A wave of protests in Iran has become the largest challenge from below that the Islamic Republic regime has faced in well over a decade. Beginning with protests against a law forcing women to wear the headscarf, or hijab, in public, it quickly developed into a movement demanding much more fundamental change—and even the overthrow of the regime itself.
Entering its third month as this journal went to press, the movement has proved impressively resilient. Every week, young people have taken to the streets and campuses of every major city in Iran, defying the state’s bullets, tear gas, thugs, jails and executioners. At times, tens of thousands of people have joined the protests on symbolic dates, such as the 40th day after the death in custody of Kurdish student Jina Mahsa Amini, which sparked the revolt.
The movement has shown some signs of drawing in organised workers, with limited examples of strikes sympathetic to its aims, and of forcing concessions from the regime on the enforcement of the headscarf law. Yet, it also faces obstacles and weaknesses. It has yet to pull a critical mass of people into its ranks, and the element of workers’ action within the revolt remains restricted. Moreover, the regime’s response is still heavily characterised by repression—it had hanged two activists by mid-December and had plans to execute another 25 people. On top of this, the movement has to contend with Western actors, primarily the United States, that would like to manipulate it for their own ends.
Iranian historian and socialist Peyman Jafari spoke to Naima Omar and Nick Clark on the cracks and contradictions in Iranian society that lie beneath the revolt and shape its significance and its prospects for success.
Naima: We’re speaking just a few days after the regime signalled it would suspend the morality police. Does this show the movement is winning? Why has the regime done this now? What does this say about its capacity for making concessions, and can we expect more in the future?
Peyman: We can see that this movement has already gained some successes and changes. One is that they have put the question of women’s rights at the forefront. The image of the woman is not anymore that of a victim but rather a militant agent of change. It has really shifted the mentality and consciousness of thousands of people in Iran.
But in terms of the strategy of the state, it is pursuing both repression and concessions—though mainly repression at the moment. At the time of speaking, there have been 470 deaths, and around 18,000 people have been arrested.1 Yet, after almost three months of protests, debates have emerged at the top of the regime about whether it should give some concessions. In reality, the morality police had already been withdrawn from the streets due to pressure from the protests. Now the regime is experimenting with the idea of abolishing the morality police or replacing it with other means of enforcing the compulsory hijab law. This is to test the movement and see if people would see this concession as enough. It is also a test to see how far “hardliners” within the regime will allow it to go.
The regime has made the compulsory hijab its identity. The conservative wing has tied its fate to the hijab law by saying it represents the core of the regime. They claim that, if they backtrack on this, it means backtracking on the fundamentals of the regime. Nonetheless, this is a regime that is very flexible because, like any authoritarian state, it wants to remain in power. So, the most important concession would be lifting the compulsory hijab altogether. Lifting the compulsory hijab would be a huge victory for the movement, and parliament and the judiciary are debating this at the moment. I do not think they are going to officially rescind the compulsory hijab, but they may come up with a more flexible implementation of it. In a sense, the demand for the abolition of the compulsory hijab could act as a transitional demand for the protests, uniting a majority of the Iranian population, including both religious and secular people.
There are fissures within the regime. Some reformist factions have finally come out in favour of lifting the compulsory hijab. The conservatives have said, “No, we don’t want to backtrack on this at all.” The moderate faction says, “We must officially maintain the compulsory hijab, but we don’t need to enforce it.” So, they want to take a more pragmatic stance. I think that the regime does have the flexibility to let go of this rule in time. If the protests continue and they become life threatening for the regime, it will drop it in order to survive, and you can see that this is already being discussed. But the movement has responded very sceptically, saying that this is no longer just about the hijab law. A very significant segment of society is now saying the whole political system has to change.
Naima: Can you tell us more about the history of how women have resisted the compulsory hijab in Iran?
Peyman: It is important to see forms of resistance as a spectrum. One way is resisting in your everyday life, and another is resisting by collectively fighting for your liberation.
