The Islamic Republic of Iran hanged Navid Afkari on September 12, 2020, in Shiraz in its latest repressive action against its opponents. This execution took place when less than a month earlier, on August 5, Mustafa Salehi had been executed in Isfahan’s Dastgerd prison. Mustafa Salehi, a taxi driver, took part in the December 2017 uprising in a small and unknown town in the Isfahan province. Navid Afkari, a plasterer, participated in the August 2018 protest in the city of Shiraz, which despite being the capital of the province is surrounded by poor suburbs. Two of Navid’s brothers and his sister’s husband were sentenced to long prison terms. They were all brought up in deprived families, a fact that was not mentioned by the mainstream media and human rights organisations, as they all only focus on Navid being an “Iranian wrestler”. These are the young people for whom “sport” is not a professional activity, but an alternative to all kinds of entertainment that they cannot afford.
In addition to Navid and Mustafa who were recently executed, at least ten other people have so far been sentenced to death for taking part in the December 2017 and November 2019 uprisings. Most of these people were residents of deprived areas such as Khomeini Shahr in Isfahan, Khorramabad and Islamshahr, a marginalised region in the Tehran province. They, similar to Navid Afkari and Mostafa Salehi, were all working-class people who did not have a stable job. Among the detainees and victims of the successive uprisings of December 2017, August 2018 and November 2019, you can find many working-class people ranging from street sellers, construction workers, shop assistants, caretakers, shoemakers, and agricultural workers, to name a few. The execution of Navid Afkari thus is representative of the “final battle” for the Islamic Republic; the final battle of the war between a state which took power by professing support for the downtrodden against the privileged, but murders the downtrodden people in the last years of its tyranny. In this article, we illustrate this “final battle”, and how it has been going on in various forms since the beginning of the suppression of the 1979 revolution by the Khomeini counter-revolution.
An uprising of the deprived or tyranny in the name of the deprived?
One of the common myths about the 1979 Iranian revolution is that Ruhollah Khomeini was able to mobilize the marginalised and the peasants against the left-wing and democratic forces, which were petty bourgeoisie having base among that particular class, and thus suppressed the opposition forces to reach power. This myth was repeated in various forms by various counter-revolutionary currents: the counter-revolution that came to power through the suppression of other forces and established the Islamic Republic, the counter-revolution that was overthrown in the February 1979 revolution, or the counter-revolution that resents their revolutionary past due to the failure of the February revolution. This myth has been established through the choir of counter-revolution.
The reality, however, reveals a different picture. Asef Bayat in his book “Street Politics” accurately analyses many groups who were active in the revolutions including the peddlers who organised to defend their rights, the marginalised who confiscated land, hotels and large buildings and settled in them; and the unemployed diplomas who staged numerous demonstrations against unemployment. The main hegemony among them was held by revolutionary forces, the vast majority of which were either affiliated with the People’s Fedayeen Guerrilla Organisation of Iran (a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organisation) or the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (a left-wing Muslim guerrilla organisation which, at the time, were similar to left-wing secular muslims in Palestine and Algeria, or the Latin American Revolutionary Church). Also, according to the book “The Missing History of the 1979 Councils” published by Manjanigh, the same composition of forces existed in those factories and villages who formed revolutionary councils and committees during the power vacuum between the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The most trusted organisation among the Kurdistan villagers in the west of the country, was the Komala (a Marxist-Leninist organisation) that played an important role in resistance against the local Khans and the military forces. With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980, many war victims had to flee the war zones and resettled in other areas within the country. Again, forces from the aforementioned leftist organisations were the main actor in organising the struggles of these deprived war victims. The supporters of these leftist organisations formed many armed local committees in February and March 1979 to protect poor neighbourhoods. For example, among the very poor suburbs of Tehran, the number of the Fadayi and the MEK supporters were so high that each published a special magazine to be in close touch with these marginalised communities. The MEK even established a specific organisational unit to organise these deprived areas. Many collectives and councils were formed in military barracks by the soldiers and the low-ranking officers who were supporters of these leftist organisations. The university councils were under the absolute influence of these organisations, and Khomeini’s supporters had no place among the students of these councils. The Workers’ House and the Teachers’ House, established during the Pahlavi regime to control workers and teachers, were conquered by left-wing workers and teachers who were the real representatives of factories and schools.
