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  • Lessons (Not) Learned: Reflections on a Failed Revolution
  • Saeed Rahnema (bio)

Several years ago, while on a research project in the city of Ramallah, in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, Haideh Moghissi and I, at the invitation of a section of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), gave a talk to the cadres on the experiences of the Left and nationalist forces during the Iranian revolution. On a hot summer day in the heart of the city, in a session chaired by Zahira Kamal, later the Palestinian National Authority’s minister of women’s affairs, we discussed why the relatively formidable secular Iranian opposition forces had been defeated by religious fundamentalists and fanatics after the 1979 revolution.

I posed two questions with regard to the Palestinian situation: first, whether the secular left forces in Palestine were prepared for and had a clear vision of the post-occupation period, and, second, whether they had a clear strategy vis-à-vis radical Islamist forces. I ventured that, with all due respect to the audience, the answers seemed to be negative in both cases and added that this was where the lessons of the Iranian revolution became relevant. In relation to the radical religious forces, in particular, I offered the opinion that most probably they would highjack the Palestinian resistance and suppress the secular elements if the latter were not prepared. Many in the audience disagreed, saying that the Palestinian religious forces were not fanatics like the zealots in Iran. A few suggested that I did not have an accurate understanding of the Palestinian movement. Tragically, time proved them wrong. In a matter of a few years, Hamas and Islamic Jihad turned the decades-long, secular Palestinian movement into a religious campaign and, even with partial victories in Gaza, started to suppress and kill many secular individuals and impose their social and religious conservatism on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Ironically, they also gained the implicit and explicit support of many respectable left and secular Palestinian leaders of the National Front and the Democratic Front. Other sections of the Palestinian leadership, engulfed in the corruption and nepotism of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), worked with the Israelis in the hope of a peaceful settlement. Although set in a very different context, the Iranian revolution and the plight of its secular and liberal Left had some important lessons for its Palestinian counterparts (as well as for the future of the Left movement in Iran).

The Iranian revolution of 1979, with its original demands of national independence, democracy, political freedoms, and social justice in one of the most powerful and largest countries of the Middle East, was no doubt one of the outstandingly important events of the twentieth century. Yet it gave rise to a religious obscurantist regime. Thirty years after those memorable days, it is still hard to believe that a reactionary cleric, whose historical counterpart in the first Iranian revolution of 1906 was executed by revolutionaries for his demands for an Islamic state, could take advantage of the economic and political crisis, ride the tides [End Page 72] of discontent, and through manipulation of the religious beliefs of the masses and illusions of an “anti-imperialist” stance establish a Sharia-based state. It is hard to believe that more than a century of untiring effort and struggle by generations of Iranian intellectuals and politicians to modernize their county would be lost to the forces of regression.

The nature of the last shah’s dictatorial regime, foreign intervention, certain characteristics of the political opposition, and the influence of Shi’i Islamists are forces involved in this tragedy. The shah, almost right to the end of his regime, had remained oblivious to the failures of many of his policies and the sufferings of the majority of working people; even his closest associates did not dare to remind him of the “shortages of electricity.” He was also not fully informed about the growing “religious opposition,” which he referred to as “Islamic Marxists supported by the Soviets.”1 As for foreign intervention, during the last days of the revolution, Americans, fearful of the increasing influence of the Left, ordered their subordinate Iranian...


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