Iran: Observation on the protests of December 2018: Part 2, Prospects and Pitfalls

Ardeshir Mehrdad.


Ardeshir Mehrdad by Mohassess

A Mehrdad by Mohassess

Part 1 of this article discussed what features distinguished the latest wave of protests from all previous ones. In Part 2 we discuss its actual strengths and weaknesses, the potential pitfalls facing it and the choices it can make on the rocky road ahead.


The social earthquake of December 2017 has shaken the political scene of Iran to the core. Yet it would not be a mistake to claim that what we witnessed was a pre-tremor and the real earthquake is still to come. When or how extensive it will be is immaterial. But when it does come the rulers will be unable to “gather up” the pieces and consequences, nor salvage anything for themselves from what remains no matter how many military stars they carry on their shoulders.

The next uprising, whether, successful or suppressed, its effects on the country will undoubtedly be deep and formative, and on the ruling system, catastrophic.


A broad protest movement is not an event but a process. An entity in the process of “becoming”, in a space between hope and fear. Fluid and in constant tension between an inner, and times conflicting, tendencies. Alternating between forces and motives that pushed it forward and obstacles that hold it back. Regardless of where and how it begins there is no predestined end. The direction it takes and prospects are determined by the balance of forces within, which is changeable, and the impacts of equally changing external factors. Ultimately they are dependent on the interrelationship between objective and subjective factors.

This is particularly true of movements like those that took place in December in Iran. Ones that spread from a structurally broad base, where a network of small and large nuclei are knotted together and which like creeping roots move in any direction, and are rapidly replicated. A model that appears and grows from autonomous components, and with relations that do not rely on a hierarchy of command, nor come under the influence of a single hegemony or leadership. Such a structure does not necessarily follow a single and constant course and goal. Nor can one expect a unified set of slogans, or a single model of behaviour, or necessarily durability or stability.

Since December the political landscape of the country has witnessed processes that, despite their major transformative potential, are fluid and full of ups and downs. Any intervention and practical and theoretically involvement in these developments can only help in developing their liberational potential if accompanied by a deep understanding of potentials and limitations facing the movement. A real awareness of the reality of those forces that will impede and those that will facilitate progress.

A key question arises out of this: to what extent, and in what way, can one prevent the strengths of these types of uprisings becoming their weakness?


The movement of a people who have risen up is full of potentials and limitations, strengths and weaknesses and has many ambiguities in its perspective. What lies ahead is a spectrum of possibilities: from taking a leap and becoming the instrument of a structural transformation; to merely accepting its role in effecting a political change; to falling into the trap of being absorbed into the system; to surrendering to an external force; or essentially acting on behalf of another force. With such a varied prospect in view, it would be equally indefensible to either reject them out of hand, or rashly become infatuated and exaggeratedly present a clear and optimistic outcome.

There are no pre-defined outcomes to a spontaneous rebellion of a people. Everything is dependent on how at each stage the autonomous figures link up and under what content and in what direction. Crystallise under what affirmative demands , and unite under the hegemony of what ideological-intellectual practice. The fate of such a movement is determined by the algebraic sum of those processes that are able to mobilise latent reserves, activate inactive bodies, bridge over cracks, remove obstacles, and pull out new possibilities out of scarcities.

The destitute who rose up in December against oppression and injustice are still at the beginning of their road. The outcome of their struggle is tied up with the upshot of struggles that, with each new step, accompanies them more and more. The conflict between those who rely on internal autonomy and those who place their reliance on outsiders; conflict between those who insist on direction from below and those who look upwards for leadership; those who insist on solidarity in diversity and others who want uniformity. Then there are the conflicts of those defending demands with a material basis and who encourage class solidarity with those with slogans that come out of racial, sexual, linguistic, or religious feeling of superiority, who widen minor divisions. And finally their fate depends on the fate of the confrontation between semi-fascist, populist, liberal and Marxist approaches.


How are we to define victory?

Accession to what demands and goals can be accept as victory for those who stepped in front of the political scene of Iran last December and challenged the ruling political and social systems of the country.

The shortest answer would be “removing poverty”. Poverty was the objective reality of the bed on which the poverty-stricken masses moved. This was the pain uniting those marginalised in cities, men women, young and old, the unemployed, the retired, the worker, and the student in one single line-up. The immediate demands of those who rebelled against poverty is ‘bread’, ‘work’, ‘housing’, it is ‘health care’ and ‘education’ as a general and human rights.

The elucidation and realisation of these demands on the larger scale means the establishment of a political framework resting on the twin pillars of freedom and equality (read on pillars of socialism and popular participatory democracy). Anything less than this may be associated with a relative and temporary easing of some of the features of poverty, but will eradicate it. Persistence of inequality and poverty in various forms or measures is a certainty.

