Iran: Imperialist Rivalries and the Protest Movement of "Woman, Life, Freedom"

After six weeks of bloody protests in Iran, which resulted in the death of more than 200 people, what is going on in the minds of the protesters on the streets of Iran? What is the next step? Will the Islamic Republic be overthrown as the saying goes: "dictators neither listen nor reform, dictators are only overthrown"? If yes, how? And the more important question, what will replace it? This note tries to briefly review the background of imperialist rivalry in the region and the attempts of various imperialist camps to use the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement in line with their own goals.

The Protest Movement and the Regime's Response

The Islamic Republic, in the face of any kind of protests/strikes, usually uses an established and worked out model. We have discussed how this model works in the past(1) but, briefly, when a protest movement is formed it is brutally attacked by thugs, and plain clothes officers. By beating up protesters and strikers, the atmosphere is thus changed to one of tension and repression, resulting in the arrest of many activists. If the protest still continues after this first response, then, on the first or second Friday after the beginning of the protests, following Friday Congregational Prayer, the mass of supporters of the regime, mainly Basijis (Revolutionary Guards who deal with internal dissent) and people in plain clothes, with their families, take to the streets in the name of the Islamic Ummah (community), in a counter-demonstration in favour of the regime. They usually start their well-publicised marches in the capital, Tehran, as well as other major cities. Then the leader of the Islamic Republic, in a televised speech heralds their victory over the "troublemakers". At the end, he congratulates his “beloved conscious people” for their victory over the enemies.

But this time, despite a couple of attempts, it seems that this has failed to produce any tangible results after six weeks of conflict. It may be useful to briefly examine the reaction of the regime since the beginning of this protest movement.

On 3 October, the leader of the Islamic Republic, after 3 weeks of silence, put in an appearance and, completely ignoring the death of more than a hundred protesters, deliberately chose a military base for his first comment:

I say frankly that these incidents are planned by America, the Zionist regime and their followers. Their main problem is with a strong and independent Iran and the progress of the country. The Iranian nation has appeared completely strong in these events and will bravely enter the field wherever necessary in the future.(2)

Then on 12 October, exactly 8 days after the large demonstrations in the Iranian diaspora across the world, he said this in a meeting with the members of the newly chosen Expediency Council:

The Iranian nation has made great strides in a short period of time, which was 180 degrees opposite to the world's arrogant oppressors, therefore they were forced to react, and in this framework, by planning and spending money, they brought some politicians from America, Europe and many other places to the scene...(3)

Then, covering up his concerns, he dismissed the importance of the protest movement:

Be careful not to be distracted by these issues and don't halt our main and essential tasks ... Construction, major executive works, efficient legislation, major judicial changes and important issues in foreign policy should not be pushed a side because of these minor incidents. And by God's grace all will be well.(4)

However, the continuation of the protests forced him to address the same “minor” issues only two days after his previous speech, on 14 October, in a meeting with the officials of the regime and the guests of the Islamic Unity Conference, but this time, very agitated, he blurted out:

The Islamic Republic, a small sapling under the guidance of Imam Khomeini (RA) stood up to the two superpowers of that time, and that sapling has now turned into a thorny tree, so damn anyone who even thinks of uprooting it...(5)

With this decisive message, he is now saying that nothing will change. There is a powerful will for suppression so it will continue, but even having this will at its disposal, will the Islamic Republic be able to put down this protest movement?

Imperialist Line-Ups

The Islamic Republic took power in the February Revolution of 1979 by adopting, in the context of the Cold War, the "Neither East nor West" slogan yet with the open support of both imperialist superpowers of that time. After a short time, by taking US Embassy staff hostage, its relations with the West deteriorated, never to be fully reconciled. The Iran-Iraq War and the worsening relations between the Islamic Republic and the West pushed the Iranian bourgeoisie in the early post-revolutionary years towards adopting the Russian model of state capitalism, as in Mir Hossein Mousavi's government, and its close relationship to the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the war, pro-western factions gained the upper hand and with the formation of Rafsanjani's government, the tilt towards the West increased.

The founder of the Islamic Republic considered the Iraq War a blessing. The war, pushed the Iranian bourgeoisie to rebuild its industrial production in line with the military goals and equip its army at any cost, that is, at the cost of poverty and misery of millions, which it did. And in this way, it took the initial steps towards regaining its role as the regional gendarme, which it had lost after the fall of the Shah, although in a new form and manner, that is, by organizing proxy forces, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansarullah in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, etc.

