The Iranian Revolution - Past, Present and Future

Chapter One - The Historical Background

Iran is one of the world’s oldest countries. Its history dates back almost 5000 years. It is situated at a strategic juncture in the Middle East region of South West Asia. Evidence of man’s presence as far back as the Lower Palaeolithic period on the Iranian plateau has been found in the Kerman Shah Valley. And time and again in the course of this long history, Iran has found itself invaded and occupied by foreign powers. Some reference to Iranian history is therefore indispensable for a proper understanding of its subsequent development.

The first major civilisation in what is now Iran was that of the Elamites, who may have settled in South Western Iran as early as 3000 B.C. In 1500 B.C. Aryan tribes began migrating to Iran from the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea and from Central Asia. Eventually two major tribes of Aryans, the Persian and Medes, settled in Iran. One group settled in the North West and founded the kingdom of Media. The other group lived in South Iran in an area that the Greeks later called Persis—from which the name Persia is derived. However, both the Medes and Persians called their new homeland Iran, meaning "the land of Aryans".

By 600 B.C. the Medes had become rulers of Persia. About 550 B.C. the Persians led by Cyrus overthrew the kingdom of the Medes and formed their own dynasty (the Achaemenid Empire). By 539 B.C., still in the Cyrus period, Babylonia, Palestine, Syria and all of Asia Minor as far as Egypt was included in to the Achaemenid Empire. In the period of the Darius road, shipping lines were introduced, along with gold and silver coinage. The royal roads from Sardis to Susa and the postal system functioned with marvellous efficiency. At its peak in 500 B.C. this vast empire stretched westwards to the land that is now called Libya, eastwards to what is now Pakistan, from the Gulf of Oman in the South to the Aral Sea in the North. The Indus Valley was also part of the Achaemenid Empire. Achaemenid art influenced India, and even later the Maurya dynasty of India and its ruler Asoka owed much to Achaemenid influence. Likewise in Asia Minor and in Armenia Iranian influences were strong long after the fall of the Achaemenids. There was such an influx of Iranian words into Armenia that for a long time researchers thought that Armenian was an Iranian language rather than a separate branch of the Indo-European family.

In about 513 B.C. the Persians invaded what is now Southern Russia and South East Europe and came close to conquering these areas also. Darius once again sent his Great Army to Greece in 490 B.C., but it was defeated by the Athenian forces at Marathon. Again his son Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C. The Persians defeated a force of Spartans after a fierce battle at Thermopylae. But they suffered a crushing defeat at Salamis and were driven out of Europe in 479 B.C.[2] [3] After suffering defeat in Greece the Achaemenid Empire was weakened and fell into decline. In 1331 B.C. Alexander of Macedonia conquered the empire, defeating a huge Persian army at the battle of Arbela. This ended the Achaemenid Empire and Persia become part of Alexander’s empire.

The conquest of the entire Achaemenid empire by Alexander was regarded as a great tragedy by the Iranians, a fact which is reflected in the national epic Shah Nameh, which was written down by the poet Firdausi about the beginning of the 11th century A.D. More than ten years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., one of his generals called Seleucus established a dynasty that ruled Persia from 155 B.C. After that the Parthians won control of Persia. Their rule lasted until 224 A.D. The Parthians built a large empire across Eastern Asia Minor and South West Asia. During the last 200 years of their rule, the Parthians had to fight the Romans in the west and the Kushans in what is now Afghanistan.

About 224 A.D. a Persian named Ardashir overthrew the Parthians and seized the empire. After more than 550 years under foreign rulers Persians again ruled Persia, and this Sassanid dynasty lasted for more than 400 years. During those years Iranian art flourished, roads, irrigation and city-building all improved, but the war between the Persians and the Romans continued throughout much of the Sassanid regime. The Sassanid civilisation reached its high point in the mid-6th century A.D. Persia won several victories over the Roman, and re-conquered land which had been part of the Achaemenid Empire. Persian troops actually advanced to the walls of Constantinople, at that time the capital of Byzantine (East Roman Empire). But they were defeated there and forced to withdraw from all the land they had conquered.

The Sassanid Empire was much more centralised than the proceeding one. Zoroastrianism become the state religion. But during the regime of Shahpur I a new religious leader and movement made their appearance when Mavi proclaimed himself to be the last and greatest apostle of Jesus. In the end he was executed. His religion was later called Manichaeism. Under the Sassanid dynasty the exploitation and extreme oppression of the people reached its peak. Slavery had reached its limits and entered into crisis. Massive migration of the poor peasants had taken place in the towns as a result of the intolerable tyranny of the feudal nobility. But in the towns they were still treated like slaves. The accumulated oppression suddenly exploded in the form of a revolutionary movement led by Mazdak.

