England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

1979: Iran’s stolen revolution

With the revolutionary events in Iran inspiring working class people across the world, we look back at the events of 1979, when workers and the oppressed could have taken power.

By Paul Moorhouse

In October 1971, a cavalcade of red Mercedes limousines wound across Iran’s parched plains ferrying guests to a modern “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. This was a luxury ‘tent city’ alongside the ruined ancient capital Persepolis. Crowned heads of state, and other dignitaries, supping food and wine flown in from Maxim’s Paris restaurant off 10,000 Spode china plates, toasted ‘‘His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Shahs (King of Kings), Light of the Aryans”, as the latest in a line occupying a “Peacock Throne” dating back 2,500 years to Cyrus the Great.

Huge poverty

Not only did this conspicuous consumption jar with the lives of the 44% of Iranians struggling below the poverty line, but the Shah’s claim to dynastic antiquity was entirely bogus. Barely 7 years later, a revolutionary wave forced Reza II to flee Iran on 16 January 1979. The Iranian masses razed the tented city to the ground and toppled his father’s monumental statue in Tehran, leaving only the stumps of his boots.

Factory owners and directors, particularly from foreign multinationals, fled alongside the Shah, courtiers and the hated SAVAK secret police. Workers stepped in to continue production and preserve their jobs. Shurahs, democratic councils forged during the uprising, took control of workplaces especially in Iran’s powerful oil industry. “We snatched freedom. We won’t lose it soon”, one oil worker told a reporter in April 1979, describing this ‘dual power’.

The Shah’s state had crumbled, SAVAK’s 15,000 agents, torturers and network of informants vanished into thin air. The soldiers of the world’s fifth largest army, which consumed 31% of the budget, even the hand-picked ‘immortals’ of the Shah’s personal guard, simply refused to continue firing on unarmed crowds. Power to change society lay in workers’ hands.

To protect the liberty ‘snatched’ through these struggles the Shurahs needed to extend workers’ control beyond the perimeter of individual workplaces, constructing a nationwide democratic workers’ state in place of the Shah’s autocratic rule. Instead, over the following months and years power was stolen back. The Islamic Republic restored capitalist relations, establishing the theocratic repression which provoked the current uprising of women, national minorities, workers and youth.

UK and US imperialist interests

Understanding this tragedy and avoiding similar defeat for today’s uprising, requires learning the lessons of the Iranian masses’ struggle to escape the grip of Western imperialism. Although nominally ruling an ‘independent’ Empire, the 19th century Qajar dynasty, overthrown in 1921, became increasingly subordinate to British military and economic power. In 1890, Shah Nasir al-Din granted Britain a monopoly ‘concession’ controlling the growth, sale and export of tobacco. A widespread tobacco boycott forced Nasir to repudiate this two years later.

This revolt was underpinned by a powerful alliance between small market traders and Shiite Muslim clerics, surviving to this day. Ayatollah Shirazi issued a fatwa forbidding tobacco use in 1891, This defeat did not, however, prevent Nasir’s successors granting Wiliam D’arcy an oil exploration concession in 1901 and his Anglo- Persian Oil Company (now BP) a production monopoly eight years later.

Crushing the ‘Persian Socialist Soviet Republic’ established in the NE province of Gilan, in 1920- 21 and inspired by Russian Revolution meant ceding military control of much of the country to British troops commanded by General Ironside, who masterminded the 1921 coup, seeing Reza Khan as a ‘safer pair of hand’ to protect British interests.

However, Pahlavi’s rule could not guarantee imperialism a smooth ride in an era of national and colonial liberation. Pressured by the traders and religious leaders, and the small, but powerful, and growing, working class, Reza made repeated legal and diplomatic attempts to re-negotiate the oil concession. In 1941, British troops again invaded Iran and deposed Reza, replacing him with his son. Reza junior, however, was no more capable of stemming popular resistance.

‘Democratic revolution’?

The communist movement, despite repression following the Gilan Soviet, grew during the 1930s and 40s. Its semi-legal face, the Tudeh party, founded in 1944, was reported by police to have tens of thousands in its youth and women’s organisations, and hundreds of thousands in its unions. The Tudeh, however, was hidebound by adherence to the Stalinist ‘theory of stages’, arguing that Iran was not yet ‘ready’ for socialist revolution, so workers should limit themselves to supporting the ‘national bourgeoisie’
in carrying through a ‘democratic revolution’.

The Tudeh leadership fixed on the traders and religious leaders to play this role, initially barring women from joining to avoid upsetting conservatives. Tudeh was further hamstrung by subordination to Moscow’s foreign policy, at a time when the Red Army’s standard was sullied by invading Iran in alliance with British imperialism!

Instead it fell to the weak and indecisive liberal National Front government of Mohammed Mossadegh, under pressure from striking workers, to nationalise the oil industry, briefly forcing the Shah into exile, in 1952. Britain responded with sanctions and, with the US Central Intelligence Agency, engineered a coup the following year to restore Pahlavi rule.

Independent working class strategy lacking

Tudeh, now Iran’s largest party, lacked the independent class strategy needed to mobilise resistance from either its half-million strong labour front, or its supporters within the army, The price for failure was heavy. Mass arrests, torture and the execution of some 50 party leaders destroyed Tudeh inside Iran for a generation. The exiled leaders, increasingly dependent on the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, muted criticism of the Shah in deference to their sponsor’s geopolitical interests which saw USSR’s President attend the Shah’s 1971 junket.

This further underlined Tudeh’s impotence. Diplomatic window-dressing on the Shah’s part aside, the 1953 coup had reduced the Shah to a mere lapdog of US imperialism whose power was entirely thanks to US military help and funding. In the 1960-70s, Iran was Washington’s principal policeman in the Middle East – a role inherited by the Israeli state after 1979.

