The legacy of Iran's guerrilla
September 13, 2004
Maziar Behrooz is assistant professor of history
at San Francisco State University and author of Rebels
with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran and other articles
on the history of modern Iran. His forthcoming book is titled Molahezati
piramun-e tarikh chap dar Iran (2005) due to be
published in Tehran. An edited version of this article with proper citations
was published as a book chapter under the following title: "Iranian
Revolution and the Legacy of the Guerrilla Movement," in
Stephanie Cronin, ed. Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern
Iran: New Perspectives
on the Iranian Left (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004)
During the early 1970s the National Iranian Radio
(NIRT) began broadcasting a new American TV series named "The
Guerrillas." The series was a not-too-well produced story
about allied commando operations behind Nazi lines during the Second
World War in Europe. It was dubbed in Persian but then the name
of the series was translated gurilha which can only mean gorillas
What possible relation there might be between commando operations
and the mighty ape was left to the imagination of poor Iranian
viewers. Such was the sensitivity of the imperial regime of Shah
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to the term guerrilla (cherik in Persian)
that the NIRT had to resort to such ridiculous innovation.
sensitivity of the imperial regime was accompanied by a touch of
respect for the guerrillas. In 1976, the shah went on record praising
the guerrillas by saying: "The determination with which they
fight is quite unbelievable." Who were these guerrillas of
the 1970s and how did they come to be both feared and respected
by the imperial regime?
The years 1970-1971 constituted a turning point in the shah's
perception of his place in history and in his regime's relationship
with the opposition. During the course of this period, Iran's imperial
navy occupied three islands in the Persian Gulf signaling the beginning
of the shah's attempt to assert Iran's domination of the region
in relation to the Persian Gulf's Arab states on the eve of the
In 1971 the imperial regime
celebrated 2500 years of Persian Empire in Persepolis-Shiraz.
Here, the shah opened the ceremonies by standing in front of Cyrus
Greats tomb at Pasargad (near Shiraz), asking him to rest assured
as all was well with the empire under the shah's leadership.
The celebrations were a grand and expensive ceremony, before the
of world leaders, attesting to the shah's majesty at the peak
of his power.
A year earlier, in one of the seminaries of the holy city of Najaf
in Iraq, not far from Imam Ali's tomb, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah
al-Musavi al-Khomeini had given a series of lectures arguing for
an Islamic state under the guardianship of the ulama, thus making
a clear break between his movement and those who still supported
a return to a constitutional monarchy in Iran. A few months before
the shah's celebrations, in February 1971, a team of guerrillas
had attacked the Siyahkal gendarmerie post in the northern province
of Gilan signaling the opening of an intense eight year period
of armed activity against the imperial regime.
Hence, 1970-71 signals a clear radicalization and the beginning
of a violent phase of oppositional struggle against the imperial
regime at the height of the shah's power. In this, the guerrillas
played a pivotal role. The birth of the guerrilla movement in Iran
heralded the opening of a new chapter in the anti-shah oppositional
The imperial regime of the shah had closed the 1960s
by crushing the secular nationalist, religious, and Marxist
political opposition. By allying his regime to the West and establishing
a modern dictatorial regime, based on a violent secret police,
the shah had declared his intention of implementing his version
of modernization with or without popular consent.
By making their existence known, the guerrillas addressed three
audiences: first, they were letting the people, or khalq, their
preferred term, know that reality was not as the shah presented
and that resistance to his rule not only had not ceased but had
been reinvigorated. Second, they were addressing the regime by
letting it know that its seemingly total control was but an illusion.
Third, they were addressing the previous generation, nationalist,
Islamist, and Marxist, by letting them know that bygone methods
of purely political opposition had been a failure and that a new,
violent, phase had begun, if only because the regime had left no
This chapter reexamines the historical role of the guerrilla
movement of the 1970s. In doing so, a reevaluation will be presented
of the movement's contribution to the anti-shah opposition, to
the revolutionary overthrow of the imperial regime, and to the
reemergence of radical leftist politics (both communist and otherwise)
in post-revolution Iran.
What were the motives and legacy of these mostly young and educated
men and women who took up arms against a well organized repressive
state? How much did they accomplish and what were their flaws and
failures? The study will argue that, while the movement was unsuccessful
in its ultimate goal of leading the revolution in the overthrow
of the shah, it played an important role in challenging the shah's
regime, in keeping the spirit of resistance high, and was a determining
factor in popularizing and redefining the politics of the radical
left after the revolution.
