Welcome to Part 3 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.
It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!
Missed Part 1? Read it here.
You also missed Part 2? Wtf is your problem? Read it here.
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And now: Part 3
IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!
Last week, we discussed the Iranian people’s growing hatred of the Shah of Iran. One guy in particular was especially pissed: Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the first Scary Mullah With A Beard with whom we Westerners would become acquainted. He thought the Shah’s reforms were pushing Iran to become too western and he didn’t like the rights they afforded to women and non-Muslims. He was so vocal about it that the Shah kicked him out of the country in 1964. I like to imagine he promptly joined the Beatles on their world tour, singing backup on “I Want to Hold Your Hand (but I Can’t)” and When I Saw Her Standing There (I Averted My Eyes).”
The Last To Know
Back in Iran, things were going swimmingly, at least according to American intelligence agencies. In a sign that American intelligence officers likely only had sources close to the Shah, rather than sources among the people, a CIA analysis in August 1978 said Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation,” and a US Defense Intelligence Agency cable from September 28, 1978, stated that the Shah “is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years.” Today, we would say, “The intel on that was not 100 percent.” I am guessing they only had sources right at the top. Because who is always the last to know a ruler is about to be overthrown? The ruler who gets overthrown.
Khomeini did not, in fact, join the Beatles (how different would history have been? I’m guessing we’d all be saying, “Ringo who?”). Instead, he fomented from abroad for change in Iran. At first, he did his fomenting from right next door in Najaf, Iraq. But after too much fomenting, Iraq expelled Khomeini—and his beard—in 1978. Given how deeply pious and anti-Western he was, he went to…Paris. Wait, what? Did he want tickets to the Moulin Rouge? Did he want to eat frogs’ legs, as revenge for Kermit’s manipulation of Iran’s democracy?
Khomeini actually wanted to go to Algeria. However, that country’s president at the time, Houari Boumediene, was in a coma, which made accepting an international pariah as a guest a little complicated (although it’s a great premise for a film, “Weekend at Houari’s”). The French, for their part, were a wee bit more cynical about the Shah’s peacocky rule and American support of it. They decided to hedge their bets and let Khomeini foment from Paris. The Shah figured Khomeini was too far from Iran to do much effective fomenting. But foment he did. And it was powerful. Plus, France had a much better communications infrastructure than Iraq. Getting his message of foment to Iran was now easier. Basically, there was a lot of fomenting, and now with a French accent.
Also, Western TV was like, Yo! Who is this dude with a beard who hates oppression? In a way, Khomeini was an early reality TV star, a pioneer of sorts. As he gained popularity, he went total Survivor and started conspiring to vote the Shah off the island. Only in this reality show, long beards were not considered hipster, and the religious tones were a little worrisome to some. Khomeini wanted to give the revolution a democratic uprising look rather than a religious one. He partnered with leftists and nationalists so the movement could put forward its best secular, clean-shaven face. The nationalists in particular were keen to see the Shah go and, as they were mostly Mossadegh supporters, feared for some crazy ass reason that the CIA would push a countercoup to keep the Shah in place, LOL like that would ever happen. In any case, the non-religious or less religious factions went along with Khomeini, thinking they would get to influence how the government would be formed after the Shah was gone. Welp, funny story about that.
The uprisings pushed the Shah to leave Iran on January 17, 1979. He knew he was never coming back. He left his last prime minister in place to deal with what was coming. The prime minister allowed protests, released political opponents, and allowed Khomeini back in the country, maybe hoping it would buy him some goodwill. It didn’t. Khomeini denounced the prime minister and the government and named his own. The Iranian people had traded the Shah for the Supreme Leader.
Scary bearded guy threw us Westerners for a loop. What was this religion that sounded more like a swear word that really cool British exchange student had taught us over beers one night? Shite? What is this?
Khomeini made it clear from the beginning he wasn’t going to be super accommodating to the nationalists and leftists and others who had helped in the revolution. Instead, he went full theocracy. He advanced the idea of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, meaning (at least in Khomeini’s interpretation) that an Islamic jurist—in this case, Khomeini (surprise!)—is responsible for the people. Khomeini set up God’s Government, with himself as Supreme Leader, overseeing the Council of the Guardians, who would be experts in Islamic Law. Only he could say what He wanted. Going against Khomeini was going against God. Yikes.