The end of the war led to an economic boom, which gave the Islamic Republic the opportunity to install the reformist government of Khatami, to end its international isolation. This time its international policy was adjusted from "Neither East nor West" to "Both East and West".

Despite the initial successes of the Khatami government in improving international relations with the West it could not or did not manage to reach an agreement on a suitable position for the Islamic Republic in the imperialist order. Two important factors were decisive in this process. On the one hand, Iran's remarkable military progress in the field of missiles, which provided the weapons for proxy forces in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen, and on the other hand, the nuclear activities that Iran had kept secret from the International Atomic Energy Agency for years. After 9/11 and the adoption of American unilateralism in its wars in the region, despite the cooperation of the Islamic Republic with the United States in the war against the Taliban, the United States included Iran on the list of countries making up the “axis of evil”. This convinced the Iranian leadership that they should abandon Khatami's conciliatory policies of "Dialogue of Civilisations". With the establishment of the Ahmadinejad government, Iran increased its aggressive policy in the region, and slowly turned towards the East. Khamenei confirmed this on 19 February 2018:

In foreign policy, the preference of the East over the West, the preference of our neighbour over those far away, the preference of the nations and countries that have something in common with us over others, is one of our priorities today.(6)

Trump's administration, and his policy of exerting maximum economic pressure, made the Iranian leadership, especially Khamenei, even more determined to follow this policy. Iran increased its relations with the East in an unprecedented way. At the same time, the reformist faction of the regime, which made up a significant part of the supporters of the West, was marginalised. The leaked audio file of Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif makes for interesting listening:

We still see the world based on the bipolar model of the Cold War and measure it by criteria that are no longer relevant. Even today, we think that Russia and China should stand by Iran and fight America on a geo-strategic perspective. Russia and China – especially China – have defined their competition with America in the field of technology, not in the geo-strategic field.(7)

In any case, with the conclusion of a 25-year contract, this trend took on a wider dimension and worried Western statesmen immensely. In response to the signing of the 25-year agreement between Iran and China, US President Joe Biden said:

I have been worried about this issue for years.(8)

In geopolitical terms, this line-up has now taken on a clearer shape with the start of the Ukraine war and Iran’s supply of drones to Russia. These are the circumstances in which the current movement has emerged in Iran. The most important aspect of this situation is the existence of an unprecedented economic crisis that has engulfed the capitalist world and it is clear that all the alignments of these forces, given this background, will intervene in this movement in line with their own interests.

Two Camps of Lobbyists

In our article On the Hijab as Labour Discipline, and the Slogan of "Woman, Life, Freedom" we wrote that the extraordinary attention of the media, national and international institutions, and celebrities was surprising. Now, after a few weeks, we can definitely talk more about the manoeuvre of the fifth columns behind each of the parties.

More than 80,000 people participated in the Berlin demonstration on Saturday, 22 October. Leaving aside the class origins of the participants and also accepting the fact that for most Iranians, women's issues have become extremely important, you can still see by the sheer number of participants, and the political background of the organisers of this march as well as in the speeches of their leaders, the presence and input of the pro-Western lobbyists.

Hamed Esmailiyoun, who lost his wife and daughter in the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards in January 2020, was the one who called for this gathering. How his call became acceptable to all political currents can only be found in the magic tricks of the mainstream media. Addressing this march in the style of Martin Luther King he spoke of his dreams:

...we all have a dream and this dream will only come true with the fall of the Islamic Republic. This dream will be realised by the overthrow of Ali Khamenei's empire of fear and crime. In this dream, the neighbouring countries will see peace, there will be no chaos in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, no one will give Putin weapons to kill Ukrainians...(9)

But he could not even remain faithful to the philanthropic vision that he was aping. He soon lapsed into pure delusion and showed that the political horizon of his views did not go beyond those of the anti-government middle class. A political horizon of a system of exploitation where blood and filth flows from every pore.

In the imperialist world order, he simply became the defender of one faction against another faction, trying to replace one hated force with another.

