Iran: from Shah to Ayatollah

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With the failure of the "war on terror" has come an emboldened, increasingly influential Iran. But as world leaders look for ways to exert their authority on the country, Naz Massoumi looks at Iran's revolutionary history and its repeated rejection of imperialism.

"Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world," said US President Jimmy Carter on his New Year's Eve state visit to Iran in 1977. He spoke too soon. Just a week later the Shah's police shot and killed dozens of theology students as they protested in the religious city of Qom against a scurrilous attack on Ayatollah Khomeini in a pro-government newspaper. One year later, on 16 January 1979, following months of demonstrations and a general strike, the Shah was forced to leave Iran.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 came as a surprise not just to the US ruling class but to nearly all foreign observers. How had Mohammad Reza Shah - the megalomaniac monarch who had ruled Iran with an iron fist for nearly three decades - been toppled so quickly?

How had this powerful insurrection, involving tens of millions of people, been led by a frail 76 year old Shia cleric? There is no doubt that the modern history of the Middle East would be very different had it not been for its abundance of oil. In 1908 Iran was the first country in the Middle East where oil was discovered. As Britain switched from coal to oil to fuel its battleships, intervention came in form of the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Iran received a mere £105 million of the profits in comparison to Britain's massive £700 to £800 million share.

The consequence, following a popular nationalist movement, was the election of the liberal nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh as prime minister and the nationalisation of Iranian oil in 1951. Outraged by its imperial castration, the British government immediately organised an international oil boycott before looking to the US who had replaced them as the post-war regional imperialist power. Their answer was a CIA-masterminded coup headed by Kermit Roosevelt who, arriving in Iran with suitcases stuffed with cash, toppled the popular Mossadegh from power in August 1953, reinstating the young Shah to his Peacock Throne.

Ironically, Mohammad Reza Shah used Iran's increased share of oil profits achieved by the nationalist movement (from 16 percent to 50 percent) to continue a programme of state-driven industrialisation. This process did little for the majority of Iranians. In 1960, 80 percent of Iranians were illiterate and only 1 percent had access to a medical facility. Worried by the fragility of his claim to power and frightened by rising political unrest, the Shah suppressed all political dissent and built a massive military machine, increasing his armed forces from 120,000 to around 400,000 by the time of the revolution.

Inequality and military rule were underlined by massive contradictions. Alongside new factories, forms of production existed not changed for centuries. Encircling cities, where the elite embarked on one-day shopping trips to Paris, shanty towns grew. But this process of uneven capitalist development brought into existence an indigenous bourgeoisie and a modern working class. And this came into increasingly sharp conflict with the Shah's autocratic form of rule.

By the mid-1970s opposition was coming from all sections of society - women, national minorities, the clergy, the urban poor, the bazaar (merchant capitalists), intelligentsia, students and the young. A successful uprising by shantytown dwellers to save their housing from being bulldozed in the summer of 1977 ignited a confidence in the poor and working class that precipitated new protests. The Shah's response was to increase repression. On "Black Friday", 8 September 1978, the Shah's troops armed with tanks and helicopter gunships shot live rounds at protesters in Tehran's Jaleh Square. Some 1,600 died, unaware they were violating a new curfew. But the regime would not be brought to its knees until the intervention of what was now the largest social force - the working class.

Following the massacre at Jaleh Square machine-tool workers from the city of Tabriz walked out. They were soon followed by workers at the giant steel mills in the city of Esfahan. By October workers from nearly every section of the labour force were coming out. The oil workers struck in November, causing a 10 percent drop in the world consumption of oil. The Shah's response was to send in his troops. But by December millions, including soldiers, were demonstrating against the Shah. On 31 December, only one year after Carter's toast to the Shah, a general strike brought the national economy to a halt.

If the working class was so central in the fall of the Shah, why was a socialist revolution not possible? The answer, quite simply, is that it was. Even though this was a new and inexperienced working class, the committees from the mass strikes developed quickly into factory councils known as
shoras - spontaneous organs of workers' power. Initially striking over economic grievances, they very quickly made political demands. By December 1978 they were calling explicitly for regime change.

