In reply to a criticism of my chapters on Iran – By Barry Sheppard

We have received a request from Kamran Nayeri to publish an article that he wrote about Leninism, the Iranian revolution and the Sattar League. As readers of my book will know, I devoted considerable attention to these subjects. Nayeri was a participant in the Sattar League and is very critical of my descriptions and my views.

Kamran Nayeri’s article is far too long to be posted on this blog, either as a comment or as an article. So, I am posting a link to it for the convenience of readers. The link is below. My response follows.

A link to Kamran Nayeri’s article is posted here

My response follows.

Nayeri’s piece is divided into three parts. Parts One and Three are devoted to explaining his views on Leninism and the early Third International, and his opposition to building Leninist parties, which he thinks are at the root of the collapse of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. I will deal with his views on these matters in a subsequent article that will take up similar arguments that have been put forward by others.

Here I will only make some comments on his Part Two, which deals with the Iranian revolution and internal struggles in the Sattar League in the U.S. prior to the revolution, and in the Iranian Socialist Workers Party (HKS in its Farsi initials) and splits within it after the revolution.

Concerning the Sattar League, Nayeri’s main argument is a series of charges against the Sattar League’s main leader, Babak Zahraie, who, he says, formed a cult around himself in the League. He also talks about the factional struggles within the League.

Most of this consists of assertions which can’t be independently verified or refuted. In my book I didn’t go into the internal differences and personal squabbles in the Sattar League for this very reason, and also because they were not germane to the subject of my two chapters on the Iranian revolution and its defeat. When the Sattar League and its supporters returned to Iran after the Shah fled in the face of the huge mass demonstrations and general strike, the Sattar League was united, having overcome previous differences, which were then irrelevant. The League then adopted the name Socialist Workers Party, or HKS in its Farsi initials, in the revolutionary situation. The new HKS was publicly presented by Babak Zahraie at a news conference February 22, 1979 in Tehran. Zahraie was its central leader in a united leadership which unanimously adopted a common program called a “Bill of Rights of Iranian Working People.”

Presumably, Nayeri agreed with this program, which championed the demands of the workers, peasants, women, and the oppressed nationalities, as well as called for full democratic rights, the formation of a genuine Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution, and for the formation of a workers and peasants government.

I would also note that historically many revolutionary groups formed in exile, like the Sattar League, have often experienced personal squabbles and exaggerated differences and struggles over leadership. That was another reason I did not refer to such in the Sattar League in my book.

I will note one thing in Nayeri’s account. He says, “In his book, Sheppard claims that the SWP leadership did not intervene in internal affairs of sister organizations before its crisis. This is certainly not true with regards to our movement [the Sattar League].”

What I wrote extensively about was that the SWP was opposed to a super-centralized International dictating to national parties. I also referred our reluctance to take sides in the internal affairs of sister organizations unless the political differences were clear and decisive. And we at no time before the Barnes-led decline attempted to dictate to sister organizations even in cases where we had political differences.

This is crystal clear in Nayeri’s own words concerning what I, Gus Horowitz, Doug Jenness and other SWP leaders did in regard to the factional struggles in the Sattar League. By his own account we did not take sides, but attempted to ameliorate the factional situation in the League through persuasion, not dictates. Our efforts met with some success, according to Nayeri himself. We correctly sought to defuse the factionalism in the League. It is not clear whether Nayeri is attacking us for not taking his side in those disputes.

He also seems to be angry with me for not taking his side in the various splits in the HKS. He is correct in this. I do think the HKE (the name taken by Babak’s wing of the HKS) was in the main correct up through 1982, including on the war against the imperialist-backed Iraqi invasion, which Nayeri turned his back on after the defeats the Iraqis suffered in holding on to their initial territorial gains in Iran. But Iraq continued the war for years with massive air and artillery attacks that killed a million Iranians.

I also think the Hormuz group was wrong in thinking the whole revolution was fascist from the beginning. The HVK group was wrong to think that it was possible to overcome these differences.

I will take up an important political difference I have with Nayeri, and that is his prettifying of Bani-Sadr and the Mujahadeen.

