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Nobody saw the revolution coming

February 22, 2001
The Iranian

From Maziar Behrooz's Rebels with a cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (I.B. Tauris, 2000). Behrooz is an assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University.

The February 1979 revolution in Iran was a surprise to all its participants, both domestic and foreign powers trying either to bring the situation under control or to take advantage of it. The rapidity in which the last shah of Iran and his imperial regime were delivered to the archives of history stunned the superpowers of the time, paralyzed the shah and his mighty imperial armed forces, and was an unexpected victory, when compared to other revolutions, for the ad hoc coalition which had formed against the imperial regime.

By September 1978, this coalition had come under the Islamists' leadership with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini as its undisputed leader. What was unique about the coalition was that it included almost all social classes and political forces, whether tied to the Islamists or not. With the possible exception of the upper layer of the Iranian bourgeoisie, the shah had managed to alienate all other social groups and classes, so that by the time the revolutionary upheaval reached its peak, there was no one left to defend the regime.

A popular anecdote of the time clearly depicted the imperial regime's predicament. The Empress Farah was reminded, at the height of revolutionary upheaval, that when King Louis XVI was in trouble his supporters demonstrated on his behalf at the Champs- Elysees. She was then asked why were not the supporters of the shah doing the same, to which she responded that the regime's supporters were demonstrating at the Champs-Elysees. The anecdote pointed to the fact that those who benefitted the most under the shah's rule were the ones who abandoned him at a time of need.

It seems that an American Democratic president in office with strong convictions regarding worldwide human rights had a profound effect on Iranian politics. The shah, always an active supporter of Republican candidates in American politics, perceived President Nixon's resignation, following the Watergate fiasco, and also President Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter to mean a weakening of American support for his rule. With issues of human rights becoming increasingly important in American politics after Carter's inauguration in January 1977, the shah moved to adapt the imperial regime's conduct to that of new international realities.

This is not to suggest that evidence exists of direct U.S. pressure on the shah. With political power and decision making evermore concentrated in the hand of the shah, any change in his personal political perception of events triggered change in the political behavior of the imperial regime. According to one observer "...the Shah had come over his years of rule to depend on the United States for general guidance and orientation, for specific advice and even instructions, and to a significant extent...for a source of his psychological well being." Hence, the inauguration of a Democrat American President, armed with human rights as cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, was a significant factor in persuading the shah that the time had arrived for change and for the political liberalization of Iranian politics.

The imperial regime's moderate and radical opposition soon realized the change in international and domestic political atmosphere as well. In October 1977, a group of secular intellectuals, lawyers and judges addressed an open letter to the shah asking the imperial regime to observe the constitution, free political prisoners, and respect political freedoms and human rights. In November 1977, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a letter to the ulama residing in Iran telling them about the unique opportunity which had come about as a result of Carter's human rights policy and, citing the secular intellectuals' letter, asked them to also start writing letters and suggested "write about the problems and deliver it to them [the government] like those who wrote and said many things and signed and nobody bothered them."

The same month, the shah's first meeting with President Carter in Washington D.C., was disrupted by angry Iranian students. The demonstrators, mainly Marxist activists members and supporters of various branches of the Confederation of Iranian Students Abroad, had been active against the imperial regime for years. The sight of the shah, President Carter, their aids and their wives suffering from tear gas inhalation meant for the demonstrators was unforgettable and was broadcast all over the world.

The shah's visit to Washington D.C. and President Carter's return visit to Tehran in late December 1977, during which he called the shah's Iran "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world," seems to have had two results as Iran prepared to meet the turbulent days of 1978. First, the shah and President Carter developed a working relationship and the shah was assured of strong U.S. backing for the imperial regime. Second, the shah reaffirmed his resolve to push for reforms in Iran. Issues such as human rights and political freedoms were discussed but no pressure was exerted on the Monarch.

1978 witnessed a gradual speeding up of events which resulted in outright revolutionary struggle by the summer and the collapse of the imperial regime in February 1979. Although clashes with security forces and the army had been occurring through spring 1978, the shah did not seem alarmed until mid-summer 1978. As late as June 1978, the shah was still more concerned with buying new military equipment for the Imperial Iranian Air Force than with opposition demonstrations and subsequent clashes with them.

