30 years after the Iranian revolution
A World to Win News Service.
This February marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The Islamic Republic of Iran that came to power in 1979 claims that revolution was a great victory, but many Iranians would not agree.
As the revolution gained momentum in the final months of the old regime, more and more people had braved the monarch’s army and his vicious and notorious secret police (SAVAK). By overthrowing the Shah, one of U.S. imperialism’s most brutal pawns, the people made history. Certainly they were hoping to win a new and better world. But if revolution means the liberation of the masses or at least responding to the political and economical interests of the people as a whole, the result was no victory at all.
In January 1979, the Shah and his family fled the country, most likely following instructions from Washington. As arranged beforehand, Shapour Bakhtiar, a so-called nationalist, became Prime Minister, hoping to reduce or halt the escalation of the mass revolt. But Bakhtiar could not withstand the storm of revolution either. After less than a month, he, too, had to run away.
The forces and struggles that made the revolution possible
The Iranian people, women and men all over the country, of different nationalities and various religions and none, and from different classes, were taking part in the revolution to express their hatred for the regime and its imperialist backers. The majority of people and political groups were reluctant to talk about the differences in their views. All the people seemed united to topple the Shah. But what followed next?
The anger of the people was the accumulation of decades of deprivation, repression and oppression. For decades people had fought and resisted.
Oppressed nations within the country were deprived of their right of self-determination. In 12 December 1945, after the Second World War, the Kurdish people led by Ghazi Mohammad declared the “Democratic Republic of Kurdistan”. The Azeri people under the leadership of Jafar Pishevary declared the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. The Shah’s army crushed these new republics exactly one year later on 12 December 1946 and massacred many thousands of people.
The years 1949-1953 were a high point for the people’s movement. Movements of workers, peasants and students were blooming, and taking organisational forms. In many cases these rising mass movements were organised by the Tudeh Party. (This party supported the then-socialist Soviet Union at that time, but it was reformist, not communist. However, because of its support for the USSR, many communists and revolutionary masses joined it. Later when revisionists within the Soviet party brought back capitalism in a disguised pseudo-socialist form, the Tudeh Party backed them.) That was the first time that the Shah had to run away.
Maybe the Shah’s biggest crime was the coup he waged in 1953 with the full financial and political backing of the U.S. and the UK and their respective intelligence services. This coup overthrew the government of Mohammad Mossadegh, a nationalist prime minister who fought to nationalise Iran’s oil industry, at that time under the control of British imperialists. Thus the Shah’s come-back on 19 August 1953 was one of the darkest days of the 20th century for Iran. Mossadegh and many of his supporters and ministers were arrested; some were executed. A reign of reaction and terror swept the country. Political activists were identified, arrested, tortured and in many cases executed.
But the struggle of the people did not end. Four months after the coup, on 7 December 1953, Richard Nixon, the U.S. vice president at the time, came to Iran to oversee the consolidation of the Shah’s regime. Students demonstrated massively against the visit, and the Shah’s security forces murdered three of them. This date was named Students’ Day. Subsequently every year on that date students protested against the Shah – a tradition of demonstrations on that day that still continues. The student movement was one of the most important, active and effective movements against the Shah’s regime and it became even stronger in late 60s and 70s. An active movement of Iranian students outside the country also sprung up after 1962. The Confederation of Iranian Students abroad played an important role in spreading the struggle against the Shah outside the country, and had a major impact inside as well. What was most significant about this student movement was its generally leftist character and in particular the attraction of many students to communism.
The struggles of the people of Iran during the 1960s took a new leap under the influence of revolutionary movements and other political trends in the world and in particular China, Vietnam and Cuba. Within this new movement a vital struggle arose to discard the reformism that was dominant within the Iranian movement during the preceding decades and adopt a revolutionary orientation. In turn, this radical movement among university students and other youth had an influence on the workers and other movements also arising at that time. By the 1970s, radical organisations devoted to armed struggle to overthrow the Shah were emerging from every corner of the country in an unprecedented way.