In a discussion of the guerrilla movement, three organizations
stand out as dominant, both quantitatively and qualitatively. There
were other, smaller, groups but these three played a clear hegemonic
role. The three were: The Organization of People's Fada'i Guerrillas
(henceforth Fadaiyan), the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (henceforth
MKO), and the MKO (Marxist-Leninist), an offshoot of the latter
established in 1975.
Established in 1971, the Fadaiyan was the more important among
the three both qualitatively and quantitatively. Some of its prominent
members, and major contributors to the guerrilla movement, were
Bizhan Jazani, Mas'ud Ahmadzadeh, Amir Parviz Puyan, and Hamid
Ashraf. It was the Fadaiyan which attacked the Siyahkal police
post and opened the guerrilla chapter of the anti-shah movement.
Between 1971-1979 the organization engaged the imperial regime
in intense, mostly urban, armed activity. It gave many casualties,
including its entire original leadership, and was greatly damaged
by the security forces in 1976. Nevertheless, at the point of
the 1979 revolution, the Fadaiyan was the most able guerrilla
then operating. The Fadaiyan was a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary
and independent organization with no ties to either the Soviet
or Chinese communist parties. The dominant line in the organization
was Stalinist and the organization was critical of aspects of
Soviet and Chinese foreign and domestic policies.
The MKO was established in 1965, and was a revolutionary Moslem
guerrilla group. Some of its prominent members were Muhammad Hanifnezhad,
Mohsen Sadeq, Muhammad Bazargani, Sa'id Mohsen, Ali Asghar Badi'zadegan,
and Mas'ud Rajavi. The MKO represented a genuine attempt by young
Moslem revolutionaries to reinterpret traditional Shi'i Islam and
infuse it with modern political thinking in order to turn it into
a viable revolutionary ideology. In doing this, the leadership
of the MKO spent the 1960s reinterpreting Shi'i Islam by freely
borrowing from Marxism.
The final result was a Shi'i Islam which viewed history as a process
of class struggle, armed action as the only path to confront the
regime, and the revolutionary, modern, educated Moslem intelligentsia
(and not the ulama) as the natural leaders of the upcoming movement.
Hence, the MKO was intellectually close to Ali Shari'ati, the preeminent
Moslem intellectual of this period. The MKO did not take any armed
action against the regime until after the Fadaiyan had made their
move. In the summer of 1971 the organization was dealt blows by
the security forces and most of its leadership was wiped out. It
managed to reorganize and continued to engage the regime in an
effective manner until 1975.
The MKO (ML) came to life after a substantial portion of the
Moslem MKO changed ideology and accepted Marxism in 1975. Some
of the main personalities of the organization were Muhammad Taqi
Shahram, Bahram Aram, Hosein Ruhani, and Torrab Haqshenas.
of the new organization was bloody as Marxist members purged
the Moslem members and killed a number of its key leaders.
This development weakened the Moslem MKO. The Marxist MKO then
continued on the path of armed activity against the imperial
regime until 1977. At this time the organization came to reject
activity in favor of more politically oriented activity. The
MKO (ML) was a Maoist-Stalinist organization from its inception
was hostile to the Soviet Union.
Iran in the 1960s
The imperial regime had closed the 1950s by consolidating its rule following
the CIA/MI6-led coup of 1953 and the toppling of the nationalist government
of Dr. Muhammad Mosaddeq. Except for severe repression, the establishment
of a number of military alliances with the US and the acceptance of American
grants and military aid, and the resolution of the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute,
little else changed in the country. Iran's agrarian economy remained stagnant,
and the country continued to lack infrastructure, and was plagued with maladministration
The 1960s opened with a three year period of turmoil: a partial
lifting of political repression and reform, followed by the reinstitution
of repression. By 1963 the shah had started a process of reform
which helped change Iran from an agrarian-based, pre-industrial,
pre-capitalist society to a semi-industrialized, capitalist society
ready to be integrated into the world economic system. The centerpiece
of the shah's reform program, which he liked to call the "white
revolution" or the "shah-people revolution," was
At the grass-roots level 1960-1963 were years of struggle between
the opposition and the imperial regime, which had been forced to
relax the repression of the previous decade. The opposition to
the shah at the beginning of this period was headed by the Second
National Front, founded in July 1960 by some former colleagues
of Dr. Mosaddeq. The strategy of the Front was to demand free elections
and call for reforms.
