The Fall of the Shah and the Rise of Islamism

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 January 2019

Forty years ago yesterday, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah (King) of Iran, left his country for the last time as a year-long revolution crested. A month later, the remnants of the Imperial Government collapsed and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was swept to power after his long exile, establishing the first Islamist regime. Andrew Scott Cooper’s 2016 book, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, charts how this happened.

Cooper’s book is simultaneously an easy read and immensely detailed—taking the reader virtually day-by-day as the story moves into the summer of 1978. From this distance, the verdict is clear: an uprising that acted in the name of democracy brought into being an Islamic Republic characterised by corruption and human rights abuses on a scale never approached by the House of Pahlavi. Yet in the late 1970s, it was unfathomable to many Westerners that anything could be worse than the Shah. The gross exaggerations of insurgent propaganda were reflected uncritically in the international media and by groups like Amnesty International. If Cooper does any one service, it is to put to rest many of these myths.

The significance of Cooper’s book is not just historical, however. In 1999 and 2009, Iranians rose against the clerical regime, taking to the streets to protest the clerics’ cruelty and corruption, and both times they were savagely repressed. It has been impossible for Iranians not to notice the difference with the Shah, who would not sanction bloodshed to hold his throne. Since the Iranian revolution was a true revolution, in the sense that is meant by the French and Russian revolutions, with mass popular support and true systemic change, it has prompted questions from younger Iranians to their elders. Part of the form this re-examination has taken is a growing interest for some time now in the Shah’s rule, and, when the third wave of protests erupted in Iran in December 2017, a noticeable theme of the crowds has been nostalgia for the monarchy, even in the religious cities long thought to be Islamist bastions. Crown Prince Reza has emerged as one of the most visible figures in the Iranian opposition, and some Iranians flatly advocate for a Pahlavi restoration. Where this goes, time will tell.

TWO NEAR MISSES

Reza Shah and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1934, Turkey [source]

Muhammad Reza came to power in September 1941, after a British-Soviet invasion forced his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, to abdicate. Reza Shah had come from modest beginnings to seize the Peacock Throne in 1923. A contemporary and great admirer of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Reza Shah ran a similarly harsh authoritarian government that imposed secularism and modernisation, against popular and especially clerical will.

Reza Shah’s contempt for the ulema (clergy) was shared by his son, viewing them as a power bloc and barrier to reform. But Reza Shah had a contempt for the faith itself and a short way with obstructionist imams that his son never did. Muhammad Reza was passionately, sentimentally attached to the concept of the farr as the source of legitimacy. The “Persian mantle of heaven”, as Cooper describes farr, is an implicit social contract that said the monarch’s rule rested on the consent of his people, given if he governed as a benevolent father and withdrawn if he was unjust. Reza Shah, a grizzled officer who had taken power by force, had no such illusions about the basis of his dynasty’s power—and regarded his son’s belief in such things as one more piece of evidence that the boy was weak.

For all the deficiencies Muhammad Reza’s family detected in his personal constitution, he held the throne for 37 years, the fifth-longest reign in two-and-a-half millenia of Persian monarchy. Yet the aspects of his nature that his father thought made him ill-suited to rule—personal aversion to conflict, a capacity for denial when facing bad news, and shyness to the point of struggling with eye contact—made themselves known at moments of crisis. There were two moments prior to the revolution that nearly toppled the monarchy; on both occasions, the Shah was rescued when strong figures around him took decisive action. In 1978-9, there were no such figures around.

The Iranian parliament had expropriated the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in March 1951 and pressured the 31-year-old Shah into accepting the lead proponent of this recklessness, Mohammed Mossadeq, as Prime Minister the next month. Mossadeq swiftly accrued autocratic power, ruling through emergency laws by mid-1952 and dissolving the parliament entirely via a rigged plebiscite in early August 1953. Mossadeq had been supported by the Soviet proxy Tudeh (Masses) Party, though with cynical intentions on both sides: Mossadeq used the Communists’ to dominate the streets, and Tudeh hoped that the dictatorial state structure Mossadeq was constructing would fall into their hands.

Britain and America had devised a plan, Operation AJAX, to remove Mossadeq in June 1953. The plan required the Shah to sign an order dismissing Mossadeq, which, as Cooper notes, the Shah was constitutionally at liberty to do, and appointing General Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. The Shah initially resisted this, fearful it would provoke street protests and damage his legitimacy; he relented on 13 August 1953 after he was prevailed on by his first wife, became aware that events would proceed without him, and was swayed by Mossadeq’s dictatorial behaviour.

The initial round of the coup was a disaster. Mossadeq’s agents discovered it on 15 August. Unwilling to fight it out on the streets, the Shah fled the country the next day to Baghdad. This left in the lurch Zahedi, point-man for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Kermit Roosevelt, and figures like Ayatollahs Muhammad Behbahani and Abu’l-Ghassem Kashani, the speaker of the parliament, who had made Mossadeq’s rise possible before turning against his secular, Soviet-leaning regime.

Mossadeq and Tudeh overplayed their hand, however. Communist mobs poured into the streets of Tehran and Mossadeq’s foreign minister, Hossein Fatemi, spoke of lynching the Shah. Protests began against Mossadeq; some were paid by the CIA, many were not. The memory of the fall of Eastern Europe was fresh in mind for Tehranis. With the army on their side, the crowds pressed on and, by the end of the day on 19 August, Mossadeq was under arrest and Zahedi was in control. Forty-three people had died in the upheaval.

The Shah, in Rome, was informed of events and soon received a telegram from Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, the marja, the pre-eminent Shi’a figure of the time, informing the Shah that his return would bring peace and protection for the faith. In combination with the ecstatic crowds on his return, it convinced the Shah that he “owed his recall to God and the people and not to the generals and foreign mercenaries”, Cooper writes, and he finally believed in his own legitimacy.

The second threat came exactly ten years later after the Shah put his reform program, the “White Revolution”, to a referendum. The January 1963 vote passed overwhelmingly, albeit with clear irregularities and in the face of calls for a boycott by the ulema. Displeased with their behaviour, the Shah made two speeches attacking the clerics, calling them among other things a “stupid and reactionary bunch … sponging on others”. The government then raided Feiziyah, the seminary attached to the Fatima Masumeh Shrine, after seminary students clashed with the security forces in Qom. The raid ended with at least one student dead and turbans and books being burned on a bonfire in the courtyard. These two events prevented the moderate ulema from defending the Shah when Ruhollah Khomeini launched his bid for power.

