An interview with Ervand Abrahamian
Spencer A. Leonard
On Thursday April 16 Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard interviewed the prominent historian and Columbia University professor Ervand Abrahamian on “Radical Minds” broadcast on UChicago WHPK-FM 88.5 on the subject of “30 years of Islamic Revolution in Iran.” Abrahamian kindly agreed to answer some further questions put to him by the Platypus Review to supplement that interview. Included below is an edited transcript of the original interview together with the answers Abrahamian gave to our supplemental questions.
Spencer Leonard (SL): 2009 is the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. When and how did the Iranian Revolution end? What sort of event was it? What served as the initial spark of the Iranian Revolution? What was its duration? What phases did it pass through? How can we best understand its inner dynamics and how is it best periodized? What were the main demands of the revolutionaries in the lead up to the departure of Shah Reza Pahlavi and how were those demands realized (or not)?
Ervand Abrahamian (EA): Well as for the demands, you would have to look at all the different sectors of society. Each class had its different grievances, but in 1978 they all came together in denouncing the Shah and the monarchy. I think if you look at the intelligentsia, their demands against the Shah go back all the way to the 1950s for having overthrown the Mossadegh government. There was a great deal of nationalistic resentment for the overthrow of the nationalist government of 1951–1953. But if you look at the traditional middle class, the Bazaaris [merchants], they had a lot of economic grievances against the Shah, because he was trying to stifle much of the bazaar economy and to create a large state economy. The oil boom of 1974 gave the Shah the means to stifle the traditional middle class. In the working class you had the typical grievances of bad working conditions, inflation, wages, high cost of rent. I would list those as economic. Trade union strikes, especially the oil strike of 1978, also targeted the oppressiveness of the Shah’s regime. Meanwhile, some clerics wanted to implement their own traditional interpretation of the sharia. In other words, the movement against the Shah was not monolithic.
It carried within it inherent contradictions that became apparent immediately after the revolution. This is why the bloodshed immediately after the revolution was far worse than that during the revolution itself.
SL: I want to get back to some of the underlying social dynamics. Could you lay out the brief compass of events of 1979? What was the trajectory, and how can we say that it came to some sort of end, or steady state?
EA: Where the Revolution started was in demonstrations, just as it ended with mass demonstrations that ended in February 1979 with the decision of the armed forces not to continue opposing pro-Khomeini demonstrators in the streets. The [first] demonstrations started in 1977, not 1978 as is conventionally said. These were student protests in the universities. They escalated when seminary students in Qom started imitating the university students. Then followed shootings, the killing of demonstrators, which sparked a cycle of 40-day mourning demonstrations. In Islam, there is an important 40-day commemoration of the dead; here this custom was used as a potent political tactic. Each of those 40-day demonstration cycles snowballed. They became bigger and bigger. The situation was further escalated by certain unforeseen events: There was the burning of a cinema in Abadan, in which many women and children were burned, and it was blamed on the secret police. (Actually, it was not done by the secret police, but at that time it was generally considered, even by American journalists, that the government had something to do with it.) Then there was a large shooting of demonstrators in September of 1978 in Tehran. This too increased the tempo. The size of the killings was vastly exaggerated (some 60 were killed), but it was generally said that something like 400 had been killed in the shootings. So, by the end of 1978, you were getting demonstrations of roughly 2 million people in Tehran alone. It has been said that the popular participation in the Iranian Revolution was greater than any other revolution in terms of the percentage of the total population participating in protests. Eventually the demonstrations got so big that the Shah and Army were not able to control it. That is what forced the Shah to leave the country. As soon as he left, Khomeini [who had previously been exiled in Iraq] returned. About 3 million people came to the streets to greet him in February of 1979. In two weeks, the whole regime just collapsed.
SL: Many journalists speak of Islamist political forces, as though they represented the authentic self-expression of the people in so-called Muslim countries. For instance, in the current crisis in Pakistan, it is often said that the Taliban are popular among segments of society untouched by Western influence, whereas lawyers and professionals represent and defend liberal western values. To what extent does such a view explain or distort the Iranian Revolution? Was the demand for an Islamic state, with Mullahs or religious clergymen in power, a grassroots popular demand opposed by a modernizing Western elite, or is the picture more complicated than that?
