Revolutionary uprising in Iran: Victories and weak points
Shahab Borhan translated by Yassamine Mather
Recently a friend asked me: “How do you see the future of the movement?” I answered: “I am not a fortune-teller – I can only say what I see and how I see the current situation.”
First of all, it is impossible to imagine a situation where the Islamic Republic of Iran reforms itself. However, in the current crisis the regime knows full well that, no matter how much it backs down, the protestors will demand more. So, the Islamic Republic’s ‘crisis management’ central command sees no other solution but to try and put out the fire with the only means at its disposal: suppression and killing – akin to pouring petrol onto a blazing inferno. Although the fall of the regime is on the horizon, the how and when will depend on many uncertain, unpredictable factors.
What is going on in Iran today is a war. War consists of numerous and consecutive battles. There will be victories and defeats until the war is won. The chessboard also involves fighting small and large battles to kill (checkmate) one’s opponent. In chess, just like war, both opponents must have ‘combat intelligence’: that is, a comprehensive view of the battlefield, the ability to evaluate one’s own strengths and capabilities, as well as those of one’s opponent.
That is how both sides can predict their opponent’s plans and tactics, and take measures to repel and neutralise them. In the end, one side will be defeated, but the defeat of the opponent who lacks the above capabilities is certain from the start. The difference between war and a game of chess is that wars have aims after victory – trophies of war, if you like.
The overthrow of the Islamic Republic could not be considered a revolution if the same political, social and economic order was maintained and rebuilt without the clerics. Revolution refers to the overthrow of the existing political/social order and replacing it with the sovereignty and self-rule of the masses, so that they can control their destiny and are free to establish political and economic democracy: that is, a social revolution. Although the beautiful slogan, ‘Women, life, freedom’, is in clear opposition to the inherently misogynist, death-prone and despotic Islamic Republic – that is why it is popular and powerful – we cannot forget that it is reductive: it limits the motivations and driving forces of this movement, especially when it comes to demands for a social revolution.
However, as far as the counterrevolutionary opposition is concerned, there is a deliberate effort to call this movement a ‘women’s revolution’, so that allies of imperialist governments line up and cut hair to ‘support the women of Iran’.
For these rightwingers it is impossible to accept that this is a revolutionary movement that, in addition to women’s liberation, has radical economic, social and political motives and demands. They deliberately reduce it to a feminine aspect – limited to a fight for the right to remove the headscarf and not even a radical fight against patriarchy or the political and economic structures backing it. It is not a coincidence that these rightwing and reactionary currents only repeat two slogans: ‘Women, life, freedom’ and ‘Mullahs must go’. The latter sums up their wish to keep the status quo minus the clerics. When it comes to ‘Women, life, freedom’, it is unclear and open to diverse interpretations. The revolution is not like abstract art – you cannot have a situation where everyone has their own understanding and interpretation of slogans.
Division of labour
Unfortunately, the movement itself has not matured and has yet to come up with radical slogans and demands. This is partly because it is constantly fighting and fleeing security forces and partly because social movements of workers, women, national minorities, etc are not present with their own specific demands – they all participate in the protests as individuals.
This situation has created an unwritten but clear and sinister ‘division of labour’. We have the overthrow ‘front’, calling for the downfall of the regime: inside Iran people are fighting and dying daily, while outside the country rightwingers are plotting to benefit from the spoils of war. The duty of the first group is to overthrow the regime, and the aim of the second group is to replace it! In fact the left’s slogan, ‘Overthrow by the people’, has been practically imposed on all those supporting ‘regime change’. However, the nightmare of the right is that, following the collapse of the Islamic Republic, imperialism will get involved and one of their rivals will come to power. So, in effect, we have a bidding war as each reactionary group tries to make itself look more generous, more amenable than its competitors.
We should note that the current movement calling for the overthrow of the regime is doing so in very different conditions compared to 1979. Then everyone – religious and non-religious, urban and rural, literate and illiterate – united around the slogan, ‘Death to the shah’. There was no clear idea of what would replace his regime. Today, it is true that the protestors – while united in calling for the overthrow of the regime – are more concerned about the future, and weary of supporting the call for uniting ‘all in one camp’. This is especially true of the younger generation, women and workers – a qualitative strength compared to 1979. However, the fact is that there is still no sign of distinct and organised groups with clear identities and radical demands. This is potentially a dangerous strategic weakness – especially as this is, in fact, a gap, a hole that the think tanks of all the anti-revolutionary opponents of the regime, as well as the imperialists, are working hard to fill.
