Forty years ago protests in Iran rolled over into a revolution. John Rose tells a tale of huge potential brutally suppressed.
The Iranian Revolution of February 1979 was one of the most startling events of the 20th century. This is true not just because of the almost total participation of the entire population in the active overthrow of the Shah, the dictatorial self-proclaimed monarch, but also because of the determination of the new regime to install what it described as an “Islamic Republic”.
Iran was, and remains, one of the world’s greatest oil producers. A popular Iranian nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadeq, had been elected prime minister in 1951. He promptly nationalised Iran’s oil industry, which was 51 percent owned and controlled by the British. In 1953 a British and American organised coup overthrew Mossadeq and placed the Shah in power to protect Western oil interests.
The Shah stabilised his rule with the notorious secret police torture and execution squad, SAVAK. The nationalists from Mossadeq’s National Front party and the left, especially the Tudeh Communist Party, were crushed. At the same time the Shah fancied himself as a “moderniser”. In the 1960s, using Iran’s vast oil revenues, he launched his “White Revolution” — an ambitious industrialisation programme. As the Shah readily admitted, the White Revolution was designed “to pre-empt ‘Red Revolution’ from below”.
It backfired. It massively expanded a modern and combative working class. And it provoked two traditional and conservative bastions of Iranian society, the mosques and the bazaars. In 1963 the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini made a name for himself by opposing the White Revolution, publicly denouncing the Shah’s dependency on the US and Israel and the ostentatious squandering of Iran’s resources. The Shah accused Khomeini of transforming a religious procession into a violent street protest and forced him into exile.
Although Khomeini never admitted it, he owed an enormous debt to a left wing Islamist scholar, Ali Shariati.
Aged only 44, Shariati died suddenly in 1977, almost certainly murdered by SAVAK. By then he was a household name in Iran. Ervand Abrahamian, one of the revolution’s most authoritative historians, argues that for Shariati, Shia Islam was a revolutionary creed resisting all forms of oppression — feudalism, capitalism, imperialism: “The Prophet Muhammad had been sent not just to establish a new religion but…a classless utopia.”
When the street demonstrations against the Shah erupted in late 1977, Shariati’s influence on the slogans of Khomeini and his supporters was unmistakeable: “Islam belongs to the oppressed, not to the oppressors”, “Islam represents the slum-dwellers, not the palace-dwellers”, “Islam is not the opiate of the masses”, “The poor die for the revolution, the rich plot against the revolution”, “The oppressed of the world, unite”, “Neither East nor West, but Islam”, “We are for Islam, not for capitalism and feudalism”, “Islam will eliminate class differences.”
In October 1978, the street demonstrations turned into a massive strike movement of public and private sector workers, led by the oil workers. Oil workers’ strikes were closing down production on the oil fields and in the refineries, raising openly political demands: end martial law; release political prisoners; Iranianise the oil industry; dissolve SAVAK; and a demand which would have unforeseen lasting implications — end discrimination against women employees. The Washington Post reported the strikes as the greatest single threat to the Shah’s survival: “Oil became a key transmitter of revolutionary consciousness.”
Khomeini intervened from Paris, where he had been living, to take control of the oil strikes. He built a political alliance with some of the key cadres from the Mossadeq nationalist era with roots in the oil industry. The Shah was forced to negotiate and make major concessions. Within months he was forced to flee.
Millions took to the streets to greet Khomeini when he arrived home. But almost immediately he faced a potentially explosive development — workers’ shoras or councils.
What were the shoras? Iranian-American scholar Asef Bayat explains:
“The councils by their executive committees were directly elected and were subject to recall at any time by the members. The committees were accountable to general assemblies, and their members were not paid any extra salary for their positions on the committee. Almost all workers in a unit would attend meetings in which heated debates would take place on issues concerning the running of the workplace. Shoras had a dramatic effect on the way workers conceptualised society, authority, and their social position in the society at large…the workers were involved in a learning process. During the last 30 years, democratic institutions had been almost totally non-existent. The councils established a nascent democratic tradition and culture.”
