Iran and Us

For Leften Stavrianos, 1913-2004.

No longer can it be said that Iran’s society is authoritarian. The robust display on the streets and within the Parliament, and indeed, within the circle of the éminence grises, particularly the turbaned mullahs of both the Council of Guardians and the deliciously named Expediency Discernment Council of the System, puts paid to the idea that social forces in Iran are suppressed beyond measure. The Iranian State is not fully able to absorb the energetic forces of its society, but it is, in the breech forced to accept them (most recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had to call for a judicial inquiry into the street killing of Neha Agha-Soltan). Ludicrous comparisons between contemporary Iran and Nazi Germany should be given their due burial (not two months ago, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom made just this claim, one often repeated by the now haggard looking neo-conservatives).

Equally unimpressive is the hasty drawing of dogmatic lines among progressives in the United States, many throwing their lot in with the “Green Revolution,” others holding fast to Ahmadinejad. When yesterday the details of Iranian politics were alien, today everyone has a cemented opinion. To blindly back something that one does not fully understand is hardly the stuff of international solidarity. Iran is a divided society, with social forces arrayed against each other in a debate that has old roots. Our Facebook updates and Twitter squeals do not contribute to their debate. And since both sides (if there are indeed only two) are fairly equally distributed, it is not a situation where a defenseless minority is being persecuted (a situation that does call for immediate outrage). I believe that it is correct to demand that the State refrain from use of force against the protestors, and that there be a political dialogue to find a way to deal with what appears likely to have been election fraud. But that is not the same as making all kinds of maximalist demands (such as, calling for the end of the Islamic Republic) which are not on the lips of many of those on the streets in Tehran and which those on the streets are incapable of delivering in the short-term.

Looking Backward

Iran’s democratic traditions stretch back as far as the 19th century, although the most recent dynamic seems to have opened up in 1905. Frustrated by the obscene shenanigans of the Qajar Dynasty and inspired by the 1905 Russian Revolution, an alliance of the emergent urban middle-class, the clergy and the oil workers in the North rose up in a fractured unity in December 1905. Tehran erupted against the cruel Vizier Ayn al-Dowleh (who had a criminal “shod, like a horse, with horseshoes, nails having been driven into his bare heels, into his flesh”) and inflated sugar prices. A second strike in July 1906 forced the Shah to remove the Vizier, and to write a constitution. Shah Mozaffar ad-Din followed the example of the Russian bluebloods, and promised a constitution. This concession came largely because of murmurings among the armed forces and the clergy. As the elites formed their majlis, their legislative assembly, the people formed anjomans, the Soviets of Persia. These “independent assemblies,” wrote British Ambassador Sir Cecil Spring-Rice to his betters in London, have cultivated “a spirit of resistance to oppression and even to all authority. The sentiment of independence in the widest sense, of nationality, of the right to resist oppression and to manage their own affairs is rapidly growing among the people.” This uprising was rapidly betrayed by the British and the Russians, whose entente of 1907 allowed the latter to invade the country (as they said in Moscow, “Persia is not a foreign country just as a hen is not really a bird”). The people did not give up quietly: the working-class and dispossessed peasantry formed a feda’iyan, and took to humid Gilan (it was here some years later, and inspired by the same dynamic that the Jangal [forest] movement erupted under the leadership of the extraordinary Mirza Kuchak Khan, which created the short-lived Socialist Republic of Gilan, 1920-21). As well, the social forces unleashed by the majlis movement provided the foundation for women to exert themselves in the workplace and in society (in the 1910s, women entered colleges in increasing numbers, and by the 1930s, it had become a social fact for women to aspire to education and social mobility).

In the detritus of the invasion and on the flattened carcass of the anjomans, emerged the Persian Cossack leader, Reza Khan, who wiled his way to the Peacock Throne, where he and his son sat till 1979. Reza Khan was enthralled by the technologies of the imperial powers, which he imported at great cost to the exchequer (here following the example of Turkey’s Ataturk). His son would carry on this faith, leaning heavily on arms imports as a way to modernize Iran, but keeping the general population in abject misery (the literacy rate in 1978 was not more than 40%). A generally sympathetic biography of the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty could not help offer a dose of reality, “Wealth was concentrated at Tehran, largely in the hands of the contractors, merchants, and individuals associated with the monopolies. Industrialization failed to benefit the growing class of industrial workers. Wages remained low, and a rudimentary labor law of 1932 did little to protect workers from exploitation.”

