by Kamran Nayeri
Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism
January 15, 2017
On January 8, 2017, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran and one of the wealthiest men in Iran, died of stroke at age 82. He was eulogized not only by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Republic establishment but also in the West, including by mass media in the United States. Of course, in keeping with the expected political opportunism, in each instance, a suitable aspect of Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s long political career was highlighted. One headline called him a “revolutionary and a reformer,” the reference being to Rafsanjani’s role in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and his subsequent function as a “moderate” and “reformer” within the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic establishment. For working people in Iran and worldwide who do not know the history of the Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic, it may be helpful to recall the class nature of Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s political legacy that underlies the eulogies of today with an eye towards writing our own history.
The 1979 revolution
Rafsanjani was among the handful of Ayatollah Khomeini’s disciples who played a central role in establishing the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic regime by destroying the grassroots movements that led to the February 1979 revolution and drew strength from it or were born out of it. Chief among these was the shora (council) movement that bubbled up in workplaces (workers, peasant, and soldiers shoras), in neighborhoods and schools (neighborhoods’ komite, high schools’ and colleges’ shoras) and in regions of the oppressed nationalities (in particular in Turkmen Sahra and Kurdistan). While the shora movement was far from being universal (for example, workplace shoras developed in large factories and workplaces, and mostly in the industrial sector) and had serious limitations wherever they were formed, it demonstrated the creativity of working people (see, for example, Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran, 1987) . No political party was responsible for their formation. And they posed the road forward for the 1979 Iranian revolution to secure the democratic space won through mass struggle against the dictatorship, by forging a government of the people, by the people and for the people, a workers and peasant government, that could begin dismantling capitalism and landlordism and to build towards a socialist future. In fact, there was an obvious thirst for socialist ideas banned under the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi among the young people and more advanced sectors of the workers movement. I recall standing inside the gates of the Tehran University a day or two after the February 11 downfall of the Shah’s regime with a tall stack of the Socialist Workers Party’s “The Manifesto of the Rights of Workers and Toilers” as the crowd whisked away all of them within a few minutes while generously handing me small and large amounts of monetary contributions to publish more. When the Fedayeen, an underground urban socialist guerrilla movement under the Shah which was largely decimated through brutal repression in the 1970s, held a rally at the same location a few weeks later, more than a hundred thousand attended. It was because of this pressure from the mass movement and socialist groups that Khomeini and other prominent clerics were promising state provision of basic needs for working people.
Also, it is important to recall that the movement against the Shah’s dictatorship was all-inclusive and democratic. How could it have been otherwise? It was probably the largest urban mass mobilization in the twentieth century. Consider the December 10 and 11, 1978 mass mobilizations which took place in all large Iranian cities where several million people of all walks of life marched chanting “Down with the Shah.” One author, Moin, cites a figure of 17 million marchers (Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, 2009, p. 196). That is about half the country’s population which was estimated at 35 million. Although the call for the demonstration was initiated by Khomeini to coincide with the Shia religious holidays, people regardless of religion or ideology participated in these historic marches and they were in the overwhelming majority young working people. Also, it was the general strike of the oil workers that defeated the martial law and opened the way for the mass movement that forced the hated Shah to flee Iran on January 16, 1979. Again, it was the mass movement that forced the Shah’s last prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, to reopen Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport for Ayatollah Khomeini to return from exile in Paris on February 1, 1979. Finally, it was the working class youth of East Tehran helped by the armed leftist guerrillas that fought and defeated the Imperial Guardsmen when they attacked the barracks of the air force technicians (homafars) who had pledged their support for the revolution to stage a military coup d’etat on February 9. This battle became the beginning of the mass insurrection as people armed and unarmed stormed all military barracks, police, gendarmerie headquarters, prisons and torture houses of the Shah’s regime in Tehran and other cities culminating in the February 11 fall of the Shah’s regime.
