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Enduring myths of the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Few events in our lifetime are as shrouded in myth and conspiracy as the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Forty-five years later, however, we now have a much clearer picture of the dramatic events that played out on the streets of Tehran before a worldwide television audience.

Certain myths have retained an appeal. The fall of the shah traumatized a generation of Iranians. It made perfect sense that the survivors would embrace certain narratives to explain and justify what they had lived through.

Three of the most enduring myths of the revolution are described below, along with my interpretations of what happened and why:

1. “The true leader of the Shi’a faithful is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”

One of the founding myths of the Iranian Revolution concerns Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s clerical status. Even today, there are non-Iranians who assume, as the United States’ ambassador to Tehran, William Sullivan, believed in February 1978, that Ruhollah Khomeini was the “true leader” of Shi’a Islam.1 When Amb. Andrew Young, President Jimmy Carter’s envoy to the United Nations, described Khomeini as “some kind of saint,” he assured Americans that it was “impossible to have a fundamentalist Islamic state” in Iran.2

The statements made by Sullivan and Young had no basis in fact or theology. Shi’ites were free to emulate the marja (grand ayatollah) who best reflected their values and views — they were not bound to a single leader. In 1978, the most emulated and respected Shi’a marja was Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Abol Qasem Khoei, who lived in Najaf, Iraq. The marja with the most followers insideIran was Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari of Qom. Both men had known Khomeini for many years. Iran’s clerical establishment, monarchist by inclination, generally reviled Khomeini’s populist rhetoric and rebel appeal. They feared what he might do if given an opportunity to put his radical ideas on Islamic government into practice. Nonetheless, they understood that the popular tide was moving in his favor. Khomeini’s young shock troops used violence and intimidation to bully and cower their rivals. They looked to draw the security forces into armed confrontations in the hope that bloodshed would further weaken Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s position. Their militancy created the false but devastatingly effective impression of numerical strength.

Shariatmadari was so worried that in spring 1978 he favored Khomeini’s assassination.3 He prodded the shah to Islamize the imperial court and government. He tried to build a coalition of moderates that he hoped would be led by a young protégé, Imam Musa Sadr. Sadr’s subsequent disappearance at the height of the revolution bore all the hallmarks of a hit carried out by Khomeini partisans. To the very end, Shariatmadari begged the shah to stay in Iran lest the army collapse and Khomeini seize power.

Shariatmadari’s worst fears were realized. The Iranian Revolution really was a tale of two power struggles. The first, fought between Pahlavi and Khomeini, decided the fate of the Iranian nation and people. The second, fought between Shariatmadari and Khomeini, determined the future of Shi’a Islam. By prematurely –– and wrongly –– conferring legitimacy on Khomeini, the Americans backed themselves into a terrible corner. They revealed a woeful lack of understanding about Iran and Shi’a Islam. This helps explain what happened later in the year, when Amb. Sullivan convinced himself that only if the shah left and Khomeini returned from exile the US presence in Iran could somehow be salvaged.

2. Human rights abuses under the Shah took place “on an unprecedented scale.”

The most persistent myth alleges that the Shah was a bloodthirsty dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of arrests, executions, and the torture of prison inmates. In the mid-1970s, human rights in Iran emerged as a major domestic concern and an international scandal. The International Commission of Jurists declared that as many as 100,000 Iranians were in jail “and most of them have been tortured by Savak (Iran’s domestic security and intelligence service).”4 It implied that conditions inside Iran were worse than in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea (Cambodia) and Idi Amin’s Uganda. Amnesty International repeated the figure. In his book Crowned Cannibals, published the following year, exiled Iranian poet Reza Baraheni went even further when he declared that more than 300,000 Iranians had been imprisoned, with an average of 1,500 arrests in Iran each month.5 On a single day, he claimed, Savak had detained 5,000 people.6 Baraheni’s claims were treated in the United States with respect bordering on reverence: Crowned Cannibals received a rave review from novelist E. L. Doctorow in The New York Times.7

No one disputes there were human rights abuses in Iran during the shah’s reign, particularly at the height of the 1971-76 “dirty war” against subversion. Violations were so widespread that even members of the imperial family, including Empress Farah, raised concerns. The human rights issue seriously damaged the shah’s claim to moral leadership and provided fodder for his critics at home and abroad. From the start, however, confusion surrounded the precise numbers of prisoners held in detention, tortured, and executed. But the human rights debate really took off in the late 1990s, when the Islamic Republic’s own internal investigation revealed that the high figures they had used to criminalize the Pahlavi regime before the revolution could not be substantiated.8

