The Revolt of hunger and pro-west opposition in Iran

Iran is going through a series of mass uprisings. The period from December 2017 to May 2022 has seen at least three general, nationwide uprisings and four regional but large-scale. In December 2017, a rally against inflation and poverty in the religious city of Mashhad marked the beginning of a general uprising in more than 80 cities across Iran.

The next revolt began in Isfahan, one of Iran’s industrial hubs and tourist destinations in August 2018. Though not as widespread as the previous rebellion, it continued for four days, spreading to more than ten cities in different parts of Iran. In November 2019, after the sudden elimination of fuel subsidies and resulting increase in gasoline and diesel prices, people took to the streets in more than 100 cities, instigating a huge uprising that lasted five days, in which more than 1,500 people were killed by state forces.

The next revolt took place in the cities of Balochistan, a border province inhabited by the Baloch people, a poor and mostly Sunni minority. In February 2021 the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) closed the borders of the province, with the aim of preventing illegal fuel transfers from Pakistan – which was the only source of income for these people, triggering a regional uprising. During that time, the governorate building of Saravan was occupied by the protesters for several hours. In July 2021, water shortages and frequent cuts in water supply, which particularly oppressed poor peasants and smallholder ranchers, led to a regional uprising in Khuzestan province in which Arabs and Lors, another ethnic minority in Iran, live. This is known as the “Thirsty Uprising”. Shortly afterwards, in November 2021, water shortages led to a sit-in by peasants in the city of Isfahan. The invasion of police to end the sit-in led to an uprising in Isfahan province that quickly spread to neighbouring provinces suffering from water shortages, becoming known as the “Water Uprising”.

On May 6, 2022, just a week after the government announced that it had cut flour subsidies, and ensuing rise in prices for items such as bread and pasta, demonstrations in Shahrekord, a poor city in the centre of Chaharmahal Bakhtiari province, led to widespread riots. The uprising quickly spread to some cities in the neighbouring provinces of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, Lorestan and the north of Khuzestan province. In some cities in other southern and western provinces of Iran, people joined the uprising and took to the streets, and eventually, sporadic demonstrations took place in northern cities. In the Iranian capital, only the people of Rezvanieh, one of the suburbs of southeastern Tehran demonstrated, and were severely repressed. In total, the people of 31 cities in different parts of Iran participated in the hunger riots. The rise in the price of bread was the latest step in the months-long trend of rising prices for food items, which became more expensive one after another with the successive elimination of the “subsidized currency”.

On the first day, the protests were relatively calm and sporadic. On the second day, however, violent attacks by riot police and the security forces provoked a strong reaction from the people. As in previous uprisings, people attacked government buildings and banks while trying to slow down the repressive forces by lighting fires in public places. As the repression escalated, instead of retreating, people intensified their attacks on government facilities in the following days. On May 12, in the small town of Junqan, the angry crowd occupied the main base of the Basij, a state-backed militia, and set it on fire. Two days later, another Basij base was occupied in Hafshjan. The uprising lasted until May 18, when thousands of armed repressive forces with advanced military equipment entered the rebellious cities. Due to the loss of internet connectivity ordered by the government and the historical deprivation of these areas, the exact number of detainees and the death toll are not yet available. But at least eight people have been confirmed dead in various cities, and more than 300 were arrested in the small town of Izeh in northern Khuzestan alone. Published images reveal troops entering insurgent cities are equipped with armoured vehicles and, in some areas, tanks.

According to video reports published by independent media, in the cities with no uprising, military forces and riot police units were stationed in city centres ready for action at the first indication of any protests. For instance, in all poor areas of Tehran including its outskirts, riot police were present.

This uprising was commonly referred to as the “Hunger Uprising”, as it started against the high price of food items. Despite this initial reason, similar to the previous uprisings, slogans targeting president Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei became central. The Islamic Republic responds to any small gathering with repression. This is because government officials are well aware that the general public, and especially the working class are so angry, that they will take any opportunity to protest against the rule of the Islamic Republic and its officials.

Neoliberalism with the banner of justice

Ebrahim Raisi was nicknamed “Sayyid of deprived people” during the presidential election. Sayyid refers to those whose lineage goes back to the family of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammed, whose main priority was to improve the lives of deprived people. At the time, most of the left-wing opposition to the Islamic Republic explained that the austerity policies leading to the spread of poverty, inflation and public misery in Iran have nothing to do with which faction wins the election and forms the government. The implementation of neoliberal policies is among the fundamental policies of the Iranian state. Therefore, regardless of the faction, once in government, they are obliged to implement such a policy. The same left-wing opposition also emphasized that those who had been allowed to run for the presidency, including incumbent Ebrahim Raisi, were in favour of continuing privatization, deregulating the labour market in favour of capitalists, liberalizing price controls and eliminating subsidies.

For most right-wing Iranian economists, whether economists affiliated with the fundamentalist/reformist factions of the government or economists in opposition to the Islamic Republic, the elimination of subsidies is considered a necessary and useful step that is inevitable for Iran’s economic development. In this discourse, the policy is examined as a phenomenon that has caused inflation, and corruption, and is in conflict with advancing neoliberal policies.

