The 1979 revolution was the culmination of a century-old revolutionary struggle against the monarchy and the exploitation of Iran by imperialist powers. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the last king (shah in Persian) to ever rule Iran. He had been ousted from power by a popular upsurge that started in the early 1950s, only to be placed back on his throne through a military coup d'état in 1953 organized by the U.S. government and led by the CIA.
After the coup reinstalled him, the shah ruled for another 25 years, but the moribund monarchy imposed on the country by the imperialists lost all national legitimacy. In order to keep itself in power the monarchy resorted to brute police and military force. Its secret police, SAVAK, trained by U.S. secret services, was notorious for its torture chambers. Trade unions and almost all opposition parties were banned. Political prisoners filled the jails. In 1963 thousands demonstrating against the shah's policies were killed. The Islamic clerical leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was forced into exile for his role in advocating these protests.
With Washington's backing, Iran's army grew to be the fifth largest in the world, poised to carry out counterrevolutionary interventions in the region. In 1973 the shah sent 2,000 troops south to Oman in the Arab-Persian Gulf region to help another monarch, Sultan Qabus, suppress a guerrilla insurgency. The shah permitted the United States to establish military stations in northern Iran to spy on the Soviet Union. Iran's government developed close relations with the Israeli regime and the South African apartheid state and supplied them with oil.
Suppression of oppressed nationalities
Inside the country those nationalities that were not Persian-speaking--Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Azerbaijanis and others--were denied their linguistic and national rights and any manifestation of their national pride encountered SAVAK's wrath. National oppression was one of the central pillars of the monarchic state, and the odious Persian chauvinism was perpetually fanned by the regime to the detriment of working-class unity.
The shah's much publicized land reform in the early 1960s primarily benefited large landowners and capitalists, as well as a layer of better-off peasants. By the early 1970s impoverished peasants were moving into the cities in massive numbers with meager possibilities for employment. Industrial growth was warped by the unequal exchange in the capitalist world market. Oil revenues were wasted conspicuously on imported luxury goods and fancy buildings in affluent neighborhoods for the ruling class and upper layers of the middle class, and by huge arms purchases.
The degree to which the monarchy was isolated from Iranian society showed itself precisely when the shah imagined himself to be at the zenith of his power on the Peacock Throne. In 1971 the king decided to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian monarchy. He threw a party lasting five days in the desert near the ruins of the ancient capital Persepolis. Five hundred guests, including 50 heads of state, wined and dined on drinks and delicacies flown in from France. They slept in silk-lined tents imported from Paris. The only thing indigenous was a ton of Persian caviar from the Caspian Sea.
To "secure the area" for this imperial party a circle 70 miles in diameter was cleared of all "suspicious elements," including entire tribes who inhabited the area and worked the land. The government purchased 250 Mercedes-Benz automobiles to save guests the inconvenience of walking when they wanted to drop in on fellow party-goers.
This frenzy of giddiness was happening while annual per capita income in Iran was less than $1 per day, and average monthly consumption of meat was 2.7 pounds per person.
James Carter praises the shah
In early January 1978, U.S. president James Carter visited the shah in Tehran, and stated that "Iran is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world."
"This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration, and love which your people give to you," Carter said.
But unknown to the U.S. president and his host, five months earlier a tremor in the "island of stability" had signaled a sea change in mass consciousness and combativity.
In August 1977, some 50,000 workers and newly arrived peasants, living in the shanty towns that stretch along the southern part of Tehran, finally won their fight against the cops, SAVAK, and gendarmes who had come to demolish the "illegal" huts they had built to live in. This was the culmination of a tug of war for years. This time, however, the regime was forced to retreat. A 38-year-old worker later described one of the confrontations at night. "We sent the little kids to puncture the tires of the bulldozers which led their whole army.... Women then began to bombard them with stones and cobbles which we had already stored up.... We then launched an offensive, and took on the bastards in a pitched hand-to-hand battle. [They] had to run away, leaving some of their machinery and equipment behind.... It was really like a Vietcong operation."
This was the first such victory against the regime since the 1953 coup, and it went unnoticed to a large extent. But less than two months after Carter's "island of stability" remarks, a major event shook the country. On Feb. 18, 1978, people in the Azerbaijani city of Tabriz took to the streets in massive numbers. "Death to the shah!" was one of the slogans raised for the first time. A year later the Persian monarchy was overthrown.
The Tabriz events came in response to police brutality at an earlier demonstration in the city of Qun in defense of Ayatollah Khomeini. A hated major in the police shot and killed a young man in cold blood. Popular patience snapped. The city exploded. Workers, youth, shopkeepers, and uprooted peasants who had flocked to the city hit the streets.
The Tabriz garrison proved unreliable in carrying out the "shoot to kill" orders of the officers. Major parts of the city were taken over by the population. Army units from outside had to be brought in to put down the uprising with bloody brutality.
