Restive Currents Below Iran’s Theocratic Rule

An Iranian Feminist

Resistance on the part of labor, students, women, ethnic minorities, and intellectuals is growing in the face of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repression and Holocaust denial, and the economic crisis.  New philosophical discussions are taking place around Islamic reformism and around the translation of Marxist works by Dunayevskaya and Lukacs, among others. – Editors

George W. Bush’s Jan. 10 address on Iraq, and the subsequent U.S. Army arrest of five Iranian diplomats in Irbil, Iraq as well as the deployment of another carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf have been widely interpreted as a declaration of war against Iran. Whether these moves will lead to war, despite the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and the deep opposition to the Iraq war within the U.S., remains to be seen.

If the anti-war movement in the U.S. is serious about stopping this confrontation, it needs to engage in people-to-people solidarity with the opposition movement within Iran, its challenge to the Iranian regime, its debates, aspirations and demands. These issues range from the current debates over the nuclear standoff and Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, to issues of labor, education, man-woman and gender relations, as well as discussions over the economic and philosophical direction of the country.


The Dec. 22 UN Security Council vote to impose limited sanctions on Iran over its failure to halt uranium enrichment has generated a great deal of concern inside Iran. On Jan. 10 the reformist Participation Front issued a “Warning of the Participation Front” in which it proclaimed: “Any isolation and economic sanctions will hurt the dispossessed and vulnerable lower and middle classes most…Achieving peaceful nuclear technology is our country’s right. At the same time however, the way to achieve this capability is not through the existing policies and actions…We must avoid any adventurous policy or measure that can increase world suspicion of Iran, such as exiting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or holding a symposium on the Holocaust…We must call for peace and life and prove it with our policies on the national and global scale” (

A few days later, the newspaper EDALAT,  announced a letter from 150 members of the parliament which summoned Ahmadinejad to rush back from his trip to Latin America and  appear in front of the Parliament to  answer their concerns about soaring inflation and unemployment.

Many student organizations have also opposed Iran’s attempts at nuclear proliferation. In an open letter, a group of student activists declared: “Nuclear energy is just an excuse and means for a war of interests [between the U.S. and Iran]. Therefore not only are we for ending the nuclear activities in Iran. We are also for the denuclearization of the world and the obliteration of all weapons of mass destruction in all countries including the U.S., Russia, China, Israel…We support research toward acquiring safe and clean types of energy with the least amount of environmental pollution as a substitute for nuclear technology” (“Name-ye Sargoshadeh-ye Jam’i As Fa’alan Daneshju-i,”  4/6/06).

The Iranian government continues to use the nationalist card, the anti-U.S. imperialist card and the anti-Israel card to turn attention away from the country’s internal crises. One of the most outrageous expressions of this drive was the Tehran symposium “The Holocaust–Global Vision,” sponsored by the Iranian government Dec. 11-12. It hosted David Duke, head of the Ku Klux Klan, Professor Robert Faurisson, convicted in his native France in 1991 for dismissing the Holocaust, American revisionist historian Veronica Clark, skinhead groups from Germany and rabbis from New York affilicated with a Hasidic sect, Neturei Karta.

Given the banning of all the reformist newspapers which have previously criticized Ahmadinejad’s claim, it has been very difficult for Iranians to get a sense of dissenting views on this question. Furthermore many websites which were previously available to Iranian internet users are now being consistently filtered.

In December 2005, soon after Ahmadinejad’s original speech denying the Holocaust, the leading reformist daily, SHARGH which has recently been banned from publication, had published a number of articles critical of Ahmadinejad’s statement. One example, entitled “Hitler Was Only a Name” (“Hitler Tanha Yek Nam Bud,” 12/17/05), contained the reprint of a DER SPIEGEL interview with Whitney Harris, prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials. He had identified Hitler as the expression of the phenomenon of Fascism which “represented the complete moral collapse of the 20th century,” a collapse which, he argued, began with the carnage of World War I and which we face today. Another, entitled “Thoughtless Barbarism” (“Barbariyat-e Nayandishideh,” 2/1/06), cites Rosa Luxemburg’s JUNIUS PAMPHLET and Hannah Arendt’s EICHMAN IN JERUSALEM and argues that the only way to oppose barbarism is to stand for “collective reason” and “collective memory.”

