Twenty-five years ago we had a battle with the left in terms of how to deal with regimes like Iran. We won that battle ideologically, but at a price which was really disastrous, with tens of thousands of people killed, including over 400 from my own organisation, and 8 from our central committee. Having to fight the same battle yet again is almost like a sick joke, but it is one we are going to have to fight.
There are those who today find themselves standing in defence of the Islamic republic – equating, for instance, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran with Chávez or Castro. In order to counter this, it is important to show where this regime came from, how it developed and what it means in terms of economic and social policy. I would also like to look at the way it is opposed by those various movements that the left in Europe and America seems to completely ignore and to examine the potential of those movements.
Defeat of revolution 1978-79 saw perhaps the largest mass movement ever in history, in the sense that it involved virtually the entire population of the country at that time – around 55-60 million people rose in revolt under the slogans of 'freedom', 'independence' and the 'Islamic Republic'. The first two were progressive and democratic, demonstrating that this was an anti-dictatorial and anti-imperialist movement, which was in the process of time subsumed under the third slogan.
Of course, large sections of the population came to realise that the Islamic Republic was not the answer and had not fulfilled the promises of that revolution: true independence and freedom. Before 1981, with its the mass arrests and executions, the organs of suppression had not yet been built and the left and democratic movements were becoming fully active. When we had street demonstrations, instead of watching us from the sidewalk, people were beginning to actually join us under the slogan of freedom.
What happened in 1981 was by no means preordained. There were three key factors that aided the counterrevolution. First of all there was the issue of the war, instigated by Iraq, which was essentially pushed by the United States as a means to throttle a major mass movement with truly anti-imperialist potential. That had the effect of halting the process whereby people were wavering and breaking away from the Islamic movement and the mullahs and moving towards the democratic camp.
The second was the charade of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran. That gave a section of the left the excuse to fall behind the so-called anti-imperialism of the Islamists and their opposition to the 'great Satan'. The Tudeh Party, although not a mass party in terms of numbers, was ideologically very powerful and was able to split the largest left movement in Iran – which had not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands behind it – into three separate parts: the majority, minority and the third group (the left-wing of the majority).
Even so, that democratic movement could have won were it not for the fact that the Mujahedin made the tactical mistake of making a military uprising prematurely, allowing the Islamists to launch a major crackdown on the left, killing and imprisoning tens of thousands of us. Almost every left organisation was destroyed, with those who escaped forced into exile. Those that stayed behind, such as Tudeh, called us 'radishes' – red on the outside, but white inside. They were in turn imprisoned and killed three years later.
That was the end of the left as a force in Iran. The war ended in disaster, supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini drank his “cup of poison” and within a year or so died, having ordered the massacre a thousands of prisoners. What was left of the working class and democratic forces was decimated. The ideological battle that we had with the Tudeh, the majority, about the anti-imperialist nature of the Islamic regime, was won – but in the process we were killed in out thousands. Yet now we have to fight this whole battle again – what a tragedy.
'Reconstruction' I want now to concentrate on the 'reconstruction programme' at the time of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency of Iran – Rafsanjani was, of course, defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005. Although Rafsanjani was president, Ali Khamenei, who was Khonmeini's successor as the supreme leader was very much running the show, as he still does. He has control over all the major organs of the state, including the armed forces, security forces, judiciary and prisons, and he also has representatives in almost every other organisation. Khamenei stands on top, but he does not have the charisma of Khomeini.
The essence of the reconstruction was the neoliberal programme of the International Monetary Fund. It means privatisation, urbanisation and all the things that go with it — poverty, hunger, destitution. The reconstruction drove the population of Iran into a series of revolts between 1992 and 1995. In some cities like Qazvin the people took over for two or three days. In Mashhad they had to be shot down in the streets from helicopters. It was interesting to see the 'anti-imperialist' government implementing this neoliberal policy. In 1995-1997, stung by the urban riots, foreign exchange controls were abandoned (another IMF dictat), causing a huge crash in the value of the rial, the Iranian currency. The price of bread and housing soared and essentially forced the regime to change course. The 'reformist' Khatami was elected in 1997.
However, those who tell us the Islamic republic is reformable should listen to the words of Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Ali Abtahi became vice-president for legal and parliamentary affairs after Khatami's landslide re-election in 2001. He chaired the national security council and was deputy minister of information, so he knows what he is talking about. He said: “We initiated the reform movement because we heard the sirens of danger.”
