www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to issue 9 | PDF Version of this article

International Socialist Review Issue 9, August-September 2000

The Iranian Revolution

By Saman Sepehri

The Iranian revolution launched Islam as a new liberating force in the eyes of many in the Middle East. While Islamic fundamentalism has been a thorn in the side of U.S. imperialism, for thousands in the region, it has become the symbol of resistance to Western political and economic domination. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the image of American diplomats held hostage cast fundamentalism as a symbol of resistance to the U.S. and as the main enemy of the U.S. abroad.

Moreover, since the Iranian revolution, the U.S. has had to adapt to continuing volatility in the area, shifting its regional policy on security in the Persian Gulf and the flow of oil through it. Before the February 1979 Iranian revolution, the U.S. relied on the Shah and other regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, for security in the Middle East—with the Shah acting as policeman of the Gulf’s oil routes.

Since the revolution, not only has the U.S. had to intervene directly in the Gulf, but it has been in a perpetual military conflict in the area:

• In 1987, after seven years of containing the damage from the war between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. mobilized the largest naval force since the Vietnam War to help Iraq defeat Iran.

• Only four years later in 1991, the U.S. launched its first full-scale war since Vietnam against Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whom it had armed and supported in the war against Iran. The U.S. continues to bomb Iraq and maintains sanctions that have starved tens of thousands of Iraqis. It also still maintains a trade embargo against Iran.

The Shah

The Shah was installed into power by a CIA-planned coup d’etat in 1953 that toppled Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq had brought the wrath of the Western governments on himself by nationalizing the Iranian oil industry, which was owned and run by Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until the 1950s.

Britain had discovered oil in Iran in 1908 and received a concession for the exclusive development of Iranian oil fields from the weak Iranian government. Over the next 25 years, the British made more than 200 million pounds from the sale of Iranian oil, while paying Iran only 16 million pounds.1

After the Second World War, Mossadeq led a nationalist movement that challenged British control of Iranian oil. When Mossadeq nationalized the oil fields, Western oil companies organized a boycott of Iranian oil. As the movement radicalized, involving mass protests of workers and the urban poor, some capitalists who had initially backed Mossadeq grew apprehensive. This opened the door to Western covert intervention.

In August 1953, the CIA engineered the coup that brought down the Mossadeq government and installed U.S. ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah. The U.S. intervention not only put an end to the nationalist challenge of Mossadeq, but also established the U.S. as the dominant power in the region, wresting away control of Mideast oil from Britain. Alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran became a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy to ensure the stability and safety of the oil supply in the region.

In the following 25 years, the Shah established strong relations with the U.S. and Israel. Using massive U.S. military aid and oil profits, which had grown from $34 million in 1955 to $22 billion in 1973, Iran became the world’s largest arms importer in the 1970s.2 The Shah built a large army—with an air force rivaling that of France—which became the guardian of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.

The Shah also crushed all opposition from the working class and the left, jailing and torturing some 20,000 political prisoners to make Iran a haven for U.S. companies. At the same time, the oil money and U.S. military aid that flowed into Iran served to industrialize the country and create a sizable working class, with some 2.5 million people employed in manufacturing, and 70,000 workers in the all-important oil industry.


Although the Iranian revolution of 1979 resulted in the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic, it was the mobilization of the working class and the poor that brought the Shah’s regime to its knees. In 1975, a drop in oil revenues—Iran’s main source of income—led to a serious economic crisis. This set the stage for the protests that eventually toppled the Shah’s regime.

In June 1977, the first protests against the Shah in 14 years took place involving thousands of slum dwellers from Tehran, Iran’s capital city. Cuts in wages also sparked strikes, which peaked in July when General Motors workers set the factory on fire in protest.3

The protests by workers and the urban poor forced the Shah to allow some dissent in order to vent the anger against him. This encouraged other sectors of society to openly protest the regime. Intellectuals, who had been silenced by the regime, the clergy (known as mullahs) and their allies—the traditional merchants, shopkeepers and small business owners (known as the Bazaar) who had felt left out of the earlier economic boom and squeezed by foreign companies—joined the protests.

Between October 1977 and September 1978, anti-Shah protests grew from weekly to daily events. The protests culminated in a demonstration of some 2 million people in Tehran on September 7, 1978. It was among the largest demonstrations in history. In response, the Shah imposed martial law and his troops massacred more than 2,000 demonstrators.

While the street demonstrations were a massive show of force, it was the subsequent strikes that broke the back of the Shah’s regime. When martial law threatened to end the protests, Iran’s 30,000 oil workers struck. They brought the country to a standstill. This gave the revolution new momentum, sparking a mass strike wave.

Workers struck and took over factories, offices, hospitals and universities nationwide. They set up democratic workers’ committees (called shoras), and either bypassed or simply chased out owners and managers. Slum dwellers set up neighborhood committees around local mosques. As the Shah’s army and the police began to disintegrate, these committees took over the patrolling of the neighborhoods.

The main left organizations—People’s Fedayeen, People’s Mojahedin guerrillas and the Communist Tudeh Party—which for years had been repressed brutally by the Shah, resurfaced during the revolution and enjoyed great popularity. As the army began to disintegrate, the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin guerrillas took the initiative and urged sections of the armed forces, notably the air force cadets, to mutiny and arm the people in the streets.

On February 11, 1979, with sections of the Shah’s army in rebellion, Khomeini’s forces and his coalition of clergy and liberal capitalist politicians took power. Khomeini, just returned from exile, had since the early 1960s been identified as a religious leader who had conducted an extended propaganda campaign against the Shah.

