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Return of the Ayatollah: Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became a lightning rod for the mass protests which overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, but the causes of the Iranian Revolution lay elsewhere.

Ayatollah Khomeini greets the crowd at Tehran University after his return from exile in 1979.

On the afternoon of 11 February 1979, the top brass of the Imperial Iranian Army gathered for the first time in the absence of their commander-in-chief, the shah. They proceeded to declare the army neutral in the increasingly violent confrontation between the revolutionary forces and the government of the shah’s last appointed prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar. By the evening, Tehran had fallen into the hands of a spirited group of ordinary citizens, political activists and hardened opponents of the regime, who celebrated the downfall of a monarch who, only 407 days earlier, had been toasted by US president Jimmy Carter as having created an ‘island of stability’ in the turbulent Middle East. In a religious school, which had been turned into his makeshift headquarters, the octogenarian leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was savouring the first step in a rise to political dominance, which would take another three years to complete.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 is one of the most significant examples of the efficacy of a sustained popular and largely unarmed mass uprising. The slogan of the revolutionary masses in the latter part of 1978 morphed into the simple and effective ‘Marg bar shah’ (‘Death to the shah’). The mass perception that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a modern Yazid, the hated Sunni slayer of the revered Shia saint Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680, took hold across every stratum of society. It was the ultimate reason for the revolution’s success.

Much has been written about Iran’s uneven economic development throughout the 1970s, the unabating censorship of the press and repression of political opposition and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor in the aftermath of the sharp rise in oil prices in 1973. But none of these factors alone could have led to the Ashura and Tasua marches that took place across the country on 10 and 11 December 1978, possibly the highest per capita participation in a revolutionary episode in modern history.

When the world was shaken by the ripples of global protest movements in 1968, the shah’s increasingly archaic elite was able to exert its control over Iran through economic incentives, extensive ties with the West and a strong purchasing power for its currency. But Iran had uneven economic growth similar to other developing countries: thousands of lower middle-class students received scholarships to go abroad, but unmanaged rural to urban migration resulted in shanty towns and deprivation. The shah and his elite’s command and knowledge of Iranian society were ephemeral: his long-serving, pliant prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, was a rapacious reader of the French roman policier, but had a minimal grasp of Persian poetry. The Empress Farah had a passion for Western art which was not matched in the domestic realm. The shah was a visionary who had paternalistic feelings towards his nation, yet was unable to establish deep bonds with society. His unswerving nemesis, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had no such problem. At the end of the 1970s there was enough economic resentment, despite the lack of widespread destitution or famine, to fuel the revolutionary fervour.

The fall of Mossadegh

The withering of support for the shah did not happen overnight. It was a process which began on 19 August 1953, when his supporters combined with the CIA and MI6 intelligence agencies to bring about a sudden and dramatic end to the premiership of Mohammad Mossadegh.

Mossadegh was a popular and populist member of the elite, who had ceaselessly championed the cause of Iranian independence. In 1951 he had achieved his signature aim, the nationalisation of Iranian oil. This polarised Iranian politics. It generated strong support among a fledgling group of upper middle-class politicians and journalists who coalesced within Mossadegh’s National Front, a loose umbrella group of moderate nationalist persuasion. From the left, the communist Tudeh Party remained suspicious of Mossadegh’s true intentions and repeatedly castigated his overt admiration of the US and his alleged secret intention to mend fences with the UK, which remained his public nemesis after it enacted a naval blockade to prevent the export of Iranian oil. Cartoons published in both left and right-leaning British newspapers depicted Mossadegh as a pyjama-wearing buffoon or as an arsonist intent on engulfing both Iran and the Middle East in flames fed by burning oil. Mossadegh’s fate was critically affected by the result of the US election of 1952. Eisenhower’s accession to the White House paved the way for a swift understanding with Churchill, who was back in Downing Street. By summer, the two had approved a complex plan that led to Mossadegh’s downfall.

