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National Front
Iran Freedom Movement

The democratic parties that were in existence after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 consisted of several groups, all of which supported a republican form of government. The National Front, which actually was a coalition of democratically inclined political parties and other organizations that originally had been founded in 1949. The National Front leaders have operated mainly from foreign bases or underground cells. The National Front, under the nominal leadership of Karim Sanjabi, and the National Democratic Front of Hedayatollah Matin-Daftari were both headquartered in Paris. Neither the National Front nor the National Democratic Front engaged in significant political activity between 1982 and 1987, although the latter party joined the Mojahedin-dominated National Council of Resistance in that year and was still a member in 1987. National Front politicians initially had openly displayed their differing views, mostly in West European capitals, although the group led by former Prime Minister Bazargan had been the only domestic "opposition" party tolerated by the regime.

In the post-World War II period, the National Front became the political vehicle for Prime Minister Mossadeq, who would proceed to try and assert Iran's nationalist agenda, primarily in the oil sector. Mossadeq enjoyed considerable support, and was willing to work with the previously outlawed Marxist Tudeh. It was also said that the Qashqai ethnic group was among the supporters of the National Front of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Hundreds of National Front leaders, Tudeh Party officers, and political activists were arrested and several Tudeh army officers were also sentenced to death in the coup that ended Mossadeq's administration.

Internally, a period of political repression followed the overthrow of Mossadeq, as the Shah concentrated power in his own hands. He banned or suppressed the Tudeh, the National Front, and other parties. In the following years both the Marxist Tudeh and the National Front underwent numerous splits and reorganizations. The Tudeh leadership remained abroad, having been driven there in the post-Mossadeq period, and the party did not play a prominent role in Iran until after the Islamic Revolution. Of the National Front parties that managed to survive the post-1963 clampdown, the most prominent was the Nehzat-e Azadi-yi Iran, or the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), led by Mehdi Bazargan. Bazargan worked to establish links between his movement and the moderate clerical opposition. Like others who looked to Islam as a vehicle for political mobilization, Bazargan was active in preaching the political pertinence of Islam to a younger generation of Iranians. Among the best known thinkers associated with the IFM was Ali Shariati, who argued for an Islam committed to political struggle, social justice, and the cause of the deprived classes.

Yielding both to domestic demands for change and to pressure for reform from President John F. Kennedy's administration, the Shah named Ali Amini, a wealthy landlord and senior civil servant, as Prime Minister in 1961. Amini was known as an advocate of reform. He received a mandate from the Shah to dissolve parliament and rule for six months by cabinet decree. Amini loosened controls on the press, permitted the National Front and other political parties to resume activity, and ordered the arrest of a number of former senior officials on charges of corruption.

The Amini government, however, was beset by numerous problems. Belt-tightening measures ordered by the Prime Minister were necessary, but in the short term they intensified recession and unemployment. This recession caused discontent in the bazaar and business communities. In addition, the Prime Minister acted in an independent manner, and the Shah and senior military and civilian officials close to the court resented this challenge to royal authority. Moreover, although enjoying limited freedom of activity for the first time in many years, the National Front and other opposition groups pressed the Prime Minister for elections and withheld their cooperation. With pressure from all sides, Amini resigned in July 1962.

During the Shah's "White Revolution" restrictions were again relaxed. Leaders of the moderate opposition, professional groups, and the intelligentsia took advantage of the Shah's accommodations and the more helpful attitude of the Carter administration to organize and speak out. The National Front, the IFM, and other political groups resumed activity.

During the final years of the Pahlavi monarchy, only a single, government-sponsored political party, the Rastakhiz, operated legally. Nevertheless, several legally proscribed political parties continued to function clandestinely. These included parties that advocated peaceful political change and those that supported the armed overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

In the chaos that surrounded the last months of the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, the National Front looked for political allies. One of the many visitors to Imam Ayatollah Khomenei when he returned from exile in 1978 was National Front leader Karim Sanjabi. After a meeting with Khomeini early in November 1978, Sanjabi issued a three-point statement that for the first time committed the National Front to the Khomeini demand for the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of a government that would be "democratic and Islamic."

In December 1978, the Shah finally began exploratory talks with members of the moderate opposition. Discussions with Karim Sanjabi proved unfruitful: the National Front leader was bound by his agreement with Khomeini. At the end of December another National Front leader, Shapour Bakhtiar, agreed to form a government on condition the shah leave the country. Bakhtiar secured a vote of confidence from the two houses of the Majlis on 3 January 1979, and presented his cabinet to the Shah three days later.

Once installed as Prime Minister, Bakhtiar took several measures designed to appeal to elements in the opposition movement. He lifted restrictions on the press and the newspapers, on strike since November 1978, resumed publication. He set free remaining political prisoners and promised the dissolution of SAVAK (the Shah's hated intelligence service), the lifting of martial law, and free elections. Although Bakhtiar won the qualified support of moderate clerics like Shariatmadari, his measures did not win him the support of Khomeini and the main opposition elements, who were now committed to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new political order. The National Front, with which Bakhtiar had been associated for nearly thirty years, expelled him from the movement. Khomeini declared Bakhtiar's government illegal.

Parliamentary elections were held in two stages in March and May 1980, amid charges of fraud. The official results gave the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and its supporters 130 of 241 seats decided (elections were not completed in all 270 constituencies). Candidates associated with Bani Sadr and with Bazargan's IFM each won a handful of seats. Other left-of-center secular parties fared no better. IRP dominance of the Majlis was reinforced when the credentials of a number of deputies representing the National Front and the Kurdish-speaking areas, or standing as independents, were rejected.

In December 1980, merchants of the Tehran bazaar who were associated with the National Front called for the resignation of the Rajai government, which had succeeded the Bani Sadr administration. In February 1981, Bazargan, leader of the IFM denounced the government at a mass rally. A group of 133 writers, journalists, and academics issued a letter protesting the suppression of basic freedoms. Senior clerics questioned the legitimacy of the revolutionary courts, widespread property confiscations, and the power exercised by Khomeini as faqih. Even Khomeini's son, Ahmad Khomeini, initially spoke on the president's behalf. The IRP retaliated by using its hezbollahi gangs to break up Bani Sadr rallies in various cities and to harass opposition organizations. In November 1981, it arrested Qotbzadeh, the former foreign minister, for an attack on the IRP. Two weeks later, the offices of Bazargan's paper, Mizan, were smashed.

Elections to the second Majlis were held in the spring of 1984. The IFM, doubting the elections would be free, did not participate, so the seats were contested only by candidates of the IRP and other groups and individuals in the ruling hierarchy. The campaign revealed numerous divisions within the ruling group, however, and the second Majlis, which included several deputies who had served in the revolutionary organizations, was more radical than the first.

Bazargan, as leader of the IFM, continued to protest the suppression of basic freedoms. He addressed a letter on these issues to Khomeini in August 1984 and issued a public declaration in February 1985. He also spoke out against the war with Iraq and urged a negotiated settlement. In April 1985 Bazargan and forty members of the IFM and the National Front urged the UN secretary general to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. In retaliation, in February 1985, the hezbollahis (a name given to members of revolutionary militias) smashed the offices of the party, and the party newspaper was once again shut down. Bazargan was denounced from pulpits and was not allowed to run for president in the 1985 elections. The IFM ceased to be a major political factor with the banning of political parties in 1987. Bazargan stayed in Iran, and died while traveling to Switzerland in 1995.

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Page last modified: 15-12-2015 20:13:20 ZULU