The Iranian Revolution - Past, Present and Future

Introduction by Alan Woods

The recent events in Iran are of tremendous importance to the working class of the whole world. Twenty years after the anti-Shah revolution was derailed and diverted into the blind alley of fundamentalism, the masses are once again beginning to stir. The student demonstrations, the massive victory of the "reformers" in the general election—all this is an indication of a fundamental change in the situation. The publication of Dr. Zayar’s book therefore requires no special justification.

Recent events provide a striking confirmation of the analysis which was made one year ago in the document First Shots of the Iranian Revolution. In that work we pointed out that the regime of the mullahs was in crisis, marked by the split between the so-called reformers and the hard-line faction, and that the student demonstrations signified the beginning of a new stage in the Iranian revolution. The brutal repression of the students, we predicted, could lead to a temporary lull, but this would inevitably end in a new upsurge of the movement.

Since those lines were written, there have been major new developments, all of which tend to confirm our initial position. The revolutionary process in Iran reached a new stage with the election of a "reformist" government earlier this year. By propelling the reformist faction into power, the masses struck another blow against the reactionary mullahs who have held power for the last 20 years. They took advantage of the elections to demonstrate their burning desire for change. However, no change has been forthcoming. The reformist faction led by Mohammed Khatami is afraid to tackle the reactionary mullahs represented by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Chicago Tribune (July 10, 2000) commented: "The new parliament, Iran’s sixth since the revolution, convened May 28 and has spent most of its first six weeks quibbling over technicalities and avoiding real issues." The paper went on to quote Mohammed-Reza Khatami, a leading reformer whose brother is President Mohammed Khatami: "Change in Iran will be difficult and gradual…Those who were expecting that everything would be solved in 6 months or 12 months must understand that deep social change takes many years."

"Meanwhile," the Tribune adds, "the reformers are cautiously feeling their way in the new parliament. They are a disparate lot—ranging from representatives of student groups to an organisation called the Association of Combatant Clerics—with no clear-cut agenda beyond fuzzy pledges of ‘more freedom’."

Khatami and his supporters seek changes through peaceful legal means, while preserving the constitution and the principle of supreme clerical rule. This is approximately the same as trying to square the circle. Despite all the retreats and compromises of the reformers, the mullahs remain implacable. The notion that it is possible to lessen the contradictions in society by voting for reform has been shown to be a complete utopia. On the contrary. The antagonisms have only been raised to a new level of fury.

After their resounding defeat inflicted by the reformers in the parliamentary elections last February, conservative clerics have used their control of the judiciary to hit back. Although militant conservatives control only about 30 percent of the seats in the parliament, they have fought a vigorous rear-guard action by challenging the results in dozens of races won by reformist candidates. About 20 seats remain undecided. The reformers control the executive and legislative branches of Iran’s government. But religious conservatives still dominate the judiciary and other important centres of power, and they have shown they are ready to sabotage all serious efforts to reform.

While systematically obstructing and sabotaging reform, Khamenei, feeling the pressure from below, is obliged to tack and manoeuvre. He defends reforms "in principle" but demands clearly defined goals to avoid any "misconceptions". "We don’t want everyone to advocate his own understanding of reform. If reforms move too fast they could lead to deviance," he has said. In other words, Khamenei and the reactionaries are hiding behind Khatami and the bourgeois reformers in order to control the movement of the masses. But his intention is to preserve the stranglehold of the mullahs over the state: "The constitution must be used as a covenant, in which Islam has a primacy over every law," Khamenei insists.

The only serious issue the reformers have tackled thus far is the press law that makes it easy for the judiciary to close newspapers. But even here the conservatives have made clear they will bottle up this initiative in the Guardian Council, a conservative body that has the authority to block laws it deems "offensive to Islam". They have used the power of the judiciary to shut down 20 reformist newspapers and magazines. They also have jailed dozens of prominent journalists and reform movement activists. Khamenei defended this assault on the freedom of the press: "Freedom is important, but poisonous materials [in the press] which mislead reforms at this sensitive juncture are forbidden," he said. "We will not allow the methods of our enemies to be used to carry out reforms."