Nayeri takes me to task for quoting from an article in The Militant of May 23, 1980, which stated that “Bani-Sadr [who was the prime minister at the time, appointed by Khomeini] also gave the green light to ultraright gangs that attacked the campuses in several cities in mid-April.” Nayeri considers this a slander of Bani-Sadr.

My quote fromThe Militant article continued, “They were attempting to back up the government’s call for an end to political activity on campus. The attackers wanted to block moves by the Islamic Students Organizations [ISOs]…to transform the universities into a base for arming the masses, spreading literacy, and deepening the revolution ….the rightists centered their attacks on organizations which have a following at the universities but are less popular than the ISOs among the Iranian masses – the Fedayeen and Mujahadeen.”

Nayeri claims, without a shred of evidence, that the Islamic student groups participated in the ultrarightist attacks on the Fedayeen and Mujahadeen. The Militant article continued, “But the attempt to crush the campus-based political activity did not have the desired result. On May Day, the Fedayeen and Mujahadeen were able to stage rallies of tens of thousands….In the aftermath of May Day, meetings were held at Tehran University where members of the ISOs, Fedayeen, Mujahadeen, Tudeh Party (the pro-Moscow Stalinist Party), Revolutionary Workers Party [HKE], and others freely debated proposals on how to put the universities at the service of the revolution.”

Concerning whether Bani-Sadr, the prime minister, gave the green light to these attacks or not, Nayeri himself says they were initiated by Khomeini. Bani-Sadr was operating at the time under Khomeini’s orders, and it is inconceivable that he would not obey them, and it is inconceivable that the attacks themselves could have been carried out without the government’s giving them a “green light.”

The fact that the Islamic student groups would engage in discussions with the very groups they supposedly joined the rightists in physically attacking a month after those attacks makes Nayeri’s assertions dubious. In any case, he gives no evidence for his assertions other than vague references to other sources that appeared years later, with their own axes to grind.

In June of 1981, the following year, the often violent struggles at the top of the Khomeini regime resulted in Bani-Sadr’s ouster. Nayeri says, “Fearing for his life, Bani-Sadr went into hiding a few days before his impeachment.” What Nayeri leaves out is that Bani-Sadr soon reacted to his ouster to go over to support of the Iraqi war against the Iranian revolution, and on September 21, 1981, called on U.S. imperialism to tighten their economic blockade of Iran.

Nayeri notes, as do I in my book, that also in June 1981 the regime physically attacked the Mujahadeen, and arrested and executed many of its members. He does note that the Mujahadeen in response “bombed the offices of the Islamic Republic Party killing 70 high-ranking officials, including Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti who was the IRP leader. Two months later, on August 30, another Mujahedin bomb killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai and prime Minister Hojatoleslam Mohammad Javad Bahonar. Thousands were arrested any many hundreds were executed….”

Nayeri sounds like he is sympathetic to these terrorist attacks. He doesn’t mention that the Iranian masses saw these acts of terrorism not as part of a fight against the repression of the Khomeini regime, but as an attack on them and their revolution, in the context of the Iraqi war against them. One million marched to denounce this terrorism.

As I wrote in my book, “Whether more sinister forces were involved, or if this was the sole handiwork of the Mujahadeen, didn’t really matter. The former left group joined forces with the capitalist politician Bani-Sadr to wage a terror campaign of bombings and murder for over a year, and openly went over to the side of Iraq and the counter-revolution, mounting attacks on Iran from within Iraqi territory….The overwhelming support the masses gave the Khomeini regime, which was still able to project itself as the leader of the revolution, impelled them to vehemently reject the Mujahadeen terror campaign. That this group and supporters of Bani-Sadr went over to Iraq which was still carrying out massive bombing of Iranian cities, inflicting death and destruction, put them on the side of imperialism in the eyes of most Iranians. The regime was able to utilize the ‘leftism’ of the Mujahadeen and Bani-Sadr too, who had cultivated that image, to begin a campaign against socialists of all types. The Soviet bureaucracy’s support of Iraq, while clandestine, was also known and utilized by the regime in this campaign.”

Nayeri leaves out the transformation of the Mujahadeen into a pro-imperialist counter-revolutionary outfit allied with Saddam Hussein, and the opening its reactionary terror campaign gave the Khomeini government to smash the entire left during the next months, consolidating the reactionary capitalist regime.

