Thinking About Iran

Revolutionary Islam in Iran: Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? by Suroosh Irfani, Zed Books London 1983.

I’ve had Iran on my mind for the past few weeks. It’s beginning to bother me.

At first, it was because i was reading this book Revolutionary Islam in Iran: Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? by Suroosh Irfani. Next, it was because i was trying to write a little summary of the book for you all. And then, doing some more reading about Iran on the internet, checking out a couple of old pamphlets from the OIPFG (aka the Fedayeen, the Marxist-Leninist guerilla which fought the Shah and was then massacred by the Islamic right), doing some more reading on the internet, i realized there were entire dimensions just glossed over by Irfani. And so now, finally, it’s because i’ve been trying to write up a larger summary/review for you all. (See how devoted i am?)

Now the problem is that i don’t know a whole lot about Iran or Islam, and so it’s difficult to be sure that i’ve understood all the implications and inferences in what i’ve read. Not that i’d mind if this ignorance was just between my, myself and i… but there’s nothing like writing on the internet to make one aware of one’s standards.

After having spent too much time in front of my computer trying to summarize all of this, i kind of feel like my brain has been boiled in a pot of veggies for several hours – stewed and not very sharp.

So… a new approach. This is not a review or a summary of Irfani’s book, rather just me demanding closure by letting you know what i’ve found of interest, what i think of what i’ve read, and why i think it matters.

Please be forewarned: i write from a position of (relative) ignorance!

First Off: The Book
Revolutionary Islam in Iran: Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? was written by Suroosh Irfani and published by Zed Books in 1983. Just a few years had passed since the Islamic Revolution had kicked imperialism in the teeth, and even less time had passed since said same Revolution had kicked the Left in the teeth. (Or should i say massacred the Left, buried it, and pissed on its grave?)

Irfani’s is a fine book. I recommend it, but don’t leave your critical faculties at home. He was obviously close to the Islamic Left, and has nothing but good things to say about the Mujahedin, the progressive Moslem guerillas who helped to drive the Shah out of power. If you keep a sack of skepticism on hand as you read, and if you’re willing to read more in order to flesh out the picture, this is not a big problem.

The book deals with three related but separate subjects. The first is the history of Iran since the 1890s. Well actually, that’s not true: Irfani deals very specifically just with the history of rebellions against the monarchy – the Qusar dynasty and then the Pahlavi dynasty, both of which functioned as agents of imperialism (Russian and British, and then American).

Neither the Iranian people, nor the Iranian left, nor Islam, are presented as monolithic entities. There have been divisions based on ideology, on class, and also on plain old personal ambition and greed. Nevertheless, one could say that the monarchy consistently represented the interests of the imperialists, the clergy was overwhelmingly opposed to progressive reforms (i.e. equal rights for women and religious minorities, freedom of the press, etc.), the “Communists” were opportunistic and obsequiously tied to Soviet foreign policy, the “national bourgeoisie” (if that is how one wants to view people like Mosaddeq) was impotent. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but this is the impression Irfani gives.

The next strand of the book deals with progressive Islam, which emerges out of this unpromising situation, opposing both the “formalist clergy” and the imperialist modernizers. To be clear: this was not a watered down version of regular Islam, but was rather a militant and revolutionary kind of “liberation theology,” which (in theory at least) supported equal rights for women, national and religious minorities, freedom to organize, freedom of the press… all the while wrapping it up in a very militant anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideology.

A necessary personal admission: i have a kind of visceral attraction/fascination with religious revolutionaries. I concede that it may be a dead end, i acknowledge that they may even be “objectively reactionary”… but i also find the way in which struggle is conceptualized in terms of other-worldy absolutes and eternal truths to be attractive. Call it the sci-fi geek in me, blame the Roman Catholic school i went to as a kid, point the finger at Philip K. Dick… it’s just how i feel. (Not necessarily how i think!)