Nor has the conflict been confined to words. The reactionaries have shown repeatedly that they are prepared to resort to violence when it suits them. An assassination attempt in March that critically wounded Saeed Hajarian, a key adviser to President Khatami, was carried out by a gang of Islamic vigilantes, almost certainly with the approval of the reactionary clerics.

Cowardice of Liberals

Faced with such violence, the reformers merely try to bury their heads in the sand. Their main preoccupation is to prevent at all costs a movement from below. When faced with the threat of a mass uprising, they inevitably compromise and close ranks with reaction. In an attempt to dampen down the mood of rebellion, the Liberals are doing their best to lower expectations: "Don’t be impatient!", "We cannot do everything at once!" and so on and so forth. Tom Hundley, the Chicago Tribune’s foreign correspondent comments: "The high hopes of a few months ago have faded. With a clearer understanding of how the game is going to be played, the reformers who swept Iran’s parliamentary elections in February are now trying to lower the expectations of their supporters." (Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2000)

Leaders of the reform movement—including some famous "students" of the previous generation who led the 1979 occupation of the US Embassy—continue to urge restraint and patience. "Some people who are frustrated may seek other means to achieve their goals, but we are urging this segment not take any illegal means, especially now that we have the power to achieve these goals through a legal framework," said Khatami, the president’s brother.

Hamid-Reza Jalaipour played a prominent role in the movement to oust the Shah. His reward, at the age of 21, was a provincial governorship, but over time he grew disillusioned with the clerics who were ruling the country. These days he publishes reform newspapers. This Liberal is very anxious to distance himself from revolution: "This is a movement to create a civil society. It’s a peaceful movement, a soft movement, not a revolution," Jalaipour has said. This former student leader turned wealthy newspaper publisher in his 40s, perfectly expressed the standpoint of the Liberals: "One revolution was enough."

Is this not familiar to us in the West? It reminds one forcibly of those sorry middle class ex-radicals who demonstrated on the streets of Paris in 1968 and are now comfortable reformists and bourgeois politicians who do not hesitate to refer to their "revolutionary" credentials (of thirty years ago), while urging the new generation to "be patient"—that is, to bow their heads before the inevitable triumph of capitalism. Like the Russian Cadets before the Revolution, their fear of the masses is a hundred times more potent than their hatred of the reactionaries.

But such weasel words cut no ice with people who are tired of waiting. The feeling is growing that "nothing has changed" and that therefore an impulse from below is required. Violent clashes between pro-reform students and Islamic vigilantes on the weekend of 8-9 July suggest that patience is wearing thin, especially among the young. The youth is the key to the Iranian revolution. Nearly 60 percent of Iran’s population of 65 million are under the age of 25. They have no real memory of the Islamic revolution or Khomeini, are clamouring for freedom and are growing impatient with the slow pace of change.

For months, President Khatami and his allies have appealed for calm in the face of the hard-line agitation. In remarks published on Saturday, Khatami had warned of a social "explosion" if criticism was quashed by force. "It is wrong to expect the people to do as we tell them, and to suppress them if they don’t," he said in comments marking the anniversary of the July 1999 raid. "We must not act in a way which would widen the gap between people and the government, something could eventually lead to an explosion," Khatami warned. "People must be permitted to speak freely and criticise their government because if they are not allowed to so this, public dissatisfaction will eventually lead to an explosion."

The Liberal Khatami was trying to warn the reactionaries of the danger of a social explosion unless they agreed to reform. But, as usual, such well-meaning warnings from the Liberals fell on deaf ears. The reactionaries have decided that the phantom of revolution must be exorcised with blows and bullets, not reforms.

The masses take to the streets

Once again the students have taken to the streets of Teheran and other cities. But the scope of the present movement is far greater than the movement last summer which we described at the time as "the opening shots of the Iranian revolution". The leading student movement, the Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU), organised a peaceful event to commemorate the hundreds of students injured in a 1999 attack on a student hostel, calling on supporters to distribute flowers under the slogan of "smile to reform". Reformist leaders held a seminar at the hostel where one year ago Islamic thugs attacked and beat up students. The aim of the seminar was to urge non-violent tactics in the struggle for greater freedoms and democracy. But many students ignored such peaceful gestures and official bans on rallies, taking to the streets on their own and attracting many ordinary people to join their cause. As soon as the mass of the students were on the streets, the demonstrations took on an entirely different character.

