August 31st, 2006

A trip back in time: Bakhtiar and the Revolution (Part II)

[Part I of this series can be found here. Part III is here.]

Shapour Bakhtiar took office as Prime Minister of Iran on Jan 6, 1979. He was appointed by the Shah in one of the latter’s final acts in Iran, a country from which the Shah departed on Jan 16.

But Bakhtiar was not the Shah’s man. He was a well-known dissident who was appointed in an effort to show that the Shah was ready to reform in ways that would satisfy those who were proponents of greater freedom and civil liberties in Iran.

The Shah is one of those figures in history who, like Ataturk in Turkey, was faced with the dilemmas common to those who would modernize and Westernize a third-world country, and especially one with a strong traditional Islamic clerical tradition. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss why Ataturk was able to successfully buck the fairly substantial opposition of religious leaders and the populace in Turkey, and why the Shah’s effort ultimately failed in Iran. Some day I may attempt to tackle that one–but suffice to say for now that the Iranian Shah had the same goal of modernization as Ataturk, but the opposition to his rule was stronger, and his efforts to crush it far more Draconian.

The Shah’s secret police–SAVAK, usually referred to with an adjective such as “dreaded” or “hated” before the acronym–was active in Iran to stifle those who would oppose him. There is a great deal of controversy over just how dreadful SAVAK actually was in the larger scheme of things. Was it a wide-ranging and indiscriminate effort to track down, torture, imprison, exile and/or murder all those who dissented, or who even were thought to dissent, much like the operations of the Soviet KGB? Or was it far more benign, only dealing with those who would violently overthrow the government (such as Khomeini and his henchmen), and using torture only sparingly? If history is written by the victors–and, in this case, the victors so far in Iran have been the Khomeinists–then how can we know the truth about SAVAK?

What we do know, however, is this: there were many protests against the Shah’s modernizing changes, which especially threatened the religious establishment in Iran. For example, religious students demonstrated against land reforms that the Shah had instituted to try to offer the populace of Iran some economic benefits, with the goal (among other things) of increasing his popularity with them.

If that was the Shah’s intent, it backfired, because the land reforms imposed hardships on the Shiite clerical establishment (which had owned some of the land). Khomeini, who was still in Iran at the time, issued a fatwa. Protests were organized, the Shah’s government began to ridicule the clerics as old-fashioned, and more clerics took offense and joined the opposition. In addition, crackdowns on protesters became very brutal–for example, a group of theological students protesting against the opening of liquor stores were killed, and these deaths ultimately reached into the hundreds.

It appears that the Shah was already fighting the same extreme fanatics who were to take over the country in 1979. As often happens, his efforts to stop them had the paradoxical effect of making them martyrs, agitating their sympathizers, and ultimately making the movement against him grow stronger. Had his policies against his enemies–the enemies of modernization–been less heavy-handed, might the movement have died down? Or would it only have grown larger and more powerful more quickly? Unanswerable questions, I’m afraid.

History gave its own answer. I’ve written before about how the Shah had hesitated to have Khomeini executed in 1964 when the latter was imprisoned, because the Shah feared making the already popular and powerful cleric into a martyr. Perhaps if he’d done so others would have filled Khomeini’s shoes and carried on in his name, and history would have taken more or less the same course as it ultimately did.

But perhaps not. Perhaps there was something especially charismatic about Khomeini that would have been lost to the clerics’ cause without his particular presence. Once again, we’ll never know; what we do know is that Khomeini’s life was spared, he was ultimately exiled, and he lived to return to Iran in triumph and take over the government. As unrest and discontent with the Shah was brewing in the late 1970s, Khomeini became the de facto head of the opposition, which was a strange amalgam of restrictive clerics, liberals who supported human rights, and socialists–each with an agenda, each jockeying for position:

Anti-Shah intellectuals, secular and Islamic, moderate and leftist misread developments. They believed that they were using the popular Khomeini and that he could be shunted aside as democracy was established. It was believed that with the success of the revolution the ulama (official community of scholars of Islam) and Khomeini would return to their mosques and schools and perhaps advise the government on Islamic matters.

Such hubris is misplaced. The moral of the story is to never underestimate the power of a demagogue fully bent on acquiring it (the same mistake was made, by the way, by Franz von Papen and Hindenberg. In the waning days of the Weimar Republic, they thought they could “control” that silly-looking upstart, Hitler.)

Which brings us to Bakhtiar. On Bakhtiar’s appointment as the new Prime Minister, Khomeini condemned him, of course, from his exile in France. But Khomeini continued to live his charmed life; Bakhtiar allowed him to return to Iran shortly thereafter. The reason? A combination of Bakhtiar’s own devotion to freedom of speech, and the Shah’s old conundrum: Khomeini was so popular that to try to ban him would cause such public unrest in Iran that it seemed counterproductive. In essence, Bakhtiar, although a far different ruler than the Shah, faced the same dilemma; he resolved it in favor of not suppressing the opposition.

So who was Bakhtiar? Like many Iranians, he’d spent many formative years in France, acquiring graduate degrees in political science, law, and philosophy. But he was also a man of action; residing in France during the Nazi occupation, he fought for the Resistance. Returning to Iran after WWII, he continued his resistance, becoming an opponent of the Shah, who imprisoned him for many years.

Thus Bakhtiar had his bona fides–no patsy of the Shah, he had been one of the leaders of those who were against the Shah’s regime because of its human rights abuses, and he himself had suffered greatly for his bravery. But by the time Bakhtiar came to power it was most decidedly too late, both for him and for the Shah’s modernization program, as well as for the civil rights that Bakhtiar championed. Perhaps the only beneficiary of that campaign for civil rights was Khomeini himself, ironically enough.

Bakhtiar’s regime lasted about two weeks before Khomeini and the clerics took over, establishing the primacy of Sharia law, abolishing most of the rights women had enjoyed, banning alcohol and gambling and a host of other un-Islamic pursuits as well as newspapers, and instituting his own murderous crackdown to stifle all opposition. Khomeini didn’t have to worry about making martyrs of his enemies, nor about whether to allow them to remain in Iran and exercise freedom of speech. Tyranny doesn’t struggle with the same sort of philosophical questions about how much toughness is too much, questions with which its opponents wrestle mightily:

It was announced that any spreading of corruption would be punished by death. A variety of the Shah’s former friends, colleagues and generals were seized, and after trials of a few minutes they were executed immediately – to prevent news spreading to the others who were detained – the executions lasting without stop for several weeks. The bodies of the prisoners were loaded into meat containers and dumped into mass graves. Khomeini dismissing international protests, saying that criminals did not need to be tried, just killed.

Bakhtiar, however, was not one of them–at least, not right away. He left Iran and settled in Paris again. From that venue he organized another resistance–a movement to fight the Islamic Republic of the mullahs. For his pains, he was almost assassinated in 1980; a policeman and a neighbor died, but Bakhtiar lived to fight another day.

In 1991, however, the number of this brave man was finally up. The assassins got their man; Bakhtiar and his secretary were murdered in his home. The assailant later was captured and tried in France. At his trial he admitted to having been sent by the Iranian government.

What lessons can we draw from the life of Bakhtiar? The first is that one can be both committed to freedom and personally courageous, and yet lose the battle against repression and tyranny. The second is more of a question: is it sometimes acceptable (or perhaps even necessary) to use greater ruthlessness, to be willing to use oppressive tools against an enemy that–if successful–would not hesitate to abolish all the civil liberties and the advances for which you are fighting?

This is the dilemma faced not just by Bakhtiar, but by all those who would oppose the likes of Khomeini. How much of a crackdown is too much? How little is too little? At what point do you compromise your own principles so much that you become too much like the enemy you are fighting?

There are no easy answers. Only the questions–and Khomeini’s regime, in its present-day manifestation, Ahmadinejad– remain.

24 Responses to “A trip back in time: Bakhtiar and the Revolution (Part II)”

  1. Chris Says:

    Excellent questions. Of course, the real problem is identifying the moment when such questions matter, and should be urgently considered. If one could only presciently pick out the moments when history reaches a hinge point, then this would be extremely important.

    Who at the time could really see that when Hitler was allowed to occupy the Rhineland that that was the moment when the whole house of cards could have been toppled with relative ease? Who could have predicted that allowing Lenin into Russia would lead to the Bolshevik revolution?

    Someone may have seen these events for the watersheds they were at the instant they occurred, but their actions remained thoughts, and the hinge closed.

  2. 74 Says:

    Back in 1970, I dated a young lady from Iran. She told me that the Shah was stuck riding the tiger’s tail between three major power groups. There were the clergy, the democratic reformers (Bakhtiar and the like,) and what she referred to as The One Thousand. That latter group was the left-over Persian aristocracy who were the big land owners. All three groups hated the others, but if the Shah seemed to be favoring a program that would support one group, the other groups would make a temporary alliance to fight against it. This greatly restricted the Shah’s efforts to bring about change. The land reform program, for instance, was opposed not only by the clergy, but by the 1000 as well. Of course, after the clerics took over, the aristocrats had to flee along with the reformers. Bakhtiar wasn’t the only one who underestimated Khomeini. I think Khomeini was able to tap into popular support by appealing to not only those who wanted to go back to the “old ways”, but also those who were fed up with the Shah AND the aristocracy.

