How Did Iran Become an Islamic Republic? [interview with Darioush Bayandor]

Published by IranWire

Iranians marked the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in 2019. Many an academic conference around the world marked the occasion (including a workshop jointly held by my own New York University and Columbia University), but grand narratives or conclusive accounts of the revolution have been conspicuous in their absence. This is partly explained by the fact that the revolution is a living event, copiously adding to its own history day by day and not yet achieving the distance of a “done” event that makes it a more comfortable topic for historians.

Not one to shy away from such difficulties, Darioush Bayandor, a retired diplomat of Iran from the pre-revolution Pahlavi times, has taken to the topic by penning a book-length study of the revolution. After decades of public service, including post-1979 work within the United Nations system, Baynador has taken to the thorniest issues of Iranian history. In 2010, he wrote a controversial revisionist account of the 1953 coup in Iran, downplaying the United States’ role in the seminal event and emphasizing its domestic leaders (IranWire interviewed him about the book in 2018). Bayandor’s new volume, The Shah, The Islamic Revolution and the United States came out in 2019 and is already receiving its share of praise and criticism (disclaimer: I wrote a scholarly review of the book for the journal Iranian Studies.)

Bayandor spoke to IranWire on the 41st anniversary of the revolution, about his book and some of the old nagging questions that he has tried to answer. Our conversation, conducted by email and edited for publication, follows.


What prompted you to write a book on the Iranian revolution and why focus on the role of the United States in the whole affair? 

My motivation for writing this book has multiple facets. Primarily, it was to offer a fresh perspective on the events which brought Iran to become an Islamic Republic. Broad-brush essays and monograms on Iran and its 1979 revolution published in the West are not lacking; so are misconceptions, conspiracy theories and accounts tinted by ideology. I wanted my book to be apolitical and non-judgmental, grounded on hard evidence and archival material. I don’t pretend to be neutral, but affirm uncompromising commitment to truth and objectivity; I hope the book will be assessed by this yardstick.

A different concern was a tendency among us, the Iranians, to readily accept verdicts that emanate from western sources about our history. In 2003 Stephan Kinzer, an ex-journalist from the New York Times published  All the Shahs Men, a phantasmagoric narrative on the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh riddled with gross factual errors, and yet became, thanks to Iranian readership in the diaspora, an Amazon bestseller. Kermit Roosevelt’s memoirs published in 1980 seeded the germ of a falsified narrative about the role of the CIA in the overthrow of Mosaddegh on August 19, 1953 that prompted me to publish my 2010 book, Iran and the CIA; it aroused much polemic, only to be forensically confirmed in 2017 following the release of the CIA secret files. The two seminal post-Revolution publications which cast the largest shadow over the contemporary history of Iran were crafted through the prism of two indoctrinated Marxist academics, both highly proficient historians whose vision of events in Iran irredeemably bore traces of ideology.

Why focus on the role of the US in the whole affair?  The 1979 Revolution was singularly indigenous in its roots, yet, as always in modern history of Iran, external factors played a part. The Carter Administration left its mark by default in the pre-revolutionary phase and counterintuitively accelerated the fall of a close ally in the final phases.

Why focus on the role of the US in the whole affair?  The 1979 Revolution was singularly indigenous in its roots, yet, as always in modern history of Iran, external factors played a part. The Carter Administration left its mark by default in the pre-revolutionary phase and counterintuitively accelerated the fall of a close ally in the final phases.

My challenge as a historian of the Revolution, beyond disentangling the internal jumble, was to illuminate the darker corners of the American role, without falling into the trap of conspiracy theories that still live in the collective memory of old-timers. I have devoted several chapters of the book to this end, drawing on declassified and in great part untapped American, as well as on the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office, archives.

Many Iranians have conspiratorial visions of how President Jimmy Carter helped cause the revolution in Iran. You’ve looked deep into the historical record. What exactly role did Carter’s policies play in the events of 1978 and 1979? What about that of the last US envoy to Iran, Ambassador William Sullivan? 

The advent of Carter in January 1977 coincided with the aggravation of the Shah’s medical condition – he had been diagnosed in early 1974 with lymphoma – that prompted him to try to redirect the regime from what it was, a royal autocracy, toward a true constitutional monarchy in preparation for the takeover of the throne by the then underage crown prince in the coming years. However, the perception among initiated Iranians was that the Shah had been strong-armed by Washington and had been forced to change tack. This fallacy – called “the Carter ambiguity” by the more sophisticated observers – encouraged the opposition to test the Shah’s will by daring challenges that elicited no reaction from the regime, which had started experimenting with democracy.

