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The Iranian

Revolution of 1979

Before Mosaddegh nationalized Iranian oil, the Anglo-Persian oil company was the only game in town.
This pic was taken in Iran in the 1960s
A young Khomeini. c. 1930s
Operation Ajax 

When oil reserves were discovered in the Persian Gulf in 1908, Iran began tranforming itself from a backward, agricultural country to a modern industrial nation.  However, just because you have millions of barrels of oil beneath your feet don’t mean anything unless you have the equipment to extract and refine it.


In come the British oil companies with huge wads of cash and fancy drilling equipment. In addition to a lion’s share of the profits, foreign companies were given free rein to extract Iranian oil. Needless to say, this really ground the gears of the Iranian people as they watched foreigners (not to mention their Shah) grow fabulously wealthy while the rest of the country remained hopelessly poor. 

That all changed in 1953 when Prime Minster Mosaddegh took the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which later became BP) head on. Mosaddegh took control of Iran’s oil in a process known as nationalization. His goal was to make Iran stronger by using its oil wealth to build schools, redistribute land to poor farmers, give unemployment insurance to workers, and provide cheap housing for the poor. Needless to say, Mosaddegh was a pretty popular guy with Iranians. It also goes without saying that the British hated him.

The British responded by bringing Iranian oil production to a grinding halt with a boycott and blockade of the Persian Gulf. However, it took American intervention to end the standoff. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with newly elected U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and told him that Iran was leaning dangerously close to allying with the Soviet Union. This was the height of the Cold War and just saying the word 'communism' was enough to spook the socks off of any American politician.


The U.S. didn’t need much pesuasion to help their British allies oust Mosaddegh. The CIA and British M16 came up with a plan called Operation Ajax to pressure the Shah into dismissing the Prime Minster. With enough pressure, the Shah finally agreed to fire Mosaddegh. This act outraged Iranians and would become the first step towards the downfall of the Shah. In 1979, many Iranian revolutionaries when asked why they were angry at America pointed to 1953 as the year that America betrayed the Iranian people. This rift would never heal.


The Shah Reforms Iran

When Shah Pahlavi took the throne in 1941, he saw Iran as a backward, medieval country that hadn’t changed for centuries. Persia, as Iran is also called, had once been the world’s greatest empire more than 2,000 years ago. In the 20th century, Iran was a country of peasant farmers who had adopted Arabic ways and lost their Persian identity. Pahlavi set out to change all that; even if it meant bringing the country kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

There certainly was some kicking and a whole lot of screaming, especially among the conservative Islamic leaders who held considerable power. The Shah made no secret of his contempt for the religious leaders called mullahs.     He openly called them “lice ridden mullahs” The Shah saw conservative Islamic traditions as a roadblock to progress and westernization.

​The Shah banned traditional Islamic dress and ordered Iranian women to go out in public without the veil. If a person refused the police would forcibly remove it from her. No doubt this outraged religious Iranians who saw the veil as a symbol of Muslim modesty. Women gained the right to vote, they enrolled in schools and universities in droves.

The government took control of educating young Iranians by building government schools which focused on math and science over studying the Koran.  Many young Iranians began wearing western clothing and listening to rock n roll. The Shah changed the Persian language by purging it of Arabic words. Even the calendar was changed from the Islamic calendar based on the life of Mohammad to a Persian calendar based on the ancient empire.
Overnight the year 1355 became 2535; (1976 to the majority of the world). 


The Islamic Response


These changes were too much for the religious mullahs who said that the Shah was waging a war against Islam. Many of these religious leaders blamed American influence as a corrupting the morals of the country. No one spoke louder against America than an Imam (religious teacher) from the holy city of Qom by the name of Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini gained respect and fame across Iran for his direct attacks on the Shah. Khomeini charged the Shah with corrupting the Islamic values of Iran. He called the Shah a puppet of America.

Khomeini blasted the Shah for spending millions on parties while the majority of Iranians remained in poverty. Khomeini’s criticism got him trouble with the Shah but by this time he was too powerful to get rid of. Khomeini was no longer just a mullah, he was an Ayatollah, a leader of the Shia branch of Islam. The Shah couldn’t kill Khomeini so he had him exiled to Iraq. If the Shah hoped that would take care of the problem, he was in for a rude awakening. Khomeini smuggled cassette tapes into Iran with his messages which were then circulated among his supporters. In exile, Khomeini became a legend. A symbol of defiance against the unpopular Shah.

While the Shah continued to be friendly to the British oil companies but was able to negotiate a bigger slice of the pie for Iran. The country was immensely wealthy and the Shah used this cash to expand roads, railroads, airports, and communication systems. Free schools and hospitals were set up for the poor. Farm land was sold to farmers at rock bottom prices. New industries like petrochemical and automobile plants were developed with oil money. Iran was an industrial Cinderella story. She was defying tradition to shape her own future. However, unlike most fairy tales, this Cinderella had a violent streak.


Liberal and Conservatives joined together to protest the Shah's government
The SAVAK and the Torture Chamber


The Shah was an autocrat at heart. He loved power and didn’t like sharing it with others. He banned political parties that didn’t agree with him. He shut down newspapers and jailed folks who spoke out against his regime. Of course, what did him in at the end was his use of the dreaded secret police–the SAVAK.

The shah’s SAVAK had secret agents everywhere listening for dissent against the Shah or illegal political activity. No one was safe, as neighbors often were encouraged to report on one another. If you were arrested, you often just disappeared in the middle of the night. No one knew where you went, but yet they knew the SAVAK must have been responsible. Locked in a prison a suspect would be tortured and beaten until he confessed his crime. Interrogation techniques ranged from pulling out finger nails, placing a hot iron on the skin, burning with cigarettes, and of course beatings. Sometimes these people made it home, others were not so lucky. The Shah also dealt with political protest in an equally brutal way.