The Mujahadeen has survived in Iraq as a screwball armed cult, even after the U.S. invasion in spite of its support of Saddam Hussein and opposition to the Iraqi shia majority. The U.S. has recently reversed its previous designation of the Mujahadeen as a terrorist organization, with some in the State Department and Congress looking forward to its playing a role in Iran if and when the U.S. succeeds in overthrowing the Iranian government.

Finally, Nayeri objects to my characterization of Babak Zahraie as the central leader of the Sattar League and later of the organization in Iran, as well as my reference to Kateh Vafadari as a leader. He especially is incensed that I say they “take their place among the many unsung heroes of the struggles of the world working class.”

When I arrived in Iran in early 1979, soon before the insurrection, it was evident that Babak was the central leader of the newly-formed HKS. There was no evidence of a cult around Babak, and not a single person in the leadership or in the ranks, including Kamran Nayeri, raised anything of the sort with me. What I found was a united leadership, with Babak playing the role of the central leader within that leadership. They were exited to be participating in those exhilarating events, and so were I and Brian Grogan who were the delegation from the United Secretariat of the FI. This united leadership was looking outward, not inward.

It was also clear to me that the central leader of the group of FI supporters in Europe who came back to Iran was Hormuz. Brian and I worked with both groups to help them to unify. This was accomplished, with the unified organization taking over the HKS name and adopting its program, and Hormuz becoming its central executive officer and Babak the editor of its new newspaper, Kargar. This division of posts reflected that the HKS now had two central leaders of a combined leadership team.

Besides launching their new newspaper, the unified HKS soon took on an important project to build a mobilization of women around International Women’s Day (March 8 in the Western calendar). This movement was built not as an HKS project alone, but on a united front type basis, drawing in many women from various backgrounds, including militant muslim women wearing the veil. The united HKS put forward Kateh Vafadari as its leader in this effort, and she worked with the other HKS women who also assumed leadership roles. Kateh became the chairperson of the committee that organized the series of very successful mass actions, one of 20,000, in the face of violent attacks by rightist thugs. Kateh was featured for her role in a book about her experience in Iran by the feminist Kate Millet, Going to Iran. Nayeri should read this book.

Obviously, Kateh Vafadari was a leader of the HKS.

After the Hormuz group left, Babak became the central leader of the HKE, and remained the editor of Kargar, which went through a period when its was banned and then legalized again, until it was finally shut down in March 1982. All in all, Kargar published 127 issues, no small feat in the increasingly repressive climate. In January, 1983, Babak was arrested, as part of the regime’s final smashing of all socialist tendencies and of any opposition. Babak was held in solitary confinement for the first 1,075 days, without any outside contact or reading material for the first 600 days. He was finally released in 1988 and forced into exile. In all these years of imprisonment, facing deprivations and threats of execution, Babak never capitulated to the regime but maintained his revolutionary socialist convictions. That’s why he is one of the many unsung heroes of the struggles of the world working class.

During the long years of his imprisonment, Kateh organized a defense campaign to improve his conditions and finally to secure his release. As I write in my book, “I would draw attention to Kateh’s defense campaign. This effort took courage especially in the face of the increasingly anti-women regime. Her efforts in the end undoubtedly helped save Babak’s life, demonstrating the importance of defense efforts on behalf of working class fighters even under repressive regimes.” That’s why she is one of the unsung heroes of the struggles of the world working class.

One other thing should addressed. Nayeri refers to the repudiation in 1985 of Marxism by Babak’s brother, Siamak, under the pressure of the regime’s repression. This did occur. But Nayeri slyly insinuates that Babak followed the same course, by referring to a supposed discussion Siamak had with Babak before Babak was arrested. Again, a charge is made by Nayeri without any shred of proof.

In fact, Babak was unaware of Siamak’s betrayal. He could not have been aware. Babak was being held incommunicado in Evian prison. Nor did Babak share Siamak’s views. If Babak had followed in his brother’s footsteps and capitulated, he would have been put on TV to make his recantation, as many leaders of the Tudeh Party were. And, he certainly would not have been held three more years in prison.

Finally, I would add that I salute all the Iranian comrades of the Sattar League in the U.S., and of those FI supporters in Europe, who returned to Iran to participate as best as they could in the revolution. I include comrade Nayeri.

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