For this reason, i found the discussions of revolutionary Islamic thought, as elaborated most notably by Ali Shariati (radical left-wing Islam’s chief intellectual until he was murdered by the Shah’s secret police in 1977), to be very interesting. Discussion of the value of fighting for what’s right even if you know you’re going to lose, the way in which monotheism was interpreted as a rejection of earthly idols and authorities, the way in which revolution was conceived as an ongoing eternal struggle…

For instance: “Whenever and wherever a liberated person has refused to submit to despotism and its attempts for distorting supreme values, and has preferred death to a dehumanized, purposeless existence under a monstrous regime and inhuman social system, it is a response to Hosein’s call. Wherever there is struggle for liberation, Hosein is present on the battlefield.” (Ali Shariati, quoted on p.132) (Hosein was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad)

Or else: “After every revolution, a group of opportunists stick themselves to the revolution. This causes the revolution to deviate from its path. However, this in itself is a factor in the evolution of the revolution, and the revolution becomes a continuous affair.” (Ayatollah Taleqani, quoted on p. 143)

i find a lot of this worthwhile, and i also find that it bears more than a passing similarity to some of the more appealing communist and anarchist ideas. You can come to similar conclusions without believing in God. (Shit, you can learn some of this just from watching a good spaghetti western…) So for me, the chapters about this Islamic liberation theology were well worth reading, though if you’re not interested in religious stuff it may be less interesting.

The final, climactic, section of Revolutionary Islam in Iran book deals with the Iranian Revolution. Irfani implies that it was largely through the guerilla attacks of the Mujahedin (which was based on Shariati’s ideas) and Marxist-Leninist OIPFG that the regime was pushed past the point of no return. He discusses the OIPFG briefly, and has nothing but nice things to say about them, but the book (and clearly his sympathies) is with the Mujahedin.

Attention is paid to how the brutal methods by which the Shah attempted to snuff out the guerillas. Both the Mujahedin and Fedayeen started small, and suffered incredible persecution and violence. Their family members were arrested and tortured before their eyes – even infants were abused in front of their parents. Women were gang-raped day after day, week after week, year after year, in the Shah’s interrogation dungeons. His secret police, SAVAK, earned such a reputation for their brutal interrogation techniques that they gave lessons to thugs from other imperialist outposts. They even invented their own tools, such as a gigantic human toaster which literally burnt the victim’s flesh off as they were questioned.

The regime reacted to popular demonstrations and protests with violence. A cycle was established, or so it seems, whereby protests would be met with bullets, and then this would lead to larger protests and greater repression… the situation continued to escalate, but in the people’s favour.

What was the relationship between “the people” – that amorphous mysterious mass – and then guerillas? Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of details given. I mean, “the people” are presented as being sympathetic to the guerillas and hostile to the regime, all the more so as word of the Shah’s brutal torture methods began to get out. But there is very little discussion of the mechanics of how (or if) the guerillas related to different sections of the population, and there is little discussion of revolutionary activity outside of the guerilla. Maybe that’s because there was none, but i find that hard to believe.

The Shah fled on February 5th, 1979, but the regime puttered on. The United States was eager to keep things under control, hoping to avoid a civil war. The army and secret police were loyal to the State, and were in the midst of negotiations with Khomeini about an “orderly transition” when suddenly Air Force cadets mutinied, using their weapons against the army. Within hours thousands of people had taken to the streets, and the Mujahedin and Fedayeen seized the moment, launching an all-out assault on the Shah’s army, completely destroying it within a matter of days.

So, to repeat the one of the most important factoids from this book: Khomeini did not make the Revolution, rather as the decisive insurrection broke out he was busy trying to negotiate with the imperialists.

