1979: The Shah, The Ayatollah and Me

The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had gotten a second chance of ruling Iran after his fleeing Iran in 1953.

His return allowed him to focus his anger towards two of the three groups that caused him to flee: the social reformers and political opponents. The third column of opposition he could not truly touch: the Islamic clergy. The social reformer and political leader Mohammad Mossadegh was given a merciful sentence: 3 years in prison and life-time house arrest thereafter. Why then did several “underlings” of Mossadegh then receive sentences to be executed and Mossadegh got a slap on the wrist? The Shah and Mossadegh are distant cousins; but I do digress from the point of this post. (That will be most likely another post)

With the absolute support from the US and UK and with the petro-dollars rolling in; the Shah invested heavily in a newly minted governmental intelligence agency with policing powers the Sazeman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar or better known as the SAVAK. With US military training (via Major General H N Schwarzkopf) this agency became a tool of terror against Iranians within Iran and abroad. Social and political advocates were targets regularly and many disappeared if they crossed an unknown flexible line. The total number of state indorsed murders that took place under SAVAK’s backing is unknown; though the number that is guesstimated is quite large.

During the 1960’s, with the petro-dollars—the Shah ramped up the social reforms to appease the poor urban and rural population—his reforms where called the “White Revolution.”  Several key agenda items of the revolution goals that can be labelled as a way to undermine the power of the local Islamic clerics; some of them were:

  • women to vote,
  • to have free and obligatory education for all between ages 4 to 14,
  • to fight illiteracy nation-wide,
  • improving the primary and secondary education’s through a national curriculum to help improving the well-being of Iranian families and to compete in the global economy,
  • land disputes where regulated to elected village land councils
  • create a national medical corps to go throughout the country to provide healthcare.

As stated before, the Shah was not truly stupid to blatantly target Islamic clergy outright, since the clergy could be a force that he could not go toe-to-toe and survive outright. The clergy additionally did not want to directly attack the Shah either. However, there were several members of the clergy made thinly referred comments during Friday prayers about how these new rights and the Shah were not all good for the well-being of Iran. One of these clergy that spoke against the Shah during Friday prayer was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Overtime, Khomeini preached the ills and evils of the Shah and that caused the Shah in 1963 to arrest him. This arrest caused protests throughout Iran. In 1964, Khomeini attacked the Shah for giving the US military personal immunity(status-of-forces agreement) in Iranian courts and would be tried under US law and courts. This was the last straw for the Shah to be attacked by Khomeini. He was imprisoned for 6 months.  After his release, the proverbial statement: “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” happened. The Prime Minister, at the time, slapped Khomeini’s face, since Khomeini would not retract his statements against the Shah or the US. That Prime Minister was assassinated and thereafter Khomeini was exiled.

One event that did harm to the Shah’s regime was in 1971, it was the massacre of Marxist guerillas by the SAVAK in the town of Siahkal in the Gilan province. By the time that Jimmy Carter came in to the White House, the world knew how brutal the SAVAK was to dissidents in Iran. With an outcry from Jimmy Carter on human right violations based on the SAVAK and the prisons, some reforms come too. But it was too late for the Shah; as other issues of his regime just made things worse.  During the 1970’s, one of the tenets of the White Revolution—the eradication of corruption in government was a joke. With the petro-dollars flowing in the billions, the corruption and greed fed the brutality and repression of the Shah and his inner circle “The Thousand Families.”

Another event in 1976 that did not help the Shah and another attack on Islam was the changing of the calendar system away from the Islamic one to a secular one. A side note event was in 1977, when Mustapha Khomeini(the son of the Ayatollah) was found dead in his apartment with no reason—no autopsy permitted back then—but some say the SAVAK had their hands in his death.

In 1978, one final act on the international stage that the Shah did . It he influenced the Vice President of Iraq at that time, Saddam Hussein; to force the Ayatollah out of Iraq.  The Ayatollah was warmly received in Paris.

Additionally, 1978 was the beginning of the end for the Shah; when the police fired on protesters at a university; after the protesters egged them on. The actual death toll and injured is unknown; but the deaths were greater than 10. Khomeini called on demonstrations of mourning and grief for those that were killed. This spilled out of Iran and many Iranian embassies were targeted around the globe. On August 19,  a fire at the Cinema Rex killing over 400 people—Khomeini swayed the people to blame the Shah for this act of brutality.

The Shah did a lot of little things to try to appease the masses, but it was too late. On Jan 16 1979, the Peacock Throne had no occupant—the Shah fled in self-exile. On Feb 1, Khomeini returned to Iran. And on Feb 11 1979—the revolution against the Shah was complete when the remnants of military units loyal to the Shah gave up.

There were several groups over the timeframe of 1953 to 1979 that helped, to name a few:

  • Freedom Movement of Iran
  • National Front
  • Tudeh Party of Iran
  • The People’s Mujahedin

These groups where decimated over the two decades of losing members to fear of death from Shah’s SAVAK.  By the time that the Shah was ousted, the Islamic clergy had the numbers to wear down and slowly thin out these social and political groups even more. This is how it became the Islamic Revolution.

As these events played out in Iran, I remember my father and the other Iranians that lived  here in Portland that we associated with—all were in a state of joy, fear and horror.

What we did not know that this Islamic Revolution was going to drop kick all Iranians, which were in diaspora in the US; square in the teeth. Nov 4 1979 was a day of infamy.

The fall of US Embassy and the taking of US hostages in Tehran.

As an 8 year old, understanding all the history, geopolitics and international relationships was well above my head. However, after the taking of US hostages; all Iranians felt the sting from all these events of prior 35 years.

As 1980 rolled in, the events of the Islamic Revolution and the taking of US hostages came to roost on my family. One Friday morning, I and my older sister were called in the school principal’s office. We were informed for our safety and the safety of the other children, we were being “asked to leave” the public school system—here in Portland. The reason was because of being part Iranian. The school district back-tracked quickly on this point after my grandma got a hold of the family lawyer and threatened to go public based on its actions on us children. However, the school district was right about one thing, the safety of some of us children was an issue. Right before spring break, I was walking around the playground as a couple of kids approached me. One of the older ones asked me: “If I was an American?” I replied: “I was born here in Portland, BUT…I am German-Iranian.” As well, I would not denounce my statement of being Iranian. That “but” and those last words got me in my 1st fight in school and a referral to be suspended because I started the fight. Once out of high school, I found out once more the lack of respect of being born in the US. The Department of Defense informed me because of my father birthplace, I was denied choice selection of military job and duty(scored a 99% on the asvab). Though I had only one direct connect to my father’s family when I was a couple of months old—when his parents came to see their grandson. Beyond that it has been only 4th cousins or less directly related individuals.

Has it stung being Iranian? Yes, but as Mossadegh stated in his defense trial for treason and other charges against the Shah in 1953, he quoted the great Persian poet Sa’di: “If I sit silently, I have sinned.” I will not sin against my heritage and its history. I will speak up loudly about my heritage and my opinions around it at risk of my own well-being.

Iran became a vassal state under Islamic rule only 1500 years ago. This amount of time is less than half of the time from the emergence of various Aryan tribes well before 2000 BCE on the Iranian plateau. Therefore Islam is just part of the greater history of Iran—it is not the final say nor is it the final chapter of Iran’s history.

I am not a loyalist to either the former or current regimes in Iran. I believe one day that the people of Iran will have its own self-governing destiny with the cultural history of all nations that it once conquered and those that have conquered Iran equally.


(This post is an abridged history what happened and some personal history. If you want more information about  events in greater detail just leave a message.)


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