A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1


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In 1979, political Islam became headline news in the west with the Iranian revolution, which brought a 76 year-old cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Before this, the rise of Islam as a factor in geopolitics was acknowledged only by those with a specialist interest in the region; afterwards, there could  be no ignoring it. In retrospect, one of the most surprising things about it was the extent to which it surprised its contemporaries. In 1978, a CIA report on Iran stated that ‘the shah will be an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s’ and that ‘there will be no radical change in Iranian political behaviour in the near future.’ Iran, it was confidently asserted, ‘is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.’ Within a year, however, a 2,500 year-old monarchy had been overthrown and an Islamic republic instituted in its place. The latter fact confounded expectations that, if there was to be change, it would come from the progressive forces of the left rather than the clerics or ullama. It is important, therefore, to understand the roots of the crisis that  gripped Iran and examine why, in ridding itself of its autocratic ruler, it bucked the trend of so many revolutions in the west and instead of embracing enlightenment-based ideologies turned instead to (what appeared to many outsiders at any rate) the past.

In broad outline, the roots of the revolution in Iran bear similarities to the concurrent attempt at an Islamist revolution in Egypt which was discussed in the last post. Like in Egypt, a western-backed ruler presided over a period of rapid economic growth which benefited a tiny elite. This growth was fueled by an influx of capital from the west and was accompanied by a turbulent and disorientating cultural westernisation of the country. These processes alienated a large proportion of the population which remained poor, but excluded from any influence over the ruling of the country through the absence of any democratic processes. Much of this discontent stemmed from the huge numbers of people from rural areas who had moved to the cities in search of work and were often left impoverished, rootless and alienated-a receptive audience to opponents of the Shah’s rule. The Shah, however, appears to have been oblivious to the existence of this seething mass of resentment, right up until the eve of his deposition. Here is the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in modest casual attire:

To understand how his deposition came to this pass, it is important to note that Iran had not been an autocracy from time immemorial. It is often noted that the fall of the Shah ended a 2,500 year-old institution, but the Pahlavi dynasty were blow-ins, only recently founded by an Iranian army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1925. He had been too close to the Germans during the second world war and was forced to abdicate by the allies in favour of his 22 year-old son. Mohammad Reza was a staunch western ally who allowed allied supplies through to their Soviet allies on its northern border. After the war, the early years of the Shah’s reign saw a weakening of his role in the country and moves towards a more democratic, pluralistic Iran. It might be thought that the country’s new American masters would be in favour of these modernising forces, but one thing determined that they would take the side of the autocratic, anti-democratic Shah. Once again, we are talking about oil.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been founded in 1908 in order to exploit an oil find in the west of Iran. They built what would become the largest oil refinery in the world for the next fifty years. As oil became more and more central to the strategic interests of the west, keeping control over Iran became correspondingly more important. To Britain, especially in the 1950s (having been bankrupted in world war two) cheap Iranian oil was regarded as a vital mainstay of the economy, and a means of obtaining critical foreign currency through its re-sale. It is ironic that at a time when a British Labour government was embarking on an unprecedented program of nationalisations at home, it was not prepared to countenance such measures in a country like Iran, which it felt it could push around, diplomatically and (if necessary) militarily. Pushing Iran around, however, was not as straightforward a task as in territories like Saudi Arabia, newly-minted states which could be manipulated and bought with the promise of investment and arms, or those areas which had been under Ottoman control and fell under British and French power after world war one. Iran was an independent kingdom (it continued to style itself an ’empire’) with a long and proud history as one of the centres of ancient civilisation. The invasion of the country by British and Soviet troops in 1941 was a humiliation that would not be quickly forgotten. The installation of the younger Pahlavi, as well as incidents in the coming years, would cement his reputation in the eyes of many Iranians as a foreign-imposed ruler. These incidents would confirm that the British and Americans indeed saw him as a means to safeguard their economic interests in the country.

These interests came under threat from the forces that were unleashed as Iranians were given more control over how their country was run. In 1951, elections brought to power a prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, whose party (the National Front) sought to nationalise Iran’s oil and manage it in the interests of Iran’s people instead of a small number of foreign investors. Here is a picture of Mosaddegh as a child, standing next to an empty chair, meeting the Shah on his appointment as prime minister, and later in life under house arrest (yep-this isn’t going to end well for him).


