Iran: anti-austerity protests

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Iranian protest 2018

As 2017 drew to a close, thousands of people came out onto the streets of Iran, protesting against austerity measures and unemployment. The protests were on a scale not seen since the ‘Green Movement’ which followed the 2009 elections (see FRFI 210). They reflected many different interests, from working class people angry about cuts imposed by President Rouhani’s budget measures, through those demanding a stricter form of Islamic rule, to those seeking to overthrow the Iranian government in favour of full integration into the imperialist global economy. Internationally, the protests were seized upon by imperialist leaders and ruling class media, to further their objective of regime change in Iran. President Trump tweeted on 30 December: ‘The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most’.

Protests began in the city of Mashad – Iran’s second city, and a stronghold of hardline opposition to Rouhani – on 28 December. They quickly spread to many other cities and towns, although not to Tehran. President Rouhani has sought to cut social expenditure since he came to power in 2013, advancing privatisation to meet the demands of major western oil companies and other foreign investors. This comes alongside the 2016 nuclear deal which was seen as a rapprochement between Iran and the western imperialist powers. The government has proposed to cut welfare by $5.3bn and raise petrol prices by more than 50% in the next financial year. Petrol prices in Iran are currently among the lowest in the world. Along with bread and sugar, petrol prices are kept down by large government subsidies. 90% of Iranians currently receive direct cash subsidies from the government. These cuts are not simply a result of Rouhani’s economic policies however. The collapse in global oil prices – engineered by Saudi Arabia and the US to hurt Russia, Venezuela and Iran – has hit hard. US and European sanctions have harmed the Iranian economy for decades and are central to Iran’s economic problems. Some sanctions were lifted in 2016, although Trump has made clear that he intends to restore them in May.

The Iranian government initially supported the right of the people to demonstrate and acknowledged that the protesters had some real economic grievances. Rouhani attempted to use the protests to criticise his hardline opponents in the Iranian ruling class, grouped around former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests began to attract more slogans against the Islamic Revolution and head of state Ayatollah Khamenei as the days passed, along with demands for Iran to halt support for Palestine, Hezbollah and Syria. Some protests turned violent by 30 December, with groups attacking police stations and firing at security forces. The Iranian state responded with force. Many protesters were arrested and 21 were killed, according to the government. Huge pro-government rallies were held in Tehran and elsewhere. On 7 January the Islamic Revolutionary Guards announced that the protest movement had ended.

With the role Iran is playing in the Middle East, supporting the Syrian government and Hezbollah, and pushing for influence across the region in opposition to the plans of US imperialism and its allies, a whole host of external forces are seeking to undermine the Iranian government. It would be unthinkable that US, British, Israeli and other agents in Iran were not seeking to influence and direct the protest movement to suit their own interests. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the US Congress in June 2017 that the US is seeking to ‘support ... those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.’ Israeli agents have repeatedly assassinated Iranian scientists inside Iran. The legitimate grievances of the Iranian people against austerity and unemployment, and the ravages of the imperialist financial system have mobilised them to demand change. In imperialist Britain our role must be to fight to prevent British and all imperialist interference in Iran in order to support the Iranian people’s sovereignty. Hands off Iran!

Toby Harbertson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018

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