The Holocaust Historiography Project

Iran: Some Angles on the Islamic Revolution

Ivor Benson

An exploration of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and its meaning for the rest of the world can begin with three wide-ranging generalizations:

  1. The Iranian Revolution showed that religion can still be a more potent mobilizer of mass political action than can secular ideologies;
  2. The revolution challenges the cultural hegemony of Western ideas, not only as a religion but as an alternative social model and way of life;
  3. The Iranian Revolution thus can be regarded as one of the most important happenings in modern history, comparable to the French Revolution in the 18th century and the Russian Revolution in this century.

In the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, and ongoing terrorism threats against aviation and other vulnerable points, Iran and its farflung adherents remain persistently in the world’s eye. An exploration of the Islamic Revolution in Iran conveys two great truths with vast implications: religion can still be a more potent mobilizer of mass political action than can secular ideologies, and the longtime hegemony of Western social models has ended. The Iranian Revolution thus emerges as one of the most important events in modern history, on a par with the watershed French and Russian revolutions.

There are innumerable reasons for believing that the emergence of highly dynamic Islamic fundamentalism in Iran is a development of incalculable worldwide consequence. The Center for International Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had this comment:

“The Iranian Revolution has highlighted one of the principal religious and political developments of our time: the revival of Islamic fundamentalism from Indonesia to Morocco and from Turkey to Central Africa."[1]

Dr. Algar, professor of Persian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, observes:

“The subject of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is one whose importance hardly needs underlining. With the passage of time, its importance will become even clearer, as being the most significant and profound event in the entirety of contemporary Islamic history. Already we see the impact of the Islamic Revolution manifested in different ways across the length and breadth of the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia, from Bosnia to the heart of Europe down to Africa."[2]

Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute, London, offers this assessment:

“Since the revolution in Iran I have been moving around some of the Sunni countries, some of the most reactionary if I might put it that way; I can assure you that the people in those countries have been absolutely galvanized and their imaginations have been captured … Some of them take the precaution of locking their doors before they talk about it. If national boundaries were taken away, probably Ayatollah Khomeini would be elected by acclamation by the Ummah as a whole as the leader of the Muslim world today."[3]

In 1979 the mullahs in Iran overthrew the Persian monarchy, one of the oldest in the world, while at the height of its power, replacing it with an Islamic republic dedicated to the implementation of the Sharia, a law of private and public conduct prescribed in the Koran.

Since then no day has passed without news involving Islam: an ongoing revolution in Afghanistan, troubles in several Soviet republics with Islamic majorities or minorities, endless conflict in Kashmir, terrorism all over Europe traced to Islamic sources in Algeria, to name a few.

Writes Amir Taheri, a former newspaper editor in Teheran:

“No one knows which Muslim state might fall to the fundamentalists next, or when. What is certain, however, is that fundamentalist activities have been able to mobilize substantial forces in some of the key Muslim states, notably Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt. Islam also is the dominant political force in Afghanistan and has exacted numerous concessions from governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Somalia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisa, Morocco and Jordan."[4]

Imperialism and Colonialism

In Iran, more clearly perhaps than elsewhere, it has been possible for the observer to isolate and study separately the major influences which have been at work in dramatically awakening an Eastern religion which long was thought to be in slow decay. In particular, we can see, step by step, how a purely religious set of ideas and values was able to inspire enough public support to topple a powerful regime backed by a great army and with virtually unlimited foreign support.

Three major factors need to be explored:

  1. Islam in general as a faith;
  2. Hostile influences which in Iran threatened the survival of Islam;
  3. The hardened form of the Shi'ite sect of Islam with which the challenge was met.

About the broad putlines of the history of Iran during the last 150 years there can be no doubt. Foreign powers have heavily influenced the country’s international affairs to suit their own economic and strategic interests, with scant regard for the opinions and interests of the citizenry. Until 1945 the foreign powers dominating Iran were mainly Russia and Britain. Russia was interested in territorial expansion, Britain in cornering the Iranian market for British trade, in securing the continental land bridge to India and later, of course, in controlling Iran’s oil resources.

The Iranians continued throughout this period to demonstrate their hostility to foreign intrusion, with the clergy (ulama) invariably playing a leading role.

From 1952 the British were replaced by the Americans working in close alliance with the Israelis, drawing the Shah and the masses mobilized by the ulama into the final bitter and violent struggle. This culminated in the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza, last of the Pahlavi dynasty which had been installed by the British shortly after the end of World War I.

Since what looked like a combination of America and Israel was actually something very much bigger and more complex, it is the motives and actions of the intrusive foreign powers that we need to examine before we can hope to understand what happened in Iran. Indeed, we find that what these powers had been doing in Iran was only another example of what they and other European intersts had been up to during the same period in many other parts of the world, all manifestations of the phenomena known as imperialism and colonialism.

The subject was explored at depth and most comprehensively at the turn of the century by a prominent British journalist and author, J.A. Hobson, whose book Imperialism: A Study deserves new attention. A book that was meant to be a warning to the British people was turned to good account by Lenin in 1916, when he was preparing his own thesis on capitalism: “I made use of the principal English work on imperialism, J.A. Hobson’s book, with all the care that, in my opinion, this work deserves.” [5]

Writes Hobson in a prefatory note:

“Those readers who hold that a well-balanced judgment consists in always finding as much in favor of any political course as against it will be discontented with the treatment given here. For the study is distinctly one of social pathology, and no endeavor is made to disguise the nature of the disease."[6]

The social pathology of which Hobson writes is the debasement of politics, especially the politics of nationalism, by what he calls “Special interests,” financial in character, which promote policies inconsistent with the interests of the community. In other words, the peoples of the colonizing and imperialist countries of Europe were the victims rather than the beneficiaries of aggressively acquisitive policies conducted all over the world in their name.

For a definition of nation, Hobson quotes the philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nation if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and others. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various courses. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language and community of religion greatly contribute to it. Geographic limits are one of the causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents, the possession of a national history and consequent community of recollections, collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past."[7]

It is a debasement of this genuine nationalism by attempts to overflow its natural banks and absorb the near or distant territory of reluctanct and unassimilable people, says Hobson, that marks the passage from nationalism to a spurious colonialism on the one hand and imperialism on the other.

Hobson pinpoints the factor of illegitimacy in politics which was to prove so destructive of the interests of the British people and cause so much conflict and dislocation around the world; he asks:

“How is the British nation induced to embark upon such unsound business? The only possible answer is that the business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain sectional interests that usurp control of the national resources and use them for their private gain. This is no strange or monstrous charge to bring; it is the commonest disease of all forms of government.”

He quotes Sir Thomas More:

“Everywhere do I perceive a certain conspiracy of rich men seeking their own advantage under the name and pretext of commonwealth.”

Conspiracies of “the few” seeking their advantage at the expense of the community as a whole have always, of course, been endemic in human society; but very different were the usurpations of “the few” in the last century, which drew many of the nations of Europe into an insane rivalry for conquest and possession in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Sectional interests in society — in this case big business and high finance — like a cancer in the human body, prosper while society as a whole suffers.

This was something Hobson could see with perfect clarity at the turn of the century:

“Although the new imperialism has been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation …It is idle to meddle with politics unless we clearly recognise this central fact and understand what these sectional interests are which are the enemies of national safety and the common weal. We must put aside the merely sentimental diagnosis which explains wars or other national blunders by outbursts of patriotic animosity or errors of statecraft …There is, it may be safely asserted, no war within memory, however nakedly aggressive it may seem to the dispassionate historian, which has not been presented to the people who were called upon to fight, as a necessary defensive policy in which the honor, perhaps the very existence, of the state was involved."[8]

Hobson exposes as almost wholly illusory the notion that the driving force of the new imperialism was an eagerness to find new markets for the products of Europe’s burgeoning industries. In Britain, he remarks, the manufacturing and trading classes made little out of the new markets, paying, if they only knew it, in taxation more than they got out of them in trade, but it was quite otherwise with the investor.

In other words, the driving force of the new imperialism was primarily financial and not broadly economic. Here is how Hobson saw it all before the turn of the century, while Britain was involved in a war in South Africa that was to signalize the beginning of the end of the British Empire:

“It is not too much to say that the modern foreign policy of Great Britain is primarily a struggle for profitable markets of investment. To a larger extent every year Great Britain is becoming a nation living upon tribute from abroad, and the classes who enjoy this tribute have an ever-increasing incentive to employ the public policy, the public purse, and the public force to extend the field of their private investments and to safeguard and improve their existing investments. This is perhaps the most important fact in modern politics, and the obscurity in which it is wrapped constitutes the gravest danger to our state. What is true of Great Britain is true likewise of France, Germany and the United States and of all countries in which modern capitalism has placed large surplus savings in the hands of a plutocracy…"[9]

What happened to any country which contracted a debt and was unable to gurarantee payment of the interest was demonstrated again and again in many parts of the so-called undeveloped world — for what other reason did France invade and attempt to conquer Mexico? More frequently the insufficient guarantee of an international loan gave rise to some other form of interference in the internal affairs of the debtor nation. We see an example of this in Egypt, which became for all practical purposes a province of Britain and where a bloody suppression of popular revolt had the support of enormous British national fervor.

Tunis likewise became a dependency of France for no other reason than the securing of loans granted to that country. Perhaps the greatest sufferer of all was China, where all the imperialist nations established footholds, complete with extra-territorial rights which they were ready at all times to defend with armed might.

But how could the people of Europe, especially their educated classes, including even their churchmen, allow all this to happen? How did this imperialism escape genera] recognition for the narrow and sordid thing it was? Each nation would accuse its rivals of hypocrisy in masking greedy, aggressive and destructive behavior with pretensions of altruism, but all were permitted by these educated classes to be equally guilty.

Church and Big Business

There always existed in all the countries of Europe a proportion of people with a genuine desire to spread Christianity among the heathen and to diminish the cruelty and suffering thought to prevail among them. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the greedy and aggressive forces that directed imperialism would make good use of such disinterested movements, some of which had worked abroad -the Catholics in China and Ethiopia, for example-long before the birth of imperialism.

Writes Hobson:

“They [the imperialists] simply and instinctively attach to themselves any strong elevated feeling which is of service, fan it and feed it until it assumes fervor, and utilize it for their ends."[10]

So, too, Leopold, King of the Belgians, when taking possession of the Congo with all its natural resources, was able to proclaim:

“Our only program is that of the moral and material regeneration of the country.”

Since most of the educated classes in Europe who allied themselves with imperialism were nominally Christian, and since the church itself was an imperial component of the alliance, there can be no disguising the fact that imperialism, which helped to precipitate an age of conflict unprecedented in recorded history, was as much nominally Christian in character as it was financial. The use of the word Christian in this context, however, must be qualified with the reminder that the missionizing impulse was animated by the dynamic of an essentially power-oriented church, an institution with a strong appetite for expansion and growth, both in terms of adherents and of material advantage.

The dual character of the church nowhere was more clearly epitomized than in Winston Churchill’s account of the religious service at Khartoum immediately after the defeat of the Mahdi’s forces, which had sought to overthrow British hegemony in Sudan:

“… And the solemn words of the English Prayer Book were read in that distant garden… the bands played their dirge and Gordon’s favorite hymn “Abide with Me” … A gunboat on the river crashed out a salute … Nine thousand who would have prevented it lay dead on the plain of Omdurman … Other thousands were scattered in the wilderness, or crawled to the river for water."[11]

Churchill omitted the final touch: the deliberate shooting of the wounded crawlers.

Hobson saw this Janus-headed imperialism as aseeking to float Christianity upon an ocean of profitable business,” a process which excited in the baffled Chinese a fanatical detestation of the Foreign devils.” Wrote an educated Chinese:

“It must be very difficult for the mandarins to dissociate the missionaries from the secular power whose gunboats seem ever ready to appear on behalf of their respective governments … The Chinese have watched with much concern the sequence of events — first the missionary, then the consul and at last the invading army."[12]

The incongruity of so vast an exercise of cunning and force in the service of a cause “whose kingdom is not of this world” should need no emphasis. However, the hostile logic of a century and a half of imperialism is self-evident: those who offered any obstruction to what in the West was generally regarded as progress were held to “fully deserve” the punishment they got, however severe.

Since it is supposedly one of the main purposes of religion to help people distinguish between right and wrong, or good and evil; since a century and a half of aggressive imperialism would have been impossible without the compliance and complicity of the Christian churches; since it has always been one of the functions of the intelligence, informed by religious insights, to restrain and regulate the appetite for acquisition and power — it would seem that there was something radically faulty about Christianity as preached and practised during those decades of rampaging rival national imperialisms.

Iran’s Mullahs Show Their Power

Foreign intrusion and interference during the century and a half before the revolution were experienced by the Iranians as a continuous unfolding process. But, for the purpose of in depth analysis, this needs to be considered under two headings representing the periods before and after World War II. On the one side of this divide, we find separate national imperialisms, mainly British and Russian, and on the other a consolidated global imperialism wearing the outward appearance of an alliance of America and Israel.

However, the pattern for both periods-that of mounting conflict between the foreign interest and Iran’s religious class as mobilizer of mass political action-was set quite clearly in 1892. This was a confrontation triggered by the action of the shah in selling to a British company a monopoly for the cultivation and marketing of tobacco. The leading mullah of the day, Mirza Hassan Shirazi, promptly issued an order prohibiting the use of tobacco. Not only was this order instantly obeyed — even, it is said, by the ladies of the royal household — but angry crowds took to the streets. Appalled by this show of strength, the shah backed down, cancelled the contract and paid compensation to the British company.

The message was clear: there could be no security for the foreign interests and no “progress” of the kind they offered unless the power of the religious class could be broken. It was, therefore, with the tacit approval of the British and the Russians that the shah in 1905 yielded to revolutionary demands for representative government of the kind recently introduced in Russia, hoping no doubt that party politics could be used to undermine the power of the mullahs. A parliament (Majlis) was set up, and in 1906 Shah Musal Firudin became, nominally at least, a constitutional monarch. However, he died the same year.

The mullahs who had given their support to the demands for constitutional reform were not deceived by the rubber- stamp Majlis that emerged, and the agitation continued, involving both religious and secular elements.

At the height of this trouble, the British and Russians, without consulting the Persian government, announced that they had divided the country into two spheres of influence so as to counter any possible German threat to their interests. The Russians helped the new shah, Mohammad Ali, to suppress the revolution, occupying Tabriz in the process. A number of mullahs were hanged and the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashad, one of Iran’s most famous places of pilgrimage, was shelled. Mohammad Ali was then deposed by the majlis and replaced by a regency which continued until Ali’s son Sultan Achmad reached the age of 18 and was crowned in 1914-marking the commencement of a period of almost total national disintegration, as the whole country became a stamping-ground for foreign powers.

The British Install a New Dynasty

Brushing aside the young shah’s declaration of neutrality at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, British, Russian and Turkish forces invaded the country, but the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 eliminated the main patron of the Qajar dynasty. By 1919 Persia had no effective central government and separatist movements were in power in the provinces of Khuzistan, Gilan and Khorasan.

