This interview is with an Iranian woman active on the left who had lived in the US for seven years before returning to Iran in January 7979. She visited MERIP in Boston in early February 1980.
Could you tell us what your impressions were when you returned to Iran a year ago?
I had been away about seven years. When I arrived, the Shah had just left. The feeling of solidarity was tremendous, with everyone cooperating and organizing massive demonstrations.
Do you feel that sense of unity and solidarity is still there?
People are organized and united around one important issue: US imperialism. The turning point of the Iranian revolution, since the victory of 21 Bahman, the date of the February 1979 revolution on the Persian calendar, has been the seizure of the Embassy. It revived the solidarity and the unity which had been temporarily lost.
What are the most important issues facing the Iranian revolution right now?
The most important question is the oppressed nationalities, which expresses itself in the form of the right to self-determination, and the question of land and peasantry in Kurdistan, in Gonbadi Kabus, and now also in Baluchistan.
The Kurdish movement is symbolized by a person all the Kurds respect — Shaikh Ezzeddin Husseini — a religious and political figure who represents the sentiments of the Kurdish masses. They all accept him as their sole leader. Well, it’s true there are other groups working — the Komaleh in Kurdistan, the Fedayi, other Marxist guerrilla groups — they are all working with the Kurds. They all have their own little territories, but they have agreements. When the government sent a team to Kurdistan to negotiate with the Kurds, the government wanted to exclude the left organizations. Ezzedin Husseini said that he would not accept negotiations that excluded the left groups. He’s not a Marxist, he’s not a Communist, he’s a religious leader. And he’s respected by all the Kurds.
In Tabriz it is a different question because on the surface it’s been portrayed as a question of rivalry between Shariatmadari and Khomeini. When the uprising started in Tabriz, Ezzedin Husseini sent a telegram of solidarity to the people in Tabriz saying that we face a similar struggle, the right of the Azerbaijanis, the Turkish people, to speak their own language, the right to self-determination. But it’s being expressed differently in Azerbaijan than in Kurdistan because the two are being represented by two different leaderships.
Can you tell us how the left relates the question of US imperialism to these class and ethnic divisions?
The government’s position is that any problem in the country, like Kurdistan or Tabriz, is because of US imperialism. The Tudeh party — nobody regards it as the left anymore — is the only group that takes the Khomeini position. When the people in Kurdistan fight for the right to self-determination, to have their own schools, to have their children speak Kurdish, the Tudeh sided with Khomeini and said that it was US imperialism that’s fighting in Kurdistan.
Everywhere on the left, of course, there are varieties of views. The Socialist Workers Party of Iran and the Fedayi organization said that what was happening there was definitely a struggle for self-determination and had nothing to do with agents of imperialism. A lot of the members of the Fedayi who were fighting in Kurdistan were executed during that period of oppression. And when the schools opened up in October their pictures were all over the university. The Mojahedin, which is one of the largest political organizations in Iran, has very deep roots within the working class in Iran, in the factories. The Mojahedin’s position is not really open support for self-determination in exactly those terms, but they do support the struggle of the Kurdish people. When the Mojahedin announced their candidate for the presidency, they added to their program the defense of the right of the oppressed nationalities.
What is self-determination? It can mean secession, it can mean the setting up of an independent political entity. How does the left deal with that question?
The Marxist theory of self-determination says that the right to self-determination goes all the way to secession. But the left in Iran doesn’t talk about this now for one very important reason. For 50 years the Pahlavi monarchy, the Shah and his father, have always tried to portray the oppressed nationalities as secessionists, as separatists. We think that is a false thing. None of the minorities have mentioned it. None of them have a desire to separate from Iran. Neither the Arabs, the Kurds, nor the Baluchis have ever mentioned secession. If anybody does, it’s always come from the side of reaction, such as the Shah. And right now the right wing in the new government, who have always wanted to crush the struggles of these Kurds or Baluchis, are saying that these people are secessionist. So it consistently comes from the right. The left may have to state its position on secession. My personal position is that if ever the minorities call for that, I am for it. But you see, it hasn’t happened.
In Kurdistan they specifically mention that the economy of Kurdistan is ruined because the Shah extracted all its income and used it for building Tehran. Kurdistan has no roads, it has no electricity, no housing, no transportation. It has very poor health facilities. Education is a disaster. All that they are demanding is that all of this be under Kurdish control. There has been no talk of secession, or separation in any sense.
What do you see as some of the other important questions facing the Iranian revolution?
One of the most important developments of the Iranian revolution is the growth of workers’councils. One of the important Islamic proponents of shoura, or workers’ councils, was Taleqani, who died in September. This has been one of the most important and pressing demands of workers. One of the best examples is the factory that I worked in. The Mojahedin were doing active educational work in the factories, explaining what a council would mean. The workers would have the right to come to council meetings, to express their grievances, and they would have the right to open the books to see what was being spent, how much the wages were, how much the earnings of this factory were, and to decide how much should be produced, whether their wages should be equal to the rate of inflation or not, whether there should be a sliding scale of wages, more vacation hours, sick days, everything they had never had a chance to do under the Shah’s regime. Then they had a government-controlled syndicate which was everything but a union, lt was a SAVAK union to control the workers, to see who was doing what. In those unions, anyone who dared to state a grievance would be thrown in jail. A few years ago, in an Isfahan steel factory, some of the workers tried to organize; they were all arrested and two of them were executed.
One factory where a workers’ council was formed including workers and white collar employees is the Rayovac battery factory. They took over the books of the factory and opened them up. They’ve been successful not only in raising wages, but also in increasing production.
For the first time workers are starting to raise demands about getting benefits like health. There are demands for 40-hour weeks. That was another very popular thing. I remember in the factory where I worked they were going to increase the work week to 45 hours to meet buyers’ demands, and there was tremendous resistance to that.
There was a big demonstration by the Workers’ Islamic Council about three weeks ago, which represents 128 factories in Iran. They had a massive demonstration of tens of thousands at the Embassy to show support for the seizure of the Embassy and the hostages. All in all, I think the demand for councils is one of the most impressive developments in Iran.
Are they all over the country?
If any factory doesn’t have one, there is a struggle around it. There’s some resistance in a few places, even minor sabotage. In the factory where I worked one of the Mojahedin was elected as head of the council in her section. Immediately there was a move to try to sabotage the formation of the council because some didn’t want her. It’s not that the councils have been formed in every factory and that everything is fine and there are all these fabulous demands that are passed every day. What’s important is that after 50 years of oppression the Iranian revolution has leaped ten years ahead.
Last May 1, the left planned to have a May Day demonstration. The religious groups got worried and decided to have a May Day parade themselves. Then the government declared May Day as a national holiday. Every group including the religious had their own meetings. About two weeks later, the government announed future national holidays in the calendar, and May Day was not mentioned. What will happen this year? If the government and the religious organizations don’t want a May Day, and the left calls for a May Day, how many workers would follow the left?
Before May Day, there will be other events to test whether May Day is going to work, and what it will depend on. Beyond this, you have to see the relationship of the forces in Iran. The left is very small, extremely small. For instance, when the Fedayi call for a demonstration, 100,000 people come. That’s not big compared to 3 million — 3 million — who would come out every week for a government-sponsored demonstration. Or for the one million who come out every Friday for the prayers. So the left, right now, doesn’t have much room to maneuver in calling for demonstrations. Last May Day was totally different. The government knew that the left was gaining strength. This was before the wave of repression in Kurdistan and before the attempt to crush the opposition. Now there is an opening, with the Embassy seizure, but everything that the left has been able to do, if it’s not approved by the students in the Embassy, gets attacked very easily. For example, when the hostages were first seized, there were different demonstrations of support. The Fedayi called a demonstration. The Hezbollah (the Party of God) said they were going to disrupt it. Hezbollah is a violent right-wing religious group whose organizers are unknown. The students in the Embassy said that no demonstrations against US imperialism are to be disrupted. So over one hundred thousand people came to the Fedayi demonstration. Last month, when the students asked that the masses show their support about whether they should continue to expose the documents or not, the Fedayi called another demonstration. And this one the students denounced, because obviously they are under tremendous pressure from this right clerical wing of the government. Mehdi Bazargan wanted to sue the students at the Embassy for exposing those documents. They denounced the demonstration of the Fedayi. There were hundreds of thousands of people out, but it was so badly attacked that I think they will think twice again about calling another demonstration, until the mood is acceptable. It’s difficult to weigh what’s going to happen next. It’s going to depend on the development of forces between now and May Day.
Perhaps you could tell us about the situation of women in Iran right now.