While the British were motivated mainly by their desire to regain control over the expropriated oil industry, the Americans had been convinced by the British that the Tudeh were on the verge of assuming power, thus shifting Iran to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The stage was set for the chaotic events of mid-August, when the shah’s backers succeeded at the second attempt, with support from US and British intelligence, in overthrowing Mossadegh and restoring the young Pahlavi to the throne.

The shah returned from a brief stay in Rome. For the rest of the 1950s, he pressed ahead with forging authoritarian rule. He formed Iran’s first structured secret police force, the Savak, which was created with CIA and Mossad assistance and tasked with the destruction of the Tudeh.

By the start of the 1960s, the shah had embarked on plans to modernise the country. He co-opted and subsumed several reform initiatives that had been floated in previous decades, such as land reform, and bound them together in an initiative known as the White Revolution, or, as the official title insisted, the ‘Revolution of the Shah and the People’. Iran became equipped, for the first time, with the ability to mass produce consumer goods, such as shoes, electronics and automobiles. Prosperity and a modern lifestyle were slowly introduced into a society, which, in the words of the historian Ervand Abrahamian, had entered the 20th century on the ox-cart.

Exit Khomeini

By the end of the 1960s, the shah appeared to have seen off the other major challenge to his rule, which his father had driven to the fringes of society, but not annihilated: the clergy. Following the death, in 1962, of the last undisputed supremo of the Shia faith, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Borujerdi, Iran’s largest seminary in Qom was effectively directed by a triumvirate which included Khomeini, then a suave, 60-year-old climber of the clerical political ladder.

Khomeini’s first major expression of opposition was in 1963. In a speech in Qom, he launched a direct attack on the shah, which caused a brief but intense series of street demonstrations against the monarchy. The revolt was quickly put down and the shah considered the fate of Khomeini, who was swiftly incarcerated. After much pleading from his security chiefs, particularly the Savak head, General Hassan Pakravan, the shah opted for the progressive release of Khomeini; the execution of a ranking Ayatollah would have set a sinister precedent for a nation aspiring, among other things, to take the mantle of the leadership of the Shia and wider Muslim world.

A year later, however, Khomeini was dispatched to exile after he delivered another sermon, in which he sternly decried the extension of the Vienna Convention to all US contractors in Iran, which granted them immunity from prosecution under the Iranian legal system. This development caused a major change in the attitude of the Tudeh and other left-wing organisations towards the Ayatollah. While the Tudeh had described the clergy as ‘reactionary’ in 1963, it now praised Khomeini as having joined the anti-imperialist fold.

With no substantial opposition left inside the country, the Pahlavi state seemed set for decades of consolidated rule. Western assessments of the shah’s character mirrored his changing authority. In 1951, the US Embassy in Tehran had written that the shah was ‘confused, frustrated, suspicious, proud and stubborn … His fears, questionings, and indecisiveness are permanent instabilities of character’. By 1970, its judgement had changed: ‘He is completely self-assured and is confident that he is leading the country in the right direction … He has an agile mind, sees the point quickly, and gets rights to the heart of the issue.’

Yet, despite reeling from the exile of Khomeini and the eclipse of the Tudeh at the hands of Savak, internal opposition had not vanished. The two main secular parties’ inability to put up any meaningful opposition to the shah’s rule led to the detachment from their ranks of a younger generation of activists, who had witnessed the Mossadegh years, but who were aware of the global drift towards radical politics in the 1960s. Inspired by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions and the war in Vietnam, these former Tudeh and National Front youth members broke ranks to form their own clandestine organisations. Several Marxist groups spread across the country and would form the embryo of the Fadayan-e Khalq (‘Sacrificers of the People’) and the Mojahedin-e Khalq (‘Holy Warriors of the People’).

After years spent secretively reading whatever Marxist texts they could and debating at length about the course of action to take, in February 1971 a cell attacked a gendarmerie post at Siyahkal, a hamlet in the historically restive province of Gilan in northern Iran. The initiative, which was supposed to act as the spark for local peasant support for an uprising against the state, fell short of its intended objective, but the scene was set for the start of nearly a decade of bloody armed struggle against the Pahlavi regime.

