Revolution #189, January 17, 2010
Fearless Upsurge Rocks Iran
One eyewitness described part of central Tehran as looking like a "war zone" with "shattered glass everywhere, dozens of overturned and smoldering garbage cans, several burned-out cars, and the skeletons of a couple dozen police motorcycles." As in some previous demonstrations, the protestors showed that they are no longer fearful of the security forces or plainclothes vigilantes despite the threats of harsh treatment that were issued prior to the year's most important day of mourning for Shi'ites. But this time at least some went one step further and showed that they are angry enough to engage in street battles. And the security forces—commanded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since the immediate post-election demonstrations—showed, in turn, that they are unable to control the crowds despite their use, in some cases, of lethal force that, according to the government's own numbers, left at least eight people dead.
"Whither Iran?" Farideh Farhi, December 31, 2009, Inter Press Service
In some parts of Tehran, protesters pushed the police back, hurling rocks and capturing several police cars and motorcycles, which they set on fire. Videos posted to the Internet showed scenes of mayhem, with trash bins burning and groups of protesters attacking Basij militia volunteers amid a din of screams. One video showed a group of protesters setting an entire police station aflame in Tehran. Another showed people carrying off the body of a dead protester, chanting, "I'll kill, I'll kill the one who killed my brother."
New York Times, December 28, 2009
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Iran's Islamic Republic (IRI) has been escalating its savage, all-around campaign to crush a mass uprising of the Iranian people which continues to shake their reactionary rule. There have been waves of struggle alternating with periods of intense calm. In late December this uprising roared back even more powerfully than before.
Leading up to the major Shi'ite religious commemorations of Muharram culminating in Ashura on December 28, the Islamic Republic threatened severe consequences for anyone who dared to protest against the government. And people in Iran know that this can mean death, imprisonment, or torture. The government deployed thousands of its armed enforcers—the police, the Basij militia, the Revolutionary Guards. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Iranians still turned out for the most massive, defiant, and determined anti-regime demonstrations since the current uprising began in June, following the apparent theft of the presidential election by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The regime's forces set on people with tear gas, batons and chains, beating them "relentlessly," as one witness described. Government forces smashed the windows of cars driven by people who were honking in solidarity with the protests. There were reports that protesters were stabbed or suffered skull fractures. At times, the regime's militias fired live ammunition directly into the crowds, killing an estimated 37 people (and perhaps more) and injuring many more. All told some 1,500 were arrested.
But the day wasn't only marked by the Islamic theocracy's brutality. On Ashura and the days before, thousands stood up to these savage assaults and, more often than before, fought back. Videos show demonstrators refusing to back down in the face of brutal repression. Witnesses described parts of Tehran as "covered in thick smoke from fires and tear gas," and "the scene of hand-to-hand combat between security forces and the protesters." Protests and street battles were also reported in other major cities. (New York Times, December 29, 2009)
According to the Communist Party of Iran (MLM), more than a million people all over Iran took part, with several hundred thousand scattered in Tehran alone. The slogans and mood were more radical than before, with demonstrators walking over and sometimes burning pictures of Supreme Leader Khamenei and chanting "This is the month of blood, Khamenei will be overthrown."
Radicalization—and Moving Beyond the "Green Wave"
The struggle in Iran remains complex, contradictory, and rapidly changing. Many different forces are contending for leadership and shaping events.
Iran's uprising began with the demand, "where's my vote." People felt the election had been stolen and candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had won. At that point the protest movement was dominated by the "Green Wave" (Green for Islam), led by Mousavi and the other failed presidential candidates. All were former high-ranking officials who remain ideologically and politically committed to Islamic rule. However, they've come into sharp conflict with the forces currently in power, grouped around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the top leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, over how to best preserve the IRI. Mousavi argues the IRI should be reformed and re-legitimized, repressive Islamist laws and moral codes loosened and attempts be made to normalize relations with the West—not confront it. This is an attempt to retain the legitimacy of the IRI.
In a statement put out shortly after the Ashura protests, Mousavi acknowledged that he had not called or led the protests, and criticized the "unacceptable radicalism" of some protesters. And he also tacitly acknowledged the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's government—a huge concession to these reactionaries that spit on the blood shed by the Iranian people fighting this criminal regime—while putting forward a program for healing the divisions in the ruling class.
It was clear that a significant segment of Iranian society has been radicalized over the past seven months, and is more willing to stand and fight the regime. Sections of the people are becoming increasingly alienated from Iran's current ruling clique and from the core principles of Islamic rule and the Islamic Republic itself. The spirit and slogans of the Ashura demonstrations showed that Mousavi and the "Green Wave" are not as dominant in setting the terms for the opposition.
One Iranian observer described scenes that might indicate that religious rituals and fundamentalism are beginning to lose their grip on a section of people within those demonstrating. "For the first time in many years, thousands went to the streets during Ashura without relying on religious methods and costumes and without the blessing of Ayatollahs. According to Shi'ism, Ashura is supposed to be a day of mourning for Imam Hussein. But they didn't do ritual flagellation (hitting themselves on their heads, cutting themselves to draw blood, or symbolically whipping their backs to show their piety). Instead, they turned the day into an occasion to rise up against the regime."
Meanwhile, many thousands took part in ritual processions, or alternated religious chants with those directed against the regime, or combined the two.
The participation of women is a key element in the broadening, deepening and radicalization of protest. Women are increasingly on the front lines of the battle. And on Ashura, for the first time since the election, many women protested without wearing head scarves or hejabs. This new development in the uprising is one reason women were singled out for vicious attacks by the regime.
