Iranian workers between economic crises and military threats
Chris Strafford analyses the social and economic crisis gripping Iran in the face of veiled Israeli threats
As the Iranian rial collapsed and sanctions continue to take their toll, desperate protesters took to the street on 3 October in Tehran. The demonstrations involved workers and shop owners who marched towards Iran’s central bank, where they were met with rubber bullets, tear gas and riot police. Bazaar owners closed their stores in protest against the free fall, whilst across the country everyone who could rushed to convert their rials into foreign currency or gold. In Mashad, the second largest city, workers and traders also took to the streets to protest the crisis and its effects on their livelihoods. The regime responded in typical violent fashion with further threats of bloodshed on the streets. The regime prepared for more unrest by organising to unleash the dreaded Basij militia
The regime has attempted to lay the blame for the economic crisis on sanctions and Western powers; for workers in Iran to believe this they would have to have an exceptionally short memory. This time last year, workers at Bandar Imam Petrochemical plants were taking strike action against inhumane conditions. In 2010, Ahmadinejad’s government withdrew subsidies that previously had helped millions to afford food and fuel. The withdrawal was a simple class attack; with the opposition scattered abroad and underground, the government insisted on moving towards free market prices. The IMF and World Bank have been impressed with the neo-liberal reforms undertaken by successive governments. On August 3 2011, the IMF praised the subsidy withdrawals and hailed Ahmadinejad as a “reformer”. As is usual with structural adjustment programmes, the IMF stated that poverty would be reduced and waste would be cut. Yet it brought nothing but misery to millions.
Production of oil, the most important export for Iran’s economy, has suffered a drastic reduction. In August, crude shipments were cut around by 1.2 million barrels per day which cost the regime around $48 billion. This amount is equal to about 10% of the economy. Sanctions have made banks and companies wary of trading with Iran to avoid the wrath of the United States. In 2011, the Dubai-based Noor Islamic Bank stopped clearing Iran’s oil revenue. It had formerly been responsible for $60 billion of revenue for the Islamic Republic. The sanctions have made it extremely difficult for Iran to access its money. They also mean it faces rising costs from those institutions that still do business with the regime, in order to cover for any losses they may accrue from further sanctions or actions by the United States and its allies.
Economic sanctions have heaped misery onto ordinary Iranians, and at the same time, further concentrated economic power in the religious and military elites. Whilst millions of Iranians struggle in poverty, these elites remain untouched, keeping their vast wealth offshore, safe from being seized or reduced in value as the rial collapses. Sanctions have only helped in the political disorganisation of the working class. The latter is constantly pressured to shift its focus from overthrowing the regime to simple survival.
Demanding workers’ rights and decent wages whilst being crushed by sanctions is considered a threat to national security, as the imprisonment and harassment of trade unionists Ali Nejati, Mansoor Osanloo and Reza Shahabi shows. Workers’ struggles are presented as part of a foreign conspiracy to sabotage the economy, making it harder and harder to organise and present a working class opposition to the economic crisis.
Sanctions, subsidy cuts and the threat of war have had a massive effect on working peoples’ lives. Unemployment is rising and officially stands at 15.3%, though it is likely to be above 20% according to economist Mehrdad Emadi. For young men, it’s around 25% and women face an unemployment rate of 50%. Inflation officially stood at 22.5% before the collapse of the rial; unofficially, it has been suggested that it was closer to 33.5%. The currency crisis has pushed up prices even further, opening the door to higher inflation. Car manufacturing, often considered a bellwether for the wider economy, has seen a 42% reduction in production. The economic chaos has opened the way for further redundancies and rising unemployment in Iran’s industrial heartlands.
Sanctions on Iraq killed an estimated one million people because medical supplies became scarce and unobtainable. Deadly pharmaceutical shortages are also taking place within Iran. Whilst medical supplies are not specifically on sanctions lists, foreign banks have been forced to withdraw channels in which individuals, doctors and hospitals can pay and acquire supplies. A letter from the managing director of the Karafarin Bank, obtained by Al Monitor, stated that the most vital drugs for cancer and other severe diseases are now being denied to the Iranian population by the European manufacturers due to the lack of appropriate banking channels.
The Islamic Republic has survived mass protests, strikes and war. But deep political dissatisfaction and popular rejection of the theocratic regime has drastically reduced the life expectancy of the regime. The situation further impoverishes the working class, whilst proletarianising vast sections of the middle classes. How long can it be until protests of the hungry break out again?
Against the backdrop of anti-regime sentiment, the United States, Israel and their allies are inflicting destructive and impoverishing sanctions. The stated goal of these imperialist states is to stop the theocratic regime from acquiring the potential to create nuclear weapons. The United States and Britain both have had, or continue to have, nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf and Israel’s worst kept secret is a horde of hundreds of nuclear warheads.
However, Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb will not help the situation and impending crisis, like some on the left believe. It will merely add another threat to the possibility of the working class taking power and to the rise of popular opposition to dictatorial regimes and imperialist domination. Iran, with an independent modern military, sits at the centre of the most important arena for imperialist expansion and domination. Part of the West’s strategy is to support Jihadists and the Free Syrian Army against the Assad regime, thus weakening Iran by removing its most important ally. The war in Syria is turning into a proxy war, with the Islamic Republic arming Assad while the Gulf States and NATO member Turkey arm, train and support the rebels.
In the end, the Iranian government and the United States et al. share the same fear: a genuine movement from below that could bring down the regime. Whilst military action could come without warning, the relative stability and continued existence of the Islamic Republic is a boon for the military industrial complex in the West. Moreover, it also helps an Israeli government desperate to hide its human rights abuses against the Palestinian people by shifting international focus onto Iran. The working class in Iran suffers under imperialist sanctions, capitalist economic chaos and the theocratic dictatorship. In light of this, our tasks here in the West are simple. Continue to oppose imperialist preparations for war and call for the complete withdrawal of sanctions. Simultaneously, we must expose the crimes of the Islamic Republic and build international solidarity with those fighting the regime.