Several left wing political organisations began to root themselves in the shoras. The most important were the Tudeh Communist Party and the former guerrilla organisations — the secular Fedayeen, the left wing Islamic Mujahideen (today degenerated into a pro-US cult), and the Maoist Peykar group. One Western news agency, Associated Press, reported from the shora at the world’s largest oil refinery, Abadan, in the oil-rich southern Iranian province of Khurzestan. The oil workers demanded:
“Redistribution of income, an end to foreign control of industry and the right to reject management appointees… Although most workers claim to be devout Muslim followers of…Khomeini and disavow atheistic communism, they espouse political views very close to Marxism… Managers left over from the previous regime…avoid any decisions that might conflict…with the committee, who also have the power of arrest. It is unclear how many workers belong secretly to the illegal pro-Moscow Tudeh Communist Party or to the People’s Fedayeen… ‘Out of a section of eight people, maybe two or three are communists,’ said one worker. ‘No one pays them any attention.’ Others estimate as many as 25 per cent of some departments may be Marxists or sympathisers… Marxist pamphlets…appear regularly on company billboards and on walls in working class districts.”
At the Tabriz and Pars oil company refineries, shoras took almost total control of administration and production. The latter, near the city of Karaj, was Iran’s only privately owned refinery (25 percent Shell).The shora took over the refinery itself, selling its products to pay wages and salaries. It co-ordinated the takeover with the production managers, establishing a “committee for the provisional administration of the refinery” consisting of shora members and two technicians. The “National Oil Company of Iran: Karaj Refinery” was publicly declared. A reluctant government would quickly accede to the nationalisation demand. Similar struggles erupted across modern industry.
The shoras posed a potential challenge to Khomeini, but the obstacles were formidable, as Chris Harman explained in his important 1994 essay, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”. The shoras represented only a minority of workers because modern industry was so new and the oil industry was relatively capital intensive. For example, in the capital city Tehran in 1980, there were roughly 400,000 workers in large industrial enterprises. But nearly twice as many worked in the traditional sector of small workshops, often operated by family members employing relatives and friends and linked both to the bazaars and the mosques.
In addition, former peasants had flooded into the cities, looking for work and forming shanty towns. Devoid of social support from the Shah’s government, the mosques, often with donations from the bazaars, stepped in with much needed charitable interventions. Khomeini’s base in these areas was assured. As Harman pointed out, this made the possibility of the shoras expanding their influence into the localities, along the lines of the early soviets in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, much more difficult.
Outflanking the left
The left in the shoras might have made a difference if its influence had grown and it was able to formulate demands reaching out to the poor and unemployed. But the left was ill-prepared. The Tudeh Communist Party was compromised by its subordinate ties to the former Soviet Union which had a pact with the Shah. Khomeini’s anti-imperialist sounding slogan, “Neither East nor West but Islam”, proved popular, outflanking the left.
The new left political formations, especially the secular Fedayeen and the more religiously oriented Mujahideen, were inspired by Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. They had recruited among students for armed struggle to overthrow the Shah. This resulted in undeniably courageous military-style operations carried out sometimes with surprising success — military chiefs, SAVAK torturers and particularly repressive employers were targeted. But it was far more costly to the left than to the Shah’s state in terms of loss of life and repeated arrests.
When the mass movement stirred in the late 1970s, Khomeini’s clerical cadre was better placed than the urban guerrillas. Not just the street demonstrations but the strikes were often organised from the mosques.
The guerrilla groups were also ideologically trapped by Stalin’s version of Soviet Communism. This led to dogmatic rigidity and sectarianism both in political thought and organisation, fatal to fast changing events in revolutionary upheavals when political flexibility becomes essential: how to work with the Islamists when there was agreement, how to oppose them when there was disagreement.
Nevertheless all the guerrilla groups attempted a turn to the mass movement. The Fedayeen launched their new journal Kar (Labour) in March 1979. It called for the working class to take political power and destroy capitalism. “If the shoras act correctly and organise those who are capable and knowledgeable, and actively interfere with political affairs, they can develop into people’s organisations for running the politics of the country.”
Khomeini responded with the launch of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and the Islamic Associations to defeat the left in the shoras. But it was events outside the shoras that would tip the balance in Khomeini’s favour.
Central to this was the issue of women’s rights. The new regime wanted to impose its own version of Islam on gender relations. The Family Protection Act, the Shah’s minimal reform of women’s rights, was suspended. Men were given exclusive right to divorce and permitted to take four permanent and an unlimited number of temporary wives. Women judges were barred. Women conscripted into the army were dismissed. The hijab was to be made compulsory.