‘Straws in the wind’

Another type of opposition also survived precariously. A loosely affiliated set of opponents of the shah’s regime had etched an existence on the fringes of public life, despite having been previously affiliated with the National Front, the Tudeh and other proscribed organisations. Their renunciation of armed struggle as a means through which to confront the Pahlavi state meant that they would occasionally be allowed by Savak to publish in intellectual journals and mainstream newspapers, to teach at university or to hold informal discussion groups. Together with former political leaders who had withdrawn from public life after the increase of Savak control, these individuals formed what was in effect a fringe but existent civil society.

The new Democratic White House in 1976 gave a new lease of life to these groups. Under the auspices of what Iranian activists dubbed ‘Jimmycracy’, the Carter administration pressed the Iranian authorities to soften Savak’s suffocating presence in public life. Throughout 1977, political prisoners, who had been remanded for a considerable time after the end of their sentences, were freed, while the number of intellectuals ‘banned from the pen’ decreased. Dissident gatherings on university campuses were tolerated and intellectuals, lawyers and even leaders of the old political movements took turns to write open letters to the authorities, in which they called for the respect of the 1906 constitution, which enshrined the right to free assembly and expression, and the creation of genuine elections.

In July and August 1977, the US ambassador William Sullivan reported in a series of cables that he felt that the ‘straws in the wind’ were pointing to a resumption of dissident activity. This first phase of mobilisation against the shah reached its climax during what was meant to be a modest gathering of intellectuals under the aegis of the Goethe-Institut in Tehran. For ten evenings in October 1977, the West German cultural institution became the focus of a mass gathering attended by thousands of young, inquisitive Iranians, who shared anything from poems in honour of ‘Azadism’ (Liberty), to thinly veiled references to armed struggle and Islamic-tinged verses.

Shortly after the Goethe-Institut nights, which marked the first instances of protests and commotion against his regime, the shah visited the White House. While Carter was emphasising Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s warm ties with his predecessors going back to Harry Truman, mounted police were charging at the street battles unfolding within the precinct of the President’s Park between students from campuses across the US and Savak operatives bussed in to contain them. An embarrassed Carter decided to pay a swift return visit to the shah. During a whirlwind world tour, Carter stopped at Tehran for New Year’s Eve, 1977 and delivered his laudatio for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was toasted as having brought about ‘an island of stability in shark infested waters’.

Perhaps unknown to Carter, Ayatollah Khomeini had kept a keen eye on the developing relationship between the new US president and his nemesis. In a message to Iranian students abroad on 16 November 1977, Khomeini wrote off the entente between Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in advance of the White House encounter and stated that ‘the shah and his pack of relations and followers should understand that, in his meeting with the President of the United States, whether or not he agrees to renew his servility and stabilise his illegal position, the Iranian nation does not want him and will not abandon their campaign until they have avenged their blood-soaked youth’.

Settling scores

A few days after Carter’s visit, the shah decided to settle scores with Khomeini by launching an unprecedented tirade against him. An article produced under the pseudonym Ahmad Rashidi Motlagh carried a series of gratuitous and scurrilous accusations against Khomeini, who was accused, by virtue of his supposed Indian descent, of being a pawn in the hands of sinister machinations by the old overlord of Iran, Britain.

A few days later, however, seminary students in Qom, some of them disciples of Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari of Tabriz and hailing from the northern region of Azerbaijan, engaged in unexpectedly virulent protest, which was put down by force. At least six were killed. As per religious custom, the 40th day following the deaths of the Muslim faithful was marked by widespread mourning.

On 21 January, Tabriz, a socially conservative urban centre, witnessed a day of rage against the Pahlavi state. In what the official press later described as ‘hooliganism’, a large crowd went on the rampage against public buildings and shops thought to be associated with the regime. The Tabriz incident was indicative of much to come. The authorities had little training in how to deal with large-scale urban riots and no contingency plan in place. For most of the spring of 1978, the authorities’ only reaction consisted of putting down the commotion with brute force. The 40-day mourning process continued apace across the country.

