Revolution and counter-revolution in Iran, 1978-9: Workers' Liberty 3/5

How Iranian workers toppled a dictator

The Iranian revolution 1978-79 was one of the seminal events of the twentieth century, rich in lessons for working-class socialists. It is a story of class struggle, female self-assertion and the awakening of national minorities. The Iranian workers were the decisive force behind the toppling of the hated regime of Mohammed Reza Shah. Yet this movement was smashed by the theocracy that took the place of the monarchy. That Islamic state ruled by clerics has been a catastrophe for workers, for women and the oppressed.

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The workers crushed

The Shah left Iran on 16 January 1979. Crowds celebrated on the streets of Tehran. His last prime minister Bakhtiar, appointed only at the end of 1978, lasted less than a month. The sense of liberty, throwing off the shackles of years of repression, was tangible. As one worker at the Caterpillar factory put it: “The greatest grace that the revolution has granted to us is freedom… Nowadays, a man can speak out and protest; he can criticise; he can read books, can breathe…” (Bayat).

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The oil workers’ programme

On 29 October, workers at Ahwaz oil formulated a wide-ranging set of demands:

1. An end to martial law

2. Full solidarity and cooperation with striking teachers in Ahwaz

3. Unconditional release of political prisoners

4. Iranianisation of the oil industry

5. All communications to be in the Persian language

6. All foreign employees to leave the country

7. An end to discrimination against women staff employees and workers

8. The implementation of a law dealing with the housing of oil workers and staff employees.

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National minorities

Fewer than half of the people of Iran in 1979 were Persian and spoke Farsi. Suffering oppression under Shah, the national minorities, Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Balushis, Qashquaia and Turkmans participated in the movement to overthrow his regime to further their demands for self-government and self-determination.

However Khomeini’s regime soon turned on these minorities. On 18-21 March Kurdish villages in Sanandaj were bombed for demanding national self-determination and for seizing land from the landlords.

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The demands of the All Iran Workers’ Union

“We the workers of Iran, through our strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations overthrew the Shah’s regime and during these months of strike we tolerated unemployment, poverty and even hunger. Many of us were killed in the struggle. We did this in order to create an Iran free of class repression, free of exploitation. We made the revolution in order to end unemployment and homelessness, to replace the SAVAK-orientated syndicates with independent workers’ shuras — shuras formed by the workers of each factory for their own economic and political needs.”

Workers demanded:

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The failure of the left

The Iranian working class was the decisive social force that overthrew the Shah in 1978-79. But workers did not go on to create their own state, but instead came under the rule of a regime no less repressive than that of the Shah.

Workers built organisations and took action in defence of their own interests. The development of independent working class politics was a real possibility in 1979. Yet this potential was not fulfilled — in large part because of the failure of the left, both inside Iran and internationally.

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Tail-ending Khomeini

Socialist Worker (28 October 1978) compared Khomeini to Father Gapon to justify their tail ending.

“It is almost as though the masses have seized on a tradition that is embodied in their history — the tradition of religious opposition – the one thing they know is common to all, understood by all, and hammered this religion of theirs into a mighty weapon, that has nothing to do with godliness, or holiness and everything to do with mass power.” (Joanna Rollo, Iran: Beginning of a Revolution, SWP pamphlet)

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The women’s demands

A mass meeting held at the Ministry of Justice on 10 March produced the following resolution:

“Considering that human beings are both free and the gift of freedom belongs equally to all regardless of sex, colour, race, language and belief;

Considering that women form half the population of Iran and that the contribution of this half to the education of the future generations as well as to social, cultural, political and economic life is undeniable;

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