The compulsory hijab law goes back to the Iranian Revolution, which took place in 1978-9. The mass participation of women from all sectors of society was important in the revolution. Non-religious women participated alongside religious women who wore the hijab, and they were a mass presence in the demonstrations. After the revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the conservative forces consolidated power in their own hands, they also started controlling women’s bodies. One expression of this was introducing the compulsory hijab. They actually tried to do this in 1979, immediately after the revolution, but there was such resistance that they failed. Women took to the streets on International Women’s Day and beat back their plans. However, then the Iran-Iraq War started. The regime demanded national unity, which undermined resistance, and the compulsory hijab was introduced in 1983. Some people on the left joined the women on the street, but unfortunately many did not, instead saying, “We have to back the regime against imperialism.” This carries an important lesson—the left has to be at the forefront of fighting for women’s liberation and fighting for individual rights.
When the war ended, the public space for women actually increased. This is one of the paradoxes in Iran that I want to emphasise. Before this, many religious families would not send their daughters to study or work. Now, because there was a public space that was Islamic, they would send their daughters from rural areas into the towns. Universities began to expand, so more women started participating in education. Literacy among women increased, and more women went to university. Today, somewhere between 55 and 60 percent of university students are women. Thus, women began to participate more in the labour market too. Yet, when they did so, they started running up against the walls of discrimination: experiencing wage discrimination, not having the freedom to dress how they want in public and not having the opportunity to choose certain jobs.
So, women started challenging those rules in their everyday life. They began wearing the hijab more colourfully or wearing it more loosely and, because they were doing this in their millions, the morality police could not control all of them. Thus, in the last decades, that rule kind of relaxed more and more. However, this form of individual resistance has its limits, because the morality police now and then could come out and enforce their power, disciplining woman and intimidating them to set an example. This everyday resistance is not unimportant—after all, it helped increase the confidence of women. Nonetheless, what is important now is that it has developed into collective resistance.
Nick: In a previous article for this journal, you described the contradictions at the top of the regime and the resistance from below. Can you tell us how this has developed since you last wrote in 2009? Is the movement today a continuation of all that?
Peyman: I wrote that article to describe the political crisis that emerged after the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. The protests that started then came to be known as the Green Movement. In the article, I wrote, “The post-election crisis was a product of, on one hand, an unprecedented rupture in the ruling class and, on the other hand, a huge mobilisation from below.” In my view, 2009 was the watershed moment in post-revolutionary Iranian society. Both the splits at the top and the movements from below had emerged during the revolution in 1978-9, but they had been more or less manageable for three decades.
The Iranian Revolution was made by various different forces—the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the left, the secular nationalists and the Islamists. The Islamists were the most dominant force, but all of these currents made the revolution. However, the Islamists around Khomeini repressed the other forces (including those with other interpretations of Islam) and concentrated power into their own hands. The Islamic Republic was born out of political and social contradictions, and it institutionalised them at various levels.
What I mean by this is that, because the revolution was made with such massive popular participation, they had to make concessions to it. If it was just down to Khomeini, he would have concentrated power solely in the hands of a theocratic system, but he could not do that. So, he established the power of the clerics—expressed through the Supreme Leader, a position now occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Guardian Council (which has the power to veto presidential and parliamentary candidates)—but there were also parliamentary, presidential and municipal elections. There were also all kinds of popular organisations at the level of the neighbourhoods, as well as students’ unions, professional associations and workers’ organisations. So, there was a contradiction between the power concentrated in the hands of the clerics and the continuing influence of these popular organisations. The result was a mixture of theocratic and republican elements.
A clash emerged between these two forces in the 1990s after the Iran-Iraq War, and fissures emerged at the top. A faction coalesced around Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wanted to integrate Iran into the global market and push it into more free market policies domestically. Conversely, the conservatives wanted to keep Iran closed. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected as president in 1997 with a landslide victory, and re-elected in 2001. The reformists very much expressed change: more political reforms, easing social restrictions and so on.
