The Hidden Continent of Iran
In the summer of 2009 the world was watching Iran. Not because of the
unresolved question of Iran’s nuclear programme, nor Iran’s troubled
relationship with the United States, nor (at least not primarily) because of
human rights abuses. The world and its media- wife were watching Iran
because, thirty years after the Islamic revolution of 1979 (and a hundred
years after the Constitutional revolution of 1906 – 11 ), Iranians were
again on the streets of Tehran in hundreds of thousands, demanding free,
democratic government and an end to tyranny. Iranians sometimes have
an exaggerated sense of their country’s importance in the world. But for
once it appeared justifi ed. Would the Islamic republic fall? Or might it
shift to a more open, freer version of itself that permitted elections to run
their course – in contrast to the manipulated process enforced by repression
many believed they had suffered after 12 June 2009 ? If there is a
spirit of movement and change in world events, which moves from place
to place over time according to crises in human affairs, then that spirit
was alive in Tehran in the summer of 2009 .
As it turned out, repression seemed to succeed that time. The spirit
moved on, after a pause, to other places in the region, to Tunisia, Egypt
and Libya, where it was more successful; and to Bahrain and Syria. In
Iran, repression has deepened. But the story is not yet over. Iran appeared
central then and continues to be of central importance.
This book is about the history of Iran since the beginning of the Islamic
revolution of 1978 – 9 . But, as with any historical subject, the roots of
events go back long before the events themselves. This is, if possible, all
the more so with Iran; a country with a long, complex history that is
for the most part unknown to ordinary citizens of Western countries –
something that often frustrates and irritates Iranians, who are proud of
their history and their contribution to world civilization. The apparent
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strangeness of Iranian politics and Iranian behaviour in the last thirty
or forty years is only explicable through an understanding of the history
of the country. So, although this book is focused on the revolution of
1978 – 9 and the three decades since then, it is necessary to go back further
into the history of the twentieth century, and even beyond (for the history
of Shi‘ism for example) to explain recent events.
Iran is less a country than a continent, more a civilization than a nation.
In the past, countries like the USA , China, Russia and India have supported
enough diversity and cultural self- confi dence for at least some of
their citizens to be able to feel that they were worlds unto themselves –
self- suffi cient, sometimes arrogant and superior. That they could do
without the rest of humanity. As the process of globalization advances,
such notions become less tenable, even for those large, imperial- scale
countries. But they retain their attitudes to a certain extent. China and
India have in addition a sense of ancient depth, of history, that strengthens
their sense of self still further.
Iran has this too – albeit often infused with nostalgia, and a sense of
loss and decline – but the Iranians tend to measure themselves not against
China or India (still less against their Middle Eastern neighbours), but
against Europe and North America. Iranians, like the Chinese, have been
able to feel that theirs was the original, the oldest civilization. Many Iranians
have believed – and deep down, may still believe in some way – that
they have the best poetry, the best music, the best philosophy, the best
food – or at any rate the best rice – and of course the best religion. However
untenable, such notions could not even be thought of without there
being at least an element of justifi cation to them. It is great poetry, great
music, wonderful food and great rice.
Within Iran, there is, as ever, still a remarkable, continental diversity of ethnicity,
language, climate, geography, fl ora and fauna. And, thanks partly to the
lonely path trodden by Iran in its revolutionary, anti- Western politics, Iran
maintains that variety and is still less globalized than many other countries. The
bazaars, their merchants and their traditions were close to the revolution of
1979 , have been among the revolution’s prime benefi ciaries and are still close
to the centre of the country’s economic and political life. Iran’s bazaars still sell
more home- produced goods than are on the market elsewhere and sustain
more artisans producing traditional craft items (metalwork, ceramics, printed
textiles, rugs and other items), of higher quality than you fi nd elsewhere.
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If you go to hotels on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, in Dubai or Qatar
for example, you may fi nd that the better- quality souvenirs on sale in the gift
shops (with the price marked up enormously), presented as local, were
actually made in Iran. The apparent economic self- suffi ciency of Iran’s
bazaars (perhaps something of an illusion) still reinforces the country’s
sense of cultural self- suffi ciency.
Since the second millennium BC and the very beginnings of mankind’s
recorded past, Iranian history can be seen as a microcosm of human history
as a whole: empires, revolutions, invasions, art, architecture, warriors,
conquerors, great thinkers, great writers and poets, holy men and lawgivers,
charismatic leaders and the blackest villains. A visiting Martian
wanting to see the full range of human activity, good and bad, to understand
mankind, could well look at Iran as a kind of introductory course. 1
Within this, the history of the last fi fty years in Iran is particularly dramatic,
eventful and characteristic.
A further reason to look at Iran is that since the time of the Iranian
revolution, European and Western attitudes to the rest of the world have
been forced to change. Previously we tended still to think in terms of linear
development in the Middle East and elsewhere towards a Western economic
and social model, a Western idea of modernity, away from the
traditional patterns of life of those countries, which were perceived as
backward and outdated. Now, we cannot afford to think in that simple
way any more. There is for example, a realization that countries like China
and India are following their own developmental path and that their economic
weight in the globalized world is going to demand respect, if not
predominate. The Western model is no longer the only option. This does
not mean we should be shy about values like liberalism and representative
government – it may mean we have to argue for them with greater urgency,
clarity and consistency. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Islamic
revival in the wider world that followed (triggered by the revolution if not
directly led or inspired by it) changed assumptions about the direction of
development. The history and culture of the Middle East, and of Iran
within that, has taken on a greater importance because we have to accept
that it is going to be a formative part of the future of that part of the
world, and all parts of the world are closer to us and more intimately
involved with us than formerly. After 1979 we can no longer work on the
assumption that the history and culture of the Middle East are irrelevant.
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There are other good reasons to study Iran, beyond the old reason, the
best reason, for studying other countries and cultures – to understand
humanity, and therefore ourselves, better. In a world of intellectual uncertainty,
doubt, complexity and ambiguity, where for many in the West the old
certainties and the old gods of the past have fallen from their plinths, Iranian
intellectual culture has a lot to say. Iranian thinkers have been at home with
complexity, paradox, ambiguity and irony for a long time – at least since the
era of the great Persian poets, between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries,
who explored those categories as fully as anyone since.
Some Misconceptions
In the West, we think we know about Iran, but what we think we know
is often misleading or simply false. Many people, even otherwise welleducated
people, think of the Iranians as Arabs, but they are not. They
speak Persian, an ancient language of Indo- European origin, like Latin,
modern German and English. It has an elegantly simple grammatical
structure much more like that of German or English than that of Arabic.
Unlike in many other territories conquered by Islam in the seventh
century AD , Arabic did not simply replace the previous speech in Iran,
and in many ways Iranians have traditionally defi ned themselves against
the Arab identity of much of the rest of the Middle East region. We are
encouraged to think of the Iranians as fanatical Muslims, world- leaders
in Islamic fundamentalism. But the fact is that the experience of Islamic
government in Iran since 1979 has turned many Iranians against political
Islam, and the political attitudes of those Iranians have secularized.
The Iranian Islam of the Islamic republic, rather than being fundamentalist
(in the sense of a deliberate return to the style of Islam of earliest
times, as advocated for example by the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia),
incorporates radical modern innovations that many Shi‘a Muslims, let
alone Sunnis, regard as dubious. If the term fundamentalist has any solid
meaning beyond its use as a boo- word then it is incorrect to label the
Iranian revolution and regime as fundamentalist. 2 And the Iranians are
Shi‘as, which means that any kind of leadership they could offer the rest
of the Islamic world would be questionable at best, given the Sunni / Shi‘a
schism, the strong antipathy many Sunnis feel toward Shi‘as and the fact
that the majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni.
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We think of images of demonstrations and chanting crowds and
assume (encouraged by our news media) that Iranian Shi‘ism is a dangerous,
uncontrollable, fanatical force. But in truth the religious hierarchy
that Iranian Shi‘ism has developed means that religious Iranians are more
controlled, more subject to religious discipline and the guidance of senior
clerics (most of whom are pragmatic and moderate, and many of whom
are out of sympathy with the Islamic regime) than Sunni Muslims, who
since the dissolution of the Caliphate in the 1920 s have lacked that kind
of structure. Some experts have pointed to that lack as a factor in the rise
of radical, theologically incoherent groups like Al- Qaeda. 3 Iran has been
historically central to humane and refl ective strands of Islamic thought,
including the hugely infl uential Sufi tradition, which inspired some of the
most profound and beautiful Persian poetry. An important strand of
Iranian Shi‘ism is a traditional, quietist principle that commends decent,
honest conduct and the patient endurance of adversity.
Iran is often depicted as an aggressive power, but it has not waged serious
aggressive war since the time of Nader Shah, in the mid- eighteenth
century, and its defence spending today is moderate to low for a state that
size, not faintly comparable with that of militaristic states like the Soviet
Union during the Cold War, for example. Since the eighteenth century
Iran has fought wars, but normally defensive ones – notably the long,
devastating Iran– Iraq War of the 1980 s. In that war the US and other
Western powers supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq against Iran, in the
belief that it was necessary to contain Iranian religious extremism. For
similar reasons, the US later funded the Taliban and Al- Qaeda in Afghanistan,
to prevent pro- Iranian groups taking control after the Russians left.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan the US eventually had to intervene against
the monsters that their policy of containment had helped to create. The
Iranians helped the coalition powers to set up new democratic structures
in both countries, though this has often gone unacknowledged. Instead,
Iran has perversely been blamed for the fact that the removal of these
enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan has enhanced Iran’s regional infl uence.
None of this should permit a whitewash of the current regime ruling
Iran. It is a repressive, autocratic regime run in the interests of a narrow
clique that systematically denies political freedoms and natural rights to the
Iranian people. The defects of the regime have only become more apparent
since the crisis that followed the presidential elections of June 2009 . The
regime continues to be responsible for systematic, serious abuses of human
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rights. But because of its (largely self- imposed) isolation and its opposition
to the West, and the infl ammatory rhetoric of fi gures like Ahmadinejad,
more opprobrium has been heaped on Iran more indiscriminately than is
justifi ed by the facts, and (even after the Arab spring- cleaning, unfortunately)
there are other regimes in the region that in many respects are as bad, or
worse. If we are to fi nd solutions to the problems of the Middle East it is
essential to see Iran and the region as they really are, in their true form.
It is normal in Western countries for people not to have very much reliable
information about Iran, and yet for certain aspects of Iran to be
familiar. There are things about Iran that are striking and memorable;
useful for news media programming because they make an immediate,
strong visual impression. This often means a mullah, with a beard, in a
turban and robes, talking into a microphone, and an agitated crowd
chanting something. Then perhaps a graph showing the latest movement
in the price of oil, which affects everybody. But how did a cleric get into
a position of such authority? Why has Iran, under the Islamic republic,
followed such a different path? This book tries, by describing the events
of recent Iranian history, to answer some of those questions.
In doing so, I have written a book that is necessarily history in summary
and overview rather than one that attempts to evaluate every item
within the huge quantity of available source material on every event or
episode. In addition, while explaining events as they unfolded, I have
tended to focus on moments and episodes that have been turning- points,
which have been important in determining the shape of what followed,
rather than try to chronicle every month and year as of equal weight. This
is why, for example, the book devotes attention to the origins of the revolution
of 1979, and a long chapter to the Iran– Iraq War, which left such a
deep mark on contemporary Iran. To illuminate the narrative it also
presents the words of ordinary Iranians and other observers, giving an
immediate sense of events, opinions and motivations.
Again and again, the usual kind of reporting and comment in the West
stresses how strange, how alien, how irrational and how disturbing Iran
and Iranian politics are. One of my tasks in this book is to show that
Iranian concerns, values, problems, actions and reactions are wholly
explicable and rational when seen in their own proper context, in the
round; quite open to sympathy, and even familiar.
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
( Daheh- ye Fajr )
On 1 February 1979 , just after 9 . 30 a.m., an Air France 747 airliner landed
at Mehrabad airport on the western outskirts of Tehran, and a member of
the crew, with others in attendance, helped an elderly, bearded man down
the steps to the ground. This was no ordinary fl ight. As the aircraft had
entered Iranian airspace, many on board had feared it might be shot down.
As it landed, several million Iranians were waiting on the streets to welcome
the bearded man in clerical robes, and every move he made was
shadowed by crowds of minders, reporters, photographers and hangerson
of all kinds. The special passenger for whom the aircraft had been
chartered was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returning from exile, and the
photographs and fi lm of his descent from the aircraft became some of the
defi ning images of the Iranian revolution.
Khomeini had been away from the country since the autumn of 1964 ;
initially in Turkey and Iraq, later (briefl y) in Paris. The Shah, whose government
had exiled Khomeini, had left Iran from the same airport fourteen
days before, on 16 January, after a year- long crescendo of mass protest
against his rule. Newspapers that had carried the headline ‘Shah raft’
(‘The Shah Is Gone’) now printed ‘Emam amad’ (‘The Emam Has Come’).
Many people had waited up all night to witness Khomeini’s arrival.
The crowds cried ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and ‘Khomeini, O Emam!’ In the airport
building he made a short speech thanking the students, clergy and
bazaar merchants for their sacrifi ces in the demonstrations over the previous
year and exhorted them to remain united to defeat the remnants of
the Shah’s regime. At one point the hubbub was such that he had to be
carried outside. 1 There was some tension between the clerics welcoming
Khomeini and those who had accompanied him from Paris.
As Khomeini arrived, the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar,
was still attempting to hold his government together. He seems to have
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Revolutionary Iran
contacted Khomeini in Paris after the Shah’s departure and offered to
resign, but Khomeini ignored the message. 2 Bakhtiar was next to powerless
before the mass movement of Iranians that had united itself behind
Khomeini. The behaviour of the armed forces was crucial; two days earlier
troops had killed thirty demonstrators on the streets near the
university and injured hundreds more. Bakhtiar had been forced to give
the troops his backing, saying that they had acted in self- defence; but the
incident discredited him further, linking him in the minds of the pro-
Khomeini populace with the actions of the Shah’s regime against
demonstrators in previous months.
From the airport Khomeini was driven through the packed streets
towards the Behesht- e Zahra cemetery on the south side of the city.
Mohsen Rafi qdust drove the car – no simple task, because more than
once it was mobbed and almost overwhelmed by the crowd. Rafi qdust
later said that he nearly lost control several times. Several of Khomeini’s
followers rode on the outside of the vehicle (a white four- wheel- drive) to
fend off the people, and Rafi qdust drove bumper- to- bumper behind a
Mercedes bus some of the way so that the bus could force a way through
(and to prevent people jumping on the front of the car or going under the
wheels). 3 Khomeini’s son Ahmad accompanied him – as they went along,
Ahmad had to explain to his father where they were, because building
over the previous fi fteen years had transformed this part of the city. Eventually
the crowds in the streets became so thick that a helicopter had to
take him the last part of the way. 4
At Behesht- e Zahra Khomeini spoke again, denouncing Mohammad
Reza Shah and the remnants of his government under Bakhtiar:
[The Shah] destroyed our country and fi lled our cemeteries. He ruined our
country’s economy. Even the projects he carried out in the name of progress
pushed the country towards decadence. He suppressed our culture, annihilated
people and destroyed all our manpower resources. We are saying this
man, his government, his Majlis are all illegal. If they were to continue to
stay in power, we would treat them as criminals and would try them as
criminals. I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government
in the mouth. 5
He urged the armed forces to join the people, to realize their independence,
and to throw off the infl uence of foreign advisers. (The most
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
senior US military adviser, General Huyser, left on 3 February; 6 there
was a mass departure of Americans and other foreigners in these weeks.)
He also said that from now on the people would take charge of their
own destiny.
Some time in early November 1978 an initially secret Council of the
Islamic Revolution had been formed at Khomeini’s behest to coordinate
action against the Shah’s government. 7 Now Khomeini and the
Council set up their base at the Refah school, near the parliament
building in the centre of the city. The school had been founded in
1968 to educate girls according to Islamic principles; several personalities
associated with the school were signifi cant in the revolutionary
movement. Khomeini gave a press conference there on 3 February,
again urging the military not to use their weapons against the people. 8
The Council had already made contact with some of the leaders of the
armed forces, and with the US ambassador, William H. Sullivan, but
their fi rst priority was to set up a provisional government to supplant
that of Shapur Bakhtiar.
On 5 February Khomeini announced the appointment of Mehdi
Bazargan as prime minister of the provisional government. Bazargan
agreed to this only after a day or more of refl ection, and after warning
Khomeini of his continuing commitment to democratic, moderate
There were some striking similarities in the political backgrounds of
Bakhtiar and Bazargan – also in the political predicaments in which they
found themselves. Both had a lifelong commitment to liberal, democratic,
nationalist principles – the principles of the revolution of 1905 – 11 and the
constitution of 1906 . Both had been educated in France at the end of the
1930 s, and while there both had volunteered to fi ght with the French against
the Nazis. Bakhtiar had served in the nationalist government of Mohammad
Mossadeq in the early 1950 s as deputy minister of labour; Bazargan
had been the fi rst head of the nationalized oil company (the National Iranian
Oil Company) at the same time. There were differences; Bakhtiar came
from a privileged position as a member of one of the leading families of the
Bakhtiari tribe, had studied politics in Paris and had a more secular outlook,
refl ecting also the infl uence of Mossadeq and his membership of Mossadeq’s
National Front. Bazargan came from a more traditional Islamic family
background, had trained as an engineer and was a member of the Freedom
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Revolutionary Iran
Movement – which had nonetheless normally been closely aligned to the
National Front. Both were wooed into accepting the post of prime minister;
neither was wholly in sympathy with those who had chosen them. It was a
tribute to the strength of the constitutionalist, democratic tradition in Iran
that both the Shah and Khomeini had felt the need for such men at this time
of crisis – but also a sign of its weakness, that such men were not able to take
power in their own right.
So, on his return, as he sought to consolidate his position, avoid
repression from the military and move toward the establishment of an
Islamic republic, Khomeini’s fi rst act was to form an alliance not with
the leftist Tudeh Party, nor the more radical paramilitary leftist groups,
but with the liberal constitutionalists. And this surely refl ected the as –
pirations and expectations of most of the Iranians who had been
demonstrating over the previous year. They had been protesting both
against the autocracy of the Shah and political repression and for a
return to representative government. There were economic grievances
also; there had been nationalist, radical leftist, anti- American and anti-
British elements in the mix. The whole had been given form by the appeal
to Islam as the underlying, authentic focus of the people’s identity, and
by Khomeini’s own simple, direct, charismatic leadership. None of this
was strange or entirely new, at least not to Iranians – in 1906 senior
clerical fi gures had led a revolution in Iran that had combined similar
ingredients. The history of that revolution was well known, and according
to that template many middle- class liberals and leftists, more or less
secular- minded, expected this time also to take over the popular movement,
and for Khomeini and the clergy to recede into the background.
But Khomeini knew the history too. It is unlikely that he had at the outset
any precise blueprint for the eventual outcome, but he was not going
to let religious authority be sidelined.
When Khomeini announced Bazargan as prime minister on 5 February
he presented himself before the press and other news media with his close
adviser and companion Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as Bazargan. Rafsanjani
spoke fi rst, setting out a programme for the establishment of a new
revolutionary state. There would be a referendum to establish popular support
for an Islamic republic. Then a Constituent Assembly would be set up
to agree a new constitution. That being done, elections would be held and
a new Majles (parliament) would be elected.
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
After Rafsanjani, Bazargan spoke self- deprecatingly of his suitability
for the responsibilities now thrust upon him, but Khomeini, speaking last,
had a message that was fi rm, sombre and austere:
through the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver [i.e. the Prophet
Mohammad] 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 . . . it is a heavy punishment in Islamic jurisprudence. Revolt
against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is
blasphemy. 9
That press conference, within four days of Khomeini’s return to Iran,
combined in this way the two cardinal elements of the revolution and of
Iran’s constitution ever since – Islam and democracy. But the two elements
were in tension from the start. Khomeini’s speech showed that his
vision was of a government blessed and legitimated by God, fi rst and
above all. But the programme of the provisional government, endorsed by
him and presented as a decree from him, though read at the press conference
by Rafsanjani, showed an almost equally strong, indeed almost
pedantic, attachment to an idea of popular sovereignty – of government
according to the will of the people. The tension between these two principles
could be, and was, glossed over in revolutionary rhetoric; and much
of the time they might genuinely work in parallel. Khomeini no doubt
believed that they would harmonize, refl ecting his understanding of the
nature of God and of divine agency in the world. Rousseau once wrote
that the voice of the people was the voice of God; seldom can that idea
have been given more precise expression than by the crowds that welcomed
Khomeini in February 1979 and later voted in a referendum
overwhelmingly for an Islamic republic. Khomeini may also have expected
that his involvement in government could be relatively light. Once the
Islamic system was set up, politicians like Bazargan could run things from
day to day. But politics, and especially revolutions, tend be messier than
Two obstacles remained between the revolutionary movement and
the achievement of complete dominance – Bakhtiar’s government and
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Revolutionary Iran
the armed forces. But neither was as impressive as it seemed. After a
year of confl ict with the demonstrators the armed forces were uncertain
and divided – both the rank and fi le and the leadership. Many offi cers
and some units, notably the Imperial Guard, which had been specially
favoured with pay, prestige and promotion by the previous regime, 10
were still devoted to the Shah. But recruitment to the armed forces was
based on conscription, and many ordinary servicemen were as enthusiastic
about the revolutionary movement and the return of Khomeini
as other, ordinary citizens. The Shah himself had put rival offi cers
and even mutual enemies into senior positions in the armed forces, in
order to reduce the chance of their combining against him and plotting
a coup. 11 But this meant that when the Shah had gone – ‘with no forwarding
address’ 12 – those senior offi cers found themselves at odds with
each other and unable to agree upon concerted action. Even when the
Shah had still been in place, there had been much disagreement about
how best to deal with the demonstrations, with the Shah himself exerting
a restraining infl uence, and some offi cers favouring much harsher
Disaffection among the military increased after the Shah’s departure,
and, although there has been disagreement over estimates of the level of
desertions, 13 it seems plain that these increased to perhaps 1 , 200 per day
by the second week of February. The revolutionaries encouraged the disaffection,
not just by propaganda and planting fl owers in the muzzles of
carbines during demonstrations, but also by setting up centres to provide
deserters with civilian clothes and expenses to cover their journey home
by bus. 14 Many offi cers had resigned after 16 January, and several senior
fi gures defected after Khomeini’s return. And many, retired or otherwise,
were offering their services to Bazargan or his colleagues (or to anyone
who would listen) after 5 February.
Signifi cantly for what was to follow, 800 air force technicians from
the aircraft servicing organization known as the Homafaran had
defected together to the revolutionary movement in the second half of
January. Attempts to discipline them were lost in the general chaos,
and they became an important militant element in the revolutionary
movement, comparable with the Kronstadt sailors in the February
and October revolutions of 1917 in Russia. Most of them were noncommissioned
offi cers, specialists with a grievance because, although
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
technically qualifi ed, they felt their promotion within the service was
blocked by a structure that favoured socially and politically privileged
offi cers trained in cadet college – in its way a situation that echoed the
wider disposition of socially insecure petit- bourgeois classes toward the
revolutionary movement. 15 But a number of air force offi cers and cadets
joined them too.
After 5 February, with two rival governments in the country, the leaders
of the armed forces were in an awkward position. Many of the
senior offi cers knew that some of their number were negotiating with
Bazargan and/or clerics close to Khomeini, like Ayatollah Beheshti; as
were the Americans, through their embassy. General Huyser, who had
wanted to keep open the option of a military coup, had left the country.
It seems that, although the account of this episode in his own memoirs
is quite vague, 16 General Hosein Fardust, head of the supervisory Special
Intelligence Bureau under the Shah, may have been instrumental
between 5 and 9 February in steering other generals away from action
against Bazargan’s nascent government. Having been a childhood friend
of the Shah, Fardust seems to have sided with the Islamic regime in
1979 and controversially, afterwards helped the new SAVAMA , later
renamed the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ( VEVAK ), the ugly
phoenix that rose out of the remnants of the Shah’s infamous secret
police, SAVAK .
On 8 February a large number of air force cadets, Homafaran technicians
and others went to the Refah school in uniform and declared their
loyalty to Khomeini and the new provisional government. A photograph
of them doing so was published in the newspaper Kayhan the
following day. The following evening (Friday), possibly fi red up by the
screening on state television of footage of Khomeini’s return eight days
before, the radicalized air force personnel at Doshan Tappeh air base
formed up as a body to salute the Emam. Provoked by this, a detachment
of Imperial Guard troops ( 200 – strong or less) stationed at the base
attacked them, and serious fi ghting ensued, continuing on the morning
of 10 February. Both sides called for help, but whereas the air force
commander authorized distribution of weapons to his men, the Imperial
Guard commander went over to the revolutionaries on 10 February and
did his best to prevent reinforcements being sent to his former comrades.
Armed radicals of the Fedayan- e Khalq and Mojahedin- e Khalq
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Revolutionary Iran
organizations (the latter known as the MKO ) moved in to support the
cadets and Homafaran, and large crowds of revolutionary demonstrators
formed across the whole area, leading to what turned out to be the
decisive confrontation.
Two columns of tanks were sent to Doshan Tappeh by hardline military
commanders. The BBC reporter John Simpson, who had arrived on
the same fl ight with Khomeini on 1 February, saw twenty- six Chieftain
tanks pass by the InterContinental Hotel, breaking through an improvised
barricade there:
The lead tank, fi nding only an upturned Buick and some skips fi lled with
rubble in its path, scarcely checked its speed at all. It struck the Buick’s roof
with a grinding sound and fl ipped it aside as if it were made of tinfoil. The
Buick crumpled up and lay in the middle of the road, twitching now and
then as another Chieftain struck it in passing. 17
But the tanks eventually faltered amid the crowds and roadblocks. Some
were captured, others were set alight by Molotov cocktails, and some of their
crews defected with their vehicles to the revolutionaries. Other commanders
recalled troops to their bases, and the fi ghting spread. Armed revolutionaries
and crowds broke into police stations and other places where weapons could
be found. With the situation rapidly running away from him, Bakhtiar
ordered a dusk- to- dawn curfew for the night of 10 / 11 February and urged
the army and police commanders to enforce the curfew strictly, but Khomeini
told his followers to ignore the order, and cars with loudspeakers drove
through the streets announcing his instruction, calling forth further large
crowds. Bazargan was with Khomeini at the Refah school: 18
Most of our time we were in Refah school and that particular night, we
stayed in the same place. Since we could hear the sound of much shooting,
and there was news on the possibility of an attack on the school, we went
to a house nearby and spent the rest of the night there. When we got up the
next morning, we realized that the whole situation had been turned on its
head and the nation had achieved victory, praise be to God.
The following morning, 11 February, twenty- seven generals and
other senior military commanders met at 10 . 20 a.m. to discuss whether
they could continue to support Bakhtiar. Even those most loyal to
the Shah were by now despondent. Field Marshal Qarabaghi did his
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
best to get an overview of the situation by collating the views of those
present and presenting himself further reports that he had received by
We ordered them all together that morning to attend a meeting . . . Lieutenant
General Sanei had telephoned earlier from ground forces headquarters to say:
‘General . . . you can no longer count on the ground forces . . .’ I told him: ‘I
do not understand. If I am not going to count on the ground forces, what am
I going to count on?’ He replied: ‘This is it. There is nothing we can do.’ I said:
‘This is highly regrettable.’ . . . I proposed . . . to summon . . . a council of commanders
and fi nd out what is happening. During that meeting, each commander
described the situation of his own units. The ground force commander said
that there was nothing he could do. The air force commander said the same
thing . . . I presented the reports, which I had received, to the council. We had
a lengthy discussion. Some of the commanders were in favour of declaring
solidarity [with the revolution], whereas others were in favour of neutrality.
Qarabaghi reminded the commanders that the Shah had ordered them
to keep the army intact, in order to safeguard the country’s independence.
He urged them that they had to make a unanimous decision: ‘The discussion
continued and eventually the minority, who were in favour of
declaring solidarity, agreed that we should declare neutrality.’
It was agreed that Qarabaghi would inform Bakhtiar of the decision,
and that it would be announced on Tehran Radio. Bakhtiar had been
expecting to see Qarabaghi at his offi ce at 8 . 30 a.m.:
I was in my offi ce at eight- thirty the next morning, but he [Qarabaghi] did
not turn up. I waited until nine o’clock, but there was still no sign of him . . .
I became suspicious as to why he had not turned up. I telephoned his offi ce
several times, and each time I was told that he was in a very important meeting.
I went to the balcony, where I could hear the sound of sporadic
machine- gun fi re.
Finally, Qarabaghi telephoned.
I asked him: ‘General, what happened? Where were you?’ He replied: ‘Your
Excellency, Prime Minister, the army has just now declared its neutrality.’
As soon as I heard that, I went to a different world. I told him: ‘Neutrality
between who and who? Is it neutrality between law and anarchy? Is it
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Revolutionary Iran
neutrality between Iran and Iran’s enemies? . . . Thank you, General. Thank
you very much.’ I then put the phone down.
Tehran Radio broadcast the commanders’ announcement at 1 . 15 p.m.:
In view of the recent developments in the country, the Supreme Council of
the armed forces met at ten- twenty hours this morning, 22 Bahman 1357 .
It unanimously decided that, in order to prevent further chaos and bloodshed,
it declares its neutrality, and military units have been ordered to return to
Bazargan and the other revolutionaries welcomed the announcement,
which was what they had been working towards in previous contacts
with army commanders. Bazargan believed the US embassy had been
exerting itself to the same end:
Yes, we were in favour of the army’s neutrality. This was achieved by the
arrangements and promises secured through General Moqaddam. The other
side of the coin was that the Americans wanted the army not to become
involved in the affairs. I am not fully aware of the details, but they wanted
the Iranian revolution to take place without bloodshed and without catastrophe.
Well, we also wanted the same thing.
Bakhtiar was left powerless to affect events:
I waited until one- thirty in the afternoon, before deciding that there was no alternative
left to me. I could see that when the people realized that the military men
had decided to withdraw, no other force could stop the others. I ordered a helicopter
to land in the grounds of the cadet training college. The helicopter arrived
at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I picked up a few of my personal belongings
and went downstairs . . . As I came through the doorway, there was one captain,
two NCO s and four soldiers . . . One of them said: ‘We are almost totally surrounded
now.’ . . . I got into the helicopter, and it took off. I said: ‘How amazing!
We want to give these people freedom and democracy, and they do not want it.’
What could we possibly do? I do not know, but, despite the sadness, I experienced
relief. Believe me, it seemed as if a huge burden, as heavy as Damavand Mountain,
had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt as if I were fl ying with my own wings.
It had been arranged previously that Bakhtiar, Bazargan, Qarabaghi
and others would meet that afternoon at Kazem Jafrudi’s house in
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
North Tehran. Jafrudi had been a member of the Majles under the Shah
and was a friend of both Bakhtiar and Bazargan. But as the time of the
meeting drew closer Jafrudi advised Bakhtiar by telephone that he
should not come after all:
The prime minister had arranged to come straight from his offi ce with
Dr Abbasqoli Bakhtiar. After taking off in the helicopter from the cadet training
college, he had landed at Aqdassiyeh. From there, he went in a Peykan car
to a previously arranged hiding place. Before going, he telephoned me from
Aqdassiyeh, and I informed him that my house was crowded with people and
it was impossible for him to come there and also quite dangerous. As a result,
these gentlemen proceeded to their hiding place.
Jafrudi then telephoned General Qarabaghi and advised him not to
wear uniform to the meeting:
at about fi ve minutes past four, he [Jafrudi] telephoned me again to say that
the gentlemen had arrived and were waiting for me. He also asked me not
to go there in my uniform. I asked: ‘What has uniform got to do with the
meeting?’ He said that he would explain later, but insisted that for my own
safety I should go in civilian clothes. I was very distressed and hung up.
Lieutenant General Hatam, who was sitting next to me, asked me what had
happened, and when I told him I was supposed to attend the meeting in civilian
clothes, he said: ‘Well, General, does it matter so much?’ I said that I had
no civilian clothes with me. He said: ‘Then send someone to fetch your civilian
clothes.’ After one hour they arrived with my civilian clothes, and I went to a
room and changed. My civilian clothes saved my life. I left for Mr Jafrudi’s
house. He opened the gates himself and let me in. He led me to a room fi rst
and said: ‘General, I wanted to make a request before taking you into the
meeting room.’ . . . He told me that Prime Minister Bakhtiar had submitted
his resignation. I was astonished and added that I had not gone there to submit
mine. I asked whether the prime minister was there, and he told me that he was
not at the house but was somewhere in the vicinity and had not been brought
to the house for reasons of security. I said: ‘But you did not tell me that the
prime minister was not going to be here.’ His reply was: ‘The prime minister
is not far away and he is in touch with us. The other gentlemen are waiting
for us next door so that we can reach an agreement.’ I asked who the other
gentlemen were. At this point he asked me to follow him to another room.
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Revolutionary Iran
When I entered, I saw seven or eight people were sitting there, who were
introduced as Messrs. Dr Siassi, [Mehdi] Bazargan, Dr Sahabi, [Abbas] Amir-
Entezam, Engineer Khalili and someone else . . . After I sat down, one of them
began praising the army for its decision and said that the army and the nation
belonged to each other and they asked me to help them to establish security.
I said: ‘Security would be maintained if you were to issue a statement to this
effect. You [addressing Bazargan] have been appointed prime minister by
Khomeini, therefore either you or Khomeini should issue a statement ordering
the people not to attack army barracks and to respect its dignity and honour.
If you were to issue such a statement, security would automatically be established.’
He said: ‘Fine. I shall order such a statement to be issued
In fact, two statements were made on Tehran Radio, one from Khomeini
himself, read out by Ayatollah Musavi- Ardebili:
Now that the armed forces have stepped back, have declared their neutrality
in the face of political affairs and have expressed support for the nation, the
dear and courageous nation is expected to maintain law and order when the
troops return to barracks. You should stop saboteurs, who may try to create
catastrophe and instruct them of their religious and humanitarian obligations.
Do not allow anyone to attack foreign embassies. If, God forbid, the army
were to enter the arena again, you must defend yourselves with all your might.
I hereby inform senior army offi cers that if they were to stop the army’s
aggression, and instruct them to join the nation and its legal Islamic government,
we would regard the army as part of the nation and vice versa.
In addition, Tehran Radio contacted Jafrudi while Bazargan was still
in his house, spoke to Bazargan and got him to make a statement:
We were all sitting in my house, when a friend of mine, who was in charge
of the radio, telephoned and asked to interview Mr Bazargan. He asked
whether they should come to my house or Mr Bazargan should go to the
radio station. I passed the message to . . . Bazargan, who volunteered to go
to the radio station and there he broadcast the following speech: ‘I am
delighted to offer my congratulations to the combative Muslim nation of
Iran, who today has survived a torturous and anxious journey to achieve
victory for its revolution. I deem it necessary to express my gratitude to
army offi cers and soldiers. I would like to recommend that in accordance
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Prologue: ‘Ten Days of Dawn’
with Emam Khomeini’s assertion, the army is part of the nation and you
must treat army offi cers and soldiers as your brothers. Our dear compatriots
must demonstrate patience and must give this government a chance to
employ far- sightedness and justice to direct the country along the right path.
It is obvious that chaos, anarchy and confusion will not only prevent us
from achieving something positive, but it will, God forbid, make matters
much worse and more catastrophic than ever before.
By the end of 11 February revolutionary crowds had broken into Evin
prison, releasing all the prisoners, including the politicals; and had ransacked
the former headquarters of SAVAK . Elsewhere in the country, in
Shiraz, in Rasht, and in other places, the revolutionaries, often led by air
force personnel, took over police and SAVAK buildings and established
locally the same outcome as in the capital. 19 Bakhtiar went into hiding.
On the afternoon of 11 February, US Ambassador Sullivan was
attempting to organize the safe evacuation of some US military personnel
who were trapped in a building that was under attack, when he
received a series of telephone calls from the White House. In one of
these, David Newsom asked him on behalf of Zbigniew Brzezinski what
were the chances of a successful military coup: ‘The total absurdity of
such an inquiry in the circumstances then existing in Tehran provoked
me to a scurrilous suggestion for Brzezinski that seemed to shock mildmannered
Under- Secretary Newsom.’ Back in the US , General Huyser
was asked the same day, as part of the same deliberations, whether and
under what conditions he would return to Iran to ‘conduct a military
takeover’. His response was more polite, but no more encouraging than
Sullivan’s. 20
The fi ghting that fi nally toppled Bakhtiar’s government had been
spontaneous; instigated by the enthusiasm of the revolutionaries themselves,
by the Homafaran, and by the Fedayan and the MKO rather than
by Khomeini, who was more concerned to avoid the revolution descending
into complete anarchy. But the outcome left him dominant. Since
1979 the Islamic regime has regarded 11 February as the date of the fi nal
victory of the Islamic revolution – and has celebrated the ten days
between Khomeini’s return and 11 February as the Daheh- ye Fajr – ‘ ten
days of dawn’. Others since have cynically called the festival Daheh- ye
Zajr – ‘ ten days of torment’. 21
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Revolutionary Iran
Within a short time Khomeini approved summary trials for killings
and other acts of oppression by members of the regime over the previous
months and years, and appointed Sadegh Khalkhali, who was to become
infamous, to carry them out. One of the fi rst to be arrested was General
Rahimi, who had been responsible for enforcing martial law in Tehran.
Rahimi’s captors allowed Western journalists to put questions to him on
the evening of 11 February. He was unrepentant, confi rmed his continuing
loyalty to the Shah and said it had been necessary to send in forces to
restore order. He was asked:
‘Do you believe your life is in danger from the decision of the court which,
we understand, will try you?’
General Rahimi smiled slightly, looked up and lifted his hands a little, as
though all these questions were an irrelevance.
‘I came into this world once, and once I will leave it’ 22
Rahimi and three other generals (including the former head of SAVAK ,
General Nasiri, who had been badly injured after his capture) were shot
on 14 February on the roof of the Refah school. 23
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The Background: Ma Chegoneh
Ma Shodim? 1 (‘How Did We Become
What We Are?’)
The Iranian revolution of 1979 is sometimes spoken of as the third great
revolution of modern times, after the French and the Russian. 2 The interpretation
of all three of these revolutions will always be controversial, but
many people still broadly think of the fi rst two in terms set out by Karl
Marx in the nineteenth century. According to that analysis, the French
revolution was a bourgeois revolution, in which the perennially rising
middle class pushed aside the old forms of feudalism and asserted its
growing economic power in political terms, setting up the forms of representative
government and establishing the bourgeois class and capitalist
economics as dominant for the period that followed. The Russian revolution,
following on from the French, was the proletarian revolution
predicted by Marx, bringing in an era of socialist government in the interest
of the working class, at least according to the theory.
These crude characterizations conceal many contradictions. Even a
cursory reading of the events of the French revolution shows the way that
populists exploiting the militant infl uence of the urban poor of Paris (and
the threat of war from France’s enemies) diverted the revolution away
from the principles of bourgeois liberalism toward terror, political murder
and repression. One of its prime outcomes was a redistribution of
land to peasant farmers that in the long run had profoundly conservative
and anti- capitalistic consequences. The Bolshevik revolution of October
1917 took place in one of the European states in which the proletariat
was least developed and least numerous as a proportion of the population
as a whole, directly contradicting Marx’s own predictions. It had less
of the character of a mass movement, and more of the character of a coup
d’état . Nonetheless, the labels still stick.
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Revolutionary Iran
The Iranian revolution was an Islamic revolution – that much is clear. 3
But beyond that label, despite some family resemblances to those earlier
revolutions, it remains an enigma, and many non- specialists in the West
(and not just in the West), despite so much writing and comment on the
subject since, have no conceptual moorings for it – no clear sense of why
it happened or what it signifi ed. We are still living through the consequences
of the Iranian revolution of 1979 , and the longer- term outcomes
remain hard to assess.
The bare facts of the Iranian revolution of 1979 can be quite briefl y
told. It began in a period of economic uncertainty, after the oil- fuelled
boom of the early 1970 s had begun to falter, with rising infl ation and
unemployment. In 1977 the Shah’s government relaxed some of its
previous repressive measures, permitting the reappearance of some expressions
of dissent from the liberal left. But an attack in a government- backed
newspaper on the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini in January 1978 led to a
demonstration by religious students in the shrine city of Qom in which a
number of demonstrators were shot and killed by police. Fuelled by condemnations
from Khomeini outside Iran and from other clerics within, a
cycle of further demonstrations and shootings followed, after intervals of
forty days’ mourning each time. The demonstrations (mainly involving
young students and people from the bazaars) got larger and more violent,
and the number of dead increased. Over the summer and early autumn
workers frustrated at low pay joined demonstrations and went on strike –
the strikes in the oil industry being especially damaging. On 8 September
(afterwards known as Black Friday) martial law was declared, and a large
number of demonstrators were killed in Tehran. After this the Shah lost
whatever credibility he had left, and the general wish (aligning with Khomeini’s
longstanding demand) was for him to go. Strikes and demonstrations
continued and increased in intensity, especially in the religious season of
Ashura in December. Troops began to desert, and on 16 January 1979 the
Shah fl ew out of the country. Khomeini returned on 1 February, troops
loyal to the Shah’s government gave up the struggle ten days later (the
Daheh- ye Fajr ), and at the end of March a nationwide referendum gave
97 per cent support for an Islamic republic.
But these bare facts may leave the uninitiated little the wiser. Why did
the Shah lose control? Why did leadership of the revolution fall to the
Shi‘a clergy? What were the people’s grievances and how did they come
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The Background: Ma Chegoneh Ma Shodim?
to be expressed so forcefully? And why did the Shah’s regime fail to accommodate
them? Why were the revolutionaries so hostile to the West? Was it
primarily a religious, or a democratic, or a social revolution? Or a nationalist
revolution? To begin to answer these questions it is necessary to reach
further back into the history of Iran, of the Islamic religion, and of Shi‘ism.
Islam and the Shi‘a
When Mohammad fi rst began to preach the revelation of Islam in Mecca
in AD 613 , he soon encountered opposition from the leading families that
controlled the city. Prime among these were the Quraish, to a junior
branch of which Mohammad’s own family belonged. Those families drew
their prosperity partly from their trusteeship of the pagan shrines in
Mecca, which Mohammad was attacking, and they felt threatened also
by his emphasis on fair dealing in business and generosity to the poor.
Most of what Mohammad preached either stated or implied a criticism of
the status quo, of which the Quraish were the prime proprietors and benefi
ciaries. The Quraish retaliated against the growing number of
Mohammad’s followers with ridicule, and later with violence. So on the
one hand, in the form it has come down to us, we have a picture of
wealthy, corrupt, impious, unjust rulers; and on the other, virtuous, poor,
oppressed Muslims, bravely speaking out against them. This image of
arrogant power and virtuous resistance (initially not unlike the position
of Jesus and his disciples vis- à- vis the ruling Pharisees and Sadducees in
the New Testament) repeats itself again and again in the history of Islam,
and especially in the history of Shi‘a Islam, reinforced each time by new
exemplars, right down to modern times and the 1979 revolution.
Eventually Mohammad and his followers were forced to leave Mecca,
to set up a new Muslim community in Medina. War followed between
the Quraish of Mecca and the Muslims of Medina (the migration from
Mecca to Medina in AD 622 , the Hijra , became the date for the beginning
of the Muslim calendar, representing as it did the proper founding
of the Muslim umma , the community of Muslim believers). Most of the
rulings in the Koran, and in Islam more widely, regulating the conduct
of war (conditions for just war, restrictions on the waging of war, the
treatment of captives, etc.) derive from positions taken on this confl ict.
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Revolutionary Iran
Eventually (in AD 630 ) the Medinans triumphed, occupied Mecca, converted
the Meccans (including the Quraish) to the new religion, removed
pagan idols from the Ka‘ba in Mecca and made it the central shrine of
Islam that it has been ever since. Islam became the dominant religion of
the Arabian peninsula.
But in AD 632 the Prophet Mohammad died, and the new religion faced
a crisis over who should succeed him as the leader of the umma. The way
it was resolved was fateful for the future of Islam. One of Mohammad’s
closest companions, Abu Bakr, was selected as khalifa (caliph – successor).
But some Muslims felt that the wrong choice had been made, and that
another of the companions should have been chosen – Ali, the Prophet’s
cousin and son- in- law. They believed the Prophet himself had chosen Ali
to succeed.
Despite continuing argument and strife, the caliphs Omar and Othman
succeeded Abu Bakr, and eventually Ali himself became the fourth caliph.
But there was confl ict between those who supported Ali, and those who had
supported his predecessor (who had been murdered). There were tensions
also over the spoils yielded by the enormous conquests made by the Muslims
at this time, which had taken rich swathes of territory from the Roman
and Persian empires (the latter conquered after Persian defeats at the battles
of Qadesiyya and Nahavand in 637 and 641 respectively). The followers of
Ali tended to be those who wanted to uphold the austere principles of Islam
against what they saw as the corrupting infl uence of wealth and government
in the expanding Arab Empire. After Ali’s death in 661 , these tensions
continued, and the caliphs of the Umayyad line that followed him (relatives
of the murdered Othman) were regarded as increasingly worldly. Those
who had followed Ali held to the view that the real leaders of Islam should
be the children of Ali (who by virtue of his marriage to the Prophet’s daughter
Fatima were also the descendants of Mohammad himself).
So by now the Muslim followers of Ali saw themselves in much the
same position as that in which the original followers of Mohammad
had perceived themselves in opposition to the pagans of Mecca; virtuous
austerity resisting worldly authority, oppression, immorality and
corruption. It was in this spirit that Ali’s son, Hosein, led a small group
of followers in revolt in AD 680 . He tried to link up with sympathizers
in Kufa, south of present- day Baghdad, but was confronted by the
forces of the Caliph Yazid at Karbala. The Kufans failed to turn out in
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his support, and Hosein refused to make terms. The caliph’s troops
loosed arrows into Hosein’s camp, killing Hosein’s infant son among
others. Outnumbered, his followers tried to fi ght back but were overwhelmed
and massacred, and Hosein was cut down also.
For the Muslim sect that later called themselves the Shi‘a Ali (meaning
the partisans or followers of Ali) or simply the Shi‘a, the desperate battle
of Karbala was the defi ning moment. Ever since that time the Shi‘a have
mourned the event as the essence of injustice; as the victory of the oppressors
over the righteous, of the strong over the weak, of the corrupt over
the pious. The Caliph Yazid became the archetype for all worldly wickedness,
and Hosein the model for heroic self- sacrifi ce. Karbala became one
of the central shrine cities for Shi‘a Muslims, along with Najaf (the tomb
of Ali). Initially Shi‘ism was more a tendency than a sect, drawing to it
people who especially revered the memory of Ali and Hosein, and who
believed that the leadership of Islam should have descended in their line.
Their descendants were known as the Shi‘a Emams, who in each generation
were rivals or at least potential rivals to the caliphs. There was a
further schism after the death of the seventh Emam, Jafar al- Sadiq, in AD
765 , with the supporters of his elder son splitting away to form the Ismaili
sect (despite the fact that he predeceased his father), while the majority of
the Shi‘as followed his younger son, Musa al- Kazim. The succession followed
Musa’s descendants until the twelfth Emam, who was believed to
have disappeared at the time of the eleventh Emam’s death in AD 874 .
