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Iranian Revolution of 1979; one public review
نوشته شده توسط سیاوش شهابی در Saturday 28 April 2018

[nextpage title=”next” ]On 11 February 1979 Tehran radio announced the victory of the Iranian revolution with feverish jubilation. This report marked the end of the 2,500-year-old monarchy. In a wave of ecstasy, the populace rushed into the streets en masse. Women milled through the crowd handing out candies and sharbat (sweet drinks). Drivers sounded their horns in unison, flashing their lights as they drove down the main streets that had been the scene of bloody clashes between the protesters and the army only days before. These same streets were now being patrolled by the revolutionary militias (the Pasdaran). For those present, this scene signified an unprecedented victory.

By late 1976 and early 1977, it was evident that the Iranian economy was in trouble. The shah’s attempt to use Iran’s vastly expanded oil revenues after 1973 for an unrealistically ambitious industrial and construction program and a massive military buildup greatly strained Iran’s human and institutional resources and caused severe economic and social dislocation. Widespread official corruption, rapid inflation, and a growing gap in incomes between the wealthier and the poorer strata of society fed public dissatisfaction.

The victory day was the culmination of over eighteen months of mass demonstrations, bloody confrontations, large-scale industrial actions, a general strike and many political man oeuvres The revolution’s roots lay in the structural changes arising from the gradual modernization that had been under way in Iran since the 1930s. In 1953 the process accelerated dramatically after the coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), overthrowing nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and reinstating the Shah.

The modernization policy and economic change, initiated by the state under both Reza Shah (1925-1946) and his son, the late Shah, resulted in the growth of new social forces to the dismay of the traditional social groups. By the 1970s, the large and well-to-do modern middle class, modern youth, women who participated in public life and an industrial working class – in addition to a new poor comprising slum and squatter dwellers – dominated the social scene. With the exception of the group living in abject poverty, these crowds represented the beneficiaries of the economic progress and enjoyed an increase in status and commensurate economic rewards. The persistence of the Shah’s age-old autocracy, however, prevented these thriving social layers from participating in the political process. This exclusion angered the new elite. At the same time, the old social groups – a segment of the traditional bazaaris or merchants, the old urban middle strata, the declining clergy and the adherents of Islamic institutions – were also frustrated by the modernization strategy, which undermined their economic interests and power bases.

The repressive closure of all the institutional channels to any expression of discontent increasingly alienated the populace from the state. In the meantime, corruption, inefficiency, a sense of injustice and a feeling of cultural outrage marked the social psychology of many Iranians. During the tense 1970s, at the height of the Shah’s authoritarian rule and the remarkable economic growth, many people (with the possible exception of the upper class and landed peasantry) were therefore dissatisfied, albeit for different reasons. All blamed the Shah and his Western allies, especially the United States, for that state of affairs. Little surprise, then, that the language of dissent and protests was largely anti-monarchy, anti
imperialist, Third Worldist and even nationalist, and turned into a religious discourse in the end.

The opportunity for popular mobilization arrived with what we used to call the “Carterite breeze” (nasseem-e Carteri). In the 1970s, President Carter’s human rights policy forced the Shah to offer limited freedom of political expression. This expression gradually mounted and swept aside the monarchy in less than two years. It began with a limited relaxation of censorship, allowing some literary and intellectual activities (at the Goethe Institute and the universities in Tehran) and public gatherings by the Islamists (in Oqba Mosque). The next step concerned the distribution by the intellectuals and liberal politicians of letters of open criticism to highranking officials. During this stage, an article in the daily Ettlilaat insulting Ayatollah Khomeini triggered a manifestation in the shrine city of Qumin which some of the demonstrators were killed. To commemorate the tragedy, a large-scale demonstration took place in the Azeri city of Tabriz in the north. This gathering marked the beginning of a chain of events that formed a nationwide revolutionary movement with mass participation from diverse segments of the population (modern and traditional, religious and secular, men and women) which was led by the ulama (the Shi’i clergy).

