How Israel Helps the Islamic Republic of Iran Control the Iranian Working Class

by John Spritzler

January 7, 2006



Israel is for the Iranian ruling clerics what Osama bin Laden is for the American ruling plutocracy: a very useful enemy against whom one pretends to fight in order to gain domestic legitimacy despite attacking one's own working class.

Because the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the countries in George W. Bush’s "Axis of Evil," and because its government condemns Israel in no uncertain terms and praises the Palestinian resistance to Israel, the Iranian government would seem to be on the right side of the major issues in the world, especially in the eyes of those who know that the American and Israeli governments are agents of racism and oppression.

Certainly the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown by the Iranians in the revolution that brought the current regime to power, was an enemy of the people if ever there was one. One would therefore expect the new regime to be a friend of the people.

Yet despite all of these reasons for expecting the Iranian government to be a friend of the people, it is not. The Iranian government is an anti-working class government.

The Iranian Government is Anti-Working Class

Independent trade unions are illegal in Iran. Nonetheless, Iran's oil workers, public transport workers and textile workers have been defying the government and waging strikes and other large actions over such basic demands as simply to be paid the wages they are owed and to bargain collectively. When the workers make such demands, the Iranian government attacks them.

We in the United States generally don't hear about the class conflict inside Iran; all our corporate media want us to know about is Iran's nuclear aims and its opposition to Israel, not the raging class war that goes on within Iran. There are reports, for example, of Iranian government attacks on oil, textile and public transportation workers. But these reports don't make it into our establishment media. Here are excerpts from some of them:

Oil Workers

17 February, 1997

Workers launched strikes yesterday in Iran's four oil refining centres, according to Iranian emigre organisations. The groups said the strikes in Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz and Tehran are in protest at the arrest of hundreds of oil workers and their elected representatives in Tehran yesterday, during a picket of the oil ministry. Workers in the Tehran oil distribution department, on the oil pipelines and in the national gas company have also joined the strike, the groups claim.

Iran has now outlawed all oil workers' organisations and refused the workers' demand for collective bargaining, the exile groups report.

[T]he oil workers are involved in a direct confrontation with the Iranian regime. They are protesting against their working conditions, the level of wages and for the right to form a workers' organisation.

Today, 16 February, 1997, around 2,000 oil workers and their representatives, accompanied by many other workers of associated industries, held a picket in front of the Tehran oil ministry and demanded to speak to the oil minister. Iranian 'Revolutionary' Guards were called and quickly surrounded the area. They gave warning shots into the air to deter others from joining the oil workers' protest.

Later, the government and the Revolutionary Guards brought many buses to the scene, arrested several hundreds of oil workers and their representatives and others. Tonight, at least until2100hrs. (Tehran time), they went to workers homes and made arrests. They were taken to a prison, but it is not known which one.

 25 Aug 2004

Ganaveh,  – Government buildings in this major oil terminal and Persian Gulf port were still smoldering this morning after day-long clashes yesterday between several thousand protesters and security forces.

Trouble started when a large crowd gathered outside the governor’s office to protest against the planned transfer of the local hospital to the nearby town of Borazjan. When officials in the governor’s office refused to give in to their demands, angry young men began chanting slogans against the governor and clashed with local police.

The confrontation quickly turned violent and protesters seized the governor’s office. Across the town, protesters attacked government buildings, including the mayor’s office and the customs department, and set fire to police vehicles.

A dozen demonstrators were injured in the clashes, as anti-riot units of the State Security Forces came to the aid of the local police. Security agents beat up the protesters with truncheons and fired shots to disperse the crowds. Dozens of protesters were arrested and taken for questioning.

Unrest in the strategically-located Ganaveh, a major oil terminal, has alarmed Iran’s theocratic leaders, as it inevitably aggravates the grievances of oil workers and their families in southwestern Iran. Despite stringent measures to prevent any protest in the sensitive oil and petrochemical sector, oil workers have staged several strikes and protest actions in recent months.