Iranian Shi‘as believe that the twelfth Emam (the Hidden Emam, to whom
rightful leadership on earth should fall in principle) never died, but will
reappear at the day of judgement. They are known as twelver Shi‘as
(because they recognize twelve Emams) to distinguish them from the
Ismailis and some other minority Shi‘a sects. 4 In time, Shi‘ism developed
a separate body of traditions and religious- legal rulings of its own, in
parallel to the main Muslim tradition of Sunnism.
Shi‘ism, the Ulema and the Revolution of 1979
Shi‘a Islam became the religion of Iran after it was imposed by Shah
Esmail I and his descendants, the Safavid dynasty, from 1501 . Prior to
that, Iran’s Muslims were predominantly Sunni, with scarcely more
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Revolutionary Iran
Sh’ia Muslims than other parts of the Islamic world. The centres of
Shi‘ism were the shrine cities of what is now Iraq – Najaf, Karbala,
Samarra. After that date, those shrines remained important centres of
Shi‘a religious learning and pilgrimage (as they have to this day), but
Iranian Shi‘ism took on a much greater signifi cance. The Safavids
enforced adherence to Shi‘ism as a matter of state policy. Learned men
of religion – ulema – drew close to the Safavid rulers, in a relationship
of mutual support, especially towards the close of the Safavid period of
rule in the years around 1700 . Religious endowments ( tax- free grants of
wealth and land to institutions like mosques, schools and shrines) proliferated
and channelled wealth to the ulema. Shi‘ism became deeply
entrenched in the cultural, intellectual and political life of Iran.
Did Iran turn Shi‘a simply because the Safavids imposed Shi‘ism? Or
was Iranian Shi‘ism also an expression of the Iranians’ distinctive, separate
consciousness of themselves within the Islamic world? The complex
nature of Iran’s national identity and Iranian nationalism is discussed in
a later chapter. But Iranian Shi‘ism had a series of essential, interrelated
effects on the development of modern Iran, and the revolution of 1979 .
Most fundamental was the development of the independent social and
political authority of the ulema .
In 1722 the Safavid regime, ruling from its splendid capital in Isfahan,
succumbed to a revolt by militant, plundering Afghans. Most of the next
seventy years were marred by foreign invasions, civil war, internal revolts,
military adventures, punitive taxation, expropriation, general chaos and
unpleasantness. The ulema fell from their previous position of privilege
and wealth, many of their endowments were confi scated or plundered,
and some criticized them for their perceived complicity in the failure of
Safavid rule. 5 Many of them emigrated, along with many other refugee
Iranians, to southern Iraq or to India or elsewhere (it is possible, for example,
that Khomeini’s ancestors emigrated to India at this time). This
emigration had a lasting impact in parts of India, in the shrine cities of Iraq
and in some of the territories along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf.
In these circumstances, new patterns of thought emerged among the
Shi‘a ulema , partly in response to this trauma (though the thinking
closely mirrored debates that had rolled back and forth in the early centuries
of Islam, and its beginnings had emerged already in the Safavid
period). One school – the Akhbari – argued for a theological position
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that each individual Muslim had in the Koran and in the hadith (the written
traditions of the sayings and actions of the Prophet and, in Shi‘ism,
the Emams) all he needed for his guidance, and that there was only a
limited place, if any, for the interpretation of religious law based on reason
( ijtihad ). The Akhbari position was close to the traditional line of
Sunni Islam on these points. The other school – the Usuli – argued, on the
contrary, that ijtihad was necessary to reinterpret religious law afresh in
each generation, in the light of new circumstances and new understanding,
and that only trained, learned ulema could be trusted to do this. By
the end of the eighteenth century, as a greater degree of order was restored
by the fi rst Qajar Shahs, the Usulis were winning the argument, and a new
arrangement emerged, according to which ordinary Muslims gave their
allegiance – and often, a portion of their material earnings – to a class of
specially qualifi ed ulema called mojtahed (those qualifi ed to perform ijtihad
). In each generation, among the whole body of mojtahed , one or two
clerics emerged to serve as a supreme guide to other ulema and to ordinary
Muslims in religious matters. Such a cleric was called a marja- e
taqlid (source of emulation) or marja .
In this way the Shi‘a clergy developed a religious hierarchy, analogous to
that of other religions – to that of the Catholic church, for example – but
quite unlike the looser arrangements of Sunni Islam. As time went on, and
more ambitious young men strove to qualify as mojtahed , new, more elevated
levels of dignity were added to distinguish between the
clerics – hojjatoleslam (‘proof of Islam’), and ayatollah (‘sign of God’). This
system helped the ulema to reassert their social authority and to restore their
wealth, as a class; this time quite independently of secular rulers, at a time
(the nineteenth century) when the monarchy continued to be relatively weak.
Religious law has a much wider signifi cance in Islam than in Christianity
and other religions. In principle, it is meant to govern every aspect
of a Muslim’s life. This gave clerics a role much more important than
that of mere prayer- leaders in the mosque. They were arbitrators in
family or business or other legal disputes and acted as judges in criminal
cases. They served as notaries for offi cial documents. Often they
were the only authority fi gures in smaller towns or villages and acted
effectively as governors, in association with elders or village headmen.
In the larger towns and cities the ulema tended to have specially close
connections with the merchants and craftsmen of the bazaars, who
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Revolutionary Iran
often demonstrated their piety by giving money for religious purposes –
for example to repair the roof of a mosque or to help set up a religious
school ( madreseh ). Bazaari and ulema families often intermarried.
Between them, the ulema and the bazaaris tended to be the dominant
urban classes, and their close relationship came to be of central im –
portance in politics from the end of the nineteenth century onwards.
Through the religious hierarchy, the contacts established during their
long training, and family connections, the ulema had access to a network
of clergy and ordinary Muslims across the whole country, and beyond.
The strong position of the ulema in Iranian society meant that when
secular authority failed or was challenged, almost always the ulema (or at
least some of them) emerged as leaders of political dissent. This happened
in 1890 – 92 (when the government attempted to grant a tobacco monopoly
to a British contractor, Major Talbot, but had to reverse the policy in
the face of a determined boycott organized by clerics and bazaaris ), in
1905 – 6 , in 1953 , in 1963 and, of course, in 1978 – 9 . They were able to
communicate and coordinate action with other ulema , and to disseminate
propaganda, often using the most up- to- date communications technology
(in 1892 , the telegraph system; in 1978 , cassette- tapes, telephone and
Xerox copiers). Their religious authority gave them a unique advantage
by comparison with other potential leaders of mass movements; it meant
independence and a degree of immunity from repression, as a class. Secular
rulers found it diffi cult, and often counterproductive, to act even
against individual mullahs. And in addition, the most senior marjas were
often out of reach of the Iranian government altogether, living in Najaf or
one of the other shrine cities of Ottoman Iraq (the three provinces of
Ottoman Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad and Basra – were ruled under a British
mandate from 1920 and became the independent Kingdom of Iraq in
1932 ).
Popular Shi‘ism
Another important element in Iranian Shi‘ism, often viewed with mixed
feelings by the orthodox ulema , were the public, popular manifestations
associated with the death of Hosein, and the other traditions of the
early history of the followers of Ali. Each year, Shi‘a Muslims take part
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in processions that are in effect commemorative funeral processions, to
mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Emam Hosein at Karbala.
6 The participants weep and beat their chests. They carry heavy
funerary symbols, including replicas of the Emam’s coffi n, and huge
multi- pronged objects that represent Hosein’s banner. Strongmen train
specially to compete for the honour of carrying these symbols. They also
may beat themselves with chains and in the past some cut themselves on
the head with swords to show their devotion and their fellowship with
the martyrs of Karbala. The grandest processions would take place in
the bazaars of great cities, but smaller versions would go ahead each
year even in otherwise quiet villages. These rituals of collective grief
may seem strange, even threatening, to outsiders (and images often
appear to this effect on Western TV screens), but there are close parallels,
both in the way the processions take place and in the spirit in which
they are enacted, with practices in traditional Good Friday processions
in many Catholic countries.
This parallel is echoed again in the ta‘ zieh – a form of traditional street
theatre in which the events of Karbala and other incidents in the lives of
the Emams are acted out, to the accompaniment of traditional verses –
very like the mystery plays of medieval Europe. The ta‘zieh may also be
performed at other times of the year, but the usual time is at Ashura, the
anniversary of Karbala, like the processions. In former times itinerant
preachers called rowzeh- khans would visit villages and urban households
to deliver the same verses telling the same stories from memory.
Many of the zur- khaneh (‘houses of strength’) in the towns also incorporated
a religious element, venerating the Shi‘a martyrs in their practices
(though the zur- khaneh tradition is of obscure origin, and some argue
that it includes signifi cant pre- Islamic features). The zur- khaneh is a distinctively
Iranian institution, in which men train for wrestling and for
public performances of bare- chested brawniness, including the impressive
juggling of large, heavy wooden clubs, performances of drumming and
poetry recitations. 7
These traditional, popular manifestations repeat and stress the wickedness
of Yazid and the other oppressors of the Shi‘a, and the virtue of
Hosein and the other Emams. They are alien and often abhorrent to
Sunni Muslims, elsewhere in the Islamic world, who regard them as idolatrous
and as innovations not justifi ed by religious texts. In 1979 they
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Revolutionary Iran
were familiar to all Iranians; even to socialists, secular nationalists, atheists
or modernizers, soldiers or rich playboys who had turned away from
Iran’s religious tradition. The Ashura processions in particular made a
template for the public expression of collective solidarity and moral feeling
that was signifi cant in the revolution – as well as reinforcing the
common understanding among all classes of Shi‘a beliefs about the
Emams. The processions reconfi rmed and reinforced ideas about the
arrogance and corruption of power and wealth, and the virtue of modesty
and poverty, that run deep in Shi‘ism and in Islam more generally.
Two Revolutions
The revolution of 1979 was the second revolution of the twentieth century
in Iran. The fi rst happened in the years 1905 – 11 , and is a convenient
starting- point for considering the origins of the second.
Like many previous monarchies in Iran, going back to the time of the
Achaemenids, the Qajar dynasty that ruled from 1796 until the 1920 s did
so with a relatively light touch. Turning their back on the example of
eighteenth- century military monarchs like Nader Shah and the founder of
the Qajar dynasty, Agha Mohammad Shah, the later Qajars employed only
a small standing army. They relied instead on regional governors, who were
often the leaders of local tribes, to maintain their authority in the furtherfl
ung parts of the country. Their rule had more the character of a system of
alliances than that of the centralized government of a modern state. 8
But this relatively weak state showed its disadvantages as the nineteenth
century progressed and foreign powers began to take an increasing
interest in Iran. Russia and Britain watched each other’s involvement in
Iran jealously – the Russians expanding their infl uence southwards; the
British seeking to protect their possessions in India. With little coercive
power within the borders of the country, and therefore little ability to
raise taxes, the Qajar monarchs became increasingly dependent on
loans from Russia and Britain, and they made economic concessions to
them in return (the tobacco monopoly was just one example). This was
unpopular with ordinary Persians, and especially with the bazaaris ,
who would be among the fi rst to feel the economic damage from the
foreigners’ activities (some of them would also have benefi ted, but they
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tended to keep quiet). The economy, still predominantly agricultural,
had also adjusted to outside pressures (cheap imports of food commodities
and textiles in particular), changing from a simple subsistence
structure with only small surpluses towards the production of cash
crops for export. But this meant domestic production of food staples
could no longer support an expanded population in times of famine or
economic disruption.
In the later nineteenth century Naser od- Din Shah, who had ruled since
1848 , had gone from an initially liberal position at his accession to a much
more conservative stance, distrustful of reform. The early part of his reign
had been marred by his removal and murder of the reforming prime minister
Amir Kabir, and by government persecution of the Babi religious
movement. The Babis were largely destroyed and driven into exile, where
the movement evolved into an independent religion, the Bahai faith. Since
that time, with just a few periods of respite, Bahais have been persecuted in
Iran, sometimes viciously. By the 1890 s Naser od- Din’s fi nances were in a
mess, the most effi cient armed force in the country was offi cered by Russians
(the Cossack brigade – only around 400 – 600 soldiers) and the national
bank, the Imperial Bank of Persia, was run under the ownership of the
British- based Baron Paul de Reuter (the founder of Reuters news agency).
When Naser od- Din Shah died in 1896 , he was replaced on the throne
by his more liberal- minded (but sickly) son, Mozaffar od- Din Shah, who
removed censorship and constraints on political associations. The result
was an upsurge in press and political activity, with new newspapers
appearing, and the formation of political societies ( anjoman ). Many of
these new newspapers and groups were critical of the government: the
latest grievance was that the Shah’s ministers had given control of customs
to a Belgian, Joseph Naus. They were also saying, drawing upon
Western models, that the country needed a proper constitution, that the
arbitrary rule of the Shah had to be limited, and the rule of law regularized.
Iranians (some of them at least) have been struggling for those things
ever since, down to the present day.
In 1905 these various developments came to a head under the direct
infl uence of a price crisis caused by a disruption of trade with Russia,
following the abortive revolution and general turmoil in Russia that
year. In the northern part of the country the price of sugar went up by a
third and the price of wheat by 90 per cent. The government responded
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Revolutionary Iran
by accusing bazaar merchants of profi teering, but the slump in imports
also brought a collapse in customs receipts and state revenues, which
meant there was not enough money for the Shah to make his usual payments
to some of the ulema , or to the small number of troops at his
After some demonstrations and unrest in June, in December 1905 two
sugar merchants from the Tehran bazaar were given beatings on the feet
(the bastinado or falak ) at the orders of the governor of Tehran for charging
too much for sugar. One of them was a respected elder fi gure who had
paid to repair both the buildings of the bazaar itself, and three mosques.
The bazaar merchants closed their shops, and several thousand bazaaris ,
religious students, ulema and others went to the shrine of Shah Abd ol-
Azim to the south of the city, led by two senior clerics, Ayatollahs
Behbehani and Tabatabai. From the sanctuary of the shrine (taking sanctuary
in this way was called bast ) they demanded the removal of the
governor who had ordered the beatings, enforcement of shari‘a law, dismissal
of the Belgian, Naus, and the establishment of an adalatkhaneh
(House of Justice – a representative assembly). After a month of stalemate
the Shah gave in and accepted the protestors’ demands.
But (as with earlier promises) the Shah made no attempt to convene the
House of Justice, and in July 1906 there were further street protests by theological
students when the government tried to take action against some
radical preachers. One of the students, a seyyed (someone believed to be
descended from the Prophet Mohammad), was shot dead by the police,
which caused an uproar and more demonstrations, in which a further
twenty- two were killed. 9 In the streets the Shah’s government was denounced
as the rule of Yazid, recalling Hosein and Karbala. Behbehani, Tabatabai,
2 , 000 ulema and their students left Tehran for Qom (then as now the main
centre for theological study in the country), and a larger group of merchants,
mullahs and others (eventually several thousand) took bast in the extensive
grounds of the summer residence of the British legation at Qolhak, to the
north of Tehran. The ulema and the bazaaris were effectively on strike, bringing
the capital to a standstill. The Qolhak compound became an impromptu
academy of political discussion and speculation, with liberal and nationalist
intellectuals joining in and addressing the assembled crowds. Many of them
spoke of the need to limit the powers of the Shah by establishing a constitution
( mashruteh ), and the demand for a House of Justice became more
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specifi c, shifting to a call for a properly representative national assembly
(Majles). Coordinated by the ulema , like- minded groups from the provinces
sent telegrams in support to the Shah.
One might think that the protection given to the constitutionalist
opposition by the British legation in the summer of 1906 would have created
goodwill toward the British among progressive- minded Iranians at
least. But this did not happen, at least not in any lasting way. British hospitality
toward the revolutionary opposition had more to do with
weakening Russian infl uence at the Qajar court than any deep commitment
to the fostering of representative institutions in Persia. For nearly a
century Britain and Russia had been rivals in the country, but their rivalry
had been aimed more at spoiling the position of the other in the short
term than about winning Iranian affections or creating a partnership with
Iran in the longer term. Russian expansionist motives were fairly plain;
British motives (primarily, until the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908 , concerned
with the security of British India) had often been disguised under
a mask of friendship and an ostensible commitment to development and
liberal institutions. Britain had made alliances with Persia at the beginning
of the nineteenth century, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, only
to renege on them or slither out of their provisions when they became
inconvenient. This had contributed to the humiliating loss of Persian territory
in the Caucasus to Russia in 1813 and 1828 . In the middle of the
century Britain had intervened to prevent Persia from retaking Herat
(part of Afghanistan today but a Persian territory before 1747 ). Eventually
British policy turned against the constitutionalists and through the
rest of the twentieth century was primarily interested in Iranian oil. For
many Iranians Britain was the most dangerous of Iran’s enemies, and
(notwithstanding friendliness toward individuals) that reputation still lingers:
the British have been thought to be devious, untrustworthy and
always looking for new ways to damage Iran. 10
On 5 August, threatened by a potential mutiny among the Cossack
brigade, whom he had been unable to pay, Mozaffar od- Din Shah gave
in again and signed an order for the convening of a national assembly.
By this time the Shah was seriously ill. The Majles met for the fi rst time
in October 1906 , and rapidly set about drafting a constitution, which
was ratifi ed by the Shah on 30 December (one story says that members
of the ulema advised him, in the light of his many sins, to do one great
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Revolutionary Iran
good last thing before he died). 11 The revolutionaries had won their constitution.
Mozaffar od- Din Shah died only fi ve days later.
The Majles was elected on the basis of partial, not full, suffrage, on a
two- stage system, and represented primarily the middle and upper classes
(as was the case in most other countries with elected assemblies at the
time). In each region electors voted for delegates to regional assemblies,
and those delegates nominated 156 members for the Majles (except in
Tehran, where they were elected directly). Outside the Majles, both in the
capital and in the regional centres, the political changes and the elections
stimulated the creation of more new political societies, some of which
quickly grew powerful and infl uenced the deliberations of the Majles
itself. Some represented occupations, others regions like Azerbaijan, others
ethnic or religious groups. There were anjoman for women for the
fi rst time. There was another new wave of political activity and debate
across the country, manifested also in the expansion in the number of
newspapers; from just six before the revolution began to over 100 . 12 This
burgeoning of political consciousness was disturbing in itself to the more
traditional- minded; especially to the more conservative members of the
ulema .
The constitution stated explicitly that the Shah’s sovereignty derived
from the people, as a power given to him in trust; not as a right bestowed
directly by God. But the power of the ulema and of Shi‘ism as the dominant
faith of the country was also confi rmed in the constitution. 13 Shi‘ism
was declared to be the state religion, shari‘a law was recognized, clerical
courts were given a signifi cant role, and there was to be a fi ve- man committee
of senior ulema to scrutinize legislation passed by the Majles, to
confi rm its spiritual legitimacy; until the Hidden Emam – whose proper
responsibility this was – should reappear. But the civil rights of non- Shi‘a
minorities were also protected, refl ecting the involvement of many Jews,
Babis, Armenians and others in the constitutional project. Jews and Armenians
had their own, protected seats for their representatives in the Majles.
Many of these features reappeared in the post- 1979 constitution.
Mozaffar od- Din Shah’s successor, his son Mohammad Ali Shah, had
more autocratic instincts than his father. He resolved from the start,
although he took an oath of loyalty to the constitution, to overturn it
and restore the previous form of untrammelled monarchy, with Russian
help. Opposition to constitutionalism began also to harden from the
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religious side. Through 1907 and the fi rst half of 1908 the Majles passed
measures for the reform of taxation and fi nance, education and judicial
matters. The last were particularly disturbing to the ulema , because they
saw their traditional role encroached upon.
Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri was prominent among the ulema who changed
their minds at this time. He had supported the protests of 1905 – 6 (which in
most respects were quite conservative in motivation), but by 1907 he was
saying that the Majles and its plans were leading away from the initial aims
of the movement and that the constitutionalists were importing ‘the customs
and practices of the abode of disbelief’ (i.e. the West). Eventually he shifted
further, to express open support for the monarchy against the Majles, which
he denounced as illegitimate. He also railed against Jews, Bahais and Zoroastrians,
exaggerating their part in the constitutionalist movement. Other
mojtaheds , like Tabatabai, were more willing to accept Western ideas into the
framework of political structures that were necessary to govern human
affairs in the absence of the Hidden Emam. But it is fair to say that Nuri
understood better than many of the ulema the direction that constitutionalism
was leading, and (from his perspective) the dangers of it. The general
ferment of ideas had affected the ulema too, and the ulema had never been a
united bloc of opinion (no more than any group of intellectuals ever is). The
initial success of the revolution had opened up divisions within the revolutionary
movement, as has happened with similar movements in other times
and places (something similar happened in several countries in Europe in the
revolutionary year of 1848 – 9 ). The shift of part of the ulema into opposition
to the constitutional movement was ultimately fatal for the revolution.
In June 1908 the Shah decided that he had enough support to act
and sent the Cossack brigade to attack the Majles. The troops fi red shells
at the building until the delegates gave in, and the assembly was closed.
Many leading members were arrested and executed, while others escaped
overseas. The Shah’s coup was successful in Tehran, but not in all the
provinces. Many of the most dedicated and enthusiastic constitutionalists
came from Azerbaijan, which had long been one of the more
agriculturally productive, densely populated and prosperous parts of the
country, as well as socially and educationally more advanced. In the
years around 1900 some of the inhabitants had travelled over the border
into Russia for work, bringing back radical political ideas with them.
Now, in Tabriz, the regional capital, delegates from the constitutionalist
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Revolutionary Iran
regional assembly and their supporters (notably the charismatic exbrigand
Sattar Khan) successfully held the city against the royal governor
and his forces for a time. In doing so they had the help of a young teacher,
Howard Baskerville, an idealistic American from Nebraska, only recently
arrived in the city to work as a teacher. Baskerville fought alongside the
constitutionalists and was eventually killed leading an attack on the
besieging forces in April 1909 .
In 1907 , newly allied to each other and France, and concerned at Germany’s
burgeoning overseas presence, Britain and Russia had fi nally set
aside their mutual suspicions and reached a treaty over their interests in
Persia. The treaty showed no respect for the new conditions of popular
sovereignty in the country (and proved inter alia that the apparent British
protection of the revolutionaries in their legation in 1906 had little real
signifi cance). It divided Persia into three zones: a zone of Russian infl uence
in the north (including Tabriz, Tehran, Mashhad and Isfahan – most
of the major cities), a British zone in the south- east, adjacent to the border
with British India, and a neutral zone in the middle.
One consequence of the treaty was that the Russians, following the Shah’s
coup of June 1908 , intolerant as ever of any form of popular movement,
were emboldened to send in troops to restore Qajar rule in Tabriz. But the
nature of the electoral process for the Majles had helped to create a depth of
resilience in the revolutionary movement. The regional assemblies set up in
cities like Tabriz and Isfahan by the fi rst stage of the process served as refuges
and as centres of resistance for the constitutionalists, which meant that defeat
in Tehran was not the end of the story. Even when the Russians took Tabriz
some of the revolutionaries were able to escape to Gilan and continue their
resistance with other locals there. In July 1909 they made a move on Tehran,
coordinated with a move from the south, where revolutionaries in Isfahan
had allied themselves with the local Bakhtiari tribe. As the revolutionaries
moved back into the capital Mohammad Ali Shah fl ed to the Russian legation.
He was deposed, went into exile in Russia, and was replaced by his
young son, Ahmad (though Ahmad was not crowned until July 1914 ).
The constitutionalists were back in control, but the revolution had
turned more dangerous. The divisions between radicals and conservatives
had deepened, and the violence that had fi rst destroyed and then
reinstated the Majles also had its effect; many of the armed groups that
had retaken the capital stayed on. Several prominent Bakhtiaris took
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offi ce in the government. The ulema were divided, and many sided with
the royalists, effectively rejecting the whole project of constitutionalism.
But within a few days the leader of the conservative ulema , Nuri, was
arrested, tried and hanged for his alleged connections with the coup of June
1908 . Both wings of political opinion carried out a series of assassinations –
Behbehani was killed, and later Sattar Khan. The radicals (the Democratic
Party in the Majles) found themselves denounced by bazaar crowds as heretics
and traitors and some of them were forced into exile. There was
disorder in many provinces, it became impossible to collect taxes, tribal
leaders took over in some areas, and brigandage became commonplace. To
try to restore order, to counter the infl uence of the Russian- offi cered Cossack
brigade, and above all to establish a body that could enforce tax
collection, the Majles set up a gendarmerie trained by Swedish offi cers.
The constitutionalist government also appointed a young American,
Morgan Schuster, as fi nancial adviser. Schuster presented clear- sighted,
wide- ranging proposals that addressed law and order and the government’s
control of the provinces as well as more narrowly fi nancial matters;
and began to put them into effect. But the Russians disliked Schuster and
objected to his appointment of a British offi cer to head up the Swedish
gendarmerie, on the basis that the appointment should not have been
made within their sphere of infl uence without their consent. The British
acquiesced. Schuster assessed, probably correctly, that the deeper Russian
motive was to keep the Persian government’s affairs in a state of chaotic
bankruptcy, and thus in a position of relative weakness. If the Russians
could keep the Persian government as a supplicant for Russian loans then
they would be better able to manipulate it. Any determined effort to put
the government of Persia on a sound fi nancial footing, as Schuster’s reforms
threatened to do, was a threat to Russian interests. The Russians presented
an ultimatum: Schuster had to go. A body of women surged into the Majles
to demand that the ultimatum be rejected, and the Majles agreed, insisting
that the American should stay. But the Russians sent troops to Tehran and
as they drew near, the Bakhtiaris and conservatives in the cabinet carried
through what was effectively another coup, and dismissed both Schuster
and the Majles in December 1911 . 14 That date is the one normally taken
for the end, and the failure, of the Constitutional Revolution.
Like a love affair, a revolution can turn the familiar world upside
down. It is easy for the participants to be so overwhelmed with delight at
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Revolutionary Iran
their initial success that they make mistakes later because they fail to
grasp that the revolution will continue to revolve. While new possibilities
may excite some, others may be afraid. New, previously concealed forces
may be released. And however poignant the memory of the early days of
unity and excitement, later developments and mistakes, however much
regretted, make their loss irretrievable. In a revolution, new leaders
emerge from unexpected directions, surprising those who were too quick
to think themselves the masters, or proprietors. This happened in the
French and in the Russian revolutions; also in the Iranian revolution of
1906 – 11 . And also in 1979 .
Schuster later wrote a book about his time in Iran called The Strangling
of Persia , in which he expressed his admiration for the moral courage and
determination of the people he worked with in Iran. The book explained
much about the revolution, and about Iran at the time, but also about
Schuster’s attitudes to the country, and something of the reasons why he
and by extension the US were so highly regarded by Iranians. Earnest, idealistic
Americans like Schuster and Baskerville made a strong impression
on Iranians at this time, as did wider US principles of anti- colonialism and
self- determination, later promoted by Woodrow Wilson. The United States
in this phase and later looked like the partner Iran had long hoped to fi nd
in the West; anti- colonial, liberal, progressive; modern, but not imperialist;
a benevolent foreign power that would, for once, treat Iran with respect, as
an agent in her own right, not as an instrument. That sentiment toward the
US persisted, despite disappointments.
The efforts of well- meaning individuals like Schuster and Baskerville
could do little enough to swing the balance in favour of the constitutionalists
in 1906 – 11 . The revolution fell victim to violent factionalism
among the Iranians themselves, and also to the machinations of the
Russians and the British. But the Constitutional Revolution was an
important event, not just for Iran but for the region and arguably the
world as a whole; and it was far from a complete failure. Apart from an
abortive move in Ottoman Turkey in the 1870 s, it was the fi rst attempt
in the Middle East by a people of the region to set up a liberal, representative
government by its own efforts. The experience of representative
government had a powerful, unifying effect in confi rming and energizing
Iranian nationalism. The spirit and the goals of constitutionalism
stayed alive and vigorous, and were a major factor in Iranian political
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life for the rest of the century. Subsequent regimes repeatedly bypassed
or fl outed it, but the constitution of 1906 remained in force until the
revolution of 1979 . The Majles continued to be elected and to meet, and
in 1919 was instrumental in preventing a post- war attempt to establish
a British protectorate in Iran.
A young British offi cer in Persia at the time, Arnold Wilson, wrote
sceptically and rather patronizingly after a long conversation with two
optimistic Majles deputies on the road from Shiraz to Isfahan in 1907 :
The majlis will not work: it has no roots in the soil and no tradition: either
the Qajars or some other dynasty will eventually destroy it . . . but Persian
nationalism will get stronger for it has roots and a tradition as old as Persia
itself. 15
Morgan Schuster blamed the Russians and the British for the failure of
the revolution (and perhaps, by extension, the attitudes of some like Wilson).
He wrote of the Majles:
It was loyally supported by the great mass of the Persians, and that alone
was suffi cient justifi cation for its existence. 16
Ahmad Kasravi, who was a supporter of constitutionalism and also
lived through the period of the revolution, blamed the split between the
constitutionalists and the conservative clergy:
So the people were of two minds. Bit by bit, a division appeared between
the two ways of thinking, and when the mullahs did not see it in their interests
to cooperate with the constitution and had to part, a big faction went with
them. But the faction that stood fast did not fi nd the way forward to struggle
and remained confused. This faction of modernists could not show the people
the way forward, either. 17
All three views have some truth to them. Many of the alliances and interests
that played out in 1906 – 11 made their appearance again in 1979 . But
the events of the Constitutional Revolution were also present in the minds
of Iranians in the 1970 s as a warning. In particular, the more politically
minded among the clergy had learned the lesson that the ulema should not
allow political leadership to slide out of their hands as they had in 1906 .
Although the Qajar government, with Russian support, ostensibly
regained its position in December 1911 , it never really restored its
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Revolutionary Iran
authority in the country as a whole. In many parts of Iran local tribal
leaders were the only authority, and in the north, in Gilan, an insurrection
that came to be known as the Jangali movement (named after the
dense forests of the region, which favoured guerrilla fi ghting), descended
from the constitutionalist groupings of 1907 – 9 , continued to fi ght the
Russians and the monarchists for years under its charismatic leader,
Kuchek Khan (‘Little Khan’).
Oil and War
Another story that begins in the time of the Constitutional Revolution is
that of Iran and oil. One month before Mohammad Ali Shah ordered the
Cossacks to fi re on the Majles building in the summer of 1908 , a British
exploratory venture struck oil at Masjed- e Soleiman in Khuze stan in the
south- west (on 26 May). This was the fi rst major discovery of commercially
viable oil in the Middle East, and the Anglo- Persian Oil Company (later the
Anglo- Iranian Oil Company, eventually to become BP ) was set up to exploit
it. From this time onwards, the British government’s prime interest in Persia
was no longer directed at securing the borders of British India (as had been
the case for a hundred years), but ensuring the continued supply of cheap
Iranian oil. The importance of Iranian oil was led by the fact that the British
fl eet changed over from coal to oil to fuel its battleships at this time. Competition
to build battleships was a focal point of the escalating tension
between Britain and Germany – accelerating after the launch of HMS
Dreadnought in 1906 – that helped to bring about the First World War.
Iranian oil became a vital strategic asset for the security of the British Empire.
The contractual basis of the oil strike was a concession granted by the
Persian government to the British commercial adventurer William Knox
D’Arcy in 1901 . Like other concessions granted to foreigners in those years,
the terms were poor for the hosts: in the event of oil being discovered, they
would only get 16 per cent of the profi ts. Successive governments were not
able to break free from the D’Arcy concession until the 1950 s, and over that
period Iran got a bad return for such an important national asset.
The First World War deepened further the chaos that followed the end
of the Constitutional Revolution. Iran was never a major theatre of
war – was barely even a minor one – but at various times Ottoman,
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Imperial Russian, British, Kurdish, Jangali, Bolshevik and all sorts of
tribal forces were fi ghting in one part of the country or other. At one
point in 1915 the Ottomans, with help from allied German offi cers, were
in control of parts of the west and briefl y hosted a Committee of National
Resistance in Kermanshah, drawn from members of the Majles of 1914 . 18
In and around Shiraz a talented German, Wilhelm Wassmuss, organized
attacks against British interests in cooperation with local Qashqai tribesmen.
The British countered by building alliances with other tribes in the
south- west and by establishing a British- offi cered force recruited locally,
the South Persia Rifl es, to protect the oilfi elds. The Ottomans and Germans
had some successes early on, but were pushed onto the defensive
from 1917 onwards. Russian interest in Persia collapsed with the revolution
of 1917 (although the Bolsheviks were active in northern Persia in
1919 – 20 , working with the Jangalis) and with the collapse of the German
and Ottoman war effort in 1918 the British were left dominant in Iran.
The British were dominant in the sense that the other external contenders
had faded from the scene, but they were not in control. Iran came
low on a long list of priorities, and Britain could not spare enough troops
fully to impose order in the country. Britain was globally overstretched at
the end of the First World War and heavily in debt. The British foreign
secretary, Lord Curzon, had a particular interest in Iran: he had spent
some time travelling through the country in 1889 – 90 and had written a
weighty book afterwards – Persia and the Persian Question . But he seems
to have dismissed the signifi cance of the Constitutional Revolution, and
his approach to the country was more redolent of the 1890 s. His plan
was for Iran to become a kind of British protectorate (similar to the
arrangements being set up by the British in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq at
the same time), with Iranian institutions functioning under British control,
a British- offi cered army and Britain controlling the country’s foreign
policy. In return Iran would get help with economic development – railway
construction, road building and so on.
Ahmad Shah’s government, encouraged with bribes, accepted Curzon’s
plan (framed as the Anglo- Persian Agreement), but when its terms
became more widely known there was a strong nationalist reaction
against it across the country, and the Majles rejected it, which meant it
could not legally enter into force. There followed a year or more of grim
limbo. The country was in a desperate state. Law and order had broken
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Revolutionary Iran
down completely across wide areas; trade and economic activity generally
had been disrupted and had slumped; fi ghting continued sporadically in
parts; nomadic tribesmen raided towns and villages; and bandits made
the roads unsafe for travellers. The north- west in particular had suffered
widespread destruction in the fi ghting between the Russians and the
Ottomans. There had been extensive famine in 1917 – 18 , and more deaths
had been caused among the weakened population by the infl uenza pandemic
of 1918 . In London Curzon still hoped to force through
implementation of his plan, but in Iran British soldiers could see that the
situation was hopeless: they did not have enough troops to hold their
existing commitments safely, let alone pacify and police the whole country,
which was turning increasingly hostile.
General Ironside, the senior British offi cer in the country at the end of
1920 , without troubling to consult London over his intentions, found a
solution that would enable him to withdraw British troops safely. The
Cossacks, expanded to weak division strength during the war, still had
Russian offi cers (marooned in Iran after the revolution of 1917 ). Ironside
removed them and appointed Iranians from the ranks in their place. He
then selected one of them, Reza Khan, as the de facto commander and
gave him to understand that, if he were to march on Tehran and set up a
military government, British forces would not stand in his way.
In February 1921 , Reza Khan did just that, and set up a new government
in association with a mixed group of nationalists and former constitutionalists.
British troops withdrew, maintaining only a presence in the south- west
to protect the oil. Less than fi ve years later, having defeated the Jangalis and
some tribal resistance in the provinces, Reza Khan had himself crowned as
the fi rst Shah of a new dynasty, the Pahlavi dynasty. The name Pahlavi
derived from the name given to the pre- Islamic language of Iran (otherwise
known as Middle Persian), but the term drew colour also from the fact that
the heroes of the Shahnameh had been called Pahlavan ; the latter word was
also used for the contemporary strongmen of the zur- khaneh .
The Pahlavi Dynasty
From the beginning the Pahlavi monarchy was a strange creation. When
Reza Shah was crowned in 1926 he had been prime minister for three
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years under the authority of Ahmad, the last Qajar Shah, and he had
attempted unsuccessfully to make the country a republic in 1924 (just
after Mustapha Kemal had deposed the Ottoman Sultan and made himself
president of the new Republic of Turkey, in October 1923 ). Reza
Shah’s family origins were obscure – no hint of any royal or even aristocratic
forebears. The monarchy was a parvenu regime that resembled
other nationalist military dictatorships of the 1920 s and 30 s elsewhere,
with the difference that it came later to be seen in the eyes of many
Iranians (somewhat unfairly) as tainted from the outset by the hand of
the British in its establishment.
A revolution, a military coup and a military dictator who makes himself
a monarch: a familiar pattern. Like Napoleon, Reza Shah inherited
many of his initial supporters and much of his programme from the revolution
that preceded his time. Many constitutionalists supported him as a
strong leader who would restore order and bring in reforms that would
develop the country (so far they were right) – realizing too late just how
autocratic and illiberal his instincts were. But Reza Shah was not Napoleon.
He lacked Napoleon’s triumphal prestige and his freedom of action.
Similarly, he fell short of the model closer to him in time and place – Mustapha
Kemal (Atatürk) in Turkey.
At the start, Reza Shah had a lot of support, including from many of
the ulema . Notable constitutionalists like Abdolhosein Teymurtash and
Hasan Taqizadeh joined his government as ministers. Others who had
opposed Reza Shah, like Seyyed Hasan Modarres (probably the most
prominent surviving pro- constitutionalist among the clergy, who had been
instrumental in the rejection of the Anglo- Persian Agreement), tried to
negotiate a settlement that left room for liberal government – but failed.
Ordinary people wanted predictability, order and stability to return to
their lives, and the chance for economic recovery. Reza Shah delivered
that. His priority from the fi rst was to build a modern army, and in the
1920 s 40 per cent of state expenditure was devoted to it. Already in
1922 he had brought forward a plan for an army of 50 , 000 men. By the
later 1930 s the army was 100 , 000 strong, and because it was based on
conscription, there were a larger number of reservists who could be
called upon in time of war. The army was used to pacify the country, 19
and especially the more troublesome nomadic tribes – who still made
up perhaps a quarter of the population at this time. The tribes disliked
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Revolutionary Iran
conscription, and enforcement of conscription served as an additional
pacifying measure. The policy was implemented brutally, but the majority
of the population would have approved of strong measures – for most
Iranians of the towns and villages the previous independence of the tribes
carried no romantic connotations. It signifi ed disorder, danger, brigandage,
unpredictability and weak central control. The income that Reza
Shah’s new government derived from oil was spent almost entirely on
military equipment, including artillery, tanks and aircraft.
But the army could not exist in isolation, and its effi ciency demanded
wider changes in the country – many of which echoed earlier, failed reform
programmes. Financial administration and taxation were reformed. Ambitious
plans for road and rail construction were brought forward and
implemented. New industries were set up (notably in areas like textiles
and foodstuffs), aimed at stemming imports and keeping capital within
the country by supplying demand domestically. Some were fostered as
state monopolies. Perhaps most importantly for the future, education was
greatly expanded. By 1938 school attendance was over 450 , 000 by comparison
with 55 , 000 in 1922 (out of a total population of around
12 million). Secondary school attendance went up proportionally; the
Shah established the country’s fi rst full university in Tehran (including a
theology faculty, and with it the opportunity for religion to be taught in
Iran as a phenomenon, rather than simply as the Truth); and the government
gave scholarships to talented students to study in universities
abroad. 20 The education provided was somewhat narrow and technocratic,
aimed at producing effi cient offi cers and administrators rather
than encouraging independent thought, but it is seldom possible for the
state fully to manipulate the uses to which individuals may put the education
they have been given. Most of the new schools were in towns and
cities – the illiteracy of the majority of Iranians, who still lived in the villages
and in the countryside, was almost untouched.
Like those of Atatürk in Turkey, Reza Shah’s policies followed a
nationalist, secularizing pattern that sought to modernize the country on
a Western model. They reasserted the position of Iran against foreign
interference, but also sought to push the ulema aside. The educational
reforms aimed at giving a Western- style education rather than the traditional
Koran- based education of the madreseh. The Shah brought in a
wholesale reconstruction of the legal system, with courts supervised by
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secular judges and civil and penal legal codes designed along European
lines. For a time this went in parallel with the traditional shari‘a legal
framework; then in 1936 the religious courts were abolished. But a Westernizing
programme did not mean subservience to Western powers. Reza
Shah also, in 1927 – 8 , abolished the treaties (aptly named Capitulations)
by which foreigners had enjoyed exceptional legal status in the country.
He avoided using British or Russian technical advisers for his development
projects (from the countries with the worst record of interference in
Iran), preferring to use Germans, Frenchmen or Italians. He renationalized
the administration of customs in 1927 , and the central bank in
1930 as Bank Melli – the ‘National Bank’. In 1935 the Shah directed
foreign embassies to stop using the name Persia in diplomatic correspondence,
telling them instead to use the name Iran. This reform was in
one way simply an assertion of self- determination – the term Iran had
been the word used by Iranians for their country since the time of the
Sassanids, at least. But Reza Shah probably intended it also to distance
his regime from that of the Qajars, who had acquiesced, in this as in other
ways, in letting foreigners determine too much of what went on in the
country (the name Persia had been used since classical times in the West,
deriving ultimately from the fact that the Achaemenid dynasty of Cyrus
and Darius I, with which the Greeks had fought lengthy wars, had originated
in the province of Persis – Pars (modern Fars).
Reza Shah did not, like Atatürk in Turkey, attempt to replace Arabic
script with Roman. But he did copy Atatürk’s reform of Turkish by trying
to impose a reform of Persian to exclude words of Arabic or non- Iranian
origin. Most controversially, he ordered that Iranians wear Western dress,
banning traditional robes and headgear, and most radically of all, banning
the veil for women. Many women simply ceased to go out of doors,
and the new rules provoked strong opposition. A protest in Mashhad in
1935 culminated in the Shah’s troops opening fi re on demonstrators in
the precincts of the shrine of the Emam Reza, which caused greater
There was a wider mood of secularizing nationalism among intellectuals
at this time. Tending to blame reactionary mullahs for the failure of
the constitutional revolution, such nationalists went further, to blame
the ulema and Islam as a whole for Iran’s backwardness. Nationalists
looked back to the pre- Islamic past, to what they thought of as a purer
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Revolutionary Iran
Iran, before the Arab conquest. The mood fi tted with some of the attitudes
of the Shah and his regime, but was not simply a function of regime
self- projection – as time wore on some of the writers became critical of
the Pahlavi regime too.
Three Writers
Ahmad Kasravi was a central fi gure among the nationalist thinkers
and writers of this time. He wrote extensively on Iranian history and politics;
including the most important history of the Constitutional
Revolution. Kasravi came from Azerbaijan, from a family of Turkic origin,
and spoke Azeri Turkish as his mother tongue – a good example of
the way that Iranian culture and even Iranian nationalism have transcended
narrow ethnic categories. He was born in Tabriz in 1890 , to a
clerical family, was given training in a seminary (though he also attended
the American Memorial School in which Baskerville had taught) and was
involved in the dramatic events of the Constitutional Revolution in
Azerbaijan. In his early days as a student Kasravi turned away from his
religious training (according to one story, this happened when he discovered
that Western scientists had predicted the reappearance of Halley’s
comet in 1910 ) and became a wickedly intelligent critic of the ulema – but
also a critic of many other aspects of contemporary Iranian society. One of
his pamphlets, entitled What Is the Religion of the Hajjis with Warehouses?
, poured scorn on bazaar traders who were keen to present
themselves as pious Muslims, but whose commercial and general behaviour
was amoral, grasping and hypocritical. Another, entitled Hasan Is
Burning His Book of Hafez , attacked the disposition, as he saw it, of
many Iranians to substitute quotation from the classic Persian poets for
genuine thought – illustrating (albeit negatively) the centrality of that
great poetic tradition in Iranian cultural life. 21 Like many of his generation
Kasravi was a committed believer in the principles of constitutionalism
and secular government. He was a nationalist, and attacked the linguistic
and other divisions that had created suspicion between Iranians and, in
his opinion, had made them weak. He worked for many years in the Ministry
of Education and as a journalist and writer. In 1946 he was
assassinated by a group called the Fedayan- e Eslam, followers of a man
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who had chosen to call himself Navvab Safavi (thereby associating himself
with the dynasty that had imposed Shi‘ism on Iran). 22 The Fedayan- e
Eslam dedicated themselves to eliminating those they identifi ed as the
enemies of Islam.
Kasravi was signifi cant for a number of different reasons. He stood for
a strand of thinking in Iran, typical of the Pahlavi period, which became
important again in the 1960 s and 70 s, and which rejected the backwardness
of Shi‘ism as it was practised, blaming it for many of the weaknesses
and failures of the country (though his anticlericalism was less extreme
than that of some others). His thinking was a key infl uence on a generation
of educated, middle-class Iranians who benefi ted from the
opportunities that arose under the Pahlavis; and on the generation of
intellectuals and writers that followed him.
Sadegh Hedayat was a more radical writer in a variety of ways: more
troubled, and more of a loner. Born into an a quasi- aristocratic family
of courtiers and scribes in Tehran in 1903 , he travelled to France on one
of Reza Shah’s fi rst scholarships and studied a series of different subjects
including architecture and dentistry there in the later 1920 s, but
never took a degree. As a young man he became an enthusiast for a
romantic, sometimes chauvinistic Iranian nationalism that laid much of
the blame for Iran’s problems on the Arab conquest of the seventh century.
His short stories and novellas like Talab- e Amorzesh ( Seeking
Absolution ), Sag- e Velgard ( Stray Dog ) and his best- known, Buf- e Kur
( The Blind Owl ) combined the everyday, the fantastic and the satirical,
rejecting religion, superstition and Arabic infl uence, but in an innovative,
modernist style combined with a relentlessly honest observation of
everyday life. He translated works by Kafka, Chekhov and Sartre into
Persian (he knew Sartre in Paris). His writing refl ected contemporary
European existentialism and the infl uence of those writers; but he was
also an enthusiast for the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and translated
texts from the pre- Islamic Sassanid period into modern Persian. In his
last years, after a period of renewed vitality after the fall of Reza Shah,
his writing grew more bitter and pessimistic again. His story Tup- e
Morvarid ( The Pearl Cannon – published in 1947 ) included diatribes
against the government of Reza Shah, as well as the writing of history,
colonialism, Islam and the clergy (the passages on religion include some
of the most forthright condemnations of Islam written in any language).
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Revolutionary Iran
He never joined the Tudeh Party, but like many others at the time was
sympathetic to it. 23 Hedayat committed suicide in Paris in 1951 by gassing
himself. He was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.
Unlike Kasravi, Hedayat received little attention in his own lifetime and
was regarded by his family as a failure who could not hold down a job.
Financial and family problems contributed to his suicide. He only acquired
his reputation as the prime modernist prose writer of twentieth-century Iran
after his death, partly because other writers like Jalal Al- e Ahmad and
Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh drew public attention to his work.
Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh was a little older than Hedayat – he was
born in Esfahan in 1892 , the son of a well- known constitutionalist cleric,
Seyyed Jamal al- Din Esfahani, who was murdered in prison in 1908 at the
orders of Mohammad Ali Shah. Jamalzadeh himself was a committed
constitutionalist and joined a group of like- minded exiles led by Hasan
Taqizadeh in Berlin during the First World War. While there he contributed
to the political magazine Kaveh , which had been established by
Taqizadeh and others. It was a political journal, anti- British and anti-
Russian, but also included historical and literary material. At the end of
the war it became less partisan, but continued to favour the principles
behind constitutionalism. Jamalzadeh published several articles and other
pieces in Kaveh ; most notably ‘Farsi shekar ast’ in 1921 (literally, ‘Persian
Is Sugar’ – usually translated as ‘Persian Is Sweet’). This was a short story,
written in a realist style and using simple, colloquial Persian to satirize
both the language of the mullahs, often overburdened by vocabulary and
constructions taken from Arabic, and that of the Western- educated, full of
loan words from French and other European languages. Later the same
year it was republished with fi ve other stories in a collection with the title
Yeki bud, yeki nabud (literally, There Was One, There Wasn’t One : the
phrase used to introduce children’s stories in Persian – the equivalent of
‘Once upon a time’). It created a furore – attacked by some of the clergy,
but welcomed by many other writers and intellectuals as a breath of fresh
air. Many later writers of short stories in Iran followed Jamalzadeh’s lead
(including Hedayat). Jamalzadeh wanted Iranian literature to avoid overcomplicated
language that aped the usage of other countries. Politically, he
was against foreign interference in Iran and against the dead hand of intolerant,
traditionalist clergy within Iran. From 1931 until his retirement in
1956 he worked at the International Labour Organization in Geneva,
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but continued to write and publish in Iran, especially after 1941 , when
censorship was lifted. He held true to his constitutionalist principles, and
the principles of the European Enlightenment. Jamalzadeh visited Iran
but continued to live in Geneva, and died there in 1997 . 24
Writers like Kasravi, Hedayat and Jamalzadeh, building on the sacred
tradition of Persian poetical literature, created a new prose literature in
Persian and carved out an important new role for writers in the life of
Iran – not just in literature but also in politics; as standard- bearers for
political and cultural values – as cultural heroes. Plenty more followed in
their path in later decades.
Reza Shah’s policies brought the country many benefi ts, but by the later
1930 s the shine had come off his rule. Most of the constitutionalist politicians
he had appointed as ministers had been removed. Some went into
exile – others were murdered in prison. The constitutionalist cleric Modarres
was killed in prison too (in 1938 ). The Shah was suspicious, and his treatment
of political dissent, or failure, was harsh. His court minister, Teymurtash,
was imprisoned after he failed to get better terms for the exploitation of
Iran’s oil from the British, and he died in prison in 1933 . The cause of death
was given offi cially as heart failure; but he was generally believed to have
been murdered on the Shah’s orders (as with other political prisoners in those
years, the story was that he was one of the victims of Dr Ahmad Ahmadi,
whose favourite technique was allegedly to inject air into a vein, which
caused cardiac arrest when the air bubble found its way back to the heart).
The Shah later secured a marginal improvement in the revenue he got
for Iran’s oil; an increase in the share of the profi ts from 16 to 20 per
cent; but the failure to get a properly fair division of the benefi ts and the
continuing presence of the British AIOC in the country was a persistent
humiliation, especially as other countries, with whom oil companies
made deals later in the century as oil exploration uncovered new re –
serves, made deals yielding a better return to the host country. It is
instructive to compare Reza Shah’s Iran with Atatürk’s Turkey. Atatürk
was able to remove all the concessions his Ottoman predecessors had
made, and to eliminate every vestige of foreign interference in Turkey –
no external power controlled any asset to compare with Iranian oil.
And Atatürk never lapsed into dictatorial paranoia. He maintained his
commitment to representative government – albeit a trammelled version
of it – and ended his life in his own bed, in his own country, still revered
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Revolutionary Iran
by his fellow countrymen (and for long after his death). The Pahlavis
never properly learned the value of politics as a lightning- rod to make
safe the dangers of political dissent. Perhaps Reza Shah never shook off
the contempt for popular politics that he learned from the Tsarist Russian
offi cers of the Cossack brigade.
By the later 1930 s the Shah had alienated many Iranians, and a similar
dangerous combination of opposition forces to that which had caused the
revolution of 1906 – 11 had begun to form. Most hostile were the ulema ,
who saw traditional values abused and alien Western principles followed
in their stead. They had been pushed out of their roles in education and
law. Their close confederates in the bazaar were uneasy at the Shah’s
reforms of the economy and were aggrieved at the way state monopolies
took profi ts out of their hands. But most of the liberal intellectuals were
hostile too. Some of their number had been killed in prison, others had
gone into exile, and it was not safe for any that remained to express criticism
of the Shah. In 1937 he turned on a new generation of intellectuals:
some politically minded young students returned from study in Europe,
including both fascist sympathizers and Marxists, were arrested and
imprisoned. His rule had become repressive and brutal. Incidents like the
shooting in Mashhad roused the deep- seated Shi‘a distrust of secular
power, and the abuse of it.
Another aspect to the Shah’s nationalism was an element of pro-
German Aryanism. The emphasis on linguistic purity and on pre- Islamic
Iran led some further, to an idea of an Aryan/ Indo- European identity that
made some kind of racial commonality between, for example, Aryan Germans
and Aryan Iranians (there is, of course, a common linguistic
root 25 – but since the 1930 s it has become clearer that race, culture and
language can be very different things; and genetic research makes race as
a concept increasingly problematic). In the 1930 s some Germans advised
the Shah’s government on his linguistic policy, and there were German
technicians in the country helping with engineering and other projects.
But a large part of the Shah’s apparent pro- German inclination was based
on the simple fact that the Germans were not British. The Shah was keen
above all to maintain the limited degree of independence he had achieved.
With the outbreak of war in 1939 that independence became more
problematic. In 1941 the strategic situation in the Middle East was dangerously
fl uid, and the supply of oil from Iran was as vital as ever. Iran
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had again declared neutrality, but the British government demanded that
the Shah should expel German nationals from the country. The Shah
refused, the British and Russians invaded, and the Iranian army was
mobilized, but proved no match for the invaders; within a few weeks, in
September 1941 , Allied troops entered Tehran.
War and Occupation
Reza Shah abdicated in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza, and went
into exile. He died in South Africa in 1944 . Some have suggested that the
British moved into Iran not because Reza Shah was too pro- German, but
because they feared a pro- German coup against him (as had just happened
in Iraq). 26 But the outcome was the same – another occupation, and
rule by the Allies (with the US joining in later) until 1945 .
There was no popular outcry at Reza Shah’s removal. Many Iranians felt
relief, and the tribes in particular were able to return to their traditional ways
of life. An American, Arthur Millspaugh, returned to the country to administer
state fi nances (he had served a similar function in Reza Shah’s earlier
years, but had fallen out with the Shah over military spending). Another
American, H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the military commander who
led Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991 ) also played a signifi cant part in
the years of occupation. Having been gassed during the First World War,
after which he joined the New Jersey State Police, he had made a name for
himself through his involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping case and publicizing
colourful exploits against gangsters. 27 In Iran he headed a US military
mission and supervised an Imperial gendarmerie that restored order when
trouble broke out in different parts of the country. Americans were more
acceptable to Iranians in these roles than other foreigners.
The period of occupation was another episode of political and intellectual
ferment, similar to that of the early years of the century. Reza
Shah’s censorship regime was lifted, political prisoners were released, new
political parties and labour organizations formed, and there was another
outpouring of journalistic activity. It was also the time when radio and
radio broadcasts began to reach a large proportion of the population –
another novelty that helped Iranians to feel part of a nation, that national
politics belonged to and involved them.
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Revolutionary Iran
But, impelled by this new freedom (of a kind), the intellectual
mood was shifting. In the 1940 s many writers moved toward a
leftist position, aligning themselves with the Tudeh Party, which formed
in 1941 almost as soon as Reza Shah had gone; founded by some of the
leftist students he had imprisoned in 1937 . Notable among the founders
was Khalil Maleki, who also persuaded the young Jalal Al- e Ahmad
to join.
Tudeh (the name means ‘The Masses’) was set up initially as a social
democratic party, but quickly moved to a communist position, aligning
itself with Moscow for the most part. 28 Tudeh drew support from large
numbers of workers in the new state- sponsored industries. It was well
organized and consolidated that support in the later 1940 s by successfully
pushing through social legislation, including a minimum wage. But
the educated middle class had also grown, and with it support for the
liberal democratic tradition that still espoused the values of the Constitutional
Tudeh’s pro- Soviet alignment was exposed at the end of the war,
when the Soviet Union backed separatist republics in Iranian Azerbaijan
and Kurdestan (the latter probably represented the political aspirations
of the local population rather more than the former). The Soviet Union
also claimed an oil concession in the north- west, which made its
actions resemble Tsarist policy, and Tudeh had to support the concession.
The US and Britain demanded that the Soviets withdraw their
troops from Iran, as had been agreed previously, but the Russians
refused, and for a time there was a stalemate. Internationally, the confrontation
was the fi rst of its kind in what was to become the Cold War,
but it also roused further the spirit of Iranian nationalism that had
already been stimulated by the foreign occupation and the relaxation of
previous political restrictions. The Soviets eventually withdrew; the
army regained some of the credit with Persian- speaking nationalists
that it had lost in 1941 by moving in to crush the pro- Soviet republics,
and Tudeh lost much of its credibility. Hundreds of Azeris and
Kurds who tried to defend their separatist republics were killed, and
thousands fl ed over the border into the Soviet Union, including perhaps
10 , 000 Kurds. 29 With the last Allied troops withdrawn from Iran, political
attention turned to another unresolved nationalist grievance – the
oil question.
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Mossadeq, Oil Nationalization and
Ayatollah Kashani
By the 1950 s world oil production had spread and diversifi ed to many
new countries, and oil companies were exploiting reserves in Iraq, Saudi
Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico. In each of these places European and/or
American companies had made deals with the host governments to
exploit the oil, but all the more recent contracts of this kind had been on
much better terms for the hosts (after some of them had found effective
ways to exert pressure for change) than the terms of the Iranian contract
with the AIOC . A 50 / 50 split of profi ts between host country and oil
company had become the standard arrangement. But the AIOC (with the
backing of the British government, long a majority shareholder) were
obstinately reluctant to renegotiate. Britain was even more desperate economically
after the Second World War than after the fi rst, with a critical
balance of payments defi cit, and could not contemplate losing its supply
of cheap oil.
A signifi cant fi gure in opposition to the Allied occupation and against
British exploitation of Iranian oil was Ayatollah Abol- Qasem Kashani.
He was not one of the most senior ulema (Ayatollah Borujerdi was the
senior marja at the time and supported the monarchy), but his forthright
position on political matters gave him special prominence. Unlike some
other ulema , after the experience of the 1930 s he regarded the constitution
as a potential protection against the dictatorial power of a secularizing
monarch. 30 Kashani was imprisoned during the war by the Allies (his
father, also a cleric, had died fi ghting the British during the revolt of
1921 in Iraq). 31 He served in the Majles as speaker. He had a following in
the Majles and among the bazaaris , but also had connections with Navvab
Safavi and the Fedayan- e Eslam, the extremist Islamic group who had
assassinated Kasravi.
The years following the Second World War were important for the
development of Iranian politics. The monarchy was still relatively weak
under the young Shah, and once the occupying foreign powers had left
the country the interlude of political freedom was sustained. The central
fi gure to emerge out of this new ferment was Mohammad Mossadeq,
who formed a coalition of parties – the National Front – around the
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Revolutionary Iran
nationalist, liberal principles of the Constitutional Revolution. Mossadeq
was descended from the Qajar royal family. He had been educated in
Switzerland and had fi rst entered politics before the First World War. He
had opposed Reza Shah in the 1920 s and 30 s and had withdrawn from
politics, to emerge again after Reza Shah’s abdication. His populist
speechmaking (his voice had a distinctive sing- song quality) 32 and his use
of new media have since prompted a comparison between him and other
anti- colonialist politicians active in the 1950 s, like Nasser in Egypt and
Sukarno in Indonesia. He had an emotional and passionate nature that
lent itself to this role. He saw the monarchy as the main enemy of liberal
democracy in Iran – but he was no great friend of the ulema either. At one
point in the crisis that followed, according to one story, some of Mossadeq’s
supporters put a pair of spectacles on a dog and named it
‘Ayatollah’. They showed it in the Majles and then took it through the
streets. Years later Khomeini commented how at the time he had said
Mossadeq should be slapped – ‘and it was not long before he was slapped;
had he survived, he would have slapped Islam.’ 33
Mossadeq became prime minister in April 1951 , having led the Majles
in a vote to nationalize Iranian oil the previous month. His oil policy was
hugely popular – and Ayatollah Kashani’s commitment to that cause
meant that he supported Mossadeq too, bringing with him an important
slice of traditional, conservative, clerical and bazaari opinion. But he also
needed the support of the Tudeh Party. Tudeh had been banned offi cially
in 1949 , in the aftermath of a failed attempt on the Shah’s life, but
regrouped and continued on an underground basis; as time went on the
party came forward again, and the ban, though technically still in force,
was passed over more and more. 34 Mossadeq also intended to limit the
power of the Shah and establish the country on a permanent basis as a
modern, constitutional monarchy. He thought the US would help, as in
the time of Schuster, Baskerville and Millspaugh.
The British government set about mobilizing international support
against oil nationalization and against Mossadeq. AIOC technicians left
the country, and Britain imposed an oil blockade. The oil industry suddenly
became a burden on the economy and the state, as the government
had to pay maintenance costs and workers’ wages, with no revenue
coming in. Infl ation began to rise, and unemployment too. Having
grown strongly since 1945 , the economy slumped. 35 Tudeh remained
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steadfast in their support for Mossadeq, but support from others began
to waver. Mossadeq pressed on boldly, including with divisive measures
like land reform. But as the fi scal and economic strain intensifi ed, and
uncertainty about the direction of his programme spread, he leaned
more heavily on Tudeh, and doubts within and without the country
about communist infl uence also strengthened.
The standard view of the events that toppled Mossadeq says that he
was removed by a coup orchestrated by the CIA and the British Secret
Intelligence Service. But the reality was more complex. In particular, the
role of the clergy in the fall of Mossadeq has sometimes been neglected.
Many senior clergy had opposed Mossadeq and supported the monarchy
from the outset.
By the summer of 1953 the US and the British were ready to act in Iran
to remove Mossadeq. It might seem strange that the US fell in with the
British government in this resolve, but this was a strange time in US politics.
It was the era of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on
Un- American Activities, of the Dulles brothers heading the State Department
and the CIA . Mossadeq’s populism, his attacks on the Shah, whom
the US regarded as their prime ally in the country, the anti- Westernism
and anti- capitalism of some among Mossadeq’s supporters and above all
his ambiguous but apparently close relationship with Tudeh made him
suspect for the policy- makers of the Eisenhower administration. This was
perhaps combined with a certain lack of confi dence in Middle East affairs
that led the US to listen too readily to British arguments. The communist
threat was the prime danger, and other actors and forces were seen as
useful or otherwise only in relation to the struggle against communism. In
those terms, Mossadeq just wasn’t anti- communist enough.
In reality Mossadeq was more pro- US than many other politicians in the
region – Nasser in Egypt, for example (to whom the US effectively gave
their support, against the British interest, in the Suez crisis three years later).
Mossadeq’s doomed efforts to secure American help showed poignant faith
in fundamental American values. With US backing Mossadeq could have
governed effectively and popularly in Iran and kept Tudeh in their place. Or
(more likely) he might have failed later, under the weight of his own errors,
as democratic politicians generally do. But he did not get the chance.
In 1952 Mossadeq’s position was confi rmed by a new election, and
by a crisis in July (known afterwards as the Si- ye Tir ) between him
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Revolutionary Iran
and the Shah, over who had the right to appoint the minister for war.
Mossadeq briefl y resigned, but the Shah had to reappoint him when
public feeling expressed itself in widespread demonstrations and riots.
Mossadeq had faced down the Shah, and he was able to face down
opposition to his land reform plans from the conservative landowners,
but only by taking emergency powers that neutralized their grip
on the upper house of parliament, the senate. Gaining confi dence, he
appointed secular- minded and anticlerical ministers, and his government
brought forward policies for further nationalization, which
appeared to threaten bazaari interests. 36 Kashani and his followers,
having supported Mossadeq in July, began to express doubts about
the government’s actions against the constitution. They also protested
against plans to extend the vote to women, and to rescind a ban on
the sale of alcohol. When Mossadeq asked for an extension of his
emergency powers, clerical members of the Majles who supported
Kashani left the National Front coalition and set up their own Islamic
So although a referendum in July 1953 again showed huge support
for Mossadeq, there were doubts about the fairness of the poll, and
important leaders of the traditional middle class – the clergy and the
bazaaris – had gone over to the conservative, monarchist side (as had
also happened in 1906 – 7 , of course). There were demonstrations against
Mossadeq, and CIA – sponsored newspaper articles agitated against him.
This was the background against which Kermit Roosevelt Jr – grandson
of Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt – coordinated a CIA operation in Tehran
with a group of Iranian army offi cers (the Americans called it Operation
Ajax; the British, who fi rst put forward the idea, gave it the more prosaic
codename ‘Boot’). The plan was for a coup that would appoint one
of the Iranian offi cers, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as prime minister in
place of Mossadeq. In July– August 1953 they put their plan into effect.
The Shah’s twin sister, the formidable Princess Ashraf, came back to
Tehran from the Riviera to persuade the Shah, who was fearful and hesitating,
to sign the documents necessary for Mossadeq to be removed. At
fi rst Mohammad Reza refused even to see her, but eventually they had a
stormy interview on 29 July. Schwarzkopf also returned, and did his
best (they met on 1 August), but the Shah did not actually sign until
12 August. 37
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The Shah
Mohammad Reza Shah was thirty- three years old in the summer of 1953 .
He had been educated in Switzerland, and his youth had been dominated
by his father; always a severe, daunting man, who as time had gone on
had become ever more domineering and distrustful of ordinary Iranians.
These experiences and traits all left their mark on his son, who grew up
to be diffi dent, rather remote, lacking in confi dence and without any kind
of easy or natural connection with the people he was to govern – but with
a fi rm sense of duty and a compulsion to continue his father’s work. His
fi rst decade as Shah had been traumatic. His father’s deposition and death
had been followed by the failure of his fi rst marriage to the strikingly
beautiful but spoiled Princess Fawzia, daughter of the King of Egypt, who
abandoned and divorced him in 1945 : after her racy, Westernized lifestyle
in Alexandria, she had found the court in Tehran backward, dour and
claustrophobic. His divorce of her according to Iranian law, after the
humiliating failure of attempts at reconciliation, followed only in 1948 .
In February 1949 , as the Shah entered Tehran University to award
diplomas, a man walked up to him and fi red fi ve shots at point- blank
range. Three went through Mohammad Reza’s hat, then one through his
cheek. In a bizarre moment of black comedy, the Shah tried to confuse the
assassin and dodge the bullets – ‘I suddenly started shadow- dancing or
feinting.’ The man fi red again, and another bullet hit Mohammad Reza in
the shoulder. The pistol jammed with the sixth round, 38 after which the
would- be assassin was gunned down by the Shah’s bodyguards, who had
by then remembered their job. ‘I had the queer and not unpleasant sensation
of knowing that I was still alive,’ the Shah said later. The man was
found to have been a member of Tudeh, and this was the incident that
caused the party to be banned. The attack shook the Shah (there was
another attempt in 1965 ) and led him to adopt tighter security – security
that went to even greater lengths in later years and contributed signifi –
cantly to his distancing from ordinary Iranians. In the early 1950 s the
young Shah was confi dent of neither his own abilities, nor his judgement,
nor his standing with his people.
Mohammad Reza remarried in 1951 , to another beautiful woman, the
half- German Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari; unlike his fi rst, this marriage
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Revolutionary Iran
was a happy one, but was again to end in divorce seven years later, after
it became apparent that Soraya could not give him children. After the
divorce, Soraya wrote a memoir that gave some insights into the character
of the young Shah. He liked fast cars and was a keen pilot, having
learned to fl y in the 1940 s. But he had a near- fatal crash in 1944 , 39 and
those who had to fl y with him were not always so cheerful about it:
On another occasion we were fl ying to Isfahan. I was seated in the cockpit,
next to the Shah . . . Suddenly I saw that the engine had cut out and that we
were losing altitude with terrifying speed . . . Then the Shah noticed that the
fuel tanks were as good as empty. At the last moment, when we had almost
crashed into the mountains, we began to pump petrol furiously from the
reserve tank and thus gained just enough altitude to clear their peaks.
After this incident I was somewhat dubious about the return fl ight that same
evening. This time I sat in the cabin, next to General Zahedi, and we reached
Tehran without trouble. As we were circling the airfi eld . . . Zahedi said:
‘There’s nothing more for your Majesty to worry about. We’re here.’
‘Keep your fi ngers crossed,’ I replied. ‘We haven’t put down yet.’
Mohammad Reza came lower, the wheels touched the runway, but we did
not come to a standstill. Just before we reached the end of the runway the
Shah gave his engine gas and the plane’s nose went up. It almost scraped the
roofs of a couple of houses.
‘God God!’ I shouted. ‘Didn’t the undercarriage come down properly?’
‘It’s nothing,’ said the Shah. ‘There was a man standing at the end of the
runway, and it made me nervous.’
After ten minutes he tried again, but . . . exactly the same thing happened.
It was simply his nerves. The Shah said:
‘I’ll manage it next time.’
The offi cer in the control tower, however, alerted the fi re- engines and the
ambulance. When the Shah’s third attempt to land was equally unsuccessful,
that offi cer suggested, in polite tones:
‘If your Majesty has enough fuel, it would be better to circle for a quarter
of an hour or so, until you are feeling more yourself.’
Thereupon Zahedi and the other passengers took out their copies of the
Koran and began to say their prayers. They murmured these softly, so as
not to make the Shah more nervous than he already was. But Allah must
have heard them all the same, for eventually we landed on the runway,
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though with such a lurching and bumping that my hat ended up three hundred
yards from where we did.
One result of this day was that I felt a growing dislike of fl ying . . . 40
Coups That Fail, and Coups That Succeed
On the night of 15 / 16 August 1953 Colonel Nasiri of the Imperial Guard
led an armoured column to Mossadeq’s residence in Tehran to deliver the
ferman (royal decree) removing him from offi ce. But the plotters had
taken too long to put their plan into effect, and news of it had leaked.
Nasiri was intercepted on Mossadeq’s doorstep by offi cers loyal to the
elected government, commanded by General Riahi, the chief of staff.
They arrested Nasiri and put him behind bars. In the morning Tehran
Radio announced that a coup attempt had been foiled. 41 Mossadeq himself
came on air and named the Shah and unspecifi ed foreigners as the
instigators. Within minutes of the broadcast, taking only Soraya, the pilot
and one other companion with him, the Shah fl ew out of the country in a
light aircraft, to Baghdad. From there he fl ew on to Rome. Because they
had left so rapidly, the couple had to go shopping, buying a new grey suit
for the Shah and a white polka- dot dress for Soraya. Because he was anxious
not to displease Mossadeq, the Iranian ambassador in Rome made
himself diplomatically absent – he went swimming in Ostia. He also
refused Queen Soraya the key to a car she had left in Rome two years
previously – but another embassy offi cial found it for her. The couple
were worried about money. Soraya later wrote that the Shah told her: ‘We
shall have to economise, Soraya, for I am sorry to say that I haven’t much
money. Enough perhaps to buy us a farm somewhere or other.’ 42
Back in Tehran, crowds went onto the streets to demonstrate for Mossadeq,
and Kermit Roosevelt sent a telegram to Washington to break the
bad news that his coup attempt had failed.
Quite what happened next is not easy to tease out, nor who was in control
or determined events. 43 No one in those days can have felt in control – all
of them were groping in the dark, trying to fi nd a way through to what they
wanted, rather desperately, without much confi dence.
The demonstrations against the coup attempt grew and turned more
militant. Crowds toppled statues of the Shah and his father, and it became
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Revolutionary Iran
clear that Tudeh were using the situation to press for abolition of the
monarchy. On Monday 17 August Mossadeq ordered that the Shah’s
name be removed from prayers in military barracks, 44 a highly symbolic
act in an Islamic country (the inclusion of a ruler’s name in Friday prayers
was traditionally as important as a mark of sovereignty as its appearance
on the coinage). But Mossadeq soon realized that there was a danger of
the situation escaping his grip, and this was reinforced by a meeting he
had with the US ambassador on 17 August, in which the ambassador
noted that the infl uence of the communists seemed to be growing and
urged that order be restored.
There was time over these days for others also to become concerned at
the situation and to reconsider their own position. Plenty of moderate
Mossadeq supporters would have been taken aback that the monarchy
as an institution was now under threat. If the monarchy were to go,
would there be enough security left in the system to prevent Tudeh taking
over? The clergy in particular were alarmed at that prospect – alarmed at
the possibility of an atheistic communist regime and (among other concerns)
the loss of their endowed property ( waqf ) that would presumably
Many if not most of the offi cers that Roosevelt had been dealing with
had been arrested at Mossadeq’s orders, Zahedi himself was in hiding,
and the CIA ’s ability to infl uence events must have been damaged, to say
the least. The Imperial Guard had been disarmed (in the pre- coup planning
the CIA assessment had been that most police and army units in the
capital were loyal to Mossadeq in any case). Once again, Tudeh networks
within the armed forces helped Mossadeq to do this effectively. There is
evidence that most of the US actors in Tehran had given up the game; in
Washington, Eisenhower’s advisers were telling him that the CIA had
failed, and it would now be necessary to ‘snuggle up’ to Mossadeq if the
US were to retrieve anything from the situation. 45
But the situation, and some loyalties, were shifting. On the afternoon
of Monday 17 August, deciding that enough was enough, Mossadeq
told Tudeh to back down and authorized the police and army to use
force to break up the Tudeh- led demonstrations if necessary. This they
did the next day – leaving the fi eld open for anti- Mossadeq and pro-
Shah demonstrations, which followed on 19 August. After their experience
on the Tuesday, Tudeh kept their people at home, and a confrontation
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developed outside Mossadeq’s residence, in which a number of brawny
members of bazaar zur- khaneh seem to have participated. This turned to
violence as some troops arrived, including six Sherman tanks. There was an
exchange of fi re between these tanks and the soldiers guarding the house.
The shooting continued for two hours, with many casualties, and three tanks
that had been in position to defend the house were destroyed. 46 Meanwhile,
pro- Shah demonstrators took over the radio station and began broadcasting
from there. Eventually, with General Riahi telling him the situation was
hopeless, Mossadeq gave up, an nounced at about 5 p.m. that the building
would no longer be defended and left by a ladder over a back wall. 47 He was
arrested the following day. Zahedi came out of hiding to take control as the
new prime minister, and the Shah fl ew back to Tehran on 22 August. At the
airport a military honour guard turned out to welcome him, but was kept at
a distance in case one of the soldiers made an assassination attempt. 48
So three days after Roosevelt had announced the failure of his coup
attempt to Washington, Mossadeq had fallen from offi ce. Statements
made at the time, both by the US ambassador in Tehran and by the
administration in the US when the news reached them, show that they
were dumbfounded by this reversal of fortune. 49
What had happened? Roosevelt and the CIA did their best to take the
credit later, claiming the coup as one of their greatest successes against the
Soviets in the Cold War. Among other things, they claimed that they
passed $ 10 , 000 to Ayatollah Kashani, to pay mobs to turn out on the
streets on 19 August. But Kashani and other senior clergy did not need
money to persuade them to act against Mossadeq, and their infl uence and
connections were quite enough to bring crowds on to the streets without
American cash. In fact, Kashani himself had created the conditions for the
coup by turning against Mossadeq earlier in the year.
The CIA operation had set a number of personalities and groups in
motion. Some, but not all of these had been neutralized on Monday
17 August, after the initial attempt failed. Some were presumably still
running. But more important was the jolt given to moderate opinion by
the disappearance of the Shah, the breakdown in law and order and
the triumphalism of Tudeh on 17 – 18 August. Against the background of
the withdrawal of clerical support for Mossadeq and suspicions about
his high- handed treatment of the constitution, these factors were enough
to convince enough Iranians in Tehran on Wednesday 19 th (Tudeh having
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Revolutionary Iran
removed themselves from the scene) that the Shah was a better guarantor
of their security and that Mossadeq had to go. The clergy (as at other
times in the twentieth century) were more effective at mobilizing action
on the streets than the CIA could ever have been. Their move to oppose
Mossadeq was the decisive factor in his downfall – but it may not be
entirely correct to regard it as a betrayal. Kashani’s decision was openly
made and was made in response to Mossadeq’s own actions – it was a
development that Mossadeq should have foreseen. He could have made
a greater effort to keep Kashani and his supporters on his side; or to
outmanoeuvre them.
It should go without saying that none of this should be taken as an
exculpation of US or British policy. Both governments deliberately connived
at the removal of a democratically elected prime minister, and the
long- term damage to the interests of Britain and the US in Iran was enormous.
The events of the summer of 1953 are still much debated. For some
Iranians, it reinforced their view of Iran as a victim, and the belief that
most events, whatever their outward appearance, were in fact manipulated
by foreigners. When the Shah returned it was not so much as the
victor as the inglorious benefi ciary of a victory that others had won for
him, in dubious circumstances. Many Iranians quickly perceived the hand
of the US in his reinstatement and in Mossadeq’s removal, and for them
the coup discredited both the Shah and the US as a friend to Iran. Whatever
the realities of 1953 , this perception was important in the attitudes
that led to the revolution of 1979 . The CIA themselves, their critics on the
left of US politics and many Iranians, whether nationalist, leftist or anti-
Western clerics, have all tended to stress the CIA role, for their own
reasons. Other factors in the drama, such as Mossadeq’s own mistakes
and the role of the clergy, have tended to be forgotten. 50
For Tudeh, 1953 was the zenith of their political fortunes, and a
major lost opportunity. They never reached the same position of power
and infl uence again. They had been well organized and well connected
(especially within the armed forces), providing Mossadeq himself with
timely and accurate information at a number of points. But their demonstrations
against the monarchy proved ill- judged, and they had
arguably been too timid in standing down their street activists after
18 August. 51 They had suffered from a number of contingent problems,
aside from the usual handicaps of their stultifying ideology 52 and
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factional strife. Stalin’s death in March had crippled Soviet policy- making
and turned Moscow in on its own concerns, leaving the Iranian party
without the guidance to which it had become accustomed. In addition,
many of the leading personalities of Tudeh had been in the Soviet Union at
the time for one reason or another. Once again, the left in Iran was the
bridesmaid, not the bride. But perhaps their greatest error was their failure
to grab the bouquet. How realistic was it to think that they could use Mossadeq
to smooth their path to power? Why did they never bring forward
a leader of their own to capture the public imagination in a comparable
way? Were they really too weak to make their own coup attempt on 18 or
19 August? Or just not prepared or fl exible or bold enough? The historian
and authority on the Tudeh Party Ervand Abrahamian has pointed to
Tudeh’s failure to mobilize support among the rural population (still the
majority of the population at that time) as the party’s crucial error:
As the Tudeh leaders admitted in analyzing the defeat of August 1953 , the
royalist offi cers could not have carried out their coup d’état if their peasant
rank and fi le had mutinied or the rural masses had risen up in revolt. 53
But was that really so? The French and Russian revolutions were largely
made in cities. The Bolsheviks in Russia had been predominantly an
urban party, like Tudeh, and the Russian peasantry’s support for them in
the period 1917 – 21 had been less than wholehearted. When the Iran ian
revolution came in 1978 – 9 , it was not led or dominated by a rural uprising
or revolt as such. Tudeh’s real failure was a failure of leadership – a
failure to plan realistically for the long term, and a failure to take their
fate and the fate of the country into their own hands, rather than trying
to work through proxies.
However, as the reaction against them after 16 August showed, it is
probably correct that Tudeh were opposed by forces too powerful, with
too much to lose, for them ever to have succeeded in 1953 . In the aftermath,
Tudeh suffered from political repression more severely than any
other group. Many of the leadership as well as the rank and fi le were
taken and imprisoned (some, notably the charismatic Khosrow Roozbeh,
were executed) and by the end of the decade Tudeh had almost ceased to
function as a movement. 54
In London, Churchill was jubilant at Mossadeq’s fall – it was a bright
point in his failing premiership (he had just suffered a stroke). Churchill
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Revolutionary Iran
had been involved in the story of Iranian oil since the beginning, when he
had directed British naval policy before the First World War. When Kermit
Roosevelt met him in London later in August 1953 Churchill said the
AIOC had ‘fouled things up’ but congratulated Roosevelt:
The Prime Minister seemed to be in bad shape physically. He had great diffi
culty in hearing; occasional diffi culty in articulating; and apparently
diffi culty in seeing to his left.
In spite of this he could not have been more kind personally nor more
enthusiastic about the operation. He was good enough to express envy of
Roosevelt’s role and a wish that he had been ‘some years’ younger and might
have served under his command. 55
British celebration over Mossadeq’s fall did not last long. Diplomatic relations
with Britain, broken off by Mossadeq at the end of 1952 , were restored
in 1954 , but from 1953 onwards the US became by far the most infl uential
foreign power in Iran. The US government mediated a new agreement with
the Shah whereby the profi ts from Iranian oil were shared 50 / 50 between the
Iranian government and an international consortium of oil companies.
Within this consortium US oil companies took a 40 per cent share; the AIOC
(soon to be renamed BP ) also got 40 per cent – 20 per cent of the total. If the
British had compromised with Mossadeq early enough they could have got
a much better deal than that. Following in his father’s traditions, the Shah
spent much of the increased revenue from oil on military equipment.
With US backing and with opposition to him crushed, the Shah was
fi rmly in control, and as time went on he gained confi dence. The period
of democratic politics that began under Allied occupation during the
Second World War ended with Mossadeq. Pro- Mossadeq newspapers
were closed, and over 2 , 000 people were arrested by the end of the year,
mainly Tudeh and National Front activists and sympathizers. Government
ministries and the army were purged, and the Majles elections
of 1954 were rigged, setting the pattern for subsequent elections up to
the revolution of 1979 . 56 Two bogus parties, the National Party and
the People’s Party (Melliyun and Mardom) were set up in the Majles,
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competing only in their enthusiasm for the Shah’s policies (they were
satirized as the ‘Yes’ party and the ‘Yes sir’ party). 57 Melliyun was
replaced by Iran Novin (‘New Iran’) in 1963 . From 1953 onwards the
post of prime minister was in the Shah’s pocket – Mossadeq’s successors
were appointed and removed as the Shah pleased. All this was done with
US government and CIA support.
Even if the vexed question of responsibility for the coup is set aside,
the CIA ’s role in suppressing democracy in Iran after the coup, working
with Zahedi, is undisputed. Most notable was its part in forming the
Shah’s secret police, which later became notorious as SAVAK ( Sazemane
Ettela‘at va Amniyat- e Keshvar – National Intelligence and Security
Organization) . The manipulation of constitutional and democratic institutions,
combined with SAVAK ’s sustained and effective attacks on
underground opposition, succeeded in crippling politics in Iran for the
next quarter of a century; permitting the continued autocratic rule of
the Shah, but also facilitating the eventual re- emergence of the only
opposition group with any kind of independence or immunity from persecution
– the clergy.
For the second time, this time under Kashani’s leadership, a section of
the clergy had attempted an alliance with the idea of constitutional, representative
government – with a form of liberal democracy. But eventually,
as some had done in 1908 , they had pulled back and sided with the monarchy
instead. For the next few years, under the leadership of Borujerdi,
Behbehani and Kashani, the clergy supported the monarchy. The Shah’s
government massaged their goodwill; most notoriously, in 1955 , by turning
a blind eye 58 to attacks on the Bahais, who were hated as apostates
and heretics by the ulema . Ultimately though, the Shah’s political instincts
were no more favourable to the clergy than his father’s had been. His
vision of a modern, Westernized, technocratic Iran had little place for the
ulema . This vision emerged gradually through the following years.
As a writer and political thinker, Jalal Al- e Ahmad’s life was strongly
affected by Mossadeq’s fall. He and his thinking can be seen as a connecting
link between the era of Sadegh Hedayat and the era of Ali
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Revolutionary Iran
Shariati. Al- e Ahmad was born into a religious family in 1923 , but under
the intellectual infl uence of the time and of writers like Kasravi and others
turned away from religion toward Marxism. In the 1940 s he was close to
the leftist thinker and politician Khalil Maleki, but like Maleki he disliked
the subservience of Tudeh to Soviet interests. Having been a strong supporter
of Mossadeq, he renounced politics after his fall, but remained
strongly political in much of his work while withholding support from
any particular party or group. Like many of his generation, he favoured a
lean, colloquial way of writing over the more ornate style of earlier decades
and centuries. His most famous work was fi rst published in
1962 – Gharbzadegi , which can be translated as ‘Sick from the West’,
‘Sick of the West’, ‘Westoxication’ or ‘ West- strickenness’. Neither the idea
nor the term was wholly new, but Al- e Ahmad developed it further than
before. In the opening lines of the book he compared gharbzadegi to a
disease that destroyed an ear of grain from the inside, eating it away but
leaving the husk so that from the outside it appeared quite healthy. Gharbzadegi
was an infl uential concept and after the revolution became one of
the standard terms of revolutionary politics. Al- e Ahmad’s intention with
it was not to attack the West or Western ideas as such, at least not directly
(his grasp of the culture and politics of the West was in fact probably
rather inferior to Hedayat’s), but rather the uncritical way in which Western
ideas had been accepted and advocated and taught in schools (often
without being properly understood); producing people and a culture that
were neither genuinely Iranian nor properly Western. Following a story
by Molana Rumi, he compared it to a crow who saw one day the elegant
way that a partridge walked. The crow tried to imitate the partridge and
failed, but kept trying, with the result that he forgot how to walk like a
crow, but never succeeded in walking like a partridge. 59
More strongly than anything, Al- e Ahmad wanted Iranian culture and
Iranian life to be genuine , not bogus or emptily imitative or im ported. In
this, like Hedayat, he showed the preoccupations of the 1940 s and 50 s,
and the infl uence of existentialists like Sartre and Camus. But as time
went on, he gave up the anticlericalism of Kasravi and Hedayat and
turned back to Iranian Shi‘ism as the central, authentic identity of Iran,
while remaining critical of the old- fashioned, superstitious form of
Shi‘ism they had rejected. In later years, he drew attention to the way that
oil wealth was spent on imported absurdities that earlier generations
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of Iranians could never have imagined they could want, and to the false
historical heritage presented by Mohammad Reza Shah as the backdrop
to the Pahlavi monarchy. He supported Khomeini’s attacks on the Shah
in the early 1960 s. For many he was a charismatic hero; the archetype of
the politically committed intellectual. After his death in 1969 his widow,
Simin Daneshvar, went on to make a literary reputation in her own right,
and her descriptions of their troubled married life diminished his reputation
only slightly. 60
As elsewhere, in many parts of the world, the second half of the 1950 s
was a period of growth in Iran. Between 1954 and 1969 , albeit with some
blips, the economy grew (adjusted for infl ation) by an average of around
7 per cent per year, but fl uctuated between 3 and 14 per cent. 61 The Shah’s
government did not invest only in the armed forces – the new stream of
oil money went also into roads, railways, education and medical services.
Improvements in living conditions and medical care led to rapid population
growth – from 19 . 3 million in 1950 to 27 . 3 million in 1968 . 62 Tehran
and other cities began to grow as new industries drew in surplus population
from rural areas.
But at the beginning of the 1960 s a series of new developments came
together to create a new atmosphere of uncertainty and crisis, anticipating
in several ways the crisis of 1978 – 9 . After a sustained boom came a recession,
63 encouraged by government policies of retrenchment after a period of
overspending and over- borrowing. The cost of living had risen, and with it
the number of strikes. The Shah’s proposals for land reform, prompted by
the Kennedy administration in the US , encountered opposition, including
from Ayatollah Borujerdi (previously the Shah’s close ally). Land reform
was tricky for the clergy, who collectively owned a signifi cant proportion of
the country’s best agricultural land. The proposed reforms drove a wedge
between them and ordinary peasants, with whom it was understandably
popular. The clergy also disliked proposed changes to the law for the election
of local councils – including provisions for councillors to take an oath
on religious books other than the Koran, and allowing women to vote for
the fi rst time. 64 Taken together, these measures broke the rapprochement
between the monarchy and the clergy that had held since 1953 and reminded
the ulema of their worst moments in Reza Shah’s time. The new US administration
was also encouraging political liberalization – in response the
Shah lifted the ban on the National Front, which led to further strikes
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Revolutionary Iran
and demonstrations. Then two deaths among the top ulema left a sudden
vacuum of religious authority. Borujerdi died at the end of March 1961 ,
and Kashani just under a year later.
Among the ulema , Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini had a degree of prominence
as a thinker and pious scholar before this time, but he had avoided
speaking out on controversial subjects and was not well known among the
population generally. He was sixty years old in 1962 . The deaths of Borujerdi
and Kashani allowed him to emerge as a religious leader and also,
within a short time, as a major fi gure in national politics. It has been suggested
that other clerics made Khomeini a marja to protect his life when
he was arrested at a later stage, but it seems in fact that his elevation to this
status occurred in the normal way after Borujerdi’s death. Clerics talked
among themselves in Qom over a period of days or weeks and visited each
other’s houses. Khomeini’s followers acclaimed him, and his new status was
gradually accepted by his most senior peers. 65
The government’s initial proposals for land reform stalled, so in 1962 the
Shah brought forward a new Land Reform Act, which he then (in January
1963 ) presented for a national referendum as part of a six- point plan he
called the ‘White Revolution’. The other fi ve points were privatization of
state factories, nationalization of forests, female suffrage, profi t- sharing
for workers and a literacy corps of young educated people who were to go
into rural areas to teach reading and writing at primary level (many rural
areas were still without schools). The referendum, according to the results
announced by the government, gave the plan massive support; but the
National Front had boycotted it, on the grounds that the proposals should
have been drawn up by a constitutionally elected government. After a
series of critical telegrams to the government, and coordinating his actions
with other senior clerics, Khomeini had begun to speak out against the
Shah’s regime. 66 A loose association called the Coalition of Islamic Societies,
formed largely of bazaaris with clerical leadership, came together to
support Khomeini. In March troops and SAVAK agents attacked the
madreseh in Qom where he was preaching, killed some of the students and
arrested Khomeini himself. He was released a few days later but continued
his attacks on the government, denouncing corruption, the rigging of elections
and other constitutional abuses, neglect of the poor and the sale of
oil to Israel. He avoided the subject of land reform (and, for the most part,
female suffrage), instead targeting issues with mass appeal on which the
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government was vulnerable. According to one story that circulated at the
time (which shows the sort of things that were being said, even if the
exchange never actually happened), the Shah sent Khomeini a message
threatening to put on his father’s boots and come to Qom to sort Khomeini
out. In response Khomeini is supposed to have replied, ‘Your father’s
boots are too big for your feet.’ 67
In that year Ashura came at the beginning of June, and that was when
the tension reached its climax. Khomeini gave his strongest speech yet on
3 June, the day of Ashura itself. Khomeini addressed the Shah directly and
referred to the events of 1941 :
I don’t want you to become like your father. When America, the Soviet Union
and England attacked us people were happy that Pahlavi [i.e. Reza Shah]
went . . . Isn’t it time for you to think and refl ect a little, to ponder about
where this is leading you, to learn a lesson from the experience of your
father? 68
There were demonstrations in Tehran and several other major cities in
the days that followed, which drew added force from the intense atmosphere
of Moharram. The government, directed by Asadollah Alam (prime
minister from July 1962 to March 1964 ), acted decisively, imposed martial
law and put troops on the streets, and hundreds of demonstrators
were killed before the protests ended, after three days. The Shah later
thanked Alam for his fi rm handling of the crisis. 69 The deaths, especially
because they took place at Ashura, invited comparison with the martyrs
of Karbala on the one hand, and the tyrant Yazid on the other.
Khomeini was released in August but despite SAVAK announcements
that he had agreed to keep quiet, he continued to speak out, and was rearrested.
Finally, he was deported and exiled in 1964 after a harsh speech
attacking a new law that gave the equivalent of diplomatic immunity to
US military personnel in Iran:
They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an
American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he
will be prosecuted. 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, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with
him. 70
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Revolutionary Iran
Shortly after this new law was passed in the Majles a new US loan of
$ 200 million for military equipment was agreed – a conjunction all too
reminiscent of the capitulations conceded in the time of the Qajars and
abolished by Reza Shah.
Khomeini went into exile fi rst to Turkey, then to Iraq and fi nally (after
the Shah put pressure on the Iraqi government to remove him from the
Shi‘a shrine city of Najaf) to Paris in 1978 . In Iran, the Shah had a range
of his opponents arrested, including the leadership of the National Front.
Protest faded, aside from occasional manifestations at Tehran University
and from members of the ulema . But underlying resentment remained,
and despite his exile Khomeini continued to be regarded by religious Iranians
as the leading cleric of the time.
For the Shah, the lesson from 1963 seemed to be that autocracy worked:
he could govern with a fi rm hand and overcome short- term dissent with
repression (one might add that the Shah’s autocracy worked when there
was a fi rm, loyal minister to apply the policy for him – Asadollah Alam in
this case). In the longer term, his policies for development – his White
Revolution – would bring material benefi ts to ordinary people, overcome
any temporary unpopularity and secure his rule. The term White Revolution
was revealing in itself and showed the Shah’s preoccupations. It wasn’t
a Red, or communist, revolution, but a White, monarchist revolution
(refl ecting the terminology of the civil war that followed the Russian revolution
of 1917 , and of the French revolution before that): a progressive
social and economic transformation of the country, but launched by the
Shah rather than a political movement from the left. The juxtaposition
showed also the Cold War parameters of the Shah’s thinking. To him, the
prime danger was Red revolution. Marxism declared that material inequalities
between classes would eventually produce revolution, so the way
to avoid revolution was to undercut it, by stimulating economic development
and providing material improvements for society as a whole, reducing
class tensions (but also by resisting Soviet infl uence and infi ltration, and
crushing leftist political activity). After the defeat of clerical opposition
in 1963 the clergy appeared irrelevant to this programme of ideas. The
Shi‘a clergy belonged to the past: a new, economically developed Iran
would naturally turn in a secular direction, as had the Western societies
Iran was emulating (and neighbouring countries like Turkey and Egypt
also). This programme was congruent with the expectations of the US and
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other Western governments too: Iran and other Middle Eastern countries
had been somewhat backward, but they would embrace material development,
reject elements of their traditional culture that had been holding
them back (notably, Islam) and, if they could avoid the seductions of Soviet
communism, become normal countries just like those of Europe and North
And for fi fteen years this model appeared to work. There was little sign
of overt political dissent, but there was a queasy, widespread awareness
of discontent that manifested itself in a variety of ways. One was the
growing popularity among young people and students of the writings of
Ali Shariati.
Shariati was born in 1933 , in the small village of Kahak, near Mashhad
in Khorasan. 71 His father had studied as a religious scholar but
became a teacher, and Ali grew up largely with his mother while his father
was away. Intelligent, but often absent- minded and lazy, with a tendency
to melancholy in private despite his good humour in company, he developed
a witty and independent way of thinking that often got him into
trouble with his teachers. His thinking was infl uenced by his father, who
was an advocate of progressive political Islam in his own right, by Sufi sm,
by Kasravi (absorbing his criticism of contemporary Shi‘a Islam without
accepting his rejection of it) but also by Western thinkers like Maeterlinck,
Schopenhauer and Kafka. He had a particular attachment to
various forms of mysticism – especially to the poetry of the great Molana
(Rumi) – but the events of 1953 also made a strong impression on him.
