The Iranian Judiciary has condemned several labor activist during recent weeks to unusually long-term imprisonment and up to 148 lashes.
Esmail Bakhshi who represents Haft Tappeh Sugar Mill workers has been sentenced to 14 years in jail and 74 lashes, while civil rights activist Sepideh Qolian was sentenced to over 19 years in jail and several others received sentences of 18 years for protesting about unpaid wages or supporting those who protested.
Others, including journalists and photographers have also received unusually long-term prison terms.
But why is the head of the Iran’s Judiciary, hardliner cleric Ebrahim Raeesi confronting labor activists as well as other civil rights activists with an iron fist?
The first reason for such a treatment appears to be ensuring Raeesi’s own political future. The iron fist against labor and civil rights activists as well as selective and limited confrontation with financial corruption is to remind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hardliners, such as the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), that he can be "the savior of the Islamic Republic" in the coming years. Khamenei is 80 years old and the day when he will depart might not be too far in the future.
With a background of being involved in the mass execution of prisoners in the 1980s Raeesi is trying to portray himself as a powerful man who does not mind using ruthless violence in order to protect the Islamic Republic. He is telling the hardliners that they can count on him as their savior when things get worse.
Raisi is being talked about in Iran's clerical and political circles as a potential candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader. The other candidates are said to be Hassan Rouhani, Sadeq Amoli Larijani, and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi among others including Khamenei's son Mojtaba.
As a candidate for succession, Raeesi sees his iron fist as an advantage over the other contestants for leadership and may want to use this advantage as a winning chip.
On the other hand, strong and harsh measures against labor activists carry a message from Raeesi and his Judiciary system to industrialists, and particularly to privatized companies "sold" to powerful and well-connected regime insiders, that he will serve and protect their interests against unhappy workers who are fed up with discrimination and miserable economic conditions.
In some cases, workers have been demanding to get ownership of factories and companies as shareholders. After all, they argue these state-owned assets have been “plundered” through corrupt privatization schemes.
The Islamic Republic is in particular against the idea of handing over privatized companies to workers or returning their ownership to the government. Instead the government keeps insisting on “selling” more state-owned companies and factories to the children of powerful clerics and military men to buy their loyalty.
At the same time, through harsh treatment of activists, Iran is telling international and regional powers who want an end to the Islamic Republic or change its behavior that the regime is powerful enough to suppress dissent and there is no alternative to the Islamic Republic in Iran.
The final message of the Judiciary's iron fist against the opposition is to prove that the wave of widespread protest demonstrations by underprivileged Iranians that swept across over 100 Iranian cities in late 2017 and early 2018 has been crushed and will be prevented in the future.
The denial of a powerful protest movement comes while several Iranian officials including Khamenei have warned against a "new sedition" in 2019 as the country's economic crisis worsens as a result of financial corruption, mismanagement, inefficiency of government institutions and, of course, U.S. sanctions. Currently, the cost of living is five times the minimum wage.
In the meantime, continuous labor unrest in Iran is no longer simply a defense mechanism by unions. They are now better organized and last longer, sometimes for months, like the cases of Bafq miners, Haft Tappeh Sugar Mill workers and Ahvaz steel workers. Slogans heard during labor protests such as "Death to the dictator" are increasingly more political.
The Islamic Republic's concern for its future and its fear of a possible repetition of widespread, nationwide unrest can help Ebrahim Raeesi to present himself as the savior of the Islamic Republic and get himself closer to the seat of the Supreme Leader.