University students, professional unions such as the teachers'
union, and some Islamist and Marxist activists and intellectuals
joined the Front to oppose the shah. The Revolutionary Marxists
played a secondary role in this period as their traditional political
organization, the Tudeh Party of Iran, was effectively crushed
by 1958 and had been unable to reorganize itself by the early 1960s.
The shah once he was confident of U.S. support and armed with his
reform program moved decisively against the National Front and
had suppressed it by 1963.
Another opposition front against the shah came from ulama-led
circles. Headed by grand ayatollahs representing the top Shi'i
religious leadership, the religious opposition confronted the shah
on a number of issues, including land reform and the proposal for
women's suffrage. The most vehement opposition came from Grand
Ayatollah Khomeini who opposed the shah on a number of issues centered
on the influence of the U.S. in Iran. The religious opposition
to the shah came to a bloody end on June 5, 1963, when the shah
ordered the army to suppress any and all opposition. Subsequently,
the repression was executed effectively and Ayatollah Khomeini
was sent into exile the next year.
For the rest of the 1960s the shah ruled as a confident authoritarian
ruler depicting himself as a reform-minded king a close ally of
the U.S. and the West, with normalized relations with the Soviet
Union. When he confidently crowned himself and for the first time,
his empress, in 1967, he could see no serious opposition to his
rule or his design for Iran. The foreign press seems to have agreed
with this when they depicted the shah as a progressive ruler who
had made Iran a modern miracle.
The State of the Opposition
The opposition to the imperial regime in the 1960s went through a generational
change. The older generation had received its political training and experience
in the 1940s starting in the wake of Reza Shah's overthrow by the allies
in 1941 and continuing to the overthrow of Mosaddeq in 1953. This was a period
of the return of relatively constitutional rule and open and free political
activity. As such, the generation of the 1940s became well versed in political
activity under legal and semi-legal conditions. The political parties of
this period, however, proved unable to sustain their activities during the
period of intense state repression which followed the 1953 coup.
The political opening of 1960-63 only served to confirm the above
observation. All the political groups of this period proved unable
to function once repression was reinstated. These included the
Second and Third National Fronts, the Liberation Movement of Iran
(which was made up of religious figures associated with the Front,
prominent among them Mehdi Bazargan and Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani),
the political group formed around Khalil Maleki known as the Third
Force, and finally the opposition religious movement formed around
During the second half of the 1960s, various attempts by underground
oppositional groups to establish themselves in Iran were frustrated
by the SAVAK. One such group was The Coalition of Islamic Associations
(hey'atha-ye mo'talefeh-ye Islami) which functioned in association
with the movement ignited by Ayatollah Khomeini's confrontation
with the regime. The group was established in 1963 and was in fact
a merger between three smaller groups with close links to the bazaar
and Ayatollah Khomeini-led ulama. Among its key members Mahdi Araqi,
Asadallah Lajevardi, Habiballah Asgaroladi, and Sadeq Amani may
The group's activities after the 1963 events focused on using
political violence as a means to confront the regime. Its high
point was the January 1965 assassination of Prime Minister Hasan
Ali Mansour by Muhammad Bukhara'i. After this episode, the group
was discovered and some of its key members executed. By the group's
own admission, its activities had come to a halt by 1971 and its
remnant began to cooperate with the guerrilla group MKO during
1971-1975. After the revolution the remnant of the group were instrumental
in establishing the Islamic Republican Party.
The Tudeh Party of Iran was another group attempting to establish
itself in Iran in this period. The party was perhaps the biggest
loser of the 1953 coup as its network had been decimated in the
1950s. By the late 1950s the Tudeh had essentially become an oppositional
party in exile.
Because of the blows and internal difficulties
of the 1950s, the party did not have a significant presence in
the country during 1960-63. But, in the middle of the decade,
backed by the Soviet Union and its allies, the party made a number
attempts to send in operatives in order to reestablish its network
inside Iran. The idea was to attempt to reorganize the party
along the line of its former network.
The party viewed itself as the working class party of Iran. As
a vanguard-Leninist party, the Tudeh's main aim was to organize
the working class against what it called the coup regime. The party's
policy at this point was not to overthrow the monarchy but to end
the shah's dictatorship. As such, the use of violent means was
not a priority of the Tudeh.
