Sunday, April 26, 2009

Austerity and corruption

Austerity and corruption

Yassamine Mather calls on the left to boycott the presidential and parliamentary elections

On the fringes of the G20 and Nato meetings last week the thorny issue of US-Iran relations and the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran were once more discussed.

David Petraeus, commander of American forces in the Middle East, once more raised the prospect of an Israeli “pre-emptive” strike against Tehran: “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it.” Meanwhile, US defence secretary Robert Gates claimed Israel will not attack Iran this year.

There were contradictory reports regarding the first official meeting between Iranian and US diplomats at a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31. Prior to the meeting there were rumours that Barack Obama’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the head of Iran’s delegation, deputy foreign minister Mohammad Akhundzadeh, were to hold separate discussions. At the end of the conference, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told reporters that such a meeting had in fact taken place

Iran’s account was different. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashavi told the Mehr news agency: “There was no official or unofficial meeting or conversation between the representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and America on the sidelines of the conference, and the news about this has been dismissed.”

In the US itself, pro-Israel groups hoping to use Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons plans as a pretext to impose ‘regime change’ rallied some of the most powerful Democrats in the US Congress to their side. The Congressmen sent a letter to Obama urging stepped-up action against Iran. Signed by several key Democratic lawmakers, including Steny Hoyer, the House of Representatives majority leader, the letter backs the Obama administration’s pledge to pursue talks with Iran, but insists that engagement must be “serious and credible”, not “open-ended”. Talks should be launched “as soon as possible”, the letter states, and if they fail to produce results quickly, then Obama should use executive orders to implement various sanctions.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was pleased: “This is an important letter and one that AIPAC applauds,” spokesman Josh Block said. “It expresses support for current efforts to create the opportunity for constructive engagement should Iran choose to comply with international demands, but … should that effort fail, the president must be prepared to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran to create the leverage needed to change their behaviour.” Fearing success of a more ‘reformist’ candidate in Iran’s presidential elections in June, IPAC is keen that Iran-US discussions take place during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, hoping the failure of such talks will pave way for more sanctions.

Pro-IPAC Democrats have proposed: new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and international banks that continue to do business with Iranian banks; denying access to American ports to shipping companies whose vessels call in Iran; targeting companies that insure ships calling in Iranian ports or aircraft landing at Iranian airports; and applying measures against energy companies investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Iran’s year of austerity

Last week during a visit to Iran, Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, ridiculed the G20 summit and its attempts to ease the capitalist economic crisis. However, his hosts, who have embraced ‘Islamic’ capitalism with fervour, did not join in his condemnations of the IMF and international capital. Instead, Iran’s clerics concentrated on explaining ayatollah Khamenei’s message for the Iranian new year, during which he announced that cutting consumption should be the theme of the new year, as the country struggled to cope with the recession.

Every year our grand ayatollah announces the theme that the regime has decided should dominate the country’s ‘aims and objectives’. This year it is ‘austerity’ - clearly inspired by the IMF and in line with the G20 understanding that, in the words of leftwing academic professor Michael Hudson, the $1.1 trillion from the IMF has been made available to debtor countries “not to revive their own faltering economies, not to pursue counter-cyclical policies to restore market demand (that is only for creditor nations), but to pass on the IMF ‘aid’ to the banks that have made the irresponsible toxic loans”.1

In Iran the plan essentially means a reduction in subsidies, an increase in the price of energy and other utilities. Iran’s new year budget (March 2009-10) is based on the assumption that the oil price will remain around $37.50 per barrel. However, even this low price is now in doubt and revenue from oil may well fall further.

Iranians have been left wondering whether ‘austerity’ applies to everyone. No-one believes that the rich mullahs are about to give up on their Mercedes Benz or dispose of some of their many luxuries. No-one expects the rich to suffer - as always it will be the working class, the urban poor and the peasants who must tighten their belt in the new drive to “reform consumption in all spheres”.2

Khamenei, who presides over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, called on Iranians to avoid “squandering” bread and water. “A third of our bread and one fifth of the nation’s water, with all the difficulty and trouble of getting it, is practically wasted.”3

He also threatened further prices increases in basic essentials. Clearly in the heat of the electoral battle between the factions of the Islamic regime, Iran’s supreme religious leader has lost his marbles. Waste in Iran has nothing to do with the poor, who can often afford only bread and water. How about the extortionate prices paid for nuclear enrichment equipment on the black market? Or the huge arms expenditure serving only to shore up and expand Iranian influence and that of Shia Islam? Then there is the money squandered by super-rich clerics and their bazaari merchant backers to maintain four households - one for each wife!

The regime could also target the money most Iranians have to spend every day on bribes to Islamic officials at every level. At one extreme this may be necessary to avoid a flogging for unIslamic behaviour (drinking alcohol, mixing with the opposite sex, failure to adhere to strict rules regarding the wearing of a hijab …). But on a more mundane level bureaucrats and state officials expect a ‘gift’ in exchange for providing documents necessary for survival in Iran - a country where such practice is endemic amongst the most powerful sections of the regime.

According to Abbas Palizdar, a corruption investigator inside Iran, leading politicians and clerics routinely pilfer state funds and try to obtain favourable business arrangements for their relatives. His targets have included the family of ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, while the names of many powerful religious families and members of the regime’s inner circles are amongst those known to be accumulating wealth through corrupt means: the Khatamis, the Yazdis, the Shahroudis ...

Before every major election the factions of the regime vie with each other to expose their rivals’ corruption. After the laissez-faire period of Khatami, conservatives and some principlists (those wishing to return to the ‘principled’ ways of ayatollah Khomeini!) had claimed that their man, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would clean up Iranian politics. Four years on, supporters of the new reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, claim corruption has reached unprecedented levels under his government. According to one of Moussavi’s allies, the director of the Centre for Religion and Economy, “The government accepts there were 2,000 financial irregularities in one year. If we think there are 200 working days in a year, this implies that every day of the year there were 10 financial irregularities.”

Iranians would be foolish to believe that a Moussavi government would be any different, however. But, as the elections approach, they can look forward to months of revelations by the rival factions of the regime. After all, June’s elections are not just about choosing the president: the faction that wins will benefit from all the trappings of power, including the 10%-20$ ‘commission’ on any contract or deal involving a government agency, from the complicated technology needed by the nuclear industry to basic goods imported or exported.

Although the elections are still three months away, all presidential candidates have now met with and obtained the blessing of the supreme leader, ayatollah Khamenei. In addition, the religious ‘Council of Experts’ will ensure that all candidates comply with the various rules governing Islamic behaviour.

In the meantime Iran’s ministry of the interior has published regulations governing websites, posters, meetings and gatherings associated with elections. These include:

* a total ban on campaigns that promote a boycott of the presidential poll
* no photos of women and young girls in electoral publicity
* no quoting from the leaflets or publications of “counterrevolutionary organisations”: ie, anyone who does not support the Islamic Republic

While the 2009 elections are likely to focus more international attention on Iran than previously, as far as Iranians are concerned, they will be no different from past presidential and parliamentary elections held during the 30-year rule of corrupt clerics. Only those who support or accept the Islamic state can participate either as candidates or voters. For the majority the choice will be between bad and worse candidates.

The left has no option but to expose this farce and campaign for a boycott of the presidential and parliamentary elections.


2. Khamenei speech, March 22:
3. Khamenei speech:

Defend Iranian students’ movement

Defend Iranian students’ movement

Authorities in Iran are still attempting to crush the student movement that has been organising against the theocratic state, and against imperialist warmongering and sanctions. A leading member of the Students for Freedom and Equality group, the DAB (Daneshjouyan-e Azadi Khah va Beraber Talab), Peyman Piran, is facing deportation from Norway. Members of DAB have said that Peyman’s life would be in danger if he is returned to Iran after being subjected to ill-treatment and imprisoned for anti-regime activities going back to 1999. You can help Peyman by contacting the Norwegian consulate and the Refugee Council of Norway to demand that he is permitted to stay in Norway (details below).