The hijacking and crushing of the revolution
Rafsanjani was among the handful of senior clerics in Ayatollah Khomeini’s inner circle that engineered and established the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic regime by hijacking and then crushing the 1979 revolution. In fact, in his memoir, Rafsanjani speaks of the day after the insurrection when the state-run television and radio stations were running statements and manifestos of different political and grassroots groups. He recalls how he intervened in the television station to bring it under the control of forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini because he wanted it to speak of the “Islamic Revolution” instead of the Iranian revolution. And this he did. Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, one of the three non-clerical confidants of Khomeini, was assigned as the director of the station and immediately he imposed strict censorship of the news and programming of the station (Gotbzadeh was executed on September 15, 1982, for allegedly plotting a coup against Khomeini backed by Saudi Arabia). On February 18, Rafsanjani assisted ayatollah Beheshti, another disciple of Khomeini, to found the Islamic Republic Party. On April 1, Ayatollah Khomeini imposed an anti-democratic referendum that offered Iranians two options: a return to the hated Pahlavi monarchy which they had just overthrown, or an Islamic Republic. There was no discussion of what this Islamic Republic was supposed to be, and when Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini’s appointed prime minister of the provisional government, suggested a “Democratic Islamic Republic,” Khomeini was enraged. No wonder that 98.2% voted for the Islamic Republic! On August 18, an Assembly of (Islamic) Experts was elected to draft the Islamic Republic’s constitution. All political tendencies that were non-Islamic or favored an interpretation of Islam deemed unorthodox, were excluded. Khomeini was given the final say over all key matters and appointed as the chief commander of the armed forces. On December 2-3, the draft constitution was put to yet another undemocratic referendum and received 98% of the votes. The formal process of the hijacking of the revolution was complete.
But the revolution, understood as the grassroots movements of the masses, in particular, the Shora movement, was still alive. Through a series of selective repression and co-options, the Islamic Republic regime consolidated itself (for a summary discussion of this process see, Nayeri and Nasab, “The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today,” May 2006). Rafsanjani was a central player in hijacking and crushing the Iranian revolution.
Thus, the West (including its academics) has found it suitable to buy into the clerical capitalist regime’s claim that the Iranian revolution was essentially a popular movement to establish the Islamic Republic, that it was an Islamic Revolution. A historical parallel can be found in the West (including its academics) trumpeting the Stalinist lie that the bureaucratic caste that destroyed the Bolshevik party and the October revolution was the continuity of Bolshevism and the 1917 Russian revolution. The convergence of interests between imperialism and the counter-revolution that emerged from within the 1979 Iranian revolution is reflected in the eulogies for Rafsanjani. He is a “revolutionary” because he was among the new elite that usurped power that the masses took from the hated monarchy through a calculated scheme to hijack the revolution and then crush it. The “reformer” Rafsanjani they praise is a product of their opportunism, their effort to find a way to come to terms with the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic now that it has brought forth stability for capitalist exploitation.
