1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran

15 May, 2016 John Flint Iran History 4870 Views 30 Shares
1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran

 Following Mossadegh and the CIA's First Coup, in 1979 Iran experienced what was known as the Islamic Revolution. NATO had artificially bolstered the monarch of Mohammad Reza Shah, now known as 'The Last Shah' (King) of Iran. Here is a summary of the events.



Deals and Defense


Shortly after the CIA's 1953 coup, the national oil industry was denationalized. An American energy consortium claimed a 40% fresh stake for all their hard work with the coup. The resulting western policy towards Iran mirrored that of neighboring gulf kingdoms, also energy rich, except that they received around 50% profit share to Iran's meager 25%. In any event the Shah just married into a family of the world's largest power brokers.


To maintain status quo, the United States maintained energy and security agreements in the region. This included protecting Israel's forced expansion (hard policy) and hasbara expansion (soft policy), in addition to favourable oil contracts for U.S. corporations. In return the United States would provide financial aid, allow Iran to join OPEC's oil cartel, and provide the Shah's regime with heavy defense and security contracts. The United States learned 'Game Theory' from the British pretty quickly - Or did they?


Many Iranians were annoyed by the Shah's ties with the United States. This included Israel's contentious policies in Palestine and the western oil deal following the 1953 coup. There were those annoyed by the presence of many Americans in their country, while others saw the United States as having taken the place of the colonial British. In 1957 SAVAK was created as a security and intelligence organization, and supported by the CIA and Israeli intelligence. It was described as Iran’s Gestapo at the time; "the most hated and feared institution" until 1979. The practice of imprisonment, torture, and political executions were extensive. The Federation of American Scientists found it guilty of "the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners," while also symbolizing "the Shah's rule from 1963-79." The FAS list of SAVAK torture methods included "electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails."

Several underground groups formed, including a group called the Fedaiyan-e Islam. They tried to assassinate the Shah's prime minister, and in return the Shah responded by executing a few of its members and repressing the group. The Shah began centralized his regime with NATO’s military and security protection bolstering his powers and personal wealth.



Mounting Bubble


The Shah cracked down on dissent. In 1963, theological students in Qom rallied against a scheduled opening of liquor stores. In retaliation the Shah's paratroopers and SAVAK attacked the movement into quick suppression. The disturbance spread to students in Tabriz. It has been suggested the Shah's government had killed numbers amounting into the hundreds between the two cities.


Ayatollah Khomeini called the Shah's rule tyrannical, and the government retaliated accordingly. Khomeini became a symbol of freedom, sovereignty, and peace for many Iranians. His arrest caused anti-government demonstrations and rioting in several cities. Martial law was eventually declared, when tanks and troops started patrolling the streets, and Iran's air force repeatedly fired at a column of marchers. In two days the demonstrations were crushed. Many ayatollahs and other supporters were arrested, and thousands more were estimated killed. While the government declared only 86 deaths, others put the figure closer to 10,000.

The Shah's government exiled Khomeini. He moved to southern Iraq, and started distributing pamphlets and tape recordings back to his Iranian supporters. The Shah’s opposition widened extensively and Khomeini slowly became the main focal of hope. Khomeini described Islam as opposed to the monarchy, suggesting the king of kings is naught but God.



'White' Revolution


From 1963 into the 70's, the Shah struggled to modernize Iran with what was dubbed 'The White Revolution.' He sought to balance his increased power by providing reforms to the win favor of common Iranians. The urban sprawl and town planning was uncontrolled, many heritage buildings and the old Tehran city walls were demolished. Congestion and problems would mount and shape the story of Tehran into the future. Landlords and some clerics were outspokenly opposed to these reforms. As a result Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict), and the government owned radio station responded with a ridicule. The Shah announced that his reforms would bring Iran into the jet age while the mullahs wanted to remain "in the age of the donkeys." As a result more conservative academics and clerics from rural areas joined Khomeini's followers.


