Iran's February 1979 revolution


[The following are excerpts from a chapter of US socialist Barry Sheppard’s forthcoming second volume of a political memoir of his time as a central leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and earlier of its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance. The full chapter can be read (in PDF format) at Sheppard was in Iran during the mass insurrection in February 1979 that overthrew the US-backed autocratic regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.]

The Iranian revolution combined the fight for Azadi (freedom or political democracy), a key slogan of the demonstrations, for the rights and living standards of the workers, for the interests of the peasantry, and for the freedom of the oppressed nationalities with a fight against US imperialism expressed in the historic demand for Esteghlal (independence). Azadi and Esteghlal are revolutionary demands that go back to the onset of the revolutionary national awakening of Iran at the beginning of the 20th century.

While the working people were the base of the rebellion, they lacked a mass political party to fight for their interests. The oldest left party, the pro-Moscow Tudeh party, had been discredited by its failure in 1953 to fight the imperialist-backed coup. It had also joined one of the Shah’s cabinets in 1972. It was the Islamic clergy, however, that emerged as leaders of the popular opposition to the Shah. It should be noted that the Shah had allowed the mosques to function during his rule even as he shut down all other institutions that could become centers of opposition. He was forced to do this because to take on the religious establishment directly would have made it impossible for him to consolidate his rule after the 1953 coup. The coalition that was built to carry out the coup focused instead on uprooting the communists, terrorising the working people, and coopting former oppositionists. This was in line with Washington’s line internationally in the Cold War. Thus it was natural that the mosques would become centres of organisation of the rebellion.

The more secular bourgeois nationalists, while opposing the Shah, sought an accommodation. They had formulated a policy to safeguard what they defined as the three pillars of Iran – the Shah, the army and the United States. However, they sought to replace the Shah’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy under the shah, much like Britain’s parliamentary system under its monarch.

The most popular opponent of the Shah was the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. He had supported an unsuccessful uprising against the Shah in 1963, leading to his forced exile, first in Baghdad and then in Paris. In exile, Khomeini maintained contact with the young clergy in the mosques, largely by smuggling in tapes of his speeches. His prestige grew during the rebellion because of his consistent opposition to the regime, in contrast to most of the clergy higher-ups who sought a compromise with the Shah. While many of the best-known leaders of the clergy were in prison, the lesser known, younger members of the clergy in the mosques were pro-Khomeini and stood for abolishing the monarchy.

Khomeini had formulated his ideas about an Islamic Republic in writings after the 1953 coup. In these he polemicised against Marxism and the Tudeh Party, which had been strong before the coup. Thus it was no surprise that while he uncompromisingly opposed the Shah and the monarchy, he would not further the other aspirations of the workers, peasants and oppressed nationalities that came to the fore in the uprising. However, during the 1978 uprising, Khomeini’s weekly addresses played in the mosques supporting the general strike and urging the demonstrators to continue their protests and to attempt to win the soldiers to their side. Because of his uncompromising stance, Khomeini became the symbol of the anti-Shah fight.

Millions march in the streets

Demonstrations on December 10 and 11 were the largest to date. CBS News estimated that 1.5 million marched in Tehran alone. “The sheer weight of numbers of the procession took even seasoned observers by surprise,” Tony Allaway reported in the December 11 [Christian Science] Monitor. “More than a quarter of Tehran’s population had turned out to register their protest.”

Although the shah had threatened to ruthlessly suppress the December 10 and 11 protests, the determination of the masses forced him to back down. Clearly, he was afraid that the army would crack if ordered to fire on such throngs ... According to wire service reports, numerous placards demanded: “US imperialists pull out of Iran.” Students insisted that reporters “tell Jimmy Carter we want democracy and not a royal tyrant.” One demonstrator told Allaway: “It is wrong that we hate foreigners. That is the government telling lies so that the foreigners will hate us. All we want is to tell the Americans that we don’t want their Shah anymore and we want the Americans and British to stop stealing our oil.”

On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled, following other members of his family into exile. The country erupted in celebration. Just before his precipitous exit, the Shah appointed Shahpur Bakhtiar as the new prime minister. Reporting from Tehran in the New York Times, Nicholas Gage wrote: “The streets, nearly empty during recent days of strike and gasoline shortages, were quickly clogged with automobiles that added the sound of horns to the din, as people threw flowers at soldiers, who seemed to share their high spirits. The cacaphony of celebration continued all afternoon and well into the evening.”