On the second day of the Holocaust symposium, Dec. 12, Ahmadinejad was also scheduled to speak to a group of students at Amir Kabir Polytechnic University on the occasion of “Students Day” which commemorates the struggles of students against the former Shah’s regime. No sooner had he started speaking than he faced an angry audience of 700 who chanted, “You are the source of prejudice and corruption,” “Down with the Dictator,” “You militarist, leave the universities alone,” “Liar, get out,” “We don’t want the government of force,” “Freedom is our absolute right,” “Freedom, Freedom,” and “Resign, Resign.”

Students continued to interrupt Ahmadinejad’s speech, challenging his effort to “cleanse” the universities of secular and liberal professors, and opposed the government’s practice of banning “three star students” who have three marks against them for being involved in political activities against the regime. Ahmadinejad went on to speak about his views on the Holocaust and his nuclear ambitions. Students began to hold portraits of Ahmadinejad upside down and then set them on fire. Many were badly beaten by the government paramilitary units. Students were especially angry because in June, the headquarters of their duly elected Islamic Student Council had been bulldozed in the dark of night with permission from the university president.


Since the rise to power of the Islamic Republic following the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution and the full imposition of counter-revolutionary rule in 1981, followed by the executions of tens of thousands of student activists, there have been two waves of large scale student protest in 1999 and 2003. In each case protests were viciously suppressed by government troops and paramilitary units. Several student leaders arrested in 1999 and 2003 still languish in jail.

A week before the Dec. 12 protest, another student rally of 3,000 had been held at Tehran University, also on the occasion of “Students Day.” There, students chanted, “Down with the Dictator,” “Students and Workers Unite,” “Free the Political Prisoners,” “Socialism or Barbarism,” and “Society’s Emancipation is Women’s Emancipation.” One student speaker declared, “We now have to fight on two fronts: against internal dictatorship and foreign imperialism. Just as we challenge the internal suppression, we must oppose the threat of foreign military invasion and foreign sanctions which put ordinary people under double pressure” (“Tajamo’-e Bozorg-e Daneshjuy-i Dar Daneshgah-e Tehran,” 12/6/06).

A few days later, the results of nationwide municipal elections held Dec. 15 proved that this deep discontent is not simply a phenomenon limited to students. Eighteen months after Ahmadinejad’s election, his allies failed to win control of most local councils.

This growing discontent has also been seen in ongoing labor protests ranging from the attempted strike by the Bus Drivers Union in December 2005 to sit-ins in front of parliament to oppose revisions to the 1990 Labor Law. These revisions will reduce workers’ rights and benefits and aggravate the practice of non-payment of wages and mass firings. While the leader of the Bus Drivers Union, Mansour Osanloo was released from prison recently, Bus Drivers Union activists and their families have continued to face harassment and periodic imprisonment over the past year. In mid-January, on the occasion of Ahmadinejad’s trip to Venezuela to meet with his friend Hugo Chavez, the Bus Drivers Union sent an open letter to the Venezualan Workers Syndicate and demanded that they confront Ahmadinejad in defense of Iranian workers (, 1/17/07).

While struggles over laws that affect education, labor and women’s rights are quite significant in any country, the idea of legal changes which positively affect women’s rights is considered revolutionary in Iran today. Thus women’s rights activists led by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi have initiated a wide “One Million Signatures Campaign” to demand an end to discriminatory laws against women in Iranian law which is based on Quranic Shari’a Law.

The campaign is a follow-through from the peaceful protest of the same aim which took place on June 12, 2006 in Tehran and was brutally attacked by female government police. There are other campaigns to defend women who are on death row for having “committed adultery” or for killing men who attempted to rape them. Iranian feminists have been quite vocal in writing for and creating websites which discuss politics, sexuality and theory.

