International Socialist Review Issue 9, August-September 2000
The Iranian Revolution
By Saman Sepehri
The Iranian revolution launched Islam as a new liberating force in the eyes of many in the Middle East. While Islamic fundamentalism has been a thorn in the side of U.S. imperialism, for thousands in the region, it has become the symbol of resistance to Western political and economic domination. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the image of American diplomats held hostage cast fundamentalism as a symbol of resistance to the U.S. and as the main enemy of the U.S. abroad.
Moreover, since the Iranian revolution, the U.S. has had to adapt to continuing volatility in the area, shifting its regional policy on security in the Persian Gulf and the flow of oil through it. Before the February 1979 Iranian revolution, the U.S. relied on the Shah and other regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, for security in the Middle Eastwith the Shah acting as policeman of the Gulfs oil routes.
Since the revolution, not only has the U.S. had to intervene directly in the Gulf, but it has been in a perpetual military conflict in the area:
In 1987, after seven years of containing the damage from the war between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. mobilized the largest naval force since the Vietnam War to help Iraq defeat Iran.
Only four years later in 1991, the U.S. launched its first full-scale war since Vietnam against Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whom it had armed and supported in the war against Iran. The U.S. continues to bomb Iraq and maintains sanctions that have starved tens of thousands of Iraqis. It also still maintains a trade embargo against Iran.
The Shah was installed into power by a CIA-planned coup detat in 1953 that toppled Irans popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq had brought the wrath of the Western governments on himself by nationalizing the Iranian oil industry, which was owned and run by Britains Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until the 1950s.
Britain had discovered oil in Iran in 1908 and received a concession for the exclusive development of Iranian oil fields from the weak Iranian government. Over the next 25 years, the British made more than 200 million pounds from the sale of Iranian oil, while paying Iran only 16 million pounds.1
After the Second World War, Mossadeq led a nationalist movement that challenged British control of Iranian oil. When Mossadeq nationalized the oil fields, Western oil companies organized a boycott of Iranian oil. As the movement radicalized, involving mass protests of workers and the urban poor, some capitalists who had initially backed Mossadeq grew apprehensive. This opened the door to Western covert intervention.
In August 1953, the CIA engineered the coup that brought down the Mossadeq government and installed U.S. ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah. The U.S. intervention not only put an end to the nationalist challenge of Mossadeq, but also established the U.S. as the dominant power in the region, wresting away control of Mideast oil from Britain. Alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran became a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy to ensure the stability and safety of the oil supply in the region.
In the following 25 years, the Shah established strong relations with the U.S. and Israel. Using massive U.S. military aid and oil profits, which had grown from $34 million in 1955 to $22 billion in 1973, Iran became the worlds largest arms importer in the 1970s.2 The Shah built a large armywith an air force rivaling that of Francewhich became the guardian of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.
The Shah also crushed all opposition from the working class and the left, jailing and torturing some 20,000 political prisoners to make Iran a haven for U.S. companies. At the same time, the oil money and U.S. military aid that flowed into Iran served to industrialize the country and create a sizable working class, with some 2.5 million people employed in manufacturing, and 70,000 workers in the all-important oil industry.
Although the Iranian revolution of 1979 resulted in the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic, it was the mobilization of the working class and the poor that brought the Shahs regime to its knees. In 1975, a drop in oil revenuesIrans main source of incomeled to a serious economic crisis. This set the stage for the protests that eventually toppled the Shahs regime.
In June 1977, the first protests against the Shah in 14 years took place involving thousands of slum dwellers from Tehran, Irans capital city. Cuts in wages also sparked strikes, which peaked in July when General Motors workers set the factory on fire in protest.3
The protests by workers and the urban poor forced the Shah to allow some dissent in order to vent the anger against him. This encouraged other sectors of society to openly protest the regime. Intellectuals, who had been silenced by the regime, the clergy (known as mullahs) and their alliesthe traditional merchants, shopkeepers and small business owners (known as the Bazaar) who had felt left out of the earlier economic boom and squeezed by foreign companiesjoined the protests.
Between October 1977 and September 1978, anti-Shah protests grew from weekly to daily events. The protests culminated in a demonstration of some 2 million people in Tehran on September 7, 1978. It was among the largest demonstrations in history. In response, the Shah imposed martial law and his troops massacred more than 2,000 demonstrators.
While the street demonstrations were a massive show of force, it was the subsequent strikes that broke the back of the Shahs regime. When martial law threatened to end the protests, Irans 30,000 oil workers struck. They brought the country to a standstill. This gave the revolution new momentum, sparking a mass strike wave.
Workers struck and took over factories, offices, hospitals and universities nationwide. They set up democratic workers committees (called shoras), and either bypassed or simply chased out owners and managers. Slum dwellers set up neighborhood committees around local mosques. As the Shahs army and the police began to disintegrate, these committees took over the patrolling of the neighborhoods.
The main left organizationsPeoples Fedayeen, Peoples Mojahedin guerrillas and the Communist Tudeh Partywhich for years had been repressed brutally by the Shah, resurfaced during the revolution and enjoyed great popularity. As the army began to disintegrate, the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin guerrillas took the initiative and urged sections of the armed forces, notably the air force cadets, to mutiny and arm the people in the streets.
On February 11, 1979, with sections of the Shahs army in rebellion, Khomeinis forces and his coalition of clergy and liberal capitalist politicians took power. Khomeini, just returned from exile, had since the early 1960s been identified as a religious leader who had conducted an extended propaganda campaign against the Shah.
It was the working class who had been crucial in giving the movement new impetus and moving the struggle to a new level at vital points in September. And it had been workers strikes, especially the oil workers strike, that had broken the back of the regime. But if the workers committees and the mass strikes had played a crucial role in the revolution, why had the religious opposition taken power?
Phil Marshall explains that while the level of organization within the factories, plants and offices was high, there was little co-ordination outside the workplaces.4 He describes a situation in which the strike committees held control in hundreds of workplaces. But nowhere were the committees moving towards a co-ordinated attack on the structure of the capitalist system.5
If the workers strike committees that had made the revolution possible did not lead it, the neighborhood committees built around the mosques played a key role in allowing the clergy to take control of the movement.6 The strike committees were the channels through which the working class could express its opposition to the regime and organize against it, but the neighborhood committees (komitehs) and the neighborhood mosques became organizing poles for the marginalized urban poor. This was aided by the fact that throughout his rule, the Shah was more tolerant of religious opposition, allowing a small space for the mullahs to express their views while other forces were completely smashed.
Khomeini and the clergy did not gain leadership by advocating the wearing of the veil for women, that minority religions be suppressed, and so on. Khomeini offered up radical, populist rhetoric and portrayed Islam as a religion of the poor and oppressed. Marshall describes the effect of this strategy on the movement:
While the mullahs could not mobilize the working class, they could dominate the movement of the streets and through Khomeinis radical rhetoric, project themselves as the embodiment of the national opposition.7