However, all these efforts were frustrated
as what the party leadership perceived as its reliable network
inside Iran was in fact infiltrated by the SAVAK. A number of
Tudeh operatives sent to the country were compromised and were
killed or received long jail sentences. By 1971, the Tudeh's
attempts to reorganize inside the country had come to nothing.
Another group attempting to organize for the first time inside
the country was the Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party
of Iran (ROTPI). The ROTPI was made up of young Tudeh members-mostly
in Western Europe-and was a Maoist off-shoot of the Tudeh established
in February 1964. Some of the key members of the organization were
Mohsen Rezvani, Mehdi Khanbaba-Tehrani, Iraj Kashkuli, and Kurosh
Besides differences with the Tudeh leadership along the lines
of the Sino-Soviet split, these young members had many grievances
against the party leadership on account of its past and present
performances. The organization envisioned itself as a nucleus of
a future vanguard working class party. But as a Maoist party, the
ROTPI used violence and propaganda to rally the Iranian peasantry
in a classic Maoist encirclement of urban areas through rural uprisings.
The organization was unfazed by the shah's land reform program
and refused to accept that it was about to change Iran from an
agrarian society to an semi-industrial urban one.
The ROTPI was involved in three episodes in the 1960s which point
to its attempt to establish a network inside Iran. First, in 1964
it sent a few members to join a rebellion in south-central Iran
led by Bahman Qashqa'i.
Bahman had been a student in Britain and a ROTPI sympathizer
who had returned to his famous nomadic tribe to start an uprising
in the province of Fars. The operation had less to do with the
ROTPI's organizational strength than with the Qshqa'i support for
Bahman and other ROTPI tribal members sent to help him. The uprising,
nevertheless, was small and was crushed by the end of 1965 with
Second, a group of returning Iranian students
affiliated with the organization abroad attempted to assassinate
the shah in 1965. The group had entered Iran few years before and
was under the leadership of Parviz Nikkhah. The assassin was
killed on the scene and the group was promptly arrested by the
Third, the organization sent a number of operatives to join
a rebellion in Iranian Kurdestan in 1967. However, by the time
reached the Iran-Iraq boarder, the rebellion was already crushed
and its leaders killed.
As with the Tudeh and the Islamic Coalition, all attempts by
the ROTPI to establish a network inside the country were frustrated
by the end of the 1960s. Indeed, establishing a durable underground
network inside the country became a clear preoccupation of the
opposition. In the light of the failure of both non-violent and
violent attempts at independent political organization, the key
question of how to organize and survive became a pressing problem.
One legacy of the guerrilla movement was its ability to provide
an answer to this question.
The Political Climate of the 1960s
An important aspect of the political environment of the country and one which
created an imposing problem for the opposition was the seeming invincibility
of the imperial regime. Not only had the regime managed to crush all independent
political parties, associations, trade unions, and any other independent
gatherings, but it had also been very successful in frustrating any attempt
at reorganization. The fact that the opposition was not even able to establish
a network inside the country, let alone challenge the shah, pointed to the
power of the state.
This reality of the post-1963 political environment generated
a depressive mood for the opposition which can perhaps best be
described as apathy and despair. There was a feeling of being unable
to reason with a violent regime which was confident of its strength
and unwilling to listen or tolerate any kind of opposition whatsoever.
This meant it was imperative to find suitable ways to reestablish
organized opposition in a sustainable manner. Sustainable meant
not only survival but growth under the new socio-political circumstances.
Establishing a firm and stable connection to the people and leading
them to a successful overthrow of the regime became the ultimate
goal of the new generation.
The radicalization of the international environment in the 1960s
contributed to the radicalization of the new generation of activists
in Iran. The success of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, the
flaring up of the Vietnamese and Palestinian struggles, and the
radical student movement in Europe and the U.S., all helped to
direct the new generation toward a new more militant solution to
the problem of confronting the imperial regime.
Mehdi Bazargan, a major opposition figure of the time and a future
provisional prime-minister of the Islamic Republic, prophetically
captured the spirit of the coming age in his military trial in
the 1960s: "We are the last ones who are struggling politically
in accordance with the [monarchical] constitution. We expect the
head of this court to convey this point to his superiors." Hence,
under the new circumstances, the use of violence against state
violence became the centre-piece of the new generation's activities.