Mazdak was a great revolutionary of that time and his movement, like that of the early Christians, which developed under similar conditions, had a communistic content. His teaching demanded the equal distribution of wealth, forbade more than one wife, and advocated the elimination of the nobility and feudalism. Mazdak’s revolutionary ideas took firm root among the slaves and the poor peasants. His movement lasted for 30 years from 494 A.D. to 524 A.D. In the reign of King Nosherwan Mazdak’s movement was brutally suppressed and thirty thousand of his followers were put to death, but ultimately Nosherwan was compelled to carry out social and agrarian reforms. Mazdak’s revolutionary movement is one of the most inspiring class struggles in the history of Iran. This tradition has left deep marks on the long course of Iranian revolutionary movements.

In the mid-7th century A.D. an event took place which transformed the destiny of Iran. Arabian armies conquered the country and most Iranians were converted to Islam. The reason for the rapid success of the new religion is not difficult to see. Despite all its glittering achievements, the Sassanid Empire was characterised by extreme oppression of the downtrodden masses. Nevertheless, for the Iranian world the advent of Islam meant not liberation but defeat and conquest by an alien people. It changed the whole course of Persian history. By introducing Islam, the Arabs superseded the ancient Persian faith Zoastrianism, and from then to this day Persians have been Muslims. But their brand of Islam was from the beginning somewhat different to that of other Muslims. They filled it with a specific Iranian colouring when the Persians adopted the heterodox Shia form of Islam and used it as a weapon against the Arab overlords.

For several centuries the language of the conquerors, Arabic, replaced the Pahalavi tongue (middle Persian) the language used by Persians during the Sassanid period (the period of the Second Persian Empire). The imposition of an alien language impeded the creative development of Persian literature and poetry. And it was precisely here that the national spirit reasserted itself. The first branch of literature to break away from dependence on Arabic after about two centuries of cultural domination was poetry. This was no doubt due to the strength of the oral tradition in the transmission of poetry. However, Arabic influence remained strong and when Persian re-emerged as a written language in the 9th century it was written in the Arabic script. For some five centuries the majority of works written by the Persians in the field of theology, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and even history were written in Arabic. By the middle of the 8th century, however, Iran had become a world centre of art, literature and science.

During the 9th century, Arab control weakened and Iran broke into a small number of kingdoms under various Iranian rulers. But soon a new enemy emerged on the horizon. By the mid-11th century, Seljuk Turks from Turkistan had conquered most of Iran. The Seljuks and other Turkish tribes ruled until 1220. In that year the Mongols led by Genghis Khan swarmed over the whole area, wreaking havoc. They destroyed whole cities, slaughtering many thousands of people and put a sudden and ghastly end to the Abbasid caliphate. The Iranian epic is spattered with the blood of these national calamities; every page is full of reports of ruined cities and the appalling devastation perpetrated by the nomadic barbarians. But this too was merely a passing episode in Iranian history. After 1335 the Mongol empire in Iran disintegrated in its turn and once again an empire was replaced by a string of minor dynasties. Between 1381 and 1404 Iran was ravaged by the repeated invasion of yet another conqueror from the steppes, Taimur—known in the West as Timurlane ("Timur the lame"). But given the nature and organisation of these "hordes", the death of the supreme chief is normally a signal for disintegration and the dispersal of the horde. Thus, Taimur’s empire in Iran did not long survive its founder.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries a Turkish tribe gained control over several regions of Iran. In 1501, the tribal leader Ismail was crowned king and founded the Safavid Dynasty, the greatest representative of which was Shah Abbas who ruled from 1587 to 1629. He halted the invasions by Ottoman Turks and Uzbek tribes from Turkistan. Shah Abbas and his successors strongly supported the development of architecture and the arts. Isfahan, which became the Safavid capital in 1598, was know as one of the most civilised of cities. In those days Persians used to call Isfahan Nif-e-Jahan ("half the world"). The promulgation of Shiism as the official religion of the Safavid state acted as a unifying force within the Safavid empire and enabled the Safavids to channel widespread latent Iranian national feeling. On the other hand, it brought the Safavids into direct conflict with the Ottoman empire and led to two centuries of intermittent warfare between those two powerful states.

