A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2



I posited at the end of the last post not one Iranian revolution, but two. This is not the standard historiographic framework in which the revolution is examined, and I wouldn’t push the idea too far (it was mainly to justify dividing the story up into two posts), but it does add emphasis to an important aspect of this story which is often overlooked with the benefit of hindsight. That is, that while Iran became an Islamic republic in the years that followed, this is not what many of the revolutionaries had in mind when they helped remove the Shah. The process by which Khomeini and his followers prevailed over these other revolutionary factions in the years after the first revolution, will be the subject of this post. This dichotomy is supported by Khomeini himself, who in 1983 referred to this period of consolidation (and specifically the taking of hostages at the American embassy) as  a ‘second revolution’. The character which the revolution in Iran took had profound consequences for the west, and especially America’s, relationship with the region (largely due to the hostage crisis), for the civil war in Lebanon, which had been raging since 1975, and of course relations with Iraq, with whom Iran would be embroiled in a devastating war from 1980 to 1988.

In the political intrigues which follow, I will broadly divide the conflict into two camps: the clerical or ‘Khomeinist’ faction, who were working towards a theocratic state led by an Islamic jurist (Khomeini himself, until his death in 1989) and their erstwhile allies in the revolution who, while they envisaged some kind of role for the clergy in the new order, did not necessarily foresee that it would take the kind of leading role that Khomeini and his followers sought. At the moment of Khomeini’s return, however, it was far from clear that these two factions were working at cross purposes to each other. On the contrary, while Khomeini’s first speech after arrival at the airport was uncompromising in its attitude to the government left behind by the Shah and led by Bakhtiar (‘I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth’), he nonetheless appointed as the prime minister of his rival administration Mehdi Bazargan, whose background did not differ profoundly from Bakhtiar’s. Bazargan agreed to be prime minister only after a few days of reflection, after warning Khomeini that he did not favour a thoroughly Islamic state apparatus, and that he was committed to western-style democratic principles.

It appears that in these early months, Khomeini either believed he would have to compromise his principles by co-operation with less committed Islamists for practical purposes (he and his supporters were not at this stage in a sufficiently strong position to overpower all opposition), or that he was biding his time and playing down his real intentions until his supporters were ready to elbow their fellow-revolutionaries out of the way. Certainly from their meetings with Khomeini in Paris before the revolution, non-clerical opposition figures like Bazargan, Banisadr and Sanjabi had been left with the impression that the Ayatollah favoured merely an advisory role for the clergy, with politics left to the politicians and himself as a distant, spiritual figurehead rather than an actual ruler. This was in line with their own ambitions. Given that Khomeini never subsequently explained his thinking in this period, his intentions and strategy at any given stage are somewhat opaque, and we are left to guess what he was up to based on his later actions and statements made at the time. He held a press conference (this is the only picture I’ve ever seen in which Khomeini is smiling) to announce he had appointed Bazargan.


It is worth quoting at some length what he said:

‘. . . through the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him, he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the shari‘a. Opposing this government means opposing the shari‘a of Islam and revolting against the shari‘a, and revolt against the government of the shari‘a has its punishment in our law. Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.’

This was innovative in Islamic political thought. Sovereignty, Khomeini was claiming, did not ultimately lie with the people or a monarch, or indeed Khomeini himself. It lay with God, and as God’s appointed guardian on earth, the Ayatollah was taking upon himself the role of interpreting God’s will in political matters. At numerous vital junctures in the months ahead, Khomeini would increasingly play this trump card: asserting that to defy his will was defying God’s. Khomeini’s contention that the government should be headed by a ‘guardianship of the jurist’ (Vilayat-e Faqih) was central to the conflicts that lay ahead. He had expounded it in his writings but in the early stages of the revolution, these ideas were not widely known to the public, or even to his more secular allies. Khomeini kept this concept, which would make him the supreme authority in the state, relatively quiet for the moment, which was probably a wise course of action. Even among his fellow Ayatollahs it was not accepted for the most part. Opponents argued that within traditional Shi’a thought, Vilayat-e Faqih had merely extended to widows and orphans, but not to political control over society as a whole. The leading Ayatollah who argued that the clergy should take a back seat in politics was Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari:


