The following was originally published as an editorial in Socialist Voice No. 14 (Fall 1981)

The Counterrevolution in Iran

by Sy Landy

Amid a wave of arrests, tortures and executions of the left, Iran’s ruling Islamic Republican Party deposed the bourgeois liberal president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in June. This completed the takeover of government offices by the IRP, a party of Moslem mullahs and laymen closely tied to the priesthood. In July, former prime minister Mohammed Ali Rajai (recently assassinated) took over the presidency in a rigged election restricted to IRP candidates.

The IRP’s move to consolidate state power represents a major defeat for the Iranian revolution that overthrew the hated Shah in February 1979. The general strike and insurrection that brought down the Shah had raised the hopes of Iranian workers and peasants for prosperity and freedom. Many put their confidence in the mullahs, notably the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had demagogically denounced U.S. imperialism and its local compradors in the Shah’s entourage, and a bourgeois Islamic republic was set up. But the masses’ continuing struggle made it impossible for the capitalists to pull together a strong regime for two years; one leader after another was denounced as a tool of imperialism and deposed, arrested or exiled.

In our analysis in Socialist Voice No. 11, we anticipated that Bani-Sadr’s alliance with the army officer corps and his ties to U.S. and French imperialism would make him the chief candidate for the strongman the bourgeoisie needed. And indeed, the Bonapartist leader Khomeini, in balancing between the liberal bourgeois representative Bani-Sadr and the petty-bourgeois IRP, had leaned toward the president for some time. But Bani-Sadr’s weakness and his inability to win the war with Iraq strengthened the hand of his IRP rivals and led to his downfall.

Bani-Sadr’s weakness mirrored that of the bourgeoisie itself as the crisis in Iran deepened. It became clear to Khomeini and evidently even to the army that a firmer, more repressive hand was needed to quell internal discord and chaos. Moreover, the army-bourgeoisie combination could not produce a believable anti-imperialist facade to hold the support of the masses. So the neo-fascist IRP made its move to try to save Iranian capitalism. The IRP had progressively altered its stance to align itself more clearly in defense of capitalism while still projecting its anti-imperialist demagogy. During the course of the war the IRP had to give up the pretense that Iranian capitalism could survive without a deal with imperialism. Hence it colluded with the U.S. in a solution to the hostage seizure that completely sold out the anti-imperialist aspirations of the Iranian masses.

Mullahs Use Fascist Thugs

The clergy may have all the government posts now, but its hold on power is not secure. Terrorists have assassinated scores of leading IRP members since Bani-Sadr’s ouster. There have been several street battles between left-wing organizations and the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the government militia linked to the IRP. The Kurdish people continue to fight the central government for self-determination, and there is new unrest among the Azerbaijanis in northwest Iran. Further, the IRP’s claim of a massive turnout for their candidate in the presidential elections seems to be a lie – Iranian leftists and French journalists in Teheran believe that not more than a third of the claimed 12,000,000 actually voted.

The mullahs’ strength is based, however, not solely on votes or religious faith but on its veritable army of thugs, the Hezbollahi, or Supporters of the Party of God. These gangs have warred against the leftist parties and militant workers from the start, and had succeeded last year in carrying out an IRP campaign to “Islamicize” the universities, a left stronghold; Bani-Sadr demonstrated his impotence by doing nothing to stop the arrests, killings and university shutdowns. Now that the IRP has governmental power this harassment has become a full-scale massacre.

If the clergy succeeds in consolidating its power, it will install a fascist-like regime in Iran. Unlike the Shah, who never had any mass support (he seized power through a CIA- backed military coup), the IRP has built mass organizations to mobilize small merchants, artisans, and some workers behind it. The mullahs already had a mass base on which to build – the Moslem congregation. Using the traditional prayer services, and setting up neighborhood committees and factory Islamic societies, as well as the Hezbollahi and Pasdaran thugs, the priests have set up the framework for the control of many aspects of daily life by the government and ruling party.

Other aspects of fascism strictly defined are easy to find – the supreme leader who seems to stand above classes is, of course, Khomeini. The Islamic judges who occasionally jail or even execute capitalists for price-gouging or ties to the U.S. stand in the fascist tradition of regimenting a capitalist class too decayed to discipline itself. The “corporatism” of the neighborhood committees, Friday prayer services, and factory Islamic Societies go together with Persian and Moslem chauvinism to enforce the “unity of all classes” against “alien influences” allegedly responsible for dividing Iranians against each other. In line with this, the massacre of the Kurds continues, along with a campaign against members of the Jewish and especially Baha’i religions which threatens to become literally genocide.