The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran until 1722, when an Afghan army invaded the country and captured Isfahan. In 1730 Nadirshah, a Turkish tribesman, drove the Afghans out of Iran and became king. He proved to be a formidable conqueror. In 1739 Nadir Shah took the city of Delhi in India. He plundered India and brought back an abundance of treasure. But Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747, after which there followed a chaotic period where various Iranian leaders contested for power.

In 1750, Karim Khan, a Kurd of the Zand tribe gained control of Iran. After Karim Khan’s death in 1779 war broke out between the Zands and the Qajars (a Turkoman tribe from the Caspian Sea region) During this period Iran lost Afghanistan and other areas that Nadir Shah had conquered. The Qajars defeated the Zands in 1794 and their dynasty ruled Iran until 1925. Finally the Qajar monarchy, proving incapable of developing a modern economy, gradually fell under the sway of western imperialism. They disposed of Iran’s economic resources to imperialist concessionaries in return for trifling amounts of money that satisfied their immediate financial needs and their daily luxuries.

Increasing dissatisfaction with the incompetence and corruption of the monarchy, together with resentment against foreign economic domination and imperialist political pressure, found expression in a mass movement. The revolt of Bab in 1844 was suppressed by the monarchy but the movement left behind a tradition of revolution that took the shape of various religious sects like the Bahai movement. Once again the mass movement erupted against the Qajar foreign policy of granting concessions to the British Tobacco Company. This resentment turned into a widespread movement and insurgencies flared up in different places. The outcome of this radical movement was ultimately the demand for constitutional reforms, which were implemented in 1906.

The movement for democratic reform was led by an unstable alliance of the merchant class and religious institutions which drew their support from the bazaaris, the shopkeepers and other lower class elements in the towns. The Monarchy was forced to concede a constitution in which bourgeois-democratic rights, like free speech, freedom of association and of assembly were granted and merchants and traders allowed limited rights of representation in a majilis (parliament).

In 1826 Russia invaded Iran. Tsarist Russia wanted to expand its territory and gain an outlet to the Persian Gulf. The Russians inflicted a heavy defeat on Iran in 1827, after which the two countries signed the treaty of Turkomanchai. The agreement gave tsarist Russia the land north of the Aras river, which remains the boundary between the two countries today. In 1856 Iran tried to recapture its former territory in north-western Afghanistan, but British imperialism declared war on Iran. and in 1857 Iran was forced to sign a treaty under which it gave up all claims to Afghanistan. The influence of British imperialism and tsarist Russia in Iran increased during the second half of the 19th century, and in the early 1900, a British Corporation, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, began to control the oilfields of south-western Iran.

During the First World War, Iran became a battleground even though it remained neutral. Russian tsarism was interested in defending its oil supply in Baku and the Caspian Sea. The Russians were involved in a ferocious struggle with the Turks in north western Iran. The British imperialists, for their part, were defending their interests in the Khuzistan oilfields. In 1920 Seyed Zia-al-din Taba Tabai, an Iranian politician, and Reza Khan, a cavalry officer, overthrew the Qajar dynasty. In October 1925 Reza crowned himself Shah and became the founder of a new dynasty, the Pahlavis. During his 20 years in power he suppressed the Kurds, Baluchis, Qashqis and other rebellious movements and ended the semi-autonomous rule of the Arab Sheikh Khazal who had British Imperialist protection in Khuzistan.

In the Second World War which began in 1939, Iran once again declared its neutrality. But the allies wanted to use the Trans-Iranian Railway to ship war supplies from Britain to Stalinist Russia. However, Raza Shah was to some extent under the pressure of Hitler’s Germany. By late 1930 more than half of Iranian foreign trade was with Germany which provided much of the machinery for Iran’s industrialisation programme. He therefore refused to co-operate, and so in 1941 the British imperialists and Stalinist Russia invaded Iran. They forced Raz Shah to abdicate, placing his son Mohammad Reza Pahalavi on the throne. The new Shah allowed them to use the railway and to keep troops in Iran until the end of the war.

The presence of British imperialist troops in Iran during the war stirred up the mass movement. In the majilis (parliament) a group of nationalists led by Mossadeq demanded an end to British control of the oil industry. In 1951 the majilis voted to nationalise the oil industry but the Prime Minister refused to implement it. He was dismissed and replaced by Mossadeq. Alarmed by his anti-imperialist policy, on 16 August 1953 the CIA launched a coup against Mossadeq. On 19 August the Shah returned to power.

