Schools and universities closed, the internet switched off in the whole country, thousands arrested and hundreds of people killed. Hidden from the world, a massive bloodbath created and cleansed in one week.
Fuel to the fire
Right at midnight, on November 14, Iranians learned petrol was rationed and the “free rate” had just increased by 200%. It was a Friday, a day off in Iran. The surprise midnight announcement was probably aimed at minimising dissent over the weekend, making it manageable for the security forces. Nevertheless, some scattered protests started here and there. With the start of the workweek, spontaneous protests erupted in many big cities and small towns. Thousands of drivers turned their engines off in the middle of the roads. Some trucks dumped their load of cement or dirt on the street. In Isfahan, there was an impromptu picnic on the highway. To rub salt on the wounds it also snowed heavily in Tehran, and a thick white blanket, apocalyptic for mid November, lay on the ground. In a few hours the streets of the Iranian capital and most of the other major cities were completely blocked.
But it was not just civil disobedience. With over a decade of continuously falling living standards, popular anger is at an all-time high, higher than the 2009 Green Movement, or the similar wave of protests in the winter of 2018. Hundreds of petrol stations, banks, and government buildings were set ablaze. This was particularly the case in poorer suburbs of Tehran, regions with significant Kurdish or Arab populations, and smaller marginalised towns across the country. Security forces were prepared for a brutal response. Expected measures were teargas, breaking car windows, beating up demonstrators, or forcing shopkeepers to reopen, but anti-rioters resorted to directly shooting at protesters in an unprecedented fashion. Many witnesses describe the severity of violence and crackdown as what could be seen in a warzone. Amnesty has confirmed more than 140 deaths, and there are credible reports that this figure is likely to rise.
The Iranian police, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij militia are not unaccustomed to killing people on the street, and such atrocities are by no means unique to Iran. But what is shocking is the scale and vulgarity of state violence. They did not kill this many in over a year of Green Movement protests, nor in the nation wide protests of 2018. To put it in perspective, it took one month for Iraqi security forces to kill 200 protesters, in a country that has been in a state of permanent emergency and armed conflict for almost two decades. In Iran, a country where the leaders were boasting of security and stability in a turbulent region, it marks a turning point to reach Iraqi death toll in just three days.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic knew how the image of crushing the poor with an iron fist would cause a great backlash, both at home and abroad. They knew it could lead to escalation of the protests. So measures were taken to keep everyone in the dark: shut down the internet. In what has been described as one of the most complex operations they blocked the global flow of information, and limited users’ access to the domestic intranet network, or “the national internet” they were working on for a decade. Only some approved institutions and few geeks with the know-how could make it online.
The shutdown made it nearly impossible to communicate safely, to call for action, report the news, or just get updates on what is going on. With domestic press intimidated and silenced, and with a near absence of international journalists, networks of activists and “citizen-journalists” were the main source of information, and they were muted too. Subsequently, without much confirmed details and reliable high quality footage of the events, major international media outlets did not give the story much priority in its first days. People from the same town did not know what was going on in other neighbourhoods, let alone the world; the internet shutdown paid off. Now activists and journalists inside Iran fear this could become the permanent communicative environment. Many politicians in the Iranian government used to express their aspiration for leading the country to become something like an Islamic version of South Korea. Turns out they are landing a bit further north.
Trump and Khamenei make a sandwich
Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic who enjoys a “Supreme” branding in the western media, backed the price hike and said protesters were thugs. The painful and pain inflicting decision to raise the price of petrol was made in the context of his “Economic Resistance” in the face of Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” approach to Iran. Unilateral US sanctions are back and Europeans, Russians, and Chinese have done almost nothing to ease the pressure on Iran, besides paying lip service to the crumbling Nuclear Deal. After the deal, Iran’s oil export reached 2 million barrels per day. It is estimated that currently they manage to export under one fifth of that. It is also increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to transfer this shrunk oil income and to use it to import necessary goods.
Damages of sanctions are hardly news to anyone. The Iranian Rial has lost around two thirds of its value versus US dollar and other currencies. The inflation for the past 12 months is estimated to be above 40%. The World Bank has projected 8.7% contraction for the Iranian economy. Many industries have gone bankrupt or operate with only a fraction of their capacity. Thousands of workers have not received salaries for months and pension funds are on the verge of collapse.