  3. Robert Schwartz Says:

    Clearly the Shah was not brutal enough. Ayatolah Toomeanie didn’t have that problem.

  4. Weary G Says:

    “That’s the problem with you, George. You want results, but you don’t want to get your hands dirty…” – Jack Bauer

    It is a very tough question, but before answering it, there are couple of things to acknowledge and internalize first.

    One – There is no perfect, bloodless, flawless solution. Every choice has its downside and its consequences. If one can’t get past that, you are lost, because you become paralyzed trying to do the impossible.

    Two – Life in general offers tough choices, but evil men revel in presenting them to others.

    The story of the Shah is the same as that of the Czars and the Bolsheviks. Russia was oppressive monarchy that for the vast majority of its populace did not offer a very hopeful life. The last Czar was actually interested in reform and made some efforts, but Russia is Russia. Surprise, power has a hard time relinquishing power.
    The Bolsheviks came along and promised change and reform and equality and NOW. What they actually delivered in the end was terror, regression and oppression on a scale that made the Czars look almost benevolent.

    What would have been worse? A severe crackdown by the Czar to strangle this radical movement in its infancy, or the resulting chaos and mass murder that resulted when they triumphed years later?

    And, if we can objectively say that all things considered, it would have been far better for Russia and its people to crushed Lenin and his ilk than allow them to succeed, how would have the Czar been judged later on? Without the history of the Gulags and the Red Terror and the millions liquidated, would we be able to judge him fairly? You see the problem? That’s why the two points above, particularly the first, are so important to keep in mind.

    Similar to the situation with Iran, we are not omniscient; we do not KNOW the future, and we cannot KNOW the best course, or at the least bad option.

    What we do know is the nature of the government there, its actions in the world and the ideology which drives it. We also know the words of those in power there who continually threaten us and our allies. We also have history as a guide as to what has happened previously when threats and stated enemies are allowed to grow stronger.

    We are presented with a choice, and eventually we will be forced to choose and to live with the consequences. No matter what happens, we can’t delude ourselves that we won’t at some point get our hands dirty.

  5. camojack Says:

    I think that Iran may experience a nuclear accident…sometime soon.

  6. goesh Says:

    The lesson we can learn from the life of Bakhitar is simple: once armed with nuclear weapons and lots of money from immense energy contracts with China, Iran can and will destabalize Iraq, then Jordan. Once Iraq is destabalized, they can get control of the oil via the Shia majority and al sadrs thugs. Once in control of Iraq’s oil, they can put their hands on the economic neck of Europe and fund islamic unrest in any and all muslimc enclaves there, all the while fueling India and China and being nice to them. Likewise they can better arm and fund hizbullah and via the same tactics to be used in Iraq and gain total political dominance in Lebanon. Once hizbullah is in control and much better armed, the 3rd offensive can begin against Israel. The sole purpose of this will be diversionary in order to get a nuclear device into Tel-Aviv. The last target is Egypt and the Suez Canal. The 12th Imam is going to come floating down the Suez Canal, folks, count on it. 72 virgins will be rowing the barge. He will be holding al qur’an in his right hand and a bloody sword in his left hand. Don’t be alarmed, folks – the likes of John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Moore, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Keith Richards and the Dixie Chicks can save us.

  7. ElMondoHummus Says:

    “Who at the time could really see that when Hitler was allowed to occupy the Rhineland that that was the moment when the whole house of cards could have been toppled with relative ease? Who could have predicted that allowing Lenin into Russia would lead to the Bolshevik revolution?”

    That’s true, although occasionally I wonder if by the exact points in time you specify, those events weren’t already so far along that they would’ve continued on anyway.

    “Someone may have seen these events for the watersheds they were at the instant they occurred, but their actions remained thoughts, and the hinge closed.”

    True as well. Sometimes, I wonder if the reasons those people in those times don’t act is because they’re oblivious, or if wishful thinking fools them into making the wrong choices. For example: There are days I think Neville Chamberlain and most of the British government was totally oblivious to the threat that the Nazi’s represented, but there are other days – especially after reading some (to me) new literature on the subject – that I believe he and that other portion of the government knew full well what the Nazi’s represented. They all just allowed wishful thinking about the possibility of stopping Germany’s expansion to replace what cold, hard analysis should have told them about Hitler’s goals.

  8. Tom Paine Says:

    Civilization is not a suicide pact.

    If we must act like barbarians to stop the real barbarians, so be it.

    We, at least, can go back to being civilized afterwards.

    They wouldn’t even know how

  9. ElMondoHummus Says:

    “is it sometimes acceptable (or perhaps even necessary) to use greater ruthlessness, to be willing to use oppressive tools against an enemy that–if successful–would not hesitate to abolish all the civil liberties and the advances for which you are fighting?”

    Neo, sometimes I wonder about that too. Most often, though, I come to this conclusion: The strength of a government comes from the people’s belief in it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t only apply to democracies; the unfortunate truth is that a terrible autocracy can be quite strong if the subject population believes in it’s legitimacy. At any rate: If the enemy is strongly embedded, and indeed fully entrenched in a society, and if the greater part of that society believes in the legitimacy of the enemy more than it does the legitimacy of the current government, it doesn’t matter if the enemy is repressive: The society will forgive the “enemy’s” transgressions, but perceive the government to be less legitimate. People have the ability to consciously place belief in higher orders and ideals beyond what a current government embodies. So even before any repressive measures by the government, an enemy will automatically be endowed with the legitimacy that comes from society’s beliefs if that enemy is percieved as being truer or holding to a higher ideal than what the current government represents. Regardless of any negative characteristic of that enemy. Just look at Hezbollah in southern Lebanon as a perfect, practically textbook example of this.

    So what does that have to do with “greater ruthlessness” and “oppresive tools against an enemy”? This: Those will backfire if the populace regards the enemy as having greater legitimacy than the government. That’s exactly what happened to the Shah. Yet, repressive measures will be tolerated and seen as necessary and even moral if the government is the one the populace bestows legitimacy on; we’ve seen this in China, Cambodia, the ex Soviet Union, etc.

    When the government is in the right, the society knows it, and the enemy is ruthless, how do we answer Neo’s question? I do think it’s acceptable, even necessary, to use greater fortitude and actions against an implacable, ruthless and oppresive enemy. But there should be continual vigilence to ensure that it doesn’t slip into overt oppresion. While I fear people are hyperventilating over current issues – such as the Hamdan case, the recent ACLU vs. NSA case (talk about hyperventilation!), etc. – I’m not at all against the fact that it’s being debated, considered, and analyzed by citizens, groups, and segments of the government itself. I think too many people are overreacting, but I don’t mind the debate itself one bit.

  10. Ariel Says:

    Parallels in history.
    If I remember right, there were three times that the Tsarists allowed attempts to liberalize and democratize Russia. Once in the late 1820s, again in the 1860s -1870s, and with the Cadet movement which lost to the Bolsheviks by clinging to WWI. The 2nd one actually led to one of the most liberal governments in Europe and the freeing of serfs, however, each time either assassination or extreme revolutionary activity led to a pullback into repression (the 1860s and 1870s in Russia were similar to our 1960s but without flower children, just anarchists, marxists, and other bomb throwers). My years may be slightly off.

    Lenin’s return to Russia was a big mistake by the Tsar, while it may be that the momentum of the 1870s would have carried through, Lenin’s return made it certain. Just as Khomeini’s did in Iran.

    In the defense of history’s foolish acts, the actors did not have the privilege of hindsight when making those decisions. Which is the only charitable thought I can muster for the worst, most inept President of the 20th century.

  11. armchair pessimist Says:

    Yeah, that Carter ass was/is surely the prize loser. Probably, we’ll have to endure another one in ’08 to get another Reagan in ’12. Wonder who it will be? Wonder if the country will last til then.

  12. goesh Says:

    -somedays I feel like a Jim Jones follower waiting for the koolaid to be passed around…..

  13. ElMondoHummus Says:

    Pete, thank you for your information. As I read your posts, it becomes obvious that the criminal terrorists are committing hideous crimes against the Iraqi people, and also killing many of our brave, honorable servicemen trying to help the society recover from the depradations of the past. Your information strengthens my belief in the American mission there, and the fact that the US must remain to help those desiring peace, stability, and freedom, and fight those nihilist radical militants who seek to impose their, as you put it, “functionally immoral ideology”.

    Thank you.

  14. goesh Says:

    Pete, if you could somehow put your numbers to music I think the audience would be a bit more receptive and maybe you could even garnish a nod or two of acknowledgement.

    Maybe something along the lines of say Mary Had A Little Lamb….

    forty limbs are in the air
    in the air
    in the air
    forty limbs are in the air
    my fighting Shias

    And everywhere the Sunnis went
    the Sunnis went
    the Sunnis went
    everywhere the sunnis went
    40 Shias were sure to die

    I’ll email you a few more lyrics, maybe something from Beatles even. I think we got something going here Pete – whataya’say, baby???

