Iran - After the presidential election

July-August 2005

The June presidential election, which was meant to replace Iran's "reformer" president Mohamed Khatami, who was reaching the end of his maximum two consecutive terms in office, has wrong-footed most commentators.

The arbitrary disqualification of more than a thousand declared candidates, including all women, by the regime's Guardian Council, and the call to boycott the election issued by part of the legal and illegal opposition, had led to widespread predictions of a record low turnout. However, the election's first round on June 17th, saw a relatively high 62% of the electorate voting. Moreover, while former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been generally tipped as the most likely winner, came first in the poll, he only managed to win 21% of the vote. Meanwhile, the candidate considered as his closest rival, former higher-education minister Mostafa Moin and the main representative of the "reformer" camp, only made it to 5th position with a meagre 13% of the vote.

Since no candidate had won the absolute majority required by the country's constitution, a second round took place on June 24th, between Rafsanjani and his nearest rival, a comparatively little known "hardline conservative". As one of Iran's best-known clerics and politicians, Rafsanjani was predicted to be a certain winner, all the more so because most of the "reformer" camp had joined the regime's establishment to support him, under the pretext that he was the "lesser of two evils". However, once again, the political pundits were proved wrong, when Rafsanjani's rival, Tehran's mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won 62% of the votes, on a slightly lower turnout.

The West's hypocritical lessons of "democracy"

Predictably, these developments have provided US leaders with new ammunition in their war of words against the Iranian regime.

As far as Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is concerned, for instance, "Iran's presidential election shows the country is out of step with democratic reforms in the Middle East", while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld condemned Iran's "mock election" for having inevitably produced a president who is "no friend of democracy".

No-one would argue, of course, that Iran's Islamic dictatorship is "democratic" in any sense of the word, and least of all with regard to the poor masses. After 26 years of existence, the Islamic regime has built up a long record of bloody repression, oppression against women, as well as ethnic and religious minorities and corruption in every sphere of society.

But whatever may be the case, the imperialist leaders, who armed the corrupted dictatorship of the Shah of Iran against its own population for more than two decades - between 1953 and 1979 - until it was overthrown by a popular explosion and finally replaced by today's Islamic regime, are certainly in no position to give any lessons in democracy to Iran. Nor is Donald Rumsfeld who, in his capacity as US president Ronald Reagan's special envoy in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war, organised the supply of US "weapons of mass destruction" to another regional dictator - Saddam Hussein - to help him crush the ill-equipped, young volunteers sent by Tehran to defend its borders.

Besides, coming from the government of an imperialist power, whose main regional ally - Saudi Arabia - is an absolute monarchy, in which women have virtually no rights, not even that to drive a car, and are constantly subjected to harassment and corporal punishment by a special "morality police", Washington's lessons of democracy to Iran are, at best, laughable! No-one has heard Rumsfeld, Rice, or Bush criticising the Saudi monarchy for preventing women from voting in the first election ever in the country, which was held earlier this year. Obviously the rights of women, democratic and otherwise, in Saudi Arabia or in Iran, are of no concern whatsoever to the US leaders!

As to the so-called "democratic reforms in the Middle East" referred to by Condoleezza Rice, they are obviously confined to the changes dictated or endorsed by imperialism's gunboat diplomacy and terror bombings, whether in the Lebanon and Syria, or in Iraq.

The fairy tale of the "democratic process" which is supposedly taking place today in the Middle East, as a result of the West's military aggression against Iraq, is indeed part and parcel of Bush's and Blair's official line in support of their imperialist policy. With the pretext of the "war on terrorism" losing credibility among a growing section of western public opinion, this alleged "democratic process" in the Middle East is increasingly used to justify imperialism's current military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the resulting high casualties, but also, possibly, to prepare the ground for others, in the region or elsewhere.

As if the election organised at gunpoint in Iraq, last March, against the backdrop of the bloody chaos unleashed by the US-led invasion, had anything to do with "democracy"! Or, as if the Lebanon, where the rule of religion-based armed factions is institutionalised by the country's "democratic" constitution and political murders are a "normal" way of settling differences between them - thereby stoking up the ingredients for the explosion of yet another civil war in this war-torn country - could be described as a model of "democratic reform"! How many more tens or hundreds of thousands of victims does this bogus "democratic process" require in the Middle East, to satisfy the drive of Western imperialism to consolidate its stranglehold on the Middle East and the greed of its multinationals?

