From symbol to failure
On February 8 1971, 50 years ago, the geurrillaist left began its armed struggle by attacking a gendamerie post at Siahkal. Three police were killed and two comrades rescued. Yassamine Mather spoke to Ardeshir Mehrdad. He was a member of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fadai until 1980 and later became editor of Iran Bulletin
How long were you a prisoner during the shah’s reign?
After two short arrests at the age of 17 and 20, I was imprisoned twice during the rule of the Pahlavi regime. The first time was from January 1968 to March 1969, and the second from early December 1974 to late March 1977 - more than two years.
When did you change your opinion on armed struggle?
I believed in the necessity of armed struggle up until the revolution (even today I can’t deny the necessity of resorting to armed violence as one form of struggle under certain circumstances and with certain preconditions), but I have been sceptical of the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics since 1977.
Considering your knowledge and understanding of the subject today, how do you evaluate the armed struggles during the shah’s reign? And if you are critical about it, what other tactics would have been effective, in your opinion?
The guerrilla movement revived the politically distressed and helpless society of the years following 1964-65 by promoting revolutionary morals and values, devotion, courage and sacrifice. However, it was unable to combine armed struggle with less costly forms of political struggle, and therefore was unable to organise and mobilise the social classes in order to form a pervasive socialist movement on a mass level.
Since the armed struggle was solely focused on opposing and overthrowing the ruling regime and the shah, it was unable to pay any significant attention to the other areas of class struggle. And so sexual, cultural and social oppressions were taken less seriously. In conclusion, the ‘small engine and big engine’ theory encompassed a huge mental burden, and neither the strategies nor the tactics of the armed struggle theory could sufficiently meet the needs of a socialist movement with a widespread and strong class and social base.
Did your assessment of the protests change when you were released from prison?
When I and (a few months later) my other comrades, Saeed Sultanpour and Mehrdad Pakbaz, were released from prison, the protests had not yet spread across the masses. Apart from the riots of the Afsarieh slums, 10 poetry nights at the Goethe Institute, and the poetry-reading session at Aria Mehr University, which led to a sit-down strike and street protest, no other significant movements were made. However, even these indicated a great upcoming change and a society ready to erupt.
However, this transformation in society was hidden from us and we were not able to clearly identify the scale of the movements, their direction, and their class orientation. The riot of the Afsarieh residents, the arson attack on a police station, and the street riot after Saeed Sultanpour’s poetry-reading at Aria Mehr University had all agitated us, but had not opened our eyes to the uninstructed power of the deprived masses and the explosive strength of the younger generations. Our world revolved around the universities, offices, factories and the streets; there was no place for small workshops, informal work, mass unemployment or semi-unemployment in our world yet. In that world, the back streets, social reproductions, slums and the homeless were absent.
In early 1978, the three of us and a number of others left the country in order to go to Palestine for military training. During that time the rate of change surprised us very soon: the situation would change so drastically in a single day, it was as if several years had passed. The changes took place so fast that one could barely keep track of them. It was then that we decided to continue our struggle against the shah’s regime in a different manner abroad. We formed the ‘From Prison to Exile’ committee and organised campaigns in Europe.
The growing presence of people on the streets initially made us hopeful that a mass, armed struggle and an armed war could be on the way, and it would be our duty to organise this uprising. This assessment of the situation defined our practical duties, which were carried out in coordination with the Organisation of People’s Fadai Guerrillas members abroad (comrades Heydar and Nasrin from Paris): a series of rallies and continuous street demonstrations in various cities in Europe; numerous press conferences; interviews with prestigious publications; the launch of a secret publication, and writing and printing analytical articles, pamphlets, books and educational writings; cooperation with the Iranshahr publication (published by Saedi and Shamloo in London); and joint action with student confederations - namely the February 9 confederation.
