The gradual return to autocratic practices after 1953 put an undue end to Iran’s perilous experiment with participatory politics. Instead, an era of stability, albeit politically repressive, began to set in, and with the exception of a brief interlude in the early 1960s, it remained essentially unchanged until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the collapse of the Pahlavi order.

The period between 1953 and 1979 was an era of relative prosperity for the urban middle classes of both the secular and the bazaar sectors, even though economic improvement over the long term did not always translate into political capital for the regime. The quality of life of the rural population, which in the early 1960s still accounted for more than 65 percent of Iran’s total population, also improved, especially with the implementation of land reform (eslahat-e arzi), better education, and better health care—although, as elsewhere in the developing world, changes in the countryside did not reduce migration to cities and only marginally improved agricultural output. It also caused discontent among rural migrants, both the first and the second generations, who resented the privileged classes and began to take solace in the message of the radicalized clergy, who often came from a similar background.

The second Pahlavi era was marked by royal politics of self-aggrandizement, especially in the 1970s, and this image was enhanced by the growth of oil revenue, the rise of a subservient technocrat class, and the unprecedented expansion of security forces and the secret police apparatus. Iran’s visibility as a regional power friendly to the United States and the Western world, and episodes of choreographed populism, also contributed. Mohammad Reza Shah’s White Revolution of the early 1960s in reality came to fruition in the mid-1970s with greater industrial growth, infrastructure development, institution building, implementation of a planned economy, greater professional expertise, and educational and legal advances for women.

These crucial transformations also triggered contesting visions of modernity. The shah’s image of progress, patterned on a Westernizing model similar to his father’s, was questioned by a small but influential circle of secular dissidents and intellectuals—many with roots in the Tudeh and the National Movement of the postwar era. They began to question wholesale subservience to the West and the regime’s positivistic ideas of progress. With the uprising of June 1963, a turning point in Iran’s shift to Islamic activism, this laymen’s critique of repression, nepotism, and the perceived “moral decline” of society increasingly took on an Islamic veneer. Not only young radical clergy but also revolutionary Marxists and Islamist guerrilla organizations critical of the predominant Westernism began calling for resistance to the Pahlavi regime and eventually to its violent overthrow. Islamic militants, mostly under the aegis of Ayatollah Khomeini, were the ultimate beneficiaries of anti-Pahlavi discourse. They succeeded in incorporating the semantics of the nationalists, the anti-Westernists, and the radical Marxists into their own rhetoric of “pristine Islam.”


The rise of the shah after 1953 as Iran’s new political master was gradual but predictable, given the nearly unanimous support of the Iranian armed forces and the blessing of the United States. In a matter of months the government formed under General Zahedi, the key agent of the coup that overtook Mosaddeq and returned the shah to power, silenced nearly all forces of dissent. Under the American aegis, a new agreement was also reached on the oil question. On paper Iran’s nationalization of its oil industry was recognized, and in 1954 the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), which had been formed under Mosaddeq, became the partner in a fifty-fifty profit-sharing agreement with a new holding company, Iranian Oil Participants Limited (IOP), which consisted of eight major American, British, and European oil companies. These partners replaced the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s monopoly. The pattern roughly resembled the ARAMCO consortium of Saudi Arabia, with a similar sharing arrangement. Although the new agreement was a far cry from the objectives of the Nationalization Movement, and was unpopular with the general public, it was a face-saving measure for the shah and for the United States.

Known as the “seven sisters,” these oil companies held 60 percent of the newly formed consortium. They were Standard Oil of California (later Chevron), Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (later Mobil), Texaco (later Chevron) and Gulf Oil (later Chevron), each holding an 8 percent stake; Royal Dutch Shell, with 14 percent; and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (later Total), with 6 percent. Taking over from AIOC, the newly renamed British Petroleum (BP) held the remaining 40 percent of the consortium’s shares. The consortium was responsible for the exploration, production, and international distribution of Iranian oil and controlled production levels and the pricing structure. Admittedly operating within a smaller area under concession in Khuzestan than had the former AIOC monopoly, Iran nevertheless remained on the receiving end of the production process, with the National Iranian Oil Company in charge of domestic distribution and overall supervision of the operation, a position that proved mostly a formality, at least in the earlier years. IOP held full control over all operations, did not open books to outsiders, did not allow any AIOC representation on its board, and kept a low political profile while maximizing profits. This was a victory for the big oil companies in tightening their monopoly not only over Iranian oil but also over more than 80 percent of world oil production.

The amended twenty-five-year concession granted in 1954 to IOP was a further departure from the objectives of the National Movement. At least until the early 1973, when the shah managed to negotiate better terms for production and pricing—and eventually in 1975 declared another “nationalization” of the oil industry (the third such announcements since 1933)—IOP reigned supreme. With the Americans holding the upper hand, the issue was not so much the AIOC’s colonial culture, which was gradually disappearing, but a new corporate mentality that allowed the oil companies to manipulate prices and production levels for the Middle East oil market, which, in addition to Iranian oil, included Saudi and Iraqi supply, and soon after those of Kuwaiti and other Persian Gulf producers.

Oil production came to occupy an increasingly vital place in the Iranian economy, in turn empowering the state. Whereas in 1950, the height of AIOC’s operation, annual Iranian oil production stood at 221 million barrels, by 1969 it had reached 1.064 billion barrels, a nearly fivefold increase. In 1950 Iran’s direct revenue from oil production was slightly more than US$45 million but by 1969, in less than two decades, it increased by more than twenty times, to $905 million. Allowing for an average rate of inflation of 2.5 percent in the period between 1959 and 1969, the overall revenue of the state in absolute terms was no less than eighteen-fold. In terms of contribution to the country’s total revenue, there was also a significant increase. Whereas between 1949 and 1956 oil income constituted 37 percent of Iran’s revenue, by 1965 it had risen to 67 percent, steadily increasing thereafter until 1980. As oil consumption grew worldwide, Iranian oil revenue steadily increased throughout the 1970s, in part because of the shah’s success in persuading the reluctant IOP to increase production levels.

Oil revenue thus became a crucial factor in the stability of the Pahlavi state. The massive injection of US financial support in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as military assistance, training, and advising, further boosted the Pahlavi prestige. Up to the mid-1960s tens of millions of US dollars—originally promised but never delivered to Mosaddeq’s cash-strapped government—poured into Iranian coffers as nonobligatory aide, or were funneled through the Point Four Program’s health and agricultural development projects, or through the purchase of military hardware, infrastructure development loans for building dams and a power grid, direct investment in Iranian industry, and major construction projects won by American firms.

The US government’s aid program in reality was a fraction of what US oil companies collected from investing in Iranian oil and a negligible expense compared to the benefit of keeping Iran as a strategic ally in the Cold War. This may well explain the United States’ reluctance to enforce stringent measures against rampant corruption in high offices and the army. From the American perspective, Iranian collaboration had to be preserved at any price so as to eradicate any remnants of the Iranian Tudeh and other real or potential sources of dissent after the Mosaddeq era. The United States’ greater involvement also coincided with a gradual eclipse of British influence in Iranian affairs, especially after the 1956 Suez debacle and British disengagement east of the Suez.

The shah was yet to display the ambitions that made him in the 1970s a regional leader and an international figure of some weight. Beyond systematic eradication of all levels of the Tudeh, in the months after the coup a few serious protest movements in the bazaar and in the Tehran University were also crushed. On one occasion confrontation with the bazaar merchants in October 1953 led not only to mass arrests but also, in effect, to the demolition of the Tehran bazaar’s historic entry archway, apparently a punitive measure against merchants. On December 8, 1953, in Tehran University, the armed forces opened fire indiscriminately on students who were protesting the visit of US Vice President Richard Nixon, aimed to consolidate US-Iranian ties. Organized by the left, which resented the arrival of the well-known American “Cold Warrior,” the demonstrations saw at least three students killed and many more injured, thus marking the event as the “student day” of protests in the Iranian dissent calendar. Though the shah tried to commiserate with the victims, and even issued his regrets, the giving of an honorary degree to Nixon a few days later on the campus of Tehran University added insult to injury. One of the shah’s close American friends and staunch advocates, Nixon also benefited in later years from the royal largesse during his presidential campaigns.

The unrest displayed the unpopularity of the new regime among the bazaar merchants, the intellectuals of the left, and university students. The shah, quickly taking center stage, was able to convince the Americans to abandon General Zahedi, in his own favor. Under Zahedi’s watch, much had allegedly been embezzled. The shah also argued that the Pahlavi regime, without Zahedi at the helm, would enjoy greater legitimacy and popular acceptance from the bazaar and the clergy. Zahedi was ambitious and independent, and frictions with the shah over control of the army and government affairs were unavoidable. By April 1955 General Zahedi resigned and left the country to serve as Iran’s ambassador to Rome, the same city where the shah had taken refuge less than two years earlier. The virtual exile, from which Zahedi never returned, removed a powerful contestant but also exposed the shah, in due course, to greater public scrutiny and made him a target of domestic and international criticism.


The recurring suppression of sporadic protests in the wake of the 1954 oil agreement, the systematic arrests of Tudeh members, the long sentences handed down in military courts, and several rounds of merciless executions of Tudeh members all tarnished the shah’s image. The purging of pro-Mosaddeq elements was less severe and often conducted on case-by-case basis, in accordance with the shah’s degree of dislike for one or the other individual. The United States could barely disguise its blessing for these purges, a demeanor that militated against its efforts to buttress the shah’s regime as popular and democratic.

To seek rapprochement with the high-ranking clergy in Qom and elsewhere, the shah capitalized on the common dislike for Mosaddeq and a joint desire to eliminate the Tudeh. Despite all the lip service to Islam, the Tudeh remained second only to the Baha’is in posing a doctrinal challenge to clerical establishment. A few months earlier, in the fall of 1954, the impending execution of Mosaddeq’s foreign minister Hosain Fatemi, who entertained some Islamic sentiments, caused uproar among the clergy. Their earlier petition to commute his death sentence was ignored. By early 1955 the shah thus was looking for an occasion to mend fences. He was also anxious to secure the clergy’s blessing to join the 1955 Baghdad Pact, a defense treaty that included Iran’s neighbors Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan, as well as Britain and the United States as observer members (after Iraq’s withdrawal from the treaty in 1958, it became the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO). A Cold War strategic alliance complementing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the pact was inspired as much by the Eisenhower doctrine as it was orchestrated by Britain out of anxiety over the Suez Canal and the increasingly anti-British posture of Egypt’s president Jamal Abdel Nasser. The shah’s insistence on being included in the pact sprang more from his own insecurities than from persuasion by the observer members. With the growth of pro-Nasser sentiments, even in Iran, support of the clergy seemed essential to the shah.

The shah’s approach to Ayatollah Sayyed Hosain Borujerdi (1875–1961), a senior mojtahed who had emerged in the late 1940s as the sole marja‘ (supreme exemplar) with a wide acceptance in the Shi‘i world, would have been a clever move had it not been for its unexpected consequences (fig. 10.1). Mostly through a network of students, agents, and followers in the bazaar, Borujerdi had created a power base unmatched by any marja‘ at least since the time of Mirza Hasan Shirazi some fifty years earlier. Coming from a middle-ranking clerical family in Borujerd, he was a product of Isfahan and Najaf Shi‘i training. A student of Najaf’s pro-constitutional Mohammad Kazem Khorasani, Borujerdi gained prominence after he moved to Qom in 1945 and helped build it up as a Shi‘i clerical center that, if not on par with Najaf, was at least the most important such center inside Iran. He indeed was the first marja‘ to emerge inside Iran, and more than earlier marja‘s in Iraq, he had to adjust to Iran’s political realities and build up his standing with his Iranian constituency. The renewal of the ancient fellowship of the “good religion” and “good government,” especially after a cooling off under Reza Shah, required the public disowning of a “heretical” Other. Now that Tudeh and Mosaddeq were out of the picture, both Borujerdi and the shah wished to consolidate their grounds by no more viable a target than an anti-Baha’i campaign.

Figure 10.1. The young shah visits Ayatollah Borujerdi in Firuzabadi Hospital in Tehran in 1944.

Mohammad Baqer Najafi, Shahanshahi va Dindari (Tehran: NRTV, 1355/1976), n.p.

The eclipse after 1953 of Ayatollah Abul-Qasem Kashani, the controversial clerical leader of the National Movement era, and his absence from the public arena, further contributed to Borujerdi’s rise and his restoration of the old state-clergy pact. Shrewd, pragmatic, and resolute, Borujerdi was willing to negotiate with the shah, giving his implicit blessing to the monarch in exchange for a freer hand in quashing presumed threats to Islam and Muslims. Above all, he demanded a thorough purge of the Baha’is at all levels within and outside the government. Among the Shi‘i authorities, animosity toward the Baha’is was deep, in part because of doctrinal reasons but also, in the twentieth century, because of a paranoiac fear of Baha’i infiltration of government and society and of their presumed success in converting Muslims over to their “deviant path.” Through intermediaries Borujerdi demanded that because the clergy, with himself at the helm, supported Tudeh purges, in return the shah should repay them by eradicating the Baha’i menace.

In April 1955 at the outset of Ramadan, a relatively obscure preacher, Mohammad Taqi Falsafi (1908–1998), whose fiery oratorical style compensated for his checkered past, began an orchestrated anti-Baha’i campaign that lasted through the month of fasting. The lunchtime sermons from the government-controlled Masjed-e Shah at the entrance to the Tehran bazaar were broadcast live on government-controlled Radio Iran, an unprecedented favor that denoted the state’s endorsement of the campaign. With Borujerdi’s personal blessing, Falsafi attacked Baha’i beliefs as heretical and anti-Islamic and accused them of betrayal of the nation, of conspiracy and moral corruption, and of being a major threat to the preservation of Islamic Iran. He demanded the government not only ban all Baha’i communal events and administrative bodies but also expropriate all Baha’i communal and personal property and remove Baha’is from all government posts and private enterprises, and he even went as far as calling for their mass banishment from the country. The Baha’is were the largest religious minority in Iran, and by the mid-1950s they constituted a population of at least three hundred thousand, widely spread throughout the towns and villages of Iran.