But I want to stress that there is a dialectic between these fissures at the top and what is happening in the rest of society. There was also the continuing contradiction between the state and the social forces. The workers’ councils that came out of the revolution in 1979 and 1980 were disbanded by 1982. Independent labour organisations, women’s organisations, students’ organisations and so on had all been repressed. Yet, the networks survived. In the 1990s, they started to re-emerge. Workers started to reorganise. Islamic feminists and secular feminists started to unite in the early 1990s, establishing women’s publications. The students started to reorganise. Women and young people challenged social restrictions in public spaces. These pressures in the early 1990s forced the elite to think about strategies to manage the contradictions within the state and between the state and society. The different strategies that emerged from this, which were based on varying interests and ideological outlooks, gave rise to fissures at the top.
The paradox of the Islamic Republic was that it was an Islamist movement, but it was also a modern one. The regime presided over the expansion of education, growing urbanisation and so on. People’s lives were changing, and they were making demands on that basis. So, people at the top of the regime were thinking about how to manage these changes. Rafsanjani wanted to manage the change by creating a social contract that kept the system politically closed and barred any huge political liberalisation, but he also introduced economic liberalisation. People were coming out of the Iran-Iraq War, during which there had been great poverty and scarcity. Rafsanjani thought that by allowing mass consumption while shifting towards the free market, he could buy off the population and manage the change.
However, the regime undermined the populist social contraction that had emerged from the revolution by carrying out these policies. This social contract had meant that the rural population and the lower classes were relatively cushioned from the impact of the Iran-Iraq War. They benefited from social welfare programmes, development initiatives and the expansion of education and healthcare. At the same time, though, they were deprived of the right to organise independently. When inflation rose and inequality started to increase as a result of Rafsanjani’s liberalisation, this gave rise to some urban revolts. In 1992, there were protests in at least five cities, and the shantytown dwellers around Tehran clashed with the police over the price of petrol in 1995. This created extra pressures that opened the political space for the reformists to enter in 1997. They said, “In order to manage the changes, it is not only enough to have economic liberalisation. We also need more cultural freedoms such as women and men being more able to mingle in parks and public areas. The hijab should not be as restrictively imposed on people.” The number of publications in Iran increased. Movies started to come out in the theatres. The public space grew and became more diverse.
At the same time, however, the reformists also continued the free market economic reforms. That created more grievances among the lower classes as inequality increased. For instance, the reformists said that a labour law protecting workers’ rights, which had come out of the revolution, would no longer apply to workplaces with less than ten workers. The majority of workplaces in Iran had less than ten employees, so the lower classes were alienated from the reformists and thought they were only interested in defending the rights of the middle classes.
Moreover, the conservatives started to undermine their reformists, arresting academics, writers and reformist politicians. The reformists could have mobilised the lower classes to protest on the streets, but they failed to do so—they were still very much part of the political system. This led to two forms of disillusionment with the reformists. On the one hand, they did not stand up to the conservatives. On the other, they actually continued the policies of Rafsanjani.
There was also an international factor that weakened the reformists. The US had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, encircling Iran, and were saying Iran would be next. President Khatami, a reformist, was trying to open up to the West, becoming part of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and talking about a “dialogue among civilisations” as a counterpoint to the US neoconservatives’ “clash of civilisations”. Iran even collaborated with the US in its preparations for the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2002, however, President George Bush declared that Iran was part of an “axis of evil”. The conservatives in Iran could say, “The West is not reliable. You are reaching a hand out to them while they are preparing to attack us. So, we are not going to tolerate any kind of reformist experiments as long as we are under threat.” They increased the crackdown on the reformists and the opposition. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps gained more power.
