“Woman, Life, Freedom”…  The beginning of the end of the bloody theocratic dictatorship!

 Article on Iran by *Jamshid Ahmadi

The death in September 2022 of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the so-called “Morality Police”, having been detained for “inappropriate Islamic hijab”, was the trigger-point for the people of Iran – particularly its women and the youth – to rise up and make a stand against the disastrous social, economic, and political repression inflicted upon the people for more than four decades by the ruling theocratic dictatorship.  A population already frustrated and indignant by the violation of their basic democratic rights – from daily issues, like their choice of attire in public, to the bite of economic hardship imposed upon them through the inept and malign neo-liberal policies of the regime – have risen and spectacularly revolted against the Islamic Republic system and all that it represents.

The past 16 weeks have demonstrated that this regime, just like that of the Shah previously, is not invincible…  In fact, far from it!  The dynamism and flexibility of the current movement in adapting to new forms and to change tactics, as well as expand its ranks by appealing to other disenfranchised tiers of the population, has enabled it to frustrate the regime’s traditional methods of dealing with popular uprisings in recent years.  The fact that this movement has lasted for four months and has still not lost its distinct progressive, secular, and anti-dictatorial edge is a testament in this respect.

The protesters are demanding basic human and democratic rights, as well as social justice…  And, it is clear that the current movement has evolved into open calls for an end to the ruling theocratic dictatorship.

Protests have been a live and recurring feature in Iran ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in the tumultuous aftermath of the victory of the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 which toppled the dictatorship of the Shah.  Indeed it should be noted that the first protests against compulsory hijab took place just less than a month later.

Over the last two decades, the protests have intensified – starting with the so-called Green Movement in 2009 against the electoral fraud that was orchestrated through office of the Supreme Religious Leader, the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  That electoral coup re-instated the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

There were mass uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019, and again last year, with various important ‎economic dimensions, e.g. the three-fold increase in the price of fuel.  There have been ‎labour strikes, teachers’ strikes, as well as numerous protest rallies held by ‎pensioners, nurses, and others.  Therefore, the antecedents and incendiary factors to the current uprising were already present and waiting for the igniting spark…  A spark which came with the news of Mahsa Amini’s killing on Friday 16 September 2022.‎

It is also very important to understand that, over the past 40 years, the religious fundamentalist regime has tried to assert its control over every aspect and minutiae of the people’s lives.  It not only imposes the Islamic dress code, but monitors the behaviour of men and women – especially the forced segregation between youths of the opposite sex – and imposes bizarre social restrictions, prohibitions on female artists, and so much more, all in accordance with the religious edicts issued by the theocratic regime.

The “Gasht-e Ershād” (“Guidance Patrol”) was formally established in 2005 by executive order of the then newly-elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  This came after the failure of other parasitic forces and militias set up with the same remit since the early-1980s.  The women of Iran have been fighting for their civil and democratic rights for more than 40 years now and are currently not only a constituent part of the popular protest movement, but are at the forefront of the national uprising against the entire being of the theocratic regime.

Essentially, the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement has given voice to all sections of the Iranian population that have suffered and been suppressed under the despotic parasitic theocratic regime.  And, after four months of brave struggle, it is evident that the regime has failed to re-establish its control.

The mass movement that is currently going on in Iran will have permanent and lasting effects on the lives of the Iranian people, particularly on the women and youth.  They earnestly fight for their basic rights which have been brutally violated over the past few decades.  It is very clear that they will no longer submit to the reactionary and outdated rules and regulations of the theocratic regime that interfere with the basic personal freedoms of the people – from the compulsory dress code, to restricting music and even the banning of girls and boys from eating together at school canteens.

Even if this current movement is eventually crushed with brute force – the default recourse of the regime, displayed in its ferocity particularly since early-December – the fire of popular feeling will continue to smoulder under the ashes, ready to reignite once more, whatever its spark might be.  Iran belongs to all Iranians and not only those deemed worthy by the ruling clerical regime.  The people want their own rights and freedoms back, and will no longer remain silent in the face of the regime’s hegemony.

