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I’m not sure where GW Bush was in 1979, but he must remember something about the popular uprising of the Iranian people that overthrew the US’s biggest puppet in the region-the Shah. Although the revolution had been brewing for years, in 1978 and early 1979 there were huge demonstrations against his rule by all sectors […]

The US and Iran

by Ron Jacobs

I’m not sure where GW Bush was in 1979, but he must remember something about the popular uprising of the Iranian people that overthrew the US’s biggest puppet in the region-the Shah. Although the revolution had been brewing for years, in 1978 and early 1979 there were huge demonstrations against his rule by all sectors of Iranian society. These demonstrations took place in Iran’s cities, her oilfields, her mosques and other places of worship, and finally within her military. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) were killed by the Shah’s military and secret police, the SAVAK. The movement involved social democrats, communists of all kinds, students, peasants, urban intellectuals and middle classes, and Islamists of every stripe-fundamentalists to radicals. It was a truly popular movement that resulted in the Shah leaving the country in disgrace on January 16, 1979.

After his departure, there was a power struggle for control of the new revolutionary government. At first, the secular radicals had the upper hand and it looked like Iran might become the first socialist state in that region of the world. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Within days of the Shah’s exile, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had re-entered the country from his exile in France, where he had been living and secretly organizing opposition to the Shah’s regime since he had been forced out of the country after the CIA-sponsored coup that replaced the populist nationalist leader Muhammad Mossadegh with the Shah in 1955. Mossadegh had called for nationalization of the country’s oil and a re-negotiation of all the contracts between Iran and the big oil companies. Of course, such a call has never been popular with the oil companies and the governments that serve them, especially that of the United States. This is the primary reason for the CIA-sponsored overthrow.

Khomeini had been part of the resistance to the Shah in the 1950s, also. His strict interpretation of the Koran and his rank as one of the highest Imams in Shia Islam gave him an large and devoted following. After all, to the faithful he was closer to Allah than anyone else and to resist his will was tantamount to resisting Allah’s will. After Mossadegh’s deposition and arrest, the Shah moved back onto the Peacock Throne and begin to rid the country of any opposition to his rule. He was helped tremendously by the US government and its various agencies. Khomeini was exiled and took up residence in France where he lived on funds provided by the French intelligence services and the CIA, who preferred his religious-based radicalism to that of the communists and socialists in Iran, who had strong support among the workers in the oil extraction and refinement industry, as well as among the students.

The Shah undertook some minimal land reforms and secularized Iranian culture. This latter action was a double-edged sword for the Shah. While it created a huge base of technicians and intellectuals that were needed for the expanding economy in Iran, it also provided these young people with the tools for a critical analysis of Iran’s role in the US empire-a role many students and intellectuals found subservient and counter to the best interests of the Iranian people. At the same time, the secularization of Iranian society was met with religious-based fear in the provinces, where the Koran proscribed daily existence and religious leaders feared losing their followers to the temptations of secular capitalist culture. This contradiction was the breeding ground for the revolution which eventually brought down the Shah and his regime.

In 1974, when I began working with Iranian students intent on bringing down the Shah and replacing his government with a popular regime, there were already divisions within the Iranian Student Association (ISA). This group was a coalition of Iranian students in the United States who were devoted to revolution. Although the secular faction had the upper hand when I first began working with the Washington, DC branch as a liaison between them and a radical student organization I belonged to at the University of Maryland, it wasn’t long before the Islamists were the larger group, both in the DC area and nationally. Nonetheless, the various factions continued to work together, intent on ridding their country of the Shah, his opulent lifestyle at the expense of the Iranian peasantry and working class, and his dreaded secret police. I met some of the most dedicated people I have ever met before or since while working with these men and women. Many of them had families back in Iran who lived under a constant threat of torture and death because of their children’s activities against the Shah and his puppetmaster in Washington. Despite these threats, their families supported their activities and did whatever they could to insure that these young men and women could finish their education in the United States and come back to Iran to serve the revolution. Meanwhile, in the United States, SAVAK agents operated openly, attacking demonstrations of Iranian students and their supporters, kidnapping Iranian activists, and testifying at INS deportation hearings, where Iranian activists were sent back to almost certain torture and death in Iran’s gulags.

I write this for one reason: to illustrate the commitment of the Iranian people to never let the United States control its destiny again. After Khomeini took over the reins of power in revolutionary Iran, he and his clerical government, in a show of religious intolerance and a grab for power, drove the secular elements out of the government and, in some cases, out of the country or to their death. Indeed, I am almost certain that some of the individuals I worked with in the 1970s were killed at the hands of the Khomeini police apparatus. It was these acts and the US-funded operations against the Iranian government (support of opposition groups, monetary support for Iraq’s bloody war against Iran in the 1980s, to name two) that eventually dashed the revolutionary hopes of many of the Iranian people and led to Iran’s current situation.

However, if GW and his friends think they can defeat Iran, they are wrong. Although there are sharp divisions amongst the Iranian people both in the government and in the streets and villages, any military attack by the United States and/or Israel will cause those divisions to disappear. The Iranian people would unite to repel any such adventure. In addition, such an act would only serve to destroy the more moderate and secular elements in Iran, since war seems to bring the most reactionary elements to the fore in every country where there is a war. One need only look at America’s current political climate for an example of this phenomenon. Despite the basically imperial nature of American foreign policy under Bill Clinton, there were genuine attempts by his administration to engage states considered “rogue” by the United States (like Iran) in a dialogue aimed at defusing the potential for war with those states. Now, with the resurgence of the warmakers inside the Beltway, this dialogue is forgotten and naked imperialism is back in vogue with the policymakers. Of course, should their war plans proceed as they hope, none of these men and women will be putting their lives on the front line. In fact, if previous US wars are any indication, neither will any of their relatives unless they volunteer to do so-a very unlikely proposition.

It is important for anyone opposed to war for whatever reasons to challenge the Bush administration’s characterization of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” While there may be several aspects of these countries’ political and social situations with which we may disagree, they are no more “evil” than any other nation. If one were to apply the reasons to the United States that GW gives for wanting to wage war on the nations in his “axis”, s/he would most certainly find that the United States also fits many of GW’s categories of “evil.” It’s all a matter of perspective. Indeed, if the export of weapons of mass destruction is a reason to go to war, then the United States, which exports more such weapons than any other country by far, would be fair game for an attack by pretty much any army. Of course, this isn’t going to happen (we hope) to the United States, nor should it happen elsewhere.

Ron Jacobs can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu