When the Red Flag Flew Over Iran

In 1920, a Soviet Socialist Republic was established in Iran’s Gilan province. A century later, the short-lived state stands as a powerful reminder of the long-running struggles in the Middle East to defeat both foreign imperialism and domestic oppressors.

Group photo of forest leaders in the province of Gilan, including Mirza Kuchak Khan. (Wikimedia Commons)

For five years, a group of nationalist guerrilla fighters and communists had roamed the forests of Gilan, an Iranian province curving around the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. On June 4, 1920, they entered the regional capital Rasht, proclaiming the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran (SSRI).

“Now this national force,” they told the inhabitants, who welcomed them as liberators, “with the help and assistance of all the humanitarians of the world and with the perseverance of just principles of socialism … has entered the stage of the Red Revolution.”

The revolution, they believed, wasn’t to be limited to Gilan — rather, it would challenge British imperialism and Iran’s collaborationist ruling class in the national capital, Tehran. And indeed for sixteen months, the red flag flew over the region, also casting a shadow over the rest of the country. Yet by October 1921, the central government troops, aided by the British, had managed to quell the Gilan rebellion, and Soviet Russia withdrew its support. These events paved the way for the autocrat Reza Khan, who had earlier that year risen to power through a coup in Tehran; this was the context in which he established the Pahlavi monarchy, which would endure until 1979.

A century since the events of 1920, there are many reasons why it is important to revisit the history of the SSRI. Firstly, it counters the argument that Reza Khan’s dictatorship was the only political option for Iran, since the SSRI represents the struggles from below that could have put the country on a different path. Secondly, it demonstrates the essential role that Iranian revolutionary socialists played in those struggles. Finally, the SSRI’s activity highlights the events and debates that finalized Marxism’s break with the Second International, as they enriched it with the perspective of non-Europeans fighting against colonial and racial injustices.

From Revolution to War

Both the SSRI and Reza Khan’s coup can be considered two different reactions to the failed Constitutional Revolution of 1906–11. This latter had tried to establish popular sovereignty in Iran by subjecting the king to a constitution and a parliament, and by pushing out British and Russian imperialism. The achievements of that revolution were rolled back, however, as internal divisions between radicals and conservatives in the movement intensified — and Britain and Russia joined forces in supporting the reactionary loyalists.

The political crisis that followed the revolution would intensify during World War I; for although Iran was not itself a protagonist in the conflict, it increasingly became a battlefield among the great powers. While Tsarist troops occupied northern Iran, the British occupied the southern regions in order to safeguard the interests of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The scarcity of grains and foodstuffs was largely caused by this foreign occupation and exacerbated by successive droughts. The result was famine in 1917–18 — on top of which Iran was struck by cholera and the Spanish influenza epidemics, which killed one to two million out of a total population of nine million.

The Gilan Province, proclaimed the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran (SSRI).

As Iran became dominated by foreign powers — and the shah went along with them — some former participants of the Constitutional Revolutions drew the conclusion that it was more effective to establish political rights, social reforms, and independence at a regional level — and thus set an example for the rest of the country. This strategy was pursued by Mohammad Khiabani in Azerbaijan, by Mohammad Taqi Khan Pesyan in Khorasan, and — decisively for our story — by Mirza Kuchak Khan (1880–1921) in the Gilan region.

The Jangal Movement

Kuchak Khan studied Islamic theology, though he never actually became a cleric, as Iran’s current leaders often claim. When the Constitutional Revolution started, he played a leading role in the creation of a seminary students’ anjoman (association) and joined the armed defense of peasants’ revolts in Gilan. He rapidly gained a reputation as a pious patriot who was ready to sacrifice his life for Iran’s independence and for social justice. His politics were inspired by anti-colonial pan-Islamism and reformist socialism.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Kuchak Khan launched a guerrilla movement in the forests of the Caspian Sea, the Jangal (Forest) Movement, which gained rapid popularity among the region’s peasants after inflicting several defeats on the Tsarist troops. The Jangal Movement was a regional attempt to revive the principles of the Constitutional Revolution — democracy and independence. Its social demands, however, were very moderate as it tried to gain backing from landlords and notables, making explicit promises to protect private property.

