Over the past few weeks, in fact for the first time since Khomeini's seizure of power, in 1979, an Iranian president has been doing the rounds of Western capitals. If we are to believe the media, this would mark the latest stage in a liberalisation process which started with the election of a supposedly more moderate cleric, Mohammed Khatami, to the presidency in 1997.
Yet behind this so-called liberalisation, Iran remains a dictatorship. Many of the ugly features of this regime are just as visible today as they were in the worst period following the proclamation of the Islamic Republic.
The position of women in Iranian society should be as good an indicator as any. It may be true that when Iran beat the US soccer team in the 1998 World Cup, women were not prevented from joining the street celebrations and some may have even dared to remove their veils, venturing into football grounds from which they are usually banned. But the next day everything was back to "normal". Since Khatami's election, while there has been no change in the official status of women, two new laws have been passed which add to the legislation against them. One of these segregates women's medical facilities and another bans all photographs of women on magazine covers and any writing which might create conflict between the sexes, "contrary to Islamic laws".
Neither has there been any opening-up with regard to politics or the press. Last year two leaders of a semi-legal opposition group and a number of writers and journalists, were murdered by gangs closely connected to the secret police. Newspapers which had adopted a vaguely critical tone after the 1997 election have been banned and their editors jailed. And just this February, after the arrest of the Turkish Kurd leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the army was sent into Iran's Kurdish towns against demonstrators resulting in a number of deaths, hundreds of wounded and the round-up of known political activists.
Today, Islamic fundamentalism remains the cover for an iron dictatorship against the poor masses. And yet one should not forget that this dictatorship only came into being as a result of the insurrection of the same poor masses which overthrew the previous bloody dictatorship of the Shah. Through an ironic and cruel twist of history, their revolution was hijacked by forces straight out of a time warp. From a social point of view, it was sent hurtling backwards towards the Middle Ages, while at the same time the domination of capitalism was carefully protected. The aim of this forum is to explain how and why this happened.
Born out of the colonial carving up of the Middle East
Iran is a huge country - over seven times the surface area of the British Isles. It also has by far the largest population in the Middle East - some 63 million today. It is positioned between Turkey and Iraq in the west, what used to be the southern republics of the USSR and the Caspian Sea in the north, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. In addition to its Persian majority, the Iranian population includes sizeable minorities - Kurdish, Baluchis, Armenians, Turkmeni, etc.. - split from the rest of their people by the country's borders.
Despite its rich oil fields, Persia was never an actual colony of the Western bourgeoisies. Given its strategic position, it played the role of a buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and the British sphere of influence to the mutual convenience of these foreign powers. It was only after the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, following World War I, that Britain incorporated Persia into its Middle Eastern orbit.
But while it never had colonial status, Persia had all the features of Britain's plundered colonies. Behind the black gold whose benefits the population never saw, it was an undeveloped poor agricultural economy. Even by the time World War I broke out, the economic benefits of oil production were not at all reflected in Persia's social organisation. The political regime was still that of a feudal monarchy based on clans ruling in the various provinces. In the towns, the only form of bourgeoisie which existed was the so-called bazaaris. These were the merchants, traders, money lenders, small manufacturers and craftsmen, based around the "bazaar" - the traditional market area of the towns next to the mosque. A layer of clergy carried out the social tasks which would normally have been those of a modern state - that is education, health care and justice, but in their own way, of course. This clergy, as a privileged social layer, was closely tied to the bazaar out of which it came, and enjoyed a certain autonomy, having the right, for instance, to raise its own taxes for the services it rendered.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, this had become an unstable social set-up. In the so-called "Constitutional Revolution", which took place in 1906, the bazaaris and clergy joined ranks with liberal intellectuals in an effort to limit the absolute power of the feudal monarchy and the increasing influence of the imperialist powers. In this the clergy had its own reactionary agenda, which had nothing to do with the democratic demands of the small layer of radical intellectuals. In any case, this attempt was crushed thanks to the imperialist powers, both Britain and Russia. It suited imperialism, for the sake of protecting their interests, to prop up the weak and backward feudal regime. And it took the first World War and the deep social changes which took place on Persia's northern borders, following the Russian Revolution, for the country's social and political backwardness to be really challenged.
The making of modern Iran
After the demise of the Tsarist empire, Persia fell entirely into Britain's sphere of influence. But in several regions, nationalist forces began to raise remands - particularly in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. In the northern Gilan region, local anti-monarchic guerillas joined ranks with communist activists to proclaim, with the help of elements of the Red Army, a Socialist Republic of Gilan, whose existence soon threatened Tehran itself. Against the new fever for social liberation and national autonomy sweeping the region, inspired by the Russian revolution, Britain moved in to protect its interests in 1921.
Its chosen instrument for this task was Reza Khan, the military commander of the Cossack Brigade (which the British had taken over from Russian patronage after 1917) and a sworn enemy of the Bolsheviks. In February 1921 Reza Khan staged a coup, overthrowing the Shah's regime. Soon his troops were turned against the various nationalist insurrections as well as the Gilan republic. These were defeated with British assistance in a matter of months. At the same time the Communist Party and various radical groups and unions which had begun to form across the country were brutally driven underground.
As it happened, Reza Khan had an agenda of his own. His ambition was to set up a modern centralised bourgeois state modelled on the new Turkish state of Mustapha Kemal. But he thought he could achieve this aim of the bourgeois revolution without having the revolution - that is without the impetus of a mass movement - and without even a bourgeoisie to speak of. Indeed, the bazaaris, who constituted the only potential bourgeoisie, were opposed to any idea of a centralised state, which they considered too costly and which would have upset their trafficking and undermined the power of the clerics - in particular their tax collection.
This left Reza Khan with only a thin layer of support amongst the more modern-minded urban intelligentsia. In fact just enough to make up the cadre for an army. As a result the only way that Reza Khan's "modernisation" could take place was through the forcible crushing of the regional powers and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Thus huge resources went towards building a strong army - amounting to one third of the country's total production.
However Reza Khan ruled through a mixture of force and concessions. To counter the resistance of the feudal hierarchy in the countryside, he did not proceed with land reform and restored the monarchy. He placed himself on the Shah's throne in 1925, thereby founding his own dynasty, the Pahlavis. To stem the discontent among the clerics and bazaaris, he indulged in grandiose nationalist gestures, for instance by dramatically repealing some of the treaties allowing foreign powers extra-territorial rights. Likewise, for the benefit of the urban petty-bourgeoisie, he instituted some cosmetic reforms which upset the clerics, for instance allowing women to discard the Islamic veil, if they so wished.
As the same time, Reza Shah, as he called himself now, took various steps to develop the modern state he had been aiming at. In 1927, he set up the country's first national bank to counter the monopoly still exercised on Persia's finance by the British-owned Bank of Persia (in particular, it controlled the issue of notes). Between 1929 and 1933, the oil concessions to the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) were somewhat curtailed and a new treaty was negotiated in an attempt to increase the state's revenues from oil. Then, in 1935, Reza Shah changed the name of the country (known as Persia up till then) to Iran, in an effort to build up a national consciousness which would include not just the Persian majority, but all the country's ethnic minorities.
But none of these reforms could really free the country from the grip of the Western powers. With its enormous expenditure on arms from the West, Reza Shah's dictatorship remained dependent on foreign oil companies and banks and therefore dependent on imperialism.
In the late 30s, therefore, when he was denied a request for financial aid by Britain, he negotiated treaties for trade with Hitler's Germany, though maintaining neutrality when war broke out. When he refused the passage of arms to the Soviet Union through the territory in 1941, the British and Soviet armies invaded Iran, sending Reza Shah into exile and placing his more pliable European-educated, 18-year old son on the throne. This son, Mohammed Reza, was to rule almost without interruption from 1941 to 1979.
The postwar interventions of the masses
Word War II allowed the imperialist powers to increase their grip on Iran, with the US emerging as a competitor to Britain's monopoly. However the war itself had resulted in a number of social and political developments in opposition to the imperialism-friendly Pahlavi regime.
From 1941-1945, during the period of allied invasion and occupation, the unions, which had been suppressed under Reza Shah became active again. And so did the Communist Party, using the opportunity of the temporary goodwill resulting from Stalin's alliance with British and US imperialism. The success of the Communist Party in this period was probably also due to the fact that the USSR was still seen as the champion of the "rights of peoples". But the nature of its policy was clearly illustrated in its subsequent relaunch as the Tudeh Party - Tudeh meaning "the masses". The CP leadership was keen to appear as a broad "democratic" party, and therefore open to co-operation with the bourgeoisie, rather than one which referred to a revolutionary tradition.
In any case, the CP managed to rebuild its influence in the working class. By 1946, communist activists had established a Central Unified Council of Trade Unions (CUCTU), which claimed 400,000 members with 186 affiliated unions. In the strike wave which swept the oil fields and industrial centres at the end of the war, culminating in a general strike in July 1946 in Abadan and other oil centres, the strikers won most of their demands. But the brutal repression by the army decimated the strikers' ranks, while the Tudeh Party's leadership opposed any attempt at generalising the strike wave on the grounds that it favoured «a legal parliamentary road to social change». Within a few months, the Tudeh leaders were rewarded for their betrayal of the strike wave with three portfolios in government. But just three years later, the same government banned the Tudeh Party and its union confederation, on the pretext of an assassination attempt on the Shah. Thus the Tudeh Party fell victim to a trap it had helped to prepare. But it was the Iranian working class which paid the highest price for this betrayal.
However the war had also reinforced the bazaar which had experienced a boom out of supplying the occupying armies and the black market. When the $150m postwar settlement promised by the US to the regime did not materialise, sections of the middle classes turned to nationalism. This nationalism was further fuelled by the refusal of the British to pay the additional oil royalties demanded by the post-war government to compensate for the fact that out of the $5bn net profit made by the AIOC between 1914 and 1950, only $420m (a mere 8%) had been paid to the Iranian government.
This nationalist current found a voice in the National Front, a party set up by Mohammed Mossadeq in 1949. Mossadeq himself was in fact a rich landlord from the rural aristocracy and his "Front" was a coalition of various political groups all fighting for Iran to get a larger share of the profits from the oil industry - of course to the exclusive benefit of its weak and stunted bourgeoisie.
In 1951, when Mossadeq became prime minister, he used the wave of popular anti-British feeling to more or less stage a palace coup against the Shah, transferring power from the Imperial Court to the parliament - or Majlis - and nationalising Iran's oil to great popular approval, saying: «it is better to be independent and produce only one ton of oil per year than produce 32m tons and continue as slaves of England».
In retaliation, the British AIOC closed down the Abadan oil refinery and an international boycott of Iranian oil began. The British also sent troops to the Iran-Iraq border and increased their naval presence in the Gulf, while getting the US President Truman to pressurise Mossadeq to re-negotiate a new oil treaty with the AIOC. For imperialism it was all the more vital to force Mossadeq to back down as demands for the nationalisation of foreign oil companies were spreading across the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in the background, a vast popular movement was unfolding to defend the oil nationalisation against imperialist pressures. Already just before Mossadeq's accession to power, a general strike had broken out in the oil industry, with solidarity strikes and demonstrations across the country. Mossadeq's decision to nationalise the AIOC had made him a popular hero, the first Iranian politician ever to have dared to take on the all-powerful company. Then, in July 1952, when Mossadeq demanded to take away control of the army from the Shah, massive riots broke out to support his claim and in Tehran, after five days of street fighting with the army, demonstrators were virtually in control of the town.
It was only at that point that the illegal Tudeh Party, then the best organised political group in the country and the only force with any real influence in the working class, decided to join the struggle. Prior to this, the Tudeh had supported the idea of sharing Iran's oil reserves between the Soviet Union and Britain, while describing Mossadeq as an agent of US imperialism. But in a way Mossadeq had proved more radical by nationalising the AIOC. In view of the enthusiasm this generated, the Tudeh leadership changed tack.
But this about-turn was not aimed at providing a policy for the working class. Rather it was designed to put workers in Mossadeq's tow. So, in July 1952, they issued a joint call for a general strike with Mossadeq's National Front, forcing the Shah to back down and effectively depriving him of any power. The Tudeh's support rocketed even faster than that of the National Front. Within a year, by July 1953, the Tudeh's banners were followed by ten times more demonstrators than those of the National Front.
These were decisive days in which, once again, the Tudeh leadership turned its back on the working class. Reactionary forces were preparing themselves almost openly, with the help of the CIA which was determined to stop the rise of a mass movement led by the Tudeh. The clergy was now back on the side of the monarchy, fearing the rise of the Tudeh's influence. Mossadeq himself, although he knew that a coup was in the making, refused the Tudeh's support and began to repress demonstrations. For most of the National Front forces the "communist threat" was the main danger. And yet the Tudeh leadership still counted on Mossadeq to hold the fort. The Tudeh's activists, particularly the 600 members it had among the army's young officers, waited in vain for instructions to pre-empt a coup. On 19 August 1953, a military coup brought the Shah back into power, Mossadeq was arrested and the repression against working class activists began. Within the next weeks and months, 7,000 Tudeh activists were jailed.
