The Final Phase of the Shah

The final phase of the Shah’s reign began in October 1977, following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 49-year-old son and most trusted aide, Mostafa, in Najaf. Mostafa’s death occurred six months after the death of Ali Shariati under suspicious circumstances in the United Kingdom. Shariati was an intellectual from Mashhad, well-known to Khamenei, who fused Marxist and Islamic thought and was considered one of the leading ideologues of the Islamic Revolution. SAVAK was widely suspected of having played a role in both untimely deaths. Ayatollah Khomeini was content not to push back against such conspiracy theories as they facilitated further anger toward the Shah and played into the notion of martyrdom at the hands of a tyrant. According to an Iranian state media account, Khomeini “was so absorbed in the path of the Ahl al-Bayt that he considered the martyrdom of his elder son Ayatollah Seyyed Mostafa Khomeini in 1977 in Iraq at the hands of the Shah’s secret service SAVAK, as a matter decreed by Allah. The Imam had offered his own personal sacrifice to the cause of the Islamic Revolution.” Following Mostafa’s death, Khomeini penned a letter to the Iranian people which Time Magazine referred to as “the crucial document of the revolution.” Beyond the usual denunciations of the Shah, Khomeini declared "it is the responsibility of the Iranian army and its heads to liberate their country from destruction," establishing himself as the de facto leader of the revolution by making the first call for Iran’s armed forces to overthrow the Shah.

Mostafa Khomeini’s death created a no-win situation for the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini’s representatives requested permission to hold memorial vigils at mosques around the country following the customary 40-day mourning period. Denying Khomeini’s supporters the right to assemble and grieve collectively would have triggered a backlash. However, the Shah feared allowing such assemblies would also be an opportunity for organizing and demonstrations. The Shah decided to allow the vigils but admonished his security services to quell the unrest if demonstrations spilled out from the mosques onto the streets. Khomeini’s supporters took full advantage of the Shah’s temporary leniency to bolster Khomeini’s clerical and revolutionary legitimacy. According to SAVAK official Perviz Sabeti, considered the public face of the Shah’s security apparatus, “The forty-day mourning period was the time when the Khomeini people really got organized.”  

Initially, Khomeini’s followers published a notice of mourning in the newspaper Kayhan, referring to Mostafa as “the offspring of the Exalted Leader of all Shiites of the world.” Sensing an opening, several hundred prominent ulama, including Khamenei, sent condolence telegrams to Ayatollah Khomeini in Najaf. Revolutionary activists held memorial services for Mostafa Khomeini around the country, including one organized by Khamenei in Mashhad. During the prominent memorial service in Tehran, the presiding cleric prayed for “our one and only leader, the defender of the faith and the great combatant of Islam, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini.” This exhortation broke the 14-year taboo against speaking Khomeini’s name publicly and electrified those in attendance, who responded with chants of “Allahu Akbar.” The reverberations of these actions quickly spread. Leftist opponents of the Shah tactically aligned with Khomeini and published open letters supporting Mostafa.

The outpouring of support from varied constituencies convinced Ayatollah Khomeini that revolution had never been closer, and militant revolutionary cells formed by the Association of Combatant Clergy and the Coalition of Islamic Societies, a similar Khomeinist organizational vehicle, mobilized. Throughout November and December 1977, militant Khomeini backers carried out acts of sabotage against the regime, targeting symbols of the Shah’s modernization program and ties to the West, including cinemas, synagogues, centers catering to women’s health and literacy, and businesses affiliated with Americans, Jews, and Baha’is.

The Shah had entered 1977 with pledges to liberalize and improve Iran’s human rights record, due to a renewed emphasis by President Jimmy Carter on human rights among U.S. allies. At the beginning of the year, moderate opposition elements began testing the waters by publishing open letters critical of the Shah and hosting protest meetings and poetry readings that did not lead to arrests or harassment. This atmosphere of leniency emboldened Khomeini’s backers to ramp up their provocations and eventually engage in militant activities. While facing mounting unrest after Mostafa Khomeini’s death, the Shah met with President Carter in Washington, D.C., in mid-November 1977. According to the Shah’s final autobiography, the meetings went well, and the subject of human rights was barely breached. Feeling confident that he had earned Carter’s unconditional backing, the Shah again turned to repression, using heavy-handed tactics to crack down against even peaceful protest and the increased militancy by Khomeinist and leftist opposition.

