Communists for the imam's line

Yassamine Mather continues her discussion of political islam. In this article she describes how the left's illusions in Tehran's 'anti-imperialist' foreign policies played into the hands of enemies of the working class

The defenders of Iran’s islamic regime, including those on the international left who maintain illusions in the radicalism of political islam, refer to Iran’s foreign policy, especially in the first decade of its existence after the 1979 uprising, as a sign of anti-imperialism within the islamic movement.

But they are silent about Iran’s foreign policy during Irangate or in support of US policy during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is therefore necessary to examine the ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials of the islamic regime in the early 1980s, even though no-one associated with the Iranian regime has ever claimed to be anti-imperialist, using instead terms such as ‘anti-west’ or ‘anti-foreigner’.

Others have rightly argued instead that the dominant feature of Iran’s foreign policy remains that of a fervent ‘Persian’ (shia) nationalist expansionism, not very dissimilar to the foreign policy ambitions of the shah. Notable amongst such analysts is Olivier Roy, author ofSous le turban la couronne (The crown under the turban).

Either way, most people agree that the most important events characterising the foreign policy of the islamic republic have been the hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war.

Embassy takeover

The Iran hostage crisis lasted from November 4 1979 to January 20 1981, when 52 US diplomats were held hostage for 444 days, after a group of students took over the American embassy in Tehran, soon after the Carter administration permitted the shah, who was ill with cancer, to enter the US for treatment.

In the western media and amongst many deluded left forces, including Trotskyist and Stalinist groups in Britain, this event was portrayed as a revolutionary act. Yet for those who knew the background and the sordid discussion that took place between the regime and the US Republican Party (prior to Ronald Reagan’s election), nothing could be further from the truth. Both the Iranian and international media depicted it as a spontaneous act by 90 students, although “revolutionary guards and police did nothing to stop the takeover and Iranian state television started to broadcast live pictures of the siege” (BBC radio, November 4 1979).

The hostage crisis came at a time when large sections of the working class in Iran had shed all illusions in the islamic regime. Factories occupied by workers’ shoras (councils) were being attacked by Hezbollah and other military sections of the regime, and senior clerics had taken possession of the property and belongings of supporters of the ancien régime (most of whom were by now in exile) for personal gain.

Faced with continuing chaos amongst various sections of the population, the new islamic government had already shown its character. Following assaults on women’s demonstrations against forced veiling in March 1979, liberal opposition newspapers were attacked and closed down. In the summer of 1979 the government intervened militarily in Kurdistan to silence the Kurdish people’s demands for autonomy. The state was trying to dismantle workers’ shoras, and workers’ strikes and protests were suppressed by the army, by Hezbollah and by islamic guards. When peasants in Torkman Sahra took over the land they cultivated and started a system of cooperative agriculture, the government also sent in troops. The failures of the regime and its use of repression meant the left was gaining new support every day. Despite many mistakes, the revolution had not yet been defeated.

Striking oil workers in Tehran’s refinery were targeted for pursuing unislamic demands and yet neither the reign of terror in Ghom nor the dispatch of battalions of the Iranian army to Kurdistan and Torkman Sahra succeeded in defeating left forces. The threat to the new islamic regime was not an unpopular king dying of cancer in a clinic in the US, but continued revolutionary fervour within its own borders.

The takeover of the US embassy was not a spontaneous event, but a devious plan by islamic rulers to divert attention from internal problems to external issues. They were well aware that creating a diplomatic incident was the only way of avoiding the loss of power.

Immediately after the takeover the regime was able to label any dissent, including strikes by oil workers, as the work of US imperialism. This enabled the regime not only to suppress the left, but also to rid itself of liberals within the government.

The response to these events by the leadership of pro-Soviet leftwing groups was a disaster. Even before the hostage saga, the Tudeh Party had decided to give uncritical support to the ‘anti-imperialist’ regime and help consolidate it. In a classic piece of wooden Marxism, it announced support for the ‘petty bourgeois’ line of Khomeini and the fundamentalists against both the ‘bourgeois liberals’ in government and against the regime’s opponents on the left: the latter were denounced as counterrevolutionary.

The occupation of the American embassy by the ‘students of the imam’s line’ and later the outbreak of war with Iraq would see the crystallisation of this political line and its suicidal effects. Various factions and parties of the National Front (Mossadegh’s old organisation) had played an important role in paving the way for a political takeover by the clergy. They were alarmed by the radicalisation of the workers’ movement and were determined to control this movement from the beginning.

But as the clergy strengthened its position, the need for ‘professional’ politicians of the National Front diminished, and the latter lost their influence and eventually their political posts. Bazargan was dismissed during the US embassy takeover and many of his ministers had lost their positions months before. (The National Front remains the semi-legal opposition inside Iran, calling for liberalisation of the islamic regime. Its offices are periodically raided by Hezbollah and, despite repeated attempts to register a candidate in a number of presidential and parliamentary elections, its candidates are invariably disqualified for failing the religious criteria set by the Council of Guardians.)

Even before the takeover of the US embassy, members and supporters of the Fedayeen - which was by far the largest organisation of the left - had been involved in a major debate about the nature of the regime. The Fedayeen was set up in the late 60s, as a number of small groups influenced by ‘activism’ in Europe and Latin America combined to form a guerrilla group, with the aim of starting an armed uprising against the shah. Most of the original members were executed. Others were arrested and spent most of the last years of the shah’s rule in prison. However, by the mid-1970s the Fedayeen had substantial support amongst university students and intellectuals inside and outside Iran.

