Draft, by Shiva Tabari, 16 December 2019

Iran 2019: the struggle between two ‘Mustazafin’

In the traditional understanding of Islam, ‘Mustazafin’ are those people who are in chains to oppression and poverty. The official discourse of Islamic Revolution in 1979 held that it was the revolution of Mustazafin and this government is theirs. Right now, after 40 years Ayatollah Khamenei, speaking to a new generation of vanguards of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has refined the meaning of ‘Mustazafin’, saying that “it often misunderstood that a mustazaf is a person who is poor or subaltern. It is wrong. A mustazaf is a leader of society, one who is a pioneer in fighting the corrupt powers of the world.” Now it is clear for Iranians that the government has lost its connection with subaltern and is trying to revise one of the main concepts of the dominant ideology. The government is trying to stop the opposition and the protestors from claiming this important concept for themselves and trying to show that we, as leaders of society are the true holders of this title. It is clear that struggle between protestors and the government is getting more and more intense and after a major physical battle, the struggle is now going on in the ideological field. How can one understand this bloody battle? It is necessary to trace the start of this battle 30 years ago, when Islamic revolution tried to normalize itself after 8 cruel years of war with Iraq.

1990s: development of middle-class project

The young Islamic Republic, faced traumatic events and many critical situations in the early years of its establishment. Occupation of US embassy, the American military operation at Tabas, the Iraq invasion and occupation of Iran’s territories, global alliance against Iran and complete military sanctions, bombardment of Iran’s oil industry and navy by American navy, internal conflict with left and ethnic militias and remnants of royalist groups. These are just some of the critical situations and traumatic events that the Islamic Republic faced during the 1980s. In that period, Iran lost half of its productivity and the established ruling class was well aware that they could not continue for a long time with this degree of conflict with world. The 1990s is the period in which Iran tried to get normalized and integrated with global system. When president Hashemi Rafsanjani came to power, he said his state would be ‘state of construction’: on one hand, he tried to construct ‘normal’ foreign relations, and on the other hand, tried to make ‘normal’ middle class people who don’t act like Islamic revolutionaries and prefer to go to cinema, university and consume luxury goods. In this period, the government built metro stations, decorated big cities, built hundreds of private universities, cultural complexes, factories and, in summary, all the facilities necessary for establishment of a normal middle class. It was evident that the ruling class wanted an apolitical middle class. A kind of a bureaucratic, technocratic, well-educated middle class which would serve as the new generation of managers, technicians, doctors and academics of Islamic Republic and were not involved in political issues. A middle class without newspapers, political parties and NGOs. A middle class without civil activity. This contradiction lead to creation of a kind of middle class that around 1998 was completely ready to crystallize this contradiction into a social movement.

Iran’s 1998 reformist movement

The creation of new middle class in Iran led to a major change in public discourse. Now, instead of expressing concern about imperialism, the poor, jihad, martyrdom, revolution and western intoxication, the middle class talked about democracy, modernity, civil society and human rights. In the presidential election of 1997, their candidate Mohammad Khatami was elected with a huge majority of the vote. Now the reformists were in a strong position of political power in Iran. Under presidency of Khatami, people gradually start to transform their everyday life. People began to change their hijab style, organize political meetings, NGOs and talk about their social and political ideas loudly. Tehran university students, in reaction to closing of a reformist newspaper started a big demonstration demanding freedom of speech. In that event and other major events after that, the rising middle class actively tried to pursue the project of more democratic and more normal Islamic republic. However, part of ruling class was not allied with this middle class. They didn’t want a normalized Islamic republic and their vanguard were those poor people who still believed in revolution, jihad and western intoxication. This part of ruling class was those who had a close relation to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Basij Militia and those who, traditionally had control over commercial capital. This part, based on its brutal power, limited the activities of reformists and sabotaged civil society as much as they could. They had another class project: creation of a hardworking, anti-west, conservative working class. From 1998 until 2005, the political sphere was the field of battle between the project for a normal middle class and the project of a conservative Islamic people.

