Iran 1979: How people power toppled a dictator

The movement in Iran today needs to widen into a challenge led by Iran\'s working class, like that which toppled the Shah in 1979

Iran’s revolution in 1979 ended up replacing one dictatorship with another. But the outcome could have been very different, writes Ernest Price

The mass people power protests in Iran have brought to life the memory of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Thirty years ago, as today, millions of ordinary Iranian workers, students and peasants stood together against the threat of massive repression to fight for a better standard of living and basic democratic rights.

Street demonstrations and strikes defeated a brutal, conservative regime and struck a huge blow against US and British imperialism in the Middle East.

The mass media, the Iranian ruling elite and even much of the left describe 1979 as an Islamic Revolution—directed by the clergy and inspired by a conservative interpretation of Islam.

But the mass movement that toppled the Shah’s regime was not fighting for religious aims. Their aim was to improve the standard of living for the mass of ordinary people.

People were struggling for better wages, political and religious freedom, rights for ethnic minorities and women’s rights. Many wanted socialism—and an end to the capitalist system that was entrenching inequality in Iran.

It was after the overthrow of the Shah that the conservative religious leaders that have been the face of the Iranian ruling elite for the last 30 years were able to organise a counter-revolution which ended up crushing the mass movement.

The Islamic regime was able to fill the vacuum of leadership created after the Shah left Iran. It was at this crucial moment that the left in Iran, which remained disorganised and theoretically weak, was outmanoeuvred and allowed the dynamic movement that had broken the US’s puppet government to be defeated.

Yet the 1979 Iranian Revolution showed that Iran’s working class had the power to bring down even the most powerful regime. It also illustrates the importance of the left grasping this fact in order to push forward the moments of struggle that are inevitable in the future.

Roots of the 1979 Revolution

Oil has shaped modern Iranian politics, and made the country of special interest to the great powers.

In the early 1950s Iran’s nationalist leader, Dr Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalised the nation’s oil industry. Two years later the CIA and British Intelligence engineered a coup and Mossadegh was forced out of power.

From 1953 the US backed a military dictatorship that stayed in power through ruthless repression of all opposition. At the head of this puppet regime was Mohammed Reza Shah, supported by 24,000 CIA “advisers” and a massive domestic security apparatus that imprisoned over 20,000 political prisoners during the course of his reign.

The Shah controlled massive income from Iran’s oil reserves and military aid in excess of US$500 million. But the mass of people felt few of the benefits as the economy grew.

In 1975, after years of growing revenue (which the state relied upon heavily), oil prices crashed. Inflation was also rising. Economic problems sparked a rise in workers’ protest.

This combined with serious political tensions. The repressive state apparatus that held the Shah in power had made many enemies. The regime had marginalised much of the Islamic clergy, as well as ethnic and religious minorities whose claims for freedom had been denied and the intellectual milieus on university campus who sought guarantees of academic freedoms.

Opposition to the Shah’s regime burst back onto the streets in June 1977. The first onto the streets were slum dwellers in Tehran, protesting ever-declining conditions.

Next to protest were General Motors workers in July—who set fire to their factory as protests against falling wages were taken up by workers around the country.

Between 1977 and 1978 demonstrations against the regime went from isolated incidents to daily occurrences. The growing confidence of a number of sections of the community to come out on the streets and protest forced the Shah to make concessions—a move that opened the floodgates.

On September 7, 1978 two million people marched on the streets of Tehran against the Shah.

The response was swift—2000 demonstrators were murdered by the heavy hand of the Shah’s security forces. But repression only swelled the movement—the all important oil workers (30,000 of them) went on strike, to be joined by many other sections of the working class, including rail and coal workers.

Once the working class began to flex its muscle the Shah’s days were numbered. Soon units of the army began to rebel, and on  January 16, 1979 the seemingly unthinkable happened—the Shah was forced to flee Iran.

Power vacuum

The abdication of the Shah was a massive blow to the interests of US and British imperialism in the Middle East.

The US and Britain had installed the Shah’s government and maintained support for it right to the moment of the revolution. They lost a client state with huge oil reserves and crucial geographic positioning.

It was the workers movement that broke the back of the Shah’s regime, leading the demonstrations of other sections of the community and making the ongoing functioning of the Shah’s regime impossible.

In the days immediately following the departure of the Shah, strike committees (shoras) in the factories and the villages organised to take power, run society and defeat the last elements loyal to the Shah.

The shoras could have been the basis for workers’ control of society, and a socialist Iran where the economy was run in the interests of ordinary people under democratic control.

But the political currents inside the opposition movement were not up to the task. The Iranian left completely failed to see the central importance of the workers’ movement and how it could have been the basis of a successful socialist revolution.

On February 1, 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini, an exiled religious leader, returned to Iran and declared himself head of state. Popular in his own right and stepping into a vacuum, Khomeini moved to roll back the influence of the shoras and restore capitalist order.

Khomeini used the language of religion to attack the workers’ movement, saying that workers running factories and peasants running villages was “unIslamic”.

But the key forces on the left supported Khomeini, believing that “progressive” sections of the middle classes had to come to power because Iran was not ready for a socialist revolution.

The revolution had not been religious in nature. Workers and peasants, many of whom were practising Muslims, rejected Khomeini’s attempts to give the movement a religious character.

On May Day in 1979, 1.5 million workers marched in Tehran. They demanded that the Khomeini regime take forward the many hopes associated with the revolution—equal pay for men and women, workers’ rights and political freedoms.

Khomeini began the process of cracking down on the left and the workers movement, whilst also launching a military offensive against the Kurdish minority that had formed a strong element of the revolutionary movement.

Khomeini was able to divide opposition to his plans by posing as anti-imperialist and calling on the country to unite against US imperialism. Khomeini was extremely successful in isolating the left and arguing that any internal debate in Iran would fracture opposition to the US.

This argument has been a mainstay of the Iranian regime for the last 30 years, and was used by Ahmadinejad in the recent election campaign to demobilise opposition protests. Khomeini was able to entrench his rule over the following months, culminating in the eight-year war with Iraq.

Lessons for today

The success of the counter-revolution in Iran was not inevitable. The inspiring events of 1978 and 1979 showed the revolutionary potential of the working class to not only strike a massive blow against imperialism, but to also shape developments within Iran itself.

Today’s unrest in Iran shows that none of the contradictions within Iranian society—the tensions caused by poverty and inequality and the heavy hand of imperial powers in the Middle East—have been resolved in the last 30 years. It is not a question of asking if we will see further explosions of struggle but of when.

For the spontaneous demonstrations and strikes that shook Iran in 1979 to translate into a new society, there needed to be an organised revolutionary party capable of fighting to take the movement in a socialist direction after the overthrow of the Shah.

Contemporary leaders like Mir Hussein Mousavi are creatures of the middle class and the ruling elite. It is the mass of ordinary people in Iran that have a real interest in throwing off the shackles of capitalism in Iran. 1979 shows that this is possible—if we are willing to learn the lessons of history.


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