A year after the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, the Iranian revolution is still going through a tumultuous and uncertain period, the end of which is by no means in sight. To evaluate the long-term import of this revolution now is therefore, in any serious sense, impossible: It would be like trying to assess the course of the French revolution in 1791, of the Mexican revolution in 1915, or the Russian in the summer of 1917. This is not meant to imply that the Iranian revolution will necessarily take a more radical form before a stable post-revolutionary system emerges. But it does emphasize that it is only possible to assess the overall trajectory of a revolution, including its earlier passages, once some established post-revolutionary state has emerged.

Thus there are a host of questions concerning the Iranian revolution to which no definitive answer can yet be given. How far has the old state machine, including the army, really been destroyed, as distinct from being temporarily paralyzed? How far will the Islamic clergy and Islamic theological principles guide the constitutional and economic policies of the new republic? How great a margin of democratic freedom will be allowed to the secular left by the now-dominant Islamic forces? Will any permanent and mutually acceptable solution to the nationalities issue be worked out and adhered to by the central government and the parties leading Iran’s various ethnic groups? How far in practice will the position of women change? What will the overall historical role of Ayatollah Khomeini be?

The temptation is to make quick judgments, partly because at any moment the evidence seems to point in one direction, and partly because the tendency in earlier revolutionary situations to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt has usually proven to be mistaken. There are a lot of illusory and indulgent writings on the Iranian revolution, by militants inside Iran and those supporting the revolution outside. And there is a lot of ill-informed and misleading criticism of the revolution by counter-revolutionaries and by sectarian critics on the left. It is important to bear in mind the fluctuating nature of the present revolutionary state and to resist judgments that may, in the longer run, prove to be all too superficial. Nonetheless, a few general remarks can be made about the course of the revolution so far, while bearing in mind the conditional nature of such assessments. First, to record what the revolution has achieved to date.

  • A mass popular movement has overthrown a firmly entrenched repressive regime. This involved the largest popular protest demonstrations ever seen in human history — over 2 million on individual occasions in Tehran, millions more in other cities — and probably the most prolonged and successful political general strike in world history, too. As a result, with the army paralyzed, a relatively swift armed insurrection was able in February 1979 to install a new government. Through these actions, and the subsequent purges, the old imperial political regime was definitively broken and Iran’s 2,000 years of monarchy finally brought to an end. The revolution was also a major defeat for US imperialism. It so weakened the Shah that he could not summon US support in his last weeks, and the links that had tied Iran to the US for the past three decades were broken. Iran has left CENTO and ceased to act as a US-directed gendarme.
  • A process of socioeconomic transformation and a reorganization of the internal economy has begun. Banks and insurance companies have been nationalized. Some redistribution of income has occurred. The old systems of oligarchic corruption have been brought to an end. Large numbers of houses, factories and other buildings have been seized by the poor.
  • As a result of the collapse of the old regime, and the weakness of the new post-revolutionary governments, enormous opportunities for political initiative have opened up, both in the regions and in workplaces. An atmosphere of mobilization and contestation has swept through Iran, over which no individual or organization exerts control. While this change, made more possible by the sense of popular pride and triumph following the revolution, contains dangers of a counterattack, it also marks a major opportunity out of which a more permanent democratic order could, under some circumstances, emerge.

To sum up, a triumphant mass mobilization has produced a political revolution, overthrowing the Pahlavi regime. Whether this will lead to a social revolution, or whether new forms of dictatorship will be established, remains an open question. The limitations and dangers inherent in the Iranian revolution can be tabulated in equally stark terms.

