Is Iran Back to 1979?



As the last political counselor (and interim deputy chief of mission) at the American embassy in Tehran from 1976 through the 1979 revolution that drove out the shah, I am increasingly impressed by the many similarities to today’s Iran—despite the passage of four decades.

Iran Then

I went to Tehran in 1976 after a highly eventful half year as chargé d’affaires in Lebanon at the start of its civil war, serving at times under four different ambassadors or special envoys, one of whom was assassinated. I assumed that Iran was an interesting but stable post at which people thought I needed to recuperate. The shah had put down several threats from the left and right and was a good and secure friend of the United States.

The last months of 1976, under Ambassador Richard Helms, the former CIA director, were uneventful, as were the first six months of 1977 (when I was acting deputy chief of mission). Nevertheless, rumors of problems to come were circulating and were discussed by us in the embassy with the three officers in one-man field posts in north, central, and south Iran.

President Jimmy Carter had established the State Department Bureau of Human Rights in 1977, and our prodding reminded the shah of previous threats from President John F. Kennedy to cut aid to Iran if he did not rein in the brutality of SAVAK (Iran’s secret police at the time) in treating political opposition.

The shah created the Rastakhiz (Resurgence) Party in the parliament and seemed to have told SAVAK to go easy on false arrest and torture of those incarcerated. In time, he permitted a small resurgence of free speech and assembly by the old National Front intelligentsia who had survived the post-Mossadegh purges of 1953, with whom the embassy restored some contact.

And there were a small number of clerics, such as Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who were rumored to be opposing the clerical anti-shah movement led from his exile by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They favored compromise with the shah if he reformed. (But we were unable to establish direct contact with them. Their suspicions of the U.S. were too strong.)

This trend came to be seen as a degree of liberalization, though it did not prevent demonstrations and abuse from Iranian students and their sympathizers toward the shah when he visited the U.S. Indeed, I was amazed that I never heard anyone in Iran openly defend the shah despite the many who had made money and otherwise benefited from his rule.

The shah’s mood lightened when President Carter made a brief stop in Tehran on New Year’s Eve 1977-1978 and praised the shah for governing an island of stability in a disturbed Middle Eastern sea. However, the shah began complaining to Ambassador Bill Sullivan and others of the “red and the black” ganging up on him.

While we in Tehran, and even more those in Washington, recognized the theoretical threat of a leftist opposition backed by the Soviet Union, there was much more doubt as to the importance of the “black” threat from the Muslim clergy.

After all, the Muslim establishment had taken the shah’s side against the leftists in 1953. And although they opposed the shah’s White Revolution in the 1960s (which took away a lot of their property and gave rights to women), the threat appeared to be contained by the imprisonment or exile of the leading clerics who had opposed him.

Who could imagine direct government of a major country in the 20th century by religious clerics? (Khomeini later made good use of this train of thought, promising to stay out of direct governance.)

You cannot negotiate with a movement that so far has no clear leader.

In February 1978 rioting in the holy city of Qum in response to a newspaper article questioning the Ayatollah’s morals was put down by security forces. There were a number of deaths. The demonstrations spread, and “martyrs” multiplied.

The bazaaris (merchants) became important participants in the political scene after being forced by police to limit their prices in Iran’s inflationary economy that was caused by the shah throwing all his oil earnings into an effort to raise Iran to one of the most important countries in the world. We were reliably informed that their efforts to reason with Khomeini in Paris were fruitless.

Warnings about the evils of the shah’s regime came regularly to us from prominent American professors who visited Tehran, but the predictions had no timelines and seemed to assume that the fall of the shah would lead directly to democracy.

Among other things, we never predicted the arrival of democracy. (For what it is worth, my own guess was, and still is, that a continuing popular uprising will be followed by a military takeover.)

My own 1978 mission to Washington on behalf of Ambassador Sullivan was to tell our highest leaders in Washington (with the exception of President Carter) that the fear of a communist takeover with Soviet assistance being broadcast by the shah was wrong and that Khomeini’s clerics would control the security situation, however poor their economic policies could be.

Carter (and Sullivan in Tehran), of course, had to deal with contradictory advice from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (who was responding to Iran’s ambassador in Washington, whose father helped return the shah to his throne in 1953) and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (who was responding to our embassy’s pleas not to repeat the 1953 American intervention that was remembered so vividly by most Iranians).