Now, when describing what happened next, Irfani gives a play by play of how a small right-wing group – the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) – hijacked the Revolution. First off, Irfani seems to imply that Khomeini (who enjoyed great prestige amongst the masses, but had been living in exile for decades) might have gone to the left or to the right – “the IRP was created shortly after the monarchy was overthrown and had campaigned for projecting itself as the only Islamic group loyal to Khomeini and the Revolution.” (p.182) Irfani makes it sound as if the Ayatollah was up for grabs, or didn’t have his own intentions. Again, i know little about all of this, so it is possible – but i doubt it. Rather, this seems to be a way to avoid facing the fact that Khomeini had these fascistic proclivities beforehand, which would be awkward seeing as the Mujahedin (and OIPFG) had accepted (and praised) him for years as a symbol of the struggle against the Shah.

This point aside (remember, i told you to keep some skepticism on hand) Irfani gives an interesting account of how Khomeini and the Islamic right-wing basically allied themselves with those very same “formalist clergy” and even with remnants of the Shah’s regime, including the secret police. Reading the chapter “The Runaway Revolution” (just 16 pages long, but the best 16 pages in the book – someone should turn it into a pamphlet) one gets reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm, or else what happened in the Soviet Union.

Irfani goes over the story, step by step, of how Khomeini and the IRP took over the State, eventually declaring war on the left. I must admit that it gets a bit confusing here, as the story collapses into what (at the time of publication) was the recent past, and so the details begin to overwhelm the narrative. But one gets the gist of it.

My criticism of how Irfani deals with these events is that he does so very much in a top-down manner, following organizations and leading political personalities but paying little attention to the broader population. After having read about “the people” demonstrating for the Fedayeen and Mujahedin, about how “the people” saw the guerillas as the true revolutionaries, one is left wondering where these “other people” came from, the ones who were suddenly forming gangs and street armies to attack the left. I mean, it wasn’t some aging theocrats out there swinging clubs over their heads, but masses (though maybe not the masses) of people.

This is not so dissimilar to his approach to the pre-revolutionary struggle, and it is unfortunate – although this is not a general history of Iran or even the Iranian revolution, but rather a focused account of left-wing Islam in Iran, i would guess that this could be discussed in terms of numbers beyond Ali Shariati, a few radical left-wing clerics and one guerilla organization. Or maybe not; again, i’m writing based on my hunches and guesses, not on any great knowledge…

Other Sources
As i mentioned above, i also made use of some other sources when trying to contextualize what Irfani was writing about.

I read a couple of old OIPFG pamphlets, but they were written in the early 70s, and can’t be blamed for not having crystal balls.

I did find a number of interesting Trotskyist analyses on the internet. Chris Harman –of Tony Cliff’s SWP/ISO tendency – wrote an essay The Prophet and the Proletariat; he does a nice job of fleshing out some details Irfani glossed over, about what “the Revolution” meant to the oppressed:

[I]n the months after the revolution Khomeini was no more able to impose a single authority over the revolutionary upheaval than anyone else. In the cities various local committees (Komitehs) exercised de facto power. The universities were in the hands of the left and the Mojahedin. In the factories shoras (factory councils) fought for control with management, often forcing out those associated with the Shah’s regime and taking over the organisation of production
themselves. In the regions inhabited by ethnic minorities – Kurdistan in the north west and Khuzistan in the Arab speaking south west – movements began to fight for self determination.

Or, to quote from an interview with former OIPFG member (and current anarchist) Payman Piedar:

every sector of the Iranian society was so thirsty for the so-called new founded “freedom” that they won through their own self-organization. Workers started the Shoura (“soviet” or “council”) movement in many factories and even the peasants of the ethnic Turkaman minority (in the Northern region) organized themselves in the same fashion. Women held a major demonstration demanding the right to refuse wearing the religious attire (forceful covering of their body).
Students held lively debates and started organizing themselves into various leftwing groupings. The Kurds (the largest and most radical ethnic minority) immediately created their autonomous zone of control (either through the bourgeois Democratic Party of Kurdistan, or The Komole, a leftwing
petite-bourgeois organization with a strong pro-worker/peasant tendency), with their Armed Pishmarge (namely “self-sacrificing guerrilla”) ready to shed their blood to defend their territory.