Accordingly, an important aspect of the new generation's concerns
regarding political activity, and indeed another legacy of the
guerrilla movement, was a psychological one. The challenge had
become, partially at least, how to overcome the state of despair
and apathy, as well as how to begin organizing under intense state
Amir Parviz Puyan's The Necessity of Armed Struggle and a
Refutation of the Theory of Survival, best captures the mood of the new generation
and is a road map for future steps. As a founding member of the
Fadaiyan, Puyan approached the problem as a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary
who had already come to conclude that armed struggle was the path
to overcoming the state of apathy and organizing the opposition.
Written in the late 1960s, Puyan's short but powerfully written
pamphlet argued that the problem of absolute despair on the part
of the people was compounded by the perception of the absolute
invincibility of the regime. Armed action of the vanguard would
to challenge this perception and change the two absolutes of
the equation, thus paving the way for a victorious revolution.
Iranian Politics and the Use of Violence
The guerrilla movement of the 1970s is often associated with the use of violence
as the prime means of confronting the imperial regime. This observation is
correct with the following clarifications. First, the use of violence in
the politics of this period was a development initiated by the imperial regime.
The 1953 coup and the events of 1960-63 clearly showed that it was the regime,
and not the opposition, which opted for the sustained and severe use of violence
to promote its socio-political agenda.
Indeed, the state repression of 1963 seems to have had a determining
role in the resort to violence by a younger generation of political
activists. During his interrogation Bizhan Jazani, a major thinker
of the guerrilla movement, made this clear. After writing on the
opposition and the state repression in 1963, Jazani wrote: "There
is no doubt that once the government decided to respond to the
opposition (be it university students, or bazaaris and others)
with armed military force, it came to us that what can bring victory
to the nation is resorting to violent means of struggle."
the use of violence had been part of Iranian politics long before
the guerrilla movement was launched in 1971. Many political groups
used violent methods in order to further their aims before the
1970s. The Tudeh Party of Iran had an extensive network within
the imperial army before 1953 and used it for violent as well
more peaceful, intelligence gathering purposes. Islamic activists
used violence to further their political agenda. The activities
of the Islamic Fadaiyan and the Coalition of Islamic Associations
attest to this fact. To these may be added the activities of
political groups during the Constitutional Revolution, the Jangal
and other similar movements of the first three decades of the
Nevertheless, the use of violent means for political ends in
all of the cases mentioned above were either random or unsystematic,
and, at any rate, tactical rather than strategic. The goal of the
guerrillas was not to conduct a simple, single act of violence
followed by the danger of exposure to the SAVAK and possible decimation.
Other experiences in the 1960s had shown the futility of such acts.
The fact that neither open nor underground political activity seemed
possible only added to the urgency of finding a solution. The goal
was (and here the movement can be separated from the others) to
initiate a violent means of struggle from point zero and sustain
the movement under severe repression. This is another legacy of
The guerrilla movement's use of violence was highly influenced
by developments among liberation movements internationally as well
as by current socio-political developments in Iran. Hence, the
use of the term "armed struggle" to distinguish the guerrilla
movement's use of violence from violence as used before. " Armed
struggle" was used for a number of purposes. It was used as
self-defense against the regime's security forces. It was used
in an offensive manner in order to establish the vanguard-underground
Furthermore, it was used as a propaganda tool to
declare the existence of the organization and attract others.
It was used as a means of punishing the regime for its harsh dealings
with different segments of society, particularly the working
It was used to render support to acts of civil disobedience,
and finally and ideally it was to be used to create a people's
to overthrow the regime in a successful revolution.
For the guerrilla movement (both Islamic and Marxist) justification
of violent means of struggle had several layers. First, it was
argued that the regime had left no other means of activity by shutting
down all legitimate political parties, independent trade unions,
free associations, and had made a mockery of Iran's constitutional
rule and its parliament.
In his memoirs Mohsen Nejat-hoseini, a member of the MKO, captured
the sentiments of the guerrillas by noting: "In a situation
where the shah's regime was suppressing the nationalist and freedom-seeking
forces by relying on its armed mercenaries, talk of political [manner
of] struggle was adventuresome. Combating the shah's regime empty-handedly
was a type of suicide." The starting point for this line of
thinking was the 1953 coup and its final turning point was the
1963 repression and the shah's reform program.
