Workers and Students in Iran Resist Attacks on Their Rights


In the aftermath of the Feb. 18 elections, when the political forces that promised political and social reform of the most repressive aspects of the Islamic Republic won a decisive majority in the Sixth Parliament, the anti-reform forces within the regime have launched a broad series of legal and extra-legal attacks on the Iranian people.

Accounts in the bourgeois media have analyzed these attacks in terms of a factional struggle within the Islamic Republic regime. Yet nothing less than the political confidence and legitimacy won by the Iranian working people not only through the 1979 revolution but also in recent years is at stake.

While some of these recent attacks are in fact directed against the pro-reform politicians within the regime itself, they have a direct bearing on the rights Iranian working people have tried to win throughout their modern history, including through three periods of revolutionary mass upsurge.

In other instances that affect immediate interests of the capitalist class, the attacks are waged and sustained by groups in both factions.

The recent attacks include:

  • The Council of Guardians, a conservative un-elected body that answers only to the un-elected Supreme Leader, began a review of the election procedures and cancelled the results for 11 reformist candidates. In each instance, there were protests, including street protests that sometimes turned against the government property.
  • Saeed Hajjarian, an elected vice president of Tehran’s city council and a former vice president to Iranian President Khatami, was shot from close range in front of his office. Hajjarian was involved in setting up the intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s and recently blew the whistle on a death squad organized from the Ministry of Information (intelligence).

In the fall of 1998, the death squad hacked to death the leader of a small bourgeois nationalist organization and his wife at their home and kidnapped and strangled three well-respected Iranian writers, two of them involved in the fight to obtain official recognition for the Writers Association.

Eventually, eight persons were arrested in the assassination attempt on Hajjarian. The gunman, Saeed Asgar, disclosed that he had accepted the assignment to kill Hajjarian after a network of collaborators argued that he is an enemy of Islam.

However, the judge decided to treat the proceedings as a criminal rather than political case. Hajjarian’s lawyer provided evidence that the group has been involved in a series of other similar attacks. Evidence such as the type of motorcycle used in the attack linked the assassins to the armed government forces.

  • In a major attack on the freedom of the press, since April 23 the government has closed down 19 prominent dailies, weeklies, and other journals viewed as pro-reform-reducing the space for public dissent in the media. Saeed Mortazavi, the judge who has issued these orders, stated that his aim was to stop the press from “affecting society’s opinions and arousing concern among the people” and to “dispel the worries of the people, of the Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of the clergy.”
  • A number of journalists, such as Akbar Ganji, Mashallah Shamsolvazin, and Latif Safari, and feminist writers such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shahla Laheeji, have been arrested and others have been summoned before the court.
  • The outgoing Fifth Parliament hurried through a bill that will remove 2.8 million workers-those who work in establishments with five or fewer employees, or just under half the workforce-from the protection of the labor law and social security system for the next six years. The bill was introduced last summer with support from the Iranian chamber of commerce.
  • It also passed a press law imposing further restrictions on the press, by making it dependent on approval from the Ministry of Information (intelligence service), the courts, and the police. All these repressive apparatuses were the subjects of criticism by the papers recently shut down.

Imperialists intervene

These attacks have opened the way for the imperialist powers to step up their intervention in Iranian affairs.

In the aftermath of the February elections, the U.S. State Department lifted the ban on importation of Iranian pistachios, caviar, and rugs to display its approval of the reformists’ electoral victory. The reformists tend to favor bourgeois normalization of social, economic, and political life in Iran and abroad, including a willingness to drop Iran’s opposition to the Oslo “peace accord,” and re-establishment of relations with Washington.

At the same time, Washington has pressed Moscow to discontinue training Iranian engineering students in its universities because it claims such training will enable Iran to deploy long-range missiles that will pose a danger to Israel.

Most recently, Washington again intervened to postpone for the third time a vote at the World Bank on a loan for upgrading Tehran’s sewage system. An alleged reason is U.S. displeasure with the trial of 13 Iranian Jews from the southern city of Shiraz.

