The old regime in Iran, the dictatorship of the Shah, had been installed in a military coup in 1953. Fuelled by oil reserves and repression, the Shah backed state-sponsored industrial development and land reform.
In 1962 industrial workers made about just over 20% of the total workforce. By 1977, 33% of the workforce was in industry and over 50% of the economically active population (of nearly nine million) were waged workers.
The Shah’s rule was marked by the savage methods of SAVAK, the secret police. Torture and state-sponsored murder were widespread. No opposition, neither a bourgeois parliament nor trade unions were allowed – only the Shah’s National Resurgence Party. The Shah’s policies drove peasants off the land into urban slums, squeezed the middle-class bazaar and challenged the entrenched clergy.
The 1953 coup ended efforts at unionisation and a 1959 labour law proscribed workers’ self-organisation.
In the mid-1970s, the economy began to falter. Members of all classes began to challenge the Shah.
The Shah faced an array of opponents. Firstly, the working class a third of which was concentrated in large plants and a few major cities, notably in Tehran. But workers were politically atomised, lacking representation, and able to organise only secretly in individual workplaces.
Secondly the national minorities. Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Baluchis, Qashquaia and Turkmans constituted at least a third of the population of Iran and were denied their national, language and cultural rights.
Thirdly, the minority Sunni Muslims, as well as Jews, Zoroastrians and Bahais, who suffered religious oppression.
Fourthly, there were also sections of the bourgeoisie, middle class students and intellectuals opposed to the regime. Some took part in left-wing guerrilla movements from the 1960s.
Finally, the most visible group opposing the Shah were the mullahs and the bazaar. Both the clergy and the bazaar had lost out as capitalism developed. The Shah’s land reform had reduced the mosques’ revenue and educational reforms had weakened their influence at schools.
The figurehead and driving force of the mullahs was Ayatollah Khomeini. Expelled by the Shah in 1963, Khomeini spent most of the next fifteen years in Najaf in Iraq, developing his ideas on theocratic rule. It was his forces that led the movement to overthrow the Shah and ultimately replaced him.
In June 1977 police were sent in to clear slums in south Tehran. Thousands of the urban poor clashed with the police for weeks, eventually staging the first successful mass protest against the Shah since the 1950s.
Intellectual and religious opposition became more assertive. Religious demonstrations started in the holy city of Qom in December 1977. After demonstrators were killed, Khomeini called for 40 days of mourning, to be followed by another demonstration. These religious-inspired protests, mobilising the petty bourgeois from the bazaar and the lumpenproletariat, continued through spring and summer 1978.
In summer 1978 the industrial working class intervened — although at this stage mainly for its own economic interests rather than for wider social and political goals.
The religious mobilisations and the industrial struggles began to shake the regime. The Shah ordered troops to attack a demonstration in Tehran on 8 September 1978, known as “Black Friday”, when thousands were killed.
The response of workers was to take industrial action, both for their own immediate interests but also for social and political demands. “[On 9 September] about 700 workers at the Tehran oil refinery struck not, as previously, just for higher wages, but as a protest against the imposition of martial law and the massacre at Jaleh Square. Two days later, on 11 September, the strike had spread to the oil refineries of Isfahan, Abadan, Tabriz and Shiraz...” (Nima).
In October, strikes spread further. The most important were those in the oil industry, which were organised by militant strike committees. Their political demands, formulated on 29 October, included the abolition of martial law, freedom for political prisoners, and the dissolution of SAVAK.
The Shah responded by sending in the army. But the workers did not give up. On 4 December 1978 they began an all out strike, bringing production to an absolute stop.
The Shah left Iran on 16 January 1979, never to return.
Although it was the power of the working class that brought the Shah to his knees, it was not working-class organisations that led the overall opposition movement. As Bayat put it: “While the workers indeed controlled all revolutionary activities within the workplaces, they did not and could not exert their leadership upon the mass movement as a whole. This leadership was with someone else: Khomeini and the leadership associated with him.”
“No other opposition organisation could muster a network of 180,000 members with 90,000 cadres (mullahs), some 50 leaders (ayatollahs), 5,000 ‘officers’ (middle clergy), 11,000 theological students and a whole mass of ordinary members such as Islamic teachers, preachers, prayer guides and procession organisers” (Nima).
Khomeini had already appointed the Islamic Revolutionary Council in exile. He returned to Iran on 1 February 1979, greeted by millions at the airport. On 5 February he appointed Bazargan as his provisional prime minister.
An insurrection on 9-11 February 1979 brought the end of the prime minister left behind by the Shah.
As the old state began to crumble, workers set up shuras (councils) in workplaces. These shuras took many forms — in Tehran alone there were as many as a thousand — and in the first months of 1979 they thrived.
