Alright, here we are, finally. The Iranian Revolution of 1979. There’s still some groundwork to be laid, but we’re getting there this episode, full stop. Let’s take a look at some of the folks coming to center stage.
Here we’ve got the two principal players from at least the first half of the episode, both of whom stumble through ’77 and ’78, leading, in a not at all inescapable way, to the events of 1979. Carter spent his campaign and early days in the White House putting out rhetoric right in line with the philosophy of SFD—stop those arms sales, cut off support for unsavory dictator-allies, re-evaluate policy with an eye to places like Cuba. But the Carter White House, for all its promise, largely maintained US commitments to our sinister friends abroad and kept up those arms sales, especially to Iran and even to places like Guatemala, where guns were demonstrably going towards the genocides we heard about way back in episodes four and five.
Despite that ongoing support and despite reciprocal state visits, Carter’s speeches, along with rising international awareness of the worst elements of Iranian repression, convinced the Shah that he needed to liberalize things at home. Those changes, most especially allowing some freedom into politics and the press, led directly, like one-to-one, connect-the-dots to the street protests that eventually brought down the regime.
Ali Shariati, the man in the foreground, passed away in 1977, probably from lingering injuries incurred at the hands of SAVAK. It was too soon to see the Revolution he had a hand in making, but large swathes of Iranian youth, especially religious and secular liberals, subscribed to his philosophical fusion of socialism and Iranian Shi’a Islam. We got into this last episode, but whereas both Shariati and Khomeini saw a role for religion in government, Shariati wanted the ulama, the clergy, on the outside. In a parallel to the thought of Liberation Theology, Shariati saw the role of the clergy and their congregations as a permanent opposition, holding the government to account and pushing it to fulfill what he saw as the truest values of Shi’ism—the defense and uplift of the weak and opposition to oppression and misused authority.
In Shariati’s absence, this man, the Ayatollah Shariatmadari, became the de facto leader of the liberal and moderate opposition. The senior cleric in the holy city of Qom—and thus the country—at the time of the killings in January 1978, and became the most prominent religious figure within Iran and remained an active player until his death in 1986.
Khomeini, was, of course, the most prominent religious figure in all of Shi’ism, but until early 1979, he was unable to return to Iran from exile. The care he took to keep his radical, theocratic philosophy under wraps until he was already taking control and his genuinely austere and holy lifestyle both recommended him to the masses in Iran, secular, religious, liberal, and conservative alike. The man’s popularity in 1979 is unimaginable now, but the three million people in the featured image up top speak to it. Detractors of the regime today tend to talk about the clerics “hijacking” or “stealing” the Revolution away from the people, but in fact just about everybody, even other opposition politicians, wanted Khomeini to be in the lead, even if it was always fuzzy exactly what kind of leadership he’d be exercising.
This man is one of those opposition politicians, the head of the Liberation Movement, the party which most closely espoused the views of Ali Shariati. His name was Mehdi Bazargan, and I’m realizing to my mounting horror that I said it Barzagan literally every time in this episode, something that I can’t rectify without re-recording the whole thing but which I will definitely mention and correct in Iran VII. Bazargan would become Khomeini’s first Prime Minister and would fight to keep the new Islamic Republic fundamentally secular.
These two men, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on the left and Ali Hosseini Khamenei on the right, would become in some sense the counterweights to Bazargan and, in the end, much more successful in implementing their vision for Iran. Rafsanjani would preside over the Iranian Majlis for a great while and eventually become President. Khamenei, despite never reaching the higher echelons of the Iranian clergy, would become the Supreme Leader after Khomeini’s death. Here, though, they’re still two hopeful youngish men with dreams for their country.
Rafsanjani passed away in January of this year, but until the end both he and Khamenei were exemplifying Iranians’ apparently universal penchant for turning into deceptively cute old men.
And last but never least, references.
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Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran: Between Two Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1974-1975 — Iran. 1 January 1975: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/001/1975/en/
Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1974-1975 — Iran. 1 June 1976: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/001/1975/en/
Axworthy, Michael. Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic. Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Baraheni, Reza. “Terror in Iran.” The New York Review of Books, 28 October 1976.
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Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Wiley, 2003.
Roosevelt, Kermit. Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Rothschild, Emily. “Carter and Arms: No Sale.” The New York Review of Books, 15 September 1977.
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