Textile Workers

Wed 2 Nov 2005

In a show of solidarity, yesterday (1 Nov) 300 workers of Kurdistan Textile Company forced the authorities to release their representative, Mr Farshid Beheshti Zad, after warning to break off all talks.

In the negotiations that followed with the full team of six workers’ reps, the management and government officials said they would meet all the demands except payment of wages for the strike period. However, the workers are insistent on this demand and a general assembly of workers is due to meet today, Wednesday, to decide on the next course of action.

Since 24th September several hundred workers of Kurdistan Textile Company, located in the outskirts of the city of Sanandaj, in western Iran, have been battling the management and police in support of a series of demands.

A strike committee of workers has set out the demands as ranging from payment of overdue wages, withdrawal of arbitrary contracts, reinstatement of sacked workers, job grading and annual health checks to improvement in health and safety, payment of a minimum wage of $550/month for sacked workers and return of money (already deducted from salaries) to the workers’ co-op credit fund.

Since the start of the strike, the management has used the security forces to try to break the strike. Last Monday Captain Javad Akbari and 12 other officers entered the factory and read out the names of 10 workers who were to be arrested as ‘trouble makers’. The workers frustrated their attempts by collectively identifying themselves as the named workers and booed the security forces out of the plant. Throughout the strike the workers have held regular general assemblies to add strength to their action.

In January the workers of this company led a successful 16-day strike, receiving widespread support in Iran and internationally.

Here is part of an interview that puts the textile workers strike, described above, in a larger context:

Bahram Soroush: Probably the reason we are hearing a lot from the textile workers’ strikes – and there have been a number of them – is because of the privatisation and the contracting out that is taking place in that industry. Actually, that is one of the issues uniting a lot of the sectors in Iran. The workers are afraid that the government and the employers are turning all contracts into temporary, often three-monthly, contracts, which is leading to a tremendous deterioration of the conditions in terms of job security, pay, benefits and protections. So the workers are taking a lot of strike actions around that issue and also on the issue of non-payment of wages, or overdue wages, which is an acute issue. If you bear in mind how low the level of workers’ pay in Iran already is, which even with overtime work is not enough to eke out a living for many workers’ families, you can imagine the disastrous consequences of that.

The workers of Foomenat Spinning and Weaving Company in northern Iran have not been paid for 11 months! The workers were holding a protest assembly in front of the factory when riot police savagely attacked them, resulting in a number of injuries, with some workers ending up in hospital with broken limbs. We know that the Iranian regime has done that previously, and its record is one of killing, torture, imprisonment of workers and workers’ leaders, the smashing of labour organisations, etc., in its 25-year existence. The difference is that now the regime finds itself on the defensive. So the security forces quickly denied that they had attacked the workers and said that in fact they cared for workers! Of course, they talked rubbish, because the evidence was there, but what’s important is that now they have to go on denial from the next day. The workers are continuing with that fight. That incident has received widespread coverage in Iran and led to outrage among the people. The Foomenat workers have said they intend to sue those responsible for the attack.


Public Transit Workers

January 5, 2006

The December strike action was the culmination of a series of collective actions taken by public transport workers. In October, drivers on the public routes refused to collect tickets from passengers in protest at their working conditions and low wages. Wage rates for all transport workers have been frozen for the last four years while the prices of basic commodities have soared in Tehran. Transport workers have now threatened to call an indefinite strike action if their leadership is not released.

The mining and automobile workers unions have pledged to join this battle. The Tehran workers have received messages of support from, amongst others, workers of the oil and petrochemical industry of Khuzestan, the Shaho textile company, the Kermanshah Metal & Mechanical Workers’ Association, the Iran Khodro car plant, and the Kurdistan Textile company.

The heavy repression exercised by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonstrates the increasing pressure his regime is coming under. While Ahmadinejad makes rhetorical challenges to Israel and the US on the international stage, his populist domestic promises to represent the poor and workers have proven so far to be false. Instead of the improvement of social and material conditions, his regime has enacted restrictions on Western music and fashion while wage stagnation continues. This increasingly unpopular regime is now relying on its security apparatus to suppress dissent and maintain order.


