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  • Naghmeh Sohrabi (a1)

The Palestine Group was a loosely connected collection of young anti-Shah activists some of whom were arrested and tried publically in 1970 for the crime of acting against the Pahlavi monarchy and Iran's national security. Their plight became global, receiving support from anticolonial figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre. But while they played an important role in inspiring the revolutionary generation, in the historiography of the 1979 revolution and that of the global south, their story has been mostly forgotten. This article argues for remembering the Palestine Group by focusing on two facets of their prerevolutionary activism: the importance of a connection to the anti-imperial/colonial struggles that spread from “Asia to Africa”; and the centrality of maḥfilī politics (friendship circles) in addition to tashkīlātī (organizational) politics, which the historiography has traditionally emphasized. It demonstrates that as resistance shifted from maḥfil to tashkīlāt, it also shifted from a global struggle where Iran was one node out of many, to a nationalized struggle.

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Author's note: The interviews for this article were conducted mainly during my time as an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions fellow 2014–15. My gratitude goes to all the interviewees, particularly AR whose captivating storytelling abilities motivated me to find out more about the Palestine Group. I have benefited from the comments and critiques of the participants of the Stokes Seminar at the History Department, Dalhousie University, the Faculty/Grad Workshop at the History Department, Brandeis University, the Persian and Persianate Studies Seminar, Harvard University, and the IJMES editors and anonymous reviewers. Special thanks to Amir Mahdavi who has been a remarkable research assistant, and to Jim Bowley, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sid Indermaur, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ramyar Rossoukh, Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, and Dana Sajdi, who read various versions of this article and made insightful comments and necessary corrections.

1 Yusuf Azizi Beni Turuf, “Shokrollah Paknejad, Nimad-i Difaʿ az Khalqha-yi Iran,” Akhbar Rooz, 2 Day 1390/23 December 2011, accessed 3 September 2016,

2 A list of English-language scholarship on the Iranian revolution and, relatedly, the Pahlavi monarchy, would lead to a book-length endnote. The scholarship covers the structural, ideological, economic, and cultural reasons for the revolution. See, e.g., Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran between Two Revolutions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982); Keddie, Nikkie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, updated ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006); Mottahedeh, Roy P., The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000); and Fischer, Michael M. J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). For an analysis of the Pahlavi historiography, see Schayegh, Cyrus, “‘Seeing Like a State’: An Essay on the Historiography of Modern Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 3761. For a more comprehensive bibliography and analysis of the revolution's historiography, see Sohrabi, Naghmeh, “The ‘Problem Space’ of the Historiography of the 1979 Iranian Revolution,” History Compass 16 (2018): 110.

3 Around the time of this article's publication, I came across a 2015 article published in Iran that is based on the Palestine Group's unpublished interrogation files and contains many fascinating details about the group including how they robbed banks to raise money. The information that it presents reinforces the analysis in this piece and is highly recommended for those interested in the story itself; Samanih Bayrami, “Guruh-i Filistin,” Mutaliʿat-i Tarikhi (1394): 131–56.

4 See Vahabzadeh, Peyman, A Guerrilla Odyssey: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy, and the Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1971–1979 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2010); and Abrahamian, Ervand, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

5 Abrahamian's succinct article on the guerrilla movement in Iran traces its origins to 1963 but makes clear that 1971, the year of Siahkal, was the birth of the movement; Abrahamian, Ervand, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963–1977,” MERIP Reports 86 (1980): 315. For more on Siahkal, see Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey, 25–30. For a recent monograph that created a stir in the Persian-language blogosphere, see Salihi, Anush, Ism-i Shab Siahkal: Junbish-i Chirik'ha-yi Fadai-yi Khalq az Aghaz ta Isfand 1349 (Spånga: Nashr-i Baran, 2016).

6 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 29 September 2016.

7 Many thanks to anonymous reviewer one for pushing me to think more about the emergence of “group” as an important intermediary form between maḥfil and tashkīlāt. I hope to further develop this point in my book manuscript.

8 Naghmeh Sohrabi, “Muddling through the Iranian Revolution,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, 1 November 2015, accessed 17 December 2018,

9 I am borrowing this usage from Golnar Nikpour, “Prisons, Politics, and Public Life in Modern Iran” (talk at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., 7 March 2018).

10 See Sohrabi, “The ‘Problem Space’” for more details.

11 Muhammad Reza Shalgooni, “Zindan-i Evin va bi Haqqi-yi Fazayandih-yi Mardum-i Iran,” 2005, accessed 3 October 2016,

12 Chehabi, Houchang E., “Sport and Politics in Iran: The Legend of Gholamreza Takhti,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 12 (1995): 4860.