Faced with increasing external pressure and internal discontent, Khamenei chose to flex his muscles. Over the summer, a series of mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, the seizure of a couple of others, and the attacks on oil facilities, including Saudi Aramco, brought back the memories of the Tanker War. Dangerous elements in the Trump administration, along with the Saudi and Israeli governments, have been keen on starting yet another disastrous war in the Middle East, and part of the Iranian establishment, not bothered with the effect of a war on ordinary citizens, says: “bring it on”.
At home, oppression had already entered a new phase before the petrol price riots. “Revolutionary” courts started handing out 10 years sentences to trade unionists, journalists, feminists, and other activists, as if they were giving away candy to babies. They crushed the May Day events and many other demonstrations, arrested dozens of people, and indeterminately detained some without trial. Environmental activists, women who protested compulsory hijab, unionist teachers, few remaining journalists who dare to expose corruption, and even girls who wanted to break the ban on watching men’s football matches in stadiums, all have been treated as spies and foreign agents. In the months leading up to the recent riots, the Iranian civil society endured a harsh campaign of persecution and pressure that was brutal even with the Iranian intelligence and the judiciary’s own standards. Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raissi as the new head of the Justice Department. The cherry on top was his role in the notorious “Death Committee” that oversaw the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in August of 1988. Military escalation with international foes has served to justify tightening the security grip on society, in a level that amounts to pretext of a state of siege.
US sanctions help the Iranian establishment to push its agenda through various channels. As getting around the sanctions became a necessity, shady businesses flourished, supposedly in order to conceal the money from the US authorities; in effect nobody knows where the money goes. President Rouhani and his deputy say billions of dollars have vanished. They imply, somewhat plausibly, that the IRGC and the Leader’s associates are to blame. Rouhani’s administration is no saint itself. They handed millions of cheap dollars to government cronies, supposedly to import necessary goods, Turns out the managers and businessmen find their own pockets a better place for that money. Almost every week there is a new corruption scandal, and as the judiciary’s anti corruption campaign is clearly politically motivated it will not drain the swamp.
Ironically, the US sanctions also facilitated the formation of Iran’s intranet network. Global flow of information and relevant services are not sanctioned, but a de facto digital boycott has emerged. Fearful of sanctions, many internet services cut the access for users from Iran. Even GitHub kicked Iranian developers out without notice. Many Iranian businesses and websites could not have access to servers and other necessary digital services, so they brought their servers back inside the country. This paved the way for the “national internet”, as even with users access limited to the domestic network, some online shops, Iranian news sites, and other services could be available. The government could cut the internet and display a “business as usual” note too. This is exactly what they did after they increased petrol prices.
Anti-imperialist in the streets, neo-liberal in the sheets
Short on cash and faced with high deficit, the government had to cut some spending; they went with fuel subsidies. This was not the only logical choice. They could have cut the budget of hundreds of religious and propaganda entities. They could have reduced the costly intervention in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, a reduction that is a popular demand from Baghdad to Tehran. They could have rolled back the nuclear programme that is not bringing any tangible outcome for ordinary Iranians. But they went with the subsidies that millions of lives depend on. This was not accidental. Cutting subsidies, privatisation, and going for “small government” and “free market” have been guiding principles of economic policy in Iran for the past three decades. As the interior minister has revealed, the element of surprise was intentional, like in an ambush on the enemy. Trump created a disastrous situation, and the Ayatollah read Naomi Klein as instruction manual.
The oversized ideological apparatus and the massive military are crucial networks of the clientelist system that rules the country. Religiosity and revolutionary gestures are key entrepreneurial skills. Military commanders or, in Ahmadinejad’s words “our own smuggling brothers”, are amongst the biggest merchants of the country, and foundations with names of “Martyrs”, “Imam”, or “the Oppressed” are conglomerates interested in making money, not serving the lower classes they claim to represent. The Leader, despite his expressed affection and servitude for the poor and the oppressed, has given his blessing to the expansion of the financial sector, subsidy cuts, and taking away of workers rights. In fact, massive privatisation of major industries, mines, and public services started with his direct order during the Ahmadinejad era. Mr Ahmadinejad loved to pose with Chavez and Morales, and he still tweets about the Black Panthers and Tupac, but in the meantime he is also the president who won the IMF’s praise for enforcing the long awaited overturn of government subsidies.
