FRSO Statement on Iran: Our Strategy, Theory, and Vision

National Executive Committee of FRSO/OSCL

It is no easier for Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO/OSCL) to understand and respond to the dramatic events now shaking Iran than anyone else. The situation there is confused and fluid, shifting daily. The basic assumptions of Shi’ite society under the Islamic Revolution differ in important ways from our own. The U.S. media is a disgrace, producing simplistic banalities when it bothers to comment at all. Still, we have an internationalist obligation to do our best to understand, to support the masses in struggle, to undercut bids by our own rulers to take advantage of the situation and to draw lessons for our own struggle.

Opposition protest at Azadi Square, Tehran June 15, 2009 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

An obvious starting point is that the current upheaval appears to have the objective features of a revolutionary situation – the masses of people can no longer live in the old way and the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way.

Is this an accurate characterization? If “can no longer live in the old way” is taken to mean they are starving to death or working 14-hour days, well, that’s not the case. But there is clearly an enormous pent-up demand for democracy in a situation that one Iranian commentator has characterized as 80% clerical fascism, 20% electoral democracy. This is paired with a widespread disgust at the massive corruption and stagnation that riddle the economy.

For women, the “old way” can be summed up in a single instance: last year the Isfahan newspapers reported approvingly of a local father who killed his 17-year-old daughter Farzaneh to preserve the family “honor” after she was abducted by her sister’s ex-husband. The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women reports in its listing of cases, “There are few instances of specific whipping cases in Iran on this page. This is because whipping/lashing is so common in Iran that it often goes unreported.”

If you were a woman in Iran, you would probably not feel like living in the old way, just as few women (and even men) in the U.S. would feel much like living under the “Biblical” old ways advocated by Christian Dominionists.

It also seems that the rulers can no longer rule in the old way: Iran has an enormously complex governmental structure, which makes it unresponsive to class forces not well represented in its ranks. Ultimate power rests in the high-level Shi’ite clergy, some of whom – 30 years after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah – are among the wealthiest people in the country. A map of the government shows that a clerical veto exists even over those who are permitted to run for public office. The elected parliament is a relatively powerless body.

The result is that the system is enormously corrupt and stagnant, with struggle over division of oil revenues a major feature of the economy. A significant number of the clergy, even at the highest level, feel that participation in day-to-day politics has had a corrupting influence on the faith and is eroding support among the people, so they favour a less overtly theological structure. The stagnation makes it hard for capitalists to “expand or die” in the regional and global market, or even to attract capital, in the form of modern production facilities and partnerships from firms in more modern capitalist economies. (Thus it also makes for considerable structural unemployment and underemployment among the young.)

1. Were the elections stolen?

In a very important sense, it doesn’t matter. The masses in Tehran and other major urban centers clearly believe they were. There are a lot of arguments back and forth on this subject among think-tank experts, media pundits and, unfortunately, a few left groups and commentators who frankly don’t seem to know doodly squat about what actually happened.

The basic case made by those who uphold the election is that Ahmadinejad has a very strong base of support among the urban poor and in rural areas. He does. Under his administration, their incomes, if not their actual living standards, have increased. This is usually accompanied by the claim (recently made by the actual Number One in the country, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) that the margin claimed for Ahmedinejad, 11 million votes for 67% of the total, was too large to have been falsified. Something to remember here is that Ahmadinejad didn’t just have to come in first, but needed to be clearly over 50% to avoid a runoff (and the old folk saying, “If you are going to steal, you might as well steal big.”)

Those who are hollering “Stop thief!” offer a wide range of evidence. Some of it is unverifiable (like leaked election commission documents purporting to show that Mousavi won big and Ahmadinejad came in third). Some things, though, are incontestable. Election results were announced, and endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei, within hours of the polls closing, in a country where 40 million voters’ ballots are hand-marked and hand-counted. This was three days before election law called for the results to be reported. Numerous reports of particular irregularities have been verified – the powerful Council of Guardians itself admits that the vote count in 50 cities was greater than the number of voters in those cities!