13 Hedayat Sultanzadeh, “Nowrooz dar Qizil Qalʿih,” Akhbar Rooz, 24 March, 2010, accessed 2 August, 2016,

14 Lenin's pamphlet What Is to Be Done? was incredibly popular among leftist student activists in Iran who copied it by hand and illegally distributed it. In his memoir, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi writes about discovering a copy of it in 1977 behind the water tank in his university's bathroom. The entire pamphlet had been reproduced on a single page, which he managed to read clandestinely with a magnifying glass/flashlight device; Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz, Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution (New York: OR Books, 2016).

15 Behrooz, Maziar, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (London: I.B.Tauris, 2000), 45.

16 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 29 September 2016; Murtazavi, Baqir, “Abbas Saberi's Report about the Palestine Group,” in Siyavushan: Yadvarih Janbakhtigan-i Hizb-i Ranjbaran-i Iran (Köln, Germany: n.p., 1999), 281–84. Saberi was part of the quartet who had successfully arrived in Iraq where he eventually worked in the Persian section of Radio Baghdad with Riyahi. He was executed in 1981 in Iran.

17 For a comprehensive study of the confederation, see Matin-Asgari, Afshin, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2002).

18 For an important study on Sartre and decolonization within the framework of Arab intellectual thought, see Di-Capua, Yoav, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

19 Matin-Asgari, Iranian Student Opposition, chaps. 6 and 7; Slobodian, Quinn, “The Missing Bodies of June 2,” in Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012); Andishih-yi Puya 5 (Ordibehesht, 1395/April-May, 2016); Manijeh Moradian, “Neither Washington, Nor Tehran: Political Cultures of Iranian American Un/Belonging (1953–2009)” (PhD diss., New York University, 2014).

20 There's been an explosion of scholarship on the global south during this period. In addition to the titles cited earlier, see Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Eskandar, “The Origins of Communist Unity: Anti-Colonialism and Revolution in Iran's Tri-Continental Moment,” British Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2018): 796822; Christiansen, Samantha and Scarlett, Zachary A., eds., The Third World in the Global 1960s (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013); Byrne, Jeffrey James, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Tikriti, Abdel Razzaq, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman 1965–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

21 Chamberlin, Paul Thomas, The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.

22 Author's e-mail correspondence with AM, 18 January 2017.

23 For a concise overview, see Bakhash, Shaul, “The Troubled Relationship: Iran and Iraq 1930–1980,” in Iran, Iraq and the Legacies of War, ed. Potter, Lawrence and Sick, Gary (New York: Palgrave Macmillin, 2004), 1129.

24 Handwritten pamphlet signed by Sipahbud Taymur Bakhtiyar, “Aʾyin-i Inqilab-i Milli-yi Iran: Arman va Hadaf-ha-yi An,” March 1968, The Siagzar Berelian Collection on Social and Political History of Iran, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

25 For more on this fascinating story, see Chehabi, Houchang E., “The Anti-Shah Opposition and Lebanon,” in Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, ed. Chehabi, H. E. (London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies in association with I.B.Tauris, 2006), 180–98.

26 Sipahbud, Taymur Bakhtiyar bih Rivayat-i Asnad-i Savak: Bakhtiyar Dar Iraq, vol. 3 (Tehran: Markaz-i Barrasi-yi Asnad-i Tarikhi, 1999).

27 Mahmud Rafiʿ, “Mubarizih az Berlin ta Najaf,” Andishih-yi Puya 5 (April–May 2016), 69–70.

28 There are many references to Iranian activists in this period going to PLO or Cuban camps. The most well-known example is Ali Akbar Safai Farahani, who returned from Palestinian camps in 1970 to take part in Siahkal. See also Kashkuli, Iraj and Shawkat, Hamid, Nigahi az Darun bih Junbish-i Chap-i Iran: Guftugu ba Iraj Kashkuli (Saarbrücken: Baztab, 1999), 160–61; and Saeed Shahsavandi, interview with Hamid Ahmadi, video no. 7, Research Association for Iranian Oral History (RAIOH) in Berlin.

29 For a detailed breakdown of the decision to go abroad from Saberi's perspective, see Murtazavi, “Abbas Saberi's Report,” 280–85.

30 Author's interview with AR, Paris, 2014.

31 Author's e-mail correspondence with AM, 18 January 2017.

32 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 29 September 2016.

33 Author's interview with AR, Paris, 2014.

34 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 29 September 2016.

35 In November 1970, the bi-weekly Bakhtar-i Imruz (vol. 1, no. 5) published a list of fifty-five names of those who had been arrested. While some of the information given (particularly about their professions) is incorrect, this list is the only comprehensive one that I have seen. Many thanks to anonymous reviewer one for drawing my attention to it. Bakhtar-i Imruz is available on the Andeesheh va Peykar site at, accessed 31 May 2018.

