Could you say something about what the current protests involves and represents? What issues are being protested about? Which workers are taking part? Are there strikes?
In the past year there have been many hundreds of strikes and struggles: from teachers, nurses, municipal workers, doctors and medical staff, to transport workers (bus, metro and train network), to the food industry and even different mines, heavy industry, oil and petrochemical workers and so on. Pensioners have also been holding regular protests on Sundays. These are a reaction to the long-term dire economic situation, corruption, repression and sanctions. In addition, the incompetent and callous handling of the pandemic has increased social inequalities even more.
There is also the perennial problem of unpaid wages, which seems to have become an integral part of Iranian capitalism. These effectively break the contract between capital and labour, where the worker sells his labour power and doesn’t get paid! It is usually at least two or three months’ pay, but can easily be twelve or more months of unpaid wages. And most of the culprits are not small businesses struggling to pay workers, but state-owned or other big companies – including many owned by the Pasdaran – or recent privatisations, where relations of the regime’s leaders have bought the companies at a fraction of their true value!
Although these strikes start with a very modest demand, because the state – particularly the Intelligence Ministry and the riot police – intervenes to crush them, there can be a rapid escalation. Confrontations that include blocking roads, rallies in town and other forms of struggle take place. The explosive socio-economic situation can quickly push these strikes on to very radical tactics and demands.
We understand large numbers of oil workers are on strike. This seems highly significant? Have there been major strikes in the industry since the overthrow of the Shah? Is it right that at present it is mainly contracted workers, not the core workforce?
Yes, this is highly significant. There are over 100,000 oil, gas and petrochemical contract workers in over twenty provinces on strike. Despite hundreds being sacked, the strike has spread to over 110 facilities. Their demands include: higher wages, an increase in leave and holidays by ten days, better health and safety conditions (especially with the outbreak of the pandemic). Conditions are very harsh on the Gulf coast and many workers there are living far from their families. So, these are very modest demands.
This is the most widespread oil, gas and petrochemical strike under this regime. But so far, even though they’ve threatened to join the strike, the official oil and gas workers have not. The regime is trying to divide the workers by offering a pay rise to the more skilled ones. To win though the strike needs to spread to the official oil and petrochemical workers as well as other industries.
You have frequently promoted and written about the struggle of the workers of Haft Tappeh. What makes this enterprise and its struggles particularly significant?
The series of strikes at the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane complex have been the most important development in the Iranian workers’ movement since this regime crushed the revolution. What makes them particularly significant is how during the past two to three years their level of consciousness has developed, based on their own struggle. And their latest strike began on 13 July 2021.
They have forced the regime – so far in words only – to revoke privatisation. Now they want the authorities to carry this out. They have also posed workers’ control as an alternative, both to privatisation and to the usual form of state ownership. For example, on 8 November 2018 Esmail Bakhshi, one of their representatives, said that the workers had two options: ‘One is that Haft Tappeh is run entirely by the workers. We will form a committee and run Haft Tappeh consultatively. Don’t worry. We have all the specialisms. Who else has managed Haft Tappeh so far? Have confidence. Have faith in yourself. We can manage Haft Tappeh ourselves.’ The second option was that the state takes over: ‘… but the state must do [all] … things under the supervision of the workers’ council and under the general supervision of the workers.’
Therefore, workers’ control is a real and living demand in today’s workers’ movement – after an absence of four decades. It is important to emphasise that it has come out of the workers’ bitter experience of the past few years and not from reading any specific Marxist material.
We should also highlight how they’ve been organising the strikes: using clandestine and open organisation; equality between male and female workers; unity among Persian, Arab and Lur workers; challenging the authorities at all levels and the media (including BBC Persian, which has spread misinformation about them more than once!); holding rallies in Shush; and co-ordinating some protests with other workers in Khuzestan province, particularly the Ahvaz steelworkers.
These are all obviously positive steps in consciousness and united struggle that the workers have to keep developing before they can mobilise a general strike like in 1978-79.
How is the regime reacting to these developments?
