After enduring decades of economic exploitation under the British, followed by a CIA and MI6 coup in 1953 to overthrow Iranian PM Mossadegh and replace him with Western-backed monarch the Shah, Iran finally stood up to Britain and the United States. Iranians took to the streets by the millions, regained its sovereignty as well control over its natural resources and dealt a heavy blow to imperialism, setting the stage for resistance and anti-imperialist movements to this day.
Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 was a monumental event in many aspects, with long lasting effects still felt to this date.
To better understand the roots of Iran’s Islamic Revolution we have to go back in time to the beginning of the 20th century.
This is when the British Empire was at its height with around a quarter of the world’s entire population under its rule and around a quarter of the Earth’s landmass under its dominion.
At this time the British were occupying India, Australia, Canada, and vast swaths of Africa, one place that wasn’t officially part of the Empire, but in practical terms, very much under its rule was, in fact, Iran, with the Russian Empire occupying the northern part of Iran and the British exerting their sphere of influence over the southern part of Iran.
Now as with many imperialist endeavors a lot of this story has to do with natural resources, particularly oil. In 1908 oil was discovered in Iran, a British company known back then as Burma oil, founded a subsidiary company called the Anglo Persian oil company. This Anglo Persian oil company installed its first pipeline just one year later in 1909 and built an enormous refinery in Abadan, which was completed later in 1912. And from that moment on this company in Britain effectively began stealing oil from the Iranian people for the following six decades.
Former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and in charge of the British Royal Navy at the time. He realised what a lucrative goldmine this was.
He convinced the British government to buy an ownership share in the Anglo Persian oil company in 1914, and he transitioned the Royal Navy’s fleets from coal to petroleum, which proved to be of immense use in World War One, and World War Two, when the British Navy was the envy of other empires at the time.
The British however, took the Iranians for granted and gave them crumbs. with Iran receiving a mere 16% of all oil revenue, for its own oil. If that wasn’t bad enough, this tiny amount of 16% was calculated by the United Kingdom’s government in private, without ever showing the Iranians the books. And on top of that this was done after taxes had already been paid by the British government to the British government.
This blatant theft and plundering of Iran’s Natural Resources became common knowledge, and people rightfully resented the British and their colonial arrogance.
In the years after World War Two, there was one politician who would soon put an end to this, Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh was known for wanting to nationalize Iran’s oil fields and just like many Iranians held a grudge against the 1933 agreement, made by Reza Shah, which gave enormous concessions to the British to continue plundering the oil at Abadan.
Mossadegh was appointed Prime Minister in 1951, and soon thereafter Iran’s Parliament moved to nationalize all of Iran’s oil fields, including Abadan which, at the time, housed the largest oil refinery in the world.
That should give you an idea of how badly the British wanted to keep their hands on it. They attempted to stop Iran from controlling and using its own oil refineries through sabotage and other clandestine operations. An embargo or blockade was also imposed on Iran in order to stop it from being able to sell its own oil on the global market.
The British felt that they had been robbed somehow, because they had discovered the oil, they had built the refineries and they had developed Abadan. This is of course absurd, but the British would not accept this condition for long, and instead they resorted to the typical dirty tactics used by imperialists, they plotted a coup.
The British called it operation boot. Meanwhile, the Americans who were helping them refer to it as Operation Ajax. The goal was to oust Mossadegh and reinstall the Shah, and retake the oil.
Now while people often attribute the coup of 1953 to the CIA, and that’s partly correct, the role of the British cannot be overlooked. We know for example that Mossadegh’s chief of police Mahmoud Afshartoos was kidnapped, tortured and executed by Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.
Once this coup was completed and Mossadegh was deposed, the Americans and British moved quickly to help the Shah establish and train the SAVAK, Iran’s secret police. The SAVAK were trained by the CIA, who had lots of experience, training people in torture, all over the world, in Jakarta, in Latin America, as part of their Cold War campaign against communists.
Now, the CIA training of the SAVAK taught them how to repress dissidents, activists and anyone who opposed the Shah. This is collectively remembered in Iran as a period of immense struggle and great suffering.
The CIA finally released documents, entitled ‘The battle for Iran’, showing its involvement in the coup of 1953. The United Kingdom, however, to this day, maintains secrecy regarding the matter, and has still not owned up or confessed to its damning role in the overthrow of Mossadegh.
