The genesis of Islamic revolution in Iran

By Kamal Wadhwa

For centuries the mullah has been the lynchpin and pivotal figure, especially in the countryside, of life in Iran. Iranians have looked to him for supplying all their needs loftier than bread. Iranian folklore is rich in wisdom and homespun advice as epitomized by the tales of Mullah Nasseruddin. From cradle to grave the mullah has been an ever- present figure in every Iranian's life.

No civil authority has ever attracted the awe and adulation that the mullah has been held in all matters, especially those affecting his congregation. The mullah has been a courageous and outspoken personage and a dogged partisan of the poor man's causes, content to guide and protect his flock from the sidelines. Throughout Iranian history the mullah has shunned pomp and power and his frugal habits hearken back to the Prophet's time. 

That the mullah has been thrust into the forefront of Iranian politics in our time is an aberration of history and an anomaly that has yet to be corrected. But that it will be rectified in due course of that there is no doubt. The contemporary civil strife in

Iran is a step in that direction.

The maxim Thou shall not serve God and Mammon is only too apt to describe the strictures the mullah must come to terms with. As a consequence, he must and will retreat to his humble dwelling in the safety of the mosque.

The Iranian civilization is beset by irony and contradictions, too. Directly pitted against Islamic precepts, it boasts of a monarchical tradition that goes back to over 2500 years since the time of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achemenid Dynasty. Displays of pomp, power and ostentation are integral to Iranian history and the warrior, not the holy man, has commanded great admiration. Only he is a role model worthy of emulation by young Iranians.

The art and science of statecraft and civil administration is greatly developed in Iran, as is a love of elegance and ostentation. The stamp of civil authority has been and is evident everywhere in Iran. It is the bitter crust of poverty that forces Iranians to rise up against the powers- that-be and only when conditions are intolerably bad.

Paradoxically, the Islamic revolution was not an outcome of hunger or material denial. It was in response to deeper socio-economic forces that were unleashed by the discovery and exploitation of Iran's vast oil resources.

The ordinary Iranian's personality has been shaped by an almost excessive desire to be idle at all cost. Not that he is incapable of exertion or labor, but the wish to be among one's own and converse over a cup of tea at any time of the day is a unique Iranian trait. The Iranian has an almost fatal tendency to be content at all times even when that contentment carries the risk of undermining and harming his larger well-being and self-interest.

Work does not appeal to the Iranian and getting ahead by dint of his own exertion and effort is an idea that is alien to him. This explains why the minorities of Iran are so progressive and prosperous and why on occasion even foreigners such as Indians and South Koreans are recruited to do work meant for Iranians.

There is a streak of hedonism and love of pleasure in the Iranian that brings to mind the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, the poet and astronomer from the town of Naishapur. This is why a religion as austere and forbidding as Islam goes against the grain of the Iranian character and personality. The Iranian will never deny that he is a Moslem but he will inevitably find a way to dodge the strictures inherent in his faith.

To this day, the work of the Islamic scholars as inspired by the doctrines of the noted thinker, Dr. Ali Shariati, faces an uphill struggle as the mass of Iranians continue to pay lip service to the tenets of Islam and yet manage to enjoy the pleasures inherited from the Shah's time. Iranians want to read Shakespeare and Nabakov; they are compulsive about wearing jeans and designer clothes and their fondest wish is to get an education abroad, preferably in the West.

The exploitation of Iran's oil wealth and the resulting inflow of petrodollars into the economy dramatically changed the course of Iranian history. The inevitable depletion of oil income in the years to come will have a telling effect on how far the Islamic revolution can go in shaping the character and habits of the modern Iranian.

With oil money, a sleepy and debilitated nation found a place on the world map. At last the ordinary Iranian found the adrenalin to take up labor and the means to succeed in making a better life. With wealth came the opportunity for education and social advancement and the Iranian never remained the same again.

Education brought in notions of work and achievement and the growing secular society slowly chipped away at the mullah's power and influence to shape youth destinies.

The mosque lost its place as the focal meeting point in every village and town as other centers of learning competed and prevailed over the religious orders. The mullah was about to be displaced as he was fast losing his place and function in Iranian society and culture.