Mosaddegh’s government introduced a range of reforms that would form the bedrock of any modern, stable democracy: extending the franchise, social welfare, public works projects. Due to his party’s commitment to bringing Iran’s oil under Iranian control, however, the British (whose interests were directly threatened) and the Americans (who, as usual, saw the hand of the Soviets and communism in everything Mosaddegh did) determined to destroy his project. In the Shah they found a ready ally. He had already been trying to shore up the power of the monarchy in the years since coming to power. An outpouring of sympathy following an assassination attempt in 1949 was used to amend the constitution to increase his powers. As an aside, it is interesting to reflect as well on the mis-identification of the Shah’s would-be assassin. Keen to make the incident fit into a narrative of himself as an anti-communist crusader, it was assumed the perpetrator was a member of the communist Tudeh party. In fact, he was a religious fundamentalist disgruntled at the Shah’s secularist leanings. This is a foreshadowing of the Shah’s future persistent failure to recognise the relative strengths of his enemies within the country, and specifically the strength of the clergy’s opposition.

The Shah’s attempts to increase his powers was one of the main factors which motivated the formation and mobilisation of Mossadegh’s movement, which viewed a return to monarchical autocracy as a step backward. With its moves to nationalise Iran’s oil, however, the British and Americans took covert action. The CIA and MI6 collaborated on a coup to replace Mossadegh with a military leader of their choice as prime minister, one who would yield to the Shah’s demands for greater influence and, of course, forget any notions of confiscating western oil interests in the country. This plot was masterminded by the head of the CIA, Alan Dulles (below, far right) and co-ordinated on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt Jnr. (below, middle), a grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt.


The coup did not, at first, go smoothly for the conspirators. The initial attack on 15 August 1953 failed to remove Mossadegh, who instead had the general who attempted to dismiss him arrested. The expected support did not rally to the Shah, who panicked and fled the country, first to Iraq and then to Italy. Although seemingly in control of the situation, Mossadegh made a fatal blunder at this point. While the general who had been appointed prime minister, Fazlollah Zahedi (above, far left), remained at large, Mossadegh told his supporters (who had come out into the streets to ensure he remained in power) that the danger had passed, and that they should return to their homes. Zahedi, meanwhile, was rallying support to his cause with the help of lavish funds from the CIA (as a historical footnote, Zahedi had been arrested during world war two as a Nazi collaborator but no-one seemed bothered by that now). The Americans and British realised that whatever opposition to Mossadegh that existed had to be spurred into action. Provocateurs were hired to pretend to be communist protestors, who ran amok in the markets, vandalising businesses and creating the impression that a communist revolution was imminent. A panicked population were organised by another group of paid activists who posed as partisans of the Shah, and fought the ‘communist’ protestors. The army, already unsound in its allegiance to Mossadegh, came out in support of Zahedi, and within days, he was appointed prime minister and Mossadegh arrested.

With breath-taking speed then, Iran’s tentative steps towards creating a modern, secular democrasy were smothered by the 1953 coup. Although his death sentence was commuted by the Shah, Mossadegh remained under house arrest until he died in 1967. The Shah returned to Iran in the company of Dulles, and over the next two decades assumed greater and greater powers to himself, creating an autocratic police state and controlling his increasingly disgruntled population with the help of his secret police, SAVAK, founded in 1957 with American and Israeli assistance. SAVAK became notorious for its studied and systematic use of torture and killing of prisoners, often those who were guilty of no other crime than criticising the regime. Needless to say, the year after the coup, the Anglo-Iranian oil company resumed operations.