A fiery speech from Khomeini, at that time merely one ayatollah among many, on 3 June 1963, directly challenging the Shah, ignited street protests and mob vandalism against symbols of the government and modernity. Everyone was taken off-guard with the speed of events, but even after the initial shock wore off—and despite his tough words on the clergy—the Shah dithered. Prime Minister Assadollah Alam took matters in hand, ordering the security forces to arrest Khomeini and use live fire if necessary to prevent revolution.

In the early hours of 5 June 1963, Khomeini’s supporters tried to seize the national radio station to provoke a popular uprising; mobs sacked the ministries of justice and interior, and attacked the parliament and Marble Palace. Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kashan were also ablaze. But the troops stood firm. Thirty-two people were killed in the melee, according to the Islamic Republic’s Martyr’s Foundation, which naturally has every reason to embellish the figures. Asked years later about his decision, Alam said: “I had to. His Majesty is very soft-hearted and does not like bloodshed.”

The Shah, under advice from SAVAK chief Hassan Pakravan, vetoed any suggestion that Khomeini would be executed, though it is doubtful such was ever seriously considered. The solution adopted was that Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, the marja by that time, would bestow the title “grand ayatollah” on Khomeini. On the one hand, no Iranian King could execute such a senior cleric, Cooper explains, and on the other “the whole of Qom would know that the moderates had ‘saved’ Khomeini’s life. Better yet, his new title was tainted because he had not earned it on his own merits.” Both the Shah and the mainstream clerical establishment believed they had contained Khomeini.

Khomeini was released in April 1964, and by October was trying to incite a second uprising. Khomeini was deported to Turkey in the first few days of November 1964 and moved to Iraq a year later. Allowing Khomeini to go into exile, out of reach of SAVAK, the secret police force Israel had helped the Shah create in 1957, transpired to be a terrible error: from Najaf, Khomeini was able to spend a decade and more agitating against the Pahlavi dynasty and coordinating the terrorist movements against it.

THE SHAH TAKES THE REINS

In the aftermath of the “Fifteen Khordad” events, the Shah moved to rule, as well as reign, says Cooper. He was determined that powerful figures like Mossadeq, Zahedi, and Alam should be prevented from emerging within the system, and that power centres without like Khomeini be eliminated. This left the Shah with shallow grounding in the political system, and heavily reliant on the army. It appeared to work.

Reforms on land, freeing 98% of villagers from landlord control, and emancipating women—giving them the right to vote, stand for election, and divorce—were pushed through against seemingly-intractable interests. “‘Shah’ is a kind of magic word with the Persian people,” he told The New York Times in 1967. “A dictator could not do it. The leader of a political party could not do it. But the King could do it.”

The economy was booming by the late 1960s, growing at 10%-per-year, with the advantages—from motorcars to food choice to literacy—spread widely among Iran’s 26 million people. When challenged about his authoritarian political model, apparently a contradiction to his reformist social and economic policies, the Shah bluntly replied: “When everybody in Iran is like everybody in Sweden, then I will rule like the King of Sweden.”

The Shah’s sensibilities, his frame of reference for what constituted progress and what was desirable, was thoroughly Westernized. While resentful of what the West had done to exploit his country in the past—as one can see in some of the testy interviews he gave to Western media outlets—the Shah’s pride was in overtaking the West on its own terms. For example, in 1971, during a stroll through the University of Tehran’s new central library, which housed more than 600,000 volumes and a collection of priceless Persian manuscripts, the Shah asked how the institution ranks and was told it was among the best-equipped in the world. “We’ve given them a good hiding, haven’t we?” the Shah said, beaming.

With the oil shock after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Shah pulled off what Cooper notes was the “greatest transfer of sovereign wealth in recorded history”. Unlike the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, the Shah did not try to politically blackmail the West; he simply wanted more money for his modernisation program. “I want the standard of living in Iran in ten years’ time to be exactly on a level with that in Europe today”, the Shah said. “In twenty years’ time we shall be ahead of the United States.” U.S. intelligence was—as ever—taken wholly by surprise. “He was our baby, but now he has grown up,” complained a CIA official.

The Shah knew from January 1974 that he was dying of lymphatic cancer. This shaped his decisions in many ways, but two stand out. Informed that he had as few as seven years and as many as fifteen left, the Shah was in a constant rush to complete his life’s work—to transform Iran into an industrialised, secular country with a constitutional monarchy. This meant he did not always tread as carefully as he could have done with disruptive modernisation initiatives. Second, determined to abdicate in favour of his son—in an interview with Newsweek in 1976 the Shah said he would retire at the end of 1988 (“if I live until that time”)—he would not hand on a bloodied throne. Apart from his own temperament, this political consideration militated against the Shah signing-off on crackdown as chaos spread in 1978.

The money from the oil shock was pumped straight back into Iran—rather than storing it off-shore—for development projects and the military. There was also a cultural and artistic flourishing financed by this boom and directed by the Queen. One of Cooper’s great achievements is to finally show Empress Farah as an agent of history in her own right. “Not since Catherine the Great of Russia”, says Cooper, “had the world known a female sovereign entrusted with as much influence and as many resources.”

Unfortunately for the Shah, at the Doha meeting of OPEC in December 1976, failed to raise the price of oil. Instead, the Saudis, under a deal they had cut with the Americans, flooded the market with cheap oil. By the first week of January 1977, the Shah’s government had a massive shortfall: industrial manufacturing halved by the summer; inflation ran above 30%; and the austerity measures adopted to counter the problem only reinforced it, damaging the

Parviz Sabeti [source]

construction sector and putting thousands of unskilled men out of work, swelling the pool of angry, newly-urbanised recruits on which the revolutionaries could draw. It was one thing for the nouveau riche’s excesses to needlessly antagonised the conservative and clerical classes that always had their doubts about the Shah anyway. It was quite another when the middle class itself, the bastion of the Shah’s regime, began to erode over the summer of 1977, moving its assets out of the country, as its standard of living became unsustainable.

It was in these conditions of economic freefall that the Shah implemented his liberalisation policy. He was warned against it by SAVAK’s deputy, Parviz Sabeti, not least because “we … have what we did not have then—terrorist groups. It will be more difficult than in 1963 to maintain order.”