US containment against Iran

Over the years, the US leaders have used all sorts of accusations against Iran. For a long time (in the 1980s and 90s) Iran was accused of aiding and abetting terrorism, due, for instance, to its links with the Lebanese militia Hizbollah - which was ironical, in view of the US policy of aiding and abetting terrorist groups, such as the Contras, in Nicaragua, during the same period, using the proceeds of undercover arms sales to Iran!

Such accusations were given a new lease of life after Bush's election, when Iran was included in his "axis of evil" and, to the outrage of its leaders, was accused by Bush of giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda fighters - regardless of the fact that Tehran had demonstrated repeatedly its goodwill to the US, by handing over Afghan fundamentalist fighters, who had crossed over into Iran.

In the meantime, according to the Clinton administration of the 1990s, Iran had become a "nuclear threat" for the entire world (at least!), following the "conclusive" (but secret) evidence provided by the CIA and other dubious agencies. Needless to say, when, in 2002, it turned out that Iran was really building a plant capable of producing enriched uranium, with the help of Russian technicians, Bush went ballistic and the campaign against Iran's "nuclear threat" turned into hysteria. There was no indication, nor likelihood, that Iran would be able to produce military-grade uranium this way. But what did the US leaders care, so long as it further justified their ostracisation of Iran?

In the same way, following Ahmadinejad's election, the undemocratic nature of the Iranian regime may turn into another cause for remonstration against Tehran in the coming weeks and months. But, of course, democratic concerns have nothing more to do with the US policy towards Iran than terrorism or nuclear proliferation, let alone the interests of the Iranian population. For the US leaders, Iran is just a pawn in their policy in the Middle East.

It should be recalled that, prior to the overthrow of the Shah, in January 1979, the US policy in the Middle East rested on three main pillars - Israel and Iran were in charge of policing the region and protecting the interests of western companies, while Saudi Arabia was the US main oil supplier. Not only did the overthrow of the Shah inflict a heavy blow to this arrangement, but, having been the result of a popular uprising, it set a dangerous precedent, which could have inspired the populations of the region's many dictatorships.

However, the hijacking of the revolution by the clerics, with the help of the repressive machinery of the Shah's regime, contained and, eventually, crushed the aspirations of the Iranian masses, locking them up into a prison, which was just as repressive, if not more than that of the Shah. Moreover, the fierce anti-communism of the new regime could prove an asset in this part of the Middle East which was in direct contact with the USSR. These factors could only be seen favourably by the imperialist leaders.

On the other hand, the new Iranian leaders had come to power without the endorsement of the West, by putting themselves at the head of the mobilised masses. As a result, the new regime had a social basis which allowed it to have a certain degree of political independence toward imperialism, which, in and of itself, made it highly suspicious in Washington. When, in addition, the Iranian leaders resorted to anti-US demagogy in order to bolster their radical credentials among the population, going as far as to allow fundamentalist students to occupy the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days, Washington's suspicions turned into overt hostility.

In many respects, Washington's dirty work was done by Saddam Hussein when, in September 1980, Iraqi troops crossed into Iran with the tacit (if not active) support of the imperialist powers. The ensuing 8-year war inflicted on the Iranian population a punishment far harsher than could have been achieved by diplomatic and economic sanctions. Western intervention - whether direct, using its own military forces, or indirect, through arms sales to both sides - ensured that this war did not result in border changes, which could have affected the region's stability, nor in the victory of either protagonist, thereby cutting down to size their ambitions to become regional powers. Both Iran and Iraq came out of the war in a state of catastrophic weakness, for which their populations are still paying the cost today.

But this was not to be the end of Iran's punishment. While the regime was given access to funding from imperialist institutions such as the IMF and World Bank and resumed its trade with the US, which remained for a number of years its main trading partner, the US leaders ostensibly maintained their diplomatic boycott of Iran and the ban on American companies importing Iranian oil. Even Iran's neutrality in the first Iraq war, did nothing to change Washington's policy.