Yet, by fall 1978, it appeared as though the shah had lost control of the events. According to the U.S. ambassador to Tehran, from September 1978 the shah began to ask the U.S. and British ambassadors for frequent visits and actively sought their advice as how to deal with the situation. Like many Iranians of his generation, the shah was a subscriber to conspiracy theories, which assert that many or all of Iran's troubles and misfortunes have a foreign element or power behind them.

Throughout the 1970s, the shah and the imperial regime's ruling elite believed that the armed opposition to the regime, be it Moslem or Marxist, was in fact an "unholy alliance between black and red," with the Soviet Union and the Tudeh playing a leading role from behind the scene. The shah sometimes referred to the armed opposition as "Islamic Marxists," and dispatched the entire weight of the imperial regime's security forces to crush it.

By 1978, the shah resembled a boxer who had received a knockout blow from his blind side. The revolution was neither led by the armed opposition of the 1970s, nor by any Soviet backed political organization, partly because all these forces were kept in check by the SAVAK. The revolution was spontaneous in nature and had come under the leadership of radical Islamists led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. This, the shah could not comprehend and like the boxer disoriented by the massive blow, he went from one conspiracy theory to the other in order to explain the situation for himself. It has been noted that as early as November 1978, the shah wondered if the American and British intelligence services were behind the turmoil. In the end, he blamed everyone and everything, from his attempt to raise the price of oil--which supposedly angered the Western powers--to his old favorite theme, the "black and red reaction."

The imperial regime's paralysis in confronting the revolution was directly linked to the shah's confusion, loss of will and absolute inability to comprehend the reality of the revolutionary movement before his regime. The shah's state of paralysis was partially linked to the inability of his traditional foreign backers and friends to understand the situation and to give him the general advice he so desperately needed. Here, the Carter administration's confused and contradictory policy toward the shah and revolution played a major role in the imperial regime's demise. Had U.S. foreign policy been able to play a more decisive role in supporting the shah and providing him with solid advice during early 1978, there is a strong possibility that the outcome of the Iranian revolution would have been different.

There seem to be three basic reasons for the American failure in Iran. First, as some American policymakers of the time have noted, there was a sharp decline in U.S. intelligence gathering on Iran in late 1970s. The trust U.S. policymakers had put on the imperial regime's stability and the shah's command of Iran were important reasons behind this apparent shortcoming in U.S. intelligence. The lack of adequate intelligence meant that the American policymakers were unable to realize the seriousness of the situation on time and, even more importantly, had very little information on opposition leaders and the way they operated.

Second, American foreign policy was faced with a number of important foreign policy issues in 1978 (i.e. SALT II, Camp David Accords, etc.) which stretched its resources to the limits. According to one American policymaker: "Our decision-making circuits were heavily overloaded." This meant that the Iranian situation did not receive due attention from American policymakers until the revolution was well underway.

Third, among top American policymakers, there were two different approaches to events in Iran which translated into different advice to the shah. This factor was perhaps the most confusing one for the shah when it came to his will and morale in confronting the revolution. According to Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the two different approaches centered in the National Security Council and the State Department.

The difference between the two policies, in general terms, was in that the former emphasized the U.S. and Western interest in Iran while the latter was more preoccupied with promoting democracy in Iran. Once the turn of events became more critical, from September 1978, the two policies began to send contradictory signals to the shah. The fact that the U.S. ambassador to Tehran began to lose his respect among top Washington policymakers in this period only added to the confusion. Once it became clear that the shah's rule could not be maintained, the two policies became even more divided.

The policy proposed by the NSA held that any government in Iran should enter negotiations with the opposition from a point of strength. Accordingly, the Iranian government was constantly urged to show force and Gen. Robert Huyser was sent to Iran to assure the integrity of the imperial Iranian armed forces. This policy expected the armed forces to stage a coup if the civilian government of Shapour Bakhtiar failed.

The State Department policymakers, it seems, had more faith in the Bakhtiar government and wanted the armed forces to continue backing it. By this time, the U.S. ambassador to Tehran, William Sullivan, had completely lost the trust of Washington policymakers and increasingly carried out his own policy as he saw fit. This policy was based on the premise that compromise with the opposition was inevitable and the stage should be set so that the imperial armed forces would maintain their integrity so that in the future they could be used as a counterbalance to the new revolutionary government.

It seems that no matter where the American policy toward the Iranian revolution was made, many American polcymakers shared the view that radicalization of the movement would allow the communists, and therefor the Soviets, to take advantage of the situation. When the American policymakers ultimately accepted the inevitable collapse of the imperial regime, their view was that the succeeding Islamic Republic would be composed of moderates who would maintain ties with the U.S. in order to safeguard Iran from Soviet aggression.

