By David Ignatius
February 10, 2020
Iran is moving slowly and erratically toward an eventual inflection point. The 1979 revolution is aging, as are the regime’s leaders. The ruling clerics operate at home and abroad through the praetorian guard known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but its charismatic appeal died last month with Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force.
The IRGC today is the vanguard of a police state that governs through fear. Given the organization’s skill at suppressing dissent, Iran’s political stasis could last another decade. But it’s difficult to imagine such a regime lasting forever in such a sophisticated nation. So how might Iran change?
The Iranian labor movement is often overlooked in assessments of the country. But labor protest has been vociferous, broadly based and hard to suppress for two decades. Indeed, angry workers may be the political force most feared by the clerical regime.
Iran has seen intermittent strikes by bus drivers, truckers, refinery workers and many others. Labor leaders have been jailed and allegedly tortured, but they keep coming back. The complaints that fuel these working-class protests have been aggravated recently by U.S. economic sanctions, to be sure, but strikes in Iran long predated the Trump administration. They seem to reflect popular anger at internal corruption, inequality and mismanagement, rather than just a response to external pressure.
The regime’s anxiety about labor unrest was captured by the BBC Persian Television in a December story that quoted former president Mohammad Khatami. “If the middle-class and upper-class join with the working-class protesters, then no amount of military and security power can do anything. It will be the regime versus the people,” said Khatami, according to a translation by Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Khatami’s comments followed dramatic nationwide protests in November, after the regime increased gasoline prices. The bloodiest confrontation was in Mahshahr, in southwestern Iran. Protesters there, reportedly including petrochemical workers, went into the streets, and the regime responded brutally, purportedly with automatic weapons and tank fire. IranWire, an independent news organization that monitors Iran, cited a provincial official who said 148 protesters were killed over five days.
“The regime fears organized labor, knowing full well that oil strikes were essential to bringing down the Shah in 1978 and 1979,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst with the FDD. Mariam Memarsadeghi, who follows Iranian labor unions and co-founded a civil-society group called Tavaana, explained during an interview that there is a “synergy between labor strikes and street protests.”
The Iranian labor movement has produced some brave leaders over the past two decades, including Mansoor Osanloo, who was jailed in 2005 after he formed a bus drivers’ union that protested by refusing to take passengers’ fares; and Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, a teachers’ union organizer who has led protests for more than a decade, despite repeated arrests.
Labor protests have continued to grow despite repression, according to data gathered by Kevan Harris and Zep Kalb of the University of California at Los Angeles. Using Iranian newspapers, they found that protests rose from 2012 to 2016 and strikes outside Tehran increased sharply over that time, they wrote for The Post in 2018.
A truckers strike in 2018 showed the potentially crippling nationwide effects of labor protest. Some Trump administration officials were so enthusiastic that they hoped to exacerbate the economic tensions that had produced the strike — and even organize testimonials from Iranian truckers in America. (It turned out there weren’t many.)
But beware: The one sure way to poison the Iranian labor movement would be heavy-handed U.S. government support. Instead, this is a challenge for labor unions globally. Recall the rise of Solidarity in Poland, when union activists around the world backed the movement that eventually helped derail communism in Eastern Europe. A similar international mobilization to support Iranian workers would invoke the timeless slogan, “Solidarity.”
Angry workers drive political change in Iran, China and even Donald Trump’s America. When you see a wave of strikes spreading across Iran, despite brutal crackdowns, you’ll know that Iran may finally be entering a new era.
The Washington Post