In the period from February to August 1979, workers “waged a struggle independent from, and at times directly against, the [clerical] leaders of the revolution” (Bayat).
But immediately after the insurrection of 9-11 February oil strike leaders were arrested by the new regime and charged as counter-revolutionaries. Three days after the insurrection Khomeini ordered all strikers to return to work “in the name of the revolution”.
On 18 February the Islamic Republic Party was formed to spearhead Khomeini’s supporters in official politics. Militias and other storm troopers such as the Hezbollahi (Party of Allah) were organised to attack opponents in the streets and in workplaces.
Speaking in Qom on 1 March 1979, Khomeini said: “Democracy is another word for the usurpation of God’s authority to rule... What the nation wants is an Islamic republic; not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not a democratic Islamic republic. Do not use the term ‘democratic’. That is the Western style.”
From March 1979 Khomeiny made attack after attack on women’s rights, enforcing the veil, banning mixed education, changing family law.
On 31 March the Minister of Labour announced that the government “believes that workers can defend their interests only through a healthy Syndicate; therefore the ministry will support such organisations and intends to dissolve any other forms of organisation which are wasteful.”
On 30-31 March the government held a referendum, with the question: Yes or No to an Islamic Republic. The voting slips were red for No and green for Yes. Members of local Komitehs handed voters their preferred voting slip and stamped their identity cards.
The regime nationalised 483 factories, 14 private banks and all insurance companies in June 1979. It took control of 70% of the private sector, paying compensation to foreign and domestic capitalists. The Islamic Mustazafin Foundation took over the assets of the Shah’s family Pahlavi Foundation, which included 20% of the assets of all private companies. State managers were appointed to impose government policy. In May 1979 the government introduced the Law of Special Force to prevent shuras intervening “in the affairs of the managements and of the appointments” of government-nominated managers.
On 6 May Khomeini ordered the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran. On 22 June a demonstration at Tehran University demanding a popularly elected assembly was broken up by the Hezbollahi. The government decided that an Assembly of Experts would draft the new constitution.
On 7 August 1979 the government enforced a two-month old press law, with the Pasdaran occupying the offices of the liberal daily paper, Ayandegan. Later that month the government banned 41 opposition papers and took over two large publishing houses.
The first widespread wave of outright suppression against the shuras was launched in August. According to Bayat, “many independent shura activists were arrested and a number of them executed.”
Khomeini’s forces also attacked the left. Khomeini made his attitude clear in a speech on 19 August in Qom: “We made a mistake. If we had banned all these parties and fronts, broken all their pens, set up gallows in the main squares and cut down all these corrupt people and plotters, we would not be facing all these problems.”
When Iraq attacked Iran in late September 1980, the result was “an hysterical chauvinist wave which rapidly engulfed the country, including the working class and most of the left”. The Pasdaran were trebled and new organisations such as the Basij corps were set up up. By June 1981 the last traces of independence by the shuras were stamped out.
The Khomeini regime was a form of “reactionary anti-imperialism”, opposed to the domination of foreign capital but utterly hostile to the Iranian working class. It is not an abuse of language to describe it as a form of clerical fascism, given its destruction of the labour movement.
Khomeini disguised his programme for a theocratic state beneath vague, liberal-sounding phrases. As Nima put it, Khomeini’s “rhetorical allusions to freedom were unfortunately misunderstood by many within the anti-Shah opposition, including many on the left.”
The left failed to prepare the Iranian working class and warn of what to expect. Instead the left used spurious analogies to incorporate Khomeini’s movement within a mechanical parody of “permanent revolution”, which was far from Trotsky’s original theory.
The forerunners of the AWL, like most of the left, underestimated the nature of Khomeini’s ideas and his movement. For example, we wrote:
“The role played by Muslim clerics in the opposition movement does not mean that it is reactionary... It means no more than that the mosques have been the only possible meeting places for the opposition...” (11 November 1978).
About the closest we came to warning of the impending catastrophe was an article which said: “We can predict a clash between Khomeini and the workers. British socialists must be ready to give every support we can to the Iranian workers” (24 February 1979). The only organisation which had a third camp line of “down with the Shah, down with the mullahs” was (ironically) the Spartacist League, who warned in advance of the consequences of theocratic rule for the emerging workers’ movement, the left, women and national minorities.
Although we opposed the exclusion of the Spartacists from meetings and demonstrations on Iran by the SWP and the “Mandelite” IMG (the other most visible left group at the time), we did not spell out clearly the dangers of Khomeini coming to power. We should learn the lessons!
• This article is abridged from Workers’ Liberty 3/5, “Iran: revolution and counter-revolution 1978-9”, www.workersliberty.org/wl3-5.