Shariatmadari had been, for the past few decades, one of the leading liberal thinkers among the Marja (the highest-level Ayatollahs in Shi’ism) and an advocate of peaceful protest against the Shah, for the implementation of the constitution of 1906. This would have retained the Shah as a weak constitutional monarch and made Iran a representative democracy. The Shah and his regime, with their characteristic stupidity, cracked down hard on Shariatmadari and other pacifist opponents, funneling opposition into more violent, confrontational channels. After his massacre of unarmed protesters, Shariatmadari’s condemnation of the Shah’s regime as ‘unIslamic’ was one of the milestones on the road to its collapse, depriving it of legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. After the revolution, however, Shariatmadari’s call for a constitutional democratic form of government, with the clergy once again retreating from political activity, made him an influential opponent of Khomeini and his followers.

Even if Khomeini was content to keep his concept of a Vilayat-e Faqih muted for the moment, it is clear that his supporters were mobilising for such an eventuality from an early stage. A secret organisation set up by Khomeini was already in existence before the fall of the Shah. After the Ayatollah’s return in February, the Islamic Republican Party (the IRP) was founded, which would play a leading role in consolidating the Islamists’ power. Among its founders were some of the central figures in the power-struggle ahead: Mohammad Beheshti, Ali Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Javad Bahonar. I find that its usually easier to remember a name when you can put a face to it, and there are a lot of names and middle-aged men with beards in what lies ahead, so we might as well have a look at some of them now:

Mohammad Beheshti
From left to right: Behesti, Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Bahonar.

Behesti was the leading member of the IRP from the start. For him and his followers, the first step was to establish some kind of mandate for the foundation of an Islamic republic. This would not be difficult, given that such a state was one of the rallying-calls in the protests against the Shah. A referendum was held at the end of March in which 99% of the electorate voted in favour. What is crucial to remember at this stage is that the ballot simply asked if the voter wanted an Islamic republic or not. No definition of what that would mean was offered, and while almost everyone could agree that they wanted an Islamic republic, what that actually meant differed widely in practice. These differing interpretations and the latent conflict they involved could be papered over in the heady days after the revolution’s victory, but they could not be avoided forever, or even for long. For the moment, almost everyone could rally around the slogan at least.

Even the armed leftist groups who had suffered most from the Shah’s repression, and now emerged as the strongest military factions, besides the army, were not necessarily opposed to some religious element in the new dispensation. Of the two largest groups, the People’s Mujahedeen supported a yes in the referendum, and the Fedayan-e Khalq (the ‘People’s Majority’) renounced armed struggle and supported the Islamists on a range of issues, hoping (in vain) to be tolerated as a peaceful opposition. Iran’s communists, the Tudeh (masses) party also supported not only the revolution, but the clerical faction in the coming struggles against their leftist rivals. It may seem strange to us that left-wing Marxist groups like these could support an Islamic element in governance, but we must recall the strain of ‘red Shi’ism’ discussed in the last post, exemplified by the writings of Ali Shariati, which was extremely popular among left-leaning intellectuals in Iran in the 1970s. This fusion of Shia Islam and Marxist thought saw no contradiction between religion and practical socialism; on the contrary, it saw true adherence to Shia principles as necessarily bringing into existence the kind of socially-just and egalitarian state of affairs advocated by Socialists. In many respects, it can be compared to the brand of ‘liberation theology’ which emerged in Latin American Catholicism in the 1970s and ’80s, which found itself in conflict with the more conservative establishment of the church in Rome. These left-wing Islamists have been largely forgotten due to their defeat and suppression by the more conservative brand of ‘black Sh’ism’ which prevailed in the revolution.

How Khomeini brought about this defeat has much to do with the development of his own armed groups to counter the threat of the leftists, which was one of his first priorities. Of the several groups set up, by far the most important were the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (literally, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and Hezbollah (the Party of God-note that usually when Hezbollah are mentioned in the west, the reference is to Lebanese Hezbollah, a later movement that was supported by the Iranian government). Sepah would in time become an elite part of the state’s military apparatus. In the atmosphere of fervid enthusiasm, they had grown rapidly to 11,000 members by September 1979, and were under the command of Hashemi Rafsanjani. The Hezbollah were less a formal military organisation than a paramilitary gang, extremely effective at intimidating gatherings of Khomeini’s opponents, fighting with clubs and other improvised weapons. Hezbollah would, in 1980, be instrumental in driving the leftist groups either underground or into exile by attacking their meeting places and bookstores.

