beyond mousavi: the movement of the iranian masses

by David Broder

The explosion of popular defiance following the seemingly fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad marks a turning point in the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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While in the last two years there were strikes on the Tehran bus network and in isolated factories, as well as illegal student protests thousands strong, the post-election demonstrations were by far the greatest challenge to the authority of the Ayatollahs’ regime since it was established in 1979.

Whether or not it was the intention of defeated reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the only “outs”  for the regime’s hierarchy when he continued to encourage protests were either total capitulation or  to crack down hard in order to defend the very survival of the institutions of the Islamic Republic. Even though Mousavi is himself no radical, the very fact that he maintained his dissent after the Supreme Leader had approved the election of Ahmedinejad necessarily meant the assertion of some elementary democratic principles as against the values of the current regime.

This despite the fact that, as Ayatollah Khamenei remarked in a speech demanding an end to protests, everyone who voted had in fact voted for a variant of theocracy: since the candidates were vetted by the religious leadership and so it was impossible to vote against the regime as such.

Indeed, Mousavi was himself the Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989, presiding over the Iran-Iraq war as well as the butchering of many thousands of leftists as the Islamists cracked down on the workers’ movement which had played a central role in the overthrow of the Shah and so posed an unwelcome threat to the Ayatollahs’ monopoly of power. No democrat, Mousavi has been idolised in mainstream Western media as a liberal challenger to the existing order: but the real challenge emerges not from this particular individual, who many who usually boycott polls turned out for and who has a rather ‘light’ personal control over his supporters, but from the resistance of the masses themselves.

Of course, we have to be realistic in our assessment of this movement’s real potential, and it is easy to be carried away by Western media exaggerating the support for pro-Western liberals as well as our own understandable enthusiasm for the mass movement. In fact it is politically very diverse (and with diffuse goals) and not particularly proletarian in make-up, which threatens both its chances of succeeding and the hope that it might do something rather more worthwhile than change the suit in charge of the slaughterhouse.

These questions are important for the anti-war movement, and although Stalinist groups backed Ahmedinejad, some leftists’ attitudes have been shaken up by the need to say something positive about a movement which most people in Britain would sympathise with. Although Hugo Chávez had congratulated Ahmedinejad on his ‘victory’, his British allies Socialist Appeal saw mirages of working-class revolution on the streets of Tehran.

The SWP were also in a pickle. For twenty years they have supported the “anti-imperialism” of the regime, saying it was not appropriate for the Stop the War Coalition to support movements inside Iran, and tried to silence the anti-war, anti-regime Hands Off the People of Iran campaign. This time round Socialist Worker celebrated “people power” in a remarkable change of tack. (They have performed a similar 180-degree turn over the Lindsey workers, many of whom in fact have the same politics and slogans as in their January strikes when the SWP condemned them).

The extent to which the anti-war movement in Britain continues to ignore oppositionists in Iran still hangs in the balance, however. It was always of course right to resolutely oppose Western intervention (any war or ‘surgical strike’ would have made the current movement unthinkable), but real solidarity with the Iranians themselves always has to include supporting struggles within that country against the regime.

As it is, the people demonstrating in recent weeks appear to have been beaten down by the state machine including its Basiji (religious militia). Nevertheless, the movement may resurface or express itself in different ways as it looks increasingly unlikely that Mousavi will come to power.

Indeed, whilst many observers have compared the Iranian regime’s crackdown to Tiananmen Square-style methods of breaking opposition, few make the point that the Iranian regime seems much less able than China in 1989 to work its way towards a liveable economic position. This presents dangers for the regime both from technocrats and army men who think it is incompetent, and from the people on the receiving end of the economic disaster.

The underlying social crisis in Iran will continue even if the religious hierarchy is able to put a lid on the current wave of resistance. New battles over unpaid wages and rampant inflation, as well as the terrible lack of personal and democratic freedoms (particularly for women and LGBT people), will go on. As such our solidarity with the Iranian working class and its struggles must continue even once Mousavi’s fans at BBC and CNN have turned their attention elsewhere.

Hands Off the People of Iran has launched an activist blog with news from Iranian comrades about the ongoing struggles as well as useful analysis of the divisions in the ruling class. See www.hopinewsfromiran.wordpress.com