TERRORISTS AND OPPOSITION

Two main terrorist groups emerged, first and most importantly the “Islamist-Marxists” of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (the People’s Holy Warriors, MEK) in 1965, and then the Communists of Sazman Cherikhaye Fedayeen-e-Khalq (The Organisation of Iranian People’s Self-Sacrificing Guerrillas) six years later.[1]

A series of violent incidents led to a crackdown in 1971 that killed or arrested many terrorist leaders, significantly weakening both MEK and the Fedayeen. Of the 370 Leftists executed between 1971 and 1978, about 220 of them (60%) were members of the Fedayeen.

The Fedayeen was sustained with $400,000-per-year from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and support from Communist South Yemen, Cooper writes. Both states opened training camps for the Fedayeen, run in Libya by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group with strong ties to the Soviet Union. The Fedayeen was kept well-stocked with powerful weapons, supplied by the Soviets through its Eastern dependencies—Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Abroad, the Fedayeen found common cause with an assortment of Soviet-backed terrorists, “including Swiss anarchists, West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Irish Republican Army, and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola”, Cooper notes.

Yasser Arafat (C) with IRGC officials, Mohammad Saleh al-Hosseini (L) and Mohsen Rafighdoost (R) [source]

In 1972, Cooper explains, Khomeini made a tactical alliance with MEK. By the late 1970s, MEK cadres were being trained at the terrorist camps run by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Lebanon, in areas of Syria (which under Hafiz al-Asad routinely acted as a cut-out for the Soviet Union in dealing with terrorist groups), and in Qaddafi’s Libya at the PFLP camps. Qaddafi’s funds were well-used by Khomeini, to buy-off clerics inside Iran who might otherwise oppose him and to direct the MEK terrorism.

This nexus—Khomeini, Arafat, and Qaddafi—was to prove crucial in bringing down the Shah. They united in wanting rid of a government that was not only the most pro-American, but the most friendly to Israel. The murder of Musa al-Sadr, the “Vanished Imam”, was also the work of this alliance. Al-Sadr got in Arafat’s way in Lebanon, where the PLO was working with the Khomeini’ists to create the forces that would eventually become Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC),[2] and in Iran al-Sadr was on the side of the mainstream clergy led by Shariatmadari who were trying to find a compact with the Shah to isolate Khomeini and restore order. When al-Sadr was “disappeared” in Tripoli in August 1978, days before the Shah made his decision to leave, al-Sadr was on his way to a meeting with the Shah’s agents in West Germany, Cooper reveals.

Khomeini extended his tactical alliance to the more Leftist and nationalist opposition around Mossadeq’s old National Front and religious figures in that milieu like Abolhassan Banisadr. Khomeini had considerable distaste about this and was much more at ease with the Front’s “moderate Islamist” splinter, the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI, Nahzat-e Azadi-e Iran), led by Mehdi Bazargan. Khomeini’s idea was to use these figures to cultivate the Iranian middle-class that the clerics could not so easily reach and to use them to sway Western public opinion; on both counts Khomeini succeeded rather well. Banisadr, Bazargan, and their allies assumed that once the Shah was gone they would inherit control and Khomeini would return to Qom to study quietly; they lost that bet, as did the leaderships of both MEK and the Fedayeen, released in time to help destroy the last vestiges the Shah’s government, before falling victim to the new Islamic Republic.[3]

HUMAN RIGHTS

In the run-up to the October 1971 celebrations of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, a Joint Committee was established to deal with the burgeoning terrorism problem that had, for example, nearly kidnapped the U.S. ambassador and Princess Ashraf’s son. The Committee—bringing together SAVAK, the gendarmerie, military intelligence (G-2), and the national police—operated extra-legally, employed torture, and decided the fate of prisoners without oversight or appeal.

The Shah’s record of pardoning even convicted assassins and dislike of bloodshed convinced SAVAK chief Nematollah Nasiri and others that the monarch only needed to know the outlines of their work against the low-level insurgency in the country, says Cooper. But this policy became a political liability a few years later. In late 1976, Amnesty International published a report saying that between 25,000 and 100,000 political prisoners were in the Shah’s jails, calling the human rights abuses in Iran “unprecedented”—this was at the time the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields were fully operational.

Sadegh Ghotbzadeh with pro-Khomeini Ayatollah Abdullah Musawi Shirazi, Mashhad, 1979 [source]

The numbers Amnesty was relying on came from radical oppositionists. Cooper itemises the international network, financed by Khomeini and guided by key individuals like Banisadr and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh in Paris, and Ibrahim Yazdi in Texas, to cultivate influential Western journalists like Eric Rouleaux at Le Monde and Jonathan Randal at The Washington Post, feeding them story ideas and misinformation to pad out what amounted to anti-Shah propaganda. Iranian exiles like poet and novelist Reza Baraheni amplified these claims with lurid stories of systematic rape in the Shah’s prisons. Randal even ended up acting as a logistician for the radicals as they consolidated a Leftist-Islamist pact against the monarchy. It was these networks that fed the NGOs their numbers.

The Shah took an unprecedented step: he opened the entire prison system up to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and started his own parallel investigation to ensure that SAVAK was unable to obstruct ICRC.

In June 1977, ICRC reported:

  • There were 3,087 political prisoners being held, down from a peak of 3,700 in 1975
  • 900 of these prisoners reported some form of abuse in captivity, though, as the State Department and CIA soon confirmed, not a single prisoner had been mistreated since November 1976, after the Shah had been made aware of the torture claims and enacted a law with a penalty of six years imprisonment for torturers;
  • From 1971, under-400 regime opponents had been killed in total—executions, suicides in prison, and clashes with the security forces.

The correction barely got any international coverage, though the extremists in Iranian prisons noticed the difference and sensed opportunity.

The Shah once referred to the leading liberal newspapers as “the five weird sisters dancing around the doom of the West”. Later in exile the Shah would give an interview to one of them, The Washington Post. After bluntly stating the role the Western media had played in bringing him down, he asked, “Well, now you have it. Are you happy? Do you have human rights [in Iran] now? Democracy? Liberalisation?”

THE REVOLUTION BEGINS

There is an argument to say that a radical opposition is a function of a government’s brutality; if peaceful routes to change are closed down, it leaves only violence and dissent gets channelled in that way.[4] But what happened in Iran was not like that at all. To the contrary: the monarchy was toppled at the very moment it was politically opening up after providing a long period of widening economic and social opportunity. After the Shah had invited in human rights groups to end the abuses in the prison system in late 1976, he began a drive for liberalisation, which can be dated to the release of 357 political prisoners in February 1977.