It was the working class who had been crucial in giving the movement new impetus and moving the struggle to a new level at vital points in September. And it had been workers’ strikes, especially the oil workers’ strike, that had broken the back of the regime. But if the workers’ committees and the mass strikes had played a crucial role in the revolution, why had the religious opposition taken power?

Phil Marshall explains that “while the level of organization within the factories, plants and offices was high, there was little co-ordination outside the workplaces.”4 He describes a situation in which the strike committees “held control in hundreds of workplaces. But nowhere were the committees moving towards a co-ordinated attack on the structure of the capitalist system.”5

If the workers’ strike committees that had made the revolution possible did not lead it, the neighborhood committees built around the mosques played a key role in allowing the clergy to take control of the movement.6 The strike committees were the channels through which the working class could express its opposition to the regime and organize against it, but the neighborhood committees (komitehs) and the neighborhood mosques became organizing poles for the marginalized urban poor. This was aided by the fact that throughout his rule, the Shah was more tolerant of religious opposition, allowing a small space for the mullahs to express their views while other forces were completely smashed.

Khomeini and the clergy did not gain leadership by advocating the wearing of the veil for women, that minority religions be suppressed, and so on. Khomeini offered up radical, populist rhetoric and portrayed Islam as a religion of the poor and oppressed. Marshall describes the effect of this strategy on the movement:

While the mullahs could not mobilize the working class, they could dominate the movement of the streets and through Khomeini’s radical rhetoric, project themselves as the embodiment of the national opposition.7

The failure of the left was also crucial in allowing Khomeini’s forces to take power. The workers and the left could have challenged both the Shah’s regime and the mullahs’ leadership based on the power of the workers’ strike committees. But their political strategy made this impossible. Both the Fedayeen and Mojahedin guerrillas had years ago dismissed organizing the Iranian working class and had turned to underground armed activity as a substitute in order to spark a change.

Moreover, they had accepted a two-stage strategy for the Iranian revolution. They argued that since Iran was not ready for socialism, the left should limit itself to bringing about a democratic change by building a broad coalition involving liberal capitalists and the clergy, before the question of workers’ power and socialism could be raised at some future date. Instead of building and extending the workers’ committees, much of the left subordinated workers’ interests to building a coalition with the clergy and liberals who were hostile to the working class. They argued that the main task was to maintain unity in the movement in order to get rid of the Shah’s dictatorship.

As a result, the revolution brought to power Khomeini’s forces—which appointed a government of bourgeois liberal politicians led by Mehdi Bazargan. It was, as Shaul Bakhsh wrote, “a cabinet of engineers, lawyers, educators, doctors and former civil servants, men drawn from the professional middle class.”8

Although Bazargan and the liberal capitalists were later purged from the government, the clergy and the liberals did have a common goal at the time—to bring the workers’ movement under control and quell the movements of Iran’s national minorities. Only three days after the insurrection, Khomeini ordered all striking workers to return to work. Within a month the government threatened:

Any disobedience from and sabotage of the implementation of the plans of the Provisional Government will be regarded as opposition against the genuine Islamic Revolution. The provocateurs and agents will be introduced to the people as counter-revolutionary elements, so that the nation will decide about themÍ9

The provisional government used a range of tactics to destroy workers’ control. Competing Islamic committees were set up at workplaces to sideline the shoras. Neighborhood committees under government control were strengthened as a way to weaken the workplace committees. Where these tactics did not work, businesses that had been taken over by the workers were allowed to fail as a way to dissolve the workers’ committees. Finally, if this failed, brute force was used to make the workers turn over control to either the owners or the state.

At the same time, a military offensive was launched against Kurds and other national minorities who had gained some autonomy during the revolution. This destroyed the last foothold for the left.

Then, in the fall of 1979, supporters of Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats hostage. With the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the 444-day “hostage crisis” that ensued, Khomeini was able to label any dissent as the work of U.S. imperialism. This enabled him to not only suppress the left, but to rid himself of the liberals in the government.

After the invasion of Iran by Iraq and the start of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Islamic government crushed all opposition, fully consolidating its power.

The 1979 Iranian revolution was an impressive display of the power of the Iranian working class. It showed the potential that existed for working-class rule through the workers’ committees. But it also showed the shortcomings of the Iranian left and the workers’ movement.

Today, many of the problems faced by the working class and the poor who led the revolution of 1979 have resurfaced more acutely. The rhetoric of anti-imperialism used by the Islamic regime rings hollow to many who are faced with unemployment and falling living standards. Iran today is still greatly dependent on its diminishing oil income, which has to feed a population twice that of 1979. The ruling Islamic regime is faced with a serious crisis and splits between conservatives and the reformist forces behind Mohammad Khatami, the new president. Khatami’s experiment with greater democracy—laced with austerity measures—could thrust Iranian workers back to the center stage of struggle in a way not seen since the 1979 revolution.

1 Phil Marshall, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Iran (London: Bookmarks, 1988), p.16. This is the best short account—from a Marxist perspective—of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath.

2 Maryam Poya, “Iran 1979,” in Colin Barker, ed., Revolutionary Rehearsals (London: Bookmarks, 1987), p. 128.

3 Marshall, p.39.

4 Marshall, p.51.

5 Marshall, p.71.

6 Marshall, p.52.

7 Marshall, p.59.

8 Quoted in Marshall, p.70.

9 Marshall, p.76.

Back to top