By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Jan 8, 2018 (with postscripts)
Many readers of Western news media will be perplexed over reports of the wave of social protests which broke out in Iran on December 28 and lasted for one week. The media welcomed the protests. It echoed the daggered messaging of Western governments by flavouring its coverage with expectations that the protests could lead to a movement to overthrow the Iranian government. But nothing of the sort happened.
So what has taken place in Iran and what can we read from the varying reactions internationally?
Numerous reports describe a difficult economic situation in Iran. Some explain how continued U.S. economic sanctions have worsened matters for working class Iranians. As in Venezuela, there are debilitating consequences for the country from the sharp decline in world oil prices which began in 2014; government budgets in both countries are heavily dependent on oil revenues–excessively dependent argue many critics.
The economic policy choices of the Iranian government are debated and challenged within the country. Iranians are living difficult conditions of double-digit unemployment and inflation and big regional variations in economic conditions. They watch as the wealthy classes have profited from the economy through privilege or corruption (similar to conditions in Western countries though on a smaller scale). Working class people are struggling to make ends meet while middle class Iranians are unhappy with the lack of prospects for economic advancement.
All this is accentuated, purposely so, by continued economic sanctions by Europe and North America.
Informed news reports compiled on the ‘World news’ newsroll of A Socialist In Canada describe some of these conditions. Here are several of them:
- Iran protests mean economic dilemma for government, by Andrew Torchia, Reuters, Jan 1, 2018
- Massive protests erupt in Iran against sanctions and unending poverty, by Vijay Prashad, Jan 3, 2018
Mazda Majidi has written a valuable summary of the situation in Iran in a January 3 article in Liberation (newspaper of the Party of Socialism and Liberation in the U.S.). He writes:
… The major axes of domestic struggle in recent years have dealt with the size of the social safety net, the potential relaxation of religious laws, the approach to ethnic and religious minorities, as well as economic development strategies. On foreign policy, major struggles have been waged on how much to confront the United States and directly engage in regional conflicts.
Protests are uncommon but not unprecedented in Iran. In recent years, protests have taken place on a number of issues, usually local in character, but in some cases in several cities, as with the protests against ethnic chauvinism, which carried on without major incident. The initial protests in the current wave likewise did not result in the deployment of the Revolutionary Guard, or meet repression until some protesters openly called to overthrow the Islamic Republic, and escalated into physical confrontation with the state. These can be understood as the Iranian state’s “red lines” in the toleration of the protests. [End citation.]
No less than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the country on December 29 that the economic grievances of the population are serious and protests against the government’s economic policies are understandable and legitimate. The gravity of the political situation is underlined by the violence of some protests and the fact that at least 20 people were killed in clashes with police.
Western hostility to the Iranian people
The drive of Western governments to overthrow Iran’s government is unrelenting and is therefore a fundamental backdrop to understanding the current conditions. Donald Trump is threatening to rip up the 2015 political/economic agreement with Iran whereby the West was supposed to normalize its relations, including ending economic sanctions (Wikipedia). The U.S. has not relaxed sanctions. The people of Iran only have to look at Saudi Arabia’s war, backed by the U.S., against the people of Yemen to see how close they are to U.S. regime-change violence in their own country.
The U.S., Canada and Europe never restored full diplomatic relations following Iran’s popular revolution in 1979 which overthrew the despotic monarchy of Shah (‘King’) Reza Pahlavi. In the case of Canada, it aped its U.S. ally by closing its embassy in Tehran in 2012 and joining the U.S. that year in declaring the Iranian government a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
Western hostility was born of hatred and revenge for the 1979 Revolution. It overthrew the Shah, a U.S. client who was installed in 1953 through a violent, CIA-backed coup d’état against the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (Wikipedia). Although the Islamic Republic (the formal name was approved in a referendum vote in April 1979) is founded on a capitalist economy and has implemented strict social codes infringing women’s rights (paradoxically, these are typical conditions for U.S. backing), the 1979 revolution set the stage over time for significant social improvements for the population of the country. Peasants won land reform. Women’s status has improved, notwithstanding conservative social codes enforced by government. Poverty rates have declined and there is coexistence (albeit uneasy) with the national minorities including the Kurds which were harshly repressed under Shah Pahlavi.
Mazda Majidi explains further in his aforementioned article that the economic situation in Iran is not as dire as Western media would have us believe:
… The World Bank, which can hardly be accused of having a pro-Iran bias, writes: “The Iranian economy bounced back sharply in 2016 at an estimated 6.4 percent. Latest data available for the first half of the Iranian calendar year 2016 (ending in March 2017) suggest that the Iranian economy grew at an accelerated pace of 9.2 percent (year over year) in the second quarter.” This is hardly an economy that is about to collapse.