The Fedayeen’s belief that the ‘guerrilla activism’ of the 1970s was an adequate Marxist alternative to the ‘passivity’ of the Tudeh Party had already been exposed by 1979, when its surviving cadres, in prison, recognised their isolation from the working class and the revolutionary movement. But instead of seeking radical alternatives, their only solution was to return to the traditional politics of the ‘socialist camp’.

Iran was perhaps the most disastrous example - but only one example - of an international trend which, in the face of the disappointments of the international left, together with the rise of liberal Eurocommunism, saw renewed sympathy for the Soviet Union and for pro-Soviet politics. When the central committee of the Fedayeen took a clear pro-government and pro-Soviet position in the midst of the US hostage crisis, it was simply following the opinion of a swathe of its membership.

However, the majority of members and the overwhelming majority of Fedayeen supporters, as well as a minority on the central committee, disagreed with the pro-imam line and formed the Fedayeen Minority. The latter had no clear agenda or policies. It was as an alliance of groups that strongly opposed the islamic government, that did not see the US embassy crisis as an anti-imperialist action and that were still critical of the Soviet Union to varying degrees. The split in the Fedayeen marked the separation of what has been called ‘revolution’ and ‘counterrevolution’ in Iran. Similar splits occurred amongst Maoist and Trotskyist tendencies, both within and outside the Fourth International.

Iran-Iraq war

On September 22 1980, Iraqi troops invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year war which devastated both countries. Many on the international left argued, and some still maintain, that Iraqi aggression into Iranian territory was ordered by the US and therefore Iran’s war should be recognised as a ‘just anti-imperialist’ war . The radical sections of the Iranian left did not take such a position. Coming as it did in the middle of the hostage crisis, there could be no doubt that the war was welcomed by the US administration. However, both the Fedayeen Minority and others argued, correctly, that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, that it does not matter who opens fire first and that the war between Iran and Iraq, far from being an anti-imperialist war fought by a revolutionary Iran, was a war between two reactionary regimes.

These groups put the blame on Iran’s shia/Persian expansionist foreign policy and the islamic regime’s ambitions for domination of the whole Persian Gulf region, together with its plans to unite the shia south of Iraq with Iran, and Khomeini’s obsession for vengeance against Saddam Hussein (Saddam had expelled Khomeini from his exile in Najaf in 1978) just as much as on Iraqi territorial ambitions regarding Khuzestan province in Iran.

The Tudeh Party and Majority Fedayeen, by contrast - and in line with Soviet policy - together with some Trotskyist groups, who considered the regime progressive for its anti-US stance, called for unconditional support for Iran’s ‘just war’ against the US and Iraq.

During the early years of the war with Iraq these groups called on workers not to take militant action to defend or improve working conditions and for all opposition forces to rally behind the ‘anti-imperialist’ government. Marxist opponents of the regime were called ‘CIA agents’ and the war was used as justification by leaders of Majority Fedayeen and Tudeh for their open, shameless cooperation with islamic security forces.

Centrists within most organisations of the left were soon forced to choose between support for or opposition to the regime. Even during the bloodbath of 1981, when the regime launched an all-out attack on the Mujahedin and all opposition leftist groups, the Tudeh Party, Fedayeen Majority and sections of the Fourth International continued to support and defend the islamic government at home and internationally. This marked the clear defeat of the revolutionary movement.

The attacks lasted until 1983, when members of the Tudeh Party, Fedayeen Majority and the pro-state Trotskyist groups were themselves arrested by the ‘anti-western’ islamist forces they had supported.


The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal that came to light in 1986 when a Lebanese paper exposed secret deals between Iran, the US, the Nicaraguan contras, Swiss banks and Israel during the Reagan administration.

It began as an operation to improve US-Iranian relations, where Israel would ship weapons to the Iranian regime in exchange for the release of westerners taken hostage by Hezbollah (Iran’s Lebanese allies) in Beirut. The US would reimburse Israel with those weapons and receive payment from Israel. This arms-for-hostages scheme was allegedly conjured up by lieutenant colonel Oliver North of the US National Security Council in late 1985. A portion of the proceeds from the weapons sales was diverted to fund anti-Sandinista and anti-communist rebels, the Contras, in Nicaragua.

After the deals were revealed in November 1986, Ronald Reagan told US television audiences that the weapons transfers had indeed occurred, but that the US did not trade arms for hostages. Things were compounded when large numbers of documents relating to the scandal were destroyed. In March 1987, Reagan admitted in a nationally televised address that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages”.

Inside Iran even the die-hard supporters of the islamic regime were waking up to the absurdity of the regime’s justifications for buying US weapons via Israel ‘in order to defeat Iraq as an agent of the US’!

However, even Irangate failed to wake up sections of the international left. Some Stalinist and Trotskyist groups throughout the world maintained the myth about ‘Iran’s just and anti-imperialist war’. Unfortunately many still hold the same position.

If, prior to 1980, Iran’s sabre-rattling with Saddam gave hints of shia/Persian expansionism, once the war started islamic leaders used both the language and spirit of Persian nationalism in their war propaganda.

Contrary to the analysis proposed by socialists abroad, including those in Britain, the division within the Iranian left, stemming mainly from opposing views regarding the islamic republic’s foreign policy, was not simply between reformists and revolutionaries. The conflict did not centre on the classic issue of ‘stages’ of revolution, bourgeois or socialist. Rather the issue of division was the supposed existence of a ‘socialist camp’ led by the Soviet Union (for some a ‘degenerate worker state’, for others the leading force of the socialist camp) and the extent to which the politics of third world regimes were judged on the basis of their anti-US rhetoric.

It is ironic that decades later, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international left does not seem to have moved much further.


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