Falsafi’s campaign found resonance among the clergy and their conservative following, resuscitating a sense of unanimity, especially in the aftermath of Mosaddeq era. They were happy to find a sympathetic partner in the Pahlavi state. Since as early as the Babi persecutions in the Qajar period, Baha’is had been routinely demonized as enemies of Islam. With the new campaign against them, however, the nature of the accusations shifted to a higher level: they were accused not only of doctrinal enmity to Islam but also of being politically disloyal to the country. These set the ground, starting in the 1960s, of accusing the Baha’is of being agents of British colonialism, and soon after of being agents of American imperialism and international Zionism, charges that after the 1979 Islamic Revolution had serious repercussions for the Baha’i community in Iran.

The anti-Baha’i campaign soon led to discrimination against the Baha’is and acts of violence, especially against smaller urban communities and those in rural areas. In Najafabad, then a small town 180 miles west of Isfahan known for its conservative Shi‘i loyalties, the large Baha’i community was ostracized through an economic boycott. In Ardestan, another old, semi-agricultural community, the Baha’i were to be evacuated overnight for fear of a massacre. In Yazd, when some Baha’is were killed by a mob, the members of the Baha’i assembly—the elected local governing body—were held responsible for alleged crimes and sentenced to long prison terms. A climate of fear and intimidation soon overcame Baha’is everywhere. Advocating the message of the radical preacher and his powerful backer, some deputies in the Majles—fast becoming pliant to the shah’s wishes—proposed a bill designed to expropriate all Baha’i properties and expel them from Iran.

Even though the bill was eventually withdrawn, this did not stop other drastic measures. A crowd of supporters buoyed by Falsafi’s hate campaign organized a vigilante takeover of the Baha’i center in Tehran. In Shiraz the mob attacked the house of the Bab, the holiest site for the Baha’i and Azali in Iran, and all but destroyed it. As a sign of the government’s solidarity with the anti-Baha’i campaign, but in reality a weak attempt to control the situation, in May 1955 General Nader Batmanqlij, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, dispatched troops to occupy the Baha’i center in Tehran. The general personally climbed to the roof to strike the first symbolic blow, demolishing the center’s dome (fig. 10.2).

Under pressure from Western governments and facing international criticism (and from Baha’i communities worldwide), the shah began to back off, having sensed the looming repercussions of the campaign getting out of hand. By the end of Ramadan, the most egregious persecutions had subsided. Yet the ban on Baha’i communal activities remained in force. They continued to be banned from government employment, at least officially, and the Baha’i center in Tehran was converted into the headquarters of the Tehran military command and army counterintelligence, the nucleus of what later became the Organization for Security and Intelligence, or the Savak. Yet the plight of the Baha’is could have been far worse. The anti-Baha’i campaign, as it turned out, was not as severe as, for example, the mistreatment of the Jewish community of Turkey during World War II; it was also incomparable to anti-Jewish campaigns in Egypt in 1956 and 1957 in the aftermath of the Suez crisis and in Iraq during the war and more systematically from the 1950s onward.

Figure 10.2. General Batmanqlij and General Timur Bakhtiar, military governor of Tehran, attend the seemingly joyous occasion on the roof of the Baha’i center in May 1955. The Iranian correspondent of the Reuters News Agency urges the generals to strike the first blow to the dome structure, for the sake of the cameras.

Private collection. Courtesy of Fereydun Vahman.

For the Shi‘i leadership, the anti-Baha’i campaign nevertheless reasserted Borujerdi’s leadership at the expense of Islamic activists and Fada’iyan-e Islam. For years to come, the low-intensity anti-Baha’i posture gave to the Shi‘i leadership weight and panache. Such fatwas as banning Pepsi-Cola on the grounds that it was bottled in Iran under a concession granted to a Baha’i entrepreneur, Habib Sabet (1903–1990), was one such example. The anti-Baha’i smear moreover facilitated the launch of other initiatives by Borujerdi, including the building of Masjed-e A‘zam (the grand mosque) next to the shrine of Ma‘sumeh in Qom, the expansion and further centralization of the howzeh (a conglomerate of seminaries) in Qom, and the sponsorship of anti-Baha’i publications, such as a new Persian translation of the thirteenth volume of Mohammad Baqer Majlesi’s encyclopedic Bihar al-Anwar. An earlier translation of this volume, which was exclusively devoted to the Shi‘i hadith on the return of the Mahdi and apocalyptic events at the End of Times, had stirred much polemical debate among Baha’i preachers because of inconsistencies in the Shi‘i narrative. The new translation, commissioned by Borujerdi in the last year of his life and carried out by the Shi‘i scholar ‘Ali Davani (1929–2007), streamlined Bihar’s inconsistencies by omitting some reports and rendering others in such a way as to offer a congruent version useful for anti-Baha’i debates. The thrust of Islamic energies during the 1950s and 1960s indeed included anti-Baha’i actions (mostly polemical debates on the issue of prophecies) by such organizations as the Hojjatiyeh Society, a network of lay and clerical activists around Shaykh Mahmud Halabi (1900–1998). Yet rapprochement between the shah and the pro-regime clergy did not stop Shi‘i radicalism altogether.


By the late 1950s the rapid expansion of the Security and Intelligence Organization (known by the Persian acronym Savak) proved crucial in suppressing all forms of opposition. It also proved a successful tool in intimidating the general public. Rooted in the Tehran military command under the charismatic, though ruthless, General Teymur Bakhtiar, the new organization, under the Americans’ watch, was designed to uproot communism within the armed forces, government, and society at large (similar to the demands of the United States for most of its authoritarian allies in the developing world). Relying on the law of national security, first initiated by Mosaddeq and revived after him, in 1957 Savak was mandated to operate under the prime minister’s office. Teymur Bakhtiar (1914–1970), son of a Bakhtiyari tribal chief, was educated in Beirut and Paris, where he attended Saint-Cyr. He quickly rose to prominence under General Zahedi, and as head of the military command, he had a major part in hunting Tudeh activists and other political dissidents.

When the last of the Tudeh cells had been cracked and operatives such as Khosrow Ruzbeh (1915–1958), a radical Marxist-Leninist theoretician and core organizer of a secret communist officers’ cell, were captured and executed, Savak began to search for other dissidents. Ruzbeh, who for some years before his capture in 1957 had lived a clandestine life marked by armed clashes with security forces, failed to rekindle a meaningful resistance even within his own small circle of sympathizers. After his execution, however, he gained legendary, almost romantic standing as a martyr of the left and a symbol of resistance. His advocacy of armed resistance may well be considered an inspiration for the Marxist urban guerrilla movement of the late 1960s.

By the early 1960s Savak, under the shah’s sponsorship, had begun to earn a reputation for efficiency and discipline, but also for fear mongering and ruthlessness, purposefully cultivating an image even darker than its reality. Among Savak’s new targets were independent political figures, the younger generation of intellectuals, members of the former National Front, leaders of student demonstrations, and outspoken clergy. When the shah ousted Teymur Bakhtiar in 1961, Savak was brought even more tightly under his direct control. Accused of conspiring against the Pahlavi regime in the outset of a new episode of anti-Pahlavi resistance, the general was forced into exile in Geneva, where he began organizing an anti-Pahlavi front together with an exiled Tudeh leader and Ayatollah Khomeini, the emerging de facto leader of the antiregime clergy in Qom. Bakhtiar consequently fled to Lebanon, and then to Iraq, where a Savak agent assassinated him in August 1970. The ouster of Bakhtiar was the last significant military hurdle in the shah’s path to absolute power. He was also the first of the top brass to fall victim to the shah.

Throughout the 1960s the forced retirement of a number of high-ranking generals and the sacking of career officers revealed the shah’s desire for greater control, in the style of his father. The dismissed officers were accused of real or propped-up charges of financial misappropriation, ineptitude, and even spying for the Soviet Union. Nearly all the chiefs of staff during the 1960s and early 1970s were dismissed with disgrace or put on trial and imprisoned, or they were sent into exile. Like the civilian technocrats, the top military soon learned to sing the glories of their imperial master. The shah’s ever-growing thirst for the latest military hardware and his buildup of the armed forces into a megamachine further cultivated a spirit of blind submission to the wishes of the King of Kings, the “grand commander of the armed forces” (bozorg arteshtaran) and even the “godhead” (khodaygan)epithets by which the shah was exalted in the pure Persian adopted by the armed forces. The figurehead of limited means of the 1940s had transformed into a man of great ego with a complex personality and a burgeoning sense of mission.

Born in 1919, when his father was still a middle-ranking officer of the Cossack Brigade, Mohammad Reza was brought up in the early Pahlavi era under the watchful eye of a demanding father who had an overpowering personality. He remained closer to his caring mother than to his father, and he bonded with his twin sister, Ashraf Pahlavi, a great influence on him. As the senior son of a growing family, Mohammad Reza was nominated to be crown prince at the age of six, and he was educated accordingly in the newly established Pahlavi court by a number of private tutors. Later in the 1920s, he briefly attended the Tarbiyat Baha’i School, then a progressive institution in Tehran. In 1931 he was sent off to Switzerland to the elite Le Rosey boarding school, and he returned in 1936 proficient in French and English. He was interested more in sports, especially soccer, than in international affairs or intellectual pursuits. In the Iranian military academy, which he attended to fulfill his father’s wishes, he reached the rank of lieutenant, shadowing his father in most public events during the final years of his rule. His arranged marriage with Princess Fawziya (1921–2013), a sister of King Farouk of Egypt, at the age of twenty was more to buttress a political alliance and gain prestige for the Pahlavi court than being his own personal choice. It turned out to be an unhappy union.

The shy and mild-mannered young Mohammad Reza, brought up under the stern shadow of his disciplined father, at the age of twenty-two faced the first test of his political career when he inherited a shaky throne with questionable legitimacy. Largely ignored by the leaders of the occupying Allies during World War II—with the exception of Joseph Stalin, who paid him a visit during the 1943 Tehran Conference—and separated from his family, who remained in exile in Johannesburg until his father’s death, the new shah seemed unprepared for the political turmoil of the postwar era. He was suspicious of elder statesmen and wary of the freer political climate that had emerged virtually overnight. With a barrage of attacks in the press and from the public against his father’s misdeeds and crimes, he had little choice but to express his regrets and promise the return of confiscated properties to their original owners, as well as compensation for past abuses. In the court of law his father was condemned for expropriating villages and estates—more than five thousand of them—and for accumulating substantial illicit wealth in personal bank accounts.

In the face of numerous political challenges to the Pahlavi throne from the Tudeh and other contenders, the young shah could do little but to nurture the loyalty of the statesmen and army officers who had served his father. At the same time he was trying to remain a monarch loyal to the constitutional process, a role he soon began to reconsider when faced with enormous political challenges to his office. He was compelled to play a more proactive role. The success of the 1946 Azarbaijan campaign was a turning point. He was recognized not merely as the nominal head of the armed forces but also as an active participant in the campaign. The Azarbaijan crisis, moreover, was the beginning of long-term reliance on advice and moral support from the United States.

An attempt against his life in 1949, from which he miraculously escaped, and soon afterward the arduous course that ended with the coup of 1953, transformed the young shah from a reactive maneuverer into a shrewd, even devious, manipulator. Especially after the tumultuous Mosaddeq years he learned to dominate the political stage at the expense of any independent voice within or outside his immediate reach. The bitter experience of the Mosaddeq years washed away whatever faith he might have had in the democratic process or in what his more liberal-minded advisers urged him to adopt. The experience made him suspicious of popular participation at any level and of genuine debate on any political issue.

Although he offered his early support for the oil nationalization campaign, after July 1952 he found himself marginalized and unwanted. From his perspective, Mosaddeq’s course not only aimed to overthrow him and eliminate the monarchy but also would bring the country to the brink of chaos and eventually the throes of communism. His flight to Baghdad and then to Rome in August 1953 after the failure of the first coup to oust Mosaddeq, and his return under the shadow of a second coup staged with active help from American and British agents, was a tormenting memory, even though he presented it to his people as a patriotic victory over unspecified enemies. In later years, the annual anniversary of the coup of the twenty-eighth of Mordad (August 28, 1953) was an exercise in hollow slogans bellowed across the radio waves, military music, and flag-waving rallies. Underneath the annual ritual there was an unsettled royal psyche that wished to convince people of the shah’s troubled legitimacy.

The shah’s attitude toward foreign powers was no less problematic. He remained generally suspicious of their intrigues and entertained conspiratorial fantasies, especially toward the British. The forced abdication of his father taught him to remain distrustful of Britain’s real or presumed mischief, and his Cold War mentality—darkened by the Tudeh experience—made him, even more than the British, fearful of Russian-backed plots, which also had been a fear of all of his predecessors since the early nineteenth century. The United States appeared to be a natural ally and a moral refuge for the shah: a superpower willing to lionize him and ingratiate itself to his wishes. The United States, to the shah, was the innocent abroad: powerful and well intentioned but naive.

For all practical purposes the shah’s ties to the US appeared to be a perfect match, offering him security and support in exchange for America’s strategic concerns and energy needs. The American policy makers, with few exceptions, viewed the shah’s authoritarian rule as simply an unpleasant fact of life, about which they could do little, if anything. Such an attitude partially changed in the early 1960s when the Kennedy administration came to office. But once the shah’s White Revolution had reached a certain momentum, he managed to persuade the United States, and the Western world, to view him not only as the only viable choice for Iran but also as a bulwark against rising anti-American sentiments in the region. Policing the strategically vital Persian Gulf against Egypt and Iraq was a mission he undertook primarily of his own volition. He viewed his regime, at least for the sake of the captivated Western media, as heir to the ancient Persian Empire and a potent alternative to what he conceitedly viewed as the waning of Western democratic institutions.

The early 1960s witnessed a major shift in the country’s agrarian structure but also in the rise of literacy, urbanization, and living standards—all with lasting consequences. The series of state-sponsored reforms that came to be known as the White Revolution (Enqelab-e Sefid), largely implemented between 1961 and 1965, produced a sizable population surplus in the countryside, which poured from the villages into towns and cities, unleashing a popular force that, though first backing the Pahlavi reforms, eventually shifted away from the state toward other alternatives.

