The Left and Mullahs in Iran

One may argue over many flaws of Communism and its historical mistakes or ideological non-adaptability to democracy. However, in Iran, Communism has been stained with co-religionists and this is a sticky stain which has not been removed since the 1979 revolution. 

After the Iranian revolution, the most popular leftist movement of contemporary Iranian history, Marxist-Leninist “OIPFG” (People’s Organisation of Fedayeen Guerrillas) is a typical example of such stigma. Needless to say, there were leftist intellectuals and small groups who did not bow to the supremacy of Khomeini and heroically opposed the regime right after the first signs of dictatorship. So, in this article, the word “left or leftist” is supposed to imply the pro Soviet political bodies, called Tudeh Party and a faction of the OIPFG, called Majority that supported the regime. They were both orchestrated by the Kremlin to unconditionally support the “anti-American” IRI.

The Majority was created due to a split in 1980 within the OIPFG. The other part, called Minority, continued fighting along with other leftist groups against the “bourgeois” IRI– Thousands of members and sympathisers of this leftist opposition were systematically imprisoned and slaughtered by the regime. Being inspired by Stalinism and Maoism, they dreamt of another kind of cruel and vindictive dictatorship of “Proletariat”, but indeed were the most ardent enemies of the Mullahs’ regime.

The OIPFG was founded by some young educated or student revolutionaries at the end of 1960’s. It proclaimed its struggle in 1971, when a group of armed Fedayeens captured a rural police station called “Siahkal”. Regarding the absolute dictatorship of the Shah’s regime, they believed that acquiring freedom and social justice can only occur within armed struggles of the revolutionary vanguard, which in turn will end up with a mass revolution. Other “non-violent” ways were considered complaisant and ineffective, both due to the failed experiences of Tudeh Party and Front National (a large pro- Mossadegh spectrum). Thus these two main opposition groups were not able to mobilise people against the Shah’s absolute dictatorship – at that time, terms like terrorism, adventurism, petit bourgeois utopia, etc. were not labels of such armed movements. 

Considering the international unrest of 1960’s, France and Germany were overwhelmed by student demonstrations in May 1968, almost causing a revolutionary situation in France. Numerous left-wing groups emerged in Germany, Italy, France and other western countries. Armed groups like IRA in North Ireland and ETA in Basque were involved in armed struggles. Revolutionary activities in Latin America attracted popular support in European youth. Their struggles were considered a “heroic” exercise of people’s freedom. Even European states (especially those headed by Socialist or Social Democratic parties) had to consider the sympathy of their intelligentsia for such revolutionary and anti American movements. Castro’s idea of “bullets, not ballots, were the way to achieve power” had political sense. Régis Debray became Mitterrand’s adviser for Latin America. He was a co-fighter of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 and a revolutionary author whose book” Revolution in Revolution” inspired the Fedayeens.

Needless to say armed struggles then were spared from any connotation of terrorism. A great number of Western youth with leftist or alternative worldview had sympathy for Palestine Liberation Front and hence used to wear a Palestinian scarf as a popular sign of their solidarity with Palestinian militants. The Front represented more than a passing similarity to the today’s appealing Islamists of Hamas and Hezbollah. 

Although the socio-economic conditions that favoured armed struggles in Latin America were not similar to those of an Islamic society like Iran, Fedayeens’ armed struggle was largely inspired from the revolutionary experiences in Latin America. They theorised that armed struggles would promote a mass revolution in Iran, as happened in Cuba. There is no single page of history from the early founders of Fedayeens dealing with Islam and its role in such a revolution. In their analyses, an important social factor like Islam is completely absent. 

Contrary to some priests in Latin America, Mullahs in Iran could never reconcile with collectivism, socialism and materialism of the left. From Safavid Dynasty to the Shah (except under 16-year Reza Shah’s reign), The Iranian clergy or Mullahs have always created a common bond with monarchy. This alliance was later used by colonial powers to keep the status quo. A 16-year period under Reza Shah aside, Mullahs have been growing their socio-political power since the compelling “Shiitisation” of Iran by the Safavids in 16’s century. In the 60’s, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the Shah’s land reform and right of voting to women, and hence he led an Islamic movement opposing Shah’s “un-Islamic reforms.”  