While the mass media and capitalist politicians abroad have generally turned a blind eye to the attack on the workers, and have attributed the attacks on the freedom of the press to the realm of faction fights within the regime, they have given prominent attention to the trial of the Jews.

As the trial opened up behind closed doors, the government paraded a majority of the defendants on state-run TV to “confess” that they had been spies for Israel.

Israeli involvement in Iran dates back to the late 1950s, when the Mossad joined the CIA to organize the hated Iranian secret police to prop up the Washington installed dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And the Israeli regime has ceaselessly campaigned against the Iranian revolution, which changed the political balance in the Middle East in favor of the Arab and Palestinian people.

However, the trial of the 13 Iranian Jews is blatantly undemocratic. In fact, during the past 21 years, the Islamic Republic regime has similarly paraded dozens of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience on national TV, who usually “confessed” to some political “crime” and endorsed repressive measures taken against the working people.

The Jewish defendants, who are small businessmen, teachers, and students, were arrested over a year ago without any specific public charge against them. Just before the recent wave of attacks, it seemed that the government was searching for a solution to drop the spying charges against the 13 Jews. But when the wave of new attacks began, it decided to proceed with the trial.

Only shortly before the trial were they allowed a lawyer, who promptly denied the spy charges. The trial was held behind closed doors, citing “national security” concerns, even though the defendants’ lawyer argued that none of the accused could have had access to sensitive information and that there could be no security risks involved.

The reformist response

The reformist leadership was initially silent to the recent wave of attacks on the democratic rights of the Iranian people. In each instance, they called for calm and the “rule of law.” Some of the reform politicians actually found merit in the use of the legal system to crack down on the media.

However, as the scope of the attacks widened, the rumor of an unfolding coup began to circulate, backed by no other than the minister of interior, Mussavi-e-Laari. According to these accounts, the intent of the coup was to block the opening of the Sixth Parliament-which has a reformist majority-and eventually to drive out President Khatami. The reformist response, however, remained the same: to urge the Iranian people to stay calm and support the “rule of law.”

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei initiated the repression with a call for “Islamic violence” against the press that had become “the bases for enemies of Islam.” This was followed by calls to shut down the Tehran bazaar and Islamic seminaries in Qum.

Street graffiti appeared in Tehran accusing the press not controlled by the anti-reform coalition of housing anti-Islamic elements. The state-run TV and radio joined in this campaign.

All factions in the Islamic Republic regime share full responsibility for the attacks on the workers’ rights and standard of living. President Khatami’s economic plan aims to make working people sacrifice even more to solve the ongoing economic crisis.

Pro-reform ideologues preach how Iranian workers must accept painful choices today so the Iranian industrialists can compete in the world market. They even ask workers to bear repressive measures since, they insist, the Islamic Republic regime is their ally in their national struggle against the imperialists and workers in the West.

Students and workers take to the streets

Despite calls for calm issued by the leaders of the reform coalition, students from a number of Tehran universities began to protest the press crackdown. While the initial protests were small and limited-and in some instances, such as at the Beheshti University, the police and Ansar-e Hezbollah (a semi-fascist force) attacked the students-thousands across Iran joined the protests.

The universities have become centers of campaigning against the government crackdown on democratic rights. Meanwhile, Iran has witnessed a surge in organized workers’ protests.

For years, the assault on the standard of living of working people has produced local workplace resistance. Workers across Iran have organized factory meetings, work stoppages, and factory takeovers. They have blocked streets and roads and demonstrated in front of governmental agencies.

Iranian workers are fighting for their very survival. Under President Khatami, a new and ambitious wave of privatization is underway. This offers the Iranian capitalists a boon.

Karam Ali Sayed Abadi, a worker, describes a typical process of privatization underway in Iran in the first issue of Karmozd (Wage-Labor): State-owned factory managers drive their enterprises to bankruptcy by sabotaging production; then they and their partners purchase the factory from the state at bargain prices.