In fact, this policy was tightened up by the Clinton administration, in the mid-1990s. While the then Iranian president, Rafsanjani, proclaimed that his aim was "the reinsertion of Iran in the concert of nations", Clinton embarked on a so-called "dual containment" policy against both Iraq and Iran, involving a large dose of scare-mongering and politicking. This policy reached a climax in 1995, when Iran was accused of developing an atomic bomb. As a result, American companies were banned from carrying out financial or commercial operations with Iran and, shortly after, the sanction regime was extended to any non-American company making more than a symbolic investment in Iran.

Threat of war or normalisation process?

Bush Junior's accession to power was not likely to change this policy, especially after he embarked on his "war on terrorism", following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In fact, the Iranian regime's supportive attitude to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan (and, subsequently, of Iraq), did not even stop Bush from including Iran in his "axis of evil", in January 2002.

Since then, the main focus of Washington's war of words has been Tehran's alleged "nuclear threat", according to a scenario reminiscent of Bush's campaign against Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction". Following the invasion of Iraq, Bush's rhetoric against Tehran even led to speculation that a similar treatment could me metered out at Iran at some point. And while the quagmire in which US troops find themselves in Iraq and the resulting unpopularity of the occupation in the US, make this possibility far less likely today, it can never be totally ruled out, even though the 70m-strong population of Iran would be likely to confront the imperialist leaders with far more serious problems than those they have experienced in Iraq.

However, the fact is that, in several respects, the regional strategic importance of Iran for imperialism has increased significantly since the overthrow of the Shah. Although still weakened by the consequences of the 1980-88 war, Iran has the largest population, economy, industrial infrastructure and, potentially, the largest domestic market in the Middle East. And, today, its combined gas and oil reserves are estimated to be the second largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia, following huge discoveries made over the past decade.

Moreover, Iran is no longer the isolated country that it used to be, located as it was on the border between the Middle East and the Soviet Union. A number of new independent countries have emerged on its northern and western borders, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of these countries have large natural resources, which are coveted by western multinationals. But most of them are also politically unstable, ruled by more or less brutal and corrupt dictatorships. And in several of these countries, the main opposition forces are Islamic or fundamentalist currents, which are, or could become, influenced by Tehran.

Of course, the US leaders have been quick to trade their economic aid to the former Soviet republics against the setting up of US military bases on their territories. But while this sprinkling of US forces may be enough to protect western-controlled oil fields, they may not be enough to guarantee political stability.

Besides, there remains the question of Saudi Arabia, which, while being still the main US oil supplier and a pillar of the imperialist order, looks increasingly like a powder keg waiting to explode.

From the point of view of the imperialist world order, the region is badly in need of a regional power capable of acting as guarantor of western interests by policing the populations in this part of the Middle East. Israel, on its own, is not in the best political position to do this, assuming it had the resources to maintain a large enough military machine, which is not the case. Egypt, the closest military auxiliary of the US in the Middle East, is much too far away to play such a role, and its regime is probably not all that stable either. As to the new US-backed regime in Iraq, which is incapable of maintaining any kind of order at home, it is nowhere near the point where it can be used as a regional policeman - that is, assuming it succeeds in preventing centrifugal forces from breaking up the country.

In the long term, this leaves Iran as the only possible guarantor of the imperialist order in the region, as well as a potential source of considerable profits for imperialist companies. On this latter point, for a number of years already, US multinationals have been lobbying Washington for a relaxation of US sanctions against Iran and the opening up of trade negotiations. In particular, US oil majors and car manufacturers have been expressing their displeasure at a policy, which deprives them of any significant access to Iran, while allowing an almost free ride to their European and Japanese rivals.

All this probably explain why Bush has been far more cautious in his approach to Iran than his tough-sounding rhetoric would indicate. On the nuclear issue, for instance, while making a point of refusing any direct contact with the Iranian leaders, Washington has allowed international institutions such as the UN nuclear watchdog, together with the main European powers, to negotiate with Iran. As a result of these negotiations, Tehran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activity pending a future agreement, in exchange for the initiation of proceedings leading to Iran's admission into the World Trade Organisation. But this concession to the Iranian leaders could not have been made without Washington's agreement.

