As Iranian workers went out in remarkable numbers for May Day, a new dispute over some small islands in the Gulf shows that despite apparent progress on the nuclear question a new source of tension has been found. Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran reports (first published in the Weekly Worker).
A week can be a long time in politics, but in Iran it can seem more like a year.
Last week, as news agencies were reporting rumours of the regime’s possible retreat over its nuclear programme, the price of gold dropped on the Tehran exchange market – a clear sign of reduced tensions between western powers and Iran. The factional fighting of recent years also seemed to belong to the distant past, as figureheads of various factions of the regime, including those arch enemies, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the current incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attended the meetings of the National Expediency Council. They even managed to smile for the cameras in a pre-arranged photo-shoot.
However, then came news of another conflict in the Persian Gulf – this time between Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries on the other. Arab and US media reported that the Peninsula Shield Force, the military coordinating army of the GCC, had been carrying out military manoeuvres to “test harmony and coordination among ground, air and naval forces and their readiness”.
The military exercise was seen as a response to Iran’s continued occupation of three islands in the Gulf – the tiny Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb islets, near the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, that was seized in 1971 by the shah after British forces left the region. Abu Musa, the only inhabited island of the three, was placed under joint administration in a deal with Sharjah, now part of the United Arab Emirates. They have since been a bone of contention with the UAE, which claims sovereignty over them.
While the dispute seemed to have been forgotten for most of the decades since, in the last two months the UAE has been mounting increasingly vocal demands for the return of their territory – with the backing of the GCC and the Arab League. This, of course, has brought an angry response from the Iranians, who vowed to “crush any act of aggression” and prompted a visit to Abu Musa by Ahmadinejad a few weeks ago. In Tehran the rumour is that even the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was not aware of the trip before it took place – on the eve of the international nuclear talks.
After Ahmadinejad’s trip to Abu Musa, the foreign minister of the UAE recalled its ambassador to Iran, claiming that it amounted to “flagrant violation” and an “occupation”. But things did not end there. The UAE succeeded in convincing the other Persian Gulf states to support it and the GCC issued a statement condemning the visit.
No-one can be in any doubt that the renewal of this dispute after 41 years is a pretext for a much wider conflict between Iran and the leaders of the Persian Gulf states, who nowadays are taking a prominent role in opposition to the Islamic Republic. The Gulf emirs are convinced that Iran is seeking to harness the forces unleashed by the Arab uprisings in order to destabilise their own internal control and, rather than wait for events to overtake them, have clearly decided to use the dispute over the islands as a lever to ramp up their hostility towards Tehran.
Of course, it is unlikely that the Gulf states will go to war with Iran. However, they have become an integral part of US plans for regime change in Damascus and Tehran. One option they are certainly taking up is increasing their support for groups opposing the Syrian and Iranian regimes. But, as the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris try to vent their frustration with Tehran on Syria, they will almost certainly provoke Iran to adopt retaliatory measures. But over the last two weeks, without waiting for such a response, the US mainstream media have been portraying the dispute as yet another example of Iran’s ‘irresponsible warmongering’.
Most Iranians believe the issue of the ownership of the islands has surfaced now as part of the campaign to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. They do not believe the Emirates’ claims to be acting independently in this matter.
As most of the world was concentrating on elections in Europe, the second round of polling for the Islamic parliament, the majles, took place in Iran. Results declared on May 5 showed the Iranian president’s support crumbling, with ultra-conservative rivals consolidating their hold on the majles. Ahmadinejad’s supporters won only 13 of the 65 seats contested in the May 4 vote, further reducing his power base in the 290-seat legislature. The president’s opponents won 41 seats and this follows the victory of Khamenei loyalists in the first round of voting in March, when they had already secured an outright majority.
On the day the increase in that majority was announced, conflict between the president and the majles reached new heights, as the ‘integration committee’ rejected Ahmadinejad’s proposal to increase revenues from subsidy cuts – a move which could effectively block the implementation of the second stage of the subsidy ‘reform’ plan.
Ahmadinejad had presented the draft of the national budget bill for the Iranian year beginning on March 20 on February 1, in which it was proposed that the revenues from subsidy savings would be increased from about $44 billion to $110 billion. And last week the government decided to suddenly remove controls on energy prices to complete the implementation of the subsidy ‘reform’. The majlis voted to say this decision is illegal because it runs counter to the agreed ‘reform’, which allows for the subsidies on fuel, electricity and certain goods to be cut over the course of five years. Too deep, too fast. Majles speaker Ali Larijani started legal action against Ahmadinejad, at the same time as two complaints were sent to the judiciary, accusing the government of “incurring irreparable damage” to the economy by violating foreign exchange laws, “at a time when the country faces numerous sanctions”.
Clearly the short-lived peace between various factions of the Islamic regime, forged by the supreme leader, has already broken down – with serious implications for the president.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged India to do “even more” to cut its purchases of oil from Iran to keep up the pressure on that country to prove its nuclear programme is peaceful. As a result of sanctions, drugs for cancer, heart disease and several other ailments are now in short supply, according to the ‘reformist’ daily, Shargh. The shortage is the result of international sanctions against the Islamic republic, the implementation of subsidy cuts and foreign-currency exchange-rate fluctuations that Iran has experienced in recent months, claimed the newspaper. Supply of the affected drugs has reached “worrying levels”, it said.
However, the conflict is not restricted to infighting within the regime. This year, Iranian workers participated in a surprisingly large number of May Day protests – some organised through activist networks, and many more occurring within industrial complexes. After hearing of similar protests elsewhere, workers demonstrated outside the gates of their workplaces demanding action over low wages, non-payment and lack of job security. All these issues have been compounded by sanctions. Many workers held up placards saying “We are hungry”.
A small, impromptu gathering took place in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. According to reports by the Free Union of Iranian Workers, on May 1 hundreds of workers congregated in that city chanting, “We are workers, we are hungry”, and “Workers’ solidarity”. Other signs read: “Bread, housing, liberty” and “Imprisoned workers should be released”.
May Day 2012 will be remembered as the day Iranian workers managed to raise their voice despite the difficult circumstances they face – not just in terms of the appalling economic conditions resulting from sanctions and the regime’s attacks, but also under circumstances of an increasingly repressive religious capitalist dictatorship. For Hands Off the People of Iran this means redoubling our efforts in solidarity with Iranian workers, to make sure their voice is heard above all the talk of war, sanctions and territorial recriminations.