36 This is AR's version of events. In August 2016, he told me he had recently told other members of the Palestine Group this version of Riyahi's escape and they had been surprised because they thought Riyahi had recognized the trap before he left Iran. Abbas Saberi corroborates AR's version of events without explicitly naming Riyahi. See Murtazavi, Siyavushan, 288.

37 Shalgooni, “Zindan-i Evin.”

38 Author's interview with MA, London, 2015.

39 Ittilaʿat, 2 Day 1349/23 December 1970.

40 The Tudeh (Masses) is the Iranian communist party founded in 1941. It was suppressed in the aftermath of the CIA-led coup in 1953 and went underground. In 1954, twenty-eight military officers were executed, accused of being members of the by then illegal Tudeh when Tehran was under the military command of Bakhtiyar. After the Sino–Soviet split, Tudeh maintained its allegiance to the Soviet Union while the younger intellectual communist activists gravitated toward other commitments, primarily Maoism.

41 Ittilaʿat 8 Day 1349/29 December 1970.

42 Ittilaʿat, 10 Day 1349/31 December 1970.

43 Ittilaʿat, 26 Day 1349/16 January 1971.

44 Kayhan, 28 Day 1349/18 January 1971.

45 Itttilaʿat, 27 Day 1349/17 January 1971.

46 Ittilaʿat, 28 Day 1349/18 January 1971.

48 Ittilaʿat, 29 Day 1349/19 January 1971.

49 “Le proces des ‘dix-huit:’ Le tribunal militaire de Téhéran a rendu son verdict en appel,” Le Monde, 21 January 1971. My interviews with AR and SAH confirm the Le Monde report.

50 “Le comité de défense des prisonniers politiques Iraniens dénonce la répression à Téhéran,” Le Monde, 4 August 1970.

51 The Guardian, 13 August 1970, 6.

52 Amnesty International Newsletter 1 (July 1971). For more on their expulsion, see Matin-Asgari, Iranian Student Opposition, 119–20.

53 “Iran Accused of Torture,” The Christian Science Monitor, 3 December 1970.

54 “Des accusés se plaignent d'avoir été tortures,” Le Monde, 20 January 1971.

55 For a summary of Thierry Mignon's report, see Azadeh, Behrouze, “L'Iran Aujourdui,” Les Temps Modernes 27 (May 1971): 2031–66; and Vieille, Paul and Banisadr, Abol Hassan, Pétrole et violence: terreur blanche et résistance en Iran (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1974), 236–39.

56 Kayhan, 5 Bahman 1349/ 25 January 1971.

57 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 6 October 2016; Also see “Ghubarzudayi az Ayinih-ha: Difaʻiyat-i Pur Shur-i Shokrollah Paknejad,” published on “Hamneshin Bahar” website accessed 5 June 2016,

58 For a detailed portrayal of the confederation's role in drawing attention to the Palestine Group's trial, see Matin-Asgari, Iranian Student Opposition, 121–23.

59 Bayrami, “Guruh-i Filistin,” 149. In his memoir, Albert Sorabiyan mentions that the Revolutionary Communist Organization of Iran (SAKA) was one of the groups that illegally printed and distributed the defense in Iran; Albert Sorabiyan, “Khatirat-i Zindan-i Salha-yi 50,” accessed 5 June 2016,

60 Azadeh, Les Temps Modernes, 2058–66.

61 “Persien: Geist des Generals,” Der Spiegel, 10 May 1971.

62 Author's e-mail communication with AR, 2 August 2016. This is also repeated in the memoirs of Safar Khan, considered the longest-held political prisoner under the Shah; Qahramaniyan, Safar and Darvishiyan, Ali Ashraf, Khatirat-i Safar Khan (Safar Qahramaniyan): Si va Du Sal Muqavimat dar Zindanha-yi Shah Dar Guftigu ba ʻAli Ashraf Darvishiyan (Tehran: Chashmih, 1999), 243.

63 Paknejad, Shokrollah, The Palestine Group Defends Itself in Military Tribunal (Italy: Iran Report, 1971), 25. Hereafter referred to as “Defense English.” Thanks to Manijeh Moradian for providing me with a copy of it.

64 Shokrollah Paknejad, Akharin Difaʿ-i Guruh-i Filistin dar Dadgah-i Nizami (International Confederation of Iranian Students, Jan/Feb 1971). Hereafter referred to as “Defense Persian.”

65 The White Revolution was a six-point reform agenda, including land reform and women's suffrage, proposed by the shah and put to referendum in 1963. See Bill, James A., The Politics of Iran: Groups, Classes and Modernization (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Political Science Series, 1972); and Ansari, Ali M., “The Myth of the White Revolution: Mohammad Reza Shah, ‘Modernization’ and the Consolidation of Power,” Middle Eastern Studies 37 (2001): 124. For the shah's narrative, see Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza, The White Revolution (Tehran: Imperial Pahlavi Library, 1967).

