Welcome to the Arab Spring – A History. Episode 30 – The Islamic Revolution. Following the White Revolution, Mohammed Reza felt confident enough to have some controlled political debate. There would be two parties who could compete for royal favour, but he was still the master of the situation. In March 1964 the young and promising Hasan Ali Mansur came to the office of Prime Minister, but he was assassinated in January of the next year and replaced by Amir Abbas Huvaida, he would manage to hold on to the office until 1977. Despite the new political party, there was no political debate in these years, and opposition was forced underground into Islamic Socialist groups, who did use terror tactics. These activities were not seen by the outside world, instead they focused on Iran as the protégé of the United States, while also having a good relationship with the Soviets and China, this being partly due to US president Richard Nixon’s relationship with China. As for the Soviets, they were more than happy to try and pry Iran away from the United States. They had a desire for Iranian resources, particularly natural gas. So a deal was made in 1966 and 1967 which saw Iran provide the USSR with over $600M of natural gas in exchange for the Soviets building a steel complex in Isfahan and providing about $110M of light arms. As the 1960s came to a close Iran’s position in the region was growing, but there was one rather large problem with all this.
It seems that the Shah actually began to believe his own propaganda with how things turned as they entered the 1970s. While most in the country languished in poverty, the Shah wasted money with the infamous Persepolis Party of 1971 which celebrated 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. Meanwhile the shah became obsessed with making Iran the dominant military power in the region, and heavily invested in its military, rather than in helping the countries people. This really got underway in 1971 when the British pulled out of the Persian Gulf.
This was a particularly unstable time period in the region. Iran had close relations on its eastern flank with Pakistan, a state which was greatly weakened by the secession of its eastern half which became Bangladesh in 1971. This happened as Russia strengthened its relationship with India, Pakistan’s great rival, and an independence movement began in the North-Western provinces of Pakistan with the backing of Afghanistan. Meanwhile Marxist revolutionaries were moving against the pro-Western governments of the gulf, one centre of activity being southern Oman, the country on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. This greatly worried the west, who wanted a strong pro-Western force in the region, so Iran stepped in with the backing of the United States.
Nixon and Kissinger met the shah in Tehran in 1972 and it was agreed that with the exception of nuclear weapons he would be allowed to buy American arms. This was part of the Nixon Doctrine. The Nixon Doctrine was a theory which followed the disaster of Vietnam. To quote the weekly compilation of Presidential documents from 23rd February 1970 it would “construct a world system in which the United States, the central power, would help generate strong regional actors, who would secure their own and American interest in their respective regions.”
The shah just needed to money to do this, which if you’ll recall our previous episodes on Saudi Arabia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is right when the Arab oil boycott occurred, which was great news for oil producing countries not involved in the boycott, such as Iran. Iran’s position with the West strengthened as a reliable producer of oil, while it also brought the Arab oil producers back into the fold. The Shah had big plans for this oil, including a huge economic push for industrialisation and a development of Iran’s military. His plan was that Iran would be a regional superpower by 1981 and by the end of the 1980s be a global military power.
However, things were not as rosy for the shah as first appeared. If you think back to when we looked at the election of US President Jimmy Carter, in the 1970s there was a fierce reaction to two events, Vietnam and Watergate. Both had made the average American distrustful of Washington, which we have discussed, but there were effects on the press too. Vietnam greatly wearied the US to foreign adventure, and people began to look at Iran, and for the first time asked just what America was doing. Were they really propping up a tyrannical dictator? Was that really what they, the freedom loving United States of America, were doing? Following Watergate the press began to dig a little deeper, and the answer was, yes. That was exactly what they were doing. Reports of the brutality of SAVAK came out and began to gain traction for the first time. Amnesty International’s 1975 report on the treatment of political prisoners gained much attention. P. Jacobson’s article “Torture in Iran” in the Sunday Times in January 1975 included the line “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran”. The shah was losing his international credibility as the stark contrast between the extravagance of the Persepolis Party and the grim realities of living in the shanty towns of Tehran, such as malnutrition and illiteracy. Particularly following Carter’s election it was unclear about whether the shah would have his backing should there be trouble, despite that in November 1977 Carter pledged his support to the Shah, calling him “a stabilising force in the world at large”.
It was soon clear that there were problems with the Shah’s plans. The military and industrialisation push was launched in 1974, and by 1977 they were already failing to meet targets. He had failed to create an economic base before the military push, which was heavily damaging Iranian development. Just how powerless the shah really was shown in the Afghan coup of April 1978 which saw the communists come to power, and the shah was able to do nothing. Domestically Iran was suffering from the rise in the cost of consumer goods from the west, an effect of the rising cost of oil. While the shah was focused on his military reforms which were going nowhere, he was ignoring food shortages, rising unemployment and essential services fell apart. The people resented the shah, and resented the Americans who always seemed to get the best jobs. The west sold goods to Iran which couldn’t properly be moved around as there wasn’t the infrastructure. At the same time as Carter called Mohammed Reza “a stabilising force in the world at large” he was ignoring the fact that his country was starving. Land reform had failed, only causing disruption without increasing productivity. The attempted political reform had been dropped and Iran once again became a one party state, a one party state which had the philosophy of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’. He was unable to relate to the people, and had no idea just how unpopular he was. He had no idea about the religious sermons criticising the shah, and of the tapes Khomeini was smuggling into the country. There were lots and lots of reason as to why revolution was bubbling which we’ve covered, but it was the accelerated development which the country couldn’t cope with which was the final straw. It would take some time to come to fruition, but the revolution got underway on 7 January 1978.