Eventually the only coherent force in the country was a Persian Cossack division which, after fighting against the Bolsheviks, had retreated through the British lines. Its leader, Brigadier Reza Khan, restored some semblance of order in Teheran and became the strongman in national politics. After the Persian government signed a treaty with the Soviet government, restoring relations with Russia, Reza Khan was encouraged by the British to stage a putsch. Shah Sultan Achmad was deposed and by 1925 the Cossack officer had been raised to the throne as shahanshah (king of kings), assuming the dynastic name Pahlavi.

In fairness to Shah Reza Khan, it should be noted that, unlike many of his predecessors, it was not in his nature to be a mere puppet of the foreign powers. On the contrary, he imagined himself destined to be the savior of his country and defender of its national independence, and he therefore patiently cultivated the fiction that he was an actual descendant of Iran’s ancient kings.

With Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s great modernizer, as his model, he was convinced that the religious classes were the only real obstacle to progress; and he proceeded with the ruthlessness of a Cossack soldier to try to destroy their power. It was, therefore, mainly for the purpose of strengthening his own position against the mullahs that he sought and used the support of the foreign powers, playing one off against the others wherever possible.

The effect was a transformation of the traditional monarchy, always tyrannical but inefficient, into a modern dictatorship armed with all the expertise and appurtenances of modern totalitarianism, including a ubiquitous secret police. Writes Professor Hamid Algar:

“In so far as the word “Modernization” has had any meaning in the Iranian context, what was modernized by the Pahlavi dynasty was the apparatus of repression … Among the few individuals to resist the imposition of the Pahlavi dictatorship in an open fashion was again one of the ulama, Sayyid Hasan Mudharris. He spoke up in the Majlis … went into exile and was murdered in exile by agents of Reza Khan."[13]

Early in the 1930s the shah sought to protect Iran from both the British and the Soviet Union by entering into an alliance with Germany; and by 1940 thousands of Germans were working in Iran and hundreds of Iranians were studying in German universities and technical colleges. This short-lived alliance was to prove the shah’s undoing. In 1941, as the German forces were advancing deep into Russia, the British and their Soviet allies called on him to expel all the Germans and to permit the transit of supplies and reinforcements to the Russian front. When he refused to comply, the Allied forces invaded Iran and the shah’s 120,000-strong army vanished like “snow in summer.”

Britain carried out a surprise attack on the Iranian navy at Khorramshahr, destroying all the ships and killing many of those on board. Iran was divided into two zones of military occupation and the British, who had appointed Reza Khan as shah, now sent him into exile in South Africa, where he died three years later. As his son, Mohammad Reza, was to remark later in his memoirs: “It was deemed appropriate by the Allies that I should succeed my father.”

“Although Iran was quickly declared one of the Allies,” writes Amir Taheri, “her treatment by the British and Soviet forces of occupation could not have been harsher. Worse still, they made it abundantly clear that they had no intention of leaving Iran after the war had come to an end.” [14]

Any expectations which the British and the Soviets may have had about their future role in Iran were to be disappointed, for in power-political terms World War II was to inaugurate an entirely new game in which the aims and ambitions of separate nations, like Britain and the Soviet Union, were to be of diminishing consequence.

Unnoticed, except by a few percipient observers, a new global imperium had come into existence, geographically centered in the United States, but not specifically American.

The different nations would maintain their embassies and continue to be involved in many ways, but their separate power to influence events in Iran would henceforth be only marginal.

While World War II was still in progress, the Soviets worked quite openly for the creation of independent republics in the northern province of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, hoping to be able to incorporate these later into the USSR. The British also were frantically busy trying to create conditions favorable to their future interests; they set up and financed the Khuzistan Wellbeing Party in the hope of being able to detach this oil-rich region when Iran fell apart, as expected, after the war. The Soviets organized the Communist Tudeh Party, and the British set about securing the allegiance of various dissident groups like the Bakhtiari chiefs and certain Anglophile mullahs and powerful families.

But no resistance could be offered to the United States, now by far the world’s most powerful nation-even without the atom bomb. Quietly, under pressure from Washington, London and Moscow signed a treaty with Iran under which all their forces would be withdrawn within six months of the war. In 1943 the United States set up its Persian Gulf Command and the American presence became increasingly conspicuous.

British and Soviets duly withdrew their forces in 1946, the nascent republics in the north were crushed, and the Tudeh Party was pushed into the background of public affairs. Developments continued according to program, but it was a program that remained for most people a great mystery.

The New Imperialism

It is the revolutionary change in the nature and character of imperialism which now calls for a more detailed explanation.

It rather looked as if a British imperialism which had prevailed in Iran without interruption since the end of World War I was supplanted after the end of World War II by an American one — or, rather, by one consisting of an alliance of America and Israel. Indeed, from quite early in the 1950s an American-Israeli presence was the dominating foreign influence in Iran; and it was almost exclusively against the Americans that the hostility of the mullahs and the masses was directed, culminating in the invasion of the U.S. embassy and the subsequent hostage drama.

The reality, however, was very different, for what looked so like an America-Israeli alliance was in fact only the picture presented by an altogether different imperialism which had come into existence, displacing and replacing all the separate national imperialisms. What began quite early in the present century, and proceeded at a much accelerated pace after the end of World War II, was the progressive dismantling of all the separate national imperialisms, including the American, and their absorption into something unprecedented in recorded history — a global financial imperialism.

Instead of the moral illegitimacy, or political pathology, of parasitical conspiracies of “special interests” inside the different Western societies, now a vast cosmopolitan parasitism of “special interests” operated on a global basis and with ends far more ambitious: nothing less than a world economic and political imperium.

Nationalist imperialisms were thus subsumed in a single international imperialism in the same way as we have seen very large commercial, industrial and financial enterprises swallowed and ingested into the concentrated ownership and control of vastly bigger, mainly financial conglomerates.

The overthrow of the tsarist regime in Russia in 1917, the dispossession of all the European powers of their colonial empires, the setting up of the United Nations as a world government-in-waiting, and much else, were all part of a power-concentrating process which began last century and continues to this day.

This change in the character of imperialism was one of the consequences of a radical change in the realm of high finance, which can briefly be explained as follows. For a long time after the beginning of the modern industrial era, finance-capital (not to be confused with private enterprise capital) existed almost entirely in national concentrations: there was a British finance-capitalism, nominally answerable to a British government, which was in turn nominally answerable to an electorate; a German finance-capitalism, a French one, a Dutch, and so on, each joined to a national government and each government nominally answerable to a national electorate.

These nations were, in fact, plutocracies — each one an instance of what Hobson calls “social pathology,” capable of maintaining themselves in power with a public opinion not sought and consulted, as before, but created as required, by news-media propaganda, patronage and other rewards of the business world. Money had become the measure of all things, with a ruling elite drawn less from the land and more and more from the factory and the counting-house.

Last century and well into the 20th, these national concentrations of financial power were in vigorous competition, a major example of this being the scramble for colonies and markets in the so-called underdeveloped world. What then happened was that the many national vortices of financial power were drawn into a global vortex of financial power.

There can be no doubt that a major factor in bringing about this change in the realm of high finance was the long-continued existence within the different nations of Europe of Jewish banking families or dynasties which had always specialized in transnational operations. [15] The story of how these financial dynasties consolidated their power on an international basis is explained at some length by Prof. Carroll Quigley in his 1300-page “History of the World in Our Time,” Tragedy and Hope.