This must be viewed in terms of the position of women over the past 50 years. Every single human right, every basic elementary democratic right, was taken away from women during the Shah’s regime. We know about the brutalization of women in Iranian prisons. The revolution has meant a tremendous step forward. For the first time in Iranian history, women actually came out into the street. They defied any limitation of their role to the family, the notion that they belong in the home and that’s all they are good for. An American once told me, “You know, when I go to the Iranian villages, I only see men. There are no women visible. Does Iran have any women?” And she was right. The stark truth for Iranian women was that they could never go anywhere. If they had the chance to go to school, it would be just five hours a day, and then they would have to run back home. Now this revolution has provided for the first time the possibility for women to actually come out of the home, to be in the streets, to participate in the political movement in Iran. Every Friday they are out in the streets. Every time there is an anniversary or other occasion it is women who come out and demonstrate, lt has been a very liberating experience for them to be able to defy their old restrictions to the homes. They have organized their own women’s groups. Women march together with men in demonstrations. They have their own loudspeakers. Women have their own guards. They organize everything themselves.
This is not to say that the Khomeini regime supports equal rights for women. Obviously one of the first places women want equal rights is in production, to be absorbed in the labor force. And we see that that is not the case. There are rumors, and in some cases it has certainly happened, that they have dismissed a lot of women, or they have closed a job category to women. One of the biggest struggles, and it’s still reflected in the Iranian press, concerns women lawyers. Women, according to the Islamic constitution, cannot be lawyers. They can be presidents, but they can’t be lawyers. The judgment of two women, according to this line, equals that of one man. That’s why women said they would not vote for the Constitution with this big discrepancy. There was an article in the official newspaper Bamdad about three weeks ago about what they are doing to books in elementary schools. Apparently they have taken a fourth grade text where a boy and a girl are playing together, crossed out the girl, and now it’s two boys that are playing together. Now they don’t have a little girl write a letter to the boy, but two boys corresponding. On one page there was the mother in the kitchen, and let’s say Mohammed was helping his mother. Now they have a girl helping the mother.
Last year, just two months after the revolution, we organized massive demonstrations on March 8. On March 7, Khomeini had ordered the thing about the veil, and hundreds of women came into the streets. I myself, with a loud speaker, led one demonstration of 20,000 women from Tehran University. Women said the main demand was freedom of choice. One woman who got the loudest applause said that when Reza Shah forcibly unveiled women, we opposed that, and if Khomeini wants to forcedly veil women, we’re going to oppose that, too. Anybody who wants to wear it should wear it, and whoever doesn’t want to, shouldn’t have to. Khomeini backed down the next morning and announced that he never said every woman must wear the veil. He claimed only that it is an Islamic covering, and is respected as such. So there are attacks on women’s rights. That is obvious. But if anybody just begins with the last 12 months, and says this is what the Khomeini regime is all about, they don’t realize what women have endured over the last 50 years and what they have now. In the anti-imperialist demonstrations since the seizure of the Embassy, women have been very visible and militant. Women who were never seen outside in the street are now standing behind political literature tables, selling books, holding political discussions and arguments. It’s a very incredible experience and a very important development.
In white-collar jobs, where women have been working in offices, there has been an attempt to weed the women out, to replace them with men. Do you know if anything like that has happened in factories?
In certain sectors women are very much involved in factory work. That hasn’t happened because they do need unskilled workers in factories. Most of the factories are dominated by men, with the exception of textile industry where women are very numerous. So it’s mainly true of office jobs, not factories.
What is happening among students and at the university?
The universities have been very active. The November 4th takeover of the US Embassy took place on the anniversary of the Shah’s attack on Tehran University, when many students were killed. The universities are places where big meetings speeches can take place. The only other such institution is the mosque. The government is constantly organizing mosques. Now, there are mosques in every university. There’s the noon prayer and all of that going on. But the universities are bubbling with political activity, and all the left organizations have one section of the walk to put their posters up. They all have offices. They can work openly. The schools were closed during the wave of repression when the events occured. When the schools opened up in October you could see the organizations express everything that had been pent up over the past three months — putting up posters, organizing lectures and rallies. But the key to further revolution in Iran is not the students bu the people who are forming the councils in the factories.
Are there government organizations on the campus?
The Islamic Republican Party has some very small chapters in the university. It’s the main opposition group to all the others, even though the left is also very divided. When the Embassy seizure happened, all the groups in the university had different positions. Some, like the Fedayi, were confused and didn’t know if they should support it or not. And some had the position that this was to divert everyone from the main problems. But there is a strong anti-imperialist sentiment among the Iranian people. They want industry nationalized, they want nothing to do with the United States, they want all exploitative relations cut. The Embassy seizure represents that. Eventually most of the groups changed their position. Those who were confused could see for themselves how workers were coming every week to support this action.
