Problems with the armed forces emerged in the fall of 1978 with the first act of sabotage in the army, the explosion of a helicopter in Isfahan on October 10. Afterwards, insubordination and desertions became more common. Parsa states:
A clandestine army report indicated that by December 7 — exactly one month after the military government had been installed — a total of 5,434 army personnel, mainly low-ranking enlisted men, had defected from thirty-nine garrisons . . . . Soldiers from the Isfahan artillery unit publicly declared on December 5 that when they accepted their commissions they had sworn to defend the nation and its people, not kill civilians. They announced their refusal to support a regime engaged in massacring its own citizens and pledged instead to support Ayatollah Khomeini. To those still deceived by the Shah, they issued a warning that soon the regime’s associates would be put on trial.
Demonstrating air force cadets were arrested in Isfahan on January 27. They were joined by the homafars who had worked closely with the American community at Khatami Air Base. The culmination of this dissent occurred at the outset of “three glorious days” of the revolution — February 9, 1978 — when air force cadets and the homafars provoked a
punitive attack by 50 to 200 of the Imperial Guards* stationed at Dawshan Tappeh Base in eastern Tehran. Fighting continued around the air force barracks until early Saturday afternoon when the Homafars seized 2000 rifles and distributed them to the people. By then arms were being distributed in the mosques of Tehran, and special phone numbers for calling to receive arms were posted on placards. Meanwhile, Isfahan had fallen into the hands of Khomeini supporters.
* The Imperial Guards were the shah’s elite fighting force and his personal protectors.*
Certainly, the actions of the homafars were unfathomable to the American engineers and technicians who had worked with them in Isfahan. Just as conflicted was the extent to which US policy was blamed for the shah’s downfall. In the context of the military environment to which most of them were accustomed, their personal efforts in Iran were best critiqued in the context of the Cold War conflict.
Arms sales to Iran were clearly related to the grand strategy of the United States. Moreover, Iran’s defense needs coincided with America’s Cold War expediency. In contrast, most Iranians sensed the threats to Iran’s security but took exception to the fact that
When American weapons are placed on a host nation’s soil, but are still operationally controlled by (private or public) American advisors, there is obviously a limitation imposed upon the host nation’s sovereignty.
Given this resentment and the subsequent downfall of the monarchy, it is worth examining the shah’s perception of Iran’s defense needs. Was his perception of threat rational? And, if so, was his military buildup, particularly his procurement program, justified? We’ll look at those questions in our next post about Iran.