January 29, 2006

According to the independent interviews with the union’s activists and other sources from Tehran, over 700 members of the Syndicate of the Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company and a number of supporters are still in custody following the brutal use of police and the company’s security forces on January 28th. According to an interview with Mr. Yaghoob Salimi, an alternate board member of the Syndicate, the Evin prison was full with jailed workers. Mr. Salimi himself was not arrested during the strike but the security forces raided his home and arrested three women and five children including his wife and his 12 and 2 years old daughters. The release of his wife and children was conditional upon Mr. Salimi turning himself to the police, which took place on the same day. In an enormously emotional interview, Mr. Salimi’s daughter revealed that her mother and other two women were badly beaten by the security forces, the 12 year-year-old was pepper-sprayed in the eyes and her two year old sister was terribly beaten in such a way that her face got badly bruised.

The government brought the military personnel and buses to the City in addition to thousands of security and armed forces as well plain cloth officers that were dispatched to suppress the strike. According to a statement by the Syndicate, many drivers were beaten, threatened and forced to drive buses. According to other sources, about 30 arrested workers have been seriously injured and required immediate medical attention and some had to be transferred from prison to the hospital. The jailed workers in Evin prison have decided to go on hunger strike and the union is deciding about its next move. As the Company’s CEO had vowed to fire all striking workers, there are reports that the company and the government authorities are forcing some workers to sign a "penitent statement" in order to be able to return to work.

More reports on this strike are here and  here and here. The web site of the Tehran bus drivers' union is here. Their web site is mostly in Farsi but some is in English, and there are photographs. The bus drivers' union proclaims there: "Long live the solidarity of the workers of the world! Victory to peace, freedom, democracy and social justice throughout the world!" A detailed description of the bus drivers' strike is contained in a five page letter by Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and David Cockroft, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), online as a pdf file at . An announcement by the Tehran busdrivers' union itself is online at For anybody who can read Farsi, there's a photgraph of a letter, online at, from the Iranian President of The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company which includes: "Since then many workers of Vahed Bus Company have been jailed, fired and beaten up. Authorities even jailed wives and husbands of some workers and cut their wages during industrial action on February and March 2006."


How Does the Iranian Government Get Away with Attacking its Own People?

The Iranian government, as the reports above show, is using violence against its own working class population. The real conflict within Iran is between the ruling elite, which is trying to maintain the inequality of a class society, versus a working class trying to make a more equal and democratic society. In order to stay in power the Iranian authorities need to hold onto enough public legitimacy to counter the tremendous opposition to the regime based on self-evident and close-to-home working class concerns. The Iranian government's legitimacy rests, primarily, on two things: 1) its claim to be enforcing the will of God, which, supposedly, the ruling clerics  know better than ordinary Iranians, and 2) its claim to being a valuable ally of the Palestinian people against Zionism and its U.S. ally.

The ruling clerics may have some clever arguments that purport to show that God doesn't want workers to be able to go on strike for decent pay and working conditions, or to form a union to act in solidarity, and that God wants workers who do these things to be thrown in prison and beaten, but somehow I doubt that such arguments alone would confer enough legitimacy on the Iranian rulers to provide a long-term basis for their rule and their attacks on Iranian workers. More is needed.

What else is there? During the Iran-Iraq war the government was able, quite easily, to persuade the Iranian population that its rule was legitimate on the grounds that it was leading the nation in a war of self-defense against Iraq. But with Iraq now decimated, the Iranian government cannot play that card.

Fortunately for the ruling clerics, the "anti-Zionism" card is still in play. The Iranian ruling elite drape themselves in the flag of anti-Zionism because they know that anti-Zionism is, rightly, something that their population supports as a fundamental moral principle of solidarity with oppressed Palestinians. Anti-Zionism confers legitimacy in the Middle East like nothing else can.

