Shirin Tehrani is an independent Iranian socialist who has lived most of the post-revolutionary period inside Iran and spoke with Fred Halliday in Europe in late April 1981.
There has been much attention here on the dispute within the regime between the faction around President Bani-Sadr, and that around Prime Minister Raja’i and the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). lt is very difficult to gauge the course of this contest from the outside. How has it developed in recent months?
Until around the end of 1980, the JRP seemed to have the support of the mass of the population. That has now changed. The IRP has been unable to solve the basic economic and political problems faced by the people. Although Khomeini himself still retains widespread support, there is growing hostility to the mullahs and to the IRP. There have been demonstrations in some cities — Tehran, Shiraz, even Qom — where people have shouted “Death to Beheshti,” the IRP leader. The key change here has been with the petty bourgeoisie of the bazaar. In the past they supported and financed the mullahs but have now turned against them. They can see that the IRP threatens their interests. The IRP is therefore losing its social base.
But it would seem that the IRP is well entrenched in the state apparatus, and will use this to offset whatever lack of popular support it may now encounter.
Yes. The IRP controls the government apparatus. The majority of parliament members also belong to the IRP. They control the media, which play a very important role in contemporary Iranian politics. They do not have party branches as such, but they do have significant mass organizations: the Crusade for Reconstruction, which acts as a welfare organization distributing funds on a patronage basis; the IRP militia; and, most importantly, the pasdaran, the Islamic Guards. They use the Friday prayers as a means of mobilizing support, and they have responded to the crisis by launching a purge of all Bani-Sadr supporters from the ministries. The IRP has, until recently, controlled most of the workers’ committees in the factories. But an increasing number of workers are opposing this and trying to elect new committees which the mullahs do not control. The clash between the workers and the IRP emerged into the open over the Persian New Year, in late March, when the Tehran bus drivers went on strike over their New Year bonuses. The IRP labeled them counter-revolutionaries, and threatened to bring drivers from the war front. In this way they were able to crush the bus drivers’ strike. There was also at that time a strike at the Iran National car plant.
Does Bani-Sadr have a program and organization of his own?
Bani-Sadr has taken advantage of the growing discontent to call for democratic rights. “Freedom” has become his main slogan. And in his way he is gaining more support from those who used to back the IRP and believe in Khomeini. Bani-Sadr is increasingly seen as the alternative. Over the past few months there have been increasing numbers of fights between Bani- Sadr and IRP supporters, but Bani-Sadr scored an important victory at the meeting on March 5 at which he called on his own people to counterattack. This showed his strength.
Khomeini periodically appeals for reconciliation, but such appeals cannot have any lasting effect. Bani-Sadr has no organization and no control over institutions like the media. The only reason he was elected President in January 1980 was that at the time of the elections there was a dispute within the IRP. They could not agree upon who was to stand. When they finally put up Jalal al-Din Farsi they found out he was partly of Afghan origin. He had to stand down. On the left, there was widespread support for Rajavi, the leader of the Mojahedin. But the IRP argued that he was not really Muslim, and was a counter-revolutionary: so he had to withdraw his candidacy. The Mojahedin had a good program, defending democratic rights, the Kurds, women and workers. Bani-Sadr then stole parts of the Mojahedin program and won his victory on that basis, in a situation where the IRP was disorganized.
After his election his position weakened greatly, but then came the war with Iraq in September 1980. Bani-Sadr took advantage of this, went to the front and behaved in an appealing manner. You can see films of him sitting with the soldiers at the front and eating with them from the same plate. He has been able to win support from the lower ranks of the army. Bani-Sadr also benefited in some measure from the way in which the hostages issue was solved: many people had accepted the IRP position, that the hostages were spies and so forth. So when the IRP-controlled government released the hostages in January 1981, without apparently gaining anything from it, people asked questions: either the hostages were spies, in which case they should not have been released; or they were not spies, in which case there was no point in keeping them imprisoned for so long and in forcing the Iranian people to endure the economic sanctions and other problems following the whole affair.
What is the level of day-to-day difficulty now in Tehran? What sorts of shortages are emerging?
Unemployment is very high, and prices have risen substantially in the last year. The average monthly wage for an industrial worker is 40,000 rials, or $400. Prices are now as high as they are in London. There is now an official but limited rationing system. There is also a black market, on which the price of meat is two and a half times what it is in the rationed system. On rations meat costs 3 pounds a kilo ($3 a pound) and it is often of very poor quality. The family ration is one kilo per day, but this is often unavailable. Fruit is extremely expensive, vegetables less so. Sugar and soaps are available only on a coupon basis. Everywhere you go people blame the mullahs.
Have they been able to impose strict Islamic clothing on women?
They have not yet been able to make a law forcing women to wear Islamic clothing. Many women continued walking on the streets without the chador (cloak) or the heyan (scarf). But they did pass a regulation that all women working outside the home had to wear a hejab. Women then protested in an indirect way by wearing little scarves that did not cover their hair, as the regulation intended. One can go into offices and see women who are dressed, as we say in Persian, in a very chic manner. They are wearing small see-through scarves. This is a form of protest. My overall impression is that over the past year there has been a retreat from Islamization on this front. Women now go out without head coverings in quite a number of provincial towns as well as in Tehran.
Was the war expected? Has it produced its own political consequences?
The war came as a surprise. It was very unexpected. At first people rushed to volunteer for the front, and the IRP organized recruiting centers in the mosques. The IRP behaved as it usually does, by raising anti-imperialist slogans, like “We are going to build an army of 20 millions, and arm the people,” just as they had done during the hostage crisis. They then started saying that volunteers had to pass ideological tests, and that only those who passed would be sent to the front. Quite a number of leftists went along with this, for tactical reasons, and they received training and weapons. Two things then happened: some were diverted on the way to the front and sent off to Kurdistan. Quite a number of these refused. Others got to the front and were then killed by the IRP or pasdaran while they were fighting the Iraqis. This happened to quite a few people from revolutionary and left-wing organizations — Fedayi, Mojahedin, Paykar and others.
