8th March 2019
The occasion of the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Iran has resulted in a plethora of articles analysing the origins of the revolution and its development. Jamshid Ahmadi assesses the reality.
Protests against the regime and Western intervention, a daily feature of life in Iran
The mantra that my enemy’s enemy is my friend can have some mileage and as a starting point in assessing our attitude towards any given regime may not be bad place to begin. However, it is a dangerous principle to apply too rigidly because, in many circumstances, the complexities beneath the surface require a more nuanced response. Very little in international politics is strictly black and white.
This is particularly the case when considering the position of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the attitude that the Left should adopt towards the regime.
There can be no doubt that the basis of the 1979 revolution was a progressive one, in spite of the widespread portrayal in the Western media of despots deposing the Western friendly regime of the Shah.
The Shah’s power base was the British and United States oil corporations who had installed him in power in 1953, in an MI6 and CIA backed coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. The administration under Mossadegh had initiated a process of nationalising the oil industry and had kicked out British contractors. The plan was to take back Iranian oil assets for the benefit of the Iranian people, rather than the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation who had controlled Iran’s natural assets for most of the twentieth century.
Not surprisingly, the leeching away of Iran’s natural resources to line the pockets of Western millionaires proved to be an unpopular approach with broad sections of the Iranian people. While the Shah was able to create a relatively prosperous middle class, on the back of oil and gas revenues, the lot of Iranian workers was one of low pay, uncertain employment and widespread poverty.
SAVAK, the Shah’s infamous secret police, were used by the regime to keep the population in line and to quash any sign of protest or unrest. Nevertheless, protests began at least two years before the revolution in February 1979, with workers defying the authorities and taking to the streets. Their demands focussed upon an end to the repressive regime of the Shah and calls for a system based upon democracy and social justice.
That the demands of the working class and the Left also chimed with those of the clergy ensured that the base of the national democratic revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Shah, was a broad and popular one.
The overthrow of a staunch ally inevitably meant that the Western powers characterised the revolution as hostile to their interests. The holding of 52 US hostages in the former US Embassy in Tehran, from November 1979 until January 1981, only exacerbated the image of the revolution that the West sought to portray.
The position was further complicated by the Western inspired attack upon Iran by Iraq, in September 1980, which initiated a conflict that was to last eight years and cost over 1 million lives. The war also became a key source of income for the West’s military industrial complex. At one stage the UK government were training Iraqi pilots while selling anti-aircraft weaponry to Iran.
Internally however the war was the means by which the clergy consolidated its power inside Iran. Calls to unite the nation against the Iraqi invader went hand in hand with attacks upon the Left, which resulted in imprisonment, torture and exile for many. While the Left was far from supine in the face of this onslaught it was not united. Calls for a people’s front, against the subverting of the aims of the revolution by the clergy, did not result in the required unification of Left forces. Within three years the clergy had managed to secure complete control of the entire state apparatus.
While the initial demands of the national democratic revolution in 1979, for peace, social justice and democracy were undoubtedly anti-imperialist in character there is nothing to commend the subsequent theocratic takeover of all levers of power by the reactionary clergy.
The record of the regime on human rights, social justice and equality is nothing short of appalling and has been rightly condemned by solidarity organisations around the world. The unjust imprisonment, torture and execution of trade union activists, women and the political opposition continues unabated. The basic freedoms of expression and assembly are denied to those critical of the regime.
In economic terms the oil and gas wealth of the nation now lines the pockets of the corrupt clergy and their allies, rather than the Western corporations. The outcome for the ordinary people of Iran is little different to the days of the Shah, with unemployment, unpaid wages and poverty prevalent.
The Iranian regime has been inflicting abuses upon its citizens for nearly forty years, so why do some on the Left still see the regime in Iran as an ally in the wider anti-imperialist struggle?
While brute force has been the stock in trade of the theocratic dictatorship of the Islamic Republic the regime in Iran has not survived for 40 years without employing a certain amount of guile.
The international balance of forces has shifted over that time, with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the intensification of the oppression of the people of Palestine by the state of Israel, being key features of the current period.
The Iranian regime has positioned itself in direct opposition to US allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia; supported Syrian President Bashir al Assad against external Western intervention; and supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, resisting the onslaught of the Western armed Saudi coalition.
Recent talks in Moscow, with leaders from Russia and Turkey, to seek a resolution to the civil war in Syria are designed to reinforce Iran’s anti-Western appeal. Trade deals with China, North Korea and Venezuela also help reinforce Iran’s position as part of an anti-Western camp.
However, while chanting anti-Western slogans, the Islamic Republic remains desperate to attract Western investment to prop up its ailing economy. Technological development is required if the economy in Iran is to progress and reliance on oil sales is vital to the economic survival of the regime.
For the Iranian regime the nuclear deal signed in 2015 with the US, EU and China, was an opportunity to open up the economy for exploitation through the lifting of sanctions. The reneging on that deal by the Trump administration in the US has plunged the Iranian economy into a tailspin.
The international alliances forged by the Iranian regime are not out of a sense of anti-imperialist solidarity but the need to shore up the theocracy at any cost. Like the last days of the Shah, the Islamic clergy are increasingly blind to the reality of protests around them. Across eighty cities there were protests and demonstrations, on a massive scale in January 2018 and action has continued in a wide range of workplaces and cities since then.
The task for the Left in the West is not to find justifications for supporting the Iranian regime as some kind of anti-imperialist bastion. On the contrary, as in the time of the Shah, it is the Iranian people feeling the brunt of the repressive policies of the regime who need international support and solidarity. The demands of protesters over the past year have become increasingly political in character, demanding an end to the widespread corruption practiced by the regime and seeking a democratic way forward for Iran.
As the situation inside the country becomes more volatile there can be no doubt that the West will seek to impose a solution. It is not beyond the bounds of the West to go the route explored in Syria and look to create a Free Iranian Army as a conduit for cash and weapons.
This would spell disaster for the Iranian people. Having been thwarted in their national democratic desires once already the Left should not be complicit in the Iranian people being thwarted again. The future and fate of Iran should be in the hands of its people, without Western political or military interference.
The support of the Left should be firmly on the side of the demands of the people of Iran for peace, social justice and democracy and firmly against the theocratic dictatorship, which for forty years has denied this to them. Is Iran anti-imperialist? If that is the right question the answer must be, not yet and it never will be under the current regime or with continued Western interference and intervention. However, with the support of the Left, the Iranian people may be able to pick up where they left off in 1979 and truly follow through to deliver a real revolution for Iran.
Jamshid Ahmadi is assistant general secretary of Codir, the Committee for Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights. For more information on Codir please visit: www.codir.net
This article first appeared in the Morning Star (5th March 2019)