Iran: Interview -- Trade union activists face repression as regime imposes austerity

Homayoun Poorzad interviewed by Bill Balderston

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 01/21/2010 - 18:38


By Sholeh Irani

January 16, 2010

Ashura, or mourning days for Shia Muslims, has deep historical roots in Iran. Mourning occurs through processions, passion plays and other such ceremonies dating back to pre-Islamic Iran.

In 1978, the Ashura days proved decisive in overthrowing the dictatorship of the US-backed Shah.

Ashura ceremonies gave the opposition a chance to gather in their thousands in 1978-79. The Shah’s police respected the holy Ashura and did not brutalise the protests.

However, that is not the case under the current regime.

Bloody Ashura

During the last days of December, the people of Iran shed their fears and took to the streets to demonstrate under the slogan “Down with supreme leader”. Riot police and pro-regime militias attacked them.

The protesters — including the young and old, workers and students — fought back. They threw stones and set garbage on fire, causing the police to run.

There was no international media presence and internet coverage was limited. The video clips that did reach YouTube surprised all and sundry.

Such scenes of people fighting the regime without fear have not been seen on Iranian streets since the 1979 revolution.

The regime hit back. At least 15 people were shot dead, among them the nephew of Mir Hussein Mousavi, the “reformist” candidate widely believed to have won the June presidential elections.

The regime’s answer was the mass arrest of protesters and political activists all over the country.

Since December 27, many people have been arrested from their homes. Gatherings of more than five people have been banned. The streets have been taken over by armed soldiers and military trucks.

The regime’s radio and TV stations began hectic propaganda against the resistance, declaring the protesters “foreign agents”.

Some members of parliament signed a letter demanding a state of emergency be declared so that all those found guilty of “war against Allah” could be hanged within five days of the verdict.

In reply, students at many big universities went on strike, boycotting classes and refusing to take exams. News of workers’ strikes have emerged and a proposal for a general strike is being discussed.

Opposition forces have hailed the people’s rediscovered confidence. Many commentators in the Iranian media have declared the “time of disempowerment is over”.

At the same time, a debate has started over “protester violence”. The radical wing of the movement argued it is not violent for the masses to defend themselves from attack.

The reformists and some from the liberal left, however, have argued that to avoid further state repression, it is necessary to apply the brakes on the mass movement.

Sahabi, a famous liberal known for years of opposition to the regime, wrote an open letter to exiled Iranians and asked them not to urge violent means of opposing the regime in protests. He warned of dangers from both the extreme left and right raising the level of tension between the religious and secular forces opposing the regime.

Mousavi’s compromise formula

Mousavi has presented a five-point plan for the movement. He argued that he was a supporter of the masses, not a leader. He pointed out that it was not him that urged people to take to the streets during Ashura, but rather a spontaneous people’s initiative.

At the same time, his statement expressed strong concern for Iran’s “Islamic order” and security.

His five points were: the state should be answerable to people and other institutions; electoral laws should be democratised; political prisoners should be freed; there should be freedom of expression in the media; and people should have the right to freedom of association and political organisation.

Mousavi’s proposals are being hotly debated by the regime as well as the opposition. Some in the regime welcomed them as a potential compromise formula.

The opposition has divided into two camps. The radical left, as well as many in the reform movement (religious as well as secular), have deemed the proposal an attempt to save the regime from the people’s rage. Many described it as an attempt to impede the revolution started spontaneously by the masses.

In general, reformists and the liberal left have welcomed the plan as the only way to avoid violence and chaos.

Some on the liberal left have argued that the process has unfolded so fast that, with the regime fearing for its life, a bloodbath could be the result. They think Mousavi’s initiative could lead to an “unhurried change”.

The counter-argument is that a lull in protests would weaken the people and strengthen the repression. The radical left has argued the more the people raise their voices, the stronger they become. They say the more people take to the streets, the less support there is for the regime

The Ahmedinejad regime has officially rejected Mousavi’s proposals, but opponents have said the split in the regime has widened as a result.

In the meantime, the regime continues arresting activists, who are receiving longer jail terms than in the past.

[Abridged from Swedish socialist publication Internationalen. Translated for Green Left Weekly by Farooq Sulehria.]

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #822 20 January 2010.