“Woman, Life, Freedom” and Economic demands

Although the initial spark of the current protests was the brutal treatment of a young woman by the regime’s “Guidance Patrol”, and the main demands and slogans of the protesters centred around social freedoms – particularly discrimination against women – the importance of another underlying factor cannot be overemphasized and that is the parlous state of the economy and the horrific hardships faced by so many ordinary people in Iran.  The disastrous follies in regime policies since the early-1990s, leading to no less than a catastrophe in terms of Iran’s economic situation, have placed huge strain on the households of the country’s working class and middle class – this has sown the seeds of a major social explosion, like the one currently underway in Iran.

Iran’s per capita income is now much lower than a decade ago, in 2013, even though population growth since then has been very low.  Meanwhile, regime policymakers remain transfixed with the low population growth rate.  Yet according to official calculations, even if economic growth was to bounce back and rise above six percent, it would take a long time for Iran to reach the per capita income levels of 2013.

These disastrous conditions persist in our country while most of the neighbouring countries in the Persian Gulf area are rapidly redressing the damage and setbacks caused by the pandemic and fraught economic backdrop of the last few years and are beginning to move forward.  These countries, including those devastated by terrible war and occupation, are now moving forward much faster than Iran.  Of course, our people bear witness to this reality and are deeply unhappy…  They cannot take any more.

In September, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance in Iran announced that the economic growth rate for the past year was around 3.5 percent.  Such a figure cannot really be considered an improvement for a country like Iran given the sharp decline it experienced prior to this.  There is still a long way to go to reach the economic performance levels, productivity, and GDP of 10 years ago.  Of course, this situation has created great dissatisfaction and hardship amongst the people of Iran who bear witness to this harsh reality and are deeply unhappy…  They cannot take any more…  They need and demand a dynamic and promising economy, one which offers them hope and opportunity.

Perpetuated Open discrimination against Women

In the recent protests, the prominent role of women is undeniable.  In addition to the galvanising effect of the aforementioned social issues, specific economic factors have certainly played a role in the strong presence of women in this protest movement.

Statistics over the last two decades show that the participation of women in education has massively increased.  Even by the mid-2000s, more than 50% of university entrants were female – which of course led to the male-dominated political hierarchy stepping in to change the rules of the game so that the quotas of females in some fields of study are drastically capped.  Yet many females still enter the universities and continue their studies to postgraduate level.  For example; a few years ago, 72% of students of Mazandaran University, in northern Iran, were female.  However, this leap has not been properly reflected in the job market and the unemployment rate of female graduates remains disproportionately high, with many of them facing the stark choice between a traditional more restricted role in society or leaving the country altogether.  This is not to say that it is easy for an educated male youth to find work in Iran, but the situation is not comparable to that faced by their women compatriots.  According to the National Statistics Centre, the economic participation rate of women is 13.8% compared to 68% for men.  The official unemployment rate for men is 7.8%, but that for women is over 16% – while the unemployment rate for men over 15 years old is 20.7%, but for women over 15 years old is 40.7%.  That means, on average, the unemployment rate of women is about twice that of men and often even higher.  At the same time, educated women face many unfair social pressures, including harassment, which exacerbate their economic problems.

The situation of entrenched inequality and discrimination between men and women in Iran becomes even worse during unfavourable economic conditions because the government tries to shore up the positions of men based on the stereotypes that see them as the main breadwinners and providers for the traditional family setup – and the room and scope for manoeuvre by women becomes conversely narrower.

Organised opposition

The majority of Iranian people, from all walks of life, from the working class to the middle strata of society; from women to men; from young to old; from intellectuals, artists, and pensioners to even small and medium business owners, feel choked and oppressed by the social and economic policies of the theocratic dictatorship.  All forms of planned opposition are prohibited.  Trade unions, women organisations, political parties advocating social and political reforms, and even peace organisations, are banned – with such activities leading to severe punishment.

The regime’s organs impose a social terror which further transgresses upon the fundamental rights of the Iranian people and makes their daily lives unbearable.  Any show of dissent, let alone organised partisan and political opposition, is ruthlessly and violently repressed.  On the other hand, the regime’s pursuing of neo-liberal economic policies has pushed the overwhelming majority of people to the brink of absolute poverty, while a small minority of regime loyalists continue to amass vast fortunes.  At the same time, any attempt to collectively organise against this and form unions has been brutally crushed.  Since 1997 (the election of Khatami as President), the struggle for the civil rights (e.g., against rigged votes and the compulsory hijab) and for better living conditions (e.g., the protests and strikes by workers and pensioners) has been continuing non-stop.  This time, the death of Mahsa Amini lit the touch paper of the hitherto suppressed rage of the long-suffering people of Iran and they are now targeting the Islamic Republic establishment in its entirety, going well beyond the previous calls for mere reform of the system.