Bakhtiar launched a “bloody crackdown against the movement” following an announcement by Khomeini on January 25 that he was flying in from Paris the next day. Iran Air employees announced they would end their strike for one day to allow Khomeini to arrive.

Bakhtiar was forced to retreat and allow Khomeini’s return on February 1. The day before, a flight of journalists was allowed in. [British socialist] Brian Grogan and I were on that flight. As we approached the airport, I saw a fighter jet come alongside us, very close, but it apparently had orders not to interfere. After we landed I was surprised that there were no customs or border officials – they were on strike.

The next morning we watched a live broadcast on the TV in our room of the arrival of Khomeini’s plane and the beginning of his drive into the city. There were throngs along the route. Suddenly, the newscast was cut off, and the Iranian flag filled the screen accompanied by military music. If this was designed to prevent people from observing Khomeini’s return, it backfired when the disappointed viewers rushed out to swell the throng.

I went on a demonstration at a plaza featuring a large monument called Shahyad (Shah’s Remembrance – later changed to Azadi) on the road from the airport to the city. There were hundreds of thousands of people – there was no way I could get an accurate number. There were big contingents of women dressed in the chador (veil), a black garment from head to toe with only the face showing. Suddenly an American-made fighter jet roared low overhead. The noise was terrific, and I flinched. The crowd didn’t but shook their fists at the plane in defiance. I was impressed by the women dressed in black shouting their anger with raised fists.

At night, masses of people went to their rooftops, chanting “Allah Akbar” – God is Great – effectively breaking the curfew. The monarchy and army top brass were becoming more and more isolated in face of the strike and demonstrations, which were producing deep fissures in the ruling circles.

Shah’s army disintegrates in face of mass revolt

Upon his return Khomeini appointed his own cabinet with Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister, in opposition to the Bakhtiar-led military regime. Bazargan had served as the head of the oil industry after its nationalization by the National Front government of Mohammad Mossadegh. Although the National Front no longer played much of a role, Bazargan represented a religious wing of the Front called Nehzat Azadi. On February 8, there were demonstrations in support of the Bazargan cabinet against Bakhtiar’s. In Tehran, 1 million marched.

Joining the action was a contingent of 1000 airmen from the Doshan Tappeh airbase. During 1978, homofars (mechanics) at air bases around the country had begun to organize and hold demonstrations of their own. At the Doshan Tappeh base the next day, February 9, homofar trainees staged a demonstration. It was attacked by the Royal Guards, who inflicted many casualties. On February 10, the homofars themselves, who did not live on the base, returned to work and saw the carnage. They refused to work and started demonstrating.

The Royal Guard attacked with tanks, machine-gunning everyone they could. The civilian population around the base came to the homofars’ aid. The airmen raided the base armory to get guns, arming themselves and distributing guns to civilians outside. Everyone on the base, knowing that the Royal Guard intended to kill everybody, joined the action – even the elite Green Berets. Women and children attacked the tanks with Molotov cocktails, setting some on fire. The homofars inside the base were joined by civilians firing on the Guards outside. The Guards were driven back block by block, the homofars and civilians building barricades as they advanced.

In the face of this show of force by millions, the army cracked. The high command issued a notice that the army would no longer attack the people. The army disintegrated, and the soldiers joined the people. The Bakhtiar government was overthrown.

The next day we awoke to the sound of car horns blaring. We drove out into the street, joining cars honking with their lights on, in celebration of the victory. We were swept along with cars converging on an armory. When we got there we saw people taking automatic rifles, machine guns, bazookas and other arms. Battles continued two more days against holdout SAVAK and police headquarters.

During these last battles, I went with comrades to a square near an army hospital. Wounded and bandaged soldiers were milling with the crowd. When told who I was, they crowded around, wanting to tell their stories. One joyfully said “I’m so happy we are finally with the people!” Just then a rumor swept the crowd that a SAVAK force was descending on the square. The rumor was false, but the crowd ran in all directions.