One measure the Shah took to suppress dissent was sending revolutionary activists into internal exile. On December 14, 1977, the Shah’s agents raided Khamenei’s home in Mashhad, arrested him, and transferred him for an intended three-year sentence to Iranshahr in Sistan-Baluchestan province, a remote and abjectly impoverished area in southeastern Iran. Despite the hardships of exile and separation from his family and fellow activists, Khamenei later claimed that his faith in Khomeinism helped him weather this period peacefully. In a documentary featured on the Supreme Leader’s website covering this period of Khamenei’s life, Khamenei insists, “Everyone feels homesick while away from home and friends. But I did not feel homesick in 1978 or 1979."

While in internal exile, Khamenei made the most of his situation by developing warm relations with locals in the predominantly Sunni Baluchestan region. He preached Khomeinist precepts and helped spread the flames of revolution to this remote corner of Iran. His growing popularity in the area again placed him on the radar of intelligence agents, culminating in his relocation to a more remote town in Kerman province in August 1978. Undeterred, he continued speaking out against the Shah and played a role in the local outbreak of demonstrations, which was not yet common in smaller towns.

Despite being on the periphery, Khamenei claims in his official biography that he maintained correspondence with his networks of activists and clerics during this period and was still a part of major decision-making by Khomeini’s backers. However, he was largely absent from the events that culminated in the revolution. On January 7, 1978, Iran’s main semi-official newspaper published an article, reportedly at the behest of the Shah, that was highly insulting toward Khomeini. The decision to attack, rather than continuing to ignore, Khomeini demonstrated that the Shah was concerned by the growth in religious opposition to his rule. The article, entitled “Iran and Red and Black Colonialism,” accused Khomeini, a revered marja to his backers, of being nothing more than a fraudulent mouthpiece for communist (red) and reactionary religious (black) forces who sought to bring down the Shah in order to subjugate the Iranian nation. The pseudonymous author claimed Khomeini was Indian, not Iranian, and had financial backing from British imperialists who sought to colonize Iran.

When word of the insulting article reached Qom on the evening of January 7, it set off several days of violent protests. Khomeini’s backers rioted in downtown Qom, setting alight newsstands carrying the offending article and attacking businesses, banks, and government offices. By nightfall on January 9, a mob of 20,000 had taken over the streets, with many chanting “Death to the Shah!” for the first time, a cry that would become an increasingly common refrain during the last year of the Pahlavi era. When the crowd tried to overrun a police station, officers fired into the crowd from rooftops, killing at least six. The unrest was only pacified when army units were called to restore order.

The newspaper incident and subsequent Qom protest marked the point when the religious-based opposition to the Shah decisively became the leading oppositional force. Increasingly convinced that a victorious revolution was afoot, Khomeini declared after the suppression of the Qom protests, “To the noble nation of Iran, I bring tidings that the despotic regime of the shah is drawing its last breaths.” Unrest spread to cities around Iran while those in Qom undertook the traditional 40-day mourning period for those killed in the protest. According to Iran expert Nikki Keddie, “The ulama and bazaar leadership, sensing their new power and the grievances of their constituency, helped in 1978 to organize massive memorial demonstrations for those killed in previous incidents, taking place at traditional forty-day religious intervals. Here was a brilliant example of political use of Shi’i traditions; the government would risk truly massive demonstrations if it outlawed traditional mourning gatherings occurring at the proper and traditional intervals… In addition, the forty-day interval gave an excellent hiatus to regroup forces, spread the word orally, …and to utilize spontaneous or ritual emotion to intensify opposition to the regime.”