Neither the Tudeh party, a pro-USSR party, nor Marxist-Leninist OIPFG, could introduce Marx’s “Religion is people’s opiate” into their social analyses–instead, they considered “anti-imperialist” Muslim movements as their strategic allies. No wonder that after the Iranian revolution, both (the Tudeh Party and the Majority), despite their mutual friction before the split in the OIPFG) came together to unconditionally support “anti imperialist” Khomeini and his Islamist movement– until these two “profane atheists”,  like other leftists freed from the bonds of the Kremlin, succumbed under Khomeini’s Islamic sword in 1982.  

Their blind support of the Islamic regime reached a treacherous level of collaboration with the repressive organisations and right-wing paramilitary thugs of the regime which were nationwide identifying and arresting “agents of imperialism”. Many thousands of these “agents”, including a number of minors, were arrested, and summarily executed for demanding basic democracy. 

Working class, that these pseudo- leftists pretended to support, lost the little rights they had won during the revolution and in vain attempted to keep after the revolution. Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses which were established under the Shah were nullified. The right of strike was rejected. Wages stayed low, many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit.  Because of protests, many workers were arrested, jailed, and executed by the Islamic regime, whereas the “leftist” Tudeh and Majority continued supporting the Mullahs’ regime.  

For this body of the Iranian left, terms like human rights, individual freedom, women’s rights, Islamic hijab, secularism, and modernity did not belong to their preoccupation. There have been divisions based on class, ideology, and any class related antagonistic factors. In this perspective, they argued that domestic capitalists consistently represented the interests of Imperialists, but the role of Mullahs and its traditional ties with feudalism and traditional capitalism has been selectively ignored.

In his famous book (History of Thirty Years), Bijan Jazani, a founder of Marxist-Leninist OIPFG, gave an overwhelmingly credit to Ayatollah Khomeini, as a “revolutionary” Mullah of “petite bourgeoisie”. The 14 century-old Islamic laws, Sharia, under Khomeini’s “Velayt-e-Faghih” (God’s state which was described in Khomeini’s book was amazingly ignored by the left from then on). Khomeini wrote these fascist, misogynistic, and anti- socialist ideas long before the 1979 revolution, but his ideas were blindly praised as “revolutionary” by a spectrum of the left. To conclude, Islam as a divisive or a monolithic factor was not taken by the left into consideration. 

By contrast, religion has been used by colonial or key powers as a dam to discourage democracy and modernity. Although, to some extent in the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic movements were a factor of unity, but they were tolerated by colonialists to prevent democratic alternatives. The Islamist movements had no effective solutions for the objective problems. The state of economic dependence, with or without Islamic solutions, cannot be removed. There can always be commercial monopolies, supported by colonial powers. The only solution to guarantee economic independence is rapid development under a democratic and secular state–otherwise Islamic states like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Iran, economically remain (dependent) client states of foreign powers. 

Colonial powers have respected and even propagated religion in Iran, as a means of conspiracy.  Shiite Mullahs in Iran, like Christian missionaries in Africa, are known for being protégés of the British colonial administrators; they both have been preaching to bring people closer to God, but not closer to freedom and progress. Colonialism would keep their colonies the most undeveloped, the most illiterate, and superstitious. Such backward attitudes are at hand through religion. Plundering and looting of the colonies, without such social preconditions, could not be easily committed in the history of colonialism. 

