The third year of the Iranian revolution saw the final breakup of the political coalition that initially brought Khomeini to power, and the emergence in exile of an opposition that groups together many of those who played a part in the overthrow of the monarchical dictatorship. On the basis of evidence available, it would seem that the Khomeini regime has been able, through massive repression already greater than that of the Shah, to contain the opposition forces for the time being. The Islamic forces now in power have apparently gained a second breath after the crises of mid-1981. Appearances may, however, be deceptive and the Iranian revolution could be preparing another one of those sudden convulsions which has marked its agonized course to date.

The third year of the revolution began with the release of the US hostages. This event ended an international crisis, and staved off the threat of US military action against Iran, but it marked no truce in the factionalism within the regime out of which the hostage crisis initially emerged. The terms on which the hostages were released represented a considerable defeat for Iran: the immediate repayment of monies owed to the US banks was a concession unprecedented in the history of modern revolutions. The true verdict of this crisis was concealed from the Iranian people by the usual demagogy of the ruling Islamic Republican Party, and the Algiers agreement between the US and Iran was the occasion for renewed fighting between President Bani-Sadr and his opponents in the Islamic Republican Party. In May 1981, Khomeini swung decisively against Bani-Sadr and sanctioned the dismissal of Iran’s first elected president by the parliament. Some allege that the IRP had become fearful of Khomeini’s imminent death and so provoked the crisis. Others suggest that the IRP and Bani-Sadr’s supporters were at such odds within the institutions of the state that the functioning of government of any kind had ceased. Bani-Sadr had anticipated resistance by the armed forces or civil apparatus to his ouster. After it failed to materialize, he was forced to go underground in early June.

The fall of Bani-Sadr ushered in a much wider conflict between the now dominant IRP leadership and the forces of the left opposition. On June 20, substantial street demonstrations took place in Tehran and other cities. Many were slain in clashes between the Mojahedin and other opposition forces and the Revolutionary Guards. On June 28 and again on August 30 explosions blew up dozens of IRP leaders, including Ayatollah Beheshti, Prime Minister Bahonar and President Raja’i. Thousands of Mojahedin supporters were executed on the street or in jail, and many thousands more were imprisoned. Torture became a regular part of police interrogation. But despite the determination and heroism of the opposition, and despite the deaths of many of its leading cadre, the regime survived. It was able both to contain the underground resistance and bring in new personnel to run the state. By the end of the third year, the regime seemed to be gaining ground on a number of vital fronts:

  • Despite continued factional conflict within the IRP leadership, and the harassment by several militant Islamic groups to its right, some working relationship between the leading personalities seems to have been established. The government was implementing a set of policies consensually determined and supported by Khomeini and the Majles. While the opposition forces retained their underground structures, and while the hatred of the regime in many quarters was immense, it seemed that the level of opposition activity was reduced. The Mojahedin were confined mainly to assassinations of government personnel. The Kurdish Democratic Party was somewhat on the defensive in the mountains of the west. Other opposition groups, such as the Fedayi (Minority) and Peykar, were restricted to sudden guerrilla actions, mainly in the north of the country.
  • The regime began to gain some ground on the economic front. The 1981 harvest was good. Oil exports rose to nearly one million barrels a day, up from the 400,000 barrels of early 1981. With imports running at around $1 billion a month, oil revenues were almost enough to cover foreign exchange needs, and the regime’s nationalization of foreign trade made it possible to cut back luxury imports. Great unemployment, waste of assets and inflation continue, but the catastrophic trends of the two previous years have apparently been arrested.
  • Iran has begun to win the war against Iraq, using its superior morale to push back the invaders and to break the siege of Abadan. Iran’s terms for peace remain ones Iraq will not accept: unconditional withdrawal, acknowledgement of Iraqi aggression, payment of war damages of up to $100 billion, return to the 1975 agreement (i.e., no boundary changes). Iran insists that it has no territorial claims on Iraq. The war has been an immense drain on Iran’s resources, but the temptation to pursue the war into Iraqi territory, to impose Iran’s terms and to humiliate Iraq on the eve of the summit of the movement of the non-aligned nations in Baghdad, scheduled for September 1982, must be immense.
  • Iran has put some order in its international relations. The quarrel with the US over the hostages is finished. Its relations with western Europe are cool but not antagonistic. The Soviet Union provides some military equipment, as it does to Iraq, and gives economic assistance in the form of bilateral trade deals and transit facilities for merchant ships that move through the Soviet canal system to Iranian ports on the south shore of the Caspian. North Korea provides some military equipment. Economic ties with a number of regional states — Pakistan, Turkey, Libya — have developed. Diplomatic ties with Syria, Libya and Algeria have improved, though relations with the PLO deteriorated seriously following news that Iran had received some military aid from Israel.

These changes have been accompanied by the gradual institutionalization of the instruments of the post-revolutionary regime. The Revolutionary Guards incorporate a more regular, bureaucratized structure; the Islamic courts represent a regular instrument of state power. The regime has converted its mass organizations — the komitehs, the mosque structures, the Construction Crusade — into more controlled instruments of IRP dominance, useful particularly for the distribution of funds to the supporters of the regime. The government appears to retain the potential for vast popular mobilizations in the major cities — a function of ideological appeal, financial inducement and coercion. The figure of Ayatollah Khomeini still serves to hold the support of some who would have otherwise abandoned their attachment to the regime. The ferocious repression, and its accompanying terror and demagogy, have confirmed this partial consolidation. In addition to the support of the institutions of state, ruling party and mosque, the Khomeini government continues to enjoy the backing of some parties of the left, notably the Tudeh and the Fedayi (Majority), and a fraction of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party. The numerical strength of these groups is doubtful, and their dominant consideration, beyond political survival, has been a belief in the anti-imperialism of the Khomeini government and a stress on the need for maximum unity against the threat of counter-revolution.

The alliance of these secular left forces is disputed, though, both within their own ranks and by that part of the militant right who mobilize their supporters precisely against the presence of Tudeh and Fedayi (Majority) elements inside the government ministries. These Islamic groupings to the right of the IRP probably play the most important role in sustaining the regime, rather than the secular pro-Khomeini left. The Muslim Strugglers of Habibullah Peyman, who played a leading role in the seizure of the US hostages, the Fedayi Islam of Ayatollah Khalkhali and the Mujahidin-i Islam of Behzad Nabavi are among these forces pressuring the regime to deepen the revolution along Islamic lines and providing a dimension of factionalism rarely noticed outside Iran.

The opposition in exile divides into three main factions. There are, first, the royalists and secular republicans who favor some non-revolutionary alternative to Khomeini. Chief among these is former prime minister Ali Amini, who has secured a wide coalition of politicians in Paris committed to some form of constitutional monarchy. Another former prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, is not within this coalition, more for reasons of personal obstinacy than of policy difference. Amini sees the primary problem as the restoration of law and order in Iran. A second group consists of those Marxist groups who regard Rajavi and Bani-Sadr as compromised to the right: the Fedayi (Minority) have refused to join the rest of the opposition on the grounds that the latter’s program is reformist and that Bani-Sadr, as a representative of a fraction of the bourgeoisie, has no place in such a coalition. The third and largest component groups the Mojahedin, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Bani-Sadr and the National Democratic Front in a single formation, the Council of National Resistance, established in Paris in October 1981.

The CNR calls for the establishment of a Democratic Islamic Republic, based on a nationwide system of councils. It proposes to nationalize foreign trade, revive “national” industries, and carry out a more egalitarian land reform. It guarantees the rights of women, religious minorities and non-Persian nationalities, and trade unions and professional organizations. The CNR aims to unite all forces who participated in the revolution against the Shah and who now oppose Khomeini. With the inclusion of both the Mojahedin and the KDP, they clearly constitute the opposition grouping with the largest organized and active following inside the country. Their hope is that, with the establishment of such a broad opposition front outside, the forces inside the country who are still hesitant or acting on their own will rally to the Council. These would include left-wing guerrilla forces, such as the Fedayi (Minority), who suspect the credentials of the CNR, and those religious and bazaar elements who helped Khomeini in earlier times and who are now disillusioned by the Islamic regime. The strength of this religious-bazaar opposition is hard to assess: It appears to be widespread, but is not expressed in an organized form within the country. Some prominent bazaar personalities have fled to France, and they provide much of the financial underpinning for the CNR’s activities.

Beyond questions of its following inside the country, and of the practicality of ousting the Khomeini regime, other questions arise from the program of the CNR. The first is its claim that it can establish a republic that is both democratic and Islamic. Many Iranians now doubt whether the introduction of Islam into political life in this manner can ever be reconciled with democracy. The fanaticism of the right-wing Islamic groups and the authoritarianism of the Khomeini regime derive much of their force from a sense of religious rectitude. The sexist reign of terror against women and gay people, and the persecution of members of the Baha’i religion also derive legitimation from religion, and have been only tangentially condemned by CNR spokesmen. The CNR program is vague on what it offers to women and members of national minorities. The proposal to establish a nationwide system of “peoples’ councils” has a utopian ring, as it dispenses with the concrete problems of establishing democratic institutions in a country recently ravaged by economic and political disasters.

In the coming phase of the post-revolutionary era, three elements seem destined to help shape the course of events: the development of the war with Iraq, the survival or disappearance of Khomeini himself, and the ability of the opposition to sustain and expand its activities. The third year of the Islamic Republic has seen both extremes of political torment and a certain institutional survival. The fourth year promises to be no more predictable.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Year Three of the Iranian Revolution," Middle East Report 104 (March/April 1982).

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