In December 1970, eighteen young male activists were put on public trial in Tehran for the crime of acting against the Pahlavi monarchy and Iran's national security. Almost a year earlier, they and many more of their friends had been arrested as they attempted to sneak across the border with Iraq and travel to Jordan or Lebanon in order to receive military training in Palestinian camps. At the time of their arrests and most of their trial, they were a nebulous group bound to each other by ties of friendship or acquaintanceship, and a shared belief that the time for armed struggle against the Pahlavi state had arrived. During their trial, they were dubbed the “Group of Eighteen” by the foreign press and eventually the “Palestine Group” by the generation of student activists they inspired, a generation crucial to the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and the revolution's victory in 1979. In 2011, a former activist recalled reading about the trial in a newspaper: “For me, a peasant student newly arrived to [Tehran] University, it was astonishing that someone would so blatantly call their group ‘Palestine’ and also defend Marxism-Leninism openly.”1 But despite having their pictures and words splashed over newspapers, and despite embodying and inspiring student activism against the monarchy and global imperialism, the Palestine Group's presence has faded in the post-1979 historiography,2 not to mention in the historiography of the “long global sixties” of which they were undoubtedly a part.3
The political history of 20th-century Iran is, in one way or another, under the sway of the momentous revolution in 1979 that ended the Pahlavi monarchy (1925–79). At first glance, there is not much of a link between the Palestine Group and the revolution beyond the decision to turn to armed struggle around the time other more successful guerrilla organizations such as the Sazman-i Chirik'ha-yi Fadai-yi Khalq (Guerrilla Organization of the Devotees of the People or Fadaiyan)4 and Sazman-i Mujahidin-i Khalq (the People's Mujahidin Organization or Mujahidin) did. Only a month after the end of the Palestine Group's trial, the Fadaiyan attacked a gendarmerie post in Siahkal in Northern Iran, killing three policemen. Thirteen of their members were eventually executed, thus marking the birth of the guerrilla movement.5 The several hundred guerilla members killed in the following decade—in gun battles, through executions, and under torture—rendered the sham trial of eighteen men in late 1970, none of whom even received the death penalty, insignificant by comparison. As one member of the Palestine Group told me: “Remember, our story is a limited one!”6
In reconstructing the story of the Palestine Group, this article asks: were the historiographical “limits” of the Palestine Group drawn post facto by the tsunami of the revolution in 1979? If we disentangle revolutionary process from revolutionary outcome and understand the importance of the Palestine Group for its own time, what insights can we gain into the revolutionary process itself? Through this approach, this article argues, two facets of prerevolutionary political action in Iran come to light: the centrality of the global anti-imperial/colonial struggles that spread from “Asia to Africa”; and the importance of maḥfilī politics (informal friendship circles) in addition to tashkīlātī (organizational) politics, which the historiography has traditionally emphasized.7 It demonstrates that as resistance shifted from a maḥfil mode to that of tashkīlāt (with the official formation and activities of the Fadaiyan and Mujahidin), it also shifted from the narrative of a global fight where Iran was just one geographic node out of many, to a nationalized one such that by 1979 the struggle was articulated primarily in terms of the overthrow of the shah. Thus, as resistance became more organized and effective, its purview and connections became more limited.
A Note on Sources
This article comes out of a larger book project on the experience of the 1979 revolution that uses anonymous interviews primarily with people who were not well-known political figures.8 The reason for anonymity is twofold: first, it allowed those who had never told their stories to open up; second, for many of the revolutionary generation, the betrayals and wounds of forty to fifty years ago are still keenly felt. Keeping the identity of the interviewees secret not just to readers but to other interviewees was an important part of signaling my impartiality in this process. As a result, the former members of the Palestine Group interviewed and quoted in this article are not named.
Historians of the Iranian Revolution are in an enviable position in that the revolution is both old enough to have produced a vast and rich body of scholarship, memoirs, printed documents, and even three different diaspora oral history archives, and young enough for the revolutionary generation to be, for the most part, alive and in possession of its memory. This generation, some in diaspora, some still in Iran, has been an active agent of its own history: there are many websites, videos, and blogs in Persian where various groups from the entire spectrum of the revolution—Islamists to Communists—are recording their memories and analyses outside the framework of official publications. Thus, while a phenomenon such as the Palestine Group has been mentioned briefly in the scholarship, in “dissident ephemera”9 former members of the group and their contemporaries have been telling and retelling their own versions of its history, thus creating an important, if less conventional, historical source. There is also the added layer of complexity whereby not just the subjects of historical inquiry but also many of its scholars were part of the revolutionary generation. Their own experiences of the revolution and particularly its aftermath shaped and continues to shape their understanding of the revolution's events and processes.10
The story of the Palestine Group is a story of maḥfils, friends and acquaintances, who, like many others of their generation, believed they needed to take action in the struggle against the shah and global imperialism. Unlike more formal organizations, they did not leave behind an official paper trail. What trail there is lies in SAVAK files, newspaper accounts both inside and outside of Iran, opposition pamphlets, memoirs, and memories. The majority of the Pahlavi state documents, such as the SAVAK files, are published inside Iran. As such they are shaped by the censorship concerns of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Outside of Iran, in addition to memoirs and the dissident ephemera, there are at least three oral history archives, two in the United States and one in Germany. How should scholars evaluate the reliability of these disparately produced sources? Are sources produced by the Islamic Republic any more or less reliable than those produced by former revolutionaries whose lives have been upended by the postrevolutionary state? If a source contradicts someone's experience of the event, should it be discarded? Keeping in mind these layers of complexity, this article treats all of its sources, regardless of their conditions of production, carefully and critically as documents of their time, created to preserve a moment and to shape legacies.
