Deluded Shah and Bursting Volcano

  October 09, 2021   Read time 5 min
Deluded Shah and Bursting Volcano
Shah had deluded himself into thinking that he enjoyed overwhelming public support. He boasted privately to the representative of the International Commission of Jurists that the only people who opposed him were the “nihilists.” 

These grievances were summed up in 1976 – on the half-century anniversary of the Pahlavi dynasty – by an exiled opposition paper published in Paris. An article entitled “Fifty Years of Treason” written by Abul-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the future president of the Islamic Republic, it indicted the regime on fifty separate counts of political, economic, cultural, and social wrongdoings. These included: the coup d’état of 1921 as well as that of 1953; trampling the fundamental laws and making a mockery of the Constitutional Revolution; granting capitulations reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism; forming military alliances with the West; murdering opponents and shooting down unarmed protestors, especially in June 1963; purging patriotic officers from the armed forces; opening up the economy – especially the agricultural market – to foreign agrobusinesses; establishing a one-party state with a cult of personality; highjacking religion and taking over religious institutions; undermining national identity by spreading “cultural imperialism”; cultivating “fascism” by propagating shah-worship, racism, Aryanism, and anti-Arabism; and, most recently, establishing a one-party state with the intention of totally dominating society. “These fifty years,” the article exclaimed, “contain fifty counts of treason.”

These grievances began to be aired in 1977 – as soon as the shah relaxed his more stringent police controls. He did so in part because Jimmy Carter in his presidential campaign had raised the issue of human rights across the world, in Iran as well as in the Soviet Union; in part because mainstream newspapers such as the London Sunday Times had run exposés on torture, arbitrary arrests, and mass imprisonments in Iran; but in most part because of pressure from human rights organizations, especially the highly reputable International Commission of Jurists. Anxious to cast off the label of “one of the worst violators of human rights in the world” – as Amnesty International had described him – the shah promised the International Commission of Jurists that the Red Cross would have access to prisons; that foreign lawyers would be able to monitor trials; that less dangerous political prisoners would be amnestied; and, most important of all, that civilians would be tried in open civilian courts with attorneys of their own choosing. These concessions – however modest – chiseled cracks in the façade of this formidable-looking regime. The shah granted these concessions probably because he was confident he could weather the storm. In any case, he had deluded himself into thinking that he enjoyed overwhelming public support. He boasted privately to the representative of the International Commission of Jurists that the only people who opposed him were the “nihilists.”

The slight opening gave the opposition the space to air its voice. In the autumn of 1977, a stream of middle-class organizations formed of lawyers, judges, intellectuals, academics, and journalists, as well as seminary students, bazaar merchants, and former political leaders, appeared or reappeared, published manifestos and newsletters, and openly denounced the Resurgence Party. This stirring of unrest culminated in October with ten poetry-reading evenings near the Industrial University in Tehran, organized jointly by the recently revived Writers Association and the German-government funded Goethe House. The writers – all well-known dissidents – criticized the regime, and, on the final evening, led the overflowing audience into the streets where they clashed with the police. It was rumored that one student was killed, seventy were injured, and more than one hundred were arrested. These protests persisted in the following months, especially on December 7 – the unofficial student day. Those arrested in these protests were sent to civilian courts where they were either released or given light sentences. This sent a clear message to others – including seminary students in Qom.

The situation worsened in January 1978 when the government-controlled paper Ettela’at dropped an unexpected bombshell. It ran an editorial denouncing Khomeini in particular and the clergy in general as “black reactionaries” in cahoots with feudalism, imperialism, and, of course, communism. It also claimed that Khomeini had led a licentious life in his youth, indulging in wine and mystical poetry, and that he was not really an Iranian – his grandfather had lived in Kashmir and his relatives used the surname Hendi (Indian). The only explanation one can give for this editorial is that the regime was puffed up with its own power. One should never underestimate the role of stupidity in history. On the following two days, seminar students in Qom took to the streets, persuading local bazaars to close down, seeking the support of senior clerics – especially Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari – and eventually marching to the police station where they clashed with the authorities. The regime estimated that the “tragedy” took two lives. The opposition estimated that the “massacre” killed 70 and wounded 500. In this, as in all clashes during the course of the next thirteen months, casualty estimates differed greatly. In the aftermath of the clash, the regime claimed that the seminary students had been protesting the anniversary of Reza Shah’s unveiling of women. In fact, petitions drawn up by seminaries did not mention any such anniversary. Instead, they demanded apologies for the editorial; release of political prisoners; the return of Khomeini; reopening of his Fayzieh seminary; the cessation of physical attacks on university students in Tehran; freedom of expression, especially for the press; independence for the judiciary; the breaking of ties with imperial powers; support for agriculture; and the immediate dissolution of the Resurgence Party. These remained their main demand throughout 1978. Immediately after the Qom incident, Shariatmadari asked the nation to observe the fortieth day after the deaths by staying away from work and attending mosque services.

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