Iran on the Verge of Revolution?

— Hassan Varash & Hamid Naderi

INTEREST IN THE political situation in Iran has grown noticeably in recent months. In large part, this is due to the far more aggressive policies of the current U.S. administration, which has used the attacks of September 11 as the excuse to intervene directly in the region and bring about “regime change” in accordance with its own longstanding interests.

While the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathist regime in Iraq were important steps in assertion of direct American imperialist rule in the region, U.S. strategists fully recognize that “stability” cannot be truly secured without regime change in Iran.

Strategically located along the northern coast of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, possessing the second largest known reserve of natural gas and the third largest proven reserves of oil, Iran’s sizeable economy and its large population base make it a force that cannot easily be ignored.

While American sabre-rattling certainly has focused attention on this member of “the axis of evil,” interest has been fuelled also by the wave of student protests earlier this summer and the Islamic regime’s typically brutal response to it.

Popular Anger

A combination of external pressures, including the possibility of an American-led invasion, and internal turmoil and widespread disaffection with the clerical rule seemingly point to the closing of the horizon for the Islamic republic and the possibility of a significant change in the social, economic and political situation in Iran. How likely is this?

At the popular level, there is no disputing the fact that large numbers of Iranians are opposed to the Iranian government’s social regulation, political repression and economic policies.

Iran’s youth (some sixty percent of the population is under thirty years old) is finding itself increasingly in conflict with the Islamic regime on a whole series of issues, ranging from general social and political repression to brutal gender apartheid to lack of meaningful employment opportunities.

With more than 750,000 people entering the work force annually, the Iranian economy generates far less than half that number of new jobs. A vast majority of Iranians live below the poverty line, millions are unemployed and the rates of addiction to such drugs as opium and Heroin are soaring.

Prostitution and child labor, also on the rise, are the only means of survival for many Iranians and their families. Many workers don’t get paid for months or years.

The resounding victory of the reformist President Khatami in 1997 (and again in 2001) who had promised an easing of the suffocating grip of the Islamic government’s control of Iranian society reflected the deep dissatisfaction of many Iranians, including sections of the bourgeoisie, and their desire for social and political change.

At the parliamentary level, this mandate for change was also demonstrated in the large number of seats won by reformists. More generally, the constant propping up of oppositional and reformist journals and publications, which are then shut down by the hardliners only to reopen under another name, also suggest a broad-based appetite for alternatives.

Iranians have been expressing their opposition to the Islamic regime in different ways for some time now. The student mobilizations in Tehran and other cities this year are yet another chapter in this long struggle against Iran’s repressive regime.

So, while the recent demonstrations in Iran and the brave resistance of the students should be commended, it is important to recognize that they do not necessarily constitute a new development, much less the beginnings of a new revolutionary upheaval.

The Problems of Reform

This contention, we recognize, contradicts some recent commentaries, from both the left and the right. But we think it is important not to substitute our own desire for revolutionary change for a sober analysis of the situation.

While most right-wing analysis remains shallow and self-serving, in many instances driven by the imperatives of U.S. imperialist policy, there are more serious assessments, by those on the left, which point to the convergence of dynamics in Iran that have created the necessary preconditions for revolutionary change.

These factors are: divisions within the ruling class in Iran and its increasing inability to rule as before; the general dissatisfaction of the people of Iran and their loss of belief in the possibility of change from above; and the active participation of people in movements for change.

In our view, there is indeed a real difference between the “hardliner” section of the ruling class which derives a great deal of power and wealth from the resources of Iran, through various government agencies and foundations, and the reformist faction based on those sections of the bourgeoisie that strive to reform Iranian state and law, in such a way as to promote the emergence of neoliberal policies.

This latter portion of the Iranian capitalist class sees the policies of the hardliners as a barrier to effective integration of Iran into the free market world economy. The divisions within the ruling class are thus as real as the material interests they represent.

It is critically important, however, to understand the real meaning of the concepts and terms the reformists use in their fight against hardliners. As said, the reformists view the current structure of the state as an obstacle to Iran becoming a “normal” neoliberal country.