The removal of Mossadegh was a pivotal moment in the modern history of Iran, and one remembered and resented by the more progressive elements in Iranian society to this day. Mossadegh was in many ways comparable to Nasser in Egypt, a modernising nationalist and anti-imperialist who stood up to the old colonial powers, the plan to nationalise Iran’s oil being comparable to Nasser’s more successful nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The effect his removal had on Iranians can be gauged by imagining the effect Nasser’s removal would have had on Egyptians if the British and French had had their way and managed to remove him in 1956. Mossadegh became a martyr and a symbol for many Iranians of the better society they might have had, had democracy been allowed to take root in the country. The coup is also a textbook example, however, of the kind of event that is either misunderstood or entirely unknown to westerners, often those holding strong opinions or even with responsibility for policy towards Iran. In a 2006 interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the journalist John Snow remarked that many of the difficulties in Britain’s relationship with Iran went back to the coup against Mossadegh; Blair reportedly looked at him blankly and confessed that he had never even heard of Mossadegh or the events of 1953.

All dissent was forced either underground or abroad in the years that followed. It would be wrong, however, to claim that all of the Shah’s policies were necessarily retrograde and despotic. In the early sixties, a series of reforms were introduced which he liked to refer to as the ‘white revolution’. The centrepiece of this program was a series of land reforms that sought to transform the still-feudal character of Iranian landholding to one of small independent landowners. Peasants, who had hitherto been sharecroppers, or in some cases little better than serfs, were given cheap loans to buy the lands they worked from the great landowners. In elaborate ceremonies, the Shah would travel around the country handing out the title-deeds to these lands to his grateful subjects. Much of this was political theater, orchestrated by the Shah to portray himself as the benefactor of his people. In fact, the land reforms had been the brainchild of his agriculture  minister, Hasan Arsanjani, who was sacked before their implementation so that the Shah could take credit. It would also appear that the Shah, acutely conscious of the need to establish his power on a more firm social basis, carried out these reforms in order to create for himself a power-base among the poor, and to break the power of the old landed aristocracy.

This ‘white revolution’ was, therefore, actually the harnessing of genuinely progressive ideas by the Shah to buttress his authority against potential threats to his authority, such as his own parliament. From the removal of prime minister Ali Amini in 1962, such opposition was increasingly sidelined and prime ministers became mere puppets of the monarch. It remains true, however, that many of these ideas were modernising and progressive. A campaign was launched to spread literacy throughout a largely illiterate population, a new electoral law sought to give rights to participate in politics (to the limit extent that the public could participate in politics) to both non-Muslims and women, who had up until then not been allowed to vote. It was these latter policies in particular which provoked opposition from the one group in Iranian society that had not been thoroughly cowed into submission: the clergy. This was the only group that the Shah was wary of alienating, yet alienate them he did.

This had not always been the case. Fearing the onset of communism at the time of the coup, much of the clergy had rallied to the Shah’s side at that juncture. Great swathes of the clergy continued to adhere to the principle of non-interference in politics. They were led by the example of the Grand Ayatollah (the senior religious figure in Shia Islam) Seyyed Borujerdi, who resided in the holy city of Qom and preached quietism among the clergy in political matters. Not all of Borujerdi’s followers, however, shared his attitude. Another strain of thought was emerging in the early 1960s as a reaction to the Shah’s reforms. This argued that the clergy had an active, even pre-eminent, role to play in political life, and when Borujerdi died in 1961, one of his students who had been constrained by his teacher while he was alive threw off this constraint and became the leading clerical critic of the Shah and his ‘white revolution’. His name was Ruhollah Khomeini. Here is Khomeini in 1964 and later in life, sometime in the 1970s:


In 1964, Khomeini led a protest that centered around two bills being passed through parliament at the Shah’s behest-one, a $200 million loan from the United States, and another (on which it was clearly contingent) new law granting American personnel in the country immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. Khomeini articulated the deep sense of humiliation felt by the masses towards these arrangements, pointing out that:

‘Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted, but if an American cook runs over the Shah, no one will have the right to interfere with him. Why? Because they wanted a loan and America demanded this in return. Iran has sold itself to obtain these dollars. The government has sold our independence, reduced us to the level of a colony.’

