Embassy stunt backfires


by yasmine

The storming of the British embassy compounds in central Tehran and Gholhak followed a week of political pressure on Iran and the imposition of UK sanctions against the country’s central bank.

If it was to be ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ‘US embassy moment’, harking back to the takeover of the US embassy by pro-government Islamic students in 1980, it backfired badly. First of all, Iran underestimated how the UK govern would react. It expected the chargé d’affaires to be called to the foreign office to hear some harsh word; but it clearly did not expect the expulsion of all its diplomatic staff.

However, the US and its allies, especially the UK, are keen to escalate the conflict with Iran and any excuse would have been useful. In this context, the storming of an embassy and the attempt to take its staff hostage can only be described, as one Tehran paper put it, as a suicidal act. Worst still, the event was a failure internally too.

The Iranian regime presented it to the outside world as a spontaneous action by “Tehran University students”. Ironically the day the embassy demonstration took place most Tehran student activists were at an anti-government, anti-capitalist gathering at the university and were later furious when they heard they were being associated with such a stunt.

Anyone who has followed Iranian politics is aware that Tehran University students have been at the forefront of the struggle against the Islamic government at least since 1998. That is precisely why all universities in Tehran have been forced to accept bassiji (Islamic militia) and Hezbollah students even if their grades do not meet university entrance requirements. Their main role is to spy on the political and personal activities of their co-students and to put on staged-managed shows of support when president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or other government officials visit campus. However, it is clear that even these two groups of pro-government students were not part of the rent-a-crowd set which stormed the two compounds. In an unprecedented move, both the bassiji and Hezbollah student organisations of Tehran University have issued statements denying any part in the attack on the embassy.

The event also exposed the bitter rivalry and infighting within the regime. First came the intervention of the police, apparently ordered by Ahmadinejad. They removed the demonstrators and escorted British diplomats and embassy staff to a safe location in the perimeter of the embassy. That was followed by a full apology issued by Iran’s foreign minister, who was clearly taken by surprise. He later issued an even more grovelling statement.

Initial reports from Tehran implied Ahmadinejad might resign or ‘threaten to resign’ (this time a parallel with Mehdi Bazargan, the Islamic republic’s first prime minister, who stepped down during the US embassy hostage episode in 1980). As the week progressed, the divisions became more pronounced. This is, after all, an election year (the elections to the majles, or Islamic parliament, will take place before the end of the current Iranian year on March 20 2012) and, with the ‘reformist’ faction seen off by suppression and arrests, the current bitter infighting is between Ahmadinejad and the supreme religious leader, Khamenei.

Last week’s adventure also infuriated the regime’s economic experts. The last two weeks have been turbulent ones for Iran’s economy. Following the announcement of new sanctions by the US/UK against Iranian banks, the Iranian rial fell dramatically against foreign currencies, forcing the central bank to print money so as to inject cash into the economy. These temporary measures seemed to be working - on Monday November 28 the rial made gains and there was a marked drop in foreign currency exchanges in Tehran. However, all this was to be history by Tuesday afternoon, as the rial went into freefall. By Friday December 2 gold and foreign currency prices were spiralling out of control, as Iranian capitalists within and outside the ruling circle reacted to the crisis by sending their wealth abroad.

The storming of the embassy did not go down well with Iranian diplomats expelled from London either. When their plane landed in Tehran, a group of around 150 bassij supporters were at the airport to greet them with flowers. However, the diplomats and their relatives refused to meet the welcoming party and left the airport through a different exit. Clearly the Islamic regime’s embassy and consular staff were not happy about having to leave London at 48 hours’ notice.

The crowd storming the embassy were believed to have had the support of the supreme leader - all initial statements pointed to this. However, as expulsions orders were issued and it became clear that Iran was facing isolation, the supreme leader panicked and backtracked. By Sunday December 4 even this version of the story was in doubt, after ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a senior cleric close to Khamenei, sharply criticised the “illegal” storming of the British embassy: “I explicitly say that I am against attacking embassies and occupying them,” he said, likening such acts to “invading a country”. Another cleric, grand ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, claimed that “foreign elements” may have infiltrated the protests to provoke the backlash. Iran could “pay a high price” for such folly, he said.

No doubt some misguided sections of the left will consider this latest adventure of the Iranian clerics an anti-imperialist act. But Iranians themselves see it for what it is: a second-rate imitation of the 1980 US embassy takeover, but this time resulting in more spectacular failure. There is no doubt that in the current political situation - with the fall of pro-US regimes in the Middle East, the prominence of Iran as a consequence of US wars in the region, and the continued need of the Iranian regime to identity a foreign enemy to secure its own survival and justify repression - Iran follows a relatively independent foreign policy line. But that does not make it anti-imperialist in any genuine sense. True, the US and its allies would prefer a more subordinate regime in Tehran, but no-one should be in any doubt about Iran’s total compliance with the world capitalist economic order.

Workers protest

In the week when the storming of the embassy by a few dozen supporters of the regime made the headlines throughout the world, the news in Iran was dominated by two major working class protests. In Tabriz tens of thousands of workers demonstrated in the streets against yet another attempt to change the labour legislation to enforce casualisation and contract employment, along with further privatisation. The workers chanted slogans including “Minister of labour, shame on you, resign.”

The same week there was also a major protest by 50,000 Iran Khodro industrial group workers whose leaflet was entitled: ‘We do not want to be slaves’. These workers, divided by separate contracts awarded to more than 30 companies employed at the Iran Khodro industrial complex, were also protesting against the changes. Their leaflet began: “We, the workers of companies and contractors of Iran Khodro, hereby declare our opposition to the proposed amendments to the labour legislation ...”

It went on to point out that the 100,000 workers employed in Iran Khodro are denied the right to union representation and therefore have no means of collectively commenting on the changes, which “prove that the sole purpose of the labour law is to preserve the interests of the employers and the state, although its name implies it should support workers’ rights”. Two decades after the passing of the original legislation, many of its key policies have failed to materialise, or else its provisions have been interpreted in such a way as to make them “meaningless”. Every year we see the “watering down of any measure designed to provide workers with minimum protection against employers”.

The leaflet went on to point out that the legislation fails to provide even a simple definition of permanent and contract work - a “basic issue resolved in most international labour law”. In fact all employment agreements are now based on contract work, resulting in “life-long job insecurity” and enabling employers to “impose temporary contracts on the entire workforce”. In addition the regime’s High Council on Labour will from now on decide whether workers are to receive an annual bonus, while the minimum wage is to be determined by the labour ministry “without the participation of labour unions”. Nor do the proposed changes “recognise strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations as legal rights for workers”.

All this is happening at a time when Iran is facing serious threats of military aggression. The economy is in ruins, divisions within the establishment have reached unprecedented levels and the entire clerical regime is paranoid - with very good reason. In addition to sanctions and even acts of sabotage (including two incidents in Isfahan, at or near nuclear plants), the propaganda war is hotting up. Last month Iran was accused of a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in the US. But now there is another snippet of information about alleged Iranian terrorism every day. If the western intelligence agencies are to be believed, last week alone Iran was involved in two plots against US personnel in Europe.

We in Hands Off the People of Iran are clear. We are fiercely opposed to all such provocations and threats. But equally clearly we stand with the workers, women, students and oppressed nationalities of Iran against the corrupt and reactionary theocracy.


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