Oil was one of the most lucrative things for the British Empire in Iran, and Mossadegh’s nationalisation represented a threat for them. What are some of the other things that aren’t very much talked about the other economic and political reasons for which the UK backed the Shah, along with the US?
Yeah, that’s a great question and as you correctly say the support of the UK for the Shah was based on oil, and Mossadegh wanted to nationalize the oil. So, the British, (and) to a lesser extent the Americans, were upset about that. And they backed the Shah in opposition to Mossadegh.
So that was one reason but as the years went by, actually, Iran got more concessions regarding sovereignty on oil. So a big reason, another reason that the UK and the US and also the West more generally supported the Shah was because the Shah was a big ally against anti imperialist movements in the region, and perhaps in the world at large, and also he was not a big annoyance when it came to the question of Zionism and Palestinian independence.
And there’s actually I think a good analogy to be made here to the Tsars. So before the Russian Revolution a lot of the anti imperialist and progressive movements in the world were opposed to the Tsars, the Russians, and in a similar way in this period so from 1950s onward to the present day. I would say a lot of the anti imperialist movements are opposed to the US and the UK and the West more generally, and the Shah, since he was friendly to the US and the UK, he could be used as an instrument against these anti imperialist movements.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
And a lot of people in Iran remember this period for its brutal repression. One of the most notable events perhaps is referred to as Black Friday. We asked Mr Zarrinnal to elaborate on that for us as well as the secret police, the SAVAK, and just in general how political dissidents were treated and what the climate was like under the Shah.
So there were numerous demonstrations preceding the revolution. And there was one very famous protest, known as Black Friday in English nomenclature. And it happened in what was called the Zhalleh Square at the time and they changed the name after the revolution to Martyr’s square or Meiydane Shohada.
In this demonstration, the Shah’s forces killed a number of people in this Black Friday demonstration so it became a big event of the revolution that’s remembered every year. Black Friday was an example of the wide variety of demonstrations that were happening.
And also it indicated the high participation in the Iranian Revolution. Because if you look at the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution or coming even more forward, the Romanian revolution of 1989, the participation usually was about a couple percent it wasn’t very high but in the in the Iranian Revolution, the estimates are that 10% of the population marched, and actively participated in making the revolution.
Regarding the SAVAK, or the secret police. So just as the Shah’s security forces were on the streets containing the protests, the SAVAK would also gather intelligence, and they were also close to the imperialist US. And they had a close eye on the activists and the dissidents.
But what’s interesting is that the Shah, generally gave more space to the Islamic dissent to operate and they were harsher on the socialist Marxist and leftist dissent. And, you know, an example, I think it’s a very powerful example of the Shah’s surveillance state, and how his state would treat dissidents and revolutionary opposition that there was a programme connected to the states that was called Goftegoo which means conversation.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
Confession by coercion
There was a conversation between an anchor and a dissident who was in prison and they would bring the prisoner on the show, and they were forced recantation, so the decedent has to recant on live TV and there was one particular short story writer and cultural critic named Ghollamhossein Sa’edi who was tortured in prison, and then he was forced to come on this programme called Goftegoo, and then he had to recant, the things like the the criticism of the Shahs government that he had made, and there’s a very memorable line by a poet named Ahmad Shamloo about what happened to society.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
“What said farewell to Shah’s prison was merely a half living corpse. That man with his wondrous creativity, after the bodily and mostly mental tortures of Evin Prison became utterly lifeless.”
Ahmad Shamloo, Contemporary Iranian Poet
Many in the West, especially the United States, when they think of the Iranian Revolution they always see it through the lens of the hostage crisis, for example the film Argo with Ben Affleck, which they even won an Oscar for this typical Hollywood propaganda film.
Why is that a faux lens to see the revolution through and why does it miss the bigger picture?
It is a very US centric view to look at one of the biggest and most important revolutions of the 20th century. And as we discussed earlier, the real reason for the revolution was the Imperialist support for the Shah that brought the crisis of legitimacy for the Shah. And then I think there might have been anxieties by the revolutionaries that just as in 1953, the US orchestrated a coup d’etat against Mossadegh, again the US could intervene in Iranian affairs.
It’s just a very minor event in the revolution, but from the American point of view, it became the event of the Iranian Revolution and as you said it was represented in really terrible films like Argo. And if you actually look at the DVD cover the blu ray cover for Argo, you see Ben Affleck looking very contemplative and rational looking at a distance but then the Iran revolutionaries almost look like zombies, they’re holding things and they’re kind of just a collective of them looking various scary and menacing about to come and harm people.