Prior to the revolution, according to UN data, 55 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, the World Bank states: “Poverty is estimated to have fallen from 13.1 per cent to 8.1 per cent between 2009 and 2013.” [End citation.]
Furthering angering the West is Iran’s longstanding defense of the national rights of the Palestinian people, its defense of the Syrian government in the face of the U.S.-led drive to overthrow it beginning in 2011-12, and, more recently, Iran’s opposition to the brutal war in Yemen being waged by the autocracy in Saudi Arabia. The U.S., Canada and the countries of the European Union back the Saudi dictatorship and permit the sale of vast quantities of weapons to it.
Left-wing disarray ever since the 1979 revolution in Iran
The latest protests have seen a repeat of voices from Iran or of Iranian descent joining the Western chorus calling for the violent overthrow of the Iranian government. Typically, these calls are sounded by Iranians who have emigrated or are living in exile.
Several small left-wing media outlets in Canada (The Bullet) and Australia (Green Left Weekly) recently published a collection of three writings by Iranians making such a case. One is a statement by the Tudeh Party, once a party with a very large following in Iran which called itself communist and looked to the Soviet Union for direction. The Tudeh statement reads, “The way to save the country is through a joint and organized mobilisation of all the national, anti-dictatorship and freedom-loving forces to abolish the despotic and anti-people theocratic regime of the Supreme Leadership.”
All three of the published writings are couched in left-wing language yet they fail to call for an end to Western sanctions against Iran and they fail to point to the serious consequences for the people should Donald Trump succeed in his threats to tear up the 2015 normalization agreements. The statement of the ‘International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran’ argues “what has taken place between U.S. imperialism and its allies and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran and its allies has no progressive sides.”
CounterPunch offered up an article on January 5 in which a writer of Iranian origin hit out against an unnamed “Western left” because the said left is wrong to warn of imperialist regime-change designs on Iran similar to those which inflicted such catastrophic damage to Iraq, Libya and Syria. The writer expresses indifference to the concerns. “The communicative content of the uprising of the Iranian people is very simple: People want basic rights, and they want the state to stop incinerating national riches to mass slaughter people in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere…” This is a derogatory slight against the internationalist outlook of the average Iranian and highlights the narrow views of the writer.
Such views which downplay the threats and actual measures by imperialism against the Iranian people are a product of the left-wing disarray which issued from the 1979 revolution. For two years following February 1979, a sharp struggle took place in Iran over competing visions for the future of the country. There were large, left-wing movements that advocated one variant or another of a socialist, egalitarian society. But they were defeated and suppressed amidst much violence. In retrospect, there was no ‘socialist’ or ‘workers’ revolution on the immediate agenda, which much of the Iranian left advocated at the time. Yet the left acted on such assumptions while correspondingly paying less attention to actual, realizable goals. The tasks of nation-building and socio-economic development appear less heroic than ‘socialist revolution’, but they need to be the mainstay of left-wing policy, including because they open the door to eventual, full-fledged socialist development.
The large (at the time) Tudeh Party went on to support the pro-capitalist government which consolidated power after 1981. Another large left-wing formation, the Fedayeen, moved in a similar direction, provoking a split by a sizable minority. Fedayeen was particularly strong among students and young people at the time of the revolution. One of its former activists, Yassamine Mather, published a valuable memoire in 2012 of her experience. Included in it is this assessment: “It is not, therefore, a question of the February  revolution being hijacked [by Islamists] more the fact that the left was simply not prepared for it. In a way, it is a good job that the left did not come to power, because it had no plans, no politics, no strategy and definitely no theory about what to do.”
A cruel war intended to destroy the Iranian Revolution was begun by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1980. He was acting as a proxy of the West. The war divided Iran’s left-wing forces. Many rallied to defend the country and the democratic gains of 1979, while others were indifferent or, worse, believed the overthrow of the government by the West or its proxies would be a good thing (not unlike the beliefs of fringe leftists today).
What, exactly, have been the achievements of the 1979 Revolution? Could its descent into fratricidal violence during the 1980s have been curbed or limited? Historians need to revisit such questions with fresh insights. Iranians themselves have much to teach the outside world. Meanwhile, how can democratic and social progress go forward in Iran? Surely the most important duty of international observers, including Iranians living abroad, is to campaign to end the threats and sanctions by the West against the Iranian government.