In their polemics
against those who rejected armed struggle (e.g both Tudeh and
non-Tudeh activists) the proponents of the guerrilla movement argued
not resorting to armed struggle was tantamount to passivity,
i.e. not taking any steps and waiting for future developments.
was some justification to this claim. After all, there is no
evidence that any purely political movement was able to be active
Iran during 1963-77 in any meaningful manner.
Second, the imperial regime's victory in the wake of the 1963
events resulted in decimation of all political parties. Those who
had attempted to reestablish themselves were unsuccessful throughout
the 1960s. Therefore, an important aspect of the justification
for armed struggle was the creation of a vanguard organization
to fill the vacuum. Armed struggle was to provide military/underground
discipline for the vanguard; declare the existence of the vanguard
to both the regime and society at large; and begin growing by engaging
the regime and recruiting new members.
Third, it was argued that after the establishment of a well organized,
sustainable, and militant vanguard organization, in due time, the
limitless power and resources of the khalq could be tapped opening
a revolutionary process culminating in a final victory.
Finally, it should be noted that reorganization and the use of
violent means needed a degree of self-assurance. The new generation
was unique in this sense. It was ready to declare war on the imperial
system even while it had to start from point zero. With boldness
and sheer courage as their only capital, without expecting aid
from the outside, with little or no experience in armed action,
this generation challenged the imperial regime at the height of
the shah's power and simply stunned the older generation who were
mostly residing outside the country. This was at a time when the
older generation's attempts to re-establish its foothold inside
the country had been frustrated more than once and it was forced
to remain as opposition parties in exile.
Problems of Reorganization
In terms of reorganization, the guerrilla movement had a monumental task ahead
of it. As noted, all independent political, and even non-political, associations
had been smashed by the imperial regime or had come under its control. Furthermore,
the prevalent political culture of the opposition was more adapted for legal
or semi-legal political activity. There was no clear blueprint of how to
organize under harsh repression. In terms of how to start up an armed vanguard
revolutionary organization, there was even less experience. Hence, a major
challenge was how to organize the movement from zero and develop a mass base
among the working class and the masses under relentless repression.
Other problems were theoretical in nature. The movement needed
a clear view of why and how the defeats of 1953 and 1963 had come
about. Another challenge was the clear need for an analysis of
Iranian society which was going through profound changes. In this
context, an analysis of the shah's reform program, the nature of
the shah's rule and the role played by foreign powers in Iran's
internal affairs became significant issues.
In providing answers to the above problems the MKO and the Fadaiyan
independently from each other developed many similar responses,
but also some different ones. They both agreed that the imperial
regime was a reactionary dictatorship sustained by foreigners (i.e.
imperialism). Both viewed the shah's reform program as inherently
reactionary and designed to co-opt Iran in the world capitalist
system. Both had concluded that Iranian society was going through
a transformation from a pre-capitalist " feudal" society
to what was termed dependent capitalism.
In terms of armed struggle and how to go about it, the MKO provided
fewer writings than the Fadaiyan. Both groups initially agreed
that the shah's reforms had not decreased the people's opposition
to the regime. Hence, an absence of spontaneous movements on the
part of the people was due to repression. In this context, the
vanguard organization could use its minimum resources to attack
the regime and ignite a general revolutionary movement leading
The MKO's vision of a vanguard organization was similar
in structure to an underground communist organization except
that its guiding ideology was its version of revolutionary Islam.
examples of the Palestinian movement of al-Fatah and the Algerian
liberation movement were the MKO's models. The Fadaiyan looked
to the rich history of the international communist movement and
the liberation movements of Latin America, as well as the Palestinian
and Vietnamese experiments.
Among the Fadaiyan theorists there was a clear difference of
opinion on how to start, and what to expect from armed struggle.
The difference was between Mas'ud Ahmadzadeh and Puyan's perception
and that of Bizhan Jazani. Both Ahmadzadeh and Puyan believed that
the reform programme had intensified class contradictions in society.
Therefore, in analyzing the causes of an apparent lack of a spontaneous
opposition movement, they both pointed to the role of repression
as being fundamental.