Given the public’s ignorance in 1979 regarding the shah’s role in the destruction of all leftwing, democratic and progressive forces, while tolerating – and in fact at times strengthening – the religious movement, the revolution was suddenly gifted a ‘charismatic leader’ in Ruhollah Khomeini. He was bold and outspoken and became the first supreme leader of the Islamic regime.
Today, mass consciousness is not as low as it was then, but there is no charismatic, credible and reliable individual leadership, no nationwide party, no central command, no general staff. This clearly creates limitations, as daily organisation relies on local and neighbourhood-based decisions. Even if there were not anarchic, but harmonious, coordination, that cannot formulate the strategy of the entire revolutionary movement and take it to victory. Even if the regime were to stop blocking access to the internet, even with the maximum use of virtual networks, it would not be possible to equip the movement with the kind of ‘coordination and leadership’ necessary to oversee the entire nationwide protests – capable of analysing the situation, capable of summarising the victories, short-term defeats and setbacks. The current movement is incapable of designing general and nationwide tactics (including mass initiatives) to counter the regime and make sure the protests continue and get stronger until the overthrow and beyond. (Strategy means determining allies and policies on a domestic and international level, and establishing a relationship between them.)
This point is of importance and it is necessary to note that under such conditions, our enemies – including both the regime and the counterrevolutionary opposition – will act as coordinated, organised forces. In the 1979 revolution, Khomeini’s supporters worked as a coordinated force and did not leave anything to god or chance. They created the ‘Imam central command’; they made deals behind the scenes with the US and Europe; they did the propaganda, thought of slogans, organised marches; they formed groups specifically to attack the left and democrats and disperse them. Their actions were focused, planned and guided – and that is how they set the stage for Khomeini’s victory.
But the new regime has been built on the experience of 44 years of repression, including the imposition of war on Kurdistan, Turkmen Sahra, Khuzestan and Khak Sefid, and the massacre of political prisoners. Today it has a lot of experience when it comes to crushing opposition and acting in a coordinated manner. Its intelligence agencies, law enforcement and military agencies, its Basij militia, its judicial system, its ministries, its parliament, its cyber corps, its prisons and torture centres, its radio and television networks, its press, its mosques and Friday prayer tribunes – all are expert at their tasks.
In such circumstances, how can we avoid asking ourselves how this spontaneous movement – which has no compass, not a single strategy, no central coordination, no analysis of the capabilities of its opponent, no analysis and no plans to formulate policies and tactics in accordance with the changing situation – can bring down the Islamic Republic. Relying solely on spontaneous initiatives and individual decisions will not suffice.
Such a movement will fail, no matter how hard the protestors try and how willing they are to sacrifice themselves, and no matter how much the radical left abroad coins its slogans, such as ‘Bread, work, a shora [council] government’. If this movement continues with the spontaneity we have seen so far, it will not be the first, but one of the most important examples of the insufficiency of anarcho-libertarian theories.
Movements are usually formed spontaneously, but they do not triumph over an adversary which acts as a centralised, organised force by continuing with spontaneity. This is my main concern, and I do not know if this vital deficiency will be overcome. And, if so, how? Maybe, if social movements step into the field (will the regime allow it?), a kind of soviet representative body can be formed, but at the moment this is just an assumption.
Then and now
Another important difference with 1979 is the balance of forces. The shah’s regime began mass killing by bringing out guns, armoured personnel carriers and tanks. When the protestors placed carnations in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles and came out with the slogan, ‘The army is our brother’, the situation changed – the coup d’etat regime was faced with up to 20 million people on the streets.
Today, the balance of forces and the determination and fighting style of the regime are completely different. There are no signs that either side is softening its approach. The entire security apparatus of the shah’s regime consisted of Savak (the secret police) and the Second Bureau (the counter-intelligence services of the armed forces). Today the Islamic Republic has 16 intelligence agencies, each organised independently.
In order to deal with demonstrations militarily, the shah had only the conscript army, the inexperienced and untried constables of the urban police and a small lumpen mob associated with a man called ‘Shaban the Brainless’. When it came to suppressing street protests and riots, the police and conscript army were mentally vulnerable. In addition his military command was ultimately controlled by American advisors and the Pentagon – all of which were important factors. In the end the army collapsed.
