The fourth year of the Iranian revolution at first sight contained less surprises and reverses of political trend than the three which preceded it. The leading personalities of the regime remained constant, without major divisions or assassinations. Khomeini himself, although apparently physically weaker, continued to exert a strong dominance over those in official positions. There were no major institutional developments, and little progress towards the strengthening of the Islamic Republican Party. Bloody repression and a reign of terror continued, but the opposition sustained its fight against the regime in the main cities and especially in Kurdistan. The war with Iraq dragged on, with immense loss of life on the Iranian side but no great breakthroughs. Iran did not make any major new enemies at an international level: much of the world, including the international press, appeared now to be more reconciled to the prospect of a fundamentalist regime in Tehran for the foreseeable future. [1] Year IV nonetheless saw a series of important trends which suggest the parameters within which any future developments and upheavals will occur. These trends can, for the sake of convenience, be grouped into four sections: internal, the war with Iraq, international, and the opposition.

Internal Developments

Year IV was accompanied by a distinct improvement in Iran’s economic situation. Because Iraq could not hit Iranian loading facilities, oil production rose markedly: after falling from pre-revolutionary levels of over 6 million barrels a day (mbd) to averages of 1.48 mbd in 1980 and 1.3 mbd in 1981 (of which around half was exported), output in early 1983 rose to 3.2 mbd. Of these, exports accounted for 2.5 mbd. [2] In January 1983, oil rationing for domestic consumers was ended.

The dire balance of payments situation of 1981, when imports of $16 billion greatly exceeded oil revenues of $11 billion, was now over, and official reserves at the beginning of 1983 stood at around $5 billion. Iran boosted its revenues by undercutting OPEC. For the first time since the revolution, Iran implemented the gas reinjection programs needed to raise output above three million barrels a day.

Data on the domestic economy is scanty, but it seems that scarcity and under-utilization of capacity continued. The official inflation rate of 15.5 percent concealed a large black market and very pervasive corruption. It seemed that consumer goods became a bit more plentiful during 1982 as the foreign exchange situation eased. A rationing system operated at least in major cities. In agriculture, there was a growing problem of meat supplies partly because pastures had been plowed up for crops, but the situation in wheat, sugar, dried fruit and rice improved. Direct purchases of wheat were up 20 percent at the end of 1982 over the previous year, and cereal output to the end of March 1983 was estimated at 25 percent higher than the previous year. Prospects were that Iran would, if current trends continue, become self-sufficient in some crops like sugar, but for the moment imports of food continued at high levels. Latin America and the Indian subcontinent have replaced the US as the major suppliers. In industry, officials claimed that imported raw materials now accounted for only 50 percent of those used, compared to 80 percent before, but they admitted that only a small number of factories were properly operational.

In addition to the millions of unemployed, the country had, by official figures, to cope with 1.5 million Iranian refugees displaced by the war, 1.5 million Afghan refugees, over 100,000 people expelled from Iraq, and 45,000 Iraqi prisoners of war. (These are figures given in a speech by Prime Minister Hossein Musavi on November 7, 1982. Official Red Cross figures for the end of 1982 give 28,423 Iraqi POWs in Iranian hands, 5,285 Iranians in Iraqi hands. Some incidents of Iranians executing Iraqi POWs as “infidels” have been reported, in particular one case of 400 being shot during the recapture of Abadan. The initiative in this has lain with the Pasdaran, and the Iranian army is said to have opposed it.)

The regime itself seemed to be devoting more attention to the economy. The projected budget for the Persian year of March 1983-March 1984 allocated $14 billion for development spending, as compared to $4.2 billion for the war, out of a total expenditure of $30 billion. The planned budget deficit was $2.9 billion, compared to the 1982-1983 figure of $5.5 billion. Minister of Industry Behzad Nabavi stressed that competent businessmen had to be allowed to operate, and that complete self-sufficiency was an illusion.

Economic policy formed part of the conflict growing within the regime between the two factions loosely known as the Hojjatieh and the Imam’s Line. The former were originally a group founded in the 1950s, with a strong hostility to the Bahai religion and to communists. Although not necessarily organized by the conservative clergy and the bazaar, their policies have coincided with those who oppose radical economic reforms and who want to counter any trace of Soviet influence. At the mass level, Hojjatieh forces have waged anti-communist and anti-Bahai campaigns. Some of the government ministers, such as Foreign Minister Velayati and Labor Minister Tavakoli, are believed to back it. Such opinions are also strong in the Council of Guardians, a clerical body which can veto parliamentary legislation. Three bills—nationalizing trade, reforming land tenure, and confiscating the goods of exiled Iranians—were blocked by the Council in what seemed to be a revolt by the conservative clergy against the Imam’s Line group, which favors such increases in state control and elimination of potentially hostile social groups.

The Islamicization of the regime continued. All women were now forced to wear religious clothing in public. In August, all secular laws were declared invalid. But the influence of the Islamic conservatives and of material constraints in particular could be seen in a number of official attempts to win back support from the middle classes. In October 1982, former prime minister Mehdi Bazargan was allowed to circulate a letter attacking the regime for corruption, inefficiency, demagogy and violations of human rights. In December, Khomeini issued an eight-point decree cutting back the rights of government forces to arrest people and search their properties, and abolishing the self- appointed selection committees which had appraised the ideological worthiness of candidates for government employment. In February 1983, controls on emigration were lifted, although it remained to be seen how free people really were. Only certain authorized people could take currency out with them. At the same time, the regime started a campaign to get doctors to return from abroad.

Two important steps were taken towards institutionalizing the regime and welding the new post-revolutionary institutions to those inherited from the old regime. First, the establishment of a Ministry of Revolutionary Guards signaled that this force, now numerically larger than the regular army, had a permanent place in the regime’s security apparatus. The commander of the guards, Mohsen Rezai, was believed to play a dominant part in planning operations against Iraq. Second, there was an election in December of members of an Assembly of Experts, to choose how Khomeini’s position as faqih, or constitutionally-appointed interpreter of Islamic law, would be filled when the Ayatollah died. Only clergymen were allowed to stand in this election. Most observers believed the Council would choose Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s son-in-law and a long-time follower, as his replacement. Others, however, feel that the conservative wing of the clergy would be able to block the appointment of any one person, and force the Council to nominate a committee of three or five clergymen within which the conservatives would have a majority.

War with Iraq

In June and July 1982, Iran was able to drive Iraqi forces out of most of the Iranian territory and to take over some Iraqi territory along the border. The city of Basra, in southern Iraq, came under fire, and Iranian forces on the central front at Musian posed a threat to the main road linking Baghdad to the south. But Iran failed to achieve those victories that would have clinched its triumph; the Iraqi army did not crack, Saddam Hussein did not resign, and there was no popular uprising in Iraq against the Baathist government. Iraq more and more openly pleaded for peace, and there were signs that the war posed increased problems for Baghdad. The economy, which had up till then appeared to bear the strain remarkably well, was clearly in trouble. Oil exports were down from over three million barrels a day before the war to under one million in 1982. The Arab oil states were now less willing to pay for Saddam’s war, and Jordan began to complain about Iraqi financial restrictions. Saddam Hussein achieved a new working relationship with Egypt, whose return to the Arab fold he championed, and he also shifted position on Israel, accepting for the first time the right of the Israeli state to exist.

Iran’s major aims, however, remained unfulfilled: removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi acceptance of war guilt, and war reparations of up to $150 billion. The Islamic opposition inside Iraq diminished. The Higher Islamic Council set up in Tehran included Iraqi clergymen but not the secular forces also opposed to Saddam—communists, pro-Syrian Baathists and Kurds. The strains of the war were showing in Iran, too. Government leaders were divided about what they really wanted—a negotiated peace or an Islamic republic in Iraq. There was evident war-weariness among the population. The regime resorted increasingly to using teenage boys in human wave tactics on the battlefields, and many thousands were slain in the major offensives of 1982 and early 1983. Penalties for avoiding conscription were increased and officers were instructed to shoot soldiers who shirked on the battlefield. More and more of the fighting seemed to fall onto the irregular forces, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and the Basij-i Mostazafin (the Mobilization of the Oppressed), the popular force set up during the hostage crisis to meet a possible US invasion. The average age of the Basijis was 15 years, while the Pasdaran was a better-equipped and paid force of somewhat older men.