As early as March 1977, Cooper documents, the Shah told his sister, Princess Ashraf, he planned to surrender executive authority and complete the transition to a constitutional monarchy with free elections by the summer of 1979. One major problem? Nobody believed the Shah was really prepared to surrender power. The United States, which was catastrophically mistaken about events at almost every stage during the Iranian revolution, certainly didn’t.

In August 1977, as the unrest was beginning, the CIA issued a report that was almost comically mistaken. The Agency read the unrest as insignificant: the Shah could suppress it at any time, the CIA believed, but was allowing the radicals space in order to legitimise a coming crackdown on all forms of opposition. This flatly mistaken impression of the Shah’s intentions with liberalisation was underwritten by a misreading of the durability of the monarchy. As Cooper explains, the CIA believed that the Shah and Iran were well-placed as they entered the 1980s based on “four key assumptions”:

  1. The Shah enjoyed “good health” (he was in the late stages of terminal cancer);
  2. There would be “no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future”;
  3. “Iran will not become involved in a war that would absorb all of its energies and resources” (which it did within nine months of the 1980s beginning);
  4. Oil production and exports “will continue to dominate the Iranian economy” (which was less a prediction than a recognition of the laws of political-economic gravity)

The economic slump in late 1977 had created a tense atmosphere, yet the Shah stuck to his liberalisation policy. The austerity combined with liberalisation was a deadly mix; it means clerics went without stipends and Khomeini’s agents were there with Libyan cash to make up the difference. A sense of false security had been created because MEK and the Fedayeen had heeded the advice of the National Front and LMI to cease terrorist activity in 1976. As restrictions were loosened, the attacks recommenced in late 1977 to test the new security situation. The terrorists reasoned that they would either provoke an all-out crackdown that exposed liberalisation as a sham, cutting middle-class support from under the regime, or (as in fact happened) the Shah was for real, so they could use any casualties to stoke further popular anger in a freer environment that would enable them to press on to victory.

The spark that ignited the revolution was an editorial in Ettelaat, a state-run paper, on 7 January 1978. The article was created out of complicated and petty internal regime politics, pushed by recently-deposed Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda. Ettelaat personally attacked Khomeini, questioning his citizenship and implying he was homosexual; it was tasteless and it was beyond the accepted bounds for commentary even on so controversial a marja. A copy of the paper was taken to Qom and on 9 January the first protests featuring chants of “Death to the Shah!” erupted.

The Khomeini’ists began staging riots, deliberately getting people killed, and then staging further unrest at the end of the forty-day mourning period for these “martyrs”. “This remarkably cynical but effective strategy became known as ‘doing the forty-forty’,” writes Cooper. Government buildings, banks, hotels where foreigners stayed, businesses owned by Jews and Baha’is, cinemas, telephone booths, and shops selling alcohol became familiar targets of well-organised crowds. In February, Tabriz briefly fell to the Islamists. The Shah held the line, telling The Washington Post in early March: “I am not going to change my policy of liberalising to the maximum … [T]his is the price we have got to pay.” He believed it was letting off steam—and not-incidentally showing Iranians the horrible alternative to his rule.

Others took a different view. Many middle-class Iranians and even some Cabinet Ministers believed that the unrest over the prior six months was a scheme by the Shah and SAVAK to justify abolishing the liberalisation program and re-instituting a more authoritarian system. It was after Tabriz they began to realise their mistake, and the Khomeini’ists, too, caught on that the Shah was genuine. The Israelis, supplied by the Shah with much of their oil and having 1,500 citizens in Iran, were quick to catch on. The MOSSAD station chief, after visiting the Shah on Kish Island on 13 March 1978, concluded that “a radical regime change [was] highly likely,” and Israel increased its oil purchases to avoid any disruptions if and when the Pahlavi regime fell.

Riots spread to a dozen cities on the holiday weekend beginning Friday, 31 March, with a foreign worker savagely tortured, his tongue cut out, and murdered just outside Isfahan.

The attacks on foreigners and religious minorities, especially Jews and Baha’is, were early signs of the Islamists’ spreading influence.[5] Islamist heavies were able to enforce gender segregation on university campuses. The most visible aspect was the increased adoption of the chador, if only so women could avoid having acid thrown in their faces. And this trend was not only in places like Isfahan and Tabriz, nor when it came to the capital was it only in the overcrowded and underemployed sections of southern Tehran. Iranians in the elite, especially the children of the elite, gravitated to Khomeini’s message.

The Shah could not understand why those who benefited from his regime had turned against it. For the lower orders, the wrenching changes and inequalities of industrialisation were a large part of the answer. Issues of identity certainly played their part—many viewed the Shah’s modernisation program as Westernisation, something alien and “inauthentic”. In the balance of factors, these second set were more central for the middle-classes, especially the young. For teenagers wanting to assert their independence and protest authority, their parents and the state, the Islamists, and the Communists, were the best-organised options at hand.

It was in March or April 1978 that Shariatmadari dramatically intervened to ask Sabeti to assassinate Khomeini, offering him religious license to do so. Another offer to eliminate Khomeini came from Saddam Husayn, directly to the Shah on 29 August 1978; the Shah rejected the offer, sparing Khomeini, as he had done in 1963. Other offers to spill blood on the Shah’s behalf, including from King Husayn of Jordan, were turned down.

It was in May 1978 that at least SAVAK realised a challenge to the monarchy itself was underway. The Shah toured the southern sea ports in the first week of the month, and came away convinced that all was well, most of the population was still with him. Within days, mayhem erupted in nearly two-dozen cities. A plan from Sabeti, supported by Nasiri and opposed by Hossein Fardust, to arrest 1,500 people—Khomeini’ist clerics and terrorists, plus 50 intellectuals—was rejected on 11 May, though a smaller number of arrests (around 300) were approved shortly after. The split within SAVAK “was a worrying sign for a regime that relied so heavily on unity at the top”, as Cooper remarks.

SUMMER OF DISCONTENT

The last two weeks of May and the 5 June anniversary of the 1963 uprising passed essentially peacefully. The quiet removed the urgency the Shah felt to find terms with Shariatmadari, leaving the moderates divided when the radicals made their move. With a false picture of his predicament in mind, the Shah acted on 6 June to liberalise further: the hardline Nasiri was fired and replaced by Nasser Moghadam. Hardliners were removed from key posts in the civil service, too. And soon amnesties were granted to extremists. At a gathering of intellectuals the same day, the Shah said the disorders were “the price we must pay to achieve maximum freedom”. Further openness was granted to criticise the government for corruption and incompetence, aired on national television. The signal was meant to be reformist strength, but many saw existential weakness.