As the cycle of protests, suppression, and mourning periods continued throughout the spring and summer of 1978, Khomeini issued sporadic proclamations. He praised the opposition for their steadfastness and called for the end of the Shah’s rule and the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran. In addition to calls of “Death to the Shah,” protestors more routinely began chanting Khomeini’s name, displaying banners with his visage, and demanding his return from exile, highlighting his role as the pivotal figure in the growing protest movement. During these months, the Shah took multiple steps to assuage popular opinion, such as replacing the head of SAVAK and promising more liberalization. However, it was not sufficient to stem the revolutionary tide.

The Shah realized the situation had become untenable during several days of protest centered in Tehran to mark Eid al-Fitr, the festival signifying the end of Ramadan, in early September 1978. The anti-Shah demonstrations, spearheaded by Khomeini’s backers, began peacefully, aside from familiar provocative chants on September 4. As an initial crowd of 15,000 religious demonstrators marched through Tehran’s commercial district, thousands of onlookers from all walks of life joined in, creating a throng of an estimated 200,000 people chanting religious and revolutionary slogans and praying en masse. A festive, carnival-like atmosphere pervaded, with many marchers handing flowers to army soldiers posted along the parade route to defuse potential tensions. While many demonstrators had no explicit religious affiliations, the Khomeinist clerics were the clear leaders, and the pervasive expressions of revolutionary sentiment carried clear religious undertones.

While the first day of major protests in Tehran passed without incident, smaller demonstrations throughout the country were marred by reports of clashes with authorities and small numbers of protestors killed. By September 7, the protests in Tehran took on a more ominous tone. That day, thousands of Khomeini backers again thronged to the streets, chanting “death to the Shah,” with the men dressed in white garbs to signify their willingness to be martyred. Increasingly alarmed by the growing mobs calling for his head, the Shah declared martial law that evening to quell the movement growing into a potential insurrection. Undeterred and largely unaware of the late-night declaration, a mass of protestors set out again on the morning of September 8, converging on Jaleh Square, a modest Tehran traffic circle. As the massive, overflowing crowd listened to blistering speeches denouncing the Shah and calling for establishing an Islamic government, the army, and police ordered the protestors to disperse. A bloody crackdown with live fire ensued, with at least 80 protestors gunned down by the Shah’s authorities.

The massacre, which became known as Black Friday, marked the death knell of any chance for accommodation between the Shah and his opposition and is widely regarded as the point of no return for the Iranian Revolution. Privately, the Shah was shocked and crestfallen to witness the widespread animus of the protestors directed at him personally, believing that while Iranians were dissatisfied with the government and bureaucracy, they revered him and the institution of monarchy more generally. He resolved during the protests that he would soon go into exile and pass on governance to a caretaker until his son came of age and was ready to assume the throne.

As civil unrest peaked in Iran, the Shah’s grip on power was loosening. On September 23, 1978, after serving only eight months of his three-year exile sentence, Khamenei’s internal exile suddenly ended, and he returned to Mashhad. He immediately resumed organizing revolutionary demonstrations and public speeches against the Shah in favor of Khomeini’s return from exile and establishing an Islamic government.

Shortly thereafter, the Shah once again pleaded with Saddam Hussein to banish Ayatollah Khomeini from Najaf in order to destroy his base of operations. Wary of Khomeini’s influence with Shi’a Iraqis and of potential internal unrest should the Shah fall next door, Hussein complied. After failing to find an Arab state that would provide refuge and permit him to carry on his political activities, one of his allies, an exiled leftist opposition figure named Abolhassan Banisadr, arranged for Khomeini to settle in Paris, where he arrived on October 6, 1978. The Shah’s last-ditch effort to neutralize Khomeini backfired, as he no longer faced any restrictions on speaking freely against the monarch. Living in Paris granted Khomeini greater access to the international news media, and he rapidly became a frequently profiled subject of fascination, allowing his messages to penetrate Iranian society to a greater extent than ever before.

