Iran, the Island of Stability Rises Against the Shah

  December 14, 2023   Read time 5 min
Iran, the Island of Stability Rises Against the Shah
Only thirteen months after the 1977 New Year’s Eve state dinner in Tehran, when President Carter toasted the Shah, calling the country “the island of stability,” the people’s revolution closed the book of monarchy in Iran. By all accounts, the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 appeared like a thunderbolt from the blue.
In a conceptual universe that seemed incapable of explaining its emergence and its outcome, the Iranian Revolution was indeed “unthinkable.”3 At the time, Iran was a country ruled by an autocratic regime that allowed no public expression of dissent. The monarchy sustained its authority by perpetuating “two absolutes”: the absolute and entrenched power of the state and the absolute despair of the masses.4 President Carter’s remark, therefore, did not register as something inconsistent with the general tenor of the time. No one imagined, even remotely, that the king would be toppled by the revolutionary force of millions with bare hands and open arms facing the fifth largest military in the world.
Earlier that year, the Carter administration had encouraged the Shah to adopt a policy of political openness. Iran had already emerged as a regional powerhouse, and the Shah’s grip of power seemed unshakable. The monarchy enjoyed a relatively stable economy, and its radical political foes had been neutralized. The Shah had dissolved the two loyal parties in March 1975 and established a single-party system under the Resurrection Party. Soon thereafter, he reconstituted the Iranian calendar and changed its point of origin from the hijra (holy migration) of Prophet Mohammad to the coronation of Cyrus the Great. The Shah’s Resurrection was to herald the coming of age of a new imperial power in the region with grand civilizational aspirations.
In two major operations, SAVAK (the notorious and much-feared secret police) had killed the last members of the leadership of Saˉ zmaˉ n-e Cherik-haˉ -ye Fadaˉ ’i-ye Khalq-e Iran (The Organization of Iranian Peoples’ Devotee Guerrillas) first in the spring of 1975 and then in the summer of 1976, rendering the organization practically ineffective. Just a month after the establishment of Resurrection, the Shah’s secret police concocted a plan to murder influential leaders of the opposition who were already serving their sentences in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. On April 19, 1975, Bijan Jazani, a Marxist theorist and an early advocate of armed struggle, along with eight other prisoners were executed on the hills overlooking the prison complex. The next day, the headline in the state newspaper Kayhan read “9 Killed during an Escape Attempt from Evin Prison.” The second operation in the summer of 1976 led to the killing of Hamid Asharf and the remaining members of the Fadaˉ ’iaˉ n leadership.
With the decapitation of the communist opposition, in a policy informed by the Cold War, the Carter administration believed that the Iranian despot could afford a modest relaxation of his authoritarian rule. In order for President Carter’s human rights policy to have any credibility, he needed to persuade the close American ally, the king of torture and unlawful imprisonment, to curb the atrocities of his feared secret police. After the revolution it became known that the extent of these atrocities was greatly exaggerated, but at the time the Pahlavi regime had emerged as the main target of an unremitting campaign of human rights organizations. Amnesty International and other western critics of the ancien régime grossly overestimated the accounts of the brutality of the Iranian regime. In its 1975 and 1976 country reports, citing “exiled groups and foreign journalists,” Amnesty International estimated the number of political prisoners in Iran between twenty-five thousand and one hundred thousand. In an article entitled “Terror in Iran,” Reza Baraheni, a prominent literary and social critic, made Amnesty International’s estimate widely known in intellectual circles in Europe and the United States.6 The vast numbers of dissident Iranian students in Europe and the United States further publicized the plight of the members of the opposition inside the country.
At a time that the regime appeared to have successfully entrenched its authority, fractures began to appear in the absolute power of the state. The launching of the Resurrection Party coincided with the resurrection of a revolutionary spirit, which reintroduced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to the scene of oppositional politics. As an uncompromising leader, Khomeini had remained a voice of dissent in exile since he was forced out of the country in 1964. From his home in Najaf, Iraq, Khomeini continued to lambast the Shah for his despotism, corruption, and dependence on foreign powers. But Iranians seldom heard his voice or were allowed to utter his name in public. That changed on the eve of June 5, 1975, in the holy city of Qom. Between four and five hundred seminary students had gathered on the occasion of the anniversary of the riots that led to Khomeini’s exile and defiantly called for Khomeini’s return.7 After the evening prayer, the students chanted “Long live Khomeini,” “Down with Pahlavi.” A large banner appeared from one of the main buildings with these words written on it in red: “Remember June 5, 1963, the day when those emancipated human beings, Khomeini and his companions, rose up against tyranny!”
The police and SAVAK attacked the seminary from their barracks outside the campus with water cannons and tear gas. They blocked the streets leading to the seminary, containing the students to the campus courtyard and preventing people on the outside from joining in. The skirmishes continued overnight. Rumors traveled throughout the city that the police had violated the sacred grounds of the seminary. More people tried to take part in the students’ rescue from the police siege. The students chanted “Down with the Pahlavi regime,” “The divine will triumph over the evil,” and “Whoever holds up a Qur’an, is sent to prison from now on.” A red flag appeared on one of the domes of Imam Hossein Mosque, the tallest building on campus. Although the color red has its own significance in Shi‘ite religio-political rituals, the regime publicized the act as a sign of communist infiltration. On the third day of the protests, more red flags appeared on seminary buildings and minarets. One seminary student from Isfahan proclaimed: “We want people in all corners of the city to witness that we intend to continue the path of Imam Hossein with our blood.”

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