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World: Unity Against the Shah

9 minute read

And Iran acts like a country without a king

His face looked tense, his eyes were tired, his smile strained. Posing for TV cameramen and photographers at Niavaran Palace overlooking Tehran last week, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi showed the physical exhaustion of many weeks of crisis. When asked if he planned to take a vacation, the Shah replied quietly, “I would love it, if the situation permits.” A few days later, however, after issuing a royal decree naming Shahpour Bakhtiar, 62, as Premier-designate with power to form a civilian government, the Shah merely left Tehran with his family for a couple of days of rest at Jajrood, a ski resort 50 miles northeast of the capital.

It was hardly the “vacation” that Bakhtiar had in mind when he asked the Shah to leave the country for a year or two as the price for putting together a new government. Nonetheless, the consensus in Iran, and indeed in capitals around the world, was that it was only a matter of time before the Shah would follow his large and wealthy family (see following story) into exile. At week’s end, after endorsing the Cabinet that Bakhtiar had presented to him for approval, the Shah issued a carefully guarded statement in which he complained of great weariness. His need for relaxation might oblige him to seek it outside Iran, he said. It was the first time the Shah had publicly conceded he might be ready to step down, if only for a time. Indeed, the Shah’s fate seemed inevitable and imminent: sooner rather than later, he would slip away, carrying with him the elusive hope that at least his son Crown Prince Reza, now 18, may some day succeed him on the Peacock Throne. As part of the bargain, Bakhtiar will set up and head a Regency Council that will keep Iran a constitutional monarchy, greatly reducing the powers of the Shah.

Whether the Shah retires to St. Moritz or tries to stay on in Iran, there is no question that an era of imperial aspirations has come to an end. As the protests against him spread, gathering momentum with every strike and riot, the Shah’s personal power has been completely eroded. Even those in the middle classes who still backed him, partly out of fear of what might follow, knew his cause was lost. His chief support remained high-ranking officers in the military. Several hard-lining generals urged the Shah to stay and pleaded with him for permission to launch an all-out military crackdown on dissent that probably would mean enormous bloodshed. To his credit, the Shah refused. But there was still a real fear that military officers concerned about the danger to the Shah’s survival might yet attempt to shore up his power by staging a coup. In hopes of placating both the military and the opposition, Bakhtiar named General Feridun Jam, a popular officer who has had differences with the Shah, as Minister of Defense.

Western diplomats were skeptical about how long a Bakhtiar government may last, but they saw the Premier-designate as a moderate who just might be able to win the support of the Shah’s opponents on both left and right. The French-educated Bakhtiar is a disciple of the late Premier Mohammed Mossadegh, in whose Cabinet he served as deputy Labor Minister before Mossadegh was overthrown in a 1953 CIA-backed coup that restored the Shah to his throne. Bakhtiar has long been an outspoken opponent of the Shah. He spent two years in prison for his activities with the opposition National Front. Only 18 months ago, he was beaten up by agents of SAVAK, Iran’s secret police. He is commonly regarded as being a staunch anti-Communist and a politician untainted by corruption.

At his first press conference last week, Bakhtiar promised to end martial law, gradually restore human rights and release all political prisoners. As for foreign policy, he said: “Iran will no longer be the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, and it is my intention to take Iran out of the military wing of CENTO.” Iran’s military role will necessarily be reduced, because the country will no longer have the economic means to make huge arms purchases. Bakhtiar also promised to review who may buy Iran’s oil. This was interpreted to mean that the National Iranian Oil Corp. would cancel deliveries to Israel, which now depends on Tehran for more than 40% of its petroleum needs, and to South Africa, which imports 90% of its oil from Iran. Even if the oil market could be so neatly manipulated, neither country would immediately suffer from the threat. Both have huge oil stockpiles, and Israel has a U.S. guarantee of supply in case Iranian oil is cut off.

“Dear countrymen,” Bakhtiar concluded, “we have been through a long and bitter struggle, and I believe it is now time to end the chaos, the violence and murder, the loss of life of our countrymen. With your support, I sincerely hope to lead Iran to a genuine social democracy.” One subject of that appeal was Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the exiled Shi’ite mullah who has become the spearhead of the anti-Shah revolution. At week’s end. speaking from his headquarters in a suburb of Paris, Khomeini jeopardized Bakhtiar’s chances by declaring that “obedience to this administration is obedience to Satan.” Khomeini is adamantly against the new government because it still has links to the Shah.