The Palestine Group
On the night of 1 January 1970, Masʿud Bathayi, a twenty-seven-year-old pharmacist, and Muhammad Reza Shalgooni, a twenty-four-year-old college student, stood on the banks of the Shatt al-ʿArab, the border of Iran with Iraq, and waited for a smuggler to take them into Iraq from where they were to join their friends in Palestinian training camps.11 Bathayi and Shalgooni had known each other for several years already and had been active in student-organized demonstrations in the mid to late 1960s, particularly those in 1968 to mourn the death of Iran's beloved Olympic gold medalist wrestler Ghulamriza Takhti.12 The success of those demonstrations, in which various segments of society had joined the students in protest, had emboldened them to step up their political activities. But shortly after, Shalgooni, Bathayi, and a number of their friends were picked up by SAVAK as they were photocopying leaflets and put in prison for several months.13 Less than two years after their release, the two stood among the palm trees that lined the border with Iraq convinced that something “needed to be done.”14 They never made it across, their fate sealed by an act of betrayal.
By the late 1960s, several intersecting local, regional, and global factors had led student activists to believe that a new form of activism was needed, one that moved away from previous ideas of reforming the system and towards armed struggle. Increased state repression, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as a vocal critic of the shah and his subsequent exile in 1964, years of disappointment over the failures of reformist nationalist groups such as the National Front to affect change after the CIA-led coup in 1953, and the splintering of leftist groups after the Sino–Soviet split had led younger opposition circles to seek alternative forms of activism, including armed struggle.15 One former member of the Palestine Group described the cause for this spark as “the impotence of the previous generation in liberation from dictatorships,” while another understood it as the narrowing of space for political activity within universities (particularly student strikes), in addition to the exigencies of Marxism-Leninism and the group's inability to persuade workers to join their cause.16 The Confederation of Iranian Students,17 the self-proclaimed representative of Iranian students abroad (with ties to students inside Iran), had stepped up its activities by highlighting human rights abuses committed by the monarchy, creating links with anticolonial figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre18 and organizations such as Amnesty International, and holding rallies in the United States and Europe, most famously during the Shah's visit to Germany in 1967. The confederation, active as it was in the midst of the political upheavals in Europe and North America at that point—Paris 1968, anti-Vietnam protests, the US civil rights movement—served as a key link between student activism inside Iran and out, connecting a local imperative for action to global forms of activism.19 The perfect storm of revolutionary currents from across the world inspired by Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, and Dhufar led them to believe they were not alone neither in their struggle nor in its turn to armed resistance.20
Regionally, the Six Day War in 1967 inspired young Iranians to join others in support of the Palestinians, turning Palestine into a cause that fit perfectly with their own anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles. The shift in the Palestinian struggle away from a national liberation movement to one that “tapped into the transnational culture of Third World liberation” turned it into “a cause célèbre for progressive movements around the world.”21 Practically, this meant that the Palestinian camps were opened to other Third World revolutionaries for political and military training. When I asked about the Palestine Group's motivation to go to these camps, one former member wrote:
In those days, we looked at Israel as an outpost for the US and Palestine as the front fighting it. On the other hand, we understood Palestine as an opportunity to train the young men who had decided to found [sic] a guerrilla warfare as the only way to fight a pro-American regime that did not allow any political activities and tortured any student who was found to have read an article or a book not approved by its security police. Qadhafi in those days, I remember, was gaining a reputation among some Iranian students. The Baath party in Iraq and Syria was also of some interest. I understood the latter's tendencies but didn't like them.22
The path to the Palestinian camps went through Iraq, not only for obvious geographical reasons but also because of the intense rivalry between the two countries that had been set off by the 1958 coup in Iraq. The coup that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy brought into power a republic with a “socialist agenda” and “anti-imperialist policies” that was seen by the Pahlavi state as a threat to its stability. With the Baʿath coup in 1968, things heated up over a host of issues including continued hostility over the Shatt al-ʿArab and Karun rivers that delineated the border between the two countries, Iraqi support for the Dhufar revolution in Oman and the shah's support for Sultan Qabus, and Iran's support for the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion.23
As part of its psychological warfare against the Iranian monarchy, Baʿathist Iraq gave shelter to dissident Iranians of various stripes, including Taymur Bakhtiyar, the former head of SAVAK. Bakhtiyar created SAVAK in 1957 and fell out of favor with the shah in 1961. He made Geneva the base of his operations where he wrote a thirty-page handwritten guide to “the Iranian national revolution.” The guide lays out his definition of revolution (“a swift, hard, and violent rebellion of the people”), its goals and principles, and details the shape of the postrevolutionary state.24 In 1968, Bakhtiyar went to Iraq, but not before making a stop in Lebanon where the shah demanded he be extradited to Iran. When President Helou refused, the shah “broke off its diplomatic ties in April 1969.”25 Several volumes of SAVAK documents reveal the close attention paid to Bakhtiyar's activities during this period, which included receiving and encouraging various types of opposition figures from Iran—tribal, ethnic, and political—and sending back over the border antishah publications, leaflets, and pamphlets.26
