Since 15 July, protests over a severe water shortage in Khuzestan province in Iran have developed into a powerful localised movement, which has now spread to all major cities of the province: Shush, Susangard, Izeh, Dezful, Kut Abdullah, Weiss, Mahshahr, Hamidiyeh, Chamran and several areas of Ahvaz. The regime has declared martial law but this has only had the effect of provoking protests in a further 16 provinces.
The class struggle is clearly intensifying in Iran. The oil workers’ strike continues, having been ongoing for over a month, uniting workers in 114 workplaces in 35 cities around a common set of demands. The Ahvaz steel workers’ union described the strike as “a beacon for the future of the workers and the unemployed”. Already, widespread strikes and protests have broken out in various other industries including the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company, the railway construction workers, municipal workers, healthcare workers and many more.
The situation is very tense as the economy continues to collapse, living standards rapidly deteriorate and the class struggle begins to pick up pace. Two weeks ago, following power cuts in the night, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Tehran, Karajm and Mashhad, although they were quickly dispersed. Tension is rising as the pressures on the poor and the working class rises mercilessly.
Uprising in Khuzestan
Alongside the strikes and protests of workers, since 2018 farmers across Iran have also been protesting against the arbitrary seizure of water resources and land by the IRGC. This has exacerbated the severe water crisis in Iran, which is the result of the criminal water management of the regime and the semi-state companies, which prioritise their profits at the expense of the livelihoods of the people. For instance, the Hoor-al-azim wetlands in Khuzestan have been dried up for oil exploration for the benefit of the IRGC [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], resulting in sandstorms that have affected the cities and have destroyed agriculture.
Such reckless exploitation of Iran’s water resources nationally has led to over 210 cities facing water shortages, with 100 facing severe shortages. As such, sporadic protests have sprung up across Iran over water shortage and power cuts. A young man at a minor protest in Isfahan explained in an interview: “If there is no water, it should be everywhere, not just in this slum.” In Khuzestan a farmer explained his desperate plight: “I had 70 dairy cows, which were going to die of dehydration. I have been forced to slaughter them. That will get me by for a few months. After that, I don’t know what I will do.”
By late June, as 50 degree heat scorched the country, protests were already growing in rural areas in the province, even leading to violent clashes with the IRGC. On 17 July, farmers held protests across the major cities of Khuzestan with slogans such as, “I am thirsty, I am thirsty”, and, “our lives and blood are sacrificed for the Karun [a local major river]”. They were met with tear gas and riot police. This further radicalised the farmers and ranchers who now started blockading roads with cattle and automobiles, whilst others began marching on the cities, staging protests in front of local government buildings.
On 18 July, the violence of the regime sparked a widespread movement across the entire province, encompassing all the major cities, including Shush, Susangard, Izeh, Dezful, Kut Abdullah, Weiss, Mahshahr, Hamidiyeh, Chamran and several areas of Ahvaz. The slogans of the protesters also became increasingly political: “Death, death to Khamenei”, “Death to the dictator,” and, “Shame on the clergy – leave our country!” Fires were set ablaze, blockading the major roads into the cities. The security forces were initially overwhelmed. An angry mass of protesters occupied government buildings in Izeh and Susangerd.
The regime responded with their limited forces, attempting to scatter the protesters by shooting live ammunition. At least ten people have been confirmed dead, but the actual number of casualties is certainly higher. However, their murderous acts failed to disperse the masses.
At the national level, the regime initially attempted to deny that there were ongoing protests, and internet access in the province was limited. Their deception proved fruitless however as statements in support of the protests flooded in from countless organisations. President Rouhani responded by denying that there even is a water crisis in the provinces, attempting to present the movement as one of Arab separatism. But the protesters directly rejected this attempt to divide the movement on ethnic lines, raising slogans such as “Bakhtairis [a Persian ethnic group] and Arabs, are united”.
Unable to divide the masses, an unofficial state of martial law was implemented across the province of Khuzestan on 23 July. A wave of arrests followed, but the protests have continued, only on a smaller scale. But the repression has also served to send the sparks of protests across the rest of Iran, with major protests taking place in Tabriz, and smaller protests in Tehran, Ardabil, Mashhad, Qazvin, Karaj, Kermanshah and elsewhere. At the protests in Tabriz, the capital of the province of Azerbaijan, the demonstrators were heard to shout, “Azeris, Arabs and Persians are united,” “Shame, shame on the police,” and “We are ready to be martyred, we are the children of Babak [the local leader of a peasant uprising in the 800s].” These protests met with a swift response from the security forces, who shut down internet and electricity services to try and prevent the protests from spreading and morphing into an uprising.
Discontent is simmering across Iran and could rapidly escalate. Today, minor protests in Tehran have rapidly grown, inspired by Khuzestan, and once more repeating the slogan, “Azeris, Arabs and Persians are united,” as well as building on the previous spontaneous protests with the slogan, “Oh God, we want electricity”. The slogans, again, quickly became political, with the chants, “Death to the dictator,” and, “Shame on Khamenei – leave your country,” being heard.
The workers' organisations across Iran have, from the beginning, made statements in support of the protests. These have included the Haft Tappeh workers’ union and 15 other organisations, and a separate statement from the workers’ strike organising council leading the oil workers’ strike. The radical trade union of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company, also located in Khuzestan, even declared a new strike demanding water and the immediate implementation of the decision to expropriate and arrest their corrupt employers. Their members have participated in protests but not as an organised force. So far their support has been limited to declarations. If a repeat of the failures of 2018 and 2019 to be avoided, it is necessary for the working class to intervene in these uprisings as an organised force.
Oil workers’ strike: not a repeat of 2020
Since 2018, workers organisations and campaign-based common programmes have been developed through class struggle. The current oil workers’ strike developed from the failures of the August 2020 strike, which involved over 20,000 oil workers. However, without a common leadership, the agents of the regime in the official unions hijacked these movements. Participants of the 2020 strike described it in the following terms: “[they] tried to take over our strike in order to strengthen their position in the midst of disputes within the regime and to control the situation in their interest”. These agents of capital convinced the workers to accept the empty promises of the regime. They followed up their false promises with a campaign of arrests and dismissal against more radical workers.
By the beginning of 2021, while the regime-led workers’ organisations were calling for protests and petitioning parliament for a living wage, there were already calls for a new national strike. This coalesced into the workers’ strike-organising council, which openly criticised the regime-led organisations, including among others the Islamic Labour Councils, describing them as, “the tools to control us workers who only serve the employer,” and calling on the workers to take inspiration from Haft Tappeh by organising strike committees. Oil workers, and especially those on precarious contracts, were at breaking point. The strike began on 20 June and rapidly grew from there, with strike committees (known as “general assemblies”) being established in each workplace.
The demands of the workers’ strike-organising council approved by workplace strike committees include:
- increase wages in accordance with the real cost of living with a minimum wage of 12 million toman.
- The elimination of contracting companies [private contacts in the nationalised oil industry including staffing companies] and formal employment.
- The elimination of discrimination between contract workers [temporary contracts] and formal workers.
- The payment of salaries and benefits without delay.
- The right to establish independent trade unions.
- The establishment of a plan (“twenty ten”) for working days – i.e. 20 working days and 10 days off per month.
The workers’ demands received a massive echo across society. Truck drivers, including oil tanker drivers, even threatened to join the strike if the regime refused to concede to their demands by early August.
A common statement of solidarity from 114 workers’ organisations, including the Haft Tappeh workers’ union stated: “[The strike] shows the unity and solidarity of these workers and the promises of a wider union of the working class. This unity and solidarity is a model for all workers, all workers must learn the need of a broad, independent labour movement”. These organisations integrated the oil workers’ demands into their own shared list of demands, including the call for an independent labour movement, echoing the oil workers’ own call for the right to establish independent unions.
The students too made a similar statement of support, declaring: “We, students of this country, believe in the struggle of the working class and consider ourselves children of that class”. They even proposed further, more far-reaching demands, including: universal housing, education, healthcare, welfare, 15 million toman minimum wage with yearly adjustments according to inflation, a ban on dismissals, and a ban on privatisations and private contracts in the state sector.
As their precondition for negotiations with the strikes, the regime has demanded that the oil workers first cease their strike. At the same time, they have done everything in their power to prevent the strike from spreading, resorting to all sorts of promises to induce the workers to stop their strike. The Rouhani government and President-elect Raisi have both made promises of better wages to workers employed directly by the ministry of oil. The workers’ resolve however remains strong, with the workers’ strike-organising council explaining: “We workers can achieve our rights only with unity, solidarity and resolve. This may take a month or two, there will be financial difficulty during this period. But it is worth it – not for a raise but for a living wage”.
Despite the resolve of the strikers and their level of organisation, possessing a common programme led by strike committees, to be victorious, the strike must unite all the oil workers. In some workplaces, striking workers have limited their strike to those on temporary contracts, making it possible for employers to fire them.
The strike nevertheless has the potential to continue growing. For example, the gas workers of Asaluyeh have threatened to join the strike on 3 August if their own separate demands are not met. It is necessary to continue the struggle to win over fellow workers from the influence of the agents of the capitalist class within the labour movement.
Furthermore, with widespread support for their demands, the strike committee must immediately unite with the wider class struggle in Iran. This is especially true in Khuzestan, with the ongoing uprising, and now the declaration of martial law. Immediate calls must be made by the oil workers to form local rural and neighborhood committees, and to unite these bodies with the strike committees for a common struggle against the regime.
Barbarism or revolution
The Iranian capitalist class has always been rotten to its core, and the Islamic Republic is no different. The current economic crisis, caused by US-led sanctions, has only increased their parasitic character. Infrastructure and industry are collapsing. The latest symptom that we see of this are the frequent power shortages and national layoff in factories in the midst of already high unemployment. The economy is on life support, propped up by printing of money with inflation well above 50%. For all intents and purposes, the regime is at a dead end.
This has created a living nightmare for the working class. Workers spend 90 percent of their income on food alone. All the while, COVID-19 is on its fifth wave. On 25 July alone there were 27,441 new cases detected and 264 daily deaths. But the real figures are likely to be three to four times higher. The regime’s COVID-19 response on the basis of a three-tier system does nothing but rob people of their livelihoods whilst overworking medical staff in return for starvation wages. Only 2.8% of the population is even vaccinated. The working class and the poor are at a breaking point, and will no longer remain silent. The current situation has all the features of a social explosion in the making.
The ruling class is fully aware of the depth of its own crisis. Today, the class struggle is touching every layer of society from healthcare workers, industrial workers, bazaar wage-earners, farmers and small property owners of the bazaar. The ruling class can no longer depend on the same old Islamic and nationalist demagogy; the class struggle has pulled the whole regime into crisis. The recent presidential election abandoned any pretence of competition between the various factions of the regime. Instead, the establishment united behind the ultra-conservative and now president-elect, Raisi. The upcoming Raisi government and the regime’s growing dependence on violent repression reflect desperation. The working class must therefore prepare for a political struggle.
There is no other reason for the general misery in Iranian society besides the rule of the Islamic Republic and its capitalist leeches. While the workers live on starvation wages, and farmers lose their livelihoods to drought, the wealth of Iran’s dollar millionaires has increased by 27.3% since 2020. These parasites have no interest in the lives of the Iranian masses, and will never give up their wealth or power unless forced to do so. The choice of the Iranian masses is one of barbarism or revolution.
For a national struggle against the Islamic Republic!
After years of protests, uprisings, and national strikes that have been ongoing since 2018, the Islamic Republic remains in power only as a result of a lack of organisation and leadership of the masses. The ongoing rising in Khuzestan, like the uprisings of 2018 and 2019, cannot prevail without the active and organised support and leadership of the working class. While the call for an independent labour movement is a significant step forward, the depth of the crisis in Iran demands a political struggle against the Islamic Republic itself.
There is widespread support for such a movement, as past events have shown. For such a movement to develop it would be necessary for the current workers’ organisations to wage a campaign to unite on a common programme. Such a programme would include their existing demands but would also include political demands such as: the renationalisation of all privatised companies under workers’ control, and the introduction of such control throughout the state-owned economy, as well as the open call for the abolition of the Islamic Republic through the election of a constituent assembly.
The Iranian working class has built nationwide workers’ organisations many times over in the face of dictatorial regimes. They can do so once again. Uniting the working class in such an organisation would open up a new stage in the class struggle and completely paralyse the regime. The uprising starting in Khuzestan is far from defeated and can still develop rapidly. But neither will it be the last. The regime has nothing to offer the masses but misery without end. The Iranian masses will no longer accept it. Only once the masses unite under a national workers’ movement can the Islamic Republic be overthrown and the demands of the masses be met.