This rebellion, and women's deep involvement, is challenging core tenets, social relations, and moral codes which the Islamic Republic is based on—including the oppression and suppression of women. "The authority of the regime, in fact, came to hinge on its success in policing sexual morality," Ziba Mir-Hosseini writes. "Women's ‘rights' were only those granted them by the rulings of Islamic jurists, and relations between the sexes—in private as well as in public—were strictly confined by red lines set in old jurisprudential texts. An official gender policy and culture were instituted, epitomized by compulsory head covering for women, which high-ranking clerics such as Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi called the ‘culture of hejab.'" So women joining the front lines of the battle is one major element threatening to delegitimize, undermine and unravel all of that. "Iranians of today, from both genders, all classes and all parts of the country, have rejected or at least questioned many of the gender codes and sexual taboos firmly enforced by the Islamic Republic over the past 30 years." ("Broken Taboos in Post-Election Iran," MERIP, December 17, 2009)
The IRI's decision to open fire on protesters could further erode their legitimacy, as Ashura has traditionally been a day of non-violence. All this is bringing out more clearly that the Islamic Republic is a clerical dictatorship representing the interests of the exploiting classes—backed up by brute force. And maintaining this dictatorship means more to these reactionary clerics than any religious strictures.
There are also signs that revulsion against the regime's naked violence has spread the revolt to other segments of the population, including working people and many with a variety of more traditional, religious and conservative outlooks. On December 22, 500 workers protested during a speech by Ahmadinejad—"We have no bread to eat," their banner read. A laborer from south Tehran told the New York Times, "People in my neighborhood have been going to the Ashura rituals every night with green fabric for the first time. They have been politicized recently, because of the suppression this month." (New York Times, December 24 and 28, 2009)
The forces around Ahmadinejad and Khamenei recognize that they are facing a revolt with the potential to threaten their rule and develop into a revolt against the very existence of the Islamic regime itself—and they have reacted accordingly. On Ashura, the regime's security forces assassinated Mousavi's nephew (whose body was confiscated to prevent his funeral from turning into an outbreak against the regime). Two days after the Ashura protests, dozens of prominent journalists, activists, students and others were arrested in a crackdown the New York Times (December 30) called "the largest since June." Some protesters arrested during Ashura are being charged with "warring against god," a charge which carries an automatic death sentence (a charge used to justify the slaughter of thousands of political prisoners during the 1980s).
And on December 30, the regime—which still has an extensive social base—organized demonstrations of tens of thousands of its supporters to defend the IRI's rule and uphold its violent suppression of the protests.
What About the United States?
U.S. ruling class figures from Obama to hardcore rightwingers have spoken out against the "violent and unjust suppression" of the protests by the IRI, and in support of Iran's protesters. "For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights," President Obama declared on December 29. "Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days."
But is the U.S. really about befriending the Iranian people and supporting liberation?
Iran is a large, very strategically-located, and oil-rich country that has been the object of imperial invasions, conquest, and intrigue for over 100 years. From 1953, when it installed the murderous tyrant Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on the throne in Iran through a CIA-directed coup, until the Shah was overthrown by the Iranian people in 1979, the U.S. exerted direct imperialist domination of Iran—militarily, politically and economically. The 1979 revolution was a serious blow to U.S. power in the Middle East, but the U.S. tried to limit the damage, prevent the further radicalization and deepening of the 1979 revolution, and maneuver to recoup their losses by behind-the-scenes support for the clerical takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters and the establishment of the Islamic Republic (which soon massacred thousands of genuine revolutionaries and communists).
In the decades since, the U.S. has tried to weaken the Islamic Republic and contain its regional influence. Following September 11, 2001, the Bush regime embarked on a far reaching "war on terror," which aimed to defeat Islamic fundamentalism as an anti-U.S. force, overthrow regimes standing in the way of U.S. objectives in the Middle East-Central Asian regions, and radically restructure this whole swath of the planet in order to solidify and deepen U.S. imperial dominance. In this context, Iran was declared part of the "axis-of-evil" and the U.S. adopted a strategy of regime change to overthrow the Islamist clerics in Tehran and install a pro-U.S. regime.
The U.S. has not been able to quickly make the sweeping regional changes they attempted. But they have never given up their objective of maintaining and strengthening U.S. imperialist dominance of the Middle East. And they have increasingly seen Iran as a big obstacle and problem because it contributes to anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism overall; because its regional needs and objectives clash with the U.S.'s; and because its pursuit of nuclear power and possible building of nuclear weapons (or at least developing that capability) threatens a significant shift in regional power unacceptable to the U.S. and threatens its key client in the region—Israel.
During George W. Bush's second term and now under Obama, the U.S. has attempted to come up with a strategy to deal with Iran (including considering military strikes), while intensifying political, economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the Islamic Republic. This has been focused on pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program, but is also part of a strategy to weaken the regime, perhaps topple it, but in any case end up with more compliant, pro-U.S. forces in power in Tehran. This debate has become more intense and pressing as Iran has continued to pursue its uranium enrichment program, despite big power demands that it stop.
The uprising in Iran has weakened the IRI, and given rise to sharp debates in the U.S. ruling class over how to best achieve their strategic objectives in this new, unexpected situation. Some have seized on this weakness to argue that military strikes could topple the regime. Others argue not so fast: the current protests won't topple the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei crew, so best cut a deal with them. (See, for instance, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, "Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely," New York Times, January 6)
None of this is in the interest of the people of the world.
The courage and determination shown by millions of Iranian people is truly inspiring. It is important that people in the U.S. step up—and make visible and vocal—their opposition to maneuvering or attacks on the part of the U.S. government. And at the same time, we must stand with the just struggle of the Iranian people against their oppressors, and especially the efforts of the more radical and revolutionary forces within the movement.
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