WeeklyWorker

23.02.2020
Embassy takeover begins: and divisions on left deepen

Legacy of failure

Yassamine Mather shows that the passivity of Tudeh in the 1960s and 70s led to the rise of guerrillarist adventurism. Paradoxically, under the pressure of the Iran-Iraq war there was a convergence between the two currents. The Islamic Republic was supposed to be moving towards the ‘socialist’ camp.

In the period following World War II, Tudeh’s policy towards prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh fluctuated from one extreme to another: first they attacked him as an “agent of American imperialism”, and then they gave him support during and after the July 1952 uprising against the shah. Tudeh called for the nationalisation of the British-owned oilfields, but opposed such a policy when it came to those owned and operated by the Soviet Union.

On August 15 1953, an attempted coup against Mosaddegh was thwarted, thanks in part to information uncovered by Tudeh’s military network. Some believe demonstrations called by the party two days later to pressure Mosaddegh to declare Iran a democratic republic had inadvertently helped destabilise the nationalist government. Mosaddegh reacted to these protests by calling on troops to suppress the demonstrators. Ironically, the party demobilised the next day, just as the CIA coup was unfolding.

On August 19, Mosaddegh’s democratically elected government was overthrown by ‘Operation Ajax’ - a coup brought about by the intelligence agencies of the UK and the United States. CIA agents worked with military officers loyal to the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Led by Fazlollah Zahedi, they bribed thugs, clerics and politicians to take part in a propaganda campaign against Mosaddegh. According to the CIA’s declassified documents, some of Tehran’s most feared mobsters were paid by Zahedi and the CIA to stage pro-shah riots. Others were brought into Tehran on buses and trucks, and took over the streets of the city.1

Mosaddegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason by the shah’s military court. On December 21, he was sentenced to three years in jail, and then placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.2 Zahedi became prime minister of a military government, following a royal decree dismissing Mosaddegh.3 Supporters of Mosaddegh were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured or executed. After the coup, Pahlavi ruled as an authoritarian monarch for the next 26 years, until he was overthrown in 1979.

If the coup marked the end of the nationalist government, it also destroyed Tudeh, which until then had been the largest ‘socialist’ party in the Middle East. Its networks were smashed and most of its cadre were arrested or forced to flee to the Soviet Union. Of course, the perceived threat of Tudeh and the possibility of Iran’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union were part of the rationale behind the coup.

In his book, Iran between two revolutions, Ervand Abrahamian analyses Tudeh’s conduct prior to and during the 1953 coup, pointing out the historic political differences between the party and Mosaddegh’s National Front. He also questions the size of the party and whether the Tudeh military officer corps was in a position to change the course of events. According to CIA reports, on the eve of the coup Tudeh had a core membership of around 20,000 and a network of officers within the Iranian armed forces organised by Sazman Nezami Hezb. The party acted as a semi-legal political force, publishing three daily papers and organising supporters under the banner of the Iranian Society for Peace (Jamiyat Irani Havadar-e Solh).

During 1944-46, the Military Organisation, run by Tudeh, had been involved in two episodes which led to an attempt at its disbanding and the severing of ties with Tudeh. First, in August 1944, around 20 army personnel in the Khurasan division of the army rebelled and attempted to reach the Turkmen areas of west Khurasan and east Mazandaran in order to wage war against the central government. The rebellion was led by major Ali Akbar Eskandani and colonel Mohammad Ali Azar. Many of the personnel involved, including Eskandani, were killed before they reached their destination and others, such as Azar, fled to the Soviet Union

Secondly, the Military Organisation sent aid and officers to Azerbaijan at a time when the province was rebelling against the central government. The defeat of the Azerbaijan movement caused the party’s leadership to attempt to disband the MO or, at any rate, cut all contacts with it. But it was not disbanded, and some officers resigned their party membership in order to keep MO alive. The party invited the MO back into its ranks in 1948, as a result of active Soviet pressure, and the reunion was finalised the following year.4

Iranian Marxists have blamed Tudeh and its Military Organisation for inaction during the 1953 coup. Many believe that, even if - as party loyalists argue - defeat was inevitable, it would have been preferable for Tudeh officers and the party to be defeated resisting the coup. They condemned the passivity shown by both organisations.