Left-wing activists (foreground) are attacked by Hezbollah (under the monument in the background), February 1980.

The next step was to flesh out what was meant by an ‘Islamic Republic’, with the writing of a constitution for said republic. This was where Khomeini could expect the greatest ideological resistance which, besides the armed leftist groups, came from those members of the interim government who belonged to Bazargan’s Freedom Movement. This party had similarities to the earlier National Front of Mossadegh, advocating liberal democratic values with a more overt Islamic cast than the National Front. A good European comparison might be the Christian Democrat parties of the postwar period, basically seeking to adopt most of a the trappings of a modern parliamentary democracy, but keeping the religious influence as a foundation. For the sake of shorthand, I will hereafter refer to them as the ‘moderates’, while recognising that that term is less than ideal. In the discussions surrounding a new constitution, these moderate Islamists were, in the beginning, a formidable obstacle to the full implementation of Khomeini’s program, given that they dominated the government which was responsible for drafting the constitution. Here are some of their leading members:

Leading members of the Freedom Movement (left to right): Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, Medhi Bazargan, Abdolhassan Banisadr and Ibrahim Yazdi.

Ayatollah Shariatmadari was also consulted in the drafting of this constitution. The first version was published in June 1979, and merely gave a weak advisory role to the clergy. There was nothing about the Vilayat-e Faqih. It is interesting to note at this stage that Khomeini seems to have judged that the clergy’s claims to authority had been pushed as far as they would go under the circumstances. He declared the draft constitution ‘correct’ and approved it for referendum. The Freedom Movement and its allies, therefore, seemed on the brink of realising their ambitions. Then, something strange happened. Instead of quitting while they were ahead, the moderates felt duty-bound to have the new constitution debated by an elected assembly before its ratification, as they had promised their supporters. Despite warnings that, under the circumstances, any elections for an assembly would be dominated by IRP supporters, they allowed this to take place. In August, a body of ‘experts’ was elected to review the draft constitution. 55 of the 73 members were clerics aligned with Khomeini who, no doubt seeing his chance, announced that the new constitution should be entirely Islamic, and that non-clerical members of the body should not even enter into discussion on the religious elements.

It is in this period that the Islamists begin to gain the upper hand and flex their muscles over their erstwhile revolutionary allies. Newspapers associated with the left-wing opposition were attacked and closed, Hezbollah and other groups became more assertive, attacking opposition rallies and forcing women to cover themselves up in the street. Behesti, as chairman of the constitutional assembly, led the discussion towards acceptance of the Vilayat-e Faqih. Although it continued to be resisted (Ayatollah Taleghani warned at this point: ‘may God forbid autocracy under the name of religion’) by principled individuals, these were increasingly lone voices. Far from opposing the granting of the role of supreme leader to Khomeini, the masses seemed in favour of it. Clerical opponents like Shariatmadari either didn’t have the stomach for a showdown or, like Taleghani (9 September 1979) died at this opportune moment.

There had been signs before this that the provisional government lacked real power. Orders were being followed far more assiduously by the IRP and the Council of the Islamic Revolution. A great deal of the day-to-day running of the country was also being exercised by the thousands of komitehs (committees) which had been set up around the country as the Shah’s government collapsed. These were local organisations which, in their autonomy and ad-hoc nature, are in many ways analgous to the Soviets that exercised power ruled the early phase of the Russian revolution. By November the shape of the new constitution had emerged, giving broad powers to Khomeini as faqih (supreme leader), to be held for the rest of his life. The faqih was to be at the top of the hierarchy of government, with power to appoint the heads of the armed services and declare war or peace. It was also within his gift to appoint the heads of the national TV and radio stations, and even to remove the president if he was judged incompetent by the parliament. The faqih also had the right to veto candidates for the presidential election if he saw fit.

Such sweeping powers for an unelected position did not go uncontested. Those few remaining within the constitutional assembly, such as Banisadr, warned that it threatened to turn Iran into an autocracy again. Even if deference was paid to Khomeini personally, it was argued that after his death such powers might be abused by a less wise and righteous successor. Debates continued, long after the original time alloted to the assembly had elapsed. Despite opposition to the clerics, however, an atmosphere was intensifying with time, in which any disagreement with Khomeini could be interpreted and portrayed as a lack of revolutionary zeal. In such an atmosphere, it was easy for accusations of sympathy towards the former regime or foreign powers, to take hold in people’s imagination. Into this atmosphere, an event occurred in November which finally and decisively made public opposition to Khomeini untenable, locking Iran into a siege mentality against the outside world which benefited the clerics immensely.