On 8 March 1979 an International Women’s Day demonstration was planned. The Fedayeen failed to support it. The day was a resounding success, involving hundreds of thousands of women throughout the country. Mob attacks in Tehran with the slogan, “Either hijab or smack on your head”, and including stone throwing and some bullets fired, failed to break their resolve.
The new regime declared a “misunderstanding”. Women should be “guided” not forced to wear the hijab. The women’s movement had made a dent in Khomeini’s plans.
The left now needed a generalised offensive on women’s rights, involving the majority of poorer working class religious women, for whom wearing the hijab was taken for granted. For example, setting up workplace nurseries and organising for women’s participation in the election of workers’ shoras.
The Women’s Solidarity Council was formed to unite women for such demands. Alas, the left and the Fedayeen in particular wavered then abandoned its support for the movement.
May Day 1979 also became a test of strength between Khomeini and the left. In response to planned workers’ demonstrations, Khomeini’s government raised the minimum wage and declared 1 May a public holiday.
In a May Day speech Khomeini warned workers to beware of non-believers. “Every day should be considered Workers’ Day, for labour is the source of all things, even of heaven and hell as well as of the atom particle.” As Abrahamian noted, this theory of value sounded more radical than Marx’s.
No less than four separate May Day rallies assembled in Tehran, undermining workers’ unity. A Palestinian activist spoke at the rally organised by the Islamist IRP. The Fedayeen and the Maoist Paykar group led an enormous march and rally. The Tudeh Communists also had a demonstration, with one sympathetic foreign observer claiming it had the most trade union support of the four. Finally, the Islamist left Mujahideen staged another demonstration and rally.
Meanwhile Khomeini pushed hard for a constitution for the new Islamic Republic in the first few months. But would it be a democracy, as favoured by the nationalists, or a theocracy, with ultimate political power with the Islamic “Supreme Leader”?
Khomeini called a referendum over the principle of an Islamic Republic which, in April, won an overwhelming majority. But most people thought they were voting both for Islam and democracy. The final constitution would take months of behind the scenes bargaining. The outcome — dictatorial powers for the Islamic leader and his Assembly of Experts, but some democratic constraints exercised by the Majles, constituent assembly, with some openings for reform.
There were also promises for alleviating poverty, a massive reduction in inequality and widespread public ownership of industry. Nevertheless the Supreme Leader had the final say.
There was no certainty that Khomeini would win in the new public referendum on the draft constitution — especially if the left had joined moderate Islamists to oppose it. But this period, starting in November, coincided with the “anti-imperialist” occupation of the US embassy, and the ensuing 444-day US hostage crisis. It redirected people’s anger and shattered the left.
Maryam Poya takes up the story:
“He was able to split the left completely. All the problems arising in the factories, among women, and among the national minorities, like the Kurds, and who had already taken up arms against the new regime, were due to US imperialism.”
The Tudeh Party fell in with Khomeini’s argument. The Fedayeen was splitting, with the Fedayeen Majority later backing the Tudeh’s line. Other left organisations like the Mujahideen and the Maoist Paykar group were similarly disoriented.
"So the left didn’t campaign over Khomeini’s new constitution. But the paralysis was by no means total. Maryam Poya reported from the industrial northern city of Tabriz, with an impressive network of left-led shoras and the heartland of the Azeri Turk minority: “Supporters of Ayatollah Shariatmadari, a leader of the liberal clergy, organised a general strike and mass demonstration against Khomeini’s Islamic constitution.”
This was a lightning flash of an alternative — the left in a shoras movement working with progressive Islamists, a re-energised revolutionary mass movement. Alas, it was not to be. The Tabriz revolt was brutally suppressed.
The Iran-Iraq war of September 1980 would consolidate Khomeini’s control.
The author thanks Peyman Jafari for making available his invaluable dissertation on the oil workers and the Iranian Revolution.
Assef Bayat, Workers Revolution in Iran (Zed, 1987)
Chris Harman, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994)
Peyman Jafari, “Rupture and Revolt in Iran”, International Socialism 124 (Autumn 2009)
Maryam Poya, “Iran” in Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks, 1987)