William Sullivan, 1972 [source]

Cooper shows time and again that the British ambassador to Iran, Anthony Parsons, would have handily won the contest for the most misinformed foreign diplomat in the country, were it not for the presence of the American ambassador, William Sullivan, and to a lesser degree Sullivan’s deputy, Charlie Naas. Sullivan never understood the environment, neither the Shah and the pressures on his regime from so open an embrace of the West, nor Khomeini. Naturally, Sullivan read the June events in reverse, believing the Shah had charted the way to greater stability. Other officials, like Mike Metrinko at the Consulate in Tabriz, had a much clearer picture.

The situation precipitately worsened in June 1978. The power grid failed. Austerity eliminated certain border security mechanisms that made it easier for the PLO to get operatives and weapons inside Iran. A misguided tax on foreign travel, charged at the point of exit, incentivised middle-class Iranians to take longer summer vacations—meaning many of the Shah’s influential supporters were out of the country as the crucial battle began in August. And then Moghadam released the religious extremists arrested in May. This did not placate the protesters; it swelled their ranks. It did demoralise the rank-and-file of the security forces, though, on the eve of the extremists’ bid for power.

In early August 1978, the CIA insisted that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation”. There was, said the CIA, “dissatisfaction with the Shah’s tight control of the political process, but this does not at present threaten the government.”

Ramadan began on 5 August and Khomeini’s agents used the occasion to mobilise religious sentiment against the regime. The ground had been prepared by the accidental death of Ahmad Kafi, a popular preacher, in a car crash on 20 July, for which the regime was blamed. The disappearance of Ayatollah Jalal al-Din Taheri on 31 July in Isfahan, with rumours of SAVAK’s responsibility, helped push that city over the edge, with open armed rebellion—led by PLO guerrillas—erupting on 10 August. Southern Tehran came to a boil. There was a suicide bombing at the Khansalar Restaurant, “a favourite Tehran nightspot for American and European diners”, as Cooper notes, on 13 August. Most horrible of all was the fire set by Islamists at the Rex Cinema in Abadan on 19 August, the 25th anniversary of Mossadeq’s ouster. 430 people were murdered, the worst act of terrorism since the Second World War.

The Shah made a speech in the morning of 19 August, promising national elections in the summer of 1979, which at last convinced Sullivan he had made a “fundamental political decision … to transform his authoritarian regime into a genuine democracy”. But the Shah blundered in the evening by continuing with the National Day celebrations. Khomeini responded three days later, accusing the regime of a false-flag operation to discredit the Islamists; in the febrile situation of that summer, many believed him.

The appointment of Jafar Sharif-Emami as Prime Minister on 27 August brought to office a highly unpopular man with an awful reputation for corruption as head of the Pahlavi Foundation. Within short order, Sharif-Emami caved to the Islamists on all fronts—closing casinos and nightclubs, changing the calendar to the Islamic lunar calendar—and abolished the Rastakhiz Party, lifting all restrictions on political parties. Unfortunately, the National Front was caught flat-footed and LMI had come to terms with the revolutionaries; the radicals flooded into the vacuum.

THE END

On 4 September, exploiting the new political openness, a crowd that grew to about 200,000 marched eight miles in the centre of Tehran, with Khomeini’ists hijacking the event with a clear message: “Death to the Shah!” In the evening, after surveying this scene, the Shah decided he had lost the farr, and “would quit Iran at the earliest possible chance”, writes Cooper. There was self-pity in the Shah’s reasoning—he felt he had lavished his efforts on an ungrateful people, whom he was not about to beg for another chance.

The implementation of martial law on 7 September didn’t stop the “Black Friday” incident the next day, when PLO-trained MEK guerrillas provoked a shoot-out with security forces in Jaleh Square that got 88 people killed. Foreign news channels, channelling Khomeini’s people, said 3,000 had been killed. The event is often regarded as the beginning of the revolution in the West; it did finally bring Iran to Cabinet attention for the Carter administration.[6] But in fact this was the end, confirming the Shah in his decision to leave. Such killing couldn’t be undone and if he was the reason for division, he hoped his departure would heal the nation’s wounds.

Empress Farah was prepared to fight on, at least for her son, Crown Prince Reza, and the many millions of Iranians who still supported the monarchy, if only as a shield against the theocrats. There were any number of Generals who would have answered their King’s call for a military coup to replace the ineffective civilian government and hold elections after the mayhem had been suppressed. Other officers planned for their own insurgency the day after a Khomeini takeover, Cooper writes: they would withdraw the security forces from the capital, encourage mobs to burn down Tehran, and—having seized the oil fields in the south, choking off the lifeline of a fledgling Islamist regime—fight their way back to power after announcing a rebel government from Abadan. The Shah would have none of it: he would not plunge the country into civil war and bloodshed to retain or regain his throne. “If my people don’t want me,” the Shah said, “I will not stay by force”. Often criticised as indecisive, on this the Shah was firm—and his decision essentially foreclosed the various plots that developed in the Court for more hardline action to quell the revolution.

In the interim before he could leave, the Shah “issued explicit instructions to [the head of the Imperial Army] General [Gholam-Ali] Oveissi that there should be no repeat of Jaleh Square. ‘I don’t want any Iranian to even have a bloody nose,’ he ordered. If the troops had to fire in self-defense or clear the streets, he insisted they first fire rounds in the air and only in extreme situations aim at protesters’ legs. … Again and again, courtiers overheard him reminding this general or that colonel to hold fire.”

The 4 October expulsion of Khomeini from Iraq turned out to be a disaster, giving the cleric a megaphone to mislead the world as to his intentions. As Banisadr admits to Cooper, Banisadr coached Khomeini in how to answer journalists’ questions, which all had to be submitted in advance of Khomeini’s daily press conference. Khomeini was also careful to tell his agents in Iran, on telephone lines he knew were tapped, not to use violence; the CIA thus got the impression he was acting to restrain the situation, rather than waiting for the Shah’s departure to stage a Bolshevik-style coup.

Khomeini’s men had confined Shariatmadari to his home by mid-September and took a step back from view. The Communists took the lead in orchestrating street actions and strikes on the oil fields that collapsed production by two-thirds in October. Martial law collapsed in the last week of October 1978, at a time when “capital worth $50 million was leaving Iran each day, a total of $3 billion since Jaleh Square,” Cooper writes. This collusion between what the Shah called “the Red and the Black” grounded domestic flights through strike action on 1 November, the day the Shah first intimated to the U.S. and U.K. ambassadors that he would leave.

