Iran in Flames
Huge oil revenues have destabilised one of the world's most corrupt and repressive regimes, as communists and clerics have joined to topple the Shah.
Thousands of people have died in the course of peaceful demonstrations in Iran during the last year, as one of the world's most brutal and corrupt reegimes attempts desperately to hang on to power. The indications are, however, that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi will be overthrown, in spite of a succession of "concessions" to the protestors accompanied by the widespread masssacre of demonstrators and that Iran will be plunged into further upheaval with critical consequences for Western capitalism.
Ironically, it has been the oil boom of the early seventies and the partial liberalisation of the repressive regime of the Shah that has precipitated the reevolution in Iran. But the deeper causes of the revolt have included the brutal nature of the regime, the unequal disstribution of the huge wealth generated by oil and the recent social upheavals within Iranian society.
Since coming to power in a CIA innspired coup in 1953, the Shah has innstituted one of the cruellest regimes in the world. As Martin Ennals of Amnesty International stated, "the Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief".
Immediately after the 1953 coup, thousands of people were either executted or killed while being tortured. In 1957, SAVAK, a secret police agency, was set up with the assistance of the CIA and the Israeli secret police. SAVAK -has been the principle agent of repression' and torture sirice then. By the middle of 1977, there were still more than 100,000 political prisoners in Iran and the torture of suspected politiical dissidents was still common.
However, the force of international pressure started to make itself felt with the Shah in the mid-seventies. Amnesty International, which had previously focussed almost entirely on communist countries, began to turn its attentions to nations such as Iran, Chile, Indonesia and Ireland. The International Commmission of Jurists took the regime to task for "systematic use of torture". The International League of Human Rights, a UN-affiliated organisation, called upon the Shah to "rectify the deeplorable human rights situation in Iran". But more significantly, there were fears in the Shah's entourage that the US might impose sanctions.
During his Presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter singled out Iran as a country where human rights were abbused, hinting that if elected he would cut off American aid and arms sales.
In August 1977, the Shah dismissed his prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyydax, who had been conspicuously assoociated with the worst elements of the reepression. He appointed in his place the former OPEC negotiator and oil minnster, Jamshid Amouzegar. So-me poliitical prisoners were released, torture was eased off and there was evidence of the improvement of civil liberties.
Co-inciding with these developments, groups of writers, intellectuals and lawwyers wrote letters to the Shah and Prime . Minister demanding a relaxation of cennsorship, the revival of the Writers' Assoociation, the removal of the ban on opposition .political parties and changes in politicalproced ure.
Although it didn't receive official sanction, the Writers' Association reestablished itself. It sponsored 16 poetry reading sessions for prominent dissident authors, including recent poliitical prisoners. The meetings drew huge audiences, often up to 15,000 people. Tape recordings of the sessions in Tehran were distributed to universities throughout the country. It was the poetry sessions that led to the beginnnings of the revolution. But there were other factors in Iranian society which led to the explosion of popular outrage against the Shah.
The oil boom of the early seventies resulted in huge increases in Irannian GNP - 14.2 per cent in 1972/1973, 30.3 per cent in 1973/74 and 42 per cent in. 1974/7 5, with per capita GNP rising from 450 dollars in 1971 to 1,344 dollars in 1978. The boom has increased the country's dependence on oil: from representing 19.5 per cent of GNP in 1972/73, oil rose to 49.7 per cent in 1977 /78. In 1977 it accounted for 77 per cent of all Governmene earnings and 87 per cent of foreign exchange earnnings. This latter factor now has critical significance for the survival of the reegime, as explained below.
But the resultant wealth has been unnevenly distributed. According to Robert F. Looney in Economic Development of Iran, the top 10 per cent of the popuulation earns 40 per cent of the total annual Income. This inequality is given added edge by the ostentatious, lavish life-style of the Shah and his family Èthey shuttle between five palaces in Iran.
Much of the petro-dollar income has been allocated to a programme of industrialisation which has exhausted the urban labour supply and has driven up industrial wages. Another consequence of this industrialisation has been to attract labour from the agricultural sector, which has resulted in a drop in agricultural production, food shortages and huge increases in food prices.
