Iran Table of Contents
The Pahlavi regime identified the Fadayan, the Tudeh, and several ethnic groups as opponents to the shah's rule. To meet their rising challenge, the shah relied on security forces whose agents infiltrated many underground organizations. By early 1970, a sophisticated intelligence-gathering system was in place, reporting all currents of political dissent directly to the monarch.
In 1970 opposition forces took the initiative by launching a terrorist campaign against the regime. At the time, this was perceived as a nuisance and an embarrassment to the shah, because the monarchy was not "threatened." Nevertheless, opposition to the shah grew stronger when the monarch authorized unrelenting punishment of those accused of security violations. Hundreds of young Iranians were arrested, tried, and sentenced. Many were tortured and some executed for their unwavering opposition. In 1976 opposition forces clashed with the police in a series of gun battles that mobilized thousands in the streets of Tehran. With heightened visibility, terrorist groups mounted successful attacks on police posts, further threatening the regime's hold on internal security. By 1978 organized opposition to the monarchy reached a high point with ideologically incompatible groups joining in efforts to overthrow the shah. Leftist guerrillas joined student and religious organizations in calling for political change.
The two most important leftist guerrilla groups operating in Iran in 1978 were the Mojahedin and the Fadayan (see Antiregime Opposition Groups , this ch.). The Mojahedin had changed its name at least three times since its formation in 1960 under the name of Nehzat-e Azadi-yi Iran, or the Iran Freedom Movement (IFM). Although it was not formally a religious party, its rank-and-file membership was religiously oriented, a fact that helped mobilize clerical support in 1978. Unlike the clerical forces, however, the Mojahedin and the Fadayan conducted a systematic assassination campaign in 1977 and 1978 against Iranian security officials and United States military and defense-related personnel stationed in Tehran. The shah was also a target, as evidenced by periodic uncoverings of assassination plots. This wave of violence was met by an equally strong and determined campaign of arrests and executions. Iranian students abroad also became part of a cycle of action and counteraction: in the United States and Western Europe, students who protested against the shah were kept under surveillance so that punitive action could later be taken against them. In addition, the Mojahedin and the Fadayan conducted a propaganda campaign in support of "the Iranian armed struggle" and against the shah, SAVAK (see SAVAK , this ch.), and what was termed "institutionalized repression in Iran."
Within Iran's borders, stiff government security measures notwithstanding, organized opposition was never eliminated. Although the shah had declared illegal all opposition political parties, labor unions, peasant organizations, and university student groups, antigovernment sentiments remained high, especially among the clerical community. By late 1977, student demonstrations increased in frequency, with a vocal minority calling on Iranians to "raise their voices against absolute rule." These protests, timed to call President Jimmy Carter's attention to the human rights situation in Iran, resulted in the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom were allegedly tortured by SAVAK forces.
In January 1978, conservative religious students demonstrated in the holy city of Qom to express the long-standing clerical opposition to the shah's land reform policies, which had resulted in the expropriation of vaqf (religious endowment) and other lands. Religious leaders were also outraged at what they perceived to be the shah's violations of sacred Islamic laws in such areas as the role of women in society and the imposition of a secular legal system that usurped clerical authority. Attempts by the police to disperse demonstrators resulted in several deaths.
The religious leadership called for a general strike across the country for February 18, to highlight the forty-day mourning period for those killed in Qom. Far more serious disturbances erupted on that day in Tabriz and Tehran, precipitating the worst riots since 1963. After several days of widespread arson directed at banks, movie theaters, and hotels in Tabriz, the army moved in to restore order. Similar measures were taken in Tehran and other major cities. According to the government 12 persons were killed in Tabriz and 250 persons arrested. In reality, the casualty figure was much higher and the arrests more numerous. Ironically, the deaths presented the next opportunity for confrontation. When demonstrators, commemorating the forty-day mourning period, defiantly marched through the streets of Tabriz, the armed forces reacted as expected. To protect themselves and restore order, they opened fire, killing and injuring more civilians. The result was a sequence of events in which the opposition, led by influential clerics, conducted "religious commemorations," and the government interpreted them as challenges to law and order. With neither side relenting, the cycle of violence spread.
Observers of these tragic events pointed out that the reemergence of large-scale protest demonstrations was only made possible because of the shah's more liberal policies toward the nonviolent expression of dissent. Indeed, the shah confirmed on several occasions his commitment to more "liberal" political reforms, but at the same time he warned that the dissident movement was "completely illegal" and that he would "not let it get out of hand." Illegal or not, mass protest demonstrations did get out of control when the shah openly chastised the clerics for "destroying the country." The shah could not end these demonstrations, which gathered more support throughout 1978. Workers from the oil industry, heeding the call of the religious authorities, slowly paralyzed Iran's economic sector. It became only a matter of time before the shah lost control over Iran's internal security.
Data as of December 1987
Iran Table of Contents