Khomeini became a talismanic figure in Iran partly because almost no-one else dared to speak out openly against the regime. He said the most scathing, outrageous things about the Shah and his government, seemingly indifferent to the personal danger he was putting himself in. Spells of imprisonment made no difference; he would be released and they would claim he had promised to keep quiet; Khomeini would deny the existence of any such agreement and continue his denunciations. His aura of mystique grew with the government’s reluctance to deal conclusively with him. Instead of placing him under arrest, either at home or in prison, or having him killed, the Shah chose to send Khomeini into foreign exile in 1965. First he went to to Turkey, but soon afterwards moved to Najaf, a city in Iraq with a long history of providing refuge to Sh’ite clerics who had opposed tyrannical Shahs. Perhaps it was less a sign of his fear of the cleric than a sign of his overweening dominance over the country at this point that the Shah forgot the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. No doubt he later came to regret this allowing Khomeini to leave and agitate against him from abroad.

To all outwards appearances, however, the Shah had nothing to worry about in the decade that followed. A plebiscite overwhelmingly approved his reforms (government-sponsored proposals at this time tended to always be approved by 99% margins and thus such results are questionable). What public protest there was, was put down ferociously by the police. Many were killed, others rounded up and tortured; from this point on, state terror was the order of the day and it could be argued that any peaceful, constitutional challenge to the Shah’s power became impossible. The opposition of the clergy was dismissed by the Shah as ‘black reaction’, the work of a handful of reactionaries who wished to drag the country back to the middle ages. For the most part, however, the Shah either chose to see, or chose to portray, all opposition as the work of ‘communists’. As his stranglehold over the country tightened, his arrogance and ultimate hubris swelled.

This was particularly the case after the onset of the oil crisis, which started in 1973, when the oil-producing nations of OPEC retaliated for the United States’ assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur war (see previous post) by announcing an oil embargo against the Americans and selected allies. This occurred at a time of rising oil-consumption in the west and resulted in a sharp rise in the price of the commodity and everything that depends on it, that is to say, everything that the economy of the entire industrialised west depends on.


The oil-crisis was, in the longer-term, a main cause of the economic contraction that affected the west in the 1970s. To examine this aspect is outside of the scope of this blog. It’s immediate effect on the Middle East, and Iran in particular, was to flood the region with petrodollars. Did the people of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran benefit from this boon, with the introduction of comprehensive welfare states, better public health and education, improved transport and communications infrastructure?

No, they didn’t.

Maintaining our focus on Iran, it becomes clear that much of this windfall was spent on arms. The Shah had a longstanding obsession with making Iran’s army the third most powerful in the world (he was always careful to stress that-the third-that he had no aspirations to rival the U.S. or the Soviet Union. He also repeatedly reminded them he had no interest in developing nuclear weapons. They don’t seem to have been unduly worried in any case. Given the reluctance to allow Iran to even develop nuclear power for civil uses in the last last decade, it’s interesting to note that in the Shah’s era, Iran was positively encouraged by the west to develop nuclear power, as this ad demonstrates:

The government did not limit its spending to arms purchases of course. Vast sums of money were also spent on prestige building projects and lavish parties to convince the outside world that Iran had been transformed overnight into an advanced industrial state. A notorious example of this was the celebrations that took place at the ancient city of Persepolis in 1971, to commemorate 2500 years of Iran’s monarchy. The Shah invited royal families from all across the world to witness gigantic re-enactments of pivotal events from Persian history; everyone stayed in a huge purpose-built city of air-conditioned tents and dined on a lavish meal prepared by Maxim’s of Paris at huge expense. The whole event lasted for four days and cost somewhere in the region of $20 million. Because it took place out in the desert nowhere near where anyone actually lived (which made it very easy to defend against potential protests or attacks), the infrastructure built for the festival could not be converted to any other use. The following pictures give some idea of the opulence of the occasion:


It was, of course, a huge slap in the face for the poverty-stricken masses of Iran and a sign of how increasingly out-of-touch with reality the Shah had become. The truth was that, despite the Shah’s obsession with transforming Iran into a modern society, the transformation was only on the surface. It only applied to a tiny elite surrounding the Shah and his family and it did not extend to giving up his autocratic power, or sharing the country’s wealth outside this elite. The massive building projects which took place in the cities brought a huge influx of poor labourers in from the countryside; economic growth that was impressive on paper caused spiraling inflation which left these people materially not much better off than they had been back in their villages and, crucially, cut off from their own networks of support and social inclusion. This restless and disaffected urban proletarian would become the foot soldiers of the revolution. When the Shah did decide to do something about inflation, the austerity measures he imposed impacted most severely on the poor, only intensifying their hatred of him.