So it’s interesting that even though Ben Affleck seems to be a nice anti orientalist, he actually defended Muslims against Bill Maher’s Islamophobia, but these kinds of representations when it comes to political difference are still very much part of the American consciousness.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
In the aftermath of the revolution, how did the West react, especially the US and the UK, both in the short term, and in the long term, to try and undermine Iran, after they suddenly lost control of their puppet monarch.
Yes, I think the attempts to sabotage the revolution started from early on, I mean, I think we can look to the example of the Iraq, Iran war as a very unfortunate war that was devastating for both countries. And I think the West was using Saddam Hussein, as a way to weaken and sabotage the revolution. But I think even the bigger attempts to sabotage the revolution came through such things as a currency sabotage. Since Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iranian currency has collapsed. And that makes it very difficult to actually bring foreign imports in, and also the effect of sanctions. The problem is that when you when Iran has a difficult time transacting in the international banking system. It’s very difficult to get medicines in, but what I think really important to keep in mind that despite the American attempts to sabotage the Iranian Revolution, Iran has a very strong national production industry, and that has allowed it to withstand the American so called maximum pressure.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
Speaking more broadly, what are the main anti imperialist values and lessons that the revolution brought with it and how have they permeated Iranian society and remained throughout the last four decades?
I would say a big value of the Iranian Revolution, is that it’s providing an alternative to the globalisation, that is led by the US and multinational corporations that I’m speaking of is that there’s a uniformity in our taste and leisure and our economic choices and our political models, so everything is becoming uniform. But the thing about Iran is that when, when people travel here they actually see the political and economic difference here. So I think the political model is way different.
So, theocratic democracy is what I would describe as, as, and the thing is, because our cognition our political cognition is so Eurocentric, we see that as an oxymoron. But the thing is I think they can be reconciled just as you can reconcile equality and liberty under liberalism, I think it’s very doable to reconcile theocracy with democracy.
And I think that’s also an interesting Iranian experiment an alternative to the European models that have been universalized since colonialism. So, even though you do have things like class inequality and one of the biggest aspirations of the Iranian Revolution was class equality, but unfortunately, that has been much more difficult to achieve.
But despite this, there is still an alternative to the globalised neoliberal model that the US and multinational corporations are pursuing, and you see that, I think when you travel here. And I think a second importance of value and legacy of the Iranian revolution has been the support for the Palestinian cause. And I see I actually see this as an ideological and also moral commitment to Palestine and the Palestinian people. And that has that that was an early aspirational revolution that has persisted to the present day.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
When we talk about the axis of resistance, we talk about Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran and supported all these various resistance movements and actually not just in the Middle East, but even with Venezuela, this partnership and Alliance. Can we argue that this is very much indeed one of the main values as spurred on by the revolution and how is it that Iran has become this backbone of these anti imperialist efforts?
The support for resistance to imperialism is definitely a value of the Iranian revolution that we see, both in ideology and in practice. And again, I think it definitely has a geopolitical element to it but I think a big part of it is ideological, philosophical and ethical. And I think as you correctly mentioned to it’s not either because, you know, in the Western media the representation is that whoever is Shia, Iran just supports them so they turn it into like Syria and issue but as you mentioned, in Venezuela, I don’t think they have too many Shias. But, Iran is a big supporter of Venezuela. So I think it’s, it’s an ideological and ethical commitment against imperialism. And because of this, they are supporting resistance movements against imperialism, and it’s not easy to do, it comes at a big cost to the country for example, the sanctions, but it is something that the Iranian Revolution is committed to.
Navid Zarrinnal, Columbia University
After the coup in Iran in 1953, the Anglo Iranian oil company changed its name to British Petroleum, or BP, and when the US carried out another coup the following year, in Guatemala to depose the democratically elected president, yet another multinational was at the heart of this dispute, United Fruit Company, and they also rebranded and changed their name afterwards to Chiquita Brands International.
Now while these corporations changed their names and tried to rebrand, the tactic remains very much the same and we continue to see a lot of the same covert means and clandestine operations, being used by the United States and the United Kingdom to overthrow other governments, just for the sake of stealing their resources, as they say, war is a racket.