For this regime, reform, if it does occur, has to be pushed from below and this is really what happened – a 'landslide' movement from below. But Khatami continued the neoliberal policies of the previous regime. Therefore the poverty, the increasing encroachment on people's livelihood, privatisation, unemployment, layoffs – and all those things which we have learnt to recognise as part and parcel neoliberal policy across the globe – continued. The reformist movement gradually crumbled, because it was unable to answer the very questions posed by the people. They wanted freedom – there was some superficial movement, but it was limited and the regime would not allow more. They wanted an answer to the poverty, but inflation went up and things actually got worse. This was a time when a whole generation born in the period after the revolution came of age, but they had no jobs and nothing to do.
Neoliberalism created an oligarchy, or 'clericarchy', of rich mullahs, including Rafsanjani himself, who is one of the hundred richest people in the world. About 100 families were able to use the changes brought by privatisation, abolition of exchange controls, etc to accumulate immense private wealth. The Iranians call them aghazadeh ha ('sons of lords') – the whole new class of super-rich that is concentrating the wealth of the country in their hands.
They went into things that in countries like Iran were never previously privately owned. For instance, Rafsanjani owns the new Mahan airline. They took over shipping and private banks begin to appear, where they were previously state-owned. In particular they went where the real money is – oil and gas. Lucrative deals involving new oilfields in the Persian Gulf were struck with companies under the control of the aghazadeh ha.
Militarisation In Khomeini's time the military had no political role. The army was specifically barred from involvement in politics and military personnel could not stand as candidates or for office unless they resigned their post. Khomeini wanted all power in the hands of the mullahs. He also made sure the military had very little economic power – although heroin smuggling from Afghanistan was at this time run by the security forces.
During this whole period from 1997 onwards, the military started encroaching upon the power of the mullahs and began a process of rivalry. Initially they tried to undermine the reformist programme of Khatami by kidnapping and killing progressive writers and intellectuals, and later assassinating reformist intellectuals and leaders, such as publisher Saeed Hajjarian (who was shot and left in a come, but did not actually die).
Gradually changes were made which allowed the military to engage in politics. For example, for the first time it was possible for them to contest elections and leading army personnel were elected onto town councils, which do have some power, and won the mayorships of many towns. In the last parliamentary elections, which saw the end of the reformist majority, a number of military candidates won seats and some were appointed to posts such as deputy minister.
Elements in the military became involved in smuggling goods in a big way — consumer goods, banned videos, and drugs. Along the entire Persian Gulf coastline countless unofficial jetties are used for smuggling on a mass scale.Unlike the mullahs and the aghazadeh ha who engage in legal trade, these military elements are importing illegally and not paying tax (and by not paying tax they are indirectly weakening the theocratic state).
The aim is to institutionalise militarisation and channel the resources of the country into military hands. They were first of all able to undermine the reformist movement by gaining control over the security apparatus and the courts. It was largely through their efforts that Khatami's vote fell and eventually he was defeated. Last year saw a head to head fight with the clericarchy in the presidential elections, when Ahmadinejad came to power.
The mullah oligarchy made a big mistake in putting forward Rafsanjani as their candidate. Rafsanjani is the most hated and detested figure in Iran, corrupt from head to toe. He looks like a crook, behaves like a crook and everyone knows he is a crook. People refused to vote for him as the reformist candidate and there was a huge abstention.
By contrast, Ahmadinejad's election was brilliantly orchestrated like a military campaign. Firstly, his supporters ignored television and other media and went out directly to shanty towns, selling Ahmadinejad as a man of the people. They distributed hundreds of thousands of videos and CDs showing the corruption of the oligarchs. Secondly they mobilised the basij militia, ordering each member to bring 10 people to vote. There are one million basij members, so even if they only succeeded in bringing seven, that would still be seven million guaranteed votes.
It was, if you like, a silent, clean and bloodless coup. In a way it completed the militarisation process. Today all the major ministries, all the major deputy ministries, governorships, city councils, etc are in the hands of military or ex-military people. They are using this power to shift over ownership to themselves (their possession of the means of violence gives them an additional ability to do so, of course). Let us give some examples.
The new international airport in Tehran is absolutely state of the art. The intention was to put the construction contract out to tender, but the military argued that, being an airport, it was a security matter and took it over without tender. A Turkish firm won the tender to supply mobile phones to Iran, but again the military argued this was a security risk and took it over. You may ask, how is the army able to do this? Linked to various ministries are thousands of companies which are actually part of the military establishment. The military in Iran is a major economic force. We know where all the revenue will be going from the airport and phone company.
