Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Iran protests

There were those, some months back, who tried to characterise the Iranian reform movement as a flash-in-the-pan upsurge of the "Gucci crowd", a collective bed-wetting of the bourgoisie. They were deeply sceptical of a movement whose apparent stimulus was an allegedly rigged election, in which the losing candidate was supported by the 'Modern Right' neoliberal Rafsanjani, of Iran-Contra fame. They reminded people of the synthetic 'colour revolutions' that have taken place. And indeed, it was hard not to think of that spate of spectacles, in which often well-heeled masses turned out for big protests before either facilitating the assumption of power of a neoliberal faction, or dying out entirely. Think of the 'Cedar Revolution' - the Lebanese bourgeoisie, face-painted and out in force, towing their Syrian house servants behind them. That spectacle moistened a few crotches among Anglosphere liberals, but it was immediately outnumbered by more sizeable Hizbollah organised protests, and it didn't last as a mass movement.

The characterisation of the Iranian movement in those terms was false in several ways. For a start, notwithstanding the 'confessions' issuing from various protesters tortured by the basiji, there is no evidence of any US involvement in the 'Green' movement. Secondly, it can't be assumed that the revolt was simply a movement of the comprador bourgeoisie. Ahmadinejad had done relatively little for the working class. Moreover, far from the movement being restricted to some symbolic appearances in big metropolitan centres, the revolts spread to poor working class areas. Even if it had been a movement exclusively of the middle classes, I would have wanted it to win - to win more than it bargained for, in a sense. It was clear, though, that the revolt wasn't just about Mousavi or the sector of capital backing him, and the rebellion persisted even after the bloody state attacks on protests left several people dead and many wounded. Not long ago Al Qods day, Iran's national day of solidarity with the Palestinians, also became an opposition protest - quite appropriately, I might add. Palestine has better allies than Ahmadinejad.

Students in particular continued to speak out and protest, while the most politicised and advanced sectors of the working class were attacked. Some Anglophone readers equate 'students' with 'middle class' (wrongly as it happens), but one result of the Iranian revolution was an explosion in higher education so that it can no longer be considered a preserve of the privileged. Indeed, just as the radicalism of some students in Britain resulted in part from the matriculation of the working classes, so the radicalism of Iranian students could be said to result in part from their poor background and the miserable economic prospects that await them despite their labours.

At any rate, when Ayatollah Montazeri died a week before Christmas, it would have been reasonable to expect some upheaval. Montazeri was no leftist, though he was initially one of the Republic's 'permanent revolutionaries' working for its export internationally. At the same time, he opposed excessive vengeance against the old Shah ruling class, and helped humanise the Republic during the 1980s when it was undergoing some of its most vicious purges, notably the killing of thousands of prisoners in 1988. He opposed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and became an ally of the reform movement in the 1990s. Having criticised Ayatollah Khamenei, whose political instincts are usually reactionary, he was placed under house arrest. Most significantly, he issued a fatwa against Ahmadinejad's re-election this year. He instantly became a muse to the 'Green' movement. Upon his death, the protesters didn't mourn - they organised. Protests broke out not only in Tehran, where some reports apparently speak of protesters taking control of the streets, but also in Najafabad (Montazeri's birthplace), Isfahan, and Zanjan, where police allegedly tried to prevent memorial services from taking place. In the protests that followed, the state responded with its usual combination of tact and diplomacy. Yesterday, the day of Ashura, eight were killed and three hundred injured according to Le Monde. The dead reportedly include Mousavi's nephew. But if drowning the last protests in blood didn't work, how can the authorities assume that it will work this time? Look at these protesters:

If those writing the reform movement off as another 'colour revolution' were correct, we probably wouldn't be witnessing such scenes. There is no way that this is over. The old order in the Middle East, from the US-backed Mubarak dictatorship to the Islamic Republic, is breaking apart. A counsel of despair tells us that the only alternative to the current regime in Iran is some schlemiel maintained by Washington. However, this assumes that the current Iranian ruling class is the country's best vanguard against imperialism - an absurd proposition. The reformers are not Washington stooges, and their success would make attacks and sanctions emanating from Washington less plausible. It also assumes that no social class or coalition in Iran has the resources to build a better, more just state under the duress of pressure from the US. That has always been an excuse of developmentalist, and even 'socialist', despotisms. But there is no reason for us to accept this.