It all began with what Quigley called “the third stage in the development of capitalism … of overwhelming significance in the history of the 20th century, and its ramifications and influences subterranean and even occult.” He adds:

“Essentially what it did was to take the old disorganized and localized methods of handling money and credit and organize them on an international basis.” [16]

The truly revolutionary change was to occur in the 1930s, when the control of this international financial system passed out of the hands of those who had created it — the likes of J.P. Morgan in America and Montagu Norman in Britain — into the hands of a cosmopolitan elite no longer “high Episcopalian, Anglophile, and European-culture-conscious.” The shift occurred at all levels, says Dr. Quigley, and was evident in the decline of J.P. Morgan, which had hitherto dominated Wall Street. [17]

Thus it can be said that much of what was to happen in Iran and in many other parts of the world after the end of World War II had its parallel in the United States, where the great American pioneering families found themselves without the power to control their own universities, and where their national newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune, fell into irreversible decline and died, like a ring-barked forest giant. The use of words like America and American in any discussion of world politics can thus be grossly misleading unless it is clearly understood that “American power” has ceased to be essentially American.

The dismantling of an essentially British oil empire in Iran and its reorganization on an international basis (as was done with Belgium’s copper empire in the Congo in 1960) was, therefore, to be expected — having much the same effect as that produced by “decolonization” in so many other parts of the world.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) had been exploiting the oil fields in Khuzistan since 1901, and the demarcation of those fields, covering an area of 15,000 square miles, has been laid down in a 1933 agreement. This giant company, writes Vincent Monteil, trained British subjects to take an interest in Iran’s internal affairs, and “took pleasure in appointing the number of votes inthe 'free' elections.” In return — to take only one year as an example — AIOC paid Iran royalties or rent of £10 million in 1949, compared with £28 million paid in tax on profit alone to the British treasury. [18]

In 1950, shortly after the shah’s visit to the United States, where he had talks with President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the Americans began to show great interest in the Iranian oil industry. A number of oil experts, businessmen and technicians visited Iran, and began to lay the powder-train for a political explosion which was to take place less than 12 months later; they did this by explaining how much more generously they treated their partners in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and elsewhere.

A fiery atmosphere was thus created as AIOC began negotiating for a further renewal of its contract. In the wildly confusing situation that ensued, the weight of probability suggests that it was the British who were instrumental in persuading the shah to appoint the army chief-of-staff, Ali Razmara, as prime minister, charged with the task of handling these negotiations. However, the British were soon conducting a furious campaign of character-assassination against Razmara, while the Americans sought to bolster his regime with aid and by upgrading their embassy to first class. This little drama within a drama ended suddenly, when Razmara was assassinated, supposedly as a warning to any politician who might frustrate the growing demand for nationalization of the oil industry.

The killing was done by the Fedayen of Islam (Martyrs for Islam), but is was generally believed at the time that orders for it had come from the British by way of one of their former employees. But why? A draft bill for a renewal of the agreement with AIOC, introduced by Gen. Razmara, was defeated and a few weeks later another bill introduced by Dr. Mohammad Mussadeq, nationalizing the oil industry, was passed. Mussadeq was appointed prime minister and Iran became involved in a great struggle with the British at the World Court and also at the United Nations. A great British company with many years of experience in Iran evidently had no intention of surrendering without a struggle.

Writes Amir Taheri: “That the United States wanted Mussadeq to succeed was demonstrated by the increase in American aid from $500,000 in 1950 to nearly $24 million two years later.” [19] However, if the Iranians expected the Americans to help them to re-establish the oil industry on a national basis they were soon to be disappointed, for American policy was to be dictated by considerations of a kind wholly inaccessible to the scrutiny of ordinary politicians and journalists.

Whether, therefore, it was the British or the Americans who were responsible for the small army revolt which dislodged Mussadeq has continued to this day to be a debatable question in Iran.

As a sincere nationalist politician enjoying much support from the religious class, himself being a practising Muslim, Mussadeq had.performed the task required of him and had now to be removed. The Americans, therefore, joined willingly enough in the world-wide champaign, engineered by the British, to make it impossible for the Iranians to make a go of their nationalized oil industry. In the ensuing turmoil the shah hurriedly left the country, and as quickly returned after order had been established by the army.

President Truman’s 'Point 4' Plan

The Iranians may find a key to the riddle of one of the most baffling periods in their much-troubled history in something that had happened in Washington a couple of years earlier (1949). This was a speech by Mr. Truman in Congress inaugurating his first full term as President, in which he unveiled a grandiose plan to “save the world from Communism” (so soon after America had saved the Soviet Union from Hitler!).

This plan proclaimed a “bold new program for underdeveloped areas,” a program “to greatly increase the industrial activity in other nations” and “to raise substantially their standards of living.” The executors and agents of this plan, which came to be known as “Point 4” and Agency for International Development” or AID, were soon afterwards pressing American asssistance and advice on all the so-called “underdeveloped” countries, including Iran. What President Truman had presented, as we now can see more clearly, was the prefiguration of a new global financial imperialism whose main purpose it would be to dismantle and dislodge all the national economic imperialisms of the preceding century and a half.

A Washington report at the time said that American officials Concerned with President Truman’s “Point 4” were working to the principle of “a new type of benevolent imperialism designed to spread prosperity without exacerbating political nationalism.” In other words, if the undertaking went through, “American nationals will serve on the governmental as well as the technical level in the politically independent countries concerned.” Although “a startling innovation” in Asia and Africa, this was to be regarded “only as an extension of a system already in operation in Latin America.” [20]

That all sounded benevolent enough, but how was it to be prevented from becoming a form of American political hegemony?

After former London Times foreign correspondent Douglas Reed had carefully digested President Truman’s speech and the explanatory literature that accompanied it, he had a strong feeling that he had read it all before somewhere. And so he had: as he turned over the pages of a book he had read a couple of years earlier, there it was. The book was Teheran, Our Path in War and Peace. Its author: Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party in America.

Browder’s words:

“Our government can create a series of giant industrial development corporations, each in partnership with some other government or group of governments, and set them to work upon large-scale plans of railroad and highway building, agricultural and industrial development, and all-round modernization in all the devastated and undeveloped areas of the world.”

The Communist leader was referring to Africa in particular, but he went on:

“Closely related socially, economically and politically with Africa are the Near Eastern countries of Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Here also a broad program of economic development is called for.

Significantly, it was a capitalist America and not a Communist Soviet Union which the Communist Party boss called on to undertake this ambitious program of financial and economic imperialism. Douglas Reed could only marvel:

There must be in America under President Truman, as under President Roosevelt, some group or force strong or persuasive enough to sell Communist aims to political leaders and simultaneously to convince them that these will stop Communism."[21]

Indeed. And to the same hidden source must be traced the reality of American state policy during and after the last war, as distinct from policy as publicly stated, the promotion of two causes that were never declared but simply came to pass: the advance of the Red Army to the center of Europe and to the Pacific coast of Asia, and the continuous pouring of billions of financial aid every year into the then-new state of Israel.

That should help to explain a phenomenon which seems to have baffled Amir Taheri and other observers. Writes Taheri:

“What could be described as the Kissinger style of diplomacy led, over a period of eight years, to a sharp reduction in the contributions of American missions abroad to the making of foreign policy, Kissinger clearly believed that diplomacy was too important a matter to be left to diplomats… he saw it [the bureaucracy] as no more than an instrument for implementing decisions made by a very restricted circle."[22]

Grand Design and Counter-Revolution

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry young men who seized the American embassy after the revolution did not fail to notice that many of the most telling policy directives from the State Department in Washington were wholly out of register with reports and interpretations from the men on the spot, the poor wretches who afterwards had to bear the full brunt of passionate Iranian animosity. Members of the American embassy in Teheran, says Taheri, were gradually led to understand that they should not report what they saw but, rather, should see what Washington wanted them to report.