He later appeared at Stanford University as the spokesperson of the families of the victims of the Ukrainian flight. Regarding his next call for a mass gathering to protest, he said:

If we decide to call on Iranian people to take the streets, I can assure you that I will be in Tehran that morning. I think it will take time to reach to that point. Maybe the third call for gathering will be in Tehran.(9)

His relations with various anti-Islamic Republic lobbies, including United Against Nuclear Iran (10), the Jewish United Fund (11), the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy (12), are no secret. If he is not a direct tool of the Western governments, he is definitely guided by them, playing on the natural sympathy of the public for the loss of his wife and daughter. He has always called for more sanctions.(13) A video published on social media shows Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, in the gathering of Iranians in Ottawa next to Hamed Esmailiyoun.(14)

It seems that, Hamed Esmailiyoun’s personal circumstances have placed him in the role of the leading figure of the opposition groups. The other three main lobbying groups and individuals, the monarchist Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) and also Masih Alinejad, have kept a low profile, for now just to line up behind Hamed Esmailiyoun’s leadership. However all of them have a long history of being supported by US hawk circles. MKO, as one of the well financed oppositions, has a semi military-camp in Albania and strong relationship with many right wing figures like Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, etc., and has always been a major headache for the Islamic Republic.(15)

Masih Alinezhd, as a social activist well known for her "My Stealthy Freedom" campaign against the Hijab, has become a centre of attention of many pro-war right wing circles both in US and Europe. Her recent tweet gives an indication about what these kind of puppets think:

We discussed how the West is rightfully helping Ukraine in its fight against Putin, but hesitates to take action against the Islamic Republic which has killed 100s of protesters and given drones to Russia. The EU must recognise the revolution taking place Iran.(16)

For its part, the government of the Islamic Republic, as always, tries to show that this protest movement is nothing but a product of Western intervention and hostility to Iran's independence and progress, and that the protesters are mainly Western footsoldiers or dupes. In this direction, in addition to using his potential forces, it uses its lobbyists who have been active in the last two decades. The National Council of American Iranians, abbreviated as NAYAK, is one of these organizations.(17)

In this regard, by resorting to these lobbies(18), the Islamic Republic has been able to not only reduce the pressure it faces in imperialist circles, but also to attract some of the left movements in the four corners of the world, to find support for its so-called "axis of resistance" in international forums.

In pursuing their “anti-imperialist” policies, they have made the concept of the “Global South” the key idea for their international supporters, in order to defeat and bypass Western sanctions.

Despite all these efforts, the logic of the economic crisis has overturned everything that the Islamic regime has attempted, so it now faces continuing public discontent. Despite the success of the past two decades in transforming itself into a regional power, this “thorny tree” is now struggling against international and regional rivals.

When Barack Obama took office, he managed, to some extent, to separate the Islamic Republic from the China/Russia axis with the JCPOA (nuclear) deal. But the policies of the Trump administration, despite intense economic pressure, not only did not achieve anything, they pushed the Islamic Republic completely into the Chinese and Russian bloc when the Islamic Republic became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council. It also made the regime more active in pursuing its atomic activities. Since coming to power, the Biden administration has mostly just observed Iran getting closer to China and Russia. This protest movement has now provided an opportunity for the West in general, and America in particular, to take the initiative by meddling in what is a genuine protest movement against the regime.

Although with the continuation of the war between NATO and Russia on the territory of Ukraine, changing Iran into an anti-Russian force is vital for the West, however it seems that US prefers the weakened Islamic Republic to the option of its overthrow, or as Vali Nasr, the adviser to Richard Holbrooke in Obama's cabinet put it, it is enough to clip Iran's wings:

...everybody wants Iran’s wings clipped, everybody wants the Iranian Islamic Republic weakened hoping that the internal crisis will force Iran to withdraw from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and get out of the region but nobody, I think including the dictatorships in the region, wants these young girls to succeed, because the example that Iran is setting now is much much bigger than that.(19)

Having said that, the logic of protest movements does not always follow the will of the politicians, nor does the depth and gravity of the economic crisis allow them to do whatever they wish to. All global and regional imperialist forces are busy manoeuvring and undermining each other's plans. Both camps that were mentioned above are putting their alternatives as the only practical and fair option for the protesters. The regime is now facing a situation which it had not anticipated. In our next note, we will argue for a different alternative: “Bread, Jobs, Freedom – Soviet Power!” We will deal with the workers' struggle and the tasks of the communists, and in the light of that, we will outline the internationalist perspective.

Damoon Saadati
Communist Workers’ Organisation
1 November 2022


Image: 22 October demonstration in Berlin, pre-1979 Iranian flag next to the Ukrainian flag.







(7) Zarif was the Foreign Minister under the “reformist” President Rouhani.










(17) Roya Hakakian, Irwin Kotler and Hamed Esmailiyoun,

(18) See: and


Wednesday, November 2, 2022