Was it Wrong to Support the Iranian Revolution in 1978 (because it turned out badly)?

Ayatollah Khomeini
Ayatollah Khomeini

I have often reflected upon my own experience of the Iranian Revolution. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, I believed that the United States would face its next major geopolitical challenge in Iran: partly because of its role via CIA in overthrowing the Mohammad Mosaddegh elected constitutional government so as to restore the repressive Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) to power in 1953; partly because there were 45,000 American troops deployed in Iran along with a network of strategic assets associated with Cold War anti-Soviet priorities; partly because there was a generation of young Iranians, many of whom studied abroad, who had experienced torture and abuse at the hands of the SAVAK, Tehran’s feared intelligence service; partly by the intense anti-regime opposition of an alienated middle class in Iran that was angered by the Shah’s reliance on international capital in implementing the ‘White Revolution,’ and partly because the Shah pursued a regionally unpopular pro-Israel and pro-South Africa (during apartheid) policy.  Against this background, and on the basis of my decade long involvement in opposing the American role in Vietnam, I helped form and chaired a small, unfunded committee devoted to promoting human rights and opposing non-intervention in Iran. I was greatly encouraged to do this my several students who were either Iranian or political activists focused on Iran.

In this period, while on the Princeton faculty, the committee organized several events on the internal situation in Iran, including criticism of the American role that was dramatized by Jimmy Carter’s 1978 New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah while a guest at the palace, “an island of stability surrounded by the love of his people.”  Such absurdly inappropriate sentiments by the most decent of recent American presidents were undoubtedly sincere but bore witness to what is seen and unseen by the best of American leaders when the world is understood according to the protocols of geopolitics. It was Henry Kissinger who more realistically praised the Shah in his memoirs, calling him “the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.” It was this sense of Iran’s subordination to the United States that increased the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime across the broad spectrum of Iranian opinion, and explained what was not then understood, why even those sectors of the Iranian establishment who had benefitted most from the Shah’s regime, did not fight for its survival, but rather ran away and hide as quickly as they could.

Despite being critical of the established order in Iran, the timing and nature of the Iranian upheaval in 1978 came as a complete surprise.  It also surprised the American ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told me during a meeting in Tehran at the height of the domestic turmoil, that the embassy had worked out 26 scenarios of possible destabilization in Iran and not one had accorded any role to Islamic resistance. As late as August 1978 a CIA analysis concluded that Iran “is not revolutionary or even in a pre-revolutionary situation.” In fact, seeing the world through a blinkered Cold War optic led the U.S. Government to continue funding Islamic groups because of their presumed anti-Communist identity, which was the first major experience of ‘blowback’, to be disastrously repeated in Afghanistan. The unrest in Iran started with a relatively minor incident in early 1978, although some observers point to demonstrations a year earlier, which gradually deepened until it became a revolutionary process engulfing the entire country.  My small committee in the United States tried to interpret these unexpected developments in Iran, inviting informed speakers, sponsoring meetings, and beginning to appreciate the unlikely role being played by Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspirational figure living for many years in exile, first in Iraq, then Paris. It was in this setting that I was invited to visit Iran to witness the unfolding revolutionary process by Mehdi Bazargan who was a moderate and respected early leader in the anti-Shah movement, and was appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini on February 4, 1979 of an interim government of post-Shah Iran. In explaining the appointment, Khomeini foreshadowed an authoritarian turn in the revolutionary process. His chilling words were not sufficiently noticed as the time: “[T]hrough the guardianship [velayat] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing the government means opposing the sharia of Islam…Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

In January 1979, I went to Iran for two weeks in a small delegation of three persons. My companions on the trip were Ramsey Clark, former American Attorney General who had turned strongly against American foreign policy during the last stages of the Vietnam War and Philip Luce, long-term anti-war activist associated with religious NGOs who had gained worldwide attention a decade earlier when he showed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used by the Saigon government to imprison inhumanly its enemies in South Vietnam. The three of us embarked on this mission generally sympathetic with the anti-Shah movement, but were uncertain about its real character and likely political trajectory. I had met previously with some of those who would emerge prominently, including Abdulhassan Banisadr Ban who was living as a private citizen in Paris and dreamed of becoming the first president of a post-Shah Iran, an idealistic man who combined a devotion to Islam with a liberal democratic agenda and an Islamic approach to economic policy. His dream was fulfilled but not at all in the manner that he hoped.  He did become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but his eminence was short lived as the radicalization of the political climate under the guidance of Khomeini led to his impeachment after less than two years, and made it necessary for him to flee the country, returning Paris, now a fugitive of the revolution he had so recently championed. Of course, such a pattern was not novel. Past revolutions had frequently devoured their most dedicated adherents.