Anti-American feeling had been a factor in the revolution from the very beginning. This is not surprising, given how much the population had suffered under the dictatorship of the Shah, and the United State’s steadfast support of him over many years. It is only in retrospect, however, that the enmity between Iran and the ‘Great Satan’ appears inevitable. The tacit encouragement given to the opposition by the Carter administration has been alluded to in the previous post. The American embassy played a major role in assisting the revolution by, as Bazargan later revealed, working actively to secure the army’s neutrality. The Americans’ encouragement extended to direct contact between embassy personnel and the clerical opposition. The United States, as we can see from the example of Saudi Arabia or their support of fundamentalists in Afghanistan, had no problem with fundamentalist Islam as long as it could be used as an ally against communism. Initial attitudes towards the revolutionary government in Iran reflect a belief in the State Department that Khomeini’s regime could not only be accommodated, but could become part of what Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, liked to call an ‘arc of crisis’ along the Soviet Union’s southern flank, which might be used to foment instability and generally create a headache for the Russians.

Khomeini, however, was not reading the standard Cold War script, in which everyone has to choose a superpower to ally with. While his hatred of the atheistic communists was undimmed, he was also scathing of America, not because it placed the strategic interests of its neo-colonial empire above human life, but because of the materialism and inequality of the consumer culture it sought to export around the world. More pragmatic elements within his government, on the other hand, sought a restoration of relations with the United States. Despite misgivings, it was clear that Iran could not cut itself off from the outside world. For starters, the country would need someone to buy its oil, and the Americans were the world’s best customers in that respect; similarly, Iran had already paid for massive amounts of armaments which had not yet been delivered, and the Americans were holding back on delivery to wait and see whose hands they would fall into. The Iranian army also depended on the Americans for spare parts for the military hardware they already possessed. The subsequent inability to obtain these would be a huge problem in the years ahead.

Such practical considerations were of no interest to Khomeini and, after the Americans allowed the Shah into the United States on 22 October, public anger was ratcheted up several degrees. The Shah had been wandering from country to country after his flight, dying of cancer, and the Americans argued that they were admitting him on purely humanitarian grounds, so that he could receive treatment. The Iranians were having none of this, and demanded the Shah be sent back to stand trial for his crimes. Such was the tension that existed, indeed, that anyone who sought to reach out and mend relations with the United States fell under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. This happened when Bazargan and Yazdi met Brzezinski in Algiers on 1 November, and a photograph of them shaking hands was published in an Iranian newspaper. Once again, the rift between the de jure government, impotent and tainted with accusations of lacking revolutionary zeal, and the real focus of power around Khomeini, was apparent. A group of students loyal to Khomeini decided to take matters into their own hands, confident (rightly, as it turned out) that the Ayatollah would support their actions.

After the Shah was given refuge, huge crowds had been protesting outside the American embassy in Tehran every day. On the 4 November 1979, a group emerged from the crowd and scaled the fence, then cut the padlocks on the gates, and led a storming of the embassy, during which over sixty embassy staff were taken hostage. Once again it was clear that the provisional government were utterly helpless (no police even attempted to defend the building) and that power on the streets belonged to autonomous revolutionary groups such as the ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line’ which had organised the embassy takeover. This is, in the west, the central event of the Iranian revolution, and I don’t want to dwell too much on the diplomatic ins and outs of it too much, given that it has been examined in so much detail elsewhere. What is significant for the story here is that Bazargan and his government immediately called for the release of the hostages and asked for Khomeini to do the same. If he had, no doubt the whole thing would have blown over, but he didn’t.


Instead, Khomeini indicated his approval and the IRC issued a statement supporting the students. Iran was here entering uncharted diplomatic waters. The inviolability of foreign embassies is basically a cornerstone of relations between countries; without it, diplomatic relations break down. The attempts to Bazargan and his allies to point this out, however, fell on deaf ears. Under the circumstances, it just made them appear more and more tarnished as sympathetic to the Americans, especially when documents seized in the embassy exposed their attempts to mend relations with them. It was clear to the prime minister that his position was untenable and he resigned on the 6 November. Khomeini announced to the country that Bazargan was ‘a bit tired and wishes to stay on the sidelines for a while.’