When students gathered at the university, they were met by police and Islamic vigilantes. Clashes erupted and quickly spread through central Teheran. Islamic vigilantes had attacked an earlier demonstration by students chanting slogans in support of reform and political freedoms. Witnesses said police did not intervene as the vigilantes punched and kicked students in the face. The violence of the police was met by an explosion on the streets later in the day. Hundreds of people, many armed with rocks and chanting "death to dictators", fought a vicious battle against dozens of hard-line vigilantes armed with rocks, chains and automatic weapons. The vigilantes were chanting slogans supporting hard-line supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Witnesses saw demonstrators injured when militants of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah, or Friends of the Party of God, charged with chains, clubs and broken bottles around the central Revolution Square, close to Teheran University, where pro-reform students had held a day of peaceful protests.

Newspapers reported that police and vigilante thugs arrested many demonstrators from a crowd that numbered several thousand at its peak. Some protesters retaliated with stones. Witnesses saw dozens of people arrested, thrown into police cars, vans and trucks that kept pouring into the district. Forces of the Basij volunteer militia that supports the hard-liners also roamed the streets on motorcycles and in vans, wielding clubs and working alongside police. By late Saturday, thousands of riot police were roaming the again-quiet streets around Teheran’s Revolution Square. Shattered glass, sticks and stones littered the area.

The clashes between protesters and vigilantes left scores of demonstrators arrested and many on both sides badly wounded. It was unclear how many people were injured in fighting between the two groups, but at least a dozen people were seen being driven away in private cars, most with head injuries. Less violent protests erupted in the southern city of Shiraz and central city of Isfahan. But events have already shown that the truncheons of the police cannot halt the movement. On the contrary. Once a regime has outlived its historic usefulness, attempts to preserve it by means of violence have the opposite effect. Every act of repression serves only to deepen the hatred of the regime among the masses and widen the abyss that separates the contending classes. This, in turn, serves to undermine the efforts of those who seek to paper over the cracks. The school of the streets has provided the masses with a valuable lesson on the nature, not only of reaction but of Liberalism as well.

The movement is already going beyond the boundaries established by the reformers. A report from Teheran by Reuters correspondent Mehrdad Balali (Sunday, July 9) concluded: "The protesters went far beyond what Khatami’s movement for political and social change advocates and crossed the so-called ‘red line’ for political challenges." (My emphasis, AW.) What was most significant about these events was that the demonstrators’ chants were directed mainly against the reformers. "Khatami, Khatami, show your power or resign!" some of the demonstrators chanted at Saturday’s rally. This is one of the first times reform activists have publicly criticised the president. "Khatami, Khatami, this is the final warning!" was another slogan.

These developments are indeed a turning-point. They mark a qualitative change in the whole situation in Iran. What is surprising is the speed with which the movement has passed from the parliamentary plane to the streets. This is an expression of the fact that the contradictions are too deep to be solved by parliamentary tinkering. The election of the reformists has merely served to expose their impotence. The movement on the streets was, in part, an attempt to push the Liberal majority in the parliament to go further. In vain!

As we explained one year ago, after 20 years of reaction under the rule of the mullahs, the masses are now impatient for change. The splits at the top are a reflection of the impasse of the regime. One wing of the ruling class says: "if we do not reform from the top there will be revolution." The other wing says: "if we do reform there will be a revolution." And both are correct. The struggle at the top, which is publicly displayed in parliament, provides an impetus to the movement from below. That is the real meaning of the latest developments.

After the demonstrations, Khatami’s people have (naturally) distanced themselves from the protests. "The reform movement believes in peaceful and rational approaches. It condemns any act of violence and tension," said Hayat-e No daily. In fact, the protests were held not only in defiance of an official ban on rallies but also despite reformers’ pleas for calm in the face of a conservative backlash against liberal activists. This fact adequately expresses the true nature of the reformers as the left boot of reaction. The reactionaries oppose demonstrations with police bans and truncheons, the Liberals with appeals "not to provoke reactions". But, at the end of the day, both factions are hostile to the movement of the masses, which they fear as the devil fears holy water.

