2018 Workers Day protests in Iran, photo Armin Karami/CC, photo Armin Karami/CC

2018 Workers Day protests in Iran, photo Armin Karami/CC, photo Armin Karami/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Robert Bechert, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

Iran has been shaken by a new nationwide wave of anger and protests after a sudden overnight government announcement that imposed a 50% fuel price rise on the cost of fuel.

This measure – accompanied by a reduction from 250 litres to 60 litres per vehicle per month, in the amount sold at a lower price – was a spark that ignited a fire. Sometimes literally so, as banks and other buildings were attacked by angry protesters.

The night-time announcement of the price hike provoked immediate protests around the country with demonstrations, attempts to block traffic and attacks on official buildings.

State-backed news media reported 88,000 participating in protests in 100 cities and towns, during which 100 banks and 57 shops were set on fire or plundered. In Isfahan alone, 69 banks were torched.

The Reuters news agency reported: “Hundreds of young and working-class Iranians expressed their anger at squeezed living standards, state corruption and a deepening gap between rich and poor”.

Desperate to stop the protests growing in size and scope, the regime used brutal repression while shutting down the public internet and international online communications.

Amnesty International has said that it has reliable information that 106 people have been killed during these protests, overwhelmingly protesters. Unofficial reports say over 200 have been killed and 3,000 injured.

Alongside repression, the authoritarian regime sought to defuse opposition. Iran’s vice-president for budget affairs stated: “The president insists that all extra income should be paid back to people”.

Extra monthly state handouts for the poorest 60 million out of Iran’s 82 million people were announced. The first part of the compensation payments, ranging from $13 to $48 a month, was rapidly paid into the bank accounts of the poorest 60 million.

But, although this fuel price rise was explained as a switch in government subsidies rather than an attempt to increase revenue, it still provoked an immediate response.

US sanctions

Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions has hit the Iranian economy hard. While there is talk of some recent stabilisation, the economy is still contracting. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forecasting a 9.5% drop in Iran’s GDP (total economic output) for 2019, while the World Bank is slightly less gloomy, seeing a 8.7% drop. While inflation has fallen from 52.1% in May to 28.3%, last month, this is due to a combination of a currency stabilisation and the declining economy.

Unemployment has also fallen to 10.5%, but this is partly because the Iranian regime has followed many other governments in claiming anyone who works an hour a week or more is not unemployed. But among youth the official rate is still 26%. During this month’s protests, a common chant was: “We are unemployed! We have no future!”

The protests’ geographical spread was wider than the wave of workers’ demonstrations and strikes that developed in November 2017 and which continued into early 2018.

The workers’ movement which began two years ago was, however, extremely significant because it represented a new stage in the building of workers’ organisations. This struck fear into the hearts of both wings of the regime, the ‘hardliners’ and the ‘moderate-reformists’.

As the CWI wrote at the time: “A new revolutionary tide is rising in Iran. Although the bulk of this new wave is the people who were born after the revolution, the 1979 revolution’s glorious days still inspires the current generation.

“Iranian workers have been to the fore of the protests that started in November 2017. Significantly, many of the demands that have arisen are not just economic and social but are political, including the right to form independent workers’ organisations, for renationalisation of privatised companies and for some form of workers’ control.”

The regime’s response, especially as the 2017-18 movement ebbed, was repression, which has been continuing.

In the recent months before the fuel protests there have been both strikes and other workers’ protests over different issues, including wage levels, non-payment of wages, victimisation, and the right to form independent trade unions. At the same time, more trade union and other activists have been sentenced to jail terms, some of which have been accompanied by floggings.

But this repression did not prevent this latest upsurge. Iran is simmering and could once again quickly boil over. The Financial Times has spoken of Iran’s “increasingly restless population” and the “sense of injustice and disillusionment” in the country.

There is popular scepticism towards the regime and anger against corruption and a willingness to struggle. This combination is, once again, deepening the divisions and conflict between the different wings of the regime that manoeuvre against each other and, in the run-up to next February’s parliamentary elections, accuse the other of corruption.

Initially, some ‘hardliners’ called for the fuel price increase to be reversed as part of their opposition to President Rouhani.

However, they stepped back after Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Ayatollah Khamenei, obviously fearful at the speed and intensity of the protests, stated his support for the increase.

The utterly hypocritical Trump administration’s declarations of support for the latest protests are a crude attempt to profit from these protests.

But while they may not have had an immediate effect, it is an example of how imperialism will try to intervene in order to prevent any popular movement in Iran moving towards an anti-capitalist and socialist position.

The fact that within the rising workers’ movement in Iran the questions of renationalisation and workers’ control are starting to be discussed, creates concern for all the ruling classes, particularly those in the Middle East.

Workers’ movement

It is against this background that it is necessary to strengthen the independent workers’ organisations and to build links between the workers’ organisations and the wider layers of unorganised workers, including the unemployed and the poor.

While it appears that the latest protests have come to an end, it is clear that new struggles will break out. This is why it is important to draw a balance sheet of the experiences of struggle and revolution in Iran and internationally.

Socialists argue that such a balance would include demands for the coming period, how the struggle can be organised, and the importance of the workers’ movement not being drawn into coalition with capitalist forces.

Such steps, linked to a call to build an independent workers’ party and the drawing of socialist conclusions, are the basis not just for success in the inevitable future struggles in Iran but also in laying the basis to achieve the fundamental task of bringing to power a government of genuine representatives of workers and poor.

Such a bold socialist government could sweep away the corrupt capitalist system and begin the socialist reconstruction of the country that would be an inspiration in the Middle East and wider afield.