2. Is this just a movement of the privileged?

Media coverage in the West has highlighted the participation of the young, the educated, the professional, women and above all city dwellers in the growing waves of street demonstrations. For starters, that is no reason to suppose that is the limit of the movement. Western media coverage is drawn in significant part from email messages, YouTube videos and Twitter tweets sent from Tehran and other cities – communication forms more accessible to the well-to-do. Some reports indicate that many shopowners in the bazaars and other small businesspeople are taking part as well.

As far as the working class, we learn only bits and pieces, like the resolution adopted mid-June (June 16, 2009) by the workers at one of Iran’s largest auto plants:

We the workers of Iran Khodro in each working shift Thursday 28/3/1388 [18 June, 2009] will stop working for half an hour to protest 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.

The Vahed Bus Workers Syndicate has also spoken, in a statement that ties the workers’ struggle to the wave of civic protest:

The fact that the demands of the vast majority of Iranian society go far beyond those of unions is obvious to all, and in the previous years we have emphasized that until the principle of the freedom to organize and to elect is materialized, any talk of social freedom and labour union rights will be a farce.

Finally, let’s suppose for a moment that the movement is spearheaded by the sectors cited. Should we therefore turn our backs on it? The core of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the U.S. in the ’60s was relatively young, relatively privileged, relatively educated, relatively urban. The rulers of this country did everything they could to pit working-class people and folks from rural areas against it, creating social and political fissures that survive today, forty years later. Whatever its flaws, that movement was a landmark in the long struggle against oppression and for a better world.

3. Is this an imperialist plot, a new “colour revolution”?

The term refers to mass protest movements that toppled unpopular regimes in Eastern Europe, movements ardently promoted by the U.S. government and led by student cadre trained by U.S.-based foundations, especially those associated with “liberal” financier George Soros. These unseated, after contested elections, rulers who were seen as autocratic by a large section of the population and whose policies were regarded as inimical to those of the United States.

This recent history follows the long trail of criminal intervention by the United States in other countries’ affairs, including Iran itself in 1953, when the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh was overthrown and the Shah’s monarchy installed, and 1973 in Chile, where a U.S.-funded “middle-class protest movement” provided cover for the military coup which overthrew the government of Salvador Allende.

It is not, however, adequate to point to past examples and declare, “This must be more of the same.”

For one thing, such movements erupt independent of imperialist machinations. For reasons that can only be attributed to Eurocentrism, there is almost never mention in the media of the Umbrella Revolution in Madagascar in 2002 (preceding both the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the 2003–4 Rose Revolution in Georgia). Here too huge, nonviolent protests, month after month, in the capital city, finally stymied the theft of an election by the incumbent dictator. The old regime had enjoyed the backing of France, the country’s former colonial ruler; the few U.S. embassy staff and NGO personnel who supported the protests were promptly shipped out of the country by the ambassador. The protesters won anyhow.

For another, no concrete evidence has been offered. In the case of Chile in 1973, for instance, the media there and throughout Latin America detailed the role of U.S. officials and corporations such as ITT in fomenting opposition to the democratically elected government headed by Salvador Allende. The role of Soros and other Western imperialist interests in Ukraine and Georgia earlier this decade were likewise no secret at the time. It would be foolhardy to say that the CIA and other nefarious forces didn’t try to affect the election campaign, but where’s the beef?

Imperialists may be counted upon to seek to turn any revolutionary upsurge in another country to their advantage, but that fact of life should not be used to negate the insight offered by Mao Zedong: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.”

4. Is it a real revolution?

It certainly didn’t start out as one. Rather, it was a normal bourgeois electoral campaign with serious underlying issues conducted under rules strongly favouring incumbency (only one month of campaigning, a largely state-owned media) and with Western-style big-bucks electioneering more prominent than ever before.

Tehran June 15, 2009

Opposition protest at Azadi Square, Tehran June 15, 2009 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

With a large turnout, a dubious result and obvious irregularities, it became a struggle to retain and strengthen bourgeois democratic structures already in place. Once the protests were denounced and physically attacked by the regime, the struggle took on a very different character.