When they talk about democracy, what they really mean is to have an atmosphere under which they could debate and put forth their own policies. They want democracy and freedom for themselves. However, their problem is that the hardliners are institutionally in the position to put all of them in jail.

The reformists need the backing of the people in order to force back the hardliners. We used the phrase “force back” deliberately to suggest that they do not intend to remove the hardliners completely from the picture, merely to contain them.

In this sense, their talk of freedom and democracy is self-serving and opportunistic. The reformists want the people engaged to the extent that they give them more power. In other words, they view Iranian people instrumentally. That is why the working class resists entering the battlefield to defend the reformists.

The reformists are stuck in a paradox. On the one hand, they need the support of the Iranian people. On the other, they are scared of mobilizations from below that could potentially fundamentally alter class relations.

Hence, when Iranians such as the students take to the streets, they are told to be calm, tolerant, and stay away from radicalism. The reformists know that they exist because the Islamic regime as a whole in power makes it possible for them to be reformists, that is to say to demand reforming of the system.

This is why six years after he was first elected president, and despite enormous popular support, especially during his first term, Khatami preferred slow, measured changes rather than risk a head-on collision with the hardliners.

So while the differences are real, they do not represent the type of schism within the ruling class that puts one wing in a revolutionary opposition to the other. Hence, so far as the bourgeois opposition is concerned, an unpredictable revolution of which it could potentially lose control does not serve its long-term interests.

It is much better, from their perspective, to fight for reforms from above and slowly create conditions favorable to their interests than risk unleashing a movement from below.

Workers’ Action and the Reformers

What about the working class, the force that ultimately brought down the powerful U.S.-backed dictatorship of the Shah? The working class has indeed been quite active, but mostly in the economic domain. Strike levels are high and other forms of protest, such as blockade of industrial roads, sit-ins, and hostage-taking of management have been the order of the day.

Workers’ economic actions, of course, always contain a political dimension, which is why the Islamic regime unleashes its troops on workers for even minor industrial actions. Workers’ political action, however, is not simply implied through their economic struggles: Protests in front of the Ministry of Labor, May Day gatherings, petition campaigns and political demonstrations all point to the fact that the workers have an eye on politics.

But when the regime closes the reformist press, imprisons their activists and spokespersons and attacks students, exactly in the midst of international support for this political movement, the workers, as a class, stop engaging in political protests. Why? Because their interests are in opposition to the reformists’ neoliberal agenda. They don’t want to be an instrument by the opposing class.

Thus, in the absence of its own political organization and a movement that reflects its interests, the working class is unwilling to put its neck out to replace one group of exploiters for another.

Whose Revolution?

The Iranian working class today is in no position to steer the events in a revolutionary direction, and no section of the bourgeois class strives for a revolutionary change of the regime.

In these circumstances, those who claim that Iran is on the verge of a social revolution when student struggles intensify or there is a mass demonstration are obligated to explain: Who are the agents of this revolution, if not one of the main social classes? Who has the social weight and organization to see a revolution through?

As a way of circumventing these questions, many analysts base their assessment on that amorphous and ill-defined category known as “the people.” Even then, however, their analysis is not convincing.

The fact that millions of Iranians are unemployed and live in poverty, that addiction and prostitution is on the rise, that child labor is prevalent, that the majority is dissatisfied and lives in misery doesn’t mean that a revolution is imminent. Revolutions aren’t the product of desperation, hopelessness and misery.

On the contrary, revolutions are products of hope – hope that a better life is possible and that it is attainable through exertion of collective power under the leadership of a revolutionary organization or amalgamation of organizations.

In Iran today, not only do we not see any organization that can credibly claim to be playing such a leadership role, we also lack the collective belief in the possibility of a better world, at least in the short term. There is no paradox involved here: For at least the last 100 years, every revolutionary wave has had an international dimension to it (1917–23, 1929–36, post-WWII anti-colonial revolutions, 1968, 1979, 1989).