The Tehran insurrection rapidly spread throughout the country following the stand-down by the army. During the insurrection the state television station had been taken over by anti-Shah journalists. The station became an organizing center of the struggle, directing fighters to pockets of resistance, based on reports the station received from the field. Following the victory, it broadcast reports of further actions by armed groups of citizens taking control of the city.

The Khomeini-Bazargan government found itself in power through an insurrection it had neither called nor wanted. “The Iman [Khomeini] himself couldn’t have predicted this,” one person on the street told the press. The new government was under immense pressure to meet the demands of the people. To divert mass anger, it put on trial some of the hated officials of SAVAK, the Royal Guard and the army who had been captured. They were quickly shot. The trials were held in secret at Khomeini’s compound behind closed doors. Thus the facts of their connections with the US as well as the full extent of their knowledge of the crimes of the Shah’s regime and its connections to the state bureaucrats, now under the new government, were kept secret.

I went down to Khomeini’s compound during one of these trials. People who sought justice were also there. I met a young person who spoke English. He had been a law student when arrested by SAVAK. He showed me his crooked arm, which had been broken in multiple places. The bones healed at unnatural angles while he was imprisoned. He wanted to testify, as did others there and many more, but they were not allowed into the trials. I learned from him and others that the regime had begun arresting anyone wearing hiking boots. Anti-Shah students had formed groups to climb the mountains overlooking Tehran where they could meet and discuss, away from the listening devices of the totalitarian regime.

Khomenei moves to restore capitalist order

The new government wanted to keep intact as much of the old state apparatus as it could. The Bazargan government was weak. He was not a popular figure. He was seen by the masses as tilting toward the West. He made repeated appeals for the revolution to stop, to allow the new government to consolidate. The real decision maker was Khomeini – either in his own name or in the name of the Islamic Revolutionary Committee, a ruling council set up by Khomeini and Bazargan. Khomeini had gone to the holy city of Qum, saying he trusted his representative on the Committee, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, the youngest and most erudite among the clergy, in disputes on the Committee. Bazargan soon asked Khomeini to come back, however. Khomeini became the arbiter among the contending factions.

The community committees retained their arms. The regime sought to confront this danger to restoring “law and order” by incorporating these armed contingents into a new National Guard. But as one “Western expert” quoted in the March 5 US News and World Report put it, “This country has tasted revolution. The Ayatollah may find that stopping one is much harder than starting it.”

We went on a demonstration in support of democratic rights. It was attacked by Khomeini supporters who had been told it was a counter-revolutionary action formented by the BBC. In a week or so, air travel was restored. [Fellow US SWP member] Cindy [Jacquith] and I flew out to Paris. After staying over one night, we went back to New York.

The government decided to call a referendum for or against an Islamic Republic, as one prong of its attempt to put a lid on the masses. It also began to use remnants of the army that had survived the insurrection in some cities outside Tehran. These were now under the control of the Khomeini-Bazargan government. The referendum for or against an Islamic Republic was held March 30-31. The “yes” won, but the referendum did not create general enthusiasm.

There were big demonstrations on May 1, May Day. The New York Times reported May 2 that “the call for marches and rallies to mark the traditional workers’ holiday was first issued by leftist groups. However, in recent days, the call was taken up by the religious revolutionary leadership in an apparent attempt to reduce its leftist content.”

One Iranian banker told a Washington Post reporter that the labour force “was in a state of rebellion” and that industrialists “spend all their time trying placate rebellious workers who have unrealistic expectations under the new regime.” He said that “workers want housing, more meal allowances, longer vacations, profit sharing and say they want to run the company.” Armed revolutionary committees have prevented many companies from laying workers off, and in some cases have forced the rehiring of fired workers, the reporter said. Under this pressure, Bazargan announced the nationalization of some major industries on July 5 – a victory for the workers. But at the same time, the repression became more generalised.

On August 18, Khomeini announced his intention to turn Iran into a one-party state. He launched a furious campaign to whip up chauvinism against the Kurds, calling for a “holy war” against them. Leftist newspapers were banned, including Kargar. Twenty-six papers in all were shut down, including some pro-capitalist publications. Public meetings and demonstrations were banned. The central leaders of left groups all went underground.

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