Of course, "the reinsertion of Iran in the concert of nations" requested by Rajsanjani, 12 years ago, is not likely to happen overnight. But it is probably more likely to happen now than ever before. However, if and when it does happen, it will be only on the terms dictated by imperialism and provided the Iranian leaders give enough guarantees of their willingness to submit their policy to the rulers of the imperialist world order, in particular by making the country wide open to the looting of multinational companies.

But the main obstacle in this process of normalisation will certainly not be regime's dictatorial character nor its theocratic nature. Western capitalists can live with that quite happily. In fact, they sleep far better on their dividends, when their exploitation of the poor masses is enforced by a dictatorship, no matter how bloody, as long as it is pliable and respectful of their interests..

The thin line between "conservatives" and "reformers"

In most respects, the divisions which appear to exist among Iranian politicians, are a reflection of the ups and downs of the West's attitude to Iran. To use the terminology of political commentators, the so-called "conservatives" play the religious card as a means to assert their determination to maintain both the political independence gained by Iran after 1979 and the social positions they have acquired thanks to their position in the state machinery. Whereas, the so-called "reformers" use the lure of "democratic reforms" to introduce economic changes and canvass political support for a quick normalisation of relationships with the West, through which they hope to improve their own social positions.

But these divisions are far more blurred than is made out by commentators.

The case of Rafsanjani illustrates this point in a graphical way. One of the country's highest ranking clerics, Rafsanjani was among the leading figures of the Islamic Revolutionary Council in 1979, before becoming ayatollah Khomeini's right-hand man until his death, in 1989. Subsequently, he was elected president for the two consecutive terms he was allowed to hold, before taking the head of the shadowy Expediency Council, an unelected body, which acts as a referee between the regime's Guardian Council (which is appointed by the Supreme guide, Khamenei) and its elected bodies (or, rather imposes the Guardian Council's decisions on the elected bodies). He is so close to the regime's leading clerical circles that, in 2000, the Guardian Council invalidated hundreds of thousands of votes in Tehran, to ensure his election to parliament - although, in the end, Rafsanjani preferred to resign his seat rather than be so badly elected.

However, Rafsanjani was also the first Iranian leader to break an official taboo, when he declared himself publicly in favour of resuming normal relations with the West. In 1997, he was part of the coalition which brought to power president Khatami, who has been, for the past 8 years, the figure-head of the "reformers". Rafsanjani own family clan has been involved in the "reformer" camp, among other things, by founding the first legal paper for women since 1979 and setting up a party, aligned to the "reformer" camp, which has been used by Rafsanjani as an unofficial political vehicle.

It is no wonder, therefore, that, in the June presidential election, the "conservative" camp considered Rafsanjani as its favourite candidate, to the extent that he was able to enjoy the de facto support of the state propaganda agencies, while, on the second round, most of the country's "reformers" had no difficulties lending him their support.

There are social reasons for the dividing line between "conservatives" and "reformers" to be so blurred.

Today's Iranian ruling class comes from the ranks of the traditional class of traders and medium businessmen - the so-called "bazaari" capitalists - who had been marginalised under the Shah's regime, took part in its overthrow and pushed the clerics' hierarchy to the forefront in order to crush the mobilisation of the masses. Only, having ruled the country for over a quarter of a century, these "bazaaris" have had plenty of time to increase their wealth by parasitising the state machinery, and more specifically, the state-controlled sector of the economy.

Officially, this state-controlled sector accounts for as much as 50 to 70% of the economy depending on the estimates, if one takes into account the "bonyads", or charitable foundations, created out of the assets confiscated after 1979. Indeed, some of these "bonyads" are very large. The largest among them, the "Foundation of the Deprived", which was originally created with the assets of the Shah's family, has turned into a giant industrial and service empire, whose turnover is comparable to the total tax revenue of the state.

