With these words, on February 11, 1979, revolutionary groups that seized radio Tehran announced the end of the monarchy regime.
By: Fabio Bosco
As Ervand Abrahamian narrates , in the book Iran Between Two Revolutions: “The final drama began in Tehran on the night of Friday, February 9, when the imperial guard tried to crush a riot among Air force cadets and technicians in the large military base near Jaleh Plaza. After the conflict began, the guerrilla organizations ran to the aid of the besieged cadets and technicians. After six hours of intense fighting, the rebels forced the imperial guards to retreat, distributed arms to the local population, built barricades in the streets and, in the words of the French newspaper Le Monde, turned the district around the square into a new Paris Commune “[i].
“After defeating the imperial guard, the fighters, on February 10 and 11, took over jails, police stations, weapons factories, and the main military bases of Tehran.” [ii]
Several factors contributed to the revolution.
The Shah regime
In 1953, a coup overtly supported by the CIA and the British secret service overthrew Mossadeq bourgeois nationalist government . Mossadeq had nationalized the oil, the country’s main wealth, which was in the hands of the British oil company currently called British Petroleum (BP). The monarchy is restored and Shah Reza Pahlevi assumes power. The Shah governs with martial laws, military courts, and in 1957 forms a powerful political police called Savak, with the support of the CIA, the FBI and the Israeli Mossad. In 1963, the Shah launched its White Revolution, a plan for the modernization and westernization of the country financed by high income from oil exports, which brought major structural changes over the years.
Along with the liberal bourgeoisie, the traditional bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie called bazaari, new classes and social strata were formed.
The Bazaari “were not only those who had shops in the market (bazaar) but also those who made wholesale trade as well as traditional manufacturing and exporting. The Bazaari are not a social class in the Marxist sense, since they have different relations with the means of production “[iii].
The incentives to mechanize the countryside and agribusiness led to the marginalization of several rural communities, which migrated to the cities. The majority became a large army of underemployed and dispossessed, called Mostazafin. This sector would play an important role in the revolution.
The support to big industry and infrastructure generated a new urban proletariat and a new westernized middle class, of which the numerous state bureaucracy and the intelligentsia were also part of.
The Shah also made strong investments in the armed forces and the Savak, acquiring weapons and high tech equipment .
The emergence of this great industry, of the new middle class, widespread education, cultural westernization , are factors that reduced the power and influence of the Bazaari and the Shia clergy called Ulama.
Beginning in 1975, a succession of inflation increases produces widespread discontent in the middle class and the proletariat. The Shah blames the Bazaari for inflation and starts a campaign against them, which launched the whole sector into opposition.
In May 1977, a group of 53 lawyers launched a public letter criticizing the regime. This is followed by other manifestos from intellectuals and artists, as well as by the formation of groups and associations.
In addition to the dictatorship and inflation, another factor that motivated these public expressions of dissent was the election of Jimmy Carter in the United States in 1976, and his human rights policy.
The revolution begins
On November 19, 1977, the police tried to prevent 10,000 students from participating in the 10th poetry reading session organized by the writers’ association. The students went on the march shouting slogans against the regime. The police repression killed a student, injured more than 70 and arrested about 100. The repression generated student protests the following ten days, and closures of the main universities in Tehran.
On January 7, 1978, a regime newspaper published an article with slanders against Ayatollah Khomeini and the Shia clergy, accusing him of allying with communists to undo the gains of the white revolution. The Bazaari and the Ulama of the city of Qom closed the Bazaars and seminaries, 4000 students went to the streets to demand a retraction. In the confrontation with the police, 70 demonstrators were killed and another 500 were injured.
The Ulama summoned demonstrations on the fortieth day of struggle, a Shia tradition. Thus, on February 18 there were demonstrations in twelve cities. In Tabriz, the protesters rebelled for the murder of a young man by the police and took the city for two days, attacking police stations, Shah’s political party locals (Resurgence), banks, luxury hotels, and cinemas specializing in pornography. Between 100 and 300 protesters were killed.
Forty days later, on March 29, bazaars and universities shut down , and new demonstrations were held for 3 days in fifty-five cities . In five cities there was police violence and more deaths.
On May 10, new shut downs and demonstrations took place in several cities, and in twenty-four of them there was police violence.
The Shah made some concessions and suspended the persecution of merchants accused of economic abuse. In addition, he dismissed the prime minister and applied investment reduction policies to appease inflation.
