During the late 1970s the forerunners of the AWL published a weekly paper, Workers’ Action, which contained extensive coverage of the Iranian revolution.
In the last months of 1978 the paper carried detailed reports of the strike wave that eventually toppled the Shah. The reports emphasised the need for workers to organise themselves independently. For example in an article, Not an Islamic state, but workers’ rule, we wrote: “To bring the Iranian workers’ movement to victory, however WORKERS’ COUNCILS must organise the struggle now and the future revolutionary power after the overthrow of the Shah.” (Workers’ Action 9 December 1978)
However like most of the left we underestimated the nature of Khomeini’s ideas and his movement, as well the kind of regime he was planning to create. For example, in an article Down with the Shah, we wrote:
“The role played by Muslim clerics in the opposition movement does not mean that it is reactionary. Many progressive movements have had priests playing a prominent role – the civil rights movement in the USA, the nationalist movement in Ireland or even the early stages of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It means no more than that the mosques have been the only possible meeting places for the opposition, and that the clerics, have been until recently been almost the only people able to speak out against the regime.
“Even the demand for ‘Islamic government’ does not (for the demonstrators who raise it) mean religious bigotry, but a drive against the corrupt luxury of the oil-rich Iranian middle class.
“Ayatollah Khomeini, the chief leader of the Muslim opposition has declared many times that he does not want the barbarities of ‘Islamic law’ as practiced in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where thieves are supposed to be punished by having their hands cut off; nor does he oppose equality for women.” (Workers’ Action No.124, 11 November 1978)
The paper carried an interview with Khomeini from Le Monde where he made some democratic noises. (Workers’ Action No.121, 21 October 1978)
The contradictions in our position were summed up in an article, Islam in Iran: the sign of the oppressed.
We wrote: “A bourgeois ‘Islamic government’ will swindle the Iranian workers and peasants just as ruthlessly as the Shah does. The task of socialists, nevertheless, is to support the struggle of the masses against the Shah, even when these struggles take an Islamic government to be their aim. In Iran, of course, revolutionary socialists will fight to convince the workers and peasants that their aspirations for democracy and justice can only be betrayed by the bourgeoisie and by Islam.” (Workers’ Action No.125, 19 November 1978)
And in the article, Not an Islamic state, but workers’ rule, we added: “Even if the Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to turn the clock back 1300 years – and all the evidence, on the contrary, is that he favours a moderate bourgeois democratic and nationalist programme – the cries of the Shah’s apologists about ‘Islamic reaction’ would not be justified.” (Workers’ Action No.128, 9 December 1978)
About the closest we came to warning of the impending catastrophe was an article by Rhodri Evans, Can Khomeini halt the revolution?, which said: “With almost mathematical certainty we can predict a clash between Khomeini and the workers. British socialists must be ready to give every support we can to the Iranian workers.” (Workers’ Action 24 February 1979)
The only organisation which had a third camp line of “down with the Shah, down with the mullahs” was (ironically) the Spartacist League, which warned in advance of the consequences of theocratic rule for the emerging workers’ movement, the left, women and national minorities.
Although Workers’ Action opposed the exclusion of the Sparts from meetings and demonstrations on Iran by the SWP and the IMG, we did not spell out clearly the dangers of Khomeini coming to power.