When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in January 1979, a moderate, bourgeois-democratic pro-Western one, led by Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, replaced his government. Although for most of his time in power the Shah had been content to reign as a Constitutional monarch, he became increasingly enamored of himself as a potential dictator. In 1975, he had abolished multi-party government and installed himself as the head of a one-party state. He literally outlawed all other parties than his own. He labeled members of the principal opposition party, the Tudeh, “traitors” (are you listening, Coulter, Limbaugh and Le-vin?). He in effect declared, in words that might sound familiar to citizens of the United States, “you are either with us or against us.”
Any opposition activities were criminalized and his at least in part CIA-trained secret police, the SAVAK, terrorized and tortured his enemies, real and perceived. When finally overthrown, this butcher was then allowed to go into exile, an event that was immediately greeted by an outpouring of public rage against him and everything he stood for. Eventually, President Jimmy Carter, succumbing to great pressure from a group of leading Republicans at the time, permitted him to enter the United States, against very strong warnings of what might happen sent by the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Their warnings proved to be tragically correct. And so ensued the hostage crisis and the accession to power of the Mullahs, as reactionary in their way as the Shah was in his, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The principal public complaints of the Mullahs and the interests they represented, the religious establishment, the peasantry, the farming interests that employed them, and reactionary elements of the military had little to do with the Shah’s abandonment of parliamentary democracy. They had very much to do with what they viewed as his “Westernizing” tendencies. Prime Minister Bakhtiar was also “Pro-Western” and a modernizer as well as a supporter of parliamentary democracy. However, he represented, presumably, very different class interests: upper middle-class manufacturing, financial and trading interests, and the petroleum industry. His support on the street came from the merchant class, educators, students, professionals, and the like.
Bakhtiar had hoped to create a Vatican-like state for Khomeini at Qom. But the latter wanted the whole thing. There was enormous built-up enmity against the United States going back to the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. The hostage crisis created by a combination of Carter’s blunder and the well-known association of the United States with the hated Shah gave Khomeini the opening he was looking for. The Army declared its neutrality; Khomeini mobilized his “anti-Western” forces and his class interests took over. Interestingly enough, Khomeini largely kept the SAVAK in place, with a change of name. So, with a surface appearance of “democracy,” under the umbrella of the Mullahs’ Supreme Council, the class groupings that they represent have remained in power for 30 years.
But the class interests represented by Bakhtiar and his short-lived government have of course not gone away. Presumably many of them made various accommodations with the Mullahs, while some of them did not. But 30 years is a long time. Plus, Iran’s population has become ever younger. Whatever the formal policy of the Islamist so-called Republic, they have been increasingly exposed to Western ideas and Western culture, increasingly through the Internet. Presumably they are increasingly chafing against the socio-cultural restrictions imposed by the Religious establishment. So when the thin film of Iranian “democracy” is destroyed in three hours, they are on the streets, originally in the hundreds of thousands.
But what is really going on is class struggle, not between workers and owners, but between the peasant-farming-repression, industrial-military, industrial interests that support the Mullahs and have kept them in place and the manufacturing, trading, financial, professional, scientific sector that was behind Bakhtiar (and lost) and is increasingly hemmed in by the international sanctions placed on Iran for pursuing (or not) a nuclear weapons program. In fact, it is very much in the interests of the industrial class to have a nuclear energy program fully open to international inspection because they know that someday their oil will run out and they want to be energy-independent. They want to get rid of the prancing puppet Ahmedinejad for sure. Some of them also want to get rid of the Mullahs entirely. And there are now reported splits among the Mullahs themselves, either on principle or because the smarter ones realize that if they don’t give up some power now, they are opening themselves up to losing it all later, just as the Shah did.
“Student uprisings” and “pro-democracy” demonstrations don’t last very long unless there are important class interests behind them. This is what is really going on in Iran. The right-wing Mullahs with their puppet Ahmedinejad seem to be winning the current round primarily because the opposition has no military force of any kind to call upon. But this struggle is far from over. The current public leadership of the anti-Mullahs movement is, publicly at least, fully loyal to the “Islamic Republic.” The next anti-regime leadership, public or underground, will not be. There are important class interests in Iran who are not at all well-served by the Regime of the Mullahs. The latter will be replaced at some time in the future, near or far, violently or relatively peacefully. Since there is no way that President Obama can affect this kind of distant class struggle, except to harm the long-term interests of the United States as the Republican power figures did at the end of the Carter Presidency, Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, is doing very well to keep his powder dry on this one.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for Buzz Flash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC); and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.