He had been and remained a fervent supporter of Mossadeq; but, in addition
to strengthening his criticism of the traditionalist clergy, Mossadeq’s
fall persuaded Shariati that democratic institutions were too weak for the
stresses involved in lifting a country like Iran out of tyranny. 72
As a student Shariati went to Mashhad University, and then to Paris,
where he attended lectures by Marxist professors (but also the Islamic
scholar Massignon), read Guevara and Sartre, communicated with the
theorist and revolutionary activist Frantz Fanon and took a doctorate
from the Sorbonne (in 1964 ). His political activities also attracted the
attention of SAVAK . Returning to Iran in 1965 , from 1967 he lectured to
students in the university of Mashhad, attracting large numbers, and
wrote a series of essays, books and speeches. His criticism of the traditional
forms of Shi‘a Islam in Iran, combined with his burgeoning
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Revolutionary Iran
popularity, soon led to increasing criticism from some members of the
clergy, especially after the publication of a book based on his lectures
( Eslamshenasi – The Study of Islam ) in 1969 . Some clergy tried to get
Khomeini to condemn Shariati’s views from his exile in Iraq, but Khomeini
declined to do so, saying that they were not un-Islamic. 73 Khomeini
gave no direct approval of Shariati’s opinions either, but recognized his
popularity and the harmony of their aims. In time Khomeini’s own antiimperialist
rhetoric came to refl ect the ideas popularized in Iran by
Shariati, and Al- e Ahmad.
In the same year that Eslamshenasi was published Shariati met Jalal Ale
Ahmad in Mashhad several times, and on one occasion (on which Al- e
Ahmad argued for the importance of cooperation between the clergy and
the non- clerical intellectuals) future supreme leader Ali Khamenei was also
present, as a young religious student. 74 When his teaching post was withdrawn
in 1971 , Shariati went to Tehran and lectured at the recently
established Hoseiniyeh Ershad instead (he had given occasional lectures
there since October 1968 ). 75 The Hoseiniyeh Ershad had been set up as a
charitable institution for the exchange of ideas and for the application of
Islamic principles to contemporary issues. Mehdi Bazargan and Morteza
Motahhari were among the fi gures, later to become prominent in politics,
who were instrumental in founding it.
Shariati’s general message at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad and in Mashhad was
that Shi‘ism had its own ideology of social justice and resistance to oppression.
This had been masked by a false Shi‘ism of superstition and deference
to monarchy, which he called Black Shi‘ism or Safavid Shi‘ism, but the essential
truths of the religion were timeless, centring on the revolt and martyrdom
of Hosein and his companions. Shariati was not a Marxist, but could be said
to have recast Shi‘a Islam in a revolutionary mould, comparable to the
Marxist model, urging not quietism and immersion in the details of religious
observance, but earnest involvement in the vital political and moral questions
of the day – ‘Every month of the year is Moharram, every day of the
year is Ashura and every piece of land is Karbala.’ 76 It was a powerful and
infl uential message, but (as with other revolutionary ideologues) his critique
of the present showed more intellectual depth than his prescriptions for the
future. He was incensed when some clergy so far missed the point of his
message that they criticized his lectures at the Ershad for the presence of girls
in mini- skirts. Even though he seldom attacked the Shah’s rule directly, the
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1. Iran
0 200 miles
0 300 km
Tabriz Ardebil
Rezaieh Mianeh
Hamadan Qom
Masjed-e Soleiman
(Desert One) Birjand
Bandar Abbas
Bandar Khomeini
Pe r s i a n G u l f
C a s p i a n
S e a
Z a g r o s M o u n t a i n s
A l b o r z Mt s .
Dasht-e Kavir
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Revolutionary Iran
subversive message of his thinking was plain enough to the regime,
which closed the Hoseiniyeh Ershad in 1972 . Shariati was imprisoned in
1972 , released in 1975 and kept under house arrest thereafter. He continued
his writing and his support for his version of radical Islam. He
managed to escape to England in 1977 , but was stricken by his failure
to take all his family with him. He died in Southampton, apparently of
a heart attack, in June the same year 77 (many Iranians believe he was
murdered by SAVAK , but it is hard to see, from the circumstances, how
this could have been carried out). In an echo of the bast of 1905 and
1906 , there was a demonstration later in the year at the shrine of Shah
Abd ol- Azim to the south of Tehran to commemorate Shariati’s death 78 –
prefi guring the larger and more momentous demonstrations of the
following year. Iranians in exile marked his passing with other events
and demonstrations.
Khomeini would never endorse Shariati’s thinking directly, but was
careful not to condemn it either. Shariati’s radical Islamism, both fully
Iranian and fully modern, was a strong infl uence on the generation of
students that grew to adulthood in the 1970 s; 79 slogans drawn from his
writings were everywhere on the streets in 1979 , and his face still appears
on fresh graffi ti in Tehran thirty years later.
One young high- school student, Massoumeh Ebtekar, attended Shariati’s
lectures at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad:
It was impossible for me, as a young person, to understand everything he
said, but I could feel that a change in direction was coming. Islam, he taught,
could be a viable alternative to the ideologies of fatality and despair that
emanated from the West.
I was certainly not alone. Many young people found in Dr Shariati’s message
a new meaning and direction in life. I met him shortly before he left for
London, where he was to die under suspicious circumstances. We spoke
about my views, and he encouraged me to do further reading. That meeting
was one of the decisive moments in my life. 80
Massoumeh Ebtekar was later one of the students who occupied the
US embassy in November 1979 and, later still, became vice- president
under President Khatami.
Shariati’s story illustrates some important points about Iran in the
1960 s and 70 s – particularly about the limits of the Shah’s control, and
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2. Iran and its Neighbours
0 500 miles
0 600 km
Aleppo Tabqa
Mosul Tehran
Baghdad Isfahan
Abu Dhabi
Suez Eilat
Wadi Haifa
Socotra Island
Medina Riyadh
Jedda Mecca
Lake Van
Lake Nasser
Black Sea
M e d i t e r ra n e a n S e a
A ra b i a n S e a
White Nile
Blue Nile
R e d S e a
Gul f of Aden
Persian Gulf
Gulf of Oman
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Revolutionary Iran
changes in the intellectual climate. One lesson of 1953 was the failure of
secular leftism; many intellectuals (like Jalal Al- e Ahmad) and many
young people especially, turned toward political Islam instead in this
period. The broad umbrella of Islam gave at least a degree of immunity
from repression; not least because the Shi‘a centres of Najaf (where Khomeini
spent most of his exile) and Karbala in Iraq were beyond the Shah’s
control. Large numbers of Iranians were studying abroad during this
period (many of them, like Shariati, on state scholarships). The Shah
could control education within Iran to some extent, but he could have
little control over the political infl uences young Iranians absorbed while
studying in foreign countries.
This was a period of political radicalism in universities in Europe and the
US , where the Shah’s regime and its poor human rights record were special
targets for criticism. Young Iranians studying in the West were exhilarated
by the fashionable enthusiasm for Marxism and Maoism, for revolution
and against the Vietnam War. A further illustration of the interlinked nature
of international and national politics at this time is the shooting of Benno
Ohnesorg in Berlin in June 1967 . Ohnesorg, although unarmed, was shot
by a policeman and killed on the fringe of a demonstration against the
Shah’s presence in the city (the Shah was going with Queen Farah to see a
performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Deutsche Oper). The temperature
of the confrontation between protestors and police had risen after
some provocative actions by the Shah’s own SAVAK security men. The
shooting was an important event in the radicalization of the left in Germany,
leading to the greater unrest of the following year and the formation
of the Baader- Meinhof terrorist group. Ironically, although some on the
German left justifi ed turning to political violence on the basis that the
shooting showed the latent fascism of the state, the killer turned out much
later to have been an agent of the East German Stasi (though his motives for
the killing seem to have had more to do with the fact that he was a thug). 81
Through the later 1960 s the Shah was able to keep a grip on politics
within Iran, gaining confi dence as time went on. But he still distrusted his
ministers and other subordinates, and avoided allowing any to get too
powerful by permitting and indeed encouraging a degree of rivalry. This
helped to produce a poisonous atmosphere at court and in the upper
reaches of government, 82 as is illustrated by the case of Ahmad Nafi si,
who was mayor of Tehran in the early 1960 s. Having been something
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of a favourite with the Shah, Nafi si was suddenly arrested and imprisoned
in December 1963 on vague charges of fi scal abuse, accompanied by even
vaguer allegations from SAVAK of consorting with the clerical opposition.
Months in prison dragged into years with little sign of proper legal
proceedings. Nafi si rebutted the accusations against him at every opportunity
(though he never was properly charged), and it emerged that the
real problem was probably the jealousy of the prime minister of the time,
Hasan Ali Mansur. 83 After Mansur was assassinated in January 1965 pressure
on the government to release Nafi si increased, but in a twist
reminiscent of Kafka he was told that for this to happen he would have
to write a letter to the Shah expressing contrition for his alleged crimes –
thereby exonerating the Shah for his unjust imprisonment. Nafi si wrote a
letter, but it obstinately denied any wrongdoing. He was eventually
released in August 1966 , after his friends had paid a huge sum in bail. 84
After Mansur died, he was replaced as prime minister by Amir Abbas
Hoveida, who continued in that offi ce for twelve years, until 1977 . Hoveida
was born in 1919 to an aristocratic family in Tehran. His mother was
descended from a sister of Naser od- Din Shah. His father, who had been a
Bahai but who moved away from that religion, was a diplomat, and so
Amir Abbas had a rather disjointed childhood as his father moved his family
from posting to posting (the Bahai connection was used against him by
some at the time of the revolution). His education was predominantly in
French; although he did also spend some time studying in England, like
many of his contemporaries he always preferred French culture and French
literature. Back in Iran after 1942 , he served briefl y in the army and then
took up a diplomatic career, like his father. He was a cultured, intellectual
man, and a friend of Sadegh Hedayat, with a louche, bohemian side. Some
hated him, thinking him devious and unprincipled – Al- e Ahmad believed
his interest in writers and thinkers was merely a screen for self- advancement.
It seems he became more cynical over his years as prime minister. Others
admired his integrity. 85
For thirteen years after 1963 Iran’s economic development, guided
by the Shah’s government, seemed only to accelerate. Under the new
arrangements with the international syndicate, oil revenue grew to
$ 555 million in 1963 – 4 and to $ 1 . 2 billion in 1970 – 71 . But after that,
boosted by the Shah’s successful takeover of control of oil production
and by the quadrupling of oil prices achieved by the OPEC oil cartel
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Revolutionary Iran
from 1973 (in which the Shah played a signifi cant role), revenue ballooned
even more extravagantly, to $ 5 billion in 1973 – 4 and $ 20 billion in 1975 –
6 . 86 Large sums were spent on Western military equipment, as before, but
most of the revenue was put back into economic development; both
through direct state investment into infrastructure, industry and education,
and through state loans to private entrepreneurs. Initially, the government
focused on infrastructure and agricultural development; later, on industry,
education and health services. The railway from the Caspian to the Persian
Gulf was fi nally completed, and other railways were built, including from
Tehran to Tabriz and Mashhad. Large dams were built for the generation
of electricity. Thirteen thousand miles of new roads were constructed. Education
and health services expanded too – the number of children in
primary schools went from 1 . 6 million in 1963 to over 4 million in 1977 ;
new universities and colleges were set up, and enrolment expanded from
24 , 885 to 154 , 215 . The number of students at foreign universities grew
from under 18 , 000 to over 80 , 000 . The number of hospital beds went from
24 , 126 to 48 , 000 . Improved living conditions, sanitation and health services
all contributed to a big drop in the infant mortality rate and a spurt in
population growth that continued until the 1990 s; in the mid- 1970 s half
the population were under sixteen, and two- thirds under thirty. 87
Some have contrasted the economic growth achieved in the two decades
before the revolution with the growth in the 1930 s, judging that, whereas
under Reza Shah growth was a by- product of the policies he followed in
constructing a modern state, under his son government pursued economic
development as a primary goal. 88 No doubt there were errors and ineffi –
ciencies in the way the investment was carried out, but the results were
impressive. Growth rates between 1963 and 1976 averaged around 8 per
cent; the non- oil sector grew even more than the overall economy, averaging
8 . 6 per cent. 89 Industrial production expanded hugely between 1965 and
1975 , and thousands of new factories were set up. Coal production jumped
from 285 , 000 tons to over 900 , 000 tons; iron ore from 2 , 000 tons to just
under 900 , 000 . Over the same period pro duction of motor vehicles of all
kinds went from 7 , 000 to 109 , 000 . Other manufactured items showed
similar dramatic increases. The middling class of managers and professionals
expanded with the industrial economy – an educated class of
entrepreneurs, factory managers, retail and wholesale managers, teachers,
doctors, engineers and so on.
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This was the period in which Iran made the transition from an agricultural
economy to an industry- and services- based structure. But, as in other
countries that had made this transition, the other half of the process was
the transformation going on in the countryside, in the agricultural sector.
The question of whether the Shah’s land reform was a success depends to
some extent on what one believes it was intended to achieve.
The declared aims of the programme were to break the death- grip of
absentee landlords, to make agriculture more effi cient and to achieve a
fairer distribution of land among those who actually worked it. 90 The
reform drew credibility for its modernizing, anti- feudal character, and perhaps
from the fact that Mossadeq had championed it. In acting against the
traditional landowning class (previously some of the staunchest supporters
of the monarchy), the Shah appeared to be sacrifi cing his own political
interests for the sake of the country. But the results were mixed. About two
million peasant householders became landowners in their own right for
the fi rst time, and some were able to prosper in their new circumstances.
For many more, the holdings they were given were too small to be economically
viable – 65 per cent of peasant landowners in 1972 owned less
than 5 hectares 91 (though some were able to pool their resources in staterun
farms, which in the Soviet Union would have been called collectives) –
and large numbers of agricultural labourers were left out of the
redistribution altogether, because they had not had cultivation rights as
sharecroppers before the reform. It has been estimated that 1 . 1 million
families fell into this category of landless rural labourers and nomads. 92
The landlords who were expropriated (in return for compensation) were
only allowed to keep one village each, but some were able to evade the
provisions, for example by giving their property to relatives or by creating
mechanized farms, which were exempt. Because the reform was accompanied
by a general push for the mechanization of agriculture (the government
subsidized land reclamation, irrigation projects and the cost of tractors,
fertilizers and pesticides) there was less work for the poorer peasants and
labourers anyway. Some agricultural production became more effi cient.
But the low prices for staple foods imposed by the government, and the
infl ow of cheap imports, eroded incentives for farmers and tended to depress
agricultural production overall. Disruption to traditional landholding
arrangements and to traditional methods of land management also
reduced production. 93 Combined with the long- term countrywide trend
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Revolutionary Iran
of rapid population growth, the net result was rural unemployment and an
accelerating movement of people from the villages to the cities, especially
Tehran, in search of work. It has been suggested that the rate of internal
migration reached 8 per cent per year in 1972 – 3 ; and that by 1978 the
urban population was 46 per cent of the total. 94 By 1976 Tehran had grown
to become a city of 4 . 5 million people. In general, the Shah’s policies benefi
ted the cities more than the countryside. For example, the efforts of the
literacy corps in the villages were largely unavailing. Despite some successes
by some of the sepahis (corps members), most of them failed to establish a
cooperative relationship with the villagers. There was a gap of understanding
between the peasants, who were suspicious and felt patronized by the
whole initiative, and the young urban middle- class sepahis , too conscious
of their own superiority and often resentful at being forced to do the work.
(There were corps also for health and for development of agricultural techniques.)
Serious spending on education was mainly directed at those living
in towns and cities, and there was little real impact on rural illiteracy:
The sepahi doesn’t come here any longer. We had two before. The fi rst boy
was good. He built the school. I sent my son there for three years. And I
went to the adult class, too. The other sepahi was a bad example [for the
children] and we were happy to see him go. Now we have a teacher from
town. He comes every day. He always curses at the children and calls them
stupid [ khar – donkey]. And we have to pay for this teacher. But I can’t. I
know my son must learn if he is not to be a poor peasant like me. But where
do I get the money? My family must have bread. So my son doesn’t go to
school any longer. 95
In many countries an industrial revolution has been accompanied by
an agricultural revolution. In England, particularly in the slump after
the Napoleonic wars, the enclosure acts drove peasants off the land and
into the cities, where they worked for long hours for low wages in
new industries because the alternative was even more miserable rural
unemployment. In the Soviet Union in the early 1930 s Stalin’s collectivization
policy achieved something similar, more quickly, by more brutal
methods and with much greater loss of life. The process in Iran in the
1960 s and 70 s was rather gentler than that, but nonetheless traumatic
for those involved. Whether the mass movement to the cities was a central
part of the plan remains obscure (though, as under Stalin, government
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control of agricultural prices systematically worked to give the urban
population cheap food while making survival even more diffi cult for
small farmers). 96 But the rapid expansion of new industry could not
have happened without it. The Shah once apparently said to US Ambassador
William Sullivan:
Mr Ambassador, don’t you understand? I don’t want those villages to survive.
I want them to disappear. We can buy the food cheaper than they can produce
it. I need the people from those villages in our industrial labour force. They
must come into the cities and work in industry. Then we can send all those
Afghans, Pakistanis and Koreans back home. 97
The Shah seems to have envisaged the creation of a new rural class of
prosperous peasants, who would be loyal to the Pahlavis, and the extension
of state control, his control, over the countryside. But as well as
alienating the landless, the interference of the state in the villages alienated
even the peasants who profi ted from land reform. 98 The Shah may
have thought he could cleverly split the peasants from their traditional
attachment to the clergy with his land reform measures, but that link
remained too strong.
In Tehran the newcomers from the countryside settled on the southern
edge of the city, in collections of makeshift dwellings with poor or nonexistent
services that were little better than shanty- towns. People from the
same village or area tended to seek each other out and settle down
together, and often they would know a mullah from the same locality
also, who enjoyed added authority in these new circumstances of dislocation
and uncertainty. 99
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The 1970 s and the Slide
to Revolution
( THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN ) He shall be seated on his throne. He shall
be clothed in scarlet and purple. In his hand he shall bear a golden
cup full of his blasphemies. And the angel of the Lord shall smite
him. He shall be eaten of worms.
Oscar Wilde, Salome 1
The 1970 s were an uncertain decade of seedy fl amboyance, bad taste, soft
furnishings in brown and orange and (in Europe at least) ideological radicalism
on the turn, when a realization began to dawn on some that the
zeal for the new of the 1960 s had sometimes destroyed things of value
and replaced them with meretricious mediocrity. In the Middle East old
assumptions about development and Westernization still dominated, but
were coming more and more into question.
Despite the successful, rapid development, or perhaps at least in part
because of it, the contradictions and the unease were in no place more
concentrated than in Iran – and few events of that decade were more
extravagant and contradictory than the celebrations held in 1971 at the
historic sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae for 2 , 500 years of monarchy
in Iran. In the 1950 s the Shah had proposed a similar celebration for
1959 ; he had set aside the idea for lack of support, but it had continued
to bubble away. 2 The occasion was anomalous in a variety of ways.
It had to be 2 , 500 years ‘of monarchy in Iran’ rather than ‘of Iranian
monarchy’ because there was an awkward period between the seventh
century AD and the sixteenth (at least) when most of the monarchs were
not Iranian. It seemed the 2 , 500 years could be celebrated as readily in
1971 as in 1959 . To take the 2 , 500 years literally (from 1971 ) would be
to go back to 529 BC ; one year before the usually accepted date for the
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The 1970s and the Slide to Revolution
death of Cyrus the Great, who established the Achaemenid Empire. Why
pick 529 BC ? Cyrus had been a king for perhaps thirty years already by
then, and there had been many Iranian kings (notably, the Medes) before
him. But the date was not meant to be taken too precisely, and the point
was that the Shah wanted to connect himself and his monarchy with
Cyrus, as the founder of the fi rst great Persian empire. 3 He wanted to
assert the strength and enduring character of Iranian kingship, at a time
when monarchy as an institution was menaced by republicanism and
communism internationally, and when some in Iran were asserting Islam
rather than monarchy as the true centre of Iranian identity. Perhaps, too,
he felt the provisional, parvenu nature of the Pahlavi claim to royal status.
To counter accusations of extravagance and waste, the occasion was
accompanied by the building of thousands of new schools, a new Pahlavi
Library to foster all aspects of Iranian studies and a variety of infrastructure
projects in the Shiraz region and around the country.
Over the two days of the celebration ( 15 – 16 October 1971 ), the event
went smoothly. Television images of an impressively grand Parade of History
at Persepolis with thousands of participants dressed up as the soldiers
of the ancient Medes and Persians were broadcast around the world by
satellite. Heads of state of many of the most important countries of the
world, along with senior representatives of many others, were lavishly
wined and dined. The catering was laid on by Maxim’s of Paris in three
huge air- conditioned tents and fi fty- nine smaller ones, and 25 , 000 bottles
of wine were imported for the event. Rumours of the overall cost ranged
from $ 100 million to $ 300 million. 4 The Shah made a speech at the tomb
of Cyrus at Pasargadae claiming a rebirth of ancient Iranian greatness:
‘Sleep easily, Cyrus, for we are awake.’ 5 As an event for the world to mark
both the ancient heritage of Iran and the country’s new- found wealth and
power, it was a success.
But the festivities left most ordinary Iranians nonplussed. The spectacle
of distinguished foreigners drinking wine and eating foreign food
meant little to them. Along with the international TV broadcasts, the
event indeed seemed primarily designed for foreigners. 6 For them, the
emphasis on Cyrus and the ancient past might have the appeal of a Hollywood
epic, but for most Iranians it ignored the Shi‘a Islamic heritage
that was central to their identity. 7 To many, the celebrations seemed bogus
and artifi cial, and served only to distance the monarchy further from the
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Revolutionary Iran
people. Like the prophet in the wilderness, Khomeini denounced what he
called the decadent debaucheries of the event from his exile in Najaf in
Iraq, thundering that Islam was fundamentally opposed to monarchy in
principle, that the crimes of Iranian kings had blackened the pages of history,
and that even the ones remembered as good had in fact been ‘vile and
cruel’. 8 Shariati criticized the event, in passing, as part of a series of fi ery
lectures at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad in the following weeks that contributed
to the closure of the institute shortly afterwards. By contrast with the
Shah’s eulogizing of 2 , 500 years of monarchy, he spoke of 5 , 000 years of
‘deprivation, injustice, class discrimination and repression’. 9
As the decade proceeded, the decade in which 2 , 500 years of Iranian
monarchy were to come to an end, the impression given by the celebrations
was confi rmed, of a Shah remote from his people and their thinking
in a range of important ways.
Montazh and Gharbzadegi
Tehran in the 1970 s was a strange place. The city was already largely a
city of concrete, with only a core of a few older palaces and government
buildings. But despite the American cars, the traffi c and the ugliness, the
older Iran was still there in the chadors on the streets, in the smell of mutton
kebab grilling on charcoal and fresh barbari bread being carried away
from local bakeries, in the mountain water running swiftly down the jubs
at the sides of the road in the dappled shade of the plane trees, and the
call to prayer fl oating over the city at dusk. The West, and the US especially,
were constant presences, from the Coca- Cola and Pepsi on sale
everywhere to the American advertising and American Forces Radio playing
Abba and Blue Oyster Cult – but constant also (beside a continuing
admiration for America and an associated desire for economic development)
was a tension and a distaste for that presence.
The juxtaposition of old and new, Iranian and foreign, rich and poor,
produced odd contrasts common to many developing countries, but
odder for the rapidity of the development, the tensions below the surface
and the large sums of money being spent in all directions. Wealthy
people, many wealthy to a degree most Europeans could only dream
of, lived hard by poor people poorer than could be seen anywhere in
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western Europe. At the end of December 1969 Asadollah Alam, the
Shah’s court minister, was held up by a traffi c accident as he drove in
the early morning (‘in my sleek Chrysler Imperial’) through Farahabad,
on the eastern side of the city:
I waited, and meanwhile I got a glimpse of the life that goes on in that squalid
district of Tehran. The street running off from the highway was fi lthy, not an
ounce of asphalt since there’s no risk of an inspection by HIM (His Imperial
Majesty – i.e. the Shah). It was still early, the traffi c police had not come on duty,
but a single policeman strutted around, dragging on his cigarette, puffed up like
the monarch of all he surveyed. A few men, women wearing the veil, on their
way home from the communal bath house . . . a gaggle of children, the girls all
veiled. The upper classes would never be up so early in the morning, nor would
the girls wear veils. They converged haggling on a merchant selling hot beetroot.
Pariah dogs and a few unwashed babies pawing over a heap of rubbish at the
street corner . . . shaven- headed servicemen wearing badly cut trousers, ill- fi tting
boots, strolling along clearly enjoying their Friday morning off. It was both droll
and desperately depressing; a scene from a top- heavy society. The Shah struggles
day and night, confi dent that within a decade we shall have surpassed much of
the developed world; change can never come quickly enough for him. Yet no
manner of wishful thinking can alter life in these streets. 10
There were a lot of Americans in Tehran in the 1970 s, employed as
advisers and technicians, and in many other roles. The number of US residents
(leaving aside visitors and tourists) in Iran increased from less than
8 , 000 in 1970 to nearly 50 , 000 in 1979 . There were foreigners from
many other countries too, of course, attracted likewise by the money to
be earned in activities related to Iran’s economic, military and infrastructure
development – but benefi ting from the special favour of the Shah’s
regime, the US was much the most important foreign infl uence. Most of
the foreigners lived in Tehran (though many were also to be found in
Isfahan, where large numbers of Americans worked in new defencerelated
industries around the city outskirts). The Americans tended to live
entirely separate lives, shopping in the US commissary (the biggest of its
kind in the world at the time) and often living on American- only compounds.
Many British and other expatriates lived in a similar way. The
American school admitted only children with US passports (unusually by
comparison with American schools in other countries), and occasional
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Revolutionary Iran
suggestions that the children be taught something about Iran generally
failed – a school board member said in 1970 that the policy had been
‘Keep Iran Out’. Other Americans, notably those working for the Peace
Corps, worked with ordinary Iranians and were much appreciated. But
the majority (some of them moving on from the debacle in Vietnam) were
in Iran for the money and the lavish lifestyle, which they could not have
afforded at home. The American observer James A. Bill commented:
As the gold rush began and the contracts increased, the American presence
expanded. The very best and the very worst of America were on display in
the cities of Iran. As time passed and the numbers grew, an increasingly high
proportion of fortune hunters, fi nancial scavengers, and the jobless and disillusioned
recently returned from Southeast Asia found their way to Iran.
Companies with billion- dollar contracts needed manpower and, under time
pressure, recruited blindly and carelessly. In Isfahan, hatred, racism and
ignorance combined as American employees responded negatively and
aggressively to Iranian society. 11
Within Iranian society there were other tensions. South Tehran was full
of young men, newly arrived from conservative- minded villages, either
with no jobs or with only poorly paid jobs. For many of them, that meant
little prospect of being able to afford to marry or support a family for some
years – perhaps indefi nitely. But if they paid a small fare for a shared taxi
to the richer central and northern parts of the city, for nothing they could
see pretty young women parading up and down the streets, dressed in
revealing Western fashions, unaccompanied or with girlfriends, fl aunting
their freedom, money, beauty and, from a certain point of view, immorality
and disregard for religion. To those used to life in more traditional parts of
the country (where many women spent most of their time in the family
home), there just seemed to be more women around in Tehran:
Parviz told him that he was lucky (or unfortunate, depending on how you
looked at it) to miss Tehran in the miniskirt craze of the sixties, for one hour
on a principal shopping street would have provided him with enough
thoughts to repent for a month.
On hoardings, garish posters of half- dressed women advertised the latest
fi lms: ‘The threatening forwardness of the posters was increased by the large
number of tough and sullen- looking young men hanging around.’ 12
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Status, and the lack of it, is not just about money – it is also about sex
and desire. For those that had moved there from the country, Tehran was
a place of aspiration, but in the late 1970 s it became a place of resentment,
frustrated desire and frustrated aspirations for many. 13
Aspiration is also about direction . The US presence in Iran in the
1970 s was small in relative, statistical terms. But in Tehran it dominated
advertising, TV and print media – even when the medium was Persianlanguage.
The Iranian upper classes were those most obviously
Westernized. So for the rest of society, the models presented to them to
aspire to were predominantly Western – and American. They were new
and exciting. American advertising and the image of American culture it
presented was not shy and retiring. It was self- confi dent and brash.
Even other foreigners in Iran found it so. The response of Iran and Iranians
was contradictory and troubled. Many Iranians admired the US
and many hoped for the sort of economic development the US stood for.
But Iran ians had (and have) a great pride in Iran, its history and culture
also. Seeing that history and culture shouldered aside in their own country
was not easy for them. 14
One Iranian woman, later a radical student, has written of that time:
Most of the Americans who lived in Iran behaved in a way that revealed
their sense of self- importance and superiority. They had come to expect extra
respect, even deference from all Iranians, from shoe- shine boy to shah . . .
in our country, American lifestyles had come to be imposed as an ideal, the
ultimate goal. Americanism was the model. American popular culture –
books, magazines, fi lm – had swept over our country like a fl ood. This
cultural aggression challenged the self- identity of people like us. This was
the idol which had taken shape within Iranian society. We found ourselves
wondering, ‘Is there any room for our own culture?’ 15
In his great book The Mantle of the Prophet Roy Mottahedeh
described this time in Tehran as the time of montazh (from the French
word montage – a setting- up or assembly of parts), when imported things
were being assembled and put together in the city, often rather less than
satisfactorily, and never quite completed – a time when everything in
Tehran seemed to be ‘intimately connected with the airport’, when ‘in joking,
Tehranis called all sorts of jerry- built Iranian versions of foreign ideas
true examples of Iranian montazh’. 16
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Revolutionary Iran
The most obvious examples of montazh were the Paykan cars assembled
in great numbers just outside Tehran from imported parts (to the design
of the British Hillman Hunter) – becoming by far the most common vehicle
on Iranian roads. But the same principle could be seen or imagined at
work elsewhere too – in the mutual incompatibility of ideas brought
home by enthusiastic graduates from American, French and German universities;
in corrupt property deals, in big buildings put up without
enough cement and left half- fi nished, in the chaotic traffi c, and in the new
statues of the Shah that appeared everywhere.
The idea of montazh also applied to the huge Shahyad monument,
inaugurated just after the celebrations for 2 , 500 years of monarchy in
1971 to commemorate the reign of the Shah himself; supposedly an amalgam
of architectural styles from all periods of Iranian history – and
erected just where all visiting foreigners would see it, on the way to
the centre of Tehran, just outside Mehrabad airport. Montazh recalls Al- e
Ahmad’s concept of gharbzadegi – an intoxication with the West that
prompted abandonment of all other principles in pursuit of an alien ideal
that could not be properly understood, applied, absorbed or assembled.
Another example was a little pamphlet published in Tehran in 1978
called Iran Scene , designed for foreign visitors. The second (April) issue
contained articles on Noruz, the province of Fars and the city of Yazd; and
a factual section (‘Iran at a Glance’) including the sentence ‘The new single
party system known as Rastakhiz (national resurgence) was begun in
1975 .’ The advertisements contained enough information to enable a foreigner
to live almost as he or she might have done in a large Western
city – shops, hotels, restaurants (including French, Italian, Greek, Chinese,
Indian, Japanese, US – style steak and fried chicken, Mexican, as well as
Persian and the Polynesian restaurant Tiare in the InterContinental Hotel);
nightclubs and cabarets (including ‘La Boheme – Old Shemiran Road,
International show. Expensive ’). There was also a ‘Meat Service’ offering
imported meat, including pork, and all kinds of shellfi sh; range shooting
and skating at the Ice Palace, bowling, and cinema – American, French,
German and English fi lms – (including ‘ Far from the Maddling [ sic ]Crowd
with Julie Christie’). And then, amid this international junk, a page entitled
‘Literary Scene’, and, like a splash of cold water, the poem ‘Window’
(‘Panjareh’) by Forugh Farrokhzad, from which the following is a short
extract (translated by Ardavan Davaran): 17
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I feel that the time has passed
I feel that the moment of my portion is of the pages of history
I feel that the table is a false distance between my hair and the
hands of this sad stranger.
Speak a word to me
The person that bestows upon you the kindness of a
living body
Would want from you what else but the perception of the
sense of existence?
Speak a word to me
I, in the shelter of my window,
Have communication with the sun.
The poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad refl ected the wider period in which she
lived (she died in a car accident in 1967 when she was only thirty- two
years old), but it was also vividly personal, alluding to erotic encounters
and traumatic affairs, and their bleak aftermath. The personal nature of
the verses and the reaction to it is itself a refl ection of the time – such
poetry was only barely possible. Its frankness created a furore of shock,
and prurient interest in her private life, that threatened to overwhelm Farrokhzad;
she said in a radio interview in 1964 : ‘I really think talking
about it is tiring and pointless.’ 18 She had married young, giving birth to
a son, but separated from her husband in 1955 , divorced and was denied
access to her son, after which she had a mental breakdown and later
attempted suicide. 19 In 1962 she made a hard- to- watch but moving fi lm
with the title The House Is Black ( Khaneh siah ast ) in an institution for
lepers. Her work, insistent above all on the diamond- hard validity of her
own voice, fused the edge of European modernism with a strongly Iranian
anger about politics, veering between despair and crazy hope. In
particular, the poem ‘Someone Who Is Like No Other’ (‘Kasi ke mesl- e
hich- kas nist’), mingling millenarian Shi‘a religious and Marxist imagery,
had an urgent visionary quality:
I’ve dreamed that someone is coming.
I’ve dreamed of a red star
. . .
Someone who is like no one. Not like father,
not like Ensi, not like
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Yahya, not like mother,
And is like the person who he ought to be.
. . .
And his name is just as mother says
at the beginning and the end of her prayer,
the judge of all judges,
the need of all needs,
Someone is coming.
Someone is coming.
Someone who’s in heart with us.
In his breathing is with us.
Someone whose coming can’t be stopped, and
handcuffed and thrown in jail. 20
Aryamehr – ‘Light of the Aryans’
Most of the symptoms of strangeness were the outcome of the huge sums
of money rolling into the country. Investment rose dizzyingly as Iran continued
to benefi t from a windfall bonanza of oil income – especially after the
oil price doubled in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War, and doubled again
at the end of the year, when the Shah led the other OPEC countries to
demand higher prices on the claim that oil had not kept pace with the price
of other internationally traded commodities. Between 1971 and 1973 the
Shah, with the help of his chief adviser and negotiator on oil matters Jamshid
Amuzegar, achieved secure control over domestic oil production, a strong
position in the OPEC cartel to protect Iranian interests and beyond that,
through his leading role in OPEC itself, much higher returns on oil sales for
Iran and the other OPEC producers (notably Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but also
Kuwait and Venezuela). 21 It was a major achievement, in which the Shah
took justifi able pride. Yet more money was pumped into the Iranian economy,
though a large amount went back to the West – especially to the US
and the UK – in return for quantities of new military equipment. The Shah
bought more Chieftain tanks from the UK than the British army itself owned,
and by the end of the decade his forces were equipped with some of the very
latest military technology, including British Rapier/Blindfi re anti- aircraft
missile systems and American F- 14 fi ghter aircraft (both of which caused
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the originators anxiety after 1979 , lest the technology fall into the hands of
the Russians). 22 The government was awash with money, and a proportion
of it fl owed, through corrupt commissions and bribes, into private hands;
often removed to bank accounts in other countries.
Personally, the Shah was more confi dent by the 1970 s than he had been
in the 1950 s. He was older and more experienced. His second divorce in
1958 had been traumatic, but he had remarried in 1959 , and his new wife,
Queen Farah, had given him a son the following year and more children
later. He gained confi dence from the success, as he perceived it, of the
October 1971 celebrations as a breakthrough for him on the international
stage; but more seriously from his success in negotiating secure control of
Iran’s oil production and, through that, infl uence over OPEC and oil
prices. His new confi dence emerged in a number of ways. He took a
greater interest in foreign policy in the 1970 s than he had earlier, and Iran
became a more assertive regional actor. The Shah faced down Iraq and
secured a favourable settlement of the dispute over the Shatt- al- Arab
waterway in the Algiers Accords of 1975 . Earlier, he moved into the vacuum
left by the departing British imperial presence and occupied the small
islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs (creating a minor dispute with the
United Arab Emirates over possession of the islands that continues to this
day). Some called him the Policeman of the Persian Gulf. He was lauded
by Western leaders and by US presidents in particular as a bulwark against
Soviet encroachment in the region, and this role was again refl ected in the
level of arms sales. The rise in oil prices altered the power balance between
the Shah and the West; he had been the partial architect of the rise, and it
had damaged Western economies, but the West still needed him. To benefi t
from Iran’s wealth, Western politicians, including those from countries
like Britain that had hurt Iran and the Shah’s family in the past, fell over
themselves to secure contracts. 23 The Shah would not have been human if
he had not derived some satisfaction from this. 24
But the Shah was still scarred by experiences earlier in his reign. In
particular, he was wary of further assassination attempts and had himself
surrounded by heavy security arrangements. He went from place to place
by helicopter and usually viewed parades and other events (carefully
staged to give the best impression for the TV cameras) from inside a special
bullet- proof glass box. 25 These measures cut him off still more from
the people.
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The scars showed also in other ways. In 1976 a hugely popular television
comedy, Dear Uncle Napoleon ( Dai jan Napoleon , based on the
book of the same title by Iraj Pezeshkzad, 26 one of the funniest comic
novels in any language) satirized, among other things, the widespread
tendency at the time to blame a concealed British plot – kar kar-e Ingliseh ,
the work of the British – for almost everything, however trivial. From
some accounts the Shah himself seems to have been not so far removed
from the paranoia of the comedy’s main character. Talking to Asadollah
Alam in 1970 , recalling the attempt to kill him at Tehran university in
1949 , the Shah apparently mentioned that his assailant’s girlfriend had
been the daughter of the head gardener at the British embassy. Alam
respectfully doubted that the British would have ‘hatched such a stupid
plot’. After a pause, the Shah said (alluding to the further attempt on his
life in 1965 ): ‘You realize, of course, that British communists made
another attempt on my life four years ago?’ Alam again demurred. 27 It is
hard to accept that the Shah seriously believed that British intelligence
were behind both assassination attempts, and the communists in Iran,
and the clerical opposition. But this ingrained suspicion was the legacy of
persistent British meddling in the events of the fi rst half of the twentieth
century in Iran and in the early part of the Shah’s reign. It is borne out by
the rueful account of Sir Anthony Parsons, who was British ambassador
in Tehran from 1974 to 1979 (the Shah’s book that Parsons refers to was
published in exile, after his fall):
In his book, ‘Answer to History’, the Shah has implied that he did not believe
in the sincerity of my advice and that he could not clear his mind of his
obsessive suspicion that I was the front- line instrument of some devious
British plot to rob him of his throne. But I can only repeat that the advice I
gave him was genuinely personal and based on my best judgement of events
in a country in which I had served continuously for nearly fi ve years. Indeed,
I can still hear my own voice telling the Shah on numerous occasions that I
would not tell him what I thought unless he assured me that he would accept
what I had to say as the disinterested advice of a genuine well- wisher,
untainted by any ulterior motive. He invariably gave me such assurances,
although I now know, as I suspected at the time, that he was intellectually
and emotionally incapable – who can blame him in the light of his own
history? – of accepting my views at their face value. 28
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Despite his successes, the Shah had a persistent sense of insecurity, and
his thinking about the forces opposed to him was unrealistic. He was still
fundamentally a shy man – ‘a rather awkward, withdrawn person, at his
best with technocrats, Westerners or cronies, at his worst with people en
masse’. 29 A further consequence of the Shah’s insecurity was his encouragement
of factions and division in his government and court. As in the
army high command, 30 his aim was to prevent any one personality from
becoming powerful enough to become a danger to him. As under other
tyrants, spheres of responsibility overlapped in such a way as to create
disputes. Alam and Hoveida were particular enemies. 31
The atmosphere of rancour and intrigue at court was encouraged, and
complicated, by the Shah’s extramarital amusements. The Shah had
affairs and briefer liaisons with many women; both in Iran and on his
trips to other countries. Alam, who was similarly promiscuous, and with
whom the Shah compared exploits, 32 recorded that ‘even when he fi nds a
companion, however attractive she may be, he sooner or later tires of
her’. There were many rumours and much gossip, and anxiety lest the
rumours should reach the ears of Queen Farah. 33 Various courtiers acted
as procurers for the Shah, but the main man was Amir Hushang Davallu
(an offshoot of the old Qajar royal family):
a man of great shrewdness who by intelligence and sycophancy has risen
high in HIM ’s favour. At court we know him by the accurate enough nickname
‘Prince Pimp’. Every year he accompanies HIM to St Moritz, to carry
out his rather sordid functions and to indulge his [Davallu’s] taste for opium. 34
Remarkably enough, Davallu appears to have rendered similar services
for Nazi generals in Paris during the German occupation of France in the
1940 s. 35
Two further salient features of the court were sycophancy and corruption.
The Shah was not stupid, but he was susceptible to fl attery, and this
contributed to the dangerous unreality of the atmosphere around him. 36
Alam criticized this tendency, but was aware that he too was guilty of
contributing to it:
Submitted the Daily Telegraph ’s review of HIM ’s latest book. I told him
it struck me as being favourable. ‘What on earth’s “favourable” about it?’
he snapped back, as soon as he’d read it. I told him to look again at the
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Revolutionary Iran
fi nal paragraph. ‘What do you suppose this word “megalomania” means?’
he said. ‘Greatness,’ I replied. ‘Greatness be damned,’ he exclaimed. ‘Greatness
to the point of madness.’ I was thoroughly ashamed of myself. I should
have read it more carefully, but by then it was too late. 37
On another occasion, the urbane Alam was perhaps playing with a
rather gullible interlocutor when he said (replying to her question as to
whether the Shah had a fl aw):
‘I cannot say that he is faultless,’ Mr Alam at last replied. ‘Everyone, as
you say, has faults. But I may say something that – he might not like it,
and perhaps it’s bad for me to say it, or it might be interpreted as fl attery,
but what I can say (perhaps you will laugh at me too), his fault to my
mind is that he is really too great for his people – his ideas are too great
for we people to realize it [sic].’ 38
The effect of the sycophancy (even if tinged, in Alam’s case, with a
knowing irony) was strengthened by the fact that courtiers and ministers
kept information from the Shah, avoiding telling him anything he might
not want to hear; concentrating instead on good news and the recycling
of propaganda. 39
Corruption was endemic. Sometimes the Shah accepted it with weary
resignation; at other times (when he uncovered a new scandal) it made
him furious. 40 It has long been believed that corruption was widespread
among the Shah’s family. 41 But newly released documents from British
diplomatic records indicate that, although the Shah himself has usually
been given the benefi t of the doubt, he too had been taking sweeteners on
defence contracts. After the fall of the Shah, David Owen, foreign secretary
at the time, commissioned Nicholas Browne, then seconded to the
Cabinet Offi ce, to carry out a post mortem on the conduct of British
policy toward Iran. Sir Anthony Parsons (whose valedictory despatch had
prompted the exercise) was consulted carefully as the review went forward.
Browne wrote to Parsons on 9 October 1979 :
The Randel papers strongly suggest that, in accordance with this general
behaviour, the Shah personally had been taking money from the British,
indirectly through Sir S. Reporter 42 and the Pahlavi Foundation, in return for
defence contracts . . . I wonder whether we took this into suffi cient account
in our assessments of the Shah’s character, and political standing . . . If you
think I am prying too much please tell me to shut up . . . 43
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From the fi les so far released, it appears that Browne never had a
proper reply, and this angle was passed over when the post mortem was
completed. Within the papers so far released that bear upon these matters,
some sections have been withheld, several of which appear to relate
to the activities of defence attachés.
Pumped- up Autocracy
On several occasions during his time as court minister, according to his
own account, Alam urged the Shah to reintroduce a real degree of democracy
in the country, in order to close up the dangerous gap between the
people and the government. 44 Instead, in the mid- 1970 s the Shah turned
in the direction of reinforcing autocracy. In March 1975 the two parties
in the Majles (Mardom and Iran Novin) were abolished and replaced by
the Rastakhiz (Resurgence) party. The Shah dismissed criticism that only
a decade before he himself had stressed the importance of a two- party
system for preparing the way toward democracy; notably in his book
Mission for My Country , in which he had written:
If I were a dictator rather than a constitutional monarch, then I might be
tempted to sponsor a single dominant party such as Hitler organized or such
as you fi nd today in Communist countries. But as constitutional monarch I
can afford to encourage large- scale party activity free from the strait- jacket
of one- party rule or the one- party state. 45
Now, his statements and those of his ministers were rather less enthusiastic
about democracy, echoing the line taken by Hoveida in a speech to the Iran
Novin Party’s Central Committee in 1970 (confi rming the regime’s faith
that economic development had to precede political development):
As the Shah has said, social democracy cannot exist without economic
democracy. In my view most of those who talk about democracy are still
limited in their concept to the schools of thought advocated by Plato [ sic ],
Montesquieu and others. We do not believe democracy means anyone should
be free to act against national interests and moral values and traditions.
From our standpoint democracy means respecting human rights and individuals.
The interesting question is whether such democracy exists in those
countries which are preaching to us on democracy. 46
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Revolutionary Iran
By the mid- 1970 s many of the democratic countries of western Europe
and North America were suffering from recession and infl ation, unemployment,
political unrest, strikes and (in some cases) home- grown
anti- democratic terrorism. They (especially the UK ) looked weak. Those
countries struggled as Iran boomed and prospered, and the Shah was less
inclined than previously to defer to them as a model. Democracy also
appeared to be in trouble in some of the states that were Iran’s neighbours
or near neighbours – notably in Pakistan, and in India, where Indira
Ghandi declared a state of emergency in June 1975 .
Rastakhiz was intended as the apparatus of a one- party state (although
it did retain something of the previous fi ction of pluralism, in having two
wings that were supposed to represent different shades of opinion). Some
of its inspiration seems, following the logic of the Shah’s White Revolution,
to have derived from Leninist theory of a political avant- garde (some of
those involved in the early stages had formerly been members of Tudeh). 47
Within a few months Rastakhiz activists set up bodies for farmers, women
and industrial workers, and a youth movement; and the party had extended
its infl uence into all sectors of the state bureaucracy. The purpose was to
ensure that all elements of Iranian life fell into line with the political opinions,
aims and objectives of the party and the Shah – something like Hitler’s
Gleichschaltung (‘co-ordination’). 48 In introducing the party the Shah gave
Iranians a stark choice. He said that anyone who did not join Rastakhiz or
support its principles was to be regarded either as a member of Tudeh, in
which case he belonged in jail, or as a traitor, in which case he was no
longer an Iranian and should leave the country for good. 49
Before long the effects began to be felt. Under the strictures of Rastakhiz
vetting, the number of books published per year fell from 4 , 200
to 1 , 300 . Writers were imprisoned, some suffered torture, and one was
forced to make a televised confession (a tactic now associated more with
the Islamic republic) – to the effect that he had not given enough credit
in his writing to the successes of the White Revolution. SAVAK men
went into libraries and bookshops to remove copies of the Shah’s own
book Mission for My Country , because its statements about freedom
and democracy were now out of date. Twenty- two writers, poets, academics
and other well- known intellectuals were in prison by the end of
1975 . 50 The disillusionment of the intelligentsia was deepened and reconfi
rmed. Regime propaganda and adulation of the Shah reached new
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levels. He had taken the title Aryamehr (‘Light of the Aryans’) in 1965 –
now he was being called by the ominous title Farmandeh (‘Commander’).
The regime came in for more criticism from human rights organizations
(notably Amnesty International), 51 and in June 1977 the Red Cross
reported privately to the Shah that 900 out of 3 , 000 political prisoners in
Iranian jails bore signs of torture. 52
Particular targets for Rastakhiz were the bazaar and the ulema . Both
had traditionally been centres of potential opposition; both were now
subjected to infi ltration and coercion. Bazaar guilds were reformed and
placed under the direction of state governors. Rastakhiz activists set up
offi ces in the bazaars and forced donations from the merchants and artisans.
