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Iran, Neoliberalism, and the Capitalist Crisis

February 10, 2008


It has become commonplace now to hear Iran mentioned in the mainstream media. The war drum of U.S. Imperialism continues to beat louder much like it did in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. We hear much about Iran’s nuclear program, its support for “international terrorism,” and the rants from its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in particular his call to “wipe Israel off the map.” The U.S. administration has blamed Iran for the destabilization of Iraq, openly stated that “all options are still on the table,” and recently pushed the U.N. Security Council to vote for sanctions against Iran, which will no doubt lead to the further suffering of the Iranian people, and amassed forces in all the neighboring countries including sending more forces to the Persian Gulf. It is not only among the U.S. neocons that we hear the saber rattling against Iran but even amongst the liberal politicians who continue to talk about the threat coming from Iran. This aggressive policy has caused the situation to be framed in a binary opposition of two states: the U.S. vs. Iran. As a result, and in reaction to the push for war, we hear much of the Left in the West voicing support for the Islamic Republic and Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist force fighting the mighty U.S. to protect its sovereignty. We hear support for an authoritarian capitalist regime that sent thousands of activists and organizers to their deaths in the 1980s and today continues its brutality and repression in order to remain in power. This truly reveals the fallacy of much of the thought of the Left in the west and its so-called anti-imperialism. What we rarely ever hear mentioned is the role of the rising social movements in Iran and the role they play in the current crisis, and that this crisis, more that being simply a matter of two states, is part of the greater crisis of the world capitalist system. We hope that we can briefly provide some context to the current crisis and that it is not the Iranian regime, but the rising social movements, and their struggles which provide the best obstacle to imperialism; and the United States more than being a force for promoting democracy in Iran is in fact, through its actions, providing an obstacle to the struggles for democracy and social justice in Iran and the world over.

Reconstruction, Neoliberalism and the IMF

In the Post-Iran-Iraq War period, after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the destruction of the revolutionary Left as a force, Iran went through a reconstruction period that still continues. During this period the regime began to institute many neoliberal policies and cooperating with the mandates of the International Monetary Fund in order to promote economic growth and as a result incorporate Iran even more into the global capitalist world system. Iran’s system should be best described as state capitalist. The state is the central force for capital accumulation in Iran, making capital and the state fully united. All investment, foreign or domestic, must pass through the filter of the state, giving great economic power to those who also control the state apparatus. The most important asset with provides the foundation for the state is also the most important commodity in the world capitalist system: Oil. During the reconstruction period the state went ahead and began to institute many neoliberal structural arrangements such as privatizing many key industries and removing many import subsidies under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Key industries were put up for sale and quickly bought up by many in or close to the ruling power structure at extremely low prices. Local manufacturing was driven even further into the ground and many plants closed as imported good came flowing in even faster while those that serve as middle men reaped in the profit. The value of the Rial continued to drop as the regime removed foreign exchange controls in response to dictates from the IMF.

As with neoliberalism everywhere the reforms meant profitability for some poverty for many. The reforms brought mass unemployment and economic hardship while many in the ruling clique; Rafsanjani in particular became unbelievably rich, leading him to be called by many, “Akbar Shah.” Rafsanjani is now the richest man in Iran and one of the richest men in the world. Arising out of the low economic productivity of the war years and its immediate aftermath Iran hit an economic boom, particularly with the global rise in the price of oil. The masses of people saw little if anything from this economic boom. They saw the little security they did have wither away before the great wealth being amassed by the capitalist class.
The late 1990s saw some riots and outbursts of frustration to the pressures put on people as a result of these neoliberal arrangements, causing the extreme rise in the cost of food and housing. These economic policies, plus the desire for more democratic freedoms led to the election of Muhammad Khatami and the “Reform Movement,” in 1997. Khatami continued the economic policies of his predecessor while standing on a platform of greater freedom of expression, democratic reform, and the promotion of civil society. It was during this period that we witnessed the rise of the student movement and women’s movement as political forces. It should be noted that it was not the reformist government that brought about the rise of these movements, but quite the contrary, these movements helped bring Khatami and the reformists to power. The closing of a reformist newspaper by the state sparked student demonstrations in June 1999 that were responded by attacks by pro-government vigilantes. This sparked off even more demonstrations that spread to other cities. This is generally regarded as the beginning of the new student movement in Iran. This opening of democratic space was short-lived as the state responded with the full force of the state in jailing students, closing newspaper and even resorting to killing dissident intellectuals. The students and women realized the poverty of electoral politics after losing faith in Khatami and realizing that true power does not lie in the hands of the elected officials.

