Monday, February 20, 2017

2563. Neighborhood Committees in the Iranian Revolution of 1979: A Case Study

By Kamran Nayeri, February 20, 2017
A scene from the February 1979 insurrection. Photo: Iranian Historical Photograph Gallery. 
I arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on February 1, 1979, in a plane that took off from Paris Orly Airport soon after the plane that carried Ayatollah Khomeini and his entourage.  As our plane circled the sky above Tehran in preparation for landing, I could see the throng of people lining up the streets across the city to welcome Khomeini from the exile. BBC reported there were as many as 5 million people. 

When our plane landed and we were waved through customs and immigration I found the airport and the streets mostly empty of people as if the crowd had welcomed the Ayatollah and gone back home.  During those days, there was really no regular means of transportation due to strikes and demonstrations.  People often walked great distances or got rides from those traveling in their own cars and trucks. 

After I settled in my parents' house in the northeastern middle-class district of Tehranpars I quickly met with the young men there who were organizing local resistance to the Shah's regime. Even though I had been in the United States for the previous ten years, my integration into our neighborhood group was almost instantaneous.

Neighborhood committees were an important part of the grassroots movement that originated in the struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship.  During various strikes, especially the oil workers strike that began on October 21, 1978, there was a need to acquire and distribute goods and services in neighborhoods.  While stopping oil exports and oil flow to the Shah’s regime, oil workers delivered gasoline and cooking and heating oil and gas to the population to ensure they did not suffer in the cold fall/winter months. Neighborhood committees rationed and distributed these and other needed supplies equitably.  The need for the neighborhood committees became acute when the martial law was declared on November 6. 

Our neighborhood committee had already “expropriated” a house on the street where my parents lived as the owner, a man with close ties to the Shah’s repressive regime, had gone into hiding or fled the country. The neighborhood committee did not touch the furniture that was left behind. But the house provided a rent-free headquarter for the group where the assembly of a few dozens was held daily to discuss various issues, define tasks, get volunteers to carry them out, and so on.  

On February 4, Ayatollah Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan, the leader of a very small Islamic-Nationalist party, Nehzat-e Azadi (Freedom Movement), as the prime minister of a provisional government in opposition to the government of Shahpour Bakhtiar that the Shah had installed on January 4 to appease the people. Bakhtair was the leader of the very small secular nationalist party, Hezb-e Iran (Iran Party). Khomeini’s move provided for a governmental dual power forcing a decision on who to support especially on those who worked for the government.  On February 9, Homafars (air force technicians) who were in Niroo Havayi (Air Force) Garrison in east Tehran declared their support for the Bazargan government.  Within hours the Imperial Guard moved to crush them and fighting broke out. I happened to be near the garrison when the fighting occurred and saw urban guerrilla fighters joining the fight in defense of the Homafars as did many ordinary people with military training and arms.  The Imperial Guard had to withdraw. The next day, February 10, Bakhtiar declared martial law which backfired as rebellion spread in the ranks of the armed forces and the general population began to attack police stations, garrisons, and military bases.  I saw the police station near my parents' house set on fire by the young men and some boys from the neighborhood. 

On that day, I went to the Eshrat Abad Garrison near Fawzieh Square (named after Shah’s first wife, Princess Fawzieh of Egypt and renamed after February 1979 as Imam Hossein Square, after the Shia’s third Imam).  Fighting was ending when I reached there.  The garrison surrendered after suffering some causalities and the soldiers joined the people. There were some casualties among the people, including a young Armenian Trotskyist. All armament were expropriated by the people. Even though I had no military training and no love for armament, I took several rounds of J3 battle rifle ammunitions for the neighborhood committee. 

On February 10 and 11 insurrections in all major cities and some smaller towns crushed the Shah’s armed forces and armed the population. People stormed the Shah’s prisons and torture chambers and all political prisoners were freed.  Tehran University became the tribune of the revolutionary youth where many open-air meetings were held, speeches delivered, literature, mostly by the socialist groups, distributed.  

