Behind the Road to War: Part III of A People’s History of Iran

In an article, titled "Iran-Ready To Attack," that appeared in the February 19, 2007 issue of New Statesman magazine, Dan Plesch observed that "American preparations for invading Iran are complete" and "American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day."  The New Statesman also reported that "Several marine forces are assembling, each with its own aircraft carrier" whose "task is to destroy Iranian forces able to attack oil tankers and to secure oilfields and installations;" and that "what was done to Serbia and Lebanon can be done overnight to the whole of Iran," but "we, and probably the Iranians, would not know about it until after the bombs fell."  Coincidentally, much of the hidden history of Iran since the CIA helped the Shah of Iran set up a police state in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution also remains unknown to many U.S. voters.

A CIA employee named Robert Lessard apparently "trained the Shah’s secret police in the techniques of subversion and torture, after the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953," according to the 1985 book Washington’s Secret War Against Afghanistan by Phillip Bonosky.  Four different underground political tendencies, however, still emerged in Iran to oppose the Shah of Iran’s dictatorial regime following the 1953 CIA coup: the traditional Islamic groups; the constitutionalist and liberal groups; the independent left groups; and the Tudeh Party.  The constitutionalist and liberal groups drew their support mainly from Iran’s secular middle-class and Iranian government employees.  Although anti-communist, the Iranian constitutionalist and liberal groups were anti-imperialist in their politics and advocated semi-socialist economic democratization reforms and the democratic political secularization of Iranian society.  Together with the independent left groups and the Tudeh Party, the constitutionalist and liberal groups formed a new underground National Front in the late 1950s.

1960s and 1970s Resistance to Shah’s Regime

The traditional Islamic groups that opposed the Shah of Iran’s dictatorial regime were led by Iranian politicians from the religious Iranian Bazaar merchant class and the Iranian clerical hierarchy.  Although they were opposed to the Shah of Iran’s regime and advocated Islamic unity against Anglo-American imperialism in the Middle East, the Islamic religious politicians were strongly anti-communist in their politics and generally hostile to the secular Tudeh Party.  In addition to establishing an Iranian government which would more effectively protect Iranian businesspeople from the economic competition of foreign corporations in Iran, the leaders of the traditional Islamic groups in Iran also wanted to create a society in Iran that was governed by the principles of the Islamic religion.

In the Spring of 1960, the Shah of Iran finally agreed to allow a limited amount of political freedom for certain opposition Iranian groups prior to a the scheduled Summer 1960 election of a new Majlis/Iranian parliament.  As a result, between 1960 and 1963 the National Front opposition group was allowed to be openly active, while the Tudeh Party was still banned from aboveground political activity in Iran.  From exile, however, the Tudeh Party’s Central Committee in August 1960 called for a broad united front to be formed to replace the pro-U.S. imperialist regime of the Shah with an anti-imperialist, nationalist democratic regime that eliminated all remnants of feudalism within Iranian society.

The Summer 1960 Iranian parliamentary election of the Shah’s regime turned out to be a fraudulent one.  So by May 1961 there were public student-teacher demonstrations against the Shah’s regime in Tehran; and the first public meeting of the National Front in Iran since the CIA’s 1953 coup was held that same month which attracted a crowd of 80,000 Iranians who demanded immediate, honest, democratic elections in Iran.  In response to these demonstrations, however, the Shah of Iran’s regime began withdrawing the post-1960 political concessions it had made to the non-left, non-communist and non-Tudeh Party-affiliated groups by the summer of 1961.

To try to decrease the growing popular support for both the legal National Front and the illegal Tudeh Party among Iranian’s landless peasants in the early 1960s, the Shah of Iran’s regime finally instituted a limited land redistribution program.  The Shah of Iran’s regime also finally proposed in the early 1960s that Iranian women be allowed to vote in Iranian elections.

