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From the NS archive: Anti-war surge shakes the Ayatollah

21 June 1985: Iraqi air raids are provoking the people of Tehran to protest again.

By Abbas Seamgar

In June 1985 Abbas Seamgar reported on the Iran-Iraq war, which had begun in September 1980. Only recently had the people of Tehran, which had been the epicentre of the 1979 Iranian revolution, begun to experience the horrors of war. As a result the capital city’s inhabitants protested against the war and demanded a peace agreement. Anti-war resistance had emerged in a series of isolated events. But on 10 April 1985, following Iraqi air raids on Tehran, a “sizeable crowd gathered at the scene of an attack” for the first time, chanting slogans against the war and the Iranian regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Two opposition groups – the Mujahedin and the National Movement of Iranian Resistance (NAMIR) – were working in the country. But would they find enough common ground to forge a meaningful resistance? “So far there is no sign of any dramatic shift of political power,” Seamgar reported.


The Iraqi President’s proposal last Saturday to halt bombing Iranian cities for two weeks appeared at first to offer a breathing space to Khomeini. The Iranian government had been facing increasing hostility from hitherto loyal citizens, unconvinced by the government’s attempts to persuade them that casualties from Iraqi air raids are fewer than from road accidents.

Khomeini’s decision to refuse the ceasefire – at the expense of domestic discontent – reflects his wish to maintain the “blissful war for our nation and for our dearest Islam”. Iraq wanted a total ceasefire, while Iran merely wants the war to be kept away from the civilian population.

Another factor in the refusal may have been that it was the left-wing opposition force, the Mujahedin, who negotiated with Iraq – and given their present increasing popularity, the Iranian government would want to prevent them from gaining credit from their diplomatic initiative. Indeed, immediately after Iraq announced it would implement a ceasefire, six Mujahedin members were executed by the Iranian government.

So the people of Tehran and other major cities will continue to leave their houses at night with a couple of blankets to sleep in the safety of the uninhabited city outskirts. The lucky ones who can afford it go to safer places for weeks or even months.

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The capital city Tehran, which in 1979 was the epicentre of the revolution, is now beginning to feel the horrors of war. For the first time in nearly five years the people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the continuation of the war and to press for an early settlement.

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Begun in 1980, the war was quickly turned into a vehicle to consolidate the government’s power. The regime was not only able to execute numerous opponents, but also had the chance to exploit the nationalist sentiments running high among Iranian youth.

The people’s willingness to fight against Iraq, which they saw as the invader, was cunningly publicised by the authorities as a show of support for the policies of the regime, a mandate for the government to “Islamicise” the country, to shape it according to the Ayatollah’s economic and political design.

For a long time it looked as though the “bliss” of war was going to be everlasting. The army – a potential danger to the survival of the new regime – was kept busy at the war front. Oil production remained largely uninterrupted, bringing enough money into the country to subsidise both the war and the effectively organised rationing system. The war also united all the different political groupings within the regime itself, helping it to take root more firmly.

The regime’s success in these fields was attributed to “God’s help for a nation that is intent on implementing His will”, as the Ayatollah put it in one of his speeches on Tehran radio. The war was carefully kept well away from the capital Tehran. Iraq, however, did not underestimate the importance of this to the Ayatollah’s ability to keep Iran on a war footing.

The Iraqi Air Force – with its total superiority over Iran – first raided civilian targets several weeks ago and began “the battle of the cities”.

Following its failed attempts to buy air defence systems from international sources, Iran appealed to the United Nations, which it had consistently denounced over the years as an instrument of the superpowers, to mediate a partial ceasefire; that is, an end to the bombing of the cities but not to the war. In practice this means that the government wants to continue the war but keep it well out of Tehran. But this proved to be harder than it had thought.

Despite intensive repression, opposition groups have been active within Iran over the past few years. Last year an organised strike took place in the steel mill in Isfahan. It ended successfully when the government gave in to the workers’ demand for higher pay. Last October and November two important demonstrations took place at Amjadieh Sports Stadium. But these remained isolated events until the emergence of an anti-war movement. The first sign of open hostility to the war came on 10 April, soon after the start of the latest round of Iraqi air raids on Tehran, when a sizeable crowd gathered at the scene of an attack in a southern district of the capital and chanted slogans against the war and the regime.

The opposition organisation, the Mujahedin, has claimed that its members were involved in organising the anti-war protests; Tehran radio announced that in one of these demonstrations 300 of their members were arrested. The Mujahedin argue that they are now a credible organisation with strong ties within Iranian society.

Other opposition groups also claim to be working in the country. Among them is the National Movement of Iranian Resistance (NAMIR), led by the veteran politician Shapour Bakhtiar whose call for a day of action on 17 May was supported by a large number of people, especially in Tehran. The question that many people now ask is whether there is any possibility of NAMIR and Mujahedin finding some common ground.

This has already been rejected out of hand by both organisations. NAMIR’s Voice of Iran quotes their leader as saying that they “cannot work with Massoud Rajavi and other leaders of the Mujahedin”. They criticise the Mujahedin for taking on anti-imperialist stand while being reluctant to fault the Soviet Union, which is “arguably the most aggressively Imperialist power in the world today”. The Mujahedin, on the other hand, envisage a future system of government that excludes anyone closely associated with either the Shah’s or Khomeini’s regime. This therefore excludes NAMIR, whose leader Shapour Bakhtiar was the Shah’s last prime minister.

Ideological confrontations also centre round two basically different theories about Iranian society. The first, advocated by the Mujahedin, is that Islam has been the established dominant culture in Iran for many centuries, hence the struggle for socialism can only succeed within the context of Islam.

The second argument holds that although Islam is a religion with a long history (1400 years), monarchy is in fact twice as old and is therefore something that people can readily associate with. Advocates of this theory – coming from the centre and the Right – argue that the real issue is not to do away with monarchy but to keep it within the confines of the 1906 Constitution which was supposed to limit the power of the Shah.

Although NAMIR’s position on the question of monarchy is not quite clear, they do emphasise that they are not essentially a monarchist organisation. Their aim, as stated in their literature, is to “establish democracy, concern for human rights and the rule of law”.

Judging from recent events anti-government forces appear to be gaining ground. But so far there is no sign of any dramatic shift of political power, and the Ayatollah still appears to be well in charge.

The opposition forces argue however that the recent demonstrations, generally against the continuing war, are but an occasional outburst of the movements beneath the surface which are preparing for the next general upheaval. Although this sounds like wishful thinking there is a sense in which it could be true. For among all the uncertainties two things are clear: first, that mass movements do occur in Iran; and, second, that they always come as a surprise not just to the ruling regimes but also, as we saw in 1979, to the outside world.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)