Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Hand of the Media in the Fall of the Shah

 
Ayatollah Khomeini at a press conference in France (photo: Getty Images/AFP)

Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini was the pivotal figure in the demise of the Iranian government in 1979. Yet much of the story of Khomeini, like that of Iran in general, is shrouded in a fine mixture of myth, truth, and legend.

In the course of my research into the history of Iran, I had the pleasure of combing through thousands of pages of formerly classified US, British, and Soviet intelligence files. One thing that is clear: No one truly understood Khomeini. Until the ascent of Khomeini, the KGB was fully convinced that he was a stooge of the US and British intelligence agencies, created to take over Iran and save it from communists. How else to explain the way American and European journalists openly fawned over Khomeini, despite their governments’ public support for the Shah? They noted that quite a number of the Iranian dissidents who camped out at Khomeini’s residence in France were people with US and British accents.

Khomeini was fortunate enough to begin his career during a time of fundamental transformation in Western journalism. University students in the 1960s, having been spoon-fed a steady diet of cultural Marxism, viewed journalism as a tool of social change. No longer could journalists be content to report upon the world; they had the power to change it. By the 1970s, former student activists were firmly seated at the table of the media giants they once vilified. Though they were riven by disagreements, professional and political, the one thing they knew was that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was a loathsome dictator who tormented his people at the behest of the United States government. So when this outspoken Iranian cleric appeared on the scene, he naturally became their mascot for the changes they knew the people of Iran sorrowfully needed and wanted.

When Khomeini was first exiled to Turkey in November 1964, he was virtually unknown in the West. His stay in Turkey was a major setback in his quest to oust the secular government of Iran. Turkish law forbade him from political activity. Moreover, he could not lawfully don his signature cloak and turban, the very symbols of his identity and faith. In October 1965, Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein agreed to allow Khomeini to take up residence in Iraq’s largely Shiite city of Najaf. He was, of course, still subject to restrictions on his political activities, but he could resume his position as a cleric. His reach was severely limited, given the nature of the Iraqi state and its strict controls on the media and communication. Nevertheless, over the next decade, Khomeini’s recorded protests caught the eyes and ears of the Shah’s enemies in the West. But if Khomeini was going to bring his polemic to fruition, he needed residency in a location more accommodating to Western journalists.

Khomeini benefited from the way his message filtered into Arab and Iranian radical youth circles in the mid-1970s. The Iranian government began to see him as a potential threat to their security. Leftist and Islamic radicals in Iran were becoming a bit much for the government to handle. By the end of Ramadan on September 4, 1978, Khomeini’s religious zealots in Iran had succeeded in wresting control of the anti-Shah revolutionary movement from the leftists. The Iraqi government saw Khomeini’s rhetoric as a threat, for he indiscriminately reached out to Arabs and Iranians alike. It did not take much for the Iranians to persuade Vice President Hussein to invite Khomeini to leave his country. With no nation in the region willing to play host to the now infamous cleric, his only alternatives were Iran’s friends abroad. Both Khomeini and Middle Eastern leaders erroneously saw this as a major impediment, believing exile in Western Europe or America would hinder his ability to reach his intended audience.

In October 1978, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a personal friend of Shah Mohammed Reza, granted Khomeini a temporary residency visa. Agents of the Quai d’Orsay made it clear to Khomeini that while there were no restrictions against religious activity in France, he was forbidden to agitate against the French government and her allies, including Iran.

It did not take long for European and American journalists to beat a path to his door. Khomeini became their darling, ever-eager to disseminate his message to a much wider audience. Although this clearly violated the terms of his visa, French authorities did little to put an end to Khomeini’s antics. Within a few months, journalists had succeeded in elevating him to mythical status.

Native Iranian religious leaders, though also opposed to the government, expressed serious concerns about the media’s promotion of Khomeini. Khomeini was, after all, unaware of the ways Iran had changed during his fifteen-year exile. The White Revolution had transformed Iran into a major regional economic and military power, and Iranians were enjoying the benefits of the social, political and economic changes it engendered. These changes severely derogated the power and influence of the Iranian Mujtahid. They were, therefore, willing to allow Khomeini to join their crusade against the government, so to speak, but they were not interested in becoming mere bishops in his papacy. But thanks to the efforts of Western journalists, Khomeini had been placed on a pedestal so high that any substantive change in Iran would have to be on his terms and under his direction.

In January 1979, three months after he landed in France, Khomeini’s revolutionary mobs forced the Shah to depart Iran, never to return. Western journalists, who had successfully brought down the President of the United States (see, Richard M. Nixon), scored their second major victory: Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.

