Two months have passed since the murder of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s morality police, and more than 400 people have been killed, including at least 58 children, during the ensuing mass protests.
Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was arrested in Tehran on 13 September for not wearing her hijab “correctly.” Women in Iran can expect up to 3 years in prison for this crime, but Mahsa got more than that; she was beaten into a coma and died a few hours later.
Women’s oppression is one of the issues Iran is best known for. Despite having gained the right to vote and many other civil liberties, women remain ‘second-class’ citizens in the eyes of the legal and judicial system and cases like this show how heavily institutionalised sexism still is in Iran.
But this country has also suffered mass poverty and civil unrest for so long that Mahsa’s death can be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back for a huge part of the population, who have been living under the oppression of western imperialism draining its resources and of a religious dictatorial regime that has been ruling the country since 1979.
Although, on paper, Iran is considered a democratic Islamic Republic that conducts regular elections open to everybody, all the key positions in the government are appointed by the Supreme Leader, the highest authority of the Islamic Republic, who also has complete control of the armed forces, the judiciary system, and the state media. The Supreme Leader is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, whose members are elected every eight years, and like all other elected bodies, the candidates need to be vetted by the Guardian Council, a political body that has heavy powers over the electoral systems and has interfered with elections in the past.
The government is claiming that the current protests are being instigated by Western nations, but it is quite obvious that the masses of working people and students are not so naive as to require outside interference in order to rise up against real oppression and police brutality. Of course, the West is backing the protests as a means of putting pressure on regime change, but it would be wrong to assume that they were orchestrated by imperialist forces. These claims are evidence of how the current government has become distant and alienated from the people that it is supposed to govern, as well as evidence of hysteria.
To fully grasp the current situation in Iran, it is important to look back at the country’s complex and tumultuous history. Here is a brief overview…
In 1951, Mohammed Mosaddegh was elected Prime Minister under the monarchy of the Shah. His biggest contribution to the country was the nationalisation of the oil industry, which had been under the control of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (known today as British Petroleum or BP) since 1909, but among his other notable acts, there was also the extension of the right to vote to women. His campaign efforts were supported by a wider part of the country, including the Tudeh Party (Iran’s communist party), while he lost the support of other parts of Iranian society, like monarchists and some religious institutions, because of his progressive policies and hostilities between him and the Shah.
Mossadegh tried to keep Britain as a friend by offering a 50/50 deal on the profits from the oil industry, but since the British government refused, the Iranian Prime Minister enacted full nationalisation. Following the nationalisation campaign, the British Foreign Office got in contact with the US, asking for help with the overthrow of Mosaddegh, according to documents declassified in 2017 — first with the Truman government, which refused, and then with the Eisenhower administration.
The talks between the two governments never went over the question of the oil; instead, they were completely focused on combating the rise of communism in Iran. At that time, Iran bordered the Soviet Union, and the Tudeh Party was one of the biggest and most influential parties in the country.
A quote from one of the declassified document reads: “Sir Christopher Steel referred to the previous informal discussion on ways of combating Communism in Iran […] The British view was that Mosaddeq was unlikely to do anything effective against the Communists. […] I said I understood the British Government was now suggesting that our two Governments should promote some sort of coup d’etat to replace Dr. Mosaddeq.”
This united effort between the two countries resulted in Operation Ajax, led by CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of former United States president Theodore Roosevelt. After only a few months after his arrival in Iran, Mosaddeq was overthrown and the monarchy of the Shah was reinstated, supported by a pretend-parliament that had the military general Fazlollah Zahedi as Prime Minister. All the opposition parties were banned, including Mossadegh’s National Front and the Tudeh Party; only parties that were loyal to the Shah were allowed to operate.
After the coup, Iran became a close ally of the US in the Cold War, and the fight against communists became one of the main points through which the Shah consolidated his power. The CIA’s tactics were quite simple –– they started by taking control of Iran’s press to direct it against the Prime Minister, with religious slander and defamation being one of the main components of this.
At this point, Mossadegh started to attract a lot of mistrust and discontent from the broad political scenario. The Tudeh Party had formed factions, one of which was not supportive of Mossadegh, and the Ayatollah of the time (Sayyed Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšānī), who had been one of Mossadegh’s staunchest allies during the nationalisation campaign, started distancing himself from the Prime Minister and instead re-aligned with the general Zahedi who was beginning to plot against Mossadegh together with British agents in Iran.
Officer Kermit Roosevelt then came into contact with the Shah himself, asking him to depose the Prime Minister — a proposal to which the Shah agreed and subsequently ordered Mossadegh to be arrested. Despite the thorough planning, the first attempt failed thanks to the fact that members of the Tudeh Party were able to inform Mossadegh of the arrest that was coming for him.
At the time, hundreds of members of the Tudeh Party were in key positions in the military. When the Iranian people learned of what was happening, a mass uprising in support of Mossadegh broke out, and the Shah was forced to run away into exile in Rome.