These concessions led the Ulama, the Bazzari and the liberal bourgeoisie to suspend street demonstrations and demand a democratic constitution. The Ayatollah Khomeini, from abroad, asked for the continuity of demonstrations until the end of the “pagan regime”, but was not supported.
The proletariat takes the stage
Ervand narrates : “During the uprisings in early 1978, urban wage-earners were absent. With the notable exception of Tabriz, where workers from small private factories joined the struggle, most of the demonstrations were held around universities, bazaars and seminars. The majority of participants came from the traditional and modern middle classes. However , the situation changed dramatically after June, when the urban poor, mainly factory workers and civil construction workers, began to participate in street demonstrations. Their participation not only expanded demonstrations from tens to hundreds of thousands or even millions, it also changed the class composition of the opposition and transformed middle class protests into joint middle class and working class protest . In fact, the entry of the working class made the triumph of the Islamic revolution possible “[iv].
Starting in June 1978, a wave of strikes over wages and even housing and free union elections began to paralyze the economy. Electricians from various cities, sanitation workers from Tehran and Abadan, textiles from Behshahr, metallurgists from Tabriz, papermakers from Fars, assembly plant workers in Tehran and civil and metal workers from Ahwaz.
In addition to strikes, workers held demonstrations in the streets. On July 22, in Mashad there was a conflict with the police with more than 40 demonstrators killed. Seven days later there were conflicts in five cities.
On August 5, during the holy month of Ramadan, there were conflicts in seven cities, in Isfahan, armed demonstrators seized the city and freed an Ayatollah who had been imprisoned. Two days later, after killing more than 100 demonstrators , the government resumed control .
On August 19 a movie theater burned down, killing 400 people in the city of Abadan. The next day, 10,000 people took to the streets and demanded the fall of the Shah.
The Shah changed the prime minister for Sharif Emani, and made new concessions seeking to serve both the liberal bourgeoisie and the Ulama. Their position, at that time, was not to overthrow the Shah and his regime. On the contrary, they wanted a constitution that guaranteed their economic and political interests. In this way, they made an agreement with the new government to hold peaceful and legal demonstrations.
However, the masses did not follow what was agreed. On September 4, the day of Eid-al-Fikr (the last day of the holy month of Ramadan), demonstrations returned. On September 7, half a million protesters in Tehran shouted “Death to the Shah,” “America Out ” and “Islamic Republic.”
The Shah decreed martial law in Tehran and eleven other cities. The next day, the worst conflicts were in Tehran. In working-class neighborhoods south of the capital, workers barricaded and attacked military vehicles with Molotov cocktails. In the neighboring emergency villages, they were shooting at demonstrators from helicopters. In Jaleh Square, west of the capital, 5,000 people participating in a public event were dispersed by gunfire. About 500 died, according to the accounts of participants. In total there were 4,000 dead, according to opposition sources. That day, known as Black Friday, marked the final divorce between the regime and the working population.
On September 9, 700 oil workers from the Tehran refinery went on strike demanding better wages and the end of martial law. On the 11th, oil workers from the Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and Abadán refineries joined the strike. On the 14th, it was the workers in the cement industry in Tehran.
In October, the refineries, most of the oil and gas fields, the Bandar Shahpour petrochemical complex, the National Bank, copper mines and forty other large factories were paralyzed. Then, strikes paralyzed almost all bazaars, universities, schools, oil facilities, banks, ministries, post office, railways, press, customs, ports, internal flights, radio and TV stations, public hospitals, paper and tobacco factories, textiles , and others. That general strike was led by 5,000 bankers, 30,000 oil workers, and 100,000 public employees. They raised both economic and political claims (abolition of Savak, suspension of martial law, freedom of all political prisoners, return of Ayatollah Khomeini, and end of tyranny).
The strikes and marches showed that the workers, the poor and the middle classes would no longer allow the Shah to stay, even if they had to face an atrocious repression. In this impasse, the ruling class will build its alternative.
In early November, the leaders of the liberal bourgeoisie – Sanjabi of the old National Front, and Bazargan of the Liberation Movement – went to Paris to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini. Their agreement was based on the formation of a new government, without the Shah, based on Islam, democracy, and national sovereignty. Clearly under Khomeini hegemony, the alliance between the liberal bourgeoisie and the Ulama was thus constructed.