Khomeini became the lightning rod of the opposition, for a number of reasons. The resumption of meek activity by elements of the opposition in 1977 did not immediately lead to the resumption of activity by the main anti-shah parties. Indeed, the National Front was described by William Sullivan as having ‘disappeared from the political scene’ a decade earlier. The remnants of the communist splinter groups were sparsely distributed in safe houses across major cities, focused on avoiding the unrelenting Savak repression, which continued until the downfall of the regime. That left Khomeini as the most ardent and tangible opponent of the shah.

On 24 April, the prominent Lebanese-Iranian Shia cleric Imam Musa Sadr, who would later disappear under still-unexplained circumstances, arranged for his friend Lucien George of Le Monde to travel to Najaf and conduct Khomeini’s first interview with the Western media. During two hours of conversation, Khomeini claimed that his nemesis implemented the policies of the ‘imperialists’ and sought to keep Iran in a ‘backward and regressive’ condition. He also refuted accusations of misogyny, claiming that ‘Islam was never against female emancipation’.

Khomeini’s views on his preferred political system were, however, infused with a vagueness which he would maintain until the end. When pressed on whether he would accept the continuation of the monarchy in any form or push for the establishment of a republic, Khomeini abruptly stated that such a topic was outside the scope of the interview. The Ayatollah was content to ride the ever-rising tide of anger against the shah and was wary of proposing details which could cause apprehension and hesitation and therefore stymie the flow of the rebellion.

The flaring of popular resentment against the shah caught the attention of US and British diplomats in Tehran early on. On 6 July the UK embassy gleefully reported that the 40-day mourning processions and confrontations were likely to be over and that the focus of political activity was inside the ruling Rastakhiz party, where reformists were attempting to position themselves for assuming power. Just over a month later, on 12 August, two days of intense rioting at Esfahan caused the imposition of martial law. A fortnight later came the first of several calamities that would seal the monarchy’s fate.

A fire, which would a couple of years later be attributed to Islamist supporters of Khomeini, destroyed a mostly wooden cinema at Abadan. Nearly 400 of those in attendance died. The event, which Khomeini deftly succeeded in turning into proof of the monarchy’s evilness, caused the downfall of the cabinet of the prime minister Jamshid Amouzegar, who was beginning to assert his authority, and his replacement by an old stalwart of the shah, Jafar Sharif-Emami.

A celebrated member of the upper elite from a religious family, Sharif-Emami had a defeatist attitude that consisted of a measured appeasement of religious concerns. Believing that the key to putting down the revolt was to provide the same Islamic measures that Khomeini was aiming for, he ordered casinos and cabarets to close, the reinstatement of the Islamic calendar and the curtailing of the distribution of alcohol. A British Embassy report shortly after the start of his tenure noted that the new prime minister expected to be in office for 18 months to two years, following which he would hand over a ‘stabilised’ political system back to the shah.

Sharif-Emami’s schedule was irrevocably damaged by the continuation of violence. Crowd activity was increasingly coalescing around the simple and effective ‘Marg bar shah’ slogan. The shah’s generals, who had benefited from extensive training in conventional warfare in the US, were unable to devise a strategy for confronting the unabating national revolt and engaged in a clumsy implementation of martial law.

A series of poorly communicated announcements led to a large crowd assembling in the downtown Tehran square, Jaleh, on the morning of 8 September, unaware that a curfew was in place. The similarly misinformed soldiers, thinking that the crowd was deliberately antagonistic, opened fire and killed around 60 demonstrators. The massacre was swiftly picked up by the opposition as proof that the shah was indeed a Yazid and that negotiation was impossible. It was aided in this regard by the rapid proliferation of myths on the extent of the carnage. Several weeks later, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who had been visiting Iran and writing about the turmoil for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, declared that ‘thousands’ had been killed at Jaleh, while the Irish reporter Patrick Cockburn put the figure at several hundred. The opposition had mastered the numbers game.