The situation inside the armed forces remained extremely confused. [3] A number of mutinies were reported in 1982, the most prominent being a revolt in the Lavizan barracks in Tehran in March 1982: 15 people, including two colonels, were killed by supporters of the Mojahedin. Thousands of people are believed to be held in the Jamshidieh military prison in Tehran, suspected of pro-Mojahedin sympathies. During the attack on Basra in July 1982, 40 tank crews refused to attack and were never seen again. 1982 was marked by the defection of several air force pilots to the West, indicating dissent among this elite group. Two thirds of the corps’ experienced members had been killed since the war began.

Regime control of the army is maintained partly through the countervailing pressure of the Basij and the Pasdaran, and partly through an intelligence system that permeates the entire armed forces. Four groups are responsible for this: the Political Ideological Department handles agitprop among the military; the Strike Group is an armed military police; the Information and Guidance is an intelligence-gathering force concentrating on the identification of political opposition; and the Islamic Club is a clergy-run intelligence force used for controlling suspected military personnel.

Most key positions are held by persons promoted since the revolution. The commander of the ground forces, Col. Shirazi, had been a captain who made his name as a particularly bloody artillery commander in Kurdistan. The air force commander, Col. Moinpur, was a major under the Shah’s system until discharged for corruption; he made his mark by running a local Islamic committee in Tehran during the revolution. Most political factions are believed to have sympathizers in the armed forces. The Tudeh Party has less than the others; Mojahedin support is reported to be considerable. Royalist sympathy certainly remains, but it is believed to lack organization and direction.

International Relations

Iran has remained formally rather isolated in the international arena. A UN vote in November 1982 rallied 119 votes in favor of an immediate ceasefire in the war with Iraq, with no other state supporting Tehran in its opposition. Relations with Syria were temporarily disrupted after Damascus accepted the agreement of the Fez summit in September 1982, and relations with the USSR deterioriated markedly after a number of incidents in which Moscow and Tehran were opposed.

Soviet disapproval of Iranian policies was evident in a number of respects. Soviet writers began to give more emphasis to the activities of the Hojjatieh, and stressed the lack of any improvement in the material lot of the population since the revolution. Soviet officials were extremely critical of Iran’s carrying the war into Iraq in July 1982, and publicized deliveries of Soviet arms to Iraq took place later in the year. The Russians were also annoyed by the Khomeini slogan “Neither East nor West,” which they considered put them, unjustly, on a par with the US. And although Iran did little in practice to assist the rebels in Afghanistan, Moscow resented Tehran’s sustained verbal assault on the Soviet presence there. The 26th Congress of the Soviet Party had argued, in 1981, that assessment of radical Islamic movements depended on the particular political character of such movements. This official view remained in force, but analysis shifted towards stressing the dominance of conservative social forces within the regime. [4]

The Iranian side contributed to this worsening of relations. Attacks on Soviet policy increased. Soviet diplomats and journalists were harassed. In June 1982, a Soviet diplomat, Vladimir Kuzichkin, defected to the West and is reported to have given the British a list of up to 400 Soviet and Tudeh agents operating within the Iranian regime. The British allegedly passed this on to the Tehran authorities, precipitating the later arrests of Tudeh members. In February 1983, Iran announced that the secretary-general of the Tudeh Party, Nureddin Kianuri, and a number of other leading Tudeh members had been arrested on charges of spying for the USSR.

