The Iranian Revolution had multiple contributory factors and has been examined in great detail elsewhere. However, it is worth noting that many believe that the physical presence of the US community was an irritant, leading to urban unrest. Clearly, there were untoward incidents in Isfahan involving Iranians and culturally insensitive Americans. At the same time, there were many positive relationships crossing all socioeconomic levels. Some scholars have stated that Americans interacted only with more elite Iranians. This was not the case in Isfahan. If anything, the American community had more solid relationships with those in lower socioeconomic groups. Misinformation and misperception regarding the American community in Isfahan are present in numerous academic accounts which tend to be largely anecdotal and from self-selecting sources.
The American Factor
Certainly, though, a major concern of those who participated in demonstrations and strikes was entrenched opposition to foreign domination and external exploitation. In the city itself, however, Americans were rarely threatened. While soldiers and tanks were stationed on every street corner in Khaneh Isfahan and Shahin Shahr, there were few reports of overt insult to the US community throughout the fall of 1978. Americans continued to travel freely around the city, sometimes finding themselves inadvertently in the midst of mob action only to report that Iranian demonstrators cleared pathways for them to move safely by.
On other occasions, in the course of massive demonstrations, protestors and military alike smiled and threw flowers at foreign buses which happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seemed clear to Americans present that anger might be directed at the US government, but almost never at specific individuals.
Even in the last days, many expatriate workers and their families did not sense that revolutionary activities were directed at them. This assessment was bolstered by the many incidents occurring at the Russian steel mill. (For our timeline click here.)
Domestic Factors Meet Foreign Penetration
In place of rampant anti-Americanism, the complaints of Isfahan’s residents centered on economic problems, concern over changing morality, and a loss of control over their own lifestyles. Many of the problems associated with the foreign community as a whole were actually linked to Pahlavi policy decisions implemented over the course of the 20th century. Additional issues were rooted in Iran’s historical struggles against external forces.
Still, it is reasonable to question why bazaaris and the military — two groups particularly impacted by the American presence — were extremely active in Isfahan’s unrest. It is widely agreed that their participation was a demand for an end to what they understood to be foreign penetration and manipulation. But was it a demand for a return to Iran’s 1906 constitution which embraced a more pluralistic — if not democratic — system of government?
Cold War Iran: A One Party State
The shah had voiced his opposition to democracy in 1975 when he decided to establish a one-party state, dissolving the two-party system which had been in place since 1963 and labeling those who were reluctant to join his new party “Tudeh (Communist) sympathizers.” These traitors, he said, could either go to prison or “leave the country tomorrow.”
The shah’s main goal was to create a Leninist style organization that could mobilize the masses, break down traditional barriers, and convert Iran to a fully modern society. The party declared that “it would observe the principles of ‘democratic centralism,’ synthesize the best aspects of socialism and capitalism, establish a dialectical relationship between the government and the people, and help the Great Leader (Farmadar) complete his White Revolution and lead his Iran toward a new Great Civilization.”
The party was designed by two groups of advisers. One group was made up of young political scientists from American universities who accepted Samuel Huntington’s premise that the only way to achieve political stability in developing countries was to establish a disciplined government party that would become an organic link between the state and society. (For our previous post on Samuel Huntington click here.) This, in turn, would facilitate the mobilization of society and would eliminate distruptive social elements. (The above two paragraphs rely heavily on Ervand Abrahamian’s Between Two Revolutions , 440-441.)
When foreign journalists questioned the shah about his policies, the stated: “Freedom of thought! Freedom of thought! Democracy, democracy! With five-year-olds going on strike and parading in the streets! . . . Democracy? Freedom? What do those words mean? I don’t want any part of them.” (Abrahamian 440-441)
A belated response to his outburst was printed in the January 1979 edition of the Guilds newsletter where an article made clear that a democratic outcome was indeed demanded, explicitly stating that bazaaris, hand in hand with other Iranians, “will move toward the establishment of a just and genuine democracy, building a proud Iran on the ruins of corruption.” Over time, it will be possible to assess the extent to which their demands were satisfied.