The Islamic Republic is a driver who indicates to taking the country left, but makes a sharp turn to the right wherever it can. This Janusian behaviour is confusing. It is rooted in the muddled history of the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its specific amalgamation of varieties of Islamism, developmentalism, Iranian nationalism, and the bloody trajectory of establishment of an authoritarian system on foundations of a popular revolution with democratic aspirations. The cliques that have been ruling the country since the 1979 revolution have borrowed a lot from the leftists they exterminated. One of their main discursive strategies is built on monopolising the position of the champion of the subaltern: serving the masses at home and fighting the imperialists abroad.
Domestic class politics and foreign policy have been complementary. The US embassy hostage crisis in 1980 helped the Khomeinists to topple the interim liberal Islamist administration and to sideline the left. On the other hand the social justice branding helped them to win popular support in other countries to level of finding, or even founding, loyal allies like the Hezbollah in Lebanon. In universal celebration of the poor and (to a lesser extent) the working class, the I.R.I encourages the traditionalism and conservatism of a simpler more rural society of the past. Its rhetoric against the greedy capitalists and the upper middle class is coupled with denouncement of secular and western lifestyle. Challenging the Great Satan’s international hegemony means the I.R.I leaders are also naturally noble saints in domestic policy. In the meantime, the humble Ayatollah who dines with the orphans and stands up for the poor, would not meddle in other countries with some materialistic expansionist motives; if he intervenes he is acting on moral duty to justice. Actual class struggle is distorted with its cultural portrayal and is used as a proxy to silent dissent in the country and to justify the advancement of geopolitical interests at international level. Anti-Americanism is framed as anti-imperialism, which in turn serves as ultimate vindicator of any crime in foreign or domestic affairs.
This construction is crumbling. After the revolutionary moment passed, and the burden of war with Iraq was relived, the established Islamists, who were in charge of managing a rentier economy, went for the prevailing global model and increasingly framed the question in terms of efficiency of market mechanisms, entrepreneurial environment, respecting private interests, and capital accumulation. Consequently, the 1979 social contract has collapsed as the government gradually dumped much of welfare support and rights, some won by the revolution. This has created an “angry class”. As the November protests demonstrated, the poor and the oppressed have turned against the government, the Leader let go of them. He said: “this is a mistake today to refer to vulnerable and inferior people as ‘the oppressed’, by that we actually mean those who potentially could become masters of the world.”
Thanks to harshness of the “market” policies and the corruption scandals the Islamic cloak cannot conceal how the ruling elite enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else’s misery. The leaders preach against the degenerate western life, yet many of their own children live in London and New York. They denounce the predatory imperialism that plunders the national wealth of the “third world” countries, yet their corrupt officials, like the former head of the National Bank, transfer billions of dollars overseas. With the pretence of social justice washed away at national level, a main pillar of the I.R.I discourse is weakened. Therefore, they increasingly resort to strengthening the other one and double down on anti-imperialist rhetoric and military adventurism.
Why internationalist solidarity is crucial
The I.R.I has neatly knitted its foreign policy and domestic politics together, therefore any alternative force that seeks to redefine the political scene inside Iran needs a strategy to deconstruct and substitute the I.R.I narrative on international relations. This means the disorganised Iranian opposition is primarily defined in its opposition to the foreign policy of the I.R.I. A recurring theme in the chants of the spontaneous protests of the past decade is decrying the I.R.I policies and actions in the region; “forget about Syria, bother to look after us”.
As the Trump administration teamed up with Netanyahu and an increasingly aggressive Saudi kingdom, parts of the Iranian opposition groups in exile, including the Royalists and the MKO, believe they have a historical chance to overthrow the regime, no matter how weak and incoherent they are. New groupings and media outlets have popped up. A chauvinistic nationalism with “Aryan” delusions, loathing Arab people but with a soft spot for MBS, pro Israel, and blatantly authoritarian, is emerging as a viable counter-hegemonic strategy. A well-funded Bannonesque alt-right, with similar social media tactics, and amplified by friendly American and Saudi backed media, is pushing to hijack dissent and struggles inside Iran. In doing so, they reinforce the I.R.I’s discursive configuration. Dissent inside Iran is delegitimized as operations of outside forces, so in turn some dissenters find it easier to actually align themselves with those forces to at least make their voices heard and possibly get some support in the likely scenario of going to exile. This helps to justify further crackdown in Iran, which itself boosts proponents of aggression towards the I.R.I; a self-sustained ecosystem is in place.