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  1. Wiley Inactive

    Thanks for the summary. Lesson learned, don’t trust western media.

    • #1
    • August 27, 2015, at 5:06 AM PDT
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  2. Concretevol Thatcher

    Wow I was unaware of the specifics of the western media’s attitude towards Khomeini’s takeover. Given how they supported other anti-American forces I probably could have guessed as much. Now, with the instant infusion of cash hr “Iran deal” provides its our government itself helping solidify the regime.

    • #2
    • August 27, 2015, at 5:19 AM PDT
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  3. Concretevol Thatcher

    Tom, to what purpose is your research intended?

    • #3
    • August 27, 2015, at 5:19 AM PDT
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  4. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I’m reminded of Fidel Castro. The liberal media in the United States also supported him, and many were surprised when he turned out to be a communist after all.

    • #4
    • August 27, 2015, at 6:03 AM PDT
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  5. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Concretevol:Tom, to what purpose is your research intended?

    Originally, I was merely concerned with understanding the Mossadegh era in the 1950’s. But like and onion, each layer revealed another. As my investigation progressed I began noticing so many important historical facts that had been erased from our collective understanding through error or deliberate omission. These gaps in our historical memory is the basis of the problems that persist today. I’m now on a mission to do my part to correct the record.

    • #5
    • August 27, 2015, at 7:20 AM PDT
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  6. PHCheese Member

    Al, you are so right about the liberal media fawning over Fidel. I remember him walking around Central Park in NYC followed by a bunch of journalists. I am not so sure about the surprised to be a communist part. I think they were rooting for him as a communist.

    • #6
    • August 27, 2015, at 7:23 AM PDT
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  7. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    What so interesting about the rise of Khomeini is that it actually caught many on the Left, by surprise. I believe the media used him as a weapon against the Shah, but they never really expected him to take over the nation. Of course, one of his first major objectives was to bring the press (domestic and international) under his control.

    • #7
    • August 27, 2015, at 7:26 AM PDT
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  8. PHCheese Member

    Tom, I don know if you read this is your research but there was a very informative article in the National Review entitled The Shah,Mossadegh and the CIA. I believe it was in late July.

    • #8
    • August 27, 2015, at 8:19 AM PDT
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  9. Rightfromthestart Coolidge

    Hmm, why am I not surprised? Going back to just after WWII you will see that every pro American strongman is described as ‘corrupt’, which they probably were, however the opposition was usually just as corrupt and anti-American In all cases the ‘unbiased’ press invariably would take the anti-American side which they would describe as ‘reformers’ . Chang, Battista, the Shah, the Vietnamese leadership, on and on around the world, if you hated American you had a friend in the American press corps. For 70 years the Fourth Estate has acted as a Fifth Column.

    • #9
    • August 27, 2015, at 8:32 AM PDT
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  10. Larry3435 Member

    Tom,

    I would like to ask you the two questions that I always ask of people who have had the opportunity to comb through formerly classified intelligence files:

    1. Did the intelligence agencies seem to have any actual idea of what was going on or how it was going to play out?

    2. Was there anything in the classified materials that one could not have read in a newspaper at the time?

    • #10
    • August 27, 2015, at 9:44 AM PDT
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  11. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Tom Phillips: What so interesting about the rise of Khomeini is that it actually caught many on the Left, by surprise.

    This is a fascinating post. To what extent did your archival research support the thesis that the revolution itself was, as Pavel Stroilev argues, prepared by the Soviets?

    The 1979 Iranian Revolution had been prepared very thoroughly by the Soviets ever since the end of World War Two but it was meant to be a communist revolution. The Islamists were mere fellow-travelers at first but at the decisive moment, the most important KGB spymaster in Tehran, Vladimir Kuzichkin, turned out to be a double-agent for the British MI6. He gave them full information on the entire Soviet subversive network in Iran. The British passed it on to the Shah and then the records were captured by the Islamists, so they easily rounded up all the Soviet agents and Iranian communists, the entire, very impressive subversive network.

    • #11
    • August 27, 2015, at 11:20 AM PDT
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  12. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Phillips:What so interesting about the rise of Khomeini is that it actually caught many on the Left, by surprise. I believe the media used him as a weapon against the Shah, but they never really expected him to take over the nation. Of course, one of his first major objectives was to bring the press (domestic and international) under his control.

    Tom,

    It almost reminds one of the “Sealed Train” that Lenin was transported on through Germany to Russia. The Germans just wanted to get the Tsar out of the War and get rid of their second front. I’m not sure they realized what they were doing and what real Bolsheviks would be like.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #12
    • August 27, 2015, at 11:21 AM PDT
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  13. TG Thatcher

    Thank you for sharing your research, Tom, very interesting.

    (Tongue in cheek): If we count from the beginning of Shah Pahlevi’s reign (1941), that’s 38 years to bring down a corrupt Iranian government. So: 1979 plus 38 years would be 2017, as the year in which we can “expect” for the current Iranian government to fall?

    • #13
    • August 27, 2015, at 12:07 PM PDT
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  14. The Reticulator Member

    Al Sparks:I’m reminded of Fidel Castro. The liberal media in the United States also supported him, and many were surprised when he turned out to be a communist after all.

    Funny you should mention that. I remember when NPR reporters were fawning over him while he was in Paris, with the same sort of breathless voices as we heard from network TV people when Castro – now I must admit that I don’t remember if this was Castro’s visit to the United Nations or him riding into Havana. But anyway, I thought back to that NPR coverage of Khomeini many times in subsequent years. Pretty sure it was in early 1979 but it could have been late 1978. I can tell you at exactly what intersection I was in my car when I was hearing this, but the other details are fuzzy by now.

    • #14
    • August 27, 2015, at 8:38 PM PDT
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  15. Dorothea Inactive

    I recently read V.S. Naipul’s “Among the Believers,” which is circa 1979. I was struck by his description of Iran, and the casual and (romanticized) way one of his young guides (and the guides girlfriend) were communists. If I recall, he said something offhand, to paraphrase, “millions will have to die,” to implement the vision.

    • #15
    • August 28, 2015, at 8:13 AM PDT
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  16. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    PHCheese: Tom, I don know if you read this is your research but there was a very informative article in the National Review entitled The Shah,Mossadegh and the CIA. I believe it was in late July.

    Thanks PHCheese, I was not aware of that one. I’ll give it a look though.

    • #16
    • August 28, 2015, at 8:47 AM PDT
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  17. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Rightfromthestart: every pro American strongman is described as ‘corrupt’, which they probably were, however the opposition was usually just as corrupt

    The charge of corruption was, and remains, the most consistent attack against US allies. And you are correct in that it is generally true. The problem of course is that the Left has always wielded this weapon selectively. Every “revolutionary” movement claims to be opposing “corruption”, yet they have always replaced the alleged abuses of their enemies with their own. This has been the nature of revolutionary movements since time immemorial. It’s noteworthy that Edmund Burke criticized the French revolution for that very reason. In Iran, most of the allegations leveled against the former government were false but that does little to alter the state of things today. What we do know is that whatever injustices were committed under the Shah, pales in comparison to that which became policy under the Islamic Republic.

    • #17
    • August 28, 2015, at 8:59 AM PDT
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  18. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Larry3435: 1. Did the intelligence agencies seem to have any actual idea of what was going on or how it was going to play out? 2. Was there anything in the classified materials that one could not have read in a newspaper at the time?

    Soviet intelligence agents, though working with and in most cases, fomenting much of the upheaval, weren’t clear as to the ultimate outcome. In reality, they wanted to oust the Shah and break Iran’s ties with the US. They never wanted a theocratic regime to rise in Iran as that would negatively affect their interests. A Leftist regime that leaned towards Moscow would have been ideal from their perspective.

    In all, it seems the CIA had the more realistic assessment of Khomeini although they never really took him as seriously as they should have. Their primary concern was the Soviet-backed Leftists movement which, prior to 1978, seemed to be the future of Iran. Iranians had never been religious zealots so the Mujtahid rarely garnered much attention. Unfortunately, the CIA’s analysis became largely useless by the mid-70’s due to the attacks against the agency in the US Congress (see, Church Hearings, 1972). The same can be said of British intelligence.

    Interesting that you should ask about the information from newspapers. In fact, I relied heavily on news reports in my research. Journalists living in the region had a much better assessment of the facts than you would find in “intelligence” reports.

    • #18
    • August 28, 2015, at 9:21 AM PDT
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  19. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: This is a fascinating post. To what extent did your archival research support the thesis that the revolution itself was, as Pavel Stroilev argues, prepared by the Soviets?