Yet the USSR had little means of influencing the situation in Iran, and on balance Khomeini remained preferable to the pro-Western clerical or military regime which the Soviets felt would replace him. The fear of a US-backed coup in Iran continued to dominate Soviet conceptions. The gas pipeline used before the revolution was still out of use because the two sides could not agree on a new price, but Soviet-Iranian trade continued to be important to both countries, and the USSR kept 1-2,000 economic technicians on projects in Iran.

Iran did build other diplomatic contacts. North Korea continued to supply arms, mainly replacement ammunition. Both Britain and France tried to restore some trade links, although France was clearly tilting to Iraq in the war, providing Baghdad with new planes and missiles.

No diplomatic contacts between Tehran and Washington were reported, and in The Hague the US side deliberately slowed down the economic arbitration talks that were an outcome of the 1981 hostage agreement. Trade between the two countries in the first ten months of 1982 ran at $457 million, about one seventh of its 1978 level, mainly oil traded for wheat. But the US government did let it be known that it considered the regime in Tehran to be relatively stable and able to survive Khomeini’s death. In February 1983, an Iranian arms-purchasing mission visited the US, although US officials denied they would meet its requests. Given the increasingly anti-communist line of the Tehran authorities, there was less reason for Washington to seek to influence immediate events in Iran. The long-run aim of reversing the 1979 revolution and reinstalling a pro-Western regime certainly remained. Some of the infrastructure for the Rapid Deployment Force, such as new base facilities in eastern Turkey, are clearly designed for possible intervention or covert activity in the event of civil war in Iran.

Iran sought to redirect its trade away from its developed capitalist partners of the pre-1979 period. Ties with both Turkey and Pakistan improved considerably. Iran offered oil to poor Third World states, such as Bangladesh and Madagascar, at 10 percent below the market price. Iran could sell its oil and buy food and arms on the free market and thus had less need of good relations with other countries in order to secure economic assistance.

The Opposition

The major forces of the Iranian opposition continued to wage a heroic and difficult struggle against the regime throughout the fourth year. The Mojahedin declared that their guerrilla struggle had now entered a second phase: the first revealed the regime’s dictatorial nature, and the third would consist of popular resistance, strikes and uprisings; this second phase is one of armed actions against the repressive apparatus of the regime. They reckon that 10 percent or less of the population now backs Khomeini.

This second phase began in the early summer of 1982, and the Mojahedin claimed to have killed over 1,000 members of the state security forces in the latter part of the year, 600 in Tehran alone. Twenty-eight of these were commanders of the Revolutionary Guard units. [5] According to Masud Rajavi, the organization had assassinated over 2,000 top political and religious leaders of the regime between June 1981, when they went underground completely, and October 1982. Of the seven religious deputies appointed by Khomeini to run the different regions of the country, six had been killed or seriously wounded. In October 1982, Rajavi declared: “I repeat what I said a year ago, that we are expecting Khomeini’s overthrow in the short run.” [6]

Yet the Mojahedin have paid a heavy price for this sustained campaign. Rajavi himself stated that his organization had, in the initial street confrontations of June-September 1981, underestimated the brutality and repressive potential of the regime. He stated that up of 20,000 members of the organization and sympathizers had been killed since June 1981, and that over 40,000 people were in jail. Conditions in the prisons remained appalling; mass and arbitary executions, torture and systematic overcrowding were common. [7]

The Mojahedin leadership engaged in certain actions which provoked controversy within the Iranian opposition as a whole. In their publications and meetings, they appeared to project the Mojahedin alone, rather than the National Resistance Council of which they are a part, albeit a leading one. Their publications tended not to mention the armed actions of other groups, such as the Kurds. The Paris meeting between Rajavi and Iraqi Vice Premier Tariq Aziz in December 1982 was widely criticized. The Mojahedin justified it on the grounds that it highlighted their desire for peace. According to the Mojahedin, the Iraqis initially promised to halt attacks on civilian targets inside Iran, but they did not keep to this when the war flared up again in February 1983. [8]

In the western mountains, the Mojahedin had some forces which cooperated with the Kurdish resistance. The latter’s fortunes took a hard blow in September and October 1982, when the regime launched its biggest offensive yet in conjunction with an attack on Iraq. An estimated 12,000 peshmargas faced human wave attacks by young Basijis, long-range artillery shells and phosphorus bombs. There were some 25,000 refugees within the Kurdish area, and in the villages and towns under government control there were massacres, forced deportations to other parts of Iran, and Shi‘i religious propaganda.

At its fifth congress, in December 1981, the Kurdish Democratic Party agreed to join the National Resistance Council, with reservations. They insisted on certain changes in the NRC’s program—downplaying Islam and spelling out more clearly what the NRC promised women and the national minorities. [9] It was evident, both within Iran and in exile, that some friction between the two groups persisted, despite their common commitment in overthrowing Khomeini.

Many of the other sources of opposition remained on the defensive. With the exception of Bazargan, no prominent personality spoke out against the regime. Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, former Khomeini aide and foreign minister, was executed after a trial in which he was accused of plotting a coup and working for the US. Also involved in the case, condemned but not executed, was the son-in-law of Ayatollah Shariat-Madari. Shariat-Madari, the most prominent cleric opposed to Khomeini, remained under house arrest.

For their part, the left-wing forces supporting the regime appeared to lose influence as a result of the rise of the Hojjatieh. Although they continued to claim that the regime deserved support for being “anti-imperialist” and against “big capital,” Tudeh members were purged from the civilian and security forces. The Fedayin (Majority), now aligned on Tudeh positions, ceased to be a significant public force. It remains to be seen whether the regime will try the Tudeh leaders arrested in 1983 as part of an overall offensive against the left, but the regime’s center of gravity has dramatically shifted to the conservative end of the Islamic spectrum.

A statement issued in Paris following the arrest of the Tudeh party leadership said that charges of espionage were without foundation and that the arrests were “the start of a dangerous plot against the Iranian revolution, the purpose of which is to crush the revolutionary movement and to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.” It went on: “Our crime was that for a long time we have known exactly what the right path for the revolution has been. Our crime was to know who were the friends and who were the enemies of the revolution, within the country and abroad, and to remain with clarity and perseverance on the positions in which we sincerely believed.” [10]

Some Iranian government sources alleged that the arrest of the Tudeh leaders was linked to the US visit of an Iranian military mission to negotiate the release of some $400 million worth of arms which Iran had purchased under the Shah but which were impounded by Washington. US government sources insisted that no arms would be sold or released to Iran. Contacts between the US and Iranian governments are believed to be channeled in part through the Iranian representative at the UN, Said Rajaie-Khorassani.


It is impossible to determine the real strength of the different factions within the Khomeini regime, or their relation to contemporary social forces in Iran. This makes it all the harder to assess the most important issue of all, the present bases of the regime’s power.

The regime’s survival rests apparently on a combination of three factors. First, there is a social base, a section of the population which still supports the regime and its Islamic program. This applies most obviously to the clergy—tens of thousands of them now occupy positions of power within the state and many have become cadres of the new ruling apparatus. Many clergy have also used their positions of influence to become involved in business activities, both legal and black market. Beyond the clergy, parts of the poorer urban population at least can still be mobilized to demonstrate, pray and fight for the Khomeini government.

A second foundation for the regime is economic. In addition to the remaining functionaries of the Pahlavi state, many tens of thousands of new recruits have been brought into the government, for civilian and military purposes. The regime is not simply “an alliance of the clergy and the lumpen,” as some of its critics claim, but the recruitment of poor urban unemployed into the Pasdaran and ministries has certainly been one means by which the state has consolidated itself. [11] Beyond this direct control through employment, there lies the wider network of mosque committees and Islamic agencies through which the state distributes material goods and exercises political control.

