It is now three months since the coup in Iran, thinly disguised as the presidential election. Even though the victors of the coup appear to have succeeded in consolidating themselves and the opposition forces have apparently been pushed back into defensive positions the massive anti-government demonstrations on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, the day of Quds, which is traditionally is given over to anti-Israel demonstrations show that there is much life left in the opposition.
Whatever happens over the next weeks and months the Islamic regime has walked out of its fortress, crossed over the moat and the drawbridge has been irrevocably destroyed behind it. There is no going back. In this article I will outline the reasons for this conclusion, and go on to describe the achievements, the weaknesses and some of the lessons for the progressive forces fighting the regime in Iran. Hopefully there may also be some lessons for the left abroad, confused as it appears to be as to how to interpret the scenarios beamed at it from Iran. In writing this article I am hugely indebted to conversations with Ardeshir Mehrdad, but take full responsibility for any errors of fact, interpretation or analysis.
The people of Iran woke up on June 13 to face a regime that was in fundamental ways different from the one they went to bed on. The night before, an hour before the polls closed the news of Ahmadinejad’s victory with about 63% of votes, appeared on the official Pars web site. One of my friends saw this and in her astonishment rang friends and her brother abroad. But by the time they logged on the page it had been taken down, to reappear about two hours after the polls closed. The figure was to remain more or less the same throughout the next two days as count after count came in. It was a unique example of vote-counting, backwards. Anyone doubting, not only the fact that fraud had taken place, but the grotesque scale of the fraud must be a believer in Ahmadinejad’s halo and his claim to be in touch with the “occulted” 12th Imam. The fraud was clearly part of a plan laid out weeks before by the sepah pasdaran (revolutionary guards). At one stroke they had removed large sections of the clerical establishment from power.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic is a curious amalgam of a top-down “caliphate” at the top of which sits the velayat faqih with absolute and unquestionable power over all civil and political society.  The other arm is a bottom-up “republic” where an executive president and a parliament – the Majles – are elected by direct ballot. These make up the twin-structures of the Islamic Republic. However, at every level the “republic” is subordinate to the “caliphate”. Not only are representatives of the leader implanted into every organ of state, but also he is the head of the judiciary and the military-security apparatus. He chooses the Guardian Council that vets, and can reject out of hand, all candidates and also all laws passed by the Majles. Yet the elections are not entirely sham. It allowed of the various factions of the regime to use the election process to gain positions of influence within the power structure. Moreover, the presidency (and its cabinet) has executive power and the leadership depends on it to run the day- -to-day affairs of the country.
The recent “election” was the last chapter in a political project masterminded by the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) and the osulgran (principled) faction whose fundamental goal is to rid the country once and for all of the factionalism that had blighted the ruling elite since the beginning. Having previously conquered the town councils, and then the Majles, it was important to ensure that the presidency remained in the hands of the osulgran. This was to be the last chapter in the project to remove the factionalism of the regime and ensure yekparchegi (loosely translated as uniformity), a continuous aim since the early days of the regime. Out went the ability of the various factions to use the election process in manoeuvering for power and influence. Out went the “republic” second half from the “Islamic Republic”. The revolutionary guards and a handful of mullahs more or less linked to the supreme leader, Khamenei, had cleared the field for the unencumbered “caliphate” – or have they?
The scale of the fraud was such that the people erupted. The streets of Tehran were flooded by people astonished at the audacity of the results. Everyone expected some cheating, but not such brazen fraud. Clearly Ahmadinejad believed Goebbels dictum that if you make a lie big enough people will believe it – how could anyone lie so blatantly if it was not true? But the people had seen the scale of participation in the voting and witnessed the pre-election fever. In the last 30 years this degree of voter mobilization has always meant that the protest vote will be higher.
The shock to the pasdaran was genuine, and I think the revolutionary guards were taken off guard. They had already prepared themselves by stopping the SMS service on mobile phones and other security precautions, and mobilised for any potential protest. But the sheer numbers on Tehran streets were not anticipated. So they held back as the protest escalated to nearly 3 million people on the third day. Then as the protest gradually lost its natural momentum they moved in and clamped down until demonstrations of no more than a few hundred people was possible. It is worth reiterating that in the first days the entire security apparatus available to the regime was mobilized. They had pulled out all the stops. If they had lost that day, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened next. They did not take the risk of confrontation, but bid their time hoping, correctly as it turned out, that street protest will slowly tire itself out.
The day 3 million pairs of feet trampled Tehran’s streets was the day the reformist leaders instructed the demonstrators to walk in silence. They did that after slogans of death to the dictator and death to Khamenei had been heard on the previous days. There could not have been a better example of the limitations of the reformist movement. Stuck between wanting to remain within the constitution of the Islamic Republic and the obvious pressure from below to go beyond they found themselves in absurd contortions – such as the statement that “peaceful” demonstrations are constitutional. They know full well that in the very same constitution it is the Council of Guardians who decides what is “legal”. And when Khamenei, the supreme leader, told the people to stop fussing over a few million votes and go home the reformists had the stark choice of shutting up or joining the real opposition to the regime. The final death agony of the reformist is one of the main gains of the post election movements.
