Iran: The Impact of October

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Yassamine Mather

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION had a profound influence on the revolutionary movement in the countries neighboring the new Soviet Republic, and Iran was no exception.

Towards the end of the Qajar dynasty in Iran (1785 to 1925) a number of international treaties had established Iran’s position as the subordinate partner, or the semicolony, of great powers. As far as Iran-Russia relations were concerned the Turkmanchai Treaty (signed 21 February 1828) marked peace between tsarist Russia and the weaker Qajar dynasty.

Beyond state relations, the long border between Iran and Russia allowed the movement of people (for work, trade and pleasure) and goods (for the purpose of trade and food supplies), but also of ideas. This was a period of change, and Iranian intellectuals were eager to find out about Western politics and philosophy.

Iranians travelled to Europe mainly via the Russian or Turkish border, and Iranian intellectuals were very keen to follow new ideas: liberalism, constitutionalism, nationalism, socialism and Marxism.

In the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, British imperialism and tsarist Russia dominated ever­y aspect of political and economic life in Iran. Although the country was not a colony of the British Empire, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, a British Corporation, controlled one of Iran’s main sources of income, the oilfields in the southwest of the country.

The corrupt, autocratic Qajar dynasty was being challenged by intellectuals and movements such as the political group formed in 1898 by Ali Monsieur in Tabriz. However, it was Iranian immigrants working in the oil fields of Baku (the capital of present-day Azerbaijan) and other Russian Asian countries who became influenced by social democracy. Heidar Amou Oghlu, who later became one of the leaders of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, was one such figure.

As early as 1904 Iranian workers had set up the first revolutionary social democratic group Hemmat (Aspiration) in Baku. In the same year, leaflets and pamphlets published by various branches of the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia (Bolsheviks) were distributed by Iranian activist Ali Monsieur not only in Azerbaijan and areas of Iran, but also after translation into Arabic in Baghdad and Kazemein in present-day Iraq.

Between 1901 and 1902 Iskra, the central organ of the Lenin’s party faction, was sent to Baku from Berlin via Tabriz. The operation is believed to have been organised by Lenin himself.

Party Organizing

In 1905 a number of Iranian immigrants who worked in the Baku oilfields and were exposed to socialist ideas founded the Social-Democratic Party of Iran (SDPI/Ferqa-ye Ijtima‘iyun-e ‘Amiyun-e Iran). Soon after its foundation, the party moved its headquarters from Azerbaijan to Iran and became involved in the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911).

Through its branches in major cities, including Tabriz, the SDPI was allowed to introduce more radical ideas in the debates around the constitutional revolution, critical of the clergy and presenting a mixture of liberal and nationalist, Islamic ideas.

The party advocated the redistribution of lands to peasants, reforms in child labor, an eight-hour work day for factory employees, and other similar social democratic measures. [See Cosroe Chaqueri, The Condition of the Working Class in Iran (Florence 1978), 157, 161-74.]

SDPI had the support of the Azerbaijani and Armenian members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and its affiliate, the Muslim Social Democratic Party, founded in 1904 also in Baku. However, for reasons unclear to most historians, in February 1910 the party leadership published a statement in its official organ Îrân-e-now, declaring all branches of the organisation closed throughout Persia.

In 1912 the socialist Adalat (Justice) Party was established, led by an Armenian Iranian, Avetis Mikaleian, also known as Ahmad Sultanzadeh. Sultanzadeh had joined the Bolshevik Party in 1912, when he was a student in St. Petersburg.

The party had 6000 members and was the only one in the region led by a communist belonging to a religious minority. In 1920 it was renamed Com­munist Party of Iran, after a founding convention held in the northern port of Bandar Anzali.

Sultanzadeh was elected secretary of the Persian communist organisation and served as its delegate to the Second World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow, where he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) to represent the nationalities of the Middle East.

Politically he was in the radical wing of the party that supported land reform and was opposed to nationalists. In this respect Sultanzadeh was a critic of future allies in the Jangali movement.

The Soviet Republic of Gilan

The Socialist Soviet Republic of Gilan set up in northern Iran, which lasted from June 1920 until September 1921, resulted from an alliance between the Adalat Party and the Jangali (Forest) movement.

There is considerable controversy about Iran’s Jangali movement. Mirza Kuchak Khan, the leader of the Jangali movement, was a nationalist and a democrat rather than a socialist. In the early years of the 20th century Kuchak Khan had connections with Ottomans who had pan-Islamic ideas, although at the time he got involved with the left all such connections had ceased.

