Iran: Continuing Mass Struggles Await Working-Class Leadership for Decisive Breakthrough

This interview by Morad Shirin was given to the magazine Reform and Revolution, produced by the Reform & Revolution caucus of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The link for the original publication can be found here 

The death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini on September 16th, after her beating by Tehran’s ‘morality police’ three days earlier, sparked off one of the most significant and sustained protest movements in the history of the Iranian regime. 

Despite two months of intensified and systematic repression, with more than 330 deaths and many thousands of arrests, the Iranian masses are still protesting throughout the country. There are daily clashes with the riot police and other repressive organs of the capitalist state, particularly in the bigger cities and areas where national minorities are predominant – especially Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs. And as each death is commemorated after forty days, the regime attacks mourners, trying to reassert its authority. But it meets fierce resistance. 

A Regime Built on Oppression and Exploitation

Jina’s state killing follows more than four decades of ruthless repression against workers, women, national minorities, students and youth, writers and artists, LGBT+ people and so on. Denying the most basic democratic rights of the vast majority of the population through the most brutal forms of oppression is the foundation of this regime.

In the summer of 1981, the Islamic counter-revolution unleashed a brutal and ruthless campaign. It crushed the independent and radical mass movements in Iran: the workers’ factory committees (shora), the women’s movement, the students, the national minorities and so on. Once in power, this regime exploited and oppressed workers more than the Shah’s dictatorship: levels of workers’ exploitation reached one of the highest in the world.

In addition to the long-term dire economic situation, tyranny, corruption and sanctions, the incompetent and callous handling of the COVID pandemic led to even more stark social inequalities. These conditions led to hundreds of struggles and protests by teachers, pensioners, steel workers, oil workers, medical staff and so on.

Iran was a powder keg ready for a spark.

The Blame Game, US Imperialism, ‘Regime Change’ and the Right Opposition

Typically, the regime has blamed everyone else except itself for the situation in Iran. It has said that the Kurdish organisations based in Iraqi Kurdistan have been inciting the recent protests in Iran’s Kurdish provinces. It has therefore attacked their bases, causing many deaths and injuries.

Historically though, the regime’s propaganda has always claimed that US imperialism is trying to overthrow it in favour of a more pro-western government. Hence any protests by workers, women, national minorities and so on, are said to threaten ‘national security’ and dealt with very severely. 

But although US imperialism has its differences (and sometimes even clashes) with this regime, it knows that this unique form of capitalist dictatorship keeps the lid on the social movements with very heavy repression – thus preventing the workers, women, national minorities and the youth from realising even their most basic rights. US imperialism is fully aware that over the past four decades this regime has been the best guarantor of capitalist relations of production in Iran and an important base for anti-working-class reaction in the whole Middle East. This is a role the regime will continue to play until it is overthrown in a proletarian revolution.

The bourgeois media and politicians in the US and other imperialist countries claim to support the mass movement, especially in relation to women claiming their basic rights. But all they do is to boost the most right-wing elements of the opposition, mainly the monarchists. The right-wing opposition – and the various TV and radio station broadcasting into Iran – are used to put pressure on the regime and to extract further concessions from it. This is part of the imperialists’ long-term policy of keeping this most reactionary form of capitalist dictatorship intact – which ensures the stability of capitalist exploitation in Iran. 

The imperialists do not have a viable alternative to the regime. For now, there is no ‘regime change’ on their agenda.

What the Regime Really Fears: Workers’ Strikes and Revolts

Just in the past five years mass protests have included: December 2017-January 2018 (economic hardship), November 2019-July 2020 (fuel prices), the summer of 2021 (water and electricity shortages) and May 2022 (food prices). There has also been the headscarf removing campaign of individual women that began in December 2017.

The death of Jina (a young Kurdish woman from Saghez) brought many thousands of women on to the streets – and not just young ones. There has also been wide participation by the youth and other people who have had enough of enduring decades of routine repression, economic hardship and corruption. This movement involves many layers of society across the country, particularly women, young people, university students and school children (especially girls). The protests have been most violent in areas with mainly Kurdish, Baluchi and Arab populations.

Most demonstrators now see the connection between the regime’s policy of oppressing women’s basic rights and its general repressive character, suppressing every class and layer of society: whether in the streets, at school and university, in the factories and places of work, and especially, in any dealings with the capitalist state or any of its repressive organisations.

Workers’ Struggles 

Initially, the workers were involved in the mass movement as individuals and were slow to join it through their strikes. So far, the workers in following plants and companies have gone on strike: Asaluyeh petrochemicals, Abadan refinery, Ney Steel, Shadgan Steel, South Pars Central workshop, Mahshahr pipe manufacturing, Kian Tyre (in Tehran province), Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Complex, Lamerd Aluminium works (in Fars province) and the tanker drivers in the oil and petrochemical industry (although with the Internet either shutdown or slowed down in many parts of Iran there are bound to be more groups of workers on strike).

