What’s Next for Iran? An Interview with a Leader of Iran’s Labor Movement
JUNE 12 will mark the two-year anniversary of the Iranian election that set off a firestorm of protests and the birth of Iran’s Green Movement, demanding political reform. After a fierce crackdown, the movement mostly disappeared from Western view—until this year, when protesters hit the streets once again, inspired by and in solidarity with the wave of “Arab Spring” actions and demonstrations by labor and anti-regime activists across several countries in the Middle East.
Homayoun Pourzad is the pseudonym of a leader in the Iranian labor movement. Pourzad is part of the editorial collective of the Iran Labor Report (ILR) and a member of the Central Council of the Network of Iranian Labor Associations (NILA). He became active in the labor movement seven years ago, when he began trying to organize a union at the printing company where he works.
Pourzad is visiting the United States on behalf of the NILA, working to build solidarity between American and Iranian workers. Pourzad and I met in New York City on Tuesday, May 31 to discuss the relationship between the Green Movement and the labor movement in Iran and the challenges they face. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Josh Eidelson: Last year the NILA presented a paper saying that we could be entering a fourth major phase of trade unionism in Iran. Have you seen that happening since then?
Homayoun Pourzad: No. Over the past year there has been a weakening of our movement. More people have been thrown in jail, jail terms have been extended for those who were already there, and the government’s really going out of its way to stamp out anything having to do with labor organizing. But the potential for a big flowering of the labor movement is right there. It could happen in a very short period of time.
JE: What would need to change for that to happen?
HP: The government should be forced either to leave or to change. That’s the only way out. With the present status [balance] of forces it’s out of the question. They want a monopoly of power over all political, economic, social, and religious forces.
JE: Have people you know experienced anti-union repression?
HP: Oh yeah, many people. Many, many activists are in jail, and some union leaders have been in jail for five years now in awfully abysmal situations. In fact, one of them is on a hunger strike in jail as we speak. If one guy tries to organize, they may let you get away with it once. If you do it twice, then you open yourself up to serious problems. If you do it a third time, you will be interrogated for months and they will throw you into solitary confinement. You won’t know when it’s daytime or when it’s nighttime. This is more or less routine in Iran at the moment.
JE: Have you experienced that kind of treatment yourself?
HP: No, I have not, because they don’t know me.
JE: How do you see the relationship between what’s gone on in Iran over the past year and what some are calling the “Arab Spring”?
HP: Before the Arab Spring, there was the spring in Iran, after the rigging of the elections.
I don’t know how much of an inspiration that was for the Arab Spring, in terms of the social networking or the slogans or the civil disobedience tactics, but the similarities are remarkable. But because the repression was so severe, the Iranian movement kind of went underground, and it wasn’t able to have any major victory. Then after the Arab Spring, on February 14 of this year, there was a day called for by the Green Movement leaders for people to come out in solidarity with the Arab Spring, and on that day there were between 200,000 and 400,000 people actually out in the streets in Iran. Every Tuesday since that time this has repeated, and then there was a Persian New Year [on March 20], and now we’re waiting to see what may or may not happen on the anniversary of the election, June 12.
JE: So what would constitute a major victory in Iran?
HP: To do away with the foundations of this really awful dictatorship in our country would be a victory. And the establishment of a regime that’s based on democratic principles, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of faith, whatever religious denomination you are. These are in our constitution, but they’ve never been practiced. For the labor movement, obviously, this is a matter of life and death. Without the legal safeguards for freedom of association, any government in power could disband labor unions and repress labor activists.
More specifically for the labor movement, we need to be able to establish organized unions in various sectors, because we have a huge industrial base and the workers are really ripe for this. Everybody wants it, and also there’s a huge economic crisis, so I think this could just mushroom in a very short period of time.
It’s unlikely that this regime is going to just hand over power to the people. And since we are all into peaceful means, for the democratic movement to succeed—which is a prerequisite for the labor movement to succeed—it will take support from not just the organized labor movement, but the working class. Organized strikes are what could make the difference. The last regime fell not because there were millions of fundamentalists in the streets but mainly because the oil workers went on strike. The regime was brought to its knees, and the major industrial powers forced the Shah to give up the country because it was becoming dangerous with the oil workers on strike. This is what we may see again. I think the Green Movement leaders have come to see that without working-class support they cannot fight this government.
