“Iran on the Brink” - Book review

Rob Walsh reviews new book by Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian (Published by Pluto Press, www.plutobooks.com). The book looks at the role played by the Iranian working class in past movements and the role they are playing today. A compelling read.

This clear and informative book tells the story of the struggles that have shaped Iran since 1906 and analyses the tense and complicated situation which exists today. It shows how workers' independent organisations have formed an important component of every struggle for democracy and against the imperialist domination of Iran, including the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of the Shah in 1979.

The Shah was the son of Reza Khan, a warlord who was helped to power by the British in 1921 and who tolerated no opposition. Reza Khan supported the Nazis, helping them attack the Soviet Union, and was deposed by allied forces when they entered Iran in 1941.

Wave of strikes

There followed a period of growth in the power and confidence of the working class, especially in the oilfields. A pro-Moscow party called Tudeh was formed which helped to facilitate the unionisation of workers. Mossadeq, a radical nationalist, was elected Prime Minister. Backed by a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations, he nationalised the British-owned oil industry in 1951.

The response of British big business was - impotence. However the CIA moved in and staged a coup-d'etat which installed the absolute dictatorship of the Shah. Astonishingly, Tudeh did not mobilise their considerable forces to oppose the coup, and the working class was left disoriented. Backed up by the power of the USA, the Shah ruthlessly crushed all opposition, whilst being portrayed in the western media as a "moderniser".

Under this regime the workers were forced to endure the most brutal exploitation, with workplaces like military barracks and spies everywhere. The only institutions which escaped the attentions of SAVAK, the Shah's security force, were the mosques. This was one reason why the opposition to the Shah among the petit-bourgeois layers took an "Islamic" form. Another reason was the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini, who criticized the Shah stridently from abroad and became a figurehead for the opposition which emerged from the mosques in the form of demonstrations in 1978. These demonstrations continued intermittently for months, despite the violence of the state. Workers began striking, first for wage increases, then for political demands. Finally a revolutionary general strike forced the Shah from power in February 1979.

 

1979 revolution

 

The main force of the 1979 revolution was the working class, but it was politically leaderless. The other forces, the ulama (Islamic religious establishment) and the bazaari (craftsman-merchants), acted together to oppose the working class, as rival contenders for power, soon after the Shah was deposed.

The invasion of Iran by the Iraqi army in 1980, encouraged and supported by the US government (in the period before their puppet dictator Saddam Hussein cut his strings), gave reaction the necessary lever to crush the movement of workers' councils which had formed during the struggle against the Shah. These same workers' councils had saved the country from economic catastrophe by ensuring that production continued throughout the chaotic period following the Shah's overthrow.

The new Islamist state mobilized unemployed urban shanty-dwellers (called by Khomeini mostafazin or "the deprived") into an armed force called the Pasdaran which abducted and killed militant workers in the name of enforcing Islamic values and defending the country against sabotage. Thus the workers' councils (shoras) were either disbanded or converted into "Islamic" factory committees subjugated to the management. Strikes were outlawed.

Once again the workers face harsh conditions and repression, only now their exploiters are ‘revolutionary', ‘anti-imperialist', millionaire mullahs. Since 2004 the Labour Movement has resurfaced as workers have been forced by their desperate hardships to organise to defend themselves. The many first-hand accounts of workers' experiences in the book help to make it a gripping read.

Iran and the West

The second half of the book provides a useful analysis of the antagonisms between Iran and the West. It demonstrates how Prime Minister Ahmedinejad uses and encourages the tensions over Iran's developing nuclear capability to justify continuing repression. For example the striking bus drivers of the Vahed company were rounded up by the Pasdaran and thrown into Evin prison while the state media accused them of acting on the orders of the US State Department!

It also shows the real interests of imperialism in the region. Arguing that the need for Iran to export its oil for profit means that there is indeed a compelling reason to have a nuclear power programme, it exposes the hypocrisy of Bush and Co on the nuclear question, on regime change and on "democracy".