In 2005, by the start of presidency of Ahmadinejad, the conservatives prevailed. It is very important not to neglect all the complexities and internal dynamics of each project. However, to give a somewhat oversimplified picture, after the start of greater sanctions on Iran, a rise in the inflation rate, the bankruptcy of many small firms during the first presidency of Ahmadinejad. Many individuals from both projects, specially the project of normal middle class, fall into a situation which one can call the situation of ‘the poor middle class’. An individual from a poor middle class is a person who is well educated, with special skills, ready to work, having a political knowledge and concerns, with high expectancy of having a good life, but because of economic situation he/she has no chance of finding a job, making a family and improving his/her life. Poor middle class was not a middle class, having access to sources of wealth and power (as technician, manager and so on), and at the same time poor middle class was not the subaltern, illiterate class of anonymous people. They are in a critical situation ready to struggle for their expectations. It was this poor middle class that, in alliance with reformists who wanted to regain their power, who made the 2009 ‘Green Movement’. ‘Green’ does not here designate Islam or Environmentalism; the Green Movement could be described as a ‘color revolution’ like those which have occurred in other countries.

The Green movement: process of radicalization of poor middle class

After four years of the Ahmadinejad presidency, in the period of the election campaigns, Iranians participated in many dramatic rallies. Almost all of poor middle class, most of them living in big cities of Iran were supporting Mir Hosein Musavi, the former prime minister of Iran and candidate of reformists. On the other side people living in rural areas, those poor people who became fascinated by Ahmadinejad’s monthly cash aids and other populist policies were supporting him. When the election result came out, it showed that Ahmadinejad was the winner with more than 20 million votes. Musavi claimed that he will not accept the result since he has proof of systematic cheating in the process of election. That was the start of many demonstrations in the largest cities of Iran. In Tehran, more than 3 million people came out and gathered in streets shouting “where is my vote?!.” The government repressed the demonstrations and gradually the demand of the poor middle class shifted from “where is my vote?!” to “death to dictator!.” Over a year or so, the government killed many protestors, arrested all the core activists, reporters and reformist political figures, even Musavi himself. In consequence, they successfully silenced the voice of angry, radicalized poor middle class.

It was very hard for the conservative, anti-western government to come to an agreement with the west about its nuclear program. Sanctions were getting harsher during 2009-2012. It was highly probable that Iran’s insistence on its nuclear program would persuade the UN Security Council to make harsh decisions about Iran. The Islamic Republic decided to slightly retreat from its position. In the 2013 presidential election, a pro-west, technocrat, centrist party whose candidate was Hasan Rouhani, launched a campaign with mainly three claims: reparation of Iran’s foreign relation with west, economic reform and release of Musavi from home imprisonment. A part of the reformist and left politicians start supporting him and also a part of the poor middle class compromised with this option. It appears that part of poor middle class that was not so radicalized and had lost the motivation for political reform, had reached an conclusion that improving foreign relations and economic reform is better than nothing. It was a common slogan among poor middle class that between two options which one is ‘bad’ and the other is ‘worse’ we have to choose the ‘bad’ one. Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president with the help of poor middle class and those sections of society which were fearful of critical relationship with west. After the election the main program of Rouhani for economic reform was speeding up the process of privatization in different spheres: schools, universities, firms, healthcare system, public transportation and other public services. In this process many workers lost their job, many firms became bankrupt and people found many difficulties in accessing the healthcare system. In foreign relation they finally reached ‘joint comprehensive plan of action’ with major western powers in 2015. It was a great victory for Rouhani, so it was obvious that he had a great chance to be re-elected in 2017 with the help of the remaining unradicalized poor middle class.

However, what was completely out of sight in the dominant social and political discourse was those tired, subaltern people living in slums outside the cities. Nobody in social media talked about them. The government’s official discourse was that Iran has no poor people. They were the silent people who had no interest and relation to middle class or poor middle class. They had no interest in political games and they had limited or no access to public services. It is obvious that they lived autonomously and with the least support by government or other social services. They are those who Islam traditionally call ‘Mustazafin’.