The Shah's dictatorship
Thus the Pahlavi monarchy came back to power thanks to US imperialism. And, if it remained in power over the 26 years that followed, it was largely thanks to US backing - in the form of arms, training, permanent advisers and grants which maintained the large bureaucratic and repressive machinery of the dictatorship.
Indeed the leaders of US imperialism had major economic and strategic reasons to ensure that the Iranian regime would be capable of protecting the interests of the American oil companies on its territory, participate in the Cold War containment of neighbouring Soviet Union and help to police the poor masses in the whole region. And for 26 years, the Shah's regime played exactly this role, by being one of the most repressive and vicious dictatorships of the period - ironically with the wholehearted support of the same Western powers which, today, claim the high moral ground against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. There were fat profits to be made in Iran and no-one in London, Frankfurt or Paris would have dreamt of balking at the unsavoury methods used by the regime's thugs.
In theory the Shah's regime was based on a constitution. But in practice not much attention was paid to this piece of paper which, in any case, hardly gave any rights to the population. In fact, Iran already had some of the reactionary, if not medieval practices which are common in today's Islamic regimes. In the countryside, in particular, where the clerics dominated social life, women's rights were virtually ignored. More generally, the teaching of the history of Iran and in particular that of the national minorities, was prohibited. Farsi - the old language of the Persian majority - was the only official language and the culture and traditions of the national minorities were suppressed ruthlessly. No criticism of the state was allowed. To give an absurd example - a theatre group which had staged plays by Gorky and Brecht and then put on a play of their own about teachers who try to enlighten their pupils and eventually turn to political action, were arrested in 1975, and given prison sentences of up to 11 years. Ideas of social and political change were tolerated - at least among the urban petty-bourgeoisie - but only as long as it was clear that they could not be implemented in Iran!
The brutality of the regime was primarily reserved for the working class, the large masses of the urban and rural poor and all but the tamest political opponents, including the various autonomist movements among the country's national minorities. In particular, the regime's secret police, the CIA-trained SAVAK, came to be renowned for torturing its prisoners and its murder of a large number of political activists.
After 1953, the Shah did not just ban most political parties. He also banned the trade-unions which had played a prominent role in the postwar political unrest. In 1959, the regime instituted a system of state-run unions primarily designed to police the workforce, control potential discontent and help managers to ensure smooth production. These unions were usually operated directly by the SAVAK.
In the state-controlled Military Industrial Organisation factories, production was organised along military lines, with union officials often armed. This was even true in civilian factories. For example, in 1976, conditions for the 3500-strong workforce of the huge Isfahan steel mill, were described as follows: «To keep an eye on them there are 500 "security officers" who extend their snooping to the private lives and households of the workers. But as well as this, an armed company of soldiers "protect" the main doors of the factory»
Repression did not preclude strikes, however, particularly during the oil-boom years of the early seventies when some were quite successful in imposing better wages and conditions. In other industries workers were not so successful and their strikes faced military repression, where workers were killed, strikers were sacked or sent into the army.
Despite all this the regime feared the 3.5m-strong industrial working class and, above all, the risk that one day it might deliver a deadly blow to the dictatorship by taking the lead of the much more numerous deprived masses of the urban slums. Efforts were therefore made to create a deep gap between the workers of the industrial strongholds and the urban poor. A system of limited benefits was created in the early 60s, but only for selected workers, particularly in industries which were vital for exports (such as the oil industry among others) and military production, which made them seem "privileged" compared to the vast majority of the poor population. And to make the gap even deeper, it was made compulsory for workers to parade on public holidays in demonstrations celebrating the regime.
The countryside was also deeply affected by the regime. In the early 60s, the Shah initiated what he described as the "White Revolution". This included, among other measures, a limited land reform aimed at shaking the feudal relationships which had prevented the opening up of agriculture to capitalist investment. The estates of absentee landlords were meant to be bought by the state, broken up into smaller holdings and sold back to medium-size farmers while small farmers were invited to form co-operatives. State subsidies were offered to grow cotton, tea and all kinds of products for export, as well as to buy agricultural machinery and fertilizers to increase productivity. As a result subsistence agriculture receded and, by the end of the 70s, the country was no longer self-sufficient in food: for instance, 15% of rice and 20% of wheat consumption needs had to be imported.
This "White Revolution" produced a layer of landlords who grew rich thanks to the development of this industrial agriculture and became loyal pillars of the Shah's regime. But it generated many more who were discontented.
Resistance to the "White Revolution" was crushed ruthlessly - like that of the nomadic people of the southern Fars province whose encampments were strafed by jet-fire, leaving hundreds of dead.
But even where there was no bloodshed the "White Revolution" left deep scars. The landless peasants were its first victims. There was no provision for them in the land reform and they were often left with no option other than to flock into the towns for survival. But the same was also true for a large section of the smaller farmers. When, in the early 1970s, the regime reacted to the very slow growth of agricultural production by threatening to expropriate all small plots under 25 acres, many farmers preferred to join the urban exodus rather than be forced into co-operatives. However the urban economy could not provide for the subsistence of all these newcomers. Some joined the ranks of the urban petty-bourgeoisie. But the majority of the rural exiles contributed to the huge growth of slum districts and shanty-towns in the large cities, thereby stoking the powderkeg which was to explode in the hands of the dictatorship at the end of the 70s.
But this was not the only quarter in which discontent developed. The flood of imported goods increasingly squeezed the small domestic industry of the bazaaris, fuelling their hatred for the Shah's wealthy entourage. Their closest social allies, the Islamic clergy, feared that the land reform of the "White Revolution" might threaten not only their prominent role in the countryside but also the large estates which provided the resources for the maintenance of the mosques, their social welfare activities, as well as the subsistence of the entire clergy. As a result the large network of mosques which covered the entire country soon turned to more or less passive resistance against the regime.
By the beginning of the 1970s, therefore, the main pillar of the dictatorship was a layer of very rich capitalists, linked to the Pahlavi clan or to the state machinery. This was a very small layer - in 1976, it was estimated that just 45 families controlled 85% of the country's large companies. These capitalists drew the bulk of their income from acting as intermediaries between imperialist multinationals and the Iranian economy. But above all they lived as parasites of the state machinery, getting their cut on every arms and oil deal - by far the most profitable businesses at the time.