Reactionary calumnies

Conservative newspapers described the protesters as "hooligans and anti-revolutionaries", calling on mainstream student groups to set themselves apart from them. As usual, the reactionaries try to blame the demonstrations on "foreign enemies". This is neither new nor original. In just the same way Kerensky accused the Bolsheviks of being German agents. But such slanders have no effect once the masses get on the move.

As occurred during last year’s protests, we see a kind of united front between Khamenei and Khatami against the mass movement. The reactionaries do not mind the reformers as long as they confine their activities to "constitutional channels", as long as they accept the rules of the game invented by the reactionaries, as long as they do nothing to rouse the masses—that is to say, as long as they do not lift a finger to fight for a change. "As long as the groups in the system do not clearly define their positions and do not expel radicals from their ranks, there is a possibility for the enemy to take advantage," said Entekhab, a Teheran daily.

The wrath of the reactionaries was directed not only against the demonstrators but also against the unfortunate reformist student leaders who had done their best to prevent the demonstrations and keep the movement within respectable limits. "The OCU’s strategy of ‘flower and smile’ did not last long. Violence-mongers created another incident," the hard-line Resalat daily thundered. The leading Liberals lost no time in falling into line. "Those who go to extremes, are definitely not part of the student movement. Student representatives are those who distributed flowers on Saturday," said Meysam Saeedi, a member of parliament and former student "leader".

But the pathetic declarations of the reformers only serve to embolden the reactionaries, some of whom went further and blamed Khatami’s allies and some government bodies for the violent protests. This is an obvious attempt to frighten the reformers (not a very difficult task!) and get them to condemn the mass movement (also not very difficult). Writing from Teheran on Sunday, 9 July, in an article entitled "Iran Reformers Denounce Street Violence", Mehrdad Balali reported that "reformist allies of President Mohammed Khatami distanced themselves on Sunday from pro-democracy rallies over the weekend which took aim at the heart of the ruling clerical system." Reformist newspapers tried to play down the street clashes, instead giving coverage to the peaceful events to support Khatami’s liberal reforms, strained by a conservative crackdown on independent press and liberal activists.

After the protests the reformist leaders even tried to claim that the students were not involved. The Office to Consolidate Unity, the largest pro-reform student group, was quick to disavow the rioters. "The demonstrators were not students," the group said in a statement. "[Students] had nothing to do with this incident." This is a plain lie. The fact is that the movement was begun by militant students, but they were joined by many ordinary Iranians, especially poor people. The Guardian (10 July) reported:

"A new challenge to President Mohammed Khatami government has emerged in the wake of demonstrations at the weekend in central Teheran where thousands of Iran’s poor joined university students in a battle with Islamic extremists.

"The spontaneous coalition on Saturday night of students and ordinary Iranians demanding improved social conditions marked a turning-point in the struggle to redefine the Islamic Republic.

"A year ago, it was mainly students who demanded more freedom and political reform. Now, the cries for change are coming from mainstream society." (My emphasis, AW.)

This is an extremely important development. The movement that began as a movement for democratic reform is being transformed into a revolutionary movement in which the workers are joining the students on the streets, and filling the democratic demands with a class content. For the workers and peasants, democracy is not an abstract juridical question. The struggle for democratic rights only makes sense if it is linked to the struggle for an improvement in the material conditions of the masses. The real reason for the demonstrations, and the participation of the poor and oppressed alongside the students, was explained by the Guardian article already referred to:

"Even before Saturday’s protest in Teheran, which left dozens seriously injured after Islamic vigilantes used clubs to beat back the protesters, demonstrations against electricity shortages and sub-standard drinking water had erupted in a number of cities, including in the oil centre, Abadan, near the Iraqi border." (My emphasis, AW.)

