On the Iranian Election - The Working Class Must Fight for its Own Agenda

In our previous article (1) we tried to explain how the two main factions of the Iranian ruling class had arrived at the election, how the Iran/ Iraq war had rejuvenated the “soul of capital”, and how reformism had dispersed the growing struggle of the working class. We also showed how US and EU policies, such as the war on terror and on the nuclear issue benefited the Islamic Republic nationally and internationally. Here we look at these issues in a bit more detail.

The War is Over, the Commanders Return

In May 1979, just a month after proclaiming the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, ordered the Revolutionary Council to form Sepáh e Pásdárán e Enqeláb e Eslámi, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or IRG.

Eight years of organising a war machine by renewing state arms manufacturing, dealing in international black markets, and acting as a powerful “client” of the major domestic industries and the bazaar, led to the metamorphosis of these “revolutionaries” of the IRG into a wealthy new elite that would have no match, as far as corruption was concerned. They were headed by Rafsanjani who from 1989 to 1997 was President during Iran’s post-war re-construction period.

Rafsanjani knew that, when they returned home, the “heroes” who had carried out the “Sacred Defence” of the nation would have problems with the lavish lifestyle that he and his clique were enjoying, unless they were given a share. So he found a way, “legally” of course, to pass an act of parliament to engage them in the “business” of post-war reconstruction.

However, little did Rafsanjani realise how quickly these “heroes” would forget about “emancipation”, “Islamic brotherhood” and “heaven”, once the dollar's magic was waved in front of their hungry eyes! And less did he realise how soon they would challenge his authority and his well known “Oil Mafia” establishment.

During this period, however, the IRG elite and personnel were out of political power.

From 1997-2005, while Khatami enjoyed popularity by promoting “civil society” and a “dialogue of civilizations” the IRG began its political ascendancy, by allying itself with the conservatives to challenge Khatami’s reforms. Thus their influence grew rapidly, so that they had a finger in every pie. As well as becoming the most powerful economic body in the country, the IRG also managed to impose some of its commanders as head of a few powerful Bonyads; foundations, that the Islamic Republic had confiscated from the previous regime of the Shah. As well as this there was the Foundation of the Oppressed; Bonyad Mostazafan whose activities cover 3 categories, Economic, Scientific and Cultural & Social; the economic section covering 42 major companies, which according to some analysts are the biggest in the Middle East. They also controlled Astan Quds Razavi's activities in mining and manufacturing, agriculture, construction & civil engineering as well as activities in the Free Economic Zone of Sarakhs. In addition the IRG also managed to gain control, directly and indirectly, of some other foundations, including the Alavi Foundation, the Martyrs Foundation, the Pilgrimage Foundation, the Housing Foundation, the Foundation for War Refugees, and the Foundation for Imam Khomeini's Publications.

All that was left was to grab the last political bastion of reformism, the presidency. To flex their muscles and to show how far they would go, they fired their first warning shot, on 8 May 2004 when:

Revolutionary Guards, citing security concerns, blocked the runway at Tehran's new Imam Khomeini International Airport.
The guards used military vehicles to block the runway, after just one of six scheduled flights had landed at the airport on its first day of operation. Due to the closure, a second inbound flight from Dubai was forced to divert to the central Iranian city of Isfahan more than 155 miles away despite being low on fuel.

Airline Industry Information, 12 May 2004

The 2005 election showed the determination of the Khameini and IRG camp to oust the reformists from political power. The next few years revealed that neither the conservative camp nor the reformist camp were homogeneous. Where the interests of the IRG, Bonyads and the bazaar overlapped, there was a united policy against reformists but where there was a conflict of interest different factions flexed their muscles as on 13 October 2008. According to Agence France Presse

The Iranian capital's traditional bazaar stayed on strike on Sunday as merchants pressed their demand that a decision to bring in VAT be scrapped, even after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially froze its implementation for two months. Stalls were shut down in the capital's main bazaar.

Death to America! Long Live the Enemy!

If someone had told Khameini what Gorbachev said to Reagan, “I am going to deprive you of an enemy”, Khameini would have had a nightmare as he would have nothing to say in his Friday speech! Statemanaged shows would have nothing to say and would have no viewers.

Iranian television would have to close down a few of its channels, including its English Press TV while leftists, like Galloway and Co, would have to look for a new cause.

