The Spark

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

Iran, 40 Years Ago:
The Fall of the Shah

Feb 18, 2019

The following article is translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

On February 11, 1979, the Iranian dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fell after months of a popular uprising. For decades before that, this government had seemed like one of the most stable pillars of the imperialist order in the Middle East.

The Shah had taken power in 1941, supported by the U.S. and England. He was pushed aside for a short time by Prime Minister Mossadegh who nationalized Iran’s oil, but the Shah re-established his power the day after the coup d’etat of August 19, 1953, which was carried out with the help of the CIA and the British secret service.

The U.S., which had profited from the opportunity to grab control of Iran’s oil, helped the Shah consolidate his dictatorship and helped him build a stable repressive apparatus. With the help of the CIA, the Shah’s government created a political police in 1957 called the Savak, which inspired terror by systematically practicing torture. The officers of the Iranian army were trained in the U.S., and also in Israel, in order to benefit from the experience of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. This half-a-million man army took up more than 30% of the total government budget. The officer corps of the Iranian army were not only loyal to the Shah, but closely linked to U.S. imperialism.

A Ferocious Dictatorship

The Shah sought to muzzle all opposition immediately after the 1953 coup. The government outlawed the National Front, a coalition of anti-Shah politicians based on small merchants and the urban middle class. Merciless repression fell on the Communist Party, called the Toudeh: thousands were arrested, tortured, and executed.

Nonetheless, at the beginning of the 1960s, this opposition to the regime raised its head once again. It began also to be organized among the Shia clergy. The arrest of the Ayatollah Khomeini in June of 1963 provoked riots, which were put down with blood. Khomeini was exiled, but the religious Shia continued to organize themselves underground through diverse Islamic organizations.

The high price of oil in the 1970s enriched a part of the bourgeoisie, but not the population. The high functionaries and the military chiefs also profited from the oil money. And the family of the Shah amassed a colossal fortune.

From Economic Crisis to Popular Revolt

When the economic crisis came, the consequences were catastrophic for the population. From 1975 to 1977, the cost of living rose by 200%. Poverty and homelessness affected thousands of people in the urban slums, where hundreds of thousands of migrants from the countryside had been crammed in for years. The Shah reduced social spending, while arrogantly showing off his wealth with big parties. This could only anger the working class and the poor population in the cities, who were without work or housing. The anger of the small shopkeepers was added to this discontent, already primed to explode. The Shah put the blame on the small shopkeepers, who were forced to suffer from fines and the threat of prison. The Shah also decided to reduce the subsidies to the mosques and the religious schools and arrested many religious leaders. This pushed the big part of the Shia religious leaders to call for the overthrow of the Shah.

On January 7, 1978, the government newspaper published an article defaming Khomeini. This was the spark that lit the already dry powder. Ten thousand students from the theological school of Qom went in the streets – and were machine-gunned by the army. Forty days later, at a commemoration for the martyrs of Qom, demonstrations swept many other cities. At Tabriz, the army opened fire, killing another 100 people and wounding hundreds more.

These popular riots were the expression of anger throughout the country’s towns and cities, anger which continued to grow throughout 1978. By the end of July, revolts were happening somewhere almost every day. In August, the population in the majority of cities went into the streets with cries of “down with the Shah!” and “Death to the Shah!” The repression on Black Friday, September 8, 1978, left almost 4,000 dead but it did not put out the fire. Despite the violence of the repression, the movement was determined to get rid of the Shah.

The workers began to launch strikes during August. By mid-October, the strike wave included the 30,000 steel workers in Isfahan, the workers at the tractor factory in Tabriz, and coal miners. On October 18, 1978, the biggest refinery in Iran, at Abadan, was shut down. Practically the entire economy of the country was paralyzed.

The Revolution Chained by Religious Leaders

The regime tried to make some concessions. Coalition governments were put in place. The Shah chose an opposition politician, Shapour Bakhtiar, to be prime minister on December 31, 1978. But nothing worked. The religious leaders disavowed all the politicians who agreed to collaborate with these maneuvers. The intransigent stance of the religious leaders helped them gain the credit they needed to retain control of the movement. Khomeini didn’t stop growing in popularity. All the opposition parties, including the Communists, finally lined up behind him. And while the working class demonstrated its power by going into action in a massive way, no political party proposed any sort of direction that might have allowed the workers to take the head of the revolution.

On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled the country, “for a vacation abroad,” according to the U.S., which was searching in the wings for a political solution to try and reestablish an authority they could work with. On February 1, Khomeini returned to the country after 14 years of exile, and was greeted by millions of demonstrators in Tehran. Then, on February 9, 10 and 11 of 1979, Tehran experienced a real insurrection that was the final blow to the regime. On February 12, the monarchy was abolished. It was overthrown by these months of popular uprisings that mobilized millions of ordinary people.

But as in many other revolutions in the past, the revolutionary masses did not take power. The regime that established itself was dominated by the Shia religious leaders, with the support of the military general staff. The mullahs, supported by the nationalist middle class, did not want to be bound by the demands of the mobilized population. Very soon, the Khomeini regime went after all the leftist or revolutionary political forces that might have represented a danger for him. The new regime was an extremely repressive Islamic republic, imposing on everyone, and especially women, a backwards way of life in the name of religion, and it protected the bourgeoisie and their property.