Total anarchy overtook the capital on 4 and 5 November, beginning at the University of Tehran, leaving the streets literally on fire. The regime began feeding its own to the crowd; offering sacrifices on charges of corruption to try to appease the revolutionaries.

The Shah reacted on 6 November by appointing a military government led by Gholam Reza Azhari (rather than, as the Court hoped, General Oveissi), and martial law was declared again, this time with shoot-to-kill orders for violators. The revolutionaries transferred their emphasis to the south to collapse the economy at the oil fields. Worse, the Shah gave a speech that day in which he said he had “heard the revolutionary message of you the people”. The Islamists and Communists smelled blood. The Israelis evacuated the last of their citizens. The royalists who were not already heading for the exits did so; Cooper notes that many reacted viscerally against the Shahanshah (King of Kings) debasing himself before a street mob of fanatics. Only the liberals could believe any good was to come from this, holding to the hope that it would convince the National Front, LMI, Shariatmadari, and the Palace to find a compromise.

AMERICAN FOLLIES

Abolhassan Banisadr, Mehdi Bazargan, Ruhollah Khomeini [source]At this point, Washington was still unaware of Sullivan’s freelance diplomacy, which had sought to cultivate Bazargan, regarded by most as Khomeini’s man, and other senior figures in the National Front and LMI. The Shah was well-aware of what Sullivan was doing, and became convinced the U.S. was engaged in a conspiracy against him. As the Mitrokhin Archive discloses, the KGB exploited this, executing active measures to reinforce the Shah’s “suspicions of the United States”. Still, the KGB—like the CIA, (most of) the Western media, and Iran’s middle-class—had no idea what was coming from Khomeini because they simply hadn’t studied his book or the cassette tapes of his sermons that were sold on every street corner.

It’s not surprising the Shah got the idea the Americans had it in for him: as he fought for his political life, the U.S. government went to war with itself and there were basically no instructions from the top.

Sullivan’s arrogant incompetence really leaves one speechless. Not content to cavort with all manner of zealot, so desperate was he to establish communications with Khomeini, Sullivan continued to be more anxious about the Shah cracking down than the unfolding revolution. Sullivan even prevented U.S. specialists coming to Iran in late October to train the Army in non-lethal riot-control, helping leave the choice between an Islamist takeover or the use of lethal force to prevent it—and the Shah would not sanction the latter.

Ibrahim Yazdi, 1979 [source]

Henry Precht, the State Department’s Iran desk officer, actually did have it in for the Shah, and it coloured everything he did, including taking Ibrahim Yazdi at his word when he produced analysis. Some, like National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski were more open to the idea of a military coup to stabilise matters; others like Secretary of State Cyrus Vance took Sullivan’s line that this was the one eventuality to be avoided at all costs. The CIA had detected the Libyan money and Palestinian guerrillas fomenting the chaos, yet didn’t pass this on to Carter’s National Security Council. Indeed, the only thing everyone from that period agrees on—most of them having spoken on-the-record to Cooper—is that the CIA was no use to anybody; it didn’t even translate Khomeini’s Islamic Government (1970) until March 1979.[7]

The White House nearly began to comprehend something of the scale of the problem and met on 2 November to discuss it. But on 3 November, Brzezinski discovered the CIA’s analysis from August that said Iran was not even at a pre-revolutionary stage, and sent it to Carter, declaring, “Good news!” Cooper drily notes: “The next day, Saturday, November 4, all hell broke loose.”

Sullivan could not even be wise after the fact. Realising it was essentially over, Sullivan wrote a long telegram, “Thinking the Unthinkable“, on 9 November, proposing that the Shah and the senior officials of the Imperial Army leave—so a deal could be struck between Khomeini and the military remnants to run the country. This thinking was lifted straight from Bazargan, who assured Sullivan that elections, free press, and anti-Communism would be the result if he helped ease the Shah out. When Bazargan described eliminating the upper echelons of the military, Sullivan entirely missed the point that this purge was supposed to dissolve the final pillar of the Pahlavi state and its pro-Western orientation.

Sullivan even held court in December, via Bazargan, with Muhammad Beheshti, Khomeini’s real commander inside Iran, known to be ferociously anti-American and to have been involved in murdering Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur in January 1965 and kidnapping Musa al-Sadr. After that, Sullivan moved on to Ayatollah Yayha Nuri, a rabid antisemite. Sullivan took the assurances of Beheshti and Nuri at face-value; the Khomeini’ists would moderate the Leftists, he believed. Khomeini “could be expected to return to Iran in triumph and hold a Gandhi-like position in the political constellation”, Sullivan wrote in his telegram.

To the Shah and to the revolutionaries, Sullivan made it appear that the U.S. had dumped the King and was cutting a deal with the Islamists. Any resistance left in the regime evaporated and all hesitation from the revolutionaries ceased.

THE REVOLUTIONARIES’ FINAL PUSH

With the atmosphere ever-more febrile,[8] Khomeini had called for an escalation over Muharram (beginning 2 December) to force the Shah from power. The ban on the Muharram commemorations was lifted on 8 December, the day it appeared the Shah had reached a deal with Shariatmadari. But it was too late. The festivities culminated with Tasua on 10 December and Ashura on 11 December; at least a quarter of Tehran’s five million people were on the streets and similarly large crowds turned out in other cities. Things were much more explicitly Khomeini’ist and aggressive than Ramadan. Isfahan erupted in violence against state structures and MEK tried to assassinate an official. Two men at one of the Shah’s elite military academies turned guns on their officers and murdered twelve people.

By mid-December, Iranians who could and the foreigners—especially the large American population—were camped at Mehrebad Airport amidst hysterical scenes. Planes didn’t have enough fuel for full trips; oil production was under-500,000 barrels-per-day and exports had ceased. Airport staff and even the caterers were on strike. Coming the other way, PLO terrorists and Khomeini’s men were flooding into the country. Martial law collapsed for the last time on 27 December.

In the final few days of Imperial Iran, some Leftists began to realise what the Islamists had planned, and Cooper documents that at least one of them alerted Sullivan—not that it changed his mind. To the last, all American observers harboured illusions that all was not lost, that the military would hold together in the Shah’s absence.