In other words, people trying to wrest some control over their own lives. Attempts at self-management. Popular anti-capitalism. Collective self-liberation. Good stuff!

But as Piedar explains, Khomeini and the IRP recuperated and neutralized this upsurge:

unfortunately none of the above mass organizations lasted more than a few months. The counter-revolution established their various reactionary armed organizations, namely the Pasdaran Enghelab (so-called “Guardian of the Revolution”), Basij (an armed youth formation), and worst of all The Hezbolaah Party (you could call them the fascist brigade, or “Falange”), and immediately started to smash, break up, and in the case of the Turkamans, carry out vicious executions. In Kurdistan a massive bombardment of their camps took away all the progressive gains that the masses had made for themselves. And, of course, the regime started to create its own “Islamic Shouras”, “Islamic women associations” and “Islamic student associations” (which was the extension of the previous pro-Khomeni student organization that was already active prior to his return to Iran).

Harman presents some details about the social base behind this takeover:

What the group around Khomeini succeeded in doing was to unite behind it a wide section of the middle class – both the traditional petty bourgeoisie based in the bazaar and many of the first generation of the new middle class – in a struggle to control the hierarchies of power. The secret of its success was its ability to enable those who followed it at every level of society to combine religious enthusiasm with personal advance. Someone who had been an assistant manager in a foreign owned company could now run it under state control and feel he was fulfilling his religious duty to serve the community (umma); someone who had lived in deep poverty among the lumpen proletariat could now achieve both material security and a sense of self achievement by leading a hizbollah gang in its attempts to purify society of “indecency” and the “infidel Communists”.

The opportunities open to those who opted for the Khomeini line were enormous. The flight from the country of local and foreign managers and technicians during the early months of revolutionary upheaval had created 130,000 positions to be filled. The purging of “non-Islamic” managers, functionaries and army officers added enormously to the total.

Another Trotskyist group with some interesting things on their website is Workers Liberty, based in the UK (i know nothing else of this group, if anyone wants to fill me in). On their site they have this essay Islamism and the left in the Iranian revolution, by a member of Workers’ Left Unity Iran and of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (again, i know nothing about these groups, though i am guessing they’re some kind of trots). While i don’t agree with him 100%, the author draws some excellent “lessons” from what happened in Iran. The most important (in my opinion) being that a regime can be anti-imperialist and reactionary at the same time:

The revolution threw out one of imperialism’s most trusted allies, and gendarme, in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The counter-revolution that rode on the back of the revolution, even if its success was oiled by the scheming of Western governments, upset the carefully laid imperialist jigsaw in the region. The West, and in particular the USA lost a close ally. It took another decade and two wars to re-establish Pax Americana.

The Soviet bloc was openly ecstatic. The Iranian revolution had broken the chain of ‘containing’ states encircling the Soviet block at its most crucial link. The [Stalinist] Tudeh party, always a microphone for the Soviet Union’s foreign ministry, had from the revolutionary days endorsed Khomeini. But the Tudeh Party had little support on the ground. It had to win the largest left organisation in Iran, the Organisation of People’s Fadai’ [OIPFG], if its policies were to be actualised. The Fadai’, now a large nation-wide organisation, was suffering from theoretical paralysis. In the intellectual apparatus of the left ‘reaction’ and ‘revolution’ were opposites. To combine them was an absolute contradiction. The Fadai’s deeply ingrained populism told it that a regime coming out of a popular revolution which had toppled the monarchical dictatorship, and was being opposed by every imperialist power, must be progressive. Its eyes, however, told it different.