By 1917, the Jangalis had managed to take over parts of Gilan. Russia’s February Revolution disorganized the Tsarist troops in the province and was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the Jangalis, who in return received messages of solidarity from the soldiers’ soviets in the Caucasus. From Petrograd, the Provisional Government’s leader Alexander Kerensky decreed a continued Russian military presence in Iran. But after the October Revolution in Russia, which immediately ended that country’s alliance with London and Paris, the Jangalis and the Bolsheviks found themselves on the same side, in the fight against British imperialism.

On December 2, 1917 the Bolsheviks issued an appeal to the “Muslims of Russia and the East”: “The ground is slipping from under the feet of the imperialist robbers. In the face of these great events, we turn to you, toiling and disinherited Moslems of Russia and the East.”

Such declarations; Leon Trotsky’s revelation of all secret treaties signed by Tsarist Russia and other imperialist powers; and the annulment of the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907 dividing Iran into spheres of influence were all met by great enthusiasm by Iranians. But under British pressure, the Iranian government refused to recognize Soviet Russia.

Indeed, the British took the opportunity to intensify their interventions in Iran, using it as another front to provide support to the anti-communist White Army, which operated in northern Iran. Having suffered several defeats in 1918–19, the Jangal Movement was seriously weakened, and some of its leaders defected, lured by British overtures.

Bolshevik Turn to the East

However, the movement was revived during the summer of 1919, due to two related developments. Firstly, as the revolutionary tide in Europe receded, the Bolsheviks turned their attention increasingly to the East. This was also driven by a simultaneous rise in anti-colonial struggles, the Bolsheviks gaining the upper hand in the Civil War, and the fact that British imperialism was becoming the major threat to the survival of the Russian Revolution. These factors increased the importance of Bolshevik relations with the country so close to the underbelly of the Soviet state.

Bolsheviks who had called for the East in general and Iran in particular to be included in the world revolution now received a growing hearing in Moscow. The execution of the Soviet envoy I. Kolomiitsev in Iran by government troops, and the signing of the Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which turned Iran into a de facto British protectorate, frightened the Bolsheviks. Secondly, these developments fanned nationalist and anti-British sentiments in Iran, invigorated the Jangalis, and increased the sympathy for the Bolsheviks.

It was in this context that the Bolsheviks established contact with Kuchak Khan in July 1919, praising him as “the famous champion of Persian independence.” After reconquering Baku from the Ottoman, British, and White armies in late April 1920, the Bolsheviks chased after the White Army’s General Denikin who fled to the port city Anzali in Gilan.

Taking advantage of the situation, Kuchak Khan demanded that British troops leave Gilan, and the local population welcomed the arrival of the Russian fleet on May 18, 1920. Admiral Raskolnikov made clear, however, that power in Anzali resided with Iran, and the Russian fleet left Iranian waters a week later.

Mirza Kuchak Khan.

Battered by the British military campaign in 1918–19, the Jangalis relied on Soviet support and the hundreds of young Iranian communists. Using his contacts with Iranian nationalists dating back to the Constitutional Revolution, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, head of the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party and an ally of Stalin, facilitated an agreement between the Jangalis and the Iranian Communist Party that lay the foundation for the establishment of the SSRI, although the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow had their doubts about the viability of such a state.

According to this agreement, communism wasn’t to be introduced in Gilan — rather, after the seizure of Tehran a constituent assembly would establish a revolutionary government, and the Soviets wouldn’t interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.

Communists and the SSRI

The Iranian communists who joined forces with the Jangalis were members of the pro-Bolshevik Adalat (Justice) party, which had been formed in 1916 in Baku by the revolutionary members of the Social Democratic Party of Iran (Ferqeh-ye Ejtema‘iyun Amiyun). Both parties drew their strength from the tens of thousands of migrant Iranian workers in the Caucasus, especially the oil workers of Baku.

