The Iranian Students Association and the End of the Shah

The Iranian revolution in 1978-1980 was one of the watershed events of the last fifty years.  It was also considerably more complex than the usually two-dimensional version presented in western conversation.  In other words, it was much more than an overthrow of the Shah by religious fundamentalists who hated western influence and US interference.  Despite the revisionist history told in most US takes on the events in Iran during the period, the Shah’s modernization of Iran was not opposed by many of those involved in the movement to end his reign.  However, virtually everyone involved was against the accumulation of wealth and power by the Shah and his class that modernization created.  Furthermore, the brutality of his regime against dissenters intensified that opposition.

Volumes of literature has been published regarding the history of Iran, especially that history after World War Two.  The primary event in that history is the election of Mossadegh as Prime Minister in 1951 on a left-leaning nationalist program that demanded nationalization of Iran’s oil production and his subsequent CIA orchestrated overthrow in 1953.  Once Mossadegh was removed and replaced by the Shah, the resistance to the Shah began. Likewise, so did Washington’s military and economic domination of Iran.  Indeed, Iran was one of the largest recipients of US military aid from 1954-1979.  This aid was not provided just to project US imperial power in the oil-rich and politically precarious Middle East.  It was also used by the Shah’s government to crack down on dissent—dissent that came increasingly from the Left.

Perhaps the most represented social strata among the radical opposition were high school and university students.  As Manijeh Moradian details in her recently published text This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States, student radicals were not only present in Iran’s schools, but also across the global north.  Indeed, she argues that it was Iranian student radicals that provided much of the radical anti-imperialist analysis in the early to mid-1960s student movements in countries like the United States and West Germany.  The history she writes reveals the contradictions present in US imperialism’s encouragement of the Shah’s secular “modernization” project.  In doing so, she discusses the role educational exchange programs between the United States and its client states were (and are) an integral part of Washington’s soft imperial policy to win hearts and minds in its satellites.  Of course, as this text makes clear, foreign students involved in such programs can turn them on their head and use their educational experience as a place for organizing opposition to the governments that hope to enlist them in their empire project.

The Iranian Student Association (ISA) was the number one organization for Iranian students in the US during the years of the Shah.  It began in 1952 as a social organization created with the support of the Iranian embassy in the United States and the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), which was later financially linked to the Central Intelligence Agency.  By 1960, it was a politically radical organization dedicated to opposing the Shah and US imperialism.  Author Moradian describes this transition via profiles of various members of the organization, discussions of the ISA’s literature and its actions.  The latter included protests against the Shah and his entourage during their US visits and disruptions of university graduation ceremonies in the US where the Shah was given honorary degrees for his role in supporting Washington’s designs for empire—one of US higher education’s fundamental roles then and now.

Like most leftist student groups, there would be fissures over theory and tactics inside the ISA.    As would be expected, many of these differences reflected differences among the left in Iran.  However, even these disruptions did not detract from the goal of ending the Shah’s regime.  It was this determination together with the paranoia of the Shah’s regime and Washington’s concern about the growing alliance between US student radicals and the ISA radicals that provided a rationale that allowed Iran’s secret police (SAVAK) to work in the United States.  In addition to the instances of operations by SAVAK agents detailed in This Flame Within, I remember an instance at the University of Maryland in 1975 where an Iranian student was removed from a picket line protesting proposed budget cuts by two men in dark clothes.  He was tossed into a black limousine.  He returned to campus a couple days later.  In a related incident, my father—who was an USAF officer working with the National Security Agency (NSA)–was visited by a couple men after I attended an ISA meeting as a representative of the anti-imperialist Revolutionary Student Brigade (RSB) .  The topic of the meeting was how to protest a future visit to Washington by the Shah.  To his credit, my father told them I was an adult and had my own politics; politics he disagreed with.

A considerably more violent example of the SAVAK’s activities inside the US took place in 1977 during another visit from he ruler of Iran.  I went to the first day of protests. I hitchhiked to DC from suburban Maryland with a friend who had been politically active since 1969 and very involved in the student strike at the University of Maryland after the US invasion of Cambodia in 1970.  The fellow who gave us a ride was a member of the Sioux nation and had been involved in the November 1972 American Indian movement occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He spent a few months in prison and had given up on militant politics.  Nonetheless, he drove us to the protest site, gave us some bandannas to help against tear gas and drove off.  After a few speeches against the shah and US imperialism, cops on horseback started surrounding the park. Then hundreds of pro-shah protesters and SAVAK agents ran towards us waving sticks and piece of re-bar. The cops let them through. Fights broke out and tear gas filled e the air in one corner of the park. We did our best to defend ourselves as we sought an escape from the cops and the SAVAK.

Moradian’s text is considerably more than stories about protests.  Her profiles are discussions of the culture within the Iranian student community, the struggles of women to break out of traditional roles, and the relationship between the revolutionary movement in Iran and the US.  There are also reflections on the interactions between US radical groups and the Iranian student radicals; interaction perhaps best expressed in the solidarity between the aforementioned RSB and the ISA in the mid-1970s through 1979, when the RSB’s parent organization split into at least two different groups.  Regarding the struggles of women to get beyond the roles society had assigned and too many male radicals had accepted: US women were struggling with the same issues.  The nature of women’s roles in the radical left during the 1960s and 1970s can perhaps best be explained in the words of an Iranian woman who described her experience as being empowering but not liberating.

Most readers know how the Iranian revolution went from a broad-based struggle that included leftists of all stripes, Shia Muslims, bourgeois liberals and social democrats to a theocracy that is both anti-imperialist and socially reactionary and essentially capitalist.  Past interventions by foreign governments in this transition are still being uncovered while other interventions continue today.  The Flame Within provides an excellent summary of the relationship between the Khomeini factions in the revolutionary movement and the Left.  It also discusses the post-revolutionary diaspora and its role in reshaping the US understanding of the Iranian revolution.

Underlying the author’s narrative is a tenet that is both unique and obvious, not just in the Iranian revolution, but in every left revolutionary movement in the world.  That is that no ideology can (or should) ignore the relationship between women’s freedom and the fundamental role it plays in human liberation from imperialism, racism, capitalism and other universal oppressions.  It can’t be stated forcefully enough—this is an important and instructive text. One doesn’t have to agree with the entirety of the author’s analysis or conclusion to understand that the discussions of mistakes of the revolutionary Iranian left regarding the liberation of women are important to today’s and future radical left anti-imperialist movements.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: