Last chance for regime change from below

Demonstrations were held across Iran on the June 12 anniversary of last year’s rigged presidential elections – despite a heavy security presence and the cowardly back-stabbing of the so-called ‘reformist opposition’.

Meanwhile, the much heralded United Nations resolution on further sanctions against Iran – expanding the arms embargo and barring the country from sensitive activities such as uranium mining – was voted through on June 9. The UN measures present a diluted version of what the US administration had proposed, but they still allow high-seas inspections of vessels believed to be ferrying banned items to Iran, while 40 categories have been added to the list of people and groups subject to travel restrictions and financial sanctions. The European Union has promised to impose its own extra measures, targeting the energy, trade and transport sectors.

Some in Iran, including sections of the left, have argued that this was an inevitable consequence of Ahmadinejad and the regime’s “loss at a game of poker played with the US”. [1] I would disagree with this interpretation of the logic underlying sanctions. The principal reason behind the US administration’s relentless efforts to increase pressure on Iran has little to do with concern about nuclear capabilities or exaggerated claims by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government regarding this issue. It is more a consequence of an obsession by successive US administrations to impose regime change on Iran – and indeed at a time of economic crisis the necessity of identifying ‘rogue states’ as the enemy is as strong as ever.

UN-imposed sanctions are only part of the story. The US Congress is seeking to apply additional measures against the Islamic Republic’s energy firms, including a ban on the sale of refined oil to Iran and further restrictions on Iranian banks – Russia and China refused to allow their inclusion in the resolution passed by the UN. While Iran is the fourth largest oil exporter in the world, it currently does not have the capacity to refine enough oil to meet its own needs, and thus imports 40% of its gasoline and 11% of its diesel.

Clearly a ban on refined petroleum imports would have disastrous consequences for ordinary Iranians. Existing sanctions have reduced the output of Iran’s oil industry’s by 300,000 barrels per day, according to the Financial Times, depriving the country of billions of dollars in revenue.[2] The slow development of new oilfields and the poor condition of many existing wells in the absence of the equipment necessary for repair have caused this fall. In addition to sanctions, Iran’s oil workers report the sacking of expert technicians and engineers who oppose the government of Ahmadinejad and their replacement by his cronies with no experience and no knowledge of the industry.

The question facing the Iranian people and the Iranian working class is whether they stop protesting to avoid confrontation (as ‘reformist’ leaders Mehdi Moussavi and Mir-Hossein Karroubi advise) and allow regime change from above; or continue their fight for the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic from below. On June 10, two days before the anniversary of the fraudulent presidential elections, Karroubi and Moussavi issued a joint statement full of religious rhetoric, which announced that the protest demonstration planned for June 12 would not go ahead “for the safety of the people”.[3]

Whose violence?

This bizarre announcement was part of a joint internet interview. Anyone who knows anything about the Islamic regime (and our two esteemed ‘green’ leaders, being members of the ruling elite, know this as well as anyone) will tell you that if you give a millimetre to the reactionary rulers of the clerical state, they will take a kilometre. When news of the statement cancelling the demonstration was circulated, many Iranians, especially youth and workers, reacted with disbelief. Others were angry that the ‘reformist’ leaders had sought permission from the dictatorship in the first place. Those who had hoped for a plan B were disappointed. Karroubi and Moussavi proposed no other action. In their press conference they told journalists that this internet event was more effective than protests that might spark violence.

The joint interview worked well for reasserting a few basic facts about the leaders of the green movement.

  • It showed that, as far as charisma is concerned, they have less than Gordon Brown on a bad day. The statement was disjointed, featuring appallingly poor use of the Persian language, with long, meaningless sentences. The two came over as eager to please everyone but won no-one. It made a mockery of the claim that they represent the ‘opposition in Iran’.
  • Even after 12 months of unprecedented repression the leaders of the green movement remain determined to save the Islamic Republic. One could argue that the two men are well aware they have no political future without the Islamic state and in many ways they had already become irrelevant to the daily struggles of ordinary Iranians. Why should anyone take seriously the opinions of two of the staunchest supporters of clerical rule in Iran over the last 30 years when the aim is to overthrow it?
  • The worst part of the interview was the claim by both of them that they took this conciliatory position because of a commitment to non-violence – as if the main cause of violence were the opposition, not the regime itself (even when Moussavi’s ‘reformist’ wing has fronted it). This claim is parroted by the opportunist left, including the Fedayeen Majority and the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party, not to mention right wing feminist Ziba Mirhosseini, who claimed in a BBC Persian service interview that this represented “the influence of the feminist discourse on the green movement”.

It is ironic that the man accused of complicity in the execution of at least 8,000 leftwing political prisoners in the late 1980s should reject the idea of a peaceful demonstration as incitement to violence. While the ‘reformists’ and their allies in the Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh try to take their collective amnesia still further, let us remind them of examples of violence since the overthrow of the shah:

  1. In the first few months after the February 1979 revolution it was the religious state which summarily executed associates of the previous regime, for the single purpose of imposing terror on the revolutionary movement. Who was in power? Moussavi, Karroubi, together with future president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Who were their cheerleaders? The central committee of what was to become the Fedayeen Majority and their fellow pro-Soviet Stalinists in the Tudeh Party.
  2. The history of the Islamic Republic has been one of constant repression of the Kurds and other minorities. Who was part of the state that sent tanks into Kurdish cities and helicopter gunships into the Kurdish countryside? Who was responsible for the mass killing of civilians in Arab-speaking regions? Rafsanjani, Moussavi and Karroubi. Who were their cheerleaders? The central committee of the Fedayeen Majority and the Tudeh Party.
  3. Throughout the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war leftwing political prisoners were executed as spies, and activists were shot down as they attended peaceful meetings. The groups targeted were in the overwhelming majority of cases those that had renounced armed struggle for ideological and political reasons. However, calling on workers to fight both the foreign aggressor and the brutal dictatorship was considered ‘treachery’ and punishable by death. Again who were the cheerleaders of this violent episode in our country’s history? The Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh.
  4. What about the violence that occurred at the end of the Iran-Iraq war? In the summer of 1988, Iran’s prisons were still full of students sentenced for protesting against ayatollah Khomeini in the early part of the decade, many of them members of various leftwing groups. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a secret instruction authorising their mass execution. They faced a three-minute ‘hearing’ – as long as it took for each one to be identified – and they were hanged six at a time in the prison auditorium. Later their bodies were doused in disinfectant and transported in meat trucks to mass graves.

