US-Iran Series – Part 3: The “Islamic Revolution”

Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini became the supreme leader of Iran in 1979.

In part three of Revolution Observer’s US-Iran series, Idrees Devries describes the events leading up to the “Islamic Revolution” and Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini coming into power.

The US began to search for a party that could take over power from the Shah. Var­i­ous diplo­mats and advi­sors to the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment were sent to Iran under false pre­texts, to ana­lyse the domes­tic sit­u­a­tion in Iran and iden­tify an acceptable alterna­tives to the Shah.

Henry Precht, one of the diplo­mats involved in Iran at the time, described these mis­sions in the fol­low­ing man­ner: “To ensure access to Iran’s new polit­i­cal elite and estab­lish a pro-American regime in Iran”. William H. Sul­li­van, the American ambas­sador to Iran from 1977 to 1979, said about this period: “But in the spring of 1978 (exactly one year before the Islamic rev­o­lu­tion) the sit­u­a­tions were changed and we seized the oppor­tu­nity … our embassy devel­oped its con­tact net­works within the Iran­ian dis­si­dents and won their con­fi­dence … Most of them were sur­prised by our opinions and the fact that how much our opin­ions were close to them … he [the Shah] often asked me, ‘What are your Mul­lah friends doing?’.”

Islamic opposition

When the diplo­mats and advi­sors returned to Wash­ing­ton, a deci­sion was taken to sup­port the Islamic oppo­si­tion to the Shah. The national oppo­si­tion was deemed too weak, namely, while the com­mu­nist oppo­si­tion was too closely aligned with the Soviet Union. This Islamic oppo­si­tion was led by Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini. Khome­ini had lived in Najaf, Iraq, for many years, from which he orga­nised his oppo­si­tion to the Shah. In 1978, how­ever, Sad­dam Hus­sein expelled him, fol­low­ing which he took up res­i­dence in a sub­urb of Paris, France, called Neauphle le Chateau.

While in Najaf, Khome­ini had already been vis­ited by the Amer­i­cans. Richard Cot­tam, a mem­ber of the CIA that had lead the 1953 coup against Mossadeq, had met and dis­cussed with Khome­ini in Najaf on behalf of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. Cot­tam had learned at that time that Khome­ini was con­cerned about a com­mu­nist take-over in Iran, and that he wanted to be care­ful in his attempt to orga­nise a coup against the Shah so as not to give the com­mu­nist the chance to make use of the sit­u­a­tion. Khome­ini asked Cot­tam to com­mu­ni­cate to his mas­ters in Wash­ing­ton that he would be look­ing to Amer­ica for sup­port against a com­mu­nist coup in Iran.

The US

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Amer­ica also sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Neauphle le Chateau to con­tinue dis­cus­sions and nego­ti­a­tions with Khome­ini and his entourage there. In Octo­ber of 1978 Khome­ini and Amer­ica reached an offi­cial agree­ment under which Khome­ini promised to coop­er­ate with the US if they helped him to top­ple the Shah and fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion would not inter­fere in domes­tic Iran­ian affairs. The US agreed to this.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter then sent Gen­eral Robert Huyser to Iran to ensure sup­port for the rev­o­lu­tion amongst Iran­ian gen­er­als. Huyser arrived in Iran on the 4th of Jan­u­ary 1979. His mes­sage to the Iran­ian gen­er­als was that if they did not sup­port Khomeini’s rev­o­lu­tion, through not inter­fer­ing, the com­mu­nists would certainly make use of the sit­u­a­tion to make Iran a com­mu­nist state. On the 18th of March 1979 the Kuwaiti news­pa­per Al Watan reported: “At the last moment, the United States have explic­itly asked the lead­ers of the army and the gen­er­als to take this posi­tion, and the Amer­i­can State Depart­ment urged its ambas­sador to con­vince, as soon as pos­si­ble, the most promi­nent gen­er­als to not inter­vene and declare their neu­tral­ity in case of polit­i­cal con­flicts”.

Pres­i­dent Carter, in his mem­oirs, con­firmed that Huyser had indeed been sent with this mis­sion: “Huyser was of the opin­ion that the army had made suf­fi­cient plans to pro­tect its equip­ment and facil­i­ties and that it would not come onto the streets. He had dis­suaded some of its lead­ers from the idea of attempt­ing a coup”.

