Part Four


The tumultuous events that led to the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran were a classic example of modern popular revolution. A momentary confluence of forces of discontent, which mostly relied on mobilizing urban lower middle classes and the grassroots bazaar, succeeded in bringing down the Pahlavi regime and dismantling its power structure. Out of a broad alliance of Islamic tendencies there emerged a militant clerical leadership, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Over the course of the following decade, Khomeini played a decisive part in defining the Islamic Republic, as well as its ideology and institutions. Even though the revolution had its roots in Iran’s experience of the past seven decades, the rise and the consolidation of the new regime caused huge contentions and conflicts.

Prevailing over its opponents at home largely by coercion and violence, and despite setbacks in the prolonged war against its Iraqi neighbor, by 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini died, the Islamic regime had been able, it was evident, to put down roots. Yet the years that followed revealed ideological chasms and political tensions within the Islamic Republic that echoed the demands of younger generations of Iranians for social freedoms, democracy, and an end to international isolation. Independent of the Islamic regime’s nepotism, ideological blind spots, and socioeconomic quagmires, Iranian society did fundamentally evolve. It created its own space and its own culture and artistic imagination. Two decades after the Islamic Revolution prevailed, the 2009 Green Movement revealed profound discontent and disillusionment within Iranian society.



Between August 1978 and February 1979, a period of less than seven months, Iran witnessed a revolution that brought down the Pahlavi regime and abolished the institution of monarchy, wiped out the privileges of the Pahlavi elite, and significantly weakened its secularized middle classes. In its stead Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates created the Islamic Republic, which aimed to establish the “Guardianship of the Jurist” (welayat-e faqih) as the only legitimate model of governance. The Islamic Revolution, as it soon came to be known inside Iran and out, was backed by Islamic activists, many of them radicals, the urban poor, merchants of the bazaar, and, for a while at least, by the youth, the university students, lower-ranking government employees, and men and women of modest urban backgrounds. It was financed, at least at the outset, by sympathizers in the bazaar community and by other religiously inclined people in Tehran and other major cities and through dues paid to local mojtaheds or representatives of Khomeini.

Ideologically, it was a strange mix of return to pristine Islam, the shari‘a-laden worldview of Khomeini and his cohorts in Qom, notions of Islamic modernity (as understood by tie-wearing Islamists such as Mahdi Bazargan), dormant Shi‘i messianic aspirations, rampant anti-Westernism, and anti-Pahlavi sentiment. It demonstrated in its earlier stages genuine aspirations for democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights but also exhibited shades of leftist ideas as seen through the prism of the secular and the Islamic guerrilla organizations and their sympathizers and soon the sympathizers of the revived Tudeh Party. Coming in the wake of major twentieth-century revolutions in Russia and China, the Islamic Revolution was informed as much by third-world postcolonial discourse as by the radicalizing experience of the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War and the unfolding tragedy of the Palestinian liberation movement. It soon evolved into a textbook revolution with momentous domestic and international repercussions.

In its historical context, the Islamic Revolution proved far more encompassing, though much less “innocent,” than the Constitutional Revolution seven decades earlier. And, as it turned out, it was far less loyal to its own democratic and liberalizing promises than the Constitutional Revolution. By some stretch of historical rationale it was also a rebellious child of the National Movement of the Mosaddeq era. It inherited from that era not only street politics, on a much larger scale, but also a sense of defiance vis-à-vis the great powers. In its social exposure it was more widespread than both the Constitutional Revolution and the National Movement, and in certain ways it tried to complement the unfulfilled aspirations of both those events. Without falling victim to historical teleology, one can draw a line—a zigzagging and broken but nevertheless traceable one—from the mashru‘eh demand of the constitutional period to the extremism of the Fada’iyan-e Islam of the postwar era and the ideology of the Islamic Revolution.

Across the wider span of the Iranian past, the Islamic Revolution may be compared in its intensity with the rise of the Safavid state and the establishment of Shi‘ism as the official creed. More immediately, it was perhaps less decisive for Iran than the rise of Pahlavi state had been half a century earlier. Yet it was far more instrumental in its long-term social and demographic impact. The Islamic ideology and its beneficiaries aside, the revolution also released an unprecedented reservoir of creative energies at what may be called the social peripheries of the Iranian society. Insofar as its regional and global impact, the Islamic Revolution is the first, and so far the only, popular movement in the Muslim World that has sustained and successfully driven forward its ideological agenda. The establishment of the Islamic Republic, it can be argued, reinvigorated Islamist activism throughout the Muslim world and propelled it beyond the postcolonial nationalist and socialist aspirations or Salafi obscurantism of earlier decades. It is the potency of this brand of politicized Islam, and its Shi‘i underpinnings, that transformed Iran’s manifold strands of opposition into a monolithic revolution. It affected, moreover, the Islamically inspired movements of the early 1980s in neighboring Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Like any major revolution, the true beginnings of the Islamic Revolution were debated as much as its outcomes. With the benefit of hindsight we can identify a number of systemic problems in the late Pahlavi era, especially from the mid-1970s on, which were at the root of the early protests and revolutionary impulses. The socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural changes of the late Pahlavi era sharpened social divisions and contributed to public discontent. By 1976, the fall in Iran’s oil revenue and subsequent budgetary shortfall had slowed down the shah’s overambitious development projects. Perennial repression, at the same time, eroded support among the middle classes and even alienated the elite.

These were ingredients capable of igniting some form of social protest, but are perhaps not enough to explain the potency of the forthcoming revolution and its swift success. In the mid-1970s, and as late as 1977, only the most radical trends on the Iranian left, such as the Fada’iyan-e Khalq and Mojahedin-e Khalq guerilla organizations, yearned for a revolution on the Marxist model, a prospect unforeseen at the time even by the most astute observers. The near vanquishing of urban guerrilla organizations by the mid-1970s relegated that project to the distant future, though no doubt sharpened public resentment among a younger generation of Iranians. The road to revolution was to be paved, however, not by guerrilla warfare but by mass support for a prophetic figure, the likes of whom Iran had rarely seen in its recent past. Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts, who reaped the fruits of many decades of fury, benefited from a unique opportunity to build their own monopoly on power.


Signs of political protest came rather unexpectedly with a change in the international climate. During the US presidential campaign in the fall of 1976, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate, made human rights and free speech the major concern of his foreign policy. The worldwide echo quickly reached Iran and raised new hopes. Though primarily aimed at the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Carter’s advocacy, even before assuming office in January 1977, sent a positive signal to Iranian liberal opposition, including veterans of the former National Front, lawyers, intellectuals, journalists, and dormant revolutionaries from the olden days. Encouraged by Carter’s initiative, a reversal of Nixon’s support for pro-US dictators worldwide, in early 1977 individuals and small groups began writing open letters addressed to Premier Hovayda and to the shah, criticizing human rights violations and demanding greater accountability. They also raised concerns about the state’s flawed economic policies, wasteful and mismanaged development projects, nepotism and corruption in high office, dysfunctional bureaucracy, culture of subservience and sycophancy, alienating social policies, and ill effects of the shah’s autocratic style. These voices, audible after years of silence, were a refreshing breeze in a climate of royal adulation and chronic subservience. Hovayda’s premiership, after thirteen dreary years of holding office, seemed vulnerable. In his familiar fashion, the shah, who was the root cause of many of the state’s failed polices, began to point the finger of blame at his subordinates. And Hovayda was the first to go.

Open letters, having been widely circulated in intellectual and clerical circles by means of photocopies and word of mouth, however, held responsible not only Hovayda but implicitly the shah. These were the first critical statements not retaliated by the Savak, at least not immediately. The mellow response was bound to be interpreted by the still amorphous opposition as a sign of the shah’s readjustment to the new US administration. On June 12, 1977, when an open letter addressed to the shah by Karim Sanjabi, Dariush Foruhar, and Shapur Bakhtiar was first circulated, neither the authors nor the recipient or readers could have perceived the enormity of the upheavals that eighteen months later would bring the Pahlavi regime to its knees. The authors warned the shah:

At this juncture when we submit this letter, the country is at the brink of an abyss, all efforts have reached a dead-end, public necessities—and particularly the price of foodstuffs and housing—have swollen tremendously and caused shortages; agriculture and livestock have reached near extinction; budding national industries and human resources are in crisis and on shaky grounds, and the trade imbalance reflecting an import-export discrepancy is startling. The oil [revenue], this God-given blessing, has been seriously mismanaged and programs that were presented under the rubric of reform and the [White] revolution, have remained unfulfilled. Worst of all, the disregard for human rights and personal and social liberties, a breach of the very foundation of the constitution, together with signs of extreme terror, growing corruption, decadence, and sycophancy, have brought national morale to its lowest ebb.

The unusually blunt tone, reflecting the angry mood of the time, was complemented by a plea that the shah take a conciliatory course before it became too late:

The only road to salvation and relief from the current difficulties and pitfalls that threaten the future of Iran is to abandon autocratic rule, fully comply with the values of the constitutional regime [mashrutiyat], restore the rights of the people, truly respect the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set aside the one-party system, allow freedom of the press and freedom of association, free political prisoners and political exiles, and establish a regime based on elected representatives of the people, who according to the Constitution are accountable for the conduct of the government.1

It is wrong to believe that President Carter’s advocacy of human rights was solely responsible for raising such voices or for the shah’s greater latitude. By 1977 the effects of mismanagement, corruption in state projects, and unpopular price stabilization measures were palpable enough to prompt protest. The global recession and the ensuing revenue shortfall caused by the glut in the oil market further slowed government projects. The perennial criticism from international human rights organizations, Amnesty International in particular, over military tribunals, mock trials, and treatment of political prisoners darkened the regime’s image. President Carter’s human rights policy thus was more of a stimulant than a prime cause, a conduit through which the subterranean reservoir of social discontent found its way to the surface and soon erupted in a revolutionary movement.

The shah’s health also had some bearing on the rapidly shifting climate. In the early 1970s he had been diagnosed with a mild case of lymphoma, a condition that for years was guarded with the utmost secrecy. For the first few years, evidently in a state of denial, he conceived of no realistic plans for the transfer of power. He did appoint Queen Farah as viceroy to the minor crown prince Reza, but this was for the most part a formality. In a male-dominated Pahlavi court where all matters great and small hinged on royal approval—even minute details of military and civilian affairs—the shah could not afford to be seen as a cancer patient or a dying man. The entire system relied on the royal persona exuding an image of resolve and confidence.