The standard response of this regime is to smash any movement, whether it’s a struggle by workers, students, women, national minorities or any other layer. And it doesn’t matter how modest or basic the demands, it can classify anything as ‘waging war against God’ or a national security threat. Even protests asking the regime to act according to its own constitution can result in detention and torture.
As the crisis of Iranian capitalism has deepened, the regime has returned to the more brutal methods before the relative relaxation of Khatami’s presidency in 1997-2005. For example, over 1,500 people were killed following the protests against fuel subsidy cuts in November 2019. The regime used machine guns and helicopters on demonstrators. ‘Do whatever it takes to end it.’ That’s what Khamenei said to his security forces.
Right now, there are protests against electricity and water shortages in several parts of the country. Their repression has been especially violent in Khuzestan province. Linking these protests and workers’ strikes will be a very important development.
How has the Covid crisis interacted with and impacted the class struggle in Iran?
Iran is currently going through its fifth Covid wave. The real numbers of cases and deaths are estimated to be about double those declared by the regime. Many bus drivers, teachers, healthcare staff and other workers in the service sector have died. At every step of the pandemic the regime has clearly shown that it doesn’t give a damn about the lives of workers and the poor.
To what extent and how have the situation and demands of Iran’s national minorities interacted with workers’ struggles?
The national minorities are very much part of the Iranian working class. In many places like the giant South Pars gas field there are workers from all over Iran. It is being developed primarily by contract workers and many of them are involved in the current strike. The regime, like any capitalist government anywhere in the world, tries to create conflict between national groups. It has tried this unsuccessfully in Haft Tappeh.
There are also the nationalist organisations and leaders of the minorities who are making empty promises. But obviously the way to gain full national rights is through the united struggle of labour against capital – regardless of language and so on.
Does the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the likely return of the Taliban to power in any way impact politics and struggles in Iran? What role is Iran playing in Afghanistan now?
The return of the Taliban will have no direct effect on politics in Iran – other than more Afghan refugees who will be used to whip up nationalism among Iranian workers. But the regime’s higher profile and influence in Afghanistan will be a strong bargaining point when negotiating with US imperialism in Vienna to revive or replace the JCPOA nuclear deal. So, there will be an indirect impact. That is why the Iranian regime is one of the forces that has indirectly helped the Taliban.
What activities are your organisation and those you work with undertaking at present? How can the left in e.g. the UK make solidarity with your activities and workers' struggles in Iran more broadly?
No matter how successful a strike movement, it will be incapable of gaining anything more than temporary economic improvements. Inevitably the clash between labour and capital will become ever sharper. It is the main task of revolutionary Marxists to show the limits of syndicalism, which is a form of reformism. Since a small section of the Iranian working class is already posing workers’ control as a real alternative to both privatisation and state control, this is a good starting point for posing revolutionary socialism as the alternative to both neoliberal and statist forms of capitalism.
The solution for the working class is to create clandestine cells made up of the vanguard of the proletariat, to try to link the everyday struggles of the class through transitional demands - starting from the present level of consciousness - to the strategic aim of overthrowing the whole capitalism system (and not just reversing the neoliberal attacks). Unlike all the other left-wing groups, the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists’ Tendency believes that the vanguard workers have to be involved in building and leading their party – and right from the beginning. To realise this perspective, the IRMT has been involved in activities with other vanguard workers (including Shahrokh Zamani) in Iran over the past twelve years. This close collaboration resulted in founding the Workers’ Action Committee,a special united front, which is active today clandestinely in many workers’ centres. The outcome of the next revolutionary situation in Iran depends on whether a genuine Leninist party of the proletarian vanguard can be created beforehand. Building clandestine action cells is the key method of achieving that goal.
The British left should mobilise its contacts and resources to collect signatures from trade union leaders and activists, pass motions in branches and raise the level of engagement and solidarity with the hardships and gains of Iranian workers’ struggles. The first step would be to send solidarity messages to the striking oil and petrochemical workers, as well as the Haft Tappeh strikers. They can help the Shahrokh Zamani Action Campaign in this work.