Hedayat Matin-Daftari, a lawyer who prominently defended human rights in Iran under the Shah, participated actively in the revolution. Matin-Daftari, widely known in Iran as the grandson and political heir of former Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, is a founder and leader of the National Democratic Front, which includes many independent Iranian socialists. Fred Halliday spoke with him in London in late 1981 and the summer of 1982.
Was the clerical dictatorship inevitable?
Had the people, especially the intellectuals, had as great foresight as did the clergy, the situation would not have been the same. Sometime in March 1977, the clergy started organizing their Islamic committees and associations in Iran and abroad. The secular intelligentsia was only thinking of fighting the Shah, in a rather diffuse manner. As I remember it, right up to the day when Khomeini arrived in Iran and introduced Bazargan as his prime minister no one had seriously thought that a religious government would result, although there were religious factions in Iran who were pushing the slogan of religious government. Many people had not read Khomeini’s book on Islamic government, and did not take him seriously. Others thought that the national front of all Iranians fighting the Shah could move ahead together. One reason why more or less all factions were silent toward the appointment of Bazargan and the declaration that a revolutionary council already exists was that Khomeini clearly stated that Bazargan’s job was to start working for a representative, democratically elected constituent assembly. In this respect he betrayed the people.
Wouldn’t the interests of the secular and democratic forces in Iran have been better served if Bakhtiar had remained in power? He would have created a liberal bourgeois regime, deflated Khomeini and created conditions in which the left could have developed.
No. Bakhtiar came into power believing he could save the Pahlavi regime and the 1906 constitution, which stipulated that monarchy in Iran is permanent until the appearance of the Mahdi. Bakhtiar did nothing except have the Shah leave, and that was under a general agreement with the shah, the Americans and Khomeini. He refused to hand over the radio and the television to the democratic organizations. He could not have survived.
The progressive secular forces and the Mojahedin were weak. Even if they had known that Khomeini was a clerical fascist and that he understood political power, there was little they could have done about it. The intelligentsia could not have stopped this tidal wave.
The people leading the movement within Iran were mainly intellectuals—the Writers’ Association, organizations of professors and students, jurists and lawyers, later judges and doctors. There were also workers in the oil fields and in some factories, as well as government workers. They had organized their strike committees, and even their central committee for coordinating strikes. But this happened far too late, and not in the way it should have happened. Khomeini and his people were not in Iran. They raised slogans which could not be repeated by those in Iran for security reasons. “Death to the Shah” was a popular slogan, and would have emerged whether Khomeini had said it or not. But he was the first person to say it. His fundamentalists had already organized themselves within the establishment. Islamic government was not the demand of the people. The people wanted to get rid of the dictator and to establish sovereignty for themselves. The minute that Khomeini arrived, of course, many realized that he was going to polarize the situation and move society in a rightist direction with the help of the reactionary left, particularly the Tudeh. That was one reason why many people, including myself, Shokrallah Paknejad and Manuchehr Hezarkhani formed the National Democratic Front.
The Front was founded at a meeting in Ahmadabad, outside Tehran, in early March 1979. This was where Mossadeq had lived, and it constituted an assertion of his legacy. How did the establishment of the Front come about?
The meeting was organized by friends who had been working with me in the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, and another group that had formed to publish a bulletin when the newspapers were on strike. Now that the Shah’s regime was gone and the anniversary of Mossadeq’s death was near, we decided there should be some sort of occasion upon which all progressive forces involved in this revolutionary process, and especially those who had just left the Shah’s prisons, should gather and pay their respects.
The idea was that personalities and people who had been active before the downfall of the Shah would participate. Recently formed political organizations, or those which existed abroad and had recently returned to Iran, could participate also. Many small organizations came. The National Democratic Front was formed in coordination with both the Fedayin and the Mojahedin; they approved the platform and agreed to have some liaison with the Front.
Five months later, in August 1979, the National Democratic Front was suppressed and you went underground. Why?
The main issue was democracy. The regime had promised a constituent assembly and instead decided to create a College of Experts dominated by mullahs. We were also very concerned about the so-called Hezbollahis who were used to suppress the free press and to harass democratic institutions such as the Bar Association, the Writer’s Union and the associations of the university and the students. We were also very concerned with the way the regime had reacted toward the Iranian nationalities such as the Kurds, and toward the rights of women.
We thought that the best way of keeping Iranians on the left informed, on the move and on the alert, was through a free press. We were determined to hang on to a free press with our very teeth. We held a conference of the Iranian nationalities at the headquarters of the National Democratic Front in June 1979. Representatives from Kurdish, Turkoman, Baluch and Arab political organizations were present. The main outcome was a decision to hold a congress of the peoples of Iran, with the participation of all political organizations of the nationalities and possibly with the Fedayin and Mojahedin, in Mahabad on August 23. But before that date a political crisis broke out in Tehran. The Front had decided to boycott the elections for the College of Experts, held in early August. In this context, the Khomeini camp judged the proposed congress in Mahabad to be a threat—it would be more representative of the Iranian people than their College of Experts.
