Revolution #95, July 15, 2007

Background to Confrontation:

The U.S. & Iran: A History of Imperialist Domination, Intrigue and Intervention

Part 5: The 1979 Revolution and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

For over 100 years, the domination of Iran has been deeply woven into the fabric of global imperialism, enforced through covert intrigues, economic bullying, military assaults, and invasions. This history provides the backdrop for U.S. hostility toward Iran today--including the real threat of war. Part 1 of this series explored the rivalry between European imperialists up through World War 1 over which one would control Iran and its oil. Part 2 exposed the U.S.’s 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh’s secular, nationalist government and its restoration of its brutal client the Shah. Parts 3 and 4 examined what 25 years of U.S. domination under the Shah’s reign meant for Iran and how it paved the way for the 1979 revolution. Part 5 examines how both the 1979 revolution and the U.S. response fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

In December 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah, calling Iran an “island of stability” in a sea of turmoil. A few weeks later, a small anti-Shah demonstration of religious students took place in Qum. It was violently repressed by the regime’s forces. This wasn’t unusual, but what ensued was. A cycle began, unleashing deep wells of dissatisfaction and anger. The Shah’s repression spurred more protests. When those were repressed, even more protests followed. Within a year of Carter’s toast, a wave of revolution was sweeping Iran. On one day alone more than 10 million people--one of every three Iranians--took to the streets demanding the end of the monarchy. In January 1979, the hated Shah was forced to flee, and in February Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers took power.

Iran’s revolution, the consolidation of an Islamic theocracy, and the actions the U.S. imperialists took in response would have a profound impact. They would help undermine the U.S. grip on the Middle East and fuel the rise of anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism. The revolution and its aftermath turned Iran from a pillar of U.S. dominance to one of its main obstacles in the region. Over these decades, imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism ended up reinforcing each other--even as they clashed.

The U.S.--Dazed & Confused

Iran’s revolution blind-sided the U.S. rulers. Even in August 1978, when the tidal wave of upheaval was about to crest, a CIA report concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation.”

In fall 1978, after the Shah’s “bloody Friday” massacre of thousands of demonstrators failed to stem the tide, the imperialists were forced to confront the magnitude of Iran’s upheaval. Yet they remained paralyzed by infighting over how to respond. Some in the U.S. ruling class argued for a last-ditch military coup. Others worried that this would provoke an even more profoundly revolutionary upheaval, and possibly push the masses toward Iran’s secular revolutionary left.

At the time, contention with Soviet imperialism was the U.S.’s chief driving necessity, and many ruling class strategists felt that Khomeini and the clergy in Iran could be a force against the left and the Soviets. They also assumed that the clerics would cede power to their pro-U.S., technocratic allies. One senior U.S. official wrote in February 1979, Khomeini’s movement “is far better organized, enlightened, able to resist communism than its detractors would lead us to believe.”

Neither option was a good one for the U.S. ruling class, and its freedom to impact events in Iran dwindled quickly as the revolution surged. In the end, the Carter administration decided to try to deal with the new Islamic Republic. The U.S. maintained diplomatic relations with Iran, and attempted to build ties with forces in the new government.

Khomeini had long advocated a rule of Islamic "jurists" (scholars and clerics), which would reimpose Islamic ideology and social relations within the confines of Iran’s existing social and economic structures. This represented the interests of sections of Iran’s feudal and bourgeois strata and entailed reconfiguring Iran’s role in the region and its relationship to U.S. imperialism. But it did not entail rupturing from imperialism’s overall domination of Iran, much less uprooting feudalism. Khomeini and his followers viewed their new state as a model for the entire Islamic world. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s huge CIA presence in Iran was focused on the Soviet Union -- one former official told author Robert Dreyfuss that "virtually no one in the Carter administration had any idea of who Khomeini was until it was too late."

The Seizure of the U.S. Embassy

On November 4, 1979, the U.S. received another rude awakening. Islamic students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran with Khomeini’s blessing, took its personnel hostage, and demanded the exiled Shah be returned to face trial.

