Iran: On Oil and Troubled Water

As we write, comrades are translating the bulletins emerging from the struggles of the oil workers’ strike committee in Iran which have now been ongoing for two months. They can be found on our website (and we publish Statement No. 12 below). The oil workers are not alone. Dozens of protests and demonstrations are taking place daily involving medical students in Kermanshah, fire department workers in Saveh, water and sewage workers in Hoveyzeh, workers of the Sepahan Cement Factory, pensioners of the Khuzestan and Isfahan Steel Retirement Fund. In addition, gas platform workers of the Pars Oil and Gas Company have announced that if they do not see their overdue back pay in their August pay packets, they will resume their protests on 22 August.

Leading the way are the Haft Tappeh Sugar Mill workers who have again been on strike for over a month. Their factory is located in the Khuzestan province in south west Iran which was the scene of large protests against the regime last month. In towns like Ahvaz, Shadegan and Susangerd protesters demanded greater access to water for drinking, for their once-green farmlands and their cattle. The regime used live fire against the demonstrators, and at least one person was killed.

These demonstrations followed recent protests in other Iranian cities, including Tehran, over power cuts said to be the worst since the war with Iraq in the 1980s. In these, demonstrators chanted “down with the dictator” (by which they meant the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei). His predecessor, and founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had promised Iranians back then that “we will make water and electricity free for the poor”. It is a promise the regime claims to have met, saying that a third of the population have paid nothing for water or electricity over the last year of the pandemic. Even before that most estimates suggest domestic consumers paid only 12% and industry 30% of the true cost of providing water, electricity and gas.

However the water situation in Iran is in the crosshairs of a global environmental crisis brought about by climate change. All across the world climate change makes the fight for water a potential for imperialist conflict. The wars across the Sahel in Africa are fuelled by desertification which pits pastoralists against farmers and which a variety of Islamic fundamentalists have made more bloody (usually by siding with the pastoralists). It is also behind the potential conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the damming of the Blue Nile. All the social upheavals and wars across the Middle East have some element of this attempt to control water resources.

In Khuzestan it is a social rather than an imperialist war. The province is in the fourteenth year of a drought which has got even worse this year. It is not alone. Other parts of Iran are suffering the same. Small wonder that there were demonstrations in support of the Khuzestan protests right across Iran, from Kurdistan to Golestan and even in Azerbaijan, where there is no actual drought but where overuse of water has led to water levels in the famously huge Lake Urmia shrinking. The same short term capitalist mentality which demands immediate solutions without regard for the future consequences is the signature of global capitalism whatever the political system that operates it. This short termism was also evident in the previous policy of indiscriminate dam building in the Zagros Mountains. Iran is one of the world’s leading builders of dams averaging 20 a year for 30 years for both irrigation and power. Many of these projects were ill-thought out like the one that created a reservoir at Seymareh in Ilam province. It is the second largest in Iran built to hold 2.6 billion cubic metres of water and took 17 years to build. But Ilam is now so dry that today it is empty, only 2 years after completion. Some dam building has been even more damaging to the environment. One was built on saline rocks which then diverted polluted water into the River Karoun in Khuzestan. A lot of the others have been built for military purposes so that industry can be located further into the interior of the country and further away from the threat of hostile military strikes. The sum total has been to undermine agriculture in Khuzestan (and elsewhere) and spark off protests which had many other long-term causes. One factor in them is that everyone knows that the dams were built by contractors (like the ones who are fighting the oil workers) linked to the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards number only 120,000 but they have a network of economic control which allows them to favour their own clients to the exclusion of most Iranians.

But the man-made ecological disaster does not end there. Reports on IRNA, the state news agency, tell us that in many cities they have take so much water out of the ground that it has started what they call a “silent earthquake”. Southwest Tehran is slipping at a rate of 24cm per year. As a result of this excessive water extraction a colossal 75 cubic kilometres of groundwater has been lost in the last 13 years. In this time the water table in Varamin (south east Tehran) has dropped by 80 metres! Summer crops in Varamin plain were picked 27 times a year but today that has fallen to 3 times a year. Due to this excessive extraction from the aquifer the soil is drying out and thus gets compressed like a sponge. Nine airports in Iran face a constant threat from this subsidence.