The Shah under­stood Huyser’s visit in the exact same man­ner. In his mem­oirs he said he was sur­prised by the Huyser’s arrival in Tehran in Jan­u­ary 1979 because Huyser had not informed him of his travel plans. The Shah said that the general “had come to Tehran a num­ber of times, sched­ul­ing his vis­its well in advance to dis­cuss mil­i­tary affairs with me and my gen­er­als”. How­ever this time the Shah was not informed. The Shah fur­ther said that about Huyser’s mis­sion: “Huyser suc­ceeded in win­ning over my last chief of staff, Gen­eral Ghara-Baghi, whose later behaviour leads me to believe that he was a trai­tor. He asked Ghara-Baghi to arrange a meet­ing for him with Mehdi Bazargan, the human rights lawyer who became Khomeini’s First Prime Min­is­ter. The Gen­eral informed me of Huyser’s request before I left, but I have no idea of what ensued. I do know that Ghara-Baghi used his author­ity to pre­vent mil­i­tary action against Khome­ini. He alone knows what deci­sions were made and the price paid. It is per­haps sig­nif­i­cant that although all my gen­er­als were exe­cuted, only Gen­eral Ghara-Baghi was spared. His saviour was Behdi Bazargan.”

On the 14th of Jan­u­ary 1979 the Amer­i­can ambas­sador orga­nised a meet­ing between Ebrahim Yazedi, an assis­tant of Khome­ini, and a rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the US State Depart­ment. Yazedi had lived in the US for a long time. In 1961 he had been forced to flee Iran because of his oppo­si­tion to the Shah, after which he reset­tled in Amer­ica. There he had developed close ties with the CIA and the US State Depart­ment. Even­tu­ally he became an Amer­i­can national. Dur­ing the meet­ing War­ren Zim­mer­man, on behalf of the US State Depart­ment, told Yazedi to com­mu­ni­cate a mes­sage to Khome­ini: Khome­ini had to wait and not return to Iran until Huyser had made the nec­es­sary arrange­ments with the Iran­ian gen­er­als.

Then on the 26th of Jan­u­ary the Amer­i­can diplo­mat Ram­sey Clark met with Khome­ini in Neauphle le Chateau. After the meet­ing Clark told jour­nal­ists: “I have a great hope that this rev­o­lu­tion will bring social jus­tice to the Iran­ian peo­ple”. In other words, the rev­o­lu­tion had been arranged and was ready to be executed.

On the 1st of Feb­ru­ary Khome­ini boarded a char­tered Air France plane that took him from Paris to Tehran. The Shah was out­side of Iran at that moment, accord­ing to offi­cial state­ment “on vaca­tion”. It was clear, how­ever, that he knew what was com­ing and had fled Iran know­ing that he was unable to stop it. On the 4th of Feb­ru­ary Khome­ini took for­mal con­trol of Iran and appointed an interim-government. At the head of this gov­ern­ment he placed Mehdi Bazargan.

Khomeini’s arrival in Tehran

Bazargan had been an American infor­mant dur­ing 1978. On behalf of the US gov­ern­ment John Stem­pel, Henry Precht, War­ren Zim­mer­man en Richard Cot­tam all had had meet­ings with the Iran­ian Free­dom Move­ment which was led by Bazargan. Through this Free­dom Move­ment the US remained in close con­tact with Bazargan dur­ing the first months of the rev­o­lu­tion.

Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini arrives in Iran.
Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini arrives in Iran.

On the 14th of Feb­ru­ary Bazargan appointed the other mem­bers of his cab­i­net. The impor­tant posts of sec­ond prime-minister and for­eign min­is­ter went to Abbas Amir-Entezam and Karim San­jabi. Amir-Entezam had lived in Amer­ica for 20 years and had been in con­tact with the CIA since the days of Mossadeq. He had been a resource for the CIA dur­ing the coup against Mossadeq. San­jabi was appointed for­eign min­is­ter. He had been in reg­u­lar con­tact with the American embassy in Tehran. In total, five peo­ple in Bazargan’s cab­i­net held dual Iranian-American cit­i­zen­ship.

The Bazargan gov­ern­ment drafted a new con­sti­tu­tion for Iran, using the French con­sti­tu­tion as a start­ing point. Con­se­quently, the Bazargan con­sti­tu­tion is nationalistic.

Arti­cle 15: “The offi­cial lan­guage and script of Iran, the lin­gua franca of its people, is Per­sian. Offi­cial doc­u­ments, cor­re­spon­dence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this lan­guage and script.”

Arti­cle 41: “Iran­ian cit­i­zen­ship is the indis­putable right of every Iranian.”

Arti­cle 78: “All changes in the bound­aries of the coun­try are for­bid­den”

Arti­cle 115: “The Pres­i­dent must be elected from among reli­gious and polit­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties pos­sess­ing the fol­low­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions: Iran­ian ori­gin; Iran­ian nationality …”

Fol­low­ing the French exam­ple Bazargan also made the peo­ple of Iran the source of legislation:

Arti­cle 6: “In the Islamic Repub­lic of Iran, the affairs of the coun­try must be admin­is­tered on the basis of pub­lic opin­ion expressed by the means of elections”.

Arti­cle 177: “Revi­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Islamic Repub­lic of Iran, when­ever needed by the cir­cum­stances, will be done in the fol­low­ing man­ner … The deci­sions of the Coun­cil, after the con­fir­ma­tion and sig­na­tures of the Leader, shall be valid if approved by an absolute major­ity vote in a national referendum.”