The White Revolution included a large series of economic, social, and political reforms. The U.S. foreign strategists at the time saw the Shah as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Perhaps this sounds familiar with the current House of Saud, Egypt, Jordan, and other Gulf States. Even more curious with the 2011 Arab Spring, unfortunately NATO let Syria Hit the Wall.

The proliferation of atomic power in Iran expanded from the 1960's, modern fertilizers and pesticides were introduced. Ultimately between 1963 and 1967 Iran's economy rose dramatically to the tune of 30-50%, surpassing even Japan. Oil production boomed producing much needed cash reserves for Iran to grow, steel production also quadrupled over the next decade. The new oil refineries, aluminum smelters, machine tool factories, tractors, trucks and automobiles in Iran became paramount to the region's developing economy. Public health services improved, as did education. The growth was very high, in fact the Shah declared in a public English interview that Iran would eventually become more wealthy than even Britain itself.




Yet the memory of the bloody upheaval of 1963 remained and the Shah was not about to relax his attempt to control opposition. So in 1966 media and book censorship was established, including mosque publications. The Shah also introduced laws to give women the right to apply for divorce without the husband's permission, and limited second wives for men. Many family laws were transferred from cultural standards to secular courts, generally based on French culture.


While the cultural overhaul was successful in some regards. A sufficiently large part of his strategy included centralizing the Monarch’s power. Between 1975-1978 he abolished the multi-party political system in favor of his single political party system (Rastakhiz), placed his pictures all over the streets (similar to other authoritarian regimes), set up a national trade body for soft commodities, weakened the political influence of bazaari's, banned many traditional clothes, and disposed any dissident to his rule.


Despite the booming economy, the wealth gap widened and many Iranians struggled financially including the bourgeoisie. Agricultural supply couldn't meet the population boom, creating inflation upwards of 50 percent some years. The Shah attempted to introduce price controls to combat inflation (pretext to above interview). This upset traditional bazaari's and suppliers, as rental properties rose upwards of 300 percent in five years, stripping around 50% from the average family earnings. Corruption had also emerged as a difficult problem, especially within SAVAK and the royal circles.

There was a strong conservative society, yet the Shah arranged a raunchy Vogue photo shoot in 1969. These were next to some of Iran's largest tourist destinations, so perhaps it's no surprise the following revolution was an Islamic one. Hopefully Saudi Arabia doesn’t make the same mistakes.





Here's a promotional video at Dizin Ski Resort Iran with Billy Kidd, Suzy Chaffee, Farah Pahlavi, 1978.




A Revolution - but What Type?


Arrests and mysterious murders continued. The Carter administration suggested that if Iran did not improve its human rights record, aid and military assistance might be terminated. The Shah's regime finally released 357 political prisoners. However the fervent anger against the Shah and corruption remained festering. Academics, writers and publishers called for freedom of thought. Up to 64 lawyers called for the abolition of military tribunals. Merchants took to the streets and clashed with police. A group of 120 lawyers joined to publicize SAVAK's activities and prison conditions, including Qasr Political Prison. Academics formed a group with teachers and students, and rumors started spreading about the immoral and corrupt lifestyle of the Pahlavi royal family.


Dr. Shariati was a progressive Islamic scholar and sociologist, he was one of the most influential Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century, and was one of Khomeini's greatest allies. Yet Khomeini and Shariati shared something more personal in common, they were both arrested and exiled by the Shah. Three weeks after arriving in England in June 1977, Shariati was found dead in his apartment. Ayatollah Khomeini's son, Mustapha, was found dead in his bed also. Many suspected SAVAK had committed the murders. Theological colleges in the city of Qom shut their doors in protest. In January 1978, 4,000 religious students demanded restoration of freedoms. The police addressed the crowd with their weapons, and when the demonstrators dared the police to shoot, that's exactly what they did.