The affluence of this parasitic layer came to be symbolised by the Persepolis festivities on 25 October 1971. For the celebration of 2,500 years of unbroken monarchy in Iran, billions were spent on reconstituting the old city of Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Achemenian dynasty. Thousands of guests representing the main governments and companies of the imperialist world were treated to royal munificence by the Shah and his court of arrogant capitalists, under heavy army protection. It is little wonder therefore that, only miles away, in Iran's sprawling shanty-towns, Islamic demagogues had a field day exposing the corrupting effect of western values as the main enemy.
The opposition to the Shah
Indeed, the most prominent opposition to the Shah's dictatorship operated from within the ranks of the Islamic clergy. The high profile of this opposition was due primarily to the fact that it was the only one which was allowed to organise and carry out propaganda almost openly, under the cover of the country's vast network of mosques.
Not that the clergy was opposed to the dictatorship itself. In fact, in 1953, some of the high-ranking clerics had played a decisive role in helping to organise riots against Mossadeq in Tehran, thereby providing the military with the pretext they wanted to stage a coup. But many clerics felt they had not been rewarded for their role by the Shah. Instead of being offered government positions, the clergy had to be content with seats in the Majlis, which gave them little power. And in fact even that little say had been taken away from them in 1961, when the Shah decided to disband the Majlis and rule by decree in order to force through the "White Revolution".
The reforms were a potential threat to the clergy's social power and status. But the emerging spokesman of the Islamic opposition to the Shah, ayatollah Khomeini, who was seeking to mobilise support among the bazaaris and slum dwellers, was careful to leave aside the defence of the clergy's enormous land assets, which would not have been too popular. Instead he focused on decrees which extended the electoral franchise to women and allowed non-Muslim candidates in local elections. In January 1963, a referendum in support of the "White Revolution" won 99.9% "yes". This obvious fraud triggered a wave of demonstrations in universities, which were brutally repressed. The crunch came, however, in June, when Khomeini was arrested following a provocative speech against the Shah. There were massive riots in all the main cities. Martial law was declared and demonstrators were confronted by machine-gun fire. The official casualties were 57 dead among the marchers, but the opposition groups claimed up to 10,000. In any case it was a bloodbath, which alienated a whole section of the population against the regime for the period to come.
The following year Khomeini was deported to Turkey. He then settled in Iraq from where he organised a continuous flow of propaganda through Iran's mosques. Only this time, it was no longer to express respectful opposition to the monarchy's "errors". Instead, Khomeini posed as a firm enemy of the monarchy and a determined advocate of republicanism. But beyond his rhetoric, aimed at posing as a figurehead capable of unifying the anti-Shah opposition, Khomeini was bidding for power, using Islam as a lever to secure the largest possible support among the population and offering his services and those of the clergy to the propertied classes to contain the explosive power of the deprived masses.
However, Khomeini's Islamic opposition, although the most visible due to the clergy's special privileges, was by no means the only opposition, nor even the most active against the dictatorship.
Of the parties which had played a role in the postwar years, only the revamped Communist Party - the Tudeh Party - remained, if not as a force on the ground, at least as a significant tradition. Its organisation had been decimated in the repression following 1953 and its membership had shrunk from a high point of 40,000 members in the late 40s to a mere 2,000, operating mostly in exile. However, as events were to show in the late 70s, the Tudeh seemed to have retained some influence through the years of repression. But this influence was put at the service of a policy which considered that «the main task of the revolution in the present stage must be the transfer of political power (..) from the big landlords and capitalists dependent on imperialism and led by the Shah (..) to a regime of national democracy representing the united independence-seeking, patriotic and freedom-loving forces - i.e. workers, peasants, the petty-bourgeoisie, intellectuals, civil servants and the nationalist capitalists, whether merchants or owners of industries.» This policy, formulated in 1960 and followed to the letter until the party's final destruction in the early 80s, amounted to putting the working class and the poor masses in the tow of the bazaaris, in the name of Iranian nationalism.
The bloodshed of 1963, however, produced two new radical currents of opposition to the regime.
One of these currents, which became known later as the Fedayeen, was formed by young intellectuals who came together, from the ranks of the Tudeh Party and the National Front, on the basis of a common refusal of the legalistic methods of their organisations. They formed illegal circles to reassess the lessons of the past defeats and study the experience of those fighting other dictatorships abroad - particularly that of Cuba, South America and Palestine. A member of these circles recalled later: «We came to the conclusion that it was impossible to work among the masses and build large organisations due to the penetration by the police of all sectors of society. We decided that our immediate task was to form small cells and to go on the offensive physically against the enemy in order to destroy the atmosphere of repression and to show to the people that the "armed struggle" was the only possible way for their liberation». The founders of the Fedayeen recognised therefore the need for a political party representing the interests of the masses. But, adapting to circumstances, they gave up any attempt to build such a party. Instead they chose to substitute their own "armed struggle" for the activity of the masses, in order to «destroy the atmosphere of repression». In fact, they even went much further than this, when they wrote, for instance, that «a guerilla war is necessary not only to gain military victory but also to mobilise the masses».
Therefore, instead of relying on the ability of the poor to mobilise their forces consciously - that is through their own experience - the Fedayeen hoped that they would answer their call to arms thanks to the heroic example given by the "armed struggle". It was substituting faith for consciousness - an ironic choice coming from activists who considered themselves Marxists.
The other radical current which developed in the same period, and was to become the most important of the two, the Mojahedeen, shared the same fundamental approach. Except that their starting point was Islam rather than Marxism. And it was in the name of a "pure" Islam, that they carried out a policy almost identical to that of the Marxist Fedayeen throughout the 1970s.
That these two currents should have reached the same conclusions despite having such different ideological backgrounds was not altogether surprising, however. They were both the product of the same social milieu - intellectuals from urban petty-bourgeois families. Having no ties with the Iranian working class, they were permeated by the social prejudices of their initial milieu, particularly by its distrust of the slum dwellers and its disbelief in the ability of an uneducated working class to develop social consciousness.
Above all, they shared the same nationalist illusion that there was a possible future development for Iran within the context of the imperialist world order, simply by freeing its economy from the imperialist sharks. And this nationalist perspective took precedence over their denunciation of social injustices. In that sense, radical as they were in terms of action, the approach of these groups was not fundamentally different from that of the Tudeh Party, for instance.