On the other hand, some in the officer corps have disputed the claim that the MO was too weak to make any difference. Fereydoun Azarnour, a high-ranking MO officer at the time, believes that Tudeh allies occupied important military posts during the coup and estimates that 491 Tudeh military personnel had the ability to aid the party in defeating the coup.5 But Abrahamian notes that none of the Tudeh officers were in the “crucial tank divisions around Tehran” that could have been used for a coup d’état and that the shah had screened them carefully:

Ironically, a Tudeh colonel had been in charge of the shah’s personal security - as well as that of vice-president Richard Nixon, when he visited Iran. Tudeh had the opportunity to assassinate the shah and the US vice-president, but not to launch a coup.

The officer corps’ other main task was to protect the party. Its decimation in 1954 rendered it useless for this task.

Irrespective of the debates regarding the strength and weakness of the party, it is clear that Tudeh (and, by extension, the Soviet Union) did not come out of this period well. Throughout the early 1950s, party leaders appeared confused about their attitude towards the nationalist government. Tudeh’s labelling of Mosaddegh as a CIA agent and its opposition to the nationalisation of the northern oil fields, as well as its passive attitude to the coup, led to charges of its being khaen (treacherous). The party was commonly referred to as Hezb Khaen Tudeh from then onwards.

After the coup, the party faced a serious crackdown, with mass arrests and the execution of some 40-50 leaders: “Between 1953 and 1957, Iranian security forces tracked down the whole Tudeh underground and more than half the party membership.”6 In 1966, several party members, including Ali Khavari and Parviz Hekmatjoo of the central committee, were arrested and sentenced to death. This sparked international outcry from sister parties and forced the government to reduce the sentences to life imprisonment.

Tudeh had its rivals on the left. Following the Sino-Soviet split, a Maoist group broke away in the early 1960s and another smaller faction split in 1965. Then, throughout the 1960s, Tudeh remained a constitutionalist, reformist party that parroted Soviet dogma about “peaceful coexistence” and even went so far as ‘detecting’ progressive aspects in line with the “non-capitalist road to development” it claimed in regard to some of the shah’s policies.

Birth of Fedayeen

The Fedayeen organisation was formed through the merger of two groups on the Iranian left, both opposed to Tudeh. One was led by Massoud Ahmadzadeh, whose politics were a combination of Maoism and the espousal of guerrilla warfare. One of his closest allies was Amir-Parviz Pouyan - someone influenced by the events in Europe in 1968 and also an advocate of armed struggle. Ahmadzadeh’s book Armed struggle: both strategy and tactics was for many years the bible of the Fedayeen.

Pouyan also wrote a book, entitled The necessity of armed struggle against the theory of survival. The “theory of survival” refers to the passive line of Tudeh, against which the Fedayeen were rebelling. Since 1953, Tudeh had advocated a policy of survival, refraining from taking direct action in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment. Pouyan argued that this was tantamount to accepting defeat:

We must demonstrate that the theory of ‘Let us not take the offensive in order to survive’ is in fact no more than saying, ‘We shall allow the police to destroy us in embryo without the slightest resistance’. If defeatism is the same as liquidationism, then there is no room for asking, ‘Why should we survive?’ All the same, the posing of the question helps us to recognise the opportunistic nature of the above theory.