  15. Sergey Says:

    To Weary G:
    Your account of Bolsheviks seizure of power is not accurate. It was not Czar who we ought to blame, he lost power at the time when Lenin returned to Russia. It was fatal blindness of Kerensky, close match to Bakhtiar, western-educated barrister, lider of anti-Czarist democratic opposition, head of Provisional Government, who declared that “to the left of us we have no enemies”, refused to arrest Bolsheviks and did not allowed General Kornilov to establish military rule in Petrograd. It makes historical parallel with Iranian revolution even more close.

  16. Sergey Says:

    More lessons from two revolutions – Iranian and Russian. Never give government power to liberals at times of crisis, they are soft not only with national security, but with internal enemy as well. They cannot stop facsists of any stripe – left, right or any other kind. The only good example of stopped revolution in failed state is history of Chile. Pinochet did what neither Bakhtiar, nor Kerensky achived: stopped communists with rather modest bloodshed, successfully modernized country and opened way to real democracy.

  17. Chris Says:

    Since hindsight operates so effectively in determining hinge points in history, regardless of whether they are perceived as such at the time, here’s another question: Do we learn from our ability to interpret the past? Historians (both professional and amateur) have long been able to identify critical moments based on the events that proceeded from them. Are we (collectively, not necessarily individually) capable of not only learning the appropriate lesson, and then, more importantly, applying it to the present?

  18. Senescent Wasp Says:


    I had an opportunity to ask Mr. Kerensky a similar question at a short colloquium given at Stanford in the early 60’s. What we then received was his personal timeline. I now longer have my notes but I should imagine that somewhere in the archives of the Hoover Institute is the tape of the event. From my memory I can recall that he perceived a threat of a possible rightist/military coup along with the Bolshevik threat led by Lenin who was offering a unilateral pull out of Russia from the war. Soon after, the Bolsheviks staged their coup and Kerensky had to flee. The account he gave is very similar to that given in this link.

    I can only imagine the chaos of the period. Lenin had only one goal and a clear mission; Kerensky had several and was trying to do the near impossible.

  19. Sergey Says:

    As our archives show, Kornilov did not attempted coup-de-etat. He simply wanted to replace non-reliable troops and deserters by his own, still loyal to discipline and personally to him. But Kornilov was very popular in military circles, and leftist liberal Kerensky was not. And Kerensky became paranoid about wast right-wing conspiracy and accused Kornilov in mutiny. It was a fatal blunder, just as his refusal to arrest Lenin and Trotzky.

  20. Ariel Says:

    Thanks for the correction on Romanov and Kerensky.

  21. armchair pessimist Says:



    Am I correct that the immediate cause of the Romanov’s fall was the defection of the Russian elites, who believed the Czar’s government was too corrupt and incompetent to fight the war to victory?
    More specifically, wasn’t it widely believed that the Czarina plotted to make a separate peace with the Germans? Was this ever verified?

    Certainly it was the obstinate prosecution by these good ‘liberals’ of a bloody and pointless war that lead to their prompt overthrow in the October revolution. A cautionary note to us all, I think.

    Speaking from the vantage point of nearly 100 years later, I’d have to comment that if Czarina really did try to take Russia out of the war, then the only people in all Russia who knew what in hell they were doing were the monster Lenin and the” imbecile” royal family.

    But I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that one.

  22. jgr Says:

    In the time of turmoil that must follow the Democrats achieving political majority (2006/later), can anyone see a slightly similar situation to Russia/1917 developing?

    That is, the Left will shut down/change the war on terror posthaste once it has gained majority power, which will see the conflict explode.

    During the calamities that follow, the Left will seize more power, ostensibly to solve that ruin it will blame on Bush. The Dems will be free to rally a shattered country to their goals.

    Just speculation from your discussions here.
    Still it is a ONE political explanation for the Left’s strange tolerance of the threat of Islamic fascism.

  23. nyomythus Says:


    A New Blogger

  24. Sergey Says:

    To armchair pessimist:
    Rumors of pro-German sympaties of Czar’s spouse were widespread, but they were only rumors. And there was growing opposition to incompetence of Nikolay II and his small clique in practically all circles of society, from liberals to monarchists, and in military too. These were generals in Central Headquarters who insisted on abdication of Nikolay. At the end of war Czar and his regime became very unpopular, they lost all public support. War casualties were awfull, discipline in troops ruined. In one day regime collapsed, having no defenders.
    But Provisional Government and its leader Kerensky were nationalists, and, with their strong pro-British sympaties, tried to keep front and even organize offensive. Their fatal error was fear of right wing conspiracy and underestimation of ultra-left menace. One battalion would be sufficient to quell Red Guard Bolshevik mutiny, but there was none!

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