The first terrorist action carried out by one of these groups was an attack on a police outpost by a group of Fedayeen, on 8 February 1971. Symbolically, it took place in the Gilan province, where the first Socialist Iranian Republic had been declared in 1920. Many other similar actions followed - the murders of high-ranking US and Iranian officials (including the Chief of Tehran police and the personal US adviser to the Shah), bombings of US and British companies' headquarters, attacks against banks in order to raise finance, etc...
However, by 1977, when the two groups declared a pause in their military activity, they found the balance sheet of the previous period discouraging. They had lost several hundred courageous activists, often tortured to death or summarily executed by the SAVAK. And yet the "atmosphere of repression" was just as heavy as ever, if not worse. Moreover they had failed to rouse the poor masses into action. In fact they were almost as isolated from these masses as they had been before 1971. Whereas, in the meantime, Khomeini's Islamic reaction had been able to operate unopposed in the urban slums and to make significant gains.
However, to their credit, these radical organisations had managed to survive despite the bloody repression of the Shah's police. Moreover their network of clandestine groups had expanded through regular recruitment. They had weapons, regular publications, cells in most large universities and activists in some slum districts and even factories. Admittedly, these gains were small compared to their expectations in 1971 and the subsequent sacrifices of their activists. But they were significant enough for them to try to play a role in the event of the poor masses erupting onto the political scene - that is provided they were capable of putting forward a programme which could become a weapon in the hands of the poor masses and relegate Khomeini's rising influence to the dustbin of history.
1978 the masses in the streets
In 1977, following statements in favour of human rights in Iran made by the new American president Carter, a number of intellectuals felt confident enough to challenge openly the Shah's censorship. Agitation against the dictatorship and for the release of political prisoners (there were between 25,000 and 100,000 of them according to Amnesty International) grew in the universities and by the end of the year, most of them were either on strike or closed.
Unrest was developing among the poor masses. In addition to a growing number of strikes, there were many street battles in Tehran's shanty-towns against the authorities' decision to evict their inhabitants. The Fedayeen groups retaliated with some spectacular bomb attacks. But this did not provide the rioters with any indication of what they should be aiming at in their struggle. On the contrary, it amounted to saying to them that the guerillas themselves could deal with the problem, without help from the streets. Whereas, at the same time, through the voices of the mullahs, Khomeini was declaring «the Shah deposed and the constitution void (..) by virtue of my religious authority», thereby pointing the poor masses towards the objective of overthrowing the Shah's dictatorship. Even before a mass movement had developed, the reactionary clerics were already taking the initiative from the hands of the radical opposition.
Then the intervention of the masses on the political scene transformed the situation entirely. On 8 January 1978, an article insulting Khomeini was published in a government paper. Theology students responded by rioting against the police in the religious city of Qom. But the fact that several demonstrators were killed sparked a chain of protests, which were in turn repressed and sparked further protests. In Tabriz, on the 18-19 February, 40,000 people flooded the streets. Cinemas, banks and other buildings were attacked and the troops were brought in. This was the first direct confrontation between the population and the army since 1963. By May there were mass demonstrations taking place in thirty cities. In Tehran the merchants of the bazaar went on strike and troops occupied the bazaar area.
The regime acted erratically, by both making promises for reform and resorting to military repression. It had also been mildly disconcerted by Carter's announcements. On the 6 August 1978, the Shah therefore announced free elections for the following June to elect a Majlis, or parliament as in fact the constitution required, where other parties would be allowed to stand.
But this was too late to stem the tide of popular unrest. And when demonstrations broke out in Isfahan, martial law was declared in the city. In Abadan, the main oil city, a fire broke out in a cinema in which hundreds of people were burnt to death. The Shah blamed the opposition and the opposition blamed SAVAK. The government resigned and a new cabinet took over, headed by the son of a cleric. He claimed to bridge the gap between the opposition and the government and reintroduced, as a gesture towards this, the Muslim calendar. But by September huge demonstrations were again taking place in the capital and, this time, one of the slogans was "death to the Shah".
Despite a ban on marches, the demonstrations continued and the army was sent in with guns blazing. On the 7 September the regime declared Martial Law in Tehran and 11 other cities. On the morning of 8 September, troops clashed with demonstrators in Tehran's Jaleh square and 3,000 people were killed. This became known as the Black Friday massacre and marked the beginning of the end of Shah's regime, because rather than deterring the movement, this vicious repression fuelled it even more.
The radicalisation of the movement
The working class had already begun to move in the Spring of 1978. Initially strikes had been largely in response to the squeeze in workers' conditions. But in Tehran and the main cities industrial workers were directly exposed to, and often involved individually in the political events which were taking place on the streets.
In August 1978, a new wave of strikes broke out, beginning in Tehran's textile mills and spreading to other plants over threatened redundancies and cuts in conditions. By this time, the strikers began to add political demands to their list of grievances. They called for an end to discrimination between men and women workers, the disbanding of the state-run "unions" and the expulsion of the SAVAK as well as all foreign managers, supervisors and technicians. By the end of August, workers had imposed the revision of the Labour Law, including the payment of unemployment benefits, the extension of holidays and early retirement payments.
Up to then, the main strength of the demonstrators had been their numbers and the determination they showed by risking their lives in front of the army's guns. But they only had the scarce resources available in the shanty-towns and their degree of organisation was limited to what the clerics were prepared to tolerate - that is very little. However, when following the Black Friday massacre in September, the Tehran Oil Refinery went back on strike, with the strikers joining the camp of the demonstrators physically as a block, the movement acquired a new dimension. Now it could attract the solid battalions of the industrial working class, with all their resources and means of organisation which the clerics were in no position to control. Moreover, the oil workers had the means to deprive the regime and its imperialist backers of their main source of income.
By October the impetus of the strike movement grew beyond all expectations. On 6 October, alone, 40,000 steelworkers went on strike in Isfahan. So did railworkers in Zahedan, copper miners, petrochemical workers at Abadan, postal workers at Isfahan and bank workers throughout the state bank. The day after, all the refineries, the national airline, the customs, the radio and TV stations, the judiciary and more than 80 industrial units in Isfahan were closed down by strikers. The strikes multiplied day by day.
At that point the main section of the country's oil workers joined in, including both the day labourers employed in non-skilled work and the relatively "privileged" skilled and white-collar workers, known as staff employees. On 13 October, workers in the Abadan refinery went on strike, to be followed on 18 October by staff employees in the Ahwaz oil fields. As one of these strikers said: «the very broad movement that developed in our country made us realise that we staff employees in the oil industry were part of this nation too, and so we also had to participate in this movement. We knew from the start that, if we walked out, our strike could play a very important part in this movement.»
