Six weeks ago a popular rebellion exploded in Iran in response to the assassination of a young Kurdish woman by an agent of the so-called Morality Police. Six weeks after its beginning, this rebellion is still going on and is aimed against the regime of the Ayatollahs. What are its perspectives? What program should we revolutionaries raise in this situation?
By Alejandro Iturbe
We write this article aware of its limitations. The IWL-FI does not have a national organization in Iran (although we do maintain contact with Iranian exiles abroad). Therefore, we will be very careful in the formulation of characterizations and proposals. However, at the same time, we count on the knowledge of historical experiences in similar situations and also on the theoretical framework that Marxism provides us with for its understanding.
Some facts about the country
Modern Iran began to take shape in the 19th and early 20th centuries (when it was still called Persia). Centuries before, the Persian monarchies had adopted the Shiite branch of Islam. Today’s Iran is the result, on the one hand, of the reduction of a regional empire that had to cede territories, the so-called Transcaucasia, that were incorporated into the Russian Empire after the Russo-Persian war (1826-1828). On the other hand, the British empire dominated certain cities. This was the case of Herjat, which the Persians tried to recover in the Anglo-Persian war (1856-1857) but were defeated.
Persia reached the twentieth century as a weakened country subjected to this double foreign imperialist oppression. In his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin defines Persia as a semi-colonial country in the sense that it had part of its territory in the hands of foreign powers. In the twentieth century, imperialist appetites began to center on the country’s immense oil wealth and, a few decades later, U.S. imperialism entered as a central factor in the equation.
Currently, Iran has an area of 1,650,000 km2 and a population of more than 85,000,000 inhabitants. The backbone of its economy continues to be the extraction and refining of oil (and petroleum products) and its export. As a result of several processes during the twentieth century, Iran also produces a wide variety of industrial products with its own technology, with several factories of automobiles, tractors, and machinery in general. For the same reason, there is a labor movement of considerable social weight.
At the same time, an important part of the population lives in a self-sufficient agro-livestock primary sector. Sheep farming is very important, producing wool for the production of the famous Persian carpets. Wheat, cotton and tobacco production are also important products. The commercial and service sector is dominated by small private companies.
The 1979 Revolution
The history of Persia-Iran during the twentieth century intertwined various national situations within the framework of major world processes, such as World Wars I and II, and, in the Second Post-War period, the consolidation of the US as the hegemonic imperialist power.
Since 1925, the Iranian regime was defined as a “constitutional monarchy.” In the early 1950s, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq sought to nationalize oil, until then in the hands of foreign companies (the “seven sisters”). In response, U.S. and British imperialism promoted a coup d’état that overthrew the Mosaddeq government.
A monarchical dictatorial regime headed by Shah Reza Pahlevi was installed. This regime becomes one of the pillars of the imperialist policy to dominate the Middle East (together with the State of Israel and the Saudi petro-monarchy). Internally, it carried out harsh repression against its opponents, mainly through the secret police (the SAVAK), imprisoning them or forcing them into exile. This was the case with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the most important religious leader of Iran at that time.
The hatred of the Shah’s regime accumulated, exploded, and developed in 1978 and culminated in January 1979, when the Shah was forced to flee the country. It was a great revolution that overthrew the monarchy, dismantled the SAVAK, and went so far as to form workers’ and popular councils and militias .
The religious dictatorship of the ayatollahs
However, this great revolution had an enormous weakness: the absence of an organized revolutionary leadership which would consciously push the revolution toward the seizure of power by the working class, as did the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 in Russia after the overthrow of tsarism.
This great weakness was exploited by the Shiite clergy and the Iranian bourgeoisie opposed to the Shah (the so-called “Bazaar bourgeoisie”) to first contain and slow down the revolution and then defeat it. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, regrouped the Shiite clergy, and used his religious influence to create a powerful militant force of his own. The workers and popular councils were replaced by “Islamic councils” and the militias that had been created in the struggle against the Shah were transformed into “Guardians of the Revolution” at the service of Khomeini’s policy.
As Soraya Misleh says in a recent article, the revolution “ended up being hijacked by a bourgeois leadership represented by Ayatollah Khomeini, which would not even be capable, because of its class interests, of carrying out the democratic tasks demanded by the people. On the contrary, the opposition was destroyed by a counter-revolution” .
The result of this process was the formation of a “religious dictatorship” in which the main institution is the Shiite high clergy and, especially, its religious leader. As the article just cited states, this regime did not solve any of the democratic tasks expressed by the revolution. In fact, as we will see in this same material, in many cases, it aggravated the situation even more.
In this framework, before analyzing those pending tasks that are exploding in the current rebellion, we find it necessary to make a consideration. The regime of the ayatollahs is the highly contradictory result of a process that began with a revolution that had as one of its axes the struggle against US imperialism.