In light of the lack of intelligence on Iran and the confused U.S. policy throughout 1978, it is unclear how and why the American policymakers came to these conclusions. The Soviet Union's reaction to the Iranian revolution was no less confusing and was the result of an utter misunderstanding of realities. The emergence of Islam and the Shi'i clergy at the head of a mass revolutionary movement in Iran took the Soviets by surprise. This is mainly evident from Soviet scholarly work on the issue of Islam in Iran during pre-revolutionary years. Up to the end of the 1960s, the Soviet scholars saw little or no progressive role for Shi'i Islam in modern times. These scholars and indeed the Soviet government viewed the 1963 uprising against the shah's reform program as regressive.

Yet, this type of analysis began to change in the 1970s as a new generation of Soviet scholars began to analyze the subject. The new approach depicted Islam as a positive mobilizing force in a society trying to move from a feudal stage into a capitalist one. Nevertheless, these scholars still viewed Islam's role in a capitalist society as reactionary. Hence, while the 1970s witnessed heated discussions in Soviet scholarly circles over the progressive nature of Islam, the overall view remained unchanged. One scholar has noted that as late as October 1978 Soviet scholars viewed Islam as being in a state of crisis.

As noted earlier, the 1970s were a period of a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the Soviet Union and the imperial regime and politically a cordial state of mini-detente existed between the two governments. The shah always suspected and mistrusted the Soviet Union's hidden agenda for Iran and the Soviet Union, while recognizing the shah as an ally of the West, it viewed the imperial regime as stable enough to opt for accommodation rather than confrontation. Based on its analysis of Islam and coexistence with the imperial regime, the Soviet policymakers were very slow in acknowledging the existence of the revolutionary movement and its ideological character.

Another reason for this lack of comprehension by the Soviet Union was, similar to the Americans, a sharp decline in its intelligence performance in Iran. According to Vlademir Kuzichkin, a KGB operative in Iran, the decline was due to "the replacement of many officers, including the heads in the residency." Despite several bloody clashes between the Iranian military and the rising revolutionary movement in the first half of 1978, the Soviet Union's first public acknowledgment of the existence of such clashes was published in Pravda following the Black Friday clashes on September 8. Pravda reported the clash on September 9 and went on to analyze the mass demonstration of Eid al-fitr a few days earlier.

The significance of this mass demonstration was in that it was the largest to date of any peaceful demonstration against the imperial regime with over two hundred thousand people clearly calling for Ayatollah Khomeini's return and establishment of an Islamic republic. Ironically, the Pravda commentary missed the significance and character of the demonstration by suggesting that it was in defence of Iran's 1906 monarchical constitution. Nevertheless, as the revolutionary upheaval grew, the Soviet Union began to pay more attention to the realities of Iran. In November 1978, the Soviet assessment of the situation was critical enough for it to warn the U.S. government against direct intervention in Iran.

On January 7, Pravda suggested that while events in Iran were purely internal Islam and religious circles were playing a significant role. The reality of the situation, however, was that by January 1979, the clergy headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, did not just play a significant role in events, it was leading the revolution. As far as January 2, while Pravda warned the revolutionaries on dangers of a military coup, it mentioned Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader of the revolution without mentioning his religious rank or beliefs.

The article anticipated a victorious revolution and a government based on people's will but made no mention of the distinct possibility of an emerging theocracy. It was only toward the end of January that the Soviet press began to recognize the clerical leadership of the revolution. Yet, even here, and as far as February 7 (the imperial regime collapsed on February 12), the Soviets failed to acknowledge that the clerical leadership of the revolution was actually seeking an Islamic republic. The Pravda commentary of February 7 named Ayatollah Khomeini "the leader of the national democratic and religious opposition" and suggested that he sought the creation of a republic. This was despite Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's much earlier call for an Islamic Republic to succeed the imperial regime.

The last shah of Iran left the country at the height of revolutionary fever on January 16, 1979 and the imperial regime collapsed in February 1979. Successes and failures of the revolution were confirmed in a referendum in April 1979 when an Islamic republic was confirmed by the overwhelming majority of the population over sixteen years of age. The confirmation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) marked the initial unraveling of the undeclared coalition which was created to overthrow the imperial regime. The fundamental reasons for the polarization of the coalition were, on one hand, the ultimate goal of the Islamists to consolidate their power modeled on a theocracy, and on the other hand, an attempt by the opposition to prevent or postpone such consolidation, thus creating the right condition for their own attempt to secure state power.

