Revolutionary Struggle in Iran: Conspiracies, Enemies, and Friends

Photo by Artin Bakhan

Millions of Iranians are fighting for their lives and their futures as part of a revolutionary wave that has the potential to overthrow the Islamic dictatorship that has dominated their lives since 1979. As one author put it, this mass movement sweeping across Iran “is about much more than the abolition of misogynistic dress codes: it is about equal rights, full autonomy over one’s own body, access to jobs, health care and an independent life. It is about abolishing all repression and the security apparatus — from the morality police to the Revolutionary Guards. From the corrupt mullahs to the violent police.”

And it is during critical historical moments like these that a democratically informed Marxist analysis can provide a vital means of helping guide social struggle so that it can achieve genuinely emancipatory goals. Yet it is also a time when some self-described socialists and anti-imperialists will seize upon the opportunity to propagate the nonsensical notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Dirty Money and a Riot Button?

Of course, Iran’s latest outbreak of popular struggle is widely understood to have been precipitated by a needless act of state-violence, that is, the killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini (on September 16). And it is beyond doubt that the huge working-class response to this murder did not suddenly materialize out of no-where, as it was informed by years of resistance to the Iranian regime. But this is not how some conspiracists, or the Iranian state itself, like to present this uprising. Instead, what we can see in some more reactionary (and politically incoherent) quarters is a paranoid attempt to pretend that this revolutionary upsurge has simply been manufactured by foreign imperialist elites from the West.

The day after Jina’s death, Al Mayadeen — a media outlet that is well-versed in transmitting Iranian state propaganda – informed the world, that based on the Iranian state’s release of some CCTV footage, that they could affirm that there was no evidence that the state had murdered Jina. Their article explained that Jina was “never assaulted, beaten, or abused, and the proof was CCTV footage that slammed western reports as fake and fabricated.”

Since then, Al Mayadeen, muchlike the Iranian state, have been pretending that the entire uprising is actually a Western plot, with their first article outlining this nonsense being published on September 28 as “Dirty money: Meet the US agent driving the CIA-led riots in Iran.” Apparently, the revolutionary struggle is being directed by the CIA and groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, and as such represents the “largest color revolution attempt in recent Iranian history”: a pernicious lie that is now being propagated by at least two Left-leaning and influential Western academics, these being David Miller and Jeremy Kuzmarov.

David Miller’s own dangerous contribution to this misinformation offensive was published by Al Mayadeen on October 6 asPressing the ‘riot’ button in Iran: The US and Zionist role.” In this article Miller attempts to justify his argument by asserting that one of the reasons why the US has pressed the “riot” button is because of the Iranian government’s “steadfast support for the Palestinian liberation movement and the axis of resistance more widely.” In a subsequent debate broadcast on Red Line TV, Miller reiterated this non-Marxist, anti-working class argument when he said “what we face here, in geopolitical terms, is the squashing of one of the key elements of the resistance against US imperialism in the world.”[1]

Jeremy Kuzmarov’s own confused addition to this debate was subsequently made in CovertAction Magazine (where he acts as their Managing Editor) and was titled “Is the CIA supporting another color revolution in Iran—like the one that installed the shah in 1953?” (October 10). Kuzmarov’s piece however was slightly more nuanced than those that have been promoted by Al Mayadeen. “As in other ‘color revolutions,’” he writes, “legitimate grievances can be easily exploited by outside forces and protests can quickly become violent and dominated by extremists bent on regime change.” Yet Kuzmarov wrongly concludes that the Iranian people’s memory of the U.S.-backed overthrow of their democratic government in 1953 means that ultimately their protests will subside. As he observes:

“In spite of mounting inflation and divisions over the hijab policy, the regime of the Ayatollahs will likely endure, however, because Iranians know their history.

“They remember the brutality of the U.S. installed Shah and the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian democracy, and understand how Western imperialism weakened and humiliated many Middle Eastern countries before—and will do it again—as always under the phony veneer of advancing women’s and other human rights.”[2]

The CIA and ‘Democracy’

Here there can be no doubting that the U.S. ruling class don’t have the best interests of the Iranian people at heart when they fund Iranian groups to further their imperial intrigues. But this does not mean that the ongoing struggles of ordinary Iranians has been manufactured by foreign elites. The anger being expressed on the streets can be fully accounted for by the despotic actions of their own Islamic regime.

Besides the U.S.-backed coup of 1953, many Iranians will remember the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, that is, when their own Islamic state was working in cahoots with the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This point was touched upon by Kuzmarov in an article that he published earlier this year wherein he wrote: “A secret arm of the NED headed by Oliver North used $4.5 million in ‘assets’ to help the Nicaraguan Contras—right wing-paramilitaries intent on sabotaging the socialist Sandinista government that came to power in a 1979 revolution and then won 1984 elections.” All true: and although Kuzmarov goes on to refer to the funding that the NED provided to “Islamic fundamentalists” in Afghanistan, he fails to highlight the role played by the Iranian state in aiding the U.S. in Nicaragua in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

Nevertheless, one Iranian scholar who has written extensively about Iran’s troubled history, with a strong focus on the 1953 coup, is Ervand Abrahamian. Writing in 2007 about then-ongoing meddling of the American government in Iranian politics, Abrahamian chose, arguably wrongly, to play down the political implications of such foreign interventions. He explained:

“Another misperception in Washington is that somehow Iran is like Eastern Europe or Serbia, that the regime can be overthrown through destabilization and regime change. Some crazy people in Washington have been running workshops in the Persian Gulf trying to train Iranians on how to demonstrate, as if the Iranians need someone to teach them how to demonstrate. The idea that Iran is somehow like Poland or Serbia or Ukraine is bizarre. The whole history of the country and the experience are so different.

