37 days after 37 years: Shapour Bakhtiar’s Iranian revolution

07 February 2017

Area Studies | History

Shapour Bakhtiar, 1978. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

The revolution which brought the Islamic republic to power in Iran 38 years ago this week was a singular event in the twentieth century, and is still considered something of an enigma by many scholars. Our resource Foreign Offices Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 contains British diplomats’ detailed reports and opinions on the upheavals, among them despatches from early 1979 when, as in Russia in 1917, a short-lived, half-forgotten government tried and failed to establish power before being swept away by the regime that eventually, and famously, consolidated its hold. For the five weeks between the flight of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Light of the Aryans, King of Kings, and the triumph of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, Guardian Jurist, Leader of the Revolution, a former civil servant and résistant in a jacket and tie tried his best to steer Iran towards liberal democracy.

 

Anthony Parsons's assessment of the situation in Iran, 4th January 1979, from The National Archives (London), FCO 8/3351, 'Internal political situation in Iran, part A'. Crown © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

 

Shapour Bakhtiar had spent his life in the service of this ideal. His father had been executed by the shah’s father while Shapour was at university in Paris. Having fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, the French in the early days of World War II and the Resistance after the German occupation, he returned to Iran in 1946 and served in government under Mohammad Mossadeq’s curtailed experiment with parliamentary socialism. After the Anglo-American royalist coup that removed Mossadeq, Bakhtiar spent twenty-five years opposing the imperial state, for six of them from inside one of its prisons. But in early January 1979, with Iran consumed by strikes and demonstrations, Khomeini preaching mass civil disobedience from abroad and the shah despairing and wracked by the cancer that would soon kill him, Bakhtiar accepted the post of prime minister; he was immediately expelled from his party. Twelve days later the shah stepped aboard a plane to Egypt, ostensibly ‘for a holiday’. He would, of course, never return.


Anti-government demonstrations in Iran, 8th September 1978. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

The state of which Bakhtiar took control was confined mostly to government buildings and army and police posts. As the British ambassador, Anthony Parsons, had reported on 2nd January, ‘the fact of the matter is that the country has reached a state of near paralysis: only the military authorities are capable of generating any administrative activity […] and only the opposition are capable of influencing the people’. Civil society hardly acknowledged the new prime minister; most of the liberal opposition disowned him; royalist ultras despised him; Khomeini dismissed his government as illegitimate and meaningless.

 

Ayatollah Khomeini arrives in Tehran, 1st February 1979. From Wikimedia Commons via sajed.ir.

 

But his aims were ambitious. In an interview he gave the day before Parsons despatched his summary, and sent to London in translation, he had set them out. ‘I vow to uphold religious liberty – including that of minorities. I vow to free all bona fide political prisoners. I vow to uphold human rights. […] All legal political parties will be free to operate within the country. I beg my countrymen to discontinue (even temporarily) their subversive and disruptive activities.’ (FCO 8/3351) And he tried. He opened the prisons, lifted press censorship, dissolved SAVAK, the shah’s hated secret police, and, though personally a monarchist, announced elections to a constituent assembly that would decide Iran’s future form of government.

Historians debate whether this was too idealistic – given his life, one is tempted to say too romantic – for the time and place in which Bakhtiar found himself. Despite Khomeini’s known stance Bakhtiar allowed him to return to Iran (with at least one air force officer pleading for permission to fly up and shoot down his plane), whereupon the ayatollah appointed a prime minister of his own and told people to obey him instead. Then the armed forces began to fracture. On 9th February a group of air technicians declared for Khomeini after watching a television interview with him. The imperial guardsmen sent to subdue them found themselves besieged by a crowd of thousands of civilians; in time they found their way to the armouries.

Telegram from Mr Graham to London relaying General Abbas Qarabaghi’s announcement of the Iranian armed forces' neutrality. Mehdi Bazargan was Khomeini’s prime minister. From The National Archives (London), FCO 8/3353, 'Internal political situation in Iran, part C'. Crown © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

 

The military response had to come or Bakhtiar’s position was wholly empty, but it was half-hearted and too late; the prime minister found himself issuing orders (ignored) for the aerial bombing of his own munitions factories to try to regain some kind of advantage. On the 11th the high command, who could now safely move around their capital city only by helicopter, declared that henceforth the armed forces would be neutral. They could not, they reasoned, oppose what must have seemed the entire civilian population. In the next few weeks most of them paid for this concession with their lives. But at the end of March Bakhtiar emerged, somehow, in France, where he organised opposition to the Islamic republic and wrote his memoirs, which share the title of this piece. In 1991 he and his secretary were stabbed to death in his home in Paris by Iranian agents.

 

Shapour Bakhtiar’s grave in Paris. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please e-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

Join our webinar 'Teaching Middle East Studies' on 22nd February to discover more about the resource.

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.

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