A few years ago, a low ranking clergyman in the holy city of Qom, in an interview said “Clinton talks well but acts badly, Bush talks badly but acts well” . This clergyman had understood the essence of the new US policy and how the Islamic Republic was going to fully exploit it. The four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency in the Bush period was a triumph, not because he was offering something good or new, but just because his opponents nationally and internationally were so bankrupt. They portrayed themselves as the 'ENEMY” he so desperately needed.

Hardly a month would pass without news like this in The Observer on 4 November 2007,

Now is the time for clarity over Iran. The drums of war are beating. In America, talk of a strike against Iran grows louder. In Israel, hardliners claim Tehran is close to getting the bomb. In Bahrain, host to the US fifth fleet, the state's foreign minister imagines doomsday.

Or take the nuclear issue; just a few months after Bush, Blair and Sarkozy questioned whether Iran, as one of the major oil producing countries, needed nuclear energy at all, American diplomats and Sarkozy were travelling around the region offering nuclear technology to other major oil producing countries! Contracts were signed with the U.A.E and Libya just a few months later whilst another with Egypt was on the way.

The University of Columbia's decision to host the Iranian leader at its World Leader's Forum in September 2007, was one of those events that captured world attention. Presumably it was arranged to challenge Ahmedinejad's controversial stand on the Holocaust? What challenge? This man, with the most reactionary and superstitious ideas that can be found on earth was applauded several times. It seemed like he was almost winning the argument. This is an indictment of today’s Western “liberalism” but how was all this seen by people in the region, including Iran? Is there any room for surprise at Ahmadinejad's partial popularity among the masses whose politics are anything but class politics?

Two Camps, One Illusion


Having succeeded in keeping the foreign “Enemy” alive and giving himself a “victorious” image inside the country, on domestic issues Ahmadinejad, picked up on corruption. His regular trips and visits to poor towns and villages indicated where he intended to draw his support and where he would prioritise investment. He had all the qualities for spreading the illusion that he represented their interest and he would fight corruption. A simple man who sleeps on the floor, lives in a small house, doesn't wear suits etc.

In public meetings and gatherings he even spoke of the “demise of capitalism”! In 2007, as part of preparation for civil unrest the IRG merged with the Basij (militia) which was the final consolidation of the Khameini and IRG camp, which was now well prepared and well in control of the economy. Similar exercises to the below reported one, were conducted in few major cities including Tehran up to the election day

The second round of Basij mobilisation exercises on urban counter insurgency begin on Tuesday, October 23, 2007. The first exercise will begin “with heavy and light weapons around the city of Qom”. The Basij commander for government agencies and offices announced last Saturday that 10,000 Basij members belonging to government agencies would begin three-day exercises around the city of Qom “to confront the enemy, attack the enemy’s defence systems and confront the possible infiltration of the enemy into sensitive centres”.

Unlike the other faction, the reformists picked on individual “Rights” and “Rule of Law” issues. They kept defining and re-defining democracy and Islam! A few reformist parties started to criticise their own policy in previous elections by saying that they had gone too far in their attempts to expose corruption, in particular in relation to Rafsanjani and Co! This gave Rafsanjani more room to manoeuvre, so much so that he could now sneak into the reformist camp and put his weight behind his old opponent Moussavi, who stood a good chance of getting past the obstacle of the Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates. The conservatives, confident of their success, did not see that Moussavi would be a challenge to Ahmadinejad.

Both camps went into the election without engaging the public to any great degree in their campaigns. It seemed that Ahmadinejad's supporters were under no illusion that corruption would end. Moussavi supporters were even less hopeful about more human rights. The experience of 4 years of Ahmadinejad who was supposed to “bring oil money to their table” and 8 years of Khatami which had basically given nothing, were pretty vivid in the minds of supporters of both camps.

Then came the television debates, the first ever in the Islamic Republic's history. Ahmadinejad, confident of his success and desperate for a landslide victory which would match that of Khatami's 1997 victory, attacked his opponents on a scale never seen before when he openly named Rafsanjani and Karrubi as an axis of corruption. His supporter began to believe it was a real challenge to corruption. In a similar way, in the other camp, Moussavi's supporters saw this split as an opportunity to say NO to the Islamic Republic, by driving a wedge to widen the crack, so to speak, an equally unprecedented move.