The military has also been to where the real money is: oil and gas. But in order to mount a takeover they had to get rid of the mullahs. Firstly, a series of corruption cases were instigated against Rafsanjani, who is still one of the most powerful people in Iran. Apart from his wealth, he is head of the expediency council, which is supposed to stand above all the institutions of the state and resolve disputes amongst them. There has been an attempt to bring Rafsanjani before a clerical court on charges of corruption and a huge amount of detail has been published about his practices. Through this process the military camp was able to remove Rafsanjani and others connected to the mullahs from the national oil company.
To give an example of what this means in terms of money, the $9 billion contract to build an gas pipeline from Iran to India has been awarded to a military-connected engineering firm, without tender. The sum of $9 billion dollars from the foreign exchange reserves has now been transferred into the military coffers in an extra-budgetary transaction that did not have to go through parliament. $36 billion has actually disappeared from the reserves: it is not noted in any of the official accounts and has presumably also gone into military hands.
This battle is still going on. The old clerical oligarchy is now being seriously challenged by a new military oligarchy in terms of the possession of the wealth of the country. Recently there was a change in the constitution. There was an article that ring-fenced a whole series of key industries and services deemed to be essential for the running of the state. So, for instance, health, banks, shipping, airports, railways, oil and steel, etc could not be privatised. A year ago, before Ahmadinejad came to power, the expediency council changed the interpretation of that article. To change the constitution a referendum is supposed to be held, but, of course, after parliament refused permission, the article was re-interpreted in any case. Yet the change was only announced after Ahmadinejad was elected. The whole sphere of neoliberal policies, and the degree of misery that comes with it, is a battlefield between the two rival power bases.
There are some differences in the way the two sides have approached privatisation. Control of the strategic heights of the Iranian economy is one of the key aims of the military. This is in part a preparation for a war they know is coming, a perspective of war economy. It is able to use the income from the sale of these industries for whatever purposes they deem fit. There are now between 1,000 and 2,000 companies linked to the military. In addition, a certain number of shares are made available to the public. This is a way of paying back those who voted the right way.
What about the political dimension? I think in the long term, or even the shorter term, the aim is almost certainly to simplify the power structure and to have a much more governable system than we have had in Iran hitherto. Remember, there are at present two parallel systems – one elected from below and the other imposed from above – and they have often come into conflict with each other. Although power has mostly remained in the hands of the unelected, clerical-controlled top-down structure, sometimes the lower, elected structure has been able to intervene, has been able to push, as we have seen in the reforms of the last eight years.
I think the aim of current policy is to remove the mullahs once and for all and to institutionalise a military government headed by one single mullah at the top. This can be done through winning control of the 'Assembly of Experts', which has the power to elect the supreme leader and votes every eight years. The next vote is due within a year. If they can control this assembly, as they now control parliament, they will then remove and put in their own man. The removal of the government of the clergy and its replacement by the military will in some senses make it more fascistic. Previously, institutions below had some role. There was always a battle over the exclusion of people who were not deemed Islamist enough, or who did not have the 'right kind' of Islam. Such people were always liable to be purged, but they did have some access to power and this power actually increased during the time of the reformist movement.
In a sense then this government is closer to fascism than even Khomeini's was. The whole aim is to exclude the people from any process where they can have any direct role in decision-making. People are pulled into the political scene as a mass, but not as an organised mass. Any independent organisation or action is to be banned. The only place where people can be organised is through the military — eg in the Basij.
Look at it from a historical perspective, this was the only response that the Iranian regime could give to the crisis in that country, a crisis that had its roots in a mammoth waking up from the distant past, trying to organise a modern state in a modern world with rules that are inherited from a time of shepherds and camels.
Mass movements What is happening down below in Iran? No-one seems to talk about the movements. As with most other countries in the Middle East, people talk about Islam and imperialism, but you would think there is nothing else 'down there'. This is not so. Iran's many movements are becoming more organised.
* The women's movement has always been highly active, but it has become even more so now. More and more independent women's movements are forming, and they have gained new courage, as on the March 8 celebration of International Women's Day this year. A mass gathering of women came together in one of the major squares of Tehran, but was attacked by thugs in civilian clothes and suppressed. Iranian women have become, and will become, much bolder.
* The student movement, which was actually almost entirely in the hands of Khomeini, became disillusioned, mostly switched allegiance and became the motor force behind the organisation of the reformist camp. However, students have lost their illusions in the reformists too and are now developing their own independent organisations. For an example see an article one of these students recently published in the Weekly Worker (July 27). I urge those of you who have not done so to read it to see the radical views these people are taking up. They are forming independently, separately and radically – some of them radically left. This is something which is new.