With a modicum of wealth and the wish to get ahead and enjoy earthly pleasures, ideology loosened its hold over the Iranian's mind and the old, bitter political battles lost their luster. The ever-popular demagogue and icon of the Iranian masses, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, was soon forgotten and his nationalist fervor also lost its appeal.

The exhortations of the Iranian communist party - the Tudeh - also went unheeded by the masses. An unpopular and hated monarch - Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi - soon inspired awe and grudging respect for the way in which he made Iran tick again and regain its glory of antiquity.

The Shah's regime tightened and consolidated its grip on the nation. Massive reforms were undertaken to revamp Iranian civil society and usher in a modern and secular state. Compulsory universal education was introduced and made a national goal.

Land reforms gave millions of poor peasants an opportunity to taste the fruit of their own labor and obtain the means to a better life. Women were emancipated and brought out of the home and put into the workplace.

The minorities were given the rights of full citizenship and equal status before the law. In time they occupied important posts in all sectors of the economy and polity, including government. The armed forces were strengthened and expanded and a two-year period of military service was made compulsory for all male Iranians.

The progress made in civil society was matched by the performance of the economy as well. Millions of Iranians took advantage of the opportunity to hold salaried jobs - both in the private and public sectors - and thereby free themselves from the confines of their homes and the ubiquitous idleness that was the lot of Iranians of yore. 

Indigenous industries, some begun with foreign collaboration, made slow but eventful forays into the market and supplied consumers with everything ranging from clothes to light electrical appliances for the household. The success of domestic industry gave birth to a new class of industrialists some of whom became enormously wealthy.

Extended families such as the Ladjevardis, the Farmafarmaians, the Rezais and the Akhavans, became household names on account of their colossal fortunes and were regarded as true symbols of successful entrepreneurship.

The rial strengthened against all currencies and was quoted in all the major financial centres of the West. The desire to make money - and lots of it - became the guiding creed of almost every Iranian who foresaw a future for himself in the new Iran.

On the external front, the Shah strengthened and deepened Iran's relations with the Western powers, particularly the United States. Iran became a full member of CENTO - a military pact designed to contain communism in the Middle East. The United States set up military bases and other establishments in the country and American military personnel flocked to Iran with their dependants.

An American radio and television station was set up that gave millions of Iranians, hitherto unexposed to the West, a chance see America and American culture at home. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter made significant trips to Iran. It seemed that the West, especially the United States, had acquired a permanent presence in Iran and in the hearts of many Iranians.

Yet this was not to be as will be seen and made clear in the succeeding paragraphs.

Growing Western influence in Iran had an electric effect on the habits, mores and customs of millions of Iranians. As American, British, French and German schools were set up in the urban centers of Iran, many Iranians began to learn foreign languages as a way to advance their own careers.

French and English words made their way into the national lingo and Farsi was modernized and brought up to date with the changed times. Many Iranians began donning Western-style suits and large numbers of women gave up the practice of wearing chador, a loose covering that stretches from head to toe.

Food and entertainment habits evolved significantly. Many Western-style restaurants, hotels and nightclubs sprang up in Teheran and other cities. Iranians found a new love for sports so much so that in the Asian Games held in Teheran, Iranian athletes and sportsmen gave sterling performances rivaling those of Communist China.

Social and sports clubs mushroomed everywhere and young Iranians became acutely aware of physical well-being and fitness regimes.

Yet there was a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the Shah's regime and to the

Western influence it had subjected the country. Evidence of this current was brought out by the numerous assassination attempts against the Shah's life and the erupting of protests against Americans in parts of Iran.

The clergy had lost its pivotal role in Iranian life and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had been banished into exile.

Tension grew as the government pressured the clergy to endorse birth control. Remnants of the communist Tudeh party went into hiding and its supporters occasionally fought pitched battles against the security forces on the outskirts of Tehran. Adherents of the nationalistic leader Dr. Mossadegh scattered into disarray only to regroup later.

