As in most other countries, Maoism in Iran emerged in the mid-1960s when Sino-Soviet disputes split the ranks of international communism. But Iranian communism and its Maoist variant were also rooted in domestic developments. During the 1940s, the pro-Soviet (Tudeh) communist party had made significant inroads among Iran’s industrial workers, as well as artists, writers, translators, journalists, scholars and university students. In 1953, a CIA-sponsored military coup placed Iran firmly on the American side of the Cold War, crushing all communist and independent nationalist activities. Nevertheless, Soviet-style Marxism and anti-imperialist nationalism remained powerful undercurrents in political culture.
It was in such conditions that Iranian Maoism first appeared. In 1964, a dissident faction broke with the Tudeh Party’s leadership in European exile. Calling itself the Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party of Iran, the dissident group consisted mostly of younger communists who argued that Tudeh’s feeble response to the 1953 coup, and to Iran’s subsequent pro-American drift, was caused by its following Soviet policies of “revisionism” and “peaceful coexistence.” These young militants saw the Soviet Union as far removed from its revolutionary origins, while admiring China, Cuba and Vietnam as contemporary models of revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle. The Revolutionary Organization reflected the radicalization of many young Iranians, both at home and in Western Europe and the United States, where roughly half of the country’s university student population resided during the 1960s. In Iran, a similar search for new models of revolutionary theory and practice was taking place in small underground cells formed mostly by veterans of a repressed student movement, soon leading to the guerrilla campaign of the early 1970s. Like its counterpart inside Iran, the Revolutionary Organization faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in both theory and practice. Theoretically, it could not decide whether the Chinese or the Cuban model of revolution was better suited to Iran. By the late 1960s, it had sent a few members to both Cuba and China, but no formal or significant relations were established with either the Chinese or Cuban governments. In general, Iranian Maoists, including the few who spent time in China, seem to have had little understanding of or interest in Chinese post-revolutionary history or events such as the Cultural Revolution. A member of the Revolutionary Organization who lived in China during the 1960s relates in his memoir that members of the organization used the example of the Cultural Revolution to challenge their own organization’s leadership when it was already at the brink of collapsing. Equally unsuccessful were the Revolutionary Organization’s attempts at setting up an operational base in Iran, where small groups it dispatched from Europe were quickly discovered and dismantled. Worse still was a pattern of defections to the regime by militants associated with the Revolutionary Organization.
By the early 1970s, as the Revolutionary Organization met a quick end, Maoism was still influential in Iran’s guerrilla and student opposition circles abroad. While the guerrilla movement valorized revolutionary practice over theoretical reflection, some of its leaders continued debating the applicability to Iran of revolutionary warfare theories of Che Guevara, Regis Debray and Mao Zedong. The main Islamist branch of Iran’s guerrilla movement, the Organization of the Iranian People’s Mojahedin, also advocated learning from Vietnamese, Cuban and Chinese examples. In 1975, a faction of the Mojahedin Organization’s leadership declared itself for “Marxism-Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought.” In retrospect, this event was a serious blow not only to Maoist fortunes but also to Iranian Marxists in general. In fact, the 1975 “split” was a violent coup whereby a few Maoist leaders tried to take over the Mojahedin organization by purging its Muslim members, going so far as to assassinate leaders who refused conversion to Maoism. The events of 1975 drove a deepening wedge between radical Muslim activists, including some clerics, and Marxist revolutionaries, who up to this point had cooperated against the Shah’s regime.
The mid-1970s emergence of Maoist guerrillas in Iran helped energize Maoist tendencies, especially among thousands of Iranian students in the US. China’s prestige as the bastion of world revolution was diminishing, however, as the People’s Republic established ever closer relations not only with the US but with regimes such as the Shah’s in Iran. The foreign policy of Maoist China now deemed the Soviet Union the main global enemy, against whom it sought to unite with any and all potential allies. Thus, the second half of the 1970s witnessed increasing confusion, disarray and conflict within the ranks of Maoism internationally, including among Iranian Maoists. By this time, the political situation in Iran had changed dramatically. Responding to both domestic problems and the Carter administration in the US, the Shah’s regime in 1977 began relaxing repression and political controls. But this experiment with “opening up the political space” quickly spiraled out of control, bringing about a pre-revolutionary crisis within a year. Meanwhile, Iran’s guerrilla movement was in retreat, with its few surviving leaders, whether free or in prison, now prioritizing mass political mobilization over the revolutionary vanguard’s armed deeds. The Maoist Mojahedin had at first continued guerrilla armed actions, including the assassination of US military personnel in Iran. On the eve of the 1979 revolution, however, they too finally renounced armed struggle, changing their name to the Organization for Struggle to Emancipate the Working Class. Better known as Paykar (Struggle), the shortened Persian version of its name, the new organization became the standard bearer of Maoism and Stalinism among a few smaller groups, mostly opposed to Iran’s post-revolutionary regime. Paykar’s actual membership was probably in the hundreds, while it may have had tens of thousands of supporters, mainly among university and high school students. Paykar’s final demise came with the arrest of its leadership in early 1982, after it had thrown it support behind a Kurdish Maoist organization waging armed struggle against the Islamic Republic. In the same year, a smaller Maoist group, previously formed among Iranian students in the US, had staged an armed insurrection that was quickly crushed with several hundred arrests and executions. By 1983, Paykar, along with all organized opposition to the new regime, whether peaceful or not, was destroyed in a ferocious post-revolutionary reign of terror. Thus, in slightly less than two decades, the book on Iranian Maoism was closed.
For English-language sources on the Iranian left and Maoism, see: Ervand Abrahamian, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin (1989); Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (1999); Afshin Matin-Asgari, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah (2001).