Why Washington wants regime change in Iran

Issue 

In the January 16 New Yorker magazine, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the Pentagon has begun updating its plans for an invasion of Iran. Hersh reported that, "Strategists at the headquarters of the US Central Command, in Tampa, Florida, have been asked to revise the military's war plan, providing for a maximum ground and air invasion of Iran."

Ostensibly, the Pentagon is preparing an Iraq-style "pre-emptive" attack on Iran in order to stop Tehran from building a nuclear bomb. But in the November 27 New Yorker, Hersh reported that a highly classified assessment by the CIA had "found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency".

As with Iraq's alleged, but non-existent, weapons of mass destruction, Washington's claims about a secret Iranian nuclear bomb program are simply a cover for the US rulers real goal of restoring a pro-US regime in oil- and gas-rich Iran.

Washington has already done this once before when, in 1953, the CIA organised a coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who had earned the ire of Western governments by nationalising the Iranian oil industry. The coup replaced Mossadeq's elected government with the autocratic regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and reopened the oil industry to British and US oil corporations.

Under the shah's rule, Iran acted as Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the Persian Gulf. By 1978, 45,000 US military and economic "advisers" were based in the country. US corporations had hundreds of millions of dollars invested in its oil industry and reaped enormous profits.

The shah's regime was maintained by an extensive and brutal system of state terror, carried out by the notorious SAVAK secret police. Founded in 1957 with the assistance of the CIA, SAVAK had virtually unlimited powers of arrest and detention.

Mass mobilisations

In 1978, however, the whole system was thrown into crisis as massive opposition to the shah developed. Ordinary Iranians mobilised in their millions throughout the year in protests which grew from weekly to daily events. These protests culminated in a street demonstration of more than 2 million people in Tehran on September 7, 1978. The shah declared martial law and troops killed more than 2000 demonstrators.

In response, the Tehran oil refinery workers went on strike in solidarity with the demonstrators. Within 24 hours, the strike had spread across the entire oil industry. The 33-day oil workers strike brought much of the economy to a standstill, costing the government US$74 million per day in lost revenue.

More and more sections of the working class were drawn into the struggle. Workers took over factories, hospitals and universities and set up democratic workers' councils, (called shoras). The urban poor set up neighbourhood committees around local mosques and as the shah's army and police force began to fall apart, these committees took over patrolling the neighbourhoods.

On January 16, 1979, the shah fled the country, on the pretext of going on an extended "holiday". He transferred $2 billion into bank accounts in Switzerland and left behind a shaky government headed by PM Shahpur Bahktiar.

The strikes and demonstrations continued, culminating in a mass insurrection in Tehran on February 11 with heavy fighting across the country for 48 hours.

Because the mosques had been the only places where people could met, discuss politics and organise against the shah free from SAVAK's surveillance, the Islamic clergy gained great political influence in the anti-shah movement. Within weeks of his return to Iran on February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Rudollah Khomeini, who had repeatedly called from exile for the shah's overthrow, was declared "supreme leader" by the cleric-dominated Council for the Islamic Revolution.

Khomeini espoused an anti-imperialist, populist rhetoric — for example, denouncing Washington as the "Great Satan" — and portrayed Islam as the religion of the poor and oppressed.

On February 11, Khomeini appointed Dr Mehdi Bazargan to head a provisional government. In March, this government organised a referendum that approved the replacement of the Shah absolutist monarchy with an Islamic republic, with a parliamentary system of government subordinated to Khomeini and the higher clergy.

Subsequent elections were held to approve of the newly drafted constitution. Along with the formalising position of a clerical "supreme leader", the constitution also requires that a president be elected every four years, but only those candidates approved indirectly by the clergy-dominated Council of Guardians may run for the office.

Despite these limitations, the Iranian revolution was a major blow for US imperialism. Iran's foreign policy was radically re-aligned, important anti-imperialist measures were taken including support for the Palestinian struggle and cutting off oil supplies to Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Iranian people won a series of basic democratic rights, and a huge political debate developed on the problems and perspectives of the revolution.