Even as early as the 1950s, new cracks were visible on the surface. Corruption and mismanagement within the civilian administration and military took a turn for the worse, especially with the influx of US aid and growing income from oil. Oddly enough, at the same time, the budget deficit, particularly its foreign exchange reserves, grew to such an extent that the government was brought to the brink of bankruptcy. The token show trials and purging of army officers and civil servants on charges of corruption and embezzlement did little to win over a public suspicious of the state’s sincerity, the role of the foreign powers, and the shah’s goodwill.

The trial of general Mohammad Vali Qarani (Gharani), the head of the military counterintelligence, who was arrested in 1958 and tried along with his accomplices on the charge of contemplating a military coup with the backing of the US Central Intelligence Agency, was one example. He was convicted and served a prison term, but the shah’s anxiety hardly subsided. He viewed the planned coup as a symptom of the Americans’ uncertain loyalties toward him and, even worse, as providing the potential for American, British, and even Soviet manipulation and mischief within Iranian armed forces. Qarani’s case, in effect, was an early sign of American displeasure with Iran’s unstable state of affairs.

To remedy growing public mistrust, and fearing a revival of the opposition forces from the Mosaddeq era, the shah briefly toyed with the idea of a two-party system to allow for a semblance of popular participation. In reality, the two parties: the Melliun Party (the party of the nationalists) and the Mardom Party (the party of the people), were presided over by two of the shah’s most trusted aides, known for their subservience to the royal’s wishes. The result was nothing short of a puppet show, cynically staged to enhance the shah’s public image at home and abroad. By the time the election of the twentieth Majles was under way in August 1960, there was enough fraud and vote rigging that even the shah could no longer put his seal of approval on the sitting premier Manuchehr Eqbal, the leader of the Melliun Party. Eqbal (1909–1977), a French-educated medical doctor and former health minister in Ahmad Qavam’s Democrat Party, had served as premier since 1957. An early example of the kind of technocrat who later manned the Pahlavi administration, Eqbal was a capable manager with a facade of sincerity, but he was nevertheless fully obedient to the wishes of his master, even after his removal from office.

Yet neither forcing Eqbal to resign nor annulling the election results in the fall of 1960 could persuade the Iranian public of the shah’s democratic intentions. The next government formed under Ja‘far Sharif-Emami (1910–1998), another of the shah’s cronies, further aggravated general malcontent. Born to a family with old clerical ties, he was trained as an engineer in Germany in the interwar period. His appointment was largely the result of the shah’s concern over the restive clergy. Most likely, he viewed Sharif-Emami’s appointment as a conciliatory gesture toward the clerical moderates, especially in the face of Khomeini’s gradual rise to prominence. The new premier’s brief term, ending in May 1961, more than a month after Borujerdi’s death in March 30, was riddled by corruption scandals.

With the American presidential election campaign under way, and viable prospects for a Democratic victory, there was growing concern in Tehran about what the implications of John F. Kennedy’s presidency would be for the Pahlavi regime. Kennedy was openly critical of the Republicans’ foreign policy in the developing world, and he questioned outright military aid to oppressive regimes that ignored economic development and democracy. He considered economic and political reforms as alternative means of saving non-Western societies from the lure of socialist-inspired revolutions. The collapse in Cuba of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in early 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rapid shift from a nationalist revolutionary to a committed Marxist made his points all the more glaring. At the time, perhaps no other country besides Iran fit Kennedy’s disapproval of the US granting of unconditional military largesse and moral support. It was therefore quite plausible that beyond Latin America Iran would become a priority for the new administration.

Changes in the American attitude aside, by 1960 the Iranian economy was in crisis. Poor monetary management, aggravated by meager economic performance and imperial grandeur, stirred popular resentment. A handful of elite figures, veterans of the National Front, and clerical critics of the shah were buoyed by the prospects of a shift in US policy toward Iran. The appointment of ‘Ali Amini (1905–1992) as prime minister was seen as a fresh start, as he aimed to implement long-awaited reforms to Iran’s agrarian economy and, as Amini used to say, “tighten the belts.” Disliked by the shah because of his American connections and the fact that he was personally acquainted with Kennedy, Amini was expected to liberate Iranian politics from the yoke of autocracy and represent a wider political spectrum.

During his fourteen-month term of office (May 1961–July 1962) Amini barely managed to deliver what was expected of him, given the enormity of the problems he had to grapple with and his own managerial limitations. Born into a Qajar aristocratic lineage, he was a grandson of the reformist statesman ‘Ali Khan Amin al-Dowleh. Having received two French doctorates in law and economics, Amini’s political career displayed encouraging signs of independence and pragmatism but also compromise and resignation. He had been a protégé of Davar in the Reza Shah years, and later an associate of Ahmad Qavam, but he also served under Mosaddeq as minister of education, and after the coup under Zahedi he was instrumental in concluding the 1954 oil concession with the IOP consortium. In the late 1950s, as Iranian ambassador to Washington, his credentials as a middle-of-the-road statesman appealed to the Americans. For a brief period at the outset of his premiership he also enjoyed some popularity among the Iranian public as a clean and progressive statesman.

The Amini government was a mix of the old elite and new faces, even radical veterans from the Mosaddeq era. The most visible, and most effective, was Hasan Arsanjani (1922–1969), minister of agriculture and the architect of the land reform campaign. A fiery journalist and lawyer who once had belonged to the radical wing of Qavam’s Democrat Party, Arsanjani long entertained land reform as the key to dismantling the landowning elite (including Amini’s own family). His rapid land distribution program aimed not only to parcel out the state-owned arable land (khaleseh) to peasants already working on it but also to redistribute private estates controlled by a small but powerful class of landowners (mallakin).


Even by the 1960s agriculture was the largest sector of the Iranian economy outside of government-controlled revenue from the oil industry, and it employed the largest number of people as tillers of the land, providing subsidiary and secondary jobs as well, and sustaining the landowners. Made up mostly of absentee landlords residing in the cities, the large landowning sector consisted of bureaucratic nobility and their offspring, tribal khans and their urbanized offspring, provincial elite, and bazaar merchants, who altogether owned more than 70 percent of the country’s arable land. The remaining 30 percent was held by small landowners, independent farmers (mostly in the northern provinces), and religious endowments. Operating on an ancient agrarian sharecropping arrangement known as boneh, the five-part means of production—land, water, seed, ox, and labor—determined the respective portions of income for landlord (arbab) and peasant (ra‘iyyat), with some local variances. While the landlords controlled the first three (and occasionally the fourth as well) and reaped shares accordingly, the peasants could provide only labor and the ox, while often paying a larger portion of taxes to the state at harvest time. The system was marked by extra burden for the peasant, who had to deal with bailiffs, government agents, and gendarmerie, as well as conditions that at best offered a life only at the subsistence level and at worst sheer destitution for as much as half of the country’s population. Scattered across the vast span of the Iranian plateau and the slopes and ravines that punctuated it, Iranian villages typically consisted of adobe-like mud structures that, though scenic from afar, close up displayed the extent of rural deprivation. The houses, more often clusters of primitive huts, made of unbaked mud bricks with few windows, little ventilation, and unstable wooden roof beams, contrasted with the better built and better maintained landlord’s mansion. For villagers there was no running water—even though there was frequently access to a clean communal source such as a spring well or a qanat—and no modern amenities (including electricity) or access to modern medical facilities or modern schools.

Ironically, the end of the Qajar land tenure system and sanctioning of the right to private landownership in the Iranian Constitution and in the subsequent register of land titles had only reasserted control of the private landowning sector over the haphazard agrarian system. Organized around sedentary or seminomadic economies, the village tied the subsistence agrarian economy to animal husbandry. Although the landlord, or the bailiff on the landlord’s behalf, oversaw the operation of the village with a certain autonomy and along a patriarchal model, the system did allow peasants some freedoms of mobility, such as negotiating the terms of the sharecropping contract, and encouraged some level of village communal solidarity.

Yet the village economy was barely able to withstand drastic changes such as those introduced by the land reforms of the 1960s. The substitution of the landlord by a government-run agency—first the Ministry of Agriculture and then the Ministry of Land Reform—added layers of bureaucratic complexity to the system and with unexpected outcomes. The small parcels of land distributed to each peasant often were not economically viable. The “liberated farmers,” as the state-run media dubbed them, did not have access to sufficient capital and lacked experience in running modern farming machinery, and had to rely on traditional methods. Despite widespread state publicity to the contrary, soon inefficiency, a relative decline in agricultural production, and the glaring failure of agricultural cooperatives (set up to address these problems) became apparent. Haphazard mechanization, and soon migration to the cities, further hindered a successful transition to the new system.

Already in the 1950s some of the estates and smaller plots expropriated by Reza Shah, mostly in the Caspian provinces, had been returned to their original owners or redistributed to small landowners. First through litigation in the courts, which after the fall of Reza Shah handed down judgments in favor of the original owners, and then voluntarily by the shah, most, if not all, confiscated lands were returned. The Pahlavi Foundation, both a charity and a holding company for the Pahlavi family, was in charge of early land distribution. Yet much remained in dispute with the Pahlavi family members and with some of the army officers from the Reza Shah era, who had forcefully expropriated lands and refused to return them.

The Land Reform Law of 1960 (amended in 1962) allowed the Amini government in 1961 to start the first stage of distribution of the large estates, some consisting of tens of villages belonging to a single owner or an extended family. First in Azarbaijan province and soon after in other provinces, a new survey of the large estates was followed by the parceling out small plots to resident tenants and, later, some seasonal workers. The compensation made to landowners and the methods of recovering over the long term the price of the land from villagers, though generally judicious, proved hard to implement. The law allowed landlords to retain the title for one village under their own name, but a notorious loophole made it possible for the landlord’s immediate family members to secure villages under their names as well.

By 1966 the end of the first phase of the land reforms, four years after the fall of Amini’s government, nearly fourteen thousand villages, some 30 percent of the estimated total number of Iranian villages, were wholly or partially distributed to more than half a million families, a population that roughly corresponded to about 30 percent of Iran’s rural population. Often, the plots of land allocated to farmers were not sufficient for a profitable operation, even by preindustrial standards, in a country with limited water resources, routine fallowing practices, and low crop return. The second and third phases of land reform implemented between 1965 and 1969 were more conservative, for they allowed landlords to retain much larger arable plots. The state apparatus, moreover, often failed to provide sufficient credit and machinery for the newly created agricultural cooperatives that were replace the landlord’s function. By the end of 1968, more than 8,500 rural cooperatives were in place throughout Iran, although far fewer than that were economically competitive.

Poor living and working conditions in villages also contributed to the slow progress of land reforms. Even by 1966 fewer than 4 percent of rural households had electricity, and less than 1 percent benefited from piped water. By 1966 still some 85 percent of the rural population was illiterate. In terms of income, the rural population, which accounted for more than 60 percent of the total population, earned only 30 percent of the national income. The culture of maintaining agricultural machinery was weak, and modern agricultural methods, fertilization, and disease prevention were inadequate or unsuitable to the local climate.

Encountering throughout the 1960s disparities between investment returns in the agricultural sector versus the urban sector, and a parochial village culture resistant to mechanization, the government first resorted to handing out small agricultural loans and sending assistance in the form of technicians and Literacy Corps (Sepah-e Danesh) workers. Later on, similar to the Soviet kolkhozy, the regional agricultural cooperatives were established, relying, somewhat unrealistically, on farmers’ collaborative capabilities. Soon it became apparent that the cooperatives could not replace the villages in their role as the time-honored units of production. Despite the regime’s optimistic wish to create a rural utopia, villages stubbornly preserved some of their traditional customs and production methods, even though as the backbone of the agrarian economy they were visibly weakened.

An emerging class of landowners—among them landlords and moneyed intermediaries—began to purchase smaller plots from villagers and turn them into enterprises, often independent of the traditional village economy. By the 1970s villages were rapidly becoming a liability for the state rather than functioning as productive agricultural units, as they had been for centuries. Thousands of small, self-sustaining, often isolated villages and hamlets, with populations as large as a few thousand or as small as a few families, started a slow decline. The villagers soon turned into consumers of subsidized commodities, even foodstuffs provided by government agencies, while sending off their young labor force to the cities to earn the much-needed subsidy income for the family. Villages near cities were all but absorbed into urban sprawl, and larger ones far from urban centers proudly declared themselves towns and cities, though with diminishing agricultural production. By the mid-1970s Iran, with its rising population and changing demography, became for the first time a net importer of grain, and then later of other foodstuffs as well.

It is difficult not to feel nostalgic about a rural economy that had persisted for millennia across the Iranian plateau. Some villages retained names from Sasanian and pre-Sasanian times, and many were scattered across remote corners of the country, at high elevations, on the mountain slopes, on riverfronts, deep inside forests, and on the edges or in the midst of the central and eastern deserts. These were the only viable oases for a human presence, often with limited but renewable water resources furnished by the long trails of qanat canals stretching from the mountain slopes to fertile plains, irrigating small and hard-worked fields along with smaller fruit and vegetable gardens. The houses in the village were close together, leading to a village commons where the qanat water poured into a common cistern. There were a few stores, and the walled garden of the landlord’s manor house was nearby.

The tightly knit village community predominantly practiced endogamy, preserved a clear kin lineage, and a patriarchal seniority represented by the village headman. Among a host of lasting issues dividing neighboring villages from one another were disputes over water rights putting the so-called upstreamers against the downstreamers. Villagers often distrusted urbanites, especially the bailiffs and government gendarmes. Most lived in relative poverty, though compared to Egyptian fallahin and Indian kisanas they enjoyed a better standard of living. Although it is difficult to generalize, one can compare Iranian peasants’ quality of life as favorable to that of most other peasants in regions of the Middle East, perhaps with the exception of the Levant and the Aegean coast.

