Revolution #169, June 28, 2009

Roots of the Iranian Uprising:

"A Society Drowning in Corruption, Destruction, Superstition, Dark Religious Ignorance, Drug Addiction and Prostitution"

When the results of Iran's presidential election were announced on the night of June 12, barely three to four hours after the polls had closed, millions of Iranians were shocked. Incumbent—and widely hated—President Ahmadinejad was supposedly re-elected by a 63 to 33 percent margin. Millions were outraged by what they felt was a blatant theft of the election—a coup many called it—and massive street protests began almost immediately.

As many forms of protest erupted, eyewitnesses reported that anti-regime sentiments were being openly expressed by more and more people, even beyond outrage at what was widely perceived as a stolen election: "....a huge and growing part of the people no longer have trust or faith in the regime. People who had not yet voiced any response to the political situation clearly shouted, 'Death to Khamenei,' a slogan seldom if ever heard before at any protest in Iran." ("Iran—a power structure cracked but far from swept away," A World To Win News Service [AWTWNS]), 6/22/09).

Many forces are in the field, including those loyal to and looking to reform the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). And many of those in the streets look to those forces as a positive alternative to the intolerable status quo, and are raising the green banner of Islam (for more in-depth analysis of the various forces involved in the current situation in Iran, see "Uprising in Iran," by V.T. at

At the same time, there are also more radical forces, and big questions are being debated and struggled over. Among those involved in the protests, there is an exhilarating atmosphere of challenging things that have been accepted for years, and urgent debate over the way forward. For a revealing and very unique snapshot of this atmosphere, I highly recommend readers read—and circulate—the article "Saturday, Azadi Street, Tehran," from A World To Win New Service (6/22/09, available at

These heroic and just protests, which have gone on for over two weeks at this writing, have been met with vicious and escalating repression, including threats, beatings, torture and murder by the IRI. Students from Tehran University who were arrested write that their prison conditions—which included sexual assault, beatings, and withholding food and water—were "worse than Guantanamo." Journalists are being harassed, arrested, and expelled from Iran in an effort to suppress news coverage. Opposition newspapers and websites are being shut down and supporters rounded up and imprisoned, with reports that some are being tortured to force them to "confess" to being part of a "foreign plot." (Guardian UK, 6/26)

"Witnesses are telling us that the Basijis are trashing entire streets and even neighborhoods as well as individual homes, trying to stop the nightly rooftop protest chants," a Human Rights Watch representative stated. (BBC, 6/27).

Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami, a leading cleric (unrelated to former President Khatami), threatened to execute protestors in a nationally broadcast sermon on Friday, June 26, declaring they should be "dealt with without mercy," because they were opposing the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who is supposedly anointed by God to rule and must be obeyed, making any who rebel against him "at war with God."

Behind the Anger and Outrage

The widely perceived theft of the election was the immediate trigger for this outpouring of anger and mass defiance. But more fundamentally, Iran's mass uprising is being propelled by the suppressed rage of millions of Iranians at the suffocating and oppressive character of life in the IRI, life marked by what the Communist Party of Iran (MLM) calls a "society drowning in corruption, destruction, superstition, dark religious ignorance, drug addiction and prostitution." (CPIMLM) communiqué no 6: "People Beware! Mousavi is not your brother and he is not on your side!")

The roots of these conditions lie in a whole history, and present-day reality, of a world dominated by imperialism—by a system driven to maximize profit through exploitation, whose logic and political and economic relations are enforced through systemic brutality and oppression. You could spin the globe, point to any country on it, and discover a legacy of imperialist invasions, coups, puppet regimes, torture chambers, death squads, and repression to enforce those relations, and this is certainly the case with Iran. With its massive oil reserves, and strategic geopolitical location, Iran has long been in the crosshairs of imperialist powers—the British until World War 2, and then mainly the U.S.

Until 1978, imperialist domination of Iran took the form of the rule of the Shah, a tyrannical monarch who had been installed by the U.S. CIA in a coup in 1953 and remained a loyal client throughout his reign. Widely hated by Iranians, the Shah remained in power, including thanks in large measure to SAVAK, his U.S.-trained secret police.

In 1978, a revolutionary wave drawing in millions of Iranians swept across Iran. The Shah initially tried to drown the revolution in blood—murdering thousands on one day—"Bloody Friday"—in September.

Little as this is known, the coming to power of the current regime was in significant ways facilitated by the U.S. When it became clear the Shah's massacres were backfiring, the U.S. made a call that their best option, under the circumstances, was to facilitate the coming to power of the forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The U.S. judged these Islamic forces to be a better bet for maintaining U.S. imperialist domination of the region, than allowing the revolution to develop.