Adalat joined an alliance with the Jangali movement, leading to the establishment of the short-lived Soviet Republic of Gilan. Iranian socialists were convinced that following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Iran would witness the next revolution and that setting up the Soviet Republic was the first step.

However, serious political disagreements among the political parties forming the Republic led to its downfall, and by the time the Kuchak Khan wrote a plea to Lenin in an attempt to get Russian intervention, international politics had intervened. In 1921 the Soviet Union and Britain had reached an agreement that marked the end of Russian support for the Gilan Republic. Iran’s new ruler Reza Khan crushed the forces of the new Republic.

In early 1922 the Comintern, the Cau­casian bureau of the Bolshevik Party, and the various central committees agreed on a new approach as far as communist activity in Iran was concerned. The argument put forward was that since Reza Khan (who led the military coup against the Qajar dynasty) and the new nationalist government “had the support of the people,” the Comintern should work with the new Iranian government, while maintaining clandestine activities in Iran, with the aim of spreading a revolutionary message to influence peasants, workers and intellectuals.

Repression and Tragic Outcomes

To help “clandestine” agitation in Iran in addition to the trade union activity, a number of communist papers were published such as Haqiqat (Truth, 1921) and Kar (Labour, 1923). Reza Khan, however, fearful of the growing popularity of the left, crushed all such attempts with severe repression. He later consolidated his rule by establishing a new dynasty (December 1925) instead of the promised republic, now calling himself Reza Shah Pahlavi. [His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was the Shah whose brutal regime was ultimately overthrown in the 1979 revolution — ed.]

The new situation led the Comintern to again change its policy towards the new king and plan his overthrow with the aim of establishing “a popular and revolutionary republic.” Given the repression inside Iran, Iranian students studying in Europe were seen as potential recruits.

Inside the country, the Communist Party of Iran helped oil workers to become organized and the Union of the Oil Workers was set up in 1925. Following Reza Shah’s consolidation of his power almost two years after the coup, the state and its security forces increased pressure on trade unions and the union of oil workers was forced underground.

The party also established women’s organizations. In 1923 “Peyk-e Saadat-e Nesvan” (Messenger of Women’s Prosperity) was formed and in 1926 the women’s group “Bidarye Ma” (Our Awakening) was set up. It was the fear of these movements and the growing influence they had in the country that led Reza Shah to step up the suppression, and in 1929 he passed a bill through the Iranian parliament banning all communist activity in Iran.

This was also a time when the party welcomed the return of Dr. Taghi Arani from Germany as member of the leadership of the Communist Party of Iran. The new party leadership tried to unite the ranks of the organisation. A new theoretical journal Donya (The World) was launched in early 1932. A year later the Central Committee of the party decided Donya would be the official organ of the Communist Party of Iran.

Sultanzadeh had been deposed as general secretary in the 1923 congress of the party and moved to the Soviet Union, where he worked as an economic functionary pursuing the work he had started on the political economy of oil. In Moscow he published a book, The crisis of the world economy and the new threat of war, a synopsis of which was published in the Communist International’s journal.

Meanwhile in Iran, the major changes and the start of a radical turn paved the way for Sultanzadeh’s return to the party’s leadership in 1927. However, by 1932 the party had once again changed its direction and Sultanzadeh lost his position and was expelled from the party.

He returned to the Soviet Union to work as an economic administrator, but soon fell out of favor with the party hierarchy in Moscow and was arrested in January 1938, charged with “espionage.” He was jailed for five months before being shot as an alleged spy.

In 1956 during a review of crimes by Stalin’s secret service, Sultanzadeh’s case was reviewed and he was formally cleared of the charges brought against him in 1938.

As repression increased, many more Iranian communists fled to the Soviet Union. There is little information about the plight of party members and activists who were in the Soviet Union during the purges.We learn something of their situation, however, in Cosroe Chaqueri’s research. (The Left in Iran 1905-1940)

Chaqueri quotes a letter from the Cadres Section of the Comintern to Iranian leftist author Abdol-Hosein Noushin: “most Iranian Communists had perished in the purges; a few such as the Communist poet Lahouti had been living in exceptional comfort in Moscow or in the Asiatic republics, no doubt due to their collaboration with the Soviet secret police against their compatriots persecuted by the NKVD.”

November-December 2017, ATC 191