Iran: Youth Protests and the Regime's Crisis
— an interview with Ali Javadi
AGAINST THE CURRENT interviewed Ali Javadi, a member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI), on the July protests and ongoing repression in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For information on WPI visit www.wpiran.org
The lives of all those arrested in recent protests and all political prisoners in Iran are in great danger. (See below.)
Against the Current: The recent mass student protests in Iran seemed to have come "out of the blue." What is behind them?
Ali Javadi: These protests were not thunderclaps in a cloudless sky. On the contrary, their roots truly lie in deep social and political conditions of the society, and they are a continuation of various protests that have taken place in different areas of the country.
The bases of these protests lie in the contradictions between the social characteristics of the Islamic regime and the desires of the day-to-day life of the people. And, on the other hand, they relate to the contradictions of capitalism in Iran, which is facing a dead-end. Let me elaborate.
The social characteristics of this regime are at right angles to those of the society and the people. Society in Iran, unlike what is depicted in the mainstream media and academia, is not an Islamic society: The majority of the people don't find their desired values and aspirations in Islam.
Islamic traditions are not natural tendencies of people but more so impositions, which are enforced by intimidation, imprisonment and lashing. Furthermore, the growth of the Islamist movement, which is the base of the regime, was mainly a product of the Cold War rivalries and the efforts of the West to counter the socialist and egalitarian forces in Iran and region.
The Islamic regime, like many dictatorial regimes, has been able to brutally suppress the socialist and progressive forces. It has also been able to deprive people of any form of free organizations, but is not capable of depriving people of their way of life, their desires for music, for sex, for sport, etc., without being in constant conflict with the people.
The social characteristics of the Islamic regime are one of the bases of its crisis. On the other hand, the Islamic regime is the regime of capital, which has found itself in a deep historical dead-end. The Islamic regime, as an economic project, is a defeated one.
The Islamists were never able to establish an economic model with any viability. They tried all versions of known economic models. In the first decade, after the 1979 revolution, they tried a statist model, accompanied by the protectionist closing of trade doors and support for domestic goods and services.
This model was defeated, producing only the distribution of poverty and destitution among people. However, the election of President Hashemi Rafsanjani also meant a shift and adoption of new economic policies. In this era the regime adopted the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
They floated the currency, started selling the state industries to the private sector, and enforced belt-tightening policies. The results were similar to what we have seen in other parts of the world.
Inflation rose to close to thirty percent. Unemployment rose to twenty percent and foreign debts topped $20 billion. Prostitution became commonplace, and more than half a million high school students were said to be addicted to hard drugs. These are the social and economic realities of the Islamic regime.
The student and youth protests that we have seen lately are part of the general movement of the people for overthrowing the Islamic regime. I believe these movements will put an end to the Islamic regime.
ATC: What is the relationship of this movement to the highly publicized struggles inside the regime, between the reform President Khatami and the "hard-line clerics"?
AJ: The current mass and student protests began by opposing the ruling to close Salam Daily, a pro-Khatami paper, although the closure of Salam was just an excuse. Everyone should know that defending Khatami and his political line are not the essential characteristics of the people's movement.
Yet the mainstream media attempted to portray these protests as part of the factional fights within the Islamic regime-as if the mission of these media to the world is to sell Khatami as an alternative for saving the people in Iran!
I think that everyone should know that the factional fights within the regime are only a reflection of the growing social movement against the entirety of the regime. The people are using every occasion to push the regime toward the edge and finally overthrow it.
In fact both factions have clearly understood this reality. President Khatami's faction knows that the regime is no longer capable of maintaining itself based on its past policies. They know that the continuation of overt brutal policies of the past twenty years would only exacerbate the speed of the social movements.
That is why the reforming faction sees the need to change the fundamental basis of the Islamic regime. The general features of the "second Islamic Republic," which they advocate, are: 1) to promote the activities of various Islamic papers loyal to the regime; 2) create various brands of Islamic parties; and 3) normalize relations with the West and United States in order to reduce international pressure and buy some time.
On the other hand, the so-called hard-line, Ayatollah Khamenei, faction reminds Khatami and his supporting groups that taking any steps backward or giving any concessions would further encourage the people to intensify their protests and demonstrations. They remind Khatami and his supporters that in the last two decades the Islamic regime has only been able to stay in power by direct suppression of any form of expression.
The fact of the matter is that both factions are correct, and neither have any other options. The first Islamic Republic is collapsing and the second Islamic Republic is only an illusion. The problem is intractable, the regime is not salvageable. These six days of protests in mid-July shook Iran.
ATC: What is known about the people or groups that organized these protests? Is there any relationship with earlier currents of opposition from the Iranian secular revolutionary left, or the left-Islamic Peoples Mujahedeen (PMOI), or is it something quite new?
AJ: Given the present balance of the forces in Iran, the socialist and secularist organizations are not able to openly participate in the mass protests. However, individual socialists and secularists have been quite active in these protests. Many of those arrested have been declared to be socialists.