“The U.S. Congress has recently given $85 million to Iranian dissidents to destabilize the regime. All this does is fuel the Iranian perception that the U.S. is not really interested in negotiations; they’re only interested in the overthrow of the regime. But they’re not actually worried about the $85 million. For the Iranians, that’s seen as money down the rat hole. Iranian emigres might take advantage of this, but it’s certainly not going to cause a problem in Iran.” (Targeting Iran, pp.100-1)[3]

In reading this overly simplistic (liberal) argument, it is important to point out that Abrahamian — for different reasons to Kuzmarov – misunderstands the corrosive impact that such ‘democratic’ meddling can exert on the building of genuinely democratic political alternatives. This is because the main logic behind such U.S.-backed interventions is not to control or manufacture mass movements against foreign countries, but instead to undermine the growth of socialist alternatives to capitalist oppression. This is achieved by providing funding to groups that are amenable to ‘regime change’ solutions that sustain capitalism.

A Warning to Revolutionaries

In trying to understand the ‘democratic’ interventions undertaken by imperialist financiers, over the past two decades I have written a number of articles examining the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy and its related cohorts – with one of my latest contributions being “How to start a revolution… or not.” Many of these articles have been widely read by those on the Left, and one of these pieces was even referenced in Kuzmarov’s own 2022 outline of the NED’s history; an article that I had first published in February 2011 so as to forewarn Egyptian activists about the U.S. governments efforts to interfere in their revolutionary struggles.

Unlike Kuzmarov, in my 2011 article which was titled “A warning for Egyptian revolutionaries: Courtesy of people power in the Philippines,” I made it very clear that revolutionary upsurges are not made in America. I did however argue that the NED “has assumed a pivotal position in defusing revolutionary movements all over the world,” hence the urgent need for revolutionary movements to be aware of the NED’s anti-democratic activities. (One Iranian scholar who participated in the 1979 revolution who has penned a related study of how foreign funding agencies work to undermine progressive social change is Shahrzad Mojab, see “Women’s NGOs under conditions of occupation and war.”)

Yet while foreign funding of political groups, individuals, and NGOs, can all contribute towards the undermining of more political cohesive (ideally socialist) revolutionary movements, in many cases it has been the lack of a clear socialist program for struggle, emanating from the groups themselves, that has limited the emancipatory success of such movements. Indeed, many of these political shortcomings can be traced to the toxic role of Stalinism; but others on the Left have at times served to mislead revolutionary uprisings in other ways, like through the romanticization of armed insurrections (as inspired by Che Guevara). This is not to say that state oppression and funding of alternative political groups has not played an important role in derailing socialist struggle, but it remains vital for us to understand the internal problems of past socialist struggles if we are to ever to succeed in eradicating capitalism on a global scale.

Failures on the Left

In the case of Iran, the limitations of prior socialist movements were outlined in Ervand Abrahamian’s 1982 useful book Iran Between Two Revolutions. In a detailed discussion of the 1953 overthrow of the radical nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh — a coup that was overseen by British and U.S. intelligence agencies in coordination with military officers — Abrahamian highlights the serious weaknesses of the then popular communist movement which was organised as the Tudeh Party.

To cut a long story short, when Mosaddegh first came to state power in 1951 the Tudeh press “constantly portrayed Mossadeq as a feudal landlord, a devious old-time politician, and a stooge of the United States.” This overt display of ultra-leftism acted to distance the Tudeh Party from the millions of workers moving into struggle alongside Mosaddegh, and contrasted sharply with their previous position of following the (equally mistaken) Stalinist strategy of aligning themselves with Iran’s national bourgeoisie.[4] (The Tudeh’s ultra-leftism was adopted in 1948 and was only reversed during the July uprising of 1952.)

British and American elites then had a field day in exploiting the misleadership provided to Iran’s powerful socialist movement by the Tudeh, which combined with the indecisive middle-class nature of Mosaddegh’s government, only enhanced the ability of the imperialist powers to reinstate the oppressive regime of the shah — a despotic regime which was then only overthrown in 1979. This all had tragic consequences for ordinary people, and sadly, as Abrahamian elaborates in The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New Press, 2013):

“The coup’s most enduring influence is on collective memory. It not only further intensified the paranoid attitudes already prevalent in the political culture but also brought the United States into the picture. Politically conscious citizens—irrespective of ideology—were now more than ever before convinced that real power lay in ‘hidden hands’ and that the figures visible on the national stage were mere ‘marionettes’ controlled by ‘foreign strings.’”