The triggers for the takeover were, first, the U.S. decision to admit the Shah (then dying of cancer) into the U.S. for medical care. And second, a meeting in Algiers between Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iran’s Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister, all of whom were allied with Khomeini but were pro-U.S. and basically secular in their orientation.

The Khomeini forces, who organized and led the takeover, seized on popular anger at the Shah and the widespread fear that the U.S. might be conspiring to return him to power as it had in 1953. However, Khomeini and the clerics’ primary objective was to discredit and oust secular forces, consolidate a monopoly of power in their hands, and establish an Islamic theocracy.

The Middle East “Arc of Crisis”

Shortly after the embassy takeover, in December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion gave Moscow control of a key buffer state between Iran and Pakistan and put its forces closer to the Persian Gulf. It came in the wake of what one former Reagan official called stepped-up “competition for influence with the United States throughout the Middle East, Indian Ocean, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia regions.” U.S. officials also worried that their client regimes in the Persian Gulf were vulnerable to Iranian-inspired Islamist agitation. In sum, they felt the U.S. was facing an “arc of crisis” stretching from Afghanistan through Iran to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Counters--Arming and Organizing Islamic Fundamentalists

The U.S. imperialists launched a multi-dimensioned and aggressive response focused on buttressing pro-U.S. oil sheikdoms in the Gulf and defeating the Soviets’ moves. They were framed by Carter’s January 23, 1980 State of the Union declaration that “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, called this “Carter Doctrine” a “strategic revolution in America’s global position.” Controlling the Gulf was now as important to the empire as its alliances with Europe and Japan. It was backed by a major expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region.

One key component of this strategy, which would come back to haunt the U.S., was mobilizing Islamic forces against the Soviets, particularly in Afghanistan (something done previously in Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel). “The theory was, there was an arc of crisis, and so an arc of Islam could be mobilized to contain the Soviets,” one former Carter official explained.

Ironically, this was now taking place after the region’s first Islamist seizure of state power.

In July 1979, some five months before the Soviet invasion, the U.S. had begun a covert campaign to destabilize Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government by arming and funding the Islamist opposition. The goal, according to Brzezinski, was “to induce a Soviet military intervention.” After the Soviets invaded, Brzezinski wrote Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” Over the next decade, the U.S. government funneled more than $3 billion in arms and aid to the Islamic mujahadeen, helping create a global network of Islamist fighters, some of whom would form the core of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Giving the Green Light to Iraq’s 1980 Invasion of Iran

Another major prong of the U.S. counter-attack was punishing Iran in order to force it to release the U.S. embassy personnel and curb its Islamist agitation in the region. The strategy here was to try and put pressure on and contain the Islamic Republic--not overthrow it. Khomeini’s government was brutally clamping down on Iranian leftists, keeping its distance from the Soviet Union, and maintaining the flow of Iranian oil to the West--all of which coincided with key U.S. interests. The U.S.’s overarching concern, as Brzezinski put it, was forging “an anti-Soviet Islamic coalition.”

The U.S. had limited military resources in the region and feared that any major military move against Iran could provoke a U.S.-Soviet confrontation that could slide into nuclear conflagration. During the Iranian revolution and in its immediate aftermath, the U.S. and the Soviets engaged in a series of veiled high-stakes threats backed by military maneuvers and nuclear alerts, as each warned the other to stay out of Iran.

Given these constraints, the U.S. opted to work through Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whose secular nationalist regime was ideologically and politically threatened by Iran’s Islamic revolution (including because 60 percent of Iraq’s population were Shi’ites who were oppressed under Saddam's rule). In the spring and summer of 1980, the U.S. encouraged an Iraqi attack on Iran (possibly including via a direct meeting between Hussein and either Brzezinski or high-level CIA agents in Jordan). On September 22, 1980 Iraq invaded southwest Iran.

Reagan’s “October Surprise”

The Carter administration viewed Iraq’s invasion as useful to U.S. interests, but when Iraqi forces drove deep into southern Iran it became apparent that Hussein had greater ambitions. So the U.S. declared that it was against “any dismemberment of Iran,” and promised to airlift $300-$500 million worth of arms to Iran if the hostages were released.

Nothing came of this offer because of a secret behind-the-scenes conspiracy between Iran’s clerics and powerful right-wing forces in the U.S.