Chants of “Where’s My Vote?” aimed at Ahmadinejad have in a matter of days become “Death to the Dictator” – meaning Supreme Leader Khamenei – and resound loudly across the nighttime rooftops of Iran’s cities.

While this is still far short of a program for social revolution, it is more than a “let’s have more rights and less corruption” vision of what Iranian society needs. It is becoming a broad call for the transformation of Iranian society and governance. The logic of the situation is bringing the advanced and the masses in great numbers into direct conflict with the state.

The protests draw heavily on the memory and traditions of the 1979 Islamic Revolution for legitimacy and broadly unifying themes, like the use of the Islamic colour, green, as the hallmark of the protests.

The two features necessary for a revolutionary situation to develop which we cited at the start of this article come from the leader of the Russian Revolution, V. I. Lenin, a man who knew what he was talking about when it came to revolution. His list of the prerequisites for a revolution has a third item, however, a subjective one. For a revolution to succeed, there must be an organized, conscious and disciplined force leading it.

Objectively the leadership of the struggle so far is Mir-Hossein Mousavi – he was the candidate from whom people feel the election was stolen and he has chosen to ignore threats of arrest or worse and to call for continuing and deepening the struggle. His electoral platform was long on press freedom and women’s rights, and he called for a more open approach to other countries, while sounding nationalist themes like upholding Iran’s nuclear power program and complete nationalization of the oil industry.

A member of the post-1979 elite and a former Prime Minister (responsible in large part for the brutal wave of executions of thousands of political prisoners and other progressives in 1988), he does not even represent a stable organized party, even an electoral one. He has tried to keep the protests within bounds and to build alliances in ruling circles, but the intransigence of the regime has pushed him to defy government edicts banning demonstrations and to throw his backing to the range of increasingly militant protest actions arising in the struggle.

Other leaders could still emerge, even from among the clerics, and presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who ran a relatively weak campaign as a social and economic reformer, has actively supported the protests. Still, the savagery of the repression and the use of Twitter and other Web 2.0 means of communication make it hard for new central leadership to coalesce under present circumstances (a problem worsened by the efforts of the regime to use them to sow division and disinformation and to hunt down activists).

Forces that consider themselves revolutionary socialist parties, organizations or armed groups are, from all that we can tell, fairly weak, although all have called for participation in and support for the people’s upsurge. Language in the full Vahed Bus Workers Syndicate statement quoted above shows distinct Marxist influence.

5. Will this be Tiananmen, China, June 1989,
or Leipzig, East Germany, November 1989?

Frankly, things don’t look especially good right now. Mass public opinion around the world has gravitated solidly to the side of the popular movement, but there is only so much impact this has in a country which has already survived a prolonged U.S.-headed international drive to isolate it, and where massive oil reserves mean it is not dependent on foreign aid or credit. It is very good that the world is watching, but political power still grows out of a barrel of a gun.

One of the strengths of the mass movement, under the existing conditions, has been its essentially non-violent nature so far. While the moral example is important, so is Khamenei’s fear of triggering a cycle of martyrdoms with memorial rallies after each 30–40 day mourning period, like the cycle that helped bring down the Shah.

But there has already been violence. The Basij is a volunteer militia that purports to enroll 10 million men and women, largely young, is at least nominally under the direction of the Revolutionary Guard. It has been the main instigator so far, not only beating and shooting protestors but also extensively and randomly trashing cars and shops, of which attacks ample photo and video evidence has leaked out of Iran.

This appears to be a coordinated effort to create chaotic and dangerous conditions and reduce turnout at the big demonstrations, short of a Tiananmen-style massacre. Certainly among the young protesters, the killing of demonstrators has triggered attacks on neighborhood Basij headquarters, with some of them burned to the ground.