With such counter-intuitive mutual augmentation of the I.R.I and its foes, political mobilization inside Iran becomes increasingly difficult. There will be sporadic and nation-wide popular revolts, but there hardly is a force to advance people’s demands. Domestic oppressors and international hijackers have created a crisis of representation for much of the social classes and strata. Leftists and liberals are squeezed out of the semantic space. Take hijab, which encapsulates various lines of battle. It marks the subjugation of women in a patriarchal order. It symbolizes the West versus the Orient. And as imposed by the Iranian law, it is a visible reminder of the authoritarian rule. When Pompeo uses Iranian women’s struggle as a prop for his propaganda, the feminist movement who seeks freedom and equality looks like a colonial endeavor. It is a more complex and confusing fight when the female body is directly linked to the battlefields of the IRGC and the IDF. Similarly, those who resist discrimination in non-Persian populated areas of the country could be portrayed as enablers of Balkanization. And now Trump’s maximum pressure seeks to go places on the back of the galvanized working class discontents.
Time and again, Iranian socialists, left liberals, and other progressive elements, find themselves in a conundrum: how to side with neither the authoritarian government, nor its imperialist enemy. With the shadow of war always on the horizon, much of the Iranian left, along with its potential allies amongst socialists of other countries, are vocal against the possible US intervention for “regime change”. At times their voices is not equally heard in protesting the government. The right wing opposition uses this to portray them as collaborators of a despotic regime, even though the first row of the death row and the full force of oppression have been always reserved for the Iranian left.
Ignoring such charges, it is urgent for the left to rethink the Islamic Republic of Iran. Another war would be a disaster, but a possible catastrophe should not distract us from the long on-going tragedies. This rethinking is not required only due to the Iranian progressives’ need for international allies, but also because the wider left would not be able to advance its international agenda without a deeper understanding and a more proactive position in regards to the Middle East. There are lessons to be learned for the international left’s confusion over Syria. Calling for peace in the face of warmongering is a matter of principle, so is supporting democratic struggles, and none of these principles, on their own, establish a concrete foreign policy. Perhaps a fringe left could afford to pick and choose and highlight one of its principles to make moral statements, but not anymore. With the very real prospect of Corbyn and Sanders in power, and with the wider global shift and radicalisation of centre left forces, it is not sufficient to reiterate the fundamentals, and a pressing question is how to build a socialist foreign policy. How could we rethink the role of the US and the UK in the world?
Both Sanders and Corbyn have powerful and detailed plans for a radical change in the political economy of the US and the UK. They both also have long and strong credentials in opposing war and other disastrous foreign policies. But not going to war, as globally beneficial as it would be, does not answer a whole set of international problems. An isolationist foreign policy does not constitute internationalist solidarity, and valid opposition to military intervention cannot deflect the need for action. This is particularly the case when there is a democratic struggle in a self-proclaimed anti-imperialist state. Not only is it analytically inadequate to insist on understanding the complex issues of current international juncture merely in terms of imperialism, it is also politically naïve to instinctively side with the underdog of world order, without closely exploring the ramifications of such affinity. Faced with interlocking global crises, “campism” loses all credibility. In understanding the world, the left needs to let go of the remnants of the Cold War. It would be simplistic to paint all the struggles with the same brush, from Tehran and Beirut to Brasilia and Santiago. But it would also be naïve not to seize the moment of popular uprisings, and to miss the chance for redefining the frame of reference in an international scale.
In power or not, an internationalist and just global order requires the socialists in the global north to throw their weight behind the democratic struggles of the global south. This cannot be fully achieved unless we demystify the “national interest” not just for the US and its allies, but also for the states that oppose them. Only then we could redeem “the universal” and move towards a radical internationalist solidarity.
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