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Iran’s 1979 revolution

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Thirty years ago Iran’s revolt struck a blow against US imperialism and showed the power of workers in the Middle East, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2135
A protest during the Iranian revolution
A protest during the Iranian revolution

The US government hates Iran. One reason for this is that when the Iranian people overthrew a brutal dictator in 1979 they also inflicted a massive blow to US imperialism in the Middle East.

Up until the revolution, Iran – alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel – was central to upholding US policy to ensure the stability and safety of Western oil supplies in the region.

Iran’s ruler, the Shah, was a despotic monarch brought to power in 1953 by a coup organised by the CIA and British intelligence.

The 1953 coup toppled Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq.

British and US leaders were angry at Mossadeq for nationalising the oil industry, which was owned and run by Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP).

From the early 1970s, Iran was home to the CIA’s Middle East headquarters, with 24,000 “military advisors”.

It was also the world’s largest arms importer in that decade.

The British backed the Shah right up to his downfall.

Recently released documents show the British ambassador to Iran reported in 1978, “The Shah remains in complete control of the country and of the government. The security forces remain effective and, I believe, loyal to the Shah.

“I do not foresee any serious trouble in the near future. There will be ups and downs, but in the short term I think the Shah will not be forced to make any radical alterations to his policies and will be able to govern, as he is at present, without any genuinely dangerous opposition from any quarter.”

The ambassador could not have been more wrong.

The Shah had pushed through a harsh programme of capitalist development (including of nuclear technology) that alienated sections of the traditional religious establishment and the millions of poor people forced to leave the countryside to seek a livelihood in the slums of the cities.

Abject poverty existed next to fabulous wealth. Political dissent was ruthlessly crushed and national minorities suffered bitter oppression.


The Shah also crushed all opposition from the working class and the left – jailing and torturing over 20,000 political prisoners.

The Shah’s state seemed impregnable. The secret service, known as the Savak, was everywhere. Only Savak-endorsed trade unions were allowed.

But in 1975 a drop in oil revenues – Iran’s main source of income – led to a serious economic crisis. This set the stage for the protests that eventually toppled the Shah.

While the Muslime clergy had gained a base among the poor, the left concentrated on a guerrilla struggle against the regime.

In June 1977, the first protests against the Shah in 14 years took place. They involved thousands of slum dwellers from Tehran, the capital city.

Cuts in wages also sparked strikes, which peaked in July when workers at General Motors set their factory on fire in protest.

The protests by workers and the urban poor forced the Shah to allow some dissent.

He hoped that this would allow the movement to let off steam and prevent it becoming a real problem.

Instead it encouraged other sectors of society to openly protest against the regime. Intellectuals, who had previously been silenced, joined the protests, as did the clergy and their allies – the traditional merchants, shopkeepers and small business owners.

As in every great spontaneous revolution, many different sections of the population were involved.

Public poetry readings attracted tens of thousands onto the streets. Between October 1977 and September 1978, anti-Shah protests grew from being weekly to daily events. The protests culminated in a demonstration of some two million people on 7 September 1978.

The Shah imposed martial law and his troops massacred more than 2,000 demonstrators.

In response 30,000 oil workers joined the strikes. Coal miners struck in support.

Rail workers refused to let the police or army onto trains.

Dockers would only unload food and medical supplies or paper for campaigning against the regime. Units of the army began to rebel.

The movement grew as an insurrectionary one. Factory managers often simply fled.

Where that happened, elected strike committees took over the running of the factories. The working class, even though it was a minority of society, wielded enough power to be the tipping point against the regime.

As late as June 1978 the Shah was still boasting, “No one can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, most of the people and all of the workers.”

Yet just a few months later – on 16 January 1979 – the Shah was forced to flee the country.

Armed militias defeated the last of the Shah’s troops. The prisons were opened and the radio announced the victory of the revolution. Strike committees – known as shoras – were formed again in the factories.

Peasant villages established their own shoras and began seizing the land from the landlords.

The shoras were the beginning of the type of organsation that could see workers take power.


The peasants demanded land reform, women fought for liberation, and national minorities demanded the right to self-determination.

The revolution was an enormous blow to imperialism in the Middle East. It created a carnival of rejoicing as people spilled onto the streets.

An establishment politician was made the new prime minister, but mass demonstrations demanded his resignation too.

On 1 February Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and declared himself head of state.

Since the early 1960s he had been the most prominent religious leader to conduct an extended propaganda campaign against the Shah.

But the clergy wasn’t in control of the movement. There was an intense battle to decide the course of the revolution, and the type of society that would replace the Shah’s dictatorship.

The proponents of national capitalism sought to restore order.

The “liberal” upper middle class joined up with sections of the clerical establishment linked to the small capitalists and traders to work together against the left.

Khomeini was opposed to the growing power of the shoras. He knew they represented a threat to the clergy’s power and refused to recognise them.

The new provisional government declared that workers’ intervention in management affairs was “unIslamic”.

It moved to re-establish capitalist control. It was not an easy battle.

As one Shell worker said at the time, “What have workers got to do with religion? Workers are exploited all the same.

“That bloody manager who has been sucking our blood has suddenly become a good Muslim and tries to divide us by our religion. The unity through the shora is the way to win.”

The strength of the workers’ movement was shown on the May Day demonstration in Tehran in 1979. Unemployed men, women and their children led a march of 1.5 million.

The slogans of the demonstration were education for children not child labour, nationalisation of all industries, equal pay for men and women, long live real unions and real shoras, and death to imperialism.

The clergy fought back. Gangs were organised to attack the left and enforce “morality” against women who refused to wear the veil.


At the same time, a military offensive was launched against Kurds and other national minorities who had gained some autonomy during the revolution.

But the clergy could only win control of the movement by changing tack. Sections of the small capitalists and traders, along with the clergy around Ayatollah Khomeini, wanted to maintain their independence from the US while smashing the left.

They were also afraid of cutting themselves off from the masses – who still expected to gain from the revolution.

So Khomeini ordered an occupation of the US embassy, and moved against allies considered “moderate”.

This helped to seal Khomeini’s domination of the post-revolutionary state.

Khomeini and his allies argued that national unity was needed to defeat the US. Any dissenters were enemies of the revolution. The left didn’t know how to respond.

Most of the left believed that Iran was not ready for socialism and needed a capitalist revolution before a socialist one.

This meant arguing for workers and the poor to make alliances with “progressive” capitalists – so effectively falling in behind the arguments for national unity.

The left’s focus on guerrilla struggle also meant they were isolated from the masses. They had no strategy to overcome this.

The price for workers was enormous as the new regime repressed one organisation after another.

After Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the start of the eight-year war between the two countries, the Islamic government crushed all opposition, fully consolidating its power.

This was not inevitable – for several months the future of the revolution hung in the balance.

The left’s failure to organise independently among workers and the poor to fight for socialism allowed Khomeini to consolidate power.

But the 1979 Iranian revolution sent shockwaves around the world.

It showed that Western-backed dictators could be overthrown by a revolution from below.

It also showed the power of workers in the Middle East and raised the possibility of workers’ control of society.

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