As significant was the evolution of the slogans which progressively marginalized and ultimately threaten to sideline and negate the reformist leadership. It started with “what happened to my vote” and went through “death to the dictator”, “death to Ahmadinejad”, “death to Khamenei”, and finally esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri irani (independence, freedom, Iranian republic). They shouted this in the streets, and when this became impossible from rooftops at night. All the main red lines were stepped over. The near sacred “leader” became not just an object of jokes but people were calling for his death. This had not happened for 30 years and would have been unthinkable to the majority of Iranians even a few months ago. Taboo after taboo was being broken.
The significance of the last slogan cannot be underestimated. “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic” was the pivotal slogan of the 1979 revolution, the first two describing the content and the last the vessel by which these were supposedly to be realized. This was a democratic, anti-imperialist revolution that had the illusion that these goals can be realized through an Islamic regime. By discarding the Islamic Republic but keeping the first two components the people shouting this slogan were making a clear link with the revolution of 1979, declaring it unfinished, reiterating its democratic and anti-imperialist aims, and claiming the new, secular vessel that was to realize it. While the slogan is only in its infancy, it betrays the seeds of a true anti-Islamic Republic uprising that is both democratic and independent of foreign influence. No “colour revolution” here!
The third achievement was the forging of links and the rudimentary skeleton of independent organizations. The involvement of youth, and particularly students, in the election headquarters of the reformist candidates allowed the creation of new acquaintances, friendships and political links that were consolidated further over the ensuing street demonstrations. The fact that some of the leadership of these street and neighbourhood actions are taken up by the left is noteworthy.
Fourth, when even sections of the ruling elite are forced to admit to, and even protest, at beatings, torture, and even rape then you know that all the curtains have been shredded. They even tortured the son of a member of the usulgaran (princolped) – the victors of the election. Of course torture is not new to the regime and has been well documented by human rights groups. Those reformist leaders who protest today know that full well – some had even participated in interrogations, and served in governments when torture and execution was being conducted on an industrial scale. Neither is rape, which at one stage was systematically carried out against female political prisoners to make sure they will not step into “heaven”. Grieving families in 1981-3 not only were given the bullet that killed their loved one (and charged for the cost), but also a “marriage” ring by the pasdar who had raped them. That was the macabre ritual of some of the rapes that took place in the prisons of the regime. Other prisoners were just simply raped. This time rape of both men and women was used as a weapon of terror. To admit to these is to walk over another red line. The ethical pretensions of the first “rule of Allah on earth” in modern times lies in ruins.
Fifth, the very fact that the protest movements have broadly kept under the “green” umbrella is a sign of the maturity of the Iranian people. There is not one green movement, but several, or as someone said, many colours are subsumed under the green banner. At one extreme are the followers of the defeated candidates, Musavi and Karrubi. At the other, radical sections that clearly want to overthrow the Islamic regime. And there are the left. In between are various shades of groupings mostly not at all clearly defined. More importantly they are in a state of flux. This is a movement in development. Most of the tendencies within it are gelatinous and not clearly demarcated from other tendencies. The amorphous mass of protestors are linked through what they do not want. What they do want is in the process of evolution, and evolves at different rates and sometimes in contradictory ways. Thus at any given moment in time incompatible positions and views may be held by individuals. At present the reformist leadership provide the radical elements with a relative umbrella of safety. That the physical crackdown, savage as it has been, has been less savage than when the regime was liquidating its enemies that were clearly outside its own circle – the left and the mujahedin – is evidence.
Finally the ability of the protestors to use all modern means of communication. SMS, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube projected every move, every protest, every battle, every beating, and most shootings across the world. Blogs and internet sites updated the world on a minute-to-minute basis. Internet-savvy youth circumvented all efforts to block the information flow. Countless servers abroad were used to bypass the regimes blocks. The Iranian protest movement became truly internationalized. The entire world saw Neda Aqa-Soltani last dying moments. Her child-like innocent eyes as they glazed over with death looked out at all of us, and indelibly imprinted that look in the global memory. The brutal extinguishing of Neda’s young life, a life with such hope, so innocent, so courageous was also the death bell for the regime which pulled the trigger.