Ahmadzadeh believed that the lack of a spontaneous
movement was due to violent and long term repression and the
weakness of the revolutionary forces. Hence, in Ahmadzadeh's view,
the objective revolutionary conditions did exist, the only other
factor needed to start a successful revolution was a consistent
attack on the dictatorship. Such an attack would gradually result
in the creation of a People's Army and would bring the spontaneous
revolt into the open.
Jazani saw the situation differently. He believed that the land
reform programs had eased class conflict in society for a period
of time and that objective revolutionary conditions did not exist.
On the basis of this analysis, he suggested the "Armed Propaganda
Theory". Jazani divided the process of armed struggle into
two phases. The first phase, he suggested, would be that of the
establishment of the vanguard organization. In this phase, the
vanguard would attack the dictatorship, declare its existence to
the people, and organize the revolutionary elements which were
ready to take arms and join the struggle.
In the first phase, armed actions would have the form of armed
propaganda and would prepare the vanguard in terms of military,
organizational and political experiences for the future revolutionary
participation of the people. The second phase would be one of a
revolutionary mass-based movement where a people's army would be
formed. Jazani saw armed struggle as both a military and a political
process. Although he saw armed action as the axis of all other
tactics and strategies, he indirectly criticized Ahmadzadeh and
the Fadaiyan for not paying enough attention to the political side
of the movement and warned them of the dangers of sectarianism
and adventurous policies.
A factor which worked against the guerrillas in Iran and one
which they did not take note of was Iran's social class formation.
In many Third World countries, where a dictatorship leaves no other
avenue of open political change short of violent means, it is often
the case that class formation provides the necessary conditions
for protracted armed resistance in rural areas in support of or
as a part of an urban resistance movement.
Many victorious liberation
movements (e.g. Vietnam, Cuba and China) were supported by a
revolutionary peasantry which was willing and able to lend support,
for a prolonged
period of time, to a vanguard urban armed movement. The movements
which were successful were usually active in societies where
the majority of the population was rural and, more importantly,
the population was highly susceptible to political and revolutionary
Twentieth century Iranian society has shown two general tendencies.
First, urban areas have always been the determining factor in any
major political change, violent or otherwise. Second, the Iranian
peasantry lacks significant revolutionary potential and has remained,
for the most part, politically passive. According to Nikki Keddie,
Iran's inactive peasantry mainly results from arid geography, which
produces a poor and scattered peasant population with much control
To the above elements must be added the fact that the guerrillas
had almost no experience in underground warfare and organization.
This meant that the movement had to start from zero and was able
to acquire experience only gradually and in practice. The above
factors forced the inexperienced but highly motivated guerrillas
to concentrate their struggle in urban centers, where the state
was better able to exert political control. Consequently, from
the very beginning, the guerrilla movement in Iran had a much
more difficult task and less opportunity to organize on a mass
when compared to other movements around the world. An analysis
of the movement's ultimate failure in leading the 1979 revolution
needs to take these factors into consideration.
As mentioned Marxist activists' were largely unsuccessful in
their attempts to organize the rural population in the 1960s and
1970s. The ROTPI's attempts to organize the peasantry on the Maoist
model and the Fadaiyan's attempts to organize both in urban and
rural centers clearly failed. Furthermore, unlike some other Third
World countries, Iran had had very little experience in independent
trade union activity.
By the end of the 1960s, the imperial regime
had managed effectively to control all trade unions, thereby closing
them to political activity by the opposition. This lack of any
meaningful avenue for expressing political dissent, coupled with
a total lack of means for organizing the working class or the population
as a whole, combined to convince younger Marxists to take up arms
themselves and to develop the "armed struggle theory."
Critiques of the Guerrillas
Those who criticized the guerrilla movement did so from various perspectives.
The ulama-led Islamists who supported Ayatollah Khomeini were hostile to
the Marxist guerrillas but were initially supportive of the Moslem guerrillas
(i.e. the MKO). But the relationship between the two deteriorated steadily
during the 1970s. The MKO's free borrowing from Marxism, its view of revolutionary
Islam as being free of clerical leadership, and its emphasis on armed activity
as the only path toward victory were the causes of this deterioration.
Islamist followers of Ayatollah Khomeini were suspicious of the MKO's Marxist
leaning and of course were opposed to its anti-clerical perceptions of
revolutionary Islam. But the two groups maintained
a cordial relationship as long as the
MKO remained a unified organization.