The Iraqis encouraged the gathering of the dispersed Iranian opposition under the wing of Bakhtiyar even though much of it was futile: there was not much of a chance that the former head of the detested SAVAK could unite Iran's increasingly young and radicalized oppositional landscape. Bakhtiyar was not the only exiled Iranian opposition figure in Iraq. Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini had been in Najaf since 1965 and was known to receive visitors and pilgrims coming from Iran. There is no indication that the two ever combined their efforts though they were most likely aware of each other's activities. Mahmud Rafiʿ remembers that during a visit with Khomeini in Najaf members of the Confederation of Iranian Students told him they were going to Baghdad to give interviews to newspapers and deny the Iranian government's accusations that the confederation had been cooperating with Bakhtiyar. Rafiʿi claims that Khomeini responded by saying: “Still, this man [Bakhtiyar] is fighting against this boy [the shah].”27
By the late 1960s, various opposition groups had already established a presence in Iraq and sent men to Palestinian camps.28 But the Palestine Group's decision to do the same was not unanimous. Some believed more work needed to be done inside Iran while others believed the time was right to go abroad.29 Months before Bathayi and Shalgooni's arrest, four of their acquaintances, Abbas Saberi, Ahmad Sabouri, Rizvanullah Jaʿfari, and Firaydun Najafzadih, had already crossed into Iraq and been received by the Iraqi government. The four had left Iran in a hurry because they believed Najafzadih posed a risk both to himself and to others around him. By one account, he had been arrested for stealing a photocopy machine to use for political purposes. In prison, he had unwittingly given a phone number to a snitch and told him to tell his friends that he had not talked in prison. The snitch handed the number over to SAVAK and as a result activists were arrested and a rumor circulated that he had betrayed them. “He was on the run in Tehran and didn't have a place to sleep.” This sped up the decision to go to Iraq.30
Once in Iraq, contacting Palestinian groups was more difficult than they thought:
To the best of my knowledge, we did not make any contacts with any such groups [Palestinian] during my stay in Iraq. We had several meetings with a group of Baʿath Party officials headed by Saddam Hussein, at that time a deputy to President Albakr. We were told that they had a military base near Bagdad [sic] to train volunteers for guerrilla warfare in Palestine and that they could give such training to our friends at the very same base and that we didn't have to go to Palestine for such trainings, which sounded logical to us all. At the meeting with Bakhtiar, we learned that they had already trained some Arabs from Southern Iran and very likely some Baluchis from Iran at the same military base. Our plans were changing; we were thinking of bringing our friends to Iraq to ask them to be trained there and stay there.31
None of this was known by the others in Iran, where “the pressure to engage in armed struggle was high”32 and where the plans to cross the border were happening faster than anyone expected. The initial route was from Dizful, over one hundred kilometers from the border, thus increasing their chances of getting caught. According to one interviewee, Husayn Tajmir Riyahi, a teacher in Dizful, asked one of his students, Akbar Fayzi, to find a different route into Iraq. Fayzi found a smuggler to help him go through Shalamchih, near Khurramshahr, and sent Riyahi a letter saying he had made it to Iraq and contacted the Palestinians who had offered them support.33
Unbeknownst to all, Fayzi had been picked up by SAVAK and had been cooperating with them: the letter to Riyahi and the smuggler were all part of a SAVAK trap. Bathayi, Shalgooni, and the others who came to the border over the next several days were all arrested before they could alert the others. One interviewee tells of hiding among the palm trees with the smuggler, who asked him “would you talk if arrested?” right before they were surrounded by men with machine guns.34 SAVAK thus picked up eleven men on the border, and in the weeks that followed many more were rounded up in their homes and on the streets of Tehran.35 Among those arrested was Ahmad Sabouri who had earlier returned to Iran to let the rest know that the first quartet had made it.
Throughout, Riyahi remained convinced that the group had safely joined the camps but was unable to make contact. On the day he and two others were about to take the Shalamchih route and join their comrades, the political atmosphere in Khurramshahr became tense enough that they decided to leave early through Dizful and use another smuggler. The three made it over only to realize that no one else had.36 Those arrested at the border were first taken to prison in Khurramshahr, where interrogations immediately began. They were then transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran “without knowing anything about the arrest of the others.”37 A student who had been arrested in Khurramshahr in 1971 remembered being taken to a cell in SAVAK headquarters where he saw “writings on the cell wall made by the Palestine Group.”38
By this point in the story, there is still no Palestine Group to speak of. Those arrested were part of intersecting activist networks of friendship whose links to the idea of receiving “political and military training” outside of Iran became more tenuous as the radius of arrests expanded. What eventually constituted the Palestine Group was SAVAK's decision to put eighteen of the accused on public trial (the trial of eleven others was not public) and the unintended consequences of that decision.
On 23 December 1970, the front page of Ittila ʿat (Information) newspaper was taken over by sensational titles that told of a violent conspiratorial plot hatched by Baktiyar in Iraq to destabilize Iran. The newspaper devoted several days and many pages to this conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, which included Bakhtiyar's creation of sleeper cell “terror” networks that had been sent into Iran armed with weaponry, the arrest of those cells, and claims by the Iraqi government that it had no idea this was going on.39 This despite the fact that Bakhtiyar had been dead for four months (believed to have been assassinated by SAVAK) and the conspiracy the newspaper was salivating over was more than a year old. Nonetheless, the story kept growing, eventually linking Bakhtiyar's plot to both the “disbanded Tudeh party”40 and the Confederation of Iranian Students.