The regime understands that, which is why it is trying to stamp out the student movement. They have arrested and tortured student leaders, provoking hunger strikes — in some cases to the death. They have expelled them from university and imprisoned them, but the movement continues.
* The working class movement in Iran has changed radically and there is a very good article in the latest issue of Iran Bulletin describing the developments in the Iranian workers' movement over the last year and the way it is beginning to think of itself and organise nationally. There have been at least three gatherings of national representatives in attempts to form free trade unions.
This was the demand of workers at the Sherkat-e Vahed bus company in Tehran, which employs a huge number of people. They went on strike, among other demands, for the right to form independent unions. The leaders were arrested in February and the chair of the union, Ossanlu, was only released in August. This strike caught the attention of the international working class and shows that pressure can be applied and that true solidarity does make a difference. Workers at the Giant Khodro car plant have also been on strike. But the list is much, much longer than this. The Iranian working class is fighting for its life and workers are destitute – many have not been paid for some time, so the action taken is over really basic demands. Increasingly, though, they are addressing key issues like the right to form trade unions and other organisations.
* Then there are the nationalities. In the early days of the revolution, the Kurdish national movement and then the Turkmen movement were brutally suppressed. More recently the Azeri, Baluchi and Arab movements have been active. Armenians and Assyrians are also beginning to demand more rights.
Remember, Iran is a multilingual and multinational state and all the regimes that have been in power since the last century have suppressed the independent voice of these nationalities. Interestingly the Islamic regime, because of its very nature in emerging from a revolution, was actually less repressive. For instance, whereas in the time of the shah Turkish-language newspapers were not permitted, there are now a number that are publishing. For the Arabs the clampdown is more severe – the regime claims for security reasons. On the whole, although there is strong repression, it is slightly less than before – which explains why the national movements are much more vocal.
It is usually the case that in conditions of repression democratic demands have tended to be channelled around one question – in Iran it has been the nationalities movement. It is the one area over which it is possible to some extent to organise, meet and even write. The national movement is both a movement for the right to be educated in one's own language, etc, but it is also a focus for some of the other resentments.
This is also a field where imperialism can operate. Imperial aggression may well take the form not of a direct attack, but of fomenting fragmentation – that is a very real danger. A strong, single Iran is not part of the neoliberal agenda for the Middle East and they are using the nationalities as a means of splitting up or at least weakening Iran. Some of the nationalist movements – for example, elements in the Azerbaijani movement – are highly chauvinistic. The nationalist movement is alive and potentially very dangerous, if its legitimate demands are not addressed by progressive forces.
Finally, the religious minorities. The majority of Iranians are shia, but there is also a large sunni minority, who are denied many jobs.
For the Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the War Coalition it is as though these movements down below are of minor significance or do not even exist. Yet they are essentially the force which can genuinely resist imperialist aggression. Not just in Iran, but also in Iraq and Syria, by ignoring such movements they are missing out on those very forces that can genuinely block, prevent and perhaps reverse imperial aggression. If we, the left, do not support these movement, then the monarchists will – and they did. When the Tehran bus workers went on strike, Radio America was the first to gave them a voice. When the International Women's Day protestors were attacked, Radio Israel were the first to report it. But the left in Europe and the USA was strangely silent.
Not just two sides This is the second time this ideological battle has been fought. First time round it ended in tragedy, and we must ensure that does not happen the second time. Yet much of the anti-war movement and major sections of the American and European left see only two sides. On one hand there is imperialism and on the other are the Islamists.
They fail to see that within these societies there are major movements, which are excluded by the Islamists. You could scour their voluminous publications in vain. There would be pages and pages comparing Ahmadinejad to Castro and Chavez, but not a word on the working class demanding its basic rights from this Ahmadinejad — and getting a bloody nose and more.
The Islamist movement in Iran is different from Hamas, different from Hezbollah, different from the Taliban, different from Rifah Party in Turkey – there is no question they are different. But what do they have in common? We must look at all political movements and decide what are the key factors allowing us to assess them. When it comes to their political and economic programme there is one thing that unites these movements – they are all repressive and when in power all have pursued neoliberal policies.
How is it possible to fight imperialist aggression with these forces as your only ally? It is so short-sighted and so stupid. Unless are able to mobilise the left behind a much more logical and combative programme, we are going to perpetuate the cycle of war, massacres and terrorism, and more war, massacres and terrorism, spreading to other areas of the Middle East and perhaps central Asia. Mehdi Kia is co-editor of Iran Bulletin – Middle East Forum. This article first appeared in Weekly Worker no 641 September 21, 2006. It was a transcription of a talk given at the Communist University, August 2006.