The rapid urbanisation has led to massive increases in house and rental prices. The Economist has estimated that rents in Teheran have quadrupled in five years and that a middle class family could be paying as much as half of its total income on housing.
Some of the massive wealth coming from oil is being moved out of Iran by private individuals - one estimate puts this at 15 per cent of all oil revenues.
Iranian society has experienced connsiderable changes over the last few decades which have had a disruptive effect and have therefore contributed to the present crisis. The first of these changes has been. a massive shift of po pulation from rural to urban areas. Three decades ago only 21 per cent of the population was based in urban areas, now almost half the population is urrbanised.
The urbanisation has paralleled a change in employment patterns. Three decades ago 75 per cent of the total workforce worked in agriculture, now only one third does.
Although there has been signifiicant hind reform, with the displaceement of most of the large landowners, the reform only distributed land to about half of the 3.5 million families living in the Iranian countryside. The other half not only did not receive any land but lost their existing rights to partial access to land. Thus side' by side with the creation of a new rural properrtied class came the creation of a new landless class with nothing to sell but their unskilled labour.
Another displaced class has been the bazaar traders, which has been largely displaced by the rise of new and often foreign capitalist institutions. The bazaar owners have been one of the most potent elements in this current popular eruption and they have been active primarily because of their econoomic dislocation.
A small wage earning class has come into existence in the last two decades, numbering about 3 million. However, despite the numerical weight of this class, it is .not easily mobilised for poliitical purposes, and it wasn't until the latter stages of the revolt that they beecame involved.
Very few workers' are in anything like modern industrial plants. Oil, which in revenue terms forms the basis of the Iranian economy, employs only 40,000 workers (less than 0.5 per cent of the total labour force). it has been estimated. that of these employed in manufacturing industry, 72 per cent were employed in units of less than ten persons.
Apart from the conditions in which most members of the Iranian working class work, there are other factors which discourage political militancy. The first of these is the strong bargairiing power which workers can wield in conditions of labour shorrtages. The second is the attenntion which the Iranian secret police SAVAK had paid the industrial workers, infiltrating factories, b lacklistingtroubleemakers, using violence to break strikes, etc.
If the Iranian revolution depended on the initiative of the Iranian working class it would never have begun. The impetus for the revolt has come from the landless rural peasants, many of whom have drifted into the towns but have failed to join the elite of the working class, the bazaar owners and of course the stuudents and intellectuals, whose expectations have been aroused by the partial liberallisation.
There is one other element in Iranian society which needs to be considered: the Islamic clergy, whose leaderrship of the uprising has tennded to confuse the nature of the revolt and the direction it is taking.
The religious leaders have assumed a central role in the revolt largely because of the absence of any alternative leadership. The two decades of severe repression. blotted out any political opposition to the Shah but the instituutions of Islam remained intact and around these clustered the discontent and rebellion. The mosques have remained legal and have been virtually the only available mass meetting places. Furthermore, the close contact between the religious leaders and the poor has made them -natural though inarticulate spokessmen for the oppressed. There have also been traditional ties between the religious hierrarchy and the bazaar.
The country's leading reliigious leader Ayatollah Khornneyni, has been in exile since I Shah Reza Mohammed Pahlavi (top) and one of his most 1963, first in neighbouring powerful opponents, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeyni.
Iraq and more recently outtside Paris. He has consistently demanded the abdication of the Shah, the restoration of democratic institutions and of Islamic laws, the latter two objectives being somewhat contradictory.
The recent violence in Iran dates from November 15 of last year. On the same day, the Shah was being received at the White House by Presiident Carter, who had greatly modified his civil rights stand since the campaign.
Some 6000 people had assembled at Aryarnehr Uniiversity Stadium in Teheran for a poetry reading by a forrmer political prisoner and a leading dissident. After about 4000 had entered the staddium, officials closed the gates preventing another 2000 from entering. Scuffles led to riots, and the police, swinging batons, charged, injuring 30 people and arresting 50.