Oilworkers numbered in total probably around 70,000. Production workers lived in what amounted to oil towns where everyone in the community was connected in some way or another to the industry. Oilworkers had no ready-made unions to help them organise. The state unions were mostly organs of state control. However there were a number of clandestine networks in existence and the mood of the rank-and-file was sufficient to provide the impetus for what amounted to an almost spontaneously co-ordinated strike everywhere, which lasted on and off for four months. This strike cut total world production of oil by 10% and domestic production in the second half of 1978 by 42%. As a result the state's income dropped by 21.4%.
By the 5 November, with the economy at a standstill, the Shah brought the army into government, appointing a cabinet under General Azhari. All newspapers were banned and the army occupied the towns and the oil fields. But when eventually the workers were forced back to work at gunpoint, conditions were already changed and they now exercised a degree of control over production. They had always agreed to keep up enough oil production for domestic use, but in many cases this oil was diverted by the army. As a result, in December, when they went on strike again, they halted oil production completely. Even when ayatollah Khomeini sent a special envoy to instruct them to resume production for local use, they refused. This illustrated the limits of Khomeini's influence when it came to the working class - limits which he was very conscious of, as was demonstrated by the fact that, once in power, he immediately concentrated his fire against strikers.
In Tehran, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the military regime, joined even by some of the soldiers themselves. Military rule, including the occupation of the oil fields by the army was failing completely to stop the rising tide. As a result General Azhari's cabinet collapsed and on the 30 December the Shah asked the old National Front politician, Bakhtiar to form a civilian government. By this time oil, communications, transport, public services, banks - in fact the whole economy - was at a standstill. But it was too late to save the Shah's neck.
Khomeini, self-proclaimed leader of the deprived
In September, the Iraqi government had decided to oblige the Shah by expelling Khomeini from the country. But he immediately found an alternative when the French government agreed to grant him political asylum. Thereafter, Khomeini used this new residence to multiply contacts with Iranian bourgeois politicians as well as representatives of imperialist governments and companies, in an attempt to establish himself internationally as a legitimate spokesman of the Shah's opposition.
In Iran too his supporters were busy building Khomeini's image as that of the "natural" leader of the movement against the Shah - despite the fact that the depth and strength of this movement owed nothing to Khomeini's imprecations and religious decrees. His portrait featured in every demonstration, his words on every wall. On 10 December, Khomeini's supporters got a mass meeting, held in Tehran's Azadi square, to pass a resolution calling for his return from exile.
Yet this did not mean that Khomeini's reactionary ideas were supported unconditionally by all participants. As a victim and an unbending opponent of the Shah's regime, he enjoyed the sympathy of all those fighting to end the dictatorship, but probably no more than that in most cases. As one oilworker, often quoted in accounts of these events, put it: «by firing on us the army has forced us to organise ourselves and even to arm ourselves. We listen to Khomeini and read the tracts of the Mojahedeen.» But this summarised precisely the main danger facing the movement at that point.
Indeed, what were the Mojahedeen writing in their leaflets? Their line at the time was summed up as follows: «1 - All forces must be united against the dictatorship. 2 - All slogans must be directed against the dictatorship. 3 - All progressive forces have a duty to avoid and prevent divisions. 4 - To stress existing differences is to provide weapons to the regime.» And they added: «We must insist on the leadership role of ayatollah Khomeini by demanding that no negotiation should take place in his absence.»
In other words, what this oilworker could read in the Mojahedeen's leaflets was that he should follow Khomeini's leadership without even thinking of putting forward social demands. Because, inevitably, such demands would not have been directed just against the Shah's dictatorship but also against the dictatorship of capital, while risking the creations of divisions between the forces opposing the Shah.
And it was not just the Mojahedeen who were thus surrendering the leadership of the mass movement to Khomeini. All the other opposition currents shared the same policy, including the Fedayeen and the Tudeh Party. Thus the latter's central committee «invited all forces and groups opposed to the Shah's regime to leave aside all quarrels and prejudices and to form a national coalition front on the basis of a national democratic programme, in order not to miss the opportunity which is presenting itself.» Of course, this national coalition could only have included all bourgeois forces, including the reactionary clerics, with a programme acceptable to them.
The blindness of the radical and left currents was all the more dramatic as Khomeini himself made no attempt to conceal his objectives. Thus, for instance, having labelled the mass movement against the Shah as an «Islamic movement», Khomeini argued that it had «been launched by the clergy with the support of the great Iranian nation. Its leadership should belong to the clergy and exclude any party, front or political personality.» Thus Khomeini was openly claiming the monopoly of the leadership of the mass movement for the Islamic clergy and the reactionary social forces it represented. And there was no-one, no political force, which was prepared to challenge his bid.
Instead, the radical and left current justified their total alignment behind Khomeini's banner in the name of national unity against the imperialist exploiters and the Shah's regime which was their agent in Iran. To avoid challenging the other class forces involved in this nationalist alliance, they refused to provide the proletarian masses with an independent perspective based on their own class interests.
By that time, the left radical organisations influenced a whole layer of the radicalised youth and a significant number of workers. This was shown by the thousands who gathered behind their banners in street demonstrations. But their banners were lined up behind Khomeini's portraits. Thus, reluctant or not, doubtful or not, workers were pushed behind the Islamic flag by the same organisations which had sacrificed so many of their activists to the fight against the Shah.
At that stage, Khomeini could probably count on the blind support of the least conscious layers of the poor masses. But thanks to the policy of the left radical groups, he was able to use the support of the most conscious elements of the working class as well.
Khomeini negotiates his return
By the time Bakhtiar was installed in government the imperialist powers had already more or less decided to abandon the Shah. Secret negotiations were already taking place under the arbitration of US general Huyser with a provisional government set up in exile by Bazargan, a close associate of Khomeini.
On the 11 January 1979, Washington announced that the Shah was to take a holiday abroad. He departed on the 16th January, leaving a discredited Bakhtiar in power in name only. By this time, the masses were holding the balance of power between a discredited regime, which had no power left, and a new one, which had not yet taken over. This was a dangerous stage for the imperialist and Iranian bourgeoisies. The level of mobilisation was such that a few weeks could have been enough for the masses to realise that they had the reality of power in their hands. It was therefore urgent for Khomeini to return to Iran in order to fill the power vacuum.