The rise of the Islamic movement and the hijacking of the Iranian revolution
Clergy and religious leaders with strong ties to feudalism had always been a powerful force within the ruling classes. This was the case during the 1953 CIA-backed coup too. Ayatollah Kashani, an influential cleric at that time who sided with the Shah against Mossadegh, was one outstanding example of this. ………
But the alliance between the clergy and the Shah began to crumble during the early 1960s when the Shah introduced what he called the “White Revolution”. This was the kind of reform plan that the U.S. had devised and sponsored under different names in many places in the third world in order to allow global capital to further penetrate the economies and traditional cultures of these countries. The White Revolution included a certain amount of land reform and some limited rights for women. This was aimed at breaking with some boundaries of traditional practices and as a result reducing the power of certain sections of the ruling classes, especially the most traditional and theocratic section of the feudal forces within the ruling power. The Ayatollah (chief cleric in the Shia hierarchy) Ruhollah Khomeini became the leader and voice of these conservative and traditional forces who opposed the Shah and his reforms not from a forward-looking anti-imperialist perspective but from a backward and reactionary position. When the Shah sent Khomeini into exile in 1962, this further boosted his status as a religious leader.
During the radical struggles in the late 60s and all through the 70s, the reach of Khomeini’s voice was limited to a certain section of people – the traditional conservative section of society. As the revolutionary mood acquired momentum and the various movements were building up towards the 1979 revolution, there was little sign of Islamic forces. But the situation changed as February 79 approached.
The Shah took a vicious approach towards the communists and other revolutionary forces. His Savak tortured and murdered many of them. The various communist organisations could survive only by staying underground, and even so many people were arrested and murdered. Although they grew anyway, these harsh conditions hindered their ability to take root broadly in society. At the same time, the clerics were using the religious beliefs and backward traditions embedded in the society to influence the masses and they used the mosques in every neighbourhood and village to organise them. The U.S. and other Western imperialists who hated the genuine communists and also were in contention with the Soviet bloc were promoting religious ideology in countries such as Iran to use against their rivals, the social-imperialists (socialist in word, imperialist in deed). Compared to the leftist radicals, the Islamics had a freer hand.
Another major factor in weakening the left and creating a favourable situation for the Islamic forces was the fact that after the death of Mao Tsetung, capitalist roaders of the kind already in power in the USSR staged a coup in China. This was a massive setback for the world communist movement. Its impact became even worse insofar as it left many communists disoriented or even enthusiastically welcoming this new version of adopting capitalistic politics and ideology in a pseudo-socialist guise.
All these factors converged in creating a situation where the religious forces overtook the revolutionary forces. In the last few months before the revolution they were able to take the leadership of the people’s movement, then start to compromise with imperialists and abort the revolution at the last minute.
While the revolutionary youth and masses were fighting the Shah’s army and seizing army garrisons on 8 and 9 February 1979, Khomeini’s representatives were busy negotiating with American officials in different ways and through different channels. (See the article on the Guadeloupe Conference in AWTWNS 26 May 2008.) At the same time the clerics in Iran were trying to stop the revolution by saying, “Khomeini has not yet ordered the jihad (holy war).”
This is the story of how the Shah’s regime was toppled, a revolution was stolen and, the bourgeois comprador and feudal classes remained in power, and continued to oppress and exploit the masses of people in many ways more harshly than the Shah, and kept the country within the network of the world imperialist system.
New oppressors of the people of Iran
As soon as the Islamic forces under the Khomeini leadership came to power, the first thing they did was to seek to systematically repress and eliminate those who made the revolution possible.
Less than a month after the revolution, many women realised they had been trapped by an anti-women regime. In fact, they were the first target of the new Islamic government. On 8 March 1979 they held an historic demonstration protesting against the regime’s obscurantist measures, including forcing them to cover their heads and restricting their rights and roles in the society. Tens of thousands of women chanted, “We did not make the revolution to step backward” in the streets of Tehran. But the regime saw the oppression of women as a pillar of its rule. Any loosening of these restrictions endangered its survival, and so it pressed ahead in this direction.
The Kurdish people, who like other minority nationalities had long struggled against the Shah’s regime, were also among the first to be targeted by the new Islamic rulers. Communist organisations had extensive influence in Kurdistan, and this region was a centre for the continuation of revolution. Thousands of revolutionaries all over the country went to Kurdistan to support and take part in that struggle. After some scattered battles and conspiratorial moves to take control of Kurdistan, finally on 19 August (the anniversary of the Shah’s coup) Khomeini gave the order for jihad that he had refused to give during the most tumultuous days of the revolution against the Shah. The target of this jihad was the Kurdish people. This started a war between the Khomeini regime and the Kurdish people and the revolutionary organisations fighting in Kurdistan that was to last for several years. The regime used the same extreme violence against other minority peoples such as the Turkmen, Arabs and Balochi people in the month after it seized power.