In response to both the Shah’s land reform program and the proposal that Iranian women be allowed to vote, as well as to the dictatorial and pro-imperialist nature of the Shah’s regime, however, a widespread religious uprising against the Shah’s regime, led by the traditional Islamic opposition groups who were influenced most by Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini broke out in June 1963.  After three days of rioting, this 1963 religious uprising in Iran was crushed by the Shah of Iran’s military in a brutal way, with 600 protesting Iranians killed and 2,000 Iranian demonstrators injured by the Shah’s troops.

Following this June 1963 religious uprising, Khomeini was arrested and then exiled in 1964, first to Turkey and then to Iraq.  In addition, the National Front opposition group was again banned by the Shah of Iran’s regime between 1963 and 1978.  At the same time, the repression of the underground Tudeh Party activists in Iran continued.  As Sepehr Zabith observed in his 1986 book The Left in Contemporary Iran:

"The Pahlavi regime’s suppression of the Tudeh Party was more severe than that of the National Front.  While the latter’s activists received short-term imprisonment or were forced into exile (with the exception of Hossein Fatem, who was executed), the regime showed no mercy for Tudeh Party activists or those affiliated with their organization.  Forty-two of its prominent leaders-mostly officers-were shot, 14 were tortured to death, and another 200 were sentenced to life imprisonment.  Moreover, SAVAK continued to bear down mercilessly on the Tudeh members even after the party ceased to be a major threat."

Iranian dissidents in the 1970s estimated that between 25,000 and 100,000 Iranians were held as political prisoners in Iran between 1963 and 1978 during the Shah of Iran’s police-state regime.

After 1965, an Iranian New Left of younger Iranian activists also developed which worked for the overthrow of the Shah of Iran’s U.S.-backed dictatorship.  Influenced by the Cuban Revolution, the Chinese Revolution and the Vietnamese Revolution, two New Left groups were formed in Iran which waged guerrilla warfare against the Shah of Iran’s regime between 1966 and 1978: The People’s Fedayeen and the People’s Mojahadeen.

Formed by defectors from the outlawed Tudeh Party’s youth group, in 1963 the People’s Fedayeen group was secular and Marxist-Leninist in its political orientation.  Its founder, Bijan Jazani and three other former Tudeh Party Youth organization activists, had met while in prison in 1955.  In 1966, Bijan Jazani and other People’s Fedayeen leaders concluded that the Shah of Iran regime’s limited land reform program had changed Iranian society internally from one dominated by feudalist Iranian landlords to one dominated by pro-imperialist Iranian businesspeople.

In 1968, the original New Left leaders of the People’s Fedayeen were arrested by the Shah of Iran’s secret police, the CIA-trained SAVAK, and sentenced to a long period of imprisonment.  During the 1970s, Bijan Jazani was, subsequently, executed in Iran’s Evin Prison by the Shah of Iran’s regime.  Other People’s Fedayeen leaders like Hassan Zarif and Aziz Sarmedi were also murdered while in prison by the Shah of Iran’s regime in the 1970s.  Despite the imprisonment and repression of its leaders, however, between 1971 and 1978 membership in the People’s Fedayeen guerrilla group grew to around 2,175.  And prior to the early 1979 overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the People’s Fedayeen organized politically effective strike committees in Iran.

The founders of the religiously-oriented People’s Mojahedeen guerrilla group were former members of the non-communist National Front.  Its leaders concluded in a 1969 position paper that under the Shah of Iran’s regime:

"Iran was essentially a police state where the armed forces constituted the ultimate power base.  The strength and political stability of the regime was based on the effective functioning of its security bases, which were directed by the American Central Intelligence Agency."

Given this 1969 political analysis’ conclusion, the People’s Mojahadeen group, not surprisingly, decided that the only way to establish a democratic, Islamic-oriented society in Iran was to begin urban guerrilla warfare against the Shah of Iran’s regime in 1970.