On the other hand Khomeini did not want to return against the will of the only remaining power in Iran - the army. In fact he had always shown a total respect for the generals. At the height of the confrontations with the army, when his supporters were mown down by machine-gun fire day after day, Khomeini had never called them to arm themselves. On the contrary, he had told them to «fight through martyrdom, because the martyr is the essence of history. Let the army kill as many as it wants, until the soldiers are shaken to their hearts by the massacres they have committed.» And it must be said that the left radical groups never challenged Khomeini's policy on this issue either, despite their past declared intention to bring the masses to join the armed struggle.
So Khomeini negotiated his return with the generals. As the days passed, the power vacuum was becoming more visible and demonstrators were becoming more impatient. Some were beginning to demand weapons. To calm them down, on 19 January, Khomeini's supporters called a large demonstration in Tehran to demand Bakhtiar's departure and the proclamation of an Islamic republic. And for the first time, the Fedayeen marked their distance by organising an independent demonstration three days later, which attracted 10,000 people. On this occasion, Khomeini's Islamic thugs gave a foretaste of what was to come later, when they attacked the demonstrators with chants of «there is no party other than the party of God».
Even before setting foot on Iranian soil, Khomeini demonstrated what his priorities were. On the 20 January a Committee for Co-ordination and Investigation of Strikes (CCIS) was set up by his supporters in Iran. The next day, this committee was already calling on workers to restart production, and for customs, port and railway workers to go back to work. After much negotiation, since the workers, particularly in the oil industry, resisted these calls, a few small production units and minimal services started operation. The results of this move against the strikes were not very impressive therefore. But it is quite conceivable that this was in fact primarily meant as a bargaining chip in the negotiation between Khomeini, the generals and, through them, US imperialism - to demonstrate that without Khomeini's help, social unrest would carry on and oil production would not be resumed.
Eventually, on February 1st, Khomeini and his provisional government landed at Tehran's airport after the army had evacuated the runway. His first speech was to reassure the generals that the army did not have to worry about the new regime, that they would be "independent" provided they served the people rather than the Americans. At the same time, he reassured the bourgeoisie that he personally would make no claims on power and would instead return to his religious duties in Qom.
The poor masses overthrow the Shah
Khomeini's main problem was to achieve a smooth transition, leaving as little power vacuum as possible. To this end, it was necessary for the army to remain intact. Yet by this time, the army was itself divided and sections of it unwilling to take repressive measures. The secret negotiations which were taking place between Khomeini's representatives and Bakhtiar were cut short by a sudden insurrection in Tehran caused, precisely, by the split within the army.
What sparked the insurrection was the launching of an attack on the 9 February by the loyalist and elite Imperial Guard against the barracks of air force technicians who had declared their support for Khomeini. The population of Tehran, on hearing about it immediately rallied in their thousands to the aid of their new soldier-allies. With the help of the soldiers they armed themselves. The city was soon mobilised - often led by the Fedayeen and Mojahedeen - in confrontation with the troops still loyal to the Shah.
On the 11 February crowds invaded the Imperial Palace and Bakhtiar was forced to resign. Over the following three days, armed demonstrators took over SAVAK buildings, arresting those they found inside. They occupied police stations and the capital's five main military bases, they broke into the armouries to seize more weapons and opened the prisons.
Khomeini and the negotiators had been unprepared for the situation and initially Khomeini opposed the insurrectionaries. However he rapidly realised that the only way to control the situation now, and prevent it from slipping out of his hands was again to put himself at its head. The military command announced that they would remain neutral from then onward. With the support of the military and the secret blessing of the US, Bazargan's so-called "revolutionary" government was installed in power on the 12 February 1979.
The next day, without taking any more chances, Khomeini ordered workers to return to work.
Immediately Khomeini was faced with the problem of keeping the mass movement under control after the successful overthrow by the poor masses of a dictatorship which had long been considered as invincible. He had to deal with the consequences of over a year of constant political unrest, of people who organised themselves, taking their own initiatives and of a working class that now more or less held the levers of power in the economy. Above all he had to disarm the poor population.
Khomeini never wanted the poor masses to arm themselves. However they had done so despite him and in fact, in his name, but certainly not against him. So, when he called for weapons to be surrended to the Islamic groups, many people obeyed.
But not everyone did. And in any case, this only resolved part of the problem. The militancy of the working class still had to be broken. Order and production had to be restored to normal in the factories. The spontaneous organisations set up by the strikers had to be disbanded.
At the same time, Khomeini had no intention of allowing the poor masses to take revenge on their torturers and exploiters. On the contrary he was determined to salvage what could be salvaged of the old state apparatus - not just the army, but also the police and even the SAVAK. And this was probably the most difficult task, because so many people had accounts to settle and were still determined to settle them.
The consolidation of the dictatorship
To contain and repress the energy of the poor masses, the new regime could not rely on the old repressive machinery. The old police was hiding and the army units were either still hostile to the regime or too sympathetic to the population. So special armed units were set up. First Khomeini's new-founded party, the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) set up gangs of armed thugs, known as "hezbollahi", whose job was allegedly to hunt down the "enemies of the revolution", that is primarily those who wanted the revolution to continue and deliver more than Khomeini was prepared to tolerate, in particular all left activists. At the same time a new military corps, known as the "Guardians of the Revolution" or Pasdarans, was set up. These were regular uniformed auxiliary soldiers who were given a basic military training and armed with automatic weapons. Their tasks extended from crowd control to simple police operations. In both cases the officers in charge were clerics.
To complement this military and police organisation, a comprehensive network of local committees was set up, based on the network of mosques and mullahs, to spread the regime's propaganda, spot any sign of resistance and deal with opponents. At the same time, Revolutionary Islamic Courts were meant to try the Shah's most hated henchmen. In any case, this was what the population was told when they were ordered to turn SAVAK prisoners in these courts. But while few torturers of the Shah's regime were actually sentenced, soon these courts were used to enforce the new moral order on a reluctant population, particularly on women.
In April, a referendum giving the population the sole choice to support an Islamic republic or see a return of the monarchy voted overwhelmingly for the Islamic republic. The previous parliament and constituent assembly was replaced by an assembly of experts of Islamic law - that is the mullahs. They soon drew up a new constitution which proclaimed the "rule of the chief mullah" - namely Khomeini - to be supreme. Khomeini was therefore given dictatorial power as the chief of the experts. In effect he had stepped into the shoes of the Shah, keeping the old state machinery practically intact, with a renamed SAVAK and unchanged army and police. The only difference was the growing number of clerics taking up key positions in the state apparatus.