The idea of ‘refraining from offensive’ signifies the negation of all and any constructive endeavour aiming at increasing the possibilities of revolutionary forces. Such a theory wishes to limit the struggle for meagre possibilities not controllable by the enemy: that is, a simple gathering of elements not significant in numbers, in fact not exceeding one’s fingers; and then occupying oneself with the study of Marxism and history in total secrecy.7

The revolutionary theorist, Masoud Ahmadzadeh, also attacked the illusion that the national bourgeoisie could have a progressive role: “Struggle against imperialist domination - ie, world capitalism - has some elements of the struggle with capitalism, and therefore some elements of the socialist revolution are born in this struggle.” On the role of working class he wrote: “The proletariat [in Iran] is numerically weak, but its special qualities and capabilities to organise are stronger than any other class.”8

Bijan Jazani was another leading figure. He came from a different tendency (the youth organisation of Tudeh), but he had rebelled and agreed to bring his small forces into any new grouping.

To summarise the politics that influenced the Fedayeen in this period, one can say that a version of guerrillaism dominated. There was also a very simplistic attitude to the Soviet Union - just a critique of ‘revisionism’, which in fact did not go beyond a critique of ‘peaceful coexistence’. The Fedayeen’s founders were against the changes brought about by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and adopted a line claiming to be independent of both the Soviet Union and China. In reality, however, they remained very much influenced by Stalinism.

In debates with Communist Unity, a middle-of-the-road student organisation, the Fedayeen were very clear on where they stood regarding the Soviet Union. Their position was that, until 1962, the USSR was 65% good and 35% bad (a Maoist view). However, as China adopted the theory of social-imperialism and later that of the ‘three worlds’, the Fedayeen and other Iranian leftwing groups distanced themselves from Maoism - only to end up being soft on the Soviet Union.

1971-79

Those who lost their lives in 1971 in the guerrilla operation known as the ‘Siahkai incident’ had considerable impact on the youth and student movement in Iran. It was not quite what Ahmadzadeh had predicted, however. The small motor did not make the large motor move and the whole country rebel, but the student movement became very sympathetic to this new, emerging left and was heavily influenced by it, as were many young workers.

The years 1971-79 shaped the political thought of the generation that came to the Iranian revolution as leaders of the Fedayeen. For this reason, it is an important period. As an organisation, the Fedayeen was mainly underground, preparing for armed warfare and organising occasional bank robberies. Its activities were sporadic, but there were losses - particularly because, as an armed organisation, its members could be killed in the streets. This denied the Fedayeen a mass base and endangered anyone who supported it, such as university students. Supporters were regarded as part of the armed movement by association. Around 370 leftwingers were executed in this period, of whom 60% were Fedayeen.

While in prison Fedayeen members debated issues such as the united front, intervention in working class struggles and the advantages and disadvantages of armed struggle. During this time Bijan Jazani moved away from some of the original positions he had taken. In his book United front against dictatorship, Jazani clearly rejects earlier positions taken by Ahmadzadeh and Pouyan (some argue that he was moving back to Tudeh’s politics). In another book, Capitalism and revolution in Iran, Jazani provides a valuable analysis of the shah’s regime.

Jazani was killed in Evin prison in 1975. It is therefore difficult to assess whether some of the writings and ideas attributed to him were truly his own opinions. Certainly the people around him became leaders of the Fedayeen.

By 1979, there was a mass revolutionary movement and members of the Fedayeen were released from prison - many during the February uprising, when people broke down the doors of the jails. During this period the Fedayeen had become a real force amongst students and young people, gaining popularity as a result of its past actions (although some of it was actually populist myth). However, the organisation was now very divided, with Jazani’s supporters following one political line and Ahmadzadeh’s supporters another.

There were debates over armed struggle. Jazani supporters contended that the armed struggle line, as both strategy and tactic, was mistaken. In that they were right, as it had separated the Fedayeen from its potential mass base. On the other hand, some supporters of Jazani were now excusing Soviet foreign policy and even saw a positive role for the national bourgeoisie.