Unlike the People’s Mojahadeen, the People’s Fedayeen generally waged guerrilla warfare in rural areas of Iran, not in Iran’s cities.  But both the People’s Fedayeen and the People’s Mojahadeen guerrilla groups held U.S. imperialist government policies responsible for the political repression and mass poverty that existed in Iran under the Shah’s regime.

Aboard, during the late 1960s and 1970s Iranian students who were members of the Confederation of Iranian Students, which has been founded in the mid-1960s, also organized protests against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran’s dictatorial regime.  When the Shah of Iran was awarded an honorary degree by Columbia University during the 1970s, for instance, a large anti-Shah protest in Manhattan led by foreign students from Iran who wore masks (to avoid being identified by SAVAK agents) was organized by the Confederation of Iranian Students’ local members.

Mass opposition in Iran to the Shah of Iran’s dictatorial regime grew rapidly during the late 1970s.  Yet the Democratic Carter Administration continued to provide support for the Shah of Iran’s regime during 1978, when the Shah of Iran tried to retain political power in Iran by ordering his troops to shoot down unarmed Iranian civilian demonstrators who dared to protest against his pro-imperialist Iranian police state. Over 60,000 Iranian civilian demonstrators were killed and about 100,000 Iranian civilian demonstrators were wounded and disabled in 1978 by the Shah of Iran’s troops before the people of Iran were finally able to overthrow the Shah of Iran’s regime in on February 12, 1979.

The preamble to the October 24, 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran described how the people of Iran were able to create the 1979 Iranian Revolution:

"….The employees of all government establishments took an active part in the effort to overthrow the tyrannical regime by calling a general strike and participating in street demonstrations.  The wide-spread solidarity of men and women of all segments of society and of all political and religious factions, played a clearly determining role in the struggle.  Especially the women were actively and massively present in the most conspicuous manner at all stages of this great struggle.  The common sight of mothers with infants in their arms rushing towards the scene of battle and in front of the barrels of machineguns indicated the essential and decisive role played by this major segment of society in the struggle."

In response to the large pro-democratization demonstrations in Iran in 1978, the Shah of Iran’s regime also agreed to release some of its Iranian political prisoners before it finally collapsed on February 12, 1979.  About 200 members of the People’s Mojahadeen group, for instance, were released from prison in the summer of 1978, while another 700 People’s Mojahadeen members were allowed to return to Iran from exile at the same time.  By the time the mass demonstrations and general strike had finally succeeded in bringing down the Shah of Iran’s government, about 3,000 to 5,000 Iranian activists were now members of the People’s Mojahadeen group.

After The 1979 Iranian Revolution: 1979 to 1984

Yet it was the traditional Islamic opposition groups led by the anti-communist religious Iranian Bazaar merchant class and the anti-communist Iranian clerical hierarchy, not the Tudeh Party, the People’s Fedayeen guerrilla group or the People’s Mojahadeen guerrilla group which soon ended up gaining Iranian state power following the collapse of the Shah of Iran’s regime.  Led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the traditional Islamic groups were apparently able to gain political power by default because of the absence of mass-based working-class organizations in Iran in the late 1970s and the degree to which the Iranian masses were still strongly religious in 1979.  Despite their hatred for the Shah of Iran’s police-state regime and the U.S. government that had installed and backed the Shah’s dictatorial regime, the Iranian masses in 1979 were apparently not willing to now throw their political support behind an effort to establish a new anti-imperialist, secular, democratic, leftist revolutionary regime in Iran.