In preparing for the consolidation of their rule, the new Islamist elite which governed the IRI had two different interpretations of what an Islamic state meant in reality. During the period under study, 1979-1983, these two interpretations resulted into the gradual formation of two distinct factions sharing the old and new state organs. One faction, which in general terms may be called the Islamic "liberals," had a more Western oriented interpretation of an Islamic state. They believed that once the revolution was successful, the affairs of the state should be entrusted to the hands of moderate and Western educated figures who would rule in a fashion where limited parliamentary procedures would be observed, Islamic ethics and morality would be mildly enforced, the economy would be reformed but would more or less remain on the same path and the foreign policy of the new state would be based on the notion of "neither East, nor West" with more leaning toward the West in order to check the powerful neighbor to the north.

Clearly in this interpretation of an Islamic state, very little room was left for the clergy whom the liberals expected to play a marginal role in the IRI. Among the leading members of the Islamic liberals were premier Mehdi Bazargan and his Liberation Movement colleagues, who ran the affairs of the state from February 1979 to November of that year and President Abol Hasan Bani-sadr and colleagues, who came to office in December 1979 and were ousted in June 1981. Once the imperial regime collapsed, the Islamic liberals, mandated by Ayatollah Khomeini, moved to secure the old regime's state apparatus. These were the ministries, the police and the armed forces which the liberals promptly named new caretakers. In opposition to the Islamic liberals were those who had a more strict interpretation of an Islamic state.

Better known as Maktabis (committed and doctrinaire), this faction saw a more active and dominant role for the clergy and viewed the role of the non-cleric Islamists as marginal. During this period, 1979-1983, the Maktabis had a more strict interpretation of "neither East, nor West" and opted for more independence vis-a-vis superpowers and more anti-American policies. Personalities such as Ayatollah Mohammad Hosein Beheshti, Ayatollah Hasan Ali Montazeri, Hoj. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, Hoj. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Hoj. Ali Khameneh'i, belonged to this faction and dominated the revolutionary council and the IRP. As the Islamic liberals took control of the state apparatus of the old regime, the Maktabis moved to create their own state institutions and paralegal forces in the society. Hence, the Maktabis soon gained control of the revolutionary council, the revolutionary komiteh (security committees) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (sepah-e pasdaran-e enqelab-e eslami).

These parallel institutions with increasingly more power than the old institutions, helped the Maktabis to ouster the Islamic liberals. The period under study, 1979-1983, may be divided into two separate phases with distinct characteristics. The first phase, 1979-1981, was a period of transition whereby the IRI moved from overthrowing the imperial regime through a process of consolidation. The main characteristics of this phase were, on one hand, a struggle between the IRI and its opposition, and on the other, a factional competition within the IRI's ruling elite which inevitably involved the opposition as well. This phase was one of relative freedom for the opposition whereby newspapers were published, political meetings were held in the open and opposition to the IRI was, for the most part, a political one.

The scale of these political freedoms, however, became more limited as events approached the June 1981 crisis. Important social and political issues of this phase were the rights of national minorities, the nature of an Islamic state, the rights of women, the American Hostage Crisis, the Iran Iraq war, etc. The second phase, 1981-1983, started with June 1981 crisis and ended with the elimination of the last legal Marxist organization in 1983. In June 1981, the Maktabi faction of the IRI, led by the clergy, the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and supported by Ayatollah Khomeini pushed the Islamic liberals out of power, declared all oppositional political activities illegal and entered a period of practical civil war with the Moslem Mojahedin in which the Marxist organizations played a marginal role. Important social and political issues of this phase were the consolidation of the IRI, the continuation of Iran-Iraq war, and the effective of repression of the opposition and the disintegration of Marxist organizations in Iran.

The political freedom which followed the 1979 revolution gave a chance to political organizations and parties, from the left to the right (with the exception of the pro-monarchy forces), to organize. After twenty six years of relatively consistent dictatorship, this newly achieved freedom gave an important breathing space needed by all groups and parties, especially those of the left. Hence, since the Iranian communist movement was the major target of the shah's repression, the post-1979 freedom was a unique historical opportunity especially for the Marxists. During the immediate months after the downfall of the imperial regime, for the first time in twenty six years, Marxist organizations found a chance to organize on a mass scale.