But the fact that this sector of the economy is controlled by the state does not mean that it does not generate private profit, quite the opposite. The way it is organised it precisely designed to do just that. There are an infinite number of ways, through which private profiteers manage to milk the state-controlled cow. Lucrative licences for the transport, distribution, import and export of certain products, or for the supply of all sorts of professional services to state enterprises, etc.. are issued by ministries and other state bodies. Probably the largest source of private profits is the system of subcontracting in the state-controlled manufacturing sector (which represents 60% of the value created in manufacturing), whereby private contractors are invited to take over entire workshops in a factory and run them as their own private businesses. The activities which are thus sub-contracted are still counted as part of the state-controlled sector, but they certainly produce hefty profits for the sub-contracting bosses. And all this is without taking into account what seems to be a very common source of profits for the Iranian privileged, judging from the many protests it has generated, which is the embezzling of public funds and outright theft of workers' wages.

So much for the Islamic Republic's claim to "puritanism"! Whether under the Islamic crescent or the Union Jack, capitalism remains a system of organised theft against the poorest!

In any case, thanks to this parasitism on the state, the Iranian "bazaari" has produced a class of extremely rich capitalists. Again, Rafsanjani is a case in point, having built around his family clan a whole business empire, which is said to include just about everything, from key positions in strategic state-controlled industries, like mining, oil engineering, TV networks, to controlling positions in private companies in the car industry, airways, media, financial investment, etc..

Quite naturally, having consolidated their economic position, these rich capitalists are now aspiring to new sources of profit and they probably see a normalisation of Iran's relationships with the West as the best way forward. Some of these capitalists may feel more dependent on their control over the state machinery, and therefore be more cautious in their approach, while others, who have already thrown their lot in with the private sector, which has been growing at an accelerated pace since 2000, may feel less threatened by such a change.

But overall, the Iranian capitalists share the same ambitions - to gain unlimited and uncontrolled access to the domestic economy, on the one hand, and to the bounty of western finance, on the other. From this point of view the "conservative" and "reformer" camps among politicians are primarily two faces of the same capitalist coin, reflecting the same perspective, and differing only on the details of how to achieve it.

The disaffection caused by the "reformers"

Each camp, however, has its own social basis. On the "reformer" side, it is primarily the petty bourgeoisie. Iran is not Afghanistan. Prior to 1979, it had a large westernised urban middle-class and this social layer did not disappear with the ayatollah's victory - even though many chose to emigrate. 26 years on, this middle-class has grown considerably, if only for demographic reasons. The number of students in universities has increased by over 700% since 1979. But once they get their degrees, many of these students find themselves unemployed or in low-paid jobs, particularly public sector jobs, because there are so many of them for so few jobs. The economic situation, the repressive nature of the state and general absence of freedoms, has caused this middle-class to lend its support to anyone who seemed to offer the prospect of some change, at least.

The "conservative" camp, on the other hand, particularly those elements who are closest to the organs of power, still rely on the same political instruments put in place at the time of the revolution. The various fundamentalist militias, which were set up at the time, are still used as an instrument of terror against all forms of opposition. These militias are not under a centralised command, in the sense that their loyalty goes to particular factions within the leading circles of the state. In case of a confrontation between these factions, they could become their armed wing.

In certain poor areas, particularly in the slums areas of the major towns, these militias run the show in conjunction with so-called "welfare institutions" which are, in fact, instruments of social control over the poor. By combining the use of nepotism and physical pressure, they manage to secure the passive loyalty of a section of the poorest population, particularly among the large numbers of unemployed, for whom being admitted into the ranks of a militia or simply getting some welfare relief, represents a way of surviving, even if it is only barely.

Nevertheless, when Khatami was elected triumphantly with 70% of the votes, on an unprecedented 80% turnout, in the 1997 election, he managed to win a large level of support, both in the middle-class and among the poor - although this support seems to have been mostly due to voters' rejection of his three rivals, who were all notorious bigots associated with the most reactionary sections of the clerical hierarchy.

In the ensuing years, however, those who had voted for Khatami went from disillusion to disillusion. Of course, the workings of the Iranian regime is such that the president has no real power, no more in reality, than the parliament and government. Laws can be stopped or amended at will by the Guardian Council, or their implementation prevented by a state machinery which is accountable to no-one, except to the shadowy ruling circles of the state.