The third and most important factor in explaining the regime’s survival is fear. A hideous reign of terror has been unleashed against the Iranian people and all those who dissent—be they writers or workers, lawyers or traders, women or men, members of ethnic minorities or adherents of minority faiths. The death toll of Khomeini’s four years must now run into many tens of thousands—even hundreds of thousands, if the total encompasses those executed, killed in fighting in the minority areas, and killed in the war which Khomeini helped to bring on with Iraq. This fact alone has temporarily prevented the expression of overt political opposition, and limited the realm of possible resistance to either internal exile or armed action. Khomeini’s regime has, moreover, benefited from a factor that was also central to the Shah’s despotism—oil revenues. Despite the invocation of the supernatural on every conceivable occasion, this material factor has underpinned in a crucial manner the regime’s survival. It has enabled the regime to dispense with the support of those in control of the main productive sectors of the economy, and to dispose of the funds sufficient to maintain the post-revolutionary state apparatus.

The war exerts the greatest toll on the regime. Despite this, Khomeini shows no ability to end, or willigness to consider ending it. The pattern of the hostage crisis may repeat itself: tough talk until the last minute, followed by the sudden acceptance of rather soft terms. The difference is, of course, that much Iranian blood has been spilled in this war, and the costs of a conciliatory peace could not be hidden from the population in the way that they were during the end of the hostage affair. Yet failure to end the war must be placing enormous economic, political and psychological stresses upon the regime, and in particular on its military forces. Here, as much as in the direct assaults of the opposition upon the state, is a possible challenge to Khomeini’s regime. Indeed, on present evidence the opposition’s best hope is to succeed in alliance with forces challenging the regime from within.


[1] For example, Youssef Ibrahim in the New York Times, December 1, 1982.
[2] Figures on oil output are from recent issues of Middle East Economic Digest. Iraqi reluctance to launch an all-out attack on the Iranian loading facilities at Kharg Island may in part reflect diplomatic considerations: Iran has threatened to attack oil facilities in Arabian Peninsula states in retaliation. (Economist, December 11, 1982).
[3] Much of the information on the armed forces is taken from an interview with Captain Hamid Zirak-Bash, a former liaison officer between the air force and the army who defected in 1982.
[4] See Dmitry Volsky, “Iran: The Revolution at the Crossroads,” New Times 2 (1983). Soviet displeasure was voiced earlier in a Pravda article of March 9, 1982 (Karen Dawisha, “The USSR in the Middle East: Superpower in Eclipse?” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1982-1983). See also Fred Halliday, “Current Soviet Policy in the Middle East,” MERIP Reports 111 (January 1983).
[5] Press Statement, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, December 29, 1982.
[6] Interview with Masoud Rajavi, Auvers-sur-Oise, October 1982.
[7] Amnesty International, “Ill Treatment of Prisoners in Iran,” December 9, 1982. This report covered four prisons known from the time of the Shah (Evin, Qasr, Komite, Vakilabad) and a new one at Salehabad, a converted diary farm near Qom, where about 2,000 people were held, 60 percent of them suspected of Mujahidin or communist activity.
[8] Point 4 of the Joint Communique issued by Tariq Aziz and Masud Rajavi on January 9, 1983, stated that Rajavi had asked the Iraqis not to attack Iranian cities and villages. Reports from the front stated that on February 10 Iraqi planes attacked the cities of Abadan, Dezful and Khvaz (International Herald Tribune, February 11, 1983).
[9] A. R. Qassemlu, Report of the Central Committee to the Fifth Congress of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, December 1981, pp. 39-42.
[10] Le Monde, February 13-14, 1983.
[11] Information on the situation in the ministries is fragmentary. One account of the Foreign Ministry was given to me by Parviz Khazai, former consul in Oslo, who defected to the PMOI in September 1982. Khazai stated that of the 600 or so career diplomats at the time of the revolution, only around 100 were now left. The ministry had been given, as a reward, to the “Students Following the Imam’s Line” following the hostage affair, but from early 1982 onwards a third group, loyal to Ayatollah Montazeri, had begun to take over.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Year IV of the Islamic Republic," Middle East Report 113 (March/April 1983).

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