Since the coup of 1953, over twenty-five years of the Shah’s autocracy had removed or destroyed almost all effective secular independent political associations and non-governmental organzations (NGOs). The coup crushed both the nationalist and the communist movements; the secret police (SAVAK) infiltrated trade unions; publications were strictly censored; and hardly any effective NGOs remained in existence. The main organized political dissent came from the underground guerrilla organizations, Marxist Fedaian and radical Islamic Mujahedin, whose activities were limited to isolated armed operations. Likewise, student activism was confined to campus politics inside the country and to efforts by the Iranian students abroad. In short, the organizational means of the severely dissatisfied secular groupings were decapitated.

Unlike the secular forces, however, the clergy had the comparative advantage of possessing invaluable institutional capacity, including its own hierarchical order, over 10,000 mosques, husseiniehs, huwzehs, and associations maintaining vital links of communication among the revolutionary contenders. Young Islamists – both girls and boys along with young clergymen – linked the institution of the ulama to the people. A hierarchical order facilitated unified decision-making and a systematic flow of order and information; and in mosques higher-level decisions were disseminated among both the activists and the general public. In short, this institutional capacity in addition to the remarkable ambiguity in the clergy’s message secured the ulama’s leadership.

In the final phase of the revolution (December 1978-February 1979), under Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, a host of leftists, labor activists, students, women and ethnic groups took advantage of the dual power situation and began to mobilize. Yet they hardly influenced the leadership’s religious composition. Their political impact was to come during the first two years after the revolution. Thus, the “Islamization” progressed largely from above by the Islamic state after the victory of the Islamic revolution. The process entailed the establishment of the valaya-ti faqih (rule of clergy), the Islamic legal system, restrictive policies toward women, “Islamic” cultural practices and social demeanor.

In the weeks and months following the day of victory, the joy and jubilation made way for a widespread sense of uncertainty about the future. The women who had previously appeared without veils felt betrayed by those who imposed mandatory veiling. In response, the women staged remarkable street demonstrations in Tehran on 8-12 March 1979. Ethnic groups (Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis and Iranian Arabs) – by now widely mobilized – soon felt the new regime’s iron grip when Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the suppression of identity politics in the summer of 1979. Secular leftists and liberals quickly experienced the intolerance of the Islamic regime.

The Tudeh Communist Party resumed work after years in exile. Marxist Fedaii guerrillas and the radical Islamic Mujahedin emerged from the underground and began overt political activity. Dozens of new and splinter groups – Maoist, Trotskyite, Libertarian and Marxist – were added to the existing Marxist-Leninist organizations. While the Tudeh was more conciliatory toward the new ruling clergy, its general relationship with the radical left (i.e. the Fedaian and Maoist groups) remained hostile.

Indeed, immediately after the revolution, the clergy and the left competed fiercely in mobilizing the populace. Thus the universities, urban neighborhoods, factories, farms and street corners turned into sites of contention between the supporters of the left and the Mujahedin versus the pro-regime group- ings such as the pasdaran (informal volunteer militias that were later institutionalized), Islamic associations and many dozens of well-organized street thugs known as the hizbullahis. The seizure of the US Embassy by Muslim students (4 November 1979) and the outbreak of war with Iraq (22 September 1980) undoubtedly undermined the leftist and liberal dissent for the cause of national unity against external threat. Nevertheless, their activities continued until the summer of 1981, when the bloody street battles between the government forces and the Mujahedin (20 June 1981) led to widespread suppression of all kinds of opposition.

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Workers movement in revolution

Some three months prior to the victory of the revolution, over 13,000 seasonal or project workers in the city of Abadan, a large oil port city in the south, became redundant when their companies discontinued operations. The workers had lost their jobs but considered their unemployment insignificant compared to the revolutionary struggles around them. Even
those who still held their jobs were on strike. Yet, for these workers, the extraordinary days of unity and sacrifice were coming to an end. The revolution was entering a new stage in which groups and individuals would reveal their true colors. The factionalism and struggle for power
among the new leaders grew as the clerical leadership started exhibiting intolerance toward dissenting political voices.