When it comes to the Islamic Republic, in addition to the army, the regime has the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij – a fascist-type militia. In the shah’s regime, a Savak informant was assigned to every institution and organisation, but, in the Islamic Republic, a significant percentage of fanatical mercenaries are embedded in all the organisations and institutions, under the name of Basiji. They enjoy exceptional privileges and are ready to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to maintain their position. Privileges include exemption from university entrance exams, from tuition fees and from taxes. These individuals cannot be dismissed by an employer; they earn extra bonuses for their spying, controlling activities, as well as free travel for recreation and pilgrimage, etc. They are everywhere in factories, universities, schools, hospitals, offices, neighbourhoods, among businesses and in all government institutions without exception.
These are integrated members of the personnel of each institution. Bassijis are students, university professors, workers, nurses, drivers, teachers, etc, who supply financial and other information exposing their colleagues and helping the regime in suppressing protests. Then we have the ‘intelligence services’, such as Islamic associations and Islamic councils, ‘Labour House’ (Khaneh kargar), ‘protection personnel’ (harassat) in factories, universities, offices, hospitals, etc, who act as the antennae of the security apparatus and are an integral part of the regime’s repressive forces. In addition to all this, we also have gangs known as ‘civilian-clothed’ (lebass shakhssi), groups recruited in mosques and localities, and at times from thugs and even criminals who had faced long sentences and are reprieved or given shorter sentences in exchange for working as lebass shakhssi.
This long list of security forces regularly practise – often several times a year – dealing with urban riots on a small or large scale, thus gaining experience, and it is therefore unlikely they are unprepared in dealing with protests.
Today, the Iranian people are not facing conscript soldiers on the street, as in 1979, and they are not dealing with an army whose reins are ultimately in the hands of the US, whose commanders can change sides as soon as a foreign power whispers to them. The fall of the current regime and its repressive forces will not be as simple as it was with the shah.
Only a fool or a fantasist can expect that the protestors supporting regime overthrow will be equipped with the same mechanisms. Sometimes a major bridge collapses, because a small rivet has failed. All powerful dictatorships and ‘eternal’ empires have disappeared, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is no exception. However, the revolutionary movement can only disable this monster and bring it to its knees by expanding and remaining steadfast. We can hope that, in the current psychological war, the people cause despair for the regime. They can do so by neutralising the regime’s propaganda, exposing its lies and rumours – as well as false confessions from political prisoners, gained under pressure and threats. It is necessary to dismantle the regime’s warfare against its own citizens.
The slogan, ‘If one person is killed, a thousand people will support and follow her/him’, is one way to continue this struggle.
Will the movement that has paid a very heavy price in the last few weeks be able to continue and persevere? I hope so.
The final victory in any war comes from the achievements gained from shorter battles. So far the current revolutionary movement has registered irrevocable achievements in the battles against the Islamic Republic and, even if the revolution fails, each of these will be counted in our history as part of a revolution. Each victory gained undermines the pillars of the regime, among them:
- The uprising of women against the compulsory wearing of the hijab is not only a feminist and democratic question, but, more fundamentally, an uprising against Islamic Sharia law, challenging the fundamental ideological pillars that define the Islamic Republic. Beyond its revolutionary importance internally, this issue has startled the world, which is looking in disbelief at the revolt against the mandatory hijab, which is central to the rule of political Islam. It has become a source of inspiration not only in the region and Muslim countries, but also in western countries. The cancer of political Islam is creeping in these countries through the spread of the Islamic hijab while clerics abuse the laws of laity and the right of women to choose or reject whether to cover their hair.
- There has been no shortage of brave women in history, but the bravery shown by Iranian women coming face to face in battle with the forces of oppression has truly social and historical dimensions. These women have challenged, invalidated, religious patriarchal rule and utterly rejected the insulting concept of being the ‘weaker sex’. Women are not just playing a supportive role, acting on the sidelines. They have often been in the leadership of the protests.
- Breaking the sanctity of the religious regime has been one of the great achievements of this movement. Setting fire to seminaries, removing mullahs’ turbans and beating them in public are more tangible ways of showing this, as well as the slogans that humiliate or insult the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
- The oppressed nations (although not all yet) have emerged from the darkness of censorship by demanding their national and ethnic rights. The fact that now everyone has heard the name of Balochistan is an excellent, irrevocable achievement. These rising nations cannot be returned to the shadows of public opinion.
- Finally, the movement has so far been able to put the regime under siege by its own population – the two sides seem irreconcilable. Whatever happens from now on, the determination of the people to overthrow this regime is irreversible.
Shahb Borhan is a veteran Iranian political activist
Translated from Farsi by Yassamine mather.
Posted on Weekly Worker number 1421 December 1, 2022