66 Paknejad, “Defense English,” 22.

67 Ibid., 18.

68 Paknejad, “Defense Persian,” 6.

69 Paknejad, “Defense English,” 12.

70 Paknejad, “Defense Persian,” 11.

71 Paknejad, “Defense English,” 21.

72 Paknejad, “Defense Persian,” 17.

73 Ibid., 16.

74 Paknejad was by no means alone in this. In a televised trial shortly before his execution in 1974, Khusraw Gulsurkhi identified himself as a Marxist-Leninist who had come to socialism through Islam. See “Khosro Golsorkhi,” accessed 4 March 2017, Decades later, in the aftermath of the revolution, these instances of Islamic–leftist entwinement are often read as examples of the naiveté of leftist revolutionaries.

75 Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey, 12.

76 Jazani, Bijan, Ṭarḥ-i Jamiʻih-shinasi va Mabani-i Istiratizhi-i Junbish-i Inqilabi-i Khalq-i Iran (Tehran: Mazyar, 1979).

77 Ibid., 171.

78 Naghmeh Sohrabi, “Books as Revolutionary Objects in Iran,” Age of Revolutions Blog, 4 April 2016, accessed 6 December 2018,

79 Walker, Barbara, “(Still) Searching for a Soviet Society: Personalized Political and Economic Ties in Recent Soviet Historiography. A Review Article,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (2001): 639.

80 Walker, Barbara, “Kruzhok Culture: The Meaning of Patronage in the Early Soviet Literary World,” Contemporary European History 11 (2002): 107–23.

81 Khusrawpanah, Muhammad Husayn, Siyyid Muhammad Baqir-i Imami va Kuruzhuk-hayi Marksisti-yi U (Tehran: Pardis-i Danish, 1393), 6594.

82 Author's interview with MA, London, 2015.

83 Sorabiyan, “Khatirat-i Zindan-i Salha-yi 50.”

84 Esfandiar Karimi, “Mahfil-i Danishkadih Iqtisad; Nimunih-yi az Irtibat-i Danishjuyi va Chiriki,” 17 Bahman 1389, accessed 25 March 2017,

85 Andishih-yi Puya, 87.

86 Karimi, “Mahfil-i Danishkadih-i Iqtisad.”

87 Jazani, Ṭarh-i Jamiʿih-shinasi, 169.

89 Author's Skype interview with SAH, 29 September 2016. The school referred to was run by Hajj Yusif Shuʿar, a well-known Qurʾan scholar from Tabriz. Samad Behrangi, author of the seminal story “Little Black Fish,” and Muhammad Hanifnejad, one of the founders of the Mujahidin, were among the attendees of that school.

90 Jazani, Tarh-i Jamiʿih-shinasi, 169–71.

91 Ibid., 170.

92 Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause, 43.

93 Author's e-mail communication with Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, 4 December 2016.

94 Kayhan, 28 Day 1349/18 January 1971.

95 Ittilaʿat, 29 Day 1349/19 January 1971.

96 Ittilaʿat, 9 Day 1349/30 December 1970.

97 Itilaʿat, 28 Day 1349/18 January 1971.

98 Paknejad, Defense Persian,” 17. ʿAtiqi had been arrested as part of the Palestine Group's roundup but was not one of the eighteen put on trial. All three men had confessed during interrogations. Significantly, these last two sentences were left out of the French translation of Paknejad's defense in Les Temps Modernes.

99 Chap dar Iran bih Ravayat-i SAVAK (Tehran: Markaz-i Barrasi-yi Asnad-i Tarikhi-i Vizarat-i Ittilaʿat, 1999), 47.

100 Author's interview with SAH, London, 2 February 2017.

101 Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause, 92–93.

102 Riyahi's televised trial and confession is online. See “The Trial of the Members of Sarbidaran: Husayn Riyahi's Court,”, accessed 1 October 2016.

103 For example, Masʿud Rajavi, the head of Mujahidin, wrote a commemorative note on the fourth anniversary of Paknejad's death; “Bih Yad-i Paknejad,” Shura: Mahnamah-yi Shuray-i Milli-yi Muqavimat 5 (Day 1364).

104 Ayandegan, 21 Day 1357/11 January 1979.

105 The postrevolutionary story of Paknejad and the National Democratic Front is an important one that unfortunately falls outside of this article's purview.

106 Halliday, Fred, “Introduction,” Arabia without Sultans, 2nd ed. (London: Saqi Books, 2001), Kindle edition.

107 Ibid., “The New Opposition.”

108 Ibid.

109 In the same interview, Paknejad tells Halliday that in prison they bribed a guard to get them a copy of Arabia without Sultans. Paknejad, Shokrollah and Halliday, Fred, “Shokrollah Paknejad: ‘We are Living Between Two Tides,’MERIP Reports, 104 (1982): 3233.

110 Ibid.

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