Protest movements may not achieve their overall larger aims. They may not even achieve their immediate aims. Yet on no account can one speak of their total defeat. To conclude thus, and call the efforts of the people as devoid of result and useless is also a falsity. Undoubtedly the December protests have even now moved many former barriers.

Down below it his changed the beliefs and inner potentials of large sections of the people and has advanced their potential as ‘political subjects’. Up above, it has upset the balance in the ruling bloc and put into question the institutional structures of the system and its basic ideological and political foundations. Not least, it has forced the planners to quit their policy for economic austerity and ideas of further robbing the bread-basket of the people. Even one or two reform projects have been given new life.


There are two serious sets of limitations and obstacles in the way of the December street protests evolving into a successful movement. Those that have roots internally and those that are the subject of outside interference.

Internal limitations can be summed up as the absence of an independent system of information giving; weakness of the mechanisms to co-ordinate, combine objectives and create solidarity; unclear as to what they would like to replace the existing regime; failure of the slogans to accurately reflect the core of the disaffection and the class nature of the protests; and finally the inability of the movement to extent its social base horizontally and vertically and galvanize its inactive potentials.

Hurdles coming from outside are well known: a wide assortment of ideological and physical repressions; the allure of more pacifist tendencies; horizontal splits caused by chauvinistic and racist tendencies; deviation resulting from rightwing populist currents;[1]Such as the grouping around former president Ahmadinejad attempts by imperialist powers to ride the movement and more.


These dangerous hurdles will be effective politically and cause concern if their presence is ignored or belittled from the start. Exaggerating the internal dynamism and, awe struck, overstating the potentials and abilities of spontaneous movements are undoubtedly elements that open the way to such errors of judgement.

There is an equally if not greater concern in taking the opposite view: a view that exaggerates limitations and obstacles facing the movement. One that gives threats an unrealistic weight, and looks at them with fearful eyes. Such a viewpoint can see no role in the equation for conscious elements and assumes that the popular movement lacks any element of vigilant resistance.

One thing is missing from either sides of these views: the fact that the result of collective struggles are not all or nothing. The reality lies somewhere between infatuation and fear. In the long war for creating a better world the least result of any battle is to push back the frontiers of the established power and make as durable and irreversible as possible the gains and progress made.


It is an open secret that for any religious dictatorship when faced with an uprising that threatens its overthrow, the creation of fear through butchery is central to its strategy. It becomes even more rabid when on the edge of a precipice. It takes to hiding behind pasdar,[2]Revolutionary guards police, interrogator, informer and prison guard. It seeks security in barracks.

They go on to spice the repression by playing up the spectre of the of Syrian nightmare, the fate of Libya and Iraq, the nightmare of sinking in a sea of blood and war, the break up of the county….

For the people who rose up across the country last December the most immediate threat is repression, and to confront it the most urgent task. The heavier the price of repression for the regime, the less its ability to mobilise its repressive forces. The best way of opposing repression is changing the balance sheet of profit and loss.

Then comes the need to neutralise the fear and psychological pressures on the people, the weapon that is the regime’s greatest asset and can indeed be turned into its greatest weakness. Seen in this framework, reversing the direction of psychological pressure back towards the repressive forces of the regime can become a major tactic of the movement. Undoubtedly once the popular insurrection lays siege to the heart of the repressive apparatus, and exposes the name and real identity of the its most important personnel, its collapse is more likely to be faster than the collapse of courage and the spirit of sacrifice of the protestors under the threat of prison, torture and execution.[3]We saw that in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and also subsequent uprisings elsewhere.


The very resistance against repression, at its core, harbours an important potential for mobilising protest. Many of the scattered protest movements in the country taking place today that are, in their various forms, protests at repression are of this nature and can be used as models for more widespread and persistent action. Examples are collecting and disseminating information on those arrested as widely as possible, writing open mass protest letters, gathering outside prison gates, public funerals for those who have lost their life, regular memorial services for the dead[4]Memorials are traditionally held on days 3, 7, 40 and annually thereafter etc can all have the capacity to become tools for pressuring the machinery of repression of the regime.


However, the tackling of repression at its roots, as a long term threat, is of a different nature, and requires a qualitative transformation in the balance of power. It is dependent on mobilizing all potential capabilities. To dig deep into all sources of energy, creativity, daring, solidarity, justice seeking, demands for equality, and liberation.