Of course, supporters of both camps were not aware of the fact that by supporting this or that faction, they were splitting among themselves. In the early days when social restrictions were relaxed, supporters of both camps were on the streets discussing and dancing in a very friendly atmosphere, unaware of what this split would mean in the coming days.

And it came like a storm.

Hundreds of thousands took to the street without any preparations, shocking themselves and shocking the world. So far, officially, 69 people are dead, hundreds injured and thousands arrested. Even though the street protest has massively reduced, the situation which provoked it has not been resolved. To sum up, this movement didn't come out of a clear blue sky, it is the outcome of the bourgeois factions attempt to outmanoeuvre the public on one hand, and an outburst against 30 years of absolute dictatorship and economic stagnation on the other. A close look at the nature of the protest reveals:

An Absolute Reactionary Leadership

There can be no doubt about the reactionary nature of the current leadership, not just because of their previous anti-working class and antirevolutionary stand which is a matter of record, but also, and more important, on their current positions.

A quick review of Moussavi' and Karubbi's statements since the beginning of the protest reveals how they have sacrificed the lives of the protesters in order to save this rotten Republic. Two months on, despite all the sacrifices by the protesters, they have not managed to get a single concession from the “Supreme Leader” to whom they keep pleading for mercy. Symbolically, the reformist pundits are telling Khameini to avoid the Shah's mistake and urge him to listen to the voice of “Revolution”! But how could he possibly listen to something that is not there? The latest Rafsanjani manoeuvres give an indication of how far this devious politician can go. The anti-working class policies which have been adopted up to now may prove to be insignificant to compare with those that will be implemented in the coming days and weeks. They will work around the idea of an outside “ENEMY” to divert attention and foster national “unity”.

A Weak “Velvet Revolution” Tendency

A supporter of Moussavi fighting the Basiji - militia
A supporter of Moussavi fighting the Basiji - militia

Here some might criticise us for saying the same as the Revolutionary Guards. But we are not, and radical elements among the protesters should not close their eyes to the fact that the idea of a “velvet revolution” exists within the movement. Whether this idea is simply copied by young inexperienced middle class protesters or initiated by those who engineered the election, or by monarchists, makes no difference in so far as the damage that it has already done or will do in the coming period. This idea is mostly attractive among ex-Shah supporters and stems from an illusion that has been spread by the west in ex-soviet countries.

Pick up a colour, chant a few silly slogans, then democracy will arrive, like it did in Ukraine and Georgia! Pick up a green colour, clever choice (an Islamic colour!) and chant “Ahmadi bye bye, Ahmadi bye bye.....

One Week, Two Weeks, Mahmoud hasn't taken a bath, then democracy inshallah will arrive!” This is not to say that the movement does not have radical elements.

The Presence of Substantial Radical Elements:

This reflects the general discontent. These protesters considered the situation as an opportunity to break the harsh oppressive atmosphere that their previous attempts had come up against.

These radical elements include women, teachers and workers. They have existed for the last few years and have been subject to mass arrests (especially in 2007). It is also, to a lesser degree, a hangover from the student movement of the Khatami period, as well as elements from ethnic minority movements, as in Kurdistan and Zahedan. The backbone of the street protests is rooted in these elements. Its policy towards the election was articulated in a statement called “Election & Dialogue” by the Demand Axis which was circulated on 15 March 2009 and was signed by nearly 500 individuals.

These individuals included women, students, journalists, civil right activists, workers, ethnic minorities ... even clergymen and ex-reformist parliamentarians. Their statement sums up the current dire economic situation and experience of the last two elections by stating:

1. The economic pressure resulting from inflation, and economic stagnation, and also the restriction on freedom and human rights particularly in recent years and the ever increasing pressure on political activists, women, students, journalists, civil rights activists, workers, ethnic minorities, followers of other religions,......and also because of the costly, quarrelsome, nontransparent conduct of the government, we believe that the national interest is in danger.
2. At present this is due to the government's lack of transparency and its failure to deal with problems. As a condition for a free, healthy and just election does not exist and the chance of getting demands met is very remote and also due to the intervention of irresponsible bodies that are not supposed to interfere in the political process, we have a serious reservations about the way the election is going to be conducted (our emphases).

Here we do not intend to discuss the nature of the demands since the events itself revealed their irrelevance however we would like to say a few words on the general policies outlined.

The first and by far the most important issue is class interest.