Reza Khan made way for his son in 1941. The new Shah inherited a country in social turmoil. During World War 2, Iran became a fundamental provider of oil for the Allied forces, and after the war, for the Atlantic states. The unevenly named Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) took the lion’s share of the profits, increased drilling and put pressure on a workforce with a long tradition of militancy. It was here that the Tudeh (the Communist party) would make its base, and it was against them that the Allied forces tested their mettle (the U. S. commander who was sent to modernize the Iranian army was the father of the Gulf War’s Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, and his gendarmerie, egged on by U. S. ambassador George Allen, was used by the allies against the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan). Beneath the Peacock Throne, various social forces gathered to fight over the re-negotiation of the oil contracts. Drawing from the mass discontent with the regime, Mohammad Mosaddeq’s National Front pushed for nationalization of the oil industry and for an agrarian policy that forced landlords to part with a fifth of their profits (sending half to their peasants and half to newly created rural banks). Mosaddeq alienated the “old granite block,” the elite who had grown accustomed to their treasures. Mossaddeq tried to take control of the army, a pillar of Pahlavi power, and it was for this outrage that the Atlantic powers engineered a cheap coup (it cost $1 million).

The overthrow of Mossaddeq dampened the democratic abilities of the population. The Shah set up an authoritarian structure that would have made his father blush. In 1957, he created SAVAK, an acronym now synonymous with terror. U. S. and Israeli expertise modernized it, although it was still not far from the ways of Ayn al-Dowleh. Oil revenue and grateful Atlantic “aid” rushed in and allowed the Shah to buy out sections of the population, or at least to try to do so. The petro-dollars simply held off the inevitable. The façade of the Shah-created political parties (Melliyun and Mardom) could not contain the people’s desires. A damp squib “White Revolution” in 1963 moved a generally conformist leading clergy into the camp of revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini took the lead in opposing the reforms not only because he might have disagreed with them (voting rights for women), but because he argued that an illegal regime cannot reform itself. The Shah pushed the Family Protection Law in 1967, partly under pressure from liberals, but also to paint the mullahs as reactionaries who were in favor of polygamy and against divorce (the Shah’s contention was false, as women exercised their right to the ballot box from the first election of the Islamic Republic in April 1979). Historian Nikki Keddie is right to point out that “for lower-class women there have been fewer changes. They generally have the lowest paid jobs, and are often ignorant of their rights.” Even so, the floor produced by these reforms (however illegal the regime) created a contradictory result: it cemented the idea of rights among women.

Economic troubles in the 1970s were compounded by the deflationary tactics of Prime Minister Jamshid Amuzegar, and in November 25, 1977 a new period opened up for Iran. Five thousand university students clashed with the police that day, and thereafter protests spiraled to September 1978 when the Shah invited the military to rule under his behest. The sporadic protests were joined by strikes in the oil fields, a significant development that put paid to the attempt to simply seize control of the streets by force (nevertheless the street protestors, men and women, faced the full brunt of the Shah’s SAVAK machinery; twenty thousand people died in the revolution). The Iranian Revolution once more called forth all classes, including the crucial oil workers and the factory workers. There was little Islamic about the struggles, since these were born of nationalist aspirations and anger at the Shah. Once victory was at hand, Khomeini and his cadre seized control of the dynamic. It became the Islamic Republic. As the Left complained, “The dictatorship of the crown has been replaced by the dictatorship of the turban.” The Left was suppressed (Ahmadinejad was part of the Office for Strengthening Unity, which went after the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a popular Islamic socialist party, and later, after a brief respite, the Tudeh, the main Communist Party). “Our enemy is not only Mohammed Reza Pahlavi,” Khomeini said, “Our enemy is anyone whose direction is separate from Islam. Anyone who uses the words ‘democracy’ or ‘republic.’”