Iran Today

Today many Iranians are suffering economic hardship due to American and other sanctions combined with the obvious enrichment of the ruling mullahs.

A surprisingly well-informed article in the French weekly Paris Match (Feb. 2-8, 2023) provides details from several sources on how toman (the Iranian currency) earnings from organizations, enterprises, and drugs or other illegal activities now controlled by the Revolutionary Guard are moved by the regime’s Mahan Airline to Turkey for conversion into other currencies and then flown around Europe to hide their provenance. It estimates that $10 billion has left Iran in the last few months, part of an estimated $100 billion stashed away for when the regime falls and they need to escape.

In addition, strikes and public protests by essential elements of the Iranian economy such as the Tehran bazaaris, the oil workers, and reportedly even members of the elite such as religious leaders in the city of Qum, remind one of similar events in 1978-1979.

The widespread protests in the wake of the September 2022 killing of a young woman for not wearing her hijab hair covering to the satisfaction of the religious police are openly led by women (in 1978-1979, the strong support from women was behind the scenes) and have caused surprise by their endurance.

Additional clues as to the seriousness of this challenge to the government are the reportedly widespread cries of “Death to Khamenei,” Iran’s aging supreme leader. These echo the cries of “Death to the Shah” that became widespread in 1979, which by their nature would be heard only when people thought it was safe to shout them. Ironically, these can be contrasted to the frequent post-revolutionary cry of “Death to America” intended to indicate the direction of public loyalty.

It is not difficult to imagine that private discussions must be taking place in Iran’s military ranks.

The brutal efforts by this government to repress the current protests appear even more drastic than those of the shah’s SAVAK secret police, the regular police, and some units of the army.

One could argue that the shah fell because of his failure to gauge the strength of the opposition he faced, his frequent indecision, and his final decision to avoid the widespread chaos and bloodshed that his army’s intervention might cause, despite the apparent readiness of his generals to try.

If the protests continue today, the religious government, led almost entirely by aging men, will face a similar conundrum: Do you continue to suppress and antagonize more and more of your primarily young citizens backed by their families, or do you make concessions that amount to opening a Pandora’s box only partway—as the shah did and failed?

One problem is that you cannot negotiate with a movement that so far has no clear leader. Ayatollah Khomeini would not negotiate with the shah, but he was opposed by other ayatollahs who preferred to settle for letting the shah remain in power if he substantially moderated his rule.

Today’s demonstrators do not appear to be challenged by such opposing views and are sustaining their battle, even with no apparent leader. How far can suppression go before stirring up new opposition to the government?

The players who have not yet entered domestic politics are the regular armed forces. They far outnumber the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia and have the heaviest weapons. But according to the same Paris Match article cited above, one Amir Hamidi, described as an “American-Iranian spy,” claims that a recent leak showed that more than 4,000 soldiers have resigned from the regular army and that the “guardians of the revolution” have imprisoned at least 80 of their members.

A major handicap today is that the United States has no embassy in Iran, and friendly embassies there are not welcome recipients of government information. Iran watchers have to depend on leaks, deserters, family visitors to Iran, information provided by Israel and Iranians in California and all over the world, with little ability to check on the veracity of sources.

Nevertheless, whatever the validity of such reports, it is not difficult to imagine that private discussions must be taking place in Iran’s military ranks. These could suddenly blow very loud indeed. Would this government chance a civil war?

Unless world press and other reports are mistaken, the current demonstrations in Iran appear more long-lasting and effective than those put down by the government in the past. It looks like this ancient, benighted government has lost the confidence of its modernizing people.

The recent Chinese-mediated Iran-Saudi détente may provide breathing space to Iran’s government, but it is unlikely to last. Saudi relations with the U.S. and even Israel count more today than with Iran. And the (Sunni) Saudis are reducing religious involvement in their governance, unlike (Shia) Iran.

The 1979 overthrow of the shah developed over a year. We shall see how long this takes.

George Lambrakis is the author of the memoir So You Want to Be a Diplomat? An American Diplomat’s Progress from Vietnam to Iran, Fun, Warts and All, which contains the relevant chapter on Iran in his 31-year Foreign Service career.


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