Iran’s Imperialist Brinkmanship Can’t Hide More Misery for the Working Class

Beyond the Caspian

Georgia may have driven Iran off the front pages this summer but the stand-off the Islamic Republic’s alleged plans (which are probably true) to develop nuclear weapons continues. The Mullahs and their current mouthpiece Ahmadinejad are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship, behind which stands the imperialist interests of the US and the Western powers on one side, with Russia and China on the other. We have already argued1 that the US military is currently in no position to hit Iran itself but the US is still using its ally, Israel, to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran as the article (from Battaglia comunista) which follow this shows. The focus of this piece is to look at what is actually going on in Iran and more particularly what is happening to the working class there.

Economic Pressures

Failure to reach agreement on Iran’s nuclear development programme has led to the EU announcing additional sanctions against Iran, with the US, as usual, calling for an even tougher sanctions regime. Despite the stated aim of targeting sanctions against or-ganisations associated with the government, it appears that sanctions against the banking sector are having an effect in slowing activity within the Iranian economy and, as ever, it is the working class that gets hit the hardest. As well as the formal sanctions, informal political pressure from the US is also impacting on economic activity. Recently, Turkey pulled out of a £1.87bn agreement to invest in Iranian gas production after being leant on by the US. This is not an insignificant blow to the development of Iran’s undercapitalised gas production industry. US pressure did not end there and Total (France), Statoil (Norway), Royal Dutch Shell (UK/Netherlands) and Eni (Italy) have all announced a freezing of new investment in oil and gas extraction citing the “current uncertainty over Iran’s nuclear programme”. Total’s pullout of a deal to develop LNG (liquid natural gas) from the Pars field is a particular blow since Iran does not have the technology to do this alone. Iran, and the world has lost an annual output of about 80bn m3 (equivalent to Germany’s needs). It will thus have knock on effect on commodity prices everywhere.

Despite being the world’s fourth largest oil producer, Iran’s economic infrastructure is crumbling. The flight of foreign capital in response to growing political uncertainty and the effect of sanctions are just two elements in the matrix of Iran’s economic problems. Despite its relative economic isolation, Iran is not immune to the global crisis in general, and the economic meltdown precipitated by the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market. On top of that, the rule of the Mullahs has been characterised by crass economic mismanagement. There has been chronic under-investment illustrated by the fact that, although it is a major oil producer, Iran has no domestic oil refining facility. Currently, Tehran is suffering regular power black-outs due to a lack of investment in electricity generation.

The economic statistics look bleak, with inflation running at around 25% (there are no reliable government statistics) and unemployment officially at 10.3% (March 2008) - but in all probability more like 25%. There is also a serious housing crisis particularly in Tehran where, despite GDP being only $2770 per capita (2006 figure), property prices are on a par with Western capitals, and rents exceed most workers’ monthly salaries. For many state sector workers, salaries have been not been paid for several months. Subsidised food and fuel prices are now under threat with Ahmadinejad calling for their end, since they cost the state $97bn a year. With re-venue falling he is proposing to replace general subsidies for all by cash payments to just the very poorest and only if they apply for them. This is a dangerous game.

Workers’ Resistance

Ahmadinejad, who comes from a working class background and has a flair for populist politics, has had some success in portraying the dispute with America and its allies over the nuclear issue as a defiant stance against imperialism. This has enabled him to retain some popular support even in the face of deteriorating economic conditions. However, there is some evidence that workers are beginning to see through the populist façade and fight for their interests. A number of strikes have occurred in recent months, mainly for the recovery of unpaid wages.

In July, over 1200 workers at the Kiyan tyre factory near Tehran went on strike over several month’s unpaid wages for the second time this year. A previous strike in April was ruthlessly suppressed by the Mullahs’ State Security Force (SSF) and many workers arrested. Workers blocked the highway between Tehran and Islamshahr with burning tyres, and the strikers were supported by local residents and youths who threw rocks and sticks at the SSF. In the course of the July strike workers burned down part of the factory.

On 28th June, thousands of workers at Iran’s largest auto factory Iran Khodro went on strike. Their demands include wage increases in line with the cost of living and the end to mandatory overtime. Also in June, 3000 brick factory workers in the city of Orumieh went on strike for several weeks for higher wages.

On 26th June, 3000 workers at the state-owned Haft Tapeh sugar refinery in the city of Shush ended a 42 day strike over unpaid wages. The strike was the most recent in a series over the last two years over wages and conditions. In the course of the strike there were demonstrations in support by local workers and residents who raised there own demands. The demonstrations were brutally crushed by the security forces. The current strike ended with the workers holding a mass meeting and forming an independent trade union.

There are several common threads that run through these strikes. The first is the extra-ordinary courage and tenacity needed by workers to take militant action in the face of brutal state repression. Workers face mass arrests, beatings and punishment by public flogging. Leaders are often specifically targeted for harassment and imprisonment. A second theme is the seeming willingness of other workers and local residents to support the strikers and confront the state security forces. However, the Haft Tapeh strike also reveals a weak-ness in the movement, namely the notion that the collective action and militancy demonstrated in a struggle can be developed by forming independent trade unions. In a country where the only legal form of labour representation are the state or company sponsored Islamic Work Councils, independent trade unions must look like a major step forward. However, history tells us that in this period of capitalism’s development, trade unions, however militant their origins, always end up becoming permanent and remote bureaucracies working with the state and compromising workers’ interests for the benefit of capital. The fact that the Haft Tapeh workers ended their strike in the hope that the union would improve their conditions illustrates the risks of trade unions functioning to dissipate militant action. The way forward really lies in what the workers are already doing: strike committees coordinating action (although in the repressive situation they are in it would be too dangerous to hold mass assemblies to decide on the future of the struggle).

Given the state of the Iranian economy, we assume that these strikes herald further militant struggles as economic conditions worsen. These struggles cry out for the intervention of a proletarian party which can bring the lessons of previous struggles of the international working class to a new generation of workers. Unfortunately such a party does not currently exist, although we aim to create one.


(1) See “Turkey, Pakistan and Iran: Squaring the Circle of US Imperialism” in Revolutionary Perspectives 44 (also on our website).

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