The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Where Is Iran Headed?

Jun 30, 1980

The Iranian students still hold their hostages, after the failure of Carter’s aborted helicopter raid. But Carter continues to make new threats against Iran.

So far, the Iranian regime has refused to give in to the pressure. Khomeini continues to call on the Iranian people to fight against the U.S. and to fight for an Islamic Republic.

The continuing events in Iran once again raise the problem of the Khomeini regime: What is its policy? Where is it going? What are the problems it confronts? And how is it trying to solve them today?

What Was the Shah’s Regime?

The regime of the Shah functioned to benefit only a very few people. Above all, it was the foreign capitalists who benefitted most. Within Iranian society only a few members of the Iranian bourgeoisie and the state apparatus benefitted. The regime was filled with corruption and greed, led personally by the Shah and his family.

The Shah claimed he was modernizing Iranian society with his so-called White Revolution. He claimed he was doing so for the benefit of all the Iranian people. But, in fact, what he was really attempting to do was to preserve his own fortune and that of the clique around him and to develop new industry for their investment.

For the masses of people, there was only more exploitation and more poverty. There was a change in control over some of the land. But it was not the peasants who ended up with land; they had only more debts. Unemployment remained high. And those who found work in the few new factories found only a new means of being exploited.

The only real modernization that the Shah carried out was in the military. This was carried out with the continuing support of the U.S. government. The Shah’s armed fores, and his secret police apparatus, the SAVAK, were among the most modern in the world. Repression from these forces was all that most people in Iran saw of the Shah’s modernization programs.

This repression was widespread in Iranian society. Freedom and basic liberties were denied to all classes and all layers of society. Political repression was the most hated aspect of the Shah’s rule. Because it was so widespread, opposition to the Shah was widespread as well.

Why Were the Mullahs and Khomeini at the Head of the Revolution?

Certainly the Shiite mullahs had their reasons for opposing the Shah also. When the Shah made some changes in the land ownership, the Shiites felt attacked, since they owned 15 per cent of the land in Iran. Other policies of the Shah also encroached on the mullahs’ prerogatives, especially over the educational system.

Perhaps for their own reasons, the mullahs opposed the Shah. But they spoke out against the Shah’s repression, and called for new freedoms. They spoke out against U.S. domination, and called for an Iran independent of the West.

It is true that the mullahs wanted to turn the clock backwards to the time when they controlled their land and could compel the population to accept their religious code. But in the context of Iran, where each new development in society meant only more exploitation and more repression under the Shah, it is not hard to understand why the population responded to the appeals of the mullahs. The population was ready to join those who talked of having a country without the Shah and without foreign domination.

And most importantly, the population was ready to follow the Ayatollah Khomeini. He had become the expression of their hatred for the Shah and for the U.S. For over 15 years he had uncompromisingly opposed the Shah. In 1963, Khomeini was arrested by the Shah and put in prison. Later Khomeini was forced to flee Iran into exile. Khomeini maintained his opposition to the Shah and to the U.S. In doing so, he came to represent the aspirations of the Iranian people. He won their confidence and their trust.

Because of Khomeini’s personal reputation, the Shiite mullahs were able to use to their full advantage the fact that their mosques existed as the only organized structure of opposition within Iranian society. All the political organizations had long been declared illegal and crushed. This also helps explain why the mosques and the mullahs became the centers of opposition to the Shah.

The Mobilization of the Masses

Opposition to the Shah had been brewing in Iran for years. But the Shah’s regime was not ready to collapse by itself. As we have seen, the Shah had surrounded himself with one of the most developed armed forces in the world, thanks to the U.S. government.

The revolution that overthrew the Shah finally succeeded in February of 1979 because of a massive and determined fight by the population of the cities. When millions of people showed that they were ready to demonstrate, in the face of a murderous repression, they were able to win over some sections of the Shah’s armed forces. Larger sections of the armed forces stood neutral. Those officers and troops who remained loyal to the Shah were left incapacitated. All they could do, at least for the time being, was stand to the side as the revolution continued.

The fact that the overthrow of the Shah took place this way–with a massive mobilization of the population which incapacitated, but did not destroy, the old state apparatus–gave the framework within which the problems of the following period are posed.

Khomeini in Power

When Khomeini arrived in power, he wanted to establish a new Islamic power. Above all, he faced the problem of how to consolidate and maintain his rule. This political task is the central problem that Khomeini has faced from the time he took power right up until today.

To maintain order, the new regime in Iran needs a state apparatus–a political administration, a judicial system and most importantly, an army that can be used to enforce class rule against the population.

But this state power, this armed force, is exactly what the regime lacks. Khomeini did not come to power at the head of a new army, nor with the support of the old armed forces. Khomeini came to power upon a massive mobilization of the population that left the old state apparatus of the Shah unable to function.

At times, the new regime has tried to find new forces to develop into a state apparatus. The mullahs have tried to build up the Islamic Guard as a sort of police force. But as yet in no way are they a sufficient substitute for a new army. Perhaps this is why in March Khomeini gave amnesty to some 40,000 jailed former members of SAVAK and the Shah’s administration, despite the potential dangers this implies.

