In autumn of 1977, ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Mostafa, died under suspicious circumstances, while under exile in Iraq. Iran’s secret police, which had previously assassinated general Timor Bakhtiar (first head of Savak) and some other opponents in Iraq, was suspected of the killing. The religious community in Iran was upset enough to hold several mourning congregations in the major cities, with a few of them leading to small-scale demonstrations.
Shah was so infuriated with those allegations and demonstrations that he ordered the preparation of a ‘rebuttal’ article by Hoveida, to be published in the largest national newspaper (Ettelaat). That was another stupid instance of the Shah/people alienation, which resulted in an outrageously insulting text against ayatollah Khomeini. Shah’s afflicted mental condition contributed to the ordering of such a carelessly vulgar public denunciation of a leading Shia Marjah. In the Ettelaat article, Khomeini was insulted and abused as an English spy from India, who was both a drug addict and a homosexual. That final folly triggered an endless cycle of religious and political riots, which resulted in the demise of Pahlavi dynasty.
The 1978 demonstrations quickly united the Iranian opposition around a simple set of declarations and demands: that Shah was a demonic traitor who was ordering the brutal suppression of the people, and that he should relinquish the government, for Iran to achieve ‘freedom and independence’. Not much thought was given to a replacement government, but an Islamic Republic was frequently mentioned, where the ideals of decency and democracy could rule together. Toppling of the much-feared Shah’s regime seemed such a remote possibility that the opposition could not readily perceive a future system. The silly general sentiment among the resentful intellectuals was that ‘anything would be better than the Shah’!
The first half of 1978 was filled with sporadic violent riots in major Iranian cities, which were often brutally suppressed, resulting in several hundred causalities. However, most observers still believed that the regime could weather the disturbances, and that the Shah’s carrot and stick policy would save the day. The Shah’s regime provided several incentives, including the cancellation of ‘imperial’ calendar; the dissolution of Rastakheez party; and dismissal of the notorious chief of Savak (Nasiri) and a handful of other infamous characters.
Indeed during that summer, the rioting abated, until a disastrous calamity in Abadan reignited the powder keg. The Cinema Rex torching, which has since been blamed on the Islamists, was squarely attributed to the Shah’s Savak and was believed so by the distrustful masses. Overnight, there was a tenfold increase in widespread demonstrations! In response, Shah ordered a brutal crack down of Tehran’s protests on the Black Friday in Zhaleh Square, which effectively removed all hope for a peaceful compromise.
In the autumn of 1978, everything started to fall apart. The rebellion spread to universities, then schools and finally to factories, offices and even the oil industry. Widespread strikes paralyzed most government functions and large-scale desertions weakened the armed forces. In secret, Shah was terminally ill, but would not relinquish any real power to his hand picked governments or even the army generals. During the past 15 years of his despotic reign, every decision and action was so directly dictated by him, that the whole country fell into a state of convulsion, as he was being tormented by an incurable cancer and an implacable enemy.
Khomeini’s resolve was unrelenting, even though his moderate aides were recommending a compromise to save the country from collapse. His single-minded utterance set the target: ‘Shah must go’! In early 1979, after Shah left the country for an extended ‘vacation’, neither his last liberal prime minister (Dr. Shahpor Bakhtiar an aide to Mosaddeg), nor his army generals, who were being coached by the Americans, could withstand Khomeini’s return and the tsunami wave of popular uprising.
With the collapse of Shah’s regime, like in other major revolutions, a frenzied rush to fill out the power vacuum started. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist alliance (loosely called the Hezbollah) quickly gained momentum and established itself both in the political arena (through the Islamic Republic Party) and the military front (through the Revolutionary Guards). However, the first provisional government was assigned to the liberal moderates (led by Bazaargan, another Mosaddeg aide) who had decades of anti-Shah resistance credentials as well as technical and organizational experience.
The revolutionary leftist groups (most notably the Peoples Mojahidin and the Fadaiyan) were not trusted with any role in the new government, and were soon denounced by the Hezbollah, as infidels and apostates. The Hezbollah militants also started a systematic persecution of the previous regime’s leaders and notables. Several hundred were executed, with thousands more jailed and tortured. The savage behaviour of Hezbollah rapidly alienated most of the educated middle class and the secular intellectuals, but invigorated the lower classes who enjoyed a measure of revenge, as well as material benefit from the confiscations and lootings.
Most leftist groups considered the liberal government as a transitional phase, before the radicalization of revolution would give them a chance to take over and turn the tide, as in the Russian revolution of 1917. Therefore, they started a frantic recruiting drive among the students, workers and the ethnic minorities, who were more susceptible to leftist propaganda. Their efforts quickly paid off in the Sunni Kurdistan region, where many police stations and army garrisons were ransacked, and an autonomous district was established. The ensuing savage civil war between the Hezbollah and the Kurdistan leftists antagonized the clerical leadership of Khomeini, who issued an all-out war edict against the ‘infidels’. But the newly formed Revolutionary Guards were still too weak to defeat the Kurdish resistance.
A relevant reference: Roots and Results of Revolution, by N. Keddie.
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