As the days passed, these workers began thinking about their precarious present and uncertain future. During the unstable premiership of Shahpour Bakhtiar (the last prime minister appointed by the Shah), a small number of these workers gathered frequently in local tea houses to discuss their plight and to decide on a course of action. Out of these and subsequent meetings emerged the Syndicate of the Unemployed Project Workers of Abadan (SUPW). This solidarity marked the start of collective actions taken by the unemployed. Within five months, the campaigns successfully secured jobs and unemployment benefits.10

Several demonstrations, all repressed by the Pasdaran, were organized in pursuit of these objectives. Two months later, on 13 April 1979, as social struggles intensified, some 400 laborers resorted to a sit-in in the syndicate headquarters and threatened to go on a hunger strike. The protest movement of the unemployed was well under way in several big cities including Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Ghazvin, Gachsaran, and Kurdistan Province. In Tehran, the leftist organizations had initially mobilized several redundant and expelled worker groups {kargaran-ibikaar-shudehs). Before long they joined forces in a loosely-knit Organ-ization of Unemployed and Seasonal Workers, which included laborers laid off from manufacturing, construction, and other industries.

The victory of the revolution gave rise to unprecedented urban unemployment in Iran. Hundreds of companies, businesses and factories suspended operations. The owners and managers of these ventures, foreign and Iranian alike, had left the country months before the insurrections of 10-11 February 1979. Those who remained in the country shut down their enterprises in the midst of chaos pending the economic policy of the new revolutionary government. Labor strikes, which escalated after October 1978, had almost crippled industry, public services and the government offices. Hardest hit was the construction sector, where hundreds of projects were abandoned midway. Cranes and tools lay idle on the lots of halffinished building complexes, and work sites remained deserted. In the end, thousands of laborers who had withdrawn their labor for the victory of the revolution found themselves without jobs on its morrow.

These jobless were joined by a new army of unemployed: those working in ideologically-unfit occupations. Western-style restaurants, cafeterias, cabarets, liquor stores, red-light district theaters and brothels were all closed down, not only because they were incompatible with the Islamic revolution but also because they were deemed symbolic of the decadence of the ancien regime. In Tehran alone, an estimated 3,000 employees of such establishments lost their jobs.

The lottery ticket company was shut down entirely, laying off 200,000 low-income street ticket sellers. The arrival of about 150,000 high school graduates (diplomehs) gradually swelled the ranks of the unemployed. In the very first year after the revolution, therefore, some 2.5 million Iranians, equal to 21 per cent of the workforce, were out of work.

According to an official survey of Tehran unemployed, well over one half of the jobless were laid off owing to closures. Ten per cent consisted of casual laborers who left their jobs because of low income and hardship. The rest of the unemployed comprised migrants and high school graduates seeking work for the first time. In short, between 1.5 and 2 million people lost their jobs within a few months of the revolutionary events.

The jobless were not a heterogeneous group. While factory workers and high school graduates led the protests, the articulation of interests and discontent with an extraordinary condition drew many poor unemployed, casual laborers and rural migrants into an audible acquired during the revolution.

In developing countries, organized struggle by the unemployed for jobs and protection is extremely rare, notwithstanding high rates of open and invisible joblessness. Family, kinship, patron-client relationships and especially the informal sector provide essential mechanisms for protection and survival; lack of organization generally prevents the development of sustained protest movements.

The simultaneous sudden decline in the standard of living and general expectations caused a moral outrage. The movement was perceived as the continuation of a broader revolutionary struggle. Optimism had surged among the poor and the unemployed; the intense competition between the ruling clergy and the leftist opposition to recruit the support of the poor raised hopes still further. This ideological dimension was the driving force behind the huge pool of jobless who utilized both the existing relative political freedom and the mobilization skills they had acquired during the revolution.