While our collective perspective was vigilant at the time, it neglected to acknowledge the true danger of political Islam, which resulted in all our campaigns against the shah being mixed with criticism of the Islamic currents and the dangers of political Islam and Khomeini himself. Such a stance put us under pressure for two reasons: on the one hand, the majority of the political organisations abroad believed that overthrowing the shah’s regime was their main goal and duty, and therefore addressing any other topics (especially the Islamic currents) would lead to a division in the united front and benefit the shah’s regime. On the other hand, we were under direct and incessant pressure from Islamic groups and organisations from various countries. I remember well that our sessions in Paris were interrupted twice due to a disturbance caused by Ghotb Zadeh and Bani Sadr. And I dare say that Saeed Sultanpour’s death sentence was not issued after the revolution, but in the first meetings of the From Prison to Exile committee in the European countries in the middle of 1978. However, fully discussing this matter should be left for another time.
We regarded the mass as unformed, disentangled, lacking political and class knowledge, and with conservative cultural tendencies. The masses that had joined the movement had a strong tendency to be attracted to a charismatic, populist, conservative and religious figure or group. In other words, we saw the opportunist nature of the clergy’s political Islam, but we did not see the tendency of the amorphous mass towards following them. Of course, as far as I can remember, all the leftwing organisations were negligent towards this matter.
Undoubtedly, economic-oriented tendencies, disregarding cultural factors, anti-imperialist attitudes, growth theory, over-estimating the Shah’s powers, setting his overthrow as the only and ultimate goal, and many more other factors each contributed in some way to this negligence. This discussion requires further elaboration, which is out of the scope of (but not to say irrelevant to) the current interview and should be discussed another time.
How did you assess the position of the radical left towards these protests, and has this assessment changed?
I think I have somewhat covered this question in my answer to the previous question.
Do you evaluate the tactics of your organisation/group at that time as positive?
In your opinion, did we ever face a situation of dual power?
Yes, at the early stages of the revolution and before the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Specifically, in certain regions of the country, such as Kurdistan, Turkmen Sahra and parts of Khuzestan, as well as in the management of large industrial productions - the areas in which the workers’ councils had taken control of and crossed the borders of capitalism: oil, gas, steel, pipe-making, some agricultural industries, etc.
How do you assess the reasons behind the religious groups’ success in organising the protests? Were the clergy less oppressed, compared to the left, during Pahlavi’s rule, and was there a large gap between the common people and the guerrillas?
I think two factors played a role. First, the hierarchy of the Shi’ite clergy, with tens of thousands of active followers throughout the country and the wide network of mosques, Hussainiyas, religious schools, Tekyehs and religious boards. Second - more importantly and as I mentioned before - the tendency of the unformed and ignored masses towards following the religious and the clergy. The indignant, oppressed masses were handicapped by severe mental poverty and cultural conservatism. These people were unaware of their own power and had been looking for a long-awaited saviour for years (the 12th Imam, who would appear on the moon!).
In your opinion, which social classes supported the armed struggle movement and the People’s Fadai organisation?
An increasing number of university students, grade school students and youth, and some intellectuals, writers, and artists.
Did the radical left have any supporters among the working class? If the answer is negative, what do you believe the reason was?
Very few. Most labour activists before the revolution were inclined towards the Tudeh Party of Iran.
There were various reasons, including limitations on the distribution of propaganda and information among the various classes of labourers and workers; and an imperceptible and ineffective presence in the labourers’ workplaces and residences (even if the activists chose to stay in a lower-class neighbourhood, it was for security and cover-up reasons, and not for political presence and organic engagement).
How did this support affect significant days, such as February 11 1979?
At the time of the mass uprising, psychological and emotional factors were determinate. In those days, the Fadai guerrilla was a symbol of resistance and heroism, and not an indication of a political scheme, class demands and socio-economic alternatives. Due to their theoretical weakness and inability to organise during those golden opportunities, Fadai guerrillas remained merely a symbol among the people. Which, of course, made them fade away and took away their future capability for impact and effectiveness.