Also, I had become a close friend of Mansour Farhang who was a progressive American professor of international relations teaching at a California college and a highly intelligent advocate of the revolutionary developments in Iran as they unfolded in 1978. Farhang was appointed as ambassador to the UN by the new government, but soon resigned his post, and denounced the regime he had worked to install as a new species of ‘religious fascism.’ There were others, also, who inclined me in this period of struggle against the Pahlavi Dynasty to view favorably the revolutionary developments in Iran, but later became bitter opponents.

My visit itself took place at a climactic moment in the Iranian Revolution. The Shah left the country on January 17, 1979, while we were in Iran, to the disbelief of ordinary Iranians who thought the initial reports were at best a false rumor and at worst a trick to entrap the opposition. When the public began to believe that the unbelievable had actually happened, there were spontaneous celebratory outpourings everywhere we were. On that very evening we had a somewhat surrealistic meeting with the recently designated Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was a longtime liberal critic of the monarchy living outside the country who had been appointed a few weeks earlier by the Shah as a desperate democratizing concession aimed at calming the rising revolutionary tide. It was a futile gesture, and one that Khomeini dismissed with the greatest contempt, showing his refusal to consider what, at the time, struck many as a prudent compromise. Bakhtiar lasted less than two months, left the country, and was assassinated in his home in the outskirts of Paris a decade or so later.

While in Iran we had the opportunity to have long meetings with a range of religious figures, including Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, both extraordinary religious figures who impressed us deeply with their combination of principled politics and empathy with the suffering endured by the Iranian people during the prior 25 years. After leaving Iran, we stopped in Paris and spent several hours with Ayatollah Khomeini on his last day in France before his triumphal return to Iran. At that point, Khomeini was viewed as ‘the icon’ of the revolution, but was not thought of as its future political leader. Indeed, Khomeini had told us that he looked forward to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran, and that he had entered the political arena most reluctantly, and only because the Shah’s rule had caused ‘a river of blood’ to flow between the people and the state. There were many intriguing facets of our meeting with this ‘dark genius’ of the Iranian Revolution, which I will leave for another time. My impression of Khomeini was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising, strong-willed, and severe individual, himself somewhat unnerved by the unexpected happenings in a country he had not entered for almost 20 years. Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; he corrected us if we made any reference to an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ In this respect, this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism (he spoke of the Saudi dynasty as deserving the same fate as the Pahlavis), and presumably envisioning the revival of the Islamic caliphate, and its accompanying borderless umma.

I returned from Iran with a sense of excitement about what I had witnessed and experienced, feeling that the country might be giving the world a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole with a shared spiritual identity. There was no doubt that at the time Khomeini and Islamic identity had mobilized the Iranian masses in a manner that was far more intense and effective than had ever been achieved by various forms of leftist agitation and ideology. Some of those we met in Iran were cautious about what to expect, saying the revolution has unfolded ‘too fast’ for a smooth transition to constitutional governance. Others spoke about counter-revolutionary tendencies, and there were conspiratorial views voiced to the effect that the overthrow of the Shah was engineered by British intelligence, and even that Ayatollah Khomeini was a British agent, or that it was an American response to the Shah’s successful push for higher oil prices within the OPEC framework that was threatening to the West. We were guests in the home of an anti-Shah mathematician in Tehran, a dedicated democrat who told us that his recent reading of Khomeini’s published lectures on Islamic Government had made him extremely fearful about what would happen in post-Shah Iran. Also, some Iranian women we met were worried about threats to the freedoms that enjoyed under the Shah, and were unhappy about the new dress code of the revolution that was already making the wearing of the chador virtually mandatory. Some of those we spoke who had supported the revolution insisted that once a new political order is established, there would be a feminist outcry to the effect ‘we’re next!’ Other secular women told us that they enjoyed wearing the chador because it gave them a welcome relief from spending time on cosmetics and the various ways that modern Western fashion treated women as ‘objects’ designed to awaken erotic desires among men.

Forget what you think you know about the Israel-Palestine conflict

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. From 2008 until May 2014, he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. 

Comments are encouraged, but please respect the rules. Click here for terms of use.

  • joe anon 1

    compared to the american revolution, the iranian revolution is working quite well and will improve according to iranian standards.

  • a free bird

    Mr. Falk’s view about the Iranian revolution is influenced by his expectation.

    Mr. Falk is disappointed with Khomeini because he did not fulfill his promises to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran,”
    Please note that Mr. Falk’s analysis of the Iranian revolution and his final disappointment very much is shaped by the US interest in Iran and the region. After all, Mr. Falk is a member of the COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, a body of capitalists where their policy is to maximize the interest of the empire to protect the status quo marching toward “the world government”.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Falk does not reveal the role of his government in the Iranian revolution. He forgets Carter’s foreign policy shaped by Brzezinski’s views who believed in bringing the Islamists to power to exert pressure on the Soviet Union at the expenses of other groups like the socialists, a Cold War strategy. Everyone knows about Afghanistan.