The Iranian government also faces continuing discontent from ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Azeris and Baluchis. In July 2005, the body of young Kurdish opposition activist Shivan Qaderi was tied to a jeep in the city of Mahabad and dragged in the streets. His murder led to many demonstrations in neighboring Kurdish cities which the government attacked by deploying large numbers of troops. Several prominent Kurdish human rights activists were arrested and tortured. The following year, in May 2006, the publication of a cartoon in a government newspaper in Iran which depicted Azeris as roaches led to protests by thousands of Azeris in Tabriz.


In order to better understand the context in which these protests are taking place, it is important to look at the economic situation in Iran today and the prospects that the current situation offers to the majority of the population. In their new book, CLASS AND LABOR IN IRAN: DID THE REVOLUTION MATTER (Syracuse University Press, 2006), Farhad Nomani and Sohrab Behdad remind us of how a fundamentalist regime was able to gain power in Iran after the 1978–79 Revolution. They examine how this regime has fared in relationship to its economic promises.

They review how the ideas of Ali Shariati gained support in the 1970s because he equated Islam with the struggle of the dispossessed and an “unequivocal opposition to capitalism, private ownership and class exploitation.” Even though Shariati did not support direct democracy, his ideas sounded different from the hateful pronouncements that we now know from Al Qaida. His call for a “monotheistic classless society” and an “Islamic Socialism” gained many adherents especially among youth. (For further discussion of the limitations of Shariati and his dangerous concept of Martyrdom, see FOCAULT AND THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION (2006) by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson.)   While Ayatollah Khomeini did not agree with Shariati’s ideas about a classless society, he did use the ambiguous concepts of “justice” and “class balance” to gain more adherents.

Nomani and Behdad remind readers that shortly after the revolution, the workers councils were banned and replaced by government-run Islamic workers councils. Within the first nine years of the revolution, the reality of class inequality, poverty, war, sanctions and the glut in the oil market made the government of the Islamic Republic abandon any talk of an Islamic Utopia and compelled the introduction of some free market reforms to cut subsidies and price controls.

Today the state is the country’s largest employer and runs Iran’s capitalist economy mainly through income generated by monopolistic access to oil and real estate speculation. A mafiaesque collaboration of foundations run by Khomeini’s original merchant base, whose offspring are now military and paramilitary leaders and state enterprise owners, runs the state enterprises with the assistance of the post of Supreme Religious Leader which is now occupied by Ayatollah Khamenei. Ahmadinejad is the latest face of this phenomenon.

Those capitalists who will benefit from full scale free market reforms, which can accelerate the rate of accumulation of capital and invite foreign investment, are represented by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran and current member of the powerful government Council of Guardians.

After three decades of the Islamic Republic: 1. The real rate of unemployment (14% by official estimates and 30% by unofficial estimates) is now higher than 1976. 2. Real wages and salaries are still below what they were in 1977 whereas proprietors’ income and profits of capitalists have increased. 3. The low rate of participation of women in the formal economy, in contrast to their extensive participation in the informal economy, arises from exclusion from the labor market or segregation which limits work to areas where male participation is barred. 4. The standard of living of the rural population has improved.

The “Achilles heel” of the Islamic Republic remains unemployment. Seventy percent of Iran’s population of 68 million are below age 30. More and more students, 60% of whom are women, are graduating from college and cannot find jobs. According to Nomani and Behdad, “The best that the overwhelming majority of the youth (‘educated’ or otherwise) can expect would be a working class position. Many will not be able to secure even that. The failed expectation of the youth will be the major political and social dilemma of the current decade in Iran.”

Iranian youth are not only concerned about their economic future. They are also deeply interested in philosophical debates about a democratic alternative to religious fundamentalism and to the cynicism which has followed the collapse of Communism. The Islamic republic’s assault on independent thinking, its arbitrariness as far as laws are concerned and its attempt to control every aspect of people’s lives have made young people hungry for ideas that affirm human self-determination and human reason.


Most secular intellectuals and Islamic reformists are deeply interested in the ideas of Immanuel Kant and Jürgen Habermas as well as pragmatists such as Richard Rorty and Karl Popper. Akbar Ganji, a dissident journalist who became known to the world through his long hunger strike last year, has based his manifestos on the ideas of the above thinkers. He hopes that Iranians will create a type of liberal democracy that is more moral than the existing liberal democracies. He also argues for a type of pluralism that is not relativist since there are certain values that are absolute. Such values include the complete equality of women and men (“Jomhuri-ye Jomhuriha,” 17 Khordad 1385, 6/7/06).

