“Was it not your KGB which indirectly passed on to us the secret plan for the Iraqi offensive?” President Bani-Sadr’s point-blank question clearly embarrassed the Soviet ambassador. Vladimir Vinogradov lapsed into an embarrassed silence but his face was lit by a smile which was as broad as it was enigmatic. The Iranian head of state had pointed out that the invasion of the Islamic Republic, which had begun more than 36 hours before his conversation with the diplomat, followed a scenario described in detail in a report given to him weeks previously. Who but the Kremlin, he wondered, could have access to the plans of Baghdad’s general staff?

Later Bani-Sadr was to assert that the Iranian services had “paid a high price” for the document in Paris. Some people maintain, however, that it was given free to the Iranian president — and to Imam Khomeini — by the Tudeh Party, which has its own “antennae” in Paris and Baghdad. At the same time as the “transaction” was reportedly made in Paris, Bani-Sadr had at least two meetings with Tudeh Secretary-General Nureddin Kianuri, which was unusual. People also note that, from September 3, Kianuri was publicly issuing a warning: The Iranian people, he said, should mobilize to face an invasion in the near future, plotted by “counterrevolutionaries and the United States.” He did not mention Iraq by name, but he described the strategy which Baghdad was to use three weeks later: occupying Khuzestan, encouraging dissidence in Kurdistan, depriving the country of oil and gradually strangling it.

Nonetheless the authorities took no special steps to counter the Baathist offensive. The successive waves of aircraft which bombed airports and strategic installations, the infantry units and the tanks which crossed the borders at dawn on September 22, initially encountered no notable resistance. The Islamic Republic’s armed forces were elsewhere.

The Army’s Unpreparedness

Who was responsible for that negligence? The time for settling scores has not come yet but the controversy has already started, largely behind the scenes. The head of state’s adversaries insidiously point out that he is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Bani-Sadr admits, of course, that he hesitated, initially believing that it was an effort to deceive him because the intelligence received seemed to correspond so well with communist interests. The invasion plan, the secret report in fact indicated, had been drawn up not only in consultation with emigre circles in Paris (Bakhtiar and Gen. Oveisi were named) but also and above all in collaboration with US and Israeli military experts. It was only after an inquiry into the extent of the Iraqi buildup that the Iranian president finally took the military threat seriously and insisted that appropriate steps be taken.

It was then the turn of the other officials to show skepticism. The power struggle was in full swing; Mohammad Raja’i was forming a homogeneous government excluding the president’s supporters. The Islamic Republican Party organ Jomhuri-ye Eslami published on August 30 a long list of reproaches insinuating, among other things, that Bani-Sadr was “blowing up the threat posed by the US plot” to impose his men in key state positions. The Iranian president also tried to curb the dismissal of officers considered suspect, pointing out in a more general way that “the officers’ competence is more important to the republic than their ideology” — an opinion which he continues to uphold today despite the indignation which it arouses in the Muslim movement’s radical wing. “I did everything to convince officials of the danger awaiting us,” he wrote in his newspaper Enqelab-e Eslami, “I made recommendations, I pleaded, begged, screamed, but in vain; nobody wanted to listen to me.”

In fact, several other factors combined to paralyze Iran in face of the Iraqi invasion. Following the discovery of two large-scale plots, the armed forces were undergoing a purge and reorganization. In addition, tasks deemed more “urgent” had been assigned to them by former war minister Mustafa Chamran and his brother Mehdi Chamran, then intelligence services chief: the “pacification” of Kurdistan, and the territory’s defense against a Soviet invasion which diplomacy chief Sadeq Qotbzadeh said was imminent. Thus, on the very day when the Iraqi tanks entered Khuzestan, a thousand Iranian tanks were mounting guard on the border with the USSR.

The Iranian leaders clearly did not really believe that the Iraqis would go so far as to invade while the undeclared war they had been waging against the Islamic Republic since its foundation was escalating. The battle which the two regimes were fighting was in fact not as even as it seemed. The Tehran leaders advocated “exporting the revolution” without succeeding in consolidating the revolution in their own territory. They probably maintained opposition groups in Iraq — essentially the al-Da‘wa Party and the Barzani Kurdish organization, but without any notable results.

