15th December 2018
Protests continue to engulf Iran
A wave of protests has gripped Iran throughout 2018 since demonstrations engulfed 85 cities across the country last January. The protests are engaging the low paid, underemployed and disenfranchised, through to industrial workers in the steel and sugar industries and professional workers such as teachers. There is no strand of Iranian society which has not been touched by the protests. The regime is struggling to contain nationwide discontent.
At the beginning of November teachers went on strike for two consecutive days across 27 major cities in Iran. The action was the second round of strikes since mid-October, aimed at putting pressure upon the government to carry out educational reforms and end mismanagement. The teachers’ action is also protesting against low wages and the violations of the educational rights of students and minorities.
Teachers are also demanding the release of imprisoned teacher trade unionists, an end to indiscriminate investigations and the ongoing arrests of union activists.
The protests by teachers have been supported by students who are increasingly recognising that the circumstances of their educators will impact upon their learning and future job opportunities. Support has included student protesters at Tehran University, holding pictures of imprisoned teachers, interrupting a speech being delivered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The fact that students and teachers are feeling sufficiently emboldened to take action, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago in Iran, underlines the extent of the growing crisis inside the country.
Unrest has also been long running in the steel industry in Iran. Workers at the Iran National Steel Industry Group (INSIG), in Ahwaz, have gone on strike numerous times in recent months to demand overdue wages. In June, many workers were rounded up by security forces and freed only when other workers launched protests.
As well as their immediate economic demands, steel workers are increasingly linking their situation to corruption at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic and articulating demands for political change. This reflects many of the slogans echoed by teachers and students, adding to the growing sense of a crisis of political legitimacy in the country.
The same pattern is evident at the Haft Tapeh sugar cane facility, where workers went on ten continuous days of strike action in November, in protest at months of unpaid wages. The political nature of the dispute was reflected in the chanting of slogans such as “hail to the workers, down with the dictator.”
The response of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to nationwide unrest among the millions of ordinary workers is that there is a “foreign plot” to overthrow the regime.
Since the US pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal in May and re-instituted two sets of sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s economy, the currency in Iran has been nosediving, affecting the value of wages and impacting upon the purchasing power of ordinary Iranians.
The deepening of sanctions by the United States, which came into play on 5th November, will only exacerbate this situation. The ability of Iran to trade on international markets is being restricted to the point where the US is effectively implementing a trade embargo.
There can be no doubt about the anti-people credentials of the Iranian regime. For over 40 years the Islamic Republic has been to the forefront in its abuse, arrest and torture of the political opposition, trade unionists, women’s organisations and in suppressing student protests. The regime in Iran is only matched in its vicious response to internal criticism by the United States’ key allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
However, the sanctions imposed by the United States are not about acting in the interests of the Iranian people and freeing them from an oppressive regime. The US sanctions are entirely about the power balance in the Middle East, with the US seeking to impose its will and maximise control of the region’s resources.
Ironically, the path being pursued by Trump was initiated under President Obama, as part of the United States’ New Middle East Plan, to reassert influence and bolster resource control in the region. Obama’s version of the Plan resulted in the nuclear deal in 2015 and a more nuanced approach to containing the perceived threat of Iran to the regional power balance.
Not surprisingly, for Trump there are no such niceties. To all intents and purposes, the gloves are off and the New Middle East Plan mark 2 is simply to bring Iran to its knees, whatever the cost to the prospects for peace in the region or to the plight of the people of Iran.
The worst case scenario, a military strike on Iran, is something many in the US administration have not taken off the table. Western foreign policy, specifically that of the United States, is currently treading a very fine line from which one slip could plunge the region into war.
It is vital however, that whatever form change in Iran takes, it is based on the will of the Iranian people, not the will of external forces. Solidarity with the people of Iran in their struggle for peace, human rights and democracy is more vital now than ever.
A democratic Iran would still face the threat of political sanctions and the ongoing danger of military intervention, by the US or one of its proxies in the region, but would nevertheless be a huge step forward for democracy in the Middle East.