JE: What level of skepticism do you think exists now in the Green Movement about Iran’s labor movement, or in the labor movement about the Green Movement?
HP: I would say there was a lot of initial skepticism by many in the labor movement about the Green Movement, a year and a half, two years ago, though not among our group. From the beginning, we were quite gung-ho. Some of our friends in the labor movement were skeptical because they felt that the Green Movement’s leadership comes from former regime elements, [Mir Hossein] Mousavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi. And anything that smacked of some form of fundamentalist influence was a no-no. But they’ve come to appreciate the necessity of this movement. One reason for that is that these two men and the cadre organizing on their behalf are really paying a heavy price for it. So nobody is saying anymore that this is just theatrical or it’s just an intra-regime struggle, because these guys are literally putting their lives on the line. That’s one factor. Another is the fact that our friends have realized that without political change there can’t be any change for us organizing in the labor movement. Things have really gotten out of hand with the repression in the last year.
Then on the side of the Green Movement, the democratic movement, both the followers and the leadership have realized that victory is not going to come that easily. Everybody had overly optimistic views—they thought it would be a couple months, the whole thing was going to tumble and fall into their laps, and it didn’t happen. This is a very powerful, well-entrenched regime with a small but very highly motivated minority of the population that supports it. So the Green Movement is reaching out to the workers and the labor movement. Now on both sides there’s a realization that we need to come together. And that’s a very promising development in the past year. You can see a major shift on both sides.
JE: What kind of shift?
HP: For example the middle class, the young people, and the Green Movement supporters just talk much more about labor solidarity than before. For May Day they asked for joint action, even though before, most of these guys didn’t even realize there was a labor movement in this country. Some of this came from class bias, but some was just sheer ignorance. And as far as the labor movement activists who were skeptical at the beginning, just read what’s published on their websites. The shift is quite visible.
JE: What does the Green Movement have to learn from the labor movement in terms of tactics?
HP: We actually wrote articles telling the Green Movement, you have to come learn tactics from us. I’m sure labor has had some kind of an effect, because at the very beginning nearly two years ago, all the Green Movement knew was to come out to the streets and just chant slogans. And at nighttime they would go to the rooftops and chant, “God is great,” and that was it. But now we see more flexible attitudes. For example, people writing slogans on money, or sometimes people will just walk on the pavement together without saying anything. These tactics have been used in workplaces in years past.
JE: You mentioned people chanting “God is great.” How do you see the role of religion in terms of mobilizing people in the movement or suppressing the movement?
HP: For millions of people, including some workers, religion is the only language that they know in terms of culture and politics. Religious language and symbolism were used masterfully to mobilize people against the Shah. And the regime has been able to keep the mobilization going, even deepening it, with Ahmadinejad, with the same language and the same worldview. There is no reason why the democratic movement and even the labor movement shouldn’t use the same language. After all, many workers are devout religious people and most Iranians are believers, maybe over 80 percent. So this is not an opportunistic deployment of the other side’s tactics or language. It belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. So when in defiance of the regime people go on the rooftops and say, “God is great,” it really shakes the regime. Because that is exactly the language that they have used, and they have been able to dupe people with. And now it’s being hijacked. The same thing is going on in other Middle Eastern countries. And so I think religion could play a huge role in that sense.
And that’s not the only angle here, because the clergy in Iran are very, very active in whatever’s going on—they have been for 150 years. We need a split within the conservative clergy, and for a portion of these guys to come over to the democratic movement. Some already have. We need to isolate the hard-rightist, proto-fascist clerics, and we can’t do that ourselves—only other clerics can isolate them. These guys are extremely dangerous, because they use populist language, and they have a lot of supporters, and people are willing to give their lives for them. And so religion could be very important in the context of combating this mass mobilization and mass deception by the extreme-rightist clerics.
In fact, one reason that the Green Movement was not just bathed in blood two years ago was because it was consciously using religious language. It’s very hard for ordinary supporters of the regime, and many in the security forces, to kill fellow Muslims. When somebody says, “Allah is great,” and you kill him, it’s not that easy. You wonder if you’re going to be punished by God.
JE: What has the relationship historically been between the labor movement and the clerics in Iran?