Those inside the stadium, mostly students, refused to leave until a list of demands were met, including a guarantee that further poetry meetings would be allowed on the Teheran university campus, the release of the 50 people arrested and a guarantee of safe passage on leaving the stadium.
The students remained barricaded inside the stadium for 22 hours and following the guarantee of safe passage they began to file out. As they did so, they were attackked by police and many stuudents were seriously injured.
The incidents led to a series of protests and riots, centred primarily on Teheran university over the following weeks. Several of the leading dissident writers were singled out and beaten up by nonnuniformed people believed to be SAVAK agents.
These initial demonstraations were confined largely to students and intellectuals, but on January 9 of this year the most cohesive force in Iranian life, the muslim clergy, was' involved in the protest moveement following riots in the religious city of Qurn, the centre of the Islamic religion in Iran. Protests there followwed the publication of an article in the semi-official Teheran daily Ettala 'at, attacking Ayatullah Khomeini. A march to one of the mosques was intercepted by police who opened fired with machine guns and rifles. Government sources stated that only six people were killed but dissidents insisted that over 100 were massacred.
To commemorate the fortieth day of the killing of the Qum protestors (fortieth day mourning is an Islamic tradiition), the religious leader Ayatullah Shariatmadari called for a day of business shut down and "peaceful mourning". In response to this appeal, protests took place on Febauary 18 in several large cities, including Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz and Ahwaz, the biggest of them being Tabriz.
There, police confronted demonstraators and shot one youth at point blank range, The body of the slain youth was carried through the streets and huge demonstrations took place, with crowds chanting "death to the Shah".
The crowds took over the city for 36 hours. Several buildings with economic and institutional connections with the regime were burnt and, significantly, the local army commander refused to move against the demonstrators.
The Government rushed in paratrooopers, who opened fire on the crowd from helicopters. Estimates of the nummber killed were widely from 100 to 500 but the significance of the events in Tabriz was that now the mass of the people were mobilised against the regime. It was no longer a movement of students, intellectuals, and clergymen.
Another forty days later, on March 30, the religious leaders again called for 11 'nation-wide general strike to commeemorate the Tabriz dead. Strikes closed down most universities and bazaars and there was rioting in 55 cities and towns. Again there were killings. And again on the fortieth day of these deaths, May 9, there were further riots and demonstraations, after which the religious leaders decided not to call further fortieth day mourning protests. Nevertheless, the demonstrations continued unabated.
On June 8, 10,000 people in the Kurdish city of Majabad attended the funeral of a Kurdish nationalist who had spent 25 years in jail. They chanted "Free Kurdistan" and carried pictures of Mohammed Ghazi, the executed leader of the 1946 autonomous Mahabad Republic.
In the last weeks of July and again on August 10, anti-government demonnstrations took place in at least 20 cities. In the industrial city of Isfahan, where the largest of these protests took place, barricades were erected for the first time. The government put the city under marital law .
On August 19 a cinema was burnt to the ground and 600 people incinerrated in what the Shah insisted was the action of fanatical Islamic followers prootesting against Western modernising influences. But local anger was directed primarily against the authorities - nearly half an hour elapsed before the first fire engine arrived and once they got there they discovered that none of the hyddrants were working. The days of mournning for the victims turned into days of further demonstrations against the regime, and the demonstrations in Abadan spread to Tabriz, Qum and other cities.
It was clear by this time that the mass of the people were rising against the Shah and in acknowledgement of this, J amshid Amouzegar resigned as prime minister on August 27, to be replaced by Jaafar Sharif-Emami, who formed what he described as a "governnment of national reconciliation". As a concession to the religious leaders the "imperial calendar" was abolished and the old Islamic calendar reinstated, the token minister of women's affairs was abolished, and casinos were closed down. Sharif-Emami also announced "free elections" in June 1979, "freedom of activity for legitimate political parties" and a government campaign against corruption in the government bureaucracy.