Thereafter, the regime's strategy was to channel the energy of the masses along nationalist, or more accurately anti-American lines. So, in November 1979, the occupation of the US embassy by a group of Islamic students, was the pretext for endless speeches and demonstrations against the US "evil" for a whole year. Then, in September 1980, the Iran-Iraq war broke out, providing the regime with a new basis for mobilising the population, this time under the army's control, and a permanent pretext to crush all opposition under the accusation of "high treason".
In the working class, restoring order proved somewhat more difficult. Initially, like in the rest of the poor population, the majority of the population saw the Khomeini regime's installation in power as their victory. But there were sections of the working class who did not - activists in large factories like the Caterpillar plant or Tehran's Zagross factory, in the oil industry, in plants in the Caspian Sea area, etc.. But even those who had supported Khomeini aspired to a lasting change in the power relations in their factories.
With the flight of the Shah, the industrial owners and their senior managers had fled as well, together with 800 foreign experts mainly from the oil industry. So workers occupied the vacuum and in effect took control of their own factories. This was the origin of the so-called "shoras" or factory committees which emerged to run industry in the months following the revolution. They were shop-floor committees which could now operate openly for the first time and consisted of elected blue and white collar workers irrespective of their trade, skill or sex, whose main concern was to retain control of their workplaces.
In most cases, these shoras did not see themselves as being in opposition to the regime's policy. Sometimes their leaders were themselves devout Muslims. But even in that case, they often found themselves at odds with the government, when they tried to defend the interests of the workers they represented. This only began to change later when Khomeini resorted to the tactic of sending his own supporters to take over control of the shoras.
Whether these committees could have been the embryos of independent class organisations remains an open question. But in any case, this would have required another perspective than that of supporting the government and, even at this late stage, the left organisations whose activists were involved in the shoras chose not to put forward such a perspective.
Bazargan's provisional government expressed immediate opposition to the shoras, stating that the triumph of the revolution had eliminated their tasks, and he attempted to reintroduce the one-man management system, starting with the installation of so-called "liberal-minded" managers. But this was met with determined resistance. The provisional government was faced with another outbreak of strikes and was forced to pay a backlog of unpaid wages, increase wage levels substantially and take over some 483 factories.
The shoras established a habit of systematically scrutinising all the companies' documents, sacking the old managers, but also the new ones appointed by the provisional government. So, towards the end of May 1979, the government introduced a law of "Special Force" aimed at preventing the shoras from intervening «in the affairs of the management» and interfering with appointments. Then, in September 1979, the government launched an offensive against the shoras by setting up Islamic Associations in the workplaces. Finally, by June 1981, all shoras, even those controlled by the Islamic Associations, were banned.
The revolution that never was
Throughout this period of consolidation of Khomeini's power, the resistance was not limited to the working class. Soldiers who had set up their own shoras in the army and begun to dismiss their former officers, put up some resistance too. Students and women demonstrated in the capital against the measures which affected them directly.
Yet, during all this time, the criticisms of the left organisations towards the regime never went further than to demand a "genuine constitution", a "really popular army" or a "radical purge" of the state, as the Fedayeen did. But all these demands were addressed to Khomeini's regime, thereby fuelling the illusion that this regime, with its quasi-fascist features evidently designed to crush any opposition within the poor masses, might be pressurised into giving in to these demands. The Mojahedeen were consistent with their original ideas. They stuck until the bitter end to the illusion that a radical Islam, in the form of a reformed Islamic Republic, would deliver what the poor masses had been fighting for in the revolution. They even joined the army enthusiastically to defend this Republic against Iraq, only to end up jailed and tortured by the same Republic in the first few months of the war. As to the Tudeh Party, its policy was simply abject. Its leadership justified all the measures and repressive moves of the regime, including the censorship, the liquidation of the other left organisations and the attacks against the working class. Eventually, 1500 of its leading cadres were jailed and in many cases executed in February 1983, when the Tudeh Party was banned.Thousands of left activists lost their lives in the three years which followed the revolution, eradicating any kind of working class and left ideas for many years.
Yet was this inevitable? Mixed feelings and opposition to Khomeini's policy grew rapidly in the months following the overthrow of the Shah. This was illustrated by the four separate demonstrations which took place on May 1st 1979. The demonstration organised by the IRP was focused on anti-communist slogans. That called by the Mojahedeen displayed portraits of Khomeini and "social" quotes from the Koran. The Tudeh Party turned its own demonstration into a celebration of the Islamic Republic. And the demonstration organised by the Fedayeen and various smaller left groups, the only one which took some distance from the new regime, chanted anti-imperialist slogans and demanded the legalisation of strike action and the right for workers to participate in the writing of the future constitution. But the fact was that all four demonstrations attracted about the same number of people - around 100,000.
By the Summer of 1979, Khomeini had lost all support among the national minorities, following his offensive in Kurdistan. By December of that year, the popularity of the regime had dropped so much that the turnout for the referendum on the Constitution was down to a mere 40%. And yet, even by that time, the energy displayed by the masses in the revolutionary days was still far from being exhausted, as was shown, for instance by the on-going resistance in the working class.
The weakness of the left groups was not in their numbers or their lack of influence during that year, but their failure to put forward a policy which could offer a real challenge to the regime by providing a perspective to the poor masses.
The strength of Khomeini was to claim that ancient religious beliefs could provide an answer to the aspirations for freedom and social justice of the poor. His propaganda was always primarily targeted at the "deprived" as he used to call them. It was among the deprived youth that he recruited his "hezbollahi", "Guardians of the Revolution" and the members of the local committees which enforced his dictatorship in the initial period. This did not give any real power to those involved, but it gave them a certain sense of dignity. Being recruited as an armed Pasdaran was to become "the king of the neighbourhood". It was a way for them to get a revenge on the real or alleged privileged "enemies" whom they were instructed to beat up.
Was it impossible for a revolutionary current to pre-empt such demagogy? Was it impossible to offer these deprived youth another answer to their aspirations? That of a society where they would have a place of their own, a society that they would build themselves, by first ridding the present one of all privileges? Of course, the forces of a revolutionary group would not have been sufficient to make such a perspective credible. But the forces of the Iranian working class, welded together behind such a perspective, would have given it a considerable weight in the slums and shanty-towns of Iran. Such a perspective would have involved joining forces with the poor masses of the whole region, across national and ethnic boundaries, to fight for a society free of capitalist exploitation, imperialist domination and national oppression.
And certainly it would not have been more difficult for the working class of Iran to convince the millions of urban poor that their future lay in this direction, than for Khomeini to lure them into thinking that it lay in the dusty pages of an ancient religious book.