This genesis means that this regime has a relative political autonomy vis-à-vis imperialism, that it is not a servile regime limited to obeying orders, and that it has aspirations to transform Iran into a regional power. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini nationalized the entire extraction, refining and export of oil, and the state company NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company) came to have monopoly control of the sector in the country. He made full use of this profile to justify the installation of the dictatorship, presenting it as an anti-imperialist bastion of Islamism that was fighting the US.
Since 1979, US imperialism continues to have “outstanding accounts” with the revolution and, in some aspects, attacks the regime of the ayatollahs. That is why, in 1980, it pushed the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to invade regions of Iran, starting a long war between the two countries. While defending itself, the ayatollah’s regime used this war to consolidate its dictatorship.
On the other hand, for more than fifteen years, imperialism has imposed economic sanctions against Iran’s independent nuclear development program . In various articles, we have repudiated and called to combat these sanctions, and we defend the right of a weaker nation to develop its own nuclear technology . In 2019, the Trump administration had ordered an attack on three Iranian military bases, but backed down and changed the action to a drone strike that resulted in the death of an Iranian general. The IWL-FI also repudiated this imperialist aggression .
We repudiate the economic sanctions of imperialism against Iran. It is undeniable that they negatively affect the Iranian economy and, ultimately, the people are the ones who suffer. As Florence Oppen’s recent article says: “These sanctions should be condemned; they have not harmed the regime or Iran’s economic elite, who have done nothing but enrich themselves but have only harmed ordinary Iranians.” We have also said that the sanctions against Iran have not only harmed the regime but have also harmed the people of Iran.
At the same time, “the oppressive Iranian regime uses sanctions as an excuse to divert attention from its own responsibility for the economic crisis”. We will refer later to its adjustment and privatization policies and its search for imperialist investments. Likewise, these sanctions cannot be used as an excuse for its policy of repression of oppressed nationalities, women, and the gay community.
On the other hand, its policy is less and less confrontational with imperialism. On the contrary, for several decades it has been seeking to be accepted by the imperialist powers and to have an international, subsidiary, and collaborative “place at the table”. For example, after the invasion and military occupation ordered by the government of George W. Bush and the coalition with the European imperialist countries that overthrew the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein (2003), there was an attempt to install a puppet government headed by a man of Iraqi origin linked to the CIA. This attempt failed. Instead, the situation developed towards a war of national resistance to the occupation and the fracturing of the country into three regions, under the domination of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. In this framework, the regime of the ayatollahs made a de facto pact with the Bush administration and helped to install “central” governments in Baghdad (in the Shiite-dominated zone). In the field of the development of its nuclear project, under the government of Barack Obama, the Iranian regime ended up accepting the imperialist demands (external control and supervision) and deepened the common policy towards Iraq .
Less known is the fact that, for several years, Iran has been developing a policy of privatization of large state enterprises and the search for imperialist investments . An “opening” to imperialism that could not be absent in the oil sector, which only in the first three months of the fiscal year 2013 registered an increase of 300 million dollars . A policy that continued in the following years: “The Iranian government presided over by the moderate Hasan Rohani, approved a new model of contracts for the oil industry designed to attract foreign investors, which will be open to companies from all over the world, including those from the U.S.” .
The spark of the rebellion…
In the current rebellion, the different components that generate the struggle against the regime of the ayatollahs are expressed with increasing force. First of all, the oppression of women, who are forced by law to wear the Islamic veil (the hijab) and treated as second-class citizens. Homosexual relations are totally forbidden and are punishable by death. In the country, there is a Guidance Patrol (a Morality Police) in charge of enforcing these laws and with the right to imprison and repress those who transgress them.
The current rebellion erupted precisely because of the reaction to the murder of the Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, committed by an officer of the Morality Police, for not wearing the hijab correctly, last September 16. At the same time, rape is common in Iran, particularly against young Kurdish women. In 2009, there was also a strong popular reaction to the suicide of Farinaz Khosrawani after she was raped by a security guard in the hotel where she worked . It is no coincidence then that it was young women who started this rebellion.
… starts a fire
Their struggle acts as a spark that quickly ignites. Because in the mobilizations they are accompanied and supported by many men, especially young men: they are their brothers, friends, study or work colleagues . A video posted on the Internet shows “students at the University of Hormozgan, one of the most conservative regions of Iran, tears down the dividing wall that segregates men and women in the cafeteria of the faculty, shouting ‘freedom'”. This is the response of the youth, fed up with the oppressive regime.
The struggle of the oppressed nationalities by the Persian majority, as a result of the process of the formation of the country, was also inflamed. In particular, that of the Kurds  (let us recall that the young woman assassinated was of this nationality). There are 10,000,000 Kurds living in the country who are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. They live in the poorest regions of Iran. In 2019, they represented half of the prisoners detained for crimes “against national security,” sentenced to disproportionate penalties. They cannot teach their language in their schools. Finally, as we have already seen, many Persian police and security guards consider they have the “right” to rape young Kurdish girls. The Kurdish people have developed a historical struggle against this oppression: for example, in 1946, it was within the borders of Iran that the constitution of the first independent Kurdish state (the Republic of Mahabad) was declared, quickly crushed in a bloody manner by the Iranian army.