Worker’s Gains Threatened

The IRP’s triumph means that all the gains of the 1979 revolution are in danger of being erased. For the working class these include wage increases, elements of workers’ control of the factories and in certain cases factory councils (called shoras) still independent of the capitalists and the clergy. Some reports from Iran indicate that the June governmental crisis came at the time of a strike wave by workers that forced the bourgeoisie finally to move to strongman rule.

It follows from the nature of the IRP that if it does consolidate its power, the priests will turn against their own mass base. They will dissolve or purge those organizations which have any potential for mobilization independent of the clergy. They will undertake a head-on assault against the working class as a whole, not just as now against the left. As a result of the revolution, they have been forced to permit some slack, allowing for example some worker review of management decisions. Once firmly in the saddle, the IRP will move to crush all working class initiative and independence under a ruthless police dictatorship.

The imperialists recognize this too. Even though the IRP has encouraged the taking of U.S. (and more recently French) citizens in Iran hostage, these powers have continued to make profitable deals with the IRP government. They recognize the clergy’s need to take some token “anti-imperialist” actions to appease the real anti-imperialism of the Iranian workers and peasants. Leading imperialist newspapers like the New York Times openly state the need for the IRP to take all power as the only force capable of restoring “order” (i.e., imperialism) to Iran. Today, behind their anti-American rhetoric, Khomeini and the IRP are tripping all over themselves to accommodate American oil interests – as they must if they wish to regain any strength within the world market from which no “nationalist” regime can break.

The guerrilla struggle against the IRP regime has had some spectacular successes, including the killing of many leaders by bombs planted at party and state offices. Led by the Mojahedin organization closely tied to Bani-Sadr, the struggle is reportedly widely popular in Iran. But a terror campaign is no substitute for mass struggle. If the Khomeini government is so weak that it cannot consolidate the counterrevolution, and if the working class does not act in its own interest, the bourgeoisie will then look to a military dictatorship to keep the masses suppressed. This would necessitate a direct link with imperialism, with or without Bani-Sadr. The other alternative of a Bani-Sadr/Mojahedin government, in effect a popular front (with the army biding its time as in Allende’s Chile), would be only a temporary possibility but a very dangerous one for the workers.

No Support in Iran-Iraq War

In our previous analysis of Iran, we advocated a policy of military support to Iran in the war against Iraq. That meant that proletarian and communist forces would turn their guns against the immediate enemy, the Iraqi counterrevolutionaries, who were aiming through their invasion to destroy all the gains won by the Iranian masses. This policy openly specified that communists must stand for revolutionary opposition to the Khomeini regime and work for its overthrow; and in particular, we called for continued military support to the Kurdish fighters. We warned that the Khomeiniite state was plotting to destroy all the revolutionary gains and would inevitably turn its guns on the Iranian workers. We insisted upon the absolute necessity for the political independence of proletarian fighting forces and that they be armed independently of the state.

These warnings and predictions have proved correct. The IRP coup has transformed the nature of the war. The immediate enemy of the Iranian proletariat and peasantry is no longer the Iraqi rulers but their own. No temporary military bloc with the Teheran government is possible when that government is shooting first at the workers. (Of course, workers must still fight the Iraqi counterrevolutionaries as well.)

In the face of the IRP’s onslaught the Iranian left has politically collapsed. No left organization that has come to our attention has ever fought clearly for a program of socialist revolution; most followed the long-discredited Stalinist line that a bourgeois-democratic stage had to be completed before socialism reached the agenda. Accordingly, the Tudeh party and the Fedayin majority backed Khomeini’s government and now support the IRP dictatorship. On the other side, the Mojahedin gave full support to Bani-Sadr when he came under attack and now call for his return to power. Several other groups that oppose both the IRP and Bani-Sadr still refuse to advocate any program beyond “democracy,” which is just another (and, under present circumstances, utopian) way to preserve the property and power of the bourgeoisie. BaniSadrism without Bani-Sadr is no more a solution than it is with him.

There is still time to prevent the fascist victory. What is necessary is a party in Iran that fights for the working class to form shoras independent of the clergy, to arm themselves, seize the factories, call on the peasants to seize the land and overthrow the IRP. Such a party would fight for independence for Kurdistan. It would fight against all religion and superstition and would train the working class in scientific socialism, so the workers would fit themselves to run society. If the Iranian working class does not form its genuine Trotskyist party and make the socialist revolution, it will face a regime of deepest barbarism and darkness.