Iran and the US Split: Americans and Iranians Leave Isfahan and Other Iranian Cities
As strikes, protests, and demonstrations became more frenzied, Isfahan began to change. Most Americans left the city by November 1978, and an estimated $2 billion in scheduled military servicing and production contracts left with them. The Western corporate presence and the American consumer — groups which had increasingly fed the local economy — vanished.
Many Iranian professionals — physicians, lawyers, engineers, and university professors — fled the country also, taking their financial capital with them.
Within a year, after the capture of American hostages in Tehran on November 4, 1979, rapprochement between the American government and the new Iranian regime became impossible. The former opportunity structure was radically altered. No longer was it possible for the Iranian government to purchase weapons or receive monetary assistance — loans or guarantees — from the US government.
The break with the United States makes it possible to evaluate alternative approaches to urban development in Iran. Although America’s liberal grand strategy did not become explicit worldwide until shortly after the Iranian revolution, its ideals were certainly implicit in the US presence in Iran from the 1940s through the 1970s. As Thomas Ricks noted:
. . . many of the Shah’s critics found every aspect of the aid mission to have political consequences, such as land reform, police training, agricultural research, and the rural medical service implying “a commitment to free market economy and frequently a linkage to Western institutions . . .”
The institutional change which occurred throughout 1979 was a clear break with this past policy, facilitating new choices and restricting opportunities. Domestically, different approaches to Iran’s foreign and domestic policies, along with the imposition of external sanctions, dictated that modified factors would influence the country’s urban environment as well.
Consolidation of the revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini resulted in almost immediate institutional change.
On February 5, 1979, a Provisional Government was appointed, to be headed by Mehdi Bazargan, a politician from the Mossadegh era. While a Cabinet was put in place, composed chiefly of technocrats and western educated religious liberals, Khomeini retained real political power. A Revolutionary Council and Islamic Komitehs emerged, dominated by the fundamentalist faction of the clerical establishment. Meanwhile, Khomeini requested a plebiscite to legitimate power and establish an Islamic Republic.
The opposition — secular forces and moderate religious elements — countered that a choice must be offered between an Islamic Republic and an Islamic Democratic Republic. However, since Khomeini believed that democracy was a non-Islamic and western concept, this idea was rejected. Consequently, most secular groups boycotted the election, and the plebiscite was approved by approximately 98.2 percent of the voters.
On April 1, 1979 — just two months after his return to Iran — Khomeini proclaimed the formal establishment of the republic.
A Republic is Born
The next task, involving the adoption of a new constitution, followed. The objective of the principal institutions — the office of chief spiritual-political guide (faqih), the presidency, and the assembly (majles) — was to assure continued control of the government by the Shi’a Muslim clergy. This structure was consistent with Khomeini’s instruction that “the constitution and other laws in this Republic, must be based one hundred percent on Islam.” The new document was approved in the middle of November and ratified by a referendum on December 2-3, 1979. Thus, in a remarkably short period of time, the institutional structure of Iran had been altered and reoriented. As Shireen Hunter describes in her book Iran After Khomeini:
The preamble to Iran’s Islamic constitution states that ‘the basic character of the [Islamic] Revolution, which distinguishes it from other movements that have taken place in Iran during the past hundred years, is its ideological and Islamic nature.’ The preamble also states that the constitution is the culmination of a century-old Iranian “anti-despotic” and “anti-imperialist” struggle and that the Iranians recognized the failure of previous movements such as the constitutional revolution and Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh’s movement to be the lack of a proper ideological and Islamic foundation. Moreover, the preamble states that the “mission of the constitution is to give objective existence to the credal bases of the [Islamic] movement and to create conditions under which may be nurtured the noble and universal values of Islam.”
Hunter goes on to list several important consequences for the nature of Iran’s leadership, its political institutions, and the cultural foundation of the society.
- First, in contrast with the 1906 constitution in which the “will of the nation” was the source of legitimacy and authority, the basis of political legitimacy and authority in the new constitution is “God” and the divine law as given in the Holy Qur’an. Hunter notes, however, that if the 1906 constitution’s provisions had been applied faithfully, no legislation contrary to Islamic law could have passed even if the overwhelming majority of Iranians had approved of it.”
- Second, since “Islam is to be the sole point of reference for all aspects of life, people running the country must be well versed in Islamic law and be morally unreproachable.” Based on this concept, the new constitution established what many perceive to be a theocracy whereby “the function of ultimate spiritual and political leadership will be discharged by the supreme religious leader on the basis of the concept of the Velayat-e-Faqih or the guardianship of the supreme religious leader.” Hunter goes on to note that “the Ayatollah Khomeini himself was not against the monarchy as a political system, rather, he opposed what he believed to be the Pahlavis’ anti-Islamic policies. He began to develop his concept of an Islamic theocracy after he became convinced that the Pahlavis were beyond redemption and that their rule mortally endangered Islam and the Shi’a establishment in Iran.”
- Third, the Islamic regime dropped any reference to Iran as a nation, choosing instead to focus on the Umat-al-Islam (the community of Muslims). Thus, it is Islamic notions of nation, state, race, and ethnicity that are predominant. In this context, the new government also targeted nationalist tendencies and attempted to ban all vestiges of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture.
In sum, the new constitution had implications for all facets of political, social, and economic life. Purposeful changes in the direction of the country’s foreign policy became particularly important.
Photograph by Matt Werner
It’s really interesting to see how much Iran’s political institutions and culture changed within such a relatively short period of time. I’d like to comment on the causation behind the revolution – the root causes that brought about such a radical change. It seems to me that the liberal economic policies of the US helped to exacerbate the deep divisions that were found within Iranian society. Not only was aid money coming in with strings attached, but that aid was being used to drive societal change away from Islamic tradition and toward a more liberal Western-influenced culture. So, essentially, from a political perspective there is the fear that Iran is becoming a puppet of the West, while culturally there is the fear that traditional values are being replaced.
A good deal of the America investment in Iran went towards industry, technology, and research, and as such, it makes sense to say that (in addition to the Shah and his circle) the urban professionals were the primary beneficiaries. I believe this had the effect of increasing tensions between the working and professional classes. At the same time, the gradual liberalization of society increased tensions between the progressive-minded seculars and the faithful. It’s my understanding that Khomeini’s success was in being able to quickly bring together these two groups – the working class and the religious base, to overthrow the Shah and his government.
One thing that puzzles me, though, is the the fact that the US didn’t move quickly to snuff out the revolution and bolster the Shah’s position. The US was heavily invested in Iran, so I assume they would want to protect that investment, but I’m wondering if the speed with which the revolution took place caught them unaware, or limited their options. I would have imagined a more active response in keeping the Shah in power. I’m also assuming that Iran at this point was a key regional power, much as they are today. I would think that maintaining US influence in the region would be important both as part of the Soviet containment strategy and to gain leverage among the other oil producing nations. It seems as if the US was hesitant to fully back the Shah. Maybe they realized that he was doomed, and hoped to establish similar ties with Khomeini? I wonder, too, if the relative nonviolence of the revolution limited the options of the US to respond, in that this was a problem that the Americans could not solve with weapons.
On a final note, one thing that struck me was the lack of agency – their ability to enact change – on the part of the professional class. It seems as though they were effectively shut out of the political process completely, and as a result felt forced to just pack up and leave. I’m admittedly no expert, but I tend to think of regime change in the modern world as being driven by the middle class, but in this instance, that was clearly not the case.
Lisa Reynolds Wolfe says
Thanks much for your thoughtful comment.