Distress mounted as rallies chanted "Death to the Shah." They attacked liquor shops and theaters showing movies they considered inappropriate. Martial law ramped up again, however this time it was different. An army garrison refused to fire on protesters, and some policemen changed into civilian clothes and left the confrontation. Nonetheless there were estimated to be 100 deaths and about 600 injured, and the Shah made a public apology. He visited Iran's greatest Islamic shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. He must have felt deep remorse, because he then promised many things including banning movies considered pornographic, releasing merchants imprisoned for over charging, removed the head of SAVAK, and tried to stomp out corruption. However, the small changes were too late.


The martial law continued, hundreds more died when tanks and troops attacked crowds of protesters. The troops were ordered to shoot to kill. Helicopter gunships drove people out from the Jaleh city square in Tehran. The day of 8th Sept 1978 is known as Black Friday, when the government claimed there were 168 casualties, however demonstration organizers claim between 2,000 - 3,000. The actual figure is rather subjective.


Khomeini continued fueling the revolutionary movement from Iraq to overthrow the Shah, and called for mass work stoppages. The Shah managing to dislodge Khomeini from Saddam's Iraq. So Khomeini flew to Paris, where he could freely preach with freedom of speech. He received several interviews per day, so he was very publicized in the west, and the Shah didn’t dare touch him. Demonstrations, government killings, and work stoppages spread. Postal, oil, banks, journalists, mineworkers, customs officials, transport and other workers went on strike. As did most of the education system. The workers demanded better wages, dissolve SAVAK, end martial law, and allow for Khomeini's orderly return. The wealthy moved their wealth abroad.

However the Shah didn't accept reality. Late in 1978 the Shah promised to make amends, so he began arresting prominent members of his own regime. However he became deeply depressed as his military protection and social support was melting away. Meanwhile Khomeini had been eagerly preparing for his grand return, the Shah in power on paper only, but Khomeini had the Iranian people in the palm of his hand. The airport was previously in military lockdown to prevent Khomeini's landing. However things started changing quickly. The military was under U.S. security influence, however were ordered to stand down for Khomeini's arrival. This information is based on BBC'S June 2016 Report indicating there was secret engagement between the U.S. and Khomeini prior to the revolution. Jimmy Carter requested the Shah go on vacation abroad, and he did.



Power to Ayatollah Khomeini's Elbow


Bakhtiar, previously a critic of the Shah, was appointed as prime minister in the Shah's absence. Although Bakhtiar's days in power were numbered. He ordered for the rest of the political prisoners to be freed, lifted censorship, de-escalated martial law, and dissolved SAVAK. He quickly pushed for democratic elections, but it was too late, he was branded as a puppet by Khomeini.


Perhaps it’s no surprise the Shah's policies came back to haunt him, the people Shah suppressed the most, essentially fueled the 1979 revolution. When Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France, he was greeted by crowds reaching the millions. So large in fact, that in only 10 days the revolution was successful.

Once the monarch was removed, various groups were pushing rival agendas and demanded immediate action. Chaos grew and government buildings and radio station were seized. Huge quantities of arms were stolen, and militias looted the streets. The 40,000 or so Americans in Iran at the time feared for their safety, so returned home, leaving only the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. However by that time Khomeini emerged with the largest support base, rising to seize Iran.



The Islamic Republic of Iran


With Khomeini's strong and steely character, he managed to introduce Islamic Sharia law with his cleric and scholar allies. The rules were quickly pieced together in a quasi-democislamic fashion. No female judges were allowed, women were required to wear hejab head coverings, all non-Islamic forces were to be removed from government, corruption "ended," alcohol and gambling was banned (such as the Shah’s casino on Kish Island), along with nightclubs and mixed bathing, Khomeini appointed all Friday prayer leaders, and segregated men and women in public life.


Reverse imprisonment, executions and media controls were installed. There was also a referendum on the national political system, which coincidentally had only 'Islamic Republic' on the ballot paper. It was reported that over 98 percent voted in favor, when Khomeini eventually declared the nation as the 'Islamic Republic of Iran.'