Even those few who benefited to some extent from the influx of foreign revenue and capital suffered from the massively inflated rents in the big cities. For a time, it could be argued that they were consoled for the lack of political freedoms by a surrogate pursuit of material wealth. Ironically, however, it was through their increasing exposure to western culture that educated Iranians became aware of political values and rights that were denied to them at home. Not being able to vote in meaningful elections, form political parties, or even openly criticise the government for fear of imprisonment or worse, was, many Iranians realised, not the norm in those countries which the Shah ostensibly aspired to make Iran like. The Shah himself implicitly conceded this when he remarked ‘when Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden’. Perhaps if he had appeased them, things might have been different, but the educated middle classes were among the most fervent supporters of the Shah’s overthrow, if not its replacement with a theocracy.

As much as economic turmoil, a crucial catalyst for revolution were the cultural changes which accompanied the hardship of these years. The Shah oversaw an aggressive westernisation of the upper and middle classes which, just like the financial influx into the country, affected very few but was looked upon resentfully by many. A similar phenomenon has been noted of Egypt in the 1970s in the last post. Isolated in their bubble of seeming-invincibility and opulence, the ruling elite forgot that, despite the kind of superficial modernisation with which they had surrounded themselves, Iran remained for the most part a deeply conservative and pious society. Here is an ad from the 1970s for something called Rayovac. The girl in the miniskirt caressing the bodybuilder…you can imagine the Ayatollah grinding his teeth.

While this seems very tame, even quaint, to us now, it has to be understood that this was a foreign culture being imposed on a people who, for the most part, regarded it as decadent, shocking and vulgar. While such a culture might have been welcomed if accompanied by political liberalisation and improved living-standards (compare the Americanisation of western Europe after world war two), in Iran it was accompanied by rising prices, a police state and censorship. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that so many rejected it so vehemently.

These conditions continued to worsen as the 1970s wore on. It took a series of violent and prolonged protests for the government to actually lose control. A significant turning point in this spiraling violence was the death of Khomeini’s son, who had remained in Iran, in late 1977. Many suspected the involvement of SAVAK and, when an article appeared in a government-affiliated newspaper in January 1978 which insulted the Ayatollah, accusing him of treason, collaborating with foreign enemies of Iran, and being a homosexual, furious protests broke out in defence of Khomeini, first in Qom, then elsewhere. The security forces opened fire and killed protesters, and were even alleged to have prevented local hospitals from donating blood to save lives. This was only the first of a series of atrocities, culminating in ‘Black Friday’ in September of that year, when the police killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators in Tehran. This is often considered the ‘point of no return’ for both the revolution and the Shah.

The army fires on protesters, Black Friday, 8 September 1978

The leading ayatollah remaining in the country, Shariatmadari, decreed the Shah’s actions to be unIslamic and decreed forty days of public mourning for the victims. These forty-day periods fed into a cycle of protests, atrocity feeding further rioting, which provoked further atrocities from the government. Brute force, however, was no longer effective in cowing the population into submission. To analyse why the Iranian people found the resolve to face down the regime at this point explains, in many ways, why the revolution took the form it did.

One reason was that conditions had become so dire for many that they had less to lose. This is a fundamental underlying many social upheavals in history. Leave people with little to lose and they will confront power more recklessly than they might otherwise. Another element was the belief in the necessity of martyrdom and sacrifice, always strong in Sh’ia Islam. As the protests of 1978 gathered momentum, Khomeini made a pronouncement that the tree of revolution would have to be watered with blood. The ante was upped noticeably this point as unarmed demonstrators confronted an army that began to lose its nerve in the face of this determination. This was not helped by the Shah, who could not decide whether to crush the uprising with unalloyed brute force or to offer concessions. On some occasions the troops were undermined by the Shah, who ordered them not to fire and even publicly condemned them for carrying out killings that he had ordered; on other occasions they were ordered to use all necessary force. Too late, the Shah offered concessions-liberalising of the political system and the dismantling of SAVAK-but instead of satiating their demands for change, it was perceived by the emboldened opposition as a sign of weakness and a spur to push on with the objective of overthrowing the Shah.