Sanaz Allahyari and Amir Hossein Mohammadi, who were arrested on March 1, have been released with significant injuries after 18 days in prison. They were arrested for taking part in demonstrations held on February 23 at Noushirvan University in Babo. Protests had been banned after the burial of soldiers killed during the Iraq-Iran war as the authorities deem it disrespectful to the ‘martyrs’. Comrades Maryam Sheikh and Nasim Roshana’i remain in the notorious Evin prison. Their well-being is unknown, but it is standard practice to ill-treat and abuse dissidents in Iran.

DAB members are also extremely worried about Mohammad Pour Abdollah, a Tehran University student who was arrested on February 12 and spent over a month in solitary confinement at Evin prison before being moved to Qezel Hesar, just outside of Tehran. His parents have only seen him once after sitting in front of the prison during Iran’s Norouz (new year). During the visit they learned that their son was being tortured.

Students for Freedom and Equality spokesperson Alireza Davoudi was also arrested in Isfahan on February 12 and is still in prison.

Hands Off the People of Iran has previously organised actions and meetings in solidarity with students in Iran - the videos of a protest in Manchester, for example, can be found on the Hopi Britain website (

With the continuing wave of repression, we are planning further actions and call on all internationalists to stand with the students of Iran - against imperialism, against the theocratic regime.

We demand the immediate and unconditional release of these comrades and all political prisoners held by the Islamic Republic and call on all communists to act in solidarity with these students. For us this is inseparable from opposing all imperialist sanctions, threats and attacks on Iran, which the regime uses to justify its continued repression.

Royal Norwegian Embassy: 34 Molesworth Street, Dublin Tel: 01 662 1800. Fax: 01 662 1890.

Norwegian Refugee Council: PO Box 6758, St Olavs plass, 0130 Oslo; +(47) 23 10 98 00;

Thursday, April 2, 2009

HOPI meeting on Iran Revolution

Hands off People of Iran presents:

Iranian Revolution – the hidden history

23 April Teachers Club, Parnell Square 8pm

The Iranian revolution is often portrayed as an uprising led by Islamic fundamentalists. This completely denies the reality of this immense social movement. The roots of 1979 lay in the mass democratic and secular struggle against the deeply discredited Shah. Women’s organisations, workers and students all took part in an uprising for freedom and democracy. This was a progressive movement that was hijacked by the Ayatollah and his supporters.

Torab Saleh took part in the movement of 1979. He will speak of his personal experiences of that time and the challenges it presented to him and others on the left. He will focus on the many exciting events of that year, including the coming together of a vibrant and confident women’s movement and the energy and determination of the working class.

Torab has written extensively on the subject and his articles can be found at

Come along to listen and take part in an important discussion about one of the most exciting events of the 20th century.

Contact Anne at or on 0862343238

Hijacking the 1979 Revolution

Torab Saleh examines what led to the Ayatollah.

The shah’s white revolution, by promoting a new layer of super-rich capitalists tied up with the west, had in effect split the traditional ruling class; the most immediate aspect of which was the demotion of three layers traditionally dominant in Iranian society and politics: merchants of the bazaar, absentee landlords and the Shi’ite clergy - a demotion in terms of both economic and political standing.

These three layers had all appeared after the break-up of the Asiatic state and did not necessarily represent three different or in any sense opposing social layers. There was enough overlap of ownership and common interest between them to push them into a ruling bloc at every major historic turning point. In particular, the traditional merchants and the Shi’ite hierarchy enjoyed close historic ties. The merchant’s monopolistic position was sanctified by the local mullah, whilst the merchant in turn was the main financial backer for the clergy. As both had come out of a break-up of the central state - a kind of ‘privatisation’ of previously state-owned functions - they were naturally drawn together whenever confronted by the state. Both of them were also landowners of substantial importance and therefore closely tied to the absentee landlords.

The 1906 Constitutional Revolution showed that even in Asiatic Iran, the capitalist era eventually led to a ‘bourgeois democratic’ opposition within this bloc. The sharpest division that appeared inside the ruling class during that revolution was precisely between those wanting to curtail the power of the absolutist state and those against all forms of democratic change. Sheykh Fazollah Noori - the grand-grand guru for Khomeini - believed democracy to be a “western conspiracy” to destroy Islam. But the outcome of the revolution also proved that the former had already gathered enough strength to defeat the latter (especially when the urban petty bourgeoisie rose up behind the constitutionalists).

As this revolution was against a state which owed its existence mostly to Russian imperialism, the most radical bourgeois democratic currents were also simultaneously anti-Russian (and to a lesser degree anti-British) and thus nationalist. Indeed the very blatant official excuse for the Cossack army’s march on Tehran was to stop the new parliament from granting trade concessions to other - non-Russian - European countries.

It must be said, however, that the integration of Iran into the world imperialist system had not yet gone far enough to give this nationalism an anti-imperialist character. If the revolution had not been defeated, the bourgeois state that emerged would have later found itself in conflict with imperialism, but that defeat also marked the last chance for the indigenous bourgeoisie to create its own independent nation-state.

The decades that followed saw, on the one hand, a gradual weakening of the democratic tendencies in favour of the more backward-looking cliques within the ruling class; and, on the other, a gradual strengthening of the anti-imperialist character of the anti-shah movement. First, Russian imperialism restored the despotic state; then the British stole the nationalists’ thunder by creating a militaristic nation-state from above with the ultra-nationalist Reza Shah on the throne; and - the final nail in the coffin of bourgeois nationalism - the shah himself delivered a programme of change more radical than anything Mohammed Mossadegh, who nationalised the oil industry in 1953, could have ever imagined. By this time the era of bourgeois nationalist anti-imperialism had truly ended.

In the intervening years, the only time bourgeois nationalism reappears as a political current was when Reza Shah was deposed by the Allies during World War II. After the war, a whole series of bourgeois nationalist political parties were created. Although they represented many different and at times even opposing factions, covering the whole spectrum from semi-fascistic monarchists to republican liberals, they nevertheless all united under the umbrella organization of the National Front (under the leadership of Mossadegh). This coalition was on the whole secular and nationalist and kept itself separate from the Shi’ite hierarchy. At first sections of the hierarchy supported the National Front, but their later change of sides in support of the shah and the ease with which the coup of 1953 overthrew Mossadegh’s government put an end to all that.

This paved the way for a reshaping of the divisions within the Iranian ruling class more in tune with the post-war neo-colonialist phase of imperialist domination. Imperialism was no longer interested in pushing back the indigenous bourgeoisie in favour of its own exported capital. It now wanted to enter an era of ‘joint ventures’. Even where its own policies of the earlier periods had blocked the formation of this capitalist class, as in Iran, it now helped to create a new one out of thin air. Thus the shah’s revolution basically plucked a whole chunk out of the old ruling class and used state funds to turn it into a new, ‘modern’ capitalist class. It is precisely here that the so-called nationalist currents lose historical credibility and this is precisely why in response to the shah’s reforms it was the traditionalists - ie, the most reactionary wing of the ruling class - who became champions of an anti-western and anti-shah opposition masquerading as anti-imperialism.

