In the mid-1970s, I did a fair amount of organizing work with Maryland members of the Iranian Student Association. Our goal was to end the rule of the US-installed Shah of Iran. Some of my work involved helping the Iranian students write their leaflets in American English. In 1976, I attended some meetings in Washington, DC to help plan protests against the Shah, who was scheduled to visit Jimmy Carter and Congress in 1977. At the time, the Shah’s Iran was one the largest recipients of US aid. In addition, its military was trained and outfitted by the United States and its war industry, at no small cost to the Iranian people. Besides the hundreds of millions spent on armaments, the US aid also involved training the Shah’s secret police apparatus—the SAVAK. Naturally, much of this training was done by the Central Intelligence Agency and its affiliates.
Among the things I learned about while working with the Iranian students was the incredibly repressive nature of the Iranian state. Imprisonment without trial, torture and warrantless raids were expected if one was involved in political work against the government. It didn’t matter if one’s opposition was based in a religious philosophy or a secular political understanding. Indeed, another, more important aspect of Iranian radical politics I learned about was the breadth of the opposition to the Shah’s regime among the Iranian people. Communists aligned with Moscow, non-aligned communists, Islamic Marxists, workers’ councils and a multitude of radical religious formations—all of these tendencies found common ground in their opposition to the Shah. It was a coalition that would splinter in dangerous and even murderous ways after the Shah’s regime was overthrown. I saw the beginnings of this rupture during my work in DC and Maryland; meetings of the ISA would erupt into sectarian disputes. Eventually, the organization split into two groups in the United States. In retrospect, it seems reasonable to attribute this fracturing at the time to the fact that the expatriate students were intellectuals physically separated from the struggle in their nation. The growing abstraction of the struggle tended to exacerbate the differences in the coalition.
As it turned out, it was the religious elements of the revolutionary forces that ended up gaining power in the wake of the Shah’s fall. They were best represented by their leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Their rise to the top of the revolutionary stew was the result of armed and parliamentary conflict, superpower interference, and severe cultural and political repression. Adding to the power plays of the theocratic forces were the decisions by the groups on the Left—some of whom decided to work with the religious revolutionaries while others rejected their leadership. The latter elements were harshly and quickly repressed. Some in the former forces stuck it out for months until it became clear that if they wanted to keep their freedom (and perhaps their lives), they needed to leave Iran. Indeed, the first elected President of Iran, the democratic socialist Abolhassan Banisadr, left the country after he was forced out of the government by the religious forces. Crucial to the rise of Khomeini and the theocrats was the support they received from what are known as the bazaaris—a once very powerful merchant class in Iran. Part of their support for Khomeini and his forces lay in their fears of the democratic socialist government touted by most of the secular forces in the revolution.
In the decades that followed, the theocrats tightened their hold on the Iranian government and the leftist forces devolved, going underground or disappearing completely. Some formed a council of resistance based in Paris. In fact, Bani Sadr was a leading member of that group until 1983, when he left. His reason for leaving centered around the domination of the group by the People’s Mujaheedin of Iran (PMOI), also known as the MEK. This group was a small but influential armed organization in the resistance to the Shah, but became alienated from most of the secular opposition over the years. Nowadays, the MEK is believed by many to work with the Mossad and CIA in staging terror operations inside Iran. They enjoy the support of numerous US politicians, most of them rightwing members of the neocon tendency in US politics. The rest of the organized opposition in exile includes a group hoping for a return of the monarchy calling itself the National Council on Iran. This writer is not familiar with any existing expatriate leftist groups actively opposing the Iranian government. However, after studying the recent outbreaks of protest in recent months in Iran, the possibility of such opposition seems to exist inside the country.
When compared to the massive outpouring of emotion following the assassination of General Soleimani by the United States, the protests against the accidental downing of the Ukrainian airliner and various government policies in Iran are small. Even smaller are those chanting slogans against the police and the Revolutionary Guard. Even smaller are those calling for a leftwing revolution. Given that the primary sources of information about the protests for those outside Iran are media outlets with a vested interest in seeing the Iranian government fall, it is extremely hard to judge the breadth and depth of the opposition to that government. It is even more difficult to judge the politics of that opposition. That being said, it seems reasonable to assume that some of it is funded by governments and others opposed to Tehran, some of it is financed by Sunni elements opposed to the Shia philosophy and actions, some is composed of liberal and progressive elements hoping for more political and cultural freedom, and some is the result of Marxist-informed groups of intellectuals and workers hoping to revive the aborted 1979 revolution. Naturally, all of these elements (and those not mentioned) enjoy some support among the Iranians carrying their banners.
If the history of Iran since before the 1979 revolution up to the present day is any indication (and history usually is a pretty good indicator), those outside agencies hoping to turn any Iranian protest in their favor will fail. One thing I remember best from my work with the ISA almost fifty years ago was the Iranian understanding of the potential power of grassroots organizing and the power of the people. It was that understanding that overthrew one of the most repressive regimes in the world at the time. It appears that another great change in that nation might be on the horizon. This statement doesn’t mean it will take place in the near future or that it would be a revolution like the one in 1979. Indeed, if the current government listens to its people, that transformation (should it occur) could take place with a minimum of violence and displacement. As residents of those nations working to return Iran back to its previous status as a client of imperialism, our task is to oppose the sanctions demanded by the United States and the war moves accompanying those sanctions.
In other words, let the Iranians determine their own future.