I was in Iran shortly after the revolution and again in 1980, reporting for Revolution (then the Revolutionary Worker), and I saw the Islamic Republic being consolidated with the kind of violent attacks on the regime's opponents we're witnessing today. A flowering of political activity and debate had mushroomed in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution, evidenced by rallies involving tens of thousands, radical and revolutionary literature covering sidewalks, and a host of other political activities. This situation had the potential to develop into a revolutionary movement that actually broke the chains of imperialist domination.

The forces around Khomeini served, under the circumstances, the interests of imperialism. These forces were not a perfect fit for their interests, but they did violently crush radical and revolutionary political forces, and brutally repress sections of the people—like women—whose demands came up against the political, economic, social and cultural structures and traditions that enforced the old order. During my trips I saw the regime set about crushing its opponents and consolidating its power. Scenes today recall those images—pipe-wielding thugs from Iran's Hezbollah (the "party of God") attacking those who were opposed to an Islamic theocracy—from bourgeois and Islamic democrats to revolutionary communists assaulting demonstrations, then arresting and murdering thousands of communists and other opponents of the regime during the 1980s. Then, as now, women were a prime target of the violently patriarchal Islamic clerics.

Since then, repression and tight control of the state's many armed police and security organizations and extreme, religiously sanctioned punishments have been prime elements in the Islamic Republic's survival. And, as I have outlined, U.S. imperialism, including its current president Barack Obama, is responsible for the fundamental conditions that created this situation. They have no right to shed crocodile tears or express outrage over all this—it has been the workings of their system, both its exploitative nature and conscious U.S. political policies in service of that, which fundamentally created these conditions, even as the U.S. now finds these forces an obstacle and threat to their economic, political and military objectives in the region.

Growing Discontent

Today discontent and alienation over the suffocating, repressive, dead-end and obscurantist—or Dark Ages—character of Islamic rule has been rising particularly among the young, especially those in urban areas and in particular among students and women. All this has been reflected in the slogans of today's protests: death to dictatorship, freedom of thought, freedom or death, and the widespread demand for an end to press, artistic, and intellectual censorship and suppression. And it reflects huge social, political and economic changes—in the world and in Iran—Iran's urbanization (where 70 percent of the people now live), its youth (over 60 percent are under 30), and wider access to education than before—including for women.

The regime has intensified its punishment of those who get out of line. Last year in Iran there were at least 346 executions (including by hanging), the second highest number in the world according to Amnesty International. On one day alone—July 27, 2008—29 people were hung in Iran for alleged crimes including armed robbery, selling drugs, and even drinking alcohol and possessing ammunition. (Telegraph 7/27/08).

Workers', students', and women's protests are routinely attacked and suppressed. Anyone arrested or detained faces a cleric-controlled judiciary in which proceedings are often secret, where defendants have few rights or access to lawyers, and "the world learns of [detainee's] fate only if a verdict happens to be announced on state TV." (AP, 6/26).

The Oppression of Women

A tremendous and powerful force that is emerging through the uprising and protests in Iran is opposition to the oppression of women, including large numbers of women in the streets. The IRI has imposed Islamic sharia law, codified legal discrimination—really apartheid—against women, reimposed a host of medieval strictures and punishments, and denied women basic rights:

The suppression of women is a cornerstone—ideologically, politically and socially—of Islamic rule. "The ideal society of the Islamic fundamentalists is based on the total subordination of women to men at every level of society. The morality of their ideal society absolutely hinges on women knowing the role assigned to them as loyal sex objects of the men they belong to and actively producing offspring for them—especially of the male variety." (Statement from March 8 Women's Organization (Iran-Afghanistan), "For An Internationalist March 8--The International Women's Day; Revolutionary Women Cry Out: Revolution Is the Way Out for Humanity," Revolution #157, February 22, 2009,

"The compulsory hijab (veil) was imposed for women in public, with even slight violations bringing severe punishment (seventy-four lashes or a year's imprisonment)… Lashing, amputation, and stoning have been applied by the courts, with the latter punishment reserved for women convicted of adultery. The courts apply lighter sentences than previously for husbands, fathers, and brothers accused of 'honor killings.' There are even regulations against public displays of affection. Under Khomeini child marriage was allowed once more, with the age of marriage reduced from eighteen to nine for girls (revised, after protests, to thirteen) and fifteen for boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive husbands." ("Divided Iran on the Eve, Malise Ruthven, reviewing "Sexual Politics in Modern Iran," Janet Afary, New York Review of Books, 7/2/09)

