A new society or a new tyranny?

Martin Woollacott April 9 1979

A new society or a new tyranny?

Martin Woollacott April 9 1979

A new society or a new tyranny?


It was supposed to be a great popular affirmation of the revolution, a great demonstration of unity among Iranians about the shape of the society to be built on the ruins of the monarchy. The preordained majority for an Islamic Republic in last week’s referendum, however, proved little except that Ayatollah Khomeini still commands respect and that his followers can still mobilize the masses, as they did so successfully in bringing down the Shah.

But the truth is that less than two months after the collapse of the army and Khomeini’s triumph, the new holders of power—themselves divided—are running into increasing opposition from a variety of social and political groups. Liberal lawyers who fought the Shah for years attack the excesses of “revolutionary justice.” Left-wingers demand the dissolution of

the army and the introduction of workers’ control in industry. Women demonstrate against the role assigned to them by the mullahs. And, in Kurdistan, the helicopter gunships that Khomeini once denounced (“American weapons for the suppression of the people ... that we cannot and do not wish to use”) pour machine-gun fire into the mud houses of the provincial capital.

All revolutions are followed by a period of disillusion and conflict, but the

problem in Iran goes deeper than that. No amount of lip service to Khomeini or Islam can conceal the fact that Iran is, politically, a deeply divided society and always has been. Between the three major groups—liberals, leftists and Moslem fundamentalists—there are few points of contact or agreement.

The liberals see no place for Islam in the running of a modern state; the left sees both the liberals and the religious establishment as ultimately reactionary; the Moslem fundamentalists regard both liberalism and communism as monstrous evils, fruits of man’s rebellion against God. “You can understand our situation,” an Iranian intel-

lectual said, “if you compare our revolution with the American Revolution. The American leaders got rid of an unjust monarch, too, but they shared a strong consensus about the kind of society they wanted. We don’t.”

Within the interim government and even on the revolutionary committees which still wield great power are many liberals and Moslem moderates. But the dominant group, in which must be included Khomeini himself, are the Moslem fundamentalists. Thus it took Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan weeks and, reportedly, four resignation threats to suspend the revolutionary trials and the political executions.

The trials are now suspended, but the arrests continue. Armed youths descend on the affluent homes of high officers and officials, strip them of everything of value and cart off the owners to prison, leaving weeping families behind. The charges are nonexistent or vague, no lists of prisoners are

published, and there are no established rights of family visiting. While it is true that the Iranian revolution has executed far fewer people than others, none of this augurs well.

Nor does the Islamic pressure on the media. The radio and television, controlled by Khomeini’s ex-aide, Sadegh Gotzbadeh, now reflect almost exclusively the Moslem fundamentalist point of view. Liberal and left-wing newspapers have been denounced in poster campaigns and their premises occupied by armed men. Women’s rights have perhaps received too much attention in the West. Still, when Khomeini denounced “naked” women in government

ministries, he started a chain reaction of demonstrations and marches. An embarrassed government flailed wildly and it was left to a more moderate religious leader, Ayatollah Tallegani, to get Khomeini off the hook.

Beneath the level of this triangular ideological clash, the worst potential source of trouble is the economic policy of the new government, which threatens the livelihood of both the middle class and the urban working class. The engines of the old economy were military spending, the booming construction industry, the foreign community’s demands for housing and goods, and maximum oil exports. Now military spending has been halted, immobile cranes tower over Tehran, the foreign community has all but gone and oil exports have been set at half the old figure. To make matters worse the new government is engaged in cutting down

the size of the civil service.

For the middle class, that means bankruptcies, business closures and a shrinkage of professional opportunities. For the working class, it means unemployment, which some economists believe may already be running as high as four million, a third of the work force. The government is devising palliatives—cheap loans and special unemployment benefits. Its long-term approach calls for the reorganization of agriculture and the creation of a “real” industrial base—not the artificial, assembly-oriented industry of the Shah. But meanwhile the cities suffer, the middle class sinks into a passive cynicism and working-class discontent grows.

The opportunities for the left are obvious. At the moment, the working classes of the cities are still proKhomeini. “ He can do anything he wants,” was a typical comment. “He knows what we need and will give it to us.” But Khomeini’s powers are, of course, more limited and the analysis of the Iranian left is that in three to six months the urban lower classes will be ripe for the “next stage” of the revolution. That is the main reason why the left has not used its considerable armed strength—the Fedayeen and the more radical elements of the Mujahideen guerrillas. “They know that an attempt to get power now would go against the popular mood,” a university professor said, “so they will bide their time.”

The^first real crisis for post-Shah Iran, however, is likely to erupt on the minorities question. The ethnic minorities, who constitute nearly half the population and occupy compact blocks of territory around the core area inhabited by the Farsis, have taken swift advantage of the revolution to demand cultural and political rights. Led by the Kurds, they have already indicated that informal autonomy is not enough and outbreaks of fighting in Kurdistan and Turkoman show how explosive the problem could become.

Thus the Islamic constitution, which should have been the capstone of Khomeini’s achievement, is likely to become a focus of contention, on the federal issue if on nothing else. Discussion of the constitution, of which a draft has already been prepared, is supposed to begin as soon as the referendum is over and to be followed, at an unannounced later date, by a constituent assembly. The omens— a deeply divided political class, a shattered economy, a great potential for ethnic conflict—are not good. “Iran,” said a wealthy politician, offering a tray of sweetmeats in his palatial drawing room, “will have to suffer. That is all I can say. Iran will suffer and then, perhaps, we will learn some hard lessons and begin again.” Martin Woollacott