However, Khomeini’s communications from Paris belied his true intentions to install a theocracy in Iran. Banisadr and his team of advisors in Paris were skilled in the arts of public and media relations, and they shrewdly counseled Khomeini to avoid revealing his devotion to the principles laid out in Islamic Government or speaking out too forcefully against the United States. Khomeini claimed he sought an Islamic Republic in the same sense that France was a French Republic, emphasizing his commitment to democracy and women’s rights. He stated that once the Shah was deposed, he would leave politics to politicians and live the rest of his days in a seminary in Qom. His claims were a balm to leftist and secularist opponents of the Shah, who saw the tactical need to align with Khomeini but feared the ultimate implications of clerical rule. Western media and intellectuals were hoodwinked, too, with many viewing Khomeini as a mystic, enlightened revolutionary. Khomeini’s deceptions made him more palatable as the central figure directing the umbrella group of anti-Shah forces.

The Iranian Revolution was in full swing during the fall and winter of 1978-1979, with new population segments joining the ranks of implacable opposition to the Shah’s continued rule. Although martial law was technically in effect, protests and demonstrations continued growing, and Iranians became increasingly fearless and enthusiastic. They were undeterred by the haphazard enforcement of martial law and increasingly angered and emboldened by the occasions when authorities did move to suppress dissent. Encouraged by leftist and religious opposition leaders, a massive labor strike movement closed schools, airports, steel mills, and industrial complexes and caused a significant decline in Iran’s oil output. As billions of dollars of capital fled Iran, the Shah’s Western allies prepared for the fall of the monarchy.

In early November 1978, an effort backed by the Shah to broker a national unity government that included opposition elements collapsed due to Khomeini’s defiant refusal from France to make any accommodations with the Shah’s regime, believing the monarchy and Iran’s constitution to have surrendered all legitimacy. Khomeini instead called on his backers to demonstrate until the Shah fell. This call led to two days of protests on November 4 and 5, in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians participated around the country, with the most notable protests taking place at Tehran University. As the situation intensified, the Shah’s troops fired automatic weapons into the crowd, killing several students. Enraged, a mob of students spilled out from campus and tore through Tehran’s commercial district, burning banks, theaters, and other businesses and attacking foreigners they encountered in hotels and restaurants.     

On November 6, 1978, Iran’s prime minister, who had led the efforts to establish a unity government, resigned in protest against the army’s use of force. The military, which had resented having its hands tied when enforcing martial law, implored the Shah to appoint a military government. At noon that day, the Shah broadcast his last speech to the Iranian public, announcing the formation of a military government intended to restore calm while he implemented liberalizing reforms, paving the way to free elections. The Shah’s speech was a last-ditch plea to Iran’s opposition forces to allow him to oversee the transition to a new, more democratic government. However, it was also essentially an admission of defeat. For the first time, the Shah acknowledged the organized but piecemeal demonstrations that had gripped Iran in recent years as a revolution: “I heard the voice of your revolution…as Shah of Iran, as well as an Iranian citizen, I cannot but approve your revolution,” he said. The speech alerted the Shah’s allies that he had very little fight left in him, and many began making hasty preparations to vacate Iran.

Immediately following the imposition of a military government helmed by the moderate General Gholam-Reza Azhari, the Shah tried to appease his opponents by arresting several regime officials on corruption charges, including a former head of SAVAK. From Paris, Khomeini remained steadfast in his opposition to any accommodation with the Shah’s regime. Responding to the contradiction between the promises of liberalization and the imposition of military governance, Khomeini declared, “In one hand, the Shah held out a letter of repentance for his crimes, but in the other he held out a bayonet and a gun. Until the day an Islamic republic is installed the struggle of our people will continue.” He also railed against the U.S., which he saw as now effectively controlling Iran due to its role in training and advising the Shah’s armed forces. He pledged enmity toward the U.S. until it dropped its hostility toward his Islamic movement and called for Iranian soldiers to join the side of the people and turn against the Shah.