Nobody ever gave up his fierce opposition to the Shah's rule. Admittedly, excesses were committed by SAVAK - the Shah's intelligence service and this was one of the many reasons for the downfall of the monarchy.

Central to the opposition against the imperial rule was the absence of what many felt was democratic legitimacy behind the Shah's regime. The Shah did not enjoy an elected mandate and his regime had been installed by the Western powers, notably the United States and Great Britain. Iran's growing military purchases and its kowtowing to Western interests was bitterly resented by many Iranians.

Obviously, the Shah was beholden to the West and he had little space to maneuver on the external front in Iran's foreign policy.

The Shah's White Revolution and other reforms were meant to allay the opposition to his rule. He began to cast himself in the role of a beneficent monarch ready to take up cudgels to protect the weak and the needy.

His skilled and astute management of Iran's oil revenues and further increasing the price of oil was lauded by many non-Western nations. In time he acquired the aura and shine of an international statesman. 

However, the Shah was deeply resented by the West for his firm and authoritative stand in demanding a fairer and just price for Iran's oil exports. There were other points of friction, too. Foreign companies, particularly the Western ones, had inculcated the devious habit of evading taxes owed to the host country. The Shah's government decisively cracked down on this practice thereby sharpening Western resentment.

And when the United States turned down Iran's request for purchasing one billion dollars worth of defensive weaponry to protect its frontiers, the Shah was deeply humiliated. Increasingly, he began to adopt an independent stance in international affairs, heedless of what Washington had to say. 

There were other tiffs with the United States, notably with Henry Kissinger. It seemed to most people that the Shah was at last becoming a nationalist ruler. So it was only fitting that the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy was celebrated with pomp, pageantry and gusto in Persepolis.

In the eyes of many people, Iran had arrived on the international scene as a sovereign and equal member in the comity of nations.

Yet subsequent events proved otherwise. The cascading inflows of petrodollars brought into the country by the increased oil price had a profoundly destabilizing effect on the economy. Inflation soared as the import regime was liberalized.

This development in turn began to harm domestic industry and the interests of the powerful and wealthy industrial class. There was widespread corruption and scores of youth took to the streets in Teheran demanding instant employment.

The clergy found its feet and regrouped at the Paris-based Ayatollah Khomeini's behest. Iranian youth, particularly from the poorer classes, burnt tyres in the streets and torched public buildings as well. For the first time the, Shah-appointed Prime Minister, Amir Abbas Hoveiyda, was found guilty of corruption and summarily dismissed from his post.

Anti-American feelings and protests smoldered everywhere so that no American felt safe in Iran any longer. Students became restive when helicopter-borne security forces stormed Teheran University to remove illegal occupiers. Now it seemed that events had taken a turn for the worse.

Even the Shah had to suffer the ignominy of granting a press conference where inquisitive reporters rudely questioned him.

The crisis in Iran reached a point of no return as the law and order situation deteriorated rapidly. Tanks rolled into the streets but their crews had to surrender meekly to the surrounding mobs of angry demonstrators. The Shah publicly went on radio to address the nation but the sullen public mood was not calmed.

At this crucial juncture, the United States withdrew its support from the Shah's regime and a once-powerful monarch was reduced into a man without a country. 

In suburban Paris, the Ayatollah Khomeini made preparations at Chateau-le-Neaulph to return to Iran after nearly a lifetime spent in exile. Sensing that the options open to him were closing fast, the Shah and his family quietly went into exile in the United States where he was admitted on medical (the Shah had cancer of the neck) and humanitarian grounds by President Jimmy Carter.

The Ayatollah made a triumphant return from Paris to a hero's welcome in Teheran. The Shah's caretaker government under General Shahpour Bakhtiar collapsed. This event signified the end of the Shah's rule in Iran. Fifty years of a glorious monarchy had come to an unseemly end.

The rest is history.

Kamal Wadhwa

NOTE: Kamal Wadhwa is an Honors graduate in Literature from the University of Chicago and has studied Political Science and Economics at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had spent fifteen years in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution and one in Ethiopia before the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. He can be reached at [email protected]




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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov