For God and Country

The Shah: King of King

Photo: Abbas / Gamma

The real mystery of the Iranian revolution is not that it happened, but what has become of it. The spectacular fall of the Shah may have taken the CIA, the Western press and even the Shah himself by surprise. But scholars of the Middle East now offer us a score of reasons for the revolution. History is, after all, predictable. What's lacking now is real insight into the workings of the Islamic Republic that has supplanted the Pahlavi dynasty. The iniquities of the Shah's regime were known well before it crumbled. They covered every dark shade of the dictatorial spectrum: from diabolical torture to perverted government to million dollar frauds. SAVAK, the secret police, earnt the Shah's reputation for brutal violation of human rights. Its effectiveness relied on routine torture, sham trials and a network of informers. Masoud Ahmadzadeh is but one victim who told how SAVAK interrogators had tied him to 'an iron frame rather like a bed, covered with wire mesh which was electrically heated like a toaster'. 'No country in the world,' reported Amnesty International in 1975 'has a worse record in human rights than Iran.' And this in the middle of the bank-bursting oil boom that saw national income treble from 17.3 billion dollars in 1972 to 54.6 billion in 1978. Wealth of this magnitude is not easily squandered. But the Shah had a passion for the most expensive consumer goods of all - sophisticated weapons - and managed to spend $20 billion in ten years. The leftovers were shared at home between corrupt officials and capricious development schemes. The twist in the Shah's feverish 'modernisation' plans is that they were not all had. And within them were them seeds of his own downfall. During his 25 year reign some $30 billion dollars were spent on economic and social projects. While most villages were neglected, in the towns both industry and education mushroomed dramatically - creating a new working class from the dwindling peasantry. Up to 90 per cent of young men emigrated from small villages in search of jobs in the city: 800,000 in factories, 500,000 in the construction industry - in all 1.7 million urban wage earners out of a 1977 work force of 10 million. In the same period the salaried middle class - civil servants, engineers, managers, teachers - doubled in size to 30,000, while university enrolment multiplies eleven times to 154,000. The upshot of this uncontrolled growth was massive, conspicuous inequality. While a young graduate could earn $4,500 a month, a construction worker got $5.50 a day. By 1977 nearly half of Tehran's four million had inadequate housing. The city had no sewage system and no public transportation. And set a world apart from both workers and professionals were the Shah's court, the 'petro-bourgeoisie', 45 families who controlled 85 per cent of big private enterprise. They seemed oblivious to the chaos mounting on their doorstep. When the Shah's younger brother, owner of a helicopter factory, was tackled about the city's traffic nightmare he replied: 'If people don't like traffic jams why don't they buy helicopters?' Meanwhile it was costing more to grow a bag of wheat than to buy one in the urban markets, and poor villagers continued streaming to Tehran in search of work. But it was not distorted development alone that undermined the Shah's rule. His fatal mistake was in trying to deny political power to everyone - even those who might have supported him. By 1975 all political parties and trade unions were state-run and infiltrated by SAVAK. The Shah consistently ignored the advice of his government planners. The ranks of professionals grew ever more resentful as they were denied both responsibility and a larger slice of the oil wealth. Then came the crack-down on bazaar merchants and the religious establishment. Redevelopment was planned and legislation was tightened. Big entrepreneurs could vat loans from state banks at six per cent interest, but merchants had to pay their moneylenders 20-30 per cent. 'The Shah will destroy us,' complained one shopkeeper, 'the banks are taking over. The big stores are undermining our livelihoods and the government will flatten our bazaars to make room for staff offices.'

King of Kings - ruled by money alone

Pressure on orthodox Moslems was also stepped-up. Women who insisted on wearing the chador were banned from the universities, and polygamy was outlawed. Clerics protested bitterly that the Shah was trying to 'nationalise religion'. The Qom seminary was shut and at least five prominent Ayatollahs were imprisoned. In the end every section of Iranian society had unsettled grievances against the Shah. Martial law was declared on September 8th 1978 but could not stop the million-strong demonstrations chanting 'death to the Shah'. It seems - perhaps because President Carter never gave him the green light - that the Shah decided not to drown the revolution in blood. By October the Khuzestan oil workers were on strike and the regime's life-line was slowly cut. Without oil or money and with no support from foreign allies the repressive machine ground to a halt. Defeated and humiliated, the Shah left on January 16th 1979 for the 'holiday' from which he was never to return. During the revolution Ayatollah ' Khomeini had become the name on everyone's lips. Exiled in 1963 for his earlier opposition to the Shah, Khomeini had remained a dogged and outspoken critic of Iran's 'modernisation'. His simple messages were played on tapes smuggled into the mosques, urging his followers to revolt. Supporting him was a potent mixture of radical theologians, old fashioned bazaar merchants and the devout, but un-educated lower classes. The network of religious leaders offered the only widespread organisation for the revolution. Combined with the bazaar's money and its influence over workers and families, mass mobilisation became possible. The secular opposition faced an awkward choice - to be left on the sidelines or to march with the faithful beneath the Khomeini placards. Almost all chose to join forces. Their one shared aim was to overthrow the Shah. From the start it was an uneasy partnership.

Millions support Khomeini, but since the revolution the crowds have dwindled.

