Revolutionary Iran

A history of the Islamic Republic

Book by Michael Axworthy

Article and Review by GlobalMacroForex

Iran’s revolution is a truly amazing phenomenon in which a locally suppressed culture defied an international military superpower to reclaim their nation.  It’s unfortunate that Iran took an extreme direction of hatred after the revolution, but America’s guilt prior to 1979 is undisputed but often ignored.

In this detailed account of this oppressed group’s rise to self-determination and freedom, Michael Axworthy points out how Iran is not some unexplainable rogue evil, but in fact, their actions are a logical consequence of the tyranny pushed upon them by western oil interests. 

Axworthy covers so much ground in this book, but some of the main revelations are:

-Perhaps the Ayatollah Khomeini isn’t this horrific evil person he’s made out to be.  His son was murdered by CIA trained SAVAK

-The true sheer size of the revolution.  There were tens of thousands of peaceful protestors who were murdered.  Millions marched

-US attempts to rescue the Tehran hostages failed because of internal fighting among different US military groups for power

-Analysis of why the revolution happened

Let’s dig right in…

Life under the Shah

The Shah was the American puppet dictator whose sole purpose was to suppress local dissent to please western oil interests.  However, his intentions were not even close to being kept a secret.  American media and culture were instead openly embraced by the Shah and force fed to the local population.  So many people felt their own culture, their language, fashion, music, religion, and entire way of life was being bludgeoned out by cookie-cutter mass-produced American media and advertising.

To give you an idea of how much the Shah cared about Iranian culture, he bulldozed a local market bazaar to build a western style mall.  The local people weren’t even a chance to participate in this oil wealth as it was channeled to the Shah’s own crony thugs and loyalists.  To make matters even worse, the Shah banned certain aspects of Islam, which really started a fire to the heart of the revolution.

Revolution Builds

The Shah had his own secret military police which was trained by the US CIA called SAVAK.  These highly trained ruthless thugs issues fines and eliminated dissent.  During the early stages of the revolution, they handed out 250,000 fines issues and 8,000 shopkeepers given prison sentences.  What started as simple poetry gatherings about freedom, morphed into an angry masses with a common cause for rekindling with their suppressed religious and moral philosophy.

In Qeytarieh in northern Tehran, crowds of 200,000 to 500,000 protestors marched in the mid-1978 led by Ayatollah Mohammad Mofatteh.  Asking to armed resistance that shot at them, “Soldier, brother, why do you kill your brothers?”

The Shah was flown over the demonstrations by helicopter, in disbelief of his own unpopularity.  He just didn’t understand how his own people could dislike him so much.  He thought it was a communist uprising, and that’s how the US CIA had trained him to respond amid the Cold War with the Soviet reach spreading.

CIA murders Ayatollah’s son

In western media, the Ayatollah Khomeini is always portrayed as this menacing evil, whose actions are so unexplainable and bizarre.  This book reveals the unfortunate circumstances under which the CIA trained SAVAK murdered the Ayatollah’s son Mostafa Khomeini while he was in Iraq engaged in a peaceful verbal protest of the Shah.  The death of Mostafa Khomeini only served to even further edge on the rebellion.

The Shah’s illness

The Shah was diagnosed with a lethal case of Leukaemia in May of 1974.  While some historians blame his erratic decision making on his illness, Axworthy takes a different view.  He thinks the Shah was just in disbelief at his own failure and couldn’t come to terms with the possibility he couldn’t pass the throne to his son.  Essentially the Shah didn’t understand his citizens’ rebellion, which is why he was such a poor ruler, to begin with.

1979 Revolution

By December 11, 1978, as the revolution approached its apex, Tehran was flooded with 500,000 to 4 million marchers.  The death toll of those murdered by the Shah’s forces was in the tens of thousands.  However, they were starting to crack.

The Shah could no longer hold the line because the Shah’s own military men started to either switch sides or no longer enforce his rule.  Some just stood by idly while protesters marched.  The rebellion had grown too large to crush with sheer force.

By 1979, the Shah (who was very ill from Leukemia) fled Iran and the Ayatollah took power.

Why Revolutions Happen

Michael Axworthy devotes part of the book to understanding in a sociological sense why revolutions happen.

 “The government has to fail to mollify them.  People have to be prepared to defy the government, perhaps to the point of risking their lives.”

  Axworthy stresses that they have to avoid the divisions within the group.  And the rebellion has to be sustained long enough for the government to give in. The entire time members of the group must continue to believe that others will see their actions and be inspired to continue.  They must believe it is possible to make a change.

Maybe there’s something to be learned from the new 2016 video game modeled after the Iranian revolution.

You could call it propaganda or biased content, but this game produced by Iran’s modern regime depicts the actions of the protestors as benevolent and heroic.  In this game, America is depicted as the evil enemy.

“Like a series of mirrors facing each other, the revolution depended for its success on a series of perceptions of perceptions.  It was necessary, through the confusion at times, for people to perceive that others, in sufficient numbers, had already perceived that resistance to the regime could succeed and would act upon it.”

He points to examples in Iran where people believed that the armed forces could be swayed.  Axworthy notes how the revolution was initially helped paradoxically by the regime’s own confidence that revolution could never happen.  Their own complacency allowed it to grow without being stopped in the early stages.

Failed rescue attempt

If you read my previous article on Iran’s revolution timeline, you know that after the revolution in 1979, Iranian students broke into the US embassy in Tehran.  US President Jimmy Carter tried to rescue these hostages but failed in what was known as Operation Eagle Claw.  In this mission, they sent helicopters to rescue the hostages but the helicopters crashed on the way.

One aspect I learned from this book that I didn’t know previously was that this mission failed because different groups within the US military were struggling for power.  Each of the pieces of the mission was from a different department. 

“Navy helicopters, marine helicopter pilots, Air Force C-130 aircraft and pilots, and troops from Army’s newly established Delta force.”

Also, they went overboard with the stealth of the mission, as though drunk on their own ambition for power among the group.  There were too many “chefs in the kitchen”.  They were flying helicopters through Iran’s deserts to get to the hostage location, but yet they insisted on radio silence to avoid detection.  This wasn’t necessary given the remoteness of the regions over which they were flying.  None of the groups within the military could agree on a proper plan.


There’s a lot of lessons to be drawn from the Iranian revolution and many parallels to our modern Arab Spring rebellions in the Sunni regions of the Middle East.  Overall we can see people must believe that they can truly win and that it’s worth risking their lives to rebel because others will see their actions and also take actions.  As Axworthy notes, like people looking in the mirror of people looking in the mirror, there’s a lot of reflection of how successful the efforts appear to be others and to those willing to die for its success.

Ultimately the Iranian revolution shows you how truly ignorant most Americans are to the atrocities their government has committed to foreigners for oil, even if those atrocities are funded through a foreign puppet dictator like the Shah or SAVAK.  It’s amazing that these Persians were able to stand up for their culture and self-actualize their own destiny.