From the outset the State Department under Cyrus Vance was keener than the White House was about the advocacy of human rights. The Carter-appointed American ambassador William Sullivan echoed that tendency. Both Sullivan and the British ambassador, Tony Parsons, encouraged the Shah in his “liberalization” policy. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that the replacement of Francophile Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda in August 1977 with the US-trained Jamshid Amouzgar was in any way influenced by Washington, but archival evidence suggests that the State Department tried to influence Amouzegar to accelerate the pace of ‘liberalization.’ The removal of the SAVAK [secret police] chief General Nasiri in the spring of 1978 and his replacement by the mild-mannered General Nasser Moghadam is likely to have resulted from such influences.

Later, during the final phase of the crisis, the more liberal faction within the Carter administration, spearheaded by the Sullivan-Vance tandem, resorted to underhanded means to accelerate the departure of the Shah – by extension the fall of the regime – which they assessed was irreparably doomed. The aim was to carve out a privileged position for Washington in post-revolutionary Iran in the Cold War context. This assessment was realistic but what drove Sullivan to play a manipulative role was underpinned in yet another fallacy. He and many other observers in and outside Iran assumed that Ayatollah Khomeini was merely the spiritual leader of the ongoing revolutionary movement and once victory was achieved he shall withdraw and let pious Muslim men of Mehdi Bazargan stamp to run the state affairs. Western ambassadors in Tehran used the Gandhi-Nehru model as an analytical tool to project the upcoming political transformations in Iran.

To be noted that the conduct of Sullivan in Tehran had not been sanctioned by President Carter, who had throughout supported the Shah, yet he ended up falling in line with the logic of Cyrus Vance and in the final weeks before the collapse of the regime allowed the American diplomacy to pivot away from its traditional course and to embrace regime change. No conspiracy or secret ulterior motives had ever existed in Washington or elsewhere. Even the Kremlin preferred the Shah to the revolution before they too realized the inevitability of change.


Was the revolution inevitable? Or could different actions from the Shah in the last few months have changed the course of history? 

The Shah’s illness was a factor that by the mid-seventies plunged him into a vicious circle. By the spring of 1978 he was in a downward spiral and by the year-end in an intractable quagmire. Let me explain. When, early in 1974, the Shah learned that his years were numbered a rush factor entered into his calculations; this was behind a row of strategic errors such as the doubling of the capital outlay under the fifth five-year plan at the Ramsar conference (August 1974)  that ruined the economy, or his obtuse introduction of the single-party system in March 1975 that further diminished credibility of his regime.

The timing of his liberalization drive was also unfortunate; not only did it coincide with the advent of Carter but it also hit the height of stagflation! To redress the economy Premier Amouzegar had embarked on austerity measures at the time of acute political vulnerability. All remedial measures to restore stability and calm produced the opposite effect. This was notably true about the appointment of Jafar Sharif-Emami as prime minister in the aftermath of the Abadan Cinema Rex arson disaster in August 1978. Sharif-Emami’s appeasement policies from a position of weakness opened Pandora’s Box and his political miscalculation, hoping to obtain the blessing of the Ayatollah Khomeini for reconciliation, proved catastrophic. The Black Friday massacre, in which some 120 protesters were killed, foreshadowed the collapse.

The Cinema Rex fire disaster was, arguably, the Shah’s ultimate chance to reverse the downward spiral without resort to brute force. The dreadful act that claimed the lives of well over 400 cinema viewers had been engineered from Qom by radical clerics. For a while the clerical class as a whole was on the defensive but in circumstances that I have elaborated in a chapter of the book, the Shah botched the occasion and lost the public relation contest to clerics, who managed to plant doubt in the minds of the public as well as foreign observers, and even convince many that the abomination was committed by the SAVAK.

The Shah could have, in the weeks following the resignation of Sharif-Emami, resort to Tiananmen Square tactics and had received a tightlipped blessing from no lesser that Carter in person, but, as is attested by numerous archive records, he categorically refused a bloodbath.


How about the Islamist victory? Was that inevitable? Or could secular forces have won over Ayatollah Khomeini? 

