"We Are Living Between Two Tides"

published in MER104

Shokrallah Paknejad, one of the most prominent and far-sighted of modern Iranian socialists, was executed in Evin prison, Tehran, during December 1981. Although his death was not officially announced, his family was given a number for his grave in the cemetery of Behesht-e Zahra, and the prison authorities confirmed the news early in the following month. His death, like that of the Mojahedin leader Mohammad Reza Saadati, and of the Fedayi (Minority) leader Said Sultanpour, came after Paknejad had spent several months in jail without trial or formal charges. He was held as a political hostage and shot in retaliation for opposition activities.

Paknejad, in his early forties when he died, came from the town of Dezful, in southwest Iran, the son of a low-ranking civil servant. He later went to Tehran to study law and he became an active member of the Organization of University Students of Tehran. This group was affiliated to the National Front and openly opposed the Shah’s regime in the early 1960s. As a result of his political work, he was not given the exemption from military service normally accorded to students, and he was forcibly drafted into the army. Later, he began planning guerrilla actions against the regime. In 1969, on his way to get training abroad, he was arrested. In jail, he met Masoud Rajavi of the Mojahedin and Bijan Jazani of the Fedayi. He was frequently tortured by SAVAK, and his case attracted widespread attention. The Shah himself once scornfully dismissed the claims of “Mr. Paknejad.” Released in the last days of the monarchical regime, he worked with a coalition of socialist elements who shared with him a deep concern at the intentions of the Khomeini regime. He had had close acquaintance with the Islamic right while in jail -- and was alarmed at their intentions. In the words of Hedayatollah Matin-Daftari, one of the co-founders with Paknejad of the National Democratic Front and a grandson of Mohammad Mossadeq, “It was Paknejad’s analysis which drove us to found the National Democratic Front and to work together. He realized before anyone else that something had to be done to stop the course of events.”

The NDF was founded in March 1979 and adopted a more critical stance on the Khomeini regime than any other significant left group. They opposed participation in the referendum on an Islamic Constitution in March 1979, called for support of the resistance by women and nationalities to the new regime, and were suppressed in August 7979 after street clashes in which the NDF, alone of the left parties, opposed the closure of the outspoken newspaper Ayandegan. The suppression of the NDF was prompted by the Front’s plans to hold a congress of all minority nationalities in Kurdistan later in the month, a move that threatened to build a strong countrywide organization.

Paknejad went into hiding, but he continued, along with other NDF members, to publish the Front’s paper and to hold discussions with opposition allies. The NDF backed the candidacy of Masoud Rajavi in the january 1980 elections, and continued to call for unity of “all opposition forces against the Khomeini government.” Paknejad was able to evade arrest until the latter part of 1981, when he was caught at a random roadblock in Tehran. In disguise and with false papers, he was taken to the central police station in Tehran where a former cellmate from the Shah’s jails, now an official in the Khomeini government, chanced to recognize and unmask him.

I conducted the following interview with Paknejad in August 1979, a few hours before the demonstration on press censorship which forced the NDF underground. One of his very few direct statements, it is a testimony from a life of unrelenting struggle and commitment, an unfinished script that can only be completed once the ideals for which Shokrallah Paknejad fought and died have been realized.

—Fred Halliday

What were the origins of the independent socialist current in which you participated in the 1960s?

The new independent left which emerged in the 1960s reflected the impasse of the traditional opposition forces inside Iran -- the Tudeh and the National Front -- and the loss of hope about the Soviet Union and China that followed their dispute. At first, the impasse and the existing hostility on the left to the Soviet Union produced pro-Chinese reactions: the Sazman-e Enqelabi (Revolutionary Organization) broke away from the Tudeh and was pro-Chinese. But people soon saw what China was doing -- flirting with the United States, adopting its own nationalist positions in the cultural revolution, taking up positions against the anti-imperialist movement. We also knew that the Chinese theory of struggle in a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country was not applicable to Iran. People wanted an independent Iranian line, and the Sino-Soviet dispute, combined with a realization of China’s role, helped to produce this.

Then came the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which had a great impact on our generation. The rise of the Palestinian movement changed the whole mood in Iran. It became not so much a question of looking for models outside the country as of looking for support, for bases, independent of the religious leadership which was also based abroad. The Palestinian struggle provided both a theoretical basis applicable to Iran and a source of material aid. The Iranian movement felt that the martyrs of the Palestinian movement were their own -- they aroused strong emotion. This was particularly so because people felt that in the coup of 1953 the communists had not behaved heroically, they had given in.

When you began planning guerrilla action who did you collaborate with?

We were all originally from the National Front, and we knew each other from the movement of the early 1960s. I knew Bijan Jazani and Masoud Ahmadzadeh, another Fedayi leader. We had contact with a group of Iranians working with the Palestinians, and with the group who attacked the police station in Siakal in February 1971. I tried to leave the country to get training, but I was arrested 200 yards from the border, near the Shatt al-Arab river. One of the people arrested talked under torture and this led to further arrests, but some of our people escaped. Some then went to work for Baghdad radio, broadcasting to Iran. Others returned to Iran and were caught. Some went to fight with the guerrillas in Dhofar.

What were prison conditions like under the Shah?

I used to be sent to the prison in Bandar Abbas in the south in summer and to prisons in the north, in Tehran or Qezel-Qale, during the winter. I was tortured before and after my trial. They were trying to get me to say that I had made a mistake, that the Shah was good and that I was not a communist. But I had the advantage that my case was known. Those whose names were not known to the world were tortured even more. Many tried to kill themselves. I remember one young man whom they brought in with his legs jerking. He had tried to commit suicide by jumping from a window but had only damaged his spinal cord. I read Dante’s Inferno, and felt the force of the inscription he places over the gates of hell -- “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” Until 1977 we had virtually no contact with the outside world: I was in solitary confinement from the middle of 1973 for eight months and I only heard much later that there had been a war between the Israelis and the Arabs in October 1973. Then they began to allow the Red Cross to come: the authorities put carpets on the prison floor and allowed us to talk quite freely to the Red Cross representatives. We were also able to get some reading materials. We bribed one prison guard with 20,000 rials to get a copy of Arabia Without Sultans.

Since your release from jail, you have become politically active again. How do you evaluate the present situation in Iran?

There is a continuity in this revolution: We are living between two tides and all will change in the future. People will turn away from the mullahs if they become a ruling class. This process has already begun. The people are less supportive of religion than they initially were. A week after I came out of jail I was asked if I supported the idea of an Islamic Republic and I replied that I did not. If such a republic was progressive, I would accept it. Now we can see that the petty bourgeoisie which supported the revolution and fought the Shah is disintegrating and is turning on the left. They are trying to draw us into a fight, and we are like a bullfighter who must at first avoid that fight. The main problem we have is to avoid confrontation: The right has moved very rapidly and the main danger to us comes not from the army but from the right-wing phalangist groups. If we can survive the next few months we may be able to unite the other democratic forces, and in particular the nationalities. But we have more hope from the disintegration of the right than from the unity of the left.

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