Popular sentiment has changed quite considerably in more recent months, and people want the war to end. They blame it on the IRP. There are also hundreds of thousands of refugees driven out of the southern areas. The government talks a lot about what it has done for them and about the rehousing programs, but many buildings in Tehran remain empty. Indeed, the IRP-controlled media have started reporting cases where refugees illegally occupied property and were evicted by the pasdaran. This is the truth behind their propaganda about all they are doing for the victims of the war.
Has the war made the army more powerful?
The army is certainly much stronger than it was before the war. But you still do not have a really strong army of the kind that existed under the Shah. The reason is that the higher-ranking officers do not believe in the IRP and they don’t believe in Bani-Sadr either. Bani-Sadr has tried to build up a strong army, and he fought the IRP to get some of the Shah’s former officers out of jail. He took them to the front and argued that they were the only ones who could fight the Iraqis. Some of them then escaped to Iraq. Why should they see Bani-Sadr as the alternative? If it comes to it, they could be the alternative. Bani-Sadr only has the support of those lower-ranking officers. The real problem about the army is not, at the moment, their ability to seize power but the fact that the war has made the military much more capable of fighting the Kurds: Once the war is over, they are going to turn on the Kurds. There is a real possibility of widespread massacres there.
What is the situation of the left? There was a split within the Fedayi guerrillas in June 1980. What were the causes of this? Is it true that the majority of the Central Committee of the Fedayi were won over to Tudeh Party positions?
The first point to be clear about is that it was not just the majority of the leadership, but the majority of the members also who adopted these new positions. The minority is a small organization. The argument centered on the nature of the current government. The majority argued the same position as the Tudeh Party: I cannot say how much direct influence there was. The majority held that this was an anti-imperialist regime, and that the main danger was that of imperialism. Consequently, the left should not fight the regime on any issues — women, workers, the Kurds. All should accept and cooperate with the regime. The minority argued that this is a reactionary capitalist regime and that revolutionaries should fight it. They said that there is always a danger of imperialism in a country like Iran, and that this should not be used to enforce the support for a capitalist government. The split illustrated the character of movements like the Fedayi, which had won support in the post-revolutionary period not so much on the basis of ideological commitment but by the emotional appeal of the Fedayi’s history, as a struggling organization. When the split occurred, the worker and women’s sections went with the minority but the students and youth who made up the mass of the membership went with the majority. This youth joined because of the appeal of martyrdom; they have proved they are very militant, but without serious ideological understanding.
What happens if you ask majority members about their previous policies, of supporting the Kurds, or resisting the pasdaran in the university?
You can meet 15 or 16-year-old Fedayi who were shot by the pasdaran years ago. Now they just say their policies were a mistake — including their support for the Kurds. The majority now cooperate with the IRP in schools and factories against the rest of the opposition, including the Mojahedin.
What about the Tudeh Party? There have been reports that their influence in the army is growing.
I don’t know about strength in the army. But I would doubt it: If the army is against IRP and the lower ranks are with Bani-Sadr, they don’t want the Tudeh. The Tudeh had its youth organization abroad at the time of the revolution and brought these people back. They worked very hard and were able to win some members — in schools, factories and so on. The distinction of Tudeh is that it is a completely legal party. Their paper is sold openly in stalls and they appear to have no problems with the IRP. Overall, I do not get the impression that their membership is growing. Those who support their line might as well join the IRP.
It appears that the Mojahedin have gained considerable strength and constitute the largest opposition force in Iran. Is this your impression?
The Mojahedin are very important. They are the only organization with a mass base. They are a real force, and are fighting the regime. On several occasions in recent months there have been serious clashes between the IRP and Mojahedin supporters, and their newspaper sellers are attacked in the streets by the pasdaran. One major clash was in Lahijan, in the traditionally more secular northern province of Gilan, but one was in the pilgrimage city of Mashhad, in the northeast. The difficulty with the Mujahidin is that they give uncritical support to Bani-Sadr: If Bani-Sadr were to win, then either they will become part of his new state apparatus, or they will face repression like other left-wing groups. They seem at the moment to have mass support in factories and schools — you can’t talk about universities since they are closed, lt helps them that their ideology is framed in Islamic terms, but the basis of their appeal is their opposition to the regime.
What about other left groups? Dozens of them emerged in the immediate aftermath of the revolution.
Their memberships run to only a few hundred each, and there have been many splits in these organizations. The Fedayi, too, has suffered several splits, in addition to that between the minority and the majority. Such a process may involve some ideological clarification, but it weakens the organizations.
What do you think is going to happen in Iran?
There are definitely signs of civil war, as shown in the recent clashes at public meetings. The problem is that, even if the IRP is losing ground, Bani-Sadr does not seem to be strong enough, either personally or organizationally, to defeat the IRP. People can go on following him forever and ever without his decisively confronting the IRP. I doubt if he is strong enough to do that. Every time Khomeini tells him not to attack the IRP, he quiets down. In the longer run, there exists a real possibility of bloody counterrevolution, involving the army and the Americans. There is a growing disaffection at the mass level, and the gap between reality and official illusion is getting wider. People like Bakhtiar, Oveisi and Reza Shah II have next to no base now in Iran, but they may try to come back at an opportune moment, if both the IRP and Bani-Sadr are seen to have failed. Of course, people are armed and many would fight. The Americans know they do not have a card to play yet and are very aware that they must not move too soon.