Demonstrators would be met by police with live ammunition–rather than water cannon or rubber bullets. Hundreds of demonstrators would be injured or killed.

This was the scene in 1978. A strange article has appeared in a newspaper claiming that the Ayatollah Khomeini was a closet homosexual and British secret agent. Of course, since all newspapers were run by the state, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out who was behind the story. Religious students and Khomeini supporters poured into the streets to protest.

They were met by the police who fired into the crowd killing twenty. Days of rioting followed. According to Islamic customs, the dead are honored after 40 days. The friends and family of the twenty killed in the first protest gathered to protest the Shah. Again, the police shot into the crowd. Over and over, every forty days the cycle would continue. The death toll continued to mount. All over Tehran statues of the Shah were torn down, charred pictures of the royal family littered the streets. Khomeini continued to stir up trouble against the Shah, ordering new strikes and protests. The country was in chaos. On January 16, 1979, the Shah “took a vacation” to Egypt. He would never return to his beloved Iran.


"Let me tell you quite bluntly that this king business has given me personally nothing but headaches."
-Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
The Protest Heats Up


The Shah was gone and the people couldn't have been happier. Thousands danced in the streets. Horns honked day and night in celebration. Everywhere people were busy removing any signs that the Shah had ever been in power. Palaces and police stations were overwhelmed and looted.

Mobs broke into prisons freeing political prisoners that were being held for political crimes. Statues of the Palhavi's were torn down and smashed. In Tehran, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken wasn't spared. The revolution was not just about overthrowing the Shah. It was about taking back Iran's identity.

Many Iranians, especially the clerics, blamed the west and American influences for the corruption that went on under the Shah. So, naturally the KFC was an obvious target, The face of Colonel Sanders was painted over. Everywhere could be signs of "Iranian pride". Men began growing beards and women, even those who normally western clothing, began donning the chador (the all encompassing black cloak) to show their support for their more religious co-protesters.

Of course, not everyone was cheering on the revolution. Many foreigners and non-Muslims worried about what life would be like for them if the religious clerics got their way and turned Iran into a theocracy. Some of the more liberal families packed up their things and heads to Europe or America. Others couldn't bear leaving their homeland behind. They decided to stick it out and wait. They wouldn't have to wait long to see what the future held for the new Iran.

Iranian women, anxious about their freedoms, protest against forced veiling after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Live footage of anti-Shah demonstrations
The U.S. Embassy Takeover


October 22, 1979.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the newly deposed Shah of Iran, is a king without a kingdom. Ever since revolutionaries had forced his family to flee the country on February 11, 1979 the ex-royals have been shuffling like nomads from country to country seeking asylum. The new Iranian government demanded that the Shah be returned to stand trial for crimes against the people. In Iran thousands of protestors swarm the streets ‘shouting death to the Shah’.


One thing is certain. If the Shah is returned to his homeland, he probably wouldn’t live long. Mock religious courts are generously handing out death sentences to anyone who is found to be 'anti-revolutionary' or 'un-Islamic'. The Shah doesn’t stand a chance of getting a fair trial.


On the other hand he doesn’t have much time to live anyway. The Shah has been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma (cancer of the blood cells). The Shah insists on being treated in the United States¬–a long-time ally of Pahlavi. However, President Jimmy Carter, among others, felt that letting Pahlavi into the country would only inflame the Iranian revolutionaries. He was right.


In the end, the Shah is given temporary asylum to undergo treatment at Cornell Medical Center in New York City under the alias of David D. Newsom. Sure enough, when word gets back that the Shah is in the United States, the Iranian revolutionaries, already angry at America for being the Shah’s biggest supporter, explode into action.  


November 4, 1979.

An angry mob of 80 Islamic Revolutionaries–supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini– have just carried out their plan to storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken 66 Americans hostage. The students believed (wrongly) that the CIA was in the country and plotting to restore the Shah to the throne. The students held their captives at gunpoint while they searched the embassy for secret CIA documents. Outside the embassy someone had drapped a sign that read "All Our Sufferings Are From America".


For the next 444 days, fifty-five American embassy workers would be held against their will as the two countries engaged in what boiled down to a global staring contest.  Some of the hostages were beaten. Others kept in solitary confinement. Most were treated fairly well (for being held at gunpoint against your will). The worst part for many of the hostages were the daily interrogations and the constant boredom of captivity.


The students' hadn't acted on the orders of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In fact, they were scared to tell him about the plan just in case he objected. And at first he did. When he was told about the embassy situation he said "Go kick them out". However, Khomeini quickly changed his tune when he realized that he could use the situation to his advantage. Iranians were angry at American support for the Shah. The Shah encouraged his supporters to praise God for this "victory". He called it a blow to "The Great Satan". Khomeini's nickname for the United States.


January 1980

The 444 day ordeal had played itself out. Neither side gave into the other. Ayatollah Khomeini had achieved his one major victory. The hostage situation led to massive support for Iran becoming an Islamic Republic. Khomeini was a hero. The Iranians agreed to free the hostages shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan.  On January 20, 1980 they were flown to an airbase in Algeria and then to Germany. The crisis was over.

Khomeini supporters scale the gates of the U.S Embassy in Tehran
Immediately following the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the student leaders gave this statement:  
"We Muslim students, followers of the Imam Khomeini have occupied the espionage embassy of America in protest...We announce our protest to the world; a protest against America for granting asylum and employing the criminal Shah while it has on its hands the blood of tens of thousands of women and men in this country"
American man holding up a sign during a protest in New York City- 1979

Eyewitness to the Hostage Crisis

444 Days in the spotlight

Ayatollah Khomeini
Barry Rosen
Jimmy Carter
Click on a photo for the eyewitness account

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