Almost immediately after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the People’s Mojahadeen group and the pro-Khomeini Islamic groups began to split apart.  Then, in April 1979, a referendum to abolish the Iranian monarchical system of government and set up an Islamic Republic in Iran controlled by Iran’s fundamentalist clerical hierarchy under Ayatollah Khomieni’s leadership was held.  Although all the secular Iranian political groups were opposed to the creation of this kind of Shia-led Islamic theocracy (with Khomeini as the supreme and divine authority) within Iran, on the grounds that it would create an undemocratic post-revolutionary Iranian society, an Islamic Republic was soon established in Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini had initially promised to organize a popularly-elected Constituent Assembly in Iran to draft the Islamic Republic’s new Constitution.  But, fearing that a popularly-elected Constituent Assembly in Iran would give some representation to the People’s Mojahadeen group activists who now opposed him politically, Khomeini broke his promise.  Instead, the Ayatollah set up a smaller, Islamic clergy-dominated Assembly of Experts which began drafting the Constitution for the Islamic Republic in the summer of 1979.  The Constitution was completed around ten days before the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran were taken hostage on November 4, 1979,  in response to the Democratic Carter Administration’s refusal to extradite the Shah of Iran to the new government in Iran, to face a post-revolutionary Iranian war crimes tribunal.

On December 1, 1979 the new Islamic Republic’s Constitution was approved by Iraqi voters.  The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran of October 24, 1979 (and as later amended on July 28, 1989) does appear to contain many democratic articles.  Article 13, for instance, guarantees religious freedom and Article 38 prohibits torture.  Article 29 guarantees the Iranian people the right to universal health care and Article 31 guarantees the Iranian people their right to housing.  Article 79 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution also prohibits martial law, Article 81 prohibits the granting of economic concessions in Iran to foreign imperialists and Article 146 prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases in Iran.

With respect to freedom of the press rights in Iran, Article 24 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution guarantees freedom of the press "except when detrimental to fundamental principles of Islam."  And marches and demonstrations are allowed under Article 27 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, as long as arms are not carried by demonstrators and the demonstration is "not detrimental to Islamic principles." Under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran "the mass-communications media, radio and television, must" also "serve the diffusion of Islamic culture."

After the Islamic Republic’s Constitution was approved by Iraqi voters, the Islamic Republic’s first Majlis (parliament) of 270 members was subsequently elected in the Summer of 1980.  Fifteen percent of the 11 million Iraqi voters chose to vote for People’s Mohjadeen-supported parliamentary candidates.  On September 22, 1980, however, the then-pro-U.S. imperialist Baath Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein launched a military attack on Iran.  The new external Iraqi military threat to Iran’s national security apparently gave Khomeini’s Islamic Republic officials an internal security pretext for restricting democratic rights in post-Shah Iran.

After opposing the Khomeini regime’s decision to release the U.S. Embassy hostages to the new Reagan Administration (following a failed attempt by the Democratic Carter Administration to "rescue" the U.S. Embassy hostages by sending some U.S. military commandos into Iran) and the Islamic Republic’s press censorship law in January 1981, the People’s Mojahadeen declared its opposition to the Khomeini regime in a  June 20, 1981 street march.  Twenty young Iranian women People’s Mojahadeen protesters were then arrested by Khomeini’s regime and quickly executed.

In response, the People’s Mojahadeen group bombed the headquarters of the pro-Khomeini Islamic Republican Party [IRP] headquarters on June 28, 1981 and eliminated almost the entire leadership of the Islamic Republican Party, whose members held the majority of seats in the Iranian parliament.  By means of an armed uprising the People’s Mojahadeen guerrillas apparently hoped to now overthrow Khomeini’s Islamic Republic in the same way they had helped to previously overthrow the Shah’s regime during the late 1970s.

The Islamic Republic authorities responded to the People’s Mojahadeen armed revolt during Iran’s war with Iraq by quickly executing 100 more of its domestic Iranian political opponents in retaliation for the June 28, 1981 bombing of the Islamic Republican Party’s headquarters.  But on August 30, 1981, the People’s Mojahadeen insurgents next bombed the headquarters of the Islamic Republic’s Prime Minister, killing 130 top leaders of the Islamic Republican Party, including Iran’s President and Premier.  In retaliation, by 1984, 7,746 Iranians had either been executed by the Khomeini regime or killed in clashes with the security forces of the Kohmeini regime.  Of these 7,746 Iranians, 6,221 were members of the People’s Mojahadeen, including 933 women members of the People’s Mojahadeen.