But Khatami and, subsequently, the "reformer" majority which took over parliament in 2000, did not just show that they were powerless. They also proved that they had no intention to make a stand against the repression of the Islamic state, nor against the parasitism of the profiteers.

When the Tehran university dormitories were attacked by the Special Security Forces, following a peaceful protest against the banning of a "reformer" newspaper, and many students were wounded across the country in the ensuing riots, in 1999, Khatami did nothing, not even symbolically, to demonstrate the sympathy of the "reformers" for the students.

As to the profiteers, although one of the main planks of the "reformer" camp had always been the need to bring the "boyads" to account, no attempt was ever really made in that direction. On the other hand, it was the "reformer" camp which, from 2000 onwards, took the initiative to open the economy to imperialist companies and privatise a long list of companies, with the backing of the "conservatives". While these measures did not necessarily antagonise the middle-class, although only a very small minority of well-connected businessmen really benefited from them, they did affect the working class considerably, through massive job losses and drastic cuts in working conditions.

The impact of these policies were already visible in the 2001 presidential election, when Khatami was re-elected on a much lower 68% turnout. Significantly the most drastic drop in turnout seem to have been in Tehran, which has, by far, the largest proletarian concentration in the country. Just as significant was the absence of significant reactions, in 2004, when the Guardian Council intervened to disqualify most of the "reformer" sitting MPs and candidates. This time, neither the students nor the population of Tehran's slums saw any point in expressing their support for the disqualified MPs, while they were staging a protest sit-in in parliament.

June's presidential election seems to be the latest illustration of the "reformer" camp's discredit. Its main candidate on the first round, Mostafa Moin, focused his campaign on technocratic themes, close to the heart of the better-off middle class, presenting the "reformer" camp as that of the "elite". Since the far better-known Rafsanjani had chosen exactly the same campaign focus, he probably took quite a few votes from Moin. Unlike in 2001, the population of the slum areas of Tehran turned out in large numbers, but not to vote for Moin and least of all for Rafsanjani, the very symbol of profiteering and corruption. Instead, many in the first round, and most in the second, voted for Ahmadinejad, probably because, unlike the other candidates, he had focused his campaign on demagogical promises to introduce a legal right to welfare provisions and to clamp down on profiteers.

Whether Ahmadinejad's election is a "catastrophe" and a step back into the past, as politicians from the "reformer" camp have claimed, because of his links with the Islamic militias, remains to be seen. The odds are, that he will do what the Guardian Council and the Iranian capitalists, who control the regime, will tell him to do. And they may not consider that there is much to gain these days by allowing militiamen to go round the streets of the main cities to hunt down women who do not abide by the Islamic dress code.

As to whether the outcome of this election signals that the fledgling thaw in the relationship between the Iranian regime and the West will be brought to an abrupt halt by Tehran, as has been claimed by many western commentators, this seems unlikely. Their analysis assumes that, after all, the Iranian regime is democratic in a certain sense, which is rather ironical coming from commentators who keep condemning Iran for its lack of democracy! It also ignores the fact that all factions within the Iranian ruling class have a common interest to see a normalisation of their relationship with imperialism. And that if this normalisation has still to be achieved, it is primarily due to Washington's policy, rather than due to the so-called "conservatives".

Finally it should be stressed that, rather than blaming the voters from the slums for the election of Ahmadinejad as they do, the "reformers" have only themselves to blame, for their social contempt for the poor and their failure to respond to the hopes they had created among them.

A social powder keg waiting to explode

With its 70 million inhabitants, Iran has not only the largest population in the Middle East, but also the largest urban population (65%), the largest urban concentration (about 18% of the population live in Tehran and its suburbs alone) and the largest working class in the Middle East. Moreover part of its industrial working class is concentrated in very large production units, such as the factories of the giant car manufacturer Iran-Khodro, which builds local versions of Peugeot, Renault and Nissan models, as well as its own home-grown cars (including a modernised version of the old British Hillman), trucks and coaches under Mercedes licence, etc..