In a passage of my book I have explained a swift public opinion shift in favor of the revolutionary drive and the phenomenon of the radicalization of ordinary and apolitical citizens that followed the Abadan arson, followed by the nationwide strikes in autumn, which literally paralyzed the country. Short of massive bloodletting that could have triggered a civil war, the revolutionary juggernaut could not be stopped as of the second half of 1978. To his credit the Shah foreswore that option.

You ask if secular forces could have won over Khomeini? My answer to this question will have to be in the negative! The tsunamic revolutionary drive had at its origin taken shape as a result of an implicit alliance among three socio-political forces, being militant clerics and their Islamist droves, secular nationalists of the Mosaddegh School and the various leftist currents – Tudeh, Mohajed, Fadaei, etc. By the autumn of ’78 this unlikely alliance came under the undisputed leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had found a window of opportunity to fulfil his long-hankered Shia dream of an Islamic government. That, for him, was to resuscitate by proxy the rule by the Prophet’s progeny over the Islamic nation that had been brutally curtailed in Kufa in 661 AD and catastrophized in the Karbala in 680. This revivalist dogma became an obstacle to all manners of a compromise to resolve the crisis in a non-violent manner.

Unlike the militant clerics who had a sense of purpose and an uncontested leader, the secular nationalists, namely the National Front and Nehzat-e Azadi (the Freedom Movement), were not united. Rivalry throughout the revolutionary period between their respective leaders, Karim Sanjabi and Mehdi Bazagan, proved tragically consequential. Sanjabi claimed the mantle of Mosaddegh, who remained a revered icon among literate Iranians, yet the name did not translate into street mob power. Furthermore, some of the better known companions of Mosaddegh – Alahyar Saleh or Gholam-Hossein Sadighi – had remained aloof.  Conversely, Bazargan, with his strong dose of religiosity, was being acclaimed by Muslim youth and was well regarded by theclerical class. Both Sanjabi and Bazargan had misread Khomeini’s inner thoughts, believing, as did foreign observers, that after the victory he would leave the temporal affairs to pious men with political experience. The rush to Neaufle-le-Château in late October to win over his favor led Sanjabi to sign up to a statement of allegiance (November 2, 1978) that virtually placed the National Front under the custody of Khomeini. At that point the Shah was working hard to form a coalition government with the National Front to oversee the upcoming majles (parliamentary) elections the following June. Sanjabi could have conceivably become prime minister but his gamble with Khomeini sealed his fate, and that of the National Front, from which the front never recovered.

Do you accept the common narrative that the revolution occurred because the Shah modernized too quickly and people just couldn’t take it? 

No single factor could adequately explain why Mohammad Reza Shah, commanding the second strongest military in the region and with a history of success in domestic and foreign policy,  was overpowered in just over a year. In my book I have looked into a range of the building blocks that span cultural, historical, political, socioeconomic, demographic, even psychological fields to conclude that an aggregate of many elements rooted in those spheres fermented a revolutionary climate that a gravely sick monarch could not control.

The specific angle you highlight in your question touches on demographic, socio-economic and psychological fields and is, as such, of some relevance. In effect, the enlarged middle and lower middle-class youth in the 1960s was in search of an identity and outlet to assert itself. A silent cultural transformation in Iran in the 1960s had imbued the minds of many among them with the adulation of Shia Islam as a creed of protest. In a relevant chapter of the book I argued that both the pro-soviet Tudeh Party and the National Front lost part of their earlier magnetism to the youth in favor of Maoism for the left and the Bazargan-Taleghani tandem in the Nehzat Azadi. Further, trends oozing in from the outside, i.e the student movements in Europe, the US and the revolutionary mood in Latin America, just as the struggle of the Palestinian people, inspired and radicalized the Iranian youth; some ended up taking up arms against the regime, phenomenon that left a large imprint in shaping the pre-revolutionary climate in the late seventies.


You dedicate your book to young people in Iran. What do you hope they will take from it? 

Writing this book was for me a way of paying back my debt to Iran. I had wanted it to be a tribute to the generation born after the revolution. They are mature, well-schooled and vibrant and, more than at any time in the past, ready to embrace a secular democracy.

Their takeaway from this book, when it becomes accessible back home, would be an understanding of the circumstances which brought Iran to become an Islamic Republic. Knowledge of history matters.

George Orwell once wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

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