Yet that was exactly what seemed to have been missing. By 1977 when his cancer was no longer in remission, it seemingly impaired the shah’s ability to make crucial decisions. His appetite for European prostitutes remained intact, as his court minister and confidant Asadollah Alam noted in his secret diaries. Though the shah still promised his people an impending arrival at the “gates of the great civilization,” though in a tone more subdued than before, there was a noticeable anxiety in his conduct. He forecast “dark days” ahead if people were to be lured by what he labeled “the coalition of the red and black reactionaries,” a not-so-subtle code for the radical left and clerical dissenters.

Soon after, officials held responsible for the mismanagement of the state projects were dismissed. The appointment of Jamshid Amuzegar (1923–2016) on August 7, 1977, as the new prime minister was seen as the regime’s clear response to the restive popular mood. In retrospect, it was also the shah’s first in a series of grave, possibly irrevocable, errors of judgment. Amuzegar was an American-educated economist with a doctorate from Cornell University. He was untainted by rampant venalities and dutiful in his professional conduct. For a long time he had served as the finance minister and as Iran’s chief negotiator at OPEC. The skeptical general public nevertheless could not see him as anything but the shah’s loyal servant and facilitator, an image reaffirmed by the fact that he was the leader of the Rastakhiz Party’s so-called progressive wing. His choices of cabinet ministers, with a few exceptions, were also mere window-dressing. They were predictable faces that had caressed the royal ego and followed his wishes uncritically, even slavishly. Amuzegar’s public statements only imbued a massage of conformity. At a time when criticism of the regime was on the rise, he was content to highlight “cumbersome bureaucracy” and “lack of coordination” as primarily responsible for public frustration. The contrived image of a “progressive” wing of the Rastakhiz Party proved even more of a liability as Amuzegar, concurrent with his premiership, was appointed to the post of secretary-general of that crumbling party.

On balance, Amuzegar’s yearlong government that was meant to be a calming breeze only fueled the revolutionary fires. He managed to secure a limited degree of nominal freedom for the press and political activities. He even managed to restrict some of Savak’s most egregious practices of illegal arrests and torture. Yet the release of political prisoners, which began in his time, an end to the secret military tribunals that had sent so many dissidents to prison, and lowering of the deafening tone of state propaganda all relayed to the animated general public a message of the state’s weakness, and even desperation. Conciliatory gestures triggered further protests in the universities and soon thereafter in venues dominated by radical activists. By September 1978 the public shift from acts of protest to a revolutionary mode was palpable. If there had indeed been a flicker of hope for the Amuzegar government to rescue the troubled regime from the verge of a revolutionary inferno, this was dashed by frequent mass demonstrations, acts of sabotage by the Islamic extremists, and crippling strikes by workers in the public sector and the oil industry.

In June 19, 1977, the death of ‘Ali Shari‘ati was believed by many among his supporters to be because of foul play. Three months later news of the death of Mostafa Khomeini (1930–1977), the ayatollah’s older son, was also received by the public, similar to Shari‘ati’s death, almost as a martyrdom. Though he had died of illness, somehow his death was seen as instigated by the sinister regime. In a closed society where the leader of the country, most members of its political elite, and some leading intellectuals were openly subscribing to conspiratorial theories, it was quite plausible that many nonelite would entertain similar ideas. Demonstrations in Tehran University among the growing ranks of Shari‘ati’s followers, which coincided with a deluge of condolences from all quarters forwarded to Khomeini, shared a common sentiment of holding the regime responsible for the death of both figures.

After fourteen years of exile in Najaf, Khomeini once more was about to reemerge as the most relentless critic of the Pahlavi state. He enjoyed support not only from among his clerical and lay followers but also within the general public, who hailed him as a champion of resistance. Yet by no means was he yet viewed as the sole leader of the protest movement, or even as the man at its forefront. Exiled but not forgotten, he patiently had waited out years in the social wilderness, perhaps with little hope of ever going back to Iran, let alone leading a revolution. For younger generations of Iranians Ayatollah Khomeini was a figure of the opposition from the past who had returned to the political stage. An opportune moment seemed to have miraculously propelled him to the forefront of a powerful movement and despite his best of expectations, his image would soon be surrounded by an aura of sanctity.

On September 14, 1977, the congregational prayer for the feast of Fitr, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, was attended by tens of thousands of worshippers in the neighborhood of Qaytariyeh, at an open space in the north of the capital that was chosen by Khomeini’s supporters for the occasion. An orderly congregation for the first time exhibited the new organizing capabilities of the Islamic activists. Shortly thereafter, a largely obscure group of activists known as Iran’s Militant Clerics (Ruhaniun-e Mobarez-e Iran), all former students of Khomeini, went on to announce that the Iranian “Muslim nation” would not cease its struggle until the crumbling foundations of the current regime were supplanted by an Islamic “unitarian society.” This was an unveiled challenge to the shah and his government, displaying clear solidarity with the exiled ayatollah.

The ten evenings of poetry reading by well-known Iranian literary figures, mostly dissident intellectuals and some Tudeh sympathizers, held in October 1977 in Tehran’s Goethe Institute was a match to the show of Islamic sentiments. Among them were the poets Mahdi Akhavan-Sales and Hushang Ebtehaj, the novelist Simin Daneshvar, and the playwright Gholam-Hosain Sa‘edi. The experience of listening to the icons of modern Persian poetry and prose reciting poems and passages brimming with symbolic references to repression, resistance, and rebellion was highly inspiring to the animated audience which were estimated to be a few thousand on the opening night. The subtext of the event, and the thrilling mood among the packed crowds that attended the Nights of Poetry, was predictably anti-Pahlavi but hardly pro-Islamic. The sheer excitement of uttering long-withheld feelings of discontent, mostly through the powerful medium of poetry, was empowering, especially in an atmosphere of fear of the regime’s retaliation. Though apprehensive of the radical clergy and their growing ambition, the intellectuals and their audiences showed their implicit solidarity with other voices of opposition, which included the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.


By the fall of 1977 the protest movement had moved beyond Iranian cities to become more tangible to the world beyond. Rallies held by dissident Iranian students during the shah’s visit to the United States exposed the depth of anti-Pahlavi sentiments. Since the early 1960s thousands of Iranian students abroad—then one of the largest contingents of foreign students in Europe and the United States—had posed vocal opposition to the shah and protested his autocratic rule, mostly under the umbrella of the Confederation of Iranian Students. An influential contingent within this confederation consisted of sympathizers of the Tudeh Party. Maoists and independent Marxists were also active. Others were affiliated with the National Front or had no political affiliation. A much smaller contingent consisted of Islamic student associations. Idealistic and ideologically divided, except in their opposition to the shah, the Confederation gained greater visibility in the early 1970s. Through pamphlets, public campaigns on university campuses, demonstrations, sit-ins, shows of solidarity with other student organizations, and the occasional takeover of Iranian consulates in Europe, the confederation had become a force to be reckoned with. A source for embracing the Iranian regime and a thorn in the side of the Pahlavi narrative of serenity and splendor, the confederation remained vocal despite a few defections to the regime’s side.

A test of the shah’s unpopularity with the opposition abroad became more visible in a violent demonstration in front of the US White House in November 1977 when the Iranian monarch was on a state visit. Divided up into numerous splinter groups, the confederation nevertheless managed to marshal about one thousand members and affiliates for a rally. In turn, the Iranian embassy in Washington, under ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, arranged for nearly five thousand pro-regime students from all over North America. They were to be reimbursed for their travel expenses and with pocket money thrown in. The showdown between the two sides could not have come at a less opportune moment for President Carter and his royal guest. The anti-shah demonstrators, in sympathy with the striking students in the Iranian universities, clashed with the police as they crossed the police lines and attacked their opponents near the White House.

A few hundred yards away, on the south lawn, the shah and President Carter, accompanied by Queen Farah and Rosalind Carter, were standing on a raised platform erected for the occasion (fig. 13.1). They were putting on public view a solid alliance between the two countries. Yet their speeches through the public address system were barely audible against the loud anti-Pahlavi slogans in the background. The demonstrators called the shah a “murderous dictator,” a “US puppet,” and a “corrupt squanderer of the nation’s wealth.” Still worse, the ceremony had to be cut short when smoke from the teargas canisters deployed by Washington police to disperse the crowd inadvertently reached the royal guests and their hosts. Tears were running down their cheeks in front of television cameras as the indignant shah reached into his pocket and brought out his handkerchief. The accidental tears were not merely shed in a moment of disgrace; they were an ominous preview of what was to come in the months ahead.

The shah’s customary pilgrimage to Washington upon the arrival of any new administration—Carter’s being the seventh since 1949—was intended to receive US blessings as a “vital strategic ally,” even though misgivings about his domestic policies remained at an all-time high. Misgivings aside, in the eyes of the Carter administration, the shah was too important an ally to be quickly abandoned, or chastised, merely on his human rights records and his repression at home, even if disturbing reports of unrest in Iran and the student rally in Washington bluntly showcased his unpopularity. After initially giving him the cold shoulder, the administration began to somewhat warm up to the shah and tried to gratify his insatiable appetite for military hardware. To repair the shah’s bruised image as a US-backed potentate, his friends and supporters in Washington had already launched a rehabilitation campaign. Former vice president Nelson Rockefeller, and soon after Henry Kissinger, both longtime advocates of the Pahlavi crown, visited Tehran to assuage the royal mind and assuring the shah of solid support among the Republican ranks.

Figure 13.1. President Carter and the shah with Queen Farah and Rosalind Carter on the South Lawn of the White House, November 1977.

Courtesy of Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

As a gesture of goodwill toward Iran, after months of resistance, on the eve of the 1977 royal visit, the US Congress ratified the sale of $1.2 billion in airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, then the cutting-edge of reconnaissance technology. The sale was meant to equip Iran—and in effect to enable the US government that received security intelligence through Iran—with a powerful tool along its common borders with the Soviet Union. Mending fences with the shah also was desirable at that time, on the eve of the peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel, a process in which the shah had acted as an important early mediator between the prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, and the Egyptian president. Three days after the shah’s Washington visit, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt arrived in Jerusalem for the first round of face-to-face talks with Israeli leaders.