The military government restored calm briefly, but Khomeini would again harness the power of Shi’a symbolism to mount a final offensive against the Shah. The holy month of Muharram, during which the Ashura day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussein takes place, was set to begin on December 2, 1978, and Khomeini called for broad-based demonstrations against the Shah all month. On November 23, Khomeini recorded a declaration for Muharram that was distributed through his mosque networks in Iran: “With the approach of Moharram, we are about to begin the epic month of heroism and self-sacrifice, the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments, the month that has taught successive generations throughout history the path of victory over the dagger [or knife].”

Fearing the worst, the Azhari military government banned mass processions during Muharram but relented to avoid street clashes. On the first day of Muharram, December 2, hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered at Shahyad Square (now Azadi, or Freedom Square), a monument to the Shah’s modernization program, calling for the Shah’s ouster. The largest demonstrations occurred on December 10 and 11, the day preceding Ashura and Ashura. An estimated two million people participated in demonstrations in Tehran, representing 40 percent of the city’s population. Six to nine million people were estimated to have taken part in demonstrations throughout Iran out of a population at the time of 32 million people. Khamenei delivered a revolutionary Night of Ashura sermon in Mashhad and organized the city’s rally on Ashura itself.

The Ashura protests were explicitly political, and the chants  –  “We will kill Iran’s dictator!,” “Death to the American establishment!,” “The Shah and his family must be killed!” “We will destroy Yankee power in Iran!” “Arms for the people!” “This American king should be hanged!” “Shah, if you don’t get the message, you’ll get it from the barrel of a machine gun!” – reflected the growing Iranian religiosity and xenophobia egged on by Khomeini. Despite the tensions, however, the protests remained mostly peaceful. The massive Ashura demonstrations effectively broke the backs of the Shah’s military forces and sapped their will to confront their fellow citizens violently.

Following the demonstrations, it was clear that the Shah’s grip on power was rapidly slipping. The U.S. began maneuvering to safeguard its presence in Iran after the Shah left. The U.S. ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, pursued a plan behind the scenes to have Mehdi Bazargan, a staunchly anticommunist nationalist leader with Islamist leanings, form a government with Khomeini’s backing. U.S. intelligence assessments at the time completely misjudged the nature of the threat Khomeini, the extremely political and radical Shi’a cleric, posed to American interests in Iran. One such assessment assured the White House that Khomeini had “no interest in holding power himself.” According to author Andrew Scott Cooper’s The Fall of Heaven, which provides a comprehensive account of the events leading up to the Islamic Revolution, the CIA “still seemed unaware of Khomeini’s 1970 velayat-e faqih thesis, even though it was openly for sale on Tehran street corners.” Knowing he was being surveilled in Paris, Khomeini was careful in phone conversations to counsel against his followers attacking Americans, fooling the CIA into believing “that Khomeini was a moderating influence over the leftists and radicals in his entourage,” according to Cooper. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Khomeini’s “plan was always to stockpile weapons and restrain the Mujahedin guerrilla fighters (loyal to him) until the Shah left Iran. Only then would they launch the final offensive that would take advantage of the army’s disoriented, leaderless state to overthrow the regime.”

Events began unraveling very quickly following the Ashura demonstrations. Spurred on by Khomeini, growing numbers of soldiers defected and joined with the revolutionaries. Americans and other foreigners made their judgments of the political situation and sought to leave Iran en masse; those who stayed were targeted in sporadic incidents of mob violence. On December 24, 1978, a group of rioting high schoolers converged on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, prompting Marines on duty to fire tear gas to prevent them from breaching the compound, a portent of future events. On December 27, as violence raged in Tehran, martial law collapsed, and the military government of Azhari was disbanded. Two days later, the Shah appointed Shapour Bakhtiar, a vocal opponent of the Shah from the nationalist National Front faction, as Prime Minister. Bakhtiar’s faction denounced the move, as they were beyond seeking accommodation with the Shah and had, at this point, allied with Khomeini, leaving Bakhtiar as a leader with no constituency. The U.S., seeking to elevate Mehdi Bazargan, also opposed the appointment, viewing Bakhtiar as a doomed nonentity.