How did western intelligence agencies pave the way for Iranians to stand irreversibly against the pro-western leader?
The Iranian Revolution is completing 45 years this week. The Western alliance remained oblivious to the profound resentment brewing among the Iranian populace towards their final monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Embracing an illusion of unshakeable authority, Pahlavi championed his "White Revolution" as a symbol of progress, positioning Iran as an inspiration of Western liberalism and economic advancement. However, beneath the facade of prosperity, discontent festered, unbeknownst to many outside observers.
Ascending to power at the youthful age of 21, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi inherited a legacy shaped by his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. Presenting himself as a contemporary incarnation of Cyrus the Great, Pahlavi orchestrated a grand spectacle in 1970 at the ancient ruins of Persepolis, aiming to impress global leaders and assert his dynastic legitimacy. Yet, as he revelled in adulation, the populace endured poverty and repression, obscured by the tactics of the Iranian secret police and the support of the US-backed intelligence apparatus, SAVAK, highlighting the growing chasm between perception and reality. Despite the Shah's efforts to bolster his legitimacy through lavish displays of power, the elaborate festivities only served to underscore the decadence and detachment of his regime, hastening its eventual downfall.
In the mid-1970s, however, mounting public discontent reached a tipping point, compelling the Shah to offer apologies for his regime's excesses. Yet, these gestures failed to appease the swelling tide of mass protests, culminating in the seismic upheaval of the Islamic Revolution. The revolution's aftermath witnessed the swift collapse of the Shah's reign, marking the end of a monarchy that had endured for millennia. This monumental event exposed the limitations of Western intelligence and intervention, reshaping the geopolitical terrain of the 20th century.
In August 1978, despite the escalating unrest, the CIA infamously concluded that "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation." Figures like Alan Dulles and Richard Bissell grappled with the moral ambiguity of clandestine operations, revealing the intricate power dynamics at play in global affairs. In reality, the animosity directed towards Iran stems not from any genuine political ideology, but rather from the relentless pursuit of control over the oil industry. The concocted narrative surrounding this issue is often branded by the CIA as 'Black Propaganda'.
The 1953 coup, orchestrated by Western powers including the United States and the United Kingdom against Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, exemplifies manipulative tactics employed to safeguard Western interests. Operation Ajax, as it was known, set a precedent for similar interventions in other countries, including Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, and Greece. However, this successful coup, aimed at preserving Western dominance in the region, sparked widespread opposition and laid the groundwork for Iran's subsequent revolutionary fervour under Ayatollah Khomeini's leadership. It underscores the deceptive facade of Western foreign policy, which often masks imperial ambitions with the rhetoric of democracy and liberty, perpetuating cycles of exploitation and subjugation.
Before Mossadegh's premiership, Iran's oil industry was firmly under British control through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's monopoly. The nationalization of this asset in 1951 significantly weakened British interests in the region, revealing strategic miscalculations. Rohan Butler's suppressed analysis offers crucial insights into the complex blend of political, economic, and strategic factors behind the crisis. The fervent political milieu preceding the nationalization and the subsequent coup in 1953 has made it one of the most scrutinized events in Iranian-Western relations. Mossadegh, central to this narrative, symbolizes resistance against autocracy and foreign intervention, his collapse was seen as the moment when Iran's democratic aspirations were thwarted, paving the way for the reinstatement of autocratic rule under Western patronage.
In this context, the Iranian Revolution marks a pivotal moment not only in Iran's modern history but also in the geopolitics of West Asia, as it overthrew the monarchy and established the Islamic Republic. While its broad contours are well-documented, exploring lesser-known aspects of the revolution reveals its complexity and lasting significance. A diverse coalition of secularists, nationalists, liberals, and leftists united to express long-suppressed grievances against the Shah's despotic rule, culminating in widespread discontent and his eventual ousting. Despite its success, the revolution left lingering resentment towards Western powers, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, perceived as backers of the Shah's regime. This suspicion of foreign interference continues to shape Iranian attitudes, while the revolution's influence extended beyond Iran's borders, inspiring Islamic movements and revolutions in neighbouring countries and reshaping the Middle East's geopolitical dynamics.
The charismatic leadership and religious authority of Ayatollah Khomeini played a pivotal role in galvanizing popular support for the revolution, while the participation of bazaar traders, a powerful economic class, amplified its momentum. The Iranian Revolution serves as a nuanced case study, highlighting the complex socio-political dynamics inherent in revolutionary movements. Religious ideology played a central role in mobilizing and legitimizing political dissent, underscoring its potent influence in effecting societal change. The revolution's aftermath underscores the importance of inclusive governance, warning against the marginalization of dissenting voices, which can lead to authoritarianism and sectarian strife. Its far-reaching repercussions underscore the interconnectedness of global politics and the imperative of respecting national sovereignty to avoid unintended consequences.
Decades after the Iranian Revolution, Iran continues to grapple with its profound and multifaceted legacy, both internally and externally. This pivotal event serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of revolutionary fervour on the socio-political structure, showcasing its transformative potential alongside its enduring complexities. Iran's foreign policy is deeply rooted in its cultural and psychological heritage, characterized by a complex blend of pride, victimization, and a steadfast commitment to independence.
Iranians draw upon their rich cultural legacy, tracing their heritage back to ancient civilizations like Zoroastrianism, which shaped major world religions. Yet, they also harbour collective memories of centuries of foreign oppression and exploitation, including imperialistic endeavours by the West that overthrew Iran's democracy. This historical backdrop profoundly influences Iran's perception of foreign powers, particularly the United States, which is often viewed through the lens of economic and strategic interests rather than genuine support for democratic principles. In navigating Iran's foreign relations, it's imperative to understand the intricate interplay of cultural, historical, and geopolitical factors that shape its policies. Iran's complex relationship with the Western world, spanning centuries of engagement and confrontation, underscores the nuanced nature of its foreign policy decisions. From the Safavid dynasty's establishment of Twelver Shiism to European powers' economic and strategic interests during the Qajar dynasty, Iran's historical legacy continues to inform its interactions with the international community, highlighting the importance of historical context in understanding contemporary foreign relations.
The Iranian Revolution offers a nuanced study of power dynamics in history, where victories can sow the seeds of future resistance. Despite facing formidable challenges, Iran has experienced remarkable advancements across various sectors over time. Statistics from UNESCO demonstrate significant improvements in literacy rates and life expectancy, showcasing the nation's commitment to education and healthcare. Additionally, Iran's economic panorama has undergone substantial growth, with the nation ascending in global rankings and witnessing remarkable expansion in sectors like space technology.
The revolution's triumph over Western-backed forces not only reshaped Iran's domestic political structure but also reverberated across the globe, inspiring similar movements and challenging Western dominance. Unfortunately, many Western strategists and policymakers are quick to jump to conclusions with their preconceived notions, potentially contributing to the turmoil in the Red Sea and the chronic disasters in West Asia, spanning from Palestine to Syria and beyond. The essence of revolution, however, as emphasized by Lu Xun in his writings, lies in its purpose: to ensure people can live, rather than face death.
(The writer is a Sri Lankan journalist and worked as a communications consultant for the Government of Sri Lanka. Views are personal)