On the other side of the troubled region, the fall of the Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in July 1977 after a military coup that brought to power General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq alarmed both Washington and Tehran. For years the shah had backed Bhutto with military and financial support in the hopes that he could stay in power and remain a friendly secular ally and neighbor. General Zia, on the other hand, reacted tamely to US interests but appeased the Pakistani Islamist parties. His takeover was the first symptom of a worrying shift toward Islamism that soon was to become a hallmark of Pakistani politics and inevitably the shah had to act as a US surrogate in stabilizing Pakistan. Finally, declining oil demand in the world markets was a serious concern for both sides. The shah advocated greater price stabilization so as to secure funds for his ambitious military and civilian projects and to bring vitality to Iran’s stagnant economy.

Soon after his return to Iran the shah, having been reassured of US moral and material support, staged a show of power. Even though Savak’s wings were somewhat clipped by the Amuzegar government, and eventually in June 1978 a new chief was appointed in place of General Nasiri to reform the organization, it was still unrestrained enough to retaliate against sporadic trouble spots throughout the country. Savak agents carried out an attack on a meeting called by the newly revived National Front in a private garden near Karaj, in the vicinity of Tehran, and hundreds were indiscriminately beaten up and arrested. They were mostly secular intellectuals and university students. A follow-up crackdown on university students aimed to quash months of protests and clashes with the police. The clampdown proved an obvious misjudgment—the first in a series of tactical errors by the security forces—for it only solidified the forces of opposition.

Yet during his short stay in Tehran on New Year’s Eve of 1978, President Carter, at a banquet given in his honor, toasted the shah and declared Iran “an island of stability” in the troubled Middle East. A misstatement that was destined to gain some notoriety, it appeared in the official reports along with pictures of President Carter holding a glass of champagne and flanked by Princess Ashraf, who at the time was perhaps the most unpopular member of the Pahlavi family. Only two days prior to President Carter’s arrival (accompanied on the trip by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski) the American-Iranian Cultural Center building in Tehran, a hub of American-inspired cultural activities and language learning, was bombed by the Fada’iyan-e Khalq guerrillas.

The opposition condemned the miscalculated American gesture as an affront to the Iranian people. But the US apparent insensitivity was only topped eight months later by a visit by the premier of the People’s Republic of China. Hua Guofeng’s state visit to Iran in September 1978 came at time when the revolutionary firestorm, in which Iranian Maoists were an integral part, were about to consume the very survival of the Pahlavi regime. It was as if neither the US nor the Chinese could yet grasp the force of the revolution in offing.


By late 1977 the regime’s response to street protests was to use the liberalized press to its own advantage. Already in August an article attacking Mosaddeq appeared on the anniversary of the 1953 coup, presumably to counterbalance the rising pro–National Front sentiments. A week after Carter’s departure, and buoyed by the presumed US blessing of the shah, the Rastakhiz Party held a convention in Tehran that hosted ten thousand strong from all over the country. In its resolution, the convention declared all-embracing combat against “colonialism,” euphemism in the Pahlavi parlance for the politicized Shi‘i clergy and their alleged ties to the British in colonial times. A predictable and baseless ploy, it was rooted in the British authorities’ distribution of the proceeds of the Awadh Endowment (pul-e Hend) and similar Indian endowments among the Shi‘i mojtaheds in Ottoman Iraq and later during the British Mandate.

The next propaganda volley that followed proved an utter disaster. On January 8, 1978, an article appeared in the daily Ettela‘at, often the mouthpiece of Pahlavi establishment, attacking Ayatollah Khomeini in spiteful terms. Apparently planted by the Ministry of the Court against the wishes of the paper’s editor and using a pseudonym, the article condemned the “alliance of the red and the black reactionaries” and denounced Khomeini, and the Shi‘i clerical leadership, as turbaned servants of colonialism who had clung to a reactionary worldview and a corrupt culture. Khomeini was accused of being an opium addict who was assigned by his masters to incite sedition and derail Iran’s march to progress and prominence. “He was an adventurer, a faithless and ambitious man associated with and subservient to colonial powers,” stated the invective article. “A man with a mysterious past who was attached to the most reactionary colonial elements. Since he failed to acquire a status among the country’s most senior clergy—despite all the suspicious support that he had received—he sought for an opportunity to make a name for himself by mean of inciting a political adventure.”2 Outraged by the Ettela’at article, a day later, on January 9, 1978, supporters of Khomeini, mostly seminarians, rallied in the city of Qom and clashed with security forces. As many as six of the protesters were killed and more were injured. The Qom riot in retrospect triggered a turning point in the calendar of the Islamic Revolution, for it launched a whole year of rallies, strikes, and violence, resulting in a steady waning of state’s power in all major cities. By January 1978 the revolutionary course, with its thrill and terror, had hit full stride, with the militant clergy about to appear at the helm.

The revolutionary course, moreover, compelled more senior clerical figures almost grudgingly to declare their support for Ayatollah Khomeini. One after another, the Qom marja‘s were obligated to issue statements giving their mandate and condemning the crackdown by the security forces. Up until then most marja‘s had viewed Khomeini as a troublemaker and feared his threat to their authority. Even moderate ayatollahs, such as Mohammad-Kazem Shari‘atmadari (1905–1986), could no longer remain equivocal. Senior students of Khomeini, among them Hosain ‘Ali Montazeri (1922–2009), were instrumental in elevating Khomeini to a status above others and above the marja‘iyat status. Though not yet fully spelled out, the notion of welayat-e faqih was beginning to place Khomeini far above his cohorts not merely as a jurist but also as a savior of the nation.

By January 18, Tabriz, then the second-largest Iranian city, was the scene of a violent two-day uprising with many casualties. The angry crowd burned down banks, government buildings, provincial headquarters of the Rastakhiz Party, cinemas, and a Pepsi-Cola bottling facility. Once the unrest continued into the second day, the government declared martial law in Tabriz and brought troops into the streets. This was the first time since the uprising of June 1963 that martial law had been declared, hence adding to the public anxiety and fear that worse things were to come. Further unrest in Ahwaz, Mashhad, Yazd, and Isfahan turned the crisis national and gave it the appearance of ominous regularity.

Throughout 1978 demonstrations recurred on the fortieth mourning commemoration (arba‘in) of the “martyrs” who had fallen in the earlier round of clashes. This began with a remembrance for Qom and Tabriz victims and soon gained a fixed rhythm, with unmistakable hinting at the Shi‘i tragedies of Karbala. The numbers of victims almost invariably were exaggerated in the same way that government’s punitive actions were overstated. Rallies throughout the country, leading to fresh clashes with the police, and soon with the armed forces, coincided with debilitating strikes in the public sector, among teachers, students and university professors, government employees, factory workers, public utility workers, and even the civilian cadres of the armed forces. Sit-ins at universities and government offices and collective hunger strikes, called political fasting, were the order of the day.

The demands listed by demonstrators ranged from tangible grievances and realistic objectives such as salary raises, job benefits, and the meeting of housing needs to political demands rooted in decades of discontent. These ranged from the unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to press censorship, and prosecution of corrupt officials to the more idealistic calls inspired by left: an end to plundering Iran’s natural resources, liberating the Iranian currency from the financial hegemony of the US dollar, and ending all the so-called montage industries. The latter was a reference to assembly plants manufacturing mostly Western consumer goods under license, enterprises dismissed by armchair revolutionaries who probably had read too much Al-e Ahmad as somehow inauthentic and useless. In the mosques the radicalized clergy preached from the pulpits, and in the hastily set-up “Islamic associations” in factories, government offices, universities, schools, and private firms, overnight activists demanded the swift exercise of “Islamic justice” and the removal from power of agents of the “idol” (taghut), a Qur’anic term euphemized to stand for the shah and the Pahlavi elite.

In university rallies, where the left held the upper hand, cries of victory to peoples (khalq-ha) of Iran and an end to the “exploitation of the masses” were audible. Still more widespread, the supporters of the People’s Mojahedin, the fastest-growing political movement among youth, called for victory of the “disinherited of the earth” (mostaza‘fin-e arz) and the establishment of a “classless” Islamic society. A language of political Islam inherited from likes of ‘Ali Shari‘ati quickly shaped the revolutionary discourse. With great speed the lists of demands, and the radical slogans that went with them, traveled from one protest camp to another, adding to the excitement of the multitudes whose forbidden sentiments were finally spilling out after years of silence.

During the month of Ramadan, the protest movement gained new momentum. On August 11, 1978, following clashes with police in Isfahan, the angry crowd set fire to cinemas, liquor stores, banks, government buildings, and Rastakhiz headquarters. Even trees along sidewalks of the historic Chahar Bagh were uprooted to block the advancing security force. In response, the Amuzegar government declared martial law in the city. As if that was not enough, nine days later, on August 19, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1953 coup, a horrendous tragedy in Abadan reversed the course of the protests in favor of the Islamic militants. An act of arson in the Rex Cinema resulted in the death of 377 men, women, and children. They were burned to death or died of asphyxiation behind the locked doors of the movie hall. Ironically, the movie on the screen, Gavazn-ha (The Deer, 1976), by the Iranian director Mas‘ud Kimiya’i, almost anticipated the coming of a revolution. It was about solidarity of the underclasses—portrayed in a thief and a drug addict—whose desperate rebellion against social injustices brought them to a violent showdown with security forces. The movie received a screening permit from Savak with great difficulty and only after substantial reediting.

From what is known, the Rex Cinema’s exit doors were intentionally locked. Widespread rumors at the time held Savak and the pro-government agents provocateurs responsible. Yet the arson was consistent with a pattern of Islamic activists’ setting ablaze cinemas and other venues of supposed Western decadence for more than a decade. As was witnessed in many instances of arson that destroyed cinemas, first in Qom and later in other cities, the Rex Cinema incident displayed the perpetrators’ utter lack of moral scruples, as became evident in the course of their trial a few months later. The Islamic opposition, however, stood to reap major propaganda advantages from the tragedy in the prevailing environment of suspicion and anger.

The Amuzegar government faced intense criticism for mishandling both the Isfahan riots and the Rex Cinema incident. Criticism came not only from the general public but also from the Majles as well, whose deputies, having serious credibility issues, tried hard to behave as the people’s genuine representatives. Amuzegar’s resignation on August 27 was a serious blow to the regime’s hope for stabilizing the restive climate. His resignation proved that a smooth reform movement by a chosen member of the Pahlavi technocracy could not remedy many years of absolutist rule. It was too little and too late. Plunged into a deeper crisis of confidence, the shah appointed as new prime minister Ja‘far Sharif-Emami, who twice had served in the same office in the late 1950s. This proved another misstep, one even graver than Amuzegar’s appointment a year earlier.