Khomeini's writings on 'Islamic Government' were published before the revolution, but not until now have they been spelt out in practice. The cornerstone of his theology is the conviction that Islamic laws should not be confined to religious or personal morality - they must be embodied in public leadership. It is left to the faqih - 'the just, pious, learned, capable, and courageous jurist' - to interpret divine law for the people. 'Islamic Government,' writes Khomeini, 'is the government of the laws of God over people.' It 'must belong to the faqihs and not to those who due to their ignorance must follow the faqihs'. Within the hierarchy of the Shi'a mosque the faqih is 'elected' by longstanding agreement amongst all Ayatollahs. But Iran's new constitution actually names Khomeini as faqih. This gives him supreme I power over all institutions of government. Doesn't this make Khomeini just as much a dictator as the Shah, ask his critics. In principle the answer must be yes. Khomeini's defence is that the constitution was drawn up by elected representatives and then put to a popular referendum. But there has been plenty of opposition within Iran. Government based on Islamic law is 'neither feasible nor practicable, nor desirable' argues civil rights lawyer Hasan Nazih. Having been made Chairman of the powerful National Iranian Oil Company Nazih was accused of treason and dismissed. Also upset by the constitution are Kurds and other minorities who have fought hard for more regional autonomy but still without signs of success. Like Iranians who are not Moslems - either Shi'a or Sunni, orthodox or unorthodox - they see no justice in having to submit to laws based on this or that interpretation of the Koran.

President Bani-Sadr, 75 percent of the vote but still haunted by Khomeini's power.

The difficulty of getting things right in Islamic terms has made government difficult. Power, other than that invested in Khomeini, is not clearly defined. So often was Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan overruled he eventually complained that his administration was like a 'knife without a blade'. President Bani-Sadr now has to contend with a 12-man 'Guardianship Council' empowered to veto parliamentary decisions that do not conform to Islamic law. A succession of turnabouts in Bani-Sadr's own policies has shaken his credibility. And when Khomeini admonishes him, Bani-Sadr's sweeping election victory looks rather shallow. At present Khomeini oversees the warring factions. The Islamic Republic Party led by Ayatollah Behehti provides the inspiration for fundamentalist opposition to the President. The pro-Soviet Tudeh party and the Marxist Fedayin rather meekly lend their support to Khomeini on an 'anti-imperialist' ticket, but still wince at his anti-communist fervour. 'We are fighting against international communism,' cries Khomeini, 'to the same degree that we are fighting against the Western world.' Khomeini's condemnation of the Shah's decadence had great appeal amongst conservative Moslems genuinely worried about their daughters meeting boys at the cinema. Similarly, public support swells behind calls for purges of the universities. 'Free yourself from the evil of the "isms",' Khomeini instructs "intellectuals", 'so that the universities may become healthy places for the study of higher Islamic teachings.' Speeches like this make it clear that Khomeini and his followers are calling for nothing less than a complete 'cultural revolution' in Iran. 'We shall confront the world with our ideology,' he declares, exhorting the youth to 'take the Koran in one hand and the weapon in the other'. For those Iranians with a liking for Western culture, or whose religious sympathies rest elsewhere, the future under a strict Islamic regime looks grim. Women looking for Western-style liberation will have to start from scratch. However, the regime cannot be judged on religious grounds alone. Equally important are the changes that it offers for those oppressed by the Shah in the name of Western capitalism. This is where the judgement gets difficult. What are the Islamic regime's economic policies? And who do they benefit? The Iranian economy came to a standstill during the revolution. Oil production stopped, factory workers streamed onto the streets and offices were shut. Evidence about recovery is scarce. Oil production has resumed at about a third of previous levels. The Shah was pumping it out as fast as possible. The new regime is more conservation-minded, but also suffering from the loss of US and European technicians. Most factories are open again but 1979 production was 50 per cent down. And shops are hard hit by the new-found austerity of their customers. Between two and three million are reported to be unemployed. Before the Shah's downfall up to three billion dollars a year was being spent on imported food. Add to this the needs of the 1.5 million people who flooded into Tehran during and after the revolution, and the 35 per cent increase in food prices during 1979 and the result is a massive problem. The only solution consistent with the goal of self-sufficiency set by Khomeini is a massive return to the land and huge increases in agricultural production. There are some signs of improvement. Asghar Ebrahimi, Governor of the Western Province of Ham claims wheat production is up ten times on last years' disastrous harvest. Next year he promises not to 'leave a square metre unplanted'. His example will need to be followed right across the country if Iran's dependence on imports is to be wiped out. Research into the aspirations of young villagers brings more pessimistic conclusions. Most had some experience of city life under the Shah and still want to buy watches, transistor radios, motorbikes. They see no contradiction between religion and pleasure, respecting the clergy for their piety, but mocking them for their asceticism. Their understanding of Islamic government is not a theological one. They want higher wages, medical insurance, rural electrification, health clinics - all the trappings of modern life. Once tasted, such 'luxuries' are hard to forget. The Shah gave his people a materialist appetite that the Islamic regime must also attempt to satisfy - unless the mullah's revolution can change no only the policies of government but the hearts of people.

New Internationalist issue 091 magazine cover This article is from the September 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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