Yet these resources are handicapped by cracks of various hues: A society full of ethnic, sexual, religious, linguistic, and geographic rifts. This very topography, however, has a dual effect on popular movements. Once the cracks are overcome they provide an invaluable and unbreakable resource against the forces of repression. Inability to overcome the cracks carries a heavy penalty and the very resource that can strengthen popular resistance can also be turned against them. It can go so far as mobilising one section of the very the base of resistance against others. Two opposing camps line up on either side of these social fissures and overcoming them and deepening and energizing them is essential for survival. The topography of our realm knows no bystanders.

Solidarity among diversity can come only through recognition of diversity. It is only possible to stand up to the police, security, and military by using all resources, and that is only achievable when the commonality of diversity comes closer to being realised. In practice this means combining common and specific demands. In other words when solidarity is conditional on full recognition of diversity and the common pain of the working masses it combines with the added pains of women, children, young and old, Turk, Kurd, Arab, Baluch, Turkman, Christian, Jew, Zoroastrian into one voice.

If we broaden the horizon and return to the issue of repression we have to accept that repression is only a real danger when protests are limited to their current dimensions. Repression is only fearful when popular protests are not transformed into a enduring uprising. Until the legitimacy of protest is able to mobilise ever larger sections of the passive layers of the people and to provoke the oppressed into ceaselessly increasing their qualitative and quantitative weight.


Another immediate necessity is creating diversity in both the arena and the variety of struggle. If street activity is combined with movement behind the street, if struggle in the work place is combined with struggle in the place of residence, if demonstrations are combined with refuge-taking, occupation of offices and factories, strikes, graffiti, and various small and large gatherings, if political combat takes place alongside solidarity with class, civil and trade union struggles, if those forms of collective struggle that carry a heavy price is combined with individual resistance that are less costly, then there will be few persons or groups among the mass of downtrodden who will not find a role, depending on their preparedness and ability, in the movement.

The repressive machinery is only effective while protests are limited to a few tactics and few geographical locations. There is an inverse correlation between a people who enter the battlefield to break up the existing order and the repressive machinery whose very survival depends on maintaining it. The survival on one is dependent on the absence of the other. If the popular insurrection cannot creatively and relentlessly find ways to surround and defeat the repressive machinery it should expect, sooner or later, to be surrounded and defeated.

A protest movement that begins a run up towards a structural-political transformation, one leading to an overthrow of existing social relations, if when reaching for fire does it not use it to burn will end by self emulating.


An equally perilous threat is that of being absorbed into one or other of the dozen or so of their sworn enemies lining up to fish in the muddy waters of a hungry and looted people, risen up at the end of their tether. It won’t harm the moral health of a people, whose speciality it is to exploit, to appear for a while alongside their victims, when they believe they have an opportunity for a free ride on the back of the movement of destitute people.

For them the people who rose up in December are like an ownerless herd that is looking for a shepherd. It does not mater what certificate they tuck under their armpits, to what social group they belong, what is their political past, what set of fundamental beliefs they carry, which ethical commitments they harbour. All they require is the ability to deceive.

In this trade the neo-Nazi’s in Trump’s gang are as proficient as Ahmadinejad and his twelfth Imam[5]

Past president Ahmadinejad has always claimed that he is in constant touch with Twelfth Imam, Mahdi, who was occulted in the tenth century AD and is believed by the shia’ would reappear at the end of the world.
and the various offsprings of the Pahlavi kings. All you need is a few lorries of paper-money, one or two 24-hour TV channels, a handful of middlemen and political pimps. Then all that is needed is opening the sluice to the sewage of the Islamic Republic.

There is no shortage of platforms when there is talk of ‘human rights’ and religious and cultural ‘freedoms’. But talk of ‘equality’ is a taboo subject for them all. On which equality are they going to hang their mast? Race? Gender? Religion? Nationality? In all these their records are black. You will find the same ‘equality’ in the ‘pure Arian race’ of the Pahlavi’s as you will find in the record of sexual harassment of the ‘president in the White House’ as in the drawn scimitar of the occulted imam in the Ahmadinejad clan.[6]The support of Mohammad Bin Salman with his five-hundred million dollar private yacht of the revolt of the Iranian poor is so nauseating that referring to it here could be an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

They are used to marching along already well trodden paths: demanding freedom for their cultural friends! They are so out of touch as not to notice that the cultural space has long been liberated territory for women, men, young, and old. They seem not to have not been informed that the rule of the clergy was first brought to its knees exactly where it initially began – the deletion of the social existence of women and redefining them as a sexual object, hiding them behind a black veil or in the depths of the home. They have yet to hear of its farcical defeat. Now the one who needs to hide at home is the hojjatoleslam[7]A cleric at a lower level than a ayatollah. and ayatollah. It is he who needs to remove his turban and gown on leaving the house.


