Vol. XLII No. 48 December 02, 2018
Protesters Press for Change in Iran

Jane Green

AT the beginning of November, Teachers in Iran went on strike for two consecutive days across 27 major cities in Iran. The action is the second round of strikes since mid-October and is aimed at putting pressure upon the government to carry out educational reforms and end mismanagement. The teachers’ action is also protesting against low wages and the violations of the educational rights of students and minorities.

Images of the striking teachers have been widely circulated on Iranian social media, in an attempt to circumvent official reporting, which sought to play down the extent and significance of the disputes.  Photographs circulated on social media showed teachers holding up posters and signs with their written demands.

Among slogans the teachers held up were: “We protest the state of education [in Iran],” “We protest against the [low] living standards,” “Promote teachers’ dignity and livelihoods,” and other signs that indicate the economic status of the average Iranian: “Poverty line at 6 million Tomans, teachers’ salary 2 million Tomans ($165 USD).”

Since the US pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal in May and re-instituted two sets of sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s economy, the currency in Iran has been nosediving, affecting the value of wages and impacting upon the purchasing power of ordinary Iranians.

An ongoing issue for ethnic groups in Iran is that there are no provisions for children to be taught in their mother tongue, a right the constitution is meant to protect.  Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution states,

“Persian is the official and common language and script of the people of Iran. The documents, correspondence, official texts, and schoolbooks must all be in this language and script.”  

It then goes on to conclude that, “use of regional and ethnic languages in the press, the mass media, and the teaching of their literature at schools, alongside the Persian language, is freely permitted”.  In the forty years since the ratification of the constitution, Tehran is yet to implement the article.

Teachers are also demanding the release of imprisoned teacher trade unionists, an end to indiscriminate investigations and the ongoing arrests of union activists. Currently most leaders of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA), including Esmail Abdi the leader of ITTA board, Mahmood Beheshti Langroudi, treasurer and Mohammad Habibi, a member of the board of ITTA are serving long sentences, ranging from 6 to 10 years, as political prisoners for campaigning for teachers’ rights and a fair education system.

The protests by teachers have been supported by students who are increasingly recognising that the situation their educators are being placed in will impact upon their learning and future job opportunities.  This even included student protesters at Tehran University, holding pictures of imprisoned teachers, interrupting a speech being delivered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  The fact that students and teachers are feeling sufficiently emboldened to take action, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago in Iran, underlines the extent of the growing crisis inside Iran.

Unrest has also been long running in the steel industry in Iran.  Workers at the Iran National Steel Industry Group (INSIG), in Ahwaz, have gone on strike numerous times in recent months to demand overdue wages. In June, many workers were rounded up by security forces and freed only when other workers launched protests.

The company has, for many years, suffered from mismanagement and lack of capital, which have rendered many production lines idle.

INSIG workers are demanding that production be restored through an injection of raw materials. They are also demanding the disclosure of the identities of individuals who are responsible for their factory’s failure.  INSIG currently has an estimated 4,000 employees who have not been paid for months.

A well as their immediate economic demands, steel workers are increasingly linking their situation to corruption at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic and articulating demands for political change.  This reflects many of the slogans echoed by teachers and students, adding to the growing sense of a crisis of political legitimacy in the country.

The same pattern is evident at the Haft Tapeh sugar cane facility, where workers went on ten continuous days of strike action earlier in November, in protest at months of unpaid wages.  The political nature of the dispute was reflected in the chanting of slogans such as “hail to the workers, down with the dictator.”

Periodic strikes and workers’ demonstrations have been a fixture of life at Haft Tapeh for many months. Workers say they are often not paid their salaries for months at a time and their wages and benefits have been cut since privatisation.

The state-run Iran Labour News Agency (ILNA) reported in November that the names of a number of the complex's shareholders, and members of its board of directors, are on an official list of individuals who have violated currency exchange regulations.

Earlier reports suggested the company’s largest shareholder and director general had either fled Iran or been detained by the authorities for violating new regulations on foreign exchange transactions.

The Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Mill is the only factory of its kind in Iran. It was built nearly half a century ago during the reign of last Shah of Iran. The agro-industrial complex was always a productive facility until the Islamic Republic decided to sell it to the private sector in a murky transaction in 2015. The complex, built on a 2-hectare area, was sold to the private sector for a down payment of roughly two million dollars. It is not clear if any further payments have been made.

It is these deals which inevitably bring the legitimate economic demands of workers in Iran into the political sphere.  The response of the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has stated he believes the unrest among the millions of ordinary workers is a "foreign plot" to overthrow the regime, further underlines the intrinsic connections between the political and economic spheres.

The deepening of sanctions by the United States, which came into play on 5th November, will only exacerbate this situation. The ability of Iran to trade on international markets is being restricted to the point where the US is effectively implementing a trade embargo.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran nuclear deal, was agreed in 2015 by the United States, Russia and the European Union to halt the domestic uranium enrichment programme in Iran, in exchange for the relaxation of previously imposed sanctions.  The deal was being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, up until the most recent inspection earlier in 2018, Iran was deemed to be following the terms of the agreement.

US President Donald Trump has never been a fan of the deal and promised to withdraw as part of his election campaign rhetoric.  Trump feels, relaxing sanctions on Iran simply allows the regime in Tehran to draw down international resources which it can then use to pursue an adventurist foreign policy and extend its influence in the Middle East.

There can be no doubt about the anti-people credentials of the Iranian regime.  For over 40 years the Islamic Republic has been to the forefront in its abuse, arrest and torture of the political opposition, trade unionists, women’s organisations and in suppressing student protests.  The regime in Iran is only matched in its vicious response to internal criticism by the United States’ key allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, the sanctions imposed by the United States are not about acting in the interests of the Iranian people and freeing them from an oppressive regime.  The US sanctions are entirely about the power balance in the Middle East, with the US seeking to impose its will and maximise control of the region’s resources.

Ironically, the path being pursued by Trump was initiated under President Obama, as part of the United States’ New Middle East Plan, to reassert influence and bolster resource control in the region.  Obama’s version of the Plan resulted in the JCPOA and a more nuanced approach to containing the perceived threat of Iran to the regional power balance.

Not surprisingly, for Trump there are no such niceties.  To all intents and purposes, the gloves are off and the New Middle East Plan mark 2 is simply to bring Iran to its knees, whatever the cost to the prospects for peace in the region or to the plight of the people of Iran.

US sanctions has resulted in those European companies which had begun to re-engage with Iran, in putting plans on hold.  German car and truck manufacturer, Daimler, has dropped plans to expand its business in Iran.  French companies, Peugeot and Renault, have suspended operations in Iran and have said they will comply with the US sanctions.

The widespread withdrawal and suspension of economic activity by European companies is remarkable because the US sanctions have no international force and no United Nations backing.  The US strategy is essentially that of the playground bully.  Companies are free to deal with Iran if they choose but they may find it difficult to do business in markets with the US.  For most companies the choice between sticking with Iranian business or losing access to the US market is no choice at all.  The United States knows this and the international community appears powerless to prevent it.

The worst case scenario military strike on Iran, something many in the US administration have not taken off the table, would still have the potential to generate chaos and political disintegration even greater than that seen in Iraq following Western intervention.  Western foreign policy, specifically that of the United States, is currently treading a very fine line from which one slip could plunge the region into war.

Living conditions for Iranian workers are already at crisis point, as the ongoing wave of disputes indicate.  Further pressure upon the economy will only serve to deepen this crisis and is likely to force the regime into taking even harsher measures against the workforce in Iran.

Such a situation cannot be sustained indefinitely. The suffering of the Iranian people under an undemocratic theocracy has gone on for long enough. The fact that such suffering is being compounded by the unilateral action of the world’s superpower launching an undeclared war means change will come soon in Iran. 

It is vital however that whatever form that change in Iran takes it is based on the will of the Iranian people, not the will of external forces.  Solidarity with the people of Iran in their struggle for peace, human rights and democracy is more vital now than ever.   

A democratic Iran would still face the threat of political sanctions and the ongoing danger of military intervention, by the US or one of its proxies in the region, but would nevertheless be a huge step forward.