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Iran’s revolution

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Iranian workers could have taken power when they overthrew their hated ruler, the Shah, in 1979 – but failings of the left helped to hand power to other forces, writes Viv Smith
Issue 2240

The US is reeling after revolution threw out one of its major allies, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. For the American ruling class, the revolt invokes terrible memories of Iran in 1979—where a revolution brought down Iran’s ruler, the Shah.

The Shah, a despotic monarch, was central to upholding US interests. His overthrow dealt a massive blow to US imperialism.

The US’s rulers often use authoritarian regimes to force through policies that will benefit them.

The Iranian revolution terrified them—because it showed that ordinary people can break through the power of the state, no matter how repressive it is.

Prior to the revolution, Iran, along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, had been key to protecting Western oil supplies in the Middle East.

US dominance in Iran had taken a blow after popular prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq nationalised the Iranian oil industry in 1951.

This infuriated the British-

controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company—now BP—which

controlled virtually all Iranian oil.

The CIA and British intelligence organised a coup to restore the Shah to power in 1953. He then embarked on a ruthless programme of capitalist development that transformed society.

Traditional small enterprises, linked to religious establishments, existed alongside vast factories. Millions of poor people were forced to leave the countryside to live in city slums.

The US made Iran home to its CIA Middle Eastern headquarters, with some 24,000 “military advisers”.

An economic slump in the

mid-1970s led to a recession and even worse conditions for workers. But the Shah seemed invincible. He used his secret police, the Savak, against workers and the left.

More than 20,000 political prisoners were jailed and tortured. Only state trade unions were allowed.

In 1977 US president Jimmy Carter described Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world”.

Shortly afterwards, some 50,000 shanty-town dwellers marched against slum clearance in Tehran—the first protest against the Shah in 14 years.

Still, the British ambassador to Iran claimed in 1978, “The Shah remains in complete control of the country and of the government.”

And the Shah declared that, “No one can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, most of the people and all of the workers.”

He was wrong.

The slum-dwellers’ protest gave confidence to others, and hundreds of thousands joined mass protests.

The Shah responded with repression. On 8 September 1978, troops with tanks and helicopter gunships shot live rounds at demonstrators in Tehran’s Jaleh Square. They killed some 1,600 people in what became known as “Black Friday”.

But it didn’t stop the protests—and increasingly, groups of workers began to strike.


In the spring of 1978, workers at Azmayesh plant in Tehran struck against job cuts. Gardeners stopped work over pay. In April, 2,000

brickmakers in Tabriz came out.

The strikes escalated quickly—some 40,000 oil workers, 40,000 steel workers and 30,000 railway workers downed their tools in less than three weeks.

The Shah tried to let some steam out of the movement by allowing some dissent. But this backfired and just encouraged more groups to protest.

National minorities joined the struggle demanding liberation, women fought for equality and peasants for land reform. Protests against the Shah became daily events.

The Shah imposed martial law and his troops murdered more than 2,000 demonstrators. Some 30,000 oil workers struck in response.

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. Sections of the army rebelled.

One oil strike committee drew up a list of demands.

It included an end to martial law, unconditional release of all political prisoners, national control of the oil industry and ending discrimination against women employees.

What began as individual strikes over economic demands became mass strikes involving political ones. In many factories workers set up independent elected factory committees, “shoras”, to run their workplaces after their bosses fled.

The movement grew as it became more insurrectionary and finally, on 16 January 1979, the Shah fled the country. Armed militias defeated the last of the troops.

The atmosphere was electric—a

festival of the oppressed. The prisons were opened and the shoras were re‑formed in the factories.

Peasants set up their own shoras and took land from the landlords.

The shoras were the beginning of the kind of organisation that could see workers take power. But many different sections of society with different interests had taken part in the revolution—including elements of modern capitalism.


There was a battle for direction. Unfortunately, the politics of the religious (Mojahedeen) and secular left (Tudeh Party and Fedayeen) damaged the chances of workers taking power.

The left was united by one thing—a complete lack of faith in Iran’s working class.

This lack of leadership and independent working class organisation opened up a vacuum.

Ayatollah Khomeini stepped in to fill it. He returned to Iran in February 1979 from exile in France and declared himself head of state.

Yet he faced resistance.

Khomeini’s new government said that workers’ intervention in management was “un-Islamic”.

But 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.”

Between 1979 and 1980 there were 360 strikes, sit-ins and occupations.

Some 1.5 million people marched through Tehran on May Day in 1979—an impressive show of workers’ strength.

Against them, Khomeini drew together the national capitalists,

elements of the upper middle classes, small traders and sections of the clerics.

He used Islamist and nationalist

language to create gangs that attacked the left and minority movements—and enforced “Islamic morality”.

Finally, to consolidate support, he adopted the language of the left and attacked US imperialism. In November 1979 he organised the invasion of the US embassy in Iran.

In the workplaces, he turned on the managers, removing them and putting Islamists in their place.

Khomeini argued that all Iranians must unite to defeat US imperialism—and that anyone who criticised him was an enemy of the revolution.

Because the left believed that Iran wasn’t ready for a socialist revolution, they accepted the argument that they should work with capitalists in the name of “national unity”.

The left’s focus on armed struggle also meant they were isolated from the masses. Their failure to organise independently among workers and the poor to fight for socialism allowed Khomeini to take control.

The US backed and funded Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to go to war with Iran in 1980. Khomeini called it a “godsend”. He declared all dissidents foreign agents and his Islamist government crushed all opposition.

Over 100,000 Iranians died during the eight-year war.

Yet Khomeini’s victory wasn’t inevitable. The revolution showed the potential power of workers in the Middle East and raised the real possibility of workers’ control.

Workers were central to the overthrow of the Shah. It was the left’s failure to grasp the potential for workers’ power—and to fight for it—that squandered the chance to create a socialist society.

Today the US is against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime in Iran. That’s not because it wants greater freedom for ordinary Iranians.

The US poses as a friend of Iranians. But in reality it wants a leader in Iran who will be a reliable ally—dictator or not.

Further reading: The Prophet and the Proletariat by Chris Harman, available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7p637 1848

Rupture and Revolt in Iran by Peyman Jafari:

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