Today political Islam has lost control over the overall cultural sphere, a large section of which has been conquered from below. Women have been the vanguard in a forty-year war and can claim credit for victory in the first of the battles. It is women who have redefined cultural freedoms not in official halls, but in the street, squares and public spaces. They have redefined its first principles.

And it is they who paid the entire price. It came neither from the prince’s purse[8]The pretender to the throne Reza Pahlavi the eldest son of the late shah. nor from the Malaysian and Canadian bank accounts of present or previous presidents[9]Reports of official corruption on a huge scale has been criss-crossing the Iranian press of the last months and was one of the triggers of the recent protests.

nor from the coffers of this or that global power. The women achieved it through millions of arrests, prison, millions of lashes of the whip, in their thousands on the hangman’s rope, through such pain and suffering that history can never forget.


These realities are, however, not enough to avoid the danger of the popular movement being canalised into false byways. Particularly, once mental and emotional fatigue takes hold of the various layers of society any collective movement is in danger of losing its path. It could become absorbed into the ruling system. Alternatively there is the danger of being pinned to one of the substitute currents with a not too dissimilar essence. To avoid this pitfall it is a vital and necessity to understand fully the actual political scene and the various traps within it.

If we recognise that the understanding of the nature of the existing political forces and to differentiate between them as an essential first step to avoid the traps, questions regarding the structural and political alternatives is the next step. What kind of state and what type of political power? Which freedoms? What equality? What justice? What rights? What judgement? What law? Participation in what? What will be shared: what kind of social relations, ownership, wealth, and politics? What type of rulership, what form of management ….? What is he share of an individual, a collective, an ethnic group, a gender?

To distinguish friend from foe the mask of merely opposing the ruling system should be taken off everyone and what lies underneath exposed. Platforms for emotional sermons be withdrawn and superficial light and shades to differentiate should give way to structural and fundamental differences. We need a discourse where the worker, the oppressed and deprived masses can measure the promises and the inflated talk with their own measuring tape of real needs. Where the deep crevice between the struggle for survival and the struggle for creating a better world can be clearly seen. Where no bandit or charlatan can easily enter and register the ownership document of the popular movement in their name!


The other side of the policy of absorption into the ruling system is a power centred discourse, that reduces popular disaffections to that of daily living. While criticising some policies of the regime, it adopts an ‘ant-clerical’ stance, and tries to line up the people behind an alternative that remains within the system. By highlighting ‘the need for national and internal security’ it tries to put a lid on the deep structural, political and social crises facing regime and pushes to the margins the political necessities arising from that. It attempts to rejuvenate populist and semi fascistic elements of political Islam to forge an internal alternative for the current ruling system. This current has found that channelling the power of the discontent of the atomised masses, and riding the tide of protest is the most ‘sharia-like’ way of erecting a leader and saviour (read another Khomeini without the turban).

The power-centred current on the one hand tries to encourage a mood of passivity among the people and increase their distrust in their own power. It also spreads the idea that the power of the regime and in particular the power of the military-security ‘hidden hand’ is absolute. Nothing can, therefore, be hoped for except from within the system and its elite and functionaries.

A ‘power seeking personality’ emerges on the bed of that combination of a mood of passivity and fear which encourages a spirit of resignation, submission and obedience by masses ready to be commanded. The target for this tendency are the most deprived members of the poor, the lowest and most passive layers of the urban workers. The very ones who have been the greatest victims of material and intellectual poverty.

If chauvinism, populism, and neo-fascism are not reigned in, the sea of poverty will help propagate them. This is a growth that will increase the split between the upper and lower layers of labour power and create a destructive polarisations within the working class movement.


To move from a protest movement to a movement for political-structural transformation is today a real possibility. This is because the lowest and most deprived sections of society have never been passive when faced with the worsening of cruel and oppressive conditions. We saw that in the numerous struggles of workers, teachers, nurses, and other toilers in recent years. Today the fetters of fear and isolation are being torn apart, and the ruling class is losing its allure of selling illusions and superstitions. Its ‘super intelligence’ is bankrupt, the working class is more solid and militant and able to continue with its protest battles and gatherings. In the current political atmosphere one can hope that this movement will also link up with the popular protest movement and help their development, thus promising a progressive class movement.

The movements of protest have rapidly gone beyond their starting point, precisely because these movements have obtained their driving force from material and social foundations. Now they are not easily controlled or reigned in. For that reason it would be not be a mistake to claim that now more than ever moving from protest actions to a movement for a political-structural transformation is a real possibility.

Ardeshir Mehrdad

February 2018

In part three I will discuss questions relating to class weight, their ability to be organised, and the place of the left.




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