‘Prepare for back-breaking strikes’: Iran energy workers take action as protests against regime widen

Videos showed workers chanting ‘death to the dictator’

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Monday 10 October 2022 19:40 BST
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Petrochemical industry workers strike in Iran

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Labourers at a major Iranian petrochemical plant in the country’s south went on a wildcat strike on Monday in solidarity with a nationwide protest movement sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of morality police. It’s the first sign that weeks of unrest are reaching the nation’s most crucial sector.

In a dozen videos uploaded to the internet, workers at the petrochemical industrial zone in the Persian Gulf coast city of Assaluyeh could be seen gathering, chanting slogans against regime Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and closing off roads. There were also reports of a strike at a refinery complex in Abadan, in the country’s oil-rich southwest.

“These strikes were in response to previous calls during the last two days and in support of the massive protests of the people,” the Iranian Council for Organising Protests by Oil Industry Contract Workers said in a statement posted to its Telegram channel.

“Informed and bold oil workers will not be silent and passive in the face of the suppression and killing of people and will protest together and in unison with the people.”

The statement called on other workers in the petrochemical industry to join the strikes.

“Now is the time to protest widely and prepare ourselves for nationwide and back-breaking strikes,” it said. “This is the beginning of the road, and we will continue our protests together with the people of the whole country every day.

Videos showed workers chanting “death to the dictator” and calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“The workers have gone on strike and closed the highway,” a narrator says in one video, which shows smoke rising from the complex and labourers milling about on a road.

The strike comes after a harrowing and fiery two days of widespread protests across the country led by women and young Iranians enraged by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, attempts by the regime to downplay it, and a subsequent violent crackdown that has left at least 185 more dead, including teenage girls and boys.

Morality police take down the name of a detained woman during a crackdown on ‘social corruption’ in north Tehran
Morality police take down the name of a detained woman during a crackdown on ‘social corruption’ in north Tehran (Reuters)

The anger over Amini’s death and the dress codes imposed on women has fused with widespread discontent over the economy and politics that has been building up since 1999, when regime forces began harshly cracking down on a nascent reform movement. Protests have swelled over the years, especially in 2009, but rarely have they built the momentum that they have achieved over the last several weeks.

Protesters have been calling for strikes for days, and although schoolteachers, university professors and some shopkeepers have closed up, labour actions have not spread to crucial industrial sectors.

The Assaluyeh petrochemical zone stretches for miles along the coast of the Gulf and includes numerous firms and plants, many under the thumb or outright ownership of the regime and others that are joint projects with foreign companies. It remained unclear whether the strike on Monday was targeting a specific firm or all of them. The entire region’s economy is centred around the extraction and refinement of natural gas.

Exports of LPG produced in part at Assaluyeh reached an all-time high in August despite sanctions making them a key source of revenues for the Iranian government.

“For Iran’s economy Assaluyeh is of essential importance,” said Homayoun Falakshahi, a senior energy analyst at Kpler, an international business data firm headquartered in Brussels. “The natural gas reaching those plants goes into the country’s grid and it’s of essential importance especially ahead of the winter months.

In addition to political concerns, some workers may have been further angered by non-payment of wages for two months, according to the workers’ association. Strikes in Iran’s crucial oil and petrochemical industries in the late 1970s crippled the regime of the deposed late monarch Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi and led to the revolution which put fundamentalist Shia clergy in power in Tehran.

Iranian students from the Faculty of Arts at Tehran’s Azad University participate in a protest with their palms covered in red paint
Iranian students from the Faculty of Arts at Tehran’s Azad University participate in a protest with their palms covered in red paint (UGC/AFP via Getty Images)

The apparent strike in Abadan was reportedly at phase 2 of a refinery project that is in collaboration with China’s state-owned Sinopec.

Labour action in Iran’s energy sector could have global repercussions. Assaluyeh lies next to South Pars/North Dome natural gas field, considered the world’s largest, and a strike could impact energy prices at a time when Russia’s war against Ukraine has already rattled markets.

Mr Falakshahi said disturbances to Iran’s gas sector may have a minimal impact on global energy prices, but that could change if strikes spread to the oil sector, in which Iran produces about 1 per cent of global exports. “Right now you mostly have traders scratching their heads and trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “But it could still have a huge impact if it spreads to the oil side.”

The protests in the wake of Amini’s death on 16 September, have already badly impacted Iran’s economy. The stock market plummeted on Sunday, and the country’s telecom ministry has said that internet shutdowns meant to stifle protests have cost it a third of its revenue.

On Monday, Iran’s foreign spokesman demanded that the west do not link ongoing talks over the nuclear programme to the ongoing political unrest, which he derided as “fake news”.

A video displaying a masked figure, which interrupted an Iranian state television live news broadcast on Sunday
A video displaying a masked figure, which interrupted an Iranian state television live news broadcast on Sunday (UGC/AFP via Getty Images)

He said that Iran’s domestic affairs are “related to the government and people of Iran”, urging the United States, Canada, and the European Union, which have all taken recent action against the regime over the protests, not to interfere.

Meanwhile, Iran’s hardline judiciary chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, known for advocating the airing of forced confessions on television, falsely accused protesters of burning Korans and killing people, even as he said he welcomed criticism and reform. “We accept criticism and protest, and if there is a place where we have made a mistake we will definitely welcome that,” he said.

Meanwhile, protests and acts of public defiance and civil disobedience continued across Iran on Monday for the 25th day. Videos posted online showed high school girls and university students protesting in Tehran, Isfahan, Karaj, the heavily Kurdish areas of the country’s west, and the country’s north near the Caspian Sea.

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