Women found guilty of adultery or other offenses can be stoned to death—with the barbaric means for carrying out this sentence legally prescribed for maximum suffering: "Iran's Penal Code prescribes execution by stoning. It even dictates that the stones are large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately," Amnesty International reported on a day nine women and two men were awaiting stoning. "Article 102 of the Penal Code states that men should be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the purpose of execution by stoning. Article 104 states, with reference to the penalty for adultery, that the stones used should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones." ("Iran: Death by stoning, a grotesque and unacceptable penalty," Amnesty International, 1/5/09)

Women are also discriminated against in employment, and prevented from playing their full and rightful role in society, despite constituting some 60 percent of Iran's university students: "The fact is that 30 years after the revolution, women constitute only 15% of the formal sector paid labor force (that is, those entitled to paid holidays, maternity leave, pension, and other provisions of labor law). According to the results of the 1385/2006 Iranian census, only 3.5 million Iranian women are salaried workers, compared with 23.5 million men....The most recent Iranian census (1385/2006) shows that the female share of the labor force is less than 20%, considerably below the world average of 45%." ("Where Are Iran's Women?," Valentine M. Moghadam, The Iranian Revolution at 30, The Middle East Institute—, 2/10/09)

As the March 8 Women's Organization summed up after the regime's murder of Neda Agha-Soltan during the recent uprising, "Neda became target of the hatred of medieval Islamic System who cannot even tolerate the simple participation of women in society." (Statement of June 2009)

Social developments, including the impact of the revolution and the eight-year Iran-Iraq War as well as global changes generally, have raised tensions in Iranian society between the social position, experience, and aspirations of Iran's women and the regime's Islamic strictures. Women's literacy is over 95 percent, and most families want their daughters to get an education. The situation of women in Iran is a stark concentration of the nature of the regime. But, as with all the oppression people in that country face, the roots of this are found, again, in the global system of capitalism and imperialism, and the ways in which it integrates, and works through reactionary feudal forces, traditions, and social relations in countries dominated by imperialism.

Those who see the solution to the oppression of women coming from the West would be well served to look at the kind of "women's liberation" U.S. invasion, war, and death have brought to women in the U.S. puppet state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (yes, that is the official name of the U.S.-installed puppet regime), and the U.S.-installed Iraqi regime which has adopted Islam as the basis of government.

The "Statement from March 8 Women's Organization (Iran-Afghanistan): For An Internationalist March 8—The International Women's Day; Revolutionary Women Cry Out: Revolution Is the Way Out for Humanity" posed this:

"Pause and ask yourselves: what kind of society is this (in the world) that the subordination of half of humanity to the other half is one of its pillars and moral canons? What kind of world are we living in that from one end to the other, organized (state sanctioned) women's oppression and religious ignorance are used for maintaining "social coherence"? Honor killing, stoning to death and forced marriage in parts of the world like Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Kurdistan, and India are rampant, while hidden conjugal violence in the "civilized" West kills women in silence, and yet all this is said to have resulted from the "weakening of family values," "abortion," and the "weakening of religious beliefs"—these are all too pervasive features of our world.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is the most reactionary oppressive state that the women of Iran have experienced. But the imperialist ruling classes of the U.S. who are preparing new rounds of aggression and war in the Middle East are no better and their attempts to justify their crimes in the Middle East with hypocritical words about liberation of women is disgusting. They equally benefit from the oppression of women in the U.S. and around the world. In fact this oppression is built into their world capitalist system."

"Trade in women's flesh is accepted as another legitimate capitalist commodity to be bought and sold. Marx said capitalism generalizes prostitution. Indeed, we see that today. In Iran and Afghanistan, ruled by Islamic Republics, women are stoned to death for sleeping with the wrong man but prostitution is increasingly one of the most accessible jobs offered to women."

The IRI—A Reactionary Regime—And Not Anti-Imperialist At All

Some political trends in the U.S. and elsewhere argue that because of the IRI's conflicts with the U.S., it's an anti-imperialist regime. These forces echo accusations by the IRI that the source of the people's unrest is Western intrigue, and that the protests are an uprising of the privileged elite against the common people. These arguments are profoundly wrong and represent a complete misunderstanding of the nature of imperialism, the nature of the IRI, and the kind of genuinely liberatory radical change needed in Iran, and around the world.

It is true that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism poses a serious challenge to U.S. imperialist objectives. And Iran, a relatively stable and powerful Islamic Republic, has in many ways been at the epicenter of that challenge.

Today, the U.S. doesn't have the kind of tight grip on Iran that it did under the Shah, and, "due to a combination of factors, [Iran] has acquired greater maneuvering room and geopolitical reach. Chief among these factors are its extensive oil and natural gas reserves in combination with its coherent, ideologically driven, deeply rooted, and far reaching (within Iran and elements beyond, especially regionally) state institutions and structure." (See "An Assessment of the Momentum Towards War Between the United States and Iran: Causes and Potential Ramifications," available at, for a detailed analysis.)