The purging of leaders inside the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (usually called the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Western media), whose reliability the regime fears, has been widely reported inside Iran but without confirmation so far. Were it true, that would be a big deal. Formed out of the 1979 revolution, it is best understood as a parallel army with its own command structure, focused internally in peacetime and heavy on the theology. Its troops provide not only soldiers, but staff for an air force and a 20,000-strong navy! And it is a major player in the Iranian economy, running both illegal enterprises and legitimate businesses (mob style) that may account for as much as 30% of the country’s economy.

The Revolutionary Guard were apparently used extensively against protestors on Sunday [June 28]. It was their helicopters that dropped teargas bombs on the mobile groups trying to keep linked up in the streets. They are also undoubtedly the source of the modern assault rifles that have been issued to the Basij, and they are reportedly directing the fearsome nighttime abduction raids on the homes of suspected activists.

One of the biggest question marks is the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the regular armed forces, which has largely stood above the fray so far. It is a highly professional force, hardened by the real First Gulf War, the 1980 – 88 border war between Iraq and Iran that produced a half-million fatalities or more (a war in which the U.S. government employed a “let’s you and him fight” strategy to keep the war going and weaken both countries). Its claim on the affection of the people stems from this, and even more from the refusal in 1979 to obey the Shah’s orders to attack street protests. The Army is seen as a force that will not fire on Iranian citizens. (Veterans, incidentally, tend to be pro-Mousavi, as he was an able prime minister during the war with Iraq, while they regard Ahmadinejad as a poser who has a history of making bogus claims of heroism during the conflict.)

As this is written, the protesters seem to be shifting tactics to limit attacks, by turning toward a general-strike strategy and limiting targets for the Basij. The threat of extending already severe economic disruption is aimed at trying to get various sectors in the ruling elite to abandon Khamenei and permit new, transparent elections or install a more “moderate” government. Unless some section of the armed forces rallies to the protesters or the Army steps in to limit the activities of the Basij and Revolutionary Guard, it’s hard to see how the movement can accomplish the revolutionary tasks that are in essence being forced upon it.

One of the gravest dangers facing Iran now is that if the movement surges forward, a bloody civil war could erupt. The ranks of those who back Ahmadinejad and Khamenei truly believe in their leadership and the holiness of their mission, and they will have arms and government sanction.

More likely outcomes are less dramatic:

  • Ahmadinejad and Khamenei win and a tightening-up of clerical rule and general repression ensues, at least in the short term.
  • Ruling circles, especially among the clerics, force a compromise with some personnel changes and improvements in governance and human rights. Protests force the formation of a more standard-issue bourgeois democratic government with a reduced role for the clergy.

Most importantly, there are close parallels with the 1978-9 struggle to oust the Shah, and both the regime and the popular movement are sharply aware of them. One that is being cited by the protesters is that that struggle was savagely repressed and stretched out over a year of surges and beatdowns before the final victory.

6. What are the stakes – and the tasks –
for those of us outside of Iran?

Perhaps the most important effect so far has been to humanize the people of Iran in the eyes of millions here. The courageous millions who are risking and indeed giving their lives to protest repression and dictatorship have struck a chord in the hearts of freedom-loving people everywhere. The unrelenting campaign to demonize Iran has been going on for thirty years, since the overthrow of the Shah, but it has intensified in the last decade as Israeli and U.S. rulers grow panicky at the thought that Iran may develop nuclear weapons. The drive for a massive air assault from Israel or from U.S. carriers based in the Indian Ocean to “degrade” Iran’s nuclear facilities and its industrial capacity overall has hit a giant roadblock – resistance to the idea of killing more Iranians than the Basij are.

A major question is brewing offstage: What will all this mean for the U.S. occupation of Iraq? One major bit of geopolitical blowback from the U.S. invasion has been heavy Iranian influence in Iraq through its ties to the Shi’ite parties that currently dominate Iraqi political life under U.S. occupation (and thus are the pivot for an objective alliance between the U.S. and Iran there). Iran has provided funding, training and other resources to those parties, and devoted considerable effort to trying to marginalize Muqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was an effective anti-occupation force and who has consistently called for Sunni-Shi’a national unity to force the U.S. occupiers out of the country. (Interestingly, Ayatollah Sistani, the top Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, who has roots and respect in Iran, shares the “reformer” position that religious leaders should not engage in politics or government.) This is something to watch.