And the hostage crisis dragged on without end in sight. Every attempt the Carter regime made to negotiate their release ran up against the Iranians’ insistence that the Shah be handed over to them. This the Americans refused to do. The longer this went on, the more poisonous the atmosphere became, and the feeling of being picked on by American superpower only strengthened the power of Khomeini and the IRC. Under such circumstances of course, the referendum in December on the constitution resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Islamists. Khomeini was made supreme leader with all the powers he had demanded in his vision of a Vilayat-e Faqih. The new constitution also instituted the elected post of president, to be subordinate to the supreme leader. Elections were held in January 1980 for the position. Perhaps as a gesture to the still-significant middle-class constituency who supported the more liberal wing of the revolution, Khomeini vetted leading IRC members like Behesti from running, basically clearing the path for Abdolhassan Banisadr, standing as an independent, to win the election with an impressive 76% share of the vote. Here he is on the left at his inauguration. Behesti, standing next to him, looks suitably pissed off.

Banisadr_beheshti inauguration.jpg

Although  Khomeini and Banisadr were old friends, and the Ayatollah had facilitated Banisadr’s presidency, from here on in, they would generally find themselves at loggerheads, and the president stymied at every turn, not only by the supreme leader, but by the new Majlis (parliament) which, after the elections in March was dominated by the IRC and its allies. Accusations were made by the Freedom movement and the left that the vote had been rigged, and that people had been intimidated into voting for IRC candidates. What was not even concealed was the practice of a committee which filtered out candidates undesirable to the clerics. Whatever the reasons, it appears that Khomeini was prepared to offer the presidency as a sop to liberals, while securing control of the Majlis. Banisadr’s position was further undermined when Khomeini (who had to approve of the appointment) refused to accept his choice of prime minister, forcing the president to appoint an IRC-approved candidate, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, for the job. In the early part of 1981, Khomeini intensified his undermining of the presidency, accusing Banisadr of exceeding his constitutional powers and of secretly collaborating with the CIA. Many of his supporters were rounded up and imprisoned and, by June 1981, Banisadr went into hiding, eventually fleeing to Paris, where he lives to this day as a prominent spokesperson against the Islamic regime. Rajai was elected president in Banisadr’s place, although he and his prime minister. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, were killed by the People’s Mujahedeen in a bomb later that year. The same group incidentally, would also be responsible for the assassination of Behesti and 72 others, with a bomb at the IRC headquarters in June 1981.

Back in the midst of the presidential elections of 1980 (which took place in two rounds between March and May) the Americans, frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, made a disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages. In what was, in retrospect, an overcomplicated plan, eight helicopters flew into Iran and rendezvoused in an isolated desert region before continuing on to Tehran. They ran into a dust-storm and lost their bearings, and then, when attempted to refuel, one helicopter crashed into another killing eight crew members. The others abandoned the mission and fled, leaving classified documents in some of the abandoned helicopters with detailed plans of the rescue mission. It was an utter humiliation for the Americans and for the Iranians, a confirmation of what they suspected all along, of the Americans’ imperialist attitude towards their country and attempts to derail the revolution.

Such suspicions were of course not without foundation, given that the United States clearly had no compunction about violating the sovereignty of another nation state. It was also widely believed in Iran that the rescue mission had been thwarted by the intervention of God (the convenient dust-storm) and it only strengthened the hand of the clerics even more. This strengthening of the most radical elements of the revolution by outside attempts at intervention is a constant theme of Iran in the 1980s. Nothing smothers internal dissent than an exterior threat, and nothing brings divided factions together like a heroic national struggle for survival. We can see the same dynamic at work in revolutionary France and Russia. In this sense, the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in September 1980 played a huge role in the Khomeinists’ consolidation of power. There is little doubt that Iraq was, at the outset the aggressor in the war. Seeking to take advantage of the revolutionary turmoil in the country and the army’s weakness, Saddam launched a surprise invasion on 22 September 1980 and, aided by the element of surprise, captured a significant amount of Iranian territory. Its initial air strikes on the Iranian air-force were bungled and ineffective, however, and the Iranians, once they had rallied, halted the Iraqi advance and settled in for a long drawn-out battle to expel the Iraqis from their territory.