Again in 1960-61 the political and economic crisis came to a head, when the majilis election was massively rigged. Political and economic unrest lead to a general strike which was suppressed brutally by the help of the notorious secret police agency, the Savak. The Shah introduced the so-called White Revolution programme of agrarian reform combined with education and health measures. From 1963-73 politically and economically Iran was relatively stable. Steadily rising oil revenues enhanced economic growth. In 1973-74 world oil prices quadrupled, and Iran’s oil revenue increased from 5 billion dollars to 20 billion dollars a year.

The Shah attempted to use these funds to turn Iran overnight into what he described as the fifth most powerful nation in the world. With this illusion in mind, he celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the first Persian empire by Cyrus in 550 B.C. in 1971. But the boom in oil revenues was accompanied by rapid inflation, massive migration into urban areas, a housing shortage with insufficient infrastructure and a widening gap in incomes. These conditions provoked a deep resentment among the workers, peasants and middle classes which erupted in an explosive revolutionary mass movement. General strikes by workers paralysed the system. But owing to the false policies of the Tudeh Party (the Communist Party), the revolution was hijacked by the fundamentalists.

At the peak of the movement, Khomeini was in France, where he got the support of the French ruling class, who saw in him the means of derailing the revolution. In fact, the real force behind the revolution was the Iranian proletariat, particularly the oil workers. After hijacking the revolution, Khomeini was unable to crash the working class, which was organised in shuras (Soviets) until 1981. After capturing the state power, he executed more than 6000 political workers of the opposition. There were continuous clashes and splits within the IRP (Islamic Republican Party), which the leadership attempted to counter, on one hand by organising suppression of internal opposition, and on the other, by launching terrorist organisations in the Middle East and other Islamic countries.

The Khomeini regime backed the Hamas Hizbullah fundamentalist wings as a means of diverting attention from the internal tensions in Iran. The social composition of these groups was mainly lumpen-proletarian. The irony is that before the 1979 Revolution in Iran this kind of organisation was financed by the CIA and the Israeli Secret Agency Mossad, in order to split the working class of the Middle East along religious lines.

By means of such methods they succeeded in controlling the factionalism inside the IRP and consolidated their reactionary regime. In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and a bloody war of attrition continued until 1988. On 3 June 1989 Khomeini died and was succeeded as Iran’s supreme religious leader by ayatollah Ali Khomeini. The factional fighting at the top reached a critical stage, which was expressed in the 1997 election, and again in the 18 February 1999 election. On 11 March Saeed Hajjaarian, one of the architects of Iran’s reform movement was shot. More recently there have been periodic bomb attacks in different parts of the centre of Teheran. Bombs have rocked Pasdaran in the North-West of the capital. This shows that the regime which seemed to many to be set to last forever has entered into a state of terminal crisis. How could it be otherwise? History did not end with the proclamation of the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran. How could it? Contrary to the reactionary dreams of Khomeini, history has never proceeded in accord with any subjective plan or the preconceived ideas of individuals, least of all when these ideas have an entirely unscientific character. For a time, it is true, even the most delirious reaction may prevail, taking advantage of the crying contradictions in society and in the consciousness of the masses who have only just awakened and are striving to find the way to the road of revolution.

Under peculiar and exceptional circumstances, Khomeini and his followers were able to hijack a revolution that was none of their making. The present work aims to explain exactly how this occurred. The victory of fundamentalist reaction in Iran would have been unthinkable without the disastrous policies pursued by those parties and groups which should have provided the working class with the necessary leadership. In particular, the Stalinist Tudeh Party played a pernicious role which effectively handed the workers of Iran, bound and gagged, into the hands of Khomeini.

The regime of the ayatollahs has lasted more than two decades. But all the signs is that it has exhausted itself. A new stage of the Iranian revolution is opening up before us. The whip of the counter-revolution, as Karl Marx predicted, has reawakened the revolutionary movement. The knot of history, which was broken after 1979, has once again been retied in Iran. It is the task of the Iranian Marxists to arm the movement with clear goals and objectives. On this basis, victory is guaranteed. But the prior condition is that the new generation of revolutionary workers and youth study the lessons of the past and draw the necessary conclusions. If the present work assists in this task, its aim will have been fulfilled.


1. Carlton J. Hayes, Ancient Civilisation, pp. 172-3.

2. Herododus, The Persian War, pp. 100-2.

3. T. R. Glover, The Ancient World, (Wars of Greeks and Persians), p. 93.

4. N. Keddie, Roots of Revolution, p. 107.