The relationship of the Islamic Republic with the lower classes has always been one of tension and conflict. The Islamic Republic came to power by suppressing the processes of the revolution, in a sense as a counter-revolution that emerged from a revolution. As a result, it has been forced to keep certain sections of the lower classes satisfied specifically to prevent unpredictable riots and uprisings following the implementation of neoliberal policies. Therefore, it was not always possible to implement these policies at once and often done in stages (for information on part of the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the lower classes, see this article). A case in point is the way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, after winning the election with the slogan “Justice”, implemented the elimination of subsidies on gasoline and diesel in June 2007. In order to head off any riots following part-removal of the subsidy, Ahmadinejad’s government promised to pay people the same amount, in cash. Simultaneously with the importation of large quantities of electronic devices such as modern refrigerators and large televisions, there has been a sudden drop in the price of these devices. Therefore, the government provided the conditions for mostly rural or suburban households to spend their cash aid on things they never imagined would be available to them. Though only a small amount of money, there were in fact no riots immediately after this first cut in the fuel subsidy. At the same time, left-wing economists warned that this trend would lead to the gradual elimination of cash payments and public misery, citing historical examples of the implementation of these policies, including the collapse of the Argentine economy. Another example is the end of the Iran-Iraq war. After a decade-long suppression of the 1979 revolution and the consolidation of the counter-revolutionary rule of Khomeini and his supporters, the implementation of austerity policies was on the agenda of the Islamic Republic. These austerity policies were partly related to the development of capitalism in Iran and the need to advance and stabilize policies such as privatization, price liberalization of currency, fuel and energy prices, as well as deregulation of the labour market in favour of investors. They also wanted to meet the obligations they had agreed with global investment institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. Moreover, the imposition of inhumane sanctions, mostly impacting the lower classes, by Western governments and especially the US, has exacerbated the situation over the years.

Therefore, we should understand the elimination of subsidies and the impact of the December 2017 uprising in adopting such a policy within the same historical process described above. At the same time, from the initial phase of this plan through the support of the right-wing economists and their counterparts in the right-wing opposition groups the Iranian state could make an agenda by cutting subsidies on “preferential” exchange rates. Finally, after a slow but continuous process, the ‘preferential’ exchange rates for some basic goods were cut and those for others, such as medications, were seriously limited. Raisi’s government came to power when the ‘preferential’ exchange rates were allocated for only six basic goods including wheat, barley, soybean, corn, cooking oil, oilseeds and some medications. In December 2021, Ehsan Khandouzi, Iran’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance announced that for the next year’s budget the ‘preferential’ exchange rates will be allocated only for bread and medications and the other goods will not enjoy them. This is perhaps the only promise of the government that has not only been actualized but also built upon. In April 2022, the remaining part of the ‘preferential’ exchange rate for medications was cut and the price of foreign medications spiked within days.

By the beginning of May, the ‘preferential’ exchange rate for wheat, a basic ingredient for bread, was cut as well. Against the increase in bread prices, the government sought to control the crisis. The pilot distribution of bread through the national identity cards in Zanjan was one of the measures planned by the government. According to this plan shared by the government and the parliament, everybody could get a specific amount of subsidized bread by showing his/her national ID card, for the further amounts the price would be unsubsidized. With regard to Sangak, a triangular whole wheat flatbread, the specified amount was not even equal to one bread, so a person could get 7/10 of one Sangak. Consequently, the increase in medications and bread prices affected the cost of other foods. For example, sugar got up 270%; milk and other dairy products doubled in price.

Raisi’s general policy concerning the liberalization of prices was in parallel with his predecessors, what marked his government was the ruthless drive to privatize state assets, though this too had been set in motion by the previous government of Rouhani. Three associations of big capital, the Chambers of Commerce, Cooperation and Trades, respectively, were consulted to prepare a plan of privatization for the next government, and Raisi has been duly implementing it. According to this plan, about 127 billion dollars of public assets or corporations must be handed to the private sector. Raisi held his first meeting of the election campaign in the ‘Chamber of Commerce’ and pledged that the privatizing policies will be well employed because they are ‘approved by the [IRI] system’. In the last days of the campaign, Raisi also visited ‘Tehran Stock Hall’ in Northern Tehran to assure the capital holders that their interests would not be threatened in his so-called ‘pro-poor’ government.

What does the Right Opposition say about the Revolt of Hunger?

Among the oppositions of the Islamic Republic, a political trend that is supported by the imperialist powers is the right-wing opposition, which basically supports the economic policies of the Islamic Republic. This part of the opposition, at best, believes that the ‘good’ policies of privatization, liberalization of prices, deregulation of the labour market, and severe cuts to subsidies have created disaster only because they have been implemented by ‘incompetent’ officials and that the structural economic corruption of the IRI has brought about a general crisis that results in the pauperization of the oppressed.