Rise in the price of egg and rise of Mustazafin

On the 28th of December 2017, after a sudden rise in the price of eggs and other commodities, a relatively small number of people began to protest in the city of Mashhad, Oran’s second most populous city. The news about this protest quickly spread and people in other cities began to protest the economic situation. However, they were different people from the poor middle class. More than 150 small cities all around the country had risen up. The big cities, where the middle class lives, were not involved in the first wave of protests. In some demonstrations they provocatively chanted “Reza Shah, Bless your soul!,” a nostalgic reference to founder of Pahlavi dynasty. Middle class people were almost silent about the protests, confused about these outsiders who they don’t know much about.

After some days, the radicalized poor middle joined the protest in the big cities and showed their support for the workers and poor people. However, they were more concerned about their own demands which were more political or social issues. For example, a series of protests against the compulsory hijab by poor middle class, known as ‘the Girls of Enghelab (revolution) Street’, dominated social media.

A part of the poor middle class started to colonize Mustazafin protests to promote constitutional monarchy and the return of Reza Pahlavi as the political alternative. Soon, it became clear for Mustazafin that the poor middle class has no solidarity with them and social media, which is the main public sphere of the poor middle class, are empty of Mustazafin’s demands and concerns. However, the experience of the protests in late 2017 and early 2018 in 150 small cities across Iran had shown the Mustazafin that they are not the few but the many. After the suppression of the first wave of protests, Ayatollah Khamenei apologized to the poor people for the bad economic situation. However it was too late, and the project of Mustazafin, the project of autonomous subaltern people to overthrow the Islamic Republic had been launched.

From early 2018 until late 2019, there were thousands of small protests, worker strikes and smaller incidents. One of the most important ones which became influential in social media, was the strike of the Haft Tape workers. Haft Tape is a relatively big sugar cane firm in south of Iran with more than 7,000 workers which in the process of privatization had become unproductive. Workers weren’t paid for many months and they realized that their solution is to occupy the firm in order to run the business, cooperatively. They were defeated and the leaders of the strike were arrested. However, the importance of events in Haft Tape was that they put forth an old and at the same time a fresh, new idea: “Bread, Work, Freedom – cooperative management.” The leaders of Haft Tape movement were talking about grassroots politics and council democracy. It appears that this idea is becoming widespread among workers and small part of radicalized poor middle class. However, most of the middle class is still thinking about a kind of parliamentary democracy. The second mass move of ‘autonomous subaltern people’ in November 2019 had a major impact on the development of class projects in Iran.

The November Massacre

When the government, suddenly and without prior announcement, tripled the price of fuel it became completely clear that the Islamic Republic knows that it has lost his ideological power and legitimacy among the people. Hence, they don’t find it necessary to speak with people about their decisions or convince them. They tripled the price of fuel at midnight and garrisoned their police force in city centers. Pure dictatorship. When the autonomous subaltern people came out, it became obvious that it was not an ordinary street protest. It was a demonstration of power and organized revolutionary action in order to capture or sabotage strategic government buildings in almost all of the provinces. There are reports that only in the province of Isfahan autonomous subaltern people rallied in more than 100 locations. Many districts in the city of Shiraz were captured by people for hours or days. It was a clear declaration of war between the autonomous subaltern people and the Islamic Republic. It is in this situation that Ayatollah Khamenei says that ‘We are the true Mustazafin, not those subalterns or rioters’. The result of this war will determine the future of this concept. It was predictable that the autonomous people did not trust the poor middle class, those who use their cell-phones to capture movies of protests, and so on. Those who remain on the sidelines and won’t collaborate in blocking roads and attacking the police forces. At the same time the relation of the poor middle class with the autonomous subaltern people is very complicated. I will map the current situation of class projects, their internal dynamic and collaborations with each other in the next report.