    The evidence suggests that nearly every domestic disturbance that shook Iran from the outset of the Pahlevi Dynasty (1925) was the work of the Soviet Union. Initially they were focused on severing Iran’s ties with Great Britain. After WWII, America became the “great Satan” in charge. As for the revolutionary upheaval of the 70’s the Soviet’s truly believed that a Leftist government would arise. After all, most Iranians were partial to the Socialist worldview and this includes the more religiously inclined Iranians. The darling of Leftist attacks, both in Iran and abroad, was SAVAK. But contrary to conventional wisdom, they were only interested in SAVAK’s 3rd Directorate which policed radical elements in the Islamic and Leftist movements. Hence, after the revolution, SAVAK remained intact and with the same personnel. The 3rd Directorate was gutted and most of its agents executed. The regime then created Hezbollah as it’s arm against Soviet-backed radicals. It’s interesting to note that many of the people fighting the Leftist cause in Iran were actually Arabs and a good number were supplied by the PLO.

    • #19
    • August 28, 2015, at 9:40 AM PDT
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  20. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    TG:If we count from the beginning of Shah Pahlevi’s reign (1941), that’s 38 years to bring down a corrupt Iranian government. So: 1979 plus 38 years would be 2017, as the year in which we can “expect” for the current Iranian government to fall?

    Well, TG, I’ll keep my fingers crossed but I wont hold my breath.

    • #20
    • August 28, 2015, at 9:43 AM PDT
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  21. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Dorothea: If I recall, he said something offhand, to paraphrase, “millions will have to die,” to implement the vision.

    This reminds me of the way Soviet defector, Nicholas T. Goncharoff, described Linin’s view of the revolution. As far as Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were concerned, it would not matter if 2/3 of the world’s population perished in their quest to achieve worldwide Socialism as long as the remaining 1/3 was Socialist.

    • #21
    • August 28, 2015, at 9:52 AM PDT
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  22. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator:

    Al Sparks:I’m reminded of Fidel Castro. The liberal media in the United States also supported him, and many were surprised when he turned out to be a communist after all.

    Funny you should mention that. I remember when NPR reporters were fawning over him while he was in Paris, with the same sort of breathless voices as we heard from network TV people when Castro – now I must admit that I don’t remember if this was Castro’s visit to the United Nations or him riding into Havana. But anyway, I thought back to that NPR coverage of Khomeini many times in subsequent years. Pretty sure it was in early 1979 but it could have been late 1978. I can tell you at exactly what intersection I was in my car when I was hearing this, but the other details are fuzzy by now.

    Pretty sure the Cuban example was Fidel’s parade into Havana. We were one of the last families in the United States to get television, it seemed, and this was in the early days of television for us.

    I wish I could remember the name of the NPR “reporter,” but she was positively giddy about Khomeini. I wonder if there exist sound recordings of those old programs. Of course, it wasn’t long before their tune changed.

    • #22
    • August 28, 2015, at 10:16 AM PDT
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  23. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Tom Phillips:

    Thanks, Tom — I’m thrilled to encounter someone who can give an authoritative answer to these questions. I’ve wondered about this for years.

    As for the revolutionary upheaval of the 70’s the Soviet’s truly believed that a Leftist government would arise. After all, most Iranians were partial to the Socialist worldview and this includes the more religiously inclined Iranians. The darling of Leftist attacks, both in Iran and abroad, was SAVAK. But contrary to conventional wisdom, they

    By they, just to clarify, do you mean the Soviets, or do you mean leftists in Iran and socialists in general?

    were only interested in SAVAK’s 3rd Directorate which policed radical elements in the Islamic and Leftist movements.

    I would love to hear a lot more from you about what you discovered in the Soviet archives. I’d also like to know which archives, exactly, you had access to, and whether you think that all the relevant archives have now been opened.

    I take it you’re reading them in the original: I envy you.

    • #23
    • August 28, 2015, at 9:55 PM PDT
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  24. Andrea Rivera Inactive

    Amazing explanation! Thank you so much for breaking down the story this way! I never learned any of this in school.

    • #24
    • August 29, 2015, at 11:06 AM PDT
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  25. Tom Phillips Inactive
    Tom Phillips

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: By they, just to clarify, do you mean the Soviets, or do you mean leftists in Iran and socialists in general?

    Sorry for the confusion. “They” here refers to all three actually.

    Research using Soviet intelligence is aided by the fact that so much of it is now in the public forum. Locating it is still a challenge. The offices of the KGB was in the Ukraine. After the fall, Ukrainians took pleasure in opening the doors to the KGB archives. When Putin came into office he managed to shut down most of the internet pages and recollect a good deal of information but much of the “damage” was already done.

    The CIA has been surprisingly forthcoming, whereas the British Home Office is still pretty tight lipped.

    • #25
    • August 29, 2015, at 3:32 PM PDT
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