Employment legislation on minimum wages and health insurance
was enforced rigorously on traders who had become accustomed to
ignoring it. This pressure added to the economic pressure the bazaaris
were already feeling. They were seeing their products and businesses
edged aside by imports, new factories, suburban stores and supermarkets;
and by the introduction of state corporations to import and carry out the
wholesale distribution of basic foodstuffs. 53 Newspapers carried articles
about the outmoded character of bazaar trading, demolition plans and
new boulevards being driven through the bazaar quarters.
The Shah’s attack on the ulema (building on measures taken by his
father to control religious endowments and to infl uence the training of
mullahs) was an attempt to replace the existing Shi‘a hierarchy with a
new structure whose defi ning characteristic would be loyalty to the
Shah’s regime – a din- e dowlat (state religion). Rastakhiz intensifi ed the
measures taken to achieve this since 1963 , which included action to monitor
and regulate the operation of religious endowments, and a religious
corps (like the literacy corps) to disseminate the offi cial line on Islam in the
countryside. The ulema also regarded the Family Protection Law of 1967 as
an unacceptable attack on important traditions. The new law discarded
shari‘a practice to allow women to petition for divorce and to have custody
of children after divorce if the secular court so decided. It stipulated that a
man could only take a second wife if his fi rst wife gave written consent (a
largely theoretical provision; po l ygamous marriage had become, and remains,
uncommon in Iran). The government selected and supported pro- regime mullahs
to conduct Friday prayer in major mosques. 54 It made a further symbolic
change in 1976 to replace the traditional solar calendar that took the year of
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Revolutionary Iran
Mohammad’s fl ight from Mecca as year 1 with a new calendar taking year
1 as the date of the accession of Cyrus the Great. So instead of 1355 , the
year was now 2535 . The symbolism of dumping Islam as the point of reference
in favour of a monarchical date was signifi cant. 55 But also, in terms of
the Western date ( 1976 ), Iran had jumped from the medieval period to the
era of the far future. It was montazh again – time itself had been reassembled.
In some strange numerological sense, Iran was now ahead.
Khomeini blasted the foundation of Rastakhiz from his exile, claiming
that it both violated constitutional norms and was aimed at the destruction
of Islam. The regime responded swiftly. Within a short time many of
Khomeini’s most prominent supporters were arrested, including Ayatollahs
Montazeri, Beheshti and Rabbani Shirazi, and more junior clerics
who would later take greater roles, including Ali Khamenei.
The aggressive actions of Rastakhiz intensifi ed the political debate
within Iran, without creating a genuine link between state and society as
the Shah had intended. It appeared that quiet dissent was no longer an
option: the regime was intent on erasing all dissent. It was not just Tudeh
and extremists that were threatened – large sections of Iranian society
became anxious that their interests were in danger.
The 1970 s were also the period in which new forms of political extremism
appeared, and faded. The two most important groups were the
Sazeman- e Cherikha- ye Fedayan- e Khalq- e Iran (usually called the Marxist
Fedayan or just the Fedayan) and the Sazeman- e Mojahedin- e Khalq
(known as the MKO or the MEK – though since 1979 this organization
in exile has disguised itself with a plethora of front organizations, cover
names and acronyms – PMOI , NCRI , NLA , etc.). Both groups rejected
peaceful politics and the previous political parties on the basis that these
had failed to bring about change in Iran – for them the events of 1953 and
1963 amply demonstrated this. They believed the Shah’s regime could
only be removed by armed struggle, along the lines of what political guerrillas
had achieved in Cuba and Algeria. Some of the MKO trained with
the PLO in Lebanon. The Fedayan and the MKO were recruited predominantly
from educated backgrounds – most of their leaders had been
students, and their leftist and anti- US attitudes again refl ected the international
student activism of the late 1960 s and early 70 s.
The Fedayan, initially the larger group, were Marxist; the MKO ’s
ideology fused Marxism and Islam (they claimed Shariati as their
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ideologue but their ideas developed independently and Shariati
appears to have kept them at arm’s length). On 8 February 1971 guerrillas
later associated with the Fedayan attacked a gendarmerie post
at Siahkal in Gilan, in an attempt to rescue one of their companions
who had been arrested. SAVAK and the authorities responded quickly,
and harshly, and within three weeks all thirteen of the attackers were
found and executed. Under continuous pressure and having failed to
light up the people’s revolution as they had anticipated, the Fedayan
split in 1975 , with one faction favouring continued armed struggle,
while the other, at least as a temporary measure, sought instead to
work through infiltration of labour organizations and more conventional
(if still radical) political activity.
Where the Fedayan grew out of circles associated with Tudeh, the
original members of the MKO had connections rather with the Freedom
Movement and the Hoseiniyeh Ershad. The MKO attempted to disrupt
the Shah’s celebrations for 2 , 500 years of monarchy in October
1971 with a bomb attack and an attempt to hijack an airliner. Like the
Fedayan, many of the MKO ’s people were arrested in 1971 and although
they continued to recruit through the 1970 s and continued attacks,
including assassinations of six Americans in Iran between 1973 and
1976 , 56 recruitment was unable to keep pace with the arrests. By 1976 – 7
SAVAK had effectively repressed both organizations (more than 300
MKO and Fedayan, plus fi ghters and supporters from similar, smaller
groups, were killed in these years) but when the revolution began and
some political prisoners were released both guerrilla movements were
reinvigorated. 57
The Shah’s regime had achieved a lot by the mid- 1970 s. Unlike many
other national leaders in many countries (including some democratic politicians)
the Shah deserved credit not just for governing to secure himself,
his dynasty or his interest group in power, but for a genuine effort to
move his country forward in its development, which achieved real gains.
Gross National Product per capita had jumped to $ 2 , 000 from
$ 200 (in 1963 ). Much of this was down to the oil boom – but the Shah
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Revolutionary Iran
was himself partly responsible for the big rise in oil income, and the income
was being reinvested. The country had reoriented away from agriculture
toward more developed economic activities that would yield greater benefi
ts to the people, in industry and services. The movement of population
to the cities, however traumatic and marked by deprivation it was in the
short term, could be regarded as a necessary step towards a more sophisticated,
developed, modern society. Investment had greatly improved
infrastructure and the standard of education and health services. 58 Women
and minorities had benefi ted from his reforms. Iran was respected internationally
and had taken on a more confi dent regional role, as evidenced by
her infl uence both within OPEC and within the regional security organization
CENTO . The Shah’s relationship with the US had also matured since
the 1950 s; he was less of a stooge and more of a partner.
But it was a mixed picture. There was also waste and corruption, and
huge inequality. 59 The surge of investment for growth created a problem
of what the planners called ‘absorptive capacity’ – the scale of investment
was such that the existing administrative, transport and other
infrastructure could not cope with the expansion. Vital industrial supplies
waited for weeks and months at Iran’s borders because customs
offi cials could not process the paperwork quickly enough, or because
the ports did not have the capacity to unload them from ships quickly
enough, or because there were not enough lorries to carry them away
once unloaded. When extra lorries were imported, there was a shortage
of drivers. This situation was of course a dream for corrupt offi cials,
who took bribes from those who could pay to jump the queue. 60 Because
the population was expanding rapidly (from about 15 million in 1939 –
40 to just under 19 million in 1956 , 25 . 3 million in 1966 and 33 . 7 million
in 1976 ), 61 improvements in health and education provision, for example,
did not have the impact that had been hoped. Infant mortality
dropped, but was still high; 68 per cent of adults were still illiterate and
fewer than 40 per cent of children completed primary school. Illiteracy
was particularly marked in the countryside, refl ecting again the Shah’s
inclination to sacrifi ce traditional, rural Iran for the development
of urban Iran. 62 Standards of housing in the poorer parts of the cities
were desperately inadequate. Not all the effects of the oil boom were
benefi cial. Some of the elements of what has been called the rentier economy
began to emerge: an overgrown, ineffi cient (and often corrupt)
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bureaucracy, real- estate speculation, damage to import- substitution
industries by rising costs of domestic production and erosion of non- oil
exports by a high currency exchange rate. 63
The most important failures were primarily political. The state was not
totalitarian, but it was not free either, and the dynamic was heading in the
wrong direction. As the Shah had grown more confi dent, his rule had
grown more autocratic, and his previously declared aspirations to democracy
had faded. By 1975 he had no programme for restoring representative
government, and his only solution for dissent was propaganda and repression.
If he had succeeded in making the monarchy truly popular, perhaps
he could have sustained that for a time, but instead the monarchy had
become ever more remote and disconnected from the attitudes and concerns
of the people. Rastakhiz had succeeded only in destabilizing
assumptions and stirring up resentment, rather than thickening the attachment
between the Shah and ordinary Iranians, as Alam had advocated it
should. Partly as a result of combating real and imaginary Marxists for so
long, the Shah made the mistake of himself taking an overly materialist,
Marxist analysis (as we have seen, his thinking showed a Marxismthrough-
the- Looking- Glass tendency in a number of areas). He believed
that material prosperity would yield political stability, and that his faith in
the ancient bond between people and monarch would be justifi ed by economic
success and renewed gratitude. But few economies deliver continuous
sustained growth indefi nitely, and politics is often an ungrateful business.
Iraq – and Khomeini
Another manifestation of the Shah’s stronger position and greater confi –
dence in the mid- 1970 s was the successful resolution of outstanding
disputes with Iraq. For the most part the position of the long border
between the two countries was uncontroversial and had been stable since
the Zohab treaty agreed between the Safavids and the Ottomans in
1639 (given more exact delineation by a multi- nation border commission
in 1914 ). But for many years there had been uncertainty and
disagreement over the precise position of the border at its southernmost
point, where the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates fl owed into the Persian
Gulf along the waterway known as the Shatt al- Arab (Arvand Rud
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Revolutionary Iran
in Persian). The uncertainty was important because of the proximity of
both countries’ oilfi elds, and because both used the waterway for the
passage of oil tankers carrying oil away for export. As vice- president
of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had claimed the whole waterway up to the Iranian
Tension rose in 1974 – 5 as the Kurdish leader Mostafa Barzani led a
successful insurgency against the Iraqi regime further north, supported by
the Shah with weapons and other supplies. 64 As this progressed, the Shah
went further, allowing artillery fi re across the border in support of the
Kurds and fi nally, sending two units of the Iranian army into Iraqi territory.
With the Kurds increasingly successful and the threat of war with
Iran looming, Saddam sought a settlement through Algerian mediation.
An agreement was signed in Algiers in March 1975 which, as set out in
more detailed treaties signed later, agreed to the Iranian position that the
Shatt al- Arab border should be in the deepest part of the river, where the
fl ow was most rapid (the Thalweg – this solution was potentially still
problematic because the pattern of fl ow of the river changed over time,
and the waterway had to be dredged regularly to remove silt). In return,
Iran agreed to end its support for the Iraqi Kurds. The result for the Kurds
was that their insurgency collapsed within days, Barzani had to take refuge
in Iran, and large numbers of Kurds surrendered to Iraqi troops. Iraq
resented the concessions over the Shatt al- Arab, and the dispute surfaced
again in 1980 as one of the causes of the Iran– Iraq War.
Another consequence of the Algiers agreement was that Shi‘a pilgrims
were again free to visit the shrines at Karbala, Najaf and elsewhere in
Iraq. This new freedom of movement made it easier for pilgrims to bring
propaganda material back with them when they returned to Iran, notably
Khomeini’s speeches recorded on cassette tapes. After a time the
Shah began to put pressure on the Iraqi government to expel Khomeini,
who had been living in Najaf (the city of seminaries that contains the
shrine of the Emam Ali) since he left Turkey in 1965 . While in Najaf
Khomeini had developed further his network of contacts within Iran,
and a theory of Islamic government, but he was opposed in Najaf by the
powerful Ayatollah Abol- Qasem Khoei, who took a more traditional,
more quietist position like that of Borujerdi in the 1950 s; resistant to
involvement in politics. His followers came to be known as the Najafi
school, opposed to the school of Khomeini, and since Khoei’s death in
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1992 these positions have been maintained and taken forward by Ayatollah
Ali Sistani. Khoei and Sistani were both Iranian- born. Although
both spent most of their lives in Iraq, and despite the Iranian revolution,
large numbers of ordinary Iranians have followed their example as their
marja- e taqlid (source of emulation).
Khomeini’s theory was not accepted by the Shi‘a ulema as a whole;
indeed initially, it was not accepted by very many at all. In 1906 – 11 the
ulema had controlled a hierarchy and a national network of supporters
that allowed them to be an actor in politics, while remaining reluctant to
take the responsibilities of government upon themselves. Then and later
(notably in 1951 – 3 ) their beliefs limited them to encouraging and supporting
secular political actors with whom they thought they were in
sympathy – with mixed results, as we have seen. But now Khomeini’s new
ideas (prompted and radicalized by his experience in 1963 – 4 ) meant that
the clergy, or at least a section of them, might try to take power in their
own right. 65 Khomeini stayed in Iraq until October 1978 , when the Iraqis
fi nally ejected him. Having failed to get into Kuwait, he went (briefl y, as
it turned out) to Paris.
The Economy Falters; Carter Arrives
By mid- 1976 the economy was overheating, there was too much money
chasing too few goods, imports could not keep pace, there were bottlenecks
and shortages, and infl ation rose sharply – especially on items like
foodstuffs and housing rent, and especially in Tehran, where rents rose by
300 per cent in fi ve years in some areas. Then growth began to subside, as
infl ation ramped up. 66 The Shah blamed profi teering for the price rises,
arrested some well- known entrepreneurs, and then turned on small traders,
sending gangs (backed by SAVAK ) into the bazaars to make arrests.
Shops were closed down, 250 , 000 fi nes were issued, and 8 , 000 shopkeepers
were given prison sentences – none of which altered the underlying
economic realities one jot. The arrests and fi nes joined the list of grievances
felt by bazaari artisans and merchants, fuelling their anxiety that
the regime intended to eradicate them altogether. 67
The government realized in the early part of 1977 that there was serious
trouble ahead. 68 Iran’s developing economy had run out of control,
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Revolutionary Iran
and the period of heroic spending was coming to an end because there
was going to be a slump in oil revenues (against the Shah’s wishes, Saudi
Arabia had negotiated a cut in production within OPEC ). In mid- 1977 the
worrying economic picture prompted the Shah to change his prime minister.
After twelve years in that job Hoveida moved over to become court
minister (taking over from Asadollah Alam, who had been forced to retire
by ill- health; leukaemia killed him the following year). Jamshid Amuzegar
took over as prime minister, and introduced a new, defl ationary
economic policy, designed to moderate government spending, bring infl ation
under control and restore some stability. But the result, as growth
declined further, was a jump in unemployment. Infl ation and the sudden
faltering of the economy particularly affected the poor, but to some extent
everyone; rents were high for the middle- class engineers, managers and
professionals in Tehran just as for the slum dwellers, and those with a
stake in new businesses and loans to service felt the impact of defl ation
acutely. The sense of economic crisis added to the political uncertainty
that had been created by Rastakhiz, and those who had forgiven the
regime’s other shortcomings for their competence in economic development
felt their faith slipping away.
In January 1977 Jimmy Carter took over from Gerald Ford as president
of the United States. The Shah had always been more at ease with
Republican presidents than with Democrats. From this point on, he came
to feel greater pressure on his regime’s human rights record. Carter and his
advisers were less tolerant of repressive allies than their predecessors had
been, and the Shah began to relax some of the instruments of repression. 69
In February some political prisoners were released. Later on court rules
were changed to allow prisoners proper legal representation, and access to
civilian rather than just military courts. The Shah met representatives from
Amnesty International and agreed to improve prison conditions. In May a
group of lawyers sent a letter to the Shah, protesting at government interference
in court cases. Politicians and activists who had kept out of trouble
for years began to wonder whether they might now cautiously re- emerge.
In June three National Front activists, Karim Sanjabi, Shapur Bakhtiar
and Dari ush Foruhar, sent a bold letter to the Shah criticizing autocratic
rule and demanding a restoration of constitutional government. Later that
month the Writers’ Association, suppressed since 1964 , resurrected itself
and pressed for the same goals, and for the removal of censorship (many
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of the leading members were Tudeh sympathizers or broadly leftist). When
the Shah replaced Hoveida with the more moderate Amuzegar in July, the
change was interpreted as part of a movement towards a more liberal
position. In the autumn more political associations reconstituted themselves;
notably the National Front, under the leadership of Sanjabi,
Bakhtiar and Foruhar; and the Freedom Movement, closely associated
with the National Front, under Mehdi Bazargan and Yadollah Sahabi. 70
At this stage, all these groups, representing mainly the educated middle
classes, were calling for a constitutional monarchy and the full restoration
of the constitution of 1906 .
The Freedom Movement ( Nehzat- e Azadi- ye Iran – sometimes translated
as the Liberation Movement) had been founded in 1961 by Mehdi
Bazargan and Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, among others. Both were
important fi gures in the history of political Islam in Iran. Ali Shariati was
also active in the Movement in its early years, but the line taken by Bazargan
and Taleqani was less radical than Shariati’s in the main – aimed at a
liberal, democratic politics that was compatible with Islam, while keeping
a distance from the anticlericalism of some in Mossadeq’s circle (Taleqani
had been one of the few clerics to continue supporting Mossadeq after his
split with Kashani in the run- up to the crisis of August 1953 ). The Freedom
Movement was signifi cant in the events of 1963 – 4 , supporting the demonstrations
against the Shah and suffering with other opposition groups in
the aftermath. Like Khomeini, Taleqani was arrested in 1963 – and again
in the early 1970 s amid the fuss that led to the closure of the Hoseiniyeh
Ershad (which he and Bazargan had helped to establish). The Freedom
Movement kept up a stream of propaganda against the Shah’s regime in its
publications outside Iran, coordinated by Ebrahim Yazdi, often stressing
its ideas’ line of descent from those of the Constitutional Revolution, and
the need for an alliance between the ulema and the secular intelligentsia if
free, democratic government were ever to be established in Iran.
In the later 1960 s and 70 s the Freedom Movement continued activity
at a low level within Iran, but also among students and others in the
US and in France (where its leaders were Ebrahim Yazdi and Sadegh
Qotbzadeh – Abol Hassan Bani- Sadr was associated with the Freedom
Movement but had connections with the National Front also, and generally
kept a somewhat semi- detached position). Bazargan, Taleqani, Sahabi
and their movement were infl uential in their advocacy of political Islam,
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Revolutionary Iran
but also because, from their activity in 1963 and their pro- Islamic position,
they were trusted by Khomeini and were able to keep contact with
him in exile. 71 In 1978 – 9 this put them in a crucial position as a hinge
between Khomeini and the rest of the non- clerical opposition to the Shah.
All these members of the Freedom Movement became important fi gures
in the fi rst two years of the revolution.
Khomeini and his supporters among the clergy were also alert to the
rise in tension and the relaxation of regime repression in 1976 – 7 , and set
up a group to coordinate their work against the regime. It was called the
Jame- ye Ruhaniyat- e Mobarez (the Combatant Clergy Association) and
was effectively a tighter reconfi guration of the Coalition of Islamic Societies
that had backed Khomeini in 1963 – 4 – where the Coalition had
included secular bazaari members, the new group positioned the clergy
fi rmly to the fore. Founder members were Morteza Motahhari (the fi rst
leader of the association), Mohammad Beheshti, Ali Khamenei, Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Javad Bahonar, Mohammad Reza
Mahdavi- Kani and Mohammad Mofatteh. The association and its leading
members were central to the development of the pro- Khomeini revolutionary
movement and its establishment of control over the countrywide
network of mosques, madresehs and religious societies in 1978 . Most of
them took important positions in the new Islamic republic in 1979 .
On 10 October 1977 the Goethe Institut in Tehran hosted an evening
of poetry readings organized by the newly revived Writers’ Association.
It was the fi rst of a series of ten such evenings, which from the beginning
had a political character, demonstrating again the close association
between politics and literature in Iranian cultural life. The German
director, coming under pressure from the authorities, became more and
more anxious that SAVAK would close the institute down, and watched
the proceedings from a distance with a bottle of whisky that gradually
emptied as each night went on. Many of the speeches made in between
the readings were strongly critical of the Shah’s regime, pushing against
the boundaries of what was becoming permissible again. Many, if not
most, of the speakers were Tudeh sympathizers; most of the audience
were young students. On the fi fth evening one speaker asked for a
minute of silence for those writers of the previous half century who had
suffered under censorship and repression and had died prematurely –
among them the poet Nima Yushij, Sadegh Hedayat, Samad Behrangi, 72
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Jalal Al- e Ahmad, and Ali Shariati, who had died only four months earlier.
73 By this time (despite the fact that there was virtually no reporting
of them in the state- controlled media) the evenings were attracting
crowds of several thousands, some of them from distant parts of the
country, to huddle in the garden of the institute. Audio and video tapes
were recorded, reproduced outside the country, reimported and distributed.
The poet and playwright Saïd Soltanpur, a prominent member of
the Association, agreed to moderate his readings in order to avoid trouble,
but when he came to the microphone found himself unable to hold
back, reading some of his most radical poems against the Shah, some of
them written when he had been in prison. The bolder and more antiregime
the poems became, the more popular they were with the audience.
By the end of the series the organizers had managed to avoid serious
trouble, but a further series of evenings held at the Aryamehr University
ran into greater diffi culties. 74 On 22 November a rally of National Front
supporters just outside Tehran, aimed at forming a new anti- regime coalition,
was violently broken up by SAVAK before it could really start. 75
Another event that raised the tension that autumn was the suspicious
death of Khomeini’s son, Mostafa. A respected cleric in his own right,
Mostafa had been living in exile in Najaf in Iraq like his father. One
evening in October he was visited there by two unidentifi ed Iranians
and the next morning he was found dead, apparently from a heart
attack. 76 The news reached Qom quickly, and memorial gatherings took
place there (organized by Morteza Motahhari and others), in Tehran,
and also in Yazd, Shiraz and Tabriz. At fi rst Khomeini himself responded
to the news calmly and non- committally, but at the memorial events
there were calls for Khomeini to return to Iran, anti- Shah slogans, and
accusations that SAVAK had murdered Mostafa. Over the next few
weeks, word spread in Qom that there would be further substantial
demonstrations at the beginning of December, on the traditional fortieth
day ( arba‘in , or in more common usage chelom ) after Mostafa’s
death. The forty- day period of mourning was to take on greater signifi –
cance the following year. Khomeini’s supporters used the network of
contacts and the hierarchy of relationships among the clergy and
religious students to organize speeches and demonstrations on the day.
In Qom large numbers attended the speeches, which had been coordinated
and made relatively moderate demands: for Khomeini’s return,
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Revolutionary Iran
the release of prisoners like Ayatollahs Taleqani and Montazeri (Khomeini’s
close ally), freedom of speech, and the restoration of the Islamic
calendar. But the mood was turning more radical. After the speeches
religious students went on to the streets, chanting ‘Marg bar Shah’
(‘Death to the Shah’) outside the Faiziyeh seminary, which had been
closed down by the authorities after disturbances in 1975 . Police broke
up the demonstrations, beat people up, and arrested some. There were
further disturbances in the bazaar district of Tehran around Ashura on
21 December, including marches with banners, and there were more
arrests. Mostafa’s death had brought Khomeini’s name back on to people’s
lips. SAVAK bosses noted the upsurge in religious dissent. 77
The Shah himself was in Washington in November, where he had talks
with President Carter at the White House on 15 and 16 November. 78 Much
of the visit was taken up with discussions on the supply of military equipment
and the regional politics of the Middle East. Some at least of Carter’s
offi cials found the Shah an impressive interlocutor – Hamilton Jordan, who
was Carter’s chief of staff, commented later rather fulsomely that the Shah
had been one of the most astute international statesmen that Carter met
around that time. But the Shah’s response to Carter’s tentative probing on
the human rights situation was defensive in a way that was becoming characteristic
– according to him the critics of his rule were all communists, and
his response was dictated by the law, leaving him little room for manoeuvre.
For his part, privately, he judged that Carter was naive about the communist
threat. The Shah continued to misunderstand the domestic opposition
and perversely to pretend that his regime’s response was out of his hands.
While in Washington, the Shah was given an offi cial welcome by the
president in front of the White House. But there were demonstrations
against the Shah by a large mixed group of Iranian and American
protestors, who appeared mainly to be young students. The US ambassador
to Iran, William Sullivan, who was in Washington to accompany
the Shah, noted with surprise that some of them carried placards with
Khomeini’s face on them. Queen Farah was surprised too – she could
not understand why students with a progressive political agenda would
take as their hero someone she regarded as a reactionary traditionalist.
79 At one point the police, in danger of losing control, used tear gas
on the demonstrators. Unfortunately the wind was in the wrong direction,
and the gas drifted toward the VIP group. The Shah had to bring
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out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes, in full view of the TV cameras. The
Shah’s loss of face made an impression in Iran, where some (unable to accept
that it was an accident) assumed the US government had deliberately humiliated
him to show that their support for him was waning.
Another incident on this trip showed the Shah’s shyness, and lack
of a common touch. Knowing the Shah’s liking for jazz, Carter had
arranged a private performance by Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan.
Another even more legendary fi gure, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, was present in
the audience as a guest, and at the end Carter persuaded him to join
Gillespie for a fi nal impromptu session together. ‘As the applause was
swelling,’ Carter went on stage with the First Lady to congratulate
and thank the performers. Empress Farah tried to nudge the Shah to do
the same, but he sat stiffl y in his place until she was forced virtually
to shove him up on to the stage, where he shook hands ‘in evident
discomfort’. 80
Whatever the rumours and suspicions in Iran, Carter was keen to display
his backing for the Shah’s regime. He accepted an invitation for a
quick return visit only a few weeks later. He was in Tehran on New Year’s
Eve and made a speech that became notorious, declaring the Shah’s Iran
to be an ‘island of stability’ in the region, saying that ‘There is no other
head of state with whom I feel on friendlier terms and to whom I feel
more gratitude.’ 81 In his fi rst year, and having had a more domestic perspective
previously than some presidents, Carter was still fi nding his feet
in international politics. He had a clear sense of Iran’s importance to US
policy. But his praise was already more perhaps a sign of unease than an
indicator of his true feelings, and the enthusiasm of his speech was
At around the same time the British ambassador, Anthony Parsons,
sent his usual annual review despatch back to London. He used it to draw
attention to the awakening of political dissent and the economic diffi culties
of the regime, though he assessed ‘no threat to basic stability’. The
response of his colleagues in London was mixed. The formal reply to his
despatch airily asked whether the character of Iranians had really changed
from their stereotype (‘the epitome of idleness, deceitfulness, corruption,
charm and conceit’), and suggested that other regional leaders (Sadat in
Egypt for example) ‘would be glad to exchange their problems for the
Shah’s’. 82
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Four Times Forty Days
On 7 January 1978 , presumably in response to the earlier protests over
the death of Mostafa Khomeini, a politically motivated article attacking
the clergy and Khomeini appeared in the paper Ettela‘at . The article had
been written by someone trusted by the regime (under the pseudonym
Ahmad Rashidi Motlaq) and according to one account had been passed
to the editor of Ettela‘at via the court minister, Hoveida, and the information
minister, Dariush Homayun. Alarmed by its content, the editor
queried the instruction to publish, but was given to understand that the
Shah himself had given his approval. 83 Published under the title ‘Black
and Red Imperialism’, the article alleged that Khomeini was plotting with
communists and British interests against the Shah’s government, and that
other senior clerics did not support his opposition to the monarchy. It
also said that he was a foreigner (from his grandfather’s birth in India)
and a poet (the last was true, and was intended to detract from his clerical
seriousness: most ulema , with some backing from the Koran, disapproved
of poetry), and even suggested that he was a homosexual.
Many of the religious class were outraged. Within a few hours of its
arrival in Qom, religious students were going from house to house en
masse, pressing religious leaders to sanction protests against the article,
which they regarded as a deliberate insult. In the streets they clashed
with the police, abused the ‘Yazid government’ and demanded an apology,
a constitution, and the return of Khomeini. But on the fi rst day
( 8 January) there were no serious casualties. The senior clerics recognized
the indignation of the students, but were worried that the authorities
would use demonstrations as an excuse to take further action against
religious institutions. Some prevaricated (Haeri, Shariatmadari); others
cautiously supported peaceful protest (Golpaygani). There was a student
strike on 8 and 9 January, and the bazaar closed in support. On
9 January the leaders of the demonstrations called for calm and silence
rather than the chanting of the previous day, but there were further
confrontations with the police, stone- throwing and broken windows.
The crowds were now thousands strong. The police fi red in the air
initially and the demonstrators scattered, but when they regrouped
some police fi red directly at them. Several were killed – early reports
suggested twenty or thirty, but the real number was perhaps as low as
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fi ve. 84 When news of the deaths spread, there were protest demonstrations
in cities across the country. The next day Khomeini praised the
courage of the students and called for more demonstrations. Shariatmadari
and others in Qom condemned the shootings (several at least of
those killed had been religious students from Iranian Azerbaijan; Shariatmadari’s
followers), supported the call for a return to constitutional
government, and urged people to observe the traditional commemoration
( chelom ) after forty days.
In the intervening period many of the clergy spoke out to urge restraint,
and the demonstrations in twelve cities on 18 February, after the forty
days, were mainly peaceful. Bazaars and universities closed. But in Tabriz
(where the demonstrations were large, refl ecting the origin of the victims
shot in Qom) the police locked the main mosque of the city, next to the
bazaar and attempted to bar entry. The demonstrators overwhelmed
them and turned to attacking and occupying buildings that were symbols
for disapproval – police stations, Rastakhiz Party buildings, banks, cinemas
and shops that sold alcohol. Again the police fi red on the crowd,
causing more deaths, and within a few hours army units, including
armoured vehicles, were brought in to restore state control. Again the
number of deaths was exaggerated in reports – research after the revolution
has suggested the real number killed was thirteen, 85 but there would
have been a larger number of wounded. The forty- day rhythm continued,
breathing in indignation, breathing out more demonstrations and intensifi
ed radicalism like a great revolutionary lung. With each cycle moderate
clerics like Ayatollahs Shariatmadari and Marashi- Najafi in Qom,
Khademi in Isfahan and Abdollah Shirazi in Mashhad came under greater
pressure from radicals and supporters of Khomeini, who exhorted them
to condemn the regime as well as the killings, and in some cases camped
in the clerics’ houses. As in previous crises in Iran, the informal network
of contacts and associations between mosques, seminaries, bazaar guilds,
marjas , mullahs and their followers came into play to organize and coordinate
the protests. The moderates began to take a harder line, and
support among religious students shifted to favour more radical clerics. 86
The demonstrations grew larger and more vocal.
On 29 March there were large commemorations for the dead of
Tabriz in fi fty- fi ve cities and towns, most of which were peaceful, but
violence broke out in several places, including Tehran, Isfahan and
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Yazd. The rioters targeted similar buildings to those that had been
assaulted in Tabriz, but some statues of the Shah and his father were also
attacked, as in 1953 . This time the violence was worst in Yazd, where
Ayatollah Mohammad Saduqi, a follower of Khomeini, became the centre
of protest. As protestors came out of his mosque, heading for the main
police station, they were fi red on, and many were killed – the offi cial fi gure
given was twenty- seven, but the opposition claimed more than 100 . 87
On 10 May, after another forty days, there were large demonstrations
again across the country, and the Shah cancelled an overseas trip to stay
close to developments in Tehran, where the bazaar district was sealed off
with troops and the authorities used tear gas to disrupt a gathering outside
the Friday Mosque (in fact the protests ran from 6 to 11 May). In
Qom the city was rocked by demonstrations and riots for ten hours, more
died in shootings, and at one point agents of the regime pursued activists
into Shariatmadari’s house and shot two dead. 88
But although mourning was called for again on 17 June, the cycle of
demonstrations was broken at this point, and there was a pause. One reason
for this was that Shariatmadari, supported by Golpaygani and
Marashi- Najafi in Qom, urged that mourners should stay at home on the
day in order to avoid further deaths. There was a perception that the
regime’s stance was hardening and that the response on 17 June might be
particularly harsh. But Khomeini called for the street demonstrations to
continue. Why did Khomeini’s followers, notably Beheshti and the others
coordinating the radical effort in Tehran, acquiesce to Shariatmadari’s policy
of restraint? They might have felt that they had temporarily reached the
limit of the support they could mobilize by this tactic, and that to continue
with it would only make themselves more vulnerable. Initially the forty- day
rhythm had worked in favour of the protests, by providing dates for demonstrators
to rally to. But now, with the cycle established, the dates might
begin to work for the regime, by en abling them to prepare for repression
(this was perhaps the lesson of what happened in Tehran on 10 May); and
the protestors might begin to lose out if their numbers, intimidated by the
violence of the authorities, started to fall off. Perhaps they just felt the need
for a breathing- space or wanted to avoid a division between the followers
of Khomeini and the more moderate clergy. 89 Perhaps it was a combination
of these factors. Whether the pause was tactical or not, approved by the
radicals or not, there was no particular sign of a disagreement among the
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clergy over the issue, and 17 June passed off peacefully. But feeling was still
running high.
Over the previous months the Shah’s government had followed a tough
policy of arresting and intimidating leading opposition fi gures. By midsummer
about seventy of Khomeini’s clerical supporters had been arrested,
including important members of the Combatant Clergy Association like Ali
Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. 90 SAVAK also targeted members
of the secular opposition – the Writers’ Association, the Freedom Movement
and the National Front. Human rights activists and others received
threatening letters, some were beaten up and the offi ces of Karim Sanjabi,
Mehdi Bazargan and Dariush Foruhar among others were bombed. Meetings
were attacked by thugs in the pay of the regime and were broken up. 91
At the same time as it attacked opposition groups, over the summer the
government tried to placate popular feeling by making concessions. The
regime promised truly free elections for the following year (the Shah
made a speech to this effect on 5 August), 92 and to reopen the Faiziyeh
seminary in Qom – it ended the harassing measures against small bazaari
traders, apologized to Shariatmadari for the attack on his home and
replaced the chief of SAVAK , General Nasiri. The Shah also tried to
address accusations of corruption against his own court by directing that
members of his family should end their business activities. 93 Some secular
liberals were encouraged by the concessions, but Khomeini and his followers
were implacable.
The Shah was reluctant to permit all- out violent suppression of the
demonstrations, but despite his extensive security apparatus, he was
largely baffl ed by the protests against his rule. Members of that apparatus
seemed scarcely better aware. Part of the problem was that what
was happening did not fi t with their expectations of the threat – primarily,
as they had thought, from Marxism – or their rhetoric against it.
Others in the regime fell back on the suspicion that foreign powers were
involved – usually code for the British or the US . Prime Minister Amuzegar
seems to have genuinely believed, such was the level of malicious
backbiting at court, that the protests were engineered by Hoveida and
others to get rid of him personally. 94 Amuzegar was wrong – but right
too in a sense; on 27 August the Shah removed him and appointed
Jafar Sharif- Emami, who came from a clerical family and had connections
with the ulema . There was a further tentative relaxation of some
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Revolutionary Iran
regime controls: some press restrictions were lifted, the Shah’s Imperial
calendar was abolished and the old calendar was restored. In addition,
in another attempt to appease religious opinion, the government banned
Mashhad, Ramadan, Isfahan, Abadan
Despite 17 June passing off quietly, other incidents in June and July
showed that tension was still high and opposition to the government still
strong. On 15 July some protestors were shot in Rafsanjan, but more serious
demonstrations in several cities followed the death in a car crash of
Sheikh Ahmad Kafi , a popular preacher, on 20 July. In Mashhad several
mourners were shot and killed. Ramadan began on 6 August. The month
of daytime fasting was always an unusual time, sometimes tense, of
heightened religious feeling. It was normal for there to be daily gatherings
at mosques at dusk, and in August 1978 these became regular occasions
for political debate and the intensifi cation of feeling against the government.
There were renewed demonstrations in several cities, more or less
spontaneous, but in Isfahan feeling was stronger because of the recent
arrest of Seyyed Jalaloddin Taheri, one of the most prominent and popular
clerics in the city. There were nightly demonstrations until 10 August,
when the authorities lashed back with force, and a number of participants
were killed. They then imposed martial law and a curfew, with
troops and tanks on the streets. There were demonstrations and killings
on 10 August in Shiraz also, and protest demonstrations against the killings
followed in other cities in subsequent days.
On 19 August a terrible incident raised indignation against the government
to a new pitch. A fi re broke out in the Rex Cinema in Abadan
and killed about 370 people – emergency doors were locked from the
outside. Government and opposition both accused each other, but
events, trials and investigations in later years indicate that a radical
Islamic group with connections to ulema fi gures was responsible. 95
Despite the fact that clerical disapproval of cinemas was well known,
and that cinemas had been attacked by demonstrators earlier in the year,
the mood was such that most believed SAVAK had started the fi re in
order to blame religious radicals. The fi re was important in turning
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many ordinary Iranians defi nitively against the Shah’s rule. Many had
reached that point at which they not only did not believe what their
government told them – such was their distrust that they assumed that
the opposite of what they were being told must be true. There were new
demonstrations in cities across the country, and many jumped in size
from around 10 , 000 to double that number or more. By the end of the
month ten more cities were under martial law. 96
Eid- e Fetr is the holiday at the end of Ramadan that ends the month of
fasting. In 1977 prayers had been held in the open air at Qeytarieh in
north Tehran on the day, and in 1978 the authorities gave permission for
the event to be repeated, on the understanding that it would be peaceful
and limited to the designated site (this may have been one aspect of the
gentler line taken by the new prime minister, Sharif- Emami). The prime
organizers were two bazaaris with National Front connections, but the
cleric chosen to lead the prayers was Ayatollah Mohammad Mofatteh,
who was aligned with Khomeini. There is some uncertainty about just
what was intended by whom, but some of those present had brought banners
and placards with pictures of Khomeini, and as the planned event
came to an end, large additional numbers appeared. Mofatteh announced
that the programme was over and (perhaps disingenuously) asked the
crowd to follow marshals to the exits, but instead an impromptu march
began, heading off almost the length of the city, downhill towards the
bazaar district. As it went the demonstration grew in size; later estimates
ranged between 200 , 000 and 500 , 000 . The hum of the crowd and their
chanting could be heard far over the city, even in normally quiet, affl uent
parts of north Tehran like Shemiran and the Elahieh ridge, where butterfl
ies fl oated among the tall trees and swimming pools. Participants,
impressed by the size of the demonstration, felt as though the whole
country was marching. Troops encountered along the route stood aside
and asked the marchers to avoid violence, because they did not want to
shoot. Members of the crowd threw fl owers at them and chanted ‘Soldier,
Brother, why do you kill your brothers?’ It was much the biggest demonstration
up to that time and marked a shift up to a genuinely popular
movement; no longer just one or two radicalized sections of society. And
it was peaceful. 97
The Shah had fl own over the demonstrations in a helicopter, and afterwards
listened to recordings of some of the chanting. He was shocked by
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Revolutionary Iran
what he heard – it seems it was in these days that the seriousness of what
was happening in the country fi nally broke through. But he still could not
grasp the nature of the force that was growing against him. Perhaps it
was not the communists who were behind it, but the US and the British?
A revolution was growing on the streets, but in the Shah’s thinking no
revolution dawned. 98 In his book Shah of Shahs Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Shah was reproached for being irresolute. Politicians, they say, ought
to be resolute. But resolute about what? The Shah was resolute about retaining
his throne, and to this end he explored every possibility. He tried shooting
and he tried democratizing, he locked people up and he released them, he
fi red some and promoted others, he threatened and then he commended. All
in vain. 99
The Shah’s Illness
Some have suggested that a major reason for the Shah’s inability to deal
with the protests, and therefore a major reason for his eventual fall, was that
he was ill. 100 He had been diagnosed with a form of leukaemia in May 1974 ,
having himself noticed a swelling in his abdomen the previous autumn,
which turned out to be an enlarged spleen. There followed one of those odd
chains of events that sometimes take place in royal courts, which demonstrate
that, bizarrely, even an autocratic court circle may work against the
personal interests of the monarch it is supposed to serve. When the Shah was
diagnosed, the French doctors who made the diagnosis gave it not to him,
but to the Shah’s doctor, General Ayadi, who passed on the news to the Shah
himself, to Professor Safavian (chancellor of Tehran University and a trained
physician – he had ar ranged the contact with the French doctors) and to
Asadollah Alam, but to no one else beyond that restricted group. But even
to them, Ayadi seems not to have passed on the full seriousness of the diagnosis
– he did not want to upset the Shah. Concern that the news should not
get out was paramount; at several points the need for secrecy interfered with
and prevented treatment. Queen Farah was not told at all (she only found
out in the spring of 1977 ). There was no further investigation or treatment
for four months, until September 1974 , when the French doctors were
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asked to return (to their surprise – they had expected that American doctors
would be called in). As time went on, it became clear that the Shah’s condition
was worsening, but the same casual attitude to treatment continued.
The Shah was not told the disease was cancer, but was given vague terms
like ‘lymphoma’ (he probably worked it out for himself, nevertheless). Only
when Queen Farah was told did the treatment become more intensive, and
by then it was probably too late. It may be that from the beginning nothing
could have been done anyway, but the situation within the Shah’s court
certainly did not help. 101
The main effect the illness had on the Shah’s thinking seems to have
been to add a sense of urgency that the country should be brought on in
its development, and that things should be ready for a transition of power
so that, when he died, his son Reza could take power smoothly. The disease
may have affected the Shah’s judgement in the crucial months in the
middle of 1978 , but it is far from clear that it was a decisive factor. The
French doctors noted that the Shah was tense and tired during the visits
they made in 1978 , but they seem to have attributed this to the increasing
strain of political matters, rather than the effect of the illness. One would
have to ask, how might the Shah have behaved differently, in such a way
as to shape events differently, if he had not been ill? If he had been fully
fi t, is it more likely that he would have ordered a brutal crackdown at a
point when it might have worked – perhaps in the spring of 1978 ? There
seems no good reason to think so – his illness did not affect the reasons
that held him back. If he had not been ill, might he have been better able
to identify the real nature of the movement against him, and the way it
was developing, such that he would have been better able to act against
it? Perhaps that is more plausible, but again, we have seen there were
major obstacles to the Shah perceiving those realities, which were in any
case diffi cult for anyone to perceive (virtually no one else did). The operation
of the court and the intelligence services seems to have worked
against the Shah getting the analysis he would have needed; his erroneous
assumptions and prejudices about the nature of the opposition were
deep- seated and tenaciously held.
His illness was a factor in the Shah’s behaviour, undoubtedly. It
is possible, perhaps even likely, that it made a difference to the way
events fell out in some chance way. But it is far from obvious that it
acted in such a way that we can say that his illness was a signifi cant
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determining factor in bringing about his fall, or in making the Islamic
revolution successful.
Black Friday
Clerics participating in the march on 4 September told the crowd that
there would be another on 7 September, starting from the same place.
There was some unease among the organizers in the intervening hours,
because there were rumours of a military crackdown. On the day, the 7 September
march was even bigger, and violence was limited to vain attempts
early on by the security forces to disperse the demonstrators with tear
gas. But the mood was more subdued and militant, ending in the square
around the Shahyad monument with the chanting of a new slogan – calling
for an Islamic republic. 102
That evening, the Shah appointed General Gholam- Ali Oveissi as military
governor of Tehran. Oveissi had a reputation for ruthlessness from
his involvement in the suppression of demonstrations in 1963 . Early the
following morning (Friday 8 September), the government declared martial
law in Tehran and eleven other cities. The announcement may have
come too late for some of those who had planned to take part in further
demonstrations that day, but perhaps they would have demonstrated anyway.
By 8 a.m. a crowd thousands strong had formed in Jaleh Square,
where they were confronted by troops. Tear gas forced the demonstrators
to pull away, but they came back. The second time, the troops fi red in the
air as well as using the tear gas. Again the crowd retreated, then re-formed,
following the example of three who walked back to stand just a few
metres away from the soldiers. Then the soldiers fi red straight into the
crowd with their automatic weapons. Hundreds fell, some taking cover
behind the bodies of the dead, dying and wounded. The rest fl ed. There
were further clashes across the rest of the city over the rest of the day.
In the following days estimates of the dead ranged from hundreds to
thousands (in fact, the number that died was probably around eighty,
with a larger number wounded). Rumours spread that crowds had been
machine- gunned from helicopters, and that the regime had used Israeli
troops against the demonstrators. No one credited reports playing
down the numbers killed; everyone believed a wholesale massacre had
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occurred. In the space of four days Tehran had gone from peace and love
to blood and fury. The mood shifted again, from shock to anger and general
rejection of the Shah. 103 From this point onwards street confrontations
in Tehran became more bitter and violent. The events of the beginning of
September were a turning point. After 3 and 4 September (and even more
so by the end of October) participation in the opposition and in demonstrations
became normal; more the thing to do than to stay at home or
avoid trouble. People participating in acts against the government had the
feeling from this point on of safety in numbers. 104 In addition, after 8 September,
notwithstanding the fact that he had been pressing upon his security
chiefs the need for restraint, the Shah lost the remainder of what in medieval
Iran had been called farr – the aura of rightful kingship, associated
with just rule and military success. People rejected him. They did not want
to hear new suggestions or ideas from him, they just wanted him to go.
There is evidence that the shooting at Jaleh Square was a shock to the
Shah also. When he spoke to President Carter on the telephone on
10 September he sounded ‘stunned and spoke almost by rote, as if going
through the motions’. 105 It seems that this was the week in which the Shah
realized, too late, the full gravity of the opposition to him, and his
As summer turned to autumn, profi ting from Sharif- Emami’s liberalization
to combine and organize again, the number of workers going on
strike grew. Some accepted settlements that improved pay and working
conditions, but others increased the scope of their demands. Khomeini
called for a general strike, but a more powerful inducement was the defl ationary
policy of the regime, which had brought wages down, slashed
government spending and government- funded projects, and boosted unemployment.
At the same time, rents and food prices in particular were still
high after the preceding period of infl ation. The discontent over living
conditions, pay cuts and the threat of unemployment fused with the general
disillusionment and anger with the regime – after all, the Shah’s
government had laid great emphasis on, and made great claims for, their
economic planning and economic management. It seemed legitimate to
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Revolutionary Iran
blame him rather than industry managers or business owners. And when
the workers were on strike, it was natural enough that they would take
part in the demonstrations. Through the fi ve years before 1978 , one
authority recorded an average of around twenty- three strikes per year, but
in October 1978 alone there were thirty- six. By the beginning of November
most of the country was on strike, including railways, airports, banks,
some newspapers, and most crucially, the oil workers, some of whom
went on strike within days of the Jaleh Square massacre. The oil workers’
demands were both industrial and political, including an end to martial
law, the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of SAVAK . It has
been estimated that by the end of October oil production had fallen to
just 28 per cent of normal. The economy began to grind to a halt. 106
The strikes were important in bringing down the regime. The Shah
could conceivably have continued to face down the demonstrations, if the
rest of the structure of his regime had remained solid. The strikes undermined
that solidity, and the instruments of repression (army and police)
could not, ultimately, break mass strikes if they persisted. But one should
be wary of assuming that from the summer of 1978 onwards a growing
fl ood of industrial workers and other poor Iranians joined the movement
against the Shah and made his overthrow inevitable. The majority of
Iran’s population still lived in the countryside in 1978 , and there was little
sign of the rural poor taking more than a minor part in demonstrations
even by December. The revolution was predominantly urban. Even among
the poor of south Tehran, there is evidence that many were more preoccupied
with the day- to- day business of survival, and had little interest in
the demonstrations. 107 Iranians from humbler backgrounds were involved
in the protests, and more of them joined in from the summer of
1978 onwards, but the social home of the revolution lay with the bazaaris ,
the religious students, lower- middle- class clerical, business and publicsector
workers who found their aspirations frustrated by corruption,
cronyism and rising living costs, and the secular intellectuals and their
followers among the educated middle class. 108
For a period after Black Friday, concerned to avoid more massacres,
Khomeini and his followers encouraged strikes as a weapon against the
regime rather than calling for more demonstrations. Nonetheless, demonstrations
continued in regional towns like Qazvin, Amol and Sanandaj.
