The Ayatollah in the Moon: On Class Power and Dynamics in Islamist Iran
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was one of the great democratic events of the twentieth century. In terms of numbers alone, it was one of the largest revolutions in contemporary history, with about 10% of the population taking place. It put to an end over 2500 years of monarchical rule, and promised the establishment of a revolutionary democratic republic. But the subsequent theocratic counterrevolution with its brutal repression, continues to mystify many, including Iranians themselves. Much of this mystification is deliberate; both the theocratic regime and the scions of American imperialist foreign policy derive their legitimacy from the obfuscation of the revolution’s origins, and the true nature of the regime in Tehran. Those overly focused on the regime’s theocratic characteristic miss what it aims to conceal; the brutally exploitative rule of the Iranian bourgeoisie. However, those on the left who completely dismiss the theocratic element in favor of total class reductionism are also missing the big picture. The Iranian bourgeoisie did not “choose” theocracy on a whim; the establishment of the Islamist regime was the result of Iran’s 20th century political and economic development. What follows is an explanation of how the Iranian bourgeoisie arrived at this point, as well as its contemporary internal divisions, and what these mean for the future of the revolutionary left in the country.
The Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was one of the first great revolutions of the twentieth century. At the time, the Iranian bourgeoisie was weak, concentrated in the urban centers of the country, and heavily dependent on the British Empire, which controlled Iran’s oil wealth, and benefitted from unequal economic treaties. The majority of the country remained under a moribund feudal rule, mired in corruption and poverty, supporting a decadent aristocracy. During this period the first political parties and societies were formed by the embryonic nationalist bourgeoisie, which, taking inspiration from Europe, aimed to establish a constitutional and democratic state, and liberation from foreign control over the economy. After 12,000 revolutionaries camped out in the gardens of the British Embassy, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar agreed to allow the election of a parliament. This parliament, elected by universal male suffrage, declared itself a constituent assembly, and promulgated a constitution. But the death of the Shah the following year led to an attempted counter-revolution by the nobility with British and Russian backing, culminating in the shelling of the parliament in 1908 by the Russian army. In 1909, the revolutionaries re-took Tehran and re-established the constitution.
This first democratic period was undermined by chronic instability, and the weakness of the national bourgeoisie. Iran remained under the foot of British imperialism and the collaborationist bourgeoisie. Mirza Kuchik Khan, a veteran of the 1906 revolution, launched a new uprising in 1914 centered in Gilan Province, which aimed at a complete overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of a secular and democratic republic. Backed by the Soviets, he established in 1920 the Persian Socialist Soviet Republic. But Khan’s refusal to enact more radical reforms led to a split between his faction and the Persian Communist Party. Despite this, the revolutionaries were prepared to march on Tehran and solidify their rule.
Before we move on to the rule of Reza Pahlavi, it’s important to note here the defining weakness of these early revolutionary movements. They were not mass revolutionary movements. As already noted, Iran was still a predominately feudal society. The bourgeois democratic revolution remained impossible to complete in a society with such a small and fractured bourgeoisie. And the proletariat, the class needed for the socialist revolution, was even more barely existent. Furthermore, Iran was a highly decentralized state, with a stratified peasantry. Any unity on that front would have been difficult to achieve as well.
The British, frightened by the prospect of a socialist Iran, convinced the leader of the Persian Cossack Brigade, Reza Pahlavi, to launch a coup d’état, force the parliament to make him Prime Minister, and crush the rebellion. Unable to overcome its internal divisions, the Republic’s forces were crushed. Originally, Pahlavi had planned to establish a republic of his own, inspired by the Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A coalition between the Socialist Party and the Revival Party won the 1923 elections, with the Socialist Party supporting Pahlavi’s republican program. However, the clergy and the British convinced him to drop his plans for a republic and to crown himself Shah instead. The reality was that Reza Pahlavi was a political hack; the new face for the continued rule of the comprador bourgeoisie. He had no real guiding program and ideology aside from whatever best served his backers. The Socialist Party which had initially supported him, moved into opposition and found itself smashed by his newly-established police state. While not a fascist himself, he did take some inspiration from Mussolini’s regime; aping his militarism, personality cult, and single-party rule. Most of his rule rested on a vague program of modernization, nationalism, and anti-clericalism. What Pahlavi did manage to accomplish was the modernization and centralization of the Iranian state, and with this, the emergence of the Iranian working class. But this centralization also fueled emergent ethnic conflict, and state repression of national minorities such as Kurds, Azeris, and Arabs intensified under the guise of Iranian nationalism. His aggressive anti-clericalism also served to alienate the conservative and devoutly religious peasantry, which, suffering under the yolk of landlords and feudal remnants, found itself susceptible to nascent religious fundamentalism. Furthermore, while the national bourgeoisie began to increase in numbers and strength, the comprador bourgeoisie remained in control.