All of the instances above do not deny the charismatic leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini, rather they emphasise how limited his ability was to mobilise the lower class. The main struggle between the revolution and the counter-revolution was over seizing political power, and eventually the counter-revolution succeeded in doing so. The inverted image of the February Revolution stems from the fact that this struggle occurred in the organisations of workers and poor people as well as their spontaneously formed institutions, the very same place the Khomeini’s supporters forcefully occupied. Khomeini’s emphasis on the revolution of the “slum dwellers” against the “palace dwellers” as well as the crucial role of the oppressed in the revolution was not based on his faith in the liberating power of the working class, but populist rhetoric to attract the poor and weaken the left. Yervand Abrahamian in the book Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic illustrates how Khomeini’s discourse on the concept of the downtrodden had changed once he secured his power, mainly by the widespread repression of his leftist rivals since 1982. Before 1982, when Khomeini used the word oppressed, he meant the deprived, the working class and the poor farmers. After 1982, he added clerics and bazaar merchants and tradesmen to the list of the oppressed. He even mentioned bazaar merchants and tradesmen as the main pillars of the revolution. This newly adopted meaning of the downtrodden had been established by his closest students and allies at the time, Ali Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ali Khamenei in a speech during his presidency on December 18, 1988, praised the role of markets. He emphasized that Islam had always respected the bazaar and that the Qur’an agreed with the role of trade and commerce, and it was the communists who saw the bazaar as theft, corruption, and exploitation, not Muslims. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also criticized his “revolutionary brothers” in Friday prayer sermons in April 1987 for using the word “downtrodden” in a completely incorrect way, as exaggerated praise for the poor and the weak. He stressed that the meaning of the downtrodden in the Qur’an are those who fight the oppressor. Therefore, many poor people who accept the domination of the oppressors are not among the downtrodden. In 1986 and 1987, such articles were repeatedly published in government publications, especially the Kayhan newspaper, to explain the new meaning of “downtrodden”. All of these interpretations of the word “downtrodden” which Khomeini began to alter was not the result of a turnaround in the class orientation of Khomeini and his allies. Their political and economic views have been manifested variously including the speech of Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti on the International Workers’ Day after the revolution. Beheshti was one of Khomeini’s closest allies, the third secretary of the Revolutionary Council (a group established by Khomeini on the eve of the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime to transfer the power to Khomeini’s counter-revolution), the first Supreme Court judge, and secretary general of the Republican Party (the party established to organise all the Khomeini’s supporters). He had a key role in orchestrating all the forces which repressed the revolution as well as the revolutionary organisations. In his keynote speech on May 1st 1979, at the event organised by the Republican Party, he referred to a particular interpretation of Islamic economy written by the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Al-Sadr in his famous essay “our economy” theorises Islamic economics in an incoherent amalgam while criticising the Marxist approach. Before the 1979 revolution, this essay was paramount among Muslims supporting Khomeini and read as a religious cover for a liberal approach to economics. Therefore, it is not surprising to know that the first official publication of this essay took place in 1982 in Iran, although it had been published many times before as a secret pamphlet. Beheshti, for instance, in the same speech on that first International Workers’ Day emphasised that workers should be vigilant about those in councils who want to differentiate between employer and employee.
Morteza Motahhari, the first secretary of the Revolutionary Council, was also a known rightwinger. Although he was briefly detained for associating with an armed group supporting Khomeini during the Pahlavi regime, he spent much of his life fighting Marxist individuals and organisations, as well as leftist Muslims who he considered to follow “eclecticism”. Much of the ideology of the “Islamic Movement”, a name for individuals and groups supporting Khomeini under Pahlavi, as well as the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic, were extracted from the numerous books of Morteza Motahhari. Motahhari, in particular, demonstrated a deep enmity toward Ali Shariati, the Islamic leftist intellectual, who was very popular among the revolutionary forces, especially the militant Muslims. His popularity was due to both his radical positions illustrated in speeches and books, as well as his sudden mysterious death in June 1977. Another clear evidence of how Motahhari’s anti-leftist approach dominated after the revolution, was to appoint Motahhari as the “Islamic philosopher” for his banal contributions. This appraisal came about while the same institutions attempted to disregard and even discredit Ali Shariati. Several of Shariati’s books were banned for nearly three decades after the revolution. One of Khomeini’s students wrote a detailed three-volume book against Shariati, in which he allegedly collaborated with SAVAK, the notorious Pahlavi political police. After the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy, Ali Shariati’s students formed an armed, Islamic-leftist group that assassinated Morteza Motahhari in May 1979 in their second armed operation. In the following years, the supporters of Ali Shariati were organised in different groups, and were suppressed one way or another. Many of them were eventually executed in the bloody repressions of the 80s.