Despite the major handicap associated with being unable to obtain spares for their equipment from the Americans, and the decimation of the army’s staff by the revolution, Iran had managed, by 1982, to push the Iraqis back across the border. The war might have ended there; Iran might have avoided the catastrophe that was to continue until 1988, but instead Khomeini and his supporters decided to pursue an aggressive war into Iraq. Those involved in decision-making still debate whose responsibility this was, no doubt because the war ultimately achieved nothing except take a million lives on each side and decimate the country’s infrastructure. It also contributed to the sense of Iranian victimhood against western plotting. It has to be said once again that they had good reasons to believe this. Partly due to the fact that Saddam Hussein was subsequently to become the caricature baddie on western tv-screens, we forget that at the time he was favoured by the west in the war, even if this was not officially admitted.


At the start of the war, Hussein’s army received the bulk of its supplies from the Soviet Union and France, but by the time of the Iranian offensive in 1982, the Americans were actively seeking ways to lend their support as well. The Iraqis used complicated financial ruses to disguise arms-procurement from the Americans and British and, even more controversially, were knowingly supplied by the same countries with the means for manufacturing chemical weapons. These were used from 1983 onwards against Iranian soldiers and later, against Kurdish civilians, most notoriously at Halabja, where 4-5,000 people were killed on 16 March 1988.


For the Iranians, this, and the fact that the Americans and the British refused to condemn Iraq for using chemical weapons, convinced them that they had no real interest in upholding human rights or international conventions like Geneva. What resolutions were taken at the UN condemned the use of chemical weapons in general, but it is to Iran’s credit that, while they did develop the capacity to manufacture them, Khomeini’s government declared their use to be unIslamic, and refused to use them. This last fact is interesting in that it left Iran at a significant disadvantage in the war. One of the main reasons they made peace in 1988 was the fear that Iraq would use chemical weapons on Tehran and other large cities. It does suggest a sincere principled religious outlook on the part of the revolutionary leaders, and not, as some have suggested, a cynical attempt to use religion to gain power. Even if we may not agree with Khomeini’s principles, it has to be acknowledge that he stuck to them, even at his own cost. In terms of international relations, this made him unpredictable, and therefore dangerous.

The hostage crisis is another example of this. Khomeini appears to have genuinely believed that the U.S. was plotting against Iran. Given the threat from the Soviet Union on their doorstep, it really would have made more sense for the Iranians to swallow their pride and restore good relations with the Americans. It has been seen that the Americans were only too willing to do so. Moderates like Banisadr, and more pragmatic clerics like Rafsanjani, were in favour of this. But Khomeini prevented it at every juncture. The hostages were held for a total of 444 days in the end. The Iranians waited until a few minutes after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as president in January 1981 to release them. In fact, the hostage crisis and the bungled rescue attempt probably had a decisive impact on the failure of Carter to secure re-election. There is significant evidence, in fact, to suggest that Reagan’s campaign secretly worked with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages to help Reagan win.

In the end, the crisis achieved little for Iran. Apart from the release of some funds  the Americans had frozen, the Iranians secured few concessions in their negotiations. In return, they earned the enmity of successive American governments and an international isolation which basically continued until the agreement of January 2016 to lift sanctions against the country. None of this was necessary or inevitable. Both countries have profoundly misunderstood and demonised one another to very little purpose. The culmination of this misunderstanding was in the years of George W.Bush’s presidency, when Iraq was portrayed as America’s nemesis in some kind of global clash of civilisations between the modern secular west and Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, the Iranian regime was bemused by this ‘axis of evil’ narrative, because they had just provided the Americans with military intelligence to help defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, whom they regarded as far more dangerous rivals than the Americans.

In fact, Iran’s conflict with the United States does not fit neatly into some narrative of an east-west clash of cultures at all. This overestimates the role played by religion in these matters. While certainly important, even at the height of revolutionary fervour in the 1980s, it was less central than is sometimes assumed. Iran’s soldiers, marching off to die in ‘human wave’ attacks against the Iraqis, were often portrayed in the western media as suicidal fanatics, dying for religion. While the rhetoric of martyrdom played a big part, research has shown that nationalism played at least as large a role in motivating them as religion. There is a discussion of this in the excellent book Revolutionary Iran by Michael Axworthy. It is also notable how little attempt was made by the Iranians to export the revolution abroad. Attempts were made to foment rebellion amongst the Shia in Iraq, with limited success. More often than not, however, they chose to defend their country against the Iranian invader; clearly national identity overrode religious. The opposite was true in Iran, where the Iraqis’ fellow Arabs in Khuzestan province might have been expected to side with Iraq, but for the most part, did not.