Workers cannot and should not replace their class interest with that of the national interest. The whole concept of the national interest is based on the illusion that the interests of the rulers (or would-be rulers) can be reconciled with the interests of the exploited class. There is no short cut, as we said in our article “ Thirty Years of Islamic Iran - A Warning from History” (see Revolutionary Perspectives 49 or leftcom.org )

The revolutionary programme has to be developed and fought for by an organisation which bases itself on the past lessons of the workers’ struggles and is part of the class. This is the independent and international revolutionary workers’ party. As the Iranian experience shows, such a party cannot be the product of the last minute but must be present inside the working class before the revolutionary situation arises. The Iranian working class have suffered much for the illusions and weaknesses of 1979, but they have at least one gain. The council idea has not been lost from Iranian workers’ revolutionary consciousness as they have often been formed, if only as strike committees, in struggles since 1979. The next time, however, these strike committees must be transformed into real bodies representing a working class alternative and the next time they must be part of a world-wide struggle for communism.

The second, related, issue is the concern for “a free, fair and healthy election”. We do not boycott elections because of a lack of freedom or a lack of transparency. Our opposition to elections is based on the recognition of the true nature of parliament in bourgeois society.

Parliament is the executive committee of the ruling class. The representative approach (i.e. where MPs are elected but are not capable of being recalled) has never been for the working class. It is a myth that the working class in Europe achieved some of its demands through voting and parliament. On the contrary it has been voting and parliament that have limited working class achievements in the last two centuries. Only bodies composed of elected delegates who can be immediately recalled by the workers can represent working class interests.

But even this can only work in a society where production has been socialised and the media is not controlled by the propertied classes.

The Absence of the Working Class?

Striking bus workers mass meeting
Striking bus workers mass meeting

To say that the working class, as a class, was absent in this protest is an obvious statement, but to conclude that workers did not participate at all is a wrong assumption.

Prior to the election, unrest among the working class was much in evidence. Unemployment amongst 15-29 years olds stands at 31%. The Iranian Government also sets wage levels for most industries. In March 2007 the monthly minimum wage was reduced from about $450 “to prevent layoffs” to $200. The official poverty line is $300 a month. Nearly 2 million Iranian workers have arrears of pay going back months.

Strikes and other actions by workers, such as in the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, IranKhodro, and the Haft Tapeh sugar factory (which has had 17 strikes in three years) are just a few examples of many which met with a brutal police response that led to many being arrested and jailed.

The two statements below are examples of how workers regarded the election. These, and similar ones, give an indication of how advanced at least some workers are in rejecting the election as a bourgeois tool. At the same time this indicates the long road ahead which we need to go through to form independent organisations. It is worth reminding ourselves that these statements are written and spoken in a situation where tens of worker activists have been jailed for just attempting to form an independent organization, or participating in a May Day rally or merely having an interview with foreign journalists.

In a statement which was signed by a collection of Irankhodro's workers we read:

We want neither the best nor the worst, we just want a better world ... the experience of last few years has proved that all elections are either for maintaining the status quo or to improve it for the ruling class. A government that takes pride in implementing Clause 44 of the Constitution, concerned with privatisation ... will never take a step towards meeting workers needs ... was it not the Commander of Development’s (i.e. Rafsanjani’s - CWO) government that shamefully implemented the temporary contract, ... on this basis we Irankhodro workers, by considering the current situation, will not participate in the election where we have no right of choice and we are not free and we do not have a worker's organisation. We will only participate in election where it protects our interests.

and also on 3 June 2009, in an interview with Radio Farda, Reza Shahabi, a member of the executive committee of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company union, when asked about the workers’ position in the coming election, replied:

We do not have any specific opinion on this election and we will tell no one either to participate or not to. Previous Presidents never kept their promises. Until now none of the candidates has said anything about the workers. We can only meet our demands by relying on ourselves, the workers movement and independent workers organisations. We will pursue our demands only through our unions. (2)

Following the recent street protests, further statements by Irankhodro workers announced a half hour strike in every shift and a Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company union statement (3) supporting the protest and condemning police brutality shows how much the popular movement is drawing in the workers movement.

The Unity of the Working Class

This underlines the biggest danger that militant workers are facing regarding this particular movement.