Some of these were in response to the activities of groups of thugs hired
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by SAVAK and local police chiefs. On 16 October, one such regimealigned
mob attacked a mosque in Kerman and then moved on to make
mayhem in the bazaar district, while police and the city authorities did
nothing. Similar actions were reported around the country. Pro- regime
mobs attacked students, teachers, bazaar shops and mosques in places
like Khoy, Kermanshah and Hamadan. 109 The intention of these actions
was presumably to intimidate regime opponents into silence. The result
was rather to discredit the regime still further, and to emphasize the lawlessness
in the country and the Shah’s loss of control. Rather than
intimidating the opposition, in many cases it stimulated communal selfprotection
(notably in Amol, where on 31 October the opposition took
matters into their own hands, arresting SAVAK agents and organizing
patrols on the streets to identify troublemakers) and a new wave
of anti- regime violence. In the latter part of October, after an abortive
and seemingly half- hearted attempt by the government to negotiate with
representatives of the bazaaris , SAVAK paid hoodlums to attack, loot and
burn shops in the bazaars of some towns. As a result, many merchants
cleared their shops of goods, making a strike or shut- down of the bazaar
superfl uous. In the last week of October, in Hamadan, police offi cers were
accused of raping three girls, one of whom, Mahin Ardekani, later committed
suicide. Within a few days the city descended into chaos, with
protests on the streets, fi res lit and barricades erected. Eventually troops
moved in and many were killed. 110
On 4 November, demonstrations resumed in Tehran, especially in the
central area around the university, where students were shot at. The next
day, they pulled down a statue of the Shah. Crowds sacked a number of
buildings in the same area, and broke into the British embassy compound.
111 Merope Coulson had recently married another member of
embassy staff; she was working on the fi rst fl oor:
The atmosphere throughout the day was very tense. Fires were raging across
the city and I could see spirals of smoke from my offi ce window. By midafternoon
I could hear shouting and chanting ‘death to the Shah’ in the
distance, getting louder and louder. From my window I could see a huge
demonstration marching up Ferdowsi [Avenue], armed with bricks and
stones. I watched as the demonstrators pulled the grille off the bank on the
opposite side of the street, smashing the windows and setting it on fi re.
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Revolutionary Iran
Turning their attention to the British embassy, the mob started hurling great
bricks over the wall, smashing all our windows in a mad frenzy. They then
broke down the iron gate to the compound and surrounded the building. I
can hear the shouting and the smashing of glass to this day. A young embassy
Third Secretary took charge and urged all embassy staff to go up to the third
fl oor of the building, to the ‘safe’ area, where a grille came down. Together in
the central corridor of the building, away from the windows, we thought we
would be protected from the mob by the iron grille. By this time the mob had
broken into the foyer of the building, setting it on fi re. They had also thrown
a fi rebomb from the street into my offi ce which I had only recently vacated.
Rubber tyres had been set alight in the emergency exit. With this area and the
main entrance hall on fi re we had no means of escape. I thought ‘this is a good
start to married life’. And where was my new husband? I couldn’t see him.
My colleagues and I, fi lled with fear, huddled together in the corridor,
listening to the angry mob shouting as they advanced up the wooden staircase.
By some miracle, the Third Secretary who had taken charge and spoke
fl uent Farsi, learned that the crowd did not in fact realize we were all working
in the building at the time of the attack, that they didn’t want to hurt
us. He negotiated with them to let us out of the burning building. By this
time the fi re had spread across the entire fi rst fl oor.
The staircase to the foyer was smouldering and some of the steps were
now missing, but the young revolutionaries held out their hands to help us
climb down. It took tremendous faith and courage to take their hands,
enemies one minute, saviours the next. There was glass everywhere, shouting
in my ears and the constant smell of burning. The Iranians were trying to
communicate with us amidst the confusion and the chaos but I couldn’t
understand what they were saying. Eventually we escaped and ran towards
the rear of the compound, where we congregated in a colleague’s house. And
then I saw my husband: he had been outside the building all along and now
he was busy fi ghting the fi re with other embassy members. Eventually the
army moved in and the crowd dispersed. 112
Many other buildings in Tehran burned on 5 November, including
banks, expensive hotels and airline offi ces. It was the worst damage to
property that the capital had yet seen, and of course it attracted more
attention in the international media than regional demonstrations had. It
seemed that this time the security forces had lost control. The Shah
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responded the next day by removing Sharif- Emami and appointing a military
government, with General Gholam-Reza Azhari as the new prime
minister. Six other generals became ministers; one of them, Oveissi,
became minister of labour and immediately imposed martial law in Khuzestan
in order to suppress the strikes in the oilfi elds.
The Shah Speaks
On the same day, the Shah made a broadcast on TV and radio. He
addressed the broadcast to the ‘Dear Iranian Nation’, approved what he
called their revolution, and the way that they had stood up to oppression
and corruption, but said that some had taken advantage of the situation to
engage in ‘riots, anarchy and revolts’. He said he was aware of the risk that
in preventing these, mistakes like the ‘mistakes of the past’ might be made.
But he promised that these mistakes would not be repeated, and that after
order had been restored a national government would establish basic
freedoms and free elections, and the Constitution of 1906 . He repeated
that he had heard ‘the message of your revolution, nation of Iran’. 113
Perhaps he had. Others at the time had been impressed by the determination,
the discipline and the restraint of the crowds. But for the Shah it
was too late now. The bizarre speech gave an impression of weakness;
that he was following, not leading. How could the Shah praise the people
for standing up to the oppression of his own government? Why should
they trust him to enforce now the constitution whose principles he had
fl outed and ignored for thirty years? For many Iranians, ironically, his
mention of ‘their revolution’ crystallized for the fi rst time the idea that
this was, or could be, a revolution. But the crucial change that the revolution
sought, that Khomeini had demanded with brutal clarity all along,
inexorably gathering support, was the removal of the Shah.
Was the Shah vacillating? 114 He did not really hesitate as such – he was
reacting quickly to events. He just did not know what to do – partly
because he did not understand what was happening, and many of his
assumptions about what lay behind what was happening were incorrect.
He continued to try a combination of harshness against demonstrators
and activists and conciliatory measures toward ordinary Iranians
(a policy which, if it had been more successful, might later have been
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Revolutionary Iran
praised as wise, fi rm statesmanship). He did not want to use full brutal
force, despite the urgings of some of his generals. 115 His father would
have, at an early stage. It was not the illness – the Shah was just not his
father. It was partly that he did not want to lose the backing of the Carter
administration; it was also his own personality and inclinations. But the
son’s methods did not work. By this point, people no longer wanted to
give him another chance.
In foreign capitals, too, there was uncertainty. Having regarded the
Shah’s regime as more or less stable until the summer, the Carter administration
were suddenly pitchforked into a predicament in which they had to
consider the possibility, becoming a probability as autumn moved into winter,
that the Shah would fall. If they continued to support him now, might
that prejudice their relationship with whatever regime might replace him?
Or was it time to encourage the Shah to repress the opposition with an allout
military crackdown? In Washington, Carter’s national security adviser,
Zbigniew Brzezinski, was arguing for the military option, while Cyrus
Vance in the State Department, backed by Ambassador Sullivan in Tehran,
was arguing against. 116 In a move that did little more than lose time, Carter
appointed George Ball as an outside adviser; he presented a report to
Carter in mid- December, but the report did not resolve the argument. 117
In London the prime minister and the foreign secretary both agreed
that events should take their course in Tehran without any overt British
interference. On one aspect they disagreed – David Owen was reluctant
to cancel the Queen’s visit to Iran – planned as part of a regional tour of
the Middle East for February 1979 – preferring to give the Shah more
time to suggest himself that it be postponed (in the end the Iran leg of the
trip was of course dropped, and David Owen recognized the new government
in Iran while accompanying the Queen on the tour; he did so on the
advice of the embassy in Tehran before the Foreign Offi ce in London,
because of the time difference, had woken up). 118
Ambassador Parsons in Tehran was more cautious, and more prepared
to keep giving the Shah a chance than some of his Foreign Offi ce colleagues,
but he had acquired a sincere respect for the revolutionary
movement. In fact, the situation in Iran by this stage was moving beyond
the ability of outside powers to infl uence events signifi cantly, no matter
how agonized their deliberations. Gary Sick, who was then on the NSC
staff in Washington, told a British diplomat on 26 December 1978 that
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‘the situation in Iran was beyond the US ’s ability to understand, still less
to control or infl uence’. 119
As the revolutionary wave swelled, the attitude of Westerners and Western
governments to Khomeini himself moved from baffl ement to incredulity.
How could this man, a cleric whose experience of life revolved around
theological colleges, who plainly had no idea how to run a modern country,
offer Islamic government as an alternative to the government of the Shah?
Roger Cooper (who was later imprisoned under the Islamic Republic as a
spy) interviewed Khomeini in Paris for the BBC and The Financial Times in
January 1979 , but also reported his fi ndings to an offi cial at the Foreign and
Commonwealth Offi ce. Frustrated by requirements to submit questions in
writing in advance, Cooper managed nonetheless to ask a few supplementary
questions in person. He asked Khomeini how it would be possible to
reconcile the Islamic prohibition on usury with the banking system in Iran.
‘Khomeini replied that it would be necessary to invent a different system.
Other answers showed a similar naivety and lack of realism’ . 120
Of course, as events were to prove, it was Cooper’s vision and the
vision of others like him that was limited – they were still unable to grasp
the full magnitude and the real shape of what was happening; nor the
charisma of Khomeini’s utter self- confi dence. But Khomeini saw the
essentials. Power was the essential thing – the rest was trivial and would
follow; banking system, whatever; willy- nilly.
Descent into Collapse
For a short time Oveissi’s hard line in Khuzestan had some success, and
the authorities were able to achieve a greater level of oil production
again. At different points this was achieved by forcing the strikers back
to work, or, less effi ciently, by bringing in personnel (including troops)
from outside. But in December the oil workers walked out again, and
many of them resigned. 121 The opposition agreed to allow some oil production
for domestic purposes, but supplies ran out in many places, and
many Iranians had a cold winter for want of heating oil. There was a
similar pattern in other industries and sectors, though few were regarded
as so vital or came under such direct and heavy regime pressure as the
oil industry. Workers struck for a few days or weeks, returned to work
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Revolutionary Iran
and then went on strike again. Often, even when they were at work, little
productive activity could go on because of the general dislocation and
the knock- on effect of strikes elsewhere.
Another development at the beginning of November was that Sanjabi
and Bazargan, representing the National Front and the Freedom movement
respectively, both met Khomeini in Paris. If they had given serious
consideration to the Shah’s reform proposals over the summer, Black Friday
and the events that followed had turned them, like most of their
supporters, defi nitively against the regime. After meeting Khomeini, both
made statements showing that they aligned themselves and their followers
unequivocally with Khomeini and against the Shah. Bazargan’s
statement said that the demonstrations had shown the support of the
people for Khomeini and that they wanted an Islamic government to
replace the monarchy. 122 When Sanjabi returned to Tehran he was
arrested – in protest the bazaar closed and there were renewed strikes.
Across the country there were sporadic protests through the rest of
November and December, and where these were met with armed force
from the authorities the protestors now on occasion responded with violence
themselves. After the imposition of military rule in Ahwaz, a
six- year- old girl was shot and killed by police at a demonstration. Two of
the police who had opened fi re were killed in response. Similarly, two
police were killed in Nishapur on 19 November, after two demonstrators
were killed. There were assassinations and bomb attacks on police,
SAVAK and army personnel over the same period, carried out by the
Fedayan, the Mojahedin- e Khalq and other militant groups. When crowds
were able to identify SAVAK agents, their response was often harsh. On
21 December, demonstrators in Tehran spotted one such on top of a
building – some of them swarmed in and up the stairs and threw the
SAVAK man down to his death. 123
The mourning month of Moharram began that year on 2 December,
and there were renewed protests on the streets of Tehran as young men
went on to the streets at night, defying the curfew and in some cases
wearing white shrouds to advertise their indifference to danger. Many
were killed. Others showed their support by going onto rooftops and
shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is Great’). The opposition organized
huge demonstrations for Tasu‘a and Ashura, the commemoration of the
death of Emam Hosein, on 10 and 11 December. In an attempt to limit
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the violence, to reassure the people and draw larger crowds, the organizers
successfully negotiated permission for the demonstrations with the
military government by stipulating prearranged routes, peaceful, orderly
behaviour, no arson or other violence, and no chanting of ‘Death to the
Shah’. They also arranged for marshals to supervise the marchers along
the route. Similar arrangements were made in other cities. Karim Sanjabi
and Ayatollah Taleqani led the marches in Tehran, 124 symbolizing the
opposition’s alliance of secular and religious intellectuals, and perhaps
the heritage of the similar alliance that had led the Constitutional Revolution
in 1906 .
The result was demonstrations of unprecedented size. Estimates for the
size of these demonstrations in Tehran have ranged between 500 , 000 and
4 million, but it is diffi cult to know what the true fi gures were. Somewhere
between 500 , 000 and 1 million for 10 December and upward of
1 million for 11 December seems moderate (the fact that the marches on
10 December passed off peacefully seems to have encouraged even larger
numbers to participate on the 11 th). Huge marches, in proportion, took
place in most of the other major cities and towns of Iran on the same
days, such that it has been estimated that altogether between 6 and 9 million
Iranians took part. 125
On both days, the marches were almost wholly peaceful, although on
11 December the marshals failed to prevent anti- Shah slogans and the
waving of banners and placards that broke the agreed rules (Fedayan and
MKO followers were particularly keen to push beyond the limits). With
or without the slogans and banners, the message of the marches was clear
enough, transcending the religious signifi cance of Ashura. The people
wanted the Shah to go. Notwithstanding the greater level of violence on
both sides in December, the peaceful, dignifi ed conduct of the marches on
10 and 11 December (like those of 4 and 7 September at an earlier stage)
impressed many observers at the time. 126 Former diplomat Desmond Harney,
now in Tehran as a representative for Morgan Grenfell, recorded in
his diary for 10 December:
The day seems to have been a triumph of trust and discipline. As Goudarzi
[Harney’s gardener] said with shining eyes, ‘I told you so. If they do not
provoke us and shoot us, we are not men of killing and burning. Let us
express ourselves as we want, and there cannot be any trouble. 127
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Revolutionary Iran
As the regime lost control and lost credibility, the opposition gained
moral authority and self- confi dence.
In general, over the autumn and into December, the revolutionary
crowd had shown restraint, despite the shouting and slogans. When
violent, most of the violence of the crowds was directed at property, not
at people. There were individual acts of killing – usually provoked – but
no massacres. This was another refl ection of the fact that the people saw
themselves as united against the Shah and his government, not against a
class or any other group – except perhaps SAVAK .
At the end point of the march on 11 December, in the huge square
around the Shahyad monument, a manifesto was read out on behalf of all
the opposition parties and acclaimed by the crowd. It declared that Khomeini
was their leader and must be obeyed; that the monarchy must be
removed, an Islamic government established; that exiles must return; that
the army must combine with the people; that minorities must be protected,
agriculture revived and the poor given social justice. 128
The exceptions to the peaceful conduct of the demonstrations on 10 and
11 December were in Isfahan and Shiraz, where there were outbreaks of
violence. In Isfahan leftists attacked the offi ces of SAVAK , the crowd were
shot at from the building, and ten people were killed. The protestors then
turned to arson, burning cinemas, shops and banks until troops moved in. 129
Nonetheless, there were some dissenting voices among ordinary
on the day of Ashura, there was a march from Emam Hosein Square to
Azadi Square, led by Grand Ayatollah Taleqani. A lot of people participated
in this gathering. Although there was a probability of violence against this
crowd, people unwaveringly prepared to sacrifi ce themselves regardless,
even if some would lose their lives. Nobody was able to stop this crowd.
On our return, in Kush Street an old lady stood and told the demonstrators –
who were mainly young people, ‘Why did you make this demonstration?’
Many youngsters stood there, and the old lady encouraged them not to
participate and to stop being anti- monarchist, and these youngsters stated
their point of view. The old lady said, ‘Up to now, the Shah and his family
have taken enough wealth and they are full up and now they give the
money to the people, but these mullahs, their pockets are too big and deep:
by the time they were full up, nothing would be left for us, and we would
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be miserable.’ Why didn’t we listen to what the older generation, like this
old lady, was saying? 130
At the time of the demonstrations I had a neighbour who was absolutely
unreligious. The husband was a known drunkard, and none of his daughters
conformed to Islamic attire. One of the girls was in the navy and another was
in the army – at that time it was unusual to see a female in the forces, and such
women had a bad reputation. But these girls broke all of these cultural customs.
One day, after I had been at the demonstrations, I came towards my house and
in the alleyway, as usual, I saw the women – opposite these girls’ house, standing
and chatting with each other. At that time, during the evening, women came
out and sat somewhere to chat together. I approached these ladies – my mother
was among them – and they noticed that I had just come back from the demonstrations.
My neighbour’s mother asked me, ‘Do you know what this
revolution is all about?’ and I said Islam and God, and she responded, ‘No, it
means in the winter you have to use a Korsi [an old- fashioned foot warmer
run on charcoal] and all of you will have to use it since you won’t have a heater.
Under the Korsi your feet will heat each other!’ What she meant was, this revolution
is a step back. But these sorts of comments did not change our minds.
We thought we would go to the demonstrations and would eventually go to
heaven and these people would go to hell, and at the time I felt sorry for them. 131
After Tasu‘a and Ashura, the Shah cast around for a way to stabilize
the situation and keep himself in power. It seems that he tried to negotiate
with Sanjabi, to get him to head up a government of national
reconciliation that would enable the Shah to stay as head of state. But
Sanjabi refused, allegedly because the Shah would not give up his position
as commander- in- chief of the armed forces, or because such a plan
was impossible without Khomeini’s acquiescence, which Khomeini
would not give unless the Shah abdicated. Discussions with another politician
who had been a minister under Mossadeq, Dr Gholam- Hosein
Sadighi, also broke down eventually. 132 The strikes continued and intensifi
ed; there were more demonstrations and protests across the country,
under the black fl ags that had led the revolt of Abu Muslim over 1 , 200
years before. People began to speculate about the loyalty of the
army. Khomeini’s portrait was everywhere on the streets; many had
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Revolutionary Iran
already taken down their pictures of the Shah. US citizens and other foreigners
were leaving the country – numbers dropped from 58 , 000
Americans in the country to 12 , 000 by early January. The movement was
accelerated by attacks against foreigners, notably the assassination of an
American oil executive in Ahwaz on 23 December. Some wealthy Iranians
were leaving too. Others took advantage of the early snow in the
mountains to try to forget their troubles by going skiing – Desmond
Harney recorded in his diary that thousands were skiing at the most
popular resort, Dizin, on 23 December. 133
Finally, on 31 December, it was announced that Shapur Bakhtiar would
form a government. At the same time it was given out that the Shah would
leave the country for rest and medical attention, but there were confl icting
rumours about this over the days that followed. On 6 January Bakhtiar
announced his cabinet, and the Shah made a statement saying he needed a
rest and that this might take place outside Iran. Bakhtiar made a fl urry of
liberalizing announcements as he took offi ce, promising free elections, to
close down SAVAK and to lift martial law, and setting up a Regency Council
to carry out the Shah’s constitutional functions while he was out of the
country. He also declared that Khomeini was free to return. 134 Khomeini
responded by announcing the establishment of the Council of the Islamic
Revolution ( CIR – the body, whose membership was initially kept secret,
had in fact been set up the previous November to coordinate strikes and
other actions against the Shah’s government). The CIR caused unhappiness
among the politicians of the Freedom Movement and the National Front,
whose representatives in it felt outnumbered and marginalized by the clergy.
On 4 January General Robert E. Huyser arrived in Tehran, sent by
President Carter to bolster as far as possible the support of the Iranian
military for the Bakhtiar government and, as a secondary purpose, to
keep open the possibility of a military coup if it proved necessary.
Huyser was a natural choice because he had been in Iran in the spring
and summer of 1978 , drawing up a command and control system for
the Iranian armed forces, liaising with the highest levels of the military
and with the Shah personally. But on his arrival he was given a message
from Washington by Ambassador Sullivan to the effect that his instructions
were suspended. He soon realized that Sullivan regarded Bakhtiar
as a dead duck, and the military as powerless to change the situation.
Sullivan believed the only realistic option was to begin working with the
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opposition straight away. On 6 January Huyser was told to proceed
with his contacts with the military as originally instructed, but the incident
had given him a jolt. He convinced himself at the time that the
Iranian military had the will and the cohesion to act decisively, and later,
in retrospect, that, if they had, the military could have saved the Bakhtiar
government. Given the fi ghting that took place later, before the fi nal collapse
of the Bakhtiar government on 11 February, the former conviction
is at least tenable. But it seems implausible that military action could
have saved Bakhtiar’s government. By the end of January Huyser’s presence
had become generally known, and his name was appearing on
placards at demonstrations. He left Iran on 3 February. 135
By the beginning of January law and order had broken down over much
of the country, and the authorities had wholly abandoned some towns, like
Mashhad. People set up arrangements for their own localities, independent
of government (in some areas with a separate or separatist tradition, notably
Kurdestan and Khuzestan, these local arrangements took on the
character of movements for autonomy). SAVAK offi ces were a special target
for attacks. 136 Even in Tehran, the police were absent from the streets
for the most part. Students were directing traffi c, and food was being distributed
from the mosques. There were occasional random clashes with the
police and army:
One of our neighbourhood boys, who lived on the other side of our road,
always bothered my sister. He had light- brown hair and was a known troublemaker
who was always bothering and teasing the girls. One day I was at
home, and there was a lot of noise coming from our local petrol station,
where a crowd of people were in a queue to fi ll up with fuel. At the same
time two military vehicles were passing down the same street. This boy went
on to the main road and blocked the two vehicles and started swearing at
the military personnel. The soldiers in the vehicle shot him, in front of everyone,
and continued down the street. But suddenly, there was a lot of noise
and screaming from the crowd. I always remembered this boy – he was very
brave and curious. Before the revolution this curiosity and bravery took the
form of pestering and fl irting with the women. But during the revolution he
was one of the strongest supporters and was in favour of demonstrations
for ‘female protection’. He was martyred after his doings – God bless his
soul, we saw a lot of such valiant people in the time of the revolution. 137
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Revolutionary Iran
Finally, the Shah ended the prevarication and took the decision to
leave, delaying further only (as he thought) to see Bakhtiar established in
offi ce. But when Parsons made a fi nal call on him on 8 January, the Shah
was still bewildered by what had happened:
Why, the Shah asked, had the people turned against him after all that he had
done for them? I said . . . the same forces which had humbled Nasruddin
Shah in 1892 . . . and had prevailed over Muzafferiddin Shah in 1906 over
the constitution, had combined to bring down Mohammad Reza Shah – the
mullahs, the bazaar and the intelligentsia. I had never admired the Iranian
people as much as I had done in the past few months. Their courage, discipline
and devotion to the cause of overthrowing the monarchy had been amazing
. . . The Shah agreed about the performance of his people but rejected
my analogies with his Qajar predecessors. ‘I have done more for Iran than
any Shah for 2,000 years; you cannot compare me with those people.’ 138
Most of the Shah’s household were still loyal, but from time to time
messages, from whom no one seemed to know, had been appearing on his
dining- table at lunchtime, bearing anti- Shah slogans. On 16 January he
was fl own from Niavaran palace to Mehrabad airport by helicopter. After
a short delay while waiting for Bakhtiar to appear (he came straight from
the ceremony in which the Majles confi rmed him in offi ce), he boarded an
airliner with Queen Farah and a group of attendants. As the aircraft left
Iranian airspace an hour or so later, heading for Egypt, the Shah asked for
lunch. But there was none – catering staff at the airport had prevented the
loading of any food, or crockery, cutlery or glassware. So the Shah and his
wife ate some of the food his guards had brought for themselves – a pot
of rice and beans – baqali polo – from paper plates, using some paper
napkins and their fi ngers. 139
Back in Tehran, as soon as the Shah’s departure became known, there
was a surge of rejoicing:
We live in the south of Tehran which is the poor part of the city, but my
family is not too poor. My father owns a grocer’s shop. I will never forget
the day the Shah left. It was January and everyone was out in the streets
shouting ‘Shah raft’ (the Shah has gone), and my father took me out to
march. He is not a religious man but he hated the Shah and was pleased
that the ‘Emam’ (Khomeini) was coming home to become our president
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[ sic ]. Almost every day we were in the street. Nobody worked or went to
school. Guns fi red in the air and it was like a holiday. Everyone was happy,
strangers kissed and held hands, shouting ‘Shah raft, Shah raft’. 140
Ambassador Parsons reported by fl ash telegram the jubilation brought
by the news that the Shah had left. (Flash telegrams were the highestpriority
category of communications, before Immediate and Routine. The
following is the full text.)
At 2 p.m. local time the radio announced that the Shah had left the country.
Within seconds there was a great burst of hooting of car horns and shouting
of crowds. Looking from the chancery window, I can see people dancing in
the streets, processions passing carrying Khomeini banners, all cars and buses
with their lights on and horns blaring. The military guard outside our compound
have removed their steel helmets and are waving pictures of Khomeini.
People are rushing up to the soldiers and embracing them. A scene of wild
jubilation which must be being enacted throughout Tehran. 141
Up and down the country people went on to the streets to celebrate,
and in many places they did so by pulling down statues of the Shah (where
this had not been done already). 142 On 15 January, the British embassy
had reported another large demonstration in Tehran, commenting that
the Bakhtiar government was not exercising effective control (they had
already commented on 10 January that prospects for a return to stability
under Bakhtiar were ‘bleak’), and that the army were widely thought to
have passed up the opportunity of intervening. The marchers seemed to
be deliberately wooing the military, ‘putting fl owers on their guns and
vehicles’. 143 Another big march (to mark the forty days since Ashura) followed
on 19 January.
It is not entirely clear why the Shah delayed his departure in the fi rst
half of January. It seems likely that he could not face the reality of it – the
likelihood that, if he left, it would be for good and his reign would be
over. He received contradictory advice. Perhaps he hoped something
would just turn up, to give him another chance. The reason he gave for
the delay was that he wanted to see Bakhtiar fi rmly established (in particular,
confi rmed by the Majles) before he left. 144 But in fact, the delay
achieved exactly the opposite: it fi xed Bakhtiar in the minds of Iranians
as the Shah’s last prime minister and thereby discredited him.
The 1970s and the Slide to Revolution
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3. Tehran
N 0 2 miles
0 3 km
Mehrabad Airport
Laleh Park
Darband Golab
Enqelab Street
J omhuri-ye Eslami
Taleqani Avenue
Ferdowsi Avenue
Shahr-e Rey
to Behesht-e Zahra,
Emam Khomeini Airport
and Kahrizak
Kargar Avenue
Vali Asr
main street
open area
residential area
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Bakhtiar’s liberalizing announcements at the beginning of January
had won over some to his support – notably Ayatollah Shariatmadari.
Political prisoners were released, and the red light district in Tehran was
closed down:
one day I went to Tehran University for a demonstration. It was the day that
Masud Rajavi (head of the MKO ) was freed from prison, and he wanted to
deliver a speech to the people. Many young people, like me, were infl uenced
by the political prisoners and their courage. But we felt very intimidated by
these people because of their knowledge of the Shah’s regime – which was
more than ours – and because of their record of resistance against the Shah.
Mr Rajavi started speaking to the crowd, but his voice sounded like a woman’s.
I had expected a political prisoner would sound very masculine, but in
this case I was surprised.
On the same day a minibus arrived among the crowd of students, and I
asked why this bus arrived here. I was told that a group of prostitutes, who
lived in the houses in the Jamshidiyeh Street, were brought here to repent
against their doings and to show their support and solidarity for the revolution
and the revolutionaries. Apparently many of these women got married
that day and changed their direction in life, but I don’t know what they did
after that. 145
Ignoring as irrelevant Bakhtiar’s efforts to present himself as the
prime minister of a viable, liberalizing government, Khomeini condemned
him from Paris, declaring that any government appointed by the
Shah was illegal. Bakhtiar’s former colleagues Sanjabi and Foruhar
expelled him from the National Front, saying that there could be no settlement
until the Shah abdicated. The demonstration on 19 January was
again huge – over 1 million strong – and again it ended at Shahyad
Square (which many were already calling Azadi Square – Freedom
Square) with a political statement, declaimed again by Taleqani and Sanjabi.
The statement announced that the Shah had been overthrown, that
an Islamic republic must be established, that Khomeini should introduce
an Islamic revolutionary council and a provisional government; and that
Bakhtiar’s government was illegal (because it had been appointed by an
illegal Shah and an illegal Majles). The army should not move against
the revolutionary movement; the strikes and demonstrations had to continue
until the fi nal aims of the revolution had been achieved. 146
The 1970s and the Slide to Revolution
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Revolutionary Iran
And continue they did, making the operation of Bakhtiar’s government
impossible. Some of his ministers and members of the Regency Council
began to abandon him. On 20 January Khomeini announced that he would
return to Iran within the next few days. Despite his earlier statement that
Khomeini was free to return, Bakhtiari closed down Mehrabad airport.
Between 26 and 28 January there were many deaths outside the airport as
demonstrators were gunned down by troops enforcing the closure. 147
These deaths fi nally sealed Bakhtiar’s fate. He appeared like just another of
the Shah’s prime ministers, presiding over the killing of demonstrators. The
movement that backed the demonstrations and strikes, that regarded Khomeini
as their leader, had no time for Bakhtiar. But he still had the support
of the military, as was confi rmed by General Qarabaghi to General Huyser
on 31 January. The airport reopened the same day; Bakhtiar stipulated
only that Khomeini should not be allowed to fl y by Iran Air (the airline
was all but shut down in any case, because of the strikes). 148
When Khomeini fi nally returned on 1 February 1979 (in an Air France
aircraft) he confi rmed Mehdi Bazargan as his prime minister and initiated
a tense period in which there were briefl y two governments in Iran. But
eventually, as described in the prologue, after the armed confrontation
between air force personnel and Imperial Guard troops loyal to the Shah
at Doshan Tappeh on 10 – 12 February, Bakhtiar and the military commanders
saw the impossibility of the situation and gave in, leaving the
fi eld clear for Khomeini and his supporters.
Why Do Revolutions Happen?
It is a commonplace observation that it is the failures of governments
that make revolutions, not the cunning or the commitment of revolutionaries.
149 The Shah’s government failed in a variety of ways – there
was the short- term economic diffi culty but, more importantly, a deepseated
failure to recognize or nurture the political aspirations of the
people. Beyond the failure of the government, a number of unusual
things have to happen in order for a popular revolution like that in Iran
to succeed. People have to see the government as the problem, 150 blame
the government and want to remove it (there are plenty of other things
they might blame for their problems – other individuals, groups or classes;
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The 1970s and the Slide to Revolution
fate or even themselves). The government has to fail to mollify them.
People have to be prepared to defy the government, perhaps to the point
of risking their lives. They have to avoid the divisions within the burgeoning
revolutionary movement widening to split their effort. And this has to
be sustained for long enough for the government to give in, or collapse. It
is quite a tall order. Like a series of mirrors facing each other, the revolution
depended for its success on a series of perceptions of perceptions. It
was necessary, through the confusion of the times, for people to perceive
that others, in suffi cient numbers, had already perceived that resistance to
the regime could succeed and would act upon it, and, in addition, perhaps,
that the morale of the armed forces had been sapped by the
perception that they might lose the confrontation, or by sympathy with
the revolutionaries. Through the summer and autumn, those perceptions
became established – but it could have gone the other way. Several commentators
have emphasized the collective psychology of the revolution,
the absence of any simple, single cause, and the importance of the dynamic
by which the confi dence of the opposition in its own viability grew from
spring to summer to autumn in 1978 , as the confi dence of the Shah and
the regime faded. More even than is the normal case with historical study,
the causes of the revolution are best explained not by heavy theory, but
by placing the course of events in a narrative, within which the responses
of individuals and groups to successive events and crises can be properly
understood. 151 A series of events changed the position that the people
were in, gradually removing deference to the government, increasing
indignation and determination that Shah must go. Paradoxically, the
growth of the revolutionary movement was helped in the early stages by
the regime’s own self- belief; by the government’s complacency. Initially,
revolution was indeed unthinkable. As more groups joined in, their different
grievances and aspirations fl owing into the broad oppositional
stream, the sense of shared participation and commitment increased.
But one should not go from the judgement that there was no single,
simple cause to the revolution, or from the judgement that a growing
sense of collective solidarity was important, to thinking it was all aimless
or contingent – some kind of mass psychosis. 152 Repeatedly, since
the late nineteenth century, when secular government had got into trouble,
ordinary, pious Iranians had turned to the other authoritative
institution in Iranian society for leadership – the Shi‘a clergy. Up to the
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Revolutionary Iran
1960 s and 70 s, the Shi‘a clergy, faced with the challenges of social
change, economic change and Western infl uence, had as a body been
divided and uncertain about how to respond; now siding with liberal
intellectuals, now with the monarchy. But by the 1970 s Khomeini had
learned from previous episodes and could provide new answers and
clear principles for the leadership of the clergy in its own right. 153 Allied
to that was the popular enthusiasm for Islam, in opposition to Westernization
and foreign interference in the country. That was one part of what
happened. The other was, since 1906 , the longstanding demand from a
broad swathe of the Iranian people for a free society and representative
government. The mechanism of the revolution was determined by the
gradual gathering of confi dence and solidarity among the Iranian people
through 1978 , but the form the revolution took was determined by the
leadership of Khomeini and the clergy, and the demand for free institutions.
In January and February 1979 , it seemed possible that the two
could be kept out of confl ict with each other. But within a few months it
became clear that such a confl ict could not be avoided. 154
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Like the Person He Ought to Be:
Islamic Republic, 1979 – 80
One of the scurrilous allegations contained in the Ettela‘at article of January
1978 that led to riots in Qom was that Khomeini was not Iran ian, but
an Indian (this allegation in turn lent force to another in the article, that
Khomeini had been a British agent – an assertion the Shah himself seems to
have believed). 1 The story about Khomeini’s Indian origins derived from the
fact that his grandfather had borne the name Seyyed Ahmad Musavi Hindi,
and had lived in Kintur near Lucknow. 2 Lucknow, under the Shi‘a rulers of
Awadh (themselves a dynasty of Iranian origin), was one of the most Persianized
cities in India and a centre for Iranian immigration, especially in the
eighteenth century, when a series of disasters had prompted many who
could to leave Iran. It seems that one of Khomeini’s ancestors had gone to
Lucknow at this time, or earlier (from Nishapur in Khorasan). But in the
1830 s Ahmad went on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Emam Ali in Najaf in
Ottoman Iraq, where he met another mullah who suggested he should move
to Iran and settle in Khomein (a small town between Isfahan and Tehran).
Khomeini came from a family that descended from the Prophet,
denoted by the title seyyed and the black turban they wore. They traced
their lineage back to Mohammad’s daughter Fatima, through the seventh
Shi‘a Emam, Musa al- Kazim. Heads of Khomeini’s family had
been mullahs for generations. When Khomeini’s grandfather Ahmad
came to Khomein he bought a large house there and was soon established
as an important fi gure among the local Shi‘a clergy. As time went
on he acquired more property in the area. Ahmad’s son Mostafa was
born in 1856 and followed the usual family path into the clergy. He
studied in Isfahan, Najaf and Samarra and married the daughter of
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Revolutionary Iran
another distinguished clerical family. His property, status and learning
placed him in the upper levels of the ulema , well above more junior
mullahs whose families could not afford the long training, who had to
struggle for the patronage of more senior fi gures and make a living from
fees as teachers, legal notaries or preachers. Mostafa’s third son, Ruhollah,
the future leader of the revolution, was born in September 1902 .
Status brought responsibilities, but danger also; Mostafa was murdered
the following year while travelling to get help for the people of Khomein
from the government against some local bandits. 3 In the years that followed,
conditions only got worse. Over the years of chaos following the
Constitutional Revolution and during the First World War the economy
broke down, the country became a playground for the soldiery of foreign
powers, famine and epidemics of disease broke out, and law and order collapsed
in many parts. In Ruhollah’s early years Khomein was raided a
number of times by Lori tribesmen. In 1918 his mother died in a cholera
epidemic just as he was about to go into the seminary nearby in Soltanabad.
His elder brother Pasandideh (later a distinguished cleric in his own
right) became head of the family; it seems likely that being an orphan intensifi
ed Ruhollah’s independence and ambition to succeed. Later he moved to
the famous Faiziyeh madreseh in Qom as a student of Sheikh Abdolkarim
Haeri, an apolitical but practical- minded scholar and marja (who was
responsible for restoring Qom to pre- eminence as the centre for religious
learning in Iran in the 1920 s, drawing back many Iranian students from the
shrine cities of Iraq). 4 In Qom Khomeini received the usual mullah’s training
in logic and religious law, 5 becoming a mojtahed in about 1936 , which
was young by comparison with others and a sign of his promise.
From the time that he became a mojtahed , Khomeini could teach and
write in earnest. Early on he had an interest in poetry and mysticism
( erfan ) that was quite unconventional, these being objects of disdain for
many conservative mullahs. Among other works, he studied Molla
Sadra’s Four Journeys and Davud al- Qeisari’s commentary on the Fusus
al- Hikam of Ibn Arabi (both classic texts for the tradition of mystical
philosophy within Islam); he wrote a commentary on the latter in 1937 . 6
In the 1930 s he studied philosophy and erfan with Mirza Mohammad
Ali Shahabadi, who as well as being an authority on mysticism was
more interested in contemporary politics than many of the ulema ,
believing it was important to explain religious ideas to ordinary people
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
in language they could understand. This combination of mysticism and
political engagement might seem strange from a Western perspective,
but not in the Shi‘a Islamic tradition:
The very heart of erfan is the destruction of the distinction between subject
and object – an experience of the world in which seer and seen are one. And
teachers of erfan seek to impart to their students a sense of the fearlessness
toward everything external, including all the seemingly coercive political
powers of the world, which true masters of erfan should have. 7
Shahabadi opposed the rule of Reza Shah and also infl uenced the development
of Khomeini’s political thinking. 8
Khomeini had a strong sense of his own personal dignity as a mojtahed
, and the dignity of the ulema as a whole. He always dressed neatly
and cleanly – not affecting an indifference to clothes or appearance as
some young mullahs did. He struck many new acquaintances as aloof and
reserved, and some as arrogant, but his small circle of students and friends
knew him to be generous and lively in private. For his public persona as
a teacher and mullah it was necessary for him to exemplify authority and
quiet dignity. Through the 1940 s and 50 s, continuing to teach in Qom, it
is perhaps correct to think of Khomeini taking a position between the activism
of Ayatollah Kashani on the one hand – active in parliament, anti- colonial
and anti- British – and that of Ayatollah Hosein Borujerdi on the other –
more conservative, more withdrawn, tending to quietism and intervening
only seldom in political matters (in the 1950 s Khomeini was close to
Borujerdi in Qom, did work for him and followed his example by staying
out of politics). 9 But Khomeini’s combination of intellectual strength, curiosity
and unconventionality made him different from either; potentially more
creative and innovative, though for the time being still politically quiescent,
deferring to his superiors in the hierarchy of the ulema in the period of rapprochement
between clergy and monarchy after the fall of Mossadeq.
Khomeini became an ayatollah after the death of Borujerdi in March 1961 ,
by which time he was already attracting large and increasing numbers of
students to his lectures on ethics and was regarded by some as their marja .
The events of 1963 – 4 made Khomeini the leading fi gure opposed to the
Shah, along with Mossadeq, who was still under house arrest and thus
effectively neutralized (Mossadeq died in 1967 ). Khomeini, though he disapproved
of constitutionalism in private, had been careful to speak
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Revolutionary Iran
positively about the constitution in public. 10 His attack on the new law
governing the status of the US military was calculated to win over nationalists,
some of whom might previously have been suspicious of a cleric.
Intellectuals like Al- e Ahmad gave him their enthusiastic support. He was
already applying the political method by which, through addressing popular
grievances and avoiding pronouncements on issues that might divide
his followers, he would later make himself the dominant national leader.
He had learned from the lessons of twentieth- century Iranian history –
from the period of constitutionalism, from the rule of Reza Shah, from the
premiership of Mossadeq and from his own experiences in 1963 – 4 , from
the example of religious leaders like Fazlollah Nuri, Modarres and
Kashani. The clergy might make alliances of convenience with the monarchy
or with secular intellectuals or others, but they could not trust any of
them. For Khomeini, the logic of the clergy’s position and experience
seemed to point just one way – to the rule of the clergy. And the mood of
the times seemed to be shifting their way; young intellectuals like Shariati
were turning away from Western models in favour of what they saw as the
authenticity of Islam and Iranian Shi‘ism.
From 1964 Khomeini was out of Iran, exiled after his involvement in the
demonstrations and disturbances of 1963 – 4 , and to all appearances out of
Iranian politics. In a sense, Iranian politics was itself exiled, taking place
among Iranian students and others living abroad. Khomeini went initially
to Turkey, then to Najaf in Iraq, where he spent most of the next fourteen
years. But although he was out of Iran, he continued to comment on matters
within Iran, and his words were taken into the country by his supporters;
including later on by means of cassette tapes that were copied and proliferated
once they had been smuggled in. He was like an Old Testament prophet
denouncing a sinful world from the wilderness; like John the Baptist
denouncing the corrupt court of Herod from his underground prison.
Khomeini used his period of exile to develop a theory of Islamic rule
that would supply the guiding principle that had been missing in 1906 –
that would enable the ulema to govern in their own right without deferring
to secular politicians. From 1970 he gave a series of lectures in Najaf
about religious law and government, which later became a book
( Hokumat- e Eslami – Islamic Government ) 11 and, in turn, the theoretical
foundation of the Islamic republic after the revolution of 1979 – the principle
of velayat- e faqih .
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
One could see velayat- e faqih as the apotheosis of the deep- seated mistrust
of secular authority that is grounded so deep in Shi‘a Islam, and as
the culmination of the Usuli position as it had evolved, creating its own
hierarchical structure, since the seventeenth century. The term velayat- e
faqih needs explaining. The word vali signifi es a regent or deputy, someone
standing in for the person with real authority. Velayat means guardianship
or deputyship, or rather, by extension, the authority of the guardian,
deputy or regent. The term faqih (plural fuqaha ) signifi es a jurist, an
expert in Islamic law – fi qh (in Iranian Shi‘a terms, a mojtahed ; a member
of the ulema ). The logic of the concept was that the shari‘a, derived from
the word of God and the example of the Prophet and the Emams, was
there to regulate human conduct and was the only legitimate law. In the
early centuries after the death of the Prophet, the Emams had been the
legitimate leaders to interpret and apply the shari‘a. But in the absence of
the Hidden Emam (since AD 874 ), the mojtaheds had, of necessity, taken
over that responsibility (on a provisional basis – hence velayat ). They
were the right people to interpret the shari‘a and to guide its application
in practical everyday matters, high or low. So to whom other than they
could sovereignty and the responsibility of government properly devolve?
The theory of velayat- e faqih meant that the secular authority of other
governments, of whatever form, was illegitimate. In the absence of the
Hidden Emam, the only rightful rulers were those selected by the ulema
(Khomeini’s thinking was not entirely new – the idea that the ulema
should rule had been current, though never dominant, during the reigns
of the last two Safavid Shahs in the period 1666 – 1722 ). 12
The book Hokumat- e Eslami 13 began with an analysis of how Islam
had been eclipsed in the modern world, saying baldly (and without
further explanation) that pressure on Islam had begun with the Jews,
joined later by ‘other groups . . . about three hundred years ago’. These
groups were motivated by materialism and saw Islam and the belief of
the people in Islam as the main obstacle to their ambitions. ‘They therefore
plotted and campaigned against Islam by various means’, using
‘agents’ in educational institutions, in religious institutions, and in government.
‘Orientalists’ in the service of ‘imperialistic states’ were
working at the same time to the same ends. 14 This analysis refl ected the
experience of the ulema in the 1930 s; confronted with the Westernizing
policies of Reza Shah and other contemporary Middle Eastern rulers
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Revolutionary Iran
and politicians in the foreground, and the infl uence of Western powers
in the background.
Khomeini (sounding rather like Shariati) declared: ‘Islam is the religion of
militant individuals who are committed to truth and justice. It is the religion
of those who desire freedom and independence.’ But the Westernizing
forces –‘servants of imperialism’ – created a false view of Islam in men’s
minds, according to which Islam had nothing to say about big questions of
political principle and government, only concerning itself with pettifogging
matters, such as ‘ritual purity after menstruation and parturition’. The educated
classes were particularly affected by these false, Western- inspired ideas.
But it was not just the servants of imperialism that were to blame, because it
was true that some ulema (‘ akhund ’; a pejorative term) had really preoccupied
themselves with these trivial matters, turning aside from the bigger
questions. ‘They too are at fault’ – for the neglect that took over in seminaries
and madresehs , unwittingly contributing to the success of the imperialists.
In a paragraph dealing with the Constitutional Revolution, Khomeini
wrote that, despite some Islamic window- dressing, ‘agents of Britain’ had
taken advantage of the constitutionalist movement to create the constitution
of 1906 – ‘the basis of the laws that were now thrust upon the people
was alien and borrowed’ – going on to say that the constitution was
opposed to Islam, primarily because (adducing various proofs from the
Koran and hadith) Islam was opposed to monarchy and the hereditary
principle. Showing himself to be a spiritual descendant of Fazlollah
Nuri, 15 Khomeini asserted the falsity of the constitution and the idea of
Islam promulgated by the imperialists (but also, departing from Nuri’s
example, monarchy). What was necessary was Islamic government
–‘Know that it is your duty to establish an Islamic government’ – based
on the principles of Islam, and the authority of the Prophet Mohammad,
passed down through the Shi‘a Emams. Khomeini said that this would be
just government, because the people would be governed not by people,
but by law – the law derived from the Koran and the hadith.
But there was a conceptual gap. In the section entitled ‘The Form of
Islamic Government’ 16 Khomeini did not really say what Islamic government
was going to be. He wrote that it would not correspond to any
existing form of government; it would be based on Islamic law: ‘Islamic
government may be defi ned as the rule of divine law over men’. In lieu
of a legislative assembly, a ‘simple planning body’ would draw up
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
programmes for different ministries ‘in the light of the ordinances of
Islam’. This would be facilitated by the fact that Islamic law, based on the
Koran and the hadith, was recognized and accepted by Muslims already.
With the monarchy gone, there would be no huge system of corruption
and embezzlement; nor the ‘superfl uous bureaucracies and the system of
fi le- keeping and paper- shuffl ing that is enforced in them, all of which are
totally alien to Islam’.