During the 1930s, Pahlavi increasingly allied his regime with Nazi Germany, and a German political and economic presence was cultivated in the country. With the outbreak of World War II, Pahlavi remained neutral, but continued friendly relations with Nazi Germany. The UK and the Soviet Union looked upon this relationship with concern; at risk were Iran’s oil fields and allied supply lines. Under the pretext of expelling German nationals from Iran, the UK and Soviet Union invaded Iran and deposed Reza Shah. They placed on the throne his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and ostensibly restored constitutional democracy. The 1940s and early 1950s were marked by an increasing struggle between the national and comprador bourgeoisie, and the rise of the communist Tudeh Party. The conflict between the national and comprador bourgeoisie played itself out in the electoral arena between the pro-British Prime Minister and the independent nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh. Around Mosaddegh convened a coalition that would eventually become known as the National Front, the political party of the national bourgeoisie; its inception was marked by the unifying of the bourgeois democratic forces against ballot rigging and electoral fraud committed by the comprador bourgeoisie.
The Tudeh, meanwhile, began to establish deep roots among urban workers, and while it struggled to gain parliamentary representation, it was able to effectively mobilize the working class. The Tudeh was a strong early advocate of women’s rights, pushing for universal suffrage, increased social rights, and paid maternity leave. Additionally, its armed wing, the Tudeh Party Military Organization, which included military officers, struck fear into the ruling classes, and after it attempted to assassinate Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1949, it was banned, and a widespread crackdown was launched against its members. Despite its ban, the Tudeh continued to be a powerful force within Iranian society of the era. However, the Tudeh found itself unable to put forward a cohesive and effective program. Its one consistent goal was for the establishment of a republic, but it vacillated between a liberal popular front strategy, including making overtures to religious fundamentalists, and a more militant revolutionary strategy.
In 1952, the national bourgeoisie was catapulted to power when the National Front won a landslide victory in elections. The National Front appointed Mosaddegh as Prime Minister, and it appeared as if a new era of democracy and prosperity were to be ushered in. Like his contemporaries Nehru in India, and Nasser in Egypt, Mosaddegh was a staunch nationalist, who favored a strong social democratic economy, secularism, and anti-imperialism. His defining policy, and the one that ultimately drove him into direct confrontation with the forces of imperialism was his nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. Unlike these other rising nationalists throughout the third world, Mosaddegh was never able to secure the support of a solid base. The comprador bourgeoisie resented him, as did much of the royal and military establishment. Though Mosaddegh was able to convince the parliament to grant him emergency powers to carry out land reform, curbing the power of the monarchy, and bringing the military under the control of the elected government, he was both unwilling and unable to go all the way and smash the comprador bourgeoisie and the monarchy. What was needed was the culmination of the national democratic revolution that had begun in 1906. And one of the key players in making this happen was the Tudeh. The Tudeh, however, never took a firm stance in support or against Mosaddegh; sometimes denouncing him as an agent of imperialism, and at other times providing him with crucial support. Though their armed wing had suppressed an attempted military coup against Mosaddegh, he forcefully suppressed a TPMO demonstration demanding he finally oust the Shah and declare a democratic republic. In response, the Tudeh dissolved the TPMO; the next day Mosaddegh was overthrown in the British and CIA-backed coup. With the return to power of the Shah, the national democratic bourgeoisie and the Tudeh were thoroughly repressed, and Iran became a vassal of the United States, a pawn of Cold War American imperialism.