From mid-1918, Adalat started to establish branches in a dozen or so Iranian cities and recruited thousands into the Iranian Red Army. After joining forces with the Jangalis, the leadership of Adalat convened a congress in Anzali from June 20 to 23, changing the party’s name to Iranian Communist Party (ICP).

The debates at the congress were shaped by two factions. One was led by the Iranian-Armenian revolutionary Avetis Soltanzadeh who was elected first secretary and argued for a socialist revolution, rather than a bourgeois or nationalist one, to be realized through land redistribution, the nationalization of industries, and the establishment of “soviet democracy.”

The other faction led by Haydar Khan Amuoqli, a veteran of the Constitutional Revolution not present at the congress himself, argued that Iran’s predominantly pre-capitalist conditions meant it was on the road to a national revolution and that it wasn’t mature for communism. Therefore, communists should support the bourgeoisie and even landlords if they opposed British imperialism.

The Jangalis were divided, too. Khuchak Khan had socialist leanings but he dreamt of national liberation rather than soviets replacing the rule of landlords and merchants. He was in fact caught between these landlords and merchants who were vehemently anti-Bolshevik, and the left wing of the Jangalis led by Ehsanollah Khan Dustdar. This latter had close ties to Iranian communists and, as commander of the newly established Iranian Red Army, argued for marching with Bolsheviks to Tehran to oust the government.

These ideological differences shaped the program and course of the SSRI. The revolutionary government expelled the British forces and the central government officials, limited the power of the big landlords, merchants and clerics, set up a national bank, and increased taxes, given that the new state lacked any substantial financial sources. It improved education and fought against ethnic and religious discrimination. Its anti-hoarding and anti-monopoly measures protected the population against the food shortages that were plaguing the rest of the country.

But within two months the ICP-Jangali coalition had fractured. The radical faction of the ICP focused on communist propaganda and gaining of influential positions through political maneuvers rather than cultivating a genuine united front with the Jangalis. But especially divisive was the question of agrarian reform, as calls for land redistribution frightened Kuchak Khan’s conservative allies.

There were also reports of some incidents of “unjustified acquisitions, prohibition of private trade, bazaar closures, attacks on the Muslim clergy” by “leftist-minded leaders of the ICP.” Moreover, pro-British publications, landlords, and politicians spread wild rumors about Bolsheviks selling bread made of cut-up straw and glue, aiming to confiscate peasants’ houses, forcing women to remove their veils — and even burying people alive in mosque yards in order to extort money.

Within a month, tensions reached a boiling point. Kuchak Khan left Rasht on July 9, 1920 to reorganize his forces in the forests of Gilan. The ICP and the radical defectors from the Jangalis took power on July 31, 1920, and formed a new revolutionary government, which was severely weakened due to its break with Kuchak Khan. Confronted with financial constraints and the intensifying war with the central government, the SSRI increased taxes that weighed heavily on peasants and artisans.

Haydar Khan Amuoqli.

As part of the Bolsheviks’ turn to the colonial countries, on September 18, 1920, a Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku. The SSRI was much in discussion, and the Iranian delegation was well represented, with 202 out of 2,050 delegates. Amuoqli and his supporters argued that “The break with Kuchak Khan as a representative of the nationally and revolutionary minded classes of Persia” had been a damaging mistake. The presidium of the Action and Propaganda Council elected at the Baku Congress, agreed and issued a resolution critical of the ICP’s example:

Our position in Persia  has been compromised by the ineffective policy proclaiming a ‘socialist republic’ there; … the premature implementation of certain, ostensibly ‘communist’ measures, [which amount] to outright looting, has antagonized the Persian population and reinforced the policy of the shah’s government and the position of the English.

After the Congress, the SSRI was referred to as the “Persian adventure” by the Bolsheviks, and under Lenin’s directions, the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party adopted a resolution calling to end the armed struggle in Gilan “as it no longer was a democratic movement.” At the Baku Congress, Soltanzadeh was marginalized in the ICP, and a second Central Committee under leadership of Amuoqli was elected with the task of rebuilding the coalition with Kuchak Khan.