  • Despite the victory of the revolution movement and the destruction of the imperial regime, much of the old state machine itself remains in place. Half of the armed forces — around 150,000 men — are still in the barracks. If 30 percent of the officer corps have been removed, as the US government estimates, this means that 70 percent still remain. Much of the civilian bureaucracy is still in place.
  • The level of socioeconomic transformation has been so far limited, with rhetoric going rather further than actual policy. No permanent system of redistribution has emerged, and there is a long way between the nationalizations of which Bani-Sadr and others have spoken and the reorganization of relations at the workplace which more socially radical elements have advocated. One of the enduring weaknesses of the Iranian revolution to date would seem to be the lack of any organizational structures of the working class, beyond the undoubtedly militant individual factory committees.
  • Progress on the nationalities issue remains extremely difficult to assess. The central government has made some proposals for regional autonomy and has given the appearance of accepting such demands from Kurds, Arabs and others. But there is a strong streak of centralizing Persian chauvinism in the movement, exemplified by the excesses of the Islamic guards, and violent conflict between the center and the nationalities could break out once again. The Islamic Republic Constitution, passed by referendum in November 1979, gives no substantive rights to the nationalities.
  • The very role of the Islam also involves major difficulties for the revolution. Clearly it provided the ideology and much of the leadership of the revolutionary movement, and there is a socially radical current within the Islamic movement aiming, albeit in rather vague terms, at a socioeconomic transformation. But by its very nature the Islamic movement is extremely hierarchical and therefore anti-democratic; it could provide the justification and the forces for a suppression of all dissent, especially from the secular left. Secondly, its position on women and on issues of personal morality generally is extremely repressive and, by any socialist standards, reactionary; socialists should not be afraid to say this, out of some misplaced sense of solidarity. Thirdly, there is no evidence that the Islamic forces, under whatever particular label, can in practice provide a lasting political and socioeconomic alternative to the Iranian people.
  • The economy remains in extremely precarious condition. Inflation has been running at over 30 percent. By official figures, between 2.5 and 4 million people are unemployed — out of a total work force of around 10 million. For much of the population in the towns, the revolution has probably brought a net material loss. The agriculture sector can reproduce itself to some degree, and the urban economy may be kept alive with oil revenues, an estimated $30 billion in 1968. But the mass of the population expect substantial improvement and this is something that has not yet been made available to them.
  • The international ramifications of the revolution contain hidden dangers. For all its oil wealth and revolutionary zeal, Iran remains a rather weak third world country, in a sensitive part of the world, and with a host of enemies. However justified the wrath of the Iranian people may be, it is still possible to question how far, on balance, the seizure of the US Embassy hostages serves the interests of the Iranian and other third world peoples, given the way it has contributed to the revival of a militarist and interventionist mood within the US. At the same time, the prevalent tendency within Iranian politics to resort to rather facile anti-imperialist conspiracy theories as a substitute for materialist analysis of Iran’s internal processes contains dangers from which the left has not been immune — and which could in the future be used against the left itself. In the Arab world the very religious character of the revolution’s considerable impact has had extremely negative, i.e. sectarian, implications.
  • At this moment in time, the forces of the left remain overall weaker than those of the Islamic camp. They are divided, often uncertain, and prone to taking easy political options at the expense of their longer-term political identity. The Tudeh Party has not broken with its old and dangerous methods — following the USSR in all matters, opportunistically joining with the rightists in welcoming the closure of the newspaper Ayandegan in August 1979. The Fedayi, who include many of the most idealistic young revolutionaries, are severely divided, seem not to have a coherent program. The Mojahedin are still a strong force but are finding it increasingly difficult to straddle the Islamic and revolutionary tracks. Paykar, believed to have some following among workers, is a highly dogmatic political sect. Among the nationalities there are substantial left forces, especially among the Kurds, but they are by their very nature unable to play a national role and some of the same problems — of democratic practice, unity and clarity of line — also reproduce themselves within their ranks.

This is a provisional balance sheet of the first year of the Iranian revolution. Perhaps events will move with great rapidity, for better or worse. Perhaps the uncertainty will continue for months or even years. The establishment in early 1980 of an elected presidency and parliament mark a step towards a more stable and democratic political system. But even these elections were marked by official discrimination and the new republican institutions are in themselves no guarantee of continued progress. They could be emptied of their democratic content by a repressive Islamic right, or cast aside altogether in a new clerical assault or a military coup, organized by some combination of the paramilitary guards and the remnants of the army, possibly in league with foreign counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, the enormous advances of the past two years could be consolidated, with a serious and effective use of Iran’s economic resources for the benefit of the oppressed, and the establishment of a political system that would guarantee their interests. It is impossible at this stage to predict the outcome.

The full potential of the Iranian revolution will be realized only if three conditions are met. First, that the material resources of the country are used for the benefit of all the oppressed. Secondly, that a democratic system, allowing full liberty to the oppressed classes, to women and to the nationalities, is established and maintained. Thirdly, that Iran consolidates its newly won political and economic independence. The immediate danger consists not so much in a royalist or imperialist counterattack as in the establishment of a new dictatorship by forces within the Islamic movement itself, a process objectively assisted by the mistaken policies of the left. The next few years in republican Iran, promise to be as challenging and as unpredictable as the first.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Iran’s Revolution: The First Year," Middle East Report 88 (June 1980).

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