler," who is elected by the top Shiite clergy. His candidate in these elections was the current president, Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad is a former member of the Islamist militia that repressed the population when the Islamist regime was consolidating its dictatorship after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. He remains one of its pillars.

But Moussavi is no stranger to the Islamist regime. He may present himself as a "moderate" and a "reformer," but he was also the prime minister chosen by Ayatollah Khomeini. An architect by profession, Moussavi even designed the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini after he died in 1989.

The "choices' offered to the Iranian voters in these elections were very controlled. But like many other politicians, Moussavi knew how to appeal to a part of the urban classes who no longer supported the Islamist dictatorship, including students and intellectuals, ethnic minorities, and also women. Moussavi made vague promises to reform the "morals police," the vicious religious thugs who attack women for how they appear in public. A part of the commercial bourgeoisie also fears that Ahmadinejad's boasts about Israel and nuclear power would provoke Israeli or U.S. bombing. They blame Ahmadinejad for the economic difficulties in Iran that stem from the U.S. embargo.

But Ahmadinejad certainly didn't lose his popular base, which is outside the large cities. This base assured his election in 2005 and may still represent the majority of the population. When Ahmadinejad feared losing the vote of the most desperate Iranians, he distributed food, and sent his ministers into the provinces to "get closer to the people." And he used oil income for the construction of infrastructure.

But the rise in unemployment and inflation, the increase in food prices and rents, the rationing of gasoline (in a country that exports oil!) led Western journalists to predict Ahmadinejad would have to face a runoff election, between the two front runners. The result announced on election night, giving Ahmadinejad 63% of the vote, was a surprise to many. Supporters of two other candidates went out into the streets with signs saying, "Where's my vote?"

A dictatorship that many no longer support

What was the real extent of the fraud? The opposition says it possesses the true results giving the first and second places to Moussavi and Karoubi. It's possible that the Islamist dictatorship decided to proclaim the third-place candidate as the winner. But it could also be true that Ahmadinejad has enough support from the poorest milieus to be able to win the election.

For the moment voters who feel cheated have continuously demonstrated in the streets of Iran's larger cities. Demonstrators include students, the middle classes of the big cities, the so-called "modernist" petty bourgeoisie who no longer supports the stranglehold of the religious state. The regime closed the Internet and the cell phone networks and launched its police against those demonstrating. While Moussavi called for calm, demonstrators continued to go out into the streets.

On June 15, there were estimates of one to two million protesters in Teheran. Moussavi joined these protestors, saying he "was ready to participate in a new election." The confrontations with police were violent, causing seven deaths among the demonstrators.

Will the demonstrators continue? It would be possible for the Islamic regime to arrange a compromise with Moussavi, who served it before. He could help the dictatorship smooth diplomatic relations with the big powers.

The working classes and the protest

Whether the fraud was real or not, or changed the outcome of the election, the demonstrations show that a part of the Iranian population no longer supports the dictatorship.

It remains to be seen how deep this discontent really is. If a part of the urban layers no longer support the medieval type of constraints enforced by this religious dictatorship, it is not as true for the working class layers, concerned with more immediate problems of economic survival. It's doubtful whether working people could view the current mobilization as aimed at satisfying their demands. That is what has certainly established the solidity of Ahmadinejad and behind him, the Islamic regime.

It is certainly in the interests of the workers and the immense poor majority of the Iranian population to get rid of this dictatorship. But to substitute a regime that is more modern and more open to the West is not an answer. After all, this is what they already had under the Shah.

To satisfy the essential needs of the poor population, the movement must aim for a revolution.