Another factor was the tacit encouragement given to the opposition from outside. One of the most humanitarian presidents of modern times, Jimmy Carter, had become president in 1976 and, in his campaign rhetoric, dropped some hints that he would pressurise the Iranian government into opening up its political system to meaningful opposition. In the 1970s, the Shah’s regime, once the darling of the western media, had come under increasing scrutiny by a public in the west alerted (for example by the Vietnam war) to the folly of supporting repressive dictatorships abroad. Iran’s human rights record was condemned by Amnesty International and his visits abroad began to attract protest. Although Carter toned down the rhetoric about human rights once he actually had power, his presidency left the Iranian opposition with the impression that they had his tacit support. It was, at least, no longer clear how far the Americans would go to keep the Shah in power. Many came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t lift a finger. They were right.

The government progressively lost control of the situation throughout 1978. In October, the Shah requested that Khomeini be expelled from Iraq. Saddam Hussein actually offered to have the Ayatollah assassinated at this point but, once again, the Shah failed to act decisively. Khomeini first sought refuge in Kuwait, but was refused. Other Muslim countries were considered before he decided to settle in a quiet suburb outside Paris. While thousands of miles away, the Shah’s allowing Khomeini to escape to France was another huge blunder. With better access to communications and the resources of the Iranian exiled community, the Ayatollah was in fact better able to lead the revolution from Paris than he had been in Iraq.

The personal leadership of Khomeini is something that must be acknowledged in any account of the Iranian revolution. Few single individuals in recent history have exercised such a control over masses of people. At times in the coming months, it seemed as if Khomeini merely needed to express his wish that something be done for it to happen. His charisma and sheer will was a central dynamic of the revolution and, in many ways, it was incomprehensible to outsiders. Seventy-six at the time of the revolution, and having lived outside Iran for 14 years, even up until the point of his return to Iran, it was expected by most observers that the old cleric would assume a vague spiritual role in the post-revolutionary period, like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. As will be seen, they could not have been more wrong. Despite the fact that many of the protesters were carrying pictures of Khomeini and that the country was flooded with recorded cassette-tapes of his sermons, the Shah continued, until well into 1977, to ignore the threat from organised religion.What belated attempt he made to address grievances were largely addressed to the middle-class, educated and western-influenced opposition-the heirs of the National Front and Mossadegh. In fact, this element of the opposition, who were allied with the clergy for convenience’s sake, do not seem to have considered that a theocracy ruled by Khomeini and his allies was a serious possibility. They appear to have believed that they could use the clerics’ influence over the masses and then discard them once the Shah was disposed of. In fact, the opposite was about to happen.

Given what followed the revolution, it is easy to forget in retrospect that the forces which deposed the Shah were multifaceted, a variety of pressure groups with wildly diverging interests. It was far from inevitable that the Islamists should so thoroughly take over in the way they subsequently did. The reasons for this are various. As already noted, it is partly to do with the way the Shah and his security apparatus concentrated most of their repression on the left-wing opposition. When the time came, the clergy and their supporters were in far better shape to take advantage of the opportunity to build a new administration. The mosque became the natural focus for organised dissent, as opposed to unions, workplaces or social clubs; the clerics tapped into the widespread discontent far more successfully than the left.