Fall of the SSRI

As the ICP was making attempts to reconcile with Kuchak Khan, the British took advantage of the situation in order to reorganize Iranian troops. Disappointed with the results of manipulating corrupt Iranian politicians, they sought to promote a Cossack officer, Reza Khan, to rule the country with an iron fist. After his promotion to lieutenant-colonel, Reza Khan led his men to Tehran and captured the capital on June 21, 1921.

As the putschists in Tehran were consolidating their power, the reconciliation between the ICP and Kuchak Khan was announced in Red Iran, the SSRI’s official organ. Noncommunist members were added to the new revolutionary government, which announced that Gilan was to serve as the base for the revolution in Iran, that foreign countries were not allowed to interfere, that Soviet assistance would only be sought in case of emergency, and that peasants were exempted for three years from paying tax.

The SSRI was hampered, however, by continuing internal distrust and infighting. Kuchak Khan became uneasy with Amuoqli’s increasing popularity in the region. More importantly, he attempted to maintain the support of wealthy landlords and merchants and, therefore, opposed Amuoqli’s calls for nationalization of land to gain the support of the majority of the peasant population.

In late September 1921, Amuoqli and his Kurdish ally Khalou Qorban were invited by Kuchak Khan to a meeting to resolve their problems, but an unsuccessful attempt was made on their lives. Using the chaos created by this infighting, Reza Khan’s Cossack Division marched on Gilan. While Amuoqli was on the run, Khalou Qorban and his men defected, and together with Reza Khan’s Cossacks, attacked Kuchak Khan.

On October 15, the capital Rasht fell into the hands of the Cossacks, and Amuoqli was captured and executed by one of Kuchak Khan’s associates, though it remains unclear if he was killed on his orders or not. Encircled by Reza Khan’s troops and allies, Kuchak Khan died of frostbite in the mountains.

Wither the World Revolution

The internal conflicts in the SSRI between communists and nationalists played an important role in its downfall, but British imperialism and Iran’s ruling class of wealthy landowners and merchants were the biggest culprits. But the Soviets’ role shouldn’t be overlooked, either. While Ordzhonikidze and the Bolsheviks in Azerbaijan had supported Amuoqli’s attempt to revive the SSRI in the fall of 1920, under Lenin’s instructions Moscow started a series of negotiations with the British and the Iranian government.

In December 1920, Lenin conceded that it had become necessary for Moscow to “enter into an economic agreement [with Britain] and purchase immediately some of the items which are absolutely necessary and indispensable for developing our transportation system (such as locomotives), revival of our industry, or expansion of our electrical systems.” This resulted in the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement signed in March 1921. And already following Reza Khan’s coup d’état in February 1921, Moscow signed the Friendship Treaty with Iran.

Why such a move? Firstly, this was part of Soviet Russia’s general retreat from the principles of international socialism, as it was forced to move away from an offensive to a defensive posture. The Civil War had devastated the Soviet society and economy, and the hope of a socialist revolution in Europe had evaporated, leaving the state isolated in its fight for survival. Nevertheless, its abandonment of the SSRI is a painful reminder of the early signs of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

Secondly, the SSRI was isolated in Iran in the absence of a modern working class that, even in small numbers, could have led urban struggles and could have formed a united front with peasants. While this perspective existed in China in 1925–27, the reality is that it was unfeasible in Iran’s particular conditions in 1920.

Nevertheless, the SSRI is a reminder of the window of possibilities opened by the October Revolution and its turn to the East. Suddenly, those like the Jangalis and the ICP could envision a very different outcome of their struggles — socialism — that would not only eliminate colonialism and dictatorship, but also the poverty in which the majority of the peasants was living. Very soon, however, revolutionary Russia was fighting for its own survival, with the turn to the East unable to substitute the lifeline it badly needed from the expansion of the revolution to the West.