It is possible that this old state apparatus could once again play its role. But there are difficulties and dangers for the new rulers to try to use it. On the one hand, the Shah’s old army, along with the SAVAK, was the focus of the hatred of the Iranian people. It was in order to alleviate this hatred, in part, that the new regime tried and executed a few hundreds of officers shortly after the revolution.

All of this has demoralized the army. Today, even the soldiers and those officers who don’t remain loyal to the Shah, must still be uneasy at the prospect of having to face this population.

On the other hand, we must remember that this old state apparatus was the creature of the U.S., and of the Shah. Certainly many of these ties remain. There is nothing stopping the U.S. from trying to use the officers and any army that is rebuilt against the new regime. Even now there is continual talk in Tehran about the possibility of a military coup by U.S.-backed forces, and even the reinstallation of the Shah.

The Dangers to Khomeini’s Rule

The fact that the state apparatus is not yet able to fulfill its role implies dangers for the rulers of Iran. Some layers of the population, because they are mobilized and politically active, have begun to express their own interests, and their own hopes and aspirations, and even raise their own demands–ones which run against the interests of the new rulers.

In the last year’s time, we have seen this process developing. Workers in the oil fields have gone on strike, and raised some issues of concern to them. This is not very developed, but it has taken place.

Likewise, we have seen different layers of the population, including the intellectuals and the petty bourgeoisie, raise concerns about basic liberties and freedoms–of speech, of the press, and of association. It was for that that they had taken to the streets against the Shah.

Most importantly, we have seen the national minorities take up arms to fight for some kind of autonomy from the Iranian government. This fight has been most developed in Kurdistan. But it has also developed in Khuzistan, Baluchistan, Azarbaijan, and elsewhere. All told, the different minority nationalities account for 50 per cent of the Iranian population. So their armed struggle for autonomy is a very serious problem for the new regime.

The new regime has attacked all these sections of the population who express their own demands. Already, immediately following the revolution, the leading mullahs had done all they could to take the weapons out of the hands of the population. In the first few months after the revolution, the government led major assaults against the nationalities. They outlawed political newspapers, banned demonstrations, and jailed working class leaders and revolutionary militants.

Independently of the problems posed by the different oppositions in Iran, the Khomeini regime has a different pressure to deal with at the same time; namely, the continuing opposition of the U.S.

The U.S. government has never totally given up its support for the Shah. And they do not trust Khomeini. Today they continue to oppose him, and continue to look for a way to overthrow him.

When the U.S. government openly threatens him, Khomeini pushes back. And he uses the most useful means that he has–a mobilized population. Khomeini remains ready to support, and even to initiate, the mobilization of the Iranian people against the U.S. Khomeini continues to give expression to the desire of the Iranian people to be free from foreign domination.

The Hostage Crisis

This happened again last November when the hostages were first taken.

When the students took the American hostages, Khomeini decided to use this situation to try to push back the pressures on his regime from both sides.

First of all, he used the opportunity to serve a warning to the U.S. government. By supporting and mobilizing the Iranian population behind the student militants who took the hostages, Khomeini was demonstrating to the U.S. that it would have a big fight on its hands if it attacked Iran. Khomeini upped the ante to the U.S. by making it clear that, if need be, an entire population was ready to go to war against the U.S.

As a result of this stance, Khomeini faced less opposition to his regime for awhile. In this situation, the leaders of the regime ended the attacks on the nationalities–that is, for the time being. And they also changed their policy towards the left-wing organizations. For a few months’ time, some of the restrictions against the groups and their press were lifted. And some of the jailed militants were freed.

But as the hostage crisis continued to drag on through the months, the hopes of the nationalities and others began to be expressed again. In the face of this, the new regime was then able to use the same hostage crisis as an excuse to attack certain sections of the population, like the nationalities and the left-wing organizations.

Today, more easily than before, the regime can justify its attacks on the people in Iran by claiming it is only putting down another CIA plot. Today, it attacks the opposition in Iran by claiming that the opposition is an objective ally of U.S. imperialism.

This is what it did in late March and through April of this year when it launched new attacks. Once again, there has been a major assault on the Kurds. Towns have been bombed, and hundreds of Kurds have been killed. On the university campuses, major battles were launched against the left-wing organizations. The offices of these political groups were closed down, and dozens were killed.

In the last year and a half, Khomeini’s policies have been zig-zagging back and forth. The new rulers have been trying to balance between the different pressures put upon their regime.

First, there is the fluctuating pressures of the oppositions in seeking their own aims. What Khomeini does depends in part on whether that pressure abates, whether these oppositions are successfully repressed by the regime, or whether they continue to grow. Second, there is the continuing need which the regime has to oppose the pressures of imperialism. It is exactly this need which has obliged Khomeini to call for a mobilization of the population, in opposition to imperialism, with all its attendant disorders, and at the same time, it is this need which has made it more difficult for him to put a dependable state apparatus in place.

Anyway, the task of creating a new state apparatus to assure its continued existence remains the central goal of Khomeini’s regime. But the successful realization of this goal, and even the speed with which it could be attained, will be a function of the different pressures which currently bear down on the regime.