Our own rulers are speculating (in a real sense) fiercely on the outcome. A minority, in the neo-con and Israel lobby circles, have openly rooted for an Ahmadinejad victory – it’ll make it easier to promote a military attack. In this they echo the head of Israel’s Mossad who recently warned the Knesset, “If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived internationally as a moderate element.” And of course a defensively bellicose or unstable Iran makes it all too easy for the U.S. arms industry to continue its huge sales to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States.

Most in U.S. ruling circles, however, are eager to see a “reasonable” government, i.e. one open to U.S. influence and even oil companies. Foreign policy strategists hope such a regime will diminish Iranian influence in Iraq and Iranian financial support for the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Anything they say or do should be regarded in light of these imperialist ambitions, which is to say with extreme skepticism.

At the same time, the example of this heroic struggle and whatever victories it wins for democracy, for women’s rights, for workers’ organization, for civil society, will become a source of inspiration and lessons for men and women around the world.

7. What Can We Do About It?

As activists and revolutionaries here in the belly of the beast, we have an internationalist duty to support the struggles of oppressed people for justice and liberation wherever they occur. We have a particular obligation in cases like the upsurge in Iran where our own rulers are speculating desperately on the outcome and seeking to pose as friends of the oppressed.

Our tasks – let’s call them responsibilities – are not all that complicated.

We have to keep informed. This may require a bit more work than it has in the past. There has never been a political upsurge of this scope in which the new media has been so central, whether organizing on the ground in Iran or spreading the word in the rest of the world. Newspapers are almost beside the point.

We need to avoid looking at everything through U.S.-based lenses. Some women are protesting in jeans and frosted blonde highlights. More are protesting in hijab. It’s not our business to decide that one group or another is a model – or a distraction.

We have to educate our friends, family, coworkers, fellow students who are following this with interest and sympathy. As part of this, there needs to be exposure of the motives and assumptions behind the media coverage and posturing by politicians and elected officials. (Where were these passionate advocates of free and fair elections when the Lavalas party was banned from Haiti’s elections mere months ago, in April?)

In particular, pundits’ discussion offering insider praise of Obama’s caution in making speeches about Iran’s internal business provides a great opportunity to explain that there are some very good reasons why the people of Iran hate the U.S. government and distrust its motives. Like the presence of huge occupying U.S. armies on their western border, in Iraq, and their Eastern border, in Afghanistan, to say nothing of aircraft carrier groups just outside of Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

In practical terms, this means exposing and struggling against U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Iran, including preventing the use of the current struggles as a pretext for military strikes, covert operations, etc.

Folks with technical skills and web 2.0 chops can help folks in Iran with mirror sites and other workarounds to breach the increasingly tight telecom censorship the regime is engaged in.

We need to find ways to reach out to the people of Iran, and to Iranian progressives here. We have to take part in solidarity demonstrations and to have a revolutionary voice within those protests.

A cautionary word: We also cannot afford to lose interest when the current struggle is past its peak or moves to a new, less videogenic stage. Iranian workers, for instance, have been facing considerable repression when they have unionized for some time, but it has been largely ignored except in the international union movement. We in the U.S. ought to be calling attention to all forms of repression that are taking place in Iran and all the political and social demands the movement is raising.

Finally, with the situation changing with lightning speed we have to use theoretical tools, as this statement has attempted to do, from the Marxist tool caddy, but we must beware of mechanically applying preconceived notions or drawing definitive lessons while history is unfolding. There will be plenty of time to sum up later. We will be looking to the Iranians who took part in this great upsurge for much of that work, but if we take up our responsibilities now, we too will have something to add to the mix. •

This article was first published on the Freedom Road Socialist Organization website (FRSO/OSCL).