On the other hand, the workers, in the midst of strikes, marches and repression, began to develop their self-organization. Oil workers, for example, suspended the strike on November 16 to produce only what is necessary for domestic consumption and for the importation of essential goods. In several industries, workers were forming councils called shoras to take control of production. The shoras multiplied after the fall of the monarchy and became the most progressive phenomenon of the whole process [v].
The left parties once again reorganized openly. The Tudeh (communist party linked to Moscow) was the main force, but its policy of alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie and the Ulama prevented it from fulfilling any progressive role. The two guerrilla groups, the Marxist-Leninist Fedaiyn, of Guevarist orientation, and the Islamic-Marxist Mujahedin, returned to the scene. After having carried out several guerrilla actions against the Shah regime between 1971 and 1976, they ceased their military actions and actively participated in the revolution, gaining significant weight by capitalizing on their historical actions of resistance to the regime and a leftist program . There was also a small Trotskyist group, the HKS (Hezb-e Kargaran-e Socialist – Socialist Workers Party) that was formed from the unity of exiled Iranians in Europe, linked to the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International, and others exiled in the United States, linked to the SWP (Socialist Workers Party).
According to the account of one of its leaders, Maziar Razi, the group acted among the oil workers in Khuzestan (province where oil and gas reserves are concentrated) and among the oppressed nationalities, which are the majority among Iranians. The activities in the oil worker’s shoras made it one of the first political prisoners in the Islamic Republic. After 1983, the group began to operate in exile.
The situation changed rapidly. In the midst of mass mobilizations in December, the Ashura march [national holiday in countries with Shia majority ], a very important date in the Shia calendar, had the participation of two million people in Tehran. Under the command of the liberal bourgeoisie and the Ulama, a manifesto was read defending the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the end of the monarchy, the return of exiles, protection of religious minorities, revival of agriculture, and social justice for dispossessed masses. The agreement with the government to avoid radicalization did not prevent leftist organizations from carrying their flags defending “Death to the Shah” and “Weapons for the People”.
The radicalization increased. In the slums, youth raised barricades and fought the police and army. As of December 25, strikes paralyzed the entire economy, including the oil industry. Guerrilla groups carried out military actions against foreign companies, against the U.S. embassy, and assassinated an American executive of the oil industry. Soldiers increasingly refused to shoot at demonstrators. There were cases in which they fired against their officers, in others they joined the demonstrations even with tanks, and in the provincial cities they distributed arms to the population.
In this context, the Carter administration initiated contacts with representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie and the Ulama. In early January, he sent General R. Huyser to Tehran with the aim of keeping the Iranian armed forces intact and allied with the United States. Part of that plan was to strengthen the new Prime Minister Bakhtiar, appointed on December 30, and force the Shah into voluntary exile. Bakhtiar announced the end of the Savak, ordered the release of all political prisoners, suspended the export of oil to Israel and South Africa, and cut military and nuclear budget. The Shah departed on January 16 and Ayatollah Khomeini returned on February 1. Both events were commemorated throughout the country.
While the state was disintegrating, power passed to the Komitehs, local organizations commanded by Khomeini’s allies. These Komitehs organized the provision of food and fuel, formed militias that were later called Pasdaran, from the poorest population of Mostazafin, organized trials based on Sharia (Koran law) and coordinated with Bazaari and Shoras in large industries.
In provinces where oppressed nationalities such as the Kurds, Azerbaijanis or Turkmen – Balochi and Arabs were the majority -, control passed to local leaders, either civilians like the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, or religious like the Ayatollah Shariatmadari.
Upon arriving in Tehran, Khomeini demanded the resignation of Bakhtiar and appointed Bazargan to form a provisional government. In addition, he formed a Komiteh in Jaleh Square to coordinate all the local Komitehs and dissolve the non-allied Komitehs. Finally, he formed a secret Revolutionary Council of eight members, together with the liberal bourgeoisie, to direct the entire negotiation process with the American embassy, army officers, public administration, and with the left. While they negotiated, the guerrilla organizations along with the Air Force cadets defeated the Imperial Guard and took the military units in the capital, liquidating the old regime .
[i] ABRAHAMIAN, Ervand, “Iran Between Two Revolutions”, Princeton University Press, 1982.
[ii] KEDDIE, Nikki, “Modern Iran – Roots and Results of Revolution”, Yale University, 2003.
[iv] ABRAHAMIAN, Ervand, “Iran Between Two Revolutions”, Princeton University Press, 1982.
[v] BAYAT, Asef, “Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers’ Control”, Zed Books, 1987.
Article published in www.pstu.org.br, 2/14/2019.