In fact the Islamic regime is now in a bind. The economic crisis which has plagued the country for years, thanks to a combination of mismanagement and corruption, as well as US sanctions, has nose-dived again during the pandemic. The incoming Raisi government dare not cut the utility subsidies. The regime will want to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2019, when the supposedly reformist President Rouhani cut petrol price subsidies, thus putting the price of rationed petrol up 50% and that of non-rationed 300% overnight. The subsequent protests led to the deaths of hundreds in 21 cities. Then, as now, it was not a single issue which brought people on to the streets. In 2019 inflation was around 50%, today it is about the same (it was 47.6% in June 2021). The Statistical Centre of Iran, said last month that the expenses of Iranian urban families have risen by 31%, and the expenses of rural families by 30.5% during the past year. Food (which is 70% up on last year) and housing now accounts for half of the expenses of Iranian families. At the same time unemployment is around 12.5% whilst youth unemployment is at least double that.

President Raisi, just elected on the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, also knows that increased demand for power and water is outstripping supply. With sanctions making it hard for Iran to raise loans on the international market, much needed investment will be slow to arrive. Additionally, according to the outgoing oil minister, “whatever we do would have too many social costs”. Social costs which cannot be abandoned without threatening the survival of a regime which has hitherto survived largely on fear.

It is unlikely that the new 25 year deal with China will resolve Iran’s economic problems any time soon, and the situation is only likely to get worse since 500-600 are currently dying every day in the pandemic. As a comrade recently wrote “we are surviving not living”. The main and only hope lies in the growing and widening resistance of the workers throughout Iran, highlighted in our introductory paragraph, which show that the struggle goes well beyond the workers in the oil industry. These workers are not only acquiring some of the organisational skills to build resistance but are also pointing the way to the rest of the class that enough is enough. Inflation and unpaid wages are fuelling this struggle but it needs to go further. Workers are now offering each other solidarity but they also need a programme which reflects their class interests. There are all sorts of scoundrels, from Stalinists to liberals and monarchists, who are ready to sell their bankrupt political solutions as panaceas. In the increasingly catastrophic economic and environmental crisis of the world capitalist system the need for an international political movement to unite the entire world working class is more necessary than ever before. Only by abolishing a system based on profits for a few, extracted on the backs of the many who create the value of these profits, can the world be refashioned to put basic human needs, like clean water, first.

Jock and Damoon

Solidarity with Iran’s Oil Workers

The stakes are being raised in the battle for the line of control between capital and labour in the Iranian oilfields. The striking workers face enormous odds. Not only are they and their families facing hunger and insecurity, but the task of keeping the strike together is not easy. The workplaces are scattered across a vast area with, as in so many occupations in this precarious world of work, a lot of contractors and sub-contractors employing workers on temporary contracts with different terms and conditions.

And as if that were not enough, the presence of regime elements / provocateurs in the strike leads to all sorts of fake proposals to divert the strike and divide the workers. This is the central concern of the bulletin translated below. Here, the strike organising committee focus on the different diversionary tactics of the Pipeline Management Group, and the so-called Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics, whose actions can only benefit the regime.

The standout lesson here is the maturity with which the strike committee have dealt with these provocations. Instead of condemning those workers who have gone back to work they have recognised their real situation and argued that it is to prevent the rest of the workforce falling into the situation of the so-called “traitors” that the strike needs to be stepped up by setting up a hardship solidarity fund. In short they are attempting to keep all the workers involved in the oil strike together. This is not only part of a class position at this point, it is also a sign of the maturity and astuteness of the strike committee. Not for them the siren calls of different organisations that would divide the workers and compromise on their demands. Instead they are calling for workers throughout the oil sector to elect their own delegates to the assemblies which the workers themselves control. In this they are setting an example not only to other workers in struggle in Iran but to the world working class everywhere. They deserve our solidarity and support.