What damned Mosaddegh and the Tudeh was the inability of both to take the decisive steps necessary to secure the completion of the democratic revolution. The Tudeh alone was not strong enough to take power and establish socialism in Iran, but at the same time that was not even part of its program. It adhered to the “Stalinist” conception of two-stage revolution, and was therefore unable to create a program that could bridge its demands for democratic reform to the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. Additionally, it denounced Mosaddegh when it should have thrown its full support behind him until the democratic revolution had been fully consolidated. Mosaddegh, on the other hand, as already stated, was too much in thrall of parliamentary procedure and the formalities of liberal democracy. He had the mass support of the Iranian people, and significant factions of the military; to complete the revolution, he should have used his emergency powers to suspend the 1906 constitution, dissolve parliament, oust the monarchy, and establish a republic. Mosaddegh, the committed democrat, needed to become a dictator, at least temporarily, in order to defend democracy. This he did not do. What defined this era of Iranian politics was a lack of decisiveness on the part of the revolutionary and democratic forces; the forces of reaction were able to seize upon this infighting and take the decisive step their enemies were unwilling to.
The Shah’s dictatorship that followed the overthrow of Mosaddegh was surely one of the most corrupt, incompetent, and brutally repressive of the twentieth century. Totally dependent on the United States and the CIA, the Shah looked down upon the Iranian people with nothing but contempt. Though he tried to present himself as a modernist and a nationalist, the people were not fooled. When confronted about this contradiction in 1961, he said “When Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden.” In 1976, Amnesty International said of the Shah’s Iran that it “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.” His “White Revolution”, a massive plan of modernization was a disaster; seeking to create a new base among the peasantry by breaking the power of the old feudal landlords, he enacted sweeping land reform. Instead of winning him support, this land reform created a mass of impoverished peasants and landless vagabond workers, unable to secure a livelihood for themselves. These peasants, devoutly religious and conservative, continued to resent the attacks upon the religious establishment and were increasingly becoming radicalized; they loathed the rule of the corrupt and decadent comprador bourgeoisie. Lacking class consciousness, and the ability to understand their desperate situation, these peasants continued to be drawn to the flame of religious fundamentalism, thirsty for justice against the secular establishment they perceived as being responsible for their miseries.
Opposition to the Shah’s rule was diverse, ranging from the old National Front to the liberal Islamist Freedom Party to the underground Tudeh. But three new forces emerged in the 1960s that would be decisive players in the coming revolution. The first were the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai, which launched a guerrilla war against the Shah’s regime. Led by the Marxist revolutionary Bijan Jazani, the Fedai opposed the moribund policies of the Tudeh, rebuking it for failing to ally with Mosaddegh, and toadying whatever the current Moscow line was. The Fedai believed that the Iranian people had to be stirred out of their traditional attitude of passivity, and to this end it conducted armed attacks upon military and police targets, with the goal of rousing the people to their feet. It was also against the Tudeh’s passive policy of survival and reformism, openly calling for a socialist revolution and the establishment of a workers’ democracy. The second force was the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, led by Massoud Rajavi. Inspired by the “red Shiism” of philosopher Ali Shariati (think an Islamic variety of liberation theology), they preached Islamic socialism and democratic revolution. The Mujahedin allied themselves with the Fedai, fighting alongside them in the guerrilla and propaganda war against the regime. However, the Mujahedin soon split between its Islamic socialist wing and its Marxist wing, which later became the Maoist party Peykar (League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class). The third force was that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Contrary to apologist accounts which present Khomeini as a democrat turned tyrant, he never hid his theocratic ambitions. For Khomeini, the Shah’s sins were his westernization and secularism. One of the key points of the White Revolution was that it allowed non-Muslims to hold public office. Khomeini denounced it as an “attack on Islam”, and openly denounced the Shah. After his arrest, riots broke out in support of him. From exile in Paris, Khomeini continued to agitate against the Shah, but in order to broaden his base, he made overtures to leftists and liberals.
The Iranian Revolution smashed the comprador bourgeoisie. During and after the overthrow of the Shah, revolutionary workers’ councils were established. It appeared as if Iran were heading towards a situation of dual power, and socialist revolution. But there was to be no Iranian October. Khomeini, upon his return from France, proved himself to be a master political manipulator; his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist overtures won support from much of the left, including the Tudeh and elements of the Fedai. The Mujahedin, Peykar, and the Kurdish communist parties opposed his establishment of the Islamic Republic, but the lack of leftist unity doomed them to defeat. Initially, Khomeini respected the norms of liberal democracy; free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections were held in 1980. His Islamic Republican Party won a majority, but faced a significant parliamentary opposition. Additionally, the president, Abolhassan Banisadr, was a veteran human rights activist and democrat, and was opposed to Khomeini’s moves towards a more religiously conservative system. The battle lines were drawn in preparation for an ultimate confrontation.
