The editorial against Khomeini and what followed
By Kaveh Ahangar
June 6, 2002
It was about 7:30 p.m., January 8, 1978. I had just arrived home from school
and habitually made myself a cup of tea. It had been a cold, wintry, and gloomy day.
The phone rang. It was Ali, one of the secretaries (dabir) of CIS -- Confederation
of Iranian Students -- from Chicago.
- "Mehdi, have you heard the news?"
- "Are you talking about Qom?"
- "What about it?"
- "Well, something is brewing. Do you think this is a consequence of our
protest in November?"
- "Well, I am not sure. What I've gathered from listening to BBC and talking
with others in Iran is that, two days ago, an anonymous editorial was published in
Ettelaat titled 'Ertejaa-e Sorkh va Siaah in Iran' ('Black and Red reaction
in Iran'), almost as if it were excerpts from the Shah's book, White Revolution.
But what was different was that the Ettelaat specifically attacked Ayatollah
Khomeini as a foreign agent and a corrupt man, claiming that he was of Indian ancestry
rather than Iranian and that he was a hedonistic poet in the disguise of a clergy.
"So events in Qom, I believe, are fed from a different
source than our nationalistic secular movement. My worry is that some external forces
might be attempting to muddy the water and give the Shah the pretext for a crackdown
on the gradual liberalization forced on the Shah as a consequence of Carter's 'Human
"The riots in Qom run parallel to what we experienced when the Shah visited
U.S. Remember when all Iranian opposition student groups set aside their differences
and gathered under one banner and one set of slogans for the Washington, D.C. protests
except MSA/PSG (Moslem Student Association/Persian Speaking Group), which refused
to join us and instead held their own small and stupid protest on the eastside of
the Lafayette Park close to 15th Street?"
In summer of 1977, we had news and confirmation that the Shah would visit Washington,
D.C. in mid-November. Atop of his agenda would be a request for a large volume of
sophisticated American military hardware and weaponry. So, we set about organizing
the largest protest possible against the Shah's visit and U.S.'s unqualified support
for his regime. What we planned required that all factions within CIS as well as
all other opposition groups to act in unison under one umbrella organizing committee,
even if it be short-lived for that protest alone.
For months, we worked hard with other groups to formulate common slogans, devise
collaborative efforts, smooth out differences, plan and prepare for the protest.
Long negotiations ensued with MSA/PSG and its leaders like Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, but
they were reluctant to join us and others. On November 15-17, 1977, they held their
own small protest on the eastside of Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. There was
a group of 200 of them, dressed in white, women in hejab and shouting slogans in
Farsi, with occasional "Allah-o-Akbar" and salavaat, etc.
It seemed the main concept of a protest and the purpose and cause for it was lost
on them. Our goal was to expose the Shah's human rights violations, his autocratic
rule and mismanagement of Iran's economy and resources, and his lack of independence.
We did not need to expose the Shah to Iranians or Arabs or Moslems. We needed to
expose him to American public whose elected government had staged a coup to return
him to power in 1953 after the Iranian society had rejected him.
We needed to win the support of the American public to influence their government
to force the Shah toward democratization of Iran and a redirection of Iran's budgetary
plans away from militarization and toward building a nation-wide infrastructure system
of easily accessible public health, education, employment, and welfare.
On 20th Shahrivar 1356, in an interview with daily Kayhan, the Shah had
asked "To those who are asking for freedom, we ask, you want the freedom to
do what?" It was to this question which we tried to provide a unanimous response
in our protest. Thus 90% of our placards and slogans were in English and directed
toward the goals as delineated in the foregoing.
We had over 15,000 protestors, majority of them Iranian and with some other sympaticos
from Latin and Central America, Arab world, from Micronesia to South East Asia, and
yes even a significant number of progressive Americans and their civic organizations.
None of us could imagine that in a potential revolution and a post-Shah Iran, it
would be the small reactionary, anachronistic and not-so-very-intelligent ones protesting
quietly in Arabic and Persian who would usurp power. To us, then, they were comical,
far off from the mainstream opposition movement.
Our protest in November 1977 was reported in local papers as the largest demonstration
in Washington, D.C. since Vietnam War period. For long, we had lobbied our professors
at universities we were attending, we had held meetings and seminars and worked with
local American civic organizations and described to them what life under the heavy-handed
dictatorial rule of the Shah was, we had approached and lobbied members of United
States Congress and Senate.
November 1977 brought us more attention and support from wider expanse of groups
and individuals. We had carried various political campaigns and after each we had
systematically evaluated our successes and failures. Our November 1977 had reverberated
through out Iran. The Shah, himself, tried to play down the great influence that
our protest and our earlier efforts in the previous two years had had.
On November 17,1977, in a press conference in Washington, D.C., he emphatically
stated: "Demonstrations in the US had no effect on our talks with President
Carter." Yet, President Carter, in those meeting and talks, had demanded serious
liberalization of Iran's political and economic institutions and had tied the Shah's
demand for sophisticated weaponry to serious and tangible improvement in Iran's human
rights record and Iran's domestic political freedoms. So had members of U.S. Congressional
Committees on Foreign Relations and Arms Sales.