Internationalist Communist Tendency

Statement No. 12

An irresponsible and divisive approach to the strike
You must have visited the Pipeline Management Groups channel. In a new move, they have begun publishing a list of people that they say are "traitors", those who have gone back to work against "campaign" decisions. The striking workers have been encouraged by the leaders of these groups to denounce and name anyone who goes back to work as a traitor. This position of the leaders of this group, is another step in the line of their divisive actions and a blatant insult. It really has nothing to do with workers and shows that they have no idea about the worker's painful life.
We are well aware that workers in some places, facing extremely difficult conditions, under the pressure of hunger and job insecurity, have been forced to go back to work. And this naturally has put our fellow workers in a weaker position. It does weaken the strike in a way but we recognise the problems our friends face, and in order not to let our colleagues to be under such pressure of living in such situation, we have to strengthen our strike organisation. We can help our fellow workers by creating a financial solidarity fund among ourselves. This is what our colleagues in Hafshjan have done. This would allow us to decisively continue our strike till our demands are met, so the contractors can see that we are taking action collectively and we have the will not to give up on our demands.
Fellow Workers!
The strike breakers are the contractors who are under the support umbrella of the government, the law and the factory security force. They are now gearing up to establish an Islamic Council in the oilfields, to create a living hell in the oilfields taking our lives and living standards hostage. Let’s explain a little more.
You see, we workers have so many issues. We have many problems. We are fed up with all this coercion and slavery, humiliation and insecurity, and that is why we have gone on strike. The contractors are trying to create divisions in our rank so they can break our strike. We must thwart their conspiracies with our collective wisdom and united resolutions. Do not be surprised when our colleagues are forced to return to work because their children are starving. Calling these loved ones traitors and worse, to list their names as traitors is a double injustice and shows a lack of respect for these workers. Calling them traitors divides our striking workers. If a worker is forced to go to work during our strike, then the reason is that he cannot provide food for his family. You know very well that, as a worker, we have no other income. Salaries have not been paid for several months, and we face eviction from our houses at any moment because the rent has not been paid whilst our children have to pay for school because they are not entitled to free education. If you just have a simple health issue, it is unbearable, as the treatment is not free, and the coronavirus is also causing death every day. So it is clear that our strike has to face many obstacles. As we pointed out, we must remove these obstacles. We ask the leaders of the piping groups what is your response to these problems? Where are the financial solidarity funds that you have set up to stop the starvation and sickness that weakens our strike? With the existence of so many contracting companies in the oilfields, what has been your solution to deal with the contractors nationwide? You say, you are the ones who have raised the strike-breaking flag, before any one else did. Your stand on this strike has oscillated so many times. First you said that those who evacuate the workplaces and those who get together and speak out, are trouble makers, so you exposed us to the FATA police.(1) Then you came up with a plan to pursue demands within the law and decided to create a representative for us. What you tried to do was not welcomed and no consensus reached even among yourselves. After that, just when our strike was at its peak and our demands had not yet been met, you proposed a poll to end the strike, to which our colleagues in Hafshjan strongly responded by continuing their strike until the demands were met. And now, you have published the list of people who gone back to work as "traitors" in the media, whilst on the other hand, you are organising celebrations congratulating workers of such and such departments for going back to work. Your are again trying to organise a victory party to celebrate the end of the strike just for a few empty promises, as you did in last year’s strike.
We all have witnessed that under the pressure of our strikes, in some places contractors were forced into offering double wages and agreeing to the shift pattern of twenty working days on with ten days off and also improvements in accommodation and food, so that a number of our colleagues have gone back to work based on this kind of agreement. Our solution at this stage of the strike has been this: wherever the contractors come to negotiate with our colleagues for going back to work, in everywhere and at the national level, we should use the current agreement as a base level and not settle for anything less. In order to put ourselves in a strong position, we should elect our real representatives to enter any negotiation with the contractors, this would be the best and most effective way. In our opinion, this can be done in the way Hafshjan General Assembly showed. We should organise our own general assemblies and elect our own representative preventing others from doing so. Further more, we have not let the situation of our daily wage workers to remain in the shadows and officially announced that no worker should get paid less than 12 million Toman. It is obvious that, any improvement in our working conditions is the result of our powerful nationwide strike and nothing else.
Interestingly, in the meantime, a group called the Metal Workers' Syndicate, which had a plan to pursue our demands within the framework of the law, and had asked us workers to vote for one of their leaders, Maziar Gilani Nejad, as our "representative", has now come forward again and have asked us to put our names under their letter, the one that they had sent to the "Supreme Leader" in January last year, so our demands, could be followed up. In this way, they have cleverly lined up some of our demands in order to bring us back to work for another year, just on the promises that the government will do something. Our response to them is that we don’t believe their promises. The only way to achieve our demands is the united protest by us, the workers. And to do this, we will go ahead with our protests by holding our general assemblies, as we did in Hafeshjan, and by electing our representatives everywhere. Please do not stand in our way any more.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
10 August 2021

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(1) Iranian Cyber Police, abbreviated as FATA Police, is a specialized unit of the police force of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021