Archive for the ‘1978’ Category

The fall of the shah

shahThe shah of Iran fell in 1979, overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini, a 76-year-old religious scholar who did not fire a shot.

The shah thought of himself as a king, but he was in fact a dictator of a banana republic. America helped to bring him to power in the Second World War and kept him in power to protect the oil of the Persian Gulf from Russia and as a counterweight to the Arabs.

He was hated by the people, as a dictator, as someone who licked America’s boot. But the shah had a powerful army and a secret service to match, Savak. He crushed his enemies – all except for one: Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini lived in exile, in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. He had a network of supporters inside Iran. The shah kept an eye on them but never moved against them. Perhaps out of respect for religion. But after crushing everyone else, the religious leaders were the only ones left who could challenge the shah.

Khomeini’s supporters kept asking him to start an uprising to overthrow the shah. But he kept saying, “Not yet.”

Then in January 1978 Savak planted an article accusing Khomeini of being a British agent. Khomeini said: “Now.”

His supporters staged a protest. The army crushed it, killing dozens. Forty days later came the mourning, which became a protest. More violence. And so on.

It seemed strange to the shah that Khomeini would have that much support. He thought America must be behind it, so he blamed foreigners for the unrest.

The protests would not go away. He changed prime ministers, several times. Nothing helped. Khomeini would not give an inch: he did not want to work with the shah – he wanted him gone. He kept up the protests.

In September 1978 the shah tried to crush the protests once and for all by military force. Some say thousands were killed. It failed. Worse still, it gave the military a distaste for shooting on its own people.

He put the country under military rule. But then later he freed a thousand political prisoners on his birthday and arrested some of his past ministers. His enemies saw it as weakness, his friends as betrayal, his wife as confusion.

When people saw that the military would no longer shoot them down, the protests grew. In December 1978, on Ashura, one of the biggest holidays in Iran, millions filled the streets, dressed in black for as far as you could see. It soon became apparent that they were protesting against the shah and for Khomeini.

On January 16th 1979 the shah left the country. He knew he was not coming back: he took his father’s ashes with him. The prime minister now ran the country.

On February 1st Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years of exile. No one shot down his plane, not even Mossad, the Israeli secret service, despite being asked. Six million came out to greet Khomeini.

By February 11th the military swung behind him. It was over.


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