The Iranian Revolution, Part I
Recent events in Iran may foretell a counterrevolution in this
volatile and strategically important country. So perhaps we
should take a look at the first Iranian Revolution.
On November 15, 1977, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi, was with President Carter on the White House lawn
when Carter remarked, "He knows how to draw a crowd." At
the time, tear gas was being fired by police at Iranian exiles
protesting the Shah''s visit. Carter went to Iran on New Year''s
Eve and said that His Majesty was beloved by his people for
maintaining an island of stability in one of the more troubled
areas of the world. Famous last words.
The Shah had been deposed back in the late 1940s and was then
reinstalled by a CIA-led coup in 1953. The Shah proceeded to
divest the clergy of vast landholdings, declared radical new
rights for women (including the right to vote and to attend
universities), and dramatically increased urbanization and
industrialization. A lot of this was only possible, however, by
the Shah obtaining extensive Western aid. The West coveted his
country''s oil and also saw Iran as a strategic bulwark against the
advance of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, it is important to
remember that as recently as 1950 the nation was self-sufficient
in energy. By the time Jimmy Carter was inaugurated the U.S.
was importing nearly 50 percent of its energy needs. Carter
declared "the moral equivalent of war" on energy, emphasizing
conservation. It was tough going for the "Cardigan" man.
Two years into Carter''s presidency, the oil cartel, OPEC,
delivered the second oil shock (the first being in 1973). The
Shah helped in OPEC''s efforts and prices doubled overnight. Oil
that was $1.50 a barrel in 1970 was now on the way to $32. It
was not a fun time in America. Double digit inflation, soaring
interest rates and unemployment. Americans realized just how
dependent the American system had become.
Against this backdrop, the Shah, accepted by the West, was not
loved back at home. His people were worried about the
headlong plunge to the Western ways. An Iranian newspaper
editor remarked of this time, "What does this Westernize-or-bust
program give us? Western banks, Western guns, Western secret
police, Western buildings. They are supposed to solve our
problems, but do they? I don''t think so."
By 1978 there were 60,000 foreigners in Iran - 45,000 of them
Americans - engaged in business or in military training and
advisory missions. The Westernization in dress, life styles,
music, films and television programs was quite evident and this
foreign presence tended to intensify the perception that the
Shah''s modernization program was threatening the society''s
Islamic and Iranian cultural values and identity.
The Shah, in order to maintain control over his people, was
increasingly employing the secret police (Savak) to repress the
people and tales of brutality became well known in the West.
Widespread official corruption, rapid inflation, and a growing
gap in incomes between the wealthier and the poorer strata of
society also fed public dissatisfaction.
Initially, protests were primarily the work of middle-class
intellectuals, lawyers, and secular politicians. They took the
form of letters, resolutions, and declarations and were aimed at
the restoration of constitutional rule. Gradually, however, the
protests turned violent and were led by religious elements
centered on mosques and religious events. Carefully selected
targets that represented objectionable features of the regime were
selected: nightclubs and cinemas as symbols of moral corruption
and the influence of Western culture; banks as symbols of
economic exploitation; Rastakhiz (the party created by the Shah
in 1975 to run a one-party state) offices; and police stations as
symbols of political repression. The protesters attacked the Shah
and demanded his removal, and they depicted a man living back
in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini, as their leader and an Islamic state
as their ideal.
Next Week, Part II of the Iranian Revolution.
[Source for some of this and future articles on this topic, "The
American Century" by Harold Evans and "The Century" by Peter