The Hidden History of the Iranian Revolution

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Nuclear weapons proliferation is not the real reasons for the US's attitude toward Tehran.

The hypocrisy of the Western governments' threats to Iran should be obvious. Iran does not have nuclear weapons, whereas nearby states like Israel, India and Pakistan do, as of course do all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

What is really at stake is an attempt by the US to wreak massive and visible revenge on a state which, 27 years ago, dismantled one of the US's biggest spy installations and seized its embassy. George Bush, wounded by his inability to crush resistance to the occupation of Iraq, wants to show that the might of the US can punish people anywhere in the world who disobey its orders - whether in the Middle East or in Latin America.

Many liberals and some of the left refuse to see this. They see the Islamic republic as a backward theocracy, steeped in medieval barbarism, and virtually fascist. The regime does have all sorts of reactionary attitudes and practices. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has an attitude to gays and women not a million miles away from that of the current pope, or the Christian fundamentalists in the US.

But Iran is neither medieval nor fascist. Ahmadinejad became president by getting the votes of some of the poorest people in an election which split the country's ruling layer. Iran is in fact a capitalist country, but with a state very much shaped by the struggles that convulsed it in the wake of the revolution of 1979.

Until then Iran was ruled by the Shah, a despotic monarch restored to power in 1953 by a coup organised by the CIA and British intelligence. He pushed through his own top-down approach to capitalist development (including a nuclear programme) which alienated sections of the traditional religious establishment and the millions of poor people forced to leave the countryside to seek a precarious livelihood in the slums of the burgeoning cities.

All the bitterness against the Shah exploded in 1978, and he was forced to flee the country early in 1979 against a background of huge demonstrations, a strike by oil workers and a revolt by units of the army. As in every great spontaneous revolution, many different sections of people were involved. As well as the workers and the urban poor, there were sections of the middle classes, the traditional religious establishment, the mass of shopkeepers and traders connected to the bazaars, and proponents of an assertive, independent Iranian capitalism.

All of these forces were angry at the Shah and his US connections. And most expressed their bitterness in religious terms, using phrases from the Quran that spoke out in support of the "oppressed". But once the Shah was gone divergences emerged, again taking religious forms.

The workers formed factory committees (shorahs) for wage increases, for union rights and for better working conditions. The peasants demanded land reform, women fought for liberation from subordination to men, and the national minorities demanded the right to self determination.

In reaction to this movement the proponents of national capitalism sought to restore order. The "liberal" upper middle class joined up with sections of the clerical establishment linked to the bazaars to work together against the left. Just as the revolution had used religious language, so did the wave of reaction.

The fight against the left was presented as a fight against "irreligion" and "Western cultural imperialism". But their underlying message was the same as that used by conservative forces anywhere in the world, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim or atheist. All of them claim that the left threatens the family, morality, and the property of the self made man.

Such were the claims of those who crushed the German Revolution in 1919, or who flocked to join Franco's "crusade" against the working class movement in Spain in 1936. In this respect, the behaviour of the right in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution was not very different, except it used the cover of Islam rather than Prussian Protestantism or Spanish Catholicism.

There was, however, one important difference. Sections of the bazaar capitalists and the clergy around Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to maintain their independence from the US while smashing the left. They were also afraid of cutting themselves off from masses, who still expected to gain from the revolution. So in 1980 the Khomeini group backed students occupying the US embassy, and moved against their previous "moderate" bourgeois allies.

Anti-imperialist language won them the popular support to hit out at opponents of all sorts, using a bombing campaign from the then left inclined Islamist organisation Mojahedin-e Khalq (which went on to support Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and is now an ally of the US) as an excuse for massive repression.

This sealed the Khomeini group's domination of the post-revolutionary state, allowing it to establish a constitution in which there are elections, but vetoes on what elected politicians can do. But it also earned Iran the undying hatred of US imperialism, which will no more forgive what it did to the US embassy in 1979 than it will forgive Castro's Cuba for taking over US-owned sugar plantations in 1959.