The revelation of Iran’s nuclear programme in 2003 led to the imposition of new sanctions. Some of the sanctions imposed on Iran could actually benefit the regime, because they increased the black market controlled by people aligned with the state who had the ability to import products and sell them on illegally. The Revolutionary Guards enriched themselves because they controlled the border and the ports. Repression and sanctions were weakening Iranian civil society. At the same time, impoverishment led to disintegration of the huge number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that existed in Iran, which had been organised during the relative opening up that took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There were thousands of NGOs focused on the environment, students and women’s rights at national and neighbourhood levels. However, when there is impoverishment, everybody starts thinking of survival instead of organising. Moreover, the foreign threat gave an extra excuse for the Revolutionary Guards to repress any kind of organisation. They claimed, “Now you are being aligned with the foreign countries.” The Revolutionary Guards could also demand more money because they could say, “We are under military threat.” So, the sanctions increased inequality and undermined civil society and social movements in Iran. They strengthened the most repressive elements in Iranian society.
This opened up space for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to get elected as president in 2005. Ahmadinejad represented a third strategy beyond the reformists and conservatives. He used a kind of populist rhetoric about protecting the poor and ensuring that the income of the oil exports benefited the population, but he also cracked down on any social and political freedoms that had been gained. So, he did get some votes from the lower classes, winning another election in 2009, but his policies also created disillusionment. For instance, he started mass privatisations of industry, which benefited people in the regime. People in the Revolutionary Guards and the bureaucracy started buying these companies that were being privatised. I think he wanted to create a fresh social basis for the state within this new section of the private sector—a semi-private capitalism very much aligned with the state. When he won the elections in 2009, people went on the streets to protest due to evidence of electoral fraud. This led to the Green Movement, which took place between January and December 2009. Around three million people protested in Tehran, with hundreds arrested and many tortured. At least 107 were killed during protests or after being put in prison.
This brings us to the rupture at the top. The two reformist candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrested. The government also side-lined other reformists, and the circle of power became smaller. The protests had been repressed, and that repression increased in the following years. Then came the nuclear deal with the US, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China in 2015. The deal imposed strict international supervision over Iran’s nuclear activities, which were significantly reduced, and promised to lift economic sanctions on Iran in return. The moderate Hassan Rouhani had won the presidential election in 2013. He said signing the nuclear deal would improve the social and economic conditions of the Iranian people, and he also said he would give a bit more social freedom to women, young people and so on. The nuclear deal did end sanctions for a very short time because the economic situation failed to improve. Just one year after the deal was signed, Donald Trump had begun the contest for the US presidency by promising to tear up the nuclear deal, and this caused European businesses to be hesitant to develop ties with Iran.
After becoming president, Trump went onto to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposing draconian sanctions on Iran six months later, which triggered a rapid fall in the value of the Iranian currency on exchange markets and pushed up unemployment and inflation.
This was a disaster for Rouhani and the moderate and reformist factions of the regime, which had tied their political credibility to the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Many people were also rightly angry that Rouhani failed to actually stand up to the conservatives. Furthermore, his opening up of social restrictions was very limited because the conservatives pushed back against it. US imperialism was always a part of the problem here, strengthening the conservatives and contributing to the downfall of the moderates and reformists. The rupture at the top continued, and we have ended up with an even smaller circle of conservative hardliners in Iran.
Naima: Can you also describe how resistance developed from below, and how the protests now are organised?
Peyman: Remember that the Iranian Revolution was a very popular and widely supported revolution. After the 1980s, which were characterised by war and massive repression, we saw the re-emergence of protests. In the 1990s, we saw the return of the student movement, the women’s movement and the labour movement.
Workers had played a very important role during the Iranian Revolution, but they were then repressed when the pro-Khomeini forces consolidated their power. However, they started to organise again against neoliberal reforms that made work more precarious. There were, for example, important strikes among oil workers in 1997. These failed to achieve their demands, but they nevertheless inspired the re-emergence of the independent labour movement. Worker activists started to reorganise. In 2003, the bus drivers in Tehran organised an independent union. Two years later, sugar cane factory workers in southern Iran followed suit. May Day in the 2000s became a rallying point for workers to organise protests. This has continued over the past 20 years, although with lots of repression, especially after 2009. In the past few years, the number of labour strikes in Iran has been on the rise because of the worsening social and economic conditions.