An almost natural reaction by the neighborhood committees across Tehran was to set up road barricade as sniper attacks by the Shah’s armed supporters continued despite the regime’s collapse.   In our neighborhood assembly that met on February 11, we learned that collectively we had 30 J3 battle rifle and a lot of ammunition.  We quickly decided to centralize these arms in the headquarter and train volunteers to use them at the roadblocks.  There were 60 volunteers, most with some military training.  Kaveh, a young Trotskyist in the neighborhood who had just returned from London and had military training, headed up the effort to train others in the use of the J3. 

My own contribution was more political and organizational, to bring up the political aspects of our work and to help organize and run the assembly meetings and volunteers in a way to ensure our urgent tasks were carried out in a way consistent with the utmost attention to the democratic and national revolution underway.  All other neighborhood committee members were pulled into politics only in the past several months and even Kaveh had joined the Iranian Trotskyist group in England only a year earlier.  I had the good fortune of working single-mindedly as a socialist since 1971 gaining experience in practical socialist politics as well as intensely studying classical socialist literature. 

I wrote a one-page manifesto that defined the political function of the neighborhood committee, gave it a name, Defense Committee of the Southwestern Tehranpars, and with Kaveh’s help found a young woman in the neighborhood who typed it up. The assembly discussed and approved this initiative and we distributed copies to each household.

As the worries with the remnants of the Shah’s supporters diminished revolutionaries began to take notice of the repressive measures of the newly installed Khomeini-Bazargan provisional government. Within 24 hours after February 11 victory which lifted the censorship on the mass media, including in the state radio and television (Seda va Sima) which now broadcasted statements from various political groups, including the socialist currents, Khomeini reimposed censorship on the state-run radio and TV and appointed Sadegh Ghotbzadeh to purge its employees to impose an Islamic character on the state media.  At the same time, Khomeini called for the population to return their arms to the mosques that began to act as the headquarter for the neighborhood committees in the sections of the cities where practicing Muslims dominated.  

In our neighborhood, the cleric from the nearby mosque came to one of our assembly meetings, spoke highly of our effort but reiterated Khomeini’s call to turn all arms to the mosques, and invited us to function from the mosque and under its supervision and then left.  Some days later a military man came in uniform and said mostly the same things.  The committee membership was divided by these interventions.  Those who harbored religious feelings felt compelled to honor Khomeini’s orders and left to continue their volunteer work from the mosque. Those with a leftist political orientation remained but the future of the Defense Committee of the Southwestern Terhranpars was in question.  How could we justify it when almost half of our members left for the mosque already?  Also, there was much ambivalence towards the Khomeini-Bazargan government in those days, only the political current Kaveh and I subscribed, the Socialist Workers Party, publically held that it was a capitalist government that revolutionaries should not support. We advocated a government of workers and peasant in its place and a constituent assembly based on the grassroots movements that had emerged to draft its constitution.  Almost all other leftist political tendencies either supported the provisional government or did not speak in opposition to it.  Given this political crisis, the neighborhood committee dissolved. 

While I know of no study of the neighborhood committees as a grassroots movement, I believe a similar political crisis resulted in their dissolution across Iran except in some regions of the oppressed nationalities, like Turkman Sahra and Kurdistan.  In all other locations, they were reconstituted as the Islamic Revolution Committees (Komitehehaye Enghelab-e Eslami) that gradually became part of the oppressive forces of the Islamic Republic regime and continue to be so today.  As such, a revolutionary grassroots movement was destroyed by the clerical capitalist Khomeini regime and some its members recruited into an oppressive force.  A similar process befell other grassroots movements in Iran.  For example, the workers shoras (councils) were destroyed or replaced with Islamic Shoras or Islamic Associations (these are capitalized to denote that the very meaning of a shora/council which requires workers democracy was subverted).  

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