PMOI claims to have been very active in the recent wave of protests. The Islamic regime also claims that they were involved. Both exaggerate and distort the realities.
The only legal organization among the students is the Union of Islamic Student Associations, which is referred to as Daftare Tahkim Vahdat (the office to foster unity). The Islamic student associations have a dark history. They were the arms of the regime in suppressing the progressive and socialist students in the early stage of the Islamic regime.
This organization currently is the main student body supporting Khatami and his political platform. During these six days they tried, but failed, to control and limit these protests.
ATC: Can this student movement in Iran be compared to other student democracy movements over the last decade-in China before the Tiananmen massacre, in Burma and in Indonesia?
AJ: I am sure one can compare these protests with the student movements in China, Burma and Indonesia. I think, however, that there are more differences than similarities, and that the similarities would not reveal any insight into the understanding of the situation in Iran or the places you have mentioned.
Furthermore, I don't believe one would be able to draw any conclusions from this comparison-such as the nature of the era or the role of the student movements in our time.
In addition, I don't think these mass protests in Iran can be characterized as a student movement per se. You might be surprised; there was not even a single slogan or demand that related to students.
Further, the protests were not limited to the students. In these six days, many demonstrations took place in at least eighteen cities. In Tehran, the capital, there were close to 100,000 people participating in the demonstrations.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe these protests were part of the general people's movement to overthrow the Islamic regime. Their main force was composed of youths. On the other hand, I should indicate that I don't believe we can refer to this movement, as a student/democracy movement.
Let me elaborate on this point. These are movements for overthrowing the Islamic regime; they are for freedom and liberty. Whereas democracy is a very limited form of freedom, these protests were for the unconditional freedom of expression, for the unconditional right to organize.
Whereas Western democracy is a movement for the right to vote, a movement for a parliamentary system, the Iranian protests were part of the working people's movement. Inasmuch as democracy is the movement of the upper classes of society, and since democracy is understood and characterized by private property, free market and capitalist competition, I prefer not to refer to this movement as "a student democracy movement."
These protests are also part of the movement to cut the hands of religion from all aspects of social life. Iranian youth, who comprise the main force behind these movements, are a modern force. They wish to benefit from all achievements and potentiality that humanity has gained so far.
Contrary to the claims of some Eastern scholars and Western mainstream media, they have no allegiance to Islam. Although they have been born and raised under the rule of an Islamic regime, they are not Islamist and have no debt to Islam.
I believe this movement will put an end to the life of political Islam in Iran, which is the center of political Islam in the world. This movement will put the last nails on the coffin of the plague of the 20th century.
ATC: The Islamic regime in Iran has proven to be much more enduring than many of us on the left had anticipated. Why has it survived? What are its bases of support?
AJ: Why has the Islamic regime survived so long? Certainly the ranks of those whom we see in the government demonstrations and Friday shows are not the reason for its survival. These pictures do not characterize the relations of people toward the Islamic regime. They are only good to justify the shameless policies of the West toward the Islamic regime.
I think one simple reason provides the answer to your question: killings, executions, torture, imprisonment, arrests, stoning and intimidation. We have to remember that this is the regime of 100,000 executions. It is the regime of stoning. It is the regime of mutilating people to force them to follow Islamic rules.
I remember when this regime in its earlier years would execute more than 200 of its opponents daily. This regime could be compared with the fascist regime of Hitler. I believe that this regime would not last for more than two days if it was not for the mass execution and torture.
The day that this regime is overthrown, the day that the people in Iran freely talk about their miseries under this regime, on that day the world will cry!
Also, the Islamic regime at one time had immense use value for the West and for international capital. The Islamists are an anti-socialist, anti-equality and pro-private property force. The West has always supported such forces against the socialists and the left.
The West gave huge support to Islamists when it became clear that the Shah's regime was incapable of suppressing the working class and the mass movement in Iran. Khomeini, who had been a marginal figure in the politics of Iran, was put on the center stage of international media propaganda.
Khomeini was made to be the leader of a revolution. And the working-class revolution was turned into an "Islamic Revolution." The regime killed and executed-and executed from the same list that the Shah had been killing.
By crushing the revolution and the working class in Iran, the Islamic regime also ended its use value for the West. From then on, the dilemma for the West has been the dangers and uncertainties that a replacement of such a regime could produce, given the history of working-class and socialist movement in Iran.
I think the West will act very pragmatically as far as social changes are concerned. They will support the present regime, with pressure to encourage minor changes in its behaviors. When it becomes evident to them that the regime is on the verge of collapse, they will try to forge an alternative that would uphold the vital interest of the capital and West.
It is not accidental that Clinton was quite worried about the impact of these protests on the position of Khatami's faction. I should also add that the West and United States do not enjoy the same power that they had during the Cold War era in shaping the course of events around the world.
Currently, the United States and the West can bomb a country to ruin, can push a society back into pre-civilization period by destroying its infrastructure (as we have seen in the case of Iraq and Yugoslavia), yet they can't easily create an alternative. The end of Cold War also meant the demise of "the West" as we knew it.