There have also been two mass protest waves in the last few years. One was against increasing inflation in December 2017 and January 2018. There were mass protests in dozens of cities, which were then repressed. Then, in November 2019, the government tried to end fuel subsidies. Prices went up, and this once more led to revolt in dozens of cities. The changing social composition of the protests was very important. In 2009, it was mainly the middle classes (and mainly in Tehran) coming onto the streets with political demands. However, during the protests of 2017 and 2019, it was really the working class—mainly the unemployed and the impoverished sectors of the working class—and working-class socio-economic demands were the real driving force. This chiefly took place in smaller, peripheral towns.
Importantly, there is now a nascent coalition between working-class and middle-class youth who are coming together at neighbourhood level, and there is therefore a fusing of social and political demands. So, they do want the lifting of the hijab laws and more political freedoms, but also better social and economic conditions: higher wages and so on. This is a fragile and unequal coalition, since workers’ economic and social demands are an important driver of protest and yet are not expressed in the main slogans of the demonstrations.
Nick: What’s the relationship between the protests and the workers’ movement?
Peyman: It is important for the success of this movement that it engages more people in the protests. At the moment, we are seeing tens of thousands of people in the streets, but not yet hundreds of thousands or millions. The other crucial aspect is workers joining the movement, which would increase the numbers on the streets and fuse the protests with strikes.
The emergence of a general strike would be a game changer. The Iranian Revolution managed to overthrow the old monarchy because workers joined the movement in the autumn of 1978 and went on strike in the oil industry and other sectors. By December 1978, there was a general strike that paralysed and toppled the monarch. In the same way, a general strike would be a game changer in the current movement. Not only would it really economically hurt the state, but it would also overcome some of the risks of repression because it would allow workers to join the movement in their millions. After all, the state simply can’t send its soldiers and police to thousands of workplaces. A general strike would also show to the movement its own viability—that this is a movement that can mobilise masses of people and win—and thus motivate even more people to join the street protests.
I think there are serious obstacles in the way of this happening, though. One is the lack of organisation among workers, which is mainly due to repression. Nonetheless, as the strikes continue, more workers are linking up the existing networks among truck drivers, teachers and the Tehran bus drivers. Another obstacle, however, is the neoliberal restructuring of the workforce, which has created large numbers of precarious workers. So, about 200,000 people are employed in the in the oil industry, but half of them are either employed through subcontractors or have temporary contracts. This creates divisions among workers that can prevent collective action, although these can be overcome.
Another obstacle is that the Iranian economy is bifurcated. It has a large informal sector, and many workers are employed in small workshop that have only a few workers. Taking strike action in such workplaces is possible, but it requires strategizing and is difficult. However, there are also large concentrations of workers in around 400 state-owned companies. Strike action in these companies tends to clearly become political, even when the demands are economic, and this raises the risks for the workers involved. Just as during the Iranian Revolution, workers in this sector of the economy have huge disruptive power but tend to go on strike only once the protest movement gathers a certain critical mass. Once the street movement weakens the state, these workers become more confident about taking industrial action.
Another problem is that the current movement lacks a clear socio-economic programme. The coalition emerging between working-class and middle-class activists is still very fragile, and the middle class is dominating. It’s necessary that, alongside slogans against authoritarianism and for cultural freedoms, the movement also raises very clear socio-economic demands against privatisation, precarious labour, outsourcing and liberalisation, and for caps on the income of chief executives. Why would workers join the movement if the only thing it wants is to replace the current elite, organised around a version of political Islam, with a secular elite that would basically continue the same old politics?
Naima: You touched on oil workers. How important is oil to the regime? How important are oil workers to the movement?