This process was also helped by the nationalists themselves; many of whom had concluded that the defeat of Mossadegh in 1953 was partly due to the lack of a viable unifying ideology capable of placing the National Front at the head of the whole nation. The Freedom Movement (Bazargan’s wing of the National Front) came precisely out of this process; one where a ‘movement back to Islam’ was being proposed as a means of uniting the nation against the shah and his westernisation. By the time the crisis of the shah’s regime had become all too obvious, the only memory of any serious opposition from within the ruling class was that of the early 60s, financed by these ‘traditional’ layers and led by Khomeini.

The capitalist crisis of the 1970s
In statistical terms, by the time of the 1976 census, the new industrial sector (including agro-industries) had outgrown both the traditional agriculture and trade. As the GDP was showing phenomenal rates of growth, sustained over a decade, and as the general expansion of the money economy (with the injection of enormously increased oil revenues) was making even the demoted sections of the ruling class richer than before, none of them really mounted any serious challenge to the shah’s regime.

By the early 1970s his propaganda about the glorious future awaiting Iran under his leadership was ever more strident. All the voices of opposition within the ruling class could be reduced to grovelling: me, me, take me, why not me! Everyone, including the Islamic opposition, was too busy getting rich.

But capitalist growth from above - under a corrupt political system ruled by an even more corrupt royal family, and managed, directed and advised by US ‘consultants’, at best in it only for a quick buck - can, of course, only lead to a corrupt economic system. By the mid-70s, as little as 100 families owned about 80% of the new industrial sector. Except for a few who were also previously rich and powerful, by far the largest section of this new ruling class was made up of those who had got there simply because of their ‘contacts’. One who had been a fixer, say, for a junior member of the royal family (and ‘fixer’ is meant here in the worst sense of the word), was more likely to be granted lucrative contracts than another who had come from many generations of entrepreneurs.

Thus even our ‘modern’ capitalist system reeked of Asiatic despotism! Like a mogul king, the shah was granting exclusive rights to his cronies for the mass production of foreign goods under licence. And of course, the faithful servants would in return assign a whole chunk of shares to the royals. When the royal family escaped in 1979, the shah alone had stashed away $20 billion in foreign banks.

As had been predicted many years earlier, such a crazy method of ‘industrialisation’, that could have been cooked up only by US bankers, was bound to come to a sorry end. By the mid-1970s a deep and ever worsening socio-economic crisis hit Iran. It is a well known fact that even after the 79 revolution, US planners and their CIA watchers still did not know what had hit them, but many of the economic aspects of this crisis were being openly discussed as early as 1974. The basic problem was simple: industrial growth had come to a halt and the shah’s white revolution had run out of steam. The solution of the regime - advised by the same people, it seems, who are advising Obama and Brown today - was also simple: inject more money - oil money - into the economy and keep the bubble going.

Thus, on the verge of the ‘great civilisation’, industrialised Iran was even more dependent on its oil revenues than before. Oil production shot up to a staggering 6.5 million barrels a day. But this simply added inflation to the underlying stagnation. Thus, by 1975 Iran had its first taste of stagflation. More and more factories were bought to produce more and more inferior goods that no-one wanted to buy. Those who had the money would buy better products from abroad - and cheaper. A study by the International Monetary Fund at the time, concluded that the cost of production in Iran was, on average, around 30% higher than in Europe.

The same bazaari merchants who had been pushed out of this ‘new deal’ two decades earlier were now competing with the ‘modern industrialists’. Even after paying either the import duties or the smugglers’ fees, they could still sell cheaper than the internal producers. Bear in mind that the Iranian economy was more or less devoid of any sector producing the means of production. Factories were bought, lock, stock and barrel, from foreign companies. In most cases this also meant importing parts or even the ‘raw’ material specific to the technology from abroad. In effect, the entire Iranian industry was closer to a repackaging plant than modern factory production.

Thus, ‘industrialisation’ based on replacing imported consumer goods soon ran against the rigid boundaries of the internal market. The internal market had became more and more monopolised and parcelled out amongst an ever decreasing group of producers, whilst expansion in external markets was near impossible. How could Iranian capitalists compete with the same western capitalists who had dumped their second-hand technology on them in the first place? Add to this the politically corrupt and dictatorial system, which by now had abandoned even the pretence of a two-party system (Iranians called them the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Yes, Sir’ parties) and replaced it with no less than the Resurrection Party (the ‘I am your obedient servant’ party!), and you have the makings of a deep structural crisis.

The government’s answer was to organise a ‘war on prices’ and a ‘central campaign to boost exports’. The first meant attacking bazaari merchants and traders to maintain the ruling clique’s internal monopoly; the second meant giving freebies to the other corrupt US-backed regimes in the neighbourhood. One would hear that Iran had suddenly become an exporter of things like buses, trucks and fridges to countries like Egypt and Pakistan. In fact, it was all simply a propaganda scam. They were actually being given for free. The shah would, for example, be ‘encouraged’ by his US masters to help Egypt’s Sadat, and he would comply by ‘exporting’ buses and fridges!

The huge increases in oil revenues allowed the shah’s regime to cover up the cracks for a couple of years, but soon the whole edifice began to crumble. The most immediate and embarrassingly obvious aspect of this crisis was the unprecedented explosion in the number of shanty town dwellers in every major city, including and especially the capital of this great civilisation, Tehran. By the summer of 1976, in Tehran alone, the shanty population had grown to around 400,000. They were officially referred to as the ‘out-of-bounds people’: ie, those living outside the city boundaries and for whom the city authorities did not have any responsibility to providing services. That summer there were almost daily clashes with the police in the south of Tehran. Eventually the regime had to bring in the troops to suppress the revolt.

The shanty dwellers were mostly migrants from the countryside, displaced and dislocated from their lands and seeking employment in the new industries of the major cities. In fact the main aim of the land reform, which was initially proposed by Ford Foundation consultants to Mossadegh’s government, was precisely to provide cheap labour for the new industries. The white paper produced for the government was indeed called a plan for ‘increasing labour mobility’. By giving land to some families (35% of the rural population) the government was simultaneously breaking the traditional ties to the rural economy for those who did not get any.

At first, this was not a problem, as the rural migrants were absorbed as soon as they arrived. The rapid growth of agro-industries in the countryside and the huge expansion of ‘industrial towns’ around many major cities - in the process increasing the size of the Iranian working class from around 1.5 to four million - were achieved on the basis of this ‘freed’ labour. But when the growth stopped by the early 70s, the exodus from the countryside did not.

When the results of the 1976 censuses came out, the problems of Iranian society were starkly obvious. Although the new class of wage-earners had grown tremendously (and was still showing growth), the ‘inactive’ (unemployed) sector was now much larger too. The trend in further concentration and centralisation of capital in the hands of a smaller number of capitalists was also there to be seen, but at the same time the subsistence economy was growing at an even faster rate. After years of the high-speed march towards the great civilisation, reliance on ‘family labour’ was higher in 1976 than 1956.

The inherent contradictions of capitalist development in a backward country in the era of imperialist domination show themselves nowhere better than in this Iranian example.

In the last analysis all such developments have not only reproduced backwardness, but have actually strengthened it. The revolutionary period that opened up after this crisis was, of course, also shaped by this contradiction.

It is interesting to note that after the Iranian revolution a number of western analysts, in their attempt to explain this crisis and draw lessons from it for imperialist policy-makers, came to the conclusion that the shah’s programme of change had gone too far and in too short a period for people to catch up! In other words, there was a backlash of tradition against too much western progress. But what else can you expect from the same people who had earlier devised this sham modernisation? The exact opposite of the truth! The fact of the matter is that even 15 years of capitalist industrialisation at breathtaking speed had hardly scratched the surface of the backwardness in Iran. Furthermore, directly because of this imperialist-dominated ‘development’, even larger parts of the Iranian forces of production were now pushed back into the pre-capitalist subsistence economy.