Unfortunately the politics of the religious (Mojahedeen) and secular left (Tudeh Party and Fedaayeen) had a damaging impact on this process. With illusions in variants of Stalinism, the principal forces on the left all had one thing in common - their total lack of faith in the Iranian working class. Preferring to side with the "progressive" sections of the bourgeoisie (including Khomeini himself) the left fatally abandoned working class politics.

Lack of effective socialist leadership meant the shoras never developed into fully fledged workers' councils. Instead the lack of leadership and independent organisation in the working class opened the revolution up to other forces. And, just like previous Third World revolutions, the vacuum was filled by a new middle class - the Ayatollah Khomeini, clerics, Islamist students, doctors, lawyers and professionals.

There is much confusion about Khomeini's Islamic movement. Many regarded and still regard Khomeini as a "fundamentalist". This isn't so. Fundamentalism refers to the literal interpretation of religious scriptures, whereas Khomeini fashioned a radical reinterpretation of Shia Islam, under influence from the popular Shia theologian Ali Shariati who had attempted to incorporate the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Karl Marx into Islam.

Khomeini was more typical of a Third World bourgeois nationalist. His anti-imperialist slogans were dressed in religious language. One slogan was "Mostazafin [oppressed] of the world unite." Khomeini was able to outmanoeuvre the left. On 4 November 1979 Khomeiniites mobilised Islamist students to lay siege to the US embassy, taking its staff hostage. The siege gave the Khomeiniites the mantle of anti-imperialism. The left, in complete disarray, could only offer their support.

But once Khomeini had won leadership of the revolution, he went about building a capitalist state, although an independent one. What followed was the brutal repression of all opposition, the control and eventual removal of the shoras, restriction on freedoms and women's rights, and the reversal of many of the revolution's gains.

In September 1980, with US backing, Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Iran, hoping to bring down the revolutionary government and concerned that the Iranian Revolution could spread through to Iraq's large Shia population. The consequence was a devastating eight-year war where over a million perished on both sides. Khomeini called the invasion a "godsend". It provided the opportunity to consolidate power. With intensified nationalism and the country united against a foreign power, dissidents were brutally silenced as "foreign agents". Indeed, the institutionalised repression of the Iranian Revolution should be seen in this context rather than being seen as exclusive to political Islam. Like the revolutions of Russia in 1917 and France in 1789, it occurred in the shadow of foreign intervention.

Islamic movement

It wasn't just repression of the opposition that brought Khomeini to power. The Islamic movement mobilised millions especially from the poorest sections of society. It was now accountable to this movement. Consequently, absolute poverty was abolished, the shanty towns were dismantled, the property of the Shah's elite redistributed to the poor, welfare programmes set up and the majority given free access to health and education. The new regime drew popular support from the millions who had participated in the revolution and who now benefited materially from it.

But the final and most important reason why Islamism triumphed was that it delivered on the long and popular desire in Iran for national independence.

Three decades ago radical Islam presented itself to the population as a way forward, articulating the desires of the majority more effectively than other political forces. Even the democracy movement, which emerged after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, regards itself as a continuation of the revolution, attempting to return to what its activists regard as the revolution's ideals. The fact that many do this within an Islamic framework indicates the significance of the political movement that won leadership of the revolution.

The left's failure was to ignore the potential of workers to lead the revolution, even though it was the working class that had brought down the Shah's regime. Compounded by the fall of the Communist regimes in 1989, Islamism has filled the vacuum left by the bankruptcy of Stalinism and nationalism in the Middle East. Any left in Iran or the region must now relate to this reality, if it is not to make the same mistakes.

The "war on terror" has been the US ruling class's most recent attempt at rebalancing regional forces in its favour but it has achieved quite the opposite. Iran has extended its influence in the region and a hostile Hussein has been replaced with an Iran-friendly Shia-dominated government. This has left the US ruling class paralysed and divided about what to do. Barack Obama's election, with his plans of "talking" to Iran, appears to resolve these contradictions. But with his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan, appalling silence over the massacre in Gaza and a secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, who has said she would "obliterate" Iran, it's probably too soon to pull down those "Don't Attack Iran" banners.

Thirty years on, the US ruling class is still trying to get over the hangover of losing its "island of stability". A lesson for Obama would be to draw parallels between 1978 Iran and the strike waves that have gripped Hosni Mubarak's Egypt in recent years - a US-sponsored dictatorship doesn't last forever.