On 29 December 1970, on the front page under news of Pele's retirement from soccer, a large headline appeared about the trial of eighteen men in military court. The readers were thus introduced to the photos, names, age, and occupations of eighteen young men who were on their fifth day of trial for being part of Bakhtiyar's “subversive network.” The first six accused, Ahmad Sabouri, Nasser Kakhsaz, Masʿud Bathayi, Shokrollah Paknejad, ʿAbdallah Fazili, and Hashim Sagvand (according to the court, the latter two were farmers who were accused of being hired smugglers) were faced with a life sentence with hard labor based on article two of Activity Against the Internal Security and Independence of the Country. The next twelve faced three to five years for being sympathizers or members of a group whose “platform or actions included opposition to the constitutional monarchy or whose platform or actions were socialist.”41
The newspaper focused on two aspects of the trial: that the accused denied having had any relationship with Bakhtiyar and that they were not communists, i.e., members of the Tudeh party, stories that had been set up earlier as a way of framing the public trial. There were also fascinating details: Paknejad noted that he had “political conversation” (su ḥbat) with Bathayi, but didn't agree with Kakhsaz because “he was religious.” It was also revealed that Sabouri, despite being accused number one (i.e., ranked highest in terms of severity of crime) would be given the least severe sentence due to his cooperation with the authorities and repentance (he confessed on television in what was sarcastically dubbed “the SAVAK show”). Pictures of the accused once again lined the top and left-hand side of the page with their sentences, which ranged from three years to life.42
Sixteen days later, the black-and-white photos reappeared, this time as part of the group's appeal. On the first day, the newspapers noted that Paknejad had objected to the legitimacy of the court itself, an objection echoed by several others. His primary objection had been that if their crimes were political, then legally they needed to be tried in an open court that allowed for the presence of a jury, friends, family, members of the public, and the press. But if their crimes were not political, then why was a military court trying them? The court announced a recess to discuss his objections, only to conclude that they were baseless.43
On the second day, the accused raised Palestine as part of the defense, connecting the group publically for the first time with what would become their moniker. Several of the accused explained that they were being smuggled into Iraq to get to the Palestinian camps as their goal was ultimately to help the Palestinian people. The other daily newspaper, Kayhan (The Cosmos), also devoted most of its third day of coverage to this issue, explicitly noting on its front page that the accused had connected themselves to Palestine and specifically Fatah.44 This may seem like an odd confession rather than a defense but it is important to keep in mind that the accusations brought against them were that they were part of Bakhtiyar's conspiracy network and connected to the Tudeh party. Emphasizing their goal—Iraq as a transition point to the Palestinian camps—worked to undermine the political role the trial had attempted to carve for them.45 Paknejad reiterated this point on the third day: “Our only intention was to pass through Iraq and we had no other goal.”46 In doing so, Paknejad and the others are holding up the idea of joining the Palestinian cause as a legitimate and legal act, in contrast to the trumped-up charges that they were endangering Iran's national security by going to Iraq, meeting Bakhtiyar, and cooperating with the Tudeh.
The third day of the trial proved to be sensational for another reason: the group's public declaration of their “Marxist-Leninist” beliefs. The newspapers wrote that first Bathayi read his five-page defense, saying that “meeting with Bakhtiyar and his agents was never and under no circumstance something we approved of … I'm not a communist and do not have the characteristics of a communist either. I'm a follower of Marxism-Leninism and believe in its slogans because it is this ideology that will be the savior of humanity.” Then, emphasizing Palestine as their destination, Paknejad continued: “We were arrested in January and February of last year and not spring and summer of this year. I have to say that you can't connect this group to the Tudeh party or Bakhtiyar because none of us are communists. We are followers of Marxism-Leninism.”47 This distinction between communists and Marxist-Leninists (which was reproduced by several of my interviewees in 2014 and 2015) was not only used to deny the official charge that they were members of the Tudeh/communist party. It was also a public rejection of the older generation's leftist ideology and the younger generation's embrace of Chinese and Cuban revolutionary models. In reading through the censored transcripts of the trial, one is left with the impression that SAVAK's attempt to fold these young men into the Bakhtiyar/Tudeh conspiracy would have narrowed the stage on which they defined their battles. Their defense was thus not only to deny having ever met Bakhtiyar or explain that their Marxism-Leninism was, in the aftermath of the Sino–Soviet split, laughably incompatible with that of the Soviet-supported Tudeh. It was also to continuously repeat that their goal was to go to Palestine and, in doing so, to reiterate the ways in which their national struggle against the shah was inextricably linked to a global anti-imperial one.