The shah hears

The regime lost resolve after the events at Jaleh and was amenable to grant concessions to any party still willing to engage in negotiations with it. The Journalists’ Syndicate won a major concession on 23 September, when its representatives gained a pledge from the Sharif-Emami government to cease oversight of the press. As the main Tehran dailies triumphantly proclaimed, a century of censorship had formally come to an end and they set off to engage in trenchant criticism of the monarchical regime. The weakening grip of the government, however, produced even more demands. Workers started to go on strike, demanding a sharp rise in wages and an end to political repression. By October, the strikes had extended to Iran’s main source of income, the oil industry. The Abadan refinery workers entered into an industrial dispute which would have deep consequences for the evolution of the revolt. Long queues at petrol stations became routine for ordinary citizens.

Sharif-Emami’s government came to an abrupt end on 6 November, after two days of intense and unprecedented rioting in Tehran, particularly around the University campus, that were caused by yet another concession, the release from prison of the prominent radical Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani. On the same day, the shah delivered a rambling and defeatist speech, in which he admitted to having heard the ‘sound’ of the revolution.

After much pleading with the shah, the army succeeded in obtaining a half-concession: its request for a military cabinet was met, but the leadership was given to a mild-mannered and cultured general, Gholam-Reza Azhari. He continued Sharif-Emami’s policy of appeasement and appeared on television with a vocabulary replete with religious terminology.

He did, however, reinforce some martial stricture. His decision to send uniformed censors to the offices of the major Tehran dailies set in motion a press strike that lasted for 62 days. The strike deprived both the shah and the moderate opposition of a means through which to communicate to a wider audience. Khomeini, however, had his own well-honed and well-distributed communications network.

The Ayatollah’s expulsion from Iraq and residence in a hamlet outside Paris aided this; he benefitted from telephone connections and was able to produce cassette tapes and give interviews to the international media, including the BBC Persian Radio service.

The final weeks of 1978 marked the culmination of the crowd activity of the previous 12 months. After securing a halting approval by the authorities for a ‘non-political’ march on the occasion of the first of the two days in the mourning month of Muharram, Ashura, pro-Khomeini organisers turned the second one, Tasua, into a final, millions-strong set of marches across the country. In the Tehran march, which fittingly ended under the arches of the Shahyad Monument, a massive statue built close to the city’s airport in 1975 to symbolise the coming of age of Pahlavi rule, a resolution calling for the establishment of an ‘Islamic Republic’ was read out. By that time, Khomeini was shedding his customary reluctance to engage with the minutiae of the post-monarchical order.

Azhari’s hold on power was weakened by ill health, which saw him leave the country on a stretcher following a heart attack. The shah abandoned all pretence of finding yet another member of his pliant elite to step in and frantically engaged with members of the moderate opposition and politicians with whom he had fallen out over a decade before. Seasoned actors such as Ali Amini offered advice, but they were past their sell-by date. Increasingly erratic, the shah spent a considerable amount of time in joint sessions with the UK and US ambassadors, who offered him psychological support but were unable to stem what their reports continuously refer to as a man whose resolve to ‘tough it out’ had been severely dented by the extent of popular anger in the streets against him.

By 9 November, Sullivan felt it was time to pen his ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’ cable, in which the shah’s authority was described as having ‘considerably shrunk’ and Khomeini’s hold on the opposition painted in a positive light on account of his anti-communist credentials. His role in any future Islamic Republic, according to Sullivan, would be ‘Ghandi-like’.

Iran’s Kerensky

The shah’s last throw of the dice saw him reach out to his old foes, the National Front. Despite pushing them to the sidelines, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi shared a residual allegiance to the 1906 Constitution with at least part of the Front. No less than four of its leaders took turns to meet the monarch and discuss the possibility of becoming premier.