But instead of elaborating further, Khomeini restated the reason why
velayat- e faqih was the legitimate form of government. Legitimate government
was the rule of God, as expressed through divine law. In the time
of the Prophet, the Prophet himself governed. After him, the Emams were
the legitimate governors – not for their spiritual qualities, but because
they were pre- eminent in their knowledge of law and justice. What of the
time after the occultation of the twelfth Emam? Should there be anarchy
and chaos because the Emams were no longer active in the world? No –
despite their disappearance, knowledge of law and justice were still
present – in the ulema , the fuqaha , the scholars of fi qh , shari‘a law. The
fact that these men might be defi cient in spirituality by comparison with
the Emams did not matter in this context, because the important thing for
government was not spirituality, but knowledge of law and justice. They
were the ones entitled to govern:
Now that this much has been demonstrated, it is necessary that the fuqaha
proceed, collectively or individually, to establish a government in order to
implement the laws of Islam and protect its territory. If this task falls within
the capabilities of a single person, he has personally incumbent upon him the
duty to fulfi l it; otherwise, it is a duty that devolves upon the fuqaha as a whole.
So, government by the faqih or the fuqaha , a simple planning body,
and ministries. But beyond this thin outline, nothing. Hokumat- e Eslami
gave no constitution, no structure explaining how different elements of
government would relate to each other and no mechanism for representation
of the wishes of the people. Khomeini wrote that the law of Islam
was comprehensive and covered every eventuality – therefore it was
unnecessary to go into further detail. But this conceptual gap left it
unclear what would happen if Khomeini or his followers eventually were
to put their ideas into practice, and left plenty of room for reinterpretation.
Why was there this gap? It may be that Khomeini intended
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Revolutionary Iran
deliberately to leave some fl exibility for interpretation, in case he needed
it later. But ultimately he was a religious thinker, not a constitutional
expert. It seems likely that, like the clerics in 1906 , he simply did not
know (at least not in 1970 ) what form the constitution might or should
Khomeini’s ideas in Hokumat- e Eslami did not gather much support
among the ulema , and before 1978 – 9 were not widely circulated beyond
religious circles. No senior fi gure endorsed them (except Ayatollah Montazeri,
one of Khomeini’s own former students), and the most senior
ayatollah in Najaf at the time, Abol- Qasem Khoei, rejected Khomeini’s
arguments on the basis that he had exaggerated the signifi cance in fi qh of
the concept of velayat , which (according to Khoei) was properly confi ned
to the guardianship of widows and orphans. Khoei and his successors
(notably Ali Hosein Sistani) in Najaf have continued to reject Khomeini’s
principle of velayat- e faqih down to the time of writing.
From the time of the appearance of Hokumat- e Eslami onwards Khomeini
demanded the removal of the Shah and the establishment of Islamic
government: clear and consistent demands that the whole country could
understand (at least, they thought they could – what exactly Islamic government
might mean in practice remained less clear) and which, as
discontent grew through the 1970 s, increasingly made him the focal point
for opposition to the Shah.
In 1978 Khomeini was forced to leave Iraq by Saddam Hussein, following
the rapprochement between Iran and Iraq achieved through the
Algiers Accords. Having been refused entry to Kuwait, Khomeini went to
Paris in October, where he lived in the suburb of Neauphle- le-Château,
attended by his son Ahmad, his son- in- law Eshraqi and members of the
Freedom Movement including Abol Hassan Bani- Sadr, Sadegh Qotbzadeh
and Ebrahim Yazdi. These supporters served as a buffer between him
and the unfamiliar Western world. 17 Hundreds of jour nalists wanted to
speak to him, but the interviews showed a serious mismatch of expectations.
The idea of an interview in which inconsequential, polite chat set
the parties at ease before the serious, sometimes blunt questioning began
was quite alien to Khomeini, who was used to deferential petitions and
respectful requests for advice from students and others in the hushed precincts
of the seminary. He sometimes appeared to fi nd the journalists
irritating. The BBC journalist Stephen Jessell commented:
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
This tremendous presence from some remote century made no effort to
welcome us, or at least me, and hardly gave us a glance. He sat on a pile of
cushions in the corner of a small living room, eyes lowered, and harangued
my colleague’s tape recorder . . . It falls to a journalist, if he or she is lucky,
to see at close quarters some of the people who leave their stamp on history.
Of them all, I have never met anyone who made so great an impression as
this man to whom the nuances and compromises of the twentieth century
were, it seemed, of as little lasting signifi cance as the snow that fell that
winter. 18
This goes some way to explain the notorious incident in the airliner as
Khomeini fl ew back to Tehran, when he was asked by the ABC journalist
Peter Jennings (through an interpreter) what his feelings were on returning
to Iran. Khomeini replied, with a slight, even smug smile as if to dismiss
the question as absurd: ‘Hichi – Hich ehsasi nadaram’ (‘Nothing – I have
no feelings’) . 19 The interpreter preferred to translate this as ‘He doesn’t
make any comment,’ but since that time Khomeini’s opponents have presented
his words as expressing his indifference to Iran and the Iranian
people; or as pointing to his preference for Islam over any form of Iranian
nationalism. It seems more likely that Khomeini regarded the question as
trite and inappropriate – but at a deeper level, that he was beyond feelings
of the kind meant by Jennings. This prompts an enquiry as to what Khomeini’s
attitude to himself and his role really was.
In addition to his public theory of velayat- e faqih , Khomeini also had
a complementary private theory, of principles for the religious life, that
informed his view of his own signifi cance and his role. This drew upon
his studies of mysticism; on his study of Ibn Arabi and Molla Sadra in
particular, but also other authors. It is important to remember that his
interest in mysticism was in itself a major departure from the normal
orthodoxy of the ulema ; for many years Khomeini concealed his philosophical
and mystical inclinations. 20 Khomeini saw prayer as part of a
process of development, of self- improvement, as a kind of ladder toward
God. 21 This drew upon an idea found in the work of many Islamic mystics,
but especially that of Ibn Arabi – the concept of al- insan al- Kamil
– the Perfect Man. Ibn Arabi wrote that human experience was divided
between the macrocosm – the experience of the external world – and the
microcosm, the internal world. These two worlds refl ect each other, albeit
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Revolutionary Iran
imperfectly; but through religious contemplation and self- development,
Man can ‘polish his soul’ until the two worlds are congruent. He can
improve and perfect himself until he takes on the form of the divine –
becoming the Perfect Man. 22 Khomeini wrote as early as 1929 :
The Perfect Man . . . is the holder of the chain of existence, with which the
cycle is completed. It is the beginning and the end, it is the external and the
internal, the totality of the Divine Book. He is God’s great sign, created in
God’s image. Whoever knows the Perfect Man has known God. 23
This was, in effect, the project of Khomeini’s life. The Perfect Man is a
copy of God, achieved by religious discipline, prayer and mystical devotion,
and becomes a conduit for the will of God in the world. In Shi‘a
terms, this is what the Emams had been in their time. According to Khomeini’s
studies of Molla Sadra’s Four Journeys , the fourth and fi nal
journey brings the traveller to the point of velayat (a term Khomeini used
also in this context) or prophethood, at which he can guide the wider
community toward God. 24 Khomeini believed that he refl ected the spiritual
reality of the world and was a vehicle for the mind of God 25 – hence
the absence or irrelevance of personal feelings.
This account of Khomeini’s internal life might seem of marginal relevance
to the political events of 1979 ; but he himself would have seen it as central,
and he would have had a point. After all, on the day of his return to Tehran
from Paris and in the unique atmosphere of the early months of 1979 there
was a congruence between the will of Khomeini and the will of the Iranian
people – ana al- haqq wa al- khalq – ‘I am the truth and the people’. 26 He did
seem to be a conduit for both the mind of God and the will of the people.
Microcosm and macrocosm really did seem, albeit briefl y, to be as one.
Islamic Government – Theory and Practice
Many books, whether because they focus on the Shah or for other reasons,
break off with the events of February 1979 and the success of the
revolutionary movement. But an understanding of the struggle thereafter
over the formation of the institutions that followed the revolution is
at least as complex and problematic, and as intriguing, as what went
before. How would the tension between religious and liberal democratic
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
principles be resolved? What would fi ll the conceptual gap over the form
of government that Khomeini himself had left in his book Hokumat- e
Eslami ? What were Khomeini’s intentions in the fi rst few weeks after his
return to Iran? Did he expect from the beginning to establish a religious
dictatorship with himself at the head of it? There is good reason to think
not, and to believe instead that the eventual form of the Islamic republic
came about as a result of a process of adjustment, action, reaction, struggle
and consolidation over the fi rst year or more after the revolutionary
movement achieved supremacy on 11 February 1979 – and that Khomeini
initially expected a more distant role for himself, relying on secular
politicians that he felt he could trust to carry out the day- to- day business
of government. Khomeini later emphasized the collegiate nature of
decision- making at this stage, between himself and the other members of
his close circle. He, or rather they, managed the early phases of the revolution
with great skill. In the French and Russian revolutions, those who
took power after the initial success of the revolutionary movement were
displaced from power by other revolutionaries within a relatively short
period. But Khomeini, against the expectations of many liberals and leftists
in particular, took power and succeeded in holding it until his death.
Initially, he did so partly by letting others take responsibility for government,
and by allowing them to be displaced.
The theory of velayat- e faqih was, and is, open to different interpretations.
Proponents of reform within the Iranian system have in recent
years argued again for a more restricted role for the vali , which would
mean that he would only intervene when he saw the principles of Islam
threatened, or when he was asked for guidance by the elected representatives
of the people (Morteza Mottahari was arguing for something like
this early in 1979 ). The form that the velayat- e faqih took in practice after
1979 was not a foregone conclusion – a variety of other outcomes were
In a little more than a week after Khomeini’s return Bazargan was
appointed prime minister, and Bakhtiar’s government collapsed. 27 In the
jubilation that followed the Shah’s departure and the success of the revolutionary
movement, there was another outpouring of political and
journalistic activity, as in the period before the Constitutional Revolution,
and again in 1941 – 53 , and again briefl y in 1963 . New newspapers
and political societies appeared. For example, within a few weeks there
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Revolutionary Iran
was a split in the National Front, with a younger- spirited, more leftist
party appearing under Hedayatollah Matin Daftari, calling itself the
National Democratic Front ( NDF ). 28 Another newcomer was the Muslim
People’s Republican Party ( MPRP ), with its strongest support in Iranian
Azerbaijan. This party had a system of values and a social support base
similar to that of the Freedom Movement but took its membership from
(mainly middle- class) Iranians who regarded Aya tollah Shariatmadari as
their marja- e taqlid (the party received his blessing in return). 29 The situation
was fl uid, and within a short time the unity that had held the
different elements of the revolutionary movement together through the
struggle to remove the Shah began to break down.
Despite the popular adulation around him, Khomeini acted with caution
in this early phase. Initially, in keeping with the conservative instincts
of the religious class, he was anxious that radicals on the streets should
disarm and cease rioting and looting. The police, gendarmerie and army
should not be attacked: ‘They have returned to us, and are one [with]
us.’ 30 He did not make an immediate grab for power and full control but
set himself and his followers to the task of consolidation and a more
indirect extension of their power. Before his return, in their meetings in
Paris, he had given liberal nationalists like Sanjabi and Bani- Sadr 31 the
impression that he favoured democratic government with a supervisory
role for the clergy – similar to the constitution of 1906 but with the Shah
removed and the position of the clergy only moderately strengthened.
Bazargan, Qotbzadeh and the other politicians of the Freedom Movement
received the same impression, and thought that after the initial
drama of his return, Khomeini would fade into the background, leaving
politics to the secular politicians. Khomeini allowed them to continue
thinking that way, and the initial form of government he set up, with
Bazargan at the head of it, seemed to confi rm the same thing. The more
radical line he had taken in Hokumat- e Eslami was still not widely
Khomeini could rely on the Council of the Islamic Revolution ( CIR ),
using it as a coordinating body for his most loyal supporters. 32 Through
it, and through personal contacts, he could communicate with the local
revolutionary committees ( komiteh ) and revolutionary courts that had
been set up throughout the country, and with the Friday prayer leaders
in the mosques, over whom he also gained control within a short time.
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
In addition, already in February 1979 he and his followers set up the
Islamic Republican Party ( IRP ) to represent the political interests of his
followers among the ulema . Ayatollah Beheshti was the leading fi gure in
the IRP from the start, along with others who would become central later,
including Hojjatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Javad Bahonar
and Ali Khamenei, and Mir Hosein Musavi (an associate of Beheshti
and one of several non- clerics). The most senior members among the
founders had all, or nearly all, been members of the Jame- ye Ruhaniyat- e
Mobarez (Combatant Clergy Association) in 1977 and 1978 and were
members of the CIR also. Membership of the IRP grew rapidly, and it
brought out a new newspaper, Jomhuri- ye Eslami ( Islamic Republic ). 33
Up and down the country the fi rst months of 1979 were euphoric for
many and exciting for the politically minded, but chaotic and terrifying
for some. Daily necessities like staple foods and kerosene for cooking and
heating were still in short supply because of the strikes that had gone
before. Groups of young men, some of them armed, roamed the streets
looking for SAVAK functionaries or anyone associated with the old
regime. Some targeted foreigners; embassies were threatened, and on
14 February Fedayan radicals attacked and occupied the US embassy.
Ambassador Sullivan and the other diplomats in the building were held
for a while, but were released later after the Provisional Government
intervened. 34 Over the following months the situation settled down
in some ways, but remained disturbingly uncertain. Old patterns of
authority were disrupted, and people did not know where to look for
reassurance and security. When initiatives with public consequences were
undertaken, ordinary people did not necessarily know who was responsible
or why what was done had been done. There were too many
independent or semi- independent poles of authority. This was the fi rst
phase of the Islamic republic, and in some respects it was the defi ning
phase. To a reduced but still signifi cant degree, that uncertainty, the multipolar
political system and also the occasional application of extra- judicial
violence, still persist in Iran today.
Central authority had broken down, and local komiteh had taken
over in many places, like the Soviets in Russia in 1917 – 18 . It was estimated
that there were 1 , 500 komiteh in Tehran alone at this time. 35 For
the most part the komiteh were sympathetic to Khomeini, but it took
some effort for the CIR and IRP to purge them of leftist and liberal
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Revolutionary Iran
elements they found undesirable, and in areas with large ethnic or religious
minorities like Kurdestan and Khuzestan (and the areas in the
north- east where Turkmen tribes lived) the local feeling for autonomy
was strong and resistant to the reimposition of central control (members
of the Fedayan did their best to encourage and radicalize some of these
regional movements). Khomeini was elderly, and came from a conservative
social and intellectual background that distrusted anarchy and social
disorder. He had held back from ordering mass violence against the
Shah’s government at a number of points between November and February,
and even at the climactic moment on 11 – 12 February had sought to
restrain violent elements on the side of the revolutionaries. Among these,
the Fedayan and the MKO had been most signifi cant on that occasion;
they had been gathering strength rapidly from the point of near- extinction
at the hands of SAVAK before 1978 (Tudeh also regained some of its
former strength). Khomeini had spoken out against these violent, leftist
groups even while he was still in Paris. After his return he was acutely
aware that, when it came to armed force, his own supporters were weak;
and aside from the militant leftists, the army, though it had declared
itself neutral and was bruised after the events of January and February,
was also still a potential threat (as would be demonstrated later).
To address this vulnerability, Khomeini and his supporters set out to
strengthen their own faction and to neutralize the threats to it where
they could. Three groups aligned with Khomeini and prepared for violent
action crystallized out of the revolutionary mass of those who had
gathered for demonstrations, and the komiteh. Of these, the Mojahedine
Enqelab- e Eslami (Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution) were set up
on a basis rather like the Fedayan and the MKO . Similarly the Sepah
( Sepah- e Pasdaran- e Enqelab- e Eslami – literally, Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps), 36 though these from the beginning had a more disciplined
character, as a militia intended as an ultra- loyal cadre to defend
against the lingering possibility of a military coup. In the long run,
the Sepah (set up initially by Khomeini’s order on 5 May) became the
most important of these new bodies. By September 1979 they were
around 11 , 000 strong and were under the command of Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Finally, the Hezbollah (Party of God) served as strongmen who
could be sent in with clubs and fi sts to disrupt meetings, beat up opponents
and intimidate any group Khomeini’s people found it necessary to
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
target. 37 All three were recruited largely from the poorest classes, on the
calculation that they would be the most loyal to Khomeini and his
programme and the least likely to be affected by leftist, liberal or Westernizing
infl uences.
In addition, Khomeini’s people sent Namayandeh- ye Emam (Emam’s
representatives) commissar- style into the regular army units to ensure
their loyalty and purge them of royalists and other troublemakers. Similar
agents were sent into most civilian offi ces and branches of government,
with similar purposes.
Broadening out further the sector owing allegiance to Khomeini, his
followers also took over the Pahlavi Foundation, with all its property and
other assets, including factories, farmland and overseas investments;
renaming it the Bonyad- e Mostazafan (Foundation for the Oppressed).
The Bonyad, along with other, similar institutions, was used both to make
payments to those the IRP deemed worthy recipients of charitable support
and as a pool of patronage to give jobs to the right sort of people,
strengthening Khomeini’s cause.
As Khomeini’s followers were boosted by the enthusiasm of young students
and others from poor backgrounds, who were sent into recalcitrant
sectors of the former regime to ensure proper revolutionary and Islamic attitudes
and behaviour, so at the same time the supporters of the parties based
in the middle class, the National Front and the Freedom Party (many of
whom, at work, found themselves intimidated by Khomeini’s earnest young
agents), found their support eroded by emigration as large numbers of middling
and prosperous Iranians left the country. In the heightened political
excitement of the time, this emigration also tended to taint the political activities
of those left behind. As the months passed, Bazargan, his provisional
government and the political parties from which he and they drew support
found themselves demoralized and rendered almost superfl uous by the creation
of new Khomeini- aligned bodies, and by the arrogation to themselves
by Khomeini’s party of control and infl uence in pre- existing institutions.
Middle- class emigration was stimulated and accelerated by the activities
of the revolutionary courts. Headed by judges sympathetic to
Khomeini, and supplied with victims by the komiteh and other groups,
the revolutionary courts replaced previous civil codes with shari‘a law
and operated under a particularly harsh revolutionary version of it,
condemning former functionaries of the Shah’s regime and others like
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Revolutionary Iran
prostitutes and allegedly corrupt businessmen for crimes justifi ed from
shari‘a text like being ‘at war with God’ and ‘spreading corruption on
earth’. Most prominent of the judges was Hojjatoleslam Sadegh Khalkhali,
who gave the impression of enjoying his work. Beginning with the four
executions on the roof of the Refah school on 14 February (Rahimi,
Nasiri and two others), a series of further judicial killings followed, and
continued despite protests from Bazargan and other moderates, and
international indignation. Several leading clerics, including Shariatmadari,
also protested (though the militant leftists of the MKO and Fedayan
urged the courts on to execute even more of the previous regime’s offi ceholders).
The trials were quick and rudimentary, often held in secret, with
little attempt at a defence, nor any detailed examination of evidence. The
accused (most of whom were former members of SAVAK , army offi cers
and police involved in the repression of the previous months) usually had
no defence lawyer. Condemned men were often shot dead shortly after
being sentenced. By 14 March the courts had executed seventy victims.
Following the complaints, Khomeini ordered a halt later in March, but
the trials resumed on 6 April after Ayatollah Montazeri and a committee
drew up guidance for their operation. There are indications that Khomeini
felt obliged to support further executions as retribution for the
deaths of demonstrators the previous year in order to secure his support
among young radicals – and to avoid them joining the growing ranks of
the even more radical Fedayan and MKO . 38 By October several hundred
had been executed. 39 Khalkhali defended the courts and their methods by
saying that they were ‘born out of the anger of the Iranian people’. 40
Former Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveida was executed at Qasr
prison at Khalkhali’s orders on 7 April, despite many efforts both from
outside Iran and from within to intercede on his behalf. Hoveida had
been arrested the previous November, in a vain effort by the Shah to
distance himself from the failures of the past. The arrest prevented Hoveida
from following the Shah out of the country, but after the Shah’s
departure and the collapse of Bakhtiar’s government he did not try to
save himself when his SAVAK guards made themselves scarce. When he
was rearrested by revolutionaries he did not resist. Like a spider with a
specially juicy fl y, Khalkhali took special care over Hoveida and ensured
no last- minute intervention could save him by effectively cutting off the
prison from communications from outside. He noted pruriently that
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
Hoveida slept naked and continued to do so despite the disapproval of
his guards (pious Iranian men would always wear at least shorts and a
T- shirt in bed). 41 When the Shah heard of Hoveida’s fate, in exile, he
showed grief. But he had done little enough to protect Hoveida, and it
was not the only example of his ingratitude to loyal subordinates. 42
Another victim of the new regime was General Hassan Pakravan, who
had been head of SAVAK in the early 1960 s, before Nasiri (he served also
as deputy prime minister and later as ambassador to Pakistan and France).
He had the reputation of having been more humane than Nasiri. When
Khomeini was arrested in 1963 , Pakravan had striven to save his life. He
had eaten regularly with him while he was in prison and was alarmed
when he heard that Khomeini had been condemned to death, believing
that it would cause further serious unrest among ordinary Muslims. But
Pakravan’s previous efforts on Khomeini’s behalf did not help him in
1979 . He was arrested on 16 February:
he took some friends to our house for lunch, and they had a wonderful
time . . . Then at 3 . 30 my husband told them, ‘I want to rest, please . . .’ So
they went.
At fi ve o’clock he got up to go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. There
was lots of noise outside – shouting and all that. He said to our servant,
‘What’s the matter?’ This young man came back pale and said, ‘Timsar,
they’ve come to take you away.’
[The servant told the story later] ‘He never took the trouble to put on shoes,
and walked out with his slippers . . . They were so respectful. They bowed to
him. They opened the door . . . I ran after the car, because it was the end of
winter, very cold, and he had gone without a coat or anything . . . they stopped
the car and took his coat to him. And I was crying.’ 43
His son was told he had not been arrested, but was rather a guest of the
Ayatollah (Khomeini). Pakravan was executed on 11 April. 44
Through the trials and generally, new terms and phrases became
commonplace, and with repetition established themselves as a new jargon
of revolution. Moharaba (‘waging war against God’) and mofsed
fel- arz (‘spreading corruption on earth’) have already been mentioned
as anti- revolutionary crimes. A common term for partisans of the previous
regime and other opponents of the regime was taghuti (literally,
‘ idol- worshippers’). The MKO ( monafeqin – hypocrites) were guilty
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Revolutionary Iran
of elteqat (eclecticism) for their promiscuous combination of Marxist
ideas with Islam. Another potential revolutionary crime was enheraf
(deviation). By contrast, maktabi were politically correct, committed
regime supporters. Imperialism was jahan- khor ( world- devouring) – the
United States was shaytan- e bozorg or estekbar- e jahani (the great Satan,
or world arrogance). Many of these terms, like the duality of mostakber
and mostazafi n (oppressor and oppressed), were coined fi rst by Khomeini
in his speeches. Although he drew upon Koranic usages, Khomeini’s
introduction of this new revolutionary language was one of the ways in
which he demonstrated the innovatory nature of his religious and political
thinking. 45
While Bazargan’s Provisional Government earnestly set about the practical
tasks of getting the country back to work and preparing the way for
a new constitution, the IRP and Khomeini’s followers in other bodies gradually
extended their institutional grip and their political infl uence,
inexorably undercutting Bazargan and his colleagues. In addition to the
running dispute over the activities of the revolutionary courts, there were
many other disagreements; for example over the lower- intensity intimidation,
arrests and confi scation of property carried out by the komiteh. In
each case, whenever Bazargan regarded the matter as serious enough, he
appealed to Khomeini for redress. But such appeals only strengthened
Khomeini and his supporters, even if he initially gave decisions that
appeared to be a compromise. Each appeal reinforced still further Khomeini’s
position as the ultimate arbiter in the state – cementing his personal
power and reconfi rming the classical, traditional position of the ulema as a
class. Indeed, in this respect the decade between Khomeini’s return and his
death in 1989 was really the ultimate apotheosis of the ulema – surpassing
the previous high- water mark of their power and infl uence, in the last years
of the Safavid dynasty, around 1700 . This effect was strengthened by the
fact that Bazargan’s government was also under constant criticism from
the leftist groups, who saw it as insuffi ciently radical, excessively middleclass,
capitalist and bourgeois in its economic policies and dangerously,
suspiciously moderate in its foreign policy (Bazargan and Sanjabi, his foreign
minister, favoured discussion and reconciliation with the West and the
US ). Khomeini appeared to hold a middle position between the different
factions. But Khomeini’s decisions always served the interest of the IRP
and his followers in the end. In each case he was, in effect, both a
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
party to the dispute and the judge of it. Bazargan could not win. Nor could
he make Khomeini commit himself on more practical, technical issues that
would have forced him to take greater responsibility for the day- to- day operation
of government. On such non- essential matters, Khomeini held aloof.
In 1963 – 4 Khomeini had focused criticism on the Shah’s measures to emancipate
women, and particularly to give women the vote – partly to avoid
more politically divisive subjects like land reform. Now the Shah was gone,
the way was clear for restoration of more properly Islamic arrangements.
But the Islamic republic’s handling of these matters has been full of paradox.
The status of women had an emblematic signifi cance within the story
of the revolution as well as a real signifi cance for ordinary women in the
conduct of their lives. The intrusion of revolutionary ideology into the lives
of ordinary women caused much hardship.
Reza Shah’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to ban the veil in the
1930 s, the inclusion of the right of women to vote in the White Revolution
programme of 1963 and the introduction of the Family Protection
Law in 1967 meant that the status of women was a signifi cant part of
the overall Pahlavi programme of development and Westernization. For
the Shahs’ traditional- minded religious opponents and for many of the
clergy, these measures were an insult to the honour of Muslims and were
bound up with other developments for which the government could not
be held directly responsible – like the presence of prostitutes in parts of
Tehran and the screening of mildly racy Western or Western- inspired
fi lms (advertised by racier billboards) in cinemas. Together, they touched
on something deep and visceral about maleness, control and self- respect
in Iranian society that is not easy to convey. Often, in the past, the
honour of women had been confl ated with national honour, such that
whatever detracted from the honour of women was felt to detract from
national self- respect also. 46 In traditional Iranian society, it was important
for the self- respect of an Iranian man that he should be married, and
that his wife should be demonstrably under control – spending most of
her time in the family home, consorting only with close family members,
and veiled and accompanied when out of the house. Any lapse exposed
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Revolutionary Iran
him to ridicule and loss of face. In fact, because it was expensive to
maintain this situation, it is likely that only a small minority of men were
ever able to subject their women to it – indeed part of the point of the
phenomenon was that it was a sign of the social status of some and an
aspiration (often a hopeless aspiration) for many more. That minority
were predominantly (though not exclusively) the urban middle class of
prosperous bazaaris and clerics. Outside the cities and larger villages, the
lives of ordinary peasants and nomads (always the majority of the population)
were very different, and most women had to work in the fi elds,
or at any rate in public, in ways that could never be combined with
seclusion or heavy veiling. 47
This is still the case to some extent, as an internet blogger commented
in March 2004 :
Why is it that women in villages are so much freer in comparison with our
urban women (at least when it comes to choosing what to wear)? It’s incredible
but they are not only freer in how they dress, but also in their activities
and movements. Why is it that they don’t ‘endanger Islam’ by not wearing
headscarves, as they freely mingle, laughing and chatting with the menfolk?
Is it due to their heavy participation in work? Or is it that work will be
stopped without women? God Forbid! 48
So when Khomeini and his supporters reimposed traditional values,
reapplied shari‘a law and annulled the Family Law of 1967 in the early
part of 1979 , the traditions they were reimposing were in fact rather less
traditional than they seemed. It was done, nevertheless. But not without
opposition – in particular, there were a series of large, peaceful demonstrations
by women for several days from 8 March onwards in Tehran to
protest at the reimposition of the veil and the removal of the Family Law.
Khomeini appeared to relent for a time in the face of the protests, but in
the end the changes went ahead, and women had to accept them. Perhaps
the most important change entailed in the removal of the law of 1967 was
that women lost custody rights in the event of divorce. But it also meant
that a woman’s word was worth less than that of a man in all law proceedings,
and renewed emphasis on the man as the head of the household
meant that a woman had to have the permission of husband or father in
order to travel (the cruel humiliation of this is shown poignantly in Jafar
Panahi’s fi lm The Circle ).
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
Perversely, although rights were withdrawn, responsibility was extended.
Because girls were thought to mature earlier than boys, the age of legal
responsibility for girls was reduced to nine years, while for boys it was
fi fteen. As a result girls have been prosecuted for serious crimes, including
murder, at very young ages. In theory polygamy and child marriage again
became possible, but the social stigma against such practices meant that
they rarely happened. Similarly with the reapplication of shari‘a punishments
like stoning and whipping – although they became possible again
and have been used, the general mood of society has been against them,
and many even of the religious leadership have come to regard them as an
embarrassment. Nonetheless, Iran today has the highest rate of executions
of any country except China, and the highest rate of executions for
minors anywhere in the world. 49
But even in this symbolically important area of women’s rights and status,
Khomeini was cautious. He did not repeal the right of women to vote,
as his pronouncements from 1963 might have led some to expect. The
early months of the Islamic republic were a bitter disappointment to many
of the women who had demonstrated for the removal of the Shah in 1978 , 50
but some of the losses were more superfi cial than real, and in the longer
term social changes and changes in education meant that the status of
women in the Islamic republic improved in a variety of important respects. 51
Islamic or Democratic?
At an early stage in the political discussions of the fi rst weeks after
11 February there was a dispute on a subject that Khomeini regarded as an
essential matter of principle – the name by which the new state established
by the revolution should be known. Khomeini insisted that it should be
called the Islamic Republic; notably in a speech he made on his return to
Qom on 1 March (he spent most of the next few months in Qom). The
Freedom Movement and the moderates generally preferred the title Democratic
Islamic Republic, and some leftist groups, including the Fedayan,
wanted People’s Democratic Republic. Khomeini stuck to his preference,
arguing that inclusion of the word Democratic would imply that Islam was
undemocratic, and that it was undignifi ed for the term Islam to be partnered
by any other qualifying word. As usual, he got his way.
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Revolutionary Iran
This debate formed part of the early clashes over the form of the
referendum on the new republic that was held at the end of March. Khomeini
and the Provisional Government formulated the referendum simply
as a ratifi cation of the decision Khomeini believed the people to have
taken in favour of an Islamic republic through their mass demonstrations
the previous December. It would ask people whether they wanted an
Islamic republic or a monarchy. Others disputed this – the NDF , Shariatmadari
and many others said that voters should be given more of a choice
about the nature of the future government. The NDF argued that the
referendum should be held after the new constitution had been drafted,
and the leftist MKO and Fedayan agreed. But the Provisional Government
persevered, and when it came to the vote (held on 30 and 31 March)
only the NDF , the Fedayan and the Kurdish groups boycotted it. Khomeini
urged as many as possible to vote, and after the count the
government announced that, of 15 . 7 million votes, 98 . 2 per cent had
gone in favour of the Islamic republic. There may have been some irregularities
in the referendum, but most balanced observers then and since
have accepted that whatever the conditions, a referendum at that time
with that question would always have given a massive majority for the
same result. 52
Kurds did not just boycott the referendum – by this time they were in
open revolt. The prime political grouping among them was the Kurdish
Democratic Party of Iran ( KDP – I), whose armed wing were known as the
Peshmerga, but a number of other, smaller groups like the Kumeleh were
also involved . Although the Shah had used the Kurds in Iraq against the Iraqi
regime when it suited him in the 1970 s, he also practised discriminatory policies
against the Iranian Kurds, who had made bids for autonomy earlier in
the century, after 1918 and after 1945 . By the time of the revolution there
were around 4 million Kurds in Iran. Most of them lived in the north- west,
but there was also a large group in the north- east, settled around Quchan in
Khorasan. Levels of economic development and literacy were some of the
lowest in the country. The KDP -I and others had been active in the movement
against the Shah in 1978 and were hoping to win at least a measure of
self- rule from the new revolutionary settlement. They called for internal
autonomy for Kurdestan, while remaining under the wing of the Islamic
republic for foreign relations and defence. Cultural, educational and political
matters were to be regulated by a freely elected Kurdish parliament. The
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
central government should allocate funds to help develop the region,
which was backward due largely to the deliberate, repressive policy of the
previous regime; and Kurdish representatives should have a say in the
policy- making of the Iranian state. They also had demands for expansion
of Kurdish territory. The Marxist Fedayan gave the Kurds political and
armed support. Ayatollah Taleqani visited Kurdestan and spoke in favour
of the Kurds’ concerns. But after an initial phase of prevarication and
some suggestions of compromise in negotiations the Provisional Government
responded with force, claiming that other armed secessionists would
be encouraged by any signs of weakness; and banned the KDP -I and
Kumeleh. The armed Kurds had some successes, and the revolt spread to
Sanandaj, Mahabad, Naghadeh and Marivan, but there were many casualties
as the army recovered its cohesion and the Sepah joined in the
fi ghting. In August the town of Paveh was bombed and shelled, with
much loss of life. Villages were destroyed. Both sides took hostages in the
fi ghting. Sadegh Khalkhali went to Kurdestan and executed hundreds of
captured Kurds. Despite growing military pressure from the Islamic
regime, the Kurds fought on for several years, pulling back to remote and
inaccessible valleys when necessary. 53
There were armed revolts also among the Turkmen in the north- east,
who had taken advantage of the Shah’s fall to occupy valuable agricultural
land that had previously belonged to members of the royal family
and the court. Here too the Fedayan supported the insurrection; here too
Taleqani tried to mediate; but as in Kurdestan the talks failed, and the
government applied force. Khalkhali and his executioners turned up and
carried out similar summary executions. There was unrest also among the
Arabs of Khuzestan (in the worst incident, a large number of demonstrators
were shot dead in Khorramshahr at the end of May), and in
Baluchestan. All these revolts and disturbances showed a degree of Iranian
chauvinism among the politicians of the Provisional Government
and the CIR . Their prime concern was to preserve the territorial integrity
of Iran and to concentrate on the political struggle in Tehran. Aside from
a few enlightened individuals, there was little serious interest in the
demands of the minorities. 54
Another unsettling event in the spring was the assassination of
Morteza Motahhari, co- founder of the Hoseiniyeh Ershad and the
Combatant Clergy Association before the revolution, and at the time of
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Revolutionary Iran
his death the chairman of the CIR . He was killed on 1 May by an obscure
Islamic militant group, the Forqan, whom he had offended (along with
the MKO ) by attacking those who, according to him, used Islam as a
screen while pursuing a Western- inspired agenda. Khomeini was deeply
grieved by the loss, personally and emotionally as well as politically.
Motahhari had been one of Khomeini’s students and his fi rmest ally, but
had his own intellectual hinterland as an independent thinker and had
not been a mindless fellow traveller nor a yes- man by any means. Shortly
before he died he wrote (somewhat in contradiction of Khomeini’s
Hokumat- e Eslami ):
Velayat- e faqih does not mean that the faqih himself heads the government.
The faqih ’s role in an Islamic country is one of being an ideologue, not a
ruler. The ideologue’s role is to supervise the implementation of the right
ideology. The people’s perception of the velayat- e faqih . . . was not, and is
not, that the fuqaha should rule and manage the administration of the state. 55
Motahhari’s death was a blow to Khomeini and a shock – demonstrating
the seriousness of the ideological struggle and the dangers of failure,
showing that nothing could be taken for granted and that the supremacy
of the clergy still had to be defended and fought for. It may have sharpened
Khomeini’s response to opposition in the following months. It is
important to remember this. The actions of Khomeini, the IRP and its
supporters, looking at it with comfortable hindsight, were sometimes
extreme and brutal. But at least some of their competitors for power
were prepared to be equally brutal and ruthless – perhaps worse (as
emerged later). The essence of Khomeini’s apparent ruthlessness was his
determination not to lose (as had many of his political- clerical forerunners,
like Nuri and Modarres). It is a perennial dilemma in politics,
especially revolutionary politics 56 – the danger that the methods necessary
to the game may discredit the principles the game was played for,
and that the politician who justifi es means by ends fi nds himself languishing
in a moral limbo. A few months later, at a time when confl ict
between his supporters and the leftists on university campuses was growing,
Khomeini told some of his people a story about the cleric and
politician Hasan Modarres, and how Modarres had instructed Khomeini
with the principle: ‘You hit fi rst and let others complain. Don’t be the
victim and don’t complain.’ 57
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
The murder of Motahhari contributed, along with other deaths and
departures later, to a narrowing of the movement of the revolutionary
clergy and a greater emphasis on the thought and personality of Khomeini
alone. With Taleqani, Motahhari had been the linking personality
to Bazargan, the Freedom Movement and the secular intellectuals. 58 Had
he lived, he might have exerted a moderating infl uence.
The Constitution
The drafting of the constitution had featured in the arguments around the
referendum, and the question of the constitution was central in the political
debates over the rest of the year. Initially, responsibility for drafting
the constitution fell to the Provisional Government, and Bazargan gave
the job to one of his ministers, Yadollah Sahabi (although it seems some
of the early work on a draft had been done by his son Ezzatollah Sahabi
and others while Khomeini was still in Paris). 59 Many of the moderates
were still attached to the old constitution of 1906 , and Sahabi used that
text as one of his models, but the old constitution had been designed
around a constitutional monarchy, and at the very least the new one had
to cater for a new, republican principle. Some elements were taken from
the French constitution – the Gaullist constitution of the Fifth Republic,
in use since 1958 , which meant a strong presidency. A range of politicians
and others were consulted informally over the draft, including Ayatollah
Shariatmadari (a consistent supporter of the constitution of 1906 ), before
it was approved by the Provisional Government and the CIR . The Islamic
element in this fi rst draft was not so marked – there was to be a council
for checking legislation to ensure its compatibility with Islam (the constitution
of 1906 had also included a body of this kind), but its powers were
limited, and the velayat- e faqih was present neither in terms nor in spirit.
Khomeini’s handling of the fi rst draft of the constitution was revealing.
He made two small amendments, both concerning the position of
women – the effect was to prevent women being judges or being
appointed to the presidency. 60 Otherwise, he was content to see the
constitution drafted by Sahabi enter into force with merely another referendum
to approve it (when it was published on 14 June, he declared
the draft ‘correct’). If this had happened, the Islamic republic would have
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Revolutionary Iran
been set up on a moderate, democratic, almost secular footing. Khomeini’s
handling of the matter confi rms his previous caution and suggests at
least that he was prepared to play a long game in order to secure dominance
for his own vision of the Islamic republic; alternatively that he
expected cooperation in government with the liberal moderates to be a
long- term arrangement. But Bazargan and Bani- Sadr objected to the idea
of the constitution entering into effect with such minimal scope for democratic
revision, and like them, a wide swathe of political opinion was
unwilling to see that happen without it being debated and amended by an
elected body – a constituent assembly of some kind. This proved to be a
major mistake by the moderates and leftists. Rafsanjani apparently
warned Bani- Sadr what would happen – that an elected assembly would
be dominated by unmanageable radical clerics. 61 If they had gone for the
original draft without further debate, the moderates would have secured
a constitution much more aligned to their thinking than the eventual one.
They became victims of their own principles.
Parties and journalists fell over themselves to bring forward theoretical
arguments and to propose amendments and wholesale alternative versions.
Some wanted a more Islamic constitution, others a more radically
leftist one. Eventually it was agreed that the constitution would be reviewed
by an Assembly of Experts ( Majles- e Khubregan), composed of seventythree
elected members. The elections were arranged for 3 August, 62 and
the Assembly fi rst convened on 18 August.
In the run- up to the elections there were intensive informal discussions
on the constitution in the media and generally, and a number of
more formal discussions in seminars that were arranged for the purpose.
But there was also a good deal of intimidation by the IRP and its subordinate
organizations, and many groups and parties hostile to them
protested at irregularities in the election. Only roughly half the numbers
that voted in the March referendum (over 20 million) voted in the
August elections for the Assembly of Experts. 63 The result was startling –
fi fty- fi ve of the elected members of the Assembly were clerics ( Bani- Sadr
was one of the minority of secular members). The elected Kurdish
delegate, Abdul Rahman Qasemlu (leader of the KDP -I) was not allowed
to take part. Khomeini announced in an inaugural message (Rafsanjani
read it out to the Assembly) 64 that the new constitution should
be 100 per cent Islamic, and (in accordance with the principles of
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
Hokumat- e Eslami ) that non- clerical delegates, lacking the qualifi cations
to do so, should not meddle in discussions of the Islamic articles of
the text.
Between the elections and the fi rst meeting of the Assembly, the Provisional
Government brought into effect a new press law, the result of
which was to close many newspapers and journals. The newspaper closures
began with ten papers accused of having been connected with the
Shah’s government (including the popular independent paper Ayand egan )
and continued with more than twenty leftist or liberal papers accused of
being un- Islamic or against the revolution. Several parties, including the
NDF and the National Front, boycotted the Assembly of Experts elections
in protest at the new law – the Kurds also boycotted them. The brief
spring of the free press since the fall of the Shah came to an end – or at
least entered a much frostier phase. Hezbollah broke into the offi ces of
Ayandegan and sacked them and also attacked the head offi ces of the
Fedayan, the MKO , Tudeh and the NDF . By the autumn a new, IRP –
aligned paper was operating out of the old offi ces of Ayandegan , and two
other long- established and popular publications, Ettela‘at and Kayhan ,
were taken over by the IRP – controlled Bonyad- e Mosta zafan. 65 These
events brought in a new political atmosphere in Tehran and set the scene
for the redrafting of the constitution. It had almost the character of a
coup. More confi dent now (though feeling the pressure from the leftists
and the Kurdish revolt), Khomeini and his followers were tightening their
Enqelab Street always was the busiest street, and all the political groups
brought their books and pamphlets there to sell to the people and discuss
them. Gradually the Hezbollah formed and they attacked the bookshops.
Those who were Hezbollah were mainly from a poor family background,
and because nobody could say anything against them, they fl ourished and
eventually ruled the revolution, mainly because everyone supported the poor
people. At the beginning of the revolution cleanliness, studying to have a
better life and money and so on, were considered as values, but being poor
was the greatest honour – people thought of them as the owners of the
revolution. 66
As the mood changed, the poet Ahmad Shamlu wrote the poem ‘In this
Dead End’, from which the following is an extract:
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They sniff your mouth
Lest you have said, ‘I love you.’
They sniff your heart.
These are strange times, my beloved . . .
And they whip love
At the roadblock.
We must hide love in the back room.
They keep the fi re burning
In this crooked dead end of the cold
With fuel of songs and poems.
Do not risk a thought.
These are strange times, my beloved . . . 67
Montazeri and Beheshti were elected as chairman and deputy chairman
of the Assembly of Experts respectively, and the Assembly set about
a thoroughgoing revision of the draft constitution. Beheshti ran the
debates and (despite protests) did so as a director of business pursuing a
previously determined plan rather than an impartial chairman facilitating
discussion. There could be no serious opposition. As the deliberations of
the Assembly went on, the concept of velayat- e faqih gained ground.
Beheshti did not force it initially, instead letting it emerge from the body
of the clerics in the Assembly. 68 Although the leftist parties, Shariatmadari
and many moderate and liberal politicians continued to voice their disapproval,
there was little sign of strong popular opposition to the concept
of velayat- e faqih . Given his previous caution, it seems likely that Khomeini
was surprised by the ease with which he was able to achieve his
principal aim. The moderate politicians, the heirs of Mossadeq and the
constitutionalists of 1906 , the people he had been accustomed to regarding
as the main political opponents to himself, his aims and the clerical
class as a whole, were conceding the central powers of the state to him
almost without a fi ght. And this was happening primarily because of the
continuing, enormous popular swell of support for him personally and
for the idea of Islamic government.
Mohammad Beheshti was fi fty- one years old in 1979 . He was born
in Isfahan and had studied at the University of Tehran as well as in
Qom. Like Montazeri and Motahhari, he had been one of Khomeini’s
students in Qom. He learned English, and later taught it; he was a fi rm
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
believer in the expansion of the seminary curriculum to include science
subjects and modern languages. From 1965 to 1970 he was head of the
Islamic Centre in Hamburg in Germany, organized around the Emam
Ali Mosque established there a decade earlier (Mohammad Khatami
followed him there later, in the 1970 s), and learned German too.
Beheshti was widely respected, a confi dent speaker and a practical
organizer. He was a natural as a political mullah – an easy choice as
leader of the IRP and for the most demanding tasks in the formation of
the Islamic republic. Along with Motahhari and Montazeri, he was one
of Khomeini’s principal and most trusted lieutenants in this early phase;
and of all of them he was the most competent in organizational and
practical matters.
The debates in the Assembly addressed some fundamental questions of
political philosophy, including the nature of sovereignty and the separation
of powers. Under Beheshti’s guidance the work proceeded in an orderly
manner, with each article of the constitution discussed and amended in
turn, and with a series of sub- committees discussing the articles separately
in advance of plenary sessions of the whole Assembly. But many sessions
grew heated (Khomeini’s injunction that non- jurists should not speak on
matters bearing upon Islam did not hold), and the debates were discussed
energetically in the broadcast and print media. The proceedings had initially
been planned to last one month, but when that time was up, the
Assembly were only halfway through. So they voted themselves more time.
One should not exaggerate the dominance of Khomeini and the IRP at
this stage. The Provisional Government’s draft was still the basis of the
constitution, and the principle of democratic sovereignty remained, albeit
in uneasy tension with the principle of divine sovereignty, velayat- e faqih .
At various points Khomeini’s supporters asserted strongly that there was
no confl ict between the democratic principle and the religious principle,
because the rule of Islam was itself, if properly applied, fully democratic.
At any rate, the principle of popular elections to the Majles and the presidency
Given the conceptual gap in Khomeini’s thinking identifi ed earlier,
as manifested in Hokumat- e Eslami , it is legitimate to question what
Beheshti and the other architects of the constitution were drawing on in
their discussions in the Assembly of Experts. It appears they may have
been drawing on a work by the Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr
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Revolutionary Iran
al- Sadr, his Preliminary Legal Note on the Project of a Constitution for
the Islamic Republic in Iran . Mohammad Baqr al- Sadr came from a
prominent family of Iraqi clerics and seyyeds (Moqtada al- Sadr, who
came to prominence in Iraq after 2003 , was his son- in- law). Comparison
between Baqr al- Sadr’s Note and the constitution in its fi nal form shows
a number of strong similarities, and, in particular, the role for popular
suffrage is striking. By comparison with Khomeini, Baqr al- Sadr’s thinking
generally showed a greater awareness of Western ideas of political
thought, and a greater attachment to the principle of popular participation
in government. Hokumat- e Eslami contained little or no mention of
popular consultation in government, whereas in Baqr al- Sadr’s Note and
in the eventual constitution it is much more prominent. The articulation
of the role of the leader seems also to owe a lot to the Note . The strong
impression is that those framing the constitution reached for al-Sadr’s
Note to supply an Islamically acceptable remedy for the defi ciencies of
Hokumat- e Eslami . 69
The debates in the Assembly over the velayat- e faqih were the most
heated, and the crucial article declaring the authority of the faqih (article
5 ) was debated and voted on in early September. Only eight members
voted against; four abstained (including Bani- Sadr, who stayed away),
and the remainder voted in favour. The article declared that, in the absence
of the Hidden Emam, the velayat and the leadership of the people devolved
to ‘the just and pious faqih who is acquainted with the circumstances of
his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability
. . .’. 70 In later articles ( 107 onwards, but mainly in article 110 ) he was
given sweeping powers that gave effect to the principle laid down in article
5 . He was to appoint the heads of each of the armed services, and the
joint chief of staff of the armed services, and the head of the Revolutionary
Guards. He had the responsibility for declaring war or peace and
ordering mobilization. He was also to appoint the head of the national
TV and radio organization. Before presidential elections, he had to
approve the candidates before they could run for offi ce and he could dismiss
a president declared incompetent by the Majles or Supreme Court.