Such understandable, if politically problematic paranoia was echoed amongst the newly installed regime, and:

“On his deathbed, the shah claimed that the CIA, together with MI6, had engineered the 1979 revolution on the grounds that the whole enterprise would have been too complex for the KGB. ‘Who,’ he asked rhetorically, ‘paid for the demonstrations dotted with black and blond manes, rarely found in Iran?’”[5]

So, it makes sense that in the run-up the 1979 revolution that this paranoia was also fuelled by the SAVAK — the shah’s brutal secret police. Thus shortly after mass protests began spilling onto Iran’s streets (around November 1977), propagandists in the employ of SAVAK had begun circulating conspiratorial leaflets “accusing… lawyers and [human rights] writers of being stooges of American imperialism”. Propaganda that took place even though the shah maintained the full open support of the U.S. government until as late as November 1978![6]

By late 1978 the revolutionary forces taking control of Iran’s streets had then only been emboldened by the murderous response of the shah to their blossoming protests and strikes. But partly owing to the ideological failures of Iran’s diverse socialist groups, it was not the Left, but the Ayatollah Khomeini himself who ultimately succeeded in posing as the only real anti-imperialist in town. To many people, “in a decade notorious for cynical, bland, corrupt, defeatist, and inconsistent politicians, Khomeini appeared to be thoroughly sincere, defiant, dynamic, consistent, and, most important of all, incorruptible.”[7]

A Socialist Alternative to the Anti-Imperialism of Fools

In many ways the socialist groups active in Iran during the 1970s unwittingly emulated the mistakes that had been made by the Tudeh during Mosaddegh’s short time in power. Tragically, instead of raising principled opposition to Khomeini most revolutionaries simply tail-ended the religious leader. As Abrahamian explained:

“In denouncing the regime, Khomeini promised to liberate the country from foreign domination; extend freedom to all political parties, even ‘atheistic’ ones; guarantee the rights of all religious minorities, except those of the ‘heretical’ Baha’is; and bring social justice to all, particularly to the bazaaris, the intelligentsia (rushanfekran), the peasantry (dehqanan), and, most mentioned of all, the dispossessed masses (mostazafin). These promises, especially the populist and anti-imperialist themes, succeeded in winning over a wide range of political forces, from the followers of the late Ayatallah Kashani and remnants of the Feda’iyan-i Islam at one end of the spectrum, to the Liberation Movement and the National Front at the center, and to the Tudeh, Mujahedin, and the Marxist Feda’i at the other end of the spectrum.”[8]

For the many groups on the Left their mistaken approach is well described as the “anti-imperialism of fools” as Tariq Ali correctly observed in his important 2002 book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: as the “familiar images [of revolutionary struggle] deceived many, especially leftists and liberals in Iran and elsewhere”. This is a good point, but here it is also important to observe that at the time of the 1979 revolution Ali himself had been a member of one of the many socialist groups that had played its own small role in misleading so many people.[9]

On the other hand, Socialist Alternative, the Marxist political group of which I am a member, while not having a base in Iran during the 1970s, was still able to articulate the fundamental problems confronting the Iranian Left, whether that be their adoption of urban guerilla warfare (as popularized in Latin America and by Ali’s own group) or the Left’s cozying up to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Therefore, on February 9, 1979, in an article titled “The Iranian Revolution,” Ted Grant (a leading member of the Militant which a forerunner to Socialist Alternative) explained that…

“…the main preoccupation of the Communist Party has been to climb behind religious reaction and the Ayatollah in demanding the setting up of some sort of ‘Democratic Muslim Republic’.

“But it is not only the Iranian Communist Party which has shown a feeble reaction in Iran during the course of recent events. The ultra-left sects have also played, as usual, a negative role. Some of them have given sympathy and support to the ‘revolutionary’ students in Iran.

“But revolutionary students in Iran were not directed either towards the working class, or to formulate a programme for working class action, but on the contrary were told by the sects to turn to the impotent methods of individual terror. As always with the sects they regarded the working class as impotent, ignorant, illiterate and utterly powerless to change the relationship of forces which existed in Iran.”[10]

Tragically these revolutionary problems still exist today. This helps to explain why some on the so-called Left — a good example being provided by the academic researcher David Miller – can, on the one hand, overstate the influence of the U.S. government’s ‘regime change’ apparatus, while simultaneously promoting the nonsense that the Iranian state is essential to the people’s fight against imperialism. This view is of course not limited to Miller and represents a longstanding and deluded current that has run through parts of the Left for all too long. This type of mistaken analysis ignores the powerful history of mass struggle that continues to inspire working class movements across the world. But if anything, as another more contemporary author has observed, “The Iranian revolution [of 1979] taught a historic lesson: that socialists cannot select their allies on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ The rise of the reactionary political Islam in recent decades is a proof of this.”

The detailed footnotes for this article can be read here on the blog for Michael Barker’s earlier book, Under the Mask of Philanthropy.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).