With the comprador modernist bourgeoisie smashed, and the revolutionary situation in flux, the national bourgeoisie found itself unable to directly rule on its own. If the left were not smashed, eventually it would regroup and finish the revolution. It is for this reason that the bourgeoisie threw in its lot with Khomeini. Any move towards a genuine democratic system would have resulted in a victory for the forces of the revolutionary left. In classic Bonapartist fashion, Khomeini declared himself above class interest, claiming to represent divine rule. Khomeini was a master politician and propagandist. The IRP made strong overtures to the workers’ movement, declaring in propaganda posters that “Islam is the only supporter of the worker”, and organizing massive May Day rallies. That other classic repository of reaction, the lumpenproletariat, also mobilized itself in support of Khomeini; eager for wealth and power they formed the nucleus of his Revolutionary Guard. The conservative peasantry finally got its revenge, too. If the revolution was an urban affair, the counter-revolution was a rural one. These desperate peasants, uneducated, illiterate, lacking class consciousness, saw in Khomeini their savior who would deliver divine justice on earth. At the height of the “revolutionary” religious fervor, Khomeini’s supporters claimed to see his image in the moon. When Khomeini staged his coup in 1981, ousting Banisadr, and banning all parties except for the IRP, the left was mowed down by this coalition of reaction.
But the bourgeoisie, through its mullah interlocutors, didn’t stop there. The invasion of Iran by Iraq served as both a rallying point and a distraction. In order to hold on to power, the regime refused Saddam Hussein’s initial peace offer, dragging the war out for almost the rest of the 1980s. One of the most insidious crimes committed against the Iranian people was the massive use by the regime of child soldiers, drawn from poor and working class families, and tossed out onto the front lines. Kids as young as twelve, wearing the “keys to paradise”, were sent into combat or used as minesweepers. It is estimated that up to 100,000 child soldiers participated in the war, and their deaths accounted for about 3% of the overall casualties. What can this be called other than a form of class genocide? The ruling class will sink to any barbaric low to secure its rule, including sacrificing the most vulnerable members of society.
The degradation of women is one of the most notorious aspects of the counter-revolution. Iranian women had played a key role in the revolution, and the left had strongly supported women’s liberation. The ruling class, to re-establish its control over the means of reproduction, stripped women of their social rights, and threw them back into the home. Recently, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denounced gender equality as a western and Zionist plot to undermine Islam, but let slip the true motivations behind the repression of women; to ensure their continued role as housewives and mothers. In the eyes of the capitalists, women are nothing more than machines for producing new workers. The restrictions on travel, employment, and education levied upon Iranian women come from the same place that any restrictions and repression against women come from; to ensure their continued reproductive exploitation. The imperialist “human rights activists” miss this point; then again, imperialism only supports women when they can be of use to its objectives.
Islamism was also used as the pretext to continue the repression of ethnic minorities; in particular the Kurds and the Arabs. Iranian Kurdistan has long been one of the centers of revolutionary socialism in Iran, and was one of the main sites of armed resistance to the Islamic Republic in the years after the revolution. To this day, a leftist insurgency continues there. In the case of the Arabs of Khuzestan, their repression is more economic; Khuzestan Province is one of Iran’s biggest oil-producing regions. Yet it remains impoverished, underdeveloped, and tribal. Paranoid about separatism, the regime keeps the Arab workers oppressed under the triple yolk of nationalist chauvinism, theocracy, and capitalism.
Despite the regime’s anti-capitalist and “revolutionary” rhetoric, Iran remains a capitalist state. The Islamic Republican Party was polarized throughout the 1980s between the “left-wing” faction of Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the pro-capitalist free market faction of then-President Khamenei. With the end of the war, the bourgeoisie was finally able to cement its control by 1) the mass execution of Iranian leftists in 1988, and 2) the dissolution of the IRP, and the expulsion of the Mousavi faction from the government. With the election of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as President in 1989, neoliberal and free market “reforms” were introduced. These policies continued under his successor, Mohammad Khatami. That the west sees Rafsanjani and Khatami as “reformers” it is because of their economic policies that favored the market and some level of foreign investment. What separates the Islamic Republic from previous regimes, though, is that it represents the national bourgeoisie; Iranian capitalism is a capitalism that benefits Iranian capitalists, not imperialist capitalists. The opposition of the United States to the Islamic Republic, and the years it spent decrying and sanctioning Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program is a front for the real desire of the forces of capitalist imperialism; the regaining of supremacy over Iran’s resources and economy that it lost in 1979.