EA: It is much more complicated. The conventional view that the Shah was a modernizer and the public was traditional, meaning religiously conservative, and therefore opposed to the regime contains an element of truth. There were people in Iran you could call traditional conservatives. But in the past they had actually been apolitical or they had supported the regime. They had not before caused problems for the Shah’s regime. Putting aside the secular and socialist movements, that is, speaking only of those who espoused Islam, there are different branches of Islam involved, none of which can be described as conventionally traditional.
The rise of a radical Islam basically originates in the university students, and they interpret Islam in a much more socialist way. The main philosopher of this is Ali Shariati, who was very much influenced by Franz Fanon. What Shariati did was inject into Shi’ism radical notions of class struggle, equality, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-clericalism. There is a strong streak of anti-clericalism in Shariati. His ideas very much appealed to graduates, college students, and high school students, and these were the biggest groups of people who organized the demonstrations and were out in the streets from 1977 onwards.
SL: And these were people who see Shia Islam in particular as radical, egalitarian…
EA: Yes. The religious say the Islamic Revolution was “Islamic,” that “Islam is the explanation for the revolution.”
The trouble with this as an explanation, of course, is that Islam has been in Iran for a long time and yet Iran did not have an Islamic Revolution until 1977–1979, so something else is going on besides Islam per se. One crucial issue was the reinterpretation of Shi’ism from an apolitical, conservative ideology to a highly revolutionary one. This was done by a new young intelligentsia, the sons and daughters of the traditional middle class who were going to university.
SL: I want to get back to some of these questions because I think these are some of the least well-understood aspects of the Iranian Revolution, but first I would like to speak of the immediate historical background. In your recent book, The History of Modern Iran, with respect to the White Revolution, you say, “the White Revolution had been designed to pre-empt a red revolution, but instead it paved the way for an Islamic revolution.”
Specifically, could you speak about the background of later events going back to the early 1960s and the White Revolution? How was Iranian society changing in the decades immediately prior to the outbreak of the revolution? How ought we think about the modernization of Iranian society during those decades? And what tensions did these transformations produce? Which social classes, in other words, gained strength during the Shah’s rule and which were rendered vulnerable?
EA: From 1941-53, opposition to the Shah’s regime came, basically, from the Left, including both the communist movement and the secular nationalist movement, the national front. The threat the Shah always feared was from the Left. So, to forestall that and with the encouragement of the Kennedy administration, the Shah launched land reforms and with them what he called the “White Revolution.” The Western strategy to preempt red revolutions was to carry out land reform. The US did that in Japan and South Korea, Kennedy encouraged it in South America, and the Shah was doing the same in Iran. The trouble was that the White Revolution actually undercut the Shah’s power, because traditionally the monarchy in Iran had been supported by a landed class composed of tribal chiefs, big landowners, and clerics with large endowments. Land reform undercut that landed class, so the Shah, instead of strengthening Reviewhis position, in a way undercut his own social support. Rationally, you could say the peasants who received the redistributed land (and a certain sector did get land) should have been endeared to the monarchy. After all, the Shah had given them land. The trouble was that the support services with which the Shah was supposed to supplement agricultural reform—agricultural credits, irrigation works, and so on—did not materialize. So the peasantry was left only half satisfied. They got land but they did not get all the things they needed in support of that. The result was that the Shah did not really get the support from the countryside that he had hoped for. That does not mean the peasants were against the Shah. In fact, the peasantry mainly just sat out the revolution, neither supporting nor opposing it. The mass demonstrations were all urban based, not rural.
SL: I want to ask you now more specifically about the role of the Left in the Revolution. What were the most important miscalculations made by those who supported the revolution but ended up losing out in the end? And also to what extent did those among the international Left who supported the Iranian Revolution also suffer disappointment?