On this date a daily newspaper in Tehran ran with an article which attacked Ayatollah Khomeini, an article which of course came directly from the administration. This article drew the ire of the crowds, and the newspapers offices were attacked. On the 9th a crowd gathered at a shrine in Qum, with demands for a move towards a more liberal constitution. Once the crowd began to leave they found that the police were waiting for them, and the crowd was fired upon. Ayatollah Shari’atmadari spoke out against this, calling the government’s actions unIslamic. He called for protests, but that the forty days of mourning be respected. This effectively created throughout the year a pattern of riots every 40 days, once the mourning for the dead of the previous riot had been completed. For instance in Tabriz there were attacks on representations of Westernisation on 18th and 19th of February, which led to deaths and a forty day mourning period.
As the year progressed the Shah’s government was surprised by the size of the protests, which were much larger than previous ones due to the flood of migrants form the countryside who were seeking work. These crowds were alone in the city. Tehran was much different to the countryside, but there was one thing which remained the same – the local mosque. It was a movement which the west could not comprehend. To quote Bruce Riedel of the CIA, “Our bosses couldn’t cope with the idea of an 80 year old Ayatollah, which they didn’t even know what an Ayatollah was, who lived on garlic and onions and yoghurt, directing a revolution that was about to topple America’s most important ally.”
The crowds simply grew larger and larger in these cycles of protests, despite the banning of public gatherings. In one protest in Tehran over a hundred demonstrators were killed by the Shah’s forces. These crowds were not leaderless, they were just awaiting instructions from Khomeini who had been directing the revolution from Iraq. He told them to stay on the streets, and keep up the pressure. Saddam Hussein was very uncomfortable with this, and sent word to the Iranians in late 1978 that he would either exile or eliminate Khomeini, it was there choice, but either way he would not stay in Iraq. The Shah was fearful of created a martyr, so Khomeini was forced out of Iraq, going to Kuwait, but was refused entry.
Trying to work out just where to go, his advisors recommended Paris. They would not need visas to travel there and Paris was the centre of European politics. Khomeini agreed and set up a base about 18 miles from Paris in October 1978, but never actually visited the city. From there he could reach his supporters who gathered to him from all over the world, as well as having easy access to western media allowing him to defend the actions of his supporters in Iran. It was very embarrassing for the French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who felt the need to publically say, and I quote, “Ayatollah Khomeini has not come to France as a political refugee. He is a foreign resident in France.” Khomeini was warned by the French government that his actions were not appropriate on French soil, and he responded by saying he was merely sending letters to Iran, and that whatever people chose to do with those letters was of no concern to France.
Strikes began, organised by the left, which grew once they received Khomeini’s support and ground the country to a halt. The Shah’s advisors urged military action, but he refused to go against the constitution. By 4th November BBC News reported that there was almost daily fighting on the streets of Tehran. Though, when questioned by American diplomats, the Shah’s generals would refuse to admit that the regime was crumbling. The American ambassador wrote to Washington with a clear message, Iran was in peril. Carter was unnerved, as were his advisors. What they wanted more than anything was stability, and that was what the Shah had brought to the table for the last 20 years. They did not want to introduce yet another unstable element into the region. But they were divided as to how to fix the problem. Reforms, or to use an iron fist? That was the question. What resulted has to be one of the most unhelpful pieces of advice in history, as the shah was encouraged to clamp down on the protestors while at the same time to make a deal with them. Confused, the Shah summoned Ambassador Sullivan and asked whether America wanted him to take a hard line, and Sullivan replied that he had no instructions on that.
The Shah decided to go on television and embrace the revolutionaries, saying that he was an Iranian and respected his people’s revolution. He would build a better Iran. But, he said he would take an extended holiday from Iran with his family. The Americans were not keen on this, and so sort assurances that the army would enforce the Shah’s rule in his absence. The generals replied that they would. When asked how they would do this, they could not give a response. As you will have noticed through the shah’s relationship with his various prime ministers he was a paranoid man, and so would not allow the army to make such plans out of a fear they would overthrow him. The Shah was furious with the Americans for going behind his back in this. Before he left, Shapour Bakhitar was appointed Prime Minister. He was a moderate and a former opponent of the regime, and it was hoped that this would be enough to calm the situation down, but it was far too little, far too late. The Shah left the country on the 16th January 1979. He would never return, and would soon die in exile as he fought a losing battle with cancer.
It was clear to the west that the Shah was of no use to them, and so they set their hopes with Bakhitar, and asked Khomeini to remain in France rather than returning to Iran so that Bakhitar could have a chance to get the situation under control. Should Bakhitar fall, Khomeini could end up facing the army. Khomeini took this as a threat, and told Carter that he needed to stop supporting forces which opposed the people’s will. He told his supporters to give flowers to the soldiers, which they did, along with chants such as, “Brothers, we give you flowers, you give us bullets!” Many of the soldiers had been conscripts and actually supported Khomeini, so with this many deserted and joined the revolutionaries. There was though a small group which was determined to prevent him returning to the country. His advisors debated over when the right time to depart was, though one day Khomeini just told them it was time. They may not want to follow him as it might be dangerous, the plane might be shot down, but it was time for him to return to Iran.
On 1st February 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini finally arrived in Iran, to mass popular support, whereupon he pronounced the creation of the Islamic Republic, bringing to an end two and a half thousand years of Iranian monarchy. This was the Islamic Revolution.