Peyman: The importance of oil workers is symbolic and strategic. It’s symbolic because oil workers invoke the idea the Iranian Revolution and previous movements such as in defence of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the president who was overthrown by the US and Britain in 1953 because he nationalised the oil industry. So, these workers joining the movement would have this huge symbolic impact. It would be seen as a continuation of Iranians’ struggle for democracy and social justice. But it would also be of strategic significance. Oil is very important in Iran, both in terms of domestic consumption and exports.
I do want to note, though, that the importance of oil workers has diminished relative to time of the revolution in 1978 and 1979. The oil workers are still very important, and I don’t want to undermine their significance, but the composition of the working class changes over time. The Iranian economy has diversified, so it is not as dependent on oil as it was 40 years ago. The oil workers’ role has also diminished due to the sanctions. The Iranian government is less reliant on oil income because they can’t export as much as previously, and this means they can build up reserves that can last several months.
So, we also have to look at different sectors of the economy. I think transport workers are crucial because the distribution of oil products depends on them. If they organise strikes, they can really harm the regime. One industry that has emerged from developments over the past few decades is the food processing sector. The metal and car industries in Iran are the largest in the Middle East, and they are thus very important. Plus, there are a huge number of small workplaces around the cities.
I also want to stress the importance of the service sector, which has grown in Iran. The role of teachers and health workers, for instance, has become much more important. The teachers’ union has organised a number of strikes over the years. I think teachers are going to play a vital role because they can link the middle class and the working class. They were traditionally seen as part of the middle class, but their working conditions have become very similar to the rest of the workers. Culturally, however, they are still seen as part of the middle class, and I think they are going to play a very important connecting role for this reason.
There is another vital aspect of the transformations within the working class that I want to mention: the feminisation of the labour force. Lots of women have gone into education, as I have already mentioned, but they have a hard time finding jobs after leaving the educational institutions. If they do find jobs, they are discriminated against. Some jobs are not even open to them. There is sexism in the workplaces, wage inequality and no childcare. The burden on them is massive. Women make up just 18 percent of the workforce, which is one of the lowest rates in the world. Lots of the anger we are seeing among women is also a kind of class anger against the discrimination they face in the labour market.
Nick: You touched on how sanctions and imperialism have weakened revolt from below and strengthened repressive forces. Can you talk about the attitude of the West towards the current movement? How should the left in the West respond?
Peyman: It’s a positive development that the majority of leftist organisations and intellectuals in the West support the movement. There have been dozens of solidarity statements and petitions, and left-wing organisations and media in many Western countries have given moral and material support to the uprising. Of course, there are some figures and groups who are hesitant to give their support to the protests because they fear this would benefit Western imperialism and fuel Islamophobia in the West, but they are a minority. As many on the left have shown, it is possible to support the protestors and simultaneously oppose imperialism and Islamophobia. At the same time, a debate is needed in the Iranian movement because some intellectuals and activists have fallen into the trap of denying the dangers posed by imperialism. Some have attacked the notion of “anti-imperialism” because it has been tainted by the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic and the small sections of the international left that support the regime and advocate campism. Such groups define imperialism as a Western, US-led phenomenon, denying the reality of Chinese and Russian imperialism, and they thus see denying the atrocities committed by the Islamic Republic as a way of opposing imperialism. Instead of rejecting the concept of anti-imperialism due to these small leftist groups, those who support the revolt should instead reclaim the idea of anti-imperialism. There are at least two key reasons for this.
First, the stance of the Western elites is utterly hypocritical. The Western states support all kind of authoritarian governments in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states as well as the Israeli apartheid state. The Western governments are not interested in democracy. They would happily throw Iran’s democracy movement under the bus if they got the chance to do so by striking a deal with the regime. Moreover, history shows foreign regime change projects, often preceded by years of sanctions, frequently result in war, civil war and new forms of authoritarianism. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are examples of this. Therefore, the Iranian movement has to fall back on its long tradition of combining struggle against domestic oppression and foreign domination.