It is worth mentioning that there have been leftist fractions in the Islamic Republic, but the fraction with the upper hand has been led by Khomeini. Even after his death, contrary to the myths often publicised by the “reformists”, power remained in the hands of the same faction, just led by Ali Khamenei.
In November 2019, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, offered a new interpretation of ‘downtrodden’. This was not accidental, as the foundation of his entire system was shaken by two consequential uprisings in December 2017 and November 2019. The two uprisings of downtrodden people who have become even poorer as a result of the Islamic Republic’s economic policies. The seemingly new interpretation was given during a speech in late November 2019, for the Basij militants who had just finished suppressing the last uprising of the poor. In this speech, Khamenei said: “Recently, downtrodden is referred to as the poor and vulnerable people; no, the Qur’an does not consider the downtrodden to be this, the Qur’an says… the downtrodden is the imams and potential leaders of the world of humanity; This is the meaning of the downtrodden people: those who will be the heirs of the earth and all the creatures of the earth; The downtrodden person is potentially the caliph of God on earth, potentially the Imam and leader of the entire humanity”. This interpretation was, in fact, very similar to those Khomeini had expressed many times after 1982, and Ali Khamenei himself specified much earlier than Khomeini, in the summer of 1980 in a speech to interpret the first sermon of Nahj al-Balaghah, a book assigned to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Imam of the Shiites. In this speech, he said: “The prophets are part of the downtrodden”, “The downtrodden does not mean the barefoot or the poor,” and the downtrodden may not be poor. Due to the common myths about the 1979 revolution based on the “leftist leanings” of the Khomeini movement, this interpretation in November 2019 seemed novel. However, what is worth noting is the timing of the speech which was right after the bloody suppression of the “downtrodden” uprising which left nearly 1,500 dead, and widespread propaganda circulated by the state-run media. Ali Khamenei knew more than anyone else that the final battle is approaching.
Undeclared civil war
With the end of the Iran-Iraq war in July 1988, the Islamic Republic’s economic management style changed dramatically. Before, with the allocation of a huge budget to prolong a devastating eight-year war, a form of redistributive justice was applied to control the society. Then, after the war, it was time for the postponed capitalist development presaged by the revolution and war to begin, slowly, to progress. The ruling faction of the Islamic Republic paved the way for the invasion of capital by massacring political prisoners in the summer of 1988, immediately after the end of the war, as well as by discharging Khomeini’s protesting deputy leader, Hossein Ali Montazeri. These changes coincide more or less with the outbreak of Ruhollah Khomeini’s illness and his eventual death in June 1989. Khomeini’s death provided the best opportunity for supporters of the capitalist revival to abolish any remaining distributive justice in a legal process.
First, they ended the internal strife by ousting the prime minister and abolishing his post. Pro-distributive justice candidates in the parliamentary elections were widely disqualified and the like-minded ministers were also ousted from the cabinet.
The new leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, and the new president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were the main allies in this policy. They resumed the stalled privatisation process under the guise of “economic adjustment”, and reformed the labour law, which used to be relatively progressive due to the initial influence of communists, and the general left hegemony at the beginning of the revolution. A gradual process of eliminating government subsidies was also begun. The prescriptive policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were set on the agenda. The process of dissolving the cooperatives was kicked off. These aggressive policies have not abated under the successive governments of the Islamic Republic, from the “construction” government of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the “reform” government of Mohammad Khatami, to the “justice” government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the “moderation” government of Hassan Rouhani. The implementation of these policies was neither directly related to the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, nor was it the sign of a change in the Islamic Republic. As we have shown, not only did Khomeini’s class orientation not contradict the post-war policies, but his approach guided their future implementation.
The organised attacks of the government and capital on the lives of the poor often ended up in bloody and violent repressions. Since 1992, a series of riots have taken place in the cities of Mashhad, Qazvin, Islamshahr, Zanjan, Arak and Urmia, known as the “Bread Uprisings”. The first such insurgency began in the slum of Mashhad’s Talab alley. The government agencies decided to broadcast their version of truth by distributing propaganda about the involvement of opposition groups and “foreign governments”. They also publicised the execution of four insurgents in newspapers and media. Thereafter, they tried to hide everything so that the revolt of the poor would not encourage others to revolt. It is not yet known exactly how many were later killed or executed for participating in the riots. Lack of access to the media by those deprived people also contributed to the concealed casualties of these riots. What we do know is that during each of these riots, military battalions were sent from other areas to the rebellious zone, and the repressive forces were allowed to directly open fire at the rioters. The city or neighbourhood where rioting took place was completely or partially surrounded by military forces for several weeks and any passage through the “riot area” was prohibited. This curfew would allow the repressive forces to carry out their missions freely and also help prevent the insurgency from spreading to other areas. With the end of the uprising, mass arrests have taken place and dozens of residents of insurgent neighbourhoods have been arrested. The number of detainees, the conditions of their detention and interrogation, and their possible trials, as well as the number of people who were executed for participating in the riots, are not known. However, a number were certainly executed after each riot.
Another bloody capitalist attack on the lower classes occurred in January 2004 under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. Workers of the Khatoon Abad copper mine in the central province of Kerman, went on strike from early January to protest the dismissal of more than 200 workers at the mine. After nearly twenty days of the strike, the counterinsurgency special forces in cooperation with local government officials opened fire on the workers by various means, including from a helicopter, to suppress them. This bloody suppression continued for two consecutive days. As a result of this bloody battle, five miners and the son of one, a student at the time, were killed, and hundreds of workers and their families were injured.
During all these years, militant workers and labour leaders were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned. Most were sentenced to long prison terms and in some cases to humiliating floggings. As a case in point, Shahrokh Zamani, a painter-decorator and union militant was sentenced to eight years in prison for forming a secret workers’ group. He died in prison as the prison officials neglected treatment for his severe illness.
The era of the final battle
Uninterrupted implementation of neoliberal austerity policies, widespread impoverishment and misery due to constant inflation rises, widespread privatisation of everything that can be privatised, the lack of access to adequate health care, education, housing, and nutrition by a large number of the lower classes, enormous unemployment, mass layoffs, as well as widespread corruption in the government apparatus, have been the result of forty-one years of Islamic capitalism in Iran. The successive uprisings of the lower classes in December 2017, August 2018 and November 2019 mark the beginning of the final battle that can decide the fate of the Islamic Republic.
During the December 2017 uprising, radical demonstrations took place in nearly 160 small mostly remote towns, during which various government institutions, banks, and centres for organising repressive forces were attacked by the rioters. In this uprising, more than 5,000 people were arrested among whom at least nine were murdered during interrogation or died for other unknown reasons in prisons. Mustafa Salehi, one of those executed recently, had participated in this uprising. Despite the violent and bloody suppression, in August 2018, a smaller but no less radical uprising broke out in more than 20 cities. During the demonstrations, repressive forces opened fire on insurgents, killing at least two people in the city of Karaj. Navid Afkari was executed several years later for participating in this series of riots. Despite all these repressions, in November 2019, the largest and most radical widespread uprising began in more than 104 cities. During the uprising, about 1,500 people were shot in the street, and about 8,500 people were arrested throughout the country.
These uprisings, however, are only a partial indicator of the fact that the battle between the Islamic Republic and the poor approaches its final stage. Between these riots and before the December 2017 uprising, hundreds of workers’ strikes took place in production and service centers. The most important were the series of strikes at Haft Tapeh Sugar Factory, Ahvaz Steel Company, Arak Hepco Factory, and Azarab Factory. In addition there has been a nationwide strike of railway workers, nationwide strike of truck drivers, and a nationwide strike in petrochemical plants. There have also been several nationwide teachers’ strikes, the expansion of student union struggles against the monetisation of education, the gathering of feminist women in front of the Ministry of Labor in defence of women workers, only to name a few. The ground beneath the feet of the Islamic Republic is becoming uncomfortably warm.
This is a decisive battle for the Islamic Republic. All those people considered the defenders of the Islamic Republic in the popular legends, have now come to the fore through the uprisings, and leaving thousands dead. It has become clear that the Islamic Republic is a state without a people that can only continue to rule a bit longer with the help of its repressive institutions. The deep dissatisfaction with life and the economic situation under the Islamic Republic has reached a point where the government can no longer meet any level of public demands.
In one instance, during the August 2018 riots, it was leaked that the Ministry of Labor instructed all production and service centres to refrain from firing workers, even temporarily, due to security concerns. Just a few days later, a vegetable oil factory in Zanjan fired more than 100 workers. This situation reveals the full picture of the compulsions and attachments of capital and the rulers in Iran. They can no longer stop the implementation of neoliberal austerity policies, and the implementation of these policies adds to the depth of dissatisfaction. That is why the executions of Mustafa Salehi and Navid Afkari, along with the emphasis by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic on the interpretation of ‘the downtrodden’ and its difference with ‘the poor’, is a public sign that the battle is approaching its final stage. The Islamic Republic has no choice but to murder as many ‘downtrodden’ people as necessary for its own survival, in prisons and on the streets. The downtrodden people have no choice but to end the life of the Islamic Republic in order to survive. This is the final battle.