Sharif-Emami, the president of the Senate (and concurrently head of the Pahlavi Foundation and a member of the board of various private enterprises) was a quintessential insider. He was too closely associated with the shah and the upper echelons of the Pahlavi elite to have any chance of withstanding the revolutionary storm that was sweeping the country. A wheeler and dealer and a facilitator of high-stakes foreign and domestic deals, his public image left much to be desired. His only perceived credentials in the eyes of the shah and his advisers were that he was from a well-known clerical family and a devout Muslim who held ties in clerical circles. His “national reconciliation” government, as he liked to call it, comprised predictable Pahlavi officials who aimed to mend fences with the moderate clergy through persuasion and appeasement. By doing so he hoped to isolate Khomeini and his supporters and open up, at least partially, the political space.

That the shah at the time did not opt for a more credible figure from among veteran statesmen suggested that even by August 1978 he had difficulty grasping the depth of the revolutionary realities. He still entertained conspiratorial fantasies about Khomeini and the clerical radicals around him, whom he continued to label as “black reactionaries,” as if they were somehow creatures of a British plot or even the American CIA. Opting for a moderate figure from among the liberal opposition may have been the only hope to realistically preserve the constitutional monarchy, if not the shah himself on the throne. That option, of course, required a near-complete delegation of authority by the shah to a reasonably credible government, holding of a free and fair election, and even the shah’s peaceful abdication in favor of his son and successor. At the time these were concessions the shah had great difficulty granting. Nor were they palatable to the senior generals of his army or the security apparatus that he had fostered for long. His record of thirty-seven years on the throne showed little evidence that he would ever be willing to make such concessions.

Stressing his independence and calling for an end to royal meddling in the affairs of the government, Sharif-Emami nevertheless embarked on a series of remedies and a morality campaign to assuage public opinion. He abolished the imperial calendar (Shahanshahi) initiated by the shah two years earlier and reverted back to the customary Iranian solar calendar that started with the Hijra. He closed down nightclubs and casinos and introduced anticorruption and austerity measures. He raised the salaries of the discontented government employees, released a number of activist clerics from prison and returned others from internal exile, and forced into retirement a handful of senior army officers with reputations for fraud. He relaxed censorship of the press and the media, accepted the existence of multiple political parties, and, by doing so, put an effective end to the Rastakhiz Party. Even the Tudeh Party reemerged after a quarter of a century of surviving in exile.

In response Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari cautiously welcomed the measures introduced by Sarif-Emami’s government and offered a three-month window to implement other public demands. The newly revived National Front issued a twelve-point declaration calling for restoration of the Constitution, free press and free elections, and dissolution of the Savak. Yet the appeasement policy generated the reverse effect. It emboldened the opposition and under popular pressure compelled the marja‘s of Qom to further support Khomeini and his increasingly militant statements from Najaf and soon after from Paris. Khomeini labeled the government measures as nothing short of “hypocrisy.” A massive rally of hundreds of thousands across the length of the capital from north to south was followed by a congregational prayer held in the middle of a public square. It displayed, with an impressive show of discipline, public solidarity with Khomeini and his cohort.

The organizing capabilities of the Islamic opposition were on display only three days later, on September 4, 1978, when more than two hundred thousand marchers in Tehran carried thousands of placards with Khomeini’s portrait and banners openly hostile to the regime. They rallied to Shahyad Square, soon to be renamed Freedom Square, crying out “death to the shah” and calling for “sovereignty, freedom, and Islamic government.” Fraternizing with the troops who were brought to the streets in anticipation of violent clashes, protesters placed roses and carnations in the rifle barrels of the troops—apparently inspired by the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. The gesture soon became commonplace. Rhymed slogans filled the air: “My brother in uniform; why fratricide?” (Baradar-e arteshi! Chera baradarkoshi?). Made up mostly of conscripts carrying out their military service, many of the troops were sympathetic to the protestors’ emotional pleas.


Deeply troubled by widespread protests and paralyzing strikes, and fearing worse, the Sharif-Emami government extended martial law to Tehran and eleven other major cities in the country. Backed by elements within the army, and no doubt with the shah’s blessing—and the knowledge of the American and British envoys who regularly were consulted by the shah—General Gholam ‘Ali Ovaysi (1918–1984), the commander in chief of the army and a staunch Pahlavi loyalist, was appointed military commander of the capital. These draconian measures were meant to nip the revolutionary movement in the bud. As it turned out, the last-ditch effort instead sealed the fate of the shah and the Pahlavi rule.

On September 8, a day after the declaration of martial law, a large crowd gathered in Jaleh Square, the core of a religious middle-class neighborhood in east-central Tehran that had been the scene of repeated demonstrations since the beginning of the unrest. Defiant, and possibly unaware that martial law had just been declared, demonstrators ignored repeated warnings to disperse. Sniper shots from the leftist elements in the crowd, who evidently were members of former guerrilla organizations, further unnerved the troops. In a tense moment the troops opened fire on the panicked crowd. The two-hour street battle that followed left behind as many as ninety-five dead and many wounded, including women and children. Other clashes around the capital resulted in even more casualties.

The emotional impact of these events, which soon was marked on the calendar of the Islamic Revolution as Black Friday, was greater even than the loss of human lives. It further alienated the regime and set the revolution almost on a course of no return. If there had been a hope among members of the secular opposition to end the shah’s autocratic rule but preserve the constitutional monarchy, that was diminished. The clerical activists, backed by the Qom marja‘s, capitalized on the Jaleh Square massacre to paint the regime as brutal and illegitimate. Aided by a rumor-mongering machine that became fully operational in the absence of reliable media and news reporting, the number of casualties, the “martyrs” on the path of Islam, was inflated to thousands, and the troops who opened fire on them were labeled as Israeli mercenaries who were brought in to crush the revolution. There was a decided loss of confidence among the military personnel, both officers and troops. They were reluctantly dragged into the midst of a revolutionary struggle and asked to defend an unpopular regime and shoot at ordinary Iranians like themselves. Events of the next seven months clearly illustrated the security forces’ moral conundrum and their diminishing appetite to save the Pahlavi regime, especially in the absence of a resolute royal master.

Facing violent defiance in the streets and the army’s failure to effectively enforce martial law, the Sharif-Emami government looked elsewhere for help. Reacting to a flurry of smuggled cassette tapes with fiery messages from Khomeini calling on the Iranian people to rise up and oust the shah, the Iranian government could only plead with Saddam Hussein to remove Khomeini from Najaf. Once he was banished from his base, it was naively hoped, the troublesome cleric would lose contact with his constituency in Iran and eventually wither into oblivion. For Saddam Hussein, too, who by 1978 as vice president had solidified his control over the Ba‘ath Party of Iraq, Khomeini appeared more of a liability inside Iraq than an asset against Iran. Even considering the grudge Saddam nursed against the shah and the Iranians, this was a request that he could not have easily turned down given the Ba‘athist antagonism toward the restive Iraqi Shi‘is. Khomeini, Saddam feared, was a dangerous role model for the Iraqi clerical activists, such as Mohammad Baqer Sadr (1935–1980), with whom Khomeini maintained close ties.

On Saddam’s orders, Khomeini was forced out of Najaf and unceremoniously dumped at the Kuwaiti border. Once refused entry into Kuwait, he considered Lebanon, Libya and Algeria but decided against them out of fear of civil war in the former and manipulation by dictators in the latter. He then was persuaded by some of his aides to go to France. The role of Sadeq Qotbzadeh (1936–1982), a longtime activist and avid supporter of Khomeini, was instrumental in the choice of the land of Farangis. France was a safe haven even for a steadfast Shi‘i jurist, not only because the shari‘a allowed for taking refuge at perilous times in the land of unbelievers but also because it allowed him to resume his struggle free of harassment. On October 6, 1978, he flew to Paris and shortly afterward took up residence in a small villa in Neauphle-le-Château, a middle-class suburb of Paris. Sufficiently austere and frugal, the rented red bungalow was close enough to the French capital to allow for accessibility to a string of visitors who soon crowded the modest resident. He found himself surrounded by a host of aides and supporters, mostly laymen, as well as members of the Iranian opposition, his former students, and enthusiastic scholars and intellectuals who came to pay homage. Television personalities, press correspondents, and freelance writers from all over Europe and the United States also began to arrive.

To the delight of the ayatollah and his aides, and to the disgust of the Iranian authorities, his stay in Paris offered Khomeini an unprecedented three months of free exposure to world media and sympathetic visitors, who almost invariably treated him with awed deference. Sitting cross-legged and leaning against an apple tree in the small courtyard of his residence, which became an open-door public space for his frequent audiences and daily prayers, clad in traditional Shi‘i clerical attire—a black turban and a black robe over a long white shirt—the white bearded but robust ayatollah appeared to most of his Iranian visitors to be a fatherly figure and a national savior (pl. 13.1). To most Westerners he appeared a curious, if not exotic, dissident from another time and place.

His austere demeanor, and his piercing gaze, confirmed an uncompromising message of solidarity and defiance. Facing the media, Khomeini skillfully handled the press by answering prepared questions cautiously and concisely. Television interviewers, correspondents from the New York TimesLe Monde, and The Guardian, as well as freelancers, were often bewildered as they tried to read into Khomeini’s ascetic facade and deceptively brief answers. They often went away with implicit praise for a man who had resolutely defied the shah’s autocratic rule.

To the anxious members of the Iranian secular opposition as well as Western journalists, he portrayed the revolt against the Pahlavi regime as an all-embracing liberation movement under the banner of Islam while remaining deliberately equivocal on his perceived Islamic utopia. While painting a rosy picture of justice and equity under the “Islamic republic,” he at the same time stressed that the mandate of the people of Iran would determine the shape of the future order. He further stressed that the envisioned Islamic republic would treat all its citizens as equals, including Jews, Christians (Nasranian, or “the Nazarenes”) and other “lawful” minorities. The clergy, who had the loftier task of offering moral guidance to the nation, would refrain from political ambitions and monopolizing power. The future for Islamic Iran would include the coexistence of all groups and tendencies while preserving Islam at the core of its sovereignty and religious identity. Whether these were sincere pronouncements, wishfully embellished by his advisers, or deceptive tactics to lessen anxieties in Iran and internationally at the prospect of an Islamic theocratic state, was a matter left to individuals’ judgments. What was clear, however, was that contrary to the Iranian government’s hopes, Khomeini’s defiant tone and message of rebellion found a far greater audience in Iran and recognition abroad.