Faced with the growing strength of anti-American and antiforeign feelings, the U.S. and other Western embassies began a hectic and confused evacuation of families and nonessential personnel from Iran. U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan, who had been in frequent communication with the Shah, called a meeting of the American business community and “recommended” that families leave the country.

Company-chartered planes airlifted American oil workers and their families from Abadan, site of Iran’s biggest refinery. Chartered Boeing 707s flew in to Isfahan airport. One convoy of 50 cars headed for the Turkish border, another for Iraq. But the majority of evacuees converged on Tehran’s airport, despite railroad and domestic airline strikes. Some went to the airport at night to avoid being seen. Shirley and Bill Johnson, a Texas couple who had hired a taxi for the 260-mile journey from Isfahan to Tehran, were asked by their driver, who did not want to be seen transporting foreigners, to put on black chadors, the ankle-length veil worn by Iranian women. By week’s end only some 20,000 Americans remained in Iran, down from 41,000 in early November.

The evacuees leave behind a land spent by violence, anger and economic chaos. In the past two months, the inflation rate is believed to have risen from 50% to 200% or more. In addition to airline, Telex and telephone workers, bank employees, civil servants and teachers were all out on strike. The severest problems were caused by the virtual shutdown of the oilfields. At the huge loading terminal in the port of Kharg Island, one eyewitness told TIME Correspondent Dean Brelis that Iranian workers sullenly half loaded a foreign tanker and then told its crew: “We don’t need you. Now get your ass out of here.” Virtually no foreigners remained at the refineries, and even the army withdrew its guards from administration buildings and installations, which were left in the hands of the strikers.

Tanks and troops continued to patrol city streets at night, but thousands of protesters defied the 9 o’clock curfew to go to rooftops and shout their chilling chant: “The Shah must die.” Even whispering that slogan would once have provoked a visit by a SAVAK agent. Names, addresses and phone numbers of secret police agents are now posted on city walls. Some parents have taken their children to grisly museums of past horrors: two houses in the capital that were allegedly used by SAVAK to torture victims. Along with the fighting that has now touched virtually every corner of the land has come a rising casualty toll. The Journalists’ Syndicate and the Iranian Doctors Association estimate that over the past year, at least 10,000 civilians have died, and perhaps a hundred soldiers.

Some of the worst fighting of the war occurred over the New Year’s weekend in the city of Mashhad, with its blue mosque and shrine to the 8th century Shi’ite Imam Reza, the holiest sites in Iran. “Three days after the rioting,” reported TIME Correspondent Roland Flamini, “gutted buildings smoldered in Mashhad, and burned-out trucks and cars littered the semideserted streets. Though the city seemed calm, the army, which had withdrawn to barracks, did not appear in control. A bus full of foreign journalists who had been flown from Tehran was escorted by five truckloads of soldiers. The army said it was ‘too risky’ to venture near the bazaar or any of the civilian hospitals, which were thought to be controlled by anti-Shah militants.”

Army and opposition leaders disagree in their accounts of bloodletting, but both sides admit that some Iranian soldiers were killed and mutilated by anti-Shah rioters. The army then displayed their bodies to other soldiers, who reportedly ran over demonstrators with tanks, shot wildly into the crowds and even attacked civilian hospitals. The demonstrators reduced the army PX, symbol of the military’s privileged position, to a ruin, along with a local Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, delivery trucks, the Iran-American Society building and the home of the sole U.S. military adviser in the city. The adviser was not at home, but his Iranian guard was killed. The two days of rioting left 170 dead by the government’s count, but more than 700 according to the opposition. “Mashhad used to be a very nice place,” said one army general laconically. “Now it’s a disaster area.”

In town after town, unity is the theme of crudely lettered wall slogans—unity to meet worsening conditions, unity against the guns of the army, unity against pressures to return to work. In one small town near Isfahan, it was announced during evening services at the mosque that the families of the strikers in Tehran were running out of bread. That night the residents stayed home and baked. Next morning three vans loaded with free bread left for the capital.

From Persepolis, where in 1971 the Shah celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire TIME Correspondent William McWhirter reported that Iran already seemed to be functioning as a country without a king. Most people seem to be looking forward to a genuine social revolution, albeit with some misgivings. “We want freedom, freedom, freedom—what’s reactionary about that?” protested one Iranian hospital worker. Added a welding-shop owner thoughtfully: “The Shah’s leaving is only the first stage. It will not be easy. There will be lots of hardships.”

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