By Mina Khanlarzadeh, Z-blog, January 4, 2018
In May 2017, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran faced an unusual public confrontation from miners angered by a deadly explosion. Photo: Office of the Iranian Presidency.
Those of us who have followed the news of workers’ strikes in Iran don’t need various kinds of conspiracy theories to interpret the recent protests. An example of such workers’ strikes is this speech by Khadijeh Nissi during the strike of Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Plantation and Mill Complex about 2 months ago. There Nissi protests against several months of unpaid incomes and she demands that there be structural changes to how their workplace is managed. The conspiracy theories used to interpret the recent protests are typically built on a conservative official Raeisi plotting against the administration of Rouhani, and imperialistic interventions to create chaos in Iran. There has also been a tendency to condescendingly emphasize the increase of the price of eggs as the main trigger of the protests. Thus the protesters are considered to be manipulated against their own political interests while fighting for their rights to reasonably priced eggs. The conflict between the conservative and the reformist factions of power in Iran is true, and the proxy wars in the region are also factual, and the price of eggs has increased—but the compound of politics and the economy is much more complex than such essays suggest.
A recent earthquake in Kermanshah devastated the local population. Images of victims of the earthquake exposed to the cold without homes and without access to the basic necessities of life demonstrated the government’s incompetence and corruption to the entire nation; it resulted in the crisis of authority or the crisis of the state as a whole, as Gramsci would have put it. Because of the economic sanctions, it was considered a crime to send aid from the US to the victims of the earthquake in Iran. That’s why any message of solidarity (with the recent protests) from US officials (and other advocates of the sanctions against Iran) are hardly to be taken seriously. The helplessness of the victims of the earthquake are to be considered amongst the causes that fomented the collective urgency to protest against political-economic corruption, and the collective sense of closeness and mutual compassion. In addition, the recent earthquakes in several cities brought people into the streets for safety measures. In Iran, taking over public spaces for a particular event often creates a place for protesting against the corrupt sociopolitical conditions.
In a comprehensive essay in Persian, Parviz Sedaghat has explained that structural inflation and structural economic corruption are inherent to Iran’s economic system, and that changing them would require structural reforms that neither of the political factions, reformists or conservatives, show a willingness to conduct while in power. The accumulation of wealth that has been taking place through the limitation of labour wages and the exploitation of nature, along with the intensification of deregulation policies, have had devastating consequences for the working and underclass sections of the society. Para-governmental foundations, as actors above the laws of the state, along with budgets dedicated to ideological and geopolitical gains of the government, are part of the structural corruption. Protesters have targeted the Iranian government’s “humanitarian” interventions in the region in their slogans such as “leave Syria alone, give Iran some compassion,” (soorieh ro raha kon, fekri be haal-e maa kon). While nationalist views (which happen to echo Iran’s governmental discourses) explain geopolitical expenditures through discussions about national security and Iran’s self defense in a war-torn region (and the importance of war against terror)—the practical experience of marginalized people as a result of these expenditures is poverty and the inaccessibility of resources. As if it is the height of luxury for people of a war-torn region to call for anything other than security.
For many of us the current protests began with a video of a girl who removed her headscarf in a solo-protest against forced hijab, while at Enqelab (Revolution) square in Tehran. Several Iranian social media commentators called her Iran’s statue of freedom. It is important to consider all the components of inflation, economic corruption, social-political repression as the important factors against which people have recently protested. This is the reason why one slogan keeps being repeated in various cities: “employment, bread, freedom,” (kaar, naan, aazaadi). It is ironic, therefore, that many commentators only emphasize inflation as the cause of the recent protests, while the president of Iran Ayatollah Hasan Rouhani has stated: “People aren’t in the streets merely for financial issues. They are not there only for bread, water, and money. They also want us to open up the space for them.”