The land reform slowly transformed that communal life and with it the village. Modern brick houses with better lighting and sanitation, but often clumsily built and climatically unsuitable, appeared on the landscape. With new roads came pickup trucks, deep-well technology, and power generators. Donkeys, mules, and camels gradually lost their function as beasts of burden and diminished greatly in numbers. Western clothing replaced customary village dress and headgear; radios, and later television, tainted regional accents; and modern household goods and appliances changed living and even eating habits, as well as modes of leisure. The inevitable process of change had the unintended consequence of liberating the majority of the population from the land and, in due course, profoundly changing Iran’s socioeconomic and cultural composition.

The 1969 film Gaav (The cow) by the gifted director Dariush Mehrjui (b. 1939) and based on a short story by Gholam-Hosain Sa‘edi (1936–1985; inspired probably by a children’s rhyme), offers a piercing metaphor for the metamorphosis of Iranian villages. Mashdi Hasan’s pregnant cow, the only one in the village, dies of mysterious causes. The villagers, aware of the owner’s attachment to his animal, try to cover it up. Once Mashdi Hasan learns of the death, he falls into a deep depression and begins to see himself as his beloved cow, a mental condition that leads to his total estrangement. Though one may detect a certain romanticizing of idyllic rural life, the film carried a poignant message of the impact of modernity on rural routines. With the cow as the symbol of life, and as the only asset of the peasant (besides his labor) in the agrarian system that came with the land reform, it is as if the cow’s death alludes not only to the loss of the peasant’s means of production but also to a melancholy demise of the traditional village life and, in a broader context, the cultural alienation of the country as a whole.


Aside from the land reform, which was soon to face stiff resistance from tribal khans and a some ranking clergy, the focus of Amini’s government was mostly fiscal—he had served in the Ministry of Finance—and utilized austerity measures, an anticorruption campaign, and a large loan negotiated with the United States to pay off the budget deficit. The dissolution of the twentieth Majles was meant to assist Amini in carrying out his reform program. The mandate to uproot corruption brought Amini momentary popularity, which he proved unable to convert into a solid base of support. An avid centrist, he quickly became a spoof for the satirical press. The weekly Towfiq, which relished taking cheap shots at Amini and his cabinet, took advantage of the opening political climate to mock the premier for being hopelessly ineffectual. Dailies were no less cynical about Amini and his promised reforms.

The global recession of the early 1960s, moreover, hit the Iranian economy hard. The country’s increasing dependence on Western markets because of oil exports and foreign imports had become painfully apparent. The psychological impact of the recession reached a crisis level once Amini declared the government virtually bankrupt, which he attributed to mismanagement and fraud. The credit market collapsed, and imports and exports came to a standstill, causing a chain reaction of bankruptcies in the bazaar at a time when the land reform program had begun to deprive many big merchants of supplementary revenue.

Amini’s hesitancy to hold yet another election to convene the Majles brought him head to head with the revived second National Front. They were mostly statesmen of the Mosaddeq era, including Allahyar Saleh, Karim Sanjabi, Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi, and Shapur Bakhtiar, with recognition among university students, civil servants, the secular middle classes, and some bazaar businesses, though they also enjoyed some grassroots support. As was the case with the first National Front, their style of leadership favored rule of law, free and fair elections, and public deliberation. These were at variance with Amini’s calls for quick economic measures and rule by decree. Amini evidently feared that another round of elections might return to the Majles reactionary landlords and their agents, who no doubt would block land reforms and other programs. Relying on popular support, the National Front rejected Amini’s argument having been convinced that the premier, in collusion with the shah, was determined to bar members of the opposition from entering the Majles.

Despite an impressive show of immediate support in street demonstrations and university protests, the second National Front generally did not make any political headway. The shah, the army, and the conservative clergy, not to mention Amini, were suspicious, especially of the younger generation of left-leaning activists under the umbrella of the National Front. Tehran University, a center of National Front activism (which included the remaining Tudeh loyalists), witnessed a series of demonstrations against the regime. They met with riot police, intimidation, and detention by the Savak, which predictably further radicalized the already-tense climate of confrontation. Loyal to the constitution’s principles, the leaders of the National Front neither could fully embrace the aspirations of the younger generations of activists nor were they able, or willing, to collaborate with the Amini government. That Mosaddeq from his exile in Ahmadabad increasingly rendered his blessings to the younger and more radical elements on the fringes of the National Front further disheartened the leadership. Hoping for a breakthrough, they waited for a ripe moment, which never came. They were instead harassed, arrested, and eventually banned from political activity by the shah. Amini, trying to keep the Americans on his side, lost a crucial chance to check the shah’s unwieldy ambitions.

Isolated after only fourteen months in office, Amini’s government showed signs of weariness when it faced its final challenge over the allocation of the budget. Hoping to cut the military budget as an austerity measure, Amini met the shah’s stiff resistance. The shah was well aware of the Americans’ strategic desire to build up Iranian armed forces, as he was mindful of his own support within the military. That the United States denied a $250 million loan promised to the Amini government made it clear where the superpower’s priorities lay, hence precipitating the government’s downfall. Amini resigned and left the country, leaving the stage clear for the shah, who, during his visit to the United States in April, had prepared the ground for the forthcoming change. By June 24, 1962, Julius Holms, the American ambassador to Tehran, considered Amini a “spent force.”


The shah’s return to center stage, to the displeasure of the opposition, began a new era of a more determined imperial rule that lasted until the end of the shah’s reign. In this new guise he was to be the savior of exploited peasants and workers, an almost revolutionary pose that aimed to replace his earlier image as a malleable pawn of the Western powers. The new initiative, the White Revolution, primarily hinged on a government-enforced reform program that incorporated the land redistribution but soon continued to add other features. It was meant to convey a sense of peaceful and bloodless but drastic change. In this scheme of things the losers were supposed to be the landowning elite and their associates, and the chief winner the shah and “the people.” Hence the “Revolution of the Shah and the People” (enqlab-e shah va mardom) underscored a new mandate that bypassed the old structure of power, in effect eliminating the intermediaries who stood between ruler and ruled.

The shah’s visit to the United States in April 1962 at the invitation of President Kennedy offered the moral support for the shah to take over the reform agenda of the Amini government and expand on it (pl. 10.1). By August 1962 President Kennedy’s letter, though guarded in tone, gave the shah the necessary assurances that Iran will receive the military hardware and economic assistance the shah had insisted upon for some time:

The United States greatly appreciates the highly important strategic location of Iran and your steadfastness in remaining vigilant against the pressures of international communism. In deciding what we both can do to strengthen Iran’s national security, however, it is also necessary that your urgent social and economic programs and the resources available to carry them out be taken into account.1

To implement the reforms, in July 1962 the shah had already appointed, in place of Amini, his longtime confidante Asadollah ‘Alam (1919–1978), a shrewd enabler and a scion of a landowning family from central Khorasan. ‘Alam was once the leader of the all-too-loyal-opposition Mardom Party. He proved himself a trusted agent who was ready to implement the shah’s “royal wishes.” Retaining Arsanjani for a few more years as agriculture minister, the shah accelerated the land reforms despite serious opposition, which had begun to build even before Amini’s dismissal.

In February 1963 a stage-managed referendum on the six points of the White Revolution brought out six million voters, for the first time including women. With no meaningful debate put forward and with heavy propaganda in the state media, the approval rate was a predictable 91.6 percent. The referendum, though devoid of any constitutional legitimacy, furnished the much-needed nominal mandate for the shah’s six-point revolution. The much abused term enqelab clearly was appropriated from the left, and the “white” attribute had a double meaning, implying a mass movement distinct from the “red traitors” and the “black reactionaries” (erteja’-e siyah), labels the shah appended to the Tudeh opposition and vociferous clerical critics, respectively. As early as 1959, it is noteworthy, the shah’s government had threatened Ayatollah Borujerdi with implementing a “white coup” if the latter failed to comply with the legislation on land reform before the Majles. Although the measure did not win immediate approval among the deputies, it soon offered the shah a chance to reiterate his demand in the form of the White Revolution.

Aside from land reform, the most effective article in what came to be known as the “six points” of the revolution was the Literacy Corps, inspired as much by Kennedy’s Peace Corps as by the Soviet, North Vietnamese, and Chinese regimented literacy campaigns. The program drafted thousands of urban high school male (and later female) graduates to be sent off, as part of their two-year military service, to villages throughout the country. They were given rudimentary training on how to run a rural elementary school and carry out a literacy program for both children and adults (pl. 10.2 and pl. 10.3).

Often being the sole teacher and administrator in their remote posts, these corps members enjoyed a privileged status in the village community. Aside from their teaching function, draftees into the Literacy Corps represented the secularizing culture of the cities. They stood apart from the landlords and their bailiffs (now mostly gone), headmen, village elders, village mullahs, and the rural gendarmes. Their teaching method, educational material, and school space, too, stood apart from the humble village maktabs run by female tutors (fig. 10.3).

The outcome, at least in the earlier years, was impressive by the standards of the time. Hundreds of thousands of young villagers, boys and girls, were educated in often mixed single-room schools with bare facilities, and some went on to continue their secondary education in district schools or nearby towns. Within five years of the start of the program in 1963, more than 500,000 boys and about 130,000 girls were enrolled in Literacy Corps schools; by 1970, 3,000 such schools had been built throughout Iran. By 1977 enrollment in these schools had grown nearly sevenfold in fifteen years. Yet the education they received often served as an additional incentive for rural migration.

Figure 10.3. Qur’anic school (maktab) in the village of Gelian in northern Khorasan. It was still operational in 1969 while a Literacy Corps school was in place in the village.

Photographed by the author, March 1969.

A degree of social alienation was prevalent among the young Literacy Corps teachers. Few observers believed in the effectiveness of the campaign, despite its remarkable efforts to reach remote villages, far from provincial towns and accessible only by mule over nearly impassable mountain tracks. Some recruits remained cynical of their “wasted” time in the isolation of remote villages and acted condescendingly, if not hostilely, toward villagers. Others were struck by the abject poverty and deprivation, and the experience soon converted some to radical causes. Despite many drawbacks, the Literacy Corps, perhaps more than its subsequently introduced campaigns, the Health Corps and Development Corps, was effective in breaking through the barriers between city and village.

Some modern amenities followed the trail of the Literacy Corps: rural health clinics with local paramedics, dirt roads with motorbike or van service, electricity generators, fertilizers, vaccination, agricultural machinery, household goods, and telephone communication. Yet opening to the outside also brought vices and tensions, ranging from opium addiction among young recruits (illegally but inexpensively available in many villages) to involvement of inexperienced corps members in local feuds, inappropriate advances toward young village girls and embarrassing sexual escapades, and violation of local ethnic and religious traditions.

One achievement of lasting consequences was the steady rise of literacy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which reached nearly 75 percent by the end of the Pahlavi era (at least on paper). This success was offset by the uncritical nature of state-sponsored education in the cities as well as in the countryside. The lopsided school curriculum favored an approach to education that glorified the state and demanded conformity and compliance. The widening gap in the 1970s between the deafening state propaganda on the success of the White Revolution and the grim realities of everyday life was glaring. For the vast majority of educated and semieducated youth with growing demands, education thus contributed to their fascination with the alternative ideologies that would soon shake the Pahlavi regime to its core.


The White Revolution, and in particular the land reforms and women’s greater visibility in public life, were bound to raise grave concerns among conservative sectors of Iranian society. The land reform had already triggered a revolt among tribal khans and large landowners who were discontent with the prospects of losing their easily earned livelihood. As for the clergy, as early as the 1950s some tensions were detectable between the Pahlavi state and the Qom establishment. Yet despite the differences, there existed a guarded rapport. The Shi‘i upper ranks viewed the shah as an imperfect but viable partner, and in the course of the 1953 coup most of the upper and middle ranks, Khomeini included, had sided with Kashani and Borujerdi in their tacit support for the shah, being fearful of the Tudeh takeover. With the introduction of the shah’s reform program, however, that view began to change. The up-and-coming clerics with radical views and their students in Qom clearly were disgruntled with the Pahlavi state on ideological as well as material grounds.

As early as September 1962 signs of public discontent were visible to foreign observers. A US intelligence report warned:

The growing political unrest of the urban middle class was being manifested increasingly openly, and we estimated that profound political and social change was virtually inevitable. We added that such change would most likely be revolutionary in nature. . . .

In reasserting his own exclusive dominance, the Shah has acted in accordance with his longstanding belief that Iran is far from ready for a true parliamentary government and that the country can be ruled effectively only by a strong man like himself who understands Iran’s problems. . . . He will be reluctant to share power with anyone . . . [and] will not consent to any such permanent impairment of his authority as would be implied in a meaningful compromise with the nationalists [a reference to the second National Front]. His preoccupation with military matters and his relative indifference to administrative and fiscal improvement will almost certainly persist. Under these circumstances, Iran’s political structure will continue to be extremely fragile. Over the longer term, profound political and social change appears virtually inevitable.2

Though not yet clear to American observers, militancy within the clerical community greatly accelerated this state of influx. Borujerdi’s death in March 1961 triggered a leadership contest that brought to the surface tensions between the moderate camp and the radicals, forever transforming clerical politics. As the most prominent representative of the radical leaning, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) seriously clashed with the Pahlavi state not only over the course of the reforms but also on issues of foreign policy. By 1963 he mobilized against the shah a sizable sector of the population, mostly associated with the bazaar and the urban lower-middle classes—a rehearsal, perhaps, for the Islamic Revolution that would flare up seventeen years later.

Khomeini’s life and thoughts may offer clues to this fundamental shift toward militancy and to the challenges the Shi‘i clergy faced throughout the early part of the twentieth century. He was born to a provincial landowning clerical family in Khomein, a small agricultural town in the well-watered valleys of the ‘Iraq-e ‘Ajam region of central Iran, 220 miles south of Tehran and halfway between Isfahan and the emerging clerical center of Qom. His extended family of middle-sized landowners led a relatively affluent life in a climate of violence and insecurity that characterized the early life of Ruhollah, the youngest of six children. Clashes among feudal landlords and local bandits were one sign of the breakdown of the Qajar order in the years just after the Constitutional Revolution. His father—a third-generation Shi‘i cleric who migrated first from Kashmir in northern India to Najaf, settled in Khomein in the 1840s. He himself was victim of violent local skirmishes when, acting as a public advocate for the local merchants and landlords, he was gunned down by rival gangs.

The young Ruhollah (Ruh-Allah means “the Spirit of God,” a Qur’anic title for Jesus and a relatively rare first name for the children of Shi‘i clergy) was brought up by his mother, and after his mother’s premature death, by his paternal aunt, a woman of strong character who left her footprint on the young boy. He received a typical elementary maktab education in Khomein from female and male instructors, including his older brother, but not modern schooling. In the years following the Constitutional Revolution, Khomein, like most small towns, was untouched by modern education, even though the young Ruhollah may have learned rudiments of arithmetic, calligraphy, and some Persian poetry.

In his early years Ruhollah witnessed armed bandits harassing the local population and warlords feuding among themselves, an occurrence so common that even his own family house, built as a small fortress, had to be defended against frequent sorties. At times, members of his household were engaged in shootouts from the ramparts; at other times the family rented out the humble but strategic tower to rival bands. The family defended itself with guns, available in greater abundance in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution, at a time when the lines between banditry and self-defense were blurred.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, cholera visited the region, killing Ruhollah’s mother. This loss may have weakened the boy’s ties with his hometown. Two years later, as a young seminarian, he moved to the town of Arak (old Soltanabad), then a bustling mercantile center with vast agricultural estates, an important carpet industry, and an active madrasa network. He studied under, among others, ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’eri, the reputed jurisprudence teacher and marja‘ who served as his mentor. A year later, in 1921, he followed Ha’eri to Qom, a pilgrimage town that would soon transform itself under Ha’eri, and later Borujerdi, into the foremost teaching center (howzeh) in Iran. Perhaps faintly inspired by the idea of the university, the howzeh consisted of a number of madrasas and smaller teaching circles affiliated in an informal network; it offered a somewhat systematic approach to Shi‘i education and clerical training.

The move to Qom coincided with the ascendency of Reza Khan, whose rise to power and secularizing program left an indelible impression on the young Khomeini and his worldview. His deep hostility toward Reza Khan, as Khomeini invariably referred to Pahlavi ruler, was at the core of his opposition to the new regime. Yet, ironically, in 1924 in Qom he must have witnessed his admired teacher and mentor orchestrating a grand reconciliation between the Shi‘i marja‘s—some more senior than Ha’eri himself—and Reza Khan.

In Qom, while following his education in Islamic law, a discipline quickly losing all its societal relevance in Pahlavi Iran, Khomeini did not shy away from speculative mysticism (‘erfan) and Islamic philosophy. Such fields, even when innocuously termed hekmat (wisdom, gnosis) rather than philosophy (falsafeh), continued to be denounced by the insular jurists of Qom as heretical, dangerous, and essentially antithetical to the teachings of Islam. Yet contrary to Najaf, the study of ‘erfan and hekmat, with a strong Neoplatonic bent, was not entirely absent in Qom teaching circles. His teacher of mysticism, Mohammad ‘Ali Shahabadi (1872–1949), seems to have played an important role in Khomeini’s mystical and philosophical orientation and understanding of Islam not simply as mundane teachings of fiqh but as deeper moral values and self-discovery for personal and social improvement.

A blend of Shi‘i jurisprudence, speculative mysticism (as opposed to mysticism of the Sufis and the Sufi orders), and Islamic ethical and revivalist awareness thus characterized Khomeini’s training. Yet despite his interest in speculative mysticism, he remained loyal to the jurist tradition that carried a certain element of clerical entitlement especially among high-ranking mojtaheds. He not only inherited this conservative, pedantic, text-oriented legacy but also shared a sense of communal loyalty to fellow jurists that was reinforced by isolation under the Pahlavi rule. Sensitivity toward the wishes of their constituency (the moqalleds), a perpetually frown and aloof demeanor, and a display of apparent independence from sources of temporal power were his other hallmarks. He was heir to a closely knit madrasa environment with a strong patron-client relationship between teachers and students, as well as a culture of austerity among students, honed by years of communal living, often in a state of abject poverty.

Crucial though legal training and madrasa culture were for Khomeini, they did not seem to satisfy his questioning mind. He remained troubled by the predicaments of his time and what he considered the fading of Islam as society’s moral standard. In practice these boiled down to such anxieties as how to avoid the mandatory dress codes under Reza Shah that forced many of his cohorts, and even members of his family, to don Western suits and wear the rimmed Pahlavi hat. The very resistance to state-enforced conformity helped fashion a new ethos of dissent. Typical of many Muslim reformists of clerical origin who were wary of studying jurisprudence in the madrasa curriculum, Khomeini searched in speculative mysticism for a deeper understanding of Islam’s message and its relevance to his time. The study of philosophy—mostly Avicenna’s selective reworking of the Greek masters—had never been abandoned in Shi‘i learning. Mainly through the seventeenth-century school of Isfahan and by taking on the eclectic approach of Mulla Sadra, the Shi‘i students of philosophy were able to engage even the mystical discourse of such defining figures as the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi. Most conservative jurists, though, denounced Ibn al-’Arabi and even Mulla Sadra as heretics and condemned the study of their works as unconscionable.

Such speculative preoccupations brought Khomeini in the 1940s and early 1950s to the limits of madrasa tolerance. Fearing charges of heresy, and even denunciation by the Qom jurists, he was persuaded to abandon the teaching of philosophy—at least in public—and return to the jurists’ fold. He even produced a “practical treatise” (resaleh-ye ‘amaliyeh) on the intricate points of Shi‘i rituals and civil law, mostly based on the fatwas he had issued over the years on such issues as ablution and ritual pollutants, nullifiers of prayer and fasting, perverted sexual behavior, and relations with nonbelievers. Adopting the guise of a conventional mojtahed and publishing his resaleh helped qualify Khomeini as a grand ayatollah. His political activism, which soon erupted in open defiance of the Pahlavi state, would not have had the desired effect had it not been for his recognition as one of the four highest-ranking jurists in Iran to emerge after Borujerdi.

Yet what turned him into a revolutionary prophet anxious to save the “wronged Islam” from threats of a secular world came essentially from his mystico-philosophical bent. Ibn al-Arabi’s claim to be the “seal of the saints” (khatam al-awliya’) may well have contributed to Khomeini’s later articulation of the doctrine of the “authority of the jurist” (welayat-e faqih). In effect, by returning to the jurists’ fold, Khomeini “reinvented” jurisprudence. No longer was it a mere obsession with pollution and intricate points of ritual cleansing, the rudiments of Shi‘i jurisprudence; rather, it aimed at cleansing the polluting politics and morals of secular modernity.

Khomeini’s engagement with the sufferings of the Shi‘i Imams and their agonies, a sacred narrative of endurance to Shi‘is of all backgrounds, formed the third dimension in his multilayered outlook. In his mind, the Shi‘i “friends,” essentially followers of the clerical establishment, were differentiated from the Pahlavi “foes” and their “heathen” allies, in the same cosmic scheme that separated the friends of Hosain ibn ‘Ali in Karbala from his foes. This was a universe inhabited by many saints of the past and many demons of the present. In this universe of anger and defiance, his communal brethren, mostly the clergy and their lay followers, constituted the “self” while the alien other, the secularizing state and its domestic and foreign allies, were to be kept at a safe distance. In Khomeini’s worldview, if this alien other and its intrusive pollutants were not defied and denounced in their entirety, they were bound to destroy the very essence of pristine but vulnerable Islam.

Through an act of remembrance (rawzeh-khani), the narrative of martyrdom in Shi‘i sacred history, recited in a melodramatic tone from the pulpit of the mosques, was a powerful means of mass mobilization. Khomeini was fully aware of its power and skillful in employing it at crucial moments. The Moharram ceremonies, mourning processions, weeping, and self-flagellation became conduits for connecting with the popular culture of ordinary believers. In this respect Khomeini utilized features of Shi‘i culture, complete with intonation, figures of speech, and a firm loyalty to the popular myths of rituals of suffering and martyrdom.

His small-town upbringing (and later his stay in Najaf) were not entirely alien to the world outside the Shi‘i madrasa, or the pulpit of the mosque, or the Moharram ceremonies. Though before 1979 he never lived in a large city, in his own terms he absorbed selected elements of modernity in defiance of state-sponsored secularism. As early as 1944, in an open letter he called on Iranians to rise up against the “injustices” that the “despicable” Reza Khan imposed on them, and he held advocates of Pahlavi secularism responsible for degrading the clergy, removing the veil from chaste women, having a corrupting influence on the press, and sending “bogus deputies” to the Majles. The absence of communal solidarity, he lamented, was what brought defenseless Islam to an abyss into which it had now fallen, making it an easy target for the onslaught of heathen modernists and enemies of Islam. In a prophetic tone he went on to caution:

It is because of sheer selfishness and neglect to stage an uprising for the sake of God that we are doomed to such a dark fate that the whole world has prevailed over us and the Islamic nations were brought under the domination of [alien] others. It is the selfish interests that has suffocated the spirit of unity and brotherhood within the Islamic nation. . . . O, the spiritual leaders of Islam! You, the ulama of God! Today is the day that the breeze of divine spirituality is blowing on us and it is the best of times to start a reformative uprising. If you miss this opportunity, and don’t rise up in the path of God and don’t restore religious rites, tomorrow yet another lustful licentious bunch will prevail over you and make all your faith and honor subject to their false malevolence. Today what excuse do you have before God the creator?

Remarkably, he then went on to contrast the lack of solidarity among Muslims to the Baha’i’ sense of camaraderie: “Even if in a small village a slightest affront would have directed toward [Baha’i] religion, all coreligionists would have risen in one spirit and with a single objective.”3

In this declaration, as in other writings, Khomeini also responded in the postwar era to critics of clerical Shi‘ism, including Ahmad Kasravi, the well-known journalist and scholar who, in the 1930s and 1940s, initiated a modernist religious movement of unitarian character, free of what he called “superstitions” and “fallacies.” In his influential essays—and later in his 1944 pamphlet titled Shi’a-gari (Shi‘ism)—Kasravi depicted Shi‘i Islam as nothing more than a jumble of myths, rituals, and fables manufactured by demagogic mullahs and designed to preserve their vested interests and control over the ignorant masses. Kasravi’s prophet-like call for a moral revival and his campaign against the Shi‘i clerical establishment, as well as against the Sufis, the Baha’i, and the cultural establishment of the Pahlavi era, brought him few devotees and many sworn enemies. In his Kashf-e Asrar (Unveiling mysteries) Khomeini systematically tried to retract such charges brought by, among others, Kasravi. In his judgment, attacks on Shi‘i beliefs and rituals were comparable to the attacks the Wahhabi “savages of Arabia” had long leveled against Shi‘ism. Holding nothing back, he was among the first to call upon believers to physically eliminate Kasravi for his blasphemy; it was not mere coincidence that members of Fada’iyan-e Islam assassinated Kasravi in March 1945 shortly after the publication of Khomeini’s book.

Critics of Shi‘ism aside, the defiance in Khomeini’s early writings was also directed at the Shi‘i clerical establishment, which he viewed as timid and compromising. The modern intelligentsia, too, he depicts as disloyal to Islam and captivated by the West. The Muslim people—in Iran and elsewhere—were also portrayed as victims of tyranny at home, foreign powers, and a general lack of awareness of Islam. The decadence and decrepitude he sensed in Islam’s waning power was typical of most Islamic activists, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet what set Khomeini apart from other resentful Islamic advocates was his loyalty to the conservative Islam of the jurists and the clerical establishment, whom he wished, even in the early years of his activism, would become natural leaders of the community, at the forefront of the war against satanic forces that threatened Muslim integrity.


The opening of the political climate under Amini made Khomeini’s anti-Pahlavi presence more pronounced on the political stage. This was something of a shift in his position, for it was not a secret that Khomeini disliked Mosaddeq for not complying with Islamic principles. He even criticized Kashani for presumed abandoning the Fada’iyan-e Islam in favor of Mosaddeq. In the late 1940s he had met with the shah a number of times as Borujerdi’s emissary, expressing concern over the threat of the Tudeh and the role the Fada’iyan could play as a counterweight to the left. In the late 1950s, however, Khomeini’s relationship with Borujerdi turned sour not only over control of the Qom howzeh but also because of Borujerdi’s occasional compliance with the government’s wishes. Khomeini generally disapproved of the nonpolitical mojtaheds’ for their compromising stance toward the state and reluctance to speak out unanimously. His criticism was reciprocated by the politically conservative clergy. They distrusted Khomeini all the more because of his popularity among the younger generation of seminarians who were attracted to his teaching circle.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Khomeini began to question a number of issues of domestic and foreign policy. Starting with marginal issues—such as the mingling of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and the performing of dances—he soon moved on to more substantive concerns such as the passing of the first land reform legislation in 1959 and the opening of informal diplomatic relations with Israel and economic collaboration with the Jewish state. In 1962, when the government tried to introduce the elected provincial councils sanctioned by the 1906–1907 Constitution, mostly the shah’s window-dressing to compensate for closing other political channels, Khomeini was at the forefront of clerical opposition, objecting even to the hint of women’s right to vote. He argued that the voting regulations failed to specify the male gender—and hence exclude women—from the electorate. Along with other ayatollahs in Qom, he also objected to dropping the oath of allegiance to the Qur’an for the provincial councils’ delegates, an omission seen in Qom as a concession to the Baha’is and their election to the councils rather than as a symbolic delinking of religion and politics. In his telegram to the premier Asadollah ‘Alam in October 1962, Khomeini further threatened that on these and other issues contrary to shari‘a, he would not remain silent and that, in response, the government would face severe clerical opposition.

Under pressure, the ‘Alam government caved, abandoning, at least temporarily, the idea of provincial councils. This only helped bolster Khomeini’s opposition to issues ranging from the six points of the White Revolution to the regime’s corruption and mismanagement, its subservience to the United States, and its friendly relations with Israel. Now elevated to the lead opposition figure, at the expense of the second National Front and other secular voices, Khomeini went as far as boycotting the proposed referendum of February 1963. His grounds for objection predictably were women’s right to vote and the illegitimacy under Islamic law of the land reforms and other reform measures. His radical stance gained some support in Qom, which went through unrest and bloody clashes with security forces. Beyond Qom, a sector of the landowning classes, as well as some bazaar merchants, both large and petty, was unhappy with the economy growing outside their reach, and so backed Khomeini.

In the following months a showdown between Khomeini’s supporters and the security forces seemed inevitable. A serious tribal uprising in Fars province among the Qashqa’i and other affiliated tribes against the land reform program persuaded the shah to assume that there was a grand alliance between Khomeini and his supporters, the tribal khans, and their allies. Even though the shah had tried to work out with the Qom establishment a peaceful understanding of their differences, he was anxious not to convey an image of weakness when his entire political enterprise was at stake.

The demonstrations in Qom against the regime and in support of Khomeini soon triggered a violent reaction from the government. An unprovoked attack by the security forces on the prayer congregation in the Fayziyeh mosque and madrasa, the core of Qom activism, in March 1963 resulted in multiple deaths and injuries, as well as property damage. The “fortieth” memorial (arba‘in) of the Fayziyeh crackdown in early June 1963 coincided with Moharram observances, always a time of great emotional upsurge. In his speech on the tenth of Moharram, the ‘Ashura, the most sacred day in the Shi‘i calendar, Khomeini, on the pulpit of Fayziyeh and before thousands of Moharram mourners, openly condemned the government in a highly emotional tone (fig. 10.4).

Comparing the Fayziyeh incident in March to the wrongs inflicted by the Umayyads on the Third Shi‘i Imam, he held the shah responsible for the atrocities and further denounced Israel, and its presumed domestic collaborators, for aiming to destroy the very foundations of Islam. The emphasis on Israel was particularly effective. He accused the shah of selling out Iran to the Israelis, who, he claimed, intended to destroy Iran’s agriculture and take over its economy. He denounced the shah’s referendum on the White Revolution as a fraud and accused the Pahlavi state of corruption, misappropriation of public funds, and accumulation of illegitimate wealth. He contrasted these excesses of the regime with the frugal and selfless clergy of Qom. He “advised” the shah, as he put it, in the strongest terms to abandon Israel, to listen to the marja‘s, and do not deviate from the path of Islam so as to avoid the sad fate of his father, whose abdication brought joy to Iranian hearts.

Touching upon such sensitive themes in an emotionally charged environment, Khomeini’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the loud weeping of the mournful audience. For the first time a copy of the recorded tape of his speech soon traveled across Iran and resonated with the people in the bazaars and streets of the poorer neighborhoods. The powerful call for defiance quickly bore results, leading to a bloody uprising in the capital and some provincial cities. In the early hours of June 5, two days after his Fayziyeh speech, Khomeini was arrested by security forces and brought to Tehran, detained in the Officers’ Club, where Mosaddeq had been detained, before being sent off to jail. On the same day, June 5, as the news of Khomeini’s arrest reached the public, Iranian cities witnessed a violent uprising. As if the crowd had anticipated the arrest, tens of thousands of protesters holding makeshift placards of Khomeini’s portrait and shouting slogans against the shah poured into the streets near the bazaar and other neighborhoods of Tehran, smashing shop windows, burning down banks and cinemas, and attacking bus stations, police stations, and government buildings. Among other places, the Pepsi bottling facility, the Iran-US cultural center, and Iranian broadcasting services were attacked and burned down. The crowd, aroused by devout supporters of Khomeini from among the gang leaders (lutis) of Tehran’s wholesale vegetable market, armed with sticks and knives, began to move in the direction of the Marmar royal palace in central Tehran, where the shah’s office was located.

Figure 10.4. Khomeini at the pulpit of the Fayziyeh Mosque in Qom, June 3, 1963.

Tasvir-e Aftab (Tehran: Sorush Publishers, 1989).

Facing a mass rebellion destabilizing the shah’s regime, the security forces moved in with trucks, tanks, heavy machine guns, and thousands of troops. Declaring martial law, the Tehran military command began a systematic clampdown in the center and on the edges of the capital. Surrounding the main entrance to the Tehran bazaar with a half circle of menacing M35 (REO) troop carriers, M103 heavy tanks, and fire engines, all with their headlights on, the troops first aimed high-pressure water cannons at the crowd trapped at the bazaar entrance. Shortly afterward, machine guns began to shoot, first intermittently and then indiscriminately. Once the first round of the assault downed protesters at the entrance, squads of riot police moved into the bazaar’s main thoroughfare, pummeling the fleeing crowd with their batons.

At least 125 people were killed (though some estimates put the figure as high as 400), and many more were injured in two days of bloody confrontations in the capital and provincial centers. Hundreds more were detained before relative calm could be returned to the cities. Bodies of victims, it was rumored, were buried in unmarked mass graves outside the capital, and those who had fallen in Qom were dumped in the salty swamp deep into the Qom desert. In Fars province a simultaneous uprising among the Boyer Ahmad Lur tribes was put down, and the Qashqa’i and other tribes of the region were contained and disarmed. Since the start of land reforms, a series of revolts had been pacified, marking perhaps the last of the tribal unrest Iran was to witness over the nearly 250 years since the fall of the Safavids. With the end of what came to be labeled the “Fars Uprising,” never again did the Iranian tribes—or what was left of their nomadic lifestyle—play a significant role in shaping Iran’s political history. Chiefs of the Qashqa’i and other affiliated tribes, deprived of their tribal titles, were detained and sent into internal exile—a few charged with armed rebellion were also sent before the firing squad. The government declared the tribe itself as “officially terminated,” and by then they had mostly settled in and around Firuzabad, seventy miles south of Shiraz.

Khomeini was held in an army barracks in Tehran for nearly two months before being put under house arrest for another eight months. A handful of mojtaheds in major cities, many Khomeini’s supporters and students, were temporarily detained. The gang leaders responsible for the Tehran uprising were tried and hanged, and all physical signs of destruction in Tehran were quickly removed or restored. Yet the psychological wounds inflicted by the revolt remained unhealed. Khomeini, seemingly unrepentant and untarnished, returned to Qom in March 1964. He was spared the death sentence and released from detention after the other marja‘s in Qom, including Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari, pleaded with the shah, cautioning him of the dire consequences of executing a major figure like Khomeini. There was no love lost between Khomeini and the other ayatollahs in Qom. What was at stake, however, was clerical prestige and their glaring display of ineffectiveness before the state were one of their cohort to be detained or eliminated, an unprecedented event, save for the 1909 revolutionary trial and execution of Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri.

In March 1964 the coming to office of a more appeasing government under Hasan-‘Ali Mansur (Mansour, 1923–1965) was instrumental in Khomeini’s release. His appointment generated further hope for reconciliation. Khomeini, relying on his growing popular support in and out of the bazaar, was determined to carry on his crusade even if, as he stated, it were to cost him his life. As if retreating from the Fada’iyan-e Islam agenda of the 1950s (whose supporters no doubt were crucial in the June uprising), Qom, under the spell of Khomeini, demanded implementation of Islamic laws and abolition of the White Revolution’s anti-Islamic decrees, which in reality meant reversing the land reform program, and especially returning waqf properties to their trustees. Honoring the demands of the Shi‘i clergy also meant annulling women’s right to vote, the possible enforcement of hijab, and allowance of ta‘ziyeh passion plays and other mourning ceremonies that the regime had deemed superstitious and barbaric. In a speech in Qom a few days after Khomeini’s arrival, he also called for dissolution of the Majles and the Senate, accused the Pahlavi state of being in cahoots with Israel and “the agents of Zionism,” and called for an end to corruption. More vociferously than on earlier occasions, he also accused the Baha’is of perceived charges of occupying positions of power and collaborating with Israel. Most important, the declaration called for the implementation of article 2 of the 1907 Supplement to the Iranian Constitution, which stipulated the creation of a five-member mojtahed body to oversee the legislation of the Majles. The Pahlavi state and its projected reform program could not remotely honor any such demands.4

Six months later Khomeini found a new occasion to renew his vitriolic attack on the shah and the Mansur government, this time objecting to the judicial immunity granted to American military personnel (and their dependents) who served as advisers to the Iranian armed forces. In a speech delivered in October 26, 1964, he attacked the concession as a renewal of the hated capitulatory “most favored nations” rights of the Qajar era. His criticism stemmed from a clause in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Iran had become a signatory, whereby the host country had the option of relinquishing jurisdiction over foreign diplomats and their associates by granting them immunity from prosecution in the host country. Passed after some heated debate in the Majles, the issue was quickly picked up by opposition circles.

Ayatollah Khomeini, now fully recognized as a marja‘ and decidedly tilting the clerical balance toward political opposition, made the most of the state’s new diplomatic concession. In a passionate speech delivered in Fayziyeh before a huge crowd (coinciding with the lavish celebration of the shah’s birthday on October 26), Khomeini skillfully played on the bitter memories of the nineteenth-century capitulatory rights first granted to Russia in 1828 and then to other countries. In light of Reza Shah’s 1927 abolition of the capitulation, hailed at the time as a major Pahlavi victory in reclaiming Iran’s judicial sovereignty, the concession extended to the US advisory mission seemed exceptionally bold, even foolhardy. From the Iranian perspective, as voiced by Khomeini, this was yet another sign of Pahlavi subservience to the superpower and a slap in the face of Iran’s Islamic pride.

The clause was included in the treaty at the request of the United States to allow for the ratification of a long-negotiated loan of $200 million to build up the Iranian military. A stronger military was a point of confluence between the US Cold War strategic concerns and the shah’s insatiable appetite for the latest military hardware. Within the higher echelons of the US government, moreover, there existed a sense of moral entitlement that disbursing such a hefty loan, and the advisory military expertise that would accompany it, could not be done without firm immunity for the US personnel in a country like Iran, which by the Americans’ judgment was facing religious discord and anti-American sentiments.

To Khomeini, and to the majority of the Iranians, this was nothing short of neocolonial indenture. “If a servant or a cook of an American citizen kills or pummels under his feet your marja‘-e taqlid in the middle of the bazaar,” Khomeini contended, “the Iranian police cannot arrest him; the Iranian courts would have no jurisdiction. His file is to be forwarded to the United States so as to be adjudicated by the masters there.” In a mix of hyperbole and combativeness, heightened after his release from detention, Khomeini then leveled a litany of charges against the shah and his government, including selling off Iran’s sovereignty, being subservient to the Americans, facilitating Israel’s economic influence, pandering to the Americans for a huge loan with a scandalously high interest rate, convening a fraudulent Majles, guarding animosity toward religious authorities, attempting in vain to create divisions among the ayatollahs, causing the decline of agriculture, and forwarding the White Revolution as a mere propaganda scheme.

He further condemned the mingling of boys and girls, especially in mixed schools; attacked as distorted the history textbooks portraying the clergy as detrimental to the prosperity of the country; and above all, called on the clergy, the armed forces, statesmen, and the businessmen of Iran to beware of the impending decline and loss of Islam. Calling on the Najaf Shi‘i ayatollahs and heads of Islamic nations, including the shah, he warned: “Since we are a weak nation and don’t have dollars, does it mean that we should be pummeled under the American boots? America is worse than Britain and Britain is worse than America and the Soviet Union is worse than both of them; each is worse than the other and each more evil than the other. Yet today we are faced with America.” The focus of this vitriolic attack was the US president Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Khomeini believed to be “the most spiteful toward our nation than any human being because of the wrongs he inflicted on the Islamic nation. The Qur’an is his enemy; the people of Iran are his enemy. The government of the United States should know that in Iran he has been debased and scandalized.”5

This fuming rhetoric left little room for compromise. A week later, coinciding with the ratification in the Majles of the American loan, the Iranian special forces surrounded Khomeini’s house in Qom. He was whisked out of the city directly to Tehran airport and put on an airplane that took him to Turkey, where he spent a year in exile in the city of Bursa, known for its Islamic loyalties. Accompanied by his son, Mostafa, and clad in civilian clothing, he visited mosques and shrines in the ancient city (fig. 10.5). Later on, moving to Najaf, he kept a distance from the city’s clerical politics, although he was by no means isolated. He remained in exile for the following thirteen years, writing and teaching but also preserving his network of supporters and followers throughout Iran. Through his devout students and bazaar contacts he collected religious dues and redistributed funds among his former and current students and for other religious causes (fig. 10.6).

Figure 10.5. Ayatollah Khomeini and his son Mostafa in exile, Bursa, Turkey, 1964.

Hamid Ruhani, Barrasi va Tahlili az Nahzat-e Imam Khomeini, 2 vols. (Tehran, 1364/1985), vol. 2, n.p.

Figure 10.6. “Khomeini, the Deputy-Imam” appears on an Islamic new year’s greeting card (c. 1963). With a copy of the Qur’an in hand, he is surrounded by the slogan “fraternity, truth, justice, and liberty.” The standard carries a Qur’anic verse promising the parting of evil and the arrival of the good.

Hamid Ruhani, Barrasi va Tahlili az Nahzat-e Imam Khomeini, 2 vols. (Tehran, 1364/1985), vol. 1.

With Khomeini’s departure the four-year-old campaign of the Islamic militants lost momentum even though it did not come to a halt before taking the life of Hasan-‘Ali Mansur who ironically aimed to mend fences with Khomeini. In January 1965, ten weeks into Khomeini’s exile, the Fada’iyan-e Islam assassins gunned down the premier in front of the Majles. The assassins almost all were veterans of the Fada’iyan cadre, with connections to Khomeini’s circle. Inspired by his diatribe, the assassins viewed Mansur as a pro-American “agent.” They no doubt were active in organizing the June 1963 protests to recruit a private army that included lutis and lower ranks of the bazaar.