During the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War

Unlike the People’s Mojahadeen group, the Tudeh Party and the People’s Fedayeen group continued to express support for Khomeini’s Islamic Republic regime after June 1981 and both the Tudeh Party and the People’s Fedayeen group continued to be allowed to operate openly by Iranian government authorities.  But after the Tudeh Party criticized the Islamic Republic’s conduct of its war with Iraq and the Khomeini regime’s intention, after it recaptured the Iranian land that Iraq had occupied early in the Iraq-Iran War, to now invade Iraq, some top Tudeh Party leaders were arrested by Iranian government authorities in February 1983.  Subsequently, the Tudeh Party was outlawed on May 4, 1983 by the Iranian government; and 670 civilian members of the Tudeh Party and 100 Iranian military officers who supported the Tudeh Party were also arrested.  Then, in December 1983, the 100 Iranian military officers who were Tudeh Party supporters were put on trial.  And on February 25, 1984, ten of these Tudeh Party supporters were executed by Islamic Republic authorities.

Thirty members of the People’s Fedayeen group were also arrested in the Fall of 1983.  And, after the Iranian government declared that the People’s Fedayeen group was subversive and anti-Islamic in December 1983, the People’s Fedayeen group was also outlawed in February 1984.

In their 2006 book Democracy In Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, University of San Diego Professor of History and Political Science Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr described how the religious, anti-communist supporters of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic regime apparently started to violate the democratic rights of leftist Iranian supporters of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, after the Democratic Carter Administration refused to extradite the deposed Shah of Iran and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized:

"Fundamentalists began to constrict the Left’s room to maneuver, purging their members from positions of power, attacking their offices, gatherings, and demonstrations, and intimidating or arresting their members and supporters.  For instance, they attacked university campuses, intimidated and arrested students and faculty, and in June 1980 set in motion a `cultural revolution’ to cleanse the universities of the Left.  Fundamentalists permanently occupied Tehran University by making its grounds the site for the official Friday Prayers…"

In an article that appeared in the June 21, 2003 issue of the Asia Times, B Raman also noted that in Iran "after seizing power with the help of the communist students, the clerics ruthlessly suppressed the communists, arresting and executing many of them;" and "those who escaped arrest and death at the hands of the clerics managed to flee to West Europe and started organizing their activities from there."  According to the 2006 Democracy In Iran book, the secular Iranian leftist activists "were portrayed by fundamentalists as American stooges, and resistance to religion’s prominence in society was depicted as a Western ploy to destabilize the revolution."

Despite providing the Iranian government with a pretext to repress secular anti-imperialist proponents of more democratization of Iranian society during the 1980s, the 1980 to 1988  Iraq-Iran War that Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime in Iraq started in September 1980 also produced great suffering for the people of Iran and Iraq.  Almost one million Iranians were maimed or killed, for instance, as a result of the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s; and many Iranian cities were extensively damaged during this war.

But on July 18, 1988, the Iranian government agreed to accept UN Security Council Resolution 598 which called for a cease-fire with Iraq and the 1980 and 1988 Iraq-Iran War finally ended.  Six days later the People’s Mojahadeen guerrilla group, however, launched a military incursion into Iran.  Iranian government authorities apparently then used this military attack as a pretext to carry out another round of mass executions of imprisoned secular anti-imperialist left Iranian activists and imprisoned People’s Mojahadeen activists.  According to the Human Rights Watch web site:

"In 1988, the Iranian government summarily and extra-judicially executed thousands of political prisoners held in Iranian jails…The majority of those executed were serving prison sentences for their political activities…Those who had been sentenced, however, had not been sentenced to death…."