To paralyze us they attacked the independent press, in particular the daily Ayandegan, which had a circulation of up to one million. Hundreds of thousands of people marched to the prime minister’s office to protest this censorship. The regime responded by closing our offices and ordered my arrest, claiming a plot to separate Kurdistan from Iran. The Mahabad congress was canceled. Immediately afterwards, they attacked the offices of the Fedayin and the Mojahedin in Tehran. A few days later they launched military operations into Kurdistan. That was when Khalkali appeared on the scene and the massacre of the Kurds began. So the events of August 1979 condensed the issues of democracy, press freedom and the rights of the nationalities. We in the National Democratic Front considered August 1979 to be a second coup, like that of August 1953.
August 1979 was the turning point. We were able to carry out some activities, but we decided in March 1980 that no more public actions were possible, and we stopped producing our paper. We saw the need to form a broad front with other anti-dictatorial groups. We supported the Mujahidin and later, in 1981, joined the National Resistance Council.
Your central message concerns the relevance of Mossadeq to contemporary Iran. Yet there are many questions about the final crisis of Mossadeq’s government in August 1953: Could he have gotten a settlement of the oil dispute if he had been shrewder? Why was he not able to organize his following in the country? Did he not undermine his support by failing to solve the oil crisis and relying too much on his own personality? What did Mossadeq himself say when he was alive?
In Mossadeq’s opinion, one component of the events which led to the coup d’etat in 1953 was the great changes in the world situation at that time: the Republican victory under Eisenhower in November 1952, the defeat of the Labor Party in Britain in October 1951, and the takeover by the conservatives, Winston Churchill and old colonial hands such as Anthony Eden. A very important factor was the death of Stalin in March 1953. The existence of a strong man in the north who meant business, who could make decisions personally, was very important in keeping the balance. In 1951, for example, the British sent their warships to the Shatt al-‘Arab to threaten Abadan. All the warships did when they arrived was to take away the British technicians from Abadan. Probably one factor that kept them from attacking was the position of Iran south of the USSR and the 1921 treaty between the Soviet Union and Iran. Suddenly Stalin died. His successor was a weak man. lt took a long time before things were settled in the Soviet Union, long enough for the West to have a free hand in our area. The coup of August 1953 occurred in this context.
A major internal factor was the Tudeh Party, at that time much stronger than now. What did Mossadeq think of its role?
He thought that the Tudeh was somehow infiltrated by the British. He used the term “Tudeh-Inglizi,” which has found a place in the Iranian political vocabulary. Then there were the miscalculations of the Tudeh and the way they behaved, by trying to organize labor against the Mossadeq government—strikes in the tobacco monopoly works, in the railway works and in the government factories. They had a good political organization, with military cadre, and they could have come out as an organization in favor of Mossadeq.
This was one of three main internal factors, and I would not say that the Tudeh was an important as the other two in helping to accelerate the coup d’etat: These were the Islamic fundamentalists and the imperial court. Mossadeq could not have solved the oil problem. The main concern of Mossadeq was not the oil question as such. He saw the oil question in light of his slogan “Freedom, Liberty and Independence.” He thought the solution would come only with the eventual establishment of his objectives. He was always ready to negotiate. But he did not count on negotiations and that’s why he launched his preliminary social reforms. That’s why he began his policy of economy without oil and why he asked for special powers from the parliament. Mossadeq had a long-term policy for developing independence and democracy in Iran.
When Mossadeq looked back on this period, did he think he’d made any mistakes?
What mistakes could he have committed under the circumstances? He had only certain tools in his hands, and he used them. He was trying to educate the country by allowing the country to practice democracy. He was a prime minister brought forward by the people, and therefore he could not compromise as an ordinary government could do on many issues. He thought that he was carrying the weight of a heritage, and contributing to it, and that he should preserve this heritage for future generations rather than somehow curb it by making compromises.
What political principles do you feel can be most useful in the present situation?
The only opposition to Khomeini that can be created is on the basis of Mossadeq’s legacy: progress against regression, knowledge against ignorance, democracy against autocracy and a quest for independence in the radical but humanitarian way that Mossadeq did it, thinking of the welfare of the people and at the same time of their liberties. Mossadeq very clearly believed in the separation of religion and state. His legacy exists everywhere, across the whole political spectrum. Mossadeq did not form a political party and did not actually advocate one particular ideology in a party program. Mossadeq has a place on every inch of the political spectrum.