The remaining months of Sharif-Emami’s government were riddled with more violent clashes and angry demonstrations. Debilitating strikes spread through the public sector from the oil fields and refineries to banks and radio and television broadcasting and to the gas and electric supplies. Pressure on state coffers became more tangible once the government raised salaries and pensions in the vain hope of placating the voice of the opposition. It also tried, but with little success, to appease the more conservative marja‘s in Qom and Najaf as a counter to Khomeini. Under pressure, the government also sacked a number of senior government employees with shady reputations, detained former ministers and high officials, and brought corruption charges against them. It blacklisted yet others and banned their travel abroad, and it imposed stringent regulations, though difficult to enforce, on the flight of capital abroad. Electricity and fuel shortages, a predictable outcome of the strike in the energy sector, only added to popular discontent.

The anticorruption measures and the government’s tone of appeasement only emboldened the opposition, which was succeeding in mobilizing new followers through the mosques and Muharram associations. Elements from among the Fada’iyan-e Khalq and Mojahedin-e Khalq also were lending their support to what they perceived to be an impending armed struggle. Paying lip service to Khomeini, the left was hard at work recruiting, especially among high school and university students. Many from Tudeh backgrounds and other leftist tendencies aligned themselves with their families’ past affiliations. They viewed the rise to prominence of Khomeini and the Islamist fervor as a transient phase that would pave the way for the rule of the masses. Others in the liberal nationalist camp perceived some form of future power sharing with the Islamists, hoping that Khomeini’s leadership would champion a free and fair constitutional regime—admittedly with a thin Islamic veneer. As it turned out, both the left and the liberals grossly underestimated Khomeini’s shrewd maneuvering and the extent of popular support he had mustered.

On November 5, 1978, widespread riots in the streets of the capital brought the crisis to the boiling point. Rioters set fire to at least four hundred bank branches around town and destroyed numerous government buildings, movie theaters, liquor stores, restaurants, businesses, and other real or imagined symbols of Pahlavi affluence. The security forces ostensibly were absent from the streets, thus allowing the protesters to inflict maximum damage. Whether this was a preconceived Savak operation, as was alleged then, or the work of Islamic radicals with a record of incendiary sabotage remained a matter of speculation. What was clear was that the riots succeeded in bringing the shaky government of Sharif-Emami to its knees.

The next day, on November 6, 1978 accepting the premier’s resignation, the shah in desperation appointed a military government headed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gholam-Reza Azhari (1912–2001), a mild-mannered general and a devout practicing Muslim with little political or strategic acumen. It was as if the shah decided on Azhari in a delusional haze atypical of his controlling habits. The military government was appointed with the naive hope of peacefully ending the strikes and bringing the economy back to normal. Azhari took office, understandably, with a degree of reservation as how to govern an almost ungovernable nation. The proactive wing of the Carter administration headed by Brzezinski, backed Ardeshir Zahedi, a close confidant of the shah and Iran’s ambassador to the United States, were convinced that only a firm military stance could end the revolution and rescue the regime. What ominously seemed a reenactment of the 1953 coup, however, proved to be, citing Marx’s famous saying, a “second-time farce.” Facing millions in the streets, Azhari was not in the mood to stand for such a spectacle.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, and under enormous psychological pressure, even the shah didn’t have faith in the success of a military government. His ambivalence doubtlessly trickled down through the upper echelons of the military command. Troubled by the rapid course of events, the murky prospects of his dynasty, and the conflicting messages from Washington, the shah was unwilling to allow a draconian measure that might result in another bloodbath like Jaleh Square. To his credit, bewildered and demoralized though he was, he recognized that by sheer force he no longer could quell a popular revolt led by a determined and charismatic leader and backed by millions in the streets.

Prior to Azhari’s appointment, the shah had offered the premiership to ‘Ali Amini, who, emerging from the political wilderness after nearly two decades, wisely turned it down primarily because of the shah’s refusal to relinquish control of the military. This was one prerogative that he had jealously guarded all of his career and was not willing, even at the perilous moment of a revolution in making, to relinquish to someone he could barely trust. He also declined Amini’s other condition that he leave the country with the prospect of abdicating in favor of his son. Such parallels with Mosaddeq’s demands in 1953 were too obvious for the shah to comply with. He evidently still contemplated some future means of restoring his power.

The army, it soon became apparent, lacked experience in civil affairs as much as it lacked the resolve to face a restive public. For all the years since 1953 the shah, and before him his father, assiduously had kept the army officers firmly under their thumbs. Both father and son demanded from all military personnel, and senior officers in particular, nothing short of blind obedience to the person of the monarch in exchange for material privileges and their generous purchases of military hardware. He had engendered in their ranks a sense of order and discipline and a pride in the uniform. Even hard-line generals like Ovaysi, who from the beginning of the unrest had called for a systematic crackdown, were quickly forced to retire without much remonstrance from them or their cohorts in uniform. In addition to a culture of blind dependency, the shah had used as his effective weapon petty rivalries among senior officers and held them at the mercy of his whims and wishes. In doing so he had deprived the army of a spirit of institutional self-reliance and independent identity.

One other systemic factor barring the officers from acting like a military junta was a justifiable fear of disloyalty from within their own lower ranks. When it came to enforcing law and order in the streets, the top-heavy officer corps relied essentially on unskilled conscripts in their two-year military service. The soldiers were often villagers and urban immigrants who, though sufficiently indoctrinated in the barracks, were unprepared to face an angry crowd. Even less so were they willing to shoot at men and women essentially like themselves who were protesting under the banner of Islam and the country.

Already by October 1978 warning signs of troop absenteeism and defection were rife. By the end of the year these were aggravated further into disobedience. On December 14, 1978, in the Lavizan barracks north of Tehran, where the regiments of the Imperial Guard were stationed, a serious case of mutiny unfolded whereby soldiers shot and killed some twelve of their commanding officers, presumably in retaliation for their antirevolutionary sentiments. The air force cadets known as Homafars, the ground support for the Iranian air force, were among the first to break ranks and openly support the revolution. They initially were vocal in demanding higher wages and better terms of employment, but soon, in February 8, 1979, they spearheaded mass defection within the air force personnel. On the eve of the revolution’s success, the Homafars took to the streets of the capital and fought on the side of the revolutionaries, not entirely unlike the Kronstadt sailors during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The Azhari government’s lukewarm start continued to be crippled by self-doubt, and it ended with remorse. To start with, on the same day General Azhari was appointed, the shah himself undermined his mandate by appearing on television declaring that “the revolution of the Iranian people cannot fail to have my support as the monarch of Iran” and that he had “heard the message of the revolution” from his people. As the “guardian of the constitutional monarchy”—a divine “gift entrusted to the shah by people”—he pledged “not to allow the past mistakes to occur or unlawful conduct, oppression and corruption to recur.” He further reassured the utterly incredulous public that the military government was a mere caretaker and that he was compelled to appoint it in light of his unsuccessful efforts to form any coalition government representing the nation’s will.3

For a public accustomed to decades of royal pomposity descending upon it from the “Sunlight of the Aryans” this was an astonishing admission bordering on cynicism. It was a deathbed confession at best and at worst a pitiable scheme to cling to power under the guise of a constitution for which the shah had shown little respect in the past. The emphasis on the transitory role of the military government severely weakened the chances of its survival. The new government, at first manned entirely by the generals, shortly afterward appointed the predictable faces of former civilians. For a few weeks it managed to return to the streets a semblance of normalcy, ending the most acute strikes and even attempting to place some restrictions on the flurry of Khomeini’s fiery cassette-tape pronouncements. Treading down the path of appeasement, it was obliged also to detain, with the shah’s blessing, on November 9 sixty officials and officers, including the former prime minister Hovayda, former head of the Savak General Nasiri, and a number of ministers of Hovayda’s government. They were detained under the general rubric of corruption, misappropriation of public funds, and even implicit charges of treason. The arrests had the immediate impact of eroding the confidence of the Pahlavi elite who until then had rested their hopes on the person of the shah and the support of the army. If the shah no longer was able to protect his own loyal prime minister and chief security officer, and willing to sacrifice them for the sake of his own survival, it was thought, other members of the elite may well be the next victims to be sent down to the revolutionary den. Bonds of loyalty that had long held together the Pahlavi regime were about to be quickly unraveled.


By December 1978 Azhari’s government, military in name only, had become a subject of public ridicule on account of its inability to restore order. In a report to the Iranian Senate Azhari famously claimed that the repeated cries of “Allah’u akbar” (God is great) that were audible in the dead of night from city rooftops were mere cassette recordings. Soon tens of thousands of marchers in the streets of Tehran shouting “Allah’u akbar” supplemented their cries with a slogan: “O miserable Azhari! Dare say it again! Is this a [cassette] tape? Tape doesn’t have hands; tape doesn’t have legs.” The proof provided by the marchers was thousands of revolutionary graffiti slogans, including abuses of the shah, Azhari and his government, sprayed all around the massive base of the Shayhad monument and continuing way up the tower.

Bloody clashes between demonstrators and security forces made the former more resolute and the latter weary and weak. All over the country, even in smaller towns, the growing number of dead and injured on both sides brought about an alarming state of siege and inevitable international concern for the plight of the Iranian people. The four centers of the revolution—the bazaar, the mosque and the Moharram committees, the university campuses, and the oil industry—were by now unanimous in denouncing the Pahlavi rule. Notably, they were, among other things, still divided over the degree of their compliance with Khomeini’s leadership. Beyond unanimity in rejecting the status quo, ominous ideological chasms divided the opposition.

The Moharram of year 1399 of the Islamic calendar, falling in December 1978, was bound to carry an even greater emotional weight than the usual commemoration of the Karbala martyrs. The forthcoming turn of the fifteenth Islamic century, and its messianic undertone for the advent of a “renovator [mojadded] at the turn of the century,” a dormant trait in the history of messianic Islam, had found an apt candidate in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini. The release from prison of Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani (1911–1979), a longtime political activist and a relatively independent-minded cleric close to the religiously inclined Freedom Movement, added further weight to the clerical leadership. His call for another rally on the day of ‘Ashura (December 11, 1978) to commemorate martyrs of the revolution—its numbers reaching perhaps no more than a few hundred—brought to Shahyad (Azadi) Square a crowd that was reported to be a million strong. The seventeen demands set forth by demonstrators included an end of the Pahlavi regime and the formation of an Islamic order under Ayatollah Khomeini. They also called for political freedom and civil rights, social justice, and the end of imperialist hegemony, presumably that of the United States. Here the dichotomy in denouncing the shah as traitor and welcoming Khomeini as savior pointed to a sad irony in a political culture that could only demand the removal of one autocrat by welcoming another, even though the latter was still in making.