But it is precisely those traditions of democracy and republicanism that re-emerged in Iran after 1979, of course in the dissenting groups but also among the clerical elite. Splits above into the “reformers” and “conservatives” run through Iran’s electoral history, and in recent years these terms have had a class connotation. The “millionaire mullahs,” as Paul Klebnikov put it a few years ago, have run Iran in a manner similar to the Russian oligarchs after 1991. Ali Rafsanjani, former president and now head of the Expediency Council, is fashioned as a reformer. His family is one of the richest in Iran: his brother owns Iran’s largest copper mine, another heads the state TV network, a cousin dominates the country’s pistachio business, and his sons controls parts of the crucial oil and construction business. Rafsanjani speaks for those who live in the northern Tehran district of Elahiyeh (Shemiran), and who drive up and down Fereshteh Avenue in fancy cars. For this section, liberty means not only the end to the social rituals of the conservatives, but also the privatization of the economy. But the reformers also include an activist section that fights the Islamic Republic on gender rights, human rights, labor rights, free speech rights – in other words, from the perspective of the Left. It is an unwieldy alliance, between those who want freedom for hedonism and those who want freedom from autocracy. For the latter, there are considerable leaders, feminists such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi, journalists such as Akbar Ganji, and working class organizers such as Mansour Osanlou, head of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs, and Mahoud Salehi, head of the Bakery Workers’ Association. The “reformers” are allied largely on the limitations of social rights, but they are not united on an economic agenda.

Ahmadinejad’s campaign in 2005 gave voice to sections of Iran previously shut out from the process, the slum dwellers and the rural workers. He stood for them, and he knew it. At a public event in October 2006, Ahmadinejad announced the idea of the Justice Share, where the state would divide shares to some companies among 4.6 million of the poorest Iranians, who would automatically become stockholders in the nation’s wealth. The rising economic inequality, the awareness of the class based sacrifices during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the lack of secular alternatives probably play a significant role in the movement of the poor toward such characters as Ahmadinejad, who displays a personal piety and an antipathy to the nouveau riche, as well as a populism that appeals in the youth-depleted rural areas and in the slums of cities (44% of urban Iranians live in slums). Ahmadinejad’s policies are idiosyncratic, buoyed partly by oil prices (which were high last year), and stretched thin by the easy recourse to anti-Americanism. Washington under Bush made it easy to draw on the Islamic Republic’s stock dogmas, and it is to this that Ahmadinejad retreats when his economic forays falter. Lower oil prices, the defeat of Bush by Obama and high inflation have ruptured the enormous faith that the vast mass had in Ahmadinejad (even as they still seem to hold to him). It has given strength to the reformers, who remain unwilling to allow him to return to office. Whether the election was stolen or not, the contradictions of Iranian society have made their way forward. The Left traverses the divide between reformer and conservative, finding its home on both sides of this flank. It is hard to fully throw oneself into the camp of the Elahiyeh elites or into the camp of Ahmadinejad.

Where does this leave us?

When the 1978-79 Iranian revolution began to heat up, General Robert Huyser went on a mission to Tehran on behalf of the U. S. government. In one dispatch home in January 1979, a week after the Shah decamped for Cairo, Huyser wrote, “we must go to a straight military takeover.” He warned that if Khomeini came back to Iran, “things would go to hell in a handbasket.” The Carter administration prepared itself for a coup, sending a tanker to supply the military with fuel. Things did not go as planned. The U. S. is not a credible actor in Iran’s domestic future (although, as Esam al-Amin pointed out, Washington has not giving up trying).

Iran’s social contradictions have once more erupted into conflict. It does not help for us to wave the flag of intervention, or even to throw our support between one or the other camp in this current situation. Mass action within Iran is now a well-developed institution. In 1953, the U. S. could conduct a coup in the country. In 1979, mass action made it impossible. It remains the basic instinct of the population. The best solidarity from afar is to be analytical, not emotional about what is occurring. Sober analysis of the situation might help us appreciate the fluidity of the politics, the difficulty of finding in this crisis an easy way forward for the left. Things are easier in the case of the Honduras, where the Generals are not only trained by the U. S. at Fort Benning but where it seems plain that the U. S. State Department might bank on this coup to send a message against Bolivarianism across Central and South America. Here we have a clear role, to demand an end to interference in Central America and an end to the School of the Americas. Here our task is simpler, because we are, after all, agents in the demise of the most progressive government Honduras has seen in decades. This is genuine solidarity, where our muscle counts for the good side of history. Shoulders to the wheel, comrades!

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:



Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).