Throughout this period there was very little done in terms of theoretical work. The book that everyone read and which gave them “everything”, according to a Fedayeen elder, was Lenin’s What is to be done? It resulted in the Fedayeen adopting a stance against sectarianism, economism, syndicalism and anarchism - its entire analysis seemed to be based on this one short pamphlet. However, its leaders did not necessarily understand it fully, especially given the problematic Farsi translation by the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, which sought to turn the emphasis of centralism over democracy into a founding tenet.

In addition, the Fedayeen had failed to make any headway in the working class or Iranian society as a whole. In the universities, however, it had a great deal of support, as became clear during the revolution. Amongst the intellectuals and especially the poets (some famous), there was an amazing amount of praise for the Fedayeen. One thing is clear though: it had no strategy about what to do when a revolutionary situation arose. That was the problem of February 1979.

While the clergy used the period of economic crisis (1974-79) to build its base, make propaganda and mobilise, the imprisoned Fedayeen debated in very abstract terms such questions as the united front against the dictatorship. In addition, the shah showed more leniency towards the religious groups than he did towards the left, for whom building a mass organisation was much more difficult. The Fedayeen attempted to go to the factories, but all its comrades could do was distribute leaflets and then disappear.

It is not, therefore, a question of the February revolution being hijacked. Rather it was the fact that the left was simply not prepared for it. In a sense it is a good thing that the left did not come to power, as it had no strategy and definitely no theory about what it should do.

The oil workers were crucial in the February revolution. It was their strikes that broke the back of the shah’s regime. The Fedayeen had some influence amongst them, but it was hampered by its lack of experience of organising with the working class. There was no plan about what to do with their strike or how to move it forward. Nevertheless, the first rally called by the Fedayeen in Tehran after the overthrow of the shah attracted 500,000 people. Despite some reservations, they stood in the elections to what was a sort of constituent assembly and gained a couple of million votes.

Splits

The splits within the Fedayeen started in 1979 and continued long afterwards. In both the pre- and post-1979 periods, the Fedayeen committed many mistakes: militarism and centralism, as well as a culture revolving around the heroic guerrilla and the professional revolutionary. It was also confused regarding criticism of the Soviet Union.

The problem was that the myths surrounding the Fedayeen guerrilla struggle did influence the uprising of 1979. Many Fedayeen were becoming aware of their organisation’s weaknesses, not least its total divorce from the mass movement. The supporters of the armed struggle as a tactic and strategy were in a small minority, but they survived and still survive. To this day their slogan is: “The shah was the running dog of imperialism and so is the Islamic republic”. They have neither theory nor analysis.

The main division, however, revolved around understanding not only the Islamic republic, but also a whole set of issues, such as the nature of the era. The immediate question was the nature of the Iranian government: was it progressive or counterrevolutionary? In 1979-80, the majority of the central committee held the view that the principal contradiction of the period was one of imperialism versus socialism, the one as represented by the United States and the other by the USSR! On Iran’s regime they said that, although it was Islamic, the government was objectively moving Iran towards the ‘socialist camp’ and therefore should be supported!

Most of the central committee consisted of those who claimed to stand in the tradition of Bijan Jazani. They were called the Fedayeen Majority not because they had the support of the majority of members, or the majority of congress delegates. No, they constituted a majority on the central committee. They considered the regime anti-imperialist and gave it first conditional and later full support.

Things became very tense after the spring of 1979, with the government strengthening itself and beginning to repress opposition forces. It was in this context that the takeover of the United States embassy by pro-regime students happened - hailed by both the Fedayeen Majority and Tudeh, as well as most of the left outside Iran, as an anti-imperialist act. However, the radical left in Iran saw it for what it was. A cynical stunt, a diversion, designed to torpedo the wave of political strikes and growing opposition to the Islamic regime.

It was the embassy occupation that really brought the arguments within the Iranian left to a head. The minority had walked out of the central committee, but had support from thousands of leftwing students and youth who had no wish to tail the Islamic Republic. However, it is also true that the Fedayeen Majority retained some support amongst the working class.