The Tabriz uprising electrified the country. Both because of its massive, militant character and also because Azerbaijan, with Tabriz at its center, had occupied a special place in Iran's previous two revolutions in the 20th century.
The constitutional revolution
The first Iranian revolution, known as the Constitutional Revolution, followed the 1905 Russian Revolution. Popular democratic councils (anjomans) were formed and a constitution was won. But the Qajar shah reneged and, with the aid of Russian soldiers sent by the tsar, staged a counterrevolutionary coup, bombarded the first majles (parliament), tore up the constitution, executed the constitutionalists, and reestablished autocratic rule in the country with the exception of a district in Tabriz.
There a handful of revolutionaries led by Sattar Khan opposed the counterrevolutionary coup and fought back. Their heroic resistance gained momentum. The Tabriz Anjoman was revived and took over the city. Toilers joined by internationalist volunteers, including Bolshevik fighters from tsarist-occupied territories, northern Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, defended the besieged city for more than a year and beat back all the invading armies of the monarchy.
The resistance grew across the country, and revolutionary armies marched on to Tehran. The despotic shah fled and found sanctuary in the Russian embassy in Tehran. The majles was reestablished.
The political work carried out among the immigrant workers from Iran in the Baku oil fields and other areas by the Bolsheviks, the Russian revolutionary party led by Vladimir Lenin, had helped to forge a revolutionary underground nucleus that led the Tabriz resistance. Armed with experience from Iran's first revolution, the Adalat (Justice) Party was founded in Baku during the 1917 Russian Revolution. The party participated in the Russian Revolution and later in its defense.
The party (later renamed the Communist Party) was a member of the Communist International and its leadership collaborated with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders in hammering out a revolutionary program for colonial and semicolonial countries. The party was part of the leadership of a revolutionary regime of workers and peasants in Gilan (the Gilan Soviet), on the Caspian Sea, which took power for a brief period in 1920.
Azerbaijani revolutionary government
Iran's second major revolutionary struggle of the century took place in Azerbaijan after World War II. Inspired by the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi invaders in the war, in 1945 workers and peasants made a revolution in Azerbaijan and established their own government with Tabriz at its center. The shah's army surrendered and the workers and farmers government rapidly began an extensive land reform program, and for the first time in Iran women gained the right to vote. The Kurdish people in Iran established their own republic, the Mahabad Republic.
These victories gave impetus to the struggles waged by workers and peasants in other parts of the country. Oil workers in the south carried out strikes during the spring of 1946 which increasingly took on a political character.
The class struggle escalated, but the toilers lacked a national leadership capable of leading them to emulate Azerbaijan's revolution and establish a workers and farmers government throughout the country. The Communist Party of Iran had been decimated during the Soviet bureaucracy's counterrevolution led by Stalin against Lenin's communist course. In its place the Stalinist leadership established the Tudeh (Masses) Party in 1941.
To pacify the class struggle heightened by the revolution in Azerbaijan, the Iranian regime sought the assistance of the Tudeh Party leadership, and leaders of that party accepted ministerial posts in the government. A series of Stalinist betrayals led to the overthrow of Azerbaijan's workers and farmers government, without a battle, at the end of 1946.
Struggle to nationalize oil
By the end of the decade, however, toilers across the country had recovered from the shocking blow of the defeat in Azerbaijan and began mass political actions. Strikes started against the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in early 1951. By the spring, 45,000 oil workers had walked out in Khuzistan, the oil-rich province in the south. At the same time, under mass pressure the majles in Tehran approved a bill to nationalize the oil industry in the entire country.
Mohammad Mossadegh, a bourgeois nationalist leader who had championed the cause of nationalization of the oil industry, became the prime minister and the Iranian government took over the extensive oil installations, greeted by mass jubilation.
Shortly after this, an alliance of the United States, Britain, and the shah's court, supported by large landowners, emerged to derail and defeat the anti-imperialist movement. Repeated attempts by the shah to unseat Mossadegh were met by fierce mass resistance in the streets, the toilers giving their lives to push back the counterrevolution. The Tudeh Party grew again and attracted self-sacrificing workers and youth. It even built an extensive secret military organization within the shah´s army.
But when the CIA-engineered coup got under way in August 1953, approved by U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, Mossadegh's government did not call on the masses to come to the streets in its defense. An opportunity opened for the working class to come forward by mobilizing to defend national sovereignty against imperialist counterrevolution. At the decisive moment the Tudeh Party leadership refused to call on the anxiously waiting masses to mobilize in the streets to defeat the pitiful contingent of thugs and a few army units. The counterrevolution succeeded without a battle.
The second Iranian revolution, which began in 1945, was finally defeated in 1953 and the monarchy got a lease on life for another quarter of a century. Yet the imperialists were not able to -- they did not even try --to denationalize the oil industry.
The national bourgeoisie and Stalinist leaderships had failed the historic test in the second revolution. This would be a factor in the outcome of the third revolution, in 1979, which we will take up in future articles.
(To be continued next week)
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