The U.S. rulers viewed the seizure and holding of the Tehran embassy and 52 of its personnel for 444 days as a global humiliation. The media labeled it “America held hostage,” and establishment commentators complained that the U.S. had been turned into a “pitiful giant,” incapable of imposing its will even on a Third World country. The utter failure of Carter’s April 24, 1980 attempt at a helicopter rescue of the hostages added insult to injury. Ronald Reagan’s backers were deeply frustrated by the constraints on U.S. power generally and felt a Reagan victory in the 1980 presidential election was crucial to strengthening U.S. imperialism’s global dominance and aggressively taking on their Soviet rivals.

These Reagan backers (including many who would be leading neocon hawks in George W. Bush’s administration) feared that if Carter won the hostages’ release he would win re-election. So they worked to make sure this didn’t happen. Over the summer of 1980, Reagan’s top advisors made a secret agreement with the Islamic Republic: if Iran continued to hold the hostages through November’s election and Reagan won, he would lift the economic sanctions imposed by Carter and allow Israel to ship arms to Iran. Former Carter official Gary Sick called it “nothing less than a political coup.”

Iran’s Ayatollahs agreed because they wished to prolong the Embassy crisis and the Iran-Iraq war in order to pose as anti-imperialist fighters, outflank and crush their opponents, and firmly consolidate their theocracy. Reagan did win, and on January 21, 1981, the day he was inaugurated, Iran sent the U.S. embassy personnel home.

Gulf Stalemate, Soviet Defeat, and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

In the short run, this U.S. offensive worked. The Iran-Iraq war dragged on for 8 years with neither side winning a clear victory. The Islamic Republic’s energies were absorbed in the war and domestic political struggles, and the U.S.’s regional clients survived. In Afghanistan, the Soviets were forced to withdraw their forces in 1989, suffering a major defeat which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. victory in the “Cold War.”

Yet in many ways, these U.S. measures--indeed even its victory over the Soviets--unleashed new contradictions and sowed the seeds of the enormous difficulties the U.S. is now facing in the Middle East-Central Asian region.

For one, the U.S.-backed proxy wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan exacted an enormous toll. Conservative estimates place the death toll in the Iran-Iraq War at 367,000--262,000 Iranians and 105,000 Iraqis. An estimated 700,000 were injured or wounded on both sides, bringing the total casualty figure to over one million. The 1979-1989 Afghan war took the lives of more than a million Afghans (along with 15,000 Soviet soldiers) and a third of the population was driven into refugee camps. This contributed greatly to the overall suffering and dislocation in the region, which became a primary source of anti-U.S. Islamism.

The Iran-Iraq war helped the Khomeini regime firmly consolidate power, and it would use that power to promote Islamist movements across the region. Dreyfuss points out, “The religious revolution in Iran did more than kick the props out from underneath America’s most important outpost in the region. It crystallized a fundamental change in the character of the Islamic right, one that had been taking shape since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood decades earlier. As it gained strength in the ’70s the Islamic right grew more assertive, and parts of it were radicalized…..and took on a more pronounced political character.”

Arming and training of the Afghan and Islamic Mujahadeen created a fighting force that would soon turn on its U.S. and Saudi sponsors and become a huge problem for them. The U.S.-Mujahadeen victory over the Soviets emboldened the Islamists--believing they’d defeated one superpower, they now felt they could defeat the other. The collapse of the Soviet Union also strengthened Islamic fundamentalism ideologically (secularism and Marxism had supposedly failed) and politically (a major backer of secular and nationalist forces had fallen).

Over the course of the 1990s and into the new millennium, the Islamist trend became a bigger and bigger problem for the U.S. empire.


Next: The U.S. Iran Strategy 1980-2003: From Containment to Regime Change


Bob Avakian, “Why We're in the Situation We're in Today…And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly Rotten System and the Need for Revolution,” available at

Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game--How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, pp. 217-230.

Larry Everest, Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, Chapter 4--“Arming Iraq, Double-Dealing Death in the Gulf”

Larry Everest, “Islamic Revivalism and the Experience of Iran,” Revolution magazine, Fall/Winter 1989

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