Islam was no more than dec­o­ra­tion in Bazargan pro­posal. Nev­er­the­less a ref­er­en­dum on the 24th of Octo­ber chose it as the new con­sti­tu­tion for Iran.

Aya­tol­lah Khome­ini (left) and Mehdi Bazargan (right)
Aya­tol­lah Khome­ini (left) and Mehdi Bazargan (right)

In his mem­oirs, Pres­i­dent Carter said about Bazargan’s gov­ern­ment: “He and his pre­dom­i­nantly Western-educated cab­i­net mem­bers coop­er­ated with us. They pro­tected our embassy, pro­vided safe travel for Gen­eral Philip C. Gast, who had replaced Huyser, and sent us a series of friendly mes­sages. Bazargan announced pub­licly his eager­ness to have good rela­tions with the United States, and said that Iran would soon resume nor­mal oil ship­ments to all its cus­tomers.”

So clearly, the anti-American rhetoric dur­ing Khomeini’s rev­o­lu­tion was not an expres­sion of the rela­tion­ship between Khomeini’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary regime and the Amer­i­cans, but a polit­i­cal strat­egy to ensure sup­port for the rev­o­lu­tion amongst the pop­u­lace of Iran. The Iran­ian peo­ple were well aware of America’s many years of sup­port for the Shah and there­fore held Amer­ica partly responsible for the oppres­sion and tyranny dur­ing this era. This left Khome­ini no other choice but to pub­licly denounce Amer­ica, although behind closed doors he and his peo­ple worked closely with the US.

With this real­ity in mind, the case of the occu­pa­tion of the US embassy in Tehran, which lasted from 1979 to 1981, should be reviewed and stud­ied. Towards the end of 1979 it became appar­ent that Khomeini’s rev­o­lu­tion was stalling and was in need of a new push. The Bazargan gov­ern­ment had not been able to imme­di­ately improve the liv­ing con­di­tions of most Ira­ni­ans and the peo­ple began to ques­tion whether Khome­ini would ever be able to. In addi­tion, the intel­lec­tual elite, raised dur­ing the time of the Shah, had issues with many arti­cles in the new con­sti­tu­tion while some in the clergy did not feel com­fort­able with Khomeini’s polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.

Iranian hostage crisis

On the 1st of Novem­ber 1979 Bazargan met Pres­i­dent Carter’s head of the National Secu­rity Agency (NSA), Zbig­niew Brzezin­ski, in Algiers. Shortly after this meet­ing Amer­ica gave the Shah per­mis­sion to travel to the US for med­ical treatment. The two events infu­ri­ated the Iran­ian pub­lic and were pre­sented by the Iran­ian media as Amer­i­can efforts to return the Shah back to power. In response, Iran­ian stu­dents entered the com­pound of the Amer­i­can embassy in Tehran on the 4th of Novem­ber and took the embassy per­son­nel hostage.

Dur­ing Feb­ru­ary of the same year a sim­i­lar event had taken place. This time Khome­ini had imme­di­ately ordered the students to return home. How­ever, all lead­ers in Khomeini’s rev­o­lu­tion expressed sup­port for the action of the stu­dents. On the 5th of Novem­ber Khome­ini, Aya­tol­lah Behesti and Aya­tol­lah Mon­taz­eri all expressed sup­port for the occu­pa­tion, sep­a­rately but at roughly the same time. An indi­ca­tion that the hostage tak­ing was part of a plan. Con­se­quently, the Iranian public’s atten­tion was moved from domes­tic issues to the “Great Satan” Amer­ica.

Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days.
Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days.

Two days into the hostage sit­u­a­tion, Bazargan resigned as prime-minister. In Jan­u­ary 1980, the Iran­ian peo­ple then elected a new prime-minister – Abul Has­san Bani Sadr. Bani Sadr had been in con­tact with the Amer­i­cans since Khomeini’s stay in Paris. His con­tact at the CIA was Guy Ruther­ford. Many years later Bani Sadr would con­firm that the Iran­ian hostage cri­sis had been part of an Amer­i­can plan, the objec­tive of which had been to strengthen Khomeini’s posi­tion domes­ti­cally and give his regime a valid rea­son to meet the US for dis­cus­sions.

The hostage cri­sis came to an end exactly the day Ronald Rea­gan entered the White House as pres­i­dent of the US. The release of the Amer­i­can hostages was part of a treaty between Iran and Amer­ica that became known as the Algiers Treaty. In addi­tion to the release of the hostages through this treaty the two coun­tries also agreed that the US would not inter­fere in Iran’s domes­tic affairs, that the rela­tions between the two coun­tries would be man­aged through appoint­ment of a third coun­try mediator, and that around $12 bil­lion of Iran­ian assets in the US that was confiscated fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion against the Shah be returned.

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