But the situation of the Iranian working class and proletariat in general is deteriorating fast. The combined effect of the Iran-Iraq war, western economic sanctions and corruption of the regime, are causing what can only be described as a social catastrophe. This year the minister of welfare admitted officially that 10% of the Iranian population lived on less than $50 a month, making them unable to meet basic nutritional requirements, while 20% of the population lives under the poverty line. For many, living conditions have become akin to the poorest Third World countries, as huge numbers were forced to leave the countryside and joined the squatter camps around the main towns, whether because of the Iran-Iraq war or to avoid starvation. As a result, according to the same minister, nearly 40% of the population live in what he terms euphemistically as "unofficial settlements", which are often deprived of basic facilities.

Over the past few years, the working class has been particularly affected by the privatisation and sub-contracting processes described earlier. Unlike many poor countries, Iran has a system of paternalistic employment laws - a result of the social weight and fighting traditions of the working class - which give permanent workers a certain degree of protection. That is, when the bosses bother to abide by the law, which is seldom the case, unless they are forced to do so by the workers themselves. But even that is too much for the employers. Increasingly, through the sub-contracting process, they have transformed workers into temps or, even what is called "blank contractors", which amounts to being self-employed, with no rights and no guarantee of a minimum income.

Wages are very low, all the more so because of inflation. The minimum wage was set this year at $120/month. But according to an interview released by the official Iranian Press Agency, the monthly rent of a basic workers' flat in the capital's slum tower blocks is $150. Besides, many employers do not even pay this minimum wage. The same interview mentions, for instance, a demonstration in Tehran in which the marchers carried banners protesting against being paid $70/month. That is, when they are paid at all. Iranian official statistics for last year show that one million workers were owed wages in arrears, sometimes more than a year's worth, if not larger.

In fact, the Iranian working class is not taking these attacks lying down. Strikes as well as independent workers' unions may be illegal (only the state-controlled "Workers' House" and Islamic Councils are legal, and they are management bodies), but according to the reports published by the official news agency itself (which is not likely to overstate the level of strike activity), there were 1,500 "anti-government protests" during the year up to last March, including 450 strikes in industry. Some of these strikes have been long and involved large numbers of workers, such as a 50-day long strike at the Sangroud coal mines. Most of the strikes reported have been over non-payment of wages, low pay, sackings and redundancies and casualisation.

The other "anti-government" protests included 330 strikes and protests by students, 110 by teachers and 550 protests of all kinds. This latter figure does not include the World Cup qualifying football match between Iran and Japan, on 23 March, which turned into an anti-government demonstration, with the Special Security Forces firing into the crowd, killing seven people, and ensuing riots for hours in the streets of Tehran. It does not include either a sit-in staged by women protesters outside another qualifying football match in Tehran, this time against Bahrein, to protest against women being banned from sports stadiums since 1979.

Those, like Blair, who are peddling the idea that the population of Iran is stifled into submission by the Islamic regime, in order to justify the "necessity" of the imperialist powers meddling with the internal affairs of Iran, are liars. The Iranian poor, and particularly the Iranian working class, have proved time and again that they have the capacity, the energy and the courage to change their own lives. Since World War II, they have been prevented from using this capacity on two occasions: first, in 1953, by the US and British leaders, who engineered a military coup which brought back the Shah's dynasty into power; second, in 1979, by the very left-wing parties, which, after having led the fight against the Shah's regime for over two decades, betrayed the Iranian working class by endorsing Khomeini's bid for power.

A large section of the generation of Iranian workers who brought down the Shah's dictatorship are still around, in their mid-forties. They have a whole fighting tradition and a wealth of experience to pass on to the large layers of youth who are joining the ranks of the Iranian working class. Together, and with the help of all those who are prepared to choose the side of the proletariat, rather than fall for the western mirages of the "reformer" camp, they could build, in the years to come, a genuine workers' party, a communist party willing to take the lead of the working class in the name of its political interests, instead of surrendering this role to some ayatollahs, "reformers" or other representatives of today's system of capitalist exploitation. Then and only then will the Iranian working class have an instrument with which to break the stranglehold of the clerics and to build a future for itself and for the proletariat of the whole region.