There were of course elements within the revolution who wanted to export it to other countries. At times, Khomeini himself seems to have encouraged this trend. Some have suggested that Iraq’s attack on Iran was driven by this fear, and that such an ambition drove Iran to prolong the war after 1982. The only place, however, in which Iran could be said to have significantly intervened was Lebanon, and in the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah, which will be dealt with in a separate post. In fact, the proponents of an expansionist Iranian revolution became, in practice, marginalised in the 1980s. Consumed by internal conflict and the Iraq war, Iran had far less influence on, for example, the war in neighbouring Afghanistan than might be expected. This is partly because the pragmatists like Rafsanjani gradually took precedence over the less prudent revolutionary elements. Pragmatism and realpolitik dictated strict Islamic principles be put aside on occasion for strategic advantage.

It has been noted in an earlier post that the Syrian regime of Assad (both father and son) was fanatical in its secularism and persecution of Islamists; it is interesting to note, however, that in the 1980s it was Islamic Iran’s most loyal ally, largely on account of the fact that they shared a common enemy in Iraq. Even more remarkable was the ambiguous relationship with Israel. Condemnation of Israel and Zionism went, of course, side by side with anti-American rhetoric in the early stages of the revolution. Israel had been a major backer of the Shah and was none too pleased to see an Islamist regime emerge in Tehran. In practice, however, there was a natural convergence of interests between Iran and Israel which could not be openly acknowledged, but which led the two countries to share intelligence, and for the Israelis to send arms to Iran. Even while they were fighting (by proxy) in Lebanon, Israel was aiding Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein, bombing Iraq’s plutonium research reactor in 1981 and even receiving permission to enter Iranian airspace for the purpose. Such collaboration, of course, had to be a closely-guarded secret.

It turned out not to be closely-guarded enough. When it came out, the Iran-Contra affair was even more shocking because, besides Israel, the backdoor means by which Iran was trading for arms included even the Great Satan itself. The Iran-Contra affair is a fascinating episode for what it reveals about the disparity between states’ avowed values and goals, and the extent to which they are prepared to subvert these apparent principles in pursuit of their strategic aims. The Americans had, since the hostage crisis, cut off all economic ties with Iran, refusing to either buy Iranian oil or sell weapons to assist them in their war with Iraq. They had also gone to some lengths to convince other countries not to sell weapons to them either, basically doing everything they could to hinder their war effort. At the same time, a war had been raging in Nicaragua since 1981 between the left-wing Sandinistas, who had overthrown the fascist dictator Somoza in 1979, and an armed group of counter-revolutionaries called the Contras. While under Carter, attempts had been made to assist the fledgling democracy under the Sandinistas, when Reagan came to power, these attempts were ended, and funding/arms was instead directed towards the Contras.

There was widespread discontent at this assistance, however, as the Contras were basically unreconstructed fascists who were engaged in widespread human-rights abuses and prepared to do almost anything to destablise Nicaragua. Although Reagan was president, Congress at this time was controlled by the Democrats, who managed to pass a bill forbidding the United States from funding the Contras. At the same time, in Lebanon (bear with me here)…a number of Americans (among other westerners) had been taken hostage by Lebanese Hezbollah, which had strong connections (some go so far as to say it was controlled by) the Islamic Republic of Iran. By its own policy of not paying ransoms to (or even negotiating with) kidnappers, the United States government was hamstrung in its efforts to secure the return of these hostages. So, the Reagan administration was faced with three things it wasn’t allowed to do-fund the Contras, ransom the hostages in Lebanon, and supply Iran with arms. It was realised that, with Israeli help, they could do all three.

Basically, the scheme worked like this: Israel would secretly supply Iran with American weapons and spare parts, Iran would pay Israel, who would pass on these funds to the Contras in return for replacement of their weapons by America. In return for this, Iran would ensure that the Islamist groups in Lebanon would release their American hostages. This was going on from November 1985, and worked like a charm until August of the following year, when the arrangement was leaked by a Lebanese newspaper. It was shortly afterwards confirmed by both the Iranians and Americans, for both of whom it was deeply embarrassing, and who both made every effort to limit the damage and shelter top-level officials from responsibility. What it does show that there was no obstacle in private to dealings with the ‘enemy’, but that public postures based on either religious principle or commitment to human rights and democracy, were largely a fiction, and indeed remain so to this day.