With the effective removal of the liberal and nationalist option of the Mosaddeq era, the Pahlavi royal autocracy and the Qom clerical militancy stood face-to-face, each prescribing a very different vision of the future. Both adhered to the nationalist narrative, but commonality ended there. The Pahlavi grip on power, implementing a reformist agenda from above, enabled an alliance with the West, adherence to a modernizing program, and an oil-dependent economy. It relied on loyal statesmen and apolitical technocrats, often children of the earlier generation of military, landed bureaucratic classes and the educated middle classes. Even if they were from religiously observant families or the old elite, they received a secular education, and often had some experience in the West. Their demeanor, lifestyle, and outlook—at least in public—were largely in tune with the Pahlavi project. Like the shah, they aspired to a secular Iran modeled on the West and relying, at times slavishly, on Western expertise, know-how, and advice. Yet the milieu in which the Pahlavi elite used to operate often nurtured a degree of cynicism and hypocrisy injurious to the very loyalties on which the Pahlavi order was first erected.

The world of Qom in the post–Reza Shah era, in contrast, turned more insular, radical, and anti-Western. As the Pahlavi state recruited from among the turbaned classes and turned them into stiff, tie- and-fedora-wearing civil servants, a new class of seminarians from among the peasants, small landowners, and urban lower classes gradually replaced them. They built a new clerical community predominantly hostile to the Pahlavi approach. Inspired by radical trends beyond Iran, from Salafi Islam of the Arab world to the leftist propaganda of Radio Cairo and Radio Moscow, many among this generation of the clergy developed a new perspective loyal to conventional readings of the shari‘a—parochial in its worldview and radical in its politics. They were against women’s presence in public life; coeducation and mixing of genders; such leisurely expressions such as cinema, music, tourism, and fashion; and sexual liberties and homosexuality. As much as they were hostile to these “foreign” trends, they were also at war with the indigenous voices critical of clerical insularity from the Baha’i and the Sufi to various intellectual critics such as Kasravi and his message of moral reform. After the June 1963 uprising, the Khomeini brand of clerical radicalism retreated but was not defeated. Returning to the madrasa, they began to solidify their ground over the following decade and would reemerge fifteen years later, better equipped and with access to a larger audience.


Even if the Pahlavi state momentarily basked in its successful crushing of Islamic activism and implementation of its own vision of reform, the intellectual critiques of the state, especially after 1953, revealed a sharply different perspective. Most Iranian writers, poets, and social critics of the postwar era, impressed with the discourse of the left—often through the Tudeh Party—moved away from the Persian classical norms and modes of expression, which they shunned as arcane and elitist. They gravitated instead toward new literary forms, prose and poetry, and new schools of thought, mostly products of the twentieth-century Western European milieu. They found such media more effective in portraying the plight of the ordinary people, which they considered their “social mission.” Realism with a Marxist overtones and Existentialist engagé literature of the period were appealing to a small but influential clique of Iranian intellectuals who engaged in these trends so as to express the anxieties of their time and portray their political disillusionment, moral predicaments, and sense of alienation.

A quest for authenticity, a predictable reaction to the positivist modernity of the Pahlavi state, further shaped Iranian cultural production between the 1940s and 1960s, questioning the wholesale acceptance of Western values and their hegemony over non-Western societies—what came to be known in the intellectual vernacular of the time as gharbzadehgi (meaning “struck by the West,” “Westoxication,” or “plague of the West”). The debate over the evils of Westernizing gradually shifted the intellectual horizons from a typical wariness toward anything Islamic—calling it superstitious—to an idealized interpretation of Islam as remedy against Westernism and a means of resisting the Pahlavi regime. After 1953 both the discourse of alienation and the quest for cultural authenticity gradually transformed the Marxist-Stalinist orientation of the postwar era and moved it in new directions.

Ahead of themselves many of the literary voices could see only prolonged gloom, a dawnless night, which became a recurring image in the literature of the period. The ancillary to this was an almost messianic hope for a savior of sorts who would end the status quo, more by revolution than by political process. No matter how secular, these intellectuals did not seem to have liberated themselves from the legacy of Iranian messianism, both in motif and in aspiration, or the cult of revering the failed hero. Their secular, often leftist, frame of reference could hardly conceive of a revolution of the shape and magnitude that would occur less than two decade later. They could hardly foresee a prophetic figure like Khomeini, even though the June 1963 uprising seemed like a rehearsal for what was in the offing.

An early critic of the moral universe of Shi‘i Islam and European cultural intrusion was the aforementioned Ahmad Kasravi (1890–1946). His vision was an uneasy marriage of nationalism and prophetic inspiration. A former seminarian from Tabriz who witnessed the last phase of the Constitutional Revolution in his hometown and was shaped by that experience, Kasravi, in his secular attire, represented a brand of nationalist positivism of the early Pahlavi era. His history of the Constitutional Revolution, a widely read narrative, defined the revolution as a national liberation movement pioneered by the enlightened mojtaheds and brought to fruition by ordinary folks. Kasravi also employed “pure language” (zaban-e pak) devoid of Arabic and other “foreign” words to narrate his story. More than his historical work or his use of pure Persian, however, as a social critic his iconoclastic attack on the masters of Persian classical poetry gained Kasravi notoriety. His portrayal of classical poetry as decadent and morally corrupting—for it promoted homosexual love and a hedonistic lifestyle—angered the literary establishment of the time.

Kasravi’s critique of religion and culture was part of a mission to promote a form of deistic monotheism. He called his crusade for a “rational” religion Pakdini (the pure religion), a path to counter what he considered the superstitious, worthless, and harmful teachings of established religions. It was a new creed to combat all the deviations that corrupted the pristine kernel of prophetic endeavors, deviations he alleged were introduced by deceitful and misguided followers of these religions. He denounced “false myths” (including Greek mythology), Christian and Muslim cults of saints, and any form of religious symbolism and ritual. His critique of Shi‘ism, in particular, aimed at the ulama’s demagogy. Generating deep antipathy among his Muslim opponents reflected a critical cleavage between the secularized and the traditional sectors of the society of his time. That flicker of antinomian rationalism, however, died out with Kasravi’s assassination.

Dissecting the arcane Islamic tradition, and especially Shi‘i orthodoxy, also produced works of remarkable complexity and penetrating satire by Sadeq Hedayat (1903–1950), arguably the greatest literary figure of twentieth-century Persian literature. He was operating in a sphere smaller even than Kasravi’s, though perhaps with greater influence on the intellectual trends of the next generation (fig. 10.7). Born to a family of bureaucratic nobility of the Qajar period, Hedayat’s French education and home tutoring provided him equal facility in European literature as in Persian high and folk cultures. Struggling with depression most of his life—which ended in his suicide in Paris—he was a pacifist by nature and a man of penetrating wit. As he was attracted during his residence in interwar France to the expressionist and surreal literature then in vogue, Kafka in particular left a lasting influence on him. He was equally well versed in Persian culture but critiqued it from a perspective very different from Kasravi’s positivistic stance.

Hedayat transformed his exposure to Western literature into a Persian setting both in substance and in style. Mostly writing short stories and novellas, his characters were set in the fast-disappearing world of an idealized past. His skeptical worldview and poignant, soul-searching quest nevertheless kept Hedayat away from ideological indoctrination or prophetic visions. His Buf-e Kur (Blind Owl, 1937), recognized as his literary masterpiece, is a surreal depiction of the author’s fictional multifaceted self and his complex interplay with many Others. Here in the novel, Hedayat manifests himself in multiple characters. The reclusive opium addict who narrates the story imbues a sense hopelessness and despair, and a lustful old man conveys the author’s inner contempt for his cultural baggage, his class and family legacy, and political authority. Hedayat’s idealized notions of love, and his homosexual anxieties, are portrayed by a two-sided female character who appears alternately as an ethereal woman and a promiscuous hag. They all reflect a preoccupation with decay and death, and yet they all seem to be fellow travelers in a mystical journey in search of something unattainable, an awareness of a layered inner world, a world of subjectivity. Unique in the context of Persian modern literature—and to a great degree indebted to the worldview in Khayyam’s poems—this was the voice of a cultural outcast who defied the world of banal modernity built on a ramshackle of state authority. The title of the novel, “blind owl,” alludes to a popular Persian expression (the owl is a bird of ominous presence in Persian folk belief) implying a dazed onlooker who no longer can see through the darkness of the night. Written at the height of Reza Shah’s absolute power, and while Hedayat was residing in India (where he studied the Pahlavi language with Parsis of Mumbai), the blind owl represented a dysfunctional member of the old elite who could not see a place for himself in the superficial world of Pahlavi modernity.

Figure 10.7. Sadeq Hedayat (left, sitting with papers in hand) and his cohorts in Tehran in the house of the literary scholar Mojtaba Minovi (second from right, standing), c. 1934. Hedayat, Monovi, and the writer Bozorg ‘Alavi (leaning on piano) were members of the Rob‘ah (Quartet) literary circle. Jan Rypka (first standing at right) was a Czech historian of Persian literature. André Sevruguin (sitting to Hedayat’s left) was the miniaturist artist of Russian origin who used the pen name Darvish. He illustrated the 1934 Shahnameh edition by Solayman Hayyem published in Tehran.

J. Hedayat, Hasrati, Negahi va Ahi (Tehran: Did Publisher, 1379/2000), 78.

A far less veiled criticism of religion and politics, of Iran’s experience of modernity and its encounters with European hegemony, appears in Hedayat’s 1949 Tup-e Morvari (Cannon of Good Omen), a piercing and profane satire of great intricacy with a loosely structured narrative reminiscent of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Here, Islamic scripture, beliefs, and rituals (and those of other monotheistic religions) are mocked with singular insight. It is small wonder that the book, written under a pseudonym, was published only clandestinely more than three decades after its creation. In it, in the institutions of Islam and the conduct of the clerical class—especially Shi‘i clergy—Hedayat sees a legacy of cruelty, institutionalized violence, and obsessive ritualism. He also detected as much brute military force and blind Westernism in the follies of the Reza Shah era and the strictures imposed by that regime. Likewise in European colonial expansion, characterized by a comical take on the sixteenth-century Portuguese maritime control of the Persian Gulf, he detected ruthless greed, aggression, and carnage. To this he added a sarcastic critique of a culture of pettiness, fear, inferiority complex, pandering, animal cruelty, filth, and disease (despite the Shi‘i obsession with scatological purification). This was a culture of decadence that he felt had accumulated over centuries and was the origin of his own inescapable lot: an unending night of gloom.

Hedayat’s bitter sarcasm and fatalistic disdain for anything Islamic came with a nostalgic allure for the pre-Islamic past and pain over Iran’s loss of its pristine language, culture, and identity to the Arab conquest of the seventh century—a sentiment he shared with Kasravi and a host of other Iranian intellectuals, poets, historians, and scholars of his time. His lifelong collecting and publishing of Iranian folklore and popular culture, studies in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) texts, his historical plays on the tragic fall of the Sasanian Empire and crushing of the Iranian resistance movements by the Islamic Caliphate—all pointed to a cultural nationalism that sought glory in the past but denied renewal ahead.

Hedayat’s piercing skepticism aside, perhaps the most iconoclastic literary figure of the 1940s and 1950s was the poet Nima Yushij (1896–1960). His break with the conventions of rhyme and classical meter, which had been observed for centuries and viewed as almost sacred by the Persian literary establishment, distinguished him as a literary revolutionary. His poetic themes, moreover, were not free of expressions of romantic despair, inspired by the pastoral motifs of his Mazandaran homeland, experiences of his solitary life, and his deep feeling for society’s ills. Informed as much by the modern French poetry of his time as by his Tudeh affinity, these were equally important for Nima’s endurance as a literary icon.

Figure 10.8. Nima and three poets of the “new poetry” movement, c. 1952: (from right) Houshang Ebtehaj (Sayeh), Siyavush Kasra’i, Nima Yushij, and Ahmad Shamlu together with literary figure and Tudeh activist Mortaza Kayvan. In nocturnal gatherings the left-leaning poets debated politics and poetry with a sense of social mission.

Hushang Ebtehaj, Pir-e Parniyan-andish, ed. M. ‘Azimi and ‘A. Tayyeh, 2 vols. (Tehran, 1391/2012), 2:1340.

Born to a landowning family from Yush (in the Nur region 160 miles north of Tehran), he was brought up in the country, before receiving a French education in a missionary school in Tehran, an education he shared with his friend Hedayat. The literary war over the “new poetry” (she‘r-e naw), waged for decades in the press, literary circles, and academia, had a subtext of political orientation (fig. 10.8). Nima’s poetry reflected the simplicity of pastoral life and its pristine beauty, but also a social mission to give voice to suffering, hardship, and political suffocation. His famous 1948 ode, “Mahtab” (moonlight)—composed at the height of his political involvement—reflected the poet’s failing hopes for a mass awakening while a faint desire for a dawn or renewal is still alive:

The moonlight gleams.

The glowworm glows.

Not a moment of broken sleep in anyone’s eyes.


Agony over this slumbering lot,

Shatters sleep from my tearful eyes.

Anxious beside me, stands the dawn,

Morning urges me to break the news of its blessed breath,

To this soulless lot, . . .

I wring my hands in worry,

To open a door.

I wait in vain,

For one to come to the door.

But their derelict windows and walls,

Crumble on my head. . . .

Tired, with blistered feet from a long journey,

Before the village gate,

Stands a lonesome man.

His bundle on his back,

His hand on the knocker, he whispers to himself:

“Agony over this slumbering lot,

Shatters sleep from my tearful eyes.”6

The glowworm in moonlight no doubt symbolizes the poet in a liminal environment of insecurity and doubt. His faint throbbing light, promising the daybreak, is set against the indifference of the slumbering village who closed its doors on him and his message. Tired and tearful, he is about to be crushed under the caving of a derelict house, which no doubt is an allusion to the legacy of his country’s past.

Another poet of the younger generation, Mahdi Akhavan Sales (1928–1990), expressed similar sentiments. He lamented not only the demise of the National Movement and the return of Pahlavi coercion but also the futility of the experience of the left and the ideological betrayal it sustained. Akhavan, better known by his pen name “Omid” (meaning “hope”), resorted to the memories of Iran’s pre-Islamic past, the purity of the Zoroastrian religion, and the egalitarian memory of Mazdakism to highlight the grim decay of his own time.