Second, the concept of imperialism is still vitally important because it refers to the exploitative and repressive nature of the global capitalist system, in which economic and geopolitical competition among powerful states impacts local and national realities and limits the possibilities for genuine liberation. The dismantling of the Islamic Republic is a necessary step for improving the lives of 85 million Iranians, but it is not enough. A post-Islamic Republic Iran will be subjected to the same pressures of global capitalism that have subjected millions in developing countries to extreme inequality, poverty, job insecurity and so on. Liberal fantasies about a national bourgeoisie that will bring welfare and democracy ignore the fact that Iran’s capitalist class will depend on the state to offer protection against both foreign capital and popular resistance, thus recreating authoritarian politics in other forms. Therefore, although some problems are particular to Iran, others are global. Take, for instance, Iran’s environmental crisis, which is partly the result of the developmental projects that started under the Shahs and have continued under the Islamic Republic. The unbridled construction of dams is one expression of these destructive policies. However, recent draughts in Iran are largely the result of climate change, which is a product of global capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. Hence, Iran’s environmental problems will continue after the Islamic Republic. Iran’s social movements need to build solidarity with movements in other countries to challenge global capitalism.
Moreover, due to its natural resources and geopolitical position, Iran is subject to imperialist pressures from the US, Russia and China. Russian and Chinese imperialism have already adversely impacted Iran, dragging it deeper into the war in Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s cruel regime and forcing Iran to sell its natural resources at low prices. Iranian fishermen operating in the Persian Gulf have suffered badly from the overfishing by Chinese trawlers, and the ecosystem has been damaged too.
The US has considered Iran an obstacle for its power projection in the Middle East since the 1979 revolution. It has supported Iran’s adversaries such as Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and Saudi Arabia today. It has also imposed devastating economic sanctions on Iran. After the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, many in Washington DC were considering an attack on Iran. A further way in which the West interferes in Iran is the way it attempts to shape the oppositional discourse against the Islamic Republic. Many politicians in the US and Europe, including 230 MPs in the British parliament, promote the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that consists almost solely of Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an extremely authoritarian organization that is infamous among Iranians for its cult-like internal relations and its support for Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Other US and European politicians promotE oppositional figures with pro-US and neoliberal politics. These narratives are spread through satellite television channels such as the Saudi-funded Iran International.
For all these reasons, the struggle against Iran’s authoritarian regime needs to be underpinned by a progressive politics that looks not only beyond the Islamic Republic but also beyond the borders of Iran to advance an alternative that will benefit Iran’s working class and impoverished middle class by challenging imperialism and capitalism. In doing so, the movement has to build coalitions with protest movements in the US, Europe and the Global South that are confronting their own ruling classes, rather than accepting and giving support to reactionary politicians. This is not an abstract discussion. Masih Alinejad, for instance, who is one of the main oppositional figures of the Iranian diaspora, has in the last few years aligned herself with people Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, and other US politicians who have been at the forefront of attacking abortion and workers’ rights. This contradicts the universal message of “women, life, freedom”, which is the main slogan of the revolt inside Iran.
Naima: Why do you think that some parts of the Iranian opposition are looking for Western support.
Some of the opposition, mainly outside Iran, are looking for shortcuts for revolution. What is happening in Iran is a mass revolt with a revolutionary perspective, but we can’t yet talk about it being a revolution because the mass movement is not strong enough. It has not yet mobilised millions of people, and the fractures at the top of the regime are not deep enough. Some forces, which have good intentions, are looking at what is needed on the ground to develop the revolt into a fully fledged revolution and have started thinking, “If only the US would support us! If there were more sanctions on Iran, it would lead to change.” That is mistaken. There is no shortcut to change—it can only come from below.