Internationally, support for the regime was dwindling fast. Veteran US Republicans were unwavering in their support for the shah, as evidenced by statements issued by Henry Kissinger and former presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Whether out of expediency or moral conviction, however, the Carter administration gradually moved away, at least on the surface, from unconditional backing of the shah. When on December 7 President Carter was asked about the chances of the shah’s survival, he said: “I don’t know. I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran.” Ambivalence and confusion persisted. The State Department, under Cyrus Vance, was cautiously inching toward accepting the revolution as an unpleasant but unavoidable reality. As prescribed by William Sullivan (1922–2013), the US ambassador in Tehran, establishing contact with the revolution’s clerical and lay leadership was inevitable. Sullivan identified Mahdi Bazargan, the head of the Freedom Movement, and Mohammad Beheshti (1928–1981), an influential member of the organization of the Militant Clerics, as the most plausible candidates. Hardliners in the US National Security Council, headed by Brzezinski, however, hadn’t entirely given up on the Iranian military even though they now viewed the shah as a redundancy. They were even contemplating a military takeover independent of the shah to contain the revolutionary course, preserve a semblance of Pahlavi rule, and support an eventual return to normalcy. With the threat of Soviet intervention in the picture, Iran loomed too crucial on the US strategic horizon to be abandoned to a revolutionary crowd led by a militant mullah. Sullivan seemed more confirmed in his opinion when he encountered General Azhari in late December 1978 coming down the steps of the Niavaran Palace after an audience with the shah. He detected in him a depressed and exhausted man hardly capable of rendering the task Brzezinski and others in Washington expected of him. He had just submitted his resignation to the shah and agreed to be a caretaker until a new premier is appointed.

By mid-December the shah had come to the realization that his only viable option was to call on a handful of veteran nationalists of earlier decades to form a government. After decades of dismissing them as nonentities and leaving them on the political sidelines, his appeal seemed ironic, if not outright absurd. Karim Sanjabi, a statesman of the Mosaddeq era and a leader of the revived National Front who has been released from Savak’s temporary detention a week earlier, turned down the shah’s offer with little hesitation. His condition, reflecting the overwhelming urgency that the revolution had brought upon even its moderate players, was that the shah leave the country for an indefinite period and delegate all affairs of the state to a privy council to be convened from among credible personalities. In the volatile climate Sanjabi’s hope was to utilize the limited resources at his disposal to secure a constitutional middle ground between waning Pahlavi rule and the sweeping storm of the Islamic Revolution. As in his earlier negotiation with ‘Ali Amini, again the shah was unwilling to entertain such an option. He most probably feared, even at this late stage, not only the end of his own rule but also the end of the Pahlavi monarchy.

Already on November 3, more than a month before his meeting with the shah, Sanjabi had flown to Paris to meet with Khomeini and try to arrive at an understanding over the future course of the revolution. Despite a courteous exchange, Khomeini clearly was not in the mood to accommodate a secular nationalist. He warned that he would denounce and “expel from the revolutionary movement” anyone who negotiated with the shah. The three-clause declaration authored by Sanjabi at the conclusion of the meeting mirrored the shifting balance of power in favor of the ayatollah and his Islamic agenda. It condemned the shah’s dictatorial rule as unconstitutional and against individual freedoms, and hence devoid of legal and Islamic legitimacy. It further denounced any collaboration with the regime so long as it continued to act undemocratically. Finally, it called for Iran’s future political order to be determined by a popular referendum.

Given the circumstances, Sanjabi’s Paris visit and the widely publicized three-point declaration was seen as a success and hailed as such, for it gave the impression of solidarity between liberal nationalists and the Islamists without making too many concessions to the latter. Despite much disingenuous publicity by the royalists in later years denouncing the declaration as a sellout to Khomeini, short of an innocuous reference to Islam, the declaration simply reiterated the National Front’s positions long publicized in statements and speeches by Sanjabi and by others. It also expressed the aspiration of all those who had long been critical of the shah’s dictatorial conduct, desiring a return to constitutional order. Yet there was an ominous ring to the very act of seeking an open alliance with Khomeini, for it showed the secular opposition’s loss of momentum, a bitter reality that became even more evident when the ayatollah insidiously received the signed declaration from Sanjabi and pushed it under the blanket he was sitting on without ever putting his own signature on it.

In the following days after the unsuccessful meeting with Sanjabi the shah was compelled to realize that his days on the throne were numbered. In search of a solution, and no longer sure of the United States’ support for his rule, he approached Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi, another veteran of the Mosaddeq era who was no longer associated with the new National Front. Sadiqi, too, promptly turned down the shah’s offer but for a different reason. He was forewarned by the opposition figures that under the circumstances accepting the premiership would be a serious breach of the revolutionary solidarity. The shah also refused Sadiqi’s condition that he remain in the country, rather than going abroad, and relinquish all power, including control of the armed forces. Sadiqi’s demand was presumably grounded in his justified fear that once the shah left the country, the army would cave under the weight of the revolution. He proved correct. In his bewildered state of mind the shah, however, had declined both the offer to leave and the offer to stay, an indecision that implied to both veterans of the Mosaddeq era, Sanjabi and Sadiqi, a hidden agenda, perhaps to buy time and stage a military coup.

In late December 1978, having received two negative responses, the shah began to negotiate in secret with Shapur Bakhtiar, another National Front member and leader of the newly revived Iran Party. Unbeknownst to his longtime colleagues, and contrary to Sanjabi’s pledge not to spoil the opposition’s barely sustained unanimity, on December 29, 1978, Bakhtiar accepted the premiership. He did so at a time when it was obvious that political odds were dead set against any secularist who did not at least have Khomeini’s implicit consent. By moving away from his comrades, and in effect working against them, Bakhtiar willingly trapped himself in an impossible political corner. He also eroded the meager chances that a united secular front might have had to revive constitutional monarchy while withstanding Khomeini and his radical following. Desperate though it seemed to others, to Bakhtiar his acceptance of the premiership appeared a heroic act of patriotism against the threat of Islamic fanatics and the dark future they promised to bring to the country.

To his critics Bakhtiar’s move was motivated by quixotic ambition for high office. He was duly expelled from the National Front and from his own Iran Party, an action that barely concerned him at the time but that later he claimed to be a contributing factor to his downfall. Thereafter, most nationalists could see no recourse but to comply with the revolution’s Islamic course, while others like Sadiqi preferred to stay completely out of the game. Bakhtiar, and handful of the halfhearted ministers in his cabinet, clung to the implausible chance that through an alliance with the army they would prevail. He had asked and received assurance from the shah that he would temporarily leave Iran, that Savak would be disbanded, and that Bakhtiar would be in charge of both the military and foreign affairs.

Unfortunate for Bakhtiar, the tone of the protest movement had taken a decidedly more radical and a more Islamic turn. Calls for the downfall of the Pahlavi “dictatorship” were no longer followed by demands to restore the 1906 constitution, but to end the “despotic” institution of monarchy and return to the “Islamic justice,” and soon after to establish an “Islamic government” (hokumat-e eslami) and eventually an Islamic Republic (jomhuri-ye eslami). The shift from political reforms to an Islamic order meant an adamant rejection of a liberal democratic alternative. In many slogans and on thousands of placards carried in rallies, the tone of the revolution had turned in favor of Khomeini and his evolving ambitions to create a new Islamic order.

The general enthusiasm for this Islamic alternative was as spontaneous as it was contagious. Half a century of Pahlavi rule and its state-initiated monotony had heightened the yearning for an alternative face and an alternative message. To many Iranians this idealized, politicized, and radicalized Islam—a construct that had gestated for many decades—became more appealing, especially in its revolutionary garb. Not only the bazaar merchants and poorer urban and urbanizing Iranians but also people of secular or semisecular upbringing, especially among youth, were thrilled by Khomeini and his promises. Often alien to the clergy’s earlier image as reactionaries opposed to secular values, the Iranian youth were ready to accept the “Imam” of the revolution in place of Pahlavi shah and its excesses.


The timing of Bakhtiar’s premiership proved particularly unfortunate for those who were still hoping to maintain a middle ground between Khomeini and the Pahlavi regime. By January 1, 1979, while the United States was declaring its support for the Bakhtiar government, the new premier was denounced by Khomeini and his own appointed revolutionary provisional government as illegal and was subsequently boycotted. In the course of the first few crucial days, as the shah’s uncertainties became more manifest, Bakhtiar’s government appeared to be far less viable. The Carter administration’s poor handling of Iran’s affairs further reduced the frail chance of stopping Khomeini’s ascendancy. The Bakhtiar interlude, like Kerensky’s interim government in 1917 Russia, seemed the catalyst for the regime’s ultimate downfall.

Two days after Bakhtiar took office with the mandate to contain (or accommodate) the army, General Oveysi resigned as chief of the army and head of the Tehran military command, leaving the country in haste. He had waited in vain for the US blessing, which eventually went to Bakhtiar; but even with US backing, it was highly unlikely that Ovaysi would have succeeded. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General ‘Abbas Qarabaghi (1918–2000), a French-educated career officer and a devout Muslim, on the other hand, was a noninterventionist. He was persuaded by the Americans to work with Bakhtiar’s “virtual” government to steer an impossible course that would return the country to normalcy after the shah’s departure. By the same token, the National Front and its affiliated secular allies were also deprived of their valued weapon to halt Khomeini’s meteoric rise. By giving advance notice to Khomeini of the possibility of a military coup—had Oveysi remained in office—the leaders of the National Front were hoping to persuade the turbaned revolutionaries to abide by their mediatory role in resolving Iran’s crisis. Bakhtiar’s move clearly robbed the National Front of that chance.

Bakhtiar was a cultured Francophile and a political maverick from a tribal aristocracy that had been defanged by the Pahlavis decades earlier. He had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, later volunteered for the French army during World War II, and had served in the French Resistance. By keeping the shah away, Bakhtiar hoped that he could deploy the army to harness the revolution and restore Iran’s constitutional regime. By implementing drastic reforms and carrying out an anticorruption campaign, he hoped to disarm Khomeini and force him to negotiate. Yet in the coming weeks, despite fulfilling some of his promises, such as lifting all restrictions on the press, Bakhtiar’s government proved utterly incapable of restoring the status quo. Popular outbursts of protest and paralyzing strikes swept away the last vestiges of the premier’s authority, along with his miniscule power base. In his speech to the Majles—at a time when that institution itself was fast losing its relevance—after announcing his fourteen-point program, Bakhtiar poetically concluded that he was a thunderbird (morgh-e tufan) ready to face the storm of the revolution. As if he saw a huge gamble ahead, in which all of his political credibility and even his life were at stake, he recited a verse from the poet Nima:

I am a thunderbird, I am not afraid of the storm,

I am a wave, but not that rolls back to the sea.