The means which the Iraqis had for destabilizing the Islamic Republic were, on the other hand, much more extensive and more effective. The almost daily attacks and sabotage operations which Baghdad organized in Iranian Khuzestan were seriously disrupting the oil industry. The arms, munitions and supplies given to the Iranian Kurdish guerrillas were fuel for a war which was draining Tehran’s economic and military resources. All the groups, royalist or republican, which were seeking to overthrow the Khomeini regime, were entitled to the Iraqi government’s hospitality and material support. For instance, Gen. Oveisi and Bakhtiar each have a radio station on which they broadcast, in addition to their diatribes, daily advice to their supporters, notably in the tribes and within the Islamic forces.

Judging by the intelligence supplied to the Iranian authorities, the Iraqi general staff intended to seize Khuzestan in less than one week and join up with Kurdistan, which would have fallen into the Kurdish guerrillas’ hands. Iraq would then install — on October 5 to be precise — a “free government” led by Shahpour Bakhtiar in Ahvaz, capital of the oil province. This lightening offensive was to coincide with risings within the armed forces and among the population, dealing a deathblow to the Islamic Republic.

This plan, however, did not take account of two basic factors: Iranian patriotism and the attachment felt by a large part of the population to the Islamic revolution’s achievements and to Imam Khomeini personally. The ethnic minorities — Azerbaijanis, Turkomans, Baluchis and, contrary to all expectations, the Khuzestan Arabs — set aside their grievances and their demands and backed their government. In a way the Kurds are no exception. Those living in the part of the territory invaded by the Iraqis are fighting as fiercely as the others. The holy alliance — the first major consequence of the Gulf war — was thus used to consolidate the Islamic Republic’s foundations.

Bani-Sadr and the Armed Forces

Is there a danger of Bonapartism in Iran? If there is, could President Bani-Sadr be a candidate for the succession? Initially whispered in the drawing rooms of the taghutis (aristocrats), these questions are now being raised in the press and passionately debated in political circles. The Islamic government — in both its radical and moderate factions — is already thinking about the postwar period. Since nobody doubts that the war will be won, everybody is wondering how a victorious army would behave.

The army, which was formerly hated, vilified and humiliated, has acquired incredible popularity during the Gulf war. It has been “cleared” politically by demonstrating its fidelity to the regime and to the homeland. It has, generally, fought honorably and often courageously in clearly unfavorable conditions. Pilots returning from a mission over Iraq are acclaimed and applauded on the landing strips. There are impressively large crowds at the funerals of soldiers killed on the battlefield. The poorer people crowd round the barracks doors to offer the soldiers poultry, fruit or delicacies. The men who drive the communal taxis carry their uniformed passengers free of charge.

The moderate nationalists are pleased. “The army which served as a tool of repression was never a national or people’s army in our country,” one of President Bani-Sadr’s close advisers told us. “It has finally been adopted by the people.” The radical Muslims are, however, not reassured. The officers, many of whom either were trained in the United States or come from bourgeois families, remain suspect in the militant clerics’ eyes. With the bazaar, the civil service and the university, the army is one of the potential bases of counterrevolution, with the essential difference that it has the means of seizing power.

“It is quite simply ridiculous to talk about Bonapartism,” Bani-Sadr told us. “For the first time since the Safavid dynasty our army is tied to the people who themselves are armed to the teeth. It is insane to talk about a coup d’etat.” The president, in an article published by Enqelab-e Eslami on November 2, added not very kindly for his adversaries: “Those who raise such stupid questions are simple-minded. While our brothers are laying down their lives to defend the republic, those people are only thinking of power and of sharing the spoils of war.”

The distrust is certainly shared. Some Islamic Republican Party (IRP) leaders are wondering why Bani-Sadr is “assiduously courting” the military, why he is spending most of his time at the armed forces headquarters, why he is making constant tours of the various fronts and the officers’ mess, and why he has nothing but extravagant praise for the army. The head of state, they concede, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but does he have nothing else to do? Relieved of all the powers which he regards as his, Bani-Sadr has, in fact, devoted his energies to routing the Iraqi invaders. He has even decided to go live in Khuzestan “far from Tehran’s intrigues,” he told one of his close advisers. “And I will remain there until the enemy is totally defeated,” he added publicly.