In the first months after the revolution, Iranian workers won a big wage rise and an 8-hour work day. Equal pay for women was decreed. The working class, which had radicalised throughout 1978, began to organise factory committees (shoras) in key industries.

The February 24, 1979, New York Times reported that "nearly every ministry, bank, office or factory has a worker's committee that must pass on almost every order if it is to have a chance of being carried out". According to the NYT, a government official complained that "despite the ayatollah's commands, none of the major industries in the country are functioning because the workers spend all their time in political meetings".

Pressure from the working-class on the Khomeini regime forced it to nationalise 70-80% of the country's large businesses, including the oil industry, the big banks and insurance companies. The peasantry also began to organise shoras and take over land from the big landowners.

However, the fundamental objective of Khomeini and the clergy's Islamic Republican Party (IRP) was to defend capitalist property relations and to halt and reverse the revolutionary process by suppressing independent working-class organisation and the organised left.

Clerical reaction

The working people's anti-shah revolution had severely weakened the key institutions of the Iranian capitalist state, the army and police. The IRP regime set out to reconstruct these institutions and to demobilise the working class by playing off one section of the oppressed against another.

Three days after the February insurrection, the new government ordered all workers to return to work. The government began to attack the democratic right of workers to elect their own factory committees, instead appointing competing "Committees of the Islamic Revolution". Militant workers and peasant leaders in the shoras were sacked or arrested.

In February, Khomeini branded the Kurdish struggle for national self-determination "an uprising against the Islamic revolution". A military offensive was launched against the Kurds and other national minorities, who had been brutally repressed by the shah and had gained a measure of autonomy through the revolution.

On March 7, Khomeini declared that women employed in the government ministries "must be clothed according to Islamic standards". Encouraged by Khomeini's comments, rightist thugs attacked the next day's 15,000 strong International Women's Day march in Tehran.

By July 1979, it is estimated that up to 600 pro-revolution opponents of Khomeini's regime had been executed.

Later in 1979, supporters of Khomeini stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 US embassy personnel hostage. The subsequent 444-day diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Tehran, was used by Khomeini to claim that any dissent was the work of US imperialism. This enabled him not only to suppress the left but get rid of the liberals in the provisional government.

After the June 1980 invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the eight-year war that followed, the semi-theocratic regime was able to crush all opposition and consolidate its power.

Using their political power, and their control of large amounts of government funding channelled through religious charities, the leading clerics gradually transformed themselves into multi-millionaires and owners of large businesses.

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as Khomeini "right-hand man" in the 1980s and was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997, is estimated to be the country's richest man.

Mullah millionaires

The July 7, 2003, US Forbes business weekly reported that during his presidency "the stock market was revived, some government companies were sold to insiders, foreign trade was liberalized and the oil sector was opened up to private companies. Most of the good properties and contracts, say dissident members of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, ended up in the hands of mullahs, their associates and, not least, Rafsanjani's own family, who rose from modest origins as small-scale pistachio farmers…

" One brother headed the country's largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran's $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani's sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far).

"Today, operating through various foundations and front companies, the family is also believed to control one of Iran's biggest oil engineering companies, a plant assembling Daewoo automobiles, and Iran's best private airline…

"None of this sits well with the populace, whose per capita income is $1800 a year. The gossip on the street, going well beyond the observable facts, has the Rafsanjanis stashing billions of dollars in bank accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg; controlling huge swaths of waterfront in Iran's free economic zones on the Persian Gulf; and owning whole vacation resorts on the idyllic beaches of Dubai, Goa and Thailand."

Today, while the Islamist regime in Iran continues to crackdown on the democratic rights of workers, women and other sections of the oppressed, its real crime in the eyes of the US capitalist ruling class is its political disobedience. This (along with the desire of the US rulers to het control of Iran's still-state-owned gas and oil resources) explains the motives behind Washington's drive for violent regime change in Iran.