As in the fi rst draft a twelve- man Guardian Council was provided for
to approve legislation agreed by the Majles before it could become law
(to ensure it complied with the principles of Islam and the constitution).
The faqih was to appoint six of them directly, and the remaining six
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
were to be selected by the Majles from a list of jurists compiled by the
Supreme Judiciary Council, most of whose members, including the head,
were also appointed by the faqih (the Guardian Council’s notorious
responsibility for vetting candidates before elections was not part of the
original constitution of 1979 , emerging only later). The question of the
succession was addressed in article 107 , which, after confi rming Khomeini
as faqih for life, stated that at his death a new Assembly of Experts
would deliberate whether any of the jurists available was outstanding
enough to be sole faqih . If not, they might select a three- or fi ve- man leadership
council of jurists instead.
Other articles in the constitution declared the primacy of Islam and the
sovereignty of God: article 2 / 1 declared ‘His exclusive sovereignty and the
right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands.’
Freedoms of association and expression were protected (articles 26 and
24 ), but subject to Islam and the interests of the republic.
The constitution had a fairly standard governmental structure, with
executive, legislature and judiciary, and separation of the powers between
them, as clear as Montesquieu himself could have devised it. But above
and beyond this stood the faqih , with the power and the responsibility to
intervene directly in the name of Islam; indeed with powers greater than
those given to most monarchs in constitutional monarchies. Below the
faqih , the presidential and prime ministerial offi ces lingered as vestiges of
the superseded constitution originally drafted by the Provisional Government
(the prime minister was to be appointed by the president and
approved by the Majles).
Other signifi cant provisions included a mention in the preamble to the
constitution to the effect that the Sepah would be responsible inter alia
for ‘fulfi lling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s path; that is, extending
the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world’, and again in
article 10 :
In accordance with the verse: ‘This your nation is a single nation, and I am
your Lord, so worship Me,’ all Muslims form a single nation, and the government
of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of formulating its
general policies with a view to the merging and union of all Muslim peoples,
and it must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic and
cultural unity of the Islamic world.
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This was taken to signify a mission to spread the revolution to other
Islamic countries. 71
In article 1 the constitution declared the importance of the referendum
held at the end of March for establishing the Islamic republic, and article
6 established the principle of government according to public opinion as
expressed through elections for the Majles and the offi ce of president; but
neither of those articles mentioned sovereignty – sovereignty belonged to
God (article 2 / 1 , already quoted), in whose name and in the fulfi lment of
whose law the faqih was to operate. Although the constitution gave primacy
to the sovereignty of God, it effectively froze into itself an unresolved
rivalry between popular sovereignty and the sovereignty of Islam. At the
centre of this tension was the question of submission. Were the people the
masters, or were they subjects? The constitution, through the many elections
it provided for various bodies and offi ces, appeared to embrace a
democratic principle. But it also committed the Iranian people, in the
orthodox manner of the Islamic faith, to submission to Islam 72 and the
will of God; and to the guardianship of the faqih , according to that principle.
Underlying this was a deep- seated attitude among at least some of
the ulema – a traditional, conservative, paternalistic attitude – that the
people were children to be guided and disciplined, that they could not be
trusted with power (an attitude not unlike that of the Shah): ‘Several
members appeared uncertain whether the mass of the people, “illiterate,
poor and envious”, as one delegate put it, would be able to resist the
blandishments of rival religions and ideologies.’ 73
A few dissenting members of the Assembly, including three clerics,
warned of the dangers of giving the faqih such power in the state. Bani-
Sadr spoke up, warning: ‘We are drafting these articles in a manner that,
step by step, we introduce a kind of absolutism in the constitution . . .
Tomorrow, a military man might come and use these articles against
you.’ 74 Some pointed to the contradiction with the principle of popular
sovereignty, arguing that the powers of the faqih were just too broad:
critics would say that the clergy had made a power grab in their own
interest, and eventually the people would set aside these provisions of
the constitution. Others warned that, although the offi ce of the faqih
might function while Khomeini was the incumbent, it was unlikely that
such an exceptional candidate could possibly be found again when
Khomeini died. One member, Ezzatollah Sahabi, made a speech outside
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
the Assembly warning that these powers would bring upon the clergy
the kind of criticism normally levelled at politicians and would bring
about the beginning of the decline of Islam. 75
Years later, he would himself echo just those arguments, but in the
autumn of 1979 Ayatollah Hosein- Ali Montazeri took the other side in
the debate, saying that the government could not be considered Islamic if
the faqih did not have power to confi rm in offi ce and to supervise the
president and the other prime offi ce- holders of the state. Other clerics
could not see any danger from an over- mighty faqih – they believed rather
the contrary, that the offi ce of faqih would protect the country from
encroachment by an over- ambitious president or other politician. Like
the Prophet himself in his time, the faqih would bring mercy, kindness
and justice to the people, not tyranny or absolutism. 76 In a sense, Iran has
remained stuck ever since in the debate between Islam and democracy
that swung back and forth in the Assembly of Experts that autumn.
As the debates of September moved into October and the fi nal form of
the constitution took shape, some concerned politicians tried to act to
head off what was happening. One member of the Assembly, Mohammad-
Javad Hojjati- Kermani (one of the clerics, but a dissenter from the
majority line) suggested that a skeleton version of the constitution,
stripped of the more controversial articles, be passed to Khomeini himself
for revision. Then, with the guidance of expert advisers, Khomeini could
complete it before referring it back to the Assembly for fi nal approval.
But few other members of the Assembly supported his sug gestion, and it
faded. Then in mid- October Bazargan was associated with another
attempt, which seems to have taken the form of a memorandum to Khomeini
from most of the ministers of the Provisional Government, calling
for the Assembly to be dissolved, on the basis that in altering the original
draft constitution so radically it had exceeded both its remit and the time
allocated for its task. The instigator of the memorandum was Abbas
Amir- Entezam, who served as Bazargan’s aide, spokesman and deputy.
Khomeini rejected the initiative in apocalyptic terms, declaring that the
velayat-e faqih would not lead to dictatorship; nor was it the creation of
the Assembly of Experts: it had been ordained by God. Opposition to it
was equivalent to a declaration of war on Islam. 77
But opposition outside the Assembly was growing. Ayatollah Mahmud
Taleqani, who had played such a prominent part in the demonstrations
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Revolutionary Iran
against the Shah the previous year, and who had warned against a return
to despotism earlier in 1979 , expressed unhappiness about the way the
constitution was going before his death on 9 September 1979 , suggesting
that it looked worse than the constitution of 1906 – ‘may God forbid
autocracy under the name of religion’. 78 Some have been suspicious
about the circumstances of his death. His departure was another blow
for the advocates of moderation (to honour his memory the old Takht- e
Jamshid Avenue in Tehran was renamed Taleqani Avenue). But others too
disliked the constitution. The MKO , the Fedayan, the Kurds and other
regional groups were unhappy as the draft neared completion that the
constitution did not address their demands. In October, two years on
from the events that had helped to start up the revolutionary movement,
the Writers’ Association announced a new series of poetry evenings, to be
held from 24 October to 3 November, with the aim of defending free
speech and opposing censorship. But the organizers said it would only go
ahead if the safety of participants could be guaranteed. The poetry evenings
never happened. 79 Most seriously, Ayatollah Shariatmadari, with
his power base in Azerbaijan and the support of the MPRP , continued to
oppose the excesses of the IRP and Khomeini’s followers, and specifi cally
the principle of velayat- e faqih as it appeared in the constitution. In
December he warned: ‘We seem to be moving from one monarchy to
another.’ 80
So as the work of the Assembly neared completion (it brought its
deliberations to a close on 15 November), opposition to the constitution
it had created was building from a number of different angles. But
before that opposition could develop further or unite its strength, a
new crisis erupted, which would change the political scene in Iran permanently
and dramatically. On 1 November, Bazargan met Zbigniew
Brzezinski in Algiers, with Khomeini’s knowledge, in an attempt to
restore something like normal relations between Iran and the US (and
to secure resumption of the supply of military spare parts). He was
accompanied by Ebrahim Yazdi, as foreign minister. Over previous
days Khomeini had been building up anti- American rhetoric after the
Carter government allowed the Shah into the US for medical treatment
on 22 October (since his departure from Iran he had shuffl ed, his
health deteriorating all the time, from Egypt to Morocco, the Bahamas
and Mexico). Although initially the Shah’s arrival in the US won little
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
attention in Iran, Khomeini and his followers used it successfully to
create a furore, linking the news about the Shah with allegations that
friends of the Shah and the US were still active in the government and
among Khomeini’s opponents.
On the streets of Tehran at this time, the situation was chaotic and
uncertain. No one knew what to expect or who was in control. Two
accounts of this time illustrate this, from different perspectives – fi rstly
from Bill Belk in the US embassy:
the government had absolutely no control over what was happening . . .
Armed bands of revolutionary zealots were roaming the streets and taking
the law into their own hands. The police were powerless to stop them,
because the worst thing you could possibly be in Iran was a policeman . . .
Most of the people who had been policemen were in hiding. The streets were
literally turned over to these armed komitehs. Khomeini had appointed a
Provisional Government, but they didn’t have any real authority. The traditional
institutions through which a government administers and functions
were the very same institutions that were being attacked by the revolutionaries
and the vigilante groups . . . So dealing with the Provisional Government
was like trying to deal with a shadow –- you could see it, but talking to it
was pointless. In reality, there was no substance there. 81
Secondly from a student radical, Massoumeh Ebtekar:
We students couldn’t prove it at the time, of course, but we were sure that
foreign elements were actively involved in attempts to weaken and undermine
the young republic. Like weeds, thousands of tiny political groups had sprouted
during less than six months, each one attempting to convince the people to
adopt its views. Every day their newspapers circulated the wildest rumors. It
was as if they were determined to create an atmosphere of endless uncertainty.
Ethnic and tribal uprisings, which they rushed to support, broke out in all
regions of the country. And through it all the Provisional Government dithered
and wavered, with the result that security had almost collapsed. 82
To student radicals, the Shah’s presence in the US looked like part of
a plot. The timing was unfortunate for Bazargan’s mission, to say the
least. Many believed that the US , with the connivance of members of
the Provisional Government, was plotting a coup like that of 1953 , to
crush the revolution. A confederation of students loyal to Khomeini
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Revolutionary Iran
from the university- level institutions in Tehran, calling themselves ‘students
following the line of the Emam’ conferred rapidly, taking care to exclude
MKO activists or others they feared might try to sabotage their intentions. 83
On 4 November they broke into the US embassy, occupying the building
and detaining the diplomatic staff and marines they found there. Several
hundred unarmed students took part in the action. The marines brandished
their weapons, but did not shoot (though some tear gas grenades were let
off in the confrontation). As one of the students brushed past on the stairs,
he whispered to a jittery marine: ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe. We won’t hurt
anyone.’ 84 In fact several of the hostages were beaten and threatened over
the next few hours as the intruders interrogated them, trying to identify the
CIA offi cers among the staff and trying to get them to open safes. Six US
diplomats who were out of the embassy at the time were able to avoid
detention, taking refuge in the Canadian and Swiss embassies.
Bruce Laingen, who in the absence of an ambassador was chargé
d’affaires and head of mission, along with two others, was away on a call
at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the embassy takeover began. He
went back to the Foreign Ministry to protest and demand redress and
ended up being held there instead of at the embassy. Once the students
were in control of the embassy compound, they issued a press communiqué
demanding that the ‘criminal, deposed Shah’ be returned to Iran.
Photos and TV images of the hostages, handcuffed and blindfolded, made
a deep impression in the US and the world generally.
The Hostage Crisis
Although some of the students believed on the day of the takeover that
their spiritual guide, Ayatollah Musavi-Khoeniha (a member of the IRP
central committee, another former student of Khomeini and a friend of
his son Ahmad), was attempting to inform Khomeini of the plan, there is
no direct evidence that Khomeini ordered the action or that any other
group or organization beyond that of the students themselves was
involved in the planning, such as it was. And it seems that the intention
of the students initially was just to stage a temporary protest of a few
hours or days. There are some indications 85 that Khomeini himself (still
in Qom), when fi rst told of the embassy occupation, saw the incident as
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
an unimportant act of unruliness and, as with the incident in February,
was inclined to see the students leave again quickly (this could have happened;
the following day there was a similar intrusion at the British
embassy which ended when Khomeini’s son Ahmad called it off). 86 But
the occupation was very much in line with the trend of Khomeini’s agitation
against the US over the preceding hours and days. Perhaps having
been reassured that the students involved were solidly loyal to him personally,
perhaps only when it became clear that the US and the West
would not threaten military action, 87 he decided that the occupation
should be supported, and should continue, at least in the short term. Early
on 5 November he made a statement saying that there had been plots
organized from the embassy, that it was a lair of espionage (also translated
as ‘den’ or ‘nest’ of spies) and hailing the students’ act as a second
revolution. 88 Later he told the students themselves ‘the Americans can’t do
a damn thing’, leading Iran into a twilight zone of diplomatic breakdown
and international isolation from which the country has never really
Bazargan tried to defend his meeting with Brzezinski and demanded
the immediate release of the US diplomats, condemning the students’
action as an unacceptable violation of international law and the civilized
practices of diplomacy. But the atmosphere was febrile, and his reasonable
words disappeared in a welter of renewed demonstrations and shrill
anti- imperialist rhetoric, not just from the IRP but also from the MKO ,
the Fedayan and the other leftists, who strongly supported the occupation
of the embassy (playing into Khomeini’s hands and destroying any chance
of a united front against the constitution). On 5 November Beheshti,
Montazeri and a selection of other fi gures and bodies aligned with Khomeini
issued statements supporting the students. Outfl anked and fi nally
seeing the impossibility of his moderate position, Bazargan resigned on
6 November. In a speech addressed to visitors from Isfahan University
Khomeini commented: ‘Mr Bazargan is respected by everyone . . . He was
a little tired and preferred to stay on the sidelines for a while.’ 89
Within Iran, the taking of the hostages produced an atmosphere of
radicalism and crisis that renewed the revolutionary fervour of the previous
year. Khomeini succeeded in making his moderate opponents look
like allies of the US , and a threat to the revolution. This was helped
along by the release of documents captured in the US embassy that
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Revolutionary Iran
showed contacts between liberal fi gures and the US government (documents
that might have shown contact with IRP clerics did not surface).
The fi rst victim of the changed mood was Abbas Amir- Entezam, the
originator of the memorandum to Khomeini against the constitution. He
was arrested in mid- December, released, sent to Sweden as ambassador,
recalled and eventually, in 1981 , sentenced to life imprisonment (at the
time of writing he is still in prison, at the age of eighty).
In this atmosphere, the referendum on the constitution that was held
on 2 and 3 December could have only one result. It was boycotted by the
MPRP and the National Front, and participation was much lower than
in the referendum of March, but the fi gures announced gave only
30 , 866 votes against the constitution out of 15 million voters. 90
Shariatmadari continued to attack the constitution and the principle
of velayat- e faqih throughout the referendum campaign. There were
demonstrations by Khomeini supporters outside his house in Qom, and
demonstrations by his supporters against Khomeini in Tabriz, and later
in Qom also. For a time, Shariatmadari appeared to be growing into a
serious rival to Khomeini, at least in the important province of Azerbaijan
(Tabriz had long prided itself as the cornerstone of the Constitutional
Revolution, and as the most advanced city in Iran, where new developments
always appeared fi rst). The rivalry grew more heated. At one
point Khomeini apologized for the excesses of his supporters in Qom
and went to Shariatmadari in person to try to resolve the confl ict. But
the temperature in Tabriz rose still further, with demonstrations of
several hundred thousand, and fi nally some MPRP demonstrators took
over the TV and radio stations in Tabriz. Shariatmadari’s supporters
demanded the annulment of the constitution, the lifting of censorship
and the formation of a united front against the IRP . The CIR responded
by sending in the Sepah to take back the broadcasting stations, and
mediators to try to calm the situation. The IRP also staged pro- Khomeini
demonstrations in Tabriz. The huge pro- Shariatmadari demonstrations
continued, but Shariatmadari himself was unwilling to push further confrontation
into serious violence, and backed down. The student
hostage- takers and other pro- Khomeini groups were alleging that Shariatmadari
was in alliance with former SAVAK agents and the United
States – some MPRP supporters were arrested, tried by revolutionary
courts and executed for rioting. The IRP demanded that the MPRP
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
dissolve itself. Shariatmadari replied bitterly that there was no need,
since the government would gradually dissolve all political parties, labelling
them anti- Islamic, Zionist or American, so there was no need to
worry about it. Eventually, recognizing defeat, the MPRP complied,
before the new elections for the presidency, which took place on 25 January
1980 . 91
Shariatmadari’s bid to oppose the new constitution was the most
serious confrontation yet to threaten Khomeini’s supremacy. His timing
was bad, and his resolution in the struggle proved weak. He was a gentle
man, a spiritual leader and not really a politician – certainly not the sort
of ruthless politician Khomeini was proving himself to be. But his effort
emphasized that the instincts of the ulema as a class were still far from
uniformly in favour of the velayat- e faqih . There was still a deep well of
feeling for constitutional democracy among the Iranian people, and to
some extent even among the ulema ; albeit eclipsed for a time by revolutionary
In the meantime the hostages were still being held in the embassy
building. As weeks lengthened into months the confi nement settled into a
routine. The hostages were blindfolded and handcuffed when they were
moved about or when they broke the rules. Senior Iranian fi gures visited
them, including Khalkhali (‘a short, fat little guy. He was trying to be
jovial’), 92 Montazeri and Khamenei. Those that had been identifi ed as
CIA offi cers, along with senior diplomats like John Limbert and Bruce
Laingen, were still subject to interrogation, held in isolation and sometimes
threatened, but for the most part the beatings stopped. One of the
CIA men, Bill Daugherty, realized that the interrogators were disappointed
with their investigations. They had discovered that there were
only four CIA men in the embassy and were incredulous that none of
them could speak Persian. Reports they had found indicated that the CIA
station was somewhat at sea in post- revolutionary Iran, fi nding it diffi cult
to make contact with useful informants and making ill- founded assessments
of the political situation. 93
An exception to the general routine of treatment was Michael
Metrinko, who had been a young political offi cer in the embassy. Unlike
most of the other members of the embassy, Metrinko had been tasked
with going out and meeting Iranians, but this was also his inclination.
Many of the other embassy staff, tending to be compound- bound like
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Revolutionary Iran
most expatriates in Iran at the time, had regarded him as something of an
eccentric. He met a wide variety of people, improved his Persian and developed
an appreciation of Iran and its culture. But this did not make him well
disposed toward the hostage-takers. Aside from the violation of standards
of international diplomacy, he regarded the students’ action as a violation
of Iranian cultural norms, morality and decency, and was able to tell the
students so in their own language. In blunt terms. For this he was treated
worse than any of the other hostages, all through the period of their detention.
He spent much of his time in solitary confi nement. He insulted
Khomeini, was beaten for it and on one occasion was kept handcuffed for
over three weeks. At Christmas 1979 , when other hostages were together,
eating a Christmas dinner provided by their captors, Metrinko was in solitary.
His guards brought him the same dinner. Metrinko took it and, in
their sight, fl ushed it down the toilet, further enraging them. 94 Because he
spoke Persian and because of his attitude, the students were convinced that
Metrinko belonged to the CIA . Massoumeh Ebtekar, one of the students
who later wrote an account of the hostage- taking, said of Metrinko that he
‘hated everyone and was hated in return. He preferred to stay alone and
bounce a ball against the wall of his room from morning until night.’ 95
The discussions between the hostages and the students were in a sense
the front line in the confrontation between the US and Iran. On this
front line, there was a near- total mutual failure of understanding. The
American hostages were naturally indignant and angry at their detention
and their treatment and could see no circumstances in which it
might be understandable (though there was a range of reactions to the
detention: some of the hostages were friendlier toward their captors and
one or two tried to ingratiate themselves). The Iranian students believed
what they had been told by Khomeini and the IRP leadership; that the
US embassy staff were mainly spies, plotting a coup, as in 1953 , to
reverse the success of the revolution. They knew the history of foreign
and US interference in Iran; the embassy offi cials were largely ignorant
of it. Some of the students had been prisoners themselves – prisoners of
SAVAK , who they believed (correctly) to have been trained and assisted
by the CIA . As time went on a few of the students doubted the wisdom
of the continuation of the hostage crisis, but most were fi rm supporters
to the end. A group of thirteen hostages, women and African Americans,
were released on 19 and 20 November 1979 as a goodwill gesture.
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
Another one was released in July 1980 because he was showing the
symptoms of serious illness (he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis).
The other fi fty- two hostages stayed in captivity.
Presidential Elections
The campaign for the Islamic republic’s fi rst presidential elections was an
untidy affair, and it took place for the most part against the background
of the continuing unrest in Azerbaijan. Khomeini realized the signifi cance
of the success he had achieved with the new constitution and again was
careful not to overreach. He ordered that clerics should not run for the
presidency, which was a disappointment for Beheshti, who otherwise
would have been a prime candidate. Bazargan might have run, but was
intimidated by the damaging fl ow of documents emerging from the occupied
US embassy. The MKO leader Masud Rajavi was vetoed by Khomeini
because his party had boycotted the referendum on the constitution, and
the IRP candidate Jalal od- Din Farsi had to drop out at a late stage
because it was realized that, with an Afghan father, his candidacy breached
the constitution’s requirement that the president must be an Iranian
national of Iranian origin. Out of the candidates that eventually went to
the vote, Abol Hassan Bani- Sadr won by a comfortable margin, helped
both by his known close relationship with Khomeini and his reputation
as a liberal, acceptable to the educated middle classes. He received
10 . 7 million of the 14 million votes cast. 96
Bani- Sadr was born in Hamadan in 1933 and came from a clerical
family like many other secular politicians, intellectuals and writers of
his generation. As a young man he had persuaded his father to let him
study at Tehran University rather than the Faiziyeh seminary in Qom,
and had studied law as well as theology. But he always kept a strongly
Islamic cast to his politics, even when he went to Paris to study in the
1960 s. He was inspired by Khomeini’s outspoken opposition to the
Shah in 1963 – 4 and by the radical politics in Europe of the later 1960 s,
and became a devoted opponent of the Shah. He also opposed the growing
American infl uence in Iran and the dominance of the US and Western
capitalism in the world and was an enthusiast for popular politics and
political freedom (some have suggested that his ideas came close to
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Revolutionary Iran
anarchism in their enthusiasm for individual liberty and their opposition
to most forms of authority). In the 1970 s he met Khomeini in Iraq,
and the two developed a close relationship, almost like father and son.
Bani- Sadr was associated early on with Mossadeq and the National
Front, and later with the Freedom Movement, but was independentminded
and not a little vain, regarding himself as a thinker and a force
in politics in his own right. He wrote extensively, notably a book on
Islamic economics, and developed his own theory of Islamic government
in which, somewhat different to that of Khomeini (but more like
that of Mohammad Baqr al- Sadr, the dominant marja in Najaf), there
was a much greater emphasis on popular sovereignty and the individual
Muslim’s right to interpret holy texts for himself, and to voice his own
opinion within the Islamic polity. 97 He was close again to Khomeini in
Paris in 1978 , accompanied him to Tehran in February 1979 and became
fi nance minister in Bazargan’s Provisional Government. After Bazargan’s
fall he was briefl y acting foreign minister under the authority of
the CIR before being elected president at the end of January. Bani- Sadr’s
Islamic liberal ideological background was similar to that of Bazargan.
But he was more individualistic, more self- assertive, more of a natural
political populist; and at least initially, he enjoyed a better relationship
with Khomeini.
Bani- Sadr came to the presidency with a confi dence in the mandate the
people had given him in the election, and a strong belief in himself. He
believed that the vote for him showed that popular feeling was swinging
against the IRP , which (given among other things the confused nature of
the election and the IRP ’s clumsy handling of it) was probably wrong. But
the beginning of his period of offi ce looked like another chance for the
moderates and liberals, for those who had hoped and believed that Khomeini
and the clerics would pull back from a forward role in politics and
leave the scene to secular politicians. It may be that Khomeini intended
this too, at least with half his mind, but when confl icts arose he felt compelled
to take greater control for himself and his supporters rather than
risk a reverse. At any rate, this was for him, Beheshti and their followers
a phase for consolidation after their success over the constitution.
Bani- Sadr frequently referred to himself as Iran’s fi rst freely elected president,
and this refl ected genuine enthusiasm about his election in
the country, from many sectors of opinion. He wanted as a priority to
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
rebuild the institutions of the state, disorientated by months of purges and
intimidation, and to bring the new institutions aligned with the IRP under
state control – including the student hostage- takers, who had become an
institution in their own right. He and his supporters were further encouraged
when Khomeini gave him the chairmanship of the CIR ( 7 February)
and delegated to him his powers as commander- in- chief of the armed
forces, including the Sepah ( 19 February). He was also given control of the
broadcasting services. Khomeini’s son Ahmad acted as a go- between, helping
Bani- Sadr to keep Khomeini’s trust, and Khomeini gave a New Year
message on 20 March that echoed many of Bani- Sadr’s ideas, including the
aim of bringing the revolutionary courts back within the structure of the
judicial system, the rebuilding of the armed forces, and a general call for a
return to normality and order in state and society. But Khomeini also made
Beheshti head of the judiciary, which meant that the most able IRP fi gure
was in position to resist any attempt to slacken the grip he, Khomeini and
his followers wanted shari‘a law to have over the country. 98 And of course,
the prime example of revolutionary disorder, the hostage crisis, continued.
Before he was elected president, Bani- Sadr had reacted to the occupation
of the US embassy with disapproval. As president, he had to moderate
his opposition to the students and their action, but he worked to resolve
the crisis and get the hostages returned to the US . On the US side, there
was frustration that the Carter administration could not fi nd an authoritative
interlocutor with whom to negotiate. Iranian demands that the
Shah be returned to Iran, that his wealth be returned too and that the US
should apologize for past crimes against the Iranian people were impossible
to contemplate. US offi cials might feel they were making progress,
only for their talks to be undercut by a new declaration from Khomeini.
Toward the end of February Bani- Sadr and his foreign minister, Qotbzadeh,
thought they had achieved the outlines of a deal through the
mediation of Olof Palme, nominated for the purpose by the UN . The deal
included a UN commission to visit Tehran to examine Iranian grievances
against the US . But just before the UN commission arrived, on 23 February
Khomeini made a statement announcing that a decision on the
hostages would have to be made by the new parliament, which would not
be elected until May, and the deal unravelled.
By March, Bani- Sadr was attempting to address the crisis indirectly
by trying to get the Shah extradited from Panama (the Shah had moved
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Revolutionary Iran
there from the US in December – he moved on to Egypt on 23 March
when he caught wind of the extradition attempt). In the Carter administration,
the view was that negotiation had failed and other methods
must now be attempted. On 25 March Carter sent Bani- Sadr a message
in which he said that unless the hostages were transferred to the control
of the Iranian government (as a necessary preliminary to their
release) by 31 March, the US government would take ‘additional nonbelligerent
measures’, 99 which were generally taken to mean additional
sanctions (the US had already, on 14 November, frozen 11 billion
dollars of Iranian assets in the US and had banned the import of
Iranian oil). 100
Operation Eagle Claw
On the evening of 24 April, eight US Navy Sea Stallion helicopters
took off from the USS Nimitz as it cruised in the Arabian Sea off the southern
coast of Iranian Baluchestan. They fl ew northwards and westwards
over the Iranian coast, at low level to avoid radar detection. Six C-
130 Hercules transports fl ew the same route, but originating further
south, from an air base on the island of Masirah, off the coast of Oman.
They were fl ying toward a point in the Iranian desert between Yazd and
the small town of Tabas, which was to be the base (‘Desert One’) in Iran
for an attempt by US special forces to rescue the hostages. The operation
was codenamed Eagle Claw. Preparations for it, on a contingency basis,
had begun the previous November.
Unfortunately for the mission, the helicopters fl ew into two dust
storms, which disorientated the pilots, seriously delayed their progress
and may have contributed to mechanical faults in the aircraft. One helicopter
(before encountering the dust) was forced to land with a suspected
crack to a rotor blade; its crew were picked up by one of the other helicopters.
Another turned back to the Nimitz when its instruments began
to malfunction in the dust storm (allegedly, according to one version, 101
caused by overheating after someone had dumped a fl ak jacket and a
duffel bag over a cooling vent). The remainder arrived safely at Desert
One a little later than the C- 130 s, only to discover that the hydraulic
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
system on another of the helicopters had developed an irreparable fault.
It had been decided in the planning of the operation that a minimum of
six helicopters were needed if the rescue was to have a chance of success.
Because there were now only fi ve left, the commander on the spot asked
permission to abort the operation, and this was granted from Washington,
after some hesitation (it has been suggested since that the commander
could have improvised and carried out a slimmed- down version of the
rescue plan).
But there was worse to come. As the aircraft manoeuvred in the dust
and darkness to organize refuelling for their return fl ight, one of the helicopters
crashed on to the top of one of the C- 130 transports, and both
aircraft began to burn. The thirty- nine soldiers inside the C- 130 rushed to
a rear door to escape, scrambling over the enormous fuel ‘bladder’ inside
the fuselage. They bunched up at the door as men ahead of them jumped
out, but kept their discipline and left smoothly and quickly, following the
drill for parachute jumps they had learned in training (one of them, who
had been asleep, thought in the confusion that it was a mid- air jump, and
hit the dirt in full spread- eagle free- fall position after a descent of about
six feet). In the heat of the fi res ammunition started to explode. Some of
the last men were badly burned as they made their way through the aircraft.
Most of them got out before the bladder blew up, throwing a fi nal
man out of the door with great force and tossing a great column of fl ame
up into the night sky. But fi ve air force crew members who did not make
it to the rear door died in the C- 130 , and three crew in the helicopter (the
pilot and co- pilot of the helicopter crew managed to escape). 102 The
remainder of the force, abandoning the other helicopters (which had been
damaged by fl ying fragments in the fi res and explosions), were able to fl y
safely back to Masirah. In obeying orders to leave as quickly as possible,
the helicopter crews abandoned classifi ed documents in the helicopters,
including detailed plans of the rescue mission itself.
The fi rst that the Iranian leadership knew of the failed mission came
when they were told that it had been announced on American TV . In his
role as the regime’s afi cionado of the macabre, Sadegh Khalkhali visited
the crash site in the desert and brought the bodies back to Tehran. He
gave a press conference in the occupied embassy and took a severed
hand and a wristwatch out of one of the body bags for the cameras
(there were nine bodies because an Iranian had also died at Desert
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Revolutionary Iran
One – the driver of a fuel tanker lorry that turned up unexpectedly at
the site. The US special forces had blown up the lorry to prevent it
escaping, and the driver had died in the explosion).
The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a disaster in a series of ways.
In the immediate aftermath, most of the hostages were moved out of
Tehran to dispersed locations, making any repeat attempt at a rescue
effectively impossible. In Iranian politics, it appeared to confi rm the assertions
of the radicals – that the revolution was at risk from US interference
and that the Americans were incorrigibly disposed to interfere in Iran’s
internal affairs, using covert methods and military force if necessary. The
corollary was that it weakened yet further the position of the liberals and
moderates and intensifi ed fears about foreign agents at work within the
country. It was used to legitimate new rounds of purges and arrests; over
the following month there were a series of scares about invasion and
coups d’état from within the armed forces. 103
In the US , the debacle in the desert deepened the national humiliation
of the hostage crisis. It intensifi ed the bitter anger felt by Americans toward
the Islamic republic and, among the less refl ective, towards Iran and Iranians
in general. Carter himself believed that the failure of the hostage
rescue mission was a major contribution to his failure to secure re- election
for a presidential second term later in the year. 104 Memory of the hostage
crisis and the failed rescue has poisoned US – Iran relations ever since.
The rescue mission had been ambitious, to say the least of it. When the
decision to go ahead with it had been considered by President Carter and
the National Security Council on 22 March, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, General David Jones, had noted as he briefed Carter that
the plan was ‘exceptionally complex’ and said he felt better about the
viability of its individual parts than about the plan in its entirety. When
the decision to go ahead was made on 11 April its most trenchant critic,
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, was absent. It was decided because other
options appeared to have been exhausted. When Vance returned to Washington
a further meeting of the NSC was called to hear his objections, but
no one supported him. 105
The journey to Desert One should have been the easy part, in relative
terms. Getting from there to Tehran, getting to the embassy, killing
or disabling the student guards, fi nding, securing and removing
the hostages, then extracting them and all the military personnel
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
involved – all would have been tough tasks. Each stage, each task, had
to be completed successfully for the next to be possible. But for the
success of Israeli special forces in the rescue of hijacked passengers at
Entebbe four years earlier, Eagle Claw would probably not have been
attempted. Subsequent investigation by the Holloway Commission identifi
ed some of the fl aws in the planning and conduct of the operation.
These included an excessive emphasis on operational security which, for
example, had prevented pilots and crew from seeing the operations plan,
and especially the weather annex; it had also imposed strict radio silence,
which prevented aircraft crews from alerting each other to dangers and
problems as they arose. Given the remoteness of the regions over which
they were fl ying, complete radio silence was perhaps unnecessary. The
Commission also drew attention to the failure adequately to allow for or
to assess weather conditions, to command and control problems, and
the failure to remove classifi ed material before evacuation from Desert
One. After the failed mission, a Counter- Terrorism Joint Task Force was
set up – a tacit recognition that rivalry between the services had contributed
to the failure. Before Eagle Claw, each service had insisted that it
should participate, with the result that the mission had used Navy helicopters,
Marine helicopter pilots, Air Force C- 130 aircraft and pilots,
and troops from the Army’s newly established Delta Force. 106
Cultural Revolution and a Revolutionary Majles
The incursion of US special forces on Iranian territory added to the
growing atmosphere of tension in Tehran. Another contributory factor
to the tension, though relatively minor at fi rst, was a deterioration of
relations with Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had deposed Ahmad Hasan
al- Bakr and made himself president in July 1979 . Among other loose
talk from the revolutionaries about exporting revolution, some Iranians
had been saying that the new regime would no longer respect the
Algiers Accords of 1975 . Iran was believed to be backing various
Shi‘a opposition movements in the region, including in Iraq. In Iraq the
main vehicle for the Shi‘a opposition was the Da‘wa Party. Whether the
Iraqi government really felt threatened by such developments or used
them as an excuse, in early 1980 they arrested one of the two most
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Revolutionary Iran
prominent Shi‘a clerics in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al- Sadr (he
had been arrested several times before). In response, in April there were a
series of bomb attacks against government targets in Iraq and assassination
attempts against two senior offi cials – including Tariq Aziz, who
was later to become Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister and right- hand
man. The Iraqi regime responded by murdering Mohammad Baqr al-
Sadr and his sister in prison. 107 Saddam Hussein also expelled a large
number of Iranians who had been living in Iraq (including some with
merely remote Iranian forebears or Iranian- sounding names).
Mohammad Baqr al- Sadr had been an important fi gure not just in
Iraq, but among Shi‘a Muslims generally. He had been in regular contact
with Khomeini and those around him, and Khomeini had been making
statements for the Shi‘a Muslims of Iraq in his support. We have already
considered his likely infl uence on the Iranian Constitution. Baqr al- Sadr’s
ideas were at variance with those of Khomeini in important ways. In particular,
he laid greater emphasis on popular sovereignty. Khomeini
announced Baqr al- Sadr’s death to Iranians in mid- April, prompting a
wave of outrage. There were, inevitably, comparisons drawn with the
martyrdom of Hosein at the hands of Yazid. Tension between Iran and
Iraq intensifi ed further.
Since February 1979 , as before that date, the universities had been a
focus for intense political and ideological debate. On his return, Khomeini
had praised the students for their activism against the Shah. In the
initial phase thereafter, the IRP was strong in the universities and came
out well in the lead in student elections. But by the early part of 1980 leftist
groups and parties, including the MKO , had supplanted the IRP in
such elections. The IRP appeared to be losing ground: the leadership
responded in April 1980 by closing the universities. Khomeini explained
later: ‘Universities were bastions of communists, and they were war
rooms for communists.’ Bani- Sadr, hoping to woo opinion in the IRP
and like them, seeing a chance to do down the leftists, supported the
closure. But predictably enough, his middle- class, liberal supporters
took a dim view of the closure of the universities, whatever the rationale
– the policy (along with other initiatives that came at the same time)
was given the unhappy epithet Cultural Revolution ( enqelab- e farhangi ).
Like other decisions Bani-Sadr made, it proved too clever by half, and
self- destructive. 108
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
To put in place the last blocks in the arch of government, elections for
the Majles were held in two stages in March and May 1980 . Candidates
who won an absolute majority succeeded in the fi rst round; the remainder
went to the second round, in which the candidate with the highest number
of votes was successful. But this procedure was criticized (by Bani- Sadr
among others) for favouring the IRP and tending to exclude candidates
from smaller parties, and there were other accusations of rigging, intimidation
and manipulation. Turnout was again relatively low, comparable
to that for the Assembly of Experts the previous year, at 10 . 8 million. The
result yielded a strongly pro- IRP Majles, with 130 IRP and IRP – affi liated
members out of 241 , 40 liberals and the remainder independents, many
of whom in practice followed the IRP lead. No MKO candidates were
elected. Elections were not held in many parts of Kurdestan because of
the continuing insurgency, and those Kurds who were elected did not take
up their seats. Some elected members were rejected by a credentials committee,
which was used by the IRP to exclude members they didn’t
approve of (one, Admiral Madani, who had previously run as a presidential
candidate against Bani- Sadr, had been accused of anti- revolutionary
activities in the press and left the country rather than face the committee).
Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the National Front, was rejected in this way.
Rafsanjani was elected speaker of the new Majles; a position he used
cleverly over the coming years to build a powerful position for himself
within the new system. 109
Ahead of the second round of elections, Bani- Sadr had struggled to be
allowed to elect his own choice of prime minister. He cast around desperately
for people who might be approved by Khomeini – at one stage he
even suggested Khomeini’s own son, Ahmad. But like the Americans, he
was told to wait until the new Majles convened. After it did, Bani- Sadr
chose a member of the IRP central committee; but having approved the
man as a possibility, the IRP then rejected him, and put forward
Mohammad- Ali Rajai instead.
Rajai was born in Qazvin in 1933 ; his father died when he was only
four years old. He had known Ayatollah Taleqani and was a close associate
of Mohammad Javad Bahonar and of Beheshti. He was a small
man, modest like many pious Iranians, with a quiet smile; a contrast to
the fl amboyant Bani- Sadr. He was a former schoolteacher, from a poor
family background; had been a member of the movement against the
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Revolutionary Iran
Shah and had been imprisoned before the revolution. He had little
reputation as an independent fi gure, but was trusted by the IRP
leadership for his loyalty. One could take him as typical of the new
class of politicians and administrators brought forward by the revolution;
people who, with few family connections and little wealth, would
never have had much chance to advance themselves under the Pahlavi
As Some Rise, Others Fall
For Rajai and many others like him, from humble backgrounds, who had
inserted themselves into the new institutions, the revolution had opened up
new opportunities. But for others, it had closed them down, and had turned
their previous achievements to nothing. Parviz Natel Khanlari was born in
1914 , the son of a government offi cial in Mazanderan. He studied Persian
literature at Tehran University, and taught in schools in Gilan after graduation,
before taking his doctorate (entitled ‘Critical Research into the
Development of the Use of Rhyme and Metre in the Persian Ghazal’) and
doing his military service. He then started teaching at Tehran University. In
the 1930 s he published poems and prose works, as well as academic studies
in the fi elds of literature and linguistics, and was associated with the innovatory
Rab‘eh circle of writers (named after the Arabic word for four)
founded by Sadegh Hedayat. Khanlari was the editor of the important literary
journal Sokhan from the 1940 s until 1979 . During the reign of
Mohammad Reza Shah he was governor of Azerbaijan for a time, as well
as keeping his professorship at the University of Tehran. He was later minister
for education and the head of a variety of educational and cultural
institutions – most notably the Iranian Cultural Foundation. His most lasting
achievement was perhaps his work on the collected poems ( Divan ) of
Hafez, which culminated in what is still the defi nitive scholarly edition of
After the revolution Sokhan ceased publication, the Iranian Cultural
Foundation was closed, its functions merged with other bodies, and
Khanlari was imprisoned for a time by revolutionary courts as a functionary
of the previous regime. His house was confi scated, and when he
was released he was poor and ill. He died in September 1990 . 110 For
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
every Rajai who rose, there was a Khanlari who fell; executed, exiled,
imprisoned or left in limbo to waste away.
After two months of impasse over Rajai’s appointment, Khomeini
intervened, and Bani- Sadr accepted Rajai as prime minister in August.
The two men then disagreed over the appointment of ministers to the
cabinet: most of Rajai’s suggestions were again associates of Beheshti and
Bahonar – most of them young, idealistic university graduates (Mir
Hosein Musavi was one of them). The arguments rolled on for months:
Bani- Sadr accepted fourteen of Rajai’s ministers in September, a few more
in December and another in March 1981 ; but some of the posts were not
fi lled at all before Bani- Sadr fell from offi ce. The dispute set a timewasting
precedent that has become a dismal tradition in Iranian politics.
By insisting on his authority in the matter, Bani- Sadr helped to discredit
his presidency. 111
Over the fi rst half of 1980 Bani- Sadr’s attempts to curb the revolutionary
courts and to bring them (and the komiteh ) within the state- controlled
justice system faltered and failed. Despite criticism of the abuses and
injustices of the courts by important fi gures like Ayatollah Ali Qoddusi,
and some apparently helpful support from Beheshti and Montazeri, they
were able to resist assimilation and avoid abolition. Khomeini himself
declared that the revolutionary courts should continue until the justice
system as a whole was made compatible with the shari‘a, and Beheshti set
about a reform of the legal codes to bring this about. In some regions,
revolutionary courts actually targeted offi cials of the state justice system.
There were many allegations of corruption, especially over the confi scation
of property. The Bonyad- e Mostazafan was a prime benefi ciary of
property confi scations. 112 In fact, in important respects, the duality in Iranian
law has never been removed. Individual clerical judges, or even
clerics outside the justice system altogether, may still make judgements
that disregard the provisions of the legal code, but which nonetheless
carry the force of law.
Another feature of the so- called Cultural Revolution was a ferocious
anti- narcotics campaign, which Bani- Sadr also supported. He appointed
Khalkhali to pursue it; given the reputation Khalkhali had already
acquired, this was a sign of earnest intent. Hundreds of executions followed,
and because of the devolved and disorganized arrangement of
the revolutionary courts, it proved diffi cult to stop or abate them once
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Revolutionary Iran
the campaign had begun. The ease with which death sentences were
passed habituated the courts to a mode of conduct in which other crimes
or sins were punished similarly harshly, which again fed on the prevailing
fevered atmosphere of exaggerated rhetoric and heightened emotions.
Men and women were executed for sexual offences, political dissent and
perceived anti- revolutionary activities. At least 580 people were executed
between February 1980 and January 1981 – the most intense period
being between May and September. As unease grew among the leadership
over the scale of the killings, Khalkhali was forced to resign by
Beheshti and Bani- Sadr in December; but as with Al Capone, the offi cial
reason given was fi nancial irregularities rather than his homicidal
activities. 113
Plot, Purge and Conflict
The mood of crisis and paranoia came to a climax in high summer. A
revolutionary tribunal had been set up under Hojjatoleslam Mohammad
Reyshahri (who later became minister of intelligence) to try cases
of old- regime allegiance and anti- revolutionary activity in the military.
In June Reyshahri announced a coup attempt that had been organized
around the Piranshahr base in West Azerbaijan, predominantly a Kurdish
area. The plot, such as it was, seems to have been primarily related to
the continuing Kurdish revolt. But Reyshahri did his best to infl ate its
signifi cance. It was probably not directly related to a much more serious
attempt that came to light in July. This involved several hundred military
personnel, including air force, army and former Imperial Guard and
SAVAK offi cers; acting in concert with Shapur Bakhtiar, who by this
time was in Baghdad. Their plan included a devastating strike on Khomeini’s
residence at Jamaran in north Tehran by F- 4 Phantom aircraft
with anti- personnel bombs, to be carried out by aircraft from Nozheh
air force base near Hamadan (this base was chosen because aircraft at
other bases had been disarmed deliberately to prevent them taking part
in a coup attempt). The aim of the coup was to kill Khomeini and arrest
the other revolutionary leaders, put Bakhtiar back in power on a provisional
basis and conduct a new, free referendum to select the form of
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Like the Person He Ought to Be: Islamic Republic, 1979– 80
Recent investigation 114 has shown that the Nozheh coup plot was
serious, that it was backed by Iraq and Iraqi money, and that Iraqi plans
to invade Iran, which may have been ready as early as October 1979 ,
were probably delayed to give the coup a chance. But the plot was prevented
by a series of arrests outside the airbase just as it was about to
take effect on the night of 9 / 10 July. Altogether 300 or more military
personnel were arrested and put on trial, including two air force generals,
Brigadier General Ayat Mohagheghi 115 and Brigadier General Saied
Mehdiyoun. It is not clear by what means the revolutionary government
were warned of the coup, but so many people were involved that it is not
surprising that there were leaks. One version suggests that Israeli intelligence
found out details of the plan earlier in the day on 9 July, and the
Israeli government passed these on to the Iranian regime, making the
arrests possible at the last minute. This might seem implausible, although
it would fi t with other Israeli behaviour at this time – Israeli leaders saw
Iraq as a greater threat to their interests than Iran, and despite the revolutionary
government’s anti- Zionist rhetoric, were hoping to rebuild
good relations with the Iranians. But for the tip- off to have been made
in this way, the information would have had to have passed from an
informant to the Israeli government, to the Iranian regime and onward
to the Sepah in Hamadan, all within three hours, which seems too short
a time. 116
Rafsanjani, as speaker of the Majles, blamed the National Front for
involvement in the plot (building on the connection with Bakhtiar).
Hezbollahis duly sacked their offi ces and closed down their newspaper,
effectively putting an end to the Front, the creation of Mossadeq, as an
active political organization. Unlike some of the scares that had been
put about since April, the July plot was genuine, with broad ramifi cations
across the armed forces, but the response to it was nonetheless
extreme, and damaging: 144 participants were executed, and investigations
and purges in the armed forces went on for weeks. Just over a
week later, Bakhtiar narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in
Paris. 117 It has been estimated that the purges, in one form or another,
affected as many as 4 , 500 military personnel, mainly air force, mainly
offi cers. The effect within the armed forces was highly disruptive and
demoralizing, at what turned out to be a crucial juncture. Bani- Sadr
called for moderation and presented himself as a protector of the military;
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Revolutionary Iran
but the IRP and the leftists pressed for more sweeping purges and began
to associate Bani- Sadr with the doubtful loyalty of the military to the
Later the same month, on 27 July, the former Shah fi nally died, in
Egypt. Just under two months after that, on 22 September, Iraq in –
vaded Iran.
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