The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked a turning point in the Islamic Republic, because it brought to power that section of the national bourgeoisie that had come of age in the early years of the Islamic Republic, and owed its success to the regime, but was also resentful of the regime. Ahmadinejad was in frequent confrontation with the clerical leadership, and sought to increase the powers of the elected government, especially the presidency, at the expense of the clergy. His vice president, Esfandir Rahim Mashaei even publicly stated that the era of Islamism in Iran was over. This section of the national bourgeoisie that supported Ahmadinejad also promoted Iranian nationalism over Islamism, countering the propaganda spread by the clergy that Iran’s cultural heritage is one of Satanic decadence. But why then did the establishment support Ahmadinejad to the point that it rigged the 2009 elections against Mousavi? After two decades in the political wilderness, Mousavi re-emerged, and turned against the Islamic Republic he had helped to create. His 2009 platform was a call for sweeping political and economic reform; the restoration of full political democracy, the dissolution of the “morality police”, the removal of discriminatory laws against women, social democratic economic policies including strengthening the welfare state, and a thorough revision of the constitution. Of course we should not see his newfound love of democracy and social equality as indicative of any kind of true ideological conversion, but rather as an expression of opportunism. But it was more than reformist enough to scare the conservative bourgeoisie. The mass protests that followed, which culminated in calls for an end to the Islamic Republic were the closest Iran has come to a revolutionary scenario since 1979. That the Ahmadinejad camp allied with its clerical rivals should not be seen as a sign that they are somehow Islamists, but rather as an expression of the class dynamics at play in contemporary Iran. The alliance was a temporary one to stave off the formation of a more left-leaning government.
The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 marked the return of power to the Islamic capitalist camp. With the conclusion of the nuclear deal, and the opening of foreign investment in Iran, attacks on the Iranian working class and leftist opposition have intensified. Minimum wage increases are no longer being chained to inflation as mandated by Iranian law, and leftist labor organizers are facing increased repression, including two of Iran’s most prominent labor activists Jafar Azimzadeh and Shapour Ehsani-Rad. Teacher’s union leader Esmail Abadi was also sentenced to six-years in prison, and several of the union’s members have fled into exile. Under Rouhani, executions of political prisoners continue to increase as well. Aside from American neocons, who still froth at the mouth demanding regime change, the rest of the western capitalist class has gone silent over Iran now that they’re free to do business again. This only serves to show that the “concern” expressed over human rights by imperialist states are nothing more than crocodile tears.
Finally, then, what is the future of Iran and the Iranian left? For the former, there are two scenarios. The first is that having secured its rule, the Iranian bourgeoisie finally consents to a democratic transition, similar to what happened in Spain after the death of Franco. The second is another revolution. What is inevitable is that the Islamic Republic’s days are numbered. It has fulfilled its purpose; soon the Iranian bourgeoisie can rule openly, without the need to hide beneath turbans. The Iranian left sadly remains fractured. Until the mid-2000s, the Worker-communist Party of Iran dominated the underground left, but after the death of its founder Mansoor Hekmat in 2002, it fractured, and the resulting organizations spend almost as much time attacking one another as they do the regime. What is desperately needed is a united front of all of the leftist organizations and labor unions. Such a united front would need a flexible program, able to respond to the immediate conditions of Iranian society. In all cases, it would need to be able to mobilize the masses, and be prepared to seize power when the opportunity presents itself. Unlike the liberals and reformists, the left needs to unite the struggle for socialism with the struggle against theocracy and the struggle for democracy. The demands for political freedom, women’s liberation, minority rights, and economic justice are inseparable. Additionally, the Iranian left needs solidarity from the global communist movement. Fearful of aligning with imperialism, many leftists shy away from criticism of the Islamic Republic, or engage in bizarre apologetics. One bizarre article by Andre Vltchek even declares Iran an “Islamic socialist” state! Iran is a country with a rich revolutionary tradition; we must have confidence that our Iranian comrades will be victorious in the end.
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Originally published at longestmarch.blogspot.com on July 14, 2017.