The fact is that the workers whilst trying to stay on an independent class terrain have been split into two camps. Every policy that we adopt and every single step that we take should bear this in mind. The working class’ biggest asset is its unity, without this unity even its best policies are doomed. In the coming days workers should organize themselves against both the Ahmedinejad and Moussavi camp.

The split among the ruling class has provided a breathing space for the working class to form its own independent organizations against Iranian capitalism, a system that has nothing new to offer.

Militant Workers!

The task before us is not an easy task, the spectre of so many years of failures is haunting us, and the traps along the path that we intend to go are many. The brutality of the capitalist state has no limit, but equally dangerous are all these elements pushing us to be “realistic” and limit our aim to “the achievable”.

The bourgeois pundits echo this by presenting historical events upside down. They are encouraging us to limit our goal within the capitalist system. We have heard them all before. Democracy, Freedom, Peace, Security, Full Employment, Muslim Brotherhood... and we have lived long enough to witness and experience what they meant in reality; just full blown barbarism.

War, unemployment, economic insecurity, and oppression are now a permanent feature of capitalism.

The way that events have unfolded has made reformism irrelevant. The presence of tens of thousands on the streets is testimony to the revolutionary potential of the masses. The protests are no longer about the election nor about reforming the system. They are the manifestation of the failure of reformism. Reform is dead, Long Live Revolution. But the only class which is capable of leading a real revolution is the working class and this throws an enormous responsibility on its shoulders.


The official state media in Iran, is repeating the idea that this movement is initiated by the foreign powers. We do not intend to prove the stupidity of this argument nor would we try to downplay the foreign power's meddling in it either. After all, Imperialist rivalry, big or small, does not take place in a vacuum.

Contrary to their accusations and denials, and also contrary to middle class multicultural notions of “diversity”, “their culture” , “ our culture” and all that nonsense, the Internationalist Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that they do not recognize the legitimacy of national boundaries and will intervene and support workers struggles wherever they may be.

All the official propaganda about foreign interference is designed to isolate the working class struggle in order to make them to unite with their own bourgeoisie. The interests of the Iranian working class are entangled with those of Iraqi, American, British workers... and in short, with the interests of the working class all over the world.

Similarly the “greens” of the Moussavi camp are trying to rekindle the ghost of the past by taking up the methods and slogans of 1979. People going to rooftops shouting “God is Great” (Allah O Akbar) as in 1979 or “Death to the Dictator” (instead of “Death to the Shah”) are constantly trying to convince everyone that this simply a popular movement to reform the Islamic Republic. It reminds us of Marx’s famous statement that

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language... In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

However we have learned a new language, its is a class language in which every single working class protester is a reporter, a camera man... we just need to move on and forget the native language, the language of populism. We should organize our news bulletins, demonstrations announcements, and strike committees etc without relaying on the official channels. It absolutely must be based on independent grounds. The new technology, mobile, the Internet... have provided us with an opportunity to use them for our advancement. Mosques or the official media are no longer the hub for organizing.

Behind the scene, among the rival factions, tense negotiations are taking place at national and international levels. Whatever the outcome of these negotiations might be, one thing is certain, all factions, soon or later, will unite against the working class. We should avoid dissolving into the current movement by taking part on individual basis.

Instead we should organise ourselves in strike committees, workers assemblies etc. We should form committees of delegates (Soviets - Shuras) rather than on a representative bases (as in Parliament). All decisions should be made collectively and should leave room and means for correcting them if necessary. In short, however events develop, we should come out of this movement, more organised, more united and stronger, with the perspective of forming our independent organisations and developing our own programme, based on the experience of workers everywhere In the coming days imperialist rivalry will raise many more issues that will demand the intervention of internationalists. We in the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party intend to rise to this challenge. Join with us! Nationalism is dead, Long live Internationalism.

We will have to go for something that did not exist before, Long Live Communism.

Damoon Saadati

(1) See leftcom.org

(2) We have not dealt with the complicated issue of the role of Iranian trades unions in this text but this will be discussed in our next article.


“We the workers of Iran Khodro, Thursday 28/ 3/88 in each working shift will stop working for half an hour to protest at the suppression of students, workers, women, and the Constitution and declare our solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran. The morning and afternoon shifts from 10 to 10:30. The night shift from 3 to 3:30.”

For more on the struggle of Tehran bus workers see Tehran Transport Workers Gaoled in Revolutionary Perspectives 38.

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