Before the final sentences were announced, the prosecutor asked the military judge for leniency, noting that some of the defendants had expressed regrets and that some “are intellectuals and students, and the country's assets [sarmāyih].”48 The court upheld the life sentences of Bathayi, Kakhsaz, and Paknejad, reduced the sentences of the others, and increased Shalgooni's sentence. Along with their names and pictures, the verdict filled up the pages of the newspapers. Upon receiving their sentences, the group burst into “The Internationale.”49
Starting in the summer of 1970, due to the efforts of the Confederation of Iranian Students, news of the arrests of some of the members of the Palestine Group had reached the outside world. On 4 August 1970, Le Monde published a “note” sent to them by “the Iranian Political Prisoners Committee” that drew attention to “the news of the repressions” coming from Iran, including the fact that no one had heard from “Chokrolah Paknejad, Nasser Rahimkhani, and Sabouri” since their arrest in February. The article stated that the committee included a series of international figures, chief among them Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.50 On 13 August, The Guardian ran an article about eleven students “wearing black masks to conceal their identities” who began a forty-eight-hour long hunger strike in London to protest the “torture and killing of political prisoners in Iran.” It continues, “the confederation [of Iranian Students] is particularly concerned about the fate of … 45 young Iranians arrested some months ago who the confederation believes will be tried shortly,” naming “a Mr. Justice Kakhaz [sic]” as having been blinded in one eye. In a nod to the internationalization of this cause, the article ends by stating that a petition sent to the Iranian embassy in London had been signed by “members of 20 British unions.”51
In October 1970 Amnesty International sent Hans Heinz Heldmann to monitor the situation of political prisoners in Iran. Heldmann left Iran after ten days when his interpreter, an Iranian student studying in Germany, was arrested and accused of being a member of the confederation.52 In December, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Heldmann claimed Iran had tortured political prisoners.53 On 20 January 1971, quoting an Agence France Press report from Tehran, the newspaper revealed that Paknejad had said in court that he had been tortured for ten days during the prior year, and had reiterated that the only intention of the accused men “had been to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.”54 On 21 January, Thierry Mignon from the International Federation on Human Rights was sent to Tehran expressly to act as “a judicial observer of the appeal process of a group known as ‘the Group of Eighteen.’”55
The day after the sentences were handed out, in a long press conference that included both foreign and domestic journalists, the shah mocked Paknejad for supporting the Palestinians (“[he says] I'm in love with the Palestinian guerillas and I want to go be with them”) and lashed out against “that foreigner who's always wanted to write so-called sensationalist articles … those foreigners, those members of the confederation, those foreign lawyers who come here as observers,” clearly targeting people like Mignon. But more importantly, he revealed to the public what the domestic press had until then censored in their reports, namely that Paknejad had made accusations of torture:
They've taught you to say “they've tortured us” … You've been sentenced. Aren't you scared that from now until the day you die they'll torture you every day? If they were going to torture you, from now until you die, you can be tortured every day, you're never going to be released and in prison no one is going to see you.56
As it turns out, Paknejad had written down the text he read out in court on thin cigarette paper and given it to Yusef Alyari who by some accounts swallowed it and by another stuffed it into a toothpaste tube57 and smuggled it out of prison upon his release. His lengthy defense, which included descriptions of his torture, soon spilled out of the censored version of the Iranian dailies and the words of a careless monarch and into the streets of Iran. From there, it spread like wildfire.58
The intersecting activist circles that the accused had been a part of before the trial kicked in after their arrests, and as a result the defense was copied and distributed particularly in poor areas of southern Tehran and within the already established illegal book networks of the student activists.59 It was translated into English by the Confederation of Iranian Students and became a well-known text that worked to connect the struggle in Iran with the Palestinian and other global struggles. It was printed in Sartre's Les Temps Modernes as an example of Iran's anticolonial struggle60 and partially reprinted in Der Spiegel as part of the German newspaper's coverage of the Trial of Eighteen.61 Anecdotal evidence suggests that the text of the statement was read out over Radio Baghdad's Persian program, for which Riyahi, the teacher who had set up the operation that had inadvertently ensnared his friends, worked. Several sources indicate that the regime made it a crime to be in possession of Paknejad's defense statement, an offense that carried a two-year prison sentence.62
A Global Revolution
In court, Paknejad had indeed talked about his and his companions’ torture in detail. He said he had been arrested on 10 January 1970 and taken to the SAVAK branch in Khurramshahr where he was “beaten severely” by three interrogators and then taken to the police headquarters of Abadan. There he spent a week in the toilet,
with one meal per day, without any clothing, and had one blanket to keep me warm. On the 8th day, I was transported, in a Landrover of the SAVAK, to Teheran's Evin prison … Two agents named Reza Atapour and Beiglari … beat me up very badly over an hour's time. Then they made me sit behind a table and demanded that I write that I was a communist, and was engaged in spying. As I refused, on the order of Atapour, two enlisted men entered and laid me on the ground … [they] slashed me on the back with a whip for over three hours, continuously; they would take turns to rest. My body turned violet, my back was bleeding, and I lost consciousness twice.63
The description continues for another two pages. But while the details of torture were what stood out for newspapers such as Le Monde and Der Spiegel, it was the “clarion call” nature of his lengthy oratory that left its marks on the students. Paknejad's defense established the bona fides of the Palestine Group as an inspiration for that generation of activists and cemented their place in the larger global struggle against colonialism.