The achievements were underwritten by blood. Over a hundred killed, thousands beaten up, tortured, raped. Many broken spirits forced to confess on television to absurd links with foreign embassies and agents. Mass trials. More confessions – some like the one by Said Hajjarian, a former interrogator and one of the theoreticians of the reformist movement, verging on the comic when he blamed foreign textbooks taught at the universities for the corruption of youth. And now the first death sentence. These were the price that was paid, and is being paid, as thousands remain in prison and arrests continue daily. The price is heavy. But without wishing to belittle the savagery, it is much less than what we saw on the attack on Kurdistan in 1979, in the bloody crackdown of the left and Mujahedin in 1981-83 and in the massacre of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
Perhaps in the costs we should also list the tactical mistakes made by the opposition. The reformist leadership have been overtaken by events at every turn. Musavi himself admitted in the early days that he followed where the people led. Where the reformists did give directions, these have often been mistaken ones, handicapped as the reformists are by their contradictory position of being on the one hand an insider in the Islamic regime and on the other at the head of an oppositional movement that has no choice but to go beyond the regime were it to achieve its aims. Silencing the millions on the one day when their overwhelming numerical advantage could have dealt a serious, even potentially mortal, blow to the revolutionary guards (at least in Tehran where the regime had mobilized all the forces at their disposal) was a huge tactical mistake. So was sending them into the street day after day in diminishing numbers against an increasingly confident and brutal security apparatus. Calling on them to gather in absurd places, such as front of parliament, where they clearly were meant to impress the waverers among the Majles deputies. All it did was to pit a few thousand people in a place with no real escape roots to a rabid revolutionary guards or basij (mobilization – one million strong militia) and their thugs in civilian clothes. The street was an arena of struggle during the 1979 revolution precisely because the numbers on the street kept on increasing. When it became obvious that the numbers prepared to risk death and almost certain beating was declining, a change in tactics would have been sensible to any imaginative leadership.
Insistence on using slogans that only address the issue of elections is yet another error committed by the reformists, again arising from their real quandary. This weakened the ability of the election protest to become linked to other social movements – eg the women’s or the national movement. It would have made sense to carry slogans defending the various other democratic demands of the peoples and nationalities of Iran. This is a unique opportunity to unite the various social movements into a larger mass. And to draw the population of south Tehran, the shanty towns and the poorer areas of the various cities into what has been predominantly, though not exclusively, a youthful protest movement in the northern suburbs.
Most critically is the failure to unite with the rapidly escalating workers movement. During the same period workers have been active across the country in numerous strikes, sit-ins, hostage taking, occupations, road blocks, and demonstrations. The economy of the country is in free fall as is inflation. Large sections of Iranian industries are on the verge of bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands of workers are being laid off or see their jobs on a knife-edge. The casualisation of labour, laying off full time workers and replacing them by part-time contract workers – the so-called white-contact workers – has made the life of the working people of Iran impossible. Inflation has made already poor workers destitute. Here is a minefield of actual and potential human material for self-organisation and protest.
Finally the protest still remains predominantly in the capital Tehran. While there has been similar protest in Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, Kurdistan and others, they have been somewhat less extensive
What we have is less a movement than the seeds of a movement. What it lacks is a determined organisation. And what is missing is an organised united left with a clear view of its aims, a clear strategy and an understanding of the tactical steps necessary to turn the amorphous and multi-faceted mass movement into a movement with clear political aims and direction. This is a moment that may only come once in a generation. As the Bard said: there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. The tide is in flood and the chance may not return again for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately most of the forces that are either masquerading as left or are genuinely on the left in Iran (and indeed outside it) have a rather binary, two sided, vision of politics. Movements are either to be supported outright, or rejected out of hand. Yet, on closer inspection the current protest movement in Iran can be seen to be a continuum of multiple, overlapping circles, with no fixed boundaries that are continuously in flux and changing. The contours of these multiple “green” movements are vague and are continuously being dissolved and reformed in new shapes. This binary view of life and politics is best demonstrated by the attitude of the left to the reformists. Either they reject it outright, ignoring the fact that the reformists, used wisely, can help open up the space for the working class struggle and the struggle for democratic rights. Or they fall behind the reformists mouthing only the slogans they think are acceptable to the former.
One view has in reality no tactics to get to its strategy – whether it is a democratic republic or socialism. The strategy and the goal becomes a slogan, an article of faith, like a religion, chanted like a mantra. But it remains a distant utopia since the groups have no policy as to how to get from A to Z.
The other view essentially ditches its strategy (if it has one) replacing it entirely with tactics. The tactic of united front becomes the strategy – the aim. These groups become appendages of the reformists, mere followers, their slogan “hameh ba ham” (every one together). Worse they act as the police of the reformists fearful of any slogans that might upset the balance, which in practice means only allowing slogans chosen by the reformist leadership.
Neither group can ever hope to lead the present protest movement out of its current impasse. What is needed is the vision, and leadership, that can utilize a variety of tactics in order to broaden and deepen the current protests, and most importantly to push it beyond the limited aim of a rerun of the latest election. We have seen the seeds of this broader movement in the slogans that here and there have surfaced, as discussed earlier. What is now needed are tactics that allow this passage through the mountain passes ahead; to transform the seeds of a movement into a movement proper. I will summarize a few points that I believe needs addressing, without in any way claiming that these are exhaustive.
