By Edward Carney
On Monday, the high-profile strike by steelworkers in the city of Ahvaz entered its 38th consecutive day. On that day, IranWire reported that the protesters had heard “a response” from security forces in the form of a new round of mass arrests, perhaps the largest and most indiscriminate of its kind since the strike began. The bulk of the raids in this case reportedly took place overnight, and were carried out in absence of warrants, as is commonplace in instances of politically motivated arrests.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, at least 32 individuals were arrested at their homes or in the streets for participation in labor rights organizing. IranWire adds that at least two individuals were arrested for taking part in protests wherein they demanded the release of those who have already been detained.
This reflected an overall increase in the number of arrests being carried out in the streets as the Iranian regime struggles to gain control over the Ahvaz strike and other worker protests. At least one representative of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps confronted protesters on Monday to deliver a threat of further arrests and “security action.”
Yet there was no immediate indication that these threats or the preceding rates had had a dampening impact on the protests. Quite to the contrary, IranWire reported that the latest arrests “triggered a wave of support from workers, students and teachers across Iran,” while HRANA noted that workers from at least five government-owned corporations had begun their own protests. These demonstrations stem from the same familiar issue of unpaid wages stretching back over a period of months – a situation that puts ever-greater strain on a working class population for which poverty has long-since reached epidemic levels.
Iran Human Rights Monitor has published three distinct reports on this topic over the course of about a week. One such report indicated that roughly 80 percent of the country’s entire population has been consigned to poverty as a result of the previous 40 years of government mismanagement and corruption. Another indicated that this situation now contributes to the deaths of 10,000 infants per year, on average, or 8.27 infant deaths per 1,000 births.
The IHRM reports also indicate that the overall problem is steadily worse, with the recent relief from international sanctions under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal having no recognizable impact for ordinary Iranians. According to one report, there has been a 22 percent increase in the number of people living under the poverty line in the capital city of Tehran alone. Another simply makes the general observation that recent price increases have made people, including members of the middle class, poorer.
The non-payment of wages, combined with currency devaluation and price hikes, continues to amplify the trend of labor strikes and economic protests, even in spite of concerted efforts by Iranian security forces to suppress those activities. One IHRM report indicates that in the one-week period between October 26 and November 2, at least 127 strikes and protests were recorded as taking place in various Iranian cities. Some of these, such as a truck drivers’ strike spanning 75 different localities, are still ongoing in one form or another.
Many Iranian dissident voices, such as those associated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, also connect these protests actions to the nationwide uprising that began with the expression of economic grievances in the final days of 2017. Maryam Rajavi, the President of the NCRI, issued a statement last March calling attention to that uprising and insisting that it should be the starting point of a “year full of uprisings” leading to the ouster of the theocratic regime.
This broader political context encourages some observers to connect solidarity in the economic sphere to solidarity with all manner of Iranian activism that is taking place against the backdrop of workers’ strikes. And of course the latest crackdown on labor rights activism is made more alarming by its proximity to other instances of government repression, some of which have proven fatal.
On or just before December 12, for instance, the Iranian political prisoner Vahid Sayadi Nasiri was pronounced dead due to the effects of a two-month hunger strike that had been effectively ignored by regime authorities.
On Monday, Iran Human Rights issued a statement calling renewed attention to that death and calling upon the international community to regard it as grounds for urgent action to demand improvement in the conditions of Iranian prisons and to safeguard all Iranian prisoners of conscience, whose numbers have swelled in the wake of crackdowns such as those on the Ahvaz steelworkers.