In Iran, large scale student disturbances and student closure of some universities
immediately followed the Washington, D.C. protest leading the Shah's single ruling
party, Rastaakhiz, to open a conference in Tehran titled "Analysis of Academic
Inclinations," to investigate and root out democratic aspirations among the
youth which the Shah had labeled as "Islamic Marxist indoctrination by leftist
university professors and external forces."
These student demonstrations had no Islamic or Marxist overtones and were merely
demanding what is defined as inalienable rights of any citizen in any modern progressive
society. None of Iranian theological seminaries did participate, cooperate, or even
express sympathy for any of these outcries by Iran's secular university students
for "freedom, bread, equality."
The Shah's response to the demands of the university students came on 15th Azar
1356, International Human Rights Day as designated by UN (5 December 1977): "Iran
has done its share in implementing the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man."
This announcement was also in response to Carter's demands made while the Shah visited
From November 18th, Iranian universities had become
centers of political debates and activism to a degree not seen since Mossadegh era.
Political expression, though limited by censorship and suppression, had taken on
innovative forms. At the universities, there were the "Poetry Nights" and
theatre plays along with other activities, all with political undertones, led by
Iran's literary and art intellectuals. The Shah's regime saw the threat as real and
so did U.S. Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan.
On 22nd Azar 1356, the Rastaakhiz daily, the organ of the Shah's single-party
political rule, wrote: "The opposition is aiming at the heart of the Imperial
Regime." William Sullivan in a cable to the President and his National Security
advisors, provided an analysis of Iran's demographics, the heightened political awareness
of Iran's aspiring middle class, and concluded that maintaining the Shah on the throne
may no longer be feasible.
Furthermore, he warned that plans must be drawn and steps taken to ensure that
in an eventual fall of the Shah, Iran would not fall into the Soviet sphere of influence
and suggested that United States must begin thinking along fostering an alternative
to the Shah which would preserve American interests in the region or at minimum serve
as a bulwark against any increase in Soviet influence in the region.
The OPFGI bombing of Iran-America Society in Tehran on 8th Dey 1356 and the three-day
long closure of Iran's universities during 15th to 18th of Dey 1356, in protest against
President Carter's visit and unprecedented since Mossadegh days, gave credence to
the Ambassador concerns and worries. Up to 8th Dey 1356, though OPMI -- Organization
of the People's Mojahedin of Iran -- had assassinated some American military advisors
in Iran, OPFGI -- the Fedayin, an avowedly Marxist-Leninist politico-military guerilla
organization -- had not targeted any American or symbols of U.S. influence in Iran.
Up until 17th of Dey 1356, Iran's seminaries had been silent. No one had heard
from any of Iran's leading clerics both inside or outside Iran. None had expressed
any support or sympathy with Iranian university students or intellectuals in their
non-violent quest for democratic rights. And up to that day, the Shah's government
had blamed all protests and expressions of discontent on the leftists and what he
called the "Red reaction and agents of international communism."
The only single reaction from the clerics against the Shah in that period had
not been on political grounds but rather religious, as these clerics condemned the
Shah's televised toasting of a glass of wine to President Carter during the latter's
Christmas visit of Iran.
But suddenly on 17th the Dey, there appeared the now infamous editorial in Kayhan
against Khomeini. Iran's government-controlled press had not even bothered to mention
Khomeini's name since his departure to Turkey in 1963.
Without a doubt, whoever penned that article and his advisors, all knew that such
a blatant attack on Khomeini would bring forth a strong response from the seminary
students and that portion of clergy disaffected by the royal court. Yet, they had
seen some cause and reason to pen such an article.
As I had tried to convey to Ali that, to me, the editorial and the events that
generated from it were suspect. Among other things, I suspected that these were attempts
to give a religious tone to a democratic movement, which had started on secular ground
and thus was apt to be easily understood and identified with by the populace of Western
democracies and thus win their support and sympathy.
As events moved forward in Iran, my suspicions grew and became stronger. And I
was not alone in that. Other members of CIS leadership had similar doubts, apprehensions
and concerns. These were much the cause of CIS's lack of strong action in support
of events in Iran between Dey 1356 and Shahrivar 1356 as debates over what should
be done and what strategy to follow raged within CIS.
And this lack of strong supportive action between those
five months brought strong criticism from rank and file of CIS as well as others
who could not understand that in Dey 1356 the nature and character of anti-Shah movement
had changed from what it had been in the 8 months before Dey 1356.
Aside from what occurred in Iran, much also happened abroad within CIS and other
opposition groups. Describing these, their relevance and dynamic interaction and
reaction to what was occurring inside Iran as well as with decisions made within
President Carter's National Security and State Department along with U.S. consultations
with European and regional governments would itself take a chapter or two of an interesting
book. For the sake of brevity, I will skip these and fast forward to Khomeini's arrival
in France. And this will be the subject of a follow up narrative.