Now, when the Islamic Revolution came about decades later, this changed everything and shocked the world. All of a sudden the Shah, a puppet monarch loyal to the West, was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic Republic, which was opposed to the west, and to Israel. But it’s important to note that this didn’t happen overnight. Protests and movements to oppose the Shah already started in late 1977 and grew steadily with a coalition of students, leftists Islamists. This broad coalition is a very important factor to which the success of the revolution can be attributed and shows the plurality of the uprising by the Iranian people against the western backed monarchy.
The sea of protestors, Martyr’s Square
Hundreds of 1000s of Iranians, millions in fact, took to the streets in mass protests, prompting the Shah to declare martial law and impose a curfew. This repression became especially violent during this period. One of those horrific moments being the fire at cinema Rex which was, quite frankly, a terrorist attack with over 400 people burned to death inside of a movie theatre by four men working under orders of the SAVAK, the secret police.
Another instance, referred to in English as Black Friday, was at Zhaleh Square, now named Martyrs Square, where the Shah’s troops gunned down hundreds of protesters. It would only be a matter of months, in January of 1979, before the Shah would leave Iran like a coward, pretending that he was going on vacation. He actually never returned, he stayed there in exile, until his death. Shortly thereafter, Imam Khomeini finally returned to Iran.
The return from exile
On February 1, 1979, the founder of the Islamic Republic was greeted by jubilant crowds after spending 15 years in exile. In fact, over a million Iranians flocked to the streets in a show of support.
Widely regarded as both the spiritual, and the de facto leader of the revolution, an Islamic Republic was established through a national referendum, and the adoption of a constitution with Imam Khomeini as Iran’s first leader which marked the beginning of a whole new era for the nation. Finally after decades of rule by a Western backed puppet sponsored by the US and the UK, the Iranians had now finally reclaimed their country by taking to the streets by the million, voting in a new constitution and establishing a new Islamic Republic.
And of course, with that said, Iranians, of course regained sovereignty, not just over their nation but also over their natural resources including the oil, which the British had plundered for so long.
So, again, when we talk about the Islamic revolution of 1979, it’s really important to also talk about the history behind it, about the role that the United States and the United Kingdom, played in the coups in 1953 by installing the Shah who betrayed his country’s riches to these multinational corporations and brutally repressed the Iranian people.
This is a very very important part of history that many Americans and, and many British do not understand, let alone know of. They have hardly any clue of the atrocities the countless coups, the interventions, the meddling and all the nefarious covert operations that their governments carry out all across the world in their names from their point of view, Iranian history starts in 1979, and that’s all they know and it’s completely awash with anti oriental propaganda, which seeks to demonise Iran.
A landmark moment
The truth is that Iran’s revolution represented a landmark moment, the awakening of a movement and the will of the people to fight and regain their sovereignty from the west. This caused a huge upset for Western governments and the multinationals that run them behind the scenes.
In reality, Britain and the United States don’t want other countries to be democracies; they want other countries that they can control, both politically and economically. Only then are those countries considered allies.
You know when nations like Iran who are not only resource rich but rich in culture and history, actually stand up for themselves. It is extremely embarrassing for the suits in Whitehall and Capitol Hill who think that they are above everyone else. The Islamic Revolution in Iran wasn’t just an upheaval of the Iranian political climate. It was also an act of defiance and an act of anti imperialism. This idea of standing up to oppressors is something that is very deeply ingrained in Iranian culture, and this is not just something we see internally, but also internationally, Iran has been an ally and helped to liberate Syria from the various jihadist groups and has been the scourge of foreign terrorists that once again, Britain and the United States along with Saudi Arabia and others have financed.
Iranian assistance not limited to Lebanon and Palestine
Since the revolution Iran has helped Lebanon and Palestine, in their resistance against the Zionist occupation and in the protection of their lands, and more recently, we see in Iraq and Venezuela how Iran has helped these nations, stand up against foreign invaders and imperialism.
This is very important for people to understand and it also explains why the West has held a grudge against Iran ever since it broke free from occidental rule, seeking to cripple it always with sanctions, with war, with intimidation.
Now, not just because Iran is to back control of their country but also because they outmaneuver and help other resistance movements, regionally and globally, and help other people stand up for themselves.
There is certainly no such thing as a perfect country or perfect political system in the world. But there is something to be said about a nation, and a people that are brave enough to stand up to tyranny to colonization and to white supremacy. And then help their brothers and sisters elsewhere to do the same.
It is a remarkable feat of resistance and anti imperialism and why Iran continues to be a thorn in the side of those oppressors who seek to colonize the Middle East.