This crisis proved that, given the current framework of a capitalist world economy dominated by imperialism, any serious programme of industrialisation in backward countries could only succeed if it first broke with capitalist relations. In a way, the defeat of the Iranian revolution is nowhere more obvious than in its failure to break with capitalism. On this 30th anniversary, the Islamic regime has not let up its propaganda about how it has become the major power to be reckoned with in the Middle East; but, down on the ground, Iranian society as a whole is a lot more backward now than it was in 1979. The Iranian ruling class has as much hope of becoming a ‘sub-imperialist’ power on the basis of a capitalist economy dominated by bazaari merchants as Saudi Arabia had with its dollar-hoarder sheikhs. Probably with one difference - whilst the latter cannot even clip their coupons without the permission of the US bankers, the former are now boasting they can buy their prayer mats from where they want!

The revolutionary crisis
It was thus only apt that the first sparks of the Iranian revolution should start in the heart of this capitalist ‘success’ story: the shanty towns of south Tehran. The revolt of the urban poor was, however, brutally suppressed - let it be noted, without even a murmur of protest from any of the ayatollahs ruling Iran during the last three decades.

Later that year, a sharp increase in the number of workers’ protests, including strikes, was also recorded. Since the 1950s, strikes had been a very rare occurrence. Neither of the two movements, however, lasted for long and, given the few months of relative calm that followed, no-one at the time took either of these events as signs of the impending revolutionary crisis.

But it was simply gathering force within a repressive political framework. The masses were at first cautious and, as their initial protests were limited in scope or remained isolated, they were soon forced into periods of retreat. Thus, the crisis unfolded in waves; each time drawing more and more social layers into the struggle. What best reflected the mood of the masses in those days was the strike patterns. A “curious fact”, observed at the time by the minister of labour, was that, even when a protest or a strike had achieved its stated objectives, the participants would shortly afterwards launch another protest or strike and demand even more!

What the government could not see was that the masses were simply gaining confidence with every struggle. The strike in the oil industries is one example. This was the first oil workers’ strike since the nationalisation movement before the 1953 coup. The strike wave begun at first in Ahvaz against the local management and around a dispute concerning representation rights for white collar workers. By its third wave, a year and a half later, it was a national strike demanding, directly from the government, not only a sliding scale of wages and hours to beat inflation and unemployment, but also freedom for all political prisoners.

Next it was the turn of the student movement. This had never really died down throughout the post-coup period - especially in Tehran - and was always a major headache for the repressive apparatus. Almost every year there were strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins and clashes with the security forces. Indeed most of the cadres of the new Iranian left had come out of this movement. There was thus a constant stream of radical student activists being forced into exile. By the time the revolutionary crisis opened up, the Confederation of Iranian Students Abroad was probably one of the most active centres of political opposition to the shah.

With the new academic year in September 1977, a qualitatively different mood was immediately noticeable. Tehran University was now in a state of almost permanent mobilisation and continuous radicalisation. That year, in one of their rallies, students openly called for a general strike to bring down the government. Indeed the slogan ‘Down with the shah’ had been popularised by the student movement since the late 1950s. This was now being linked in radical propaganda to a general workers’ strike. Those of the previous year had not gone unnoticed by students.

In November 1977, the Iranian Writers Association, another centre of opposition to the shah’s dictatorship, sensing a mood of change, organised poetry-reading nights in Tehran, which attracted tens of thousands of people. Every night, the meeting would inevitably turn into an anti-government rally. By the latter part of 1977, the floodgates were open. The urban poor, workers, students and intellectuals were now joined by national minorities. In Kurdish areas, with a long tradition of struggle against the shah and now virtually under military occupation by the central government, the increasing level of activities and the need for more coordinated struggles had led to the formation of a new type of radical city-wide associations, which were later to play a major role in the overthrow of the shah’s rule in many of the Kurdish cities. For the first time in decades, a movement of opposition to the shah began to raise its head also in the Arab areas in the south.

What was noticeably absent, however, was any form of political direction or leadership within the movement. The shah’s intelligence service, Savak, had seen to it that no opposition parties had survived. Both socialist and capitalist parties were in complete disarray. The bourgeois National Front and the Stalinist Tudeh Party (the two main players before the 1953 coup) were totally discredited and had no popular base. The ‘new’ left, which had formed after that defeat, was either in exile, dominated by Maoist currents (which were completely off the mark with their comical attempts at placing Iran within the straitjacket of Mao’s analysis of China) or decimated through executions and imprisonment.

Attempting to take advantage of this absence of leadership were the various internal and external opposition groups, new and old, with their ‘alternatives’. Many bourgeois politicians were by now sensing the weakness of the regime in the face of an ever rising mood of mass discontent and were either distancing themselves from it or putting their names forward for future consideration. The media circus around president Carter’s election in the USA and his empty promises of democratic change in the third world had also created an air of expectation within many bourgeois circles. Even the western media, usually much supportive of the shah, was now full of stories about his latest megalomaniac adventures.

The shah’s standing in the west was not helped by his insistence in those days on a higher price for oil. In 1977-78, a real conflict of interest both around the future of BP in Iran and the price of oil was brewing. Reportedly the shah, needing more and more oil money to survive, kept on boasting privately that he would extract $300 a barrel from the west. He refused to agree to BP’s terms and did not renew its contract. London, in turn, was putting enormous economic pressure on the shah’s regime by refusing to take up Iranian oil production, buying only three million or so barrels daily out of an agreed minimum of five million barrels per day. This imposed dramatic revenue pressures on Iran - worsened later by a British-driven exodus of capital. It was thus becoming increasingly obvious to many observers that the powers-that-be were now treating their own shah as someone who had got too big for his boots.

Even in Washington itself, think tanks which had openly lobbied for the break-up of the whole Middle East along ethnic or religious lines were now becoming more and more vocal. Under the protection of Brzezinski, the national security advisor to Carter, the policy for the “Balkanisation of the Middle East”, proposed by the famous British Islamic expert, Bernard Lewis, was being openly touted by White House staff. This is the same period when the US embarked on a policy of arming the mujahedin in Afghanistan. The shah’s memoirs show that when in 1978 George Ball, a well known defender of the infamous “arc of crisis” policy of encircling the southern borders of the Soviet Union with a whole series of Islamic states or movements, was appointed to head a special White House Iran task force, he went berserk and vehemently protested to Carter.

Rise of Khomeini
In his memoirs, the shah reveals that by November 1977 he had already suspected that there was a plot (which he says was cooked up by the British and backed by the US administration) to remove him from power. The last three months of 1977 were rife with rumours about the latest plans for the future of Iran. All kinds of imaginable coalitions were being put forward as alternatives to the shah. None, of course, cut any ice with the masses.

The revolution was gathering momentum. But then, just into the new year, one of the most curious events of the Iranian revolution occurs, completely out of the blue. A hard hitting article appears in the semi-official daily Etelaat attacking Khomeini as a British agent and exposing a “joint plot” by “red and black reaction” (meaning pro-Soviet communists and Islamic fundamentalists) against Iran (meaning the shah).

Of course, there were no mysteries about the existence of a religious opposition in Iran - nor about the existence of the Tudeh Party. But a joint plot to overthrow the shah? How? After all, neither was of much significance. Even Savak itself had long realised these two no longer posed a threat. Most of their leading members were already in the shah’s jails anyway. Not even within the Islamic opposition was the fundamentalist faction taken seriously. Indeed, although ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been a well known figure since 1963, the fact that an Islamic fundamentalist faction actually existed was neither known nor believed by anyone - except, of course, in Savak propaganda. Khomeini and his followers had hardly been active for the last 15 years. Even the usual annual statements had long ceased publication. Within a few months, however, the very same Khomeini was being sold in the international mass media as the leader of the Iranian opposition to the shah.