Indeed, if there was any individual who rivaled Khomeini as the soul of dissent in Iran during the 1970s, it was Ali Shariati. He was a sociologist and philosopher whose writings fused European socialist ideals, third-world liberationism and Islam, and he was hugely influential in the ideological ferment of the revolutionary period. While arguing that Islam could be a revolutionary force for good, he protested against an institutionalised Islam and in favour of one focused less on prayer, piety and theology and instead on action, social justice and equality. Shariati translated Fanon’s anti-imperialist classic, Les Damnés de la Terre (English: ‘The Wretched of the Earth’) into Persian and, like Fanon, was deeply influenced by the Algerians’ war of liberation against France. He posited a history of his faith that contrasted a ‘black Shi’ism’, led by the clergy, which had been allied with and legitimised the rule of an elite throughout history, with his own brand of ‘red Shi’ism’, which puts the tenets of the faith into action in promoting revolution among the masses. While comparing one of the earliest Caliphs with Che Guevara, Shariati argued that, over time, the ‘black Shi’ism’ of the clergy had come to eclipse the Shi’ism of the people.

In this picture, demonstrators during the revolution carry pictures of Shariati (front), as well as Mossadegh (behind):

Revolutionaries hold up large pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (back).

This photograph, incidentally, is by Maryam Zandi, whose work was suppressed by the Iranian government until she was finally allowed to exhibit her pictures of the revolution in 2015. There are more here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2016/feb/08/iran-1979-revolution-photograhy-maryam-zandi-pictures-enqelab-e-57. They are a fascinating document of this tumultuous period. What comes across from these images is the diversity of political views contesting the Shah’s rule. I mention Ali Shariati because in many ways he represents a path not taken during the revolution, having died in 1977 (around the same time as Khomeini’s son) of a heart-attack, although many people believed he had been killed by SAVAK-just one more of the grievances which fed into the protests of 1978.

Events moved fast in early 1979. In January, the Shah made one last push to placate the opposition, by appointing a new prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who was a member of Mossadegh’s National Front. Sweeping reforms, including the overhaul of SAVAK and trial of its officials, were announced, but all of this was too late. Egged on by Khomeini in France, who ruled out all compromise with the old regime, the demonstrators intensified their demands for the abdication of the Shah. He bowed to the inevitable and, at Bakhtiar’s request, left the country on the 16 January, pretending that it was only for a holiday, but everyone knew that he was fleeing. At the airport, a soldier threw himself at the Shah’s feet begging him not to leave. I am not sure why the queen looks so happy in this picture-maybe happy just to be leaving, or because, reportedly, she had taken so many tranquilisers to get her through the experience.


Within a fortnight, Khomeini was on a flight from Paris to Tehran. According to the best estimates, 5 million people came out onto the streets to greet him. This BBC report from the time gives a good sense of the sheer chaos of the event and the hysteria accompanying it:

While Bakhtiar’s government remained, the people’s demands for change now went way beyond a return to the status quo before the 1953 coup. Khomeini quickly forced a confrontation with the remnants of the old regime, ordering his followers to ignore the government’s curfew. A showdown loomed between the army and Khomeini’s supporters, many of whom were now armed with weapons looted from police stations and soldiers who had gone over to their side. A crucial moment came on 10 February when the army declared neutrality in order to avoid the prospect of a civil war within its ranks. Withdrawing to barracks, it ceded control of the country to the revolutionaries, Bakhtiar fled the country in disguise. He would be sentenced to death in absentia by the Islamic regime in 1980, although he survived several assassination attempts in France until they finally got him  in 1991.

I have titled this post ‘Revolution #1’ for a reason. It quickly became clear when writing this that to really understand the Iranian revolution would lead to a level of detailed analysis unwieldy for a single post. It is the event around which revolves the entrance of Islam into politics in the last half century, and for that reason it is important and it behooves us to understand what exactly happened. I think it can also be usefully examined not as one but two revolutions-the one that removed the Shah which has been examined here and the one by which Khomeini and his followers imposed an Islamic form of government on the country and sidelined (to put it mildly) his erstwhile allies and now rivals in the more secular, left-wing wing of the revolution. This second revolution will be examined in the next post, as will the role of the United States in what followed. In the aftermath of the revolution, both the United States and Iran embarked on a campaign of demonisation of the other which resulted in decades of misconception and ignorance about the other nation and its intentions. When we look at what was really going on behind the scenes at the time, however, we find that all was not as it seemed.

End of part 3

Featured image above: Legs of unfinished statue of the shah, Sa’dabad palace, Tehran.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 3. Iran: Revolution #1

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