The new owners and managers then proceed to lay off or “buy back” all or most of the workers, only to hire some back at much lower wages and worse working conditions. Less profitable operations are sub-contracted to outfits that can exploit their workers even more.

With high unemployment-and lacking independent trade unions, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike-the workers face an uphill battle. As a result, a large section of the Iranian workers have to live with no earnings for months without any viable safety net.

There is a powerful undercurrent in workplaces to organize against this situation. It was in this context that Khaneh Kargar (Workers’ House, the national pro-government labor bureaucracy) and the leadership of the Islamic Shoras (factory councils) that secured their positions by collaborating with the Islamic Republic regime against militant workers and independent workers’ organizations backed an effort to issue a call for the right to strike on April 3.

They also gave their blessing to a street protest in Tehran by several thousand against the passage of legislation depriving 2.8 million workers of protection by the labor law. During that demonstration, the workers disclosed their plans for a national action on May Day to press for their demands.

Given the scope of the anti-democratic attacks in April, it was not clear if a May Day demonstration by the workers would actually take place in Tehran. However, over 20,000 workers, mostly from Tehran industrial regions, participated. The main target of the workers’ anger was Ali-naghi Khamushi, the chairman of the chamber and the outgoing parliament. The workers demanded that the incoming parliamentary assembly, dominated by those who promised political and social reforms, reverse the anti-labor legislation.

Workers also demanded jobs for all. A demand was put to the government to fight unemployment and to inspect the factories claiming bankruptcy. Hossein Kamali, who was part of the pro-government forces within the labor movement that took over Khaneh Kargar in 1979 and has been the minister of labor for the past several administrations, called for the expulsion of over 2 million immigrant workers, mostly from Afghanistan, to create jobs for “our youth [who] aimlessly walk the streets and take drugs because they neither have jobs nor a future.”

The Islamic Labor Party, formed by these very same forces last year to campaign for pro-reform candidates, urged the new parliament to legalize strikes. While strikes are not legal, work stoppages are frequent. The leadership of Khaneh Kargar and the Islamic Shoras tried to steer the demonstration into a support rally for Khatami and the reformist coalition.

Struggles are intertwined

The factional struggles within the Islamic Republic reflect the crisis of a regime run by the clergy on the basis of on-going capitalist development in Iran and the world. Ahmad Moollazadeh, whose journal, Farhang-e Tousse’e (Culture of Development) has favored the reform coalition, describes the current divide in the sphere of public policy in Iran in the following terms:

“On one side of this divide stand the clergy who know what is right today [for the religious establishment], modern thinking religious and non-religious intellectuals, the modern middle class, and the industrialists. These are known as the reformists.

“On the other side of the divide are those who want violence, conservative traditionalists, and new conservative rationalists. The bulk of the social basis for these favor social justice but their lack of engagement in class conflict, their unemployment, and lack of a clear perspective for future draw them to the main organizers of violence [in society].”

Moollazadeh points to those who benefit from “political rent” and “economic rent”-that is, those who control the state apparatus and those who benefit from control of government held economic assets-as forces that stand to benefit from the existing order, which opposes reforms.

However, it is the Iranian workers and students who have stood up against the current crackdown by the Islamic Republic regime. In fact, the fundamental lesson of Iranian modern history is that the fight for freedom of the press and democratic and human rights are closely intertwined with the struggle of the workers and toilers to form their own independent organizations and to press their own demands.

These struggles include those of workers to form unions and build international ties to resist massive onslaught by the employers and the government, of women to unite to resist Islamic and class oppression, and of writers and journalists to forge their own organization to defend their rights against the censorship.

They also point to the need for united organization and action of the students and youth, who have a stake in shaping the future of the country and still have the task of fighting for the freedom of hundreds of their comrades jailed in the aftermath of protests last July that captured the imagination of the world.

The recent crackdown comes in this context; it is part of a larger campaign to roll back the greater space for political expression won in recent years by the Iranian people and to suppress their desire for social and political change. The Iranian people are resisting the repression, and it should be opposed by working people everywhere.

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