The Front’s ability to negotiate coherently with the shah was severely dented by the impromptu deal between its general secretary, Karim Sanjabi, and Khomeini in Paris, a deal which was rejected by another of the Front’s members, Shapour Bakhtiar. An old-school Francophile, Bakhtiar engaged in private negotiations with the royal court and signalled to the shah’s entourage that he would be willing to take up the reins of government in exchange for Pahlavi’s exile.

Bakhtiar has been described as the Alexander Kerensky of the Iranian Revolution, but his modus operandi was more reminiscent of Don Quixote. With no backing except for some meek voices in the press and several associates who grudgingly agreed to serve in his cabinet, he set forth to contain the collapse of the old regime while professing loyalty to his mentor Mossadegh, whose bust he would proudly display in televised speeches. He swiftly dissolved Savak, broke ties with Israel and South Africa and persuaded the press to resume publication.

His hold on power was, however, wholly dependent upon a beleaguered army, which, once the shah left the country on 16 January, was faced with the unpalatable choice of seizing power through a coup. In a cable sent to Washington on 13 January, Robert ‘Dutch’ Huyser, the senior US army officer sent to Tehran to assess the conditions of the Iranian army, noted that two of the shah’s most senior generals had told him that the only chance of success for Bakhtiar’s government was for a military takeover.

The coup did not happen. Some in the top brass, such as the last head of Savak, Nasser Moghaddam, or the new chief of staff, Abbas Qarabaghi, were intent on seeking a personal deal with the revolutionaries. However, the perception that hardline elements of the army were on the verge of a violent power grab compelled senior figures in the opposition to press for a more gradual transition of power.

Khomeini’s strategy was to sidestep Bakhtiar entirely and appoint his own prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, a veteran leader of the Liberation Movement. Bazargan engaged in febrile but discreet negotiations with Bakhtiar and senior figures in the army to bring about an orderly transition of power. But events at street level tore up that agenda.

Enter Khomeini

On 1 February, Khomeini’s return to Iran was greeted by a million Iranians on the streets of Tehran. As he gave an impassioned speech at the Behesht-e Zahra ceremony, the austere figure evoked by Sullivan gave way to a leader eager to implement his control over affairs.

Khomeini set up shop at a religious school in central Tehran and started to receive gender-segregated crowds of well-wishers. The final collapse took just 48 hours and is remembered by its participants as a qiyam, or ‘uprising’. It began when air force cadets in the Lavizan barracks outside Tehran saluted Khomeini during a broadcast of his arrival at Tehran airport, causing a commotion among their pro-shah peers. In the ensuing melee, the cadets mutinied and handed over weapons to the crowd that had descended on the base once the infighting broke out.

The army was confronted with armed protesters for the first time since the start of 1978, some of whom were being quickly trained by the battle-hardened Fadayan and Mojahedin members, freed from jail by Bakhtiar. The Fadayan were in the midst of their first public rally, a delayed commemoration of their 1971 attack at Siyahkal, when they received news of the Lavizan fighting and scrambled to join it. On 11 February, with Tehran in the grip of an armed insurrection, the inevitable happened. The army withdrew from the political confrontation between Bakhtiar and Khomeini, leading to the instant collapse of the former’s government and, with it, the 2,500-year-old institution of the monarchy.

The revolution turns 40 in 2019, surpassing by two years the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who died of cancer in Cairo in 1980. Over the years, the Islamic Republic has made the revolution and its insistence on its ‘Islamic’ nature one of the pillars of its legitimacy and official ideology. The revolution of 1979 succeeded because of the decisive role of Ayatollah Khomeini, but it originated elsewhere: in the remnants of the Mossadegh administration who quietly refused to be co-opted into the shah’s political order, in the guerrilla fighters who rose up against the regime and in the civil society that made use of the timid overtures of the early Carter-era to confront the shah’s autocracy. Their contribution has been shoved, by the media and some of scholarship, to the sidelines or even forgotten. But they, too, are part of this remarkable story.

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi is Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of St Andrews.


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