ATC: Has the mass movement been defeated?
AJ: The recent mass protests have been suppressed. But the movement to overthrow the regime has not been defeated. These protests have made a significant mark on the course of social events in Iran.
In these demonstrations, the people have loudly issued their verdict regarding the fate of the Islamic regime and handed it to the government. The Islamic regime should be removed! This wave of protests broke all the Islamic taboos; they mark the beginning of the end of the Islamic regime.
The Islamic regime claims to have arrested more than 1400 of the protesters. The lives of many of these people are in great danger. Many of the Islamist forces have asked for death penalty for those arrested.
These people need the urgent support of all working-class organizations, progressives and all freedom-loving people. We should fight for the unconditional release of all those arrested and all political prisoners in Iran.
ATC: What is the current state of workers' organizations in Iran? Do any of the student forces have an orientation toward working-class struggles?
AJ: If you ask, did any group of the students march toward the factories? Did the students ask the workers to join them or go on political strikes against the regime? The answer would be negative.
If you ask, however, did the demonstrators march toward the working-class sections of the city? Or did they have slogans that reflected the needs of the working people? The answer to these questions is positive.
Regarding the status of the workers' movement in Iran, as you know there is a ban on all forms of workers' organizations. In fact, the first organizations that were attacked after the Islamists took power were the workers' organizations.
Thousands of worker activists and socialists have been executed since then. Despite these brutal conditions, the workers are not atomized or without the form of basic organization.
Workers even in the most dictatorial systems enjoy from some degree of unity and organization among themselves, which is based on circles of activist workers and the networks of these circles. These circles and social networks are basically the organizing cells within the working class.
In Iran going on strike is illegal but according to the regime, more than 2000 wildcat strikes take place annually.
Today, the major struggles of the workers in Iran center on the issue of wages. The demand to increase wages and pay back wages is on the top of their agenda. Next come the demands for freedom to form workers' organizations and the right to strike.
I should also remind you that the minimum wage in Iran is about $1 per day. Unemployment is around twenty percent, and every year close to one million youth join the ranks of the unemployed. Some sectors, close to one million workers, have not been paid for more than nine months.
These conditions have had a negative impact on the conditions of the working class. As in the 1979 revolution, however, workers play the decisive role in determining the fate of the Islamic regime. If the oil workers and other industrial workers join the political struggles, the regime would be finished in no time.
ATC: What developments do you think might be anticipated in Iran?
AJ: I think we will see the growth of two separate social movements in Iran, which are parallel in terms of struggling to overthrow the regime, but completely opposite in terms of what they want to achieve.
On the one hand, we will see the rise of direct workers' actions, along with the growth of a worker-communist movement, which holds the banner of freedom, equality, and a workers' state. This movement will be able to attract large portions of the movement of women for equality, and the movement for secularism and emancipation from the rule of Islam.
This is a movement for socialism. It is a movement for prosperity and egalitarianism, it a movement to replace the Islamic republic with a socialist republic.
On the other hand, we will see the growth of a conservative nationalistic movement, which is pro-West and supports the economic and monetary policies of IMF and the World Bank. Turkey is a good example of the type of regime the nationalists idealize. The leading forces of this movement are monarchists and the supporters of the Shah's regime.
The fight for the future of Iran is a struggle between these two social forces. The nationalists in their fight look up to the Western governments. On the contrary, the working-class and worker-communist movement for freedom, liberty and socialism relies on the support of international mass solidarity.
THE LIVES OF the arrested students and other political prisoners are in danger!
In mid-August the Islamic Regime announced that four of the protesters in July mass protest in Iran have been sentenced to death. Many others may get similar sentencing. In late August a group of twenty were given long imprisonment terms.
The only way to counter these sentences is to expand the struggle against the bloody Islamic Republic. The plans of such slaughter can and should be crushed by extending the struggle.
We ask you to come to their aid. The following resolution has been adopted by tens of major trade unions and progressive organizations.
We the undersigned have heard the horrible news of death penalty and imprisonment sentences for those who have been arrested in recent mass demonstrations in Iran. We strongly condemn the Islamic Republic of Iran for violating the essential rights of human beings.
We resolve that:
- The death penalty and life imprisonment charges of all those arrested and all the political prisoners should be dropped immediately. No prisoner should be tortured! No prisoner should be executed!
- All political prisoners should be free immediately.
- Freedom of speech, freedom of organization and the right to strike are among the essential rights of human beings and should be acknowledged.
- We support the struggle of the workers and the people of Iran for freedom and a better life.
- The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be put on trial for twenty years of suppression, executions, and murders and for crimes against humanity.
Please send a copy of the resolution to:
Worker-communist Party of Iran - L.A., P.O. Box 241412, Los Angeles, CA 90024 or contact Ali Javadi by tel/fax: 310-445-9228. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
ATC 83, November-December 1999