Nevertheless, by the early 1970s Ayatollah Khomeini was already
developing his views on the rule of the ulama as the best form
of an Islamic government. This notion ran against what the MKO
stood for. When, in 1972, the opportunity presented itself for
the MKO to solicit Khomeini's support, the latter refused to endorse
the MKO. From this point on the relationship between the two began
to cool down. According to a key member of Ayatollah Khomeini's
movement, the ulama-led Islamists did not have much faith in the
guerrilla movement although it was viewed as a positive element
in the anti-shah struggle.
In 1975 the MKO began to disintegrate from within which further
damaged the relationship between the two groups. In 1975 a substantial
portion of the MKO cadres switched to Marxism and gave birth to
the MKO-ML. This episode was accompanied with a violent purge of
key members of the MKO who refused to switch ideologies. The change
in ideology followed by killing of Moslem members who refused to
join in was a turning point and badly damaged the relationship
between Moslem supporters of armed struggle and the ulama-led Islamists
who led the 1979 revolution.
Another angle of criticism of the guerrillas came from the Tudeh
party whose main focus was the Fadaiyan. The main point of the
Tudeh's criticism was that the Fadaiyan's theories on armed struggle
were alien to Marxism-Leninism. The Tudeh argued that the only
time armed activities could become prominent in any organization's
tactics was when an objective revolutionary situation existed.
Short of such a condition, armed activity as the Fadaiyan were
planning was, according to the party, wrong. Of course, the Tudeh
criticized the Fadaiyan while itself had only been uprooted by
the SAVAK but proved to be utterly unable to establish any meaningful
presence in the country.
Iran's guerrilla movement was first and foremost a generation's response to
the shah's repression and arbitrary rule. It clearly had a romantic and heroic
aspect, which at points even gave birth to myths. The significance of the
movement is not in its professed revolutionary alternative (be it the Marxist
or Islamist versions) or in its inability to reach its ultimate goal of securing
state power. In both of the above cases they clearly failed. The guerrillas
were not able to organize the khalq under the banner of a revolutionary movement,
they failed to lead the revolution, and their revolutionary alternative seems
irrelevant today. The legacy of the movement and its significance in the
modern history of Iran lies elsewhere.
The movement played a pivotal role in overcoming the atmosphere
of despair which followed the shah's consolidation of power after
1963. This was a time when all open and semi-open political and
even civic associations were either outlawed or were taken over
by the state. Furthermore, the events of the late 1960s showed
that traditional modes of organization had become redundant when
faced with the shah's mighty security forces. The guerrillas not
only overcame the atmosphere of despair, they also managed to show
the path of reorganization and continuation of the struggle. In
this the movement was successful. By overcoming the atmosphere
of despair, the movement showed that the regime was not as invincible
as it claimed. Furthermore, the guerrillas managed to boost the
morale of the anti-shah movement, which had some influence on the
revolutionary movement that overthrew the shah in 1979. In the
final analysis, because of the guerrillas, the shah's imperial
regime could never claim total control over the country.
The cadres of the guerrilla movement were representatives of
a restless generation. Studies show that while the guerrillas were
unable to organize the masses, they were successful in attracting
the young, educated middle class to their cause. Universities were
a main source of recruitment for the movement. This young, educated
generation was a main beneficiary of the shah's reforms and theoretically
should have provided the regime with the social support it needed.
But instead it turned against the regime and chose to rebel against
The rebellion began with a few and attracted many others. By
the middle of the 1970s, the guerrilla movement had already created
a reputation for itself and had managed to break the barriers
of state censorship and repression and reach an audience among
university community. A look at the memoirs of those who were
associated with the movement or directly involved in it shows a
of restlessness among the rebellious young men and women of 1970s
Perhaps the most important aspect of the guerrilla movement's
legacy is its redefinition of the politics of the radical left
in the post-revolutionary period. After 1979, the organizations
associated with the guerrilla movement posed the most significant
challenge to the new Islamic Republic. Although they were all defeated
eventually, the challenge of these radical groups consumed much
energy and time. Indeed it is difficult to see how radical left
political groups could have posed any serious challenge to the
Islamic Republic had there not been the guerrilla movement of the
Without the emergence of the guerrilla movement in the 1970s,
the politics of the radical left would have been left to other
groups to define. On the Marxist side, the task would have been
left to the pro-Soviet Tudeh and its Maoist offshoots, none of
which managed to establish their networks inside Iran any meaningful