Has the Left in Iran, and internationally, learned from the experience of the Revolution? Or, in your view, have many of the lessons of the Iranian Revolution been ignored, even today?
EA: It is not so much learning lessons, but trying to fathom what happened. The general expectation on the Left was that once the Shah had been forced out and there was an opening, leftist ideologies and movement to the Left would come to the fore, because, before the dictatorship of the Shah, before 1953, the organizations that had the most mass support in the cities, as I said, were the Communist Party [Tudeh] and the National Front. But from 1953 to 1977 these secular organizations were dismantled by the regime, leaving no leftist or internationalist organization intact. While the regime was dismantling leftist organizations and secular organizations, they left undamaged the religious mosques and seminaries, i.e., the clerical establishment. So once the regime began to unravel, you had really two opposition groups: the amorphous students who were chiefly engaged in organizing demonstrations and university protests, on the one hand, and a network of organizations based in the mosques and seminaries, on the other. The latter were, of course, controlled by the clerics.
When the regime collapsed, there was a vacuum. The people who were much more capable of picking up power were the clerical organizations because they had an organization. To use a metaphor from the Bolshevik Revolution, as someone once said in 1917, power was lying in the gutter and the Bolsheviks were the only organization with the strength to bend down and pick it up. In the Iranian case, the people most capable of picking it up were in fact the clerical organizations.
SL: So the Left was already decimated, with the only politics on offer being the clerical elements and pop front, focus-on-main-enemy support? What exactly was the situation of the Left in 1977 and 1978?
EA: Leftist organizations could not function in the SAVAK [Sazeman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, Iran’s National Intelligence and Security Organization] police state. Former members were imprisoned. You could not really organize anything—no trade unions, or underground organizations. In many ways the Shah’s regime was more effective than traditional police states. In addition, the repression had fragmented the Left into many groups, many of which saw each other as rivals. I could enumerate about 30 different leftist groups that existed in Iran by about 1977, but they were small cliques more than actual organizations.
SL: It is customary to regard the Iranian Revolution as a watershed moment in world history, as undoubtedly in many respects it was. But are there some lines of continuity between the regime of the Shah and the revolutionary Islamic regime that overthrew it? What are the most important lines of continuity stretching across the revolutionary divide, and what are the most important breaks between the Shah’s Iran and the Iran forged by the Revolution?
EA: Well, the present regime’s ideology is Islam, the Shah’s ideology was monarchism or Pahlavism. But if you put aside ideology, if you look at how the states behave in terms of its neighbors and what drives its state policies, I would say both share a very strong attachment to national prestige and national image. So the way the Islamic Republic has behaved is not so much about espousing or encouraging the spread of Islam. The Republic has much more acted in terms of national state interests. When there is a conflict between Islam and Iranian national security, the latter takes precedence.
For instance, in the Caucasus, after the fall of the Soviet Union there was bitter fighting between Christian Armenia and Muslim (Shia) Azerbaijan. Iran supported the Armenians. They sided with the Christian state over a fellow Muslim state. Why? Because of purely national self-interest. Azerbaijan had territorial claims on Iran, Armenia did not. Likewise in Chechnya, Iran supported Russia against the Chechen rebels. All along the line what motivates the Iranian state is national security.
Supplemental questions asked by email:
1). You mention Fanon as being especially influential on the generation of intellectuals that came of age in the fifties and sixties. Would it be correct to see the events leading up to 1979 as a product of the intellectual divide between the Old and New Left? As your work describes, after World War II the Iranian Left was dominated by a Stalinist popular front organization, the Tudeh, set up to support the Allies during the war. After the Tudeh failed to take power during the 1953 coup and was then brutally suppressed by SAVAK in the early 1960s, it seems as if most of those who emerged on the Left later took up a kind of anti-Stalinist Stalinism influenced by Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Che Guevara. How did this ideological rift (as opposed to just the Shah’s repression) cause confusion and help lay the seeds for the Iranian Left’s self-marginalization and ultimate demise?
