Twenty-five years after
February 27, 2004 | Page 8
THIS MONTH marks the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Today, the Bush administration is increasing the pressure on Iran--number two on its "axis of evil" list. Washington is accusing Iran of developing "weapons of mass destruction," just as it did with Iraq before the invasion a year ago.
Iran isn't a new target for the U.S. government. It has been on the hit list of every U.S. administration, Republican or Democrat, since the 1979 revolution. Why? Because the Iranian Revolution was the biggest defeat for U.S. imperialism in the years after the Vietnam War. The revolution brought down one of the U.S. government's staunchest allies--the Shah of Iran. And it permanently changed the political terrain in the Middle East--a region of immense strategic importance because it has two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves.
SAMAN SEPEHRI tells the story of the Iranian Revolution.
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IF THE Bush administration is attempting to redraw the political map of the Middle East today, it is in large part because of the effects of the Iranian Revolution 25 years ago. Up until mid-1970s, the U.S. had used "surrogate states"--the Shah's Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel--to ensure the safe flow of oil and to protect U.S. interests in the region.
The revolution that overthrew the Shah not only unraveled this policy, but forced the U.S. into containing a newly hostile Iranian government--setting the stage for direct U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf region in the coming years.
The Shah had been installed in power by a CIA-planned coup in 1953 that toppled Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq, a nationalist, had brought the wrath of Western governments on himself by nationalizing the Iranian oil industry--which until the 1950s was owned and run by Britain's Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
After the Second World War, a nationalist movement led by Mossadeq challenged British control of the oil. When Mossadeq nationalized the oilfields, Western oil companies organized a boycott of Iran. As this conflict grew more polarized, some sections of Iranian business that had initially backed Mossadeq took fright, opening the door to covert intervention by the West.
The CIA engineered the coup that brought down the Mossadeq government and installed a U.S. ally--the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This way, the U.S. government not only put an end to Mossadeq's challenge, but it established itself as the dominant Western power in the region, wresting control of Middle East oil from Britain. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran became one of the three pillars of U.S. strategy in the region.
Over the next 25 years, the Shah built a massive military that became the guardian of U.S. interests in the Gulf. Using oil profits and massive packages of U.S. aid, Iran became the world's largest arms importer during the 1970s--with more than $20 billion worth coming from the U.S. alone between 1970 and 1978. U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) called this "the most rapid buildup of military power under peacetime conditions in the history of the world."
The Shah also crushed all opposition from the working class and the left within Iran, jailing and torturing some 20,000 political prisoners to make the country a haven for U.S. companies. But the oil money and U.S. military aid also served to industrialize Iran. By the time of the revolution, the country had a sizable working class, with some 2.5 million employed in manufacturing and 70,000 workers in the all-important oil industry.
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THE MYTH today about the Iranian Revolution is that it was an Islamic revolution. It is a myth perpetuated by Iranian rulers today, who want to erase all traces of the role of the workers' movement and the left in the revolution and justify their own authority. It is also perpetuated by the U.S. and other Western governments, which want to paint the Iranian Revolution as a reactionary step backward--thus justifying their own hostility to the revolution.
The truth is very different. Although the 1979 revolution brought an Islamic republic to power, headed by the clergy and Ayatollah Khomeini, it was the urban poor that sparked the revolution--and the left that played a crucial part in organizing the protests. Ultimately, strikes and workplace occupations by Iran's workers brought the Shah's regime to its knees.
The revolution took place against the backdrop of a serious economic crisis, caused by a drop in Iran's oil revenues in 1975. The first protests against the Shah to take place in years involved thousands of slum dwellers in Tehran, the capital city. These protests by the poor encouraged other sections of society to openly oppose the regime.
By 1977, intellectuals, who had been silenced by the regime, and the clergy and their allies--shopkeepers and small business owners left out of the earlier economic boom and squeezed by foreign companies--joined the protests. Between October 1977 and September 1978, there were weekly and then daily demonstrations, culminating in a 2 million-strong protest in Tehran on September 7, 1978.
The Shah responded by imposing martial law--and his police and soldiers massacred more than 2,000 demonstrators in a single day. The repression threatened to end the protests.
But a strike of 30,000 oil workers brought the country to a standstill and gave new momentum to the movement. Strikes and takeovers followed in factories, offices, hospitals and universities nationwide. Workers' committees were set up in many workplaces. Owners and managers were bypassed or forced out. Meanwhile, neighborhood committees were organized by slum dwellers and the poor--and they began their own patrols to maintain order as the Shah's army and police began to disintegrate.
Still, despite all the organization and activity among workers and the poor, the leadership of the movement was in the hands of others. The left, which for years had been repressed by the Shah, resurfaced during the revolution and enjoyed great popularity.
Workers and the left could have challenged the regime based on the strength of the workers' committees. But instead of posing an alternative, they argued that the main task was to get rid of the Shah's dictatorship.
This allowed Ayatollah Khomeini and the clergy, along with a coalition of merchants and liberal capitalist politicians, to seize the leadership of the movement. On February 11, 1979--with sections of the Shah's army in rebellion, joining and arming people in the streets--Khomeini's forces took power.
But the workers' committees still posed a great threat. Over the next year, the clergy and the liberals launched a full-scale offensive to uproot and destroy every vestige of the power that workers had gained. Islamic committees were set up at workplaces to compete with the workers' committees, and neighborhood committees under government control were strengthened. Where these tactics didn't work, businesses were allowed to fail as a way to dissolve the committees.
Finally, brute force was used to make workers turn over control of workplaces to either the owners or the state. At the same time, the new regime carried out a military offensive against Kurds and other national minorities who had gained some autonomy during the revolution.
In the fall of 1979, the government sponsored a takeover of the U.S. embassy. During the resulting "hostage crisis," Khomeini was able to label all dissent against his government as the work of U.S. imperialism. This served as the justification for not only suppressing the left and workers' organizations, but getting rid of the liberals in the government. Less than a year after the power of workers played the central role in toppling the Shah, Khomeini and the clergy were in command.
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TODAY, THE Iranian regime is not only facing increasing international pressures from the U.S., but it is dealing with a serious internal crisis. For seven years, the old guard conservatives among the clergy and reformers who want to modernize Iran have been locked in an ongoing battle.
The reformers are led by Mohammad Khatami, who has twice won election to Iran's presidency by landslide margins. Khatami and a section of Iran's ruling class have tried to reintegrate Iran into the world economy--in the belief that opening up to foreign investment is the only way for the country to survive economically.
They have used the promise of democracy as a means to mobilize the population to break the conservatives' hold on the state and the economy. The conservatives are perfectly willing to implement the neoliberal program of cuts and privatization that reformers also support, but they are unwilling to loosen up the reigns of political control, fearing the threat to their rule.
The conservatives have won the latest round in the battle against the reformers with a victory in this month's elections. But the masses of Iranians have made real inroads into the conservatives' hold on power over the past seven years.
Iranian society is highly politicized today. The growing anger among workers and the poor, combined with the attacks to come from the government, provide the ingredients that could--like in 1979--lead to revolt.