Oil workers movement

At first achieving oil workers demands for better working conditions. On the other hand, when the shah’s regime opened fire on demonstrators in Tehran in September 1978, and when a cinema in Abadan was set on fire from the islamists, killing many innocent people, the oil workers couldn’t put up with such a situation any longer. That is why they didn’t stay silent, and entered the political arena rather than remain spectators. In other words, thye were influenced by the people’s struggles.

That is why the oil workers set up the strike committee and decided to encourage all oil industry employees to demonstrate, stage sit-ins and, later, a strike. Thye were now determined to overthrow the shah. In fact, when they accepted some of the workers trade union demands, that was precisely when workers started the strike.

Fearing the spread of discontent among other workers, they gave theme a month’s salary, calling it a special bonus. workers took the money, but also announced loud and clear that the state was trying to bribe them to end the strike, and this in itself had a positive effect – workers, and others, became aware of the state’s vulnerability.

Oil workers like other iranian peaple wanted political freedom. they didn’t trust the shah at all and were on strike when Bakhtiar, the shah’s last appointed prime minister, was in office. He promised that all workers demands would be met, provided them ended our strike. So oil workers didn’t fall for this – most of them did not believe he would grant political freedom. Thanks to the oil workers in the south of the country, all oil exports from Iran were halted.

The important point was that thye now had independent workers’ organisations in one of the major industries. Such organisations remained illegal in other industries like steel. Of course later, when the revolution was defeated, every organisation was made illegal too.

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Islamic movement

Any independent observer who examines that history will see that the people rose against a dictatorial Monarchy and its secret police, prisons and torture. (Those who have not experienced that period first hand should seriously review that history.) In that society, there was no freedom of expression, press and organisation. Trade union and Socialist activities were non-existent. There was no freedom of political activity. It was a despotic oneman rule, reliant on the police, army and intelligence service. There was staggering economic inequality, with widespread poverty alongside enormous wealth. People rose against these and for equality and freedom from political suppression and economic exploitation. This is known as the 1979 revolution.

When it became evident that the Shah’s regime was incapable of suppressing this revolutionary movement, the Islamic movement begins to rear its head. This reactionary movement, which belonged to the past and existed in a corner of Iranian society, was against civilisation, social modernisation, women’s right and development. One of this movement’s personalities, Khomeini, who was in exile in Iraq, was taken to Paris and placed under the spotlight. From then on, Western governments and media widely promoted this Islamic movement as the alternative that could and should replace the Shah’s government. Finally, General Robert Huyser, the United States government’s Special Envoy went to Iran, spoke with the army and secured their allegiance to Khomeini. A large segment of the traditional and national opposition of the time, such as the National Front, the Tudeh Party, etc. declared their allegiance to the Islamic movement. As a result, the Islamic current was pushed to the forefront of the anti-Monarchy movement. Contrary to the wishes of the Islamic current, the people rose up (known as the uprising of 22 Bahman, 11 February 1979) and eventually defeat the Shah’s army in a military confrontation. This process resulted in the formation of a government under the leadership and control of the Islamic current.

The two and a half years during 11 February 1979 and 20 June 1981 was still not strictly speaking, however, an Islamic rule. It was a period of relative open political activity, which the state was incapable of suppressing on a widespread scale, despite the existence of thugs and Islamicism. At that time, Khalkhali [infamous as the hanging judge] was the regime’s executioner but even so, the regime did not have the power to completely suppress and neutralise the increasing people’s movement. Political parties were flourishing; books of Marx and Lenin were sold everywhere; Communist organisations published papers; labour councils were established; various women’s organisations were formed and the wave of protests continued to escalate, until an Islamic, counter-revolutionary coup d’état took place on 20 June 1981. They attacked and executed 300 to 500 people a day in Evin prison and all over the country; they closed down newspapers and crushed the opposition. This was what enabled the Islamic Republic to exist today. The point of the Islamic Republic’s establishment was 20 June 1981 (30 Khordad), not 11 February 1979 (22 Bahman). 11 February (22 Bahman) was the people’s revolution. During 8 September 1978 (the day that the Shah’s army massacred demonstrators at Jaleh Square in Tehran) until 20 June 1981, Right wing forces and governments attempted to obstruct the people’s revolution. 20 June 1981 is the eventual juncture that the suppression took place.