Ever since this regime was established in 1981, the main resistance against it has always been from the working class. The proletariat has been the only class that has consistently battled against the bourgeoisie and its state, even during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite the escalating repression, the past five years have seen an upsurge in the Iranian workers’ movement, with many radical struggles. Just in the past year or so there have been hundreds of strikes in the steel industry, railways and trucks, petrochemicals, teachers and so on. 

Of the many big and heroic struggles, the strikes of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Company workers have been the most significant. Over the past four years its 2900 workers have gone on strike many times, consistently calling for privatisation to be revoked. Through this struggle their demands evolved to include workers’ supervision (i.e., control) and workers’ councils. On November 8th 2018 Esmail Bakhshi, a workers’ representative, said that the workers had two options: “One is that Haft Tappeh is run entirely by the workers. We will form a committee and run Haft Tappeh consultatively. Don’t worry. We have all the specialisms. Who else has managed Haft Tappeh so far? Have confidence. Have faith in yourself. We can manage Haft Tappeh ourselves.” The second option was that the state takes over: “… but the state must do [all] … things under the supervision of the workers’ council and under the general supervision of the workers.” 

Unfortunately, Esmail Bakhshi was eventually sacked. However, Haft Tappeh’s radical strikes once again made workers’ control and workers’ councils a real and living demand in today’s workers’ movement – across the country, but especially in Khuzestan province. These demands came out of the bitter experience of the past few years.

The explosive situation in Iran’s working class is such that even when a struggle begins with a very basic demand like unpaid wages, the dynamic nature of strikes and protests eventually pose many fundamental questions about problems affecting Iranian society and capitalism in general. 

The only way the Iranian regime can keep these radical workers’ struggles under control is through massive repression, including jailing many activists, flogging workers and so on. In September 2015, it even killed Shahrokh Zamani, a well-known left-wing labour activist, in prison.

The Uprising’s Prospects and the Question of Working-Class Leadership

The limited level of leadership and co-ordination in the current street protests is enough to continue them. In some cases, they have even routed the riot police, the Pasdaran and the Basiji thugs. But these activities by the youth, despite their tremendous courage, unfortunately, cannot in themselves make the decisive breakthrough which is necessary to bring the regime down and seriously weaken bourgeois state power in Iran. Only the working class, organised as a class, can do that.

The outcome of this uprising, as with all earlier ones, therefore depends on how the working class acts as a class. If workers participate as individuals and not as an organised force with their own slogans, perspective and organisational initiative, then the whole movement will be defeated. The workers need to intervene as a class for their own victory and to pose a revolutionary leadership for all other exploited classes and oppressed layers. There are only two alternative class leaderships possible: proletarian or bourgeois.

It is important to remember that it was not the street protests – even though they involved a quarter of the population – that overthrew the Shah in 1979. It was the general strike, particularly the oil workers’ strike that posed many political demands, that finished off US imperialism’s second strongest base in the Middle East.

What is therefore needed is a general strike that links the strikes and struggles of workers in all the major industries together with the mass protests of women, youth and the national minorities. In particular, the workers in the oil, gas and petrochemicals industries – the regime’s lifeline – will have to go on strike.

There is great discontent among workers about the repression and the economic crisis but the necessary self-confidence and revolutionary perspective to intervene together to change the balance of class forces is not yet present.

The Next Step

Gains like the concepts of workers’ control and workers’ councils are very important in themselves. A very heavy price has been paid for them. But only a clandestine workers’ vanguard party can preserve them in the long-term. A Leninist party is the main guarantor of preserving the gains of the past (both the recent struggles in Iran and historical ones from across the world) and linking these lessons and theories to new struggles in every industry, in all provinces and mobilising all classes and layers who want to overthrow capitalism. That was the main missing factor that led to the defeat of the 1979 revolution. That is what is needed for victory in the next revolution.

The vanguard – i.e., the strike leaders and most militant and conscious elements – of the working class holds the key to what happens next. We need more workers’ organisations to take the same position as the Khuzestan Vanguard Socialist Workers’ Cell and start organising through their clandestine cells to make the general strike a reality. 

We urge workers who have been at the forefront of organising strikes during the past few years to co-ordinate and link their struggles into a general strike. That way the workers can unite and win major victories in the class struggle, lead all other exploited and oppressed layers, as well as posing the question of state power. Workers’ strikes and the mass protests need to be linked under the same working-class leadership in order to win; if they remain separate then they will not be able to avoid defeat.

Revolutionary working-class leadership is, and will always be, the decisive factor in any mass movement in Iran. If it does not exist, then despite all the heroism and self-sacrifice of the women, youth and national minorities – and any individual workers who join them – the movement will not succeed.

Morad Shirin is a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists’ Tendency


Appeal for solidarity

All protests and struggles by Iran’s workers, women, national minorities and students are treated as ‘national security’ threats! Solidarity with these struggles can help the Iranian masses achieve victory. Please support the Shahrokh Zamani Action Campaign’s activities.

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