On the morning of January 16, 1979, the shah finally left the country for Egypt for an extended “vacation.” Accompanied by Queen Farah and a small entourage, he left behind nearly all of his possessions and, for the Iranians, mixed memories. Walking across the tarmac to his private aircraft, he was captured in a memorable photograph. Tears running down his cheeks, the shah was bending forward to prevent a uniformed officer of the Eternal Guard from bowing down to kiss his feet—a last show of loyalty at a time when the entire nation seemed to have rejected their king. The headlines in the extras that day, printed in huge typeface, simply read: “Shah left” (shah raft). The two words expressed the feelings of exuberance and triumph of hundreds of thousands Iranians who rushed into the streets, joyfully, dancing and honking car horns. Boxes of candies were placed in front of stores, flowers were offered to passersby, and people greeted one another. It was as if the gates of a utopian epoch had finally opened widely.

More than a quarter of a century after his surreptitious departure for Rome in August 1953, the shah’s departure this time around promised a different end, a sorrowful journey all the way to the grave. It seemed as if his end were a replication of Jamshid’s legend in the Shahnameh and his loss of royal glory to pride and vanity. It is sobering to note that the shah’s exile was the fourth in a row for Iranian rulers in the twentieth century, coming in the wake of two revolutions in 1909 and 1979 and two coups, one in 1921 and one in 1953. Over a broader historical span, since the turn of the eighteenth century, that is, when Shah Solayman of the Safavid dynasty died in 1694, for more than 275 years of Iran’s political history, thirteen major rulers came to power. Of those only four died a natural death while still on the throne. Of the remaining nine, one was executed, four assassinated, and four exiled. Mohammad Reza Shah’s exile, seventy years after the forced abdication and exile of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah Qajar, also promised a blossoming era of freedom and democracy. In an ironic turn of fortune, the shah’s departure brought to a virtual end the institution of the Persian kingship only seven years after the shah had celebrated 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. The public sentiment in that short time had almost entirely turned against him (pl. 13.2 and pl. 13.3).

Coinciding with the shah’s departure, the rapid unraveling of the entire Pahlavi order seemed inevitable. To appease the public, Bakhtiar soon presided over dismantling the Savak at a time when its officers and agents were on the defensive, incapable of withstanding revolutionary pressure. The Privy Council had barely convened before its chairman, who was hoping to negotiate with Khomeini, flew to Paris and, having been denied even a meeting with him, ignominiously handed in his resignation. Adding to his desperation, some ministers of Bakhtiar’s government resigned even before taking office. Those who did venture to serve were refused entry by the staff of their assigned ministries.

Despite setbacks, Bakhtiar continued as if his passion for the office did not allow him to see the bleak prospects ahead. He declared the end of censorship, as well as freedom of the press and political parties, and he released the remaining political prisoners. Yet his shaky base never solidified. Even a rally of tens of thousands of supporters of the constitution in the Baharestan Square on January 25, 1979, mostly members of the secular middle classes terrified of the prospects of a theocracy under Khomeini, could not tilt the balance in his favor. Despite all his efforts, the focus of public attention was the much-anticipated arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini. Bakhtiar’s waning fortune and the army’s uncertain prospects boosted the chances of Khomeini’s return, which was set for January 26. This was exhilarating to the multitudes who regularly took part in rallies in his support (fig. 13.2 and fig. 13.3).

Figure 13.2. Frequent rallies, like this one in January 1979, contested Bakhtiar’s shaky government. Placards represented diverse ideologies and political demands.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 83.

Figure 13.3. The reopening of Tehran University in January 1979, after months of closure, further boosted public morale. The growing number of participants in the demonstrations reflected the accelerating pace of revolution, and the absence of placards implied fleeting unity.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 34.

Adding to the complexity was the Carter administration’s difficult adjustment to Iran’s fast-changing reality. Already on January 8, while the shah was still in Iran, General Robert Huyser (1924–1997), the deputy commander in chief of the US European Command, was assigned by the White House (despite the angry objections of his superior, General Alexander Haig) to visit Iran and facilitate, presumably in the absence of the shah, a collaboration between the ranking military and Bakhtiar’s government. In reality his task, if there was an unambiguous one, was to prepare the army, in the likely event of Bakhtiar’s fall, to stage a takeover, a quasi-military coup.

Huyser faced a demoralized officer corps with fast-vanishing loyalty among its lower ranks and senior officers unwilling to confront revolutionary crowds. He was sensible enough to recognize that 1953-type adventurism was no longer in the cards. No matter how desperately Carter’s security adviser and his ally Ardeshir Zahedi, by then ousted as Iranian ambassador to Washington, would have wished, the chance of coming up with another General Zahedi was slim. The idea was too far-fetched and at any rate too late. As Huyser put it, the mission “started with desperation and disunity and ended in disaster.” Bakhtiar’s virtual government was no less doomed. The only outcome was that the army chiefs were convinced to stay out of the revolutionary trouble, start negotiating with Mahdi Bazargan, the prime minister of the provisional government, and with Khomeini’s clerical representatives, and eventually return to the barracks.


Another huge rally on January 26, 1979, in Tehran and other cities showed the futility of a military option. Though Khomeini and his coterie in Paris, wary of a military coup, were debating the auspicious moment for his return, it was clear that in essence nothing could upset his chances, not even Bakhtiar’s temporary closure of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. The closure of the airport came after Khomeini soundly rejected Bakhtiar’s offer to resign within four months, during which he would conduct a referendum to determine people’s choice between a monarchy and a republic. At the age of seventy-nine, after fourteen years in exile, Khomeini’s reappearance as the triumphant champion of the revolution was certain—something that a few months earlier he himself probably could not have imagined.

On February 1, 1979, when he walked up the staircase of an Air France charter flight that brought him to Tehran with his aides and a host of journalists, he was still mindful of a murky course ahead. Upon arrival in Tehran and all along the twenty-mile route to section 17 of the Behesht Zahra public cemetery south of Tehran, where he headed to pay his homage to the martyrs of the revolution, millions of well-wishers stood for hours to get a glance of his motorcade, some touching the bumpers of the SUV in which he sat as it slowly made its way through the crowd. Listless and stone faced, he gazed at the welcoming crowds, awkwardly waving his hand from the front passenger seat. Aboard the aircraft that brought him home, he had already replied to a Western journalist who asked about his momentary “feelings.” He had none, he said. A predictable response, one might assume, from a man untouched by bourgeois sensibilities.

In his fiery sermon at the cemetery, the first in a repertoire that lasted a decade, he called the Bakhtiar government, the Majles, and the Senate illegitimate; he called Reza Shah a usurper who illegally came to power and Mohammad Reza Shah a puppet of foreign powers. He accused the Pahlavi regime of corruption and nurturing prostitution, appealed to people’s power and pledged on the blood of the martyrs to appoint a legitimate Islamic government to eradicate the seeds of oppression. Appealing to the army generals, he said:

We call on those who have not yet joined [the revolution] to follow the rest [of the army personnel]. For you Islam is better that disbelief; nation is better than the aliens. . . . Abandon him [the shah] and don’t think that if you abandoned him, we will execute you. These are things [i.e., rumors] made up by you or by others. . . . We want the country to be strong. We want the country to have a powerful army. We don’t intend to disturb the army. We want the army to survive but an army rooted in the nation and in service of the nation. . . . I will appoint the government! I will spurn this government [i.e., Bakhtiar’s]! With the support of you people, I will appoint a [new] government!4

As it became abundantly clear some two weeks later, the soft gesture toward the army chiefs and senior officers was nothing but a cynical ploy to break up what little was left of the corps’ solidarity and loyalty to the shah.

During the following ten days, from February 1–11, 1979, revolution struck its final blows upon the dying Pahlavi regime and heralded the birth of a new one. “Ten days that shook the world,” to borrow from John Reed’s famous narrative of the Bolshevik Revolution. Mindful of a military coup, less than three weeks before his arrival, on January 12, Khomeini had appointed a semiclandestine Islamic Revolutionary Council (shura’-ye enqelab) with an undisclosed membership. It was established primarily to counter both the shaky Privy Council appointed by the shah and the Iranian legislature. The Revolutionary Council was the first of the institutions to be born of the yet amorphous revolution. The shifting membership, as it later came to be known, consisted of an odd bunch of militant clergy and Khomeini loyalists, some old-timers and some overnight converts with blueprints for instant Islamification.

On February 5, five days after his arrival—and while the Bakhtiar government was still in office—Khomeini appointed Mahdi Bazargan as the head of the provisional government. The former member of the National Front of the Mosaddeq era and a longtime leader of the Freedom Movement, which he cofounded in 1961, Bazargan was imprisoned for five years in the early 1960s for opposition to the shah and support for Khomeini. As the informal spokesman for the Revolutionary Council, Bazargan’s mandate, as Khomeini’s “decree” asserted, not only was to form a government and supervise the affairs of the state but also to conduct a referendum determining the nature of the new regime, a formality as it turned out, to publically sanctify the birth of an Islamic republic. The provisional government was also mandated to supervise the election of a constituent assembly and frame a new constitution. Finally, it was to supervise the election of the first Majles under the new regime (fig. 13.4 and fig. 13.5).

Below the solemn surface of what appeared an orderly transition, there were complex and tumultuous undercurrents. Driven by sheer revolutionary spirit, multitudes of marchers in the street seemed unwilling to go home and settle for a mere transition in the civilian government. With the departure of the shah and the termination of the old regime, the scramble for power had only started. At the top, senior officers of the headless armed forces were becoming quickly frustrated with Bakhtiar’s toothless promises. The chances for a military takeover, too, were rapidly fading. Most commanding officers viewed a violent encounter with the revolutionary crowds as nothing short of suicide. Instead they hoped to come to terms with Khomeini’s provisional government, so long as the armed forces would remain untouched. Bazargan and the Revolutionary Council, even Khomeini himself, shared such a prospect. By the first week of February, judging by statements issued from both sides, the army chief of command and Khomeini’s provisional government, the parties were on the verge of a compromise for a bloodless transition.