The Birth of the New Labor Movement

In January 2004, the workers at the Khotanabad copper factory in southwestern Iran stages a sit-in at the factory gates in response to the closing of the factory and the sacking of the majority of the workers. The state responded with repression, sending in helicopters to fire on the workers. With the spread of word of the massacre worker action spread across the country. The Khotanabad massacre marks the beginning of the new labor movement in Iran. Since that time workers organization and actions against capitalist onslaught have continued with increasing radicalization.

In the same month another important strike action took off at the Iran Khodro car plant, one of the largest car manufacturers in the Middle East. The workers of Iran Khodro are organized and represent some of the most militant workers of the Iranian working class. In March of 2004, the teachers came on the scene. Most of Iran’s teachers are women and many of the walkouts and strike actions by the teachers’ unions have been led by women. Nurses, textile workers, brickmakers…from the most advanced industry to the most underdeveloped, workers have been organizing and taking action.

On May Day 2004, security forces attacked a demonstration in Saqqez. The town had recently organized a shora, or workers council. Many were arrested but seven were charged. These came to be known as the Saqqez Seven. The trial continued until 2006, and currently one of the seven, Mahmoud Salehi, sits in prison. Out of this event came the establishment of the Komiteye Hamahangi or the Co-coordinating Council for Workers Organizations in Iran. Some of the main organizers are members of the Saqqez Seven, including Salehi. Their declaration called for the abolition of wage labor and the forming of workers council as the means to overthrow capitalism and as the organs for a future society and was signed by 3,000 workers.

At around the same time we witnessed the formation of another workers network with the intention of better coordination of activity. This organization is named Komiteye Peygiri, or Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organizations in Iran, with the collection of 4,000 names of workers at it’s founding.

The Presidential election of 2005 saw the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his populist government. He came to power on a platform of social justice, fighting against corruption, and denouncing those that have amassed great wealth in the face of extreme poverty. He was presented as a man of the people and his supporters organized support amongst the working poor. He won by a landslide. One reason for this was that he was running against one of the most despised man in Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani represents the ultimate in corruption and economic inequality for the majority of Iranians. It was the fat-cat capitalist versus a humble man from south Tehran.

Since his presidency began he has done nothing to slow the neoliberal onslaught. He is not capable even if he wanted to. The real power does not lie in his hands but in those that control the means of production and in turn control the state apparatus. He has no base independent of the state. His main base of support comes from the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard, of which he himself was a member. But the Pasdaran are in the end answerable to the clerics in power, not to the president. Why should we expect anymore? Many in the west still continue to see him as a revolutionary or some sort of radical because of his populist talk. It is a shame that still to this day many in the Left cant decipher between populism and revolution. Like most populism, Ahmadinejad’s is a way to channel class frustrations in a way that is not challenging to capital. But the contradictions of capitalism are still rising to the fore and he is unable to stop them from rising even further. The crisis must be projected outward in order to prevent an explosion inside. Hence we have all the ranting against the U.S. and the issue over the nuclear program.

Oil is the main export for Iran. It provided the base on which the Islamic Republic stands. But oil is only profitable when sold on the world market. But a large part of Iran’s oil is consumed domestically, supported by large subsidies. In order to increase profitability the state needs to find another source of domestic energy in order to free up a large amount of oil to sell on the world market. That’s where nuclear energy comes in. The other option would be to remove the subsidies for the people, but that could lead to unrest as was witnessed a couple of months ago when people set gas stations ablaze in protest at the slightest sign of rationing.

May Day 2005 saw the largest labor demonstration in Iran since the 1979 Revolution, and every May Day since has resulted in a growing turnout and more confrontation with security forces. The resurrection of the labor movement and its radicalization has had an effect on the student and women’s movements. Seeing the failures of reformism they did not accept defeat and with the growth of the labor movement have gone even farther to the left and have engaged in solidarity strikes and demonstrations with the workers. When in the late 1990s the students were demanding basic democratic freedoms they now are challenging the capitalist system as a whole. The women’s movement, over the past decades has grown into a dynamic movement covering all class lines and backgrounds. With the rise of the labor movement we are hearing the voice of working class women come to the surface. Women make up a large number of both the student body and the workforce. As we mentioned above it was mainly women organizers leading the teachers’ strikes. In many cases they feel the oppression of capitalism greater than their male counterparts, while at the same time they feel that they have burdens greater than their sisters in the women’s movement. It is our opinion that it will be this force that will challenge all these elements to move in a more radical direction. It is here that we witness the intersection of genter and class.