By the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, it can be said that the Islamic revolution in Iran had well and truly consolidated its power, and was here to stay. There is no hard and fast date we can put this at. Personally, I think the decree of December 1982 is a good point at which we can say the revolution came to an end. In this, the government sought to bring under its control the various komitehs and Revolutionary Guard groups, clearly asserting its right to a monopoly of violence, to rein in the revolutionary fervour that had served it well to that point but which, as in all revolutions, could ultimately become destabilising if given free rein too long. This is not to say that Iran was from then on a stable, untroubled society. Far from it, apart from the devastation caused by the war with Iraq, there continued to be rivalries and disputes in the corridors of power. Perhaps the most prominent confrontation was between Khomeini and his designated successor, Hussein-Ali Montazeri (below), who had once belonged to the most radical wing of the revolution, and was one of the most eager to export it abroad.


As the 1980s progressed, however, Montazeri also became concerned with the government’s growing authoritarianism, his critique growing in confidence as he became more clearly identified as successor to Khomeini and a group of followers correspondingly gathered around him. His downfall came in the aftermath of the execution of thousands of mostly left-wing prisoners in 1988, which Khomeini had personally ordered. Montazeri was sidelined and eventually placed under house arrest, but remained a prominent critic of the Islamic republic (which he claimed was not being run on Islamic lines) until his death in 2009. His funeral, incidentally, became a rallying point for the protests of that year against the re-election of Ahmadinejad.

When Khomeini did die in 1989, his replacement was Ali Khamenei, who had been elected president in 1981 to replace the assassinated Rajai. Khameini’s prime minister, Mir Hosein Musavi (the pairing lasted until 1989), was to become a leader of the reformist movement of 2009, in which he ran against Ahmadinejad and accused the latter’s campaign of fixing the results. As the prison massacres would indicate, Iran became in many ways as repressive as it had been under the Shah. The organisation created to replace SAVAK, the SAVAMA, differed little, not only in its name, but in terms of cruelty. Some of its members were even recruited from former SAVAK operatives, rehabilitated for the purpose. Notwithstanding all of these teething troubles, by 1982, the essentials of the Islamic regime were in place, and no alternative, whether leftist, or sympathetic towards the Shah, stood any chance of replacing it. This is a massive element in the story of political Islam over the past half century: the establishment of an Islamic state of 50 (today 80) million people, governed along theocratic lines, in the heart of the what America liked to see as its middle-eastern strategic chessboard, and which was literally on the Soviet Union’s doorstep. It has already been noted, however, how surprisingly limited was Iran’s role as a fomenter of Islamic revolution abroad. Although the Iranian revolution produced a regime that was outwardly hostile to ‘the west’ and the United States in particular, it would be deeply misleading to conclude from this that, from this point on, political Islam and the west were locked in an ideological battle which has continued unbroken to this day. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The country which confounds this narrative is Afghanistan, where many of the forces that would come to characterise the Salafist movement of the 1990s onwards would coalesce. Before we come to the Afghan wars which followed the Soviet invasion of 1979, however, it might be useful to backtrack a bit and explain some of the other conflicts which have fed into the growth of militant Islam. One of my main purposes in this blog, after all, has been to explain some of the lesser-known corners of the Muslim world, whose wars occasionally pop up in the news and which seem incomprehensible to most of us. One of the most incomprehensible of these conflicts, which has been mentioned once or twice in this post, was Lebanon, which was ostensibly one of the most prosperous and peaceful corners of the middle-east until a devastating and prolonged civil war erupted in 1975. This will be the subject of the next post. After that, my plan is to make detours to Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Libya, as well as Yemen and the Persian Gulf states, to examine the development of political Islam in these countries (as opposed to a comprehensive history of them) in the last few decades. Afghanistan will then be examined, in many ways the fulcrum around which this story revolves, as well as the Algerian and Yugoslav civil wars, which were also vital episodes.

End of part 4

Featured image above: eyes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 4. Iran: Revolution #2

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