The fact that the protests have spread to other cities, and particularly the oil-producing areas, must fill the regime in Teheran with deep foreboding. We must recall that the decisive blow against the Shah was struck by the oil workers in 1979. The masses have joined in the struggle of the students, but have added their own independent demands for improved living standards, wages and conditions. However, it would be wrong to assume that the real motive for these protests is the deterioration in the material conditions of the masses. The question of electricity shortages and bad drinking water—important though this is—is only the spark that has lighted a fuse prepared long in advance. After twenty years of rule by corrupt and reactionary mullahs, the working people of Iran have had enough. Nothing less than a fundamental change of society will satisfy them. This means that revolutionary developments are on the order of the day in Iran.

Imperialists worried

The events in Iran are being followed with growing concern in Washington and Brussels. It is no accident that immediately after Khatami’s election victory, the Clinton administration spoke for the first time in nearly two decades of the possibility of a rapprochement with Iran. The Clinton administration lifted an import ban on Persian carpets, caviar and pistachios from Iran last March as an overture toward Teheran. For their part, the reformers would welcome US investors after two decades of frozen relations and are waiting for the United States "to make the first step", the country’s foreign minister was quoted as saying. "From our side the way is open for American companies to come to Iran and become active here," Kamal Kharrazi told the German weekly Der Spiegel in a recent interview. But in contrast to European governments, the United States has still blocked major business deals, specifically in the oil industry. Reformers generally favour the restoration of normal relations with the US but it is a case of too little and too late.

President Khatami’s visit to Germany is an indication of the real intentions of the "moderate" clerics. They would like to revive ties with Western Europe and the USA, broken since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah and Islamic militants held 52 Americans hostages at the US Embassy in Teheran for 444 days. Western Europe froze ties with Iran after a 1997 German court ruling that the 1992 slayings of four Iranian dissidents in Berlin had been ordered at the highest level in Teheran. But Kharrazi said that was all in the past now. "There’s no question about that," Kharrazi told Der Spiegel. "We want to look to the future and would rather look at possibilities that can bring us closer together." Kharrazi invited Germany to boost economic ties with Iran, saying that current Iranian plans call for investments totalling $13 billion. "And we expect that such a range of projects is of interest for many countries, including Germany," he said.

The pro-bourgeois character of the Iranian reformers is thus quite clear and is not lost on the West. Imperialism would like to base itself on the Khatami wing to head off a revolution and, incidentally, open up a highly lucrative market. But this fact does not necessarily represent a plus for the reformers inside Iran itself. Anti-imperialist sentiment remains strong among the masses—a fact that the Khamenei wing seeks to use for its own benefit. To the degree that the reformers’ pro-market economics adversely affects the living standards of the masses, it will only serve to accelerate their loss of support. Not for nothing did Khamenei blame the Western powers for the country’s social unrest, saying they planned to destroy the Islamic republic as they had the Soviet Union. "Why is it that America and Britain, which are responsible for 50 years of misery in Iran, now advocate reforms?" Khamenei asked demagogically.

The very idea of the American or European imperialists acting as the champions of democracy in Iran is just laughable. These gentlemen were the champions of the brutal dictatorship of the Shah until he was overthrown by the Iranian masses. How can they claim to stand for democracy now? These hypocrites merely want to prevent a revolution in Iran in which power would pass to the people. They want to install a weak pseudo-democratic regime that would permit them to plunder Iran’s oil wealth and reduce it to a satellite of the West.

The protesters, however, are not demonstrating for capitalism, but against the reactionary regime of the mullahs. In so doing, they are, in fact, challenging the basis of the Islamic system, calling for an end to clerical rule in Iran and demanding a referendum on democracy. This directly poses the question of power in Iran. The question is posed: who will convene a referendum? Who will guarantee the democratic rights of the people? All talk of democracy remains a nonsense as long as the state, the army and the police remain in the hands of the mullahs and their cronies. The pro-bourgeois reformers cannot solve this question. They are too terrified of the masses to lead a genuine struggle for democracy.

The only force that is genuinely interested in democracy in Iran is the working class and its natural allies—the poor peasants and urban poor, plus the lower middle class, the students, small shopkeepers, bazaaris and the like, who will look to the proletariat for a lead, once the working class is mobilised in the struggle to change society.