Any lingering doubts were cast aside when the rulers of the Islamic Republic consummated their anti-imperialist rhetoric by the charade of the US embassy occupation. This and Iraq’s invasion of Iran split the left right down the middle. The Tudeh Party used the authority of ‘brother’ parties to break the will of the Fadai’. The process was assisted by the fact that internationally the left in all its hues, all but a tiny faction, had hailed the Iranian revolution and counselled support for the counter-revolutionary regime that had defeated the revolution. The Fadai’ split. A Majority fell into line behind Tudeh and Khomeini. The Minority became fodder for Khomeini’s repressive machinery.

No Rose Coloured Glasses Please
As i mentioned above, Irfani is clearly sympathetic to the Mujahedin. His book provides a very useful overview of the group, its ideology, and how it related to the Revolution. However, there is another side to all of this.

The Mujahedin was insufficiently critical of Khomeini one might say, but that would be something of an understatement. The initial support that the Ayatollah enjoyed from the Left was what allowed him to consolidate his power.

For instance, Harman quotes Ervand Abrahamian’s book The Iranian Mojahedin:

[The Mujahedin s]crupulously adhered to a policy of avoiding confrontations with the clerical shadow government. In late February [1979] when the Fedayeen organised a demonstration of over 80,000 at Tehran university demanding land reform, the end of press censorship and the dissolution of the armed forces, the Mojahedin stayed away. And early in March, when Western educated women celebrated international women’s day by demonstrating against Khomeini’s decrees abrogating the Family Protection Law, enforcing the use of the veil in government offices, and pushing the “less impartial gender” from the judiciary, the Mojahedin warned that “imperialism was exploiting such divisive issues”. In late March when zealous club wielders attacked the offices of the anti-clerical paper Ayandegan, the Mojahedin said nothing. They opposed a boycott of the referendum over the Islamic republic and Kurdish struggle for autonomy. If the nation did not remain united behind Imam Khomeini, the Mojahedin emphasised, the imperialists would be tempted to repeat their 1953 performance [referring to the coup against Mosaddeq].

The importance of this passive support for Khomeini’s emerging regime is explained in Julius Leicht’s Who are the People’s Mujahedin of Iran?:

Far from representing an alternative to their clerical opponents of today, they served them as a left-wing fig leaf— until the clerics felt strong enough to take action against the Mujahedin.


Following a secret meeting of Mujahedin leader Masud Rajavi with Khomeini in February 1979, the Mujahedin generally condemned any resistance to the clergy and its henchmen and thugs up until November of that year, justifying this by claiming that such resistance only played into the hands of imperialism. And they let their radical image be used by the clergy without raising any objection—something the mullahs urgently needed, since most of them had, at best, taken a cowardly, if not openly supportive stance towards the Shah.

Ayatollah Beheshti, for instance, the infamous supreme judge and close collaborator of Khomeini’s, stated at this time: “The Islamic Revolution rested on three pillars: Imam Khomeini, Ali Shariati and the Mujahedin organization.” The media controlled by the clergy reported day in and day out on the heroic deeds and martyrs of the People’s Mujahedin. Universities and high schools were named after them, governorships and other high-up government positions were given to their sympathizers. In return, the People’s Mujahedin provided cover for “our Great Father Khomeini, the leader of the struggle against the monarchy”, while Khomeini’s people took over control of the army, the police, the judiciary, the state-run media and, not least of all, the extensive property of the Shah.

Although Khomeini’s followers carried out the campaign for
a referendum on the constitution of the Islamic Republic in December 1979 and the presidential elections in January 1980 with the methods of terror and intimidation, the People’s Mujahedin declared that they “would always support the progressive clergy and, in particular, His Highness, the Great Khomeini”. They boycotted the referendum, but contested the presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections with their own candidates. Although the Hizbollah strong-arm squads attacked them with increasing brutality and Khomeini let loose tirades obviously aimed at the People’s Mujahedin against “hypocrites” who “confused Islam with Marxism” and were “worse than infidels”, the Mujahedin continued to refer to him as the “beloved father” who had “liberated Iran from the monarchy and US imperialism”.