In fact, had there been a revolutionary situation in Iran today, in isolation from similar movements elsewhere, we would have been confronted with a true paradox. But there is no Iranian exceptionalism evident today: Revolutionary forces in Iran, as elsewhere around the world today, are weak.

This situation can of course change very rapidly under the right circumstances, but does not exist presently.

The weakness of revolutionary movements in Iran and the reformist orientation of internal opposition to the Islamic regime have of course posed the question of regime change from outside, either through a direct U.S. intervention or support for one of the exile oppositional forces.

The problem, so far as U.S. strategy is concerned, is that none of the oppositional forces have any significant base within the country: not Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former Shah, whom the Pentagon neoconservatives favor; not the Mujahedeen Khalqh organization whose base in Iraq has been allowed to function by the U.S. occupation forces, nor any other exile group.

Regime Change?

Does this make U.S. military intervention more likely? There are certainly those in the Bush administration who believe that so long as the Iranian rulers are in power, American and Israeli plans for reshaping the Middle East will fail.

At the moment, however, there is no general consensus in the U.S. administration as to what to do with the Islamic Republic. Even if Washington were to seriously consider a military attack, it would have to face serious obstacles.

First, the United States is quite pre-occupied in both Afghanistan and Iraq and is having difficulty bringing either country under its control. The United States cannot afford to further damage its role as an imperial hegemon by recklessly invading Iran after its disastrous adventure in Iraq.

Second, it will face even stiffer opposition from the European Union, Russia and China should it seriously put military invasion of Iran on the agenda. Third, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, military success in Iran will be much harder to achieve.

Finally, much like the neoliberal reformist movement in Iran, the U.S. government is concerned that an attack could lead to the emergence of a democratic mass movement that would use the opportunity to actively engage in its own version of regime change.

Such an outcome would be absolutely disastrous for U.S. (and Israeli) plans as a truly democratic, and quite likely radical movement in Iran could spread like wildfire in the region. This, more than any other factor, is why U.S. policy-makers don’t actually want to attack Iran at this point.

In the short term, at least until the next U.S. presidential elections, Washington will likely focus on trying to diplomatically isolate Iran over such issues as Iran’s nuclear energy program, tighten economic sanctions against it – and potentially engage in sporadic military attacks on its oil fields or nuclear energy facilities.

If U.S. plans to isolate Iran internationally work over the next twelve months, if the U.S. occupation manages to get a tighter grip over Afghanistan and Iraq, and if the whole region does not go up in flames over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then the U.S. government might consider taking advantage of its large popular support within Iran to launch a direct attack. In the meantime, disagreement reigns in Washington with respect to policy on Iran.

For a Socialist Workers’ Movement

The situation as a whole is very frustrating not only for U.S. imperialists, but also those of us on the left who would like to see the emergence of a revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing the oppressive government of Iran.

It is absolutely critical, first, to recognize that real liberation can only be a product of the self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed and the exploited. Progressive forces around the world must oppose any type of imperialist intervention in Iran, as they should oppose the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Opposing change from outside forces such as American intervention is one side of the coin. Our contention is that only the working class could potentially be a revolutionary force in Iran. The most change-thirsty sections of the capitalist class, as we have argued, are reformist at best and intend to preserve the current regime.

This doesn’t mean that it is only the working class that strives for change. The vast majority of the population, including segments of the bourgeoisie, also wants change. We on the side of Marxian socialism must be careful not to be used as an instrument for the dissenting bourgeoisie.

We propose two positions with respect to the movement in Iran. First, given that without revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement, we should help spread revolutionary socialism within the working class. Second, the left should not form sectarian organizations apart from and outside the working class in order to shape or change it.

The working class can only be liberated through its own self-activity. The working class in Iran lacks the most basic mass workplace and community organizations, let alone socialist ones.

One small move of the bourgeoisie in Iran attracts international attention, while the working class has to conduct its bloody struggles in silence. The Iranian left should transform itself into a working class entity and help in the process of working class self-organization toward revolutionary social change.

ATC 108, January–February 2004