February 2005 marks the 26th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. In 1979, the Iranian people threw off the yoke of U.S. imperialist domination in a mass upheaval. This was the biggest defeat for U.S. imperialism in the years after the Vietnam War. The Iranian revolution changed the political landscape in the Middle East.
Today, Iran remains one of the few countries in the region not run by a U.S. client regime subservient to American corporate and strategic interests. For this, Iran endures almost constant threats and pressure from the U.S. government.
The U.S. would like nothing more than to resubjugate Iran. However, a rich history of struggle and revolution makes this imperialist objective both difficult and daunting.
CIA coup brings repression
The background to the 1979 Iranian revolution can be traced to Aug. 19, 1953—the beginning of a dark period in Iran’s history. On this day, the CIA carried out a coup that overthrew the popularly elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, a bourgeois nationalist, and installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi as an absolute monarch. This ended a vibrant political period of tremendous growth in grassroots organizing by various political parties. The most powerful and best-organized was the Communist Party—the Tudeh Party.
CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt, masterminded the plot, called Operation Ajax. It involved recruiting right-wing generals and organizing bands of thugs who staged street riots and attacked the parliament. The generals arrested Mossadegh and declared martial law. Communists and nationalists were arrested en masse. Thousands were tortured and executed.
The coup was a double victory for the U.S. Not only were communists and other progressive forces crushed, but the U.S. also managed to turn Iran into its own semi-colony. The coup snatched control of Iran away from Britain, its imperialist rival.
From 1953 until the 1979 revolution, the Shah’s loyalty to the U.S. remained unwavering. The Shah’s support for Israel went far beyond that of other U.S. client states of the region.
Iran also policed the region for the U.S. It was a dependable source for oil and a haven for foreign capital penetration.
After the coup, independent trade unions and student and women’s organizations were not tolerated. In the mid 1970s, the Shah dissolved the two establishment political parties and founded the Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party, making membership mandatory for all Iranians.
The Shah’s instrument of political repression was the dreaded SAVAK, Iran’s secret police. Trained by the CIA and the Israeli Mossad, the SAVAK was infamous for its ruthless methods. In 1976, Amnesty International concluded that the SAVAK had “the worst human rights record on the planet.”
In the quarter century between the coup and the revolution, opposition forces fell into several camps. There was legal and semi-legal opposition led by the “Freedom Movement,” composed primarily of secular national bourgeois elements associated with the deposed Mossadegh government.
On the left, the Tudeh Party was unable to reorganize into a major force under the repression, despite having hundreds of thousands of former members and sympathizers. In 1971, an anti-imperialist guerrilla campaign was launched. Numerous small organizations waged armed struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship. The most influential were the Marxist-Leninist Fadaiian and the secular Islamic Mujahedeen (MKO).
Another camp was the Islamists, led by radical Shiite clerics. This movement gained prominence after street protests in 1963, which resulted in the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini.
A decisive advantage that the Islamists had over secular forces was the access they enjoyed to the pulpit in mosques. While other forces had to risk their lives to have their voices heard, the clergy could speak to the masses in their mosques, relatively unimpeded by the SAVAK.
The 1979 revolution
On Dec. 31, 1977, President Jimmy Carter visited Tehran. He reassured the Shah that the U.S. supported his regime. Carter called Iran “an island of stability” in a troubled region. Not long after this visit, the revolutionary energy of the masses began to explode.
A turning point in the revolution came on “Black Friday”—Sept. 8, 1978. That day in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, tens of thousands of angry demonstrators refused to observe the newly imposed martial law. In response, the military opened fire on the demonstrators, killing thousands.
This turned out to be the last large-scale slaughter by normal military units.
With street demonstrations growing as large as two million people, the armed forces were won over to the side of the masses. The military rank and file and many officers refused to open fire on protestors. Iran’s dreaded military suddenly ceased to function as an instrument of repression.
The Shah hurried to make political concessions. He imprisoned his long-serving prime minister and implemented reforms.
The revolutionary masses, however, would not settle for reforms. Along with massive street demonstrations, industrial workers engaged in strikes. The oil workers’ strike in winter 1979 sounded the death knell of the regime. The Shah fled, his regime collapsed and Khomeini took over as the undisputed leader.
The clergy and class struggle
Today, Iranian media outlets propagate the notion that the primary function of the Islamic Republic is to ensure the rule of Islamic principles as interpreted by the clergy. This claim feeds a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of many who dismiss the Islamists as reactionaries. They believe the Islamists want to take Iran back to the seventh century and that their opposition to imperialism comes from a reactionary position.
The growth of industry in Iran’s huge metropolitan centers disproves such notions. A true understanding of society is reached by an analysis of its class forces. Religious convictions of the rulers, no matter how fanatic, cannot explain their political discourse with respect to the relations of production and class struggle.
In “The Peasant War in Germany,” Frederick Engels explains how class struggle can manifest itself in religious forms. “In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time.”
For centuries, most Shiite clerics in Iran were an appendage to the ruling class. Islam provided divine justification for feudal exploitation. When the clergy were not part of the state, they were closely tied to it.
From the 1906 Constitutional Revolution through the 1953 coup, most of the clerical establishment sided with the ruling class. A minority, however, joined the revolutionary side. Likewise, between 1953 and 1979, most of the clergy remained loyal to the Shah.
Shiite clerics yearn for the bygone era when they enjoyed much greater social influence before capitalist relations pushed them to the side. This forms the material basis for clerical unity on socio-cultural issues along reactionary lines.