Paknejad begins his speech by carefully appealing to various sections of the Iranian penal code to question the legitimacy of the court itself, calling what he does “an independent and lawyerly defense.”64 He then delves into a history of British imperialism in Iran, the 1953 coup that toppled Musaddiq, and the shah's White Revolution (which took on the mantle of both reform and revolution seemingly as a way of neutralizing leftist demands).65 He “personally accepts [the charge] that my goal was to gather experience so as to return to Iran, at the right time, ‘with full military preparation.’”66 His speech connects the Palestine Group's struggle to that of the Iranian people, to those under the yoke of capitalism and the “comprador-bourgeoisie,” to the fight against imperialist aggressors in Vietnam, Palestine, Indonesia, Greece, South Africa and Rhodesia, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, and Cambodia.67
In doing so, Paknejad linked their struggle with a wider one: “In fact the Iranian ruling elite is putting on trial the solidarity of our people and that of the world with the people of Palestine, a solidarity for the liberation of that country from under the yoke of imperialism and Zionism.”68 He uses this connection as a form of defense, proclaiming that,
no doubt, it must be mentioned that the intention of having wanted to give a helping hand to the Palestinians is a part of our anti-imperialist thinking and in fact our real motive was to fight against imperialism and Zionism. Imperialism has brought oppression not only to the Palestinians, but also to our people and a large number of other peoples of the world.69
These are “the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America,”70 and especially Vietnam, where “the means of living, the food supplies, the forms, and the houses of innocent people, and in short, any signs of life are destroyed by the imperialists’ napalm.”71 The defense ends on a rousing note for the internal struggle:
Despite all this inhumane pressure, despite the savage behavior of SAVAK agents, despite the regime of terror and suffocation, despite the attempts of the tyrannical system to destroy any voice of freedom [āzādī khvāhī], the struggle of the people of Iran to achieve freedom, to break the shackles of slavery, to cut the hand of Western imperialists and their Iranian puppets continues and this struggle will continue until the final victory.72
The power of the Palestine Group and Paknejad's words, for those who read and were inspired by them, comes precisely from their “typicality” and deep familiarity. For anyone aware of the left-inspired discourse of anti-imperialism in the 1960s either in Iran or around the world, Paknejad's oratory does not have anything new to offer. The notion of a global struggle that spanned North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that counted the Palestinian and the Vietnamese struggles as their standard bearers, was ubiquitous at the time and may explain why this segment of his speech was constantly overlooked by the Western press. But this oversight ignores the fact that for a clarion call to work, it needs to have been heard before. As such, the Palestine Group's trial conveyed to the burgeoning Iranian struggle a sense of belonging to a larger stage and of being conversant in the language of global revolution. The publication of Paknejad's defense several months later in Les Temps Modernes worked to confirm that the Iranian movement had not only arrived but that it too was global.
Ironically, what gave the Palestine Group its resonance is also partly responsible for its historiographic marginalization. Rather than engage with the Iranian revolution as one of the few successful culminations of the revolutionary dreams of the 1960s, the historiography of 20th-century revolutions often relegates it to the story of the beginnings of a global Islamic movement or, relatedly, the ways in which yet another third world revolution did not create a “pluralistic democracy.” As a result, the “exceptionalism” of the Iranian revolution (i.e., the Islamic nature of the political language that preceded and followed it) has been emphasized and re-emphasized while its “typicality” in terms of global ideas of resistance, struggle, and social justice as a force for mobilization (and the networks it worked within) has been de-emphasized. The Iranian revolution was, of course, multifaceted: it was uniquely Iranian, its protests at times set to the rhythms of Shiʿi mourning rituals and eventually led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and also the culmination of decades of activism that by the late 1960s squarely placed itself in the context of the left-inspired radical protests that spanned much of the globe. These facets of the revolution not only existed side by side during the decades preceding the revolution, at times they were one and the same. In the period under examination in this article, the dominant, if not only, notion of revolution was the Marxist-inspired anti-imperial one into which the Palestine Group, Paknejad, and their generation of Iranian activists inserted themselves. There was still no bifurcation of revolution into “Islamic” and “Leftist.” Thus, Paknejad could say in his defense that he was no longer a religious person, that he was committed to Marxism-Leninism, and mention “His Eminence [ḥażrat] Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the world's Shiʿi,”73 as one of several examples of the victims of the shah's military without evoking confusion in his audience: they were all part of the coming revolution.74
Politics as Friendship
When it appears in the revolution's historiography, the Palestine Group serves as a precursor to the story of the guerrilla movement and is portrayed as a group that got nowhere: “They did not have any clear strategy except that they believed in armed struggle.”75 Bijan Jazani's 1974 description of the Palestine Group is the oft-quoted source for many such evaluations.76 Jazani was one of the theoreticians of armed struggle in Iran and spent much of the 1960s and the first part of the 1970s in prison before being shot to death along with eight others. Written during his last stint in prison, Jazani's book is an attempt to create a coherent narrative of the various and disparate opposition groups and is partly based on information he gathered from other political prisoners. His time in prison intersected with that of the Palestine Group and as such his two-page description of them is one of the first comprehensive attempts to narrate their arrests, trial, and place in “the struggle.” The Palestine Group, Jazani says, were “a Marxist group that believed in armed struggle [rāh-i qahr āmīz] and attempted to implement that in Iran.”77
What is notable in Jazani's categorization of the Palestine Group is his use of the word maḥfil to describe them. This usage contains a crucial aspect of revolutionary history, namely the centrality of nonorganizational political activity. Maḥfil kept recurring in my interviews with former leftist activists and appears abundantly in their various writings. I noticed that there was an unspoken dichotomy between maḥfil and tashkīlāt (organization), with the former meaning a gathering or a society (anjuman), often with a literary or intellectual connotation, while the latter generally referred to formal political groups from the Tudeh to the Fadai. For example, when I asked my interviewees whether they were tashkīlātī, they saw it as pigeonholing them into a particular political current. To them, tashkīlātī did not mean just being sympathetic, or even active, within an organization, but being part and parcel of it, bound by its beliefs, actions, and leadership, and conversely, responsible for its actions.