Here, a movement which had fought the imperial regime and the 1953 coup organizers for decades and had waged armed struggle since 1971, non-homogeneous as it had been, found the chance to address its constituency directly and to organize openly. The period in which the movement was able to organize was shorter than many may had expected. Almost immediately after the collapse of the imperial regime signs of confrontation with the new IRI leadership began to show and as time passed the movement realized that the degree of tolerance of the new Islamist leadership was limited and was coming to an end rapidly. This period was one of danse macabre for the communist movement in Iran where the very survival of the movement depended on its ability to adapt to the post-revolutionary social environment of the country. In this venture, the Iranian communists ultimately failed.

The issues and problems facing the Iranian Marxists in this period were enormous. The movement had to function in a post-revolutionary society where the new revolutionary leadership emphasized the consolidation of a theocratic state and a cultural revolution rather than any change in the relations of production, the ownership of the means of production, or constituting democratic institutions. The political independence of the new Islamic state was perhaps the most important issue facing the Iranian Marxists and the key factor in keeping the movement off balanced, for the duration of this period.

Here, two elements aided the confusion of the Marxist organization. First, factional conflict within the new Islamic elite which often represented contradictory socio-political tendencies. Second, the IRI's foreign policy based on "neither East, nor West" regardless of different interpretations, meant political independence of the state vis-a-vis foreign powers. For Iran, this was an immensely important development which went unnoticed by many political groups including the Marxists. Up to the 1979 revolution, Iran was a country under the indirect influence of foreign powers. The historical starting point of this process was the defeats Qajar Iran suffered during the Russo-Iranian wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century which resulted into foreign domination of the state. Since that period, foreign embassies in Tehran had played a decisive role in the internal politics of the country.

The foreign influence could be seen during such important events as the Constitutional revolution of 1905-1909, the Reza khan coup of 1921, and of course the notorious anti-Mosaddeq coup of 1953. The dependency of the imperial regime and the person of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the Americans and the British was an important factor in the regime's inability to gain legitimacy among the population at large and the intelligentsia in particular. A great part of the Marxist literature of pre-revolutionary period was based on this fact and, indeed, the sharpest attacks of the Islamists on the imperial regime were directed at the latter's dependency on foreign powers.

The emergence of Islam as a political force, what many would like to call fundamentalism, was a bewildering surprise to every and all of those who encountered it. For the Marxist cadres and theorists of the post-revolution period, the problem of the new Islamic state proved insoluble and ultimately devastating. While a number of Marxist organizations interpreted the political independence of the IRI and especially the anti-Americanism of the Maktabis as a sign of the new state's possible siding with the Soviet Union (e.g. the Tudeh), the overwhelming majority denied the obvious and attempted to depict the IRI as a disguised puppet of imperialism. In doing so, a majority of Marxist organizations (e.g. Fadaiyan factions and the Paykar) concentrated their efforts and propaganda on exposing the Islamic liberals.

After the collapse of the imperial regime most Marxist organizations entered the political arena with radical slogans and policies. While struggling for public opinion and increasingly for their very existence, each Marxist organization, in terms of its calls for radical change, tried its best to outdo one another and the IRI leadership. In this high fever of radicalism, the Marxists were outmaneuvered by the Islamists because they refused to accept the independent nature of the new IRI leadership at its face value. This single factor played an important role in the movement's inability to cope with the IRI and ultimately led to its demise.

After the February 1979 revolution, the number of groups, organizations and parties claiming to adhere to Marxism grew rapidly. While prior to the revolution there were perhaps a dozen such groups, after the revolution their numbers grew to perhaps over eighty and this number increased as Marxist groups began to disintegrate into smaller units. Indeed, after the revolution it became common for any gathering of a few Marxist activists to call themselves an organization or party and claim to be the rightful vanguard of the working class. Hence, it is neither possible nor perhaps necessary to produce an account of all Marxist organizations, parties and groups in the post-revolutionary era. It is safe to suggest that whatever happened to the major organizations and parties was also true for the smaller ones. Therefore, in the coming sections the focus will be on the conduct and activities of major Marxist groups.

The Marxist organizations may be divided in to two major categories, namely those which formulated a policy of support for one of the IRI factions and those which found themselves firmly in opposition to the new Islamic leadership. Obviously, each of these categories may be sub-divided into smaller ones, but such would only add to an already difficult task. It will be left to the history of each individual major organization to explain itself.

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