What this meant was that a grand strategy and system of tactics were being implemented to which only a tiny minority of policy-makers at the top were privy, creating an environment in which deeply clandestine purposes were heavily masked with an ostentation of innocent and benevolent intentions. The effect was an utterly baffling melange of contradictory utterances and actions. As Taheri put it:

“The behind-the-scenes drama enacted over more than eight years in Teheran, Washington, Jerusalem, London, Cairo and a dozen other cities reflected the realities of a secret world which obeyed few rules either of international conduct or of individual morality. It is in this broader context that the Irangate fiasco might be properly understood."[23]

This hell’s kitchen of secrecy and intrigue outside Iran had its equivalent inside the country. In the aftermath of the. revolution all the Freemasonry lodges in Iran were closed and their archives seized, confirming what many had suspected. Many of them were controlled by Jews or Bahais of Jewish origin, providing another channel of secret communication with Israel and Zionism in general.

So, how did the American Communist Party leader come to present in broad outline an ambitious program for Third World development, to be undertaken later at great cost by the United States and a wide network of international agencies? Another question: How did it happen, and how was it possible, for Armand Hammer, son of Julius Hammer, one of the founders of the American Communist Party, to proceed to Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution and begin at once to organize a massive transfer of finance, industrial equipment and technology from the capitalist West to its supposed enemy, the Communist East? [24]

The short answer to both questions will be found in what the German historian Oswald Spengler wrote immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution:

“There is no proletarian movement, not even a Communist one, which does not operate in the interest of money, in the direction indicated by money and for the period permitted by money, and all this without the idealist in its ranks having the slightest suspicion of the fact."[25]

Those who have penetrated the mystery of the weirdly ambivalent relationship of high finance and Communism will not be surprised to learn that the Soviet Union supported the shah to the end, and that articles in Pravda about events in Iran were almost exactly the same in tone and content as those in the New York Times.

If the unfolding history of our century can be said to be the product of an alliance of money and intellect (what else could it be?), it was the role of Earl Browder and very many of his kind, only a few of them to be identified as Communists, to take care of the intellectual half of this alliance.

Writes Professor Hamid Algar:

“The return of the shah in 1953 inaugurated the intense period of a quarter of a century of unprecedented massacre and oppression, the intensive exploitation of the resources of He Iranian people by the imperialism of the East and West, the Western camp being headed then by the United States rather than Britain."[26]

This then was the new imperialism, American and Israeli in appearance but international and cosmopolitan in character, drawing into its orbit power-wielding elements from all the previous national imperialisms, financial, political and intellectual. The Iranian oil industry, hitherto a British monopoly, was “internationalized,” the nominal national ownership of it left intact but its management entrusted to a consortium owned by AIOC, renamed British Petroleum (40 per cent), eight United States oil trusts (40 per cent), Shell (14 per cent) and French Petroleum (6 per cent).

We must now try to make some sense out ot the phantasmagoria of confused and seemingly contradictory facts which emerged in the struggle between the shah and his people that was to ensue.

The entire Iranian struggle after the end of World War II can be visualized in the broadest terms as a confrontation of mutually antagonistic hierarchies of ideas, values and vortices of power, actual or potential, the one belonging to the West and the other to the East, the one having modern America as its grand symbol of human progress and welfare, and the other regarding America as the arch-symbol of political illegitimacy, “The Great Satan.” [27]

And the shah, because he could imagine no future for Iran except one modeled on the industrialized West, and because he, too, regarded his country’s religious class as the great obstacle to progress in that direction, allowed himself to become, in every way, the main instrument of the foreign power.

As Taheri reports, a great variety of ideological forces came into existence after 1953 to combat the dictatorship of the shah and his subservience to the foreign powers; but behind all of them religious influence was increasingly discernible; so much so that even socialism, a secular ideology borrowed from the West, reappeared in Iran as “The Movement of God-fearing Socialists.”

This increase in religious influence came to a climax in 1963 with the sudden emergence into prominence of the Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini, who was to play a role in the revolution resembling in many ways that of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, combining in a remarkable way the functions of a religious and secular leader. [28]

A maximization of the power of the shah to enforce his will on the population was being met with a corresponding increase in the power and influence of a religious class which symbolized the will and instinct of the mass of the people. They could all see what was being offered, and they did not want it.

There were two ways in which the shah’s power to enforce his will was enormously increased: 1) an increase in the amount of money at his disposal as oil production was resumed, and again as the price of oil rocketed; and, 2) close cooperation with the external power, especially with its Israeli component, in the sophisticated use of secret police and prisons as instruments of terror and compulsion.

Even moderate opposition after 1963 was suppressed with exile, imprisonment, torture and murder, and the army was brought in to crush mass demonstrations mounted by the ulama in Teheran and other cities, when thousands of people were killed. In 1975 the director of Amnesty International’s British section described Iran as “world leader” in torture, executions after sham trials, and widespread political imprisonment.

The sharp edge of the power which the shah was able to bring to bear on his internal opponents was almost wholly supplied by his two main foreign supporters, the United States and Israel; these were, however, never really separate but only two aspects of one and the same world-revolutionary force.

In fact, American and Israeli influence were at all times inseparable. Prof. Algar says that after the coup of 1953, which ousted Mussadeq, there was cooperation at all levels, especially in intelligence and security work. He adds:

“After a certain point it appears that the task of staffing the Savak was taken over by Mossad, the Israeli security, from the CIA although the CIA always retained the right of supervision over the operations of Savak. I know of many people who report having been interrogated and tortured by Israelis while in the custody of Savak."[29]

Algar continues:

“There was overwhelming similarity between the two of utter dependence on the United States. Israel is hardly independent of the United States-or, rather, the matters are the reverse, Israel certainly commands more votes in the Senate than does the White House."[30]

This Age of Conflict

The career of Shah Mohammad Reza illustrates to perfection Lord Acton’s maxim that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Through the process of unrestrained personal ambition the shah became wholly separated from his own people — the corruption of leadership in its ultimate form. He believed in what he was doing, enjoyed the support of the greatest concentration of power outside his own country, and was able to draw from his oil industry so much wealth that he needed nothing from his people except their submission. From 1970 he was even able to expand his power abroad by giving away vast quantities of money, having raised his own country to a position of power and influence unprecedented in centuries. Writes Taheri:

“Between 1968 and 1978 Iran earned more than $100,000 million from oil exports. More than 10 percent of that was used in the form of loans or outright gifts to friendly countries. The United Kingdom received from $1,200 million in loans … In West Germany Iran purchased substantial shares in Krupps and Benz as a means of saving them from financial difficulties… More than seven hundred “key personalitites” in some 30 countries were on the secret Iranian payroll from 1979 onwards …"[31]

Iran’s galloping arms expenditure in the wake of the 1973-74 oil-price rise helped Western economies to avoid recession. At the same time, under the Nixon-Kissinger doctrine, Iran was seen as the regional power that would defend Western interests and act as policeman in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

The shah had assigned to himself a role in history comparable, in his imagination, only with that of the founder of the Persian Empire in 600 BC. Of this he informed the world in October 1971 when, flanked by his generals, he presented himself before the tomb of that great monarch, now little more than a pile of stones in a vast arid plain, and ceremoniously read a eulogy which began with the words: “Lie in peace, Cyrus, for we are awake!”

This was followed by a party among the grandiose ruins at Persepolis attended by more than five hundred dignitaries, including kings, presidents and prime ministers from 60 countries. All this, as the shah remarked at the time, was intended to mark “the rebirth of the Persian Empire and Iran’s return to the forefront of human experience.”