It is the task of all conscious members of the working class to fight for an independent class policy. In this way, the struggle for democracy can be the first step in the revolutionary struggle for the socialist transformation of society. The first condition, however, is for a total break with the bourgeois Liberals. No trust in Khatami! The working people must rely only on their own strength to put an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs!

The present protests were called on the anniversary of the student rebellion on July 8 last year. These protests ended in bloody repression and the arrest of the leaders. But, as we predicted at the time, the setback would only be temporary:

"Given the lack of leadership, repression may have the effect of postponing the movement temporarily, but only at the cost of causing an even more violent and uncontrollable explosion later on." (The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution, 17 July 1999.) This prediction has now been fully confirmed by events. The struggle will continue, with inevitable ebbs and flows, until a decisive settlement is reached.

About the present book

The present book represents an important contribution to our understanding of the Iranian revolution. The author is well equipped for his task, being a prominent and experienced participant in the Marxist and workers’ movement in Pakistan, with long-standing connections with both Iran and Afghanistan. This work will be particularly useful in the West where it is universally believed that the revolution of 1979 was a movement of Islamic fundamentalists led by the ayatollah Khomeini to push Iran back to the 6th century. This view has been assiduously spread by the Establishment which has a vested interest in discrediting the very idea of revolution in the minds of the working class of the west. It is, in fact, a vicious lie.

Dr. Zayar, quoting a wealth of original sources, proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the movement of 1979 was a proletarian revolution which was betrayed by the leadership, leading to a counter-revolution in which the reactionary mullahs seized power by stepping into a power vacuum. The working class and the people of Iran have paid a terrible price for this betrayal for the last twenty years, but, as we have seen, are now recovering their fighting spirit and taking up the revolutionary struggle that was interrupted by Khomeini’s counter-revolution.

The author has also provided us with a rich historical background, including much material which will be unfamiliar to western readers. It is a great misfortune that most people in the west are unacquainted with the marvellous achievements of the civilisations of the east, in which Persia occupies a privileged position. The fact that Asia and the Middle East, like all the colonial and semi-colonial countries, have had their historical development stunted and held back by the ravages of imperialist domination has obscured the tremendous contribution of these nations to human culture, art and science.

This cultural setback has been worsened in recent times by the menace of fundamentalism which treats ignorance and narrow-mindedness as a virtue. In point of fact, the best periods of Islamic civilisation, when countries like Iran made a huge contribution to human civilisation, were characterised by toleration and open-mindedness. Only on such a basis can the free development of art, science and human thought in general develop and raise itself to its true height. It is the task of the proletariat, armed with the scientific programme of Marxism, to defend the conquests of human culture and to fight against ignorance and obscurantism in all its guises.

The working class requires a scientific understanding in order to equip it to transform society. Such an understanding can only come from Marxism. Once the Iranian working class is armed with the programme, policies and methods of Marxism, it will be invincible. A socialist Iran, based upon the nationalisation of the means of production and a planned economy under the democratic control and administration of the working people, would be in a position to mobilise the tremendous productive potential of what ought to be a wealthy and prosperous nation for the benefit of the whole people, not a few exploiters whether they wear mullahs’ turbans or American designer suits.

Such a development would signify a new renaissance for the great Iranian nation, with a flowering of art, literature, poetry and science. It would not come to a stop at the frontiers of Iran. The example of an Iranian workers’ democracy would act as a beacon to the oppressed masses everywhere. The hateful regime of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan would not last a week under such circumstances. Neither would the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, or the rotten and reactionary regimes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. In every respect, the Iranian revolution is the key to the Middle East and, in a certain sense, the world.

A heavy responsibility therefore falls on the shoulders of the new generation of Iranian revolutionaries, especially the youth. The Iranian students have already shown by their courage that they are the worthy children of the 1979 revolution. But courage is not enough to guarantee victory. It is necessary that the new generation of fighters should equip itself with the theory and programme of Marxism. It is also necessary that they study carefully the lessons of the past, because he that does not learn from history will forever be doomed to repeat it. The present work provides all that is necessary for this purpose. I therefore have no hesitation in recommending it to the youth of Iran. Read it, learn from it, and then find a way to the working class. That way, the final victory will be ensured.

London, 25 August 2000