Translator’s Note: Sohrab Behdad is the coauthor with Farhad Nomani of Class and Labor in Iran: Did the Revolution Matter? (Syracuse University Press, 2006). Below is the translation of an interview with him conducted by Ms. Mahindokht Mesbah of the Persian Language Deutsche Welle Radio on June 16, 2010. This translation was published by Tehran Bureau(http://to.pbs.org/bxvLSd)on July 11,2010.*
The Green Movement and its Claim to Transcend Class
Translated by Frieda Afary
Deutsche Welle: The subject of our interview is the place of the working class in the Iranian protest movement known as the Green Movement. It seems that workers and laborers have not participated in the protests of the past year, at least not under their own independent banner. It seems that they have been potential, but not actual, participants in the movement. Do you concur with this view?
Sohrab Behdad: To some extent. However, one has to ask how workers can be discerned among the ranks of the protestors. It seems that the distinguishing marks being applied are obsolete. We have to acknowledge that the image of the Iranian working class is no longer the traditional one. Many are educated and young. Their attire and demeanor are no different from those of the middle class. The traditional image of a worker is that of a person who wears a greasy outfit and has a gaunt face.
Another issue is the lack of labor slogans within the Green Movement. The reason for this lack is that the protests have revolved around the right to vote, elections, human rights, and freedom. It is not true that workers have not participated in these spontaneous movements.
The next issue is that working class demands do not have the possibility of being directly manifested in the society. On the one hand, the present political situation has limited workers through suppressing their organizations. On the other hand, the leaders of the Green Movement have not yet expressed a strong interest in raising their issues.
The very fact that the question has been raised and is being asked by you reveals the fact of workers’ presence in the movement. It is not true that there has been a lack of participation by workers per se. However, it is clear that labor issues have not found an organic expression in the slogans of the Green Movement.
DW: Some say that the labor movement in Iran has always been secular and that it has not joined the Green Movement because the Green Movement’s leading figures are straddling the fence between religion and secularism.
SB: This is not true. The Green Movement is essentially secular. The issue is that Iranian society is in search of democracy and social justice. However the movement has not gone beyond the democracy-seeking stage so far. Its leadership has paid less attention to the question of social justice.
DW: Do you think the continuation of the Green Movement will enable it to represent labor issues after it has passed through the current political demands?
SB: That is inevitable. The Green Movement cannot succeed unless it raises social justice demands, which include workers’ demands at the center. During the Khatami era, Reformists failed because they did not take the demand for social justice seriously, and did not make efforts to organize social forces. When there were disturbances in Islamshahr [a working-class city near Tehran], Reformist newspapers paid them no attention. Reformists better have learned from these experiences.
DW: You referred to the reform period. Some labor representatives say that the disappointment of workers with the eight years of reform has made them indifferent to the comings and goings of this or that [leader], and that the workers do not wish to pay a heavy price without getting results.
SB: I question the identity of these representatives and the validity of their statements. On May 1 this year, ten workers’ organizations issued a statement. In addition to specific labor demands, they demanded the abolition of the death penalty and the abolition of discriminatory laws against women. These are the slogans of the Green Movement.
DW: I’m glad that you mentioned slogans that go beyond class. Some say that the Green Movement does not have a class origin, and hence it is incorrect for it to raise the demands of this or that sector or class.
SB: This statement can be simultaneously correct and demagogical. To speak of going beyond class is like saying “hameh ba ham” [“All together!” — a slogan of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ]. It signifies doing away with the demand for social justice. It violates social justice.
DW: Another view is that the income gap and the economic and social status gap between the middle class and workers is narrowing on a daily basis, and that a kind of proletarianization is evident in this [middle] class.
SB: Precisely! This has taken place in Iranian society during the past 30 years. This very issue reveals that social justice is also very important to the middle class. Iranian office workers are in fact laborers who have become white collar. The issue of social justice is very important to them as well. That is why it needs to be addressed.
For the Green Movement to say that it is opposed to corruption will not bring about the realization of social justice. Throughout the world, corruption exists and punishment for it also exists. The movement has to raise specific demands that are relevant to changing the living and working conditions of the laborers.
DW: Many also say that if workers join the movement and a general strike takes place, the movement will be complete. How objective is this view, which takes its example from the last months of the Pahlavi regime? After 30 years of repression and the use of force, do the proper context and means for a general strike by workers exist in our society?
SB: A large portion of Iran’s workers work for the government, the Pasdaran [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], and the foundations. In Mr. Karroubi’s words, we cannot speak of freedom for workers in a society in which the employers are the Pasdaran. We need to speak in terms of the existing reality in Iran. At this time, the possibility and context [for a general strike] do not exist for the working class.
What we need to realize is that if the current economic situation worsens, and the “plan for targeted monetary subsidies” is enforced, the buying power of millions will decrease. This will have repercussions.
DW: Is it possible to predict what will happen? If the situation worsens, will there be wider protests with a stronger message from the people?
SB: The social dynamic cannot be predicted so easily. In the above case, protests will certainly increase. There will be greater dissatisfaction. However, it will not necessarily lead to violence and riots. We cannot predict the form that the dissatisfaction and protest will take. The form of social protests depends on the character of organizations, concerted actions, and the maturity of the leaders and representatives of the social currents.
* For another important analysis of the Green Movement and Iranian labor struggles, see “The Green Movement Awaits an Invisible Hand” by Dr. Mohammad Maljoo (http://www.merip.org/mero/mero062610.html). An earlier interview with Sohrab Behdad concerning his book Class and Labor in Iran can be found at http://iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com/2010/02/class-and-labor-in-iran-interview-with.html