A case study of the difficulty in placing anti-sanctions campaigning at the center of solidarity activity with the Iranian people comes from protests which took place in Toronto and Vancouver on January 6. According to news reports, the protests were attended by “dozens” of people. Yet each city is home to tens of thousands of people of Iranian descent. The rallies were dominated by calls by their most vocal participants for the overthrow of the Iranian government. The Vancouver rally saw condemnations and pushing and shoving between monarchists and ‘leftist’ advocates of regime change. There were tensions with some of the student initiators of the rally who had said in advance they oppose Western sanctions against Iran.
The Iranian people and their friends and supporters abroad all face the same challenges: how to shift the world off its present, dangerous path and build the grandest coalition history has ever known, in order to eliminate the triple scourge threatening humanity: imperialist war and militarism, growing social inequities, and a global warming emergency.
 See this 2016 academic essay: Women in Higher Education in Iran, by Meredith Katherine Winn, Pepperdine University (California), January 2016 (read here in pdf format: Women in Higher Education in Iran, Jan 2016); and this news article: Iranian labor market on path to gender transformation, by Maysam Bizaer, Al-Monitor, Aug 17, 2017.
 Yassamine Mather is currently the chairperson of the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran. The group’s statement of Jan 2, 2018 concerning the protests in Iran is largely directed at those who believe Iran is worse off today than under the despotic Shah. Its argument is rambling and self-contradicting. It reads, “… the Islamic Republic is in many ways even more corrupt than the Shah’s Iran. But we live in different times…” The best the statement offers by way of countering monarchists is an argument that the Shah’s regime was “no better” than the Islamic Republic. The statement refers to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “dictator”.
* In jab at rivals, Iranian president Rouhani says Iran protests about more than economy, by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Reuters, Jan 8, 2018 [This article is a rare glimpse by Western media into the nuance and complexity of politics in Iran.]
* Deeper into the ‘leftist’ regime-change mire over Iran.
[The leftist publications cited in my original article on January 8 as publishing material in suport of the violent overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran are doubling down on their stands.
[The small, left-wing journal published online in Canada, The Bullet, has published a commentary on January 9, 2017 which concludes thusly: “The possibility of overthrowing of a reactionary structure like the Islamic Republic with the uprising of the masses does not only provide the prospect of freedom for the masses in Iran, but also may pave the way for the overthrow of other reactionary structures in the Middle East. Eventually, it may open the road to a real struggle against imperialism and Zionism in the region.” All very ‘leftist’ in its phrasing; all very dangerous in its call for the violent overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fortunately, the people of Iran, having observed the carnage in Libya and Syria in recent years, can be expected to ignore the dangerous ‘leftists’.
[Green Left Weekly in Australia reports favorably on January 10 about a small “solidarity” rally which took place in Sydney on January 6. The article cites one of the organizers of the event: “[Mansour] Razaghi said people were continuing to protest with the demand to ‘overthrow the regime’. He said, like the former Shah, who was deposed in 1979, the regime is relying on the military to cling to power.” A represnetative of Socialist Alliance, which publishes Green Left Weekly, gave greetings to the rally.
[CounterPunch, too, is doubling down. It publishes an article on January 10 by a blogger and regular CounterPunch contributor in the U.S. who is notorious for his support to regime change in Syria. The article concludes, “If anything, I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people [in Iran] to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain.”]
What were the Iran protests really about?, op-ed commentary by Peter Loewen, Janice Goss Stein, Farhaan Ladhani, published in The Globe and Mail, Jan 27, 2018
… Using a unique online platform that allows individuals to anonymously share their opinion, we surveyed 1,054 Iranian adults between Jan. 5 and 9.
… We found that support for the protests is thin. Only 27 per cent of respondents agreed that they supported them; 45 per cent disagreed. Three in 10 neither agreed nor disagreed. The protesters and their supporters are still very much in the minority.
What drives support among the minority who do back the protests? Our results suggest three factors matter: a lack of confidence in the government, a belief that corruption is rampant and, in a result that surprised us, a belief that life was better before the revolution. Our survey data do not support the argument that those among the Iranian public who are sympathetic to the protesters are motivated in an important way by anger about inequality…
Iran’s drought and water crisis:
* A long-simmering factor in Iran protests: climate change, by Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim, LA Times, Jan 17, 2018
* The visible effects of climate change in Iran, by Bryan Walsh, TIME Magazine, April 5, 2017
* As drought grips Iran, farmers lament loss of a way of life, by Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim, LA Times, Sept 28, 2016
* Iran official warns water crisis could lead to mass migration, by Arash Karami, Al-Monitor, April 28, 2015