Over the course of the current revolt, this part of the opposition, with an eye on its long-term interests, has waged all-out rhetorical war against the ‘revolt of hunger’. Supported by some mainstream media channels and institutions belonging to the imperialist powers and Iran’srivals in the region such as Saudi Arabia, this group has been making use of political ‘celebrities’ such as Masih Alinejad who is supported by the most reactionary wings of the imperialist states such as Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State, to highlight a discourse whose main theme is that calling those people in streets as ‘hunger’ is an insult on their human dignity because they are revolting not for bread but for freedom.

During Khatami’s governments (1997-2005), in the reformist newspapers, a discourse based on the contrast between the demand for bread and the demand for freedom was formed. According to this discourse, the path of political development, the expansion of freedoms, inevitably passes through economic development, i.e., the general policies of privatization, liberalization of prices, de-regularization of labour markets and cuts in subsidies. Many of the activists from the right-wing opposition of the Republic were among Khatami’s supporters in these years, some were even officials in Khatami’s governments.

For instance, Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, a co-founder and news director in Saudi-funded Iran International which can be considered the most popular media of the right-wing opposition, was the Deputy Minister of Culture of Iran under former president Khatami. Masih Alinejad for a long time reported from the Iranian parliament for Reformist newspapers. Most of these guys until recently have supported the Reformists in Iran. Some of them were active in Rouhani’s presidential election campaigns in 2013 and 2017. Now when the political capacity of the Reformists has come to an end these former ‘pro-Reformists’ are demanding the overthrow of the IRI not by the people but through the support of Western imperialist powers by Reza Pahlavi, the oldest son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran toppled via a revolution in 1979.

The support of the Western imperialist for this part of the opposition amounts to encouraging western nations to intensify sanctions regardless of the fact that the intensified sanctions have more pauperized people. That is why many among this right-wing opposition irrespective of the reactionary policies of Donald Trump supported him during the last USA election and became disappointed when Trump lost the election. For them, there is still an antagonistic contrast between the demand for bread and the demand for freedom and due to this, they have tried to manipulate the class content and the nature of the revolts over the last years.

In some cases, they have appeared in western media to wholly fabricate the nature of the protests. For example, concerning the ‘revolt of hunger’, in a report by Parisa Hafezi in Reuters we read that ‘the footages shared in the social media show that the protestors have burnt the icons of Ayatullah Khamenei, the Leader of Iran, and have demanded the return of Reza Pahlavi, the last son of the last Shah in exile.

Parisa Hafezi refers to some footage from Shahrekord, Dezful and Golpayegan where some slogans were shouted in support of the Shah Dynasty. The right opposition refers to these clips among hundreds of others in order to misrepresent the reasons for the demonstrations.

For example, when the right-wing opposition points to the deepening of poverty and general misery in Iran it does not say anything about how poverty and misery came about. For them, the incompetence and corruption of officials, as well as money transferred to Iran’s allies in the region have been the main causes of poverty and general misery. As we show here and in other articles, economic policy-making in Iran has been at the behest of the capital’s international institutions; the liberalization of prices and cuts in subsidies which are among the main causes of the current revolt, have been implemented due to Iran’s obligations to the International Monetary Fund.

Notwithstanding the above denials of reality, the right-wing opposition appears not to consider the fact that a large part of Iran’s population had a poor life during the Pahlavi Monarchy. Hosein Azimi, an Iranian economist, in his dissertation, called An Analysis of the Relation Among Economic Growth, Distribution of Income and Poverty With Regard to Iran’s Issues writes: “From a total 30 million and 700 thousand Iranian population in 1972, the consumption of calories for 16 million people (i.e. 52% of the total population) was less than the minimum; and 4 million out of 16 million were experiencing malnutrition”. Besides, the Pahlavi Monarchy was reigning when the representatives of capital, both in Iran and the world, were pursuing another path. The Shah had many allies, including the USA and UK, now the Big and Little Satans. Egypt and Israel were the most serious regional allies of the Shah in later years, when neoliberalism was in the ascent as a global capitalist policy and being implemented in these countries.

Above all this, Reza Pahlavi, a prince in exile, has been silent about the details of economic policy. His supporters are more or less in favour of the economic strategy pursued by the current government. Maybe the most significant difference of Reza Pahlavi with the ‘hardliner’ wing of the Islamic Republic is that he has repeatedly insisted on the necessity of paving the way for foreign investments in Iran as a way of saving the people and the economy. The reformist wing shares this stance of the prince.

Foreign investment, for a working-class strongly subordinated to capital, does not have positive connotations, and this helps clarify why the supporters of Reza Pahlavi and all the right-wing oppositions do not object to neoliberal policies or formulate their own alternative. To attract foreign investments, a cheap and compliant labour force should be provided, that can compete with other countries for international capital. Deregulation of the labour market in favour of capital holders and against the working class, the precarization of labour forces, and the handing of public assets to the private sector are the essential economic policies of the Islamic Republic; all the right-wing opposition promise is the continuation of all three. Therefore, the refusal of the right-wing opposition to accept the title ‘revolt of hunger’ is not just a conflict over terminology. Rather it is a deliberate obfuscation, and backhanded advocacy of the class oppression that would be preserved even after the collapse of the Islamic Republic.

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