Other products of the shah’s megolomania were the proposed 1,200-acre Shahestan-e-Pahlavi architectural extravaganza at Teheran and 20 planned nuclear power plants. This kind of development favored Western economics and Western contractors who shared the pickings with a new class of Iranian monopolists and technocrats, but did little or nothing for the Iranian economy as a whole.

Carried away by this dream of national greatness, what the shah seemed unable to understand was that the role he had assigned to himself was wholly subordinate to another which had been assigned to him by those who were encouraging him in his ambitions. In other words, that the Iranian national drama, so impressive when viewed separately, was intended to be no more than an episode in a vastly bigger world-historical drama.

So, it is the motivational system of the likes of Henry Kissinger — during most of the 1970s the shah’s warmest friend and most trusted adviser — that calls for some consideration. How and for what purpose were these powerful individuals trying to use the shah?

A short but inadequate answer is that the new international cosmopolitan imperialism, spearheaded by Israel, had come to regard the Arab world and its Islamic religions as being by far the greatest hindrance to the attainment of its great objective, a one-world government which it could control at all levels; and Iran, with its considerable non-Arabic population and huge oil wealth, was seen as a possible countervailing force which could be used against the Arab world.

The first step was to make Israel virtually synonymous with America in terms of foreign support in all fields, and then, by steady progression, provide the shah with a means of suppressing all internal opposition. In fact, the shah’s security forces were virtually taken over by the Israelis and reinforced with non-Islamic personnel, largely recruited from non-Muslim population elements, especially the Bahais, largely people of Jewish descent no longer practicing the Jewish religion. This gave the shah an instrument which could be used with the utmost ruthlessness against the population and against the religious class in particular.. Prof. Algar states the position exactly:

“We find … that immediately after the great massacre in Teheran on September 8, 1978, when an estimated 4000 people were killed, Carter left his humanitarian efforts on behalf of so called peace at Camp David to send a personal message of support to the shah. It is noteworthy that Sadat and Begin and the other participants in these humanitarian efforts at Camp David also took time off to telephone their best wishes to the shah in the aftermath of the massacre. Given this timing of Carter’s expression of support for the shah, we can do no other than regard his visit to Teheran and his proclamation of support … at the beginning of 1978 as an implicit statement of support of the shah and of all the acts of massacre and repression that he undertook in the year of the revolution. It was not only … an uprising designed to shake and destroy the tyrannical rule of the monarch, it was at the same time, in a real sense, a war of independence waged against a power which had successfully turned Iran into a military base and which had incorporated the military repressive apparatus of that other country into its own strategic system."[32]

The commanding importance attached to Iran as a piece on the checkerboard of global power politics was emphasized shortly after the fall of the shah when support from both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain was given to Iraq, and when the most flagrant violations of international law by Iraq, including the first attacks on neutral shipping, and even the use of poison gas, were disregarded or excused. The external powers, the USSR included, also doggedly refused to name Iraq as the aggressor.

Then when it had become clear that Iraq could not win, the combined efforts of the external powers had to be used to prevent an Iranian victory — an exercise which eventually called for direct American military action in the Persian gulf.

The Battleground of the Mind

The Iranian struggle was won and lost on the battleground of the mind.

All the ideas which the shah could muster in favor of the visible benefits of the Western social model, supported with a maximum application of force and terror, proved to be no match for a system of ideas, promoted by the mullahs, which united the people as never before and infused them with death-defying courage.

This was something the shah could never understand: an invincible unity of the people which embraced old and young, uneducated and educated, including even those who had received their schooling in the West. Thus, we learn that the shah’s last visit to Washington at the invitation of President Carter in November 1977, was marred by unprecedented demonstrations by Iranian students, and that the teargas used by the police drifted across the White House lawns and caused the shah to shed a few tears.

For the purpose of study and discussion, this victorious system of ideas can be considered under two headings: populism and religion. The use of the word populism, however, calls for an explanatory note: it means what democracy used to mean and is still assumed to mean — namely, government by the people, direct or representative. However, since the word democracy is now almost universally applied to states which are not democracies as defined in the dictionaries, it can only be said to have ceased to be “lawful tender.”

The nations of the West are, in fact, plutocracies, or special-interest oligarchies, wearing many of the trappings of democracy — political parties, the ballot box, all the rest.

The word populist is now used in all the English-speaking countries to designate popular movements offering opposition to the bogus democracies. The concept of populism thus establishes common ground between political activists persecuted by the shah and those in the West now being persecuted and execrated as “rightwing extremists,” “neo-Nazis,” or “Fascists,” any debate with them being totally proscribed. [33]

All these populist movements have their origin in a deeply rooted instinct, a social or political instinct, which prompts people to react negatively to any rule which, judged by the results produced, they do not feel to be truly their own. Primitive societies which have endured down the ages can be regarded as models of legitimate rule and an example to the huge sophisticated societies of the modern world, in which the factor of legitimacy is increasingly elusive, if not wholly absent.

The actual system matters very little: it could be a monarchy, or a dictatorship, or an oligarchy or a conventional democracy; there is no system of rule which has not been known to work to the satisfaction of those ruled; any system acceptable provided that it is implemented by those who can be regarded as the legitimate nominees of those ruled, leaders who are sensitive to the feelings, values, beliefs and group memories of the ruled.

Amir Taheri, a West-oriented Iranian journalist and no friend of the mullahs, says of the shah in 1976:

“He did not need the people for their votes in a general election. He was there by divine right and parliamentary elections, organized every four years, were little more than ritualistic exercises in futility."[34]

And the shah had long since abandoned the practice of travelling around the country to make direct contact with his people.

Other populist resistance movements in Iran since before the turn of the century, some of them modeled on similar movements in the West, were all influenced in some degree by the religious class, but the one that finally triumphed was religious through and through, inspired by a great religious leader and organized and managed throughout by the ulama.

From all of which it would seem to follow that for the West, with all its bogus democracies and its Christian church falling into disarray and demoralization, there should be much to learn from the role of religion as a mobilizer of mass political action, and about politics in general.

However, any consideration of the role of religion in Iran — a role unthinkable today in the West — needs to be preceded by a few thoughts about religion in general, not this or that manisfestation of it but religion as a factor of commanding importance in human affairs everywhere and at all times of which we have any record.

Religion can be said to have two main aspects: personal and social. Religion can be a strictly personal phenomenon, joined to or wholly independent of any prevailing orthodoxy or doctrine. A sound attitude towards the totality of existence, a submission of the will to a system of cosmic law external to and superior to the intellect, no matter how such an attitude may have been acquired, is all that is needed for what C.G. Jung describes as “a religious attitude to life,” or state of psychic well-being. For most people at all times a taught religion has provided the easiest access to such an attitude, for which the only proof needed is that it works.

Religion can, therefore, also be a social phenomenon, a system of consensus belief having its origin in some prophet and offering psychic security and some measure of creative release to an entire community, even to an epoch. Consensus religions, like all other human artifacts, are exposed to the vicissitudes of time and change and thus are liable to lose some of their pristine efficacy, their power to fulfil the purpose for which they came into existence.

So, what is the purpose of a consensus religion, if any, apart from that of helping the individual to find psychic orientation?

One simple but of course insufficient answer is that a consensus religion serves as a repository of values and a system of tested knowledge in respect of what is “right” and “wrong” in human relations. This implies that certain cosmic laws relative to what people do, or what is done to them, are encoded in human nature, not as ready-made ideas but only as instinctual intimations which must then be conceptualized and verbalized as ideas capable of being communicated and discussed. These laws we categorize as “moral” or “metaphysical,” laws of a most volatile and elusive kind which are easily lost and are continually having to be rediscovered and verbalized in a new way. And it is these laws which, if observed and applied in whatever form, keep a society as it were “on course,” preserving it against disintegration and disorder.

Islam and Christianity

Only blind prejudice can prevent anyone who has gone to the trouble of studying even a summary of the contents of the Koran from realizing that Muhammad the Prophet was a moral genius, a person who, under pressure of a personal crisis of the mind, gained a quite extraordinary insight into those metaphysical laws, so hard to grasp, which prevail inexorably inside the human mind and in human relations.

And it was the circumstances then prevailing that made it possible, even inevitable, that one man’s breakthrough to a rare state of enlightenment would expand quickly into a consensus religion destined to spread very quickly over most of the then known world.

Muhammad, like Jesus Christ about 600 years earlier, was living in what can be described as “end times” — much like conditions in the Western world today — when societies, no longer sufficiently in register with the unalterable realities of human nature, have begun to disintegrate. Social existence degenerates into a frantic scramble for personal survival and advantage as people cease to find in their social group a sense of shared security and mutual obligation and duty, and many begin to suffer in their minds.

What is most significant is that the Church in the West is disintegrating along with everything else, compounding rather than counteracting the process of decline in the West.

Here a clear distinction must be drawn between two aspects of Christianity as a consensus religion: the Church Extant and the Church Invisible; the church as a great property-owning and power-oriented institution and the church in its nascent form as a message of personal deliverance. Both Christianity and Islam spring from the same insights and share with the earlier Judaism the same even more ancient monotheistic symbolism. The Koran says: “Jesus the Messiah, the son of Mary, was a Messenger of God, His word which He placed in Mary, and His spirit” (IV.171). There was, thus, no fundamental antagonism between Islam and Christianity.

The big difference between the two religions is that Islam did not create a church or its equivalent, and that the Christian Church, obedient to the laws of worldly growth, was everywhere inclined to make common cause with centers of worldly power.

The failure of the church in the West is summed up in Balzac’s trenchant remark that “there can be no universal application of Christianity until the money problem has been solved.” Alas, the church has never been at odds for long with “Caesar” in the ultimate form as concentrated financial power.

It is mainly for this reason that Islam, with its unflinching prohibition of usury, now is seen as a major threat to a vast structure of power in the West, challenging the moral foundations on which it has been reared.

The code of conduct, both for rulers and ruled, explicit in Islam’s Sharia, was largely implicit in Christianity’s basic teaching ("Do unto others as you would be done by."). The main difference between the two faiths arose out of the fact that Muhammad was compelled by the circumstances of his time to become a political leader, administrator and soldier, as well as religious leader. The meanings belonging to “a kingdom not of this world” were thus brought into close relationship with meanings more directly relevant to the unavoidable actualities of “this world.”

Perhaps the most important fact of all in the context of the present world situation is that Islam presents in clear outline the moral configuration of Economic Man: worker, owner, dealer in the products of labor, his duties, obligations and rights. The injunction on the subject of usury may not have seemed all that important at the time when few, if any, of the Prophet’s followers might have been interested in the lending of money.

But, today, usury is the linchpin without which the greatest concentration of worldly power ever would fall apart. Centuries of antagonism between the Christian and Muslim worlds can be traced to a great variety of causes, but one of its main effects, as we can now see more plainly, was that of preventing the people of the West from recognizing and getting to grips with a corrupting principle which had been planted in their midst.

Shi'ism: Religion of the Revolution

For an explanation of the Iranian Revolution, it is not Islam in general but a particular version of it called Shi'ism that needs to be more closely examined, a kind of fundamentalism which, besides setting Iran fiercely at odds with the Western world, has had the effect of driving Iran into isolation, separated also from the rest of the Islamic world.

Writes Professor Algar:

“The revolution in Iran and the foundation of the Islamic Republic is the culmination of a series of events that began in the sixteenth century of the Christian era with the adherence of the majority of the Iranian people to the Shi'i school of thought in Islam. Indeed, one of the important factors that sets the Iranian Revolution apart from all the other revolutionary upheavals of the present century is its deep roots in the historical past."[35]

There is no need, however, to explore the difference between Shi'ism and other schools of Islamic thought, because this difference fades into relative insignificance when compared with the change which occurred in Shi'ism itself after its introduction by the Turkish conqueror and the inauguration of the Safavid dynasty in 1502. So, it is what the Persians made of Shi'ism, rather than what they received, that now sharply distinguishes it from other schools of Islamic thought.

What has happened can be stated in a few words: Shi'ism has presented in sharper and clearer outline of the religious configurations of what we might call Political Man. This has entailed the politicization of the ulama and its involvement in public affairs to a degree unequalled anywhere outside Iran. The leaders of the other Islamic states, while sharing with Iran deep concern about policies being implemented by the Western powers in the Middle East, see what has happened in Iran as a usurpation by the religious class that could place their own regimes in danger.

This involvement in politics by the religious class has deep roots in history and is supported with considerable scholarship. Writes Prod Algar:

“With the hindsight provided by the Islamic Revolution, it will be more appropriate to write the Iranian history of the past three or four centuries not so much in terms of dynasties as in terms of the development of the class of Iranian ulama. Dynasties have come and gone, leaving in many cases lithee more than a few artifacts behind to account for their existence. but there has been a continuing development of the class of Shi'i ulama in Iran which has been totally without parallel elsewhere in the Islamic world.”

Prof. Algar explains briefly how the burdens of state came to be placed on the shoulders of the religious scholars and how they learned to cope:

“With the decline of the Safavid dynasty in 1724, a period of anarchy began in Iran. At one point within the 18th century we find no fewer than 13 different contestants for the throne doing battle with each other. The total disintegration of the political authority accelerated the process of divorce between the religious institution and the monarchy. We can say that in the absence of an effective centralized monarchy throughout the 18th century the ulama came in a practical fashion … to assume the role of local governors, arbitrators of disputes, executors at law and so forth."[36]

This experience over an extended period produced a change in Shi'ism; for there had to be some change in theory and scholarship to accommodate an expanded range of duty and mental activity. And so there arose a great debate about the duties of the religious scholar, whether he should confine himself to the sifting of the teachings of the Prophet and its interpretations, or whether it was permissible for him to engage in independent reasoning in respect of legal questions. The first position acquired the Arabic name akhbari and the other the usuli.

It would be hard to exaggerate the profundity and far-ranging implication of this debate; the question at issue is whether a consensus religion can be a “total way of life” for any society unless its scholars and teachers are also experts in jurisprudence and other affairs of state and have been trained to exercise their intellects in secular as well as religious matters, thereby acquiring competence to monitor the performance of the rulers.

Were it not for the triumph of the usuli position in the 18th century, the religious scholars would have been reduced to an extremely marginal position in society and the Iranian Revolution of 1978 would have been impossible. The whole significance of the Ayatollah Khomeini arises from the fact that he was the living embodiment of this activist tradition, the fruition of long years of political, spiritual and intellectual development.

As the mass of the Iranian population was instinctively repelled by the conditions of existence created in the name of Westernization and progress, and after the failure of many attempts by various popular movements, like Mussadeq’s National Front, to place some curbs on the shah’s dictatorial power, all turned to the ulama and accepted it unreservedly as the sole legitimate authority and thereafter responded automatically to its commands. Khomeini could, therefore, feel secure in the knowledge that he had the mass of the population behind him when early in 1963 he virtually launched the revolution with a series of public declarations at Qum.