Neoliberal economic model and Endemic Corruption

Iranian economy has been in crisis due to a multitude of factors since late 1980s.  Contrary to the slogans of the 1979 Revolution that has promised economic development, wealth distribution and social justice, the regime leaders have followed a harsh neoliberal economic model.

Iran’s national economy over the last three decades, since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, has been restructured by applying the IMF’s neoliberal economics model – thereby implementing a flexible labour market, mass privatisation, the banning of trade unions, and a deep reduction in welfare.  This has resulted in an unproductive, rentier, and import-oriented national economy that broadly relies upon the export of crude oil.  The key economic activities in Islamic Republic of Iran are finance-mercantile-oriented, which has resulted in a hollowed-out economy, huge accumulation of private wealth and corresponding worsening of poverty, unemployment and precarious work.

Since 1988, a full programme of privatisation has been implemented.  Most of the large enterprises were sold to government loyalists and their corrupt networks.  Workers have paid the price through lay-offs, job insecurity, and the lowering of conditions of service.  During the past four decades, most employees and workers – both in the formal and informal economy – have joined and supported the campaigns for the payment of withheld salaries, reversal of failed privatisations, health and safety at work, social security, and occupation-related insurance.

Iran under theocratic rule has become the most unequal society in which the poor and disenfranchised have no rights or entitlements.  If not supported by a wealthy patron, a young person would severely struggle to secure a proper job or decent accommodation in Iran today.  One of the reasons why the country’s youth have so energetically supported the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement and raise radical demands reflects the reality that without a fundamental change, they have no future in Iran.

Ali Torkeman Dini, an expert on economic issues, on 3 November 2021, stated, “For many decades, the political economy system [in Iran] has been involved in institutional nest-building – i.e. there are many decision-making and power centres and this has led to a paradoxical situation that of itself creates many openings for corruption and graft.”

Rasul Montakhabnia, a prominent regime figure , commenting on the embezzlement controversy at “Mobarakeh Steel” – in which it was revealed that more than 3 billion USD were embezzled – said, “Corruption is now systemic [in Iran], some people just don’t want to accept it!  Unfortunately, because the root factors enabling corruption have not been dealt with […] everywhere we go is worse than the place before.  It’s bigger than Mobarakeh Steel, although the extent of embezzlement there was not minor!”

Corruption and bribery in the Islamic Republic of Iran owes to the structure of the rentier economy more than any other factor.  Thus, when a “windfall” is made, sums of money are transferred to certain state-connected figures who will then abuse their positions and use their political clout to secure a given favourable outcome for the payee.  This pattern is entrenched within Iran’s economy.

The upper echelons of the dictatorship – powerful politicians and senior government bureaucrats – are organically linked with big business in Iran and compete between themselves for the spoils, but ultimately preside over an unproductive and tanking economy.  They are the direct beneficiaries of a highly unjust, exploitative, and deeply corrupt economic system that in turn sustains the theocratic dictatorship along with its oppressive military-security apparatus.

The majority of Iranian people are hugely adversely affected by this exploitative and corrupt economic system, and therefore see the theocratic regime not only as a reactionary police state but also as representing a network of wealthy corrupt powerful families and individuals – Iran’s equivalent of a state-enfranchised mafia.  Thus the recent mass demonstrations in support of women’s rights at the same time clearly vent the deeply-felt anger and hatred of the ordinary people against the daily economic brutality they have suffered under the theocratic despotism.

All that the women and youth and, in general, the people of Iran would like to receive from the international community is solidarity and support for their rightful struggle; to echo their voice.  This support and solidarity would lift the spirit of the people in Iran in this fight.  Pressuring the government of Iran through international institutions to respect the rights of the people to peacefully protest, to refrain from resorting to violence against the protestors, and to release political prisoners, are just a few things that can be done.  These killings must stop, and international pressure can undoubtedly help with this.  The Iranian people must be able to advance their demands without fear of prison or death.

*Jamshid Ahmadi is Assistant General Secretary of CODIR *

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