Does he even have the power to direct military operations? The expansion of the Supreme Defense Council to include members of the Muslim movement’s radical wing has put him in a minority within this “super government.” Although he is its current chairman, the Supreme Defense Council holds half of their meetings in his absence and announces its decisions without consulting him. For instance, the council appointed permanent representatives, mostly clerics, to supervise the various fronts despite Bani-Sadr’s previous protests as what he regards as “disastrous interference” by members of the clergy in military affairs.

The Rise of the Pasdaran

A government of two rival power centers is assuming the task of defending the national territory. “If the strategy for the Khuninshahr (formerly Khorramshahr) battle had been drawn up according to the clerics’ advice, the Iraqis would never have captured the section of the city which they now control,” said Ayatollah Khamene’i, Imam Khomeini’s representative in the Supreme Defense Council, during the Friday sermon. Responding to this remark, President Bani-Sadr told PARS the next day: “Those who stay away from the front looking for so-called traitors, those who enjoy maintaining discord, are the very people who are responsible for the setback in Khuninshahr.”

There are two conflicting strategies and also two ways of viewing the war. The militant clergy intends to place the irregular forces in the limelight, to entrust the defense of cities and villages to the partisans and use the army as an auxiliary force in some places and the spearhead of a counteroffensive in others. The political implications of the “people’s war” are obvious. Any victory would be attributed to the people and those leading them; any defeat could be attributed to some failure by the regular army and to its commander-in-chief.

The strictly military arguments are equally valid. The Baghdad army is better structured and equipped than the Tehran army — all the more reason for countering it with a force it would have difficulty overcoming. It only took a few hundred partisans to hold back the Baathist armored columns on the outskirts of Khuninshahr for more than six weeks. Similarly, the Baghdad forces have been marking time at Abadan’s gates since mid-October and everywhere else are surrounding or besieging the urban centers without trying to penetrate them. Indeed the cost of occupying them would be too high in terms of equipment and men. In this respect the Iranians are in a much better position: They have great numbers, are fighting on their own territory and do not need heavy weapons or complex logistics.

The leadership of the people’s resistance has naturally enough been entrusted to the pasdaran — the militia formed in the republic’s early days to counterbalance the army, the police and the gendarmes. It was regarded as a counterforce. Hence the attempt made to disband it, first by the chief of the provisional government Bazargan and then by Bani-Sadr as soon as he was elected president.

The pasdaran are recruiting, training and arming guerrillas in the cities and villages. They negotiate the purchase of weapons for their arsenals, sometimes directly with governments (Libya and Syria in particular). They have set up a general staff separate from that of the regular army to organize and coordinate the partisans’ military operations. They have even founded their own intelligence service, a public relations office and publications which serve as their political platform. Their supreme leader, Murteza Reza’iyeh, is a full member of the Supreme Defense Council.

The pasdaran organization is bound to expand. Parliament has, at the pasdaran’s request, entrusted them with control of the “army of 20 millions,” so called because its aim is to group all civilians, adult men or women, who might volunteer to defend the country. Thus the partisans’ numbers — estimated at some 200,000 trained commandos and 1 million undergoing training — are far superior to those of the regular army (200,000 men on the various fronts).

The two forces are necessarily complementary, Defense Minister Col. Fakuri pointed out timidly, because “machine guns cannot destroy Tupolevs or tanks.” One of the main pasdaran leaders, Muhsen Reza’iyeh, readily agreed, but played down the role of the “professionals.” “Only an ideologically motivated army like ours, like the ones which liberated Vietnam and Algeria,” he replied, “is capable of mobilizing the people for the long war of attrition which we plan to wage until the Iraqi regime falls.”

There are hopes of extending coordination between the two armies, with a view of helping the war effort, to include the various popular organizations which are proliferating and acting in dispersed fashion: the bassif which groups the civil defense teams; the showra-ye mahalli — a type of district soviet created at the instigation of the late Ayatollah Taleqani to settle social problems; the workers’ councils — self-managing bodies elected in the factories and places of work; and the trade unions, among others. In most of these organizations the Muslim militants — moderate or radical — are in the majority. The wind of radicalization which is blowing in the country is likely eventually to sweep away those who are pejoratively termed “the liberals” in Iran.

