Sam Azad is an Iranian born AWL member who was involved in events around the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. His story indicates the need to forge a movement in opposition to both war and Iran’s reactionary regime.
To understand the current situation in Iran — the dominance of an Islamic regime and the dynamic of struggle — it’s essential to understand the recent history of the country.
This history is indivisible from the development of capitalism in Iran. Iranian capitalism relied mainly on the development of the oil industry in provinces bordering Iraq. This, and the influence of foreign powers, was and remains central.
The land reforms of 1960 which led to further massive economic development, the expansion of cities and rural migration to economic centres are also key. This involved parcelling off land and the granting of unsustainable loans to peasant farmers. These loans and the individual farmers’ inability to pay set in play the dynamic of migration to cities. An explosive mixture — rapid industrialisation, overhaul of agriculture — laid the basis of struggles to come. The Iranian people suffered under the Shah’s dictatorship and the suppression of the most basic freedoms — of expression, assembly. For a period, any efforts at social and political representation and engagement were stifled.
The earliest sign of political opposition to the Shah — besides some strikes in the oil sector — was the development of urban guerrilla warfare. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the struggles in Palestine, sections of the intelligentsia — from the Tudeh Party, aligned to Moscow – took up armed struggle. They felt that previous generations of leadership (the bourgeois nationalists) had betrayed hopes of revolution. They found wider support from the bourgeoisie and religious ideologues. Workers who became involved in this activity were forced to adopt a clandestine lifestyle and cut themselves off from a burgeoning labour movement and the urban poor.
In the early 1970s and after a series of defeats, leftists turned towards organising workers. At the same time the religious right, mainly represented by petty-bourgeois elements, began to build on their radical Islamic ideology. Orientating around anti-Western feeling and counterposing “Eastern values” to the “decadent West” they began to build a base.
Socially and economically this trend was concerned with independent capitalist production — an Iranian capitalism. They organised through mosques and in the student movement. Khomeini — the main religious figure — set about opposing reforms, like the education and the emancipation of women, introduced by the Shah. Khomeini was forced into exile.
Two crucial events stoked the dynamic of revolution. The first was an order to clear the slums of Tehran. This led to a very determined fight from residents who were joined by students from Tehran University.
The second was the fire-bombing of a cinema in the city of Abadan where more than four hundred people burned to death. These furthered the resentment against the regime. At the time everyone blamed the Shah for fire-bombing of cinema but after Khomeini returned to Iran it emerged that Islamists were responsible. This is a defining moment of their political strategy.
As the boom of the ’60s led to recession in the ’70s, unemployment rocketed to two million. There was a lack of basic amenities and welfare. Widespread protests broke out, culminating in many strikes.
The demands for economic reforms quickly advanced to political demands for the press and the release of political prisoners. Revolutionary upheaval and skirmishes followed, and the imposition of marshal law.
The Shah had no choice but to retreat. Members of his administration were replaced and some prisoners freed. By this time the strike movement was in full swing and many foreign-based oppositionists organised meetings and protests.
Iran, being an important strategic point in the region, began to cause the West concern. The US employed huge resources in order to manipulate and set the seeds of defeat for the revolution.
The decision to bring Khomeini to Paris and put him under the world spot-light was a first step. Khomeini was promoted as representative of Iranian will and a presented as a legitimate leader. The Shah was deposed and replaced by the leadership of Khomeini.
Well into Khomeini’s reign workers continued to control some factories, but when the oil workers’ leadership were convinced that they should return to normal conditions of work, others followed. Sections of the left, liberals and nationalists were co-opted into the Khomeini regime, and by 1980 the Iran/Iraq war was underway. The Islamic regime was significantly strengthened.
In 1981 an onslaught against the workers’ movement and anyone opposed to the regime began — thousands were arrested, tortured and executed. The workers’ movement resisted these attacks but were brutally suppressed and what was left of the workers’ councils was replaced by “Islamic councils”.
The “election” of Ahmedinejad represents a similar phase to those seen previously. Failed attempts at reform in the 1990s were followed by further economic misery and the growth of discontentment in wider society. Workers, the poor and oppressed began to assert themselves and make demands on the regime. Ahmedinejad — previously a ringleader in the Islamic Guard — was put up by the right as a bulwark against this development. His imposition is a clear signal that the Islamic regime is preparing itself to crack down on these movements and to ensure the stability of the regime. This threat, together with attempts to pose as a regional power, should be a rallying cry for solidarity to the international workers’ movement. Those fighting back in Iran need our support.
• Interview by Tom Unterrainer