The Shah kept a regular schedule on the morning of his departure. He then made sure Shapour Bakhtiar, appointed to replace the hapless Azhari, was confirmed in office and refused—again—to hand authority to the Chief of the General Staff, General Abbas Gharabaghi. At 13:24 on 16 January 1979, the Shah’s plane took off and he and the Queen left Iran for the last time. The Carter administration had not supported its ally in a meaningful way while he was in office, and it wasn’t going to start now. The Shah became, in Henry Kissinger’s famous phrase, “a Flying Dutchman looking for a port of call”, finally being allowed to settle in Egypt by Anwar al-Sadat.

Khomeini returned triumphant on 1 February. His great antagonist, Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari, sarcastically remarked that while all expected the return of the Mahdi, “no one expected the Hidden Imam to arrive in a Jumbo Jet”. On 10 February, Cooper narrates, the armed coup the Islamists had long planned began, sweeping in from an air force base in eastern Tehran. The mosques and other places where weapons had been stockpiled were opened. The city became “a free-fire zone. The ministries, palaces, and national broadcasting headquarters were quickly seized”, Cooper writes. While some senior officers debated whether to resist, Gharabaghi declared the military neutral, and on 11 February the Shah’s state completely collapsed.

There were some final gasps of resistance to Khomeini. Iranian Kurdistan erupted in rebellion in March 1979; it was mostly pacified by the summer, but it would remain a trouble-spot in many ways down the present. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 was to counter the tentative moves toward rapprochement by Prime Minister Bazargan, for which Khomeini had rebuked him in public. It worked; Bazargan’s “moderate” government resigned in protest when Khomeini declared his support for this “second revolution”. Carter’s feeble response emboldened the hostage-takers, who stood down only 444 days later as Carter left office. With power consolidated within his own camp and over much of the country, the last stand against Khomeini was Shariatmadari. The marja urged a boycott of the December 1979 referendum to abolish the monarchy and declare an Islamic Republic. He was defeated, as was the brief uprising in Tabriz among his Azeri ethnic kin that immediately followed.

CONCLUSION

The cost in blood for the triumph of Khomeini was high, rapid, and not contained to Iran. Neither Moghadam, who had probably betrayed the Shah in the last months, nor Pakravan, who saved Khomeini in 1963, were spared by the “revolutionary tribunals”, Cooper notes. 8,000 people perished by 1985 in an orgy of bloodletting that had already begun to consume its own. The July-September 1988 slaughter in the prisons of “enemies of Islam” (atheist and Leftist dissidents) took at least 5,000 more lives. Iran was attacked by Saddam in 1980, but it was the revolutionary regime’s choice to carry the war on for six years after Iraqi forces were expelled from its territory in June 1982 in the hope of installing a sister republic in Baghdad; a million people died in that war. The global campaign of terrorism, assassinations, and bombings continues to this day. From 2011 down to the present, Iran has underwritten crimes against humanity of a kind rarely seen since the Holocaust by supporting Bashar al-Asad. Nobody really knows how many Syrians have been killed by the Asad-Iran-Russia coalition, but half-a-million is the conservative estimate.

​The fall of the Shah and the establishment of a theocratic state immeasurably emboldened the emerging Islamist trend. The current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was especially impressed by what Khomeini had done. The benefit of hindsight has made the counter-factual, where the Shah survives the upheaval of 1978-9, popular. But Cooper’s study allows us to see that while there were things that might have been done differently at an earlier stage to avoid what happened, once the confrontation with a radical revolution is underway this is no hypothetical at all. The final paradox is: to the extent there was anything admirable about the Shah, it meant that he would not do what was needed to save himself in the face of such a challenge. The Shah was asked later why he didn’t “go all out” to defeat Khomeini. “I wasn’t this man”, the fallen monarch responded: “If you wanted someone to kill people, you had to find somebody else.”

 

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

 

Notes

[1] The Fedayeen’s history is told by Yassamine Mather, a former member. Founded in February 1971, it merged together Masud Ahmadzadeh’s Maoism and “guerrilla warfare” (terrorism) with Amir-Parviz Pouyan’s 1968-ish ideas. Bijan Jazani, from Tudeh, against which the Fedayeen defined themselves, was also initially involved. Despite claiming a line independent of both the Soviet Union and Red China, the Fedayeen drew closer to Moscow, in terms both of its political alliances and its ideological Stalinism. The Fedayeen was very influential among university students and the literati, and made some inroads with the oil workers, whose strikes helped bring down the Shah.

[2] For more on the origin story of Hizballah/IRGC and the Musa al-Sadr saga, see work by Tony Badran: here and here. By luck, Badran has a piece in Tablet today on exactly this question of the Arafat/PLO role in creating IRGC—and providing support to the other factions, notably MEK.

[3] MEK split with Khomeini by mid-1981, and its leader, Masud Rajavi, fled the country with the first president, Abolhassan Banisadr.

Mather explains that the Fedayeen split very soon after the Khomeini takeover. The Majority essentially merged with Tudeh, viewing the Islamic Republic as “anti-imperialist”—that is to say on the side of Soviet imperialism, rather than American imperialism—and “objectively” moving Iran closer to the “socialist camp”. The Minority walked out of the Central Committee and also objected to the takeover of the American Embassy, seeing it as a distraction from the internal repression of the new government. The Majority and Tudeh provided the Khomeini’ists with cover as they crushed the Left; the Minority became an outlaw faction, with membership a capital crime. As could easily have been predicted, this did not save the Majority or Tudeh: by 1983 the Communists who had supported the Islamist triumph over the Shah had to flee for their lives from their erstwhile allies.

Tudeh’s downfall, as documented in The World Was Going Our Way, was partly related to the defection of a KGB officer at the Tehran Embassy, Vladimir Kuzichkin, in 1982. Kuzichkin handed material to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or “MI6”), which passed it to the CIA, who in turn passed it to Tehran. Khomeini expelled the deputy at the rezidentura, Leonid Shebarshin, and seventeen other KGB officers, then arrested 200 leading Tudeh militants, including the entire Central Committee. On May Day 1983 forced Tudeh general-secretary Nureddin Kianuri (who had replaced Iaj Eskandari in January 1979) and his lead ideologist, Ehsan Tabari, onto state television to make “confessions” of subversion and treason. Kianuri and Tabari were among the few spared so they could be wheeled out every-so-often for propaganda reasons.