The struggle also extends to the workers: the Council for the Organization of the Protests of the Contracted Oil Workers issued a clear warning to the government: “We support the struggles of the people against the organized and daily violence against women and against the poverty and hell that dominates society,” and threatened a strike . The Coordinating Council of the Iranian Educators Union supported the initial demonstrations by calling for a two-day strike. They stated that “the teachers, who have staged a wave of strikes and protests since last December, wrote that the uprising shows that ‘Iran is still alive and active, and will not bow down to oppression.'” The teachers, who have staged a wave of strikes and protests since last December, wrote that the uprising shows that ‘Iran is still alive and active, and will not bow down to oppression.'” 
We have said that there is an important working class in Iran, which is increasingly suffering the attacks of the regime and its privatization and adjustment plans. It must face them in very difficult conditions since the legislation prohibits the existence of legal unions. What does exist are the “Islamic labor councils,” tripartite bodies in which the workers’ “representation” is exercised by persons selected “on the basis of their loyalties and religious affiliations to the government.” Arrests and detentions of those who want to create an independent trade union structure are commonplace, as well as torture and lack of medical care for detainees . Despite these very harsh conditions, in recent years there have been numerous waves of very militant strikes .
Repression does not break the movement
As on every similar occasion in the past, the regime responded with harsh repression. Several weeks ago, more than 1,200 arrests were recorded (to be subjected to summary trials) and at least 154 people were killed. The figure is surely much higher. In addition, the repugnant method of rape while imprisoned of young female detainees by police officers is once again being used .
However, all the information we have received is that this harsh repression does not manage to break the movement. On the contrary, it seems to strengthen and spread (even to sectors of merchants and small landowners), both because of the repudiation of the repression and the accumulation of anger among the workers and the masses after decades of growing oppression and exploitation.
In this context, the process of struggles tends to unify and to be increasingly directed, in a conscious manner, against the regime of the ayatollahs as a whole and for its overthrow. As Florence Oppen’s article points out: “The demonstrators chant ‘Death to the dictator’ and… ‘this is the year in which the house of Sayyid Ali Khameini will be overthrown'”.
If this dynamic of the struggle provokes and combines with a weakening of this regime, as well as cracks and divisions in the Iranian bourgeoisie that supports it, we would enter fully into a revolutionary situation in the country, according to the classic criteria analyzed by Lenin in 1915 .
A proposal of tasks
We have said that we are conscious of the limitations of our analysis because we do not have a national organization in Iran but that, at the same time, we can use the knowledge of historical experiences in similar situations and the theoretical capital supplied by Marxism for its understanding. This is valid for a tentative proposal of tasks for facing the struggles in Iran.
As Soraya Misleh’s article points out, this proposal can only be made within the framework of the understanding of the dynamics of permanent revolution formulated by Trotsky . That is, a process of struggles that begins with the combination, on the one hand, of unresolved democratic demands, such as free elections and national and women’s oppressions. And, on the other, by working-class demands, such as the defense of wages or the freedom to organize unions and go on strike.
At first, these demands are unified around a central axis: Down with the dictatorship of the ayatollahs! and for its overthrow. In order to advance towards this first objective, historical experience shows the importance of the workers and the masses building nuclei of organization and struggle in the factories, neighborhoods, schools, and universities, and that these nuclei be coordinated in regional commands and in a national one, with democratic representation.
Also, the importance of organizing to confront repression, as evidenced in the “front lines” of the mobilizations in Chile and other countries, and working on the basis of the repressive forces to demoralize and break them. An immediate alternative of power for the overthrow of the regime could be the convocation of a democratically elected Sovereign Constituent Assembly to draft and execute a new constitution to solve all these pending problems.
The overthrow of the dictatorial regime of the ayatollahs would mean a great triumph for the workers and the masses, which would clearly place them in an offensive situation in the class struggle. However, the revolutionary process cannot end there, because to the extent that the Iranian bourgeoisie maintains its economic power and its control in the State apparatus (to the extent that Iran continues to be a semi-colonial capitalist country) it will seek to erode those democratic conquests and, essentially, to maintain the exploitation of the workers and the surrender of the country to imperialism. For this reason, it is necessary that the process advance to a higher stage: the seizure of power by the workers and the masses to initiate the transition to socialism.
In the framework of actively promoting this process, as Trotskyists we maintain that, as it arises from the historical, theoretical, and programmatic experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917, it is necessary to build a revolutionary party that consciously and consistently promotes the struggle to the end, that is, towards the seizure of power and the construction of a new type of State. From the IWL-FI we place ourselves at the service of these tasks.
 For those who are interested in the subject of the Kurdish people, we recommend reading, among other articles published on this site ¿Por qué defendemos el derecho de los kurdos a tener su propio Estado? – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)
 See, amongst various other editions, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects