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Editorial Last Updated: Jan 6, 2018 - 10:49:33 AM

Iranian Labour and the Current Political Conflict in Iran
By Dr. Gary K. Busch 5/1/187
Jan 6, 2018 - 10:55:41 AM

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There is a major domestic crisis building in Iran; a crisis which has taken to the streets of Tehran and many smaller cities and now involves thousands of Iranians in a protest the economic vicissitudes of the country; the high unemployment rates; and the religious rule of the Ayatollahs. Compounding this is the heavy drain on the limited national resources by the ever-increasing demands by the Revolutionary Guard for its military adventures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Lebanon. Compounding all these is a high profile of economic and political corruption in almost all areas of public life, In the protests, the trade union and workers� movements are playing an important role.

For the most part, despite its long tradition of labour militancy, the Iran trade union movement, under the Ayatollahs, is shackled, disenfranchised and the victim of a policy of arrests, purges and mysterious murders of leading trade unionists by the forces of the state.

A Human Rights Watch report has declared that the Iranian government�s stranglehold on unionization and crackdown on labour rights activists have left workers without a voice to influence government policy and working conditions, even as the country�s worsening economic situation is pushing many into poverty. Independent trade unions are banned in Iran. More than a dozen labour activists are in prison for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and association. Many others have been released on bail, with cases pending against them in revolutionary courts. [i]

In theory, labour rights are included in the Iranian Constitution and provisions for trade unionism are included in many international statutes which cover labour rights and which Iran has ratified. Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandates in Articles 21 and 22 freedom of association and guarantees the right to form trade unions, and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees in Article 8 the right of workers to form or join trade unions and protects the right of workers to strike. The Iranian Constitution contains specific provisions for such rights: Article 26 guarantees the right to form "parties, societies, political or professional associations," and Article 27 states that "Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam." Despite this, independent labour unions are banned in Iran, strikers are often fired, and risk being detained, and labour leaders face long prison sentences on trumped up national security charges.[ii]


Iran has come a long way from the ancient days of the Persian Empire. It began to take its modern form with the Persian Constitutional Revolution against the Shah in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shah managed to remain in power, granting a limited constitution in 1906 (making the country a constitutional monarchy). The first Majlis (parliament) was convened on October 7, 1906.

Employment was mainly agrarian with centres of craft guild-like structures in the major urban centres and indentured farm labourers in the countryside. Iran�s fortunes changed forever in 1908 when the British discovered petroleum in Khuzestan. Iran then became a hotbed of international interest and intrigue when the control of the Iranian oil fields was taken over by the newly-formed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company run by the British. The right to these vast oil reserves did not go unchallenged by neighbouring Russia. The battle for control of Iran was contested between the United Kingdom and Russia, in what became known as �The Great Game�. A solution was legally established in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Iran into Great Power spheres of influence.

During World War I, the country was occupied by British, Ottoman and Russian forces although Iran was essentially neutral. In 1919, after the Russian revolution and the withdrawal of Russian forces, Britain attempted to establish a sole protectorate in Iran, which was unsuccessful. Finally, the Constitutionalist movement of Gilan and the central power vacuum caused by the instability of the Qajar government resulted in the rise of Reza Khan, who was later to become Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the subsequent establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925.[iii]

In 1921, a military coup established Reza Khan, an officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as the dominant figure in Iran for the next 20 years. In 1925, after being prime minister for two years, Reza Khan became the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Shah ruled for almost 16 years until September 16, 1941, when he was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. He had established an authoritarian government that valued nationalism, militarism, secularism and anti-communism combined with strict censorship and state propaganda. However, Reza Shah also introduced many socio-economic reforms, reorganizing the army, government administration, and finances. He introduced a number of reforms which promoted the interests of working people, but these were couched in authoritarian and paternalistic clothing. His other secular reforms, like those of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, provoked the Muslim clergy to periodic bouts of fury; mosques were required to use chairs; most men were required to wear western clothing, including a hat with a brim; women were encouraged to discard the hijab; men and women were allowed to freely congregate, violating Islamic mixing of the sexes. Tensions boiled over in 1935, when the Bazaaris (the merchant class) and villagers rose up in rebellion at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad. Dozens were killed, and hundreds were injured when troops finally quelled the unrest.

The rich oil fields of Iran were also a great temptation for the Germans in the Second World War, both to secure their supply of oil to the Axis Powers and to deprive the supply of oil to the British and to the Soviet Union. In 1941 the Germans staged a coup in Iran and, despite the supposed neutrality of the Shah, the Iranians refused to remove the Germans from the oilfields. In August 1941 the British and the Soviets prepared a military response to try to take control of the oil fields. The British and the Soviet forces invaded Iran in August 1941 and effectively took control of the nation as well as the oilfields. The Shah was deposed, and the crown passed to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Post-War Agreements

At the Tehran Conference of 1943, the Allies issued the Tehran Declaration which guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran. However, when the war ended in 1945, Soviet troops stationed in north-western Iran not only refused to withdraw but backed revolts that established short-lived, pro-Soviet separatist national states in the northern regions of Azerbaijan and Iranian Kurdistan, the Azerbaijan People's Government and the Republic of Kurdistan respectively. In the confusion and anarchy engendered by the Anglo-Soviet invasion a prominent Kurdish chief embarked on a revolt against the Iranian state. The Hama Rashid Revolt erupted in the Kurdish region of Iran. Its main faction was led by Muhammed Rashid, lasting from late 1941 until April 1942 and then re-erupted in 1944, resulting in Rashid's defeat by the government. While it was unsuccessful it spawned the growth of Kurdish nationalist political and labour movements which emerged in the immediate post-war Iran 1945-1946.

With the occupation of Iran by British and Soviet troops a key supply line from the Levant to the Soviet Union had been created and expanded. One consequence of the Soviet presence in Iran was its takeover of the administration of the Kurdish areas of Iran. The Soviets established the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party) whose first acts were to pit the local farmers in an uprising against their landlords. In addition, the Soviet authorities announced the creation of an independent Kurdish Peoples� Republic and a People's Republic of Azerbaijan under Soviet control. Iranian Kurds were given autonomy. This Soviet Republic of Mahabad, as it was called, was led by the Kurdish Movement (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurd) under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad and his Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (�KDPI�).� Some Kurds were attracted by the promise of autonomy but most Iranian Kurds eschewed contact with it. The Republic of Mahabad lasted less than a year, but. Soviet troops did not withdraw from Iran proper until May 1946 after receiving a promise of oil concessions. The Soviet republics in the north were soon overthrown and the oil concessions were revoked.[iv]

The new Shah attempted to introduce a more liberal policy and democracy in Iran leading to a constitutional monarchy but was ineffectual in making real reforms. The Shah attempted to control the centre-ground of politics by convening the Iran Constituent Assembly in 1949. These measures were considered to be too weak a response to the strength of foreign domination of the nation, especially with the election of Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister in 1951.

Era of Mossadegh

Reform and modernisation began in force with the election of Mossadegh. He ��introduced a wide range of social reforms: unemployment compensation was introduced, factory owners were ordered to pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and peasants were freed from forced labour in their landlords' estates. In 1952, Mossadegh passed the Land Reform Act which forced landlords to turn over 20% of their revenues to their tenants. These revenues could be placed in a fund to pay for development projects such as public baths, rural housing, and pest control.[v] Trade unions began to form in several key areas of the economy, especially among the Kurds whose brief periods of independence fostered a greater class consciousness than the more religious Iranian workers and peasants and among the Arabic-speaking oil workers of Khuzestan.

Labour unions, suppressed under Reza Shah, had bloomed during the war and, promoted by Tudeh [Community Party] and Kurdish politicians, began to clamour for higher wages and better living conditions. But since the unions were still illegal, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company chose to ignore the galling discrepancies between the luxuries enjoyed by the British nationals and the misery of the Iranian workers. Yet the original 1933 Concession with the British had specifically stipulated that the company would provide workers with schools, hospitals, telephones, roads, decent salaries, and the opportunity for advancement.

The workers were not willing to wait. Within days after the evacuation of Britain�s forces from Iran in March of 1946, they began a series of wild-cat strikes. The company, scrambling to protect itself, encouraged Arab minorities to organize into a separate union, possibly with a view to splitting the province of Khuzestan off from the rest of Iran and folding it into Iraq. [vi]

The Iranian workers began to call for the nationalization of the British-owned oil industry. On May Day in 1946, the British consul in Khorramshahr noted in alarm that a female speaker had not only demanded a comprehensive labour law with equal pay for equal work, but had also called for the total nationalization of the oil industry, accusing the British company of exploiting the �jewel of Iran� and of spending more on dog food than on wages for its Iranian workers. This was probably the very first time that the call for oil nationalization had been heard in Iran. It would not be the last. [vii]

By July 1946 the labour and political unrest culminated in a widespread riot. Forty-seven people were killed and more than 170 injured. The British fortified their troops in Basra and sent two warships into Abadan.

With increasing support from the urban Iranians, and especially the oil workers, on May 1, 1951 Mosaddegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company cancelling its oil concession and expropriating its assets. Mossadegh saw the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as an arm of the British government controlling much of Iran's oil, pushing him to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. The next month, a committee of five Majlis deputies was sent to Khuzestan (the oil region) to enforce the nationalization.

Mosaddegh explained his nationalization policy in a 21 June 1951 speech:

Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries... have yielded no results thus far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provides that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation.[viii]

The British retaliated against this nationalisation by pulling out its technicians and blocking the international sale of Iranian oil, including a blockade against any ship loading or carrying Iranian crude. The entire Iranian oil industry came to a virtual standstill; oil production dropping from 241,400,000 barrels in 1950 to 10,600,000 barrels. This Abadan Crisis reduced Iran's oil income to almost nothing and created high levels of unemployment in the country. In 1951 Mossadegh called elections and tried to mobilise the labour forces in support of his reforms. The British responded byopenly trying to influence the election by pouring cash into the country to influence the army and the conservative religious forces against Mossadegh. The growing unrest and demonstrations caused the elections to be suspended.

Operation Ajax

The Shah removed Mossadegh from his post and put in Ahmad Kavam as Prime Minister. Kavam immediately contacted the British and tried to set up negotiations for a settlement of British grievances. Mossadegh, and his National Front Party, along with various Nationalist, Islamist, and socialist parties and groups (including Tudeh) responded by calling for protests, assassinations of the Shah and other royalists, strikes and mass demonstrations in favour of Mossadegh. Major strikes broke out in all of Iran's largest urban centres, with the Bazaar closing in Tehran. Over 250 demonstrators in Tehran, Hamadan, Ahvaz, Isfahan, and Kermanshah were killed or suffered serious injuries.[ix]

After five days of violent protests across Iran the Shah panicked and told the military to return to its barracks on Siyeh-i Tir (the 30th of Tir). He reinstated Mossadegh as Prime Minister. Mossadegh returned to power, bolstered by the labour unions, the Tudeh and other Left parties, and the Islamists of Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani. The Islamists joined because of their antipathy to the secular reforms of the Shah. Together with Mossadegh they proposed a series of major reforms for the nation, including a major land reform which established village councils and increased the peasants' share of production. This weakened the landed aristocracy, abolishing Iran's centuries-old feudal agriculture sector, replacing it with a system of collective farming and government land ownership. In addition, Mossadegh reined in the power of the Shah, cutting the Shah's personal budget, forbidding him to communicate directly with foreign diplomats, transferring royal lands back to the state and expelling the Shah's politically active sister Ashraf Pahlavi.

While this served to consolidate the power of Mossadegh and established the process of reform it didn�t stop the loss of revenues from the oil industry. This standoff between Iran and the British came to a head in October 1952 when Mossadegh declared the British an �enemy� of Iran and cut off all diplomatic relations with Britain.

At that point, the British Prime Minister, Churchill, contacted the new U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower, and warned of the rising power in Iran of the Tudeh (Communist) Party in the light of what Churchill called the �Iron Curtain� falling across Europe and the Middle East. Churchill reported that British intelligence had contacted three key Mossadegh supporters (Mozzafar Baghai, head of the worker-based Toilers party; Hussein Makki, who had helped lead the takeover of the Abadan refinery and the leading Islamist, Ayatollah Kashani) who were willing to break with Mossadegh and restore relations with Britain.

In March 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked his brother, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, to make a plan for the overthrow of the Mossadegh government. The CIA had just successfully completed a similar coup in Guatemala against the government of Jacobo Arbenz who had come to power with the support of the Guatemalan unionists and who had attempted to nationalise the banana plantations of United Fruit. The CIA program in Guatemala (APB/Success) was led by Raymond Leddy and Tracey Barnes. In Guatemala the CIA enlisted the support of the military (General Castillo Armas) and the dissident unionists (controlled by the AFL-CIO�s Serafino Romualdi). The CIA provoked a military response from Arbenz and then proceeded to send in planes and troops and soon had Arbenz replaced as head of state by Castillo Armas.[x]

On 4 April 1953, Allen Dulles approved $1 million to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh". Soon the CIA's Tehran station started to launch a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh. In early June, American and British intelligence officials met in Beirut and put the finishing touches to Operation Ajax, led by Kermit Roosevelt. Using their experience in Guatemala, they tried to get the Shah to dismiss Mossadegh, but this was unsuccessful. They then started to split Mossadegh�s support by telling the Islamists that Mossadegh was threatening to move against the Ayatollahs. They also enlisted the dissident unionists to split the oil workers from the rest of the labour movement.

With all this unrest, the Shah was persuaded to dismiss Mossadegh. In August 1953, the Shah finally agreed to Mossadegh's overthrow, He signed two decrees, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other nominating the CIA's choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as Prime Minister. These decrees, called Farmans, were actually dictated by Donald Wilber, the CIA architect of the plan. Soon there were massive protests across the country, financed by Kermit Roosevelt. The CIA paid both pro and anti-Mossadegh activists to protest and riot. They burned mosques, attacked newspapers and each other, leaving over 300 dead. With this rioting and discord the military was unleashed, and a tank regiment dispatched to the Parliament and Mossadegh�s house. He surrendered to General Fazlollah Zahedi.

Mossadegh was kept in solitary confinement and his followers rounded up, put on trial, imprisoned and tortured. Mossadegh was tried and kept under strict house arrest until his death in 1967. Zahedi soon renewed the British and U.S. oil concessions and Iranian oil returned to the market. The labour movement was suppressed, and its rights removed. The Ayatollahs were then encouraged to take a direct role in national politics; a portent of what was to come in Iranian politics.

The Role of Tudeh

The anti-Mossadegh coup was opposed by most of the non-Communist trades unions but was undercut by the support given to the coup makers by the Tudeh Party. Tudeh acted on the commands issued from the Soviet Union to support the Shah against Mossadegh�s nationalists in the hope of reducing tension with the West and expecting the restoration of Soviet oil concessions promised them earlier. The Soviet Communist Party has had a long and inglorious history of betraying local Communist unionists and politicians by switching sides during nationalist uprisings to do Moscow�s bidding.

The first of these was in China in 1923 when the workers, students and peasants began to form national parties. Among the first was the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. The other major party was the Kung Ch'antang, the Communist Party. However, the Nationalist Kuomintang found a close ally in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which sent down instructors and advisers to shape the Kuomintang into a disciplined Bolshevik party. No sooner had the party formed and become organised when the Soviets demanded that the Kung Ch'antang merge itself into the Kuomintang. On 26 March 1927 Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintamg leader, marched into Shanghai, where he was welcomed by the striking workers there as their liberator. Chiang had barely been in the city for a few days when he contacted the leaders of the compradors and the notorious Green Gang to make a deal with them. Allied with these forces, Chiang began a purge of all the communists, especially the communist unionists. On 12 April 1927 he and the local gangs turned their forces on the communists in the unions. More than five thousand communists lost their lives. When the strikes ended in May, communist control had been wrenched from the unions by the Kuomintang which continued to have good relations with Moscow. Soon Chiang Kai-shek turned against the Soviets who were purged from China.[xi]

This became a pattern of Moscow direction repeated frequently, including in the labour movement across the border in Iraq. The Iraqi revolution of 1958 by Iraqi nationalists began on July 14,1958 when the overthrow of the British-installed monarchy by Iraqi Free Officers touched off the most powerful demonstration of revolutionary ardour in the Near East. Armed and highly organized, the Iraqi underground labour unions, led by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), stood on the brink of seizing power. Within the ICP the leading role in the revolution was played by Kurdish workers in the oil fields and industries of Kirkuk and Mosul. Within weeks, a peasant insurrection was sweeping across the agricultural plains of Iraq as peasants burned landlords' estates, destroyed the account ledgers and seized the land. The ICP controlled the labour unions, peasant organizations, and the union of students. Mammoth rallies, some drawing over a million participants, were staged in Baghdad under ICP leadership. President Eisenhower responded to the revolutionary explosion by sending Marines to Lebanon and preparing for a possible invasion of Iraq. The Wall Street Journal (16 July 1958) candidly declared: "We are fighting for the oil fields of the Middle East."

The 1958 Iraqi revolution had an enormous impact throughout the Near East, not only on workers but also on the Kurdish people. One measure of the revolutionary turmoil in Iraq is that the new constitution cited the Kurds as equal partners with Arabs in society (without of course recognizing the Kurds' right to independence). The Iraqi Communist Party was not only the most proletarian of the Communist parties in the Near East; from its inception it had a large number of members from national and ethnic minorities, including Jews. In the period from 1949 to 1955, every general secretary of the ICP was Kurdish, as was nearly one-third of its central committee.

From the outset of the 1958 upsurge, the ICP (under tight Moscow guidance) threw its support behind the government headed by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim, whom the Stalinists hailed as their �sole leader.� The high point of the revolution came in early 1959 when the ICP mobilized a quarter of a million people in Mosul, many of them armed, to suppress a coup by Nasserites and counterrevolutionary officers. This triggered several days of street fighting in which Communist-led workers and soldiers mopped up the conspirators and their bourgeois backers, arresting many and hanging others from lampposts. Armed militants of the People�s Resistance Force (PRF), a popular militia that had been set up by Qassim in July 1958 and quickly taken over by the Communists, essentially took power in the city.

At this point, the ICP had more support among military officers than the Free Officers movement had had when it took power on 14 July 1958. The commander of the air force was an ICP supporter, as were almost one-quarter of the pilots. A number of these military commanders demanded that the ICP leadership take power. Above all, the People�s Resistance Force, which had just demonstrated its power in Mosul, numbered, by a conservative estimate, 25,000 in May 1959.

However, the threat of Communist power frightened Qassim. In July, attention was centred on Kirkuk, where an ICP-led demonstration degenerated into a massacre of Turkmens, who were prominent in the city�s commercial elite.� Qassim used the Kirkuk events as a pretext to repress the ICP. He ordered the ICP-led militia, the Popular Resistance Force, disbanded, arrested hundreds of Communist supporters and sealed the offices of the General Federation of Trade Unions (which had been taken over by the ICP). A plenum of the ICP Central Committee, under orders from Moscow, responded with an obsequious self-criticism declaring that its demand for participation in the government had been �a mistake� because it �led to the impairment of the party�s relations with the national government��in other words, it displeased Qassim. The plenum declared a �freeze� on Communist work in the army, and informed the ranks that it was carrying out an �orderly retreat.� The Russians supported and demanded this. They sent to Baghdad, George Tallu, a member of the Iraqi Politburo, who had been undergoing medical treatment in Moscow, with an urgent request to the Iraqi party to avoid provoking Qassim, and to withdraw its bid to participate in the government. Once again Moscow abandoned the non-communist unionists and the Kurds to severe repression.

Soon, with support from the CIA, Saddam Hussein of the Ba�athist Party overthrew Qassim and all the Iraqi labour union structures were interdicted, its leaders jailed and blinded, including the communists.[xii]

At the same time, in Iran, the overthrow of Mossadegh, with the support of the dissident unionists, the Islamist clergy and the Tudeh, left the Shah in charge. He began a program of reform called the �White Revolution� (�Enghlab Sefied�) a major part of which dealt with the problem of rural poverty by promoting land reform. He concentrated on removing the vestiges of the obsolete feudal society and allowing greater freedoms among the urban workers. It provided generous welfare and social improvements, such as profit sharing, employee stock ownership plans, company housing, minimum wage, and an improved Social Security Act. New personnel practices were introduced, including payroll administration with time management, job descriptions, job classifications and evaluations, and organizational hierarchies. Many of these state programs were adapted in the growing private sector

The fact that the overthrow of Mossadegh left the Shah in control of the nation, embarked on such a program of reform, was a goad to the anger of the Ayatollahs. Ayatollah Kashani�s betrayal of Mossadegh did not relieve the religious opposition of the Islamists to the Shah. They feared that the reforms instituted by the Shah would lead to the �Westernisation� of the country and their loss of control of the Iranian social base. They gathered together many of their supporters and marched on Tehran and Qoms in June 1961. The demonstrations were brutally put down by the Shah and his security service, SAVAK.

SAVAK and the army then turned on the Tudeh, despite its collaboration with the Shah in removing Mossadegh. Many of its leaders were jailed, tortured and killed. This repression was not only reserved for the Tudeh and its unionists, it was also directed against labour and dissident movements on a far wider scale across the nation.

The End of the Shah

The labour movement, despite the Shah�s reforms, was growing more dissatisfied because of rising inflation and the slow growth of the economy.� On January 9, 1978, government security forces shot and killed protesting theology students in Qom, sparking widespread demonstrations that culminated in the shutdown of Tehran's Grand Bazaar on January 19, 1978. Millions of ordinary Iranians subsequently took part in massive protests, with textile, sanitation, car assembly line, and paper mill workers joining the demonstrators in the summer of 1978. Major strikes included a walkout by 37,000 workers at Iran's national oil refineries and at Iran Air, paralyzing the country's energy and air transportation sectors. The labour movement's participation in the protests was a major turning point in the revolution: Those protesting now included a critical component of the Iranian economy. [xiii]

Although the government and SAVAK managed to keep control the demonstrations, they were followed a few weeks later by a similar demonstration in Tabriz with which the government had a less successful outcome. The armed struggle and resistance on 8th, 9th and 10th of Feb. saw the popular forces triumphant and dealt the final blow to the regime of the Shah and put an end to the 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran.

The 1979 coup saw a new wave of populist and nationalist feeling across the country. Many political prisoners were freed and new political and labour groups started to form. They all participated in a general election to guide the country through the transformation from a monarchy to a republic. Unfortunately, the majority of the seats in the Majlis were won by the Islamic Republican Party of Ayatollah Beheshti and the leftist and nationalist organizations were pushed out of power. The Ayatollahs were now fully in charge.

The problem for the new President, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, was that the religious establishment lacked the coherence of unity and purpose which would allow him to govern. The religious establishment felt it could dictate to Bani Sadr what his policies should be while, at the same time, carrying out summary executions and extra-judicial trials of their enemies. The clergy began to attack Bani Sadr and tried to force him from office in 1981.

The people took to the streets to support civil rule in the country and the nation was besieged by demonstrations and protest marches. The clergy formed its own militia, the Pasadaran (Revolutionary Guards) to combat the demonstrators. They took to the streets and arrested thousands of youths, activists and unionists. Many ended up in Evin Prison. The �Hanging Judge, Lajevardi, often sentenced as many as twenty-five prisoners a day to execution. President Bani Sadr fled the country. Power passed to the Supreme Ayatollah, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini; although Khomeini had already controlled much of what was going on in Iran since the fall of the Shah and Khomeini�s return from exile.

Labour Under the Ayatollahs

Since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader and his political allies (like Ahmadinejad) Iran has created a parallel universe for labour rights. Instead of legal, free and independent unions, Iran is organised under Islamic Workers� Councils (Shora-e Islami Karagaran) which are supposed to give the same rights to labour organisations as in non-theocratic nations but under Islamic rule. This was enshrined in the period following the Iran-Iraq War in the 1990 Islamic Republic of Iran Labour Law.

The main problem for Iran was that a theocratic state which captured and held U.S. diplomatic personnel in custody and fought a long and costly war against its neighbour was not a very attractive place for companies to invest. The main growth in employment was civil servants and soldiers; none of whom generated income. The notion that some Islamic oversight would produce prosperity and a satisfied workforce was a pipedream. With the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the new leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani entered the stage as a champion of economic liberalization. By 1992 liberalization policies were in place for the reconstruction and rejuvenation of the market and its institutions. Unfortunately, its success was very limited.

The foreign exchange rate was realigned, price controls were mostly lifted, some subsidies were reduced, and others were eliminated. Rising oil prices, allowing for a continued inflow of imports, made the timid liberalization policy somewhat more palatable. By 2006, the impact of this rejuvenation was visible. The share of the working class in the employed workforce increased to 30 percent (still much lower than in 1976), and the middle class increased to 12 percent (from 4 percent in 1976, and 7 percent in 1986). The Iranian working class suffered a serious decline in the first revolutionary decade. Although their numbers increased from 3.6 million in 1976 to 6.2 million in 2006 (after a decline to 2.7 million in 1986), their share in the employed workforce substantially declined. [xiv]

Unfortunately for Iran its program of militarisation included a search for a nuclear weapon. This produced a response from the international community. The U.S. had already imposed sanctions against Iran since 1979, at the time of the revolution. This had reduced the economic prosperity of Iran, despite the rise of the price of oil. In 2006 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1696; the first of a succession of sanctions against the country:

  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1696 � passed on 31 July 2006. Demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and threatened sanctions.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 � passed on 23 December 2006 in response to the proliferation risks presented by the Iranian nuclear program and, in this context, by Iran's continuing failure to meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and to comply with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1696 (2006) Made mandatory for Iran to suspend enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and cooperate with the IAEA, imposed sanctions banning the supply of nuclear-related materials and technology, and froze the assets of key individuals and companies related to the program.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 � passed on 24 March 2007. Imposed an arms embargo and expanded the freeze on Iranian assets.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1803 � passed on 3 March 2008. Extended the asset freezes and called upon states to monitor the activities of Iranian banks, inspect Iranian ships and aircraft, and to monitor the movement of individuals involved with the program through their territory.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1835 � Passed in 2008.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 � passed on 9 June 2010. Banned Iran from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, travel bans on individuals involved with the program, froze the funds and assets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and recommended that states inspect Iranian cargo, prohibit the servicing of Iranian vessels involved in prohibited activities, prevent the provision of financial services used for sensitive nuclear activities, closely watch Iranian individuals and entities when dealing with them, prohibit the opening of Iranian banks on their territory and prevent Iranian banks from entering into relationship with their banks if it might contribute to the nuclear program, and prevent financial institutions operating in their territory from opening offices and accounts in Iran.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1984 � passed on 9 June 2011. This resolution extended the mandate of the panel of experts that supports the Iran Sanctions Committee for one year.
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 2049 � passed on 7 June 2012. Renewed the mandate of the Iran Sanctions Committee�s Panel of Experts for 13 months.

These sanctions remained in force until 2015 with the passage of the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in which Iran pledged to cease its development of nuclear weapons. This was incorporated in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 � passed on 20 July 2015 which sets out a schedule for suspending and eventually lifting UN sanctions.

During this period of sanctions, the Iranian economy was severely restricted; prices rose; fuel was in short supply; and living standards tumbled. The labour unrest grew as did the �Green Movement� generated by the corrupt machinations of the political system of the Ayatollahs in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On June 23, 2009, a spontaneous mass demonstration erupted rejecting Ahmadinejad�s purported victory. Two days later, when no progress was made, the Greens held a mass rally against the status quo and in support of the emerging �Arab Spring� which was developing in the region. On February 14, 2010 the Greens held a mass rally of its supporters which was brutally suppressed by the Pasdaran and its Basij militias. Hundreds were beaten, jailed and rusticated. The Greens survived as a concept but represented latent rather than actual power.

This Green Movement made public the deep levels of corruption in the Iranian state under the Ayatollahs. Iran is a very poor country, despite its oil. Over 70 percent of Iranians still live in poverty. Unemployment is the rule, as the government is still unable to improve from the annual job creation rate of 600,000. This dismal number presents an even graver issue to be addressed: with over a million students graduating from college every year, most of these young Iranians are not able to find work and a source of income. One out of four young Iranians are unemployed, and most of them end up falling into the 61 percent of the population who are neither employed nor looking for employment.

Hardship does not end with securing a job, however, since 90 percent of the labour force lives below the poverty line. Disgruntled workers argue that the minimum wage income of 8,112,000 Iranian rials (roughly $246) is barely enough to cover basic necessities. For a family of four, surviving requires roughly twice the amount. Even if work can be found the Ayatollahs have passed labour legislation which puts most of the workforce as contractual labour. Contractual employment is also a challenge for these workers. For irregular laborers, contractual work often means an unstable and unreliable flow of income. Most of these workers are not paid until weeks after they are due their wage, and most of the time their wage does not come before their stock of basic necessities is depleted. It is no surprise that 95 percent of contractual workers fall under the poverty line[xv].

These poverty figures do not mean that the Ayatollahs and their families are not doing well. Much of the economy is owned by bonyads, Islamic foundations that pay modest pensions to war widows and such, and very large amounts to those who run them, mostly clerics and their kin. The largest, the Mostazafan Bonyad, with more than 200,000 employees in some 350 separate companies is involved in everything from farming to tourism, and is a very generous employer for its crowds of clerical managers.

This is particularly true in Iran�s second largest export market., pistachio nuts. The pistachio king, Akbar Hashemi �Rafsanjani,� former president and a top regime figure for decades controls the pistachio trade, and owns most of the pistachio orchards in his home province of Rafsanjan.

His son Mehdi Hashemi is very prominent among the aghazadeh (�noble born�), the sons and daughters of the rulers. He preferred industrial wealth to pistachios, and his name kept coming up in other people�s corruption trials. The Rafsanjani clan as a whole took a couple of billion dollars at least.

The Supreme Leader Khamenei himself is not known to have personally stolen anything�he has his official palaces, after all. But his second son, Mojtaba, may have taken as much as $2 billion from the till, while his third son, Massoud, is making do with a mere 400- or 500-hundred million. His youngest son, Maitham, is not living in poverty either, with a couple of hundred million. The ayatollah�s two daughters, Bushra and Huda, each received de-facto dowries in the $100 million range.[xvi]

This is not secret information, For the Greens, the dissidents and the unionists this is widely discussed. The Iranian government owns many of the factories and industries in Iran. It is the major employer of labour. The advances made since the 2009 protests have ben facilitated by the widespread availability of social media on the internet. In the interim, the opposition politicians and the labour unions began to have access to the internet and social media. This had a dramatic effect on labour consciousness. The workers were able to download translations of what other labour movements were achieving; texts and handbooks on occupational health and safety; and a wide variety of publications about news outside Iran.

The Growth of Labour Militancy

Iranian unions were able to communicate with international labour organisations like IndustriAll, the International Transport Workers, the International Federation of teachers, and the Global Federations of national centres like the International Trade Union Confederation. In October 2016 the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) became the first affiliate from Iran to join IndustriALL. The UMMI was originally formed in 1960. After 1983 the union was forced to operate underground for more than two decades, but since 2005, it has operated openly. Although not officially recognized by the state or employers, UMMI represents a considerable number of workers in vehicle assembly, components factories, steel plants and detergent companies.

The union is not able to operate openly in the workplace, as workers suspected of being union members are dismissed and arrested. Despite this, the union is able to mobilize workers, who are inspired by UMMI�s independence, militancy and resistance. In theory, workers have the right to organize, but union organization in the workplace is not allowed. Strikes are suppressed by the security forces, militia and riot police. In 2016, 17 workers from the Agh Darreh gold mine in West Azerbaijan were publicly flogged for protesting the firing of 350 of their colleagues.

The government has a monopoly on workplace organization, and the labour ministry supports the Workers� House of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It sponsors pro-regime Islamic Labour Councils, tripartite organizations containing worker and employer representatives and government appointees The labour situation is made clear in the video: https://youtu.be/sxeen04XYZU.

The contacts between Iranian unionists and trade unions in the West have been a thorn in the side of the authorities. Ali Nejati, a�55-year-old board member of the sugarcane company�s workers� union, was ordered to serve the prison sentence issued against him by the Revolutionary Court in Dezful for allegedly contacting labour activists abroad, organizing workers in the province and holding weekly union meetings, In 2011, Nejati served one year in Fajr Prison in Dezful for his peaceful trade union activities and in 2015 he was held for three months in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps� detention centre in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province, for leading ongoing protests to demand unpaid wages and benefits for the workers of Haft Tappeh. The authorities want to punish Mr. Nejati to intimidate the other 60 or so Haft Tappeh workers who are facing prosecution for demanding their rights. Protests over three months� unpaid wages at the company flared�in July 2017 resulting in 53 protesters being summoned�to court. When the workers began their protests, the security agencies sided with the employer. Some of the workers were summoned and detained and the workers were paid some of their back wages, but when the protests died down, the company warned it would not tolerate any more protests and anyone who didn�t like the status quo should quit the firm. The back wages have never been paid.

Protesting workers have their cases heard in camera in clergy-led courts; often without any right of appeal. Last month Iranian labour rights activist Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi., an Iranian imprisoned teachers� rights activist, declared a hunger strike until his nine-year combined prison sentence and five-year prison sentence is reviewed in a public trial. Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers� Trade Association (ITTA), was taken to Evin Prison in Tehran on September 12, 2017, to serve the sentences that was issued for his peaceful defence of labour rights permitted under the law. Based on Article 168, �Political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice.� Now, the revolutionary courts pass verdicts in closed sessions in a matter of minutes.� This is, in no way, compatible with Article 168.

Perhaps the most famous of the Iranian labour leaders to fall afoul of the Ayatollah�s justice is Mansour Osanloo. He is one of the principal founders of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, leading one of the largest strikes in Iranian history and campaigning vigorously for workers� rights. Osanloo was arrested and imprisoned several times from 2005 to 2008 for his organizing activities. In 2008 Osanloo was sentenced to 5 years and was held in Evin Prison, and freed in June 2013. Osanloo�s uncompromising stance for labour rights and his resolve as a political prisoner has earned him international praise and support.

Currently, dozens of workers and labour activists and reporters and teachers are imprisoned. Many unemployed or laid off workers are also imprisoned. Behnam Ebrahimzadeh a syndicalist worker is currently imprisoned. After serving a 5-year sentence, instead of being freed, he was given a new 9-year sentence in Gohardasht prison in Karaj, and is currently serving his time there. He is in poor health and under intense pressure. Rasul Boudaghi a teacher who was imprisoned for 6 years, was sent recently to the notorious ward 209 of Evin prison. He is under pressure to testify against himself and a teacher�s labour organization. In 2015, Ebrahim Madadi and Davood Razavi and Mahmoud Salehi and Osman Ismaili and Pedram Nasrollahi and Jafar Azimzadeh and dozens of other labour activists and organizers in Khuzestan have all been arrested. In prison, the rights of prisoners are never upheld. They do not provide them with proper meals, or sanitary living conditions. They are denied adequate medical care, and they are condemned to a silent and slow death. [xvii]

The Current Crisis

The protests in Iran are continuing, but on a decreasing scale owing to the violence of the oppression of the Pasdaran and the Basij. The Ayatollahs have been able to mobilise large numbers of loyalist fervent religious supporters to demonstrate against the dissidents and protestors. The protestors, this time, are calling for the removal of the Ayatollah dominance of the state and for a move towards a more democratic system. The people are appalled that the removal of sanctions in 2015 did not translate into greater prosperity for the country as planned and promised. The rally behind the vote for Hassan Rouhani, the seventh President of Iran, as a reformer has become a forlorn hope. Iran is spending its new income flow on support for foreign adventures in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the Shia militias in Iraq; and especially with Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iranians were promised in 2015 that the easing of sanctions would make their lives easier, with oil revenue restored after years of embargo. But there has been no recovery. In fact, according to the BBC�s Persian service, the average Iranian is now 15% worse off than they were ten years ago. According to Ha�aretz, Iran�s state-owned banks set up credit lines totalling $4.6bn (�3.4bn) for the Syrian regime in 2013 and 2015. It has paid a monthly wage to around 50,000 militia fighters, and has supplied arms �daily�, and military �advisers�. Estimates of Iran�s total funding for Hezbollah in Lebanon vary from $60m (�44m) to $1bn a year, the newspaper adds, while Israeli intelligence estimates Iranian backing to Islamic groups in Gaza adds up to some $100m (�74m) annually.

Because of the availability of social media, the Iran citizens have learned that Hezbollah has used the funds from Iran to become a major player in the international trade in drugs. Hezbollah's speciality cocaine-trafficking. Over time, Hezbollah has developed deep connections to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, directly to facilitate the distribution of drugs throughout the Middle East and the US. The Obama administration quashed a huge Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into drug-running, arms-smuggling, human trafficking, and other criminal enterprises from which Hezbollah was profiting around the world as part of his goal of a nuclear deal with Iran.

�Recently, Western diplomats and analysts in Lebanon estimated Hezbollah receives closer to $200 million a year from Iran... Some of this financial support comes in the form of cash funds, while much is believed to come in the form of material goods such as weapons. Iranian cargo planes deliver sophisticated weaponry, from rockets to small arms, to Hezbollah in regular flights to Damascus from Tehran. These weapons are offloaded in Syria and trucked to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. In the wake of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Hezbollah reportedly received an additional $22 million from Iranian intelligence to support Palestinian terrorist groups and foment instability."[xviii]

Different Iranian "charitable" foundations, many of them controlled directly by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, also fund Hezbollah's hospitals and charities in Lebanon. The amount of money difficult to quantify because it does not appear in any official budget. It certainly represents many millions of dollars. Of course, as the military role of Hezbollah expanded, the cost of funding it increased, from $300 million to $1 billion annually.

This has provoked a crisis in Iran that is not likely to be beaten into the ground by the Pasdaran. The forefront of this battle will be the Iranian labour movement. It has roots and branches across the nation. It has ties to international labour and human rights associations across the globe. To a large extent it represents those in paid employment in the country; a workforce which cannot be dismissed en masse.

It should be the duty and responsibility of trades unions and Labour and Social Democratic parties around the world to support the Iranian workers. It is a great misfortune that there are few voices being raised in support of this quest for human rights and justice; especially among the Marxist-Leninists of the British Labour Party and their Momentum fringe who are happy to take money from the anti-Western broadcasting arm of the Ayatollahs, Press TV, and ignore the struggles of the Iranian working class. There is a strange resonance of the betrayal by the Tudeh in earlier struggles.

The battles may have diminished in Tehran but the struggle for labour rights and social justice will continue. Perhaps Iran�s true friends can be of assistance.

Dust �n b�ad ke girad dast-e dust dar pari��n h�li o darm�ndegi.

دوست آن باشد که گیرد دست دوست در پریشان حالی و درماندگی

A friend is known in adversity, like gold is known in fire;

[iii]George Lenczowski ,. Russia and the West in Iran. Greenwood Press 1968.

[iv] Gary R. Hess, "the Iranian Crisis of 1945�46 and the Cold War." Political Science Quarterly 89#1 1974

[vi] Gita, Labour Strikes in the Oil City 1946-1951, Headquarters� 06/01/2013

[vii] Abrahamian, E.A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[viii] M. Fateh, Panjah Sal-e Naft-e Iran, 1968

[ix] Abrahamian, op cit

[x] Gary Busch, �The Political Role of International Trades Unions�, Macmillan 1983

[xi] Gary Busch, �The Chinese Labour Movement And Political Change in China�, Ocnus.net 2013

[xii] Gary Busch, �The Crisis in Iraq and the Iraqi Labour Movement�, Ocnus.net 2015

[xiii] Alireza Nader and Leila Mahnad,, Labor and Opposition in Iran, RAND, March 2008

[xiv] Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani , Iranian Labor and the Struggle for Independent Unions , PBS 18 Apr 2011

[xv] Bella Suansing, , �Causes of Poverty in Iran�, Borgen Project 2016

[xvi] Edward N. Luttwak, "The Ayatollah Empire Is Rotting Away", Tablet January 2, 2018,

[xvii] Hamid Yazdan Panah, " Iran�s Labor Movement:" Interview with labor activist Mansour�Osanlou, Middle East News, 1/5/15

[xviii] Yves Mamou"Is Hezbollah Eating the Iranian People's Bread?", Gatestone,� January 4, 2018

Source:Ocnus.net 2017

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