EA: The landmark event that divided the younger intelligentsia from the older one was the shooting down of demonstrators in 1963. This bloodletting proved, at least to the younger generation, that street protests were no longer effective against the regime. Consequently, many younger members of the Tudeh and the National Front were drawn to the concept of “armed struggle” as articulated by either Mao, Ho-Chin Minh, Che, or Fanon. This became the dividing line in Iran between the Old and New Left. The fascination with the armed struggle lasted from 1963 until 1975 and in its hay day in 1972–74, scores of young guerrillas—both Marxists of various stripes as well as Muslims from the Mojahedin-e Khalq—died fighting the regime. The irony of the whole story, which is often forgotten, is that the guerrilla organizations had all been crushed by the time the revolution started, and their survivors were increasingly talking about taking their message to the factories and forming underground networks. Of course, the whole revolution of 1977–79 was accomplished not by armed struggle but by the traditional tactic of mass demonstrations.
2). In an article you wrote about the guerrilla movement you quote Mehdi Bazargan speaking on French television as saying that “the revolution would not forget the role played by the guerrillas and the Tudeh Party.” 1 Was Bazargan right to point to the Left’s role or, given its total disorganization, was the Left just opportunistically tailing behind a movement that it could neither control nor shape? Is the traditional story of 1979 as one of revolution and counter-revolution misleading, or at least an overly simplistic framework through which to understand events?
EA: When Bazargan paid his dues to the Left it was to say that many of the martyrs that died fighting against the regime came from this guerrilla wing of the opposition.
In 1979, the clerics had few martyrs. Almost all those who had been killed fighting the regime came from the Left, both from the secular as well as the religious Left. Bazargan at that time referred to the Mojahedin as the children of his own organization. It is hard to talk of the Left as a monolithic bloc since there were so many rival groups. Some, especially Maoists but not all of them, saw the downfall of the Shah as the first step towards a total revolution in the style of China and Russia. Others, including the Tudeh and surprisingly some Trotskyists, argued that the 1979 revolution faced imminent threat from American imperialism and therefore needed to be supported to prevent a counter-revolution. That is how the various groups viewed reality; I would not use the term “opportunistic.”
3). Today, there are many comparisons being made between the protests after Iran’s election results were announced and the atmosphere just prior to the 1979 Revolution. In what ways do you think this analogy is correct? Do you see any sort of dissonance between the actions of the protests (the repeating of “Allah-u-Akbar” on rooftops for example) and the pragmatic reality of post-electoral Iran?
EA: There are many parallels between the present crisis and the 1977–79 Revolution: street protests, mass meetings cutting across class lines, mass rallies in exactly the same places, the regime resorting to the notion that the “hidden foreign hand,” especially the BBC, is behind the crisis, and many others. But behind these similarities lie fundamental differences. First, the new regime has the means of violence, the Revolutionary Guards, to crush the opposition. By contrast, the Shah knew by 1978 that he could not rely on his armed forces. Second, the new regime, even though it no longer has the mass support it had in the past, still has a social base—the evangelical believers who form some 20–25 percent of the public, as well as the sectors of the bazaars that are plugged into the state through contracts, benefits, and the clerical foundations.
4). If the 1979 Revolution was catastrophic from the point of view of the Left, then might not the 2009 election crisis have a similar legacy? How does the prevailing disorganization diminish leftists’ ability to act politically or to even understand the situation unfolding in contemporary Iran?
EA: The 1979 Revolution was necessarily a catastrophe. It achieved its main aim shared by the Left as well as other groups. It brought about the end of the ancient regime and national independence. The 1979 Revolution was for Iran what national independence was for many countries in the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s. The aims of the present movement—even if they do not succeed in the near future—have a great deal of relevance to the Left. They inevitably include the creation of a civil society in which independent unions, political parties, professional associations, women’s organizations, minority viewpoints, and individual rights are protected. It is for this reason that most Leftist groups in Iran, both inside and outside the country, support the reform movement and deeply distrust the “populism” of the Right. |P
1. Ervand Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963-1977” MERIP Reports 86 (Mar/Apr 1980): 13.