But as the modern history of Iran illustrates, the clergy is far from a homogeneous stratum. It is pulled in different directions by class forces.
In 1963, Khomeini, a junior in the clerical hierarchy, gained fame by taking a courageous stance against the Shah’s despotism. It was not Islam or his reactionary social positions that made him popular. He spoke for the lower stratum of the petty bourgeoisie and the urban poor whose survival was threatened by the rapid growth of capitalist relations under the dominance of U.S. imperialism. Most clerics were not forced to line up behind Khomeini until months before the revolution.
The revolution led to the demise of many prominent clerics, once allies of the comprador bourgeoisie—that sector of the capitalist class most tied to U.S imperialism.
Viewing the clergy as a solid political bloc fails to explain such developments. Conflicts among clergy are manifestations of class struggle. Despite their proclaimed unity, different clerics are affiliated and allied with different social classes. Cleavages among their various factions often result in splits along class lines during crises.
After the fall of the Shah, a de facto coalition was formed between the radical clerics and the secular Islamic factions of the national bourgeoisie. Mehdi Bazargan, a leading veteran of the “Freedom movement,” headed the provisional government. But Khomeini was the real leader of the revolution and its supreme authority.
In a hastily called referendum shortly after the revolution, 99 percent of the Iranian people voted for the establishment of an Islamic Republic.
A power struggle ensued between the different forces that overthrew the Shah. The ruling coalition omitted the anti-imperialist guerilla organizations from state power. In the dark years of tyranny, the heroic struggle of the guerilla organizations anchored the movement. This explained their popularity among students and white-collar workers.
While genuinely promoting working class interests on some issues, left forces in this period were heavily comprised of students and middle class cadre. Their appeal remained largely limited to the same layers.
One of the major demands of the Iranian revolution was political freedom, violently suppressed under the Shah. On this count, the Islamic Republic leadership has failed to deliver.
The new state had a revolutionary society organized in various political parties.
In 1981, the secular faction of the ruling coalition was forced out along with President Bani Sadr. The Islamic Mujahedeen MKO called for a mass uprising, staged armed street demonstrations, and assassinated some of the regime’s top officials.
Many forces on the left, already facing violent repression by the regime, reluctantly joined the MKO. They failed to recognize that the Bani Sadr-MKO coalition was to the right of the Islamic Republic. This is more evident today. The MKO currently is informing the CIA about purported nuclear weapons manufacturing plants.
After the 1981 uprising, the Islamic Republic unleashed a bloody campaign of terror. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned. The most brutal forms of torture were routinely exercised. Tens of thousands were executed.
Within two years, the repression reached the forces on the left supportive of the regime.
The election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 resulted in a liberalization of censorship, increased individual freedoms and a loosened enforcement of mandatory dress codes for women.
Factions of the Islamic Republic
Even after the purge of secular statesmen, the Islamic Republic continued to be fragmented.
The strongest faction, led by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, represents the mercantile bourgeoisie and the traditional manufacturing sector. A fierce defender of capitalist property relations, this faction pursues policies of economic nationalism. It is unwilling to give the reins of Iran’s economy to transnational corporations and is, accordingly, anti-imperialist.
The left faction of the clergy bases itself on the class interests of the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie. It advocates price controls, subsidies to aid the poor, and restrictions on the operation of capital. During the war against Iraq in 1980-88, the government led by this faction kept class differences in check through state subsidies and food stamps for basic necessities.
The right faction, represented by the Association of Combatant Clergy and elements like former head of parliament Nateq-Nouri, promotes free market policies and limiting the role of the state in economics. Within the right, some favor opening the Iranian economy to foreign capital.
Another major demand of the revolution was economic justice. Only communist leadership pushing for socialization of the means of production and the abolition of capitalist relations could have met this demand. But the left never re-established itself due to ruthless repression by the Shah.
Nevertheless, within the confines of capitalist relations, the Iranian masses made substantial progress in realizing this demand.
Unlike most oppressed nations, Iran’s resources are not open to imperialist plunder. Considerable industrial growth has been accomplished on the basis of independent economic development. Iran trades extensively with South Korea, China and imperialists like France, Germany and others. Foreign firms sell products or technology, but are restricted from exporting capital and extracting super-profits.
Despite widespread corruption and mismanagement, the policies of economic nationalism coupled with Iran’s considerable resources have improved living standards for the poorest layers of society. The proportion of the population living under the poverty line has fallen from 47 percent in 1978 to 15.5 percent today.
Substantial gains also have been made in public welfare and health.
Conditions have improved for the rural population and the urban poor. The infant mortality rate has dropped from 91.6 per 1000 before the revolution to 26 per 1000. Life expectancy is now 69.8 for males and 71.5 for females, compared to 59 and 63 before the revolution. There are now nearly three times as many physicians per 1000 as there were 20 years ago.
In addition, literacy rates for boys and girls are now almost equal. Over 50 percent of the 700,000 college students are female. (UN Development Program Report, 2001)
On the 26th anniversary of the revolution, the Iranian masses continue their struggle for social justice and political freedom.
They are faced with two grave dangers from abroad. One is the threat of U.S. invasion, which is more serious now than at any time in the past. The other is non-military forms of imperialist intervention—bringing about so-called “democratic change” as the U.S. did in the former socialist bloc.
The U.S. seeks to roll back the gains of the revolution and install another client state to serve its interests in the region.
Progressives around the world must defend the people of Iran from these dangers.