In these he accused the shah of having violated the constitution and the oath he took when enthroned that he would protect Islam. He also attacked the shah for his subordination to foreign powers, naming the United States and Israel. The secret police Savak had permitted some qualified criticism of America but had always rigorously enforced the rule that not even the name of Israel must ever be mentioned in public discussion.

After one of these addresses, Khomeini’s center at Qum was stormed by paratroopers and Savak members, a number of people were killed and the ayatollah arrested. Released a few days later, the ayatollah continued to attack the shah, with the result that there followed on June 5 a vast uprising in many Iranian cities.

This was repressed with great force and it was estimated that within a few days at least 15,000 people were killed in the shooting ordered by the shah. Khomeini was arrested again and sent into exile in Turkey, whence he moved later to Iraq and then to Paris.

Two features of the ensuing revolution which culminated in the final explosion of public anger towards the end of 1978 call for special notice. The more important of these was the factor of martyrdom, that is resistance of a kind undeterred by the fear of death. The other was the communications factor, the seeming magic with which the leader of the revolution, even from distant Paris, could reach a widely distributed population with information and instruction.

The communications factor is more easily explained: the ulama represented a nationwide communications network with its mosques and madrassas, its mullahs and its students, vastly expanded and expedited by two products of modern technology, the telephone and the tape-recorder. A declaration by the ayatollah, spoken into a telephone in Paris, would be recorded in Teheran or some other Iranian city, copied and transcribed and retransmitted to other parts of the country, where the process would be repeated until within a few hours it would have reached even small and widely separated villages.

All this was possible, however, only by reason of the accumulated learning and preparatory work of four centuries which had equipped the ulama for such a role, so that all knew exactly what they were expected to do and why, a rare condition in any society. This communications system, wholly dependent on the zealous participation of thousands of individuals, proved in the end to be more than a match for a powerful press, radio and television, all vehemently supportive of the shah’s regime.

All that needs to be said about the highly abstruse martyrdom factor is that in Shi'ism the concept has been more thoroughly elaborated as a main component of the Islamic faith. It is something ever present in the consciousness of the Iranians. Hence the Shi'i maxim: “Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala” — referring to the martyrdom of the Imam Hussain.

It was this factor that gave to mass political action in Iran, especially throughout 1978, a diamond-hardness that was proof against all the ruthless and sophisticated physical force which the shah and his close Israeli ally could mount against it. During the first days of December 1978, a large number of people appeared in the streets of Teheran and other cities wearing their shrouds, prepared for martyrdom and advancing unarmed on the rows of machine guns ready to be used to deady effect.

By no other means could the people of Iran have overthrown one of the 20th century’s most powerful and ruthless tyrants.


  1. Article on Iran in Comment, published by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, May 1980.
  2. Algar, Hamid The Roots of the Islamic Revolution (The Open Press, London, 1983), p. 9.
  3. Lectures at the Muslim Institute, London, 1980, Siddiqui’s Preface.
  4. Taheri, Amir Nest of Spies: America’s Journey to Disaster in Iran (Hutchinson, 1988).
  5. Lenin quoted by Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987).
  6. Hobson, J.A. Imperialism: A Study (Geo. Allen and Unwin), Rev. Ed., 1938, p. vi.
  7. Hobson, op. cit., p. 5.
  8. Hobson, op. cit., pp. 46-7.
  9. Hobson, op. cit., pp. 53-4.
  10. Hobson, op. cit., p. 197.
  11. Hobson, op. cit., p. 205.
  12. Hobson, op. cit., p. 204.
  13. Algar, op. cit., p. 20.
  14. Taheri, op. cit., p. 15.
  15. Names and background of Jewish banking families are given by Howard Sachar in The Course of Modern Jewish History (Dell Publishing, New York, 1958).
  16. Quigley, Carroll. Tragedy and Hope (Macmillan, New York, 1966), p. 50.
  17. Quigley, op. cit., p. 937.
  18. Monteil, Vincent, Iran (Studio Vista, London, 1965), p. 25.
  19. Taheri, op. cit., p. 27.
  20. Cited in Reed, Douglas, Somewhere South of Suez (Devin-Adair, New York, 1951), p. 399.
  21. Reed, op. cit., pp. 399-400.
  22. Taheri, op. cit., p. 80.
  23. Taheri, op. cit., p. 5.
  24. See Armand Hammerys autobiography, Witness to History (1987).
  25. Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 1926), vol 2, p. 402.
  26. Algar, op. cit., p. 22.
  27. For a particularly forceful exposition of this viewpoint, see Fall of a Center of Deceit, Islamic Propagation Organization, Teheran.
  28. See The Life and Times of Muhammad, John Bagot Glubb (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970, and Life of Mahomet, Washington Irving (Dent, 1911).
  29. Algar, op. cit., p. 50.
  30. Algar, op. cit., p. 50.
  31. Taheri, op. cit., p. 63
  32. Algar, op. cit., p. 101.
  33. Subject of a paper on psychological warfare read by Ivor Benson at the 1977 congress of the World Anti-Communist League, in Seoul, Korea.
  34. Taheri, op. cit.
  35. Algar, op. cit., p. 5.
  36. Algar, op. cit., p. 16.

Appendix I: Islam and Economic Man

If a single all-embracing reason is to be sought for the dread of a resurgent Islam now prevailing in the highest centers of worldly power, it may be found in the Islamic moral delineation of Economic Man, a system of ideas which challenges the entire foundation of great power in the West.

Monetary reform campaigners in the West, especially in the United States, might be astonished by the quantity and quality of thinking which Muslim scholars have put into the subject of banking and of economics generally, all of it constellated by the Prophet Muhammad’s simple utterances. Here are some of the key elements of the Islamic economic philosophy: *

Individual rights: These are a consequence of the fulfillment of duties and obligations, not antecedent to them. In other words, first comes:the duty, then the right.

Property: Ownership is never absolute, conferring on us the right to do with our property wholly as we please. As the Sharia puts it, all property belongs to God: we are only its temporary incumbents and trustees; there are duties and responsibilites inseparably attached to the ownership of property.

Work and wealth: Islam exalts work as an inseparable dimension of faith itself and reprehends idleness. We do not need work only in order to earn a livelihood; we need work to preserve our psychic health; we need to exercise creative skills and to spend energy in work.

Usury: The Koran forcefully prohibits the payment and receipt of interest, or riba as it is called. Interest on a loan is regarded as a creation of instantaneous property rights outside the legtimate framework of existing property rights.

The evil inherent in usury, however, is more recondite and elusive than that. The lending of money at interest can in many instances be advantageous to borrower as well as lender; fortunes have been made with borrowed money. It is only in the contest of a total way of life of a community that the evil nature of usury becomes more clearly visible to the moral imagination.

The principle of usury, once accepted, gives rise to the regular practice of it, requiring or making possible the emergence of a class of moneylender; human nature being as it is, and taking into account the circumstances in which money most often needs to be borrowed, the practice of usury is seen as conferring a compounding advantage on the moneylender class.

*See “The Islamic Banking system in Iran and Pakistan” Mohsin S. Khan and Abbas Mirahker, Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, 1986.

About the author

IVOR BENSON is a South African journalist and political analyst. He wrote for the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph in London, and later was chief assistant editor of the Rand Daily Mail. From 1964 to 1966 he served as Information Adviser to Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Mr. Benson has lectured on four continents; he produces a monthly newsletter, Behind the News (P.O. Box 1564, Krugersdorp, 1740 South Africa).

Bibliographic information
Author: Benson, Ivor
Title: Iran — Some Angles on the Islamic Revolution
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Summer 1989
Issue: Volume 9 number 2
Location: Page 141
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.