In the Islamic colonies, the missionary’s role was in fact replaced by the Islamic Ulama, which could be adjusted better with the long-term colonial aims. The colonial officials did not intervene in matters pertaining to Islam or Islamic traditional practices. However, the separation of religion from the practical affairs of government and law was a colonists’ wish. It was, in itself, interference in matters pertaining to Islam. In the case of Iran, it is believed that all through the 20th century, the British Empire had to deal with a number of influential clergy to mutually help each other’s influence. The peak of this mutual help was the 1953 coup which was planned by US / UK against the Iranian PM, Dr. Mossadegh, who by nationalising the Iranian oil industry, was challenging the British oil interests in Iran. They utilised the most thuggish and reactionary Muslim elements of the “Bazaar” (traditional business, closed to the clergy), and the leading clergy to help the coup. Dr. Mossadegh is the only democratic PM of the Iranian recent history and because of this coup the US / UK reinstalled the Shah as a despot. 

Even after the first successful Iranian constitutional revolution in Middle East history, Iran could not free itself from the influence of Mullahs. Soon, the written constitution that predicted power in an elective authority lost its sense. With the support of the Mullahs, the power remained as a divine gift in the hands of kings who were considered since the Safavids “representatives of Hidden Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, on the earth” and since his occultation, Mullahs were considered the only interpreters of the Imam.  

Despite division of Iran into “spheres of interest” between England and Russia, Iran was not officially colonised, but the country lost a natural way of progress, democracy, secularism, and independence. As documented in F. William Engdahl’s book A Century of War – Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Britain’s interest in the Middle East was piqued when her leaders realised that oil would replace coal as the energy source of the future. At the turn of the century Britain had no first-hand access to oil and was dependant upon America, Russia or Mexico for her supplies. This was quickly understood as an unacceptable situation and through intrigues involving British spy Sidney Reilly and Australian geologist and engineer William Knox d’Arcy, Britain was able to secure drilling rights to Persian oil from Persian monarch Reza Khan. D’Arcy paid what amounted to $20,000 cash for rights to tap Persian oil until 1961, with a 16% royalty from all sales going to the Shah.

The British company that Reilly persuaded d’Arcy to ally with then became known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, a forerunner of the mighty British Petroleum. To put an end to this plundering, Iranian oil was nationalised by the Iranian popular PM Dr. Mossadegh. Two years later in 1953, Mossadegh was overthrown by a US / British coup and, with the help of the leading clergy led by mighty Ayatollah Kashani-an influential Mullah, who had already sworn to let topple the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. 

More than the institutions, like army, the civil service and the judiciary, which have systematically been set up in the colonies, British colonialism needed religion to better control the vast territories they had acquired during the nineteenth century. Sects and cults furthermore were created. Sectarian conflicts were incited. All these measures paved the way for keeping the state of economic dependence, event after their physical departure. An example of such a “decolonisation” is the independence of India in 1947, which turned into a division of the Indian subcontinent into two and then three countries based on religious conflicts. This finally gave birth to an Islamic state in Pakistan under President Ayub Khan at the end of 1960. 

The establishment of communist states in the 20th century was for some Muslim activists like MEK (People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) a pole of anti-colonialism, a political alliance to bolster an anti-West, whereas for Shiite Mullahs (like Khomeini), “communism represents before anything the atheism” and hence was demonised as a “Kufr” (profanity).

The emergence of Marxism was seen by Islamic movements, especially by the Iranian Mullahs, as an alien demon which must be kept away from the mental and physical presence of Shiite society. Although Islamist political entities have Stalinist methods of organisation, they have practically shown their distinctive sentiments of anti-communism rather than anti-Occidentalism. After all, the legacy of communism reminds them that the problem of atheist culture will be more dangerous than the western secularism. Communism has always remained the main challenge to any Islamic political body in the favour of the colonial power of British Empire or US hegemony. 

Despite fundamental antagonism between Islam and any secular or socialist idea, the most significant expectation of Mullahs short after the inception of their God’s state in Iran was not the worshipping of Allah but the carving out of their political establishments and a regime that was protected from being defiled. The anti-socialist character of Islamic movements in general and particularly that of Shiite Mullahs in Iran seemed to be underestimated by the docile left. It fell into the Mullahs’ tramp, what finally cost them thousands of lives besides a bad reputation. Today, the leftovers of the Tudeh Party abroad, not being overwhelmed with shame for their wrong-doing in the past, still support one or another faction of the IRI.

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