Solidarity with oppressed people is such an important source of legitimacy for the Iranian government (or any government!) that it is incorporated in Iran's Constitution. Article 154 of the Constitution says:

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has as its ideal human felicity throughout human society, and considers the attainment of independence, freedom, and rule of justice and truth to be the right of all people of the world. Accordingly, while scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations, it supports the just struggles of the mustad'afun [the poor or oppressed--J.S] against the mustakbirun [arrogant and powerful--J.S] in every corner of the globe."

Thus, while ferociously attacking the Iranian working class, the government of Iran appeals for support on the basis of its supposed solidarity with the Palestinian working class. Here's one example of how it does this within Iran.

Wed. 19 Jul 2006

by Farhad Pouladi

TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran has launched a major campaign urging consumers to stop buying "Zionist" products, ranging from Coca-Cola and Pepsi soft drinks, to Calvin Klein clothing and Nestle food products.

"Pepsi stands for 'Pay Each Penny to Save Israel", viewers in the Islamic republic have been warned in an oft-repeated three-minute infomercial on state television, prompted by Israel's ongoing assault against the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

The Iranian government's recent conference on the Holocaust was obviously designed to cast Iranian leaders as the foremost champions throughout the entire world of the anti-Zionist cause.

If the Americans forced Israel to stop its ethnic cleansing and allow Palestine to become a democracy where all were equal regardless of their religion, and Zionism were defeated and relations between Jews and non-Jews in the Middle East were normalized to be like relations between whites and blacks in South Africa after the abolition of Apartheid, then the Iranian rulers would no longer have the "anti-Zionism" card to play. If Muslims throughout the Middle East were living in harmony with Jews and Christians, and if the United States, the "Great Satan" against which Ayatollah Khomeini rallied people behind him, were no longer viewed as oppressors because (we are imagining!) they truly were not oppressing people, then the Iranian rulers would have a far more difficult task to maintain their legitimacy while at the same time attacking Iranian workers. Arguments about the "will of God" can only accomplish so much.

This is precisely why Iran's rulers privately must bless their lucky stars for the fact that the United States does what it takes to keep Israel strong and invincible. If it weren't for Israel having an immensely powerful military with nuclear weapons, then the Iranian government would be terribly embarrassed before its own population by its failure to militarily attack the Zionists and remove them from power. Their anti-Zionist rhetoric would ring false. But with Israel armed to the teeth, the rhetoric is effective.

There is a tacit alliance between all anti-working-class regimes in the world, be they, on the surface, pro-Muslim, pro-Christian or pro-Jewish. These regimes use their supposed conflict with each other to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their own people. Understanding this tacit alliance makes it possible to understand events that would otherwise be paradoxical. The Iran-Contra deal between Reagan and Israel and the Ayatollah Khomeini is one example. Israel's secret funding of Hamas is another.

Israel performs an extremely valuable role for the U.S. and other ruling elites by strengthening anti-working class regimes in the Middle East. Israel's ethnic cleansing and blatant racism against Palestinians does something that anti-working class Muslim regimes need very much: it polarizes the Middle East along non-class lines: Jews versus non-Jews. Arab rulers are enabled by this polarization to cast themselves as the champions of "their people" against Zionism, and thereby deflect attention from the fact that, when it comes to real actions and not just rhetoric, they attack their own people day in and day out.

It is precisely because Israel helps Middle East elites remain in power, and keep the oil wealth in the hands of the world's elite club of international corporations and local upper class rulers, that the American plutocracy--Gentiles as well as Jews--supports Israel. The rulers of "anti-America" Iran as well as the Saudi Royal family allied with the U.S. understand this. The fight against Zionism is either going to be won as a fight of working people around the world for the working class values of equality and democracy and solidarity against elites with the opposite values, or it will not be won at all.


John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


Back to "World At War"

Other articles by this author

This article may be copied and posted on other websites. Please include all hyperlinks.