HP: Not too cordial. The labor movement is a modern phenomenon. It comes with industrialization and the factories. The clerical establishment comes from medieval times. It hasn’t changed a lot in the past 1,000 years. So the two look at each other with an innate suspicion, especially because the secular-left Marxist groups always based themselves on the labor movement, and many clerics consider them anti-religious. But one great thing about this Green Movement is that it’s breaking down the old barriers and boundaries. So between the labor movement and the democratic movement, everybody’s now open to new avenues and new ideas. So I imagine many clerics on the Green Movement side are now very keenly interested in the labor movement, and vice versa.
JE: NILA has suggested that a strong labor movement could “lead and unify the country.” How so?
HP: Iran is only half Persian. The rest are ethnic and religious minorities. Everything’s just going down the drain for them, just like everywhere else in the country, but they also suffer doubly because they’re of a different ethnicity, and many of them are Sunnis and not Shias. So there’s a lot of religious repression against them. And especially in Kurdistan and Balochistan and perhaps even Khuzestan near Iraq, where Arab Iranians live, the illegality of the government and its human rights record is even worse than in the rest of the country. So there is a serious possibility of total disintegration of Iran if the central government weakens. If we have a powerful labor movement, which would have a Kurdish component, a Baluch component, and so on, this would help to keep the country from falling into different autonomous or independent republics like what happened in Yugoslavia or many different countries in the former Soviet Union. Had there been powerful unified labor federations in these countries, I think it would have made it harder for these radical nationalists to go their own way. So that’s one important factor.
The other factor is that we do stand for a multi-ethnic form of democracy, because it’s to our advantage. This is our hunch, that the labor movement is an important factor reinforcing national unity rather than lots of tension among ethnic groups.
JE: Was that your experience in organizing your own workplace?
HP: Yes. Sure, ethnic divisions are there, but less so than on the street, because people working together, day in and day out, have to learn to live together, and not to have constant tension. So that by itself forces less ethnic animosity.
JE: When Ahmadinejad was elected the first time, he was described in a lot of the press as a populist candidate. Was he perceived that way in Iran, and should he have been?
HP: Well, he is a populist, but populism in my opinion is not necessarily a positive trait. Because you can have populism of the right and populism of the left. Ahmadinejad is really a genius in what he does, mobilizing from below with his popular rhetoric, which is just demagoguery, but he’s very good at it. And he’s been very successful, around the world he’s been very successful. Many people who feel disadvantaged in the global order for whatever reason have developed some sort of a sympathy for Ahmadinejad. So that’s one of the dangers when you get a lot of people who are suffering from injustice: they could just as well go behind demagogic platforms as behind democratic platforms, in the absence of genuinely democratic forces.
JE: What do you want to see the U.S. government do or not do?
HP: I know Obama’s policy with the labor movement has been pretty bad here [in the United States], and with health care, from what I’m reading, it’s disappointing. But I think his policy with regard to Iran hasn’t been too bad, because unlike George W. Bush, he hasn’t had a very provocative policy toward Iran, and in fact he has been really restrained. The Iranian government is acting far more aggressively toward the United States than vice versa.
Obama is staying away from giving too much support—even moral support—to our movement, because if he does that, that’s very scary, because that makes it easier for the government to clamp down very heavily. So I think that’s a good decision. We don’t think it would help us at all if Obama gave lots of even verbal support. So the best support the U.S. government can give publicly is no support. Go after this regime with sanctions—we are all for it. And no military intervention of any kind, because this regime craves it. It would be a real shot in the arm for this regime if there is any sort of military threat to it, let alone bloodshed.
JE: So what do you think will happen next in Iran?
HP: It’s impossible to predict. It’s really crazy because we’ve got dozens of power centers vying for influence. It could go quite well or it could go frighteningly awfully, depending on how we get our act together, and what the foreign influences do or don’t do. So it’s really impossible to judge at this moment. But knowing this regime, we can assume that it’s not going to sit on its hands while the entire edifice is falling apart, which is what’s happening now. Everybody in Iran expects things to get worse before they get better. As long as it gets better, people are willing to take the suffering that comes with it.
For example, just about everyone in the democratic movement and in the organized labor movement groups are quite happy with the sanctions, and they wish they would hit the regime harder, just like South Africa. So that shows the extent of the gulf between the people and this regime. People are so incensed and so offended by this regime and its whole being that they’re willing to suffer in the short term—as long as they think that at the end of the tunnel is a ray of hope.
Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a union organizer based in Philadelphia. He received his MA in political science from Yale. He blogs at josheidelson.com.