Born in Mashhad, and proud of the literary heritage of Khorasan, Akhavan remained loyal more than any other modernist poet to classical masters. He rendered a subtle mix of classical and modern with a powerful message of cultural nationalism, an undertone of social commitment, and—predictably—a sense of defiant despair. The last theme is evident in his 1956 masterpiece, Kaveh ya Eskandar (Kaveh or Alexander), composed while in prison on charges of pro-Tudeh activism. It portrays the suffocating calm that pervaded the aftermath of the 1953 coup. Conveying a message of betrayed hopes and futile resistance, he skillfully uses Persian expressions, proverbs, and allegories to break from artistic isolation and speak with ordinary folks:

The waves have calmed, quiet and subdued.

The drum of the storm has fallen silent.

Springs of smoldering flames have now dried up.

All the waters have run their course.

In the tombstone land of this pulse-less city,

Not even the call of an owl can be heard. . . .

The gallows were removed, the blood washed away.

In place of flowers of agony, fury and revolt,

Now the evil weeds have taken their sprawling root. . . .

It is night here, indeed, a nightmarish dark.

Yet beyond the hill there was no daylight either. . . .

Whoever came over, grabbed his loot and moved on.

Again miserable, humiliated and deprived we remained.

Of that what did we reap but lies and lies?

Of this what did we reap but deceit and deceit?

Then again they say: “Another day,

Wait for another to come.”

No Kaveh will ever be found, O Omid!

I wish an Alexander would be found.7

The powerful ending, lamenting the absence of Kaveh, the ironsmith revolutionary of the Shahnameh legend who rose against the tyrant Zahhak, is most likely a reference to Mosaddeq and an unlikely future struggle against the regime. Omid’s shattered hopes could seek only the return of an alien Alexander, the archvillain of Zoroastrian memory who destroyed the ancient Persian Empire.

In his 1957 Akher-e Shahnameh (meaning “Shahnameh’s ending,” alluding to the ironic Persian proverb “Shahnameh has a happy ending”), he further contrasts the dream of the epic past—wiped out by Alexander, here no doubt an allegory for the damning forces of the West—with the sad fate of his own country, depreciated and decayed:

This out-of-tune broken harp,

Tamed in the hand of that frenzied old bard,

As if at times it dreams,

Sees itself in the glittering presence of the sun,

That unique vista of the happy countenance of Zarathustra.

Here the poet wishfully imagines his nation, confident and righteous, challenging the hegemonic demons and conquering their arrogant land of nothingness:


Conquerors of castles of historical pride,

Witnesses to glorious cities of every era,


Memorials to forlorn innocence of epochs past,

Narrators of sweet and happy tales.

Yet the reality of his people is tragically different from the impossible dreams of the poet’s harp. The new tune is nothing but the tragic lament at the end of the legendary part of the Shahnameh, where Rostam, son of Dastan, the greatest of the Shahnameh’s heroes, is dying at the bottom of a pit, having been set up by no less an enemy than his own traitorous half-brother. The poet plays on the tragedy of two Rostams—the other is Rostam, the son of Farrokhzad, the commander in chief of the Sasanian army. His defeat and capture in the battle of Qadesiya in 636 at the hands of the invading Arab armies brings the narrative of the Shahnameh to its tragic end. The poet, rebuking his broken harp, comes to his mournful finale, a famous passages in modern Persian poetry:

O you miserable babbler, change your tune!

Never again will the Son of Dastan emerge from his half-brother’s pit,

Died, died, he died!

Now recite the story of the son of Farrokhzad.

One whose laments come as if from the depth of a yawning well,

He cries and laments,

Laments and says:

“Alas, we now appear,

Like hunchbacked old conquerors,

Aboard ships of waves with sails of foam

Hearts set on glorious lambs grazing in fields of hollow times,

Our blades rusty, ancient and blunt,

Our drums eternally silent,

Our arrows broken-winged.


Conquerors of cities gone with the wind,

With a voice so faint it can never escape our lungs,

Narrators of long-forgotten tales.

Not a soul will take our coins for anything, even an old penny.

As if they’re an alien king’s,

Or a prince’s whose dynasty has vanished long ago.

From time to time we wake from this charmed slumber,

Like that deep sleep of the Companions of the Cave,

Rubbing our eyes, we cry: “Behold, that unique golden castle of sweet morning light!”

But alas the tyrant never dies.8

Here the “tyrant,” the Daqyanus of the Islamic legend who claimed to be divine (evidently based on the third-century Roman emperor Decius [r. 249–251] and the persecution of early Christians) probably is an allusion to Reza Shah. The seven Companions of the Cave (ashab-e kahf)—who fearing Daqyanus’s persecution took refuge in a cave and fell into a deep sleep, from which they awoke centuries later—however, makes reference to the fate of the Iranian people. Fearing their tyrannical rulers, they too fell into a deep sleep, from which they awakened to a brief moment of hope, which was only to be followed by another cycle of tyranny. The poet’s last assertion, “But alas the tyrant never dies,” has an ominous ring, given what would come to pass in the quarter century after the poem’s composition.

Against a background of shattered hopes, a yearning for a rebirth, a nostalgic longing for a world of natural purity, began to emerge in the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967). A poet of tormented love and sensibilities, she explored a feminine self keenly aware of her social surroundings. Born in Tehran to a middle-class military family, Forugh questioned religious conventions, sexual stigma, and patriarchal tyranny. Gender awareness is evident in her earlier collections, but it is in her Tavallodi Digar (A rebirth) from 1964 that she transcended to a new plane of almost mystical awareness, achieved after a journey of self-discovery (fig. 10.9). As a critic of women’s marginality, religious dogma, and social deprivation, Forugh has already reacted to the clerical establishment that stigmatized her as rebellious and profane.

Figure 10.9. Forugh on the cover of her Tvallodi-e Digar.

Tvallodi-e Digar, 5th ed. (Tehran: Morvarid Publishers, 1350/1971).

By questioning in the fashion of Khayyam the very notions of divinity and religious faith, in her “Bandegi” (Servitude), a long poem in the form of dialogue with the Creator, composed circa 1956 in the genre of Sufi monologues and dream narratives, she states:

On my lips a shadow of a mysterious question,

In my heart a pain, restless and burning my soul.

The secret of this rebellious, wandering spirit,

I now wish to share with you. . . .

Does my lament ever reach you,

So that you may crush your cup of self-adoration,

And sit with me, the earthy one, for a moment,

And drink the pain of existence from the lips of my poetry?

This existential questioning brings Forugh to an agnostic portrayal of a God who is tyrannical, self-engrossed, and exploitative—an unusually candid expression for poets of the period, most of whom were engaged with earthly rather than with divine tyranny. She goes on:

You cast a shadow upon the End and in your hand,

A rope on the other end of which were necks.

Dragging people on the pathway of life,

Their eyes bedazzled by the image of the Hereafter. . . .

So long as we, the wretched ones, call you just,

You cover your countenance in a silky mask of compassion.

And turn Paradise into a mysterious myth,

Offering it as credit in exchange for the cash of people’s lives.9

Forugh’s personal soul-searching later increasingly turned into social themes. In her poem “Ey marz-e por-gohar” (O bejeweled fatherland), a parody published in 1963 on the title of Iran’s banned national anthem, she sneers at clichés of Pahlavi patriotism and bureaucratic fixing of individual identities. She mocks bogus surroundings, suffused with jingoism, a culture of sycophancy, cheap ambitions, the even cheaper material culture of Western imports, and of course imperial vainglory:

I am victorious!

I managed to register myself.

I managed to adorn myself with a name on an identity card,

And my existence is now marked by a number.

So, long live 678, issued in district 5, Resident of Tehran.

Now I can rest assured that everything is in order:

The bosom of the caring motherland,

The pacifier of prideful historical heritage,

The lullaby of civilization and culture,

And the rattling of the rattles of the law.

Now I can rest assured that everything is in order.

So elated was I,

That I rushed to the window and with ecstasy inhaled down into my lungs six hundred seventy eight times the air infused with dung,

And dust and the odor of trash and urine.

And signed at the bottom of six hundred seventy eight IOUs,

And wrote atop six hundred seventy eight job applications: Forugh Farrokhzad.

In the land of poetry, of the “flower and nightingale,”

Living is a blessing, particularly

When after many, many years your existence is acknowledged. . . .

I have come to existence among such productive masses,

Who, despite having no bread to eat,

Have an open and far-reaching field of vision,

With geographical boundaries that currently span

In the north to the lush and sweet-smelling Firing Range,

In the south to the ancient Gallows Square,

And in the heavily-populated areas reach the Artillery Square. . . .

I am victorious, yes, I am victorious!

Long live 678, issued in district 5, Resident of Tehran,

Who relying on her perseverance and resolve,

Has reached such a high station that she stood on the frame of her window,

That is six hundred seventy eight meters above the ground,

And has the great honor,

From that very opening, not through the staircase,

Of throwing herself, madly, headlong onto the lap of the caring motherland.

And her last wish would be,

That for a gift of six hundred seventy eight gold coins,

His Excellency the poet laureate Abraham Sahba,

Would, as a tribute to her life, conjure a mournful ode rhyming with gobbledygook.10

That in her last poems, published posthumously in 1973, she finds a messianic vision not unlike that of other members of her literary cohort, is a corollary to the bleak humor of the above-mentioned poem. A revolutionary upheaval comes to transform her unlivable surroundings. In her poem “Kasi keh mesl-e hichkas nist” (The one who is not like anyone else), the poet sees a revolutionary future through the eyes of a working-class child from the poor neighborhoods of southern Tehran:

I dreamed that someone is coming,

I dreamed of a red star . . .

[Someone] who can do something [so spectacular] that the Allah (neon) lamp,

That was green; green like the light of the dawn,

Will be lit up again over the neighborhood mosque . . .

He who is with us in his heart, with us in his breath, with us in his voice,

He whose coming can not be arrested, handcuffed and thrown into jail . . .

The one who comes down from the sky of Artillery Square in a night of fireworks,

Who spreads the tablecloth and divides up the bread,

And divides up the Pepsi,

And divides up the public park,

And divides up the whooping-cough syrup,

And divides up school registration day,

And divides up the hospital waiting numbers,

And divides up the rubber boots,

And divides up the Fardin movies,

And divides up the clothing of Sayyid Javad’s daughter,

And divides up every unsold jumble,

And gives us our share too,

I had a dream.11

The ending especially is remarkable coming in the aftermath of the June 1963 uprising and containing tantalizing allusions to a socialist revolution with clear Islamic undertones. That the poet of “joyful sin”—whose poems once were publicly denounced on the pulpit—was now dreaming the descent of a savior, was a telling example of how the mystique of a forthcoming revolution began to take root among the intellectuals of the period.

Ahmad Shamlu (1925–2000), also the son of a military officer, perhaps was the most avant-garde in his coining of complex poetic imagery and rich symbolic language. He, too, engaged with melancholic disillusionments and delved into the discourse of messianic aspirations, but with the image of a savior who preached not only a worldly reality devoid of hereafter but also peace and nonviolence. In his 1965 “Lawh” (The tablet), inspired by the imagery of the Hebrew Bible and the narrative of the Gospels, his messiah, no doubt the poet himself, brings a “clay tablet” with a message of compassion to a public as incredulous and inattentive as those in Nima’s “Mahtab”:

Then I raised the clay tablet,

To the end of my arm.

And cried out to the crowd:

“Whatever all there is,

Is this, and beyond there is nothing else.

It’s an old tablet, worn out, this here, behold!

Though soiled with filth and the blood of many wounds,

It speaks of compassion, friendship, and purity.”

But people’s ears and hearts were not with me,

As if from expectation, one could surmise,

They got profit and pleasure.

I shouted:

“If you were true to yourself,

You’d know that you’re waiting in vain.

The last message is all here!”

I cried out:

“The time of lamenting your crucified messiah has passed.

For now every woman is Mary,

And every Mary has Jesus on the cross,

With no crown of thorns, cross or Golgotha,

Without Pilate, judges or trial.

Messiahs all of a common destiny,

Identical Messiahs,

In identical uniforms,

With identical boots and gaiters, all the same

And equal rations of bread and broth,

(Yes, equality is the precious heritage of mankind.)

And if there is no crown of thorns, there is a helmet to put on,

And if no cross to carry on the shoulder,

There is a rifle.

(The means of greatness now is all ready!)

And every supper may very well be the Last Supper,

And every gaze the gaze of a Judas.

But don’t waste time to find a garden,

For you will encounter the tree on the cross,

When the dream of humanity and compassion,

Like a fog, soft and light-footed, will dissipate. . . .

And, alas, the path of the cross,

Is no longer the path of ascent to heaven,

But a path toward Hell and eternal wandering of the soul.”

I was crying out in the depth of my fever,

But people’s ears and hearts were not with me.

I knew they were awaiting not a clay tablet but a book,

And a sword, . . .

Alas, these people seek the truth only in legends,

Or else know the truth as nothing but legend.

And my fire did not alight within them,

For I had spoken the last word about heaven,

Without ever bringing heaven to my tongue.12

Shamlu’s “last word” about heaven and on the messianic return was a fitting end to the postwar antinomian discourse. His counter-messianic hero aimed for a faith akin to the Iranian experience. Yet the message of this humanist messiah, as the poet laments, was bound to be rejected by a public enamored of militarism, war, and violence. These, too, were experiences known to the people of his generation. The elaborate imagery and complex message of the “new poetry,” masterful and penetrating though they were, hardly ever reached beyond an intellectual elite, as Shamlu’s poem admits.

Ironically, much of this gloom in the poetry of the period was expressed at a time when Iran of the 1960s experienced tangible material progress, relative prosperity among the secular middle classes, and a level of general stability. Perhaps this was also the best decade of the twentieth century in terms of artistic ingenuity and poetic symbolism, even though the poets and intellectuals of the period were essentially at odds with the Pahlavi regime. This was a respite for them to pause and ponder the naive idealism of earlier years and come up with a reflective reading of themselves, their society, and the baggage of their past. Though with hindsight they were removed from the harsh realities of their time, there was something remarkably novel in their production. Perhaps despite their wishes, their anguished vision paved the way for an alternative route to authenticity—a discourse with far-reaching consequences and, ironically, a very different kind of revolution.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!