When I traveled Iran in 2013, I visited the Islamic Revolution Document Center in Tehran, an organization that collects raw data on the revolution. Their estimate reflected the figure provided to me by Parviz Sabeti, former head of Savak’s powerful Third Directorate: Political prisoners in Iran numbered approximately 3,200 in the mid-1970s (though it could have been as high as 3,700).9 Prison executions were also revised down. Khomeini had condemned the shah for allegedly ordering 70,000 executions –– an absurdly high number in retrospect –– and ironic when we consider that in 1963, and again in 1978, the shah personally spared Khomeini’s life from those who lobbied for his execution. Sabeti told me that 312 political prisoners died in detention, mostly from execution.10 His number is lower than the figure of 368 claimed by the Islamic Republic.11

Where did the higher numbers come from? We now know that the figures relied on by the ICJ and Amnesty International were produced by anti-shah exiles living in Paris and Beirut. Their authenticity was never questioned or even challenged by the foreign correspondents and editors who disseminated them to an unsuspecting public. Determining the actual numbers does not diminish the experiences of the victims of human rights abuses. What it does do is allow historians to really understand what was happening inside Iran in the 1970s. It means there can finally be a real discussion about state-sponsored repression in Iran and allows us to turn our full attention to the victims’ stories and experiences. Moreover, it helps put into context the current situation in Iran, where the argument that abuses are no worse than in the past can be rejected.

3. Western leaders conspired to oust the shah.

Many Iranians are convinced that Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s fate was decided at a Jan. 4-7, 1979, meeting of Western leaders on the French island territory of Guadeloupe. The timeline of events tells a different story.

President Carter kept notes of his talks with Prime Minister James Callaghan of the United Kingdom, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France, and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany.12 The notes reveal that most of the leaders’ conversations focused on the East-West confrontation and trade and security relations with the Soviet Union. If Iran was of secondary importance, it was only because they assumed the shah was already finished. Schmidt boasted that “he had long known that the megalomanic Shah would be brought down,” while Carter admitted he “found very little support among the other three for the Shah.”13 The French president defended his decision to offer refuge to Khomeini because “it would be better to keep him in France instead of letting him go to Iraq or Libya or some other place where he might stir up even more trouble for the Shah.” Carter also said, “[The others] were unanimous in saying that the Shah ought to leave as soon as possible.”

The quartet was pushing on an open door; the shah had long since given up the fight. Depressed and disoriented by events and his secret cancer diagnosis, Pahlavi understood that the year-long strategy of appeasing his critics had ended in a rout. Several weeks earlier, he had rejected King Hussein of Jordan’s offer to personally take charge of the Iranian army and wage war on the revolutionaries. Hussein understood this refusal to mean that his friend and mentor meant to vacate the Peacock Throne. Between Christmas and New Year 1978, the shah and the shahbanou, Farah Diba, decided to send their youngest children out of the country. At the same time, the shah asked his valet Amir Pourshaja to pack enough clothes for an overseas trip of undetermined duration. On Jan. 3, 1979, the shahbanou phoned a close friend still holding on in Tehran. She advised her to get her passport ready: “It is time to leave.”

The four Western leaders arrived in Guadeloupe the next day. Their actions during the revolution undermined his position and, in some ways, hastened Khomeini’s rise to power. But did they act with malice? The evidence points to incompetence more than anything else, and that is not a reassuring thought.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution is a reminder that myths flourish in closed societies, and that myths left unchecked have the power to create serious misunderstandings and cause real damage. To avoid a repeat disaster, the United States should undertake to conduct regular reviews of its Iran information collection policies. There can be no excuse for the US, with all the resources at its disposal, to make policy toward Iran based on anything other than sound fact.


Dr. Andrew Scott Cooper, is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and an Adjunct Professor at International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki, Greece. He specializes in US national security and petroleum policy toward the region since World War II, the history of modern Iran, and Middle East monarchies and kingship. He is the author of two books, including, most recently, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.


1 Airgram, from American Embassy Tehran to Department of State, “The Iranian Opposition,” February 1, 1978, Iran: The Making of US Policy, 1977-80, document 01296. 

2 “Young Praises Islam as ‘Vibrant’ and Calls the Ayatollah a Living Saint,” The New York Times, February 8, 1979. 

3 Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran (Henry Holt: New York, 2016), 315. 

4 Cooper, The Fall of Heaven, p. 235. 

5 Ibid. 

6 Cooper, The Fall of Heaven, p. 235-6. 

7 John Leonard, “Repression in Iran,” The New York Times, June 20, 1977. 

8 Cyrus Kadivar, “A Question of Numbers,” Rouzegar-Now, August 8, 2003,

9 Author interview, September 8, 2013. 

10 Ibid. 

11 Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisoners and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (University of California Press; Berkeley, 1999), p. 103. 

12 President Carter’s notes on Guadeloupe Four Power Summit, January 5, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. 

13 Ibid. 

Second publication by courtesy of Middle East Institute, Original-Text 


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