But the wave of national outrage was not going to be bought off by gestures such as these. Demonstrations continued throughout the country with the largest ever taking place on Septemmber 4 when 4 million people took to the streets in several cities.
On September 7, I million people marched through Teheran shouting "death to the Shah" and on the followwing day martial law was declared in Teheran and other cities. Demonstraators, however, came onto the streets of Teheran-In defiance of the order. The army opened fire on them and at -least hundreds were massacred. The official death toll was 58 but by September 9, 3897 death certificates had been issued by the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetary (the largest in Teheran) for victims of gunnfire. Among the dead were about 400 women. Shooting continued for another six days, although at a reduced scale.
On September 14, 80,000 people took part in the march to the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetary in spite of the continuued imposition of marital law.
Apart from the countrywide demonnstrations, another development was unnfolding which could yet prove of even more profound significance. Strikes began to take place in August, initially over industrial issues but later encommpassing political objectives as well. For the first time the passive working class has got involved in the struggle.
In addition to this, press censorrship was easing and political parties declared themselves publicly - altogether, 14 of them.
The Black Friday massacre of Sepptember 8 in Teheran '(see photoograph on pages 40 and 41) has become a turning point in the recent history of Iran, primarily because for the first time in the year-long struggle the proletariat has become involved fully in the rebelllion. Following that incident, strikes took place throughout the country, hitting airline offices, schools, universities, government offices, factories, bazaars and, most critically, the oil fields. For several weeks the lifeline of the ecoonomy was closed off as oil production fell to almost zero. Oil workers and workers in other industries coupled poliitical demands to their ind ustrial demands and, in all instances, called for the overthrow of the Shah.
Meanwhile, demonstrations bigger than ever before took place throughout the country. In one city, Amol, the people even declared a democratic reepublic.
Piecemeal, the Shah was forced to reespond to the popular upsurge. Over 1000 political prisoners were released in October, censorship was further reelaxed but the demonstrations continued relentlessly. As the US government immpressed on the Shah that his position was becoming untenable, he dismissed the civilian government and installed in its place a military ad ministration under the prime ministership of the army chief of staff, General Gholam Beza Azhari, on November 6. This iniative followed the biggest demonstration to date in Teheran, protesting against the shooting of students at the university the previous day.
The installation of the military government was accompanied by the imposition of a dusk to dawn curfew, the banning of strikes and demonstraations, the closing of schools and uniiversities and the reimposition of cennsorship. In addition, 2000 of the Shah's most prominent opponents were arressted and imprisoned.
The Shah accompanied this further wave of repression by an abject television address in which he said the people's "revolutionary message has been heard ....I commit myself to make up for past mistakes, to fight corruption and injustice and to form a national government to carry out free elections" .
As a follow-up to the promise to fight corruption, the military governnordered the arrest of some fifty top officials of the government and close associates of the Shah. Among those arrested were a former prime minister (1965-'77) and the Shah's closest advisor for several years, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, and the former head of SAVAK, Gen. Ne mathollah Nassiri. The Shah also ordered the investigaation of the business dealings and the holdings of members of his own family.
While the appointment of the miliitary government led to a pause in the mass demonstrations, further strikes proliferated. Water and electricity were cut off in Teheran, telephone services, air traffic and telecommunications were disrupted and one million civil servants refused to work.
The oil workers struck again and the government appointed a military goverrnor in the Khuzestan province, the centre of oil production.
While, at the time of writing, there has been a temporary lull to the demonnstrations and strikes that have convulsed Iran over the last year, the portents reemain ominous for the Shah. The tradiitional period of mourning, Muharram, in December is likely to spark off furrther countrywide protests, the oil workkers, while back at the oil fields, have now been firmly established as part of the revolutionary upsurge.
Meanwhile, some of the moderate bourgeois opposition leaders - primarily of the former National Front which was ousted in 1963 - have begun to intimate that a Spanish-type constitutional monarchy would be acceptable, even with the Shah remaining on as King. Some of the religious leaders have enndorsed this strategy but the most powerrful Ayatollah Khorneyni still insists that the King of Kings must go .•