Dissident Iranian activists and Amnesty International estimated that between 2,800 and 4,481 Iranian political prisoners were executed in 1988 by Islamic Republic authorities.  Although most of the executed Iranian political prisoners in 1988 were members and supporters of the People’s Mojahadeen group, hundreds of imprisoned members and supporters of the Tudeh Party, the Peoples’ Fedayeen group and the Kurdish Democratic Party were also apparently executed by the Iranian government authorities in 1988.

Since Khomeini’s Death

The economic destruction caused by the eight year Iraq-Iran War and the generally unfriendly policy of the U.S. government towards Iran during the years since the U.S. embassy was seized by Iranian students (except during the "Iran-Contragate Scandal" period of the Republican Reagan Administration when the U.S. government arranged for weapons to be shipped to the Islamic Republic of Iran) hurt the post-revolutionary Iranian economy prior to the death of Ayatollah Khomeini on June 3, 1989.  But Iran’s oil wealth has enabled the Islamic Republic to apparently satisfy the economic needs of some people within Iranian society, although many people in Iran still seem to be having economic difficulties.

By 1989, 80 percent of the Iranian economy was controlled by the Iranian government and banks, insurance companies and all major industries in Iran were now nationalized.  Although one-third of Iranian workers were provided jobs by Iran’s public sector in 1988, that same year, however, about 30 percent of all Iranian workers were still apparently unemployed.  In 1989, the average inflation rate in Iran’s economy also apparently exceeded 23 percent; and by 1993 the annual inflation rate in Iran had increased to 40 percent.  As a result, when the Iranian government announced cuts in price controls and government subsidies of basic necessities during the 1990s, street protests broke out in Tehran and other Iranian cities.

By 1997, young people in Iran composed 25 percent of Iran’s population of 67 million; and the number of university students in Iran had grown from only 160,000 in 1977 to 1.25 million in 1997, as a result of the Iranian government’s increased investment in Iranian higher education.

During the 1990s, however, the Iranian government began to privatize Iran’s economy more by transferring control of state-run enterprises to Islamic clergy-controlled private foundations, thus turning these foundations into powerful business corporations, according to the 2006 Democracy In Iran book.  The size of Iran’s college-educated middle-class also began to increase in the 1990s; and this seemed to lead to increased political support for Iranian electoral candidates who favored more liberalization and more democratization of Iranian society.  The conservative clerical political leadership in Iran, however, responded to the 1990s electoral success of candidates favoring more democratization and liberalization by shutting down 19 pro-reformist newspaper in Iran in May 1999; and by disqualifying 3,600 candidates who favored more democratization, including 80 incumbent candidates, from participating in the 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections.

Although Democratic President Clinton signed an executive order banning all U.S. trade and investment in Iran in May 1995, European governments have adopted less hostile economic policies in relation to Iran than has the U.S. government in recent years.  In Iran, "European multinational companies" have "formed business partnerships in various sectors of the economy-including oil and gas, telecommunications, consumer electronics and automotive-especially after a bill in 2002," passed by Iran’s parliament, "eased some of the restrictions on foreign investments," according to the Democracy In Iran book.

Since the former Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected president of Iran in June 2005 with 62 percent of the Iranian popular vote, on a platform of pledging to redistribute more of the wealth of Iran to the most impoverished people in Iran, the Republican Bush Administration has seemed more eager to launch a military attack on Iran.  But, as this people’s history of Iran has shown, people in Iran have suffered, historically, as a result of U.S. intervention in Iran’s internal political affairs since World War II.  And a U.S. military attack against Iran in 2007, regardless of which pretext is used by the Bush Administration, will likely create additional suffering for people in Iran.

So it’s not surprising that a February 2007 statement issued by the political committee of The Union of Iranian Socialists in North America declared that "The people of Iran vehemently oppose the intervention of any foreign power in their country" and "any kind of aggressive actions by the U.S. and its allies, either military or economic, should be condemned by progressive anti-war activists."