[4] Many governments in the Middle East crush the mainstream opposition—those who have negotiable demands and use peaceful tactics. This is partly because this is easiest; such figures are looking to engage the state, they are overt, not operating from the shadows as the radical underground does. But often states cynically and wilfully eliminate the engageable opposition in order to leave a binary choice, for the population and foreign governments, between the regime and the radicals. Syria and Algeria are outstanding such cases. Similar dynamics are at work in Egypt, as Reuel Marc Gerecht has explained, where Hosni Mubarak focused on the secular democrats, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood to flourish, a spectre to frighten local liberals and Westerners who were thinking about other options.

[5] Iranian Jews came under pressure after the defeat of the Arab armies and the founding of Israel in 1948. 50,000 or more departed to Israel over the next five years. After Mossadeq’s removal and the Shah exerting ever-more authority, this stopped and the 100,000 remaining Jews thrived, as they so often do elsewhere, as a model minority. Unlike in the Arab states, the Shah prevented pogroms and expulsions in 1967 and continued his relationship with Israel after 1973. After 1979, more than 90,000 Iranian Jews have left.

[6] President Carter was personally distracted with Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. 1978 had been a busy one in general for the American government, however. Israel retaliated against the PLO into southern Lebanon and the Communists took over Afghanistan in the spring, setting the country on the road to the Soviet occupation. Over the summer, Ethiopia attacked Eritrea and the friendly government in Nicaragua began giving way to a Soviet-directed insurgency. The Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated in London (the infamous “umbrella murder”) in September 1978, and Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day. In the background, throughout the autumn, Spain was completing its transition to democracy. At a popular level, the American press in the crucial period was dominated by the massacre-suicide of 900 American cultists at Jonestown, the Year of Three Popes, and the murders in California, within ten days of one-another, of Harvey Milk, the first elected homosexual official in the U.S., and the Mayor of San Francisco George Moscone.

[7] Islamic Government was a compilation of nineteen lectures Khomeini gave in Najaf in February 1970. The slim volume was published later that year and distributed through the networks that spread the Imam’s audio tapes. The book was available in Western libraries, and had been from roughly the time of its publication, but only in Persian and Arabic, which limited its distribution—not only with the media but intelligence services. When the book was drawn to the CIA’s attention in 1978, one of the Agency’s reactions was that the book was a fabrication that had been planted by anti-Khomeini forces, probably Israel. The State Department was no better. As late as February 1979, Precht gave credence to the idea that the book was a forgery. Meanwhile, Thomas Ricks at The Washington Post objected to what little attention the book had had, declaring the excerpts that had been appearing in newspapers “out of context”. Many Iranians, especially Khomeini’s tactical allies among the more secular oppositionists, reached similar conclusions on the rare occasions they came across his book, dismissing it as a provocation, whether by SAVAK, CIA, or MOSSAD. In the crucial period, Khomeini stuck to Banisadr’s script in messaging the West to hide his rabid sectarianism and totalitarianism—a task made far easier by the Western media treating Khomeini almost wholly uncritically, as a sort of saint, as against the “tyrannical Shah”. When the media did finally publish a story on Khomeini’s views—on the inside of The New York Times on 30 December 1978—the Imam and his Paris propaganda shop simply denied the authenticity of the book, and by then it hardly mattered. It was over.

An earlier, wider dissemination of Khomeini’s views would have blunted the Imam’s appeal within Iran and beyond, and such a plan was formulated by the Shah but ultimately went nowhere. Cooper recounts a trip by Ali Kani, one of the Shah’s senior officials, to Beirut in 1973 to meet Musa al-Sadr, who was a childhood friend of Kani’s. Al-Sadr gave Kani “a twenty-page booklet written in Arabic that contained ‘the concise thoughts of Khomeini’.” “This is the juice of a sick mind,” said al-Sadr, who advised that 200,000 copies be published “and distribute[d] … to the universities so the intellectuals can read Khomeini and learn who he really is.” Kani handed the book to the Shah, who ordered Prime Minister Hoveyda to print up 500,000 copies and “spread them around the universities, bazaars, and mosques”. Cooper notes that “Hoveyda had a standing habit of agreeing with the Shah to his face and then taking the opposite action in private.” There was a personal animosity between Kani and Hoveyda that coloured the Prime Minister’s decision to hand the book off to a committee, rather than immediately publish. Ultimately, the panel decided that distributing the book would give Khomeini a platform, so they suppressed the whole thing, which “only increased its currency as a forbidden tract in the seminaries”, Cooper concludes, and left many students and others who would take to the streets in 1978 in the dark about what they were helping to usher in.

[8] The most notable incident of sheer hysteria occurred on 27 November 1978. The day before, a story was spread—probably instigated by Beheshti—that an old woman in Qom had found one of the Prophet Muhammad’s hairs in a Qur’an and been informed by an apparition that Khomeini’s face would appear on the moon, visible only to the believers, in the evening of the 27th. As frequently occurred during that period, the rumour spread rapidly and widely. At the appointed hour, hundreds of thousands of Iranians, perhaps millions, cutting across every ethnic, socio-economic, linguistic, and political cleavage, claimed to have seen the Imam’s face on the moon. Even the official organ of the Communist Tudeh Party joined in, saying: “A few pip-squeaks cannot deny what a whole nation has seen with its own eyes”.

Khomeini’s “moon trick”, which Cooper says was the moment the Shah became “convinced … that he had utterly failed in his efforts to modernize Iran”, did not occur in a vacuum. As the “return of Islam” had made itself felt in Iran, the religious revival had been accompanied with an increase in various superstitions and conspiracy theories, and these factors had become more prominent as Iran’s political crisis deepened. There had, for example, been an uptick in UFO sightings over the years immediately before the revolution. One incident, on 18 September 1976, had come to the attention of the Shah and the craft had been detected by Iran’s radar equipment, though no conclusive explanation given. There was a UFO sighting over Tehran on 27 February 1978 as the embers of revolution flickered, and another on 16 July, when Ali Farboudi and his friend, Amir Barjan, ostensibly caught a UFO on camera.

Post has been updated

1 thought on “The Fall of the Shah and the Rise of Islamism

  1. craken

    One of the most interesting characteristics of real revolutions is that they’re always two front wars: the war against the regnant power and the factional war within the revolution. And these wars are fought simultaneously, adding to the unpredictability of outcomes.
    The Shah was a weak character, unfit to rule, a hypocrite who saved himself but not his country–because he deemed himself too morally superior to do the necessary violent self-defense. His father was right about him.
    As to the self-deluding Iranian Leftists: they traded a quasi-capitalist regime for a quasi-medieval regime determined to ensure that religion remained the opiate of the people.

    Like

    Reply

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