Ayatollah Khomeini is dead. But three leading figures of his regime are still very much alive. The then president, Ali Khamenei, now Iran’s supreme leader, endorsed last year’s rigged election. Ali Rafsanjani, still a powerful political player, was then the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, who were ordered to carry out the killings. Then there is the man who in 1988 was Iran’s prime minister – none other than Mir-Hussein Moussavi.[4] By this time those members of Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh who had not managed to escape were themselves amongst the victims and no-one was left to defend them.

However, nowadays it is not in the interests of those groups to remember who was responsible for past violence. Instead they express admiration for the likes of Moussavi and Karroubi – ‘reformists’ who are more scared of opposition protesters than they are of the regime they are supposed to be opposing. Far from the opposition movement bearing responsibility for the violence of the last turbulent 12 months, it is the movement’s supporters and demonstrators who have been shot down, tortured to death in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic and executed.

One cannot respond to such a state by renouncing street protests, workers’ demonstrations, student rallies and organising internet events for the press instead. In the 1980s the support of Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority for Islamic violence was justified by their adherence to the ‘peaceful road to socialism’. Today they are following another ‘peaceful road’ with equally disastrous consequences for the Iranian people.

Tied to regime

In the interview Moussavi remained faithful to the current constitution, which was “designed to stand against dictatorship, tyranny and totalitarianism”.[5] If the constitution is so anti-authoritarian, how come some of the worst abuses, including the execution of thousands of leftwingers, took place in what Moussavi still considers the good old days – when he was prime minister, his beloved imam, Khomeini, was the supreme leader and presumably the constitution was being followed?

Moussavi also praised the positions taken by clerics: “In the past year, we saw how they supported the people with their statements and actions. The fate of the clerical scholars is closely linked with the fate of the people …”. It is true that, had it not been for the intervention of senior clerics, Karroubi and Moussavi might be in prison by now. However, these ayatollahs are part and parcel of the current order and the allegiance of Moussavi and Karroubi to such figures only serves to alienate youth, women and workers, who see nothing progressive or democratic in the statements of such clerics.

Moussavi and Karroubi have been strongly criticised by some supporters of the green movement. One blogger writes: “We will be side by side with the mothers of martyrs. Mr Moussavi and Mr Karroubi, you can join us too. If we do not show up on June 12 the pressure on the political prisoners will increase. The demonstration on Saturday is not an option, but an obligation.” Another wrote that the regime had lost its legitimacy. People have two options: either “live humiliated” under it or topple it.

In the event there were protests on a number of university campuses and in the central districts of many of Iran’s major cities. Protesters at Tehran University were as forceful as ever, while students at Sharif University taunted the bassij militia and Revolutionary Guards with shouts of: “Liar, liar, where is your 63%?” (referring to the majority claimed by Ahmadinejad in last year’s poll). There were clashes in Tehran and other cities, and the authorities announced they have arrested 91 protesters in Tehran alone.

Iranian workers too are continuing to protest. Victims of both the economic and political crises, they have more to lose than other sections of the population from the new sanctions. There is a long list of actions organised by workers – including in Andimeshk, where 400 council workers have not been paid since December, and at Battery Noor, where workers have not received their salaries since mid-March. A number of trade unionists have been arrested, including Vahed bus company militants Said Torabian, Alireza Akhavan and Behnam Alizadeh, who have been active in a committee launched to set up independent workers’ organisations. Most struggles are over unpaid wages or the threat to jobs, but what is very noticeable is that, as soon as the military or security forces arrive, slogans such as “Death to the dictator”, and “Down with the Islamic regime” are heard.

However, these struggles remain defensive and our class remains weak as a political force. Whether we like it or not, some sections retain illusions in the ‘reformists’, while others are still loyal to the opportunist left. After decades of being bombarded by capitalist and neoliberal propaganda – both from the religious state and the western media – the working class lacks the confidence to lead political protests.

Over the last 12 months the divisions within the religious state – both between the ‘reformists’ and Ahmadinejad’s government and between supporters of the president and the hard-line ‘principlists’ – have allowed the working class a limited space, where its economic struggles could benefit from political leadership. Such a situation cannot last forever and we are already seeing signs that the government is preparing to clamp down even more ruthlessly on workers’ protests.

It is precisely for these reasons that the left has to deal with the continued threat of war and sanctions as well as exploiting the divisions within the Islamic regime. Exposing the ‘reformists’ who act as an obstacle to anti-government protest action at such a crucial time in Iran’s history is essential. However, we must also remember than the main responsibility for the violence and terror directed against the Iranian people is borne by the government of president Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Khamenei.

Imperialist sanctions and military threats only play into their hands, allowing them to buy off the ‘reformists’ and pacify the opposition movement.


  1. See, for example,
  2. ‘Sanctions hit Iranianoil production’ Financial Times May 23.
  3. See ‘Iran’s opposition leaders Moussavi and Karroubi call off June 12 protest rallies’:
  4. See ‘The UN must try Iran’s 1988 murderers’:
  5. Transcript of cyber press conference:

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