December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Iran and the Left – reaction to Khomeini

2 min read
In 1979, the Left in Iran and the UK condemned the seizure of power by Khomeini and the clergy but since then, attitudes seem to have regrettably shifted
Iran Left
Iran Left

In 1979, Iran had a revolution against the rule of the autocratic Shah that many on the Left hoped would result in a socialist republic. Instead, it ushered in four decades of rule by theocrats. Today, some on the Left don’t know whether to support or condemn the mullahs.

If they looked back to the early 1980s, they’d find an easy answer: condemn. Few on the Left thought the victory of the mullahs; the curtailment of women’s legal rights and the snuffing out of democracy was to be welcomed. Labour politicians in the UK alongside Muslim student societies held meetings to voice their concern about what was happening in Iran post-1979.

Compared to other countries in the region, the Left had been historically quite developed in Iran – especially under the influence of the Soviet Union to the north. And the 1979 revolution was sparked off by workers’ strikes and demonstration organised by socialists and Marxists. But they underestimated the influence and power of the ideology of Islamism and the clergy that promoted it.

Groups like the Tudeh party tried to work with the clergy as the situation developed but Khomeini had the Left earmarked for extermination along with the Shah’s elite. I remember Tudeh party activists being present on campus in my first term at university in 1981 and then disappearing by the second term. They went home. They never returned. End of story.

Khomeini and his people talked the language of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism but the sort of society they envisaged wasn’t what the Left wanted. Back in the early 1980s, the Left understood that. Today, some on the Left seem to have swallowed the pseudo-radicalism of the Iranian clergy while also ignoring the voices of protest movements, especially women, within Iran.

If the different Left parties had combined in Iran back in 1979 – the Fedaii, Tudeh, Mojahedin and Peykar – they could have formed a movement to resist Khomeini. But if there’s something the Left does better than anybody else, it’s complete disunity.

Today, we’re forty years down the line from the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. And calls for solidarity with Iranian workers, women and youth have evaporated. Little bit sad really.


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