The core structure of the country shifted. The masses not only dismantled the monarchy, but students also scouted the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in vehicles near Honarmandan Park. Finally they raided the premise, only to find a CIA bunker and the staff frantically shredding thousands of classified documents. The former American embassy in Tehran was later nicknamed 'the US Den of Espionage' or the 'Den of Spies,' United States was branded "Great Satan," and Israel "Little Satan." The students held the fifty-three Americans hostage and demanded that the US deliver the Shah back to Iran in exchange. The Carter Administration refused, and Americans remained in hostage for 444 days.


President Carter failed to rescue the hostages in April 1980 in Operation Desert Claw. The plane wreckage still remains near Tabas. The Shah died of cancer in July that year. It has been suggested Iran agreed to free the hostages in exchange for $8 billion in frozen assets and a promise by the United States to lift trade sanctions. However there are some conspiracy theories regarding the release details and timing. As for the former U.S. embassy, it’s not open to the public but the students did the meticulous job of taping the shredded paper back together. The 2012 film Argo did not provide reference to the cultural context of America’s involvement in the Middle East prior to the embassy crisis. However it's fair to say Iran had been economically and culturally exploited.


Iran's political system evolved with patchwork institutions, consisting of loose democratic principles and cleric experts appointing the Supreme Leader as the head of state on Islamic principles. Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi appeared in support of Iran's Islamic solidarity at the time.


NATO had just lost one of their most powerful allies when In December 1979, the Soviet Afghan War just started. NATO backed rural Islamic rebels (Mujahideen) against the Soviet backed Afghan government. The Arabian countries and Pakistan highlands were essential for logistical and ideological support in guerrilla warfare. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan ran hundreds of theological Islamic schools throughout the region. The war displaced many Afghan refugees into Iran.


However in 1980 Saddam Hussein became a bigger problem for Iran. Saddam maintained a strictly Sunni and secular rule over Iraq's majority Shiite population. Iraq resisted Iran's growing calls for a Shiite uprising, until Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 in what would became the longest conventional war in the 20th century. International politics was changing fast. US foreign policy experts quickly turned hostile toward Iran, supplying Saddam with chemical weapons, significant supplies and security support. Iran was left with extensive military assets from the Shah's rule, however equipment training and experience left Iran in a long scrap fight. The impacts of the war took around 1 million lives in total until 1988, and Iran lost 20 years of growth progress. However the chemical side effects left are still causing deaths in Iran. If you're interested, Iran's Military Museum in Tehran has pre-revolution choppers and fighter planes from the U.S. Also cars Mossad (Israeli security) had apparently recently blown up also. Iran is very proud of their martyrs defending the republic's sovereignty. There are also satellite rockets on display amongst the extensive parklands. The hillside makes for a great walk.


In the year 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine K Albright became the first senior American official to formally acknowledged the CIA's involvement in the 1953 coup. The public response wasn't good either, and when new sanctions followed, Iran had further distanced itself from the world in solidarity.


Albright made the following statement in March 2000:


"The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America."


Perhaps things might have turned out differently if the U.S. has a more friendly diplomatic policy towards Iran between 1953 and 1979. But hopefully this article helps explain why Mossadegh was branded as an 'irrational socialist', Mohammad Reza Pahlavi "The Last Shah," where the names "Great Satan" and "Little Satan" came from, and exactly how Iran became a "Resistance Nation." However Iran is very culturally diverse, and these labels are generally only used in politics. The labels in no way reflects everyday beliefs of Iranian people, or Americans for that matter. Just remember Iran is safe, stable, and the people are very hospitable and love foreigners. The biggest lesson is perhaps not to get involved in political demonstrations, which are very rare these days for obvious reasons.





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About Author


John Flint

Tehran Sfiran Writing Editor

I'm John, I'm based in Tehran doing freelance writing, editing and marketing.

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