In 2005, we witnessed the rise of the Tehran bus drivers union of the Sherkat-e Vahed Company. For a while now the workers had been frustrated over their conditions and decided that the only way to get their grievances heard was to for their own organization. Some of the main organizers had experience in organizing and were members of Komiteye Peygiri. Their initial meeting for the establishment of the union was attacked by the state and many members were arrested. This resulted in strike action that swept through the capital. They had many demands, among them the release of their fellow workers. The strike actions continued through 2006 until the release of Mansour Ossanlou the leader of the Sherkat-e Vahed bus drivers union. An important aspect of this struggle is the outpouring of solidarity that has been evident. Workers from other factories in Iran demonstrated in support and around the world we have seen the largest show of international solidarity against the labor policies of the Islamic Republic. Since then Ossanlou has been arrested and released twice and currently he sit in the notorious Evin prison and an international campaign has been growing demanding his and Mahmoud Salehi’s release.

Earlier this year a step was taken which was a great accomplishment in order to further the struggle and to better organize actions across the country. In March, the Co-operation Council of Labor Organizations and Activists was formed, signed by Komiteye Hamahangi, Komiteye Peygiri, as well as a number of student unions and smaller labor organizations. This we see as an incredible step and the official uniting of the students into the labor movement.

The external factor that is causing much harm to the movement inside Iran is U.S. Imperialism and its threats of war. The pressure it put on Iran has put the country in a state of siege. This gives the Iranian regime the pretext to arrest any organizer under the charge of “threatening national security.” The U.S. neocons and President Bush’s designation of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” has done nothing but harm to the movement inside Iran. It should be evident to anyone that the U.S. regime cares nothing for democracy in Iran; its track record shows this. Many on the Left have raised suspicion that the movements in Iran are supported by the U.S., in the same way as it supported the Solidarity movement in Poland. There is no doubt that the U.S would use any method it could to further its interests in the region. What people don’t realize is that the U.S. holds a different place in the collective consciousness of the Iranian people. The 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh and the installation of the Shah’s dictatorship setting back Iranian democracy is still very real in the narrative that exists amongst Iranians. Those pro-American Iranians we hear about on U.S. media are mainly wealthy Iranians who live far away from the hardship of the majority of people. Let us not forget that it was the working class that through the general strike of 1978 lent the deathblow to the U.S.-backed Shah’s regime, and it will be the workers who will do the same to this one.

Moreover, the Iranian workers understand the global significance of their struggle. We can witness in their statements that it is not just the owner of their particular factory or the Islamic Republic that they are struggling against, but the entire world capitalist system. They are well aware that the same force that steals life away from them is the same force that oppresses workers in Argentina, Nigeria, Guatemala, France…the world over.

What we are also witnessing take place is an inter-imperialist rivalry. U.S. Imperialism is losing its hegemony in the region and is desperately fighting to remain number one, while its rivals are moving quickly to take advantage. Since the 1979 Revolution Iran has been closed to U.S. corporations while Japan, China, Russia, France and others have filled the void. As oil’s supply decreases as the global demand increases the U.S. is quick to want to gain control of new markets in order to prevent a crisis and a fall in the rate of profit. This would not just affect the U.S. but global Capital as a whole. That is why we see a conflict amongst policy towards Iran. There are many possibilities that may occur, war being one of them. . If this conflict degenerates into war it could be tragic for the entire world, but for the Iranian people in particular. Everything that that been described above and all that has been achieved by the struggle would completely disappear, while Capitals hand would be strengthened.

But taking U.S. Imperialism’s situation in neighboring Iraq this doesn’t look like the immediate solution for them. What seems to be favored by many in the liberal wing of the U.S. establishment is the pushing of sanctions. This has been supported by some in the anti-war movement as an alternative to war. This is completely incorrect and should be opposed as much as outright military confrontation. This option is just imperialism with a different face. Sanctions would just bring about further starvation and misery for the people while strengthening the regime. This is of no concern to those making the decisions, it never has been. Those that do not support an invasion but support sanctions and negotiations with the Islamic Republic are just looking to bring the regime to the table in order to open Iran’s markets up for investment. They are just conflicting on the best way to go about it. We believe that there is no peace as long as the social war continues. There is no peace while the masses of mankind starve while the few rest upon their shoulders. The only way out is a revolutionary change brought about the world over, in Iran and also here within metropolis of world capitalism. Our only true allies are not the Iranian regime, but the people organizing to bring about a change and overthrow this system that continues to perpetuate war and destruction, stealing the very essence of life away from humanity the world over. Let us work towards that end.

For Humanity, Against Neoliberalism.
Etehad, Mobarezeh, Piroozi!
Unity, Struggle, Victory!
Iran Solidarity Group

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