Retreat by the “Liberals”

“We are being stifled, we cannot go on!” After the taghutis, the big industrialists, the former imperial regime’s big businessmen, here we have a bazaari, a fairly wealthy trader — formerly an unqualified supporter of the Imam Khomeini and the clergy — in turn attacking the “mullahs’ dictatorship.” His house has been searched for hours about the “suspect relations” he allegedly had with “liberals” — that new category of counterrevolutionaries. The pasdaran who invaded his house, he explained indignantly, did not “even have a search warrant.”

Almost two years after the fall of the monarchy, the rule of law has still not been established. Goods are still being seized and confiscated, usually at the initiative of a cleric or a local committee which does not bother about legal procedure. Of course, it is possible to appeal to the revolutionary courts, but they declare themselves incompetent or, in most cases, find against the plaintiffs. To do that they merely have to refer to the Islamic doctrine embodied in the constitution and the Raja’i government’s program which states that property belongs to God alone. God only “delegates” this privilege “partially and on a temporary basis,” and on the express condition that the beneficiaries use it “for the community’s benefit.”

Joint commissions comprising officials and clerics have recently been touring the rural districts to carry out the umpteenth land distribution, confiscating as they go land lying fallow or farms requiring the help of paid workers. “Big” landowners and also medium landowners of all kinds, described as “parasites,” are eliminated in favor of a distribution and marketing network now being set up.

Foreign trade, formerly a source of wealth for the bazaaris, is also being nationalized. The Gulf war is being used as a justification for speeding up the process. The import of inessential products and even production goods has been reduced, both out of concern to save foreign currency and out of a desire to ensure the country’s economic independence. Thus, the big assembly industries will be dismantled and replaced by small production units which do not depend on foreign countries for their supplies.

The structural upheavals in the economy which have come on top of frequently brutal state interventions have helped to accentuate the political polarization and create the schism between the “radical” and “liberal” wings of the Islamic movement. The clerics’ participation in demonstrations at the beginning of December against Ayatollah Beheshti’s Islamic Republican Party, notably in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad, bears witness to the clerics’ division along the same lines as the split in the secular political world. Among the big ayatollahs only Hussein Montazeri supports Imam Khomeini’s policy unconditionally and without reservations. Khomeini spares his fellows — for instance, Ayatollah Shariatmadari, whose silence is a demonstration of his deep disapproval — but denounces “some mullahs who are worse than the Savakists.”

Who is the “good” Muslim, “really faithful to the imam’s line?” President Bani-Sadr answered that question in a speech delivered in Zhaleh Square on September 8, when he accused the IRP of trying to “monopolize Islam” and “control the government by despotism.” Prime Minister Mohammad Raja’i, supported by the IRP’s parliamentary majority, had just formed a “homogeneous” government excluding Bani-Sadr’s “Westernized” friends. It was already clear that Ayatollah Beheshti’s party was going to continue eliminating “power centers,” starting with the one represented by the president of the republic.

Since laxity is not appropriate in wartime, Raja’i set out to conquer the state machine. He completed the purge of the civil service, the intelligence services (whose chief, Mehdi Chamran, has been replaced by one of Raja’i’s henchmen), the university (closed since last spring for the “Islamization” of the curricula), the radio and television, and the press.

Bani-Sadr, Opposition Leader?

With his political friends decimated, President Bani-Sadr took refuge on constitutional ground to veto the appointment of several key ministers proposed by Raja’i, including the foreign minister and economy minister, hoping by so doing to “position” his own supporters in the government. Accused of “obstructive maneuvers,” the head of state constantly repeated: “I was elected by the nation. I am chief executive and it is not natural for men who are incompetent or unknown to be forced upon me.” To which came the reply: the Islamic Republic has a parliamentary system in which the president’s role is virtually an honorary one. “One comparable to that of Queen Elizabeth,” his adversaries added treacherously.

In any case, that is how Prime Minister Raja’i treats him. The government chief has published a circular demanding that all administrative correspondence including the presidency’s correspondence should pass via the prime minister’s office. On the other hand Raja’i “forgets” to submit or is late in submitting decrees adopted by the government to Bani-Sadr for ratification. He also refuses to deliver diplomatic passports or exit visas to particular individuals to whom the head of state has entrusted an official overseas mission. In the absence of a foreign minister Raja’i is personally in charge of foreign policy, notably through the Supreme Defense Council on which his friends have a majority. In addition, he is planning the economy through an “interim” minister whose appointment does not require the head of state’s approval.

Bani-Sadr argues with the government in the columns of Enqelab-e Eslami in the form of “notebooks” in which he relates what he does and says each day and describes his disputes with the prime minister. Thus the prime minister is frequently portrayed, by insinuation, as ignorant, a liar and a despot. Raja’i has chosen not to reply. However, a journalist from Enqelab-e Eslami (which Bani-Sadr directs through other people) was refused admittance to a press conference given by the government chief, and another was beaten up in the headquarters of the radio and television, which the president of the republic has decided to boycott as long as censorship remains in force.

Raja’i is consistent with the doctrine which he spelled out in his ministerial program. Freedom will be tolerated, he stated, “within the framework of Islamic ideology, not according to the criteria of Western democracy or Eastern dictatorship.” On the basis of this principle the prime minister submitted to parliament a plan, original to say the least, relating to the future of political parties. He divides them into four categories: 1) The Muslim parties, which follow Imam Khomeini’s line 100 percent and which will be associated in government; 2) The sympathetic parties which “in practice do not bow to religious leadership.” The government will have “close ties” with them without, however, entrusting them with key posts; 3) The opposition parties “which have not yet resorted to plotting against the Islamic Republic.” The government will adopt a “vigilant attitude” toward them; 4) The enemy parties, which have allegedly taken up arms against the Islamic Republic “or are planning to do so.” They will be entitled to an “ideologically scathing reply” and, if necessary, to an “armed response.”

The last category is clearly aimed at the Kurdish guerrilla organizations and the Fedayi who were their partners until last summer. The government pretends not to know that this group split last June and that the majority group took the most understanding of attitudes toward Imam Khomeini’s “anti-imperialist regime.” The Fedayi’s position remains paradoxical. Their leaders had a cordial meeting with Ayatollah Beheshti, who had accounts of the talks published in the press, but many of their cadres are persecuted or imprisoned and some are executed.

The Mojahedin-e Khalq should have been included in the second or, possibly, the third category of the prime minister’s classification. In practice they are treated as the republic’s enemies. Their “crime” is to support President Bani-Sadr’s main ideas, to enjoy the sympathy of “liberals” accused of following “Brzezinski’s line,” such as Bazargan, and of supporting the Kurdish guerrillas. Hence the harsh repression to which they are subjected and the recent banning of all their publications.

The Tudeh Party has a position apart. Regarding itself as “following Imam Khomeini’s line 100 percent,” it aspires to be included in the first category, hopes to be placed at least in the second and would, unwillingly, resign itself to being classified in the third. The phenomenon is unusual, to say the least: A Marxist party, the Tudeh is nonetheless enthusiastic about Islam, in its revolutionary form of course, and actively supports almost all the “militant clergy’s” initiatives.

The Tudeh does not conceal its differences of opinion, which are sometimes considerable (for instance, the government’s anticommunism), but it relegates them to the level of “secondary” and, it hopes, “temporary contradictions” which should take second place to the “fundamental task” of “defeating the imperialists and their counterrevolutionary allies.” The Tudeh has reaped some fruits from its policy. It is the only party which Imam Khomeini has never criticized by name, the only Marxist party to have been officially legalized by the Revolutionary Council and, finally, the only one to have a whole series of publications — a daily newspaper, a monthly publication and various weeklies — all duly authorized.

Most left-wing parties implement or try to implement a strategy more or less analogous to the Tudeh’s without, however, refraining from denouncing the tendency to “toe the line,” and the “opportunism” and “reformism” of the Tudeh. Nureddin Kianuri, in turn, accuses them of “puerile leftism.” They are all counting on the radicalization of the Islamic Republic, inevitably causing the leaders to draw support from the “revolutionary forces.” Such reasoning leaves many observers skeptical. It is true, however, that a great deal depends on what happens in the Gulf war.

How to cite this article:

Eric Rouleau "The War and the Struggle for the State," Middle East Report 98 (July/August 1981).

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