The embassy occupation was also significant, in that the government declared that anyone who did not support it must be a counterrevolutionary ... or an out-and-out CIA agent. Counterrevolutionaries were, of course, to be hunted down, imprisoned and even executed. A drive to destroy the left which intensified with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war (the regime portrayed the war as being against imperialism). Some on the left, including the Fedayeen Minority, adopted the line - originally put forward by ‘line three’ Maoists - that it was a reactionary war. This meant they could now be arrested simply for being a member of the Fedayeen Minority. They were accused of being in league with US plots against Iran. By contrast, the Fedayeen Majority might still be invited into ayatollah president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani’s office for consultation over the organisation of various events.

Both the Majority and Tudeh supported the government, including its repression of the rest of the left. By now the Majority was following the Moscow line and stood very close to the Tudeh Party. Its line was: “Produce more - this is an anti-imperialist war and a war economy, and Iran is moving towards the socialist camp.” The Minority, however, told workers that, while it was right to be against imperialism, they also had to fight the regime. It should be noted that Iranian Trotskyist groups were divided along similar lines.

From this point on we are talking about two very different organisations. The Majority was able to operate openly until at least 1984, with offices in Tehran until 1982-83. The Minority, on the other hand, was a proscribed organisation. Houses were raided and many died.

The first congress of the Fedayeen Minority (around 1980) showed the diversity of forces that had taken a united position against the Majority. There was even a split at this congress. Those in favour of joining the Mujahedin in the National Council of Resistance departed. There was also a Trotskyist tendency with won some considerable support amongst younger members.

Aside from the political problems, there were other concerns. The Fedayeen’s secret printing press was discovered by government forces and many comrades were killed. Political debate became confused with security issues. This formed a terrible backdrop for militarism and bureaucratic centralism within the Fedayeen (some of the blame for which was unjustly attached to the Trotskyist tendency). Here was the beginning of a complete disregard for democracy in the organisation. Preserving the organisation became the be all and end all.

The ideological ethos of the Fedayeen had always been based on romantic notions of professional revolutionaries and heroic guerrilla fighters. In practice that amounted to an elite: dedicated people who had no other life, no other concerns and no interaction outside the organisation. Isolation guarded against getting ‘confused’ and doing something that was not in the interests of the organisation. Nonetheless, for all its faults, the Fedayeen Minority remained for many years the main left group in opposition to the Islamic Republic.

However, Tudeh and the Majority also suffered. A CIA plant in the Soviet embassy in Tehran handed the names of a whole raft of Tudeh members to the Islamic government. Many leading members of the Majority were arrested too. It was the beginning of the end for the two organisations inside Iran. There was a flight into exile. Those workers who had illusions in the Majority gave up by then. By 1982, leading oil workers, who had gone with the Majority or Tudeh, resigned, drifted away or went elsewhere.

In these two articles I have tried to explain the disastrous legacy of Tudeh in Iran both in terms of the Soviet-Iranian relationship and the history of Tudeh and the Fedayeen Majority. Its fate can only serve as a warning for the future.

Notes

1. J Zulaika Terrorism: the self-fulfilling prophecy Chicago 2009, p139.

2. E Abrahamian Iran between two revolutions Princeton 1982, p280.

3. MJ Gasiorowski US foreign policy and the shah: building a client state in Iran New York 1991, pp237-39, 243.

4. M Behrooz, ‘State of paralysis: Tudeh factionalism and the 1953 coup’ The Iranian November 2 2001: www.iranian.com/History/2001/November/Tudeh/index.html.

5. Fereydoun Azarnour in conversation with Hamid Ahmadi: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKk9ca3lNvI.

6. E Abrahamian A history of modern Iran Cambridge 2008, p122.

7. AP Pouyan Against the theory of survival Fedayeen Publications, 1980.

8. M Ahmadzadeh and M Mossalahaneh Armed struggle: both a strategy and a tactic - ham strategy, ham tactic Fedayeen Publications.