The statement of several independent workers’ organizations in support of the street protests explains the reason for the recent demonstrations as follows:
“Today, we see the eruption of the accumulation of working class people’s rage due to, on the one hand, looting and defalcation of milliards by highest officials, people, and financial institutions that are related to the government and, on the other hand, poverty and misery of millions of people, unemployment of millions of workers and youths, the beatings of street vendors and the killings of Kurdish koolbars [porters who carry commodities on their backs commuting between Iran and Iraq border], the imposition of wages several times below poverty level on workers, and the imprisonment and torture in response to any demands of social justice and freedom.”
Reformist discourses consider electoral politics as the only venue to relatively liberalize the state’s domestic policies and to pave the road for negotiations with the US for removing or lessening the economic sanctions against Iran. While the reformists’ claims as being the only faction of the government in favor of nuclear negotiations is not entirely true, their more liberal sociopolitical policies (compared to the more conservative section of the government) is considered legitimate in Iran. Siding with the reformists is to favor the strengthening of liberal values. People legitimately find the space created by rupture between reformists and conservatives as a safer place for a critical stance towards the status quo. Their demands, however, soon surpass what reformists are willing to undertake both ideologically and pragmatically. Nevertheless, reformist discourses similar to conservative factions of the government are dedicated to full deregulation (neoliberalization) of the economy regardless of the impoverishing repercussions of such policies. Furthermore, the redistributive demands and policies are considered to belong to a bygone era and such demands are relegated to society’s false consciousness.
The reformist thinker Abbas Abdi has demanded that the Iranian government implements harsh tactics against the protesters, suggesting that the protesters are similar to the MKO armed activists of the early 80s and that they are organized by the revenge sensibilities of the governments of the region. Abdi has asked why the Iranian government was harsh on the MKO armed activists in the 80s but is not harsh on the current protesters. Another reformist thinker Mohammadreza Jalaeipour has suggested that political expression must be articulated through the ballots and not the streets. He has suggested further that there cannot possibly be a space for politics now given that it is not time for elections. Ebrahim Nabavi, a reformist satirist, tweeted: “the movement of potato eaters is about to join the masses’ lines , […] bring your red baskets […].” The term potato eaters refer to the impoverished neighborhoods that Ahmadinejad had tried to manipulate by distributing potatoes among them. He calls protesters potato eaters given that the protesters have economic concerns, and he considers them manipulated perhaps because they’re not in the streets for the political benefits of the reformers.
The current protests do not enunciate their politics through the language of one of the factions of government. One of the slogans has been: “reformists, conservatives, the story is over,” (eslaahtalab, osoulgara, dige tamoome maajera). The social class contrast that is made between the current protests (as working class) and the 2009 Green movement (as middle class) is groundless. The most active areas in the recent protests however, have been cities and villages long treated as peripheral. The prospect of a movement demanding transformation towards social justice, not expressing their demands in a state-oriented language nor through the discourses of the reformists, has horrified commentators who were formerly proponents of reform in Iran.
There is a joke in Persian that goes as follows: a man, mourning the death of his friend, is crying at his friend’s grave, when the dead friend suddenly emerges from the grave alive and well and and asks for a drink. The mourning man is horrified by the return of his dead friend, hits him on his head with a shovel, and sends him back to the world of the dead. The reaction to the recent protests in Iran by many progressive activists, who cry at the grave of meaningful change and transformation, has been similar to that of the mourning friend. Horrified by the class consciousness of the slogans shouted in the streets, and by the unfamiliarity of the political expressions which are not articulated in the language of the reformist faction in power in Iran, some political commentators have tried to hit these latest aspirations for change on the head in an attempt to keep the status quo intact in fears of dangers.
The statement of several independent workers’ organizations states: “this time around it is us, the workers and people of Iran, who, with solidarity and coalition and continuation of our protests, will set our own destiny.” It remains to be seen how these protests continue, but it is plausible to think that we are watching the beginning of a collective movement for meaningful structural transformations in Iran.