Are most groups able to publish their newspapers now?
Some are publishing legally with a permit from the government. Those who don’t have a permit continue to publish but it’s not allowed to be legally sold. In the universities it’s very easy to sell illegal papers.
Are you optimistic about the future of the left?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t want to say a socialist revolution will be on the agenda in the next few months, but I think that every major step that has been taken — the organization of workers in councils, the land seizures by the peasants, the demand of the national minorities for self-determination, the massive anti- imperialist movement in Iran.
The left is one thing, and mobilizing people in the streets is another.
Well, the program of the present government shows that in the past year it hasn’t really done as much as it could have. If the present government cannot solve the question of unemployment, which is the most important question in Iran, and then inflation, people are going to look for alternatives. A lot of youth who were radicalized in the past year have been looking for alternatives. I think the same is true for the workers. The nationalization of industry is related to the question of unemployment — if they cannot solve this, then I think the unemployed workers are going to look for alternatives. There is no alternative but the left in Iran.
In the last year of the Shah’s reign the immigration from the villages had practically doubled. Because of this migration and the total unrest in the revolutionary situation, the peasants hadn’t harvested any of the crops. In a lot of places, because of drought, there are even more problems than in previous years. The present government has been trying to implement exchange programs with the socialist countries and start developing agriculture. But the Iranian revolution has not been able to do much of anything on the question of agriculture. The government must move. Right now it doesn’t have too much support among the peasantry anyway.
We’ve heard that one reason for unemployment is that the owners of factories are just keeping them closed.
This shows the weakness of the government, that it hasn’t moved to confiscate these factories. The government seized the factories only of those who fled the country. A lot of people within the government have ties to the owners who stayed. Shariatmadari is known to be a very big landowner, and Bazargan has a good-sized construction company. So that’s going to be the key, running these industries and getting them moving. The other problem is that industry in Iran, the way the Shah developed it, is not at all self-sufficient, but is dependent on material coming from abroad.
I see this government as a transitional government, very temporary. Everything positive that has happened has come from the masses below.
How significant are the presidential elections?
It a was democratic move to give people blank paper so they could write in their own presidential candidate. But obviously there were other undemocratic moves which were to exclude a lot of the candidates. The government dropped Rajavi by saying that whoever hasn’t voted for the Constitution cannot be president.
What does it mean that Bani-Sadr got 75 percent of the vote?
Bani-Sadr is a liberal. He has been a proponent of open discussions on television, which is something the government banned. But can he solve the main problems of the country? I don’t think so. The problems of unemployment, health, education — the first thing you need is buildings. You would immediately employ half of that 50 percent who were unemployed. Painters, construction workers, all sorts of workers just to build schools and hospitals and clinics. And massive public health. Roads are another major item. Except for the major city of Tehran, it is very hard to get around in Iran. The roads aren’t paved. This would provide jobs for thousands, just to pave roads. So massive public works in a country like Iran, which does have money from oil revenues, can solve the unemployment problems.
If one looks at Bani-Sadr’s social base, the petty bourgeoisie, and the bazaar, it wouldn’t be against its interest to carry out mass programs such as road building and village education. They could easily do it within their own framework.
That’s only one aspect of solving the unemployment problem. The other is nationalizing industry. You need to nationalize industries and get rid of these capitalist owners. The government should take control and start running them, because production has fallen to a really low level.
Tell us about Defense Minister Chamran.
The first week the universities opened, everything you saw on the wall in every university, beside exposing Beheshti, was denouncing the role of Chamran for the Kurdistan atttacks, for working with the right-wing Shi‘i militia in Lebanon, and with the Israelis. He is very discredited. They haven’t removed him, but you no longer hear a word about Chamran.
Chamran is just keeping a low profile. He’s still head of the secret police, still is the minister of defense. And I would imagine he is putting his people in crucial positions in those two organizations.
That’s true, but during the uprising of 21 Bahman the army defected from the Shah to the people. Since that period, the radicalization of the army has been tremendous. In Kurdistan, the army is refusing to fight. That’s why the government lost in Kurdistan. In Kurdistan they could only organize these guards, the Pasdaran, but even a lot of the Pasdaran were refusing to fight. The army in Tabriz didn’t allow the Pasdaran to land in the Tabriz airport when the government sent them to crush the uprising. This army is not the army of two years ago under the Shah.