M aḥfil was something more amorphous. A maḥfil conveyed a group of like-minded friends whose main activity ranged from reading (often-illegal) books and discussing them, to copying these books and distributing them in secret,78 to organizing protests like the ones around the death of Takhti in 1968. The clue for its prerevolutionary activist usage lies in the Russian kruzhok. Kruzhok was “a fundamental institution of intellectual social organization as well as a significant social node for networking and patronage among pre-Revolutionary and early Soviet intellectuals.”79 In Russian historiography, kruzhoks are seen as the basis for the formation of the Social Democratic Party and their prerevolutionary patronage links formed an important part of the state–intelligentsia relationship in the early Soviet years.80 The connection between the Russian kruzhoks and the Persian maḥfils is not coincidental. In 1944, Baqir Imami founded what he called krūzhuk-hā-yi mārksīstī, or Marxist kruzhoks. These were educational classes in Marxism-Leninism that focused on topics such as the history of socialism in Europe and the Russian Revolution. The goal was to use these kruzhoks in ways that Imami believed had been used in Russia: to lay the foundation for the revolution.81
The maḥfils of most activists were not as directly connected to Russian history as Imami's but were nonetheless a crucial part of their political activism. In an interview, a former activist mentioned a maḥfil of book-reading leftists “where news was exchanged.”82 In his memoirs, Albert Sorabiyan, who joined Imami's kruzhoks early on, talks about being active in “Marxist” maḥfils with Maoist tendencies in later decades.83 Another former member of the Fadai begins his article on the formation of student activism in the late 1960s by focusing on the importance of the 1967 “maḥfil of the economics department at Tehran University.”84 Another, referencing the same maḥfil and his decision to join a guerrilla organization, writes: “we were an inexperienced maḥfil that had somehow accidentally joined a tashkīlāt about whose grandeur we had heard stories.”85 And the list goes on.
Perusing memoirs and texts by leftist revolutionaries, one notices the link between maḥfil and what is consistently referred to as ṣinfī-sīyāsī activities among the students. While ṣinf is generally understood to be a “guild,” in the context of prerevolutionary student activities it referred to groups in universities organized around shared interests such as films, books, or hiking that at times acted as a cover for political discussions. Calling them ṣinfī-sīyāsī underscored that the gathering had political purposes (sīyāsī). In this sense, Karimi remembers, “until the announcement of the existence of Sazman-i Chirikha-yi Fadai-yi Khalq in Bahman 1349 [February 1971] the inclinations in our maḥfil were ṣinfī-sīyāsī.”86
In Jazani's narrative of the Palestine Group, both maḥfil and ṣinfī-sīyāsī make important appearances. He begins by describing the Palestine Group as “mainly students who after 1963 turned towards the movement [i.e., armed struggle] and became active through ṣinfı̄ -sı̄yāsı̄ activities.”87 They consisted of three currents: the first were those who came out of student movements between 1950 (the Musaddiq era) and 1963 (the White Revolution), and who had “maḥfilī relations with each other.”88 They included Paknejad, Riyahi, Jaʿfari, Bathayi, Kakhsaz, and Behrouz Sotoodeh, who had crossed over with Riyahi. The second current was mostly the Azerbaijani maḥfil that “studied Marxist” texts, some of whose members had also attended a Quran exegesis school in Tabriz in their youth.89 Accused numbers seven, nine, and fourteen, Hedayatollah Sultanzadeh, Shalgooni, and Ibrahim Anzabi, belonged to this current. The third current included accused numbers one, eight, eleven, and fifteen, Sabouri, ʿAbd al-Riza Navvab, Salamat Ranjbar, and Siyyid Muhammad Muʿazziz.90 Jazani's decscription of them is the broadest and best demonstrates the usefulness of maḥfil not just for the Palestine Group but also for many others at the time (including Jazani's circle, which was and continues to be known as “the Jazani Group”). This current consisted of a maḥfil “that studied theory and was also active in university ṣinfī activities.” Jazani's final assessment is that “the [Palestine] group's direction … was neither unified nor homogenous and the three maḥfils and currents more or less retained their inclinations within the group.”91
The issue here is not that the distinction between maḥfil and tashkīlāt is unknown but rather that in the revolution's historiography maḥfil as a unit of political action is yet to be defined and its role understood, and that tashkīlāt remains dominant as its unit of analysis. Thus, groups of activists that were not in tashkīlāts are characterized as either “disorganized cells”92 and/or as lacking a clear theory or strategy. But the fact that organizational activity became visible (e.g., in bank robberies, arrests, and assassinations) does not mean that maḥfilī activities went away. As noted by Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, “the fact that maḥfilī groups allowed a certain degree of ideological flexibility/plurality is a significant element through which one can make sense of the ambiguity of the revolutionary movement.”93 In other words, as the 1970s progressed, organizational activities seemed to overlay but not replace maḥfilī ones. The undercurrent of maḥfil as a flexible form of political action allows us to deepen our understanding of the later stages of the revolution when seemingly incongruous currents such as Islamists, religious-nationalists, Islamist-Marxists, secular-nationalists, and secular Marxists came together to form the revolutionary crowds.