The scenario that followed is now well known. There was an angry demonstration in Ghom, the theological centre of Shi’ite Islam, in reaction to this article. It was brutally suppressed by Savak and the army, with scores of demonstrators killed. Forty days later, in the Islamic tradition of honouring the dead, bigger demonstrations were organised in other cities, which led to further deaths. And thus a 40-day cycle of demonstrations began which culminated in one of over a million people in Tehran. By September 1978 Khomeini had indeed become the unchallenged leader of the mass movement.

It is now a well documented fact that by November 1978, the US had openly abandoned the shah and was in direct negotiations with Khomeini over ‘regime change’. General Robert Huyser was dispatched to Iran to prepare the army and Savak for such a change. By then it was obvious to the US administration that without accommodating Khomeini it would not have a hope in hell of safeguarding the capitalist state.

But was there a sinister plot by the British even earlier? It is, of course, difficult to give an objective answer. Many of the participants are still alive and hardly in a position to be truthful. The most widely accepted scenario, one which is now admitted by many Iran experts in the west, is that, yes, there was a plot - but it aimed to help the Islamic opposition to reduce the danger of a leftwing takeover. Even Carter has admitted as much in his memoirs. What they do not say, however, is when all this began. Did the west start helping later - in, say, September-November 1978 - when the Islamic opposition was already calling the shots; or did it in fact help place the Islamic opposition at the leadership of the mass movement? Evidence points towards the latter.

Obviously, all those who felt threatened by the revolutionary crisis in Iran also recognised the need to counter it. Right from the start it was obvious that there were certain forces, both inside and outside the regime (and both within the internal and external centres of capitalist power) that were orchestrating a ‘new’ Islamic alternative. For example, why did that article appear in the press? The accepted wisdom is that the shah himself ordered it in order to warn the US about the Soviet danger and to stop it from cooperating with the British plot.

But why do so publicly? Surely Savak could have faxed the CIA the relevant papers. Secondly, even if one accepts this version, that is not to say that the shah thought of it all on his own. He could have been persuaded to approve the publication of this article. The evidence that he did not really realise what he is doing is overwhelming. It was reported at the time that even his own prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, was against it.

There was already inside Savak an entire Islamic wing, recruited right from the day it was set up - part of the ‘founding fathers’, as it were. Ayatollah Halabi’s followers, anti-communist hojatieh zealots who had already served their king by helping the CIA-backed coup, were a considerable force within Savak. They provided most of its foot soldiers. Many of the same people who were known Savak operatives stayed on after the revolution to run the security forces for the new Islamic regime. Indeed many of them still hold governmental posts even today (it is even rumoured that Ahmadinejad is from the same current).

Thus, the other and the more likely scenario is that Savak itself persuaded the shah to publish this article knowing precisely what would happen next. Indeed the evidence shows that Savak agents were actually behind many of the Islamic mobs active in those initial demonstrations burning cinemas, off-licenses, banks and other so-called symbols of the shah’s ‘western’ regime. In the summer, for example, Cinema Rex in Abadan was set on fire, killing over 400 people. It was blamed on Savak. After the revolution it turned out that the arsonists were indeed linked to mullahs associated with the hojatieh wing of Savak. The linking of Khomeini to the communist threat was not so much designed as a warning to the US about the dangers of a British plot, but as a way of mobilising the anti-communist mullahs and their mobs.

Add to this another curious fact that, even before this attack was launched, a process of releasing political prisoners associated with the Islamic reaction to the white revolution had already begun. Following the violent reactions to the article, the shah was ‘persuaded’ to release all the rest. Most of the individuals who later became leading figures within the Islamic regime were thus released from jail at least a year before the February revolution.

Indeed the 14 military committees which took power in Tehran after the insurrection had been set up a year earlier under the direction of ayatollah Karrubi (a man with well known British connections who was to become speaker in the Islamic parliament and is now a candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections), one of those pro-Khomeini clerics released from jail. Why expose a plot to overthrow the shah and then release its leading figures from jail?

The period from January to September 1978 is thus one of a launching pad for Khomeini’s Islamic opposition. Khomeini is then sent to France to be introduced to the international media and to start negotiations with imperialism. Again it is said that the shah himself had asked Saddam Hussein to expel him from Iraq. And again, even if that is what really happened, he was obviously persuaded to do so for the wrong reasons. Giscard d’Estaing, says in his memoirs that he had to phone the shah himself to calm his anger at the French government. If the shah had ordered Khomeini’s expulsion from Iraq himself, why be angry when these orders were carried out?

By September 1978 an organised network inside Iran supporting Khomeini had already taken over the leadership of the mass movement. The Islamic hijab was already being forced on women in mass demonstrations. No slogans other than those approved by the organisers were tolerated. Tehran university students reported in November 1978 that whenever they raised even the mildest of their own slogans such as ‘Unity, struggle, victory!’ they were thrown off the demonstrations.

Khomeini in Paris was, of course, promising everything to everyone: freedom for all (“even for communists”, he said), a constituent assembly after the overthrow and the resurrection of the mostaz’afin (the downtrodden). Oil money was to be used for the benefit of all and utilities such as gas and electricity were to become free of charge! Mullahs, of course, all have PhDs in demagogy. The masses of the urban poor and the ever growing petty bourgeoisie were natural victims of such demagogy. By November and December 78, mullahs were even collecting for the strike funds of the workers who were by now in the middle of a general strike.

Thus the scene was set for the hijacking of the Iranian revolution. Again with a peculiar Iranian twist: the pilot becomes the hijacker!

Islamic revolution or counter-revolution?

Torab Saleh, socialist and participant in the 1979 revolution examines its historical roots.
The revolutionary movement in Iran, which culminated on February 10 1979 in an insurrection against the US-backed monarchy, coincided with a crisis of Iranian capitalism which had already emerged as early as 1974. In the sense that it was a direct reaction to that crisis, this was an anti-capitalist revolution.

This can be demonstrated by the actual dynamics of the unfolding revolutionary crisis that begins with riots by the urban poor in the shanty towns of south Tehran in the summer of 1976 and ends up with a general strike of around four million workers from September 1978 to February 1979. The revolutionary period, especially during the general strike, led also to a rapid rise in those forms of organisation such as workers’ strike committees, factory councils, regional and industrial coordinating committees and myriads of neighbourhood associations - all of which are usually associated with such anti-capitalist revolutions.

At the time, there were some heated debates within the left as to the nature of Iranian society. Today, 30 years later, hardly anyone still claims that it was anything but capitalism which dominated Iran in 1979. It was, however, a capitalist system with a political regime closer to Asiatic despotism than even the most backward forms of bourgeois parliamentarism. The shahanshah (‘king of kings’ - as he used to call himself) ruled over a totally corrupt police state kept in power by the USA. In this contradiction alone, the entire crisis of Iranian society could be observed. When all the usual propaganda about the benefits of the new world system was removed, layer by layer, the only stark fact that explained the Iranian condition was that the longevity of despotic monarchic rule went hand in hand with US domination of Iran. It was thus only natural for the revolution to also develop an anti-monarchic and anti-imperialist character.

The insurrection on February 10 came about in a way not predicted by anyone. It was in no way organised or led. None of the bourgeois politicians, pro- or anti-shah, had expected it. The supporters of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were so surprised that, many hours into the insurrection, they were still telling their people to go home because, “The imam has not ordered an uprising”.