For a history from below
As Walter Benjamin observed, history is written by the victors. To clear the fog of rulers’ lies the working people need to uncover and write our own history. The democratic aspiration of the Iranian revolution brought together currents from various social classes and strata in the face of autocracy. When Rafsanjani and other key supporters of Khomeini were in the Shah’s jails in the 1970s there were many more labor and socialist activists in jail who were in fact treated much more harshly. Take, for example, a leader of oil workers in Tehran refinery, Yadullah Khosroshahi, who was arrested a number of times beginning in 1971. In 1973, he was severally tortured and given a 10-year sentence. He was released, thanks to the mass movement against the Shah demanding freedom for political prisoners. He immediately joined the leadership of the oil workers movement that organized the decisive general strike of fall 1978. Khosroshahi went on to become a central leader of the oil workers shora. In 1982, he was arrested, this time by the Islamic Republic, as part of a sweeping attack on all labor and socialist movements and tortured. He was released in 1987 and soon forced into exile where he continued rebuilding the Iranian labor movement in exile and later, when conditions allowed, inside Iran. He died of a stroke at age 68 in London on February 4, 2010. (For a brief biography see, Nayeri, “A Biographical Sketch of the Iranian Socialist Labor Leader Yadullah Khosroshahi,” 2016A)
Of course, from the perspective of the 1979 Iranian revolution, conceived as the rise of the grassroots movements of the Iranian working people, Khosroshahi was a historic figure. But no one among the ruling classes or their media, in Iran or the rest of the world, took notice. Iranian labor activists inside and outside Iran as well as some unions in Western Europe and Canada, of course, celebrated Khosroshahi’s life and achievements as did many Iranian leftist groups. But when I tried to publish a Wikipedia entry about Khosroshahi’s life the “editors” objected precisely because he was an unknown in the mass media or academia (see, Nayeri, “Why You Cannot Learn about the Iranian Labor History from Wikipedia,” 2016B). Some found him not notable enough to deserve an entry in Wikipedia. Others felt a biography based on statements from labor activities, unions or socialist groups is “one-sided” and “not objective.” But how can our working class and socialist leaders get recognized by capitalist controlled press and academia? They often cannot due to institutional class bias against the working people and their leaders. When in the mid-2000s I tried in collaboration with the nationally known oral historian Professor Richard Cándida Smith, Director of the University of Californian, Berkeley, Regional Oral History Office, and Professor Asef Bayat, the author of Workers and Revolution in Iran (1987), a book-length study of the workers shoras submitted a research proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities to take oral histories of up to 40 leaders of the workers’ shora movement in 1979 Iranian revolution, it was rejected based on one critical comment even though it received “excellent” marks from other reviewers (see, Nayeri, “The Yadullah I Knew: A Tribute to an Iranian Working Class Leader,” 2010). The anonymous critical reviewer objected to the first draft of the proposal to interview 30 leaders of the Iranian workers council leaders because they were all living in exile. He/she wanted interviews with those who were able to remain inside Iran! Of course, not only afew such leaders managed to survive the repression and remain inside Iran, interviewing them would pose a serious security risk to them and the research team. When we found an additional ten participants in the workers council movement in Iran who agreed to be interviewed, the critical reviewer asked why the leaders of the government created “labor” organizations were not included. Thus, our attempt to provide a rich set of oral history that could become raw research material for historians of Iranian labor and history was derailed.
Yadullah Khosroshahi began working at the Abadan refinery at age 14. Rafsanjani must have joined a shia seminary about the same age. Khosroshahi joined the rank of the Iranian working class and became one its most prominent leaders. Rafsanjani joined one of the two props of capitalism and landlordism in Iran (the other was the monarchy) and helped crushing go the mass movement of the working people by installing a theocracy instead of the autocracy they destroyed in February 1979 revolution. While stroke ended both men’s lives, Khosroshahi died in exile at 68 and Rafsanjani died in Tehran at age 82 being one of the richest men in Iran, thanks to the counter-revolution that he helped organize. That is what is behind all the glowing eulogies in the capitalist media in Iran and the West.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Andrew Pollack for asking me to write this commentary and for copy editing my draft. I am alone responsible for the views expressed here and any remaining errors.
Bayat, Asef. Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers’ Control. 1987.
Nayeri, Kamran and Alireza Nasab. “The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today,” III Conferencia Internacional La obra de Carlos Marx y los desafíos del Siglo XXI, May 2006.
Nayeri, Kamran. “The Yadullah I Knew: A Tribute to an Iranian Working Class Leader,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, march 7, 2010.
——————-. “A Biographical Sketch of the Iranian Socialist Labor Leader Yadullah Khosroshahi,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, February 27, 2016.
——————-. “Why You Cannot Learn about the Iranian Labor History from Wikipedia,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, March 6, 2017.
Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: The Life of the Ayatollah. 2009.