The CIA’s second attempt was more direct and violent. While the nation was still in chaos, criminal gangs were hired to act as members of the Tudeh Party and go around creating disruption and chaos and chanting Mossadegh’s name. Genuine supporters joined them, and the riots became quite big and destructive until both Mossadegh and the Tudeh asked people to end them.
Meanwhile, on the morning of 19 August, Kāšānī managed to gather a mob armed with clubs and paid with money from the CIA to go around Tehran in response to the “communist riots.” Pro-monarchy members of the public and sections of the police joined the mob, which soon started targeting government buildings. At the same time, sections of the military defected and went for the lead of General Zahedi who was also acting on CIA directives.
All this chaos culminated in the overthrow and arrest of Mossadegh and the return of the Shah to power. The Shah immediately reopened the oil resources of the country to the UK and managed to negotiate a 50/50 deal, which was also what Mossadegh tried to achieve in the first place but was dismissed by the UK. The problem for the UK is that, at that point, Iran had become a place of major interest for the US, because of its geographic location.
The clergy, who also gained power thanks to the campaigns of hatred organised by the CIA during the coup and who had the support of rich traditional merchants (bazaari) and big land owners, weren’t happy about the Shah’s new government, which was evidently being subjugated by western powers.
During this time, the figure of the new Ayatollah Kohemini came to light, helped by the fact that all political opposition parties were banned and the church was the only institution able to voice the people’s discontent. A wave of reforms started in the 1960s aimed at modernising the country and named ‘White Revolution’, was the Shah’s best hope for elevating the country to higher standards.
The most crucial of them was the agrarian reform, which included the expropriation of land from clerical ownership and distribution of it to peasants, who were supposed to pay it back over the years. But because most of the peasants were very poor and didn’t have the technological advancements to make it profitable, they just sold it in mass to richer peasants or back to the clericals. This caused a mass exodus towards the urban centres, resulting in mass unemployment and poverty.
These events resulted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which saw the destitution of the monarchy and the formation of the Islamic Republic. Other political forces, such as the Mosaddeq-founded National Front, supported the revolution, and communist powers joined forces in their opposition to western imperialism.
The Iranian people were indeed united against foreign oppression. Unfortunately, this quickly changed, and as soon as the more conservative religious factions of the revolution consolidated their power, both the National Front and the Tudeh Party were banned and made illegal, and to this day remain so. The new Islamic Republic quickly turned into a theocracy, which has led to women’s rights being trampled and poverty rising, all while using the threat of western intervention as a useful tool to hold its political power over the population.
Today, the working people of Iran have decided to rise again against the oppression that caused the death of Mahsa Amini and other women before her. The oppression of a dictatorial theocratic regime, which would not be in power if it wasn’t for western imperialism.
As Marxists, we should not ignore the dialectical development of history and society, which happens through the resolution of the contradictions inherent in them. In the case of Iran’s history so far, contradictions were resolved in a reactionary way, giving rise to new contradictions that are the ones faced today by its people.
If it is true that imperialism oppresses all workers in relation to the means of production and that working women in all countries suffer this oppression twice, then the oppression of women in Iran is tenfold exacerbated by the policies of an extremist religious government.
Among the lessons we can learn from this story, one that catches the eye is how the role of the Tudeh Party was weakened by factionalism. We don’t know, but we can imagine how history could have gone differently if a stronger and more united communist leadership was present in Iran at the time of the coup. Great Marxist-Leninists of the past like Lenin and Stalin have written extensively against factionalism and thought that in order to weaken imperialism in a major measure, in a measure that would have helped revolutions arise in countries that are victims of western imperialism, the formation of a strong, communist, and revolutionary movement capable of overthrowing capitalism in at least one of the most developed western countries, the cradle of this imperialism, is essential.
In order to be strong, this movement’s activity needs to be linked with the activity of the masses in one’s own country, and as we strive for the liberation of women in our country, we cannot help but support the fight of Iranian women for their freedom from the yoke of religious extremism today and of capitalism tomorrow.
We also recognise the hypocrisy in the words of condemnation from the President of the United States. Not so long ago, America descended into a wave of protests after the murder of George Floyd. And the thing that really shows up is that while current Iranian and Western leaders are fighting at our expense, they have more in common with each other than they do with the people they rule.
To end, here is a statement from the Tudeh Party in response to recent events:
“Once more, this case clearly shows that, for as long as the current illegitimate and unpopular regime remains in power, there can be no hope for an end to the tyranny and the violent and bloody repression of people’s rights and freedoms. […] Suffice to state, the Islamic Republic regime is beyond any reform, and we must therefore strengthen, widen, and coordinate the popular struggles to pave the way for a decisive end to this catastrophe and move towards the establishment of a national and democratic government. Down with the Dictator!”: There is no end to the regime’s murderous thuggery!”
Renato Frisoni, is a member of the YCL’s East of England branch