When the insurrection took place, the shah had already been dispatched abroad by his US backers and forced to appoint Shapour Bakhtiar, a bourgeois nationalist politician from the National Front,1 to form the next government. The new government had promised a return to “constitutional rule” and had made a number of concessions in its first few days. Soon after, Khomeini was allowed to return to Tehran. The US administration had also made it publicly known that the Iranian army would “refrain from intervention” in the mass movement.

The catalyst was the revolt of the Royal Guards stationed in north Tehran. They rejected Bakhtiar’s concessions, which they viewed as a threat to the established order, and marched south with their tanks towards an airforce base they regarded as a centre of ‘anti-shah conspiracy’. The people of Tehran soon heard about this and mobilised to stop their advance. The airforce technicians at the base opened up the arsenals. The armed people soon defeated the Royal Guards and moved on to every known centre of Savak, the secret police. Within eight hours the regime was overrun in Tehran.

The next day, February 11, following a statement from the armed forces declaring their neutrality, the shah’s last government fell and a ‘provisional government’, headed by Mehdi Bazargan and nominated by a secret committee appointed by Khomeini,2 took power. The new government presented itself as a liberal Islamic capitalist regime based on a coalition of bourgeois nationalist parties, both Islamic and secular, alongside the pro-Khomeini wing of the Shi’ite hierarchy and its backers within the Iranian bazaar.

Bazargan’s government fell a few months later, but the same forces that appointed and dismissed him still rule Iran today. The new power soon shed its liberal pretence and started referring to the Iranian revolution as an Islamic one. They even changed its anniversary to February 1, the date of Khomeini’s return to Iran.

Well worn
How did this revolution - which in terms of the degree of mass participation was one of the most important of the 20th century - end up becoming ‘Islamic’? Indeed what was the ‘Islamic revolution’?

One common interpretation has been based on the well worn model of ‘anti-colonial struggles in the countries of the periphery’, popular within the left since the early 1920s. A model, it must be said, which was inadequate even then. By this reasoning, the Islamic revolution becomes an anti-imperialist revolution led by bourgeois nationalist forces. The politics which flow from this differ only in shade - from shameless collaboration to so-called ‘critical’ support. For adherents of this model, the revolution lived on, despite the leadership.

Although such views have long since been discredited, given the current conflict with the USA/Israel it has been rebranded by a number of left currents and has once again become a justification for all sorts of opportunist overtures towards the Iranian regime. Yes, they say, it is a corrupt, clerical-capitalist regime - but look at how the anti-imperialist aspect of the Iranian revolution survives to this day! (Now not only via Ahmadinejad’s government, but also by its support for Hezbollah and Hamas).

But this interpretation of the revolution as ‘Islamic’forgets a few simple historical truths. Firstly, the label itself was invented later - after the fact, as it were. It obviously came from outside the revolutionary movement. To put it crudely, no-one went on strike or demonstrated against the shah’s regime shouting, ‘For an Islamic revolution!’ Not even those following the Islamic currents ever said that. Khomeini himself, even as late as February 1 1979 in an interview on the plane returning home, made no such claim. In fact in his first speech in Tehran he promised he would personally have nothing to do with government work and would shortly be returning to his religious studies in Ghom. The masses were only ‘persuaded’ later that the revolution they undertook was in fact ‘Islamic’. It was, therefore, something so far removed from reality - something imported from the outside - that it had to be concealed from the masses by its creators and leaders.3

Of course, anyone who reaches the heights of the Shi’ite hierarchy is already a master of demagogy. Now backed up by political power, the demagogy carried with it imprisonment and even execution for those refusing to be ‘persuaded’. Just two years after February 79, even to relate the facts about the revolution was tantamount to sacrilege and punishable by death.

It cannot be denied that on the eve of this revolutionary change, sections of the masses, including important sections of the working class, were ready to be persuaded. Khomeini had become the unchallenged leader of the anti-shah opposition, but does this prove that the ‘Islamic revolution’ was identical with a genuine, popular revolution? Just because the masses had illusions in Khomeini, it does not automatically follow that the Islamic leaders were in turn expressing the will of the masses, albeit in a distorted clerical way.

The second obvious fact which disproves this interpretation is that under the flag of the Islamic revolution stood those forces that in reality were organised in active combat with the genuine revolution. Attacks on revolutionaries by mobs associated with Khomeini’s leadership started even before the new regime was established. With the mullahs in power, attacks became open and daily, right from day one.

First the strikes were ordered to end. Then secret courts immediately executed a few of the pro-shah politicians, whilst mysteriously letting others escape or even stay and work behind the scenes for the new government. Soon after, the veil was forced on women. The free press was shut down, one by one. National minorities were attacked - first the Arabs in the south and then the Kurds. Socialist oppositionist parties were banned. Scores of revolutionary activists were arrested. Instead of the promised constituent assembly, a phoney referendum was quickly organised, in which the only choice offered was between the already overthrown monarchy or an Islamic republic (as yet undefined).

Thus, from the first day in power, the Islamic regime began not only a total rollback of all the gains of the revolution, but also a retreat into Iran’s reactionary past - crowned a few years later with the execution of around 40,000 political prisoners.

This does not follow the usual pattern of bourgeois nationalist movements - either previously in Iran or elsewhere. The ferocity of the repression against the masses and the depths of reaction into which the new government has pushed back Iranian society have not been witnessed anywhere else in the world in recent history. Thirty years on, the conditions of the vast majority of the population are many times worse than they were during the worst period of the shah’s rule. All the indices by which you may judge a nation’s social and economic well-being have worsened.

Whatever interpretation one may place on the events of 1979, the fact remains that the masses did succeed in overthrowing the monarchy - but only to find their struggle hijacked by a theocratic regime which has established an even more vicious police state, defending an even more reactionary system of capitalism.

Historical roots
How did a defeat on such a scale become possible? To answer this question one must, of course, look into recent Iranian history and highlight those developments which led to the specific conditions and the unique alignment of class forces in 1970s Iran.

Even a cursory glance at this history reveals two glaringly obvious features. The first is one of continuous defeats for the progressive movements; and the second is the ever present hand of foreign (imperialist) intervention in ensuring such defeats. Indeed, the 1979 revolution was not the first revolution in the country’s recent history. During the same century we had already witnessed one full-scale revolution and at least two other important periods of revolutionary upsurge.

In 1906, Iran went through the Constitutional Revolution, which was very similar to the 1905 revolution in Russia. It led at first to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament, but was soon defeated (in 1911) with the help of the Russian Cossack army brought in by the new shah. Asiatic despotism was soon re-installed, maintained and managed jointly by the embassies of tsarist Russia and Britain. The only reason Iran escaped direct colonisation was the rivalry between these two powers.

After October 1917, a new revolutionary period opened up in Iran - which even resulted in the establishment of a soviet republic in Guilan, in the north. This time, the revolutionary movement was defeated by a British-backed military coup which placed Reza Khan (an Iranian officer in the Cossack division stationed in Iran and now under British tutelage) on the Iranian throne - and thus the Pahlavi dynasty. Imperialism required a ‘strong state’ to withstand the ‘threat of Bolshevism’. Asiatic despotism now acquired a very ‘modern’, British-backed, militaristic face. This was to be the Iranian version of a modern bourgeois state, but, thanks to the power of that state, Reza Shah ended up becoming the biggest landlord in Iran. His military dictatorship lasted right up to World War II.

After the removal of Reza Shah (by now a Nazi collaborator!) by the Allies, a new revolutionary upsurge unfolded, leading to the nationalisation of the oil industry and the escape of the new shah to Italy. This time, in 1953, the CIA came to the rescue of the Iranian ruling class and, by utilising a very ‘novel’ combination of the army and urban gangs, overthrew Mossadegh’s government and placed the shah back on the throne. The summary execution of the leaders of the political opposition after the coup deservedly earned him the title, ‘butcher of the Middle East’.