In return, the US supplied Pahlavi’s burgeoning military apparatus with the latest tanks, planes and weapons, equipping and training the torturers of SAVAK, founded in 1957. The Shah’s dependence on this formidable repressive force was grimly confirmed by renewed uprisings in June 1963.

The imperial guard’s orders to ‘shoot to kill’ unarmed protestors, reaped an official toll of 380 dead and injured. Countless more were buried secretly by SAVAK, or hidden for fear of reprisals.

The June events were triggered by the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’, agrarian and social ‘modernisation’ launched to strengthen agricultural and industrial capitalism. Socialist Alternative’s predecessor Militant explained in 1979 that:

“Apart from the destruction of the traditional peasantry, industrialisation was achieved at an enormous cost to the rapidly expanded urban working class, forced to live and work under atrocious conditions. Modernisation, however, extended the Shah’s lease. Dragging Iran’s feeble capitalists into the 20th century, the monarchy largely pre- empted the economic programme of the National Front, thus cutting away much of its support.”

Popular anger

With the Front and Tudeh sidelined or silenced, Iranian popular anger in 1960s and 70s found expression and leadership through the one available channel: the clerics, epitomised by the man whose arrest provoked the June demonstration and who engineered the clerical counter revolution after 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini. From a family of small landowners, bazaaris and clerics, Khomeini’s sermons against the White Revolution called the Shah a “wretched, miserable man”, predicting ‘‘the people would offer up thanks for his departure from the country”.

Khomeini’s intransigence under threat of execution, under house arrest, and (from 1964) in exile defended the feudal interests of his caste. However, he spoke in terms of ‘equality’, borrowing progressive-sounding phrases from the Quran, which appealed to newly landless peasants plunged into the slums of the cities and other oppressed layers. They flocked in their millions to greet Khomeini when he returned from exile in February 1979, 13 days after the Shah fled.

Eleven days later, the Imperial army declared ‘neutrality’ and the Shah’s interim prime minister, Shapour Bhaktiar, resigned in favour of Khomeini’s nominee Mehdi Bazaargan. Khomeini and the clerics did not make the revolution, it was made by the workers, women and youth, on the streets, in markets and universities, and above all, organised in the Shurahs.

It was their power, not Khomeini’s sermons that paralysed and destroyed the Shah’s formidable apparatus of repression. Khomeini merely inherited their revolution, with the declaration of the Islamic Republic and, in August 1979, the establishment of a theocratic ‘assembly of experts’ to draw up a constitution, his fundamentalist clerical party deliberately set about dismantling the revolution, albeit in its own name.

Errors of the left

Tragically he was assisted by the Tudeh and other left forces, particularly the Fedayeen guerrillas, who despite being courageous activists, had run terrorist campaigns with little if any impact on the state for much of the 1970s. The public space created by removing repression and censorship allowed the Tudeh to revive as a mass party, with its daily paper reaching a circulation of 240,000.

However, Tudeh had learnt nothing from its previous Stalinist errors of clinging to the incorrect ‘theory of stages’, declaring “anti-imperialist forces are active under the leadership of Khomeini. That is why the Tudeh of Iran are behind Khomeini”. As a result, it gave left cover to the counter- revolution. The Fedayeen turned away from guerilla warfare, but were convinced by Tudeh that Khomeini represented ‘progress’. Their leaders joined the Tudeh in government before Khomeini turned on them both.

A revolutionary party, by contrast, would have fought for Shurahs to become, like the Russian soviets in 1917, democratic organs of workers’ state power. Instead the Tudeh persistently undermined them, arguing to build trade unions instead. We need unions to protect our interests and negotiate with the bosses in capitalist society, but what earthly use is a union when your boss has fled the country and you already own and manage your workplace?

It was part of the Tudeh’s counter-revolutionary support for Khomeini which led them away from supporting the demonstrations against imposition of the hijab on 8 March, International Womens Day. They refused to resist when Khomeini increased repression in the 1980s, even going so far as to denounce Amnesty International’s call to end summary executions as “blatant interference in Iranian affairs”.

This uncritical support allowed Khomeini and the Mullahs room to roll back the revolution, as Militant explained in 1989:

“Failure of the left to lead the independent movement of the workers allowed the mullahs to dominate. An ageing cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, became the spiritual and political leader. The mullahs had an aura of opposition to the Shah. But their opposition was primarily to the Shah’s industrialisation and modernisation. Potential for socialist democracy existed but the Tudeh dissolved itself into Khomeini’s movement. As the revolutionary energy ebbed, the mullahs moved against the workers’ committees. They mobilised the urban poor, the many thousands who had flocked to the cities from the countryside but could not be absorbed by industry. These became the mainstays of the Revolutionary Guards who dealt with strikers, worker activists and finally, despite their cheerleading for the mullahs, the left.”

The need for a revolutionary socialist alternative

The price of this failure was twofold: in 1982, at least 10,000 Tudeh militants and supporters were imprisoned and tortured, many suffering the very summary executions Tudeh had defended. The Islamic Republic knew their identities because the CIA provided their names. Washington and Tehran united in their hatred of socialism, just as the US and France had sponsored Khomeini’s earlier return to Iran, as a last card to prevent a successful socialist revolution.

A far greater price was paid by two generations of Iran’s workers, youth and women – especially the national minorities – in the form of oppression, economic crisis, poverty and eight years of bloody war against Iraq. The new movement awakening in Iran provides the opportunity to avenge this defeat but only by learning the lessons of the past. This is the task that International Socialist Alternative in Iran and across the world is committed to: building the forces of revolutionary socialism.


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