Maḥfilī politics also allowed a certain level of deniability that was crucial in the repressive atmosphere of 1960s and 1970s Iran. The Palestine Group defendants used their friendship links as a form of defense against the charges. Sultanzadeh noted in his defense that he had been friends with Shalgooni and Anzabi for years and was roommates with accused number six, Davud Sulhdust. “These acquaintanceships should not be seen as group activity,” he argued.94 Accused number seventeen, Farhad Ashrafi, returned to this issue to say “my crime is that … based on feelings of friendship, I lent some money to Masʿud Bathayi.”95 Paknejad's defense was partly that he had friendly relations with Kakhsaz and Bathayi.96 In his appeal he noted that “some of the accused are stuck in this trial for being guilty of knowing each other. Mr. Kakhsaz's guilt is knowing Bathayi, Ashrafi, and myself. And some are sitting here because they were classmates with each other, and Farhad Ashrafi is here because he lent Bathayi 7000 tomans.”97 Importantly, the last words of Paknejad's defense were about the broken ties of friendship: “Ahmad Sabouri has committed treason; Farhad Ashrafi and [Iraj] ʿAtiqi have shown weakness.”98 Part of what allowed them to use friendship as a defense was the bind in which the monarchy and SAVAK found themselves as they constructed its case against the Palestine Group. For the trial to make sense, the state's case needed to focus on the group's cooperation with established, and thus tangible, organizations such as Tudeh or the confederation. Imagine if the headlines leading up to the trial had been “group of friends go to border with Iraq. Get arrested.”
In a way, once the trial ended so did the Palestine Group. Over the course of the 1970s, those who had received lighter sentences were released and the rest were let out with the mass release of political prisoners in the fall and winter of 1978. In prison, members of the group fell back on their friendship lines or reoriented towards existing organizations. A SAVAK report from 1974 mentioned the “Paknejad group” as an active clique in Qasr prison. Among his fellow defendants, only Kakhsaz is mentioned as part of his “clique.” The report mentions another group “not affiliated with any one person” that was “considerably active against Jazani, Paknejad, and the Mujahidin.” This group contained at least three names from the Palestine Group trial.99
Many of the former members are dispersed throughout Europe and the United States. Some are still politically active, writing and speaking on various diaspora forums. Some refer to their past as members of the Palestine Group, others actively avoid talking about it even though they are known to have been part of that history. Ahmad Sabouri, who had gotten a lesser sentence for cooperating with SAVAK, is currently a translator in Iran. Masʿud Bathayi was revealed to have cooperated with SAVAK while in prison. Shunned by his former comrades, he died in France.100 Husayn Tajmir Riyahi joined the US-based Organization of Revolutionary Communists and in 1975 became a founding member of the League of Iranian Communists.101 He returned to Iran around the time of the revolution and became part of a Maoist group that took up arms against the Islamic Republic. He was arrested and in a televised trial “repented” for his actions against the postrevolutionary state.102 He was executed in 1983.
Paknejad became the most famous member of the group to the point of eclipsing the Palestine Group's historical significance. While their story became a “limited” one, his stature grew in prison (where, as noted earlier, he grew close to the Mujahidin, which to this day celebrates him as one of their own103) and then in postrevolutionary Iran. His release in January 1979 was singled out in the newspaper subheading announcing the release of sixty-five prisoners.104 Along with Hedayatollah Matin-Daftari (Musaddiq's grandson), he founded the National Democratic Front, which adopted a liberal oppositional stance towards the consolidation of power by the Khomeini-led forces, including boycotting the March 1979 referendum and accusing Khomeini of creating a dictatorship by June 1979. He too was executed in 1981.105
In Arabia without Sultans, written in the early 1970s, Fred Halliday “sought to relate global and regional themes of the times to an analysis of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.”106 The section on Iran lays out the landscape of the newly born guerrilla movement, made up of “many distinct small groups.”107 Halliday begins with the Siahkal attack in 1971 but he also singles out the Palestine Group, noting that “they had been arrested in December 1970” and that “at their trial one the of their members, Shokrollah Paknejad, described the political position he represented. ‘I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I am proud of my way of thinking,’ he said.”108 Halliday's inclusion of the Palestine Group in the oppositional landscape reflects how their words and actions seamlessly fit into “global and regional themes,” and how it held such promise for their time. And though he misstated the date of their arrests—it was not December 1970 but January 1970—his mistake demonstrates how the trial itself had become the moment of the Palestine Group's birth.
It is Halliday who also best demonstrates the erasure of the Palestine Group from historical memory. In 1982, he published an interview with Paknejad calling him “one of the most prominent and far-sighted of modern Iranian socialists.” Halliday noted that “in 1969, on his [Paknejad] way to get training abroad, he was arrested,” and highlighted Paknejad's relationships to “Masud Rajavi of the Mujahedin” and “Bijan Jazani of the Fedayi.”109 In the interview, when Halliday asks him about his turn to “guerilla action,” Paknejad says:
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 Masud 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 Siahkal in February 1971. I tried to leave the country to get training but got 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.110
Three years after the revolution, neither Halliday nor Paknejad bring up the Palestine Group.