As the oppression of women and the war in Kurdistan continued, the regime planned to crush the student movement, another stronghold of the radical left. In the name of a “Cultural Revolution” aiming at the Islamisation of the universities, it unleashed the armed seizure of the campuses by the Hezbollah (religious fanatics who serve as unofficial regime thugs). Despite heroic resistance by the students, the Hezbollah, with the support of more professional new armed forces (the Pasdaran, so-called Revolutionary Guards), took over the universities and closed them down for more than a year. The Khomeini forces, mainly concentrated in the Islamic Republic Party, started to purge the progressive and revolutionary professors, lecturers and students. With the Islamisation of the universities, they hoped that the student movement would never rise again.
But this was not the end of the counter-revolutionary practices of the Islamic regime. Finally, after inflicting so many blows to the revolution, on 30 June 1981 Khomeini and his gang believed that the time was ripe to inflict a deathblow.
Thousands of revolutionary communists and other revolutionary forces, many of them known revolutionaries who had fought against the Shah’s regime and spent years in prison and under torture by the Savak, were arrested and executed in a matter of a few months. This repression continued in an intensified way throughout the country all through the 80s. During that period, tens of thousands of revolutionaries and communists were executed. Many more imprisoned and went through physical and psychological torture. Finally, in the summer of 1988, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of political prisoners who had survived the earlier executions and tortures were killed without trail or after trials lasting only a few minutes, in order to put an end to the “problem” of political prisoners.
The regime’s declaration of victory was in fact a declaration of the death of the people’s revolution.
What went wrong?
Today, after three decades when tens of thousands of communists and other revolutionaries have been imprisoned, tortured and executed, when even the graves and families of many of those revolutionaries are not left in peace, communist and revolutionary organisations are banned. The masses have been denied the most basic political rights. Women, half of the population, are oppressed as a gender. They are forced to cover themselves with the Islamic veil and are treated as worth half a man. The minority nationalities have been denied the right of self-determination. The economic situation is deteriorating; poverty is increasing. Drug addiction is more common than at any time in the country’s history. The Iranian people have paid dearly for the abortion of the revolution by these reactionary cliques. Instead of moving toward their own emancipation and that of humanity from the imperialist world system and the whole capitalist order of exploitation and oppression, the people are at least as much crushed as ever and the country as a whole is even more economically dependent.
But the question still remains: what went wrong? Why was the revolution defeated? Why are the masses of people whose heroic struggles made the collapse of the Shah’s regime possible going through so much suffering? Why were the revolutionaries and communist forces that had been at the forefront of the struggles against the Shah for decades defeated by the new rulers?
These questions can and must be looked at from many angles, but one important lesson from that revolution stands out at this particular time.
As mentioned earlier, all the sections of people were united under the slogan of “Down with the Shah”. This was not wrong in itself, but what was wrong was that the more conscious forces and especially the communist forces limited themselves to that. They ignored the fact that different class forces and antagonistic interests were temporarily grouped together behind this slogan. Every political trend saw its goals summarized in the slogan “The Shah is a fascist, he must go.” There was little clarity about what would happen beyond that. Many revolutionary forces shared those short-sighted views to various degrees, or when they made an attempt to go beyond that, did not persist. As a result, instead of struggling to seize the opportunity presented by a great historical conjuncture, in practice the revolutionary communists followed the thieves of revolution until they themselves became the target of the reactionaries. The ideological reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article. In a word, the communist outlook was compromised. The reactionary Islamic forces were able to do more than use the advantages that society itself and the imperialists gave them. They were also able to neutralise the most radical forces and as a matter of fact to impose their own leadership on them.
This lesson has important implications for today, when the communists are not in a position of strength. Some trends on today’s international political scene call on the people and revolutionaries to ignore ideological differences – different world outlooks and opposed goals – and just support the Islamic fundamentalists against the U.S. This not only covers over the nature of such reactionary forces, but also pushes the people under their leadership. The results of such an approach today would not be any better than what happened to the people of Iran. This is a prescription for trapping the people once more.
However the good news is that despite so much oppression and suppression and suffering, the class struggle has been going on in Iran and has intensified especially in the last decade. Women never stopped their struggles in various forms and a women’s movement against open and legal discrimination has emerged. Despite the brutality against the student movement, the movement has re-erupted in the last decade, producing a major challenge to the Islamic regime. Workers have been trying to form unions and fight for basic rights. In a word, the class struggle is intensifying, while at the same time the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite contradictions, has been trying hard to find a place in the world imperialist system for the reactionary interests of the classes it represents. So the struggle is still going on, and the people cannot afford to repeat the mistakes they made in the last revolution.
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