But the basic reality is that Iran remains a dependent and oppressed nation within the framework of, and subordinate to, world imperialism (including many imperialist countries and other reactionary powers). Take Iran's very extensive oil and natural gas industries, over which it has relative control. The IRI has been able to wield its control of these industries and the revenues they generate (an estimated $70 billion last year) to enact various welfare measures (often aimed at cultivating a loyal social base) and subsidies (particularly for food and gasoline), which together with its extensive apparatus of social, economic, and political control has enabled it to maintain a tight grip on power.

These state sectors of Iran's economy are not an expression of national liberation. They sharply illustrate Iran's subordination to the world economy and the twisted and distorted economic and social relations that it spawns.  Iran's economy is still geared to producing oil for the world market (80 percent of its government revenue still comes from oil sales), so the global financial crisis and the wild swings in the world market and the price of oil have a major ripple effect in Iran. Even when oil prices and income have risen, they haven't always meant growth and rising incomes, but often inflation and greater inequality instead. Iran remains dependent on the imperialist world for the technology needed to expand and modernize its energy sector, so—in part due to U.S. sanctions—while Iran has the world's second largest natural gas and third largest oil reserves, it doesn't have the capacity to refine gasoline and produce enough natural gas for its domestic market, so it's forced to import them (making it subject to all manner of pressure by other countries and the vagaries of the market).

Because of this structural dependency on the "world market" (imperialism), the economic situation for Iranians has worsened in the last several years. Subsidies have been slashed; and inflation is now over 23 percent a year. Economic growth in 2009 will be less than half what it was in 2007. (NY Times, 6/10/09) Many factories have shut down and some 40 percent live below the poverty line.  "The official rate of unemployment has been 20%; among young people this figure stands at 40%. Every year, 250,000 graduates seek to enter the work force, but only 70,000 of them find work." ("Economic War Against the People: a Surge of Crisis and of Resistance," November issue of Haghighat, Number 36, Organ of the CPIMLM).

In short, in the form of the Islamic Republic, Iran's economy is profoundly enmeshed in the global networks of world capitalism-imperialism. And the social relations that exist in that country reflect and serve that, including the powerful role of feudal and religious fundamentalist forces and traditions.

With this understanding, one can appreciate how positive it is that sections of society with some access to education and culture are rebelling against the deadly, deadening, life-crushing Islamic fundamentalist morality and world outlook. This is a good thing.

It is true that absent a strong pole representing the oppressed with nothing to lose but their chains, acting as emancipators of humanity, with a revolutionary communist leadership, these forces and their demands will get pulled under the wing of this or that reformist trend—bourgeois democracy, attempts to find a moderate Islamic solution, or bouncing back and forth between the two. But that only indicates the need for revolutionary forces to embrace all this, and to lead; to put their arms around a wide, diverse, complex, and potentially very positive spectrum of sections of society rebelling against oppression in any form.

Imperialism—The Core of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution

During the current uprising, the U.S. rulers have posed as the friends of the Iranian people, supporters of their protest and struggle against repression and injustice. On June 23, President Barack Obama declared that he was "appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days," that he mourned "each and every innocent life that is lost," that the U.S. "respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran's affairs."

As I briefly sketched out earlier in this article, these are the words of the commander-in-chief of the world's dominant imperialist power, a power that in its quest for global hegemony directly dominated Iran for 25 bitter years under the Shah, and has tried to regain its grip on Iran ever since. Is Obama "appalled" by the fact that the U.S. fueled an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq and encouraging Saddam to use chemical weapons against Iran, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives)? No. Obama has never mentioned this. Obama claims to respect Iran's sovereignty, yet in 2001 and 2003 the U.S. empire he heads invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq—two countries right on Iran's borders.

Most essentially, the "solution" promised by "Western Democracy" is really the "solution" of bringing Iran more firmly under the domination of, and integrated into the networks of U.S. imperialism. But it is the very economic and social relations fundamentally dictated by imperialism that are at the heart of all the misery, poverty, brutal repression and dark-ages obscurantist oppression that the Iranian people are rising up against.

The world, and the people of Iran need, something far more liberating than either the horrors of Islamic fundamentalist rule, or the horrors U.S. imperialism brings to the world. And, as part of bringing forward another way, worldwide, it is essential to support the uprising of the Iranian people against the IRI's oppressive tyranny whatever twists and turns it goes through, and appreciating what a tremendous thing it is when millions seize on the openings created by divisions among the powers-that-be to step onto the political stage. And especially for people in the United States, it also means actively exposing and opposing the actions of our "own" rulers to shape events in Iran to further their imperialist interests.

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