The Islamic government’s execution list was basically taken from the list of those who had been imprisoned during the Monarchy. A person who had been sentenced to two-month’s imprisonment by the Shah’s government was executed by the Islamic regime. They attacked and killed the very same people the Shah’s regime wanted to but couldn’t.
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What writing in history?

The calamities of the period after the revolution in Iran must be attributed to those responsible. People were right to reject the monarchy and the discrimination, inequality, oppression and degradation that went with it and rise up in protest. People were right to not want a king, SAVAK [the secret police], torturers and torture chambers at the end of the 20th century. People were right to take up arms against an army, which massacred them at the earliest manifestations of their protests. The 1979 revolution was an act for freedom, justice and human dignity. The Islamic movement and the Islamic government were not only not the result of this revolution, but were rather a deliberate means of suppressing the revolution, and brought to the fore when the fall and failure of the Shah’s regime was confirmed. Contrary to commonly held views, the Islamic Republic did not primarily owe its existence to the network of mosques and the swarm of petty mullahs. The source of this regime was not religion’s power among the people; it was not Shiism’s power, people’s lack of interest in modernism and their hatred of Western culture, excessively accelerated urbanisation and lack of ‘practicing democracy’, etc.

This nonsense might be useful for the career of half-wit ‘Orientalists’ or media commentators, but it does not have the slightest relation to the truth. The very forces that were supporting the Shah’s regime and training the SAVAK until the day before brought the Islamic current to the fore of the 1979 revolution – those who recognised the radicalisation and left leaning potential of the Iranian revolution and had learnt their lesson from the oil workers’ strike; those who needed a green belt for Cold War rivalries. Money was spent for the ‘Islamisation’ of the Iranian revolution; plans were drawn up, meetings were organised. Thousands of people – from Western diplomats and military attachés, to the ever honourable journalists of the world of democracy – worked intensely for months until a backward, marginal, rotten and isolated tradition in the political history of Iran was turned into the ‘revolution’s leadership’ and a ruling alternative for the urbanised and newly industrialised society of Iran in 1979. Mr. Khomeini did not come from Najaf and Qom and as the head of a swarm of donkey-riding mullahs from en-route villages but from Paris via air. The 1979 revolution was a manifestation of the genuine protests of the deprived people of Iran but the ‘Islamic revolution’ and the Islamic regime were the result of the Cold War, the result of the most modern political dealings of the world at the time. The architects of this regime were the strategists and policy makers of Western powers, the very same ones who today, from within the swamps of cultural relativism, once again legitimise the very monster they created as the natural product of ‘Islamic and eastern society’ and worthy of the people of the ‘Islamic World’. The entire West’s economic, political and propaganda resources were pulled together for months before and after February 1979 in order to establish and maintain this regime.

The very fact that this social engineering became possible in Iran, however, owes itself to the situation and condition of the political and social forces within Iran. There was enough material available for this task. Islamic currents existed in all countries of the region. Until the events in Iran, however, this movement did not at any point become a notable political force and a main player on the political scene of these countries. The Islamic (counter) revolution was not constructed on the insignificant force of the Islamic current, but rather on primary political traditions of the Iranian opposition. The Islamic counter-revolution was built on the nationalist and so-called liberal tradition of the ‘National Front’, which more than anything else feared workers and communists and had spent its entire life biting its nails under the monarchy’s cape and religion’s robe.