Figure 13.4. Tehran public seeking Khomeini’s blessing, February 3, 1979, at ‘Alavi School.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 126.

Figure 13.5. Flanked by his aides Sadeq Qotbzadeh (right) and Ibrahim Yazdi (left), Khomeini attended his first press conference in Tehran on February 3, 1979, at ‘Alavi School.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 122.

The departure of the US special emissary, General Huyser, on February 6, after a month of fruitless negotiation with his Iranian counterparts to preserve the military, was a step in that direction. It concurred with the appointment of Bazargan’s government. Washington’s indecision, and the push and pull between hawks and doves in the Carter administration, finally seems to have weighed not only on the side of abandoning the shah but also on the unfeasibility of a military initiative. Washington, along with most of its European allies, seemed to have come to terms with the rude reality of a popular revolution. A summit of Western leaders—United States, Britain, France, and West Germany—in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe a month earlier, having faced wild vicissitudes in global oil supplies and the consequent likelihood of rising prices, stressed the need to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with the future Iranian regime. As he flew out of his capital into an uncertain future, the shah had quickly turned into a crownless ghost of his imperial past. He would have been overshadowed by the turbulence of a revolution in the making had it not been for the fact that his ghost was needed to vilify real and imagined enemies of the revolution.

Despite a gloomy forecast by the British foreign secretary David Owen and other sporadic voices warning of darker days ahead, the Western world became increasingly resigned to Iran’s unstoppable course. Taken by surprise, the Soviet authorities also viewed with reservation the shaping on their southern border of an Islamic revolution led by a radical ayatollah. Following the incident in which the revolutionary crowd set fire to the chancery of the British embassy in Tehran, the British government opted for a noncommittal posture, a low profile that would soon change into de facto acceptance of the new regime. The Israelis sent off their own undercover emissary to persuade Bakhtiar to persevere, but to no avail. No longer in denial, Bakhtiar made secret contacts with his old friend Bazargan in the hope of arriving at an acceptable exit strategy. In public, however, even as late as February 10, Bakhtiar insisted that neither Bazargan’s call for his resignation nor the near takeover of police and the army barracks by revolutionaries would have any effect on him.

Yet despite hopes for a peaceful transition, on February 9 the restive air force cadets, the Homafars, shifted complete loyalty to Khomeini and the revolution. Their mutiny disturbed the fragile accord between Bazargan’s provincial government and the army’s joint chief of staff. The next day, when a battalion of Imperial Guards was sent off to quell the mutineers at Farahabad air force base on the eastern outskirts of the capital, the army command’s intention, at least among the more level-headed generals, was to preserve the integrity of the armed forces rather than crush Khomeini loyalists. The ever-present protesters in the street saw the army’s ambivalence as a heinous overture to a military coup.

Almost spontaneously the crowd barged on the barracks, attacking and occupying the police stations and soon confronting auxiliary troops that were dispatched to the aid of the Imperial Guard. Spearheading clashes with the security forces, the Marxist Fada’iyan-e Khalq and their Islamic counterpart, Mojahedin-e Khalq, saw a golden chance to fulfill their long-awaited dream of dismantling the Pahlavi power. More than any other party, they were instrumental in the final collapse of the armed forces. This was an ominous overture to the left’s initiatives glorifying violence and enticing Khomeini supporters to go to extremes.

Just after the first street clashes, a chain reaction was set in motion that had unanticipated consequences. In a desperate move, on February 10 the Tehran military command, alarmed by chaos and dissension within its ranks, issued a communiqué extending curfew hours throughout most of the day and into the night. The angry crowd viewed the move as the start of a military coup. Almost instantaneously, on February 10 Khomeini issued a strongly worded statement urging the public to “pour into the streets” in defiance of martial law. The bold tone of the statement, perhaps one of the most decisive in Khomeini’s career, swayed the crowd toward a bolder move, even though it had stopped short of a general plea for occupying police and military installations.

On February 11, the security forces faced greater resistance in the streets, makeshift barricades, and attacks on police stations. In response, the military Supreme Council, consisting of all commanding officers and chiefs of the three forces, swiftly issued another communiqué declaring the army’s neutrality in the ongoing crisis. It further declared that the army was on the side of the people and the revolution, and, most crucially for the outcome of the revolution, it called on all military units to withdraw from the streets and return to the barracks. The military command was under the wrong impression that troop withdrawal would facilitate an easy transition from the hapless Bakhtiar government to the provisional government of Mahdi Bazargan.

The conciliatory gesture, however, proved detrimental to the very survival of the most powerful and most symbolic institution of Pahlavi rule. Almost immediately after the withdrawal, the ecstatic crowd of demonstrators stormed the seemingly impenetrable army barracks throughout the capital. The crowd looted not only caches of light weapons but also tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy machine guns (fig. 13.6 and fig. 13.7). At an amazingly fast pace the imperial army turned into a submissive shadow of itself and never recovered from that shock. To their utter bewilderment, droves of generals were arrested while still in their offices. Other were caught in civilian clothes and while on the run. On the same day Bakhtiar resigned from his post and went into hiding. Reportedly with the help of Mahdi Bazargan, he escaped the country and surfaced in Paris some months later. Bazargan’s provisional government, a mix of Khomeini sympathizers, National Front leaders, and independent opposition figures with some Islamic affinity officially took over. Yet almost immediately it became apparent that an orderly transfer of power belonged more to the realm of ideals than realities.

Figure 13.6. Revolutionary youth with ransacked rifles guarding the streets of Tehran, February 12, 1979.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 163.

Figure 13.7. Triumphant revolutionaries climbed an army tank in Saltanatabad military barracks, February 17, 1979.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 161.

Remarkably, the “victory” of the revolution on February 11, 1979 (22 Bahman 1357 of the solar Iranian calendar), came not with a smooth transfer of power, as intended by the provisional government, but with riotous clamor and popular insurgency. That was a surprise even to Khomeini and his devotees, if not to the remnants of guerrilla organizations and their sympathizers. That Khomeini successfully navigated the tumultuous course, rather than lagging behind the left and the angry masses who took over the barracks and overpowered the police, was early evidence of his political sorcery. Here, and repeatedly in the coming months and years, he opted for the most radical of the choices before him and rapidly appropriated it as one of his own. Keeping up with the momentum, often at the expense of the moderate wing of the revolution, kept him in favor not only with his rapidly radicalized clerical base but also with the underprivileged multitudes who yearned for leadership.


For the secular middle classes, at home or in exile, who saw themselves as victims of the Islamic Revolution, for the disillusioned revolutionaries soon to be cast aside, and for many observers wishful for a better turn of events, one question persisted: Was the revolution, or rather the Islamic Revolution and the way it prevailed, avoidable? The short answer to this seemingly ahistorical question is a cautious no. It can be argued that in August 1978 the appointment of the Sharif-Emami government removed the last chance for adopting an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary course. Without dabbling too much in such a virtual course, it could be argued that an evolutionary process probably was untenable at the time not so much because of the potency of the opposition or the shah’s aversion for the democratic process but because of long-term dynamics already in place.

A quarter of a century of autocratic rule since 1953 had effectively demolished the political infrastructure on which a democratic regime and a sound civil society could be built. Even as late as 1975 if—instead of creating the bogus Rastakhiz Party the Pahlavi regime had allowed some measure of liberalization and had permitted moderate but genuine political parties to emerge—there still would have been a chance. Instead of deafening propaganda campaigns glorifying the Sunlight of the Aryans, if the shah had permitted some measure of free speech and free press, an evolutionary process still would have been plausible. If Savak had not engendered an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, of arrest and torture, of military courts, of repeatedly crushing student protests and completely suppressing any independent voice, there could have been a different political outcome.

Instead, the shah’s regime inadvertently paved the way for a popular revolution as the only alternative to his autocratic conduct, especially during the 1970s. In the absence of genuine political institutions and the growth of a middle class devoid of political agency, the rise of a populist demi-prophet like Khomeini is understandable. He was a mirror image of the shah in his undemocratic outlook, though distinct from the Pahlavi ruler in every other respect. The regime over the years had recklessly facilitated the growth of leftist extremism and clerical loyalties by virtually eliminating all moderate alternatives. But the radical left was the victim not only of the Pahlavi regime but also of its own naïveté, ideological alienation, and cult of martyrdom. It had little popular support. The Qom clerical movement, in contrast, proved resilient, shrewd, and capable of building grassroots support.

Over a longer historical span, the march toward a revolutionary upheaval arguably was set as early as 1953, when the last chance for a democratic process was lost, or was taken away, depending on how we would look at it. One might even trace the origins of the revolutionary quest further back, to the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution and the rise of the Pahlavi modernity, when maturation of the nascent political process effectively came to a standstill. Yet seminal to the causes of the 1979 revolution, even more than 1921 or 1953, were the developments of the 1960s, when the land reform freed generations of land-bound villagers from rural Iran and brought them into the cities. These newcomers fueled a popular revolution that came to fruition in large part because of their sheer multitude.

That the 1979 revolution was destined to acquire an “Islamic” face is another debatable issue. Islamic, as it became blatantly clear, meant not merely respect for Islamic moral values in a secular constitutional framework. Nor did it mean merely honoring a national icon in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini. As the revolution unfolded and turned into an Islamic Republic, it became painfully clear that Islamic meant something more: a radical state with theocratic underpinnings, or more accurately, a hierocracy headed by an authoritarian guardian jurist and buttressed by an oligarchy with militant clergy at its core. Utilizing modern means of ascendency and control, the republic’s clerical elite and subservient lay cohort quickly deployed weapons of intimidation and violence. They added to this concoction a generous dose of anti-Westernism and Islamist idealism, the former largely a legacy of people like Al-e Ahmad and the latter, that of Islamists like Shari‘ati.

Beyond these considerations, one can identify structural underpinnings that for centuries helped shape Shi‘i Iran. That the Pahlavi secular project eventually gave way to a religiously defined revolution cannot be viewed in isolation from a century-long rift between the state and the Shi‘i establishment. Nor can one ignore the widening gap dividing the Iranian secular from the religious worldview, a gap that the state-sponsored modernity could not successfully bridge. Moreover, the revolution can be fully understood only if we take into account dormant messianic traits in Iranian Shi‘ism, which periodically revolted against the state and religious establishment. The 1979 revolution demonstrated a remarkable affinity with these features while operating almost entirely on a different trajectory, as became more apparent in the decade after the revolution.

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