    Today, the US government through propaganda and lies has made Iran the main enemy, to continue its mission toward world hegemony to justify imperial wars and war crimes against Iranian people.

    Falk’s impression of Khomeini that he “was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising,” was true. He noticed that “Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism.”

    First, you should know that Islam like capitalism has NO BORDER. This is the reality that US and people like Falk do not want to accept. If Richard Falk was familiar with Khomeini’s speeches during the riot of June 1963, he would have not been disappointed with Khomeini’s views, because this way of thinking goes hand in hand with the kind of INDEPENDENCE Khomeini had in mind for Iran and the Muslims to be free from exploitation.

    Mr. Falk, why is US destroying anything that cannot bring under its ‘leadership?’ The west could not accept the Soviet Union, not because they were interested in ‘human rights’ which was better than US colonies, but they didn’t want an economic arrangement different from the system of slavery and exploitation which benefits only 1%. They have killed millions; some estimate gives 400 million people, to preserve the status quo which is based on terrorism, deceptions, propaganda and exploitation.
    The US helped the Iranian revolution by supporting and injecting its own agents, like Sadeq Ghotbzade a close aide of Khomeini and a foreign minister during the hostage crisis and Ebrahim Yazdi, foreign minister during Bazergan the first prime minister, where you forget to talk about.

    Ghotbzadeh tried to stage a coup against Khomeini after only a few months to take power on behalf of the CIA but it was defeated where later he was executed.
    Iran from the beginning was a US target to be defeated at any cost because the US did not want any distraction from the status quo since Khomeini did not allow people like Chalabi or Kennan Makiya to take over.
    How do you expect the Iranian revolution flourishes into full democracy when your government for the last 33 years brought nothing but sabotage, propaganda, terrorism, sanctions, assassinations, economic strangulation, cyber terrorism against Iran which still continues. How does a country like Iran can survive against these crimes against humanity.

    Payam Akhavan that you work with in Iran Tribune is a member of Halifax security apparatus, working with people like Ehud Barak to bring ‘regime change’.


  • a free bird

    The US From the beginning is following a policy of DESTABILIZATION AND PARTITION of Iran where NO IRANIAN WILL ACCEPT AT ANY COST. As you write:

    {There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government.}

    This view is correct. What I don’t understand is that although you have this kind of information yet you are cooperating with “Iran Tribunal”, funded by NED, led by Payam Akhavan, a ‘human right’ activist and NED agent who received more than$ 1000000 from the CIA to establish ‘document center’ in New Heaven and another NED agent, Laden Boroumand from the Boroumand Foundation in Washington where has received thousands of dollars from NED (CIA) for regime change.


    The ‘Iran Tribunal’ is yet another tool in the hand of war mongers to bring ‘crimes against humanity’ charge against Iran at the end of this month to fool the public for more aggression against nation of Iran. This charge best fits US, Israel, Canada, Britain, Turkey, and France, where Payam Akhavan tries to ignore.

    The ‘Iran Tribunal’ is dominated by the members of Mujahedin, MEK, led by Payam Akhavan who has given his services to the empire for many years. Payam Akhavan is associated with the members of Israel Lobby who were active on behalf of MEK, the terrorist organization, to be taken off the terrorist list, Such as Dershowitz and Erwin Cotler in Canada.

    Payam Akhavan, a criminal lawyer, was a key figure in the design of illegal sanctions against Iran.
    He also has signed a petition against Iranian leaders under “The Danger of a Nuclear, Genocidal and Rights-Violating Iran: The “Responsibility to Prevent” Petition” along with mongers like Cotler, Dershowitz, Nazanin Jam, the wife of Peter McKay, the Canadian minister of war who has recently massacred more than 40000 people in Libya through NATO, Aznar, Foud Ajami and many more war mongers.


    ‘The Canadians for Justice and peace in the Middle East’, CJPME, has written a critic of this petition . They wrote:

    “The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition” is a one-sided campaign to demonize and ostracize Iran. The petition and Mr. Cotler’s self-appointed diplomatic offensive will undermine efforts at dialog in the Middle East, and will only serve to radicalize and polarize people’s sentiments…. In light of its poor referencing, its utilization of questionable sources, its reliance on non-literal translations, its manipulation of statements and its factual distortions, this PETITION IS NEITHER SERIOUS NOR BALANCED.”

    Iran is a victim of terrorism and propaganda where people of the world must take a stand against war mongers including Payam Akhavan, Cotler, Dershowitz, and MEK. US and Turkey, a US client state that Mr. Falk has ‘admiration’ for! must be condemned for their aggression against Syria and Iran.

    Mr. Falk, your words and actions DO NOT MATCH. What are doing in “Iran Tribunal”, a tool of Zionism and imperialism, like ICC, against Iran?