When the Mujahedin finally did break with Khomeini, and try and fight back, it was too late. In 1980 they staged a series of demonstrations, culminating in 500,000 people who marched against Khomeini on June 20th – but it was suppressed by the Khomeini’s new government – fifty people were killed, and the new regime survived as strong as ever.

It is also worth mentioning, although it is somewhat outside of the scope of “what went wrong in 1979”, that over the past 25 years the Mujahedin has formed a “National Resistance Council” and slid further to the right. Today, according to Leicht:

they echo imperialist propaganda against the existing Iranian regime—that it endangers Western interests through the construction of “weapons of mass destruction”, the “exportation of fundamentalism and terrorism” and “opposition to the Israeli-Arab peace process”. In the “platform of the National Resistance Council” (NRC) the following words are written: “The economic policy of the NRC is based on free market economy and the acknowledgement of national capitalism and the bazaar, private and personal property and investments …. The NRC considers the extension of relations to industrial nations to be essential for the reconstruction of the future Iran.”

Again, not in a position to judge the honesty of any of these analyses, though i’ve found nothing that really contradicts any of them…

Revolution and Reaction and Women
Finally, i should point out that Revolutionary Islam in Iran: Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? pays scarce attention to the role of “the woman question” within Iranian history, and the Islamic Revolution. When discussing clerical opposition to progressive reforms, Irfani does note that this was often because of their attachment to sexist social relations, but he doesn’t explain why.

This is unfortunate, but it’s so common it often passes unnoticed. Opposition to land reform, or relations with foreign powers, or new economic developments… these are all assumed to call for investigation, explanation, and analysis. But when it comes to keeping women in a subservient position, or increasing their exploitation, this is taken to be such an obvious and “natural” position that no explanation is necessary.

I am not saying that i have the answers to this– indeed, there are none to be found in Irfani’s book – but that doesn’t mean the question does not loom, whether spoken aloud or not: why is it on the question of women’s rights and freedoms that the “formalist clergy” repeatedly broke with the “progressive movements”. Today, why is the Islamic Republic mainly known for the restrictions it has placed no women, and the brutally violent way in which these restrictions are enforced?

Just to be clear, i don’t think that the answers to these questions would be the kind of cliché you get on CNN or Fox either. Women in Iran were actors too, not just passive victims. For instance, i was reading an interview with Mansureh Ettehadieh, a feminist academic in Tehran; she was asked about the Revolution’s effect on women, and she answered:

it was Imam Khomeini who specified that they didn’t need their husbands permission to go to [Friday night] prayers. And another thing, you see, is that with this hedjab, we’re supposed to live in a better society. We’re supposed to be immune now, and protected. So those families who wouldn’t permit their daughters to go to university now let them do their studies. Families are actually proud of their daughters going to university. This is important. I’ve always quoted Imam Khomeini as saying, ‘the hedjab is your freedom’. And a lot of people would argue ‘what kind of freedom is this? You know, you’ve got to wear that unbecoming veil’ and so on. Many women who are emigrants would despise what I’m saying, but it’s true. For a lot of girls, all this has meant freedom.

Do i buy this? Do i approve of uniforms as a way of claiming freedom? Of course not, but my point is that there are issues and dynamics here worth discussing. The State is an instrument of oppression, but so is the family, and at times your husband may be worst than the local government or religious official… so having the Ayatollah announce that (for the first time ever) you can go out to this important social event without your husband’s permission is not nothing. And i think it’s necessary to understand how so many men and women were won over to support Khomeini.

Lessons Learned
I have my reasons for being interested what went wrong in 1979, how the Revolution ended up so different from how most of the revolutionaries had expected. In fact, i think there are definite lessons to be learned, in terms of Third World struggles and religious liberation movements, but also in terms of the secular metropolitan left here in the First World.

But i’m not going to discuss these lessons today!

A teaser? Yes. You’ll just have to wait!

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