The 1979 revolution could not, therefore, appear just as a revolution against Iranian capitalism. It carried within it the ghosts of all the previous defeats. Not only had none of the demands of the constitutionalists (rule of law, freedom and security for all citizens) been resolved, but new ones were added after every defeat. For example, the establishment of Reza Shah’s ‘strong state’ from above could only be achieved by the creation of a Farsi national bureaucracy and army and thus by the suppression of every other nationality living in its border areas. Since then, ending national oppression has been added to all the other tasks of the Iranian revolution.

History has thus given a combined character to the Iranian revolution. But a combination of tasks produces a combination of classes which participate in the revolutionary process. It is thus not accidental that Iranian revolutions appear more like bourgeois popular revolutions than workers’ ones. Almost the entire petty bourgeoisie and even large sections of the ruling class had grievances against the shah’s regime too. The Iranian working class amounted to no more than 4.5 million, but at the height of the revolutionary process more than 10 million people were actively involved in day-to-day struggles.4

Furthermore, this combined character was also an important feature of the counterrevolutionary classes/layers and political forces/institutions. The weight of the previous defeats could best be described by the strong presence in Iranian society of all the previously defeated counterrevolutionary layers/classes. The Iranian revolution had not only kept piling up unresolved tasks, but accumulating a counterrevolutionary opposition.

Capitalism in Iran
This composite character of the situation in Iran cannot be separated from its socio-economic system. By the 1970s, capitalism was dominant, but not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘normal’ type of capitalism.

As it actually existed in 1979, Iranian capitalism was itself a product of foreign import, grafted on from above by the shah’s bayonets, under the leadership of imperialism and for the benefit of imperialism. This was, of course, not imposed in a vacuum, but within a complex society already in transition to capitalism and already retarded in its tracks by continuous interventions from outside. In fact, without understanding the specific way Iran was integrated into the world capitalist system, its entire modern history is incomprehensible. The means by which capitalism became dominant and the type of capitalism it produced was the prelude to the Islamic counterrevolution.

Before the Constitutional Revolution, indigenous capitalist growth had already been hampered - first by the direct plunder of the entire region by various colonialist powers, and then by the domination of international trade routes by a few western European capitalist countries, which drastically reduced the share of major Asiatic countries like Iran in foreign trade. This dealt a major blow to the internal process of primitive accumulation, which had been boosted during the Safavid period (1502-1736) with the sudden increase in world trade. By the 18th and 19th centuries Iran suffered the destruction of most of its handicraft or small manufacturing industries in the face of competition from cheaper European imports. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Iranian economy (or for that matter the Indian or Chinese) had been on a par with any of the more advanced European countries, but by the 18th the huge gulf was already evident.

Iran was in transition to capitalism, but a transition from an Asiatic mode of production and not a feudal system. If in Europe the ‘third estate’ had already taken shape within the feudal system, in Iran even the appearance of an ‘independent’ landlord class belongs to the period of transition itself. A major characteristic of the Asiatic mode of production was indeed the dominant role of the state in social production. Thus almost all of the irrigated land and the monopoly of foreign trade belonged to the state. This made it very difficult for an independent bourgeois class to take shape - even during the Safavid period, when Iran’s exports in glassware and textiles had witnessed an enormous increase. The state was the ruling class and it simply did not tolerate any other independent source of power.

With the break-up of the all-powerful Asiatic state, however, a number of layers, institutions and individuals from within the ruling elites gradually lost their ties to the state and created what could be called an ‘independent’ ruling class, composed initially almost entirely of military and tribal chiefs, high-ranking functionaries, local notables, merchants, landlords and Shi’ite clerics. The crumbling state, in need of cash thanks to an ever decreasing source of taxation, fuels this process itself by the sale of state lands, international monopoly trade rights and large sections of the internal distribution system. Many simply take advantage of the central government’s weakness by taking over whatever assets they controlled. Thus we see, for example, a process whereby the endowment lands previously provided by the state for the upkeep of the Shi’ite hierarchy become the private property of the Shi’ite institutions. Similarly, local governors, military commanders and tax collectors take over huge tracts of land, mines, the local markets and even sections of the internal trade routes.

This break-up was then hugely speeded up by the intervention of British and Russian interests in Iran (which by the 18th century had more or less seen off all other competitors). Local warlords, tribal chiefs and notables willing to serve them were helped and encouraged to privatise the previously state-owned properties under their control.

The appearance of pro-British or pro-Russian sections of the ruling class is the outcome of this period. If you wanted to progress within the ruling elites, you had to have either British or Russian backing. The British in particular created a whole layer within the ruling class totally subservient to their interests - it has been called a ‘state within the state’. The British set up schools in India, by now a colony, to train functionaries, military officers and even Shi’ite clerics for work in Iran.

By the end of the 19th century, having run out of assets to sell internally, the Iranian state started granting wholesale concessions to foreign companies. The famous ‘tobacco revolts’ of the late 19th century, a precursor to the Constitutional Revolution, were a direct reaction of the new ruling elites to the rapid erosion of their newly gained monopoly powers because of the state’s collusion with foreigners. The split that subsequently took place within the ruling class - a split carried over to the Constitutional Revolution a few years later - is very indicative of the specific character of class conflicts in Iran. Unlike the clear-cut class division of a bourgeois nation against the combined power of the nobility, feudal lords and the clergy that we witness in most bourgeois democratic revolutions, in Iran we see powerful groups of merchants, landlords and even Shi’ite clerics on both sides of the divide.

This division sometimes produced comical results. Although, on the whole, both the British and the Russians were fully committed to the status quo, there were merchants and clerics associated with both camps on either side of the barricades. During the initial phases of the Constitutional Revolution there were still pro-British clerics defending it, while the pro-Russians were by now fully behind the shah. As the revolution gathered force and became more radicalised with the entry of the urban petty bourgeoisie, both sides swung fully behind the shah. But there were still merchants, landlords and clerics in the leadership of the revolutionary camp. In fact the Islamic ideology of Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, goes back to a division within the Shi’ite hierarchy which developed during the Constitutional Revolution.

Khomeini was, since his youth, a supporter of Sheykh Fazllolahe Noori, the leader of the Islamic opposition to the Constitutional Revolution. After the victory of the revolution, Noori was sentenced to public hanging in front of the newly established parliament. Basically, he was against all democratic reforms, calling them “a western conspiracy to undermine Islam”. He accused Mozaffaredin Shah, who had signed the new constitution, of being a “weak doubter”, who was foolishly opening up the floodgates to this conspiracy.

The infamous slogan of the Islamic fundamentalists then was: ‘Constitutionalism - no! Islamic legitimacy - yes!’ (ie, all secular laws must be derived from Islamic jurisprudence - meaning themselves). They actively collaborated with the pro-Russian wing of the ruling class, and even the Cossack army, against the constitutionalists. Not dissimilar to the initial reaction of the Catholic church to bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe. Also, as with the divisions in Europe, a ‘progressive’ wing of the clergy - ie, pro-democratic reforms - took shape in Iran. The defeat of the Constitutional Revolution, and the establishment of Reza Shah’s rule later, did not, however, allow this wing to develop much further.

With 1917, Russian imperialism had left the scene and the British created Reza Shah, the ‘iron man’, who went on the rampage in his drive to ‘modernise’ Iran. The creation of a nation-state from above by military dictatorship soon brought the new order into direct conflict with the Shi’ite hierarchy. Those who wanted to survive had to comply. The more moderate and liberal clerics were either totally silenced or integrated into the new arrangements, whilst the fundamentalist currents found a new lease of life in ‘opposition’. Islamic fundamentalist radicalism in Iran dates back to those days. After all, they had been proved right, they would claim, pointing to the erosion of clerical powers during Reza Shah’s modernisation. The shah’s repressive rule kept the lid on all these developments, which only came back to the surface once he was deposed.

