1980s >> 1980 >> no-910-june-1980

Mullahs and oil wells

Following China’s takeover by its so-called Communist Party in 1949, American politicians and commentators embarked on a spree of self-recrimination and examination. How could the enormous Nationalist army, with its American arms and advisers, have been defeated by ill-armed guerrillas? Who, in short, was responsible for “losing China”, and how could it have been “saved”?


A similar debate has been taking place over the last eighteen months concerning another country lost from America’s sphere of influence—Iran. A friendly dictator-emperor, reinforced by a massive army, was sent packing, and is now forced to scuttle from one country to another. Even worse, fifty American diplomats (of whom some no doubt were spies) were held hostage, and still are after an abortive marine attempt to rescue them. Could Iran too have been “saved”, given a little more competence and finesse on the part of President Carter?


One of the reasons for the intense interest that the rulers of other countries show in Iran is of course oil. But it is not the only factor involved. Vast though they are, Iran’s reserves are relatively small when compared with those of countries like Saudi Arabia, and (unless new reserves are discovered) Iran will not be a major exporter of oil much beyond 1990. Western capitalism wants Iranian oil but could certainly get along without it, as it will soon have to do.


The prospects of exports to Iran are also an important factor The massive revenues from oil sales go exclusively to the Iranian state, and a large part of this income is used to pay for imports. Iranian imports have risen spectacularly as a result of the country’s new-found wealth, from four hundred million US dollars in 1958-9 to $18.45 billion in 1975-6. A large part of this figure is made up of arms purchases—Iran under the Shah was for a time America’s best arms customer. Any capitalist class will want a piece of eighteen billion dollars’ worth of action, and will inevitably have an interest in maintaining a friendly government in Tehran.


The third reason for Iran’s importance is its strategic value. It borders on Russia and commands the route to the Middle East oilfields. A pro-Moscow government (or, for that matter, a Russian invasion) could blockade the Persian Gulf and drastically reduce the amount of oil reaching Western capitalist nations. On the other hand, a pro-Western regime functions as a regional balance to both Russia and the Arab oil-producing states. In fact, the Shah acted as a kind of policeman for Western interests, supporting the royalists in North Yemen in the nineteenth-sixties, the Sultan of Oman in 1971, and Pakistan against the Baluchi guerrillas in 1973. There was no need for, say. direct American intervention in these cases; an army trained and armed by them was on the spot to defend the status quo.
Thus American policy since the beginning of the Shah’s dictatorial rule in 1953 has been to keep in power a friendly ruler. This involved, as we have seen, massive arms sales, the weaponry being used for both internal repression and external intervention. The notorious secret police. SAVAK, was set up in 1957 with a permanent secret US mission attached to it (in light of the American government’s occasional hypocritical ramblings about “human rights”, it is salutary to recall its role in establishing this vile SS-like organisation). Even the land reform of the early sixties was a response to American pressure on the Shah to carry out just enough by way of reformist policies to avoid too much rural opposition.


The opposition was restricted by press censorship and the lack of independent trade unions as well as by the ubiquitous agents of SAVAK. Agrarian reform failed to benefit those who actually worked the land (not that it was ever intended to), and the fruits of the oil industry reached only a tiny minority of Iranians. As elsewhere, nationalisation has been of no benefit to the ordinary workers. Apart from the fantastically wealthy and corrupt royal family, and a small capitalist class, Iranians lived lives of poverty and squalor. Their position was made even more unacceptable by knowledge of the rich resources beneath their feet and the manifest affluence of their rulers:


 “As early as 1971 a cautious observer of Iran remarked that, on walking through the streets of the southern, poorer part of Tehran, he encountered ‘more expressed hatred than I have ever heard before’ from ’people who watch the cars of the people who are doing well’. The wealth in Iran was being distributed in a manner that was ‘ostentatious’ and ‘grotesque’. (Fred Halliday: Iran: Dictatorship and Development, quoting Richard Cottam.)


In the absence of genuine political parties, opposition centred around religious movements (rather as the Catholic Church in Poland is a kind of symbol of anti-government forces).


There are additional reasons why opposition should have come from, and been centred on, the Islamic religion. Sunni Muslims recognise the temporal ruler as the successor of the prophet Mohammed, but this is not the case with the Shi’a branch to which most Iranians belong, The various land reforms of the Shah and his father have deprived the religious leaders or mullahs (of whom there are some 180,000 in Iran) of their lands. They have thereby been forced to rely economically on the “religious tax” paid by their followers, especially the bazaar merchants—and the sums paid over in this way were probably greater than the secular taxes paid to the government. The mullahs constituted a large, influential and financially secure grouping outside the formal state apparatus, and one moreover with a sizable grass roots organisation. The Shah’s new-style oil-based capitalism inevitably led to undermining of the merchants’ position and hence of the mullahs. The result was a clash of interests between the merchants and the Shah as spokesman for the new oil-financed bourgeoisie. The priests are but the ideologists of the merchants, and the seemingly religious dispute masks an economic conflict.


Opposition to the Shah’s regime gradually increased throughout 1977, and by the middle of the following year the Shah was promising “liberalisation” with “free elections”. These carrots failed to quieten things down and martial law had to be declared in September 1978. Opposition still seethed, however, and in January 1979 the Shall left Iran. It was a striking demonstration that even an apparently all-powerful dictator cannot survive for long without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of those he rules over.


The replacement has been the so-called “Islamic republic”, which is effectively run by religious leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Tehran workers are provided with a diet of “bread and circuses”, parading outside the US embassy as if American imperialism were the cause of all their problems. Their new rulers are no better than the Shah and, like him, go in for executions and secret trials. Like the Shah, they wage bloody war against nationalist movements in the non-Persian speaking areas of Kurdistan and Khuzestan. And above all, the division of society into two classes remains.


Meanwhile opposition too continues. At the end of April, bomb explosions in Tehran killed four people, those being blamed for this including the Americans, the Iraqis, the Kurds and left-wing guerrillas. The position of Iran’s new rulers is by no means secure. It is unlikely that the Shah will return (other than to face trial), but the Islamic republic will be as unable to solve the country’s economic problems as he was. The dispute between different sections of the Iranian capitalist class will continue, with the new industrial bourgeoisie likely to come out on top eventually. As has happened so often elsewhere, an inter-capitalist dispute has been dressed up in other clothes (religious, nationalist, or whatever), and workers have been deluded into supporting one side or the other.


Our message to workers in Iran is the same as our message to workers everywhere: do not waste your lives and energy by supporting one group of your masters against another—instead, unite as a class against the system that sets up some human beings as masters over others.


Paul Bennett