Monday, February 16, 2009

30 years since the mullahs grabbed power in Iran

In 1979, two unfortunate political events took place. One was the election of the Thatcher government here in Britain. The other, and more important event on a global scale, was the seizure of power by Khomeni and his allies in Iran.

The late 1970s had seen an upsurge of popular opposition to the Shah. However, when his autocratic regime fell, it was the Islamists that took power – not the Left. Why was this?

There are a number of different arguments for why this was the case. However, a few key points stand out. The Iranian left – weakened by repression – was not able to reach out to the rural poor and to unemployed slum-dwellers in the shanty towns. The working-class was a minority of the population and, as such, any left movement needed strong support among the jobless and the rural population if it wasn’t to become too narrowly-based a group.

Additionally, the national question posed problems for the left. The Shah’s regime had been a ‘Persianising’ regime. This caused problems for the national minorities such as the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchi and so forth. As always, if unchecked by a strong left, nationalism and nationalist sentiment can divide the working-class. And, of course, the left itself is often divided over the national question.

Khomeni was thus able to seize power by riding on the sympathies of some army officers, the merchant class and some religious fanatics. Also, the left was not clear enough in their opposition to him. Many on the Iranian left saw him a ‘bourgeois’ cleric who had taken up politics and whose regime would prove as short-lived as some of the Shah’s last governments.

The left underestimated him and the power of political Islamism. They saw elements of the Islamist movement as ‘anti-imperialist’ and as part of a ‘progressive national bourgeois’. In fact, of course, they weren’t anti-imperialist. The Islamists might have been against US imperialism – but they favoured their own kind of imperialism. They favoured Shi’ite imperialism; they favoured Persian imperialism. And it is arguable what is meant by the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Marxist term of ‘progressive national bourgeois’. That term may have been appropriate to apply to Mossadeq in 1953 – but was it appropriate for clerics whose minds were sometimes stuck in the 7th century? The Shah’s regime from about 1963 onwards had engaged in what was dubbed ‘the White Revolution’ and had aimed to modernise the country and its industry. This had benefited a new clique of businessmen and had harmed some landowners and the bazaar merchant class. As such, arguably the role of a ‘progressive’ bourgeois regime of making a society less feudalistic had already been achieved.

Khomeni outmanoeuvred the left and then was able to turn the repressive apparatus of the theocracy on them. He was helped in this by the aggressive war waged by the Ba’athist Arab nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein. Its attack on Iran meant that people “rallied around the flag” and so were less willing to oppose the Islamist government.

And we must bear this in mind when we read of plans by the US to impose sanctions or even carry out military strikes against Iran. Such actions would be terrible – not just for the deaths and injuries they will cause – but for their political effect. The 1980s Iran-Iraq helped the reactionary clerical regime to cement itself in power in Tehran. An American attack on Iran would do the same.

The only hope for Iran is a rebirth of the left and a mass movement that can challenge the regime from below.


Robert said...

Thatchers government yes very much like Blair's government and Browns, but you see I remember what the world was like before and to be honest we have been heading for problems for a long time, The Shar was what we would call a bloke with a serious problem,is Iran any better nope is it any worse nope, is Britain any better nope is it any worse then under Thatcher nope not much.

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