It should be noted that the capitalist world system is an imperialist one, in which the role carved out for Iran within the division of labour is one of an importer of foreign capital and exporter of raw materials. Yes! Oil. We thus have a nation-state, but without any significant role for the bourgeoisie. The composition of the ruling class hardly changes during the shah’s reign. The new royal family itself becomes one of the biggest landlords in Iran, also heavily involved in monopolistic foreign trade. Iran remains an agrarian society, in which absentee landlords dominate agricultural production and merchants rule the market and the internal distribution network. There is, however, a limited growth of industries during the same period - mostly state-owned, but also on a smaller scale developed by small private capitalists, especially in textiles and food production.

The emergence of a bourgeois nationalist opposition to the shah is also a product of this period. This was very different from the clerical opposition. Its earlier politicians even hailed Reza Shah’s modernisation. But this opposition was also totally suppressed, only to re-emerge after World War II.

The difference between the two showed itself nowhere better than during the events leading to the 1953 CIA-backed coup. Whilst at first the Shi’ite hierarchy allied itself to the more influential bourgeois nationalist movement under Mossadegh, towards the end it lined up behind the shah. What a number of observers of the history of that coup forget is the fact that it happened twice. The first attempt failed, but a few days later a second one was undertaken, this time successfully. The change in fortune was entirely due to the Shi’ite hierarchy switching sides and backing the coup. Although the radical fundamentalist wing was as yet insignificant, the entire hierarchy that had emerged after Reza Shah’s ‘modernisation’ was itself a lot more backward-looking than at the time of the Constitutional Revolution. Khomeini, who was at that time advocating the need for an “Islamic government”, was thus happy to toe the line of the clerical leadership.

Whilst the bourgeois nationalist politicians were seeking a capitalist redistribution of ownership in favour of the indigenous bourgeoisie, the clerics were really only concerned with the erosion of their own role in the face of capitalist secularisation of the state and economy. The Shi’ite hierarchy, this integral part of Asiatic despotism, thus felt closer to the monarchy than to secular bourgeois nationalism. But the shah’s white revolution was soon to change all that. With the defeat of Mossadegh’s project by the combined force of the pro-shah army, gangs of urban thugs and a coalition of bazaari merchants and Shi’ite clerics, the Iranian bourgeoisie lost its last chance to develop a ‘normal’ bourgeois state.

White revolution
At the core of the shah’s ‘revolution’ was a US-initiated programme for a limited industrialisation of Iran. It followed a ‘development’ model based on ‘joint ventures’ between the indigenous bourgeoisie and western capitalism to replace goods previously imported from the west with home-produced products.

Similar schemes had already been carried out in a number of other dependent countries. In fact, it was not even a US invention - Germany, during World War II, had embarked on similar plans in Latin America. The initial drafts for this ‘new’ US policy had already been made public during the implementation of the Marshall plan in Europe. This was indeed its appendix for the third world.

It is important to note that the same programme was already being worked out with Mossadegh’s government before the 1953 coup. As early as 1949, teams of US consultants were in Iran investigating the ways it could be implemented. In so far as Mossadegh’s government announced any long-term economic strategy, it did not go beyond repeating the same US plan. Indeed the shah’s implementation of this plan went much further than the bourgeois nationalist government had ever imagined possible. The shah envisaged a degree of protectionism, land reforms and modernisation of political structures that was much too radical for Mossadegh. Indeed, when the plan was announced, many National Front politicians were saying, ‘The shah has stolen Mossadegh’s policy’. It was not accidental that some of them even joined the shah’s regime in implementing it.

The first few years after the 1953 coup were spent bolstering up the shah’s rule, in particular by strengthening the apparatus of repression: the army and the secret police. But, as soon as the new and by now totally US-dependent regime consolidated its power, a ‘seven-year plan’ of ‘infrastructural development’ was put into practice; followed in 1962-63 by a whole basket of socio-economic measures, which were later bombastically referred to as the ‘shah’s white revolution’. The shah himself modestly referred to it as a ‘modernisation and industrialisation plan’, which would place Iran “on the verge of great civilisation”.

Encouraging indigenous capitalist formation and growth, which was at the heart of this programme, baffled the Iranian left of the day. What was behind this change of heart by imperialism, which had earlier prevented the national bourgeoisie from doing precisely that? The pro-Soviet Tudeh Party called it a “retreat” by world imperialism in the face of successes for the “socialist camp”, whilst the pro-Chinese wing denounced it as “phoney propaganda”, designed to head off the “oncoming peasant revolution”. In reality what motivated imperialism in this drive for ‘joint ventures’ with the national bourgeoisie was its new desire/need to utilise third world markets as a huge dumping ground for their overproduced and outdated technological goods.

The development, by leaps and bounds, of the armaments industry during World War II had signalled the beginnings of a new era in capitalist development, appropriately called the age of ‘permanent technological revolution’. Superprofits were now to be gained in technological innovations. We had, therefore, by the late 50s and early 60s, a runaway growth in the sectors producing the means of production. Crises of overproduction now increasingly took the shape of overproduction of capital goods. The sudden interest of the west in ‘development economics’ and the increasing calls for ‘modernisation’ or ‘industrialisation’ of this or that country of the periphery in the 50s was the natural outcome.

But selling means of production to the ‘natives’ calls for an entirely different set of relations between the centre and periphery. The same imperialism which had until then considered indigenous industrialists as competitors, to be denied any share in political control, now had to actively intervene not only to create an entire class of these competitors out of thin air, but also to transform them into a ruling class. To sell capital goods you need capitalist buyers. We thus enter a new phase in imperialism, whereby the west intervenes directly to transform the same old ruling classes - which had propped up its interests in the colonial age - into ‘modern’ capitalists.

These plans were vehemently denounced by the more fundamentalist currents within the Shi’ite clergy and an important section of the bazaari merchants. They opposed import tariffs introduced to protect home-grown industries, as this weakened the monopolistic control of the merchants over the economy. They denounced land reforms, designed to provide a labour force for the new industries free from ties to the land, as they were themselves amongst the biggest landlords in Iran. They also opposed local government reform, as this would have undermined their local power base in the provinces; and votes for women, because that would undermine their very ideological authority.

Khomeini first emerged as a known public figure during those protests and soon became the leader of that movement. In a fiery sermon he declared that the “evil intention” behind the white revolution was to hand over Iran to “Jews, Christians and the enemies of Islam”. He denounced the shah as an “infidel Jew”. It was in fact his arrest after this speech which triggered in 1963 a whole series of mass protests, leading to clashes with military forces in a number of cities. As these revolts were not supported by any other major sections of the population, they were easily crushed by the shah, and Khomeini was exiled to Iraq. Not a lot more was heard of this coalition of bazaari merchants and Shi’ite clerics until 15 years later, when the crisis of the shah’s ‘modernisation’ opened up a new revolutionary period.

1. The National Front was a coalition of a number of bourgeois nationalist currents set up in the late 1940s and originally headed by Mohammed Mossadegh.
2. This committee had been set up in October-November 1978 in Neauphle-le-Château in France. Subsequently it was given the name ‘Council of the Islamic Revolution’ - invented after the event to ‘prove’ that Khomeini had planned the whole thing.
3. It is interesting to note, as revealed in president Carter’s memoirs, that it was even concealed from the US administration during negotiations with Khomeini’s representatives.
4. This can be roughly estimated as around three-four million workers, two-three million urban and rural poor, and four-five million urban and rural petty bourgeoisie (