  • a free bird

    It is not surprising that Mr. Falk goes labels the Iranian election ‘fraud’ or is supporting the NED engineered ”opposition green” or go against Gaddafi, Assad, Saddam, like the US, yet call himself not in agreement with the US policy.

    To confuse and fool the readers, he writes with fork tongue. This style of writing, to some extent, can satisfy both camps, but most important weaken the anti war front to mobilize against US policy.

    Mr. Falk has written number of articles in support of US Trojan horse, Turkey, and against Assad who is supported by more than 58 percent of Syrian population regardless of their ethnic or religious divide. Can you say the same thing about the occupiers of the WH or the members of the Congress?

    Please read Mr. Falk’s response to a comment at Richardfalk.wordpress.com, about the destructive role is being played by US and its client state, Turkey, in Syria.

    Dear monalisa:

    You are ever wise! I find Syria too complex and opaque to pretend to understand, although I grieve for the people.
    I am in Istanbul, and yesterday listened to the Turkish Foreign
    Minister give a very convincing account of the principled basis of the Turkish response to Syria and the Arab upheavals more generally.
    with warm wishes,

    It is natural that Mr. Falk as a member of THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS goes against Libya, Syria or Iran, the targeted countries of the “New American Century” project toward “world government” where Mr. Falk supports.

    Therefore, it is not surprising to see Mr. Falk works with other ‘lawyers’ who worked with ICC, a western tool against weaker states, to serve the empire’s need to construct ‘the new Middle East’ to serves US/Israel interests against the population of the region playing Turkey against the regional states. Mr. Falk frequenctly goes to Turkey, a client state.


    Richard Falk is supporting ‘Iran Tribunal’ along with Payam Akhavan, close to the Zionist government of Stephen Harper, and violator of Native people’s human rights, and Israel lobby, Irwin Cotler, to bring baseless charge ‘crime against humanity’ against the Iranian goverment to wipe MEK terrorists activities off the map and present is as a ‘victim’ of the Iranian government.

    The MEK members in cooperation with Saddam and US staged a military attack from Iraq against Iran at the end of the Iran-Iraq ceasefire to topple the government where many of MEK terrorists were either killed or captured.


    Now, ‘Iran Tribunal’ NED funded dominated by the MEK members is trying to show that the Iranian government has committed ‘war crimes against humanity’ therefore, is ‘danger to world peace’ where we have recently heard it from the mouth of Canadian foreign minister, John Bird, the ‘reason’ behind embassy closure, because Payam Akhavan along with Israel lobby to establish this lie as ‘fact’ for demonization purposes. To do so, Akhavan is relying on ‘documentation center’ in New Heaven established and funded by US governmnent(CIA) in 2004, led by Payam Akhavan and NED funded Boroumand Foundation, along with ‘stories’ told by MEK members to condemn the Iranian government.

    The ‘Iran Human Rights Documentation Center’ writes:

    {The Bush administration allocated millions of dollars for pro-democracy activities, and the IHRDC was an early benefi ciary. An outgrowth of the Griffi n Center for Health & Human Rights, the center was established in 2004 with a $1 million grant from the State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund to document human-rights abuses in Iran since the 1979 revolution, when Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.}

  • servocad

    It is amazing how a learned person like Mr.Falk did not see what was coming to Iran in 1978….it also shows once again how LITTLE do the American academics,politicians, experts,military etc know and understand the Middle East and it’s peoples.Oh-it includes, unfortunately, most if not all American presidents.That is why American policy in the Middle east and in the moslim world is in shambles.
    Re: Iran-I knew some Iranians during the pre-Homeini times and they were ALL very satisfied with the shah.As for the secret service under shah, does anyone really believe that today’s regime and it’s secret police in Iran is any BETTER?
    Finally- a devil whom You know is preferable to a devil whom You don’t know yet;an old proverb.Iranian people wanted a change and by God they got it.But WHAT one!
    A donkey’s nutrition is grass, leaves,straw and such;one must not give a donkey a tart with whipped cream topping..

  • servocad

    Re; a comment from “free bird”-did this free bird know that Irans declares openly,officially,publicly,at every possible forum including the UN general assembly that it’s supreme goal is to wipe Israel off the map and so achieve a “judenrein”world?But of course that free bird knows it-the whole world does!Which means that this free bird is a virulent antisemite.Moreover he turns everything upside -down by calling a terrorist,criminal regime of Iran being “threatened” and all those who oppose that criminal state he calls them criminals.
    Look-free bird, Israel will survive all it’s haters just like it survived Pharaoh,Hitler, Stalin,Arafat and a few more evil species…as for wiping Israel of the map,I will quote Stalin: let them try”.but,although being a bunch of criminals, I guess The regime in Teheran knows full well what will happen if they try;namely, there will be nothing left of Iran on the map except a white blotch.