Another Islamic reformist thinker, Abdolkarim Soroush, argues that while democracy cannot be deduced from Islamic sources such as the Quran and the Hadith, it is possible to establish models of democracy that are compatible with Islamic values and ideals. He argues that as opposed to liberal democracy, procedural democracy which is based on the separation of powers, can be compatible with Islamic Shari’a. At the same time, he argues that the world is full of mysteries that can only be intuitively discovered by larger than life individuals through a leap of faith. The prophets are such figures (See Professor Ali Paya, “Soroush: Aqlgara-ye Moradad,”

Another prominent Islamic reformist thinker, who is least known in the Western world, is Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. In A CRITIQUE OF THE OFFICIAL READING OF RELIGION (Naqdi Bar Qara’at Rasmi Az Din, Tehran: Tarh-e No Press, 2001) he argues that Islam as a religion does not possess the political, economic and legal systems that would transcend all time periods. The role of government among the Muslims is not to legislate the rules of Islam. Shabestari writes that “There can be multiple readings [of the Quran]. In order to achieve the truth we must critique any interpretation…and specify its degree of accuracy” (p.7).

Similar to Islamic reformist thinkers, prominent secular thinkers have also based themselves on the ideas of Kant and Habermas. Ramin Jahanbegloo argues that liberalism exerts a strong pull on Iranian dissident intellectuals today because it “goes against any form of determinism (religious or historical)” and “represents a check on the arbitrary and authoritarian tendencies” (“A Dialogue with the Iranian Philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo” in Danny Postel, READING LEGITIMATION CRISIS IN TEHRAN, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007, p. 77). He especially attacks the majority of Iranian Marxist tendencies at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution for not having read Marx’s own works and instead representing Stalinist or Maoist tendencies which colluded with Khomeini in various ways. He concludes that the new generation of youth have become anti-utopian and reject any pre-given consensus as a foundation.

Jahanbegloo is quite right to attack the Stalinist and Maoist Iranian Left for colluding with Ayatollah Khomeini during the first years of the Islamic republic. However he is mistaken in rushing to the conclusion that Iranian workers have never been interested in socialism or that Iranian youth have become categorically anti-utopian. Translations of works by Marx and on humanist Marxism are being published and read alongside the translations of Kant and Habermas. The Persian translation of Marx’s 1844 MANUSCRIPTS which was published in 1999 has undergone three reprints and will soon be published in a fourth. Works like Mikhail Lifshitz’s PHILOSOPHY OF ART OF KARL MARX, Lukacs’ YOUNG HEGEL, and Raya Dunayevskaya’s PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION and MARXISM AND FREEDOM are being translated, read and discussed.

While secular intellectuals like Jahanbegloo and Babak Ahmadi agree with Islamic reformist thinkers in their attraction to Kantian liberalism as an alternative to the existing repressive fundamentalist regime, none claims that liberalism can overcome the reality of capitalist exploitation and alienation.


Marxist-Humanists have had a deep and sustained relationship of solidarity with the Iranian freedom movement since 1978 and had articulated a principled opposition to Khomeini’s counter-revolutionary anti-imperialism before his ascendancy to power. The Iranian freedom movement today is a beacon of hope for a Middle East engulfed in religious fundamentalism, war and hatred. Any attempt to dismiss this movement or downplay it is a disservice to the Left and to humanity.

There are several ways U.S. activists can express solidarity with Iranian freedom fighters: publicize the case of Ahmad Batebi, a 28-year-old student activist who has been languishing in jail since 1999 and continues to speak out despite torture and solitary confinement; contact the “Million Signatures Campaign” at [email protected] and online feminist magazines at [email protected] or [email protected]; and communicate with the The Bus Drivers Union at [email protected].

Clearly any declaration of war by the U.S. government on Iran has to be opposed because it will lead to loss of lives among Americans and Iranians and will only allow the Islamic Republic to further crack down on its internal opposition.

[Originally appeared in News & Letters, February-March 2007]


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