I think that the activists on the ground are actually way to the left of the voices that are amplifying the movement outside of Iran. I’m referring to the diaspora politicians that are being also promoted by European and US capitals as leaders of the movement. For instance, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, met with some of these figures, promoting them because they have neoliberal politics. What they want to do to Iran is the same that has happened to other countries in the Global South. Basically, they want some level of political and social freedom, but also intensification of the neoliberal reforms that will harm Iranian workers.
There is another group that wants to push Iran in the direction of more economic sanctions. Such sanctions would isolate Iran and weaken civil society, laying the ground for more tensions that could potentially flow into a military conflict. Some oppositionists even talk about Israel, for instance, striking the nuclear installations in Iran. This sentiment is criminal—there are 85 million people in Iran, and the fallout would physically harm so many people. What’s more, the regime would withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and start making a nuclear weapon, because it doesn’t have a nuclear weapons programme at the moment. It would mobilise the power of the Revolutionary Guards. They would come out in force, saying, “We are under foreign threat.” They would repress any kind of opposition and concentrate power in their own hands.
As I explained earlier, sanctions are already hurting the movement, weakening the disruptive power of workers in Iran. Workers have become impoverished; they do not have reserves, and there are no strike funds. So, they don’t have money to fall back on for a few days or a couple of weeks, meaning it’s more difficult to go on strike. People make the mistake of thinking that the poorer workers are, the more readily they will go on strike. Actually, organising strikes is about workers’ confidence. When workers’ confidence increases, that’s when they will strike.
Naima: Many commentators want to see the movement purely as a revolt against Islamists. Yet, around the world, women’s bodies are a political battleground, whether it be the headscarf laws in Iran, the fight for the right to wear the hijab in European countries and the struggle for abortion rights across the West. What does this mean for those in the West that want to co-opt the movement?
Peyman: I think the biggest intervention going on by the West at the moment is ideological. The Western elites are trying to say the struggle is exceptional to Iran and the hijab. Even on that level, this is not the case. Similar restrictions on women’s clothing are in place in a number of countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of the Western states. There are social restrictions and gender segregation in the public space in these states. A huge number of women who have actually fought for women’s rights are now in prison in Saudi Arabia. Thus, what is happening in Iran, even just in terms of the dress code, is actually broader than just an Iranian issue.
The struggle is also much broader because it touches upon women’s freedoms, which are under attack everywhere. So, those Republican politicians in the US who come out in support of the Iranian women are some of the biggest hypocrites on Earth, because they’ve been pushing through attacks on abortion rights.
Moreover, on a political level, yes, Iran is an authoritarian country, but it is actually much less authoritarian than many US allies. So, although there have been mass protests in Iran in the last four decades, such movements are more or less absent from countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, when there have been protests and revolutions in Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt, the ruling elites in the US and Saudi Arabia organised interventions against these movements for change. The Western powers want to direct the current Iranian movement in a way that reproduces their allies in the region. The best outcome that they see is something like Egypt—a military dictatorship with meagre political and social freedoms, but allied with the US and its neoliberal policies.
So, yes, there must be freedom in Iran, but the Iranian struggle is part of a bigger fight for our political freedoms across the region and throughout the world. On a socio-economic level, too, what the Iranian state has been doing is similar to what the US and European countries have encouraged around the world: neoliberal restructuring of the economy. The privatisation and growing labour precarity that we have seen in Iran has also happened around the world, including in the West.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-9 was the last great revolution of the 20th century. Today, a revolution in Iran might be the first in a new wave of upheavals in the region and globally, which would bring together issues of cultural freedoms, social freedoms, and political and economic change. These causes all converge in Iran. The battle is on already.
1 The regime announced it had carried out its first execution of a protester from the movement on 8 December, two days after this interview took place and six days after it signalled it would suspend the morality police.
Peyman Jafari is Assistant Professor of History and International Relations at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is also a co-editor of Worlds of Labor Turned Upside Down: Labor Relations and Revolutions in Global Perspective (Brill, 2021) and Iran in the Middle East: Transnational Encounters and Social History (IB Tauris, 2015).