It was a tradition, which in its entire history had been unable to organise even a semi-secular offensive against religion in Iran’s politics and culture. It was a tradition in which its leaders and personalities were among the first to swear allegiance to the Islamic movement. The Islamic counter-revolution was built on the Tudeh Party’s tradition in which anti-Americanism and strengthening its international camp at any price, made up the philosophy of its existence and which saw the Islamic regime, irrespective of its consequences for the people and freedom, as a playground for manoeuvre and manipulation. The Islamic counter-revolution was built on a corrupt anti-modernist, anti ‘westernisation’, xenophobic and Islam-ridden tradition dominant in a majority of the intellectual and cultural segments of society in Iran, which shaped the initial environment of the youth and student protests. Khomeini triumphed not because superstitious people saw his reflection on the moon, but rather because the traditional opposition and this corrupt nationalist and regressive culture saw him – who was the most imported and manufactured personage of Iranian contemporary political history – as ‘made in Iran’, anti-Western and one of their own and thus rose to praise him. The Islamic counter-revolution was the result of the fact that the modernist-socialist oil industry and big industries’ workers lost the initiative in the protest scene to the traditional opposition of Iran. It was they who received Khomeini’s personage and the Islamic revolution scenario from the West and sold it to the protesting masses of people.

What about now?

When the rulers get into a deadlock and have no solutions to the crises they themselves have created, and when people, who have had enough of injustice, are no longer prepared to put up with oppression, then the time for vast, transformative social protests has come.

It is thus that now people, who are at the end of their tether from oppression, high prices, poverty and unemployment, have since four days ago throughout the country taken over the streets and in a united and solid rank are shouting their demands for an end to the existing hellish conditions.

The demands which have today paved the way for the marches and gatherings of the working people of Iran across the country, with a focus on the protest against high prices, poverty and unemployment, have for years been raised by workers, teachers, nurses and all the working people. These calls have gone unheeded by the rulers, who have carried on with their plunder of the social wealth.

What we are witnessing on the streets of various cities today is the eruption of the accumulated anger of the working people of Iran at the plunder and embezzlement, running into billions, by the highest governmental figures, and by individuals and financial institutions tied to the sphere of power, on the one hand, and the poverty and plight of millions of people, the unemployment of millions of workers and young people, the beating up of street vendors and the massacre of border porters (koulbaran), the imposition of wages several times below the poverty line on workers, and the system of flogging, jailing and execution against any demand for rights and freedom, on the other.

Those who until yesterday answered all workers’ and people’s protests for rights by branding them as threats to national security, and by prosecution and imprisonment, and who today in response to the raging anger of millions of people in Iran, label their rightful protests sedition, should know that the time for great, human changes in this country has arrived, and that no repressive force will be able to withstand the rights-seeking and freedom-seeking by we workers and people of Iran.

Working class’s political self-expression is not a simple continuation of economic struggle. ‘Workers’, in the demographic sense of the term, have hardly ever intervened in politics. Worker participates in political struggle through worker parties, be it reformist or revolutionary. Today we have situation where all organizational and political traditions that, in one way or another, served as a vehicle for political intervention of workers in society, like social democracy and various strands of communism, have hit the bottom. To expect that workers, without political parties to rally around, can step much beyond the economic arena is an a- historical and absurd expectation. I don’t think that the social democracy is even interested any more to be portrayed as the political expression of the unionist labour movement. They have to a large extent abandoned workers and focused on the middle social strata. Furthermore, social democracy lacks a clear social and economic programme.

Everything, therefore, depends on the course of worker- communism. I think serious efforts must be made to, firstly, neutralize the current anti-communist offensive and secondly, form worker-communist parties engaged in organizing workers as a class and involved in the political struggle. Without this, even if workers manage to defend and preserve certain economic gains, we shall still end up with a much more anti-worker political and ideological balance. The period we are just entering will not be lacking in working class protest movements and actions. But the outcome of these struggles and specifically their impact on the general conditions of workers in society, their power and dignity, is another question. This requires an active communist movement in society and within the workers’ movement.

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