First, it is important to realize that at this juncture the reformists do impart an umbrella that provides relative safety for the broader opposition. The fact that the regime cannot slaughter its errant “children” (what it used to call the khodiha – insiders) with the same equanimity and savagery that it can outsiders is witnessed by the scale of the repression now compared to previous waves. A vigilant radical leadership will use this umbrella, without falling under its shadow, and only for as long as it provides a cover. But a radical leadership will pursue its own independent program and push the movement towards adoption of tactics that will ensure its deepening and strengthening.
One such is the linking of the various social movements, women, nationalities, religious, etc with the current protest movement. One of the gravest error of the reformist leadership was to ignore everything but the “vote”. Demands that relate to these democratic rights should be incorporated in the current struggle allowing a broader section of society to participate.
Thirdly, a key movement that is currently boiling over with anger is the working class movement – a movement that is fighting for its very survival in the face of neo-liberal policies of mass layoffs. There has been little, or no, effort in linking the post-election protest movement with the nationwide working class protests which have been escalating over the last two months. Physical and material support for the protesting and striking workers is vital – and vital now. It was the combination of massive street demonstrations and general strike that broke the back of the Shah. Radicals within the protest movement should be aiming towards a general strike by supporting and deepening the present dispersed working class struggles.
Fourth, the massive unemployment in the country also means that there is a large constituency of the poor, those living on the margins of society in the countless shanty towns surrounding our major cities. The inflation pressures these millions more that any other group, and increasing unemployment constantly adds to their number. These people essentially organize at the neighbourhood level and have been over the years in continuous fight with the state for their share of life. Their battle is mainly in the basket of consumption, avoiding taxes, trying to get services such as electricity and water free, roads etc. Their main form of struggle is in the streets. Their ongoing everyday struggles for survival must be linked with the general movement for democracy. These people played an important role in the 1979 revolution. They can do so again.
Fifth, no real use has been made of the weapon of civil disobedience. For a state desperate for legitimacy, this is a very powerful weapon. A universal campaign to stop paying for water, electricity, municipal tax etc will greatly weaken the state. These too can be organised at the local as well as national level and is another important school for self-organisation.
The use of mass street demonstrations needs to be rationalised. To expect millions to march day in day out shows a poverty of tactics. People will do so only if each day brings out more people than the day before. Otherwise you expose the bravest and most radical of the protestors to arrest and worse. The successful Quds-day demonstration (Friday September 18) showed that chosen wisely, the regime is disarmed from massive repression of demonstrators. The time to call people on to the streets is when they are expected to be in the streets, but steam out with their own independent slogans.
The protest movement has been internationalized, but sadly a large section of its real constituency, the left and progressive forces abroad, are sunk in the mud with a simplistic third-worldist “anti-imperialism” lacking class content. It is truly pathetic to see support for a regime whose president communicates with a ghost that died 1100 years ago, whose regime sacks workers in their millions as part of a neo-liberal privatization policy, whose security forces shoot down peaceful demonstrators. Article after article shows the utter poverty of ideas, the disastrous notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  There is a saying in Iran “we have little hope of any help from you. At the very least stop harming us”.
 The Iranian left abroad has a clear duty to teach some of its comrades the truths about Iran, help them out of their theoretical cocoon and gain their active support for a principled opposition.
 During a televised visit to a home Ahmadinejad claimed that during his speech to the UN General Council a halo surrounded him. He has repeatedly said that he is in direct contact with the 12th Shi’a imam Mahdi, occulted in the tenth century AE and whose reappearance will herald the day of judgment.
 Article 5 of the constitution describes this as: During the Occultation of the vali al-asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the vilayah and leadership of the ummah devolve upon the just (‘adil) and pious (muttaqi) faqih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107.
 Ardeshir Mehrdad and Mehdi Kia: Regime crisis and the new conservatives, Weekly Worker September 8, 2005 and www.iran-buletin.org. http://www.iran-bulletin.org/IB-MEF-3/presidentialelections_edited.htm
 the regime ultimately accepted up to 3 million fraudulent votes – not enough to upset their safe margin of “victory”
 It is believed that virgin girls will automatically go to heaven whatever their “sins”.
 Article 2 of the constitution: The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in: The One God (as stated in the phrase "There is no god except Allah"), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands;
 Marchers were instructed to march in silence to keep within the supposed constitutional permission of the “right” to peaceful protest.
 See Yassamine Mather http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/782/misogynist.php
 See Asef Bayat. Street politics. Columbia University Press , New York 1997.
 See for example http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/sep2009/iran-s21.shtml
 Ma ra ze kheire to omidi nist, shar maresan
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