Khomeini greets supporters on February 1, 1979, the day of his return from exile in France. (RFE/RL)

Track Persia – September 24, 2017

The success of the late Supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 in overthrowing the shah regime  and the holding of the American diplomats at the American embassy in Tehran over a year marked a beginning of new American-Iranian relations according to many observers. [1]

During the course of Khomenini’s revolution, the American administrations and policy makers seemed they did not comprehend the extreme rhetoric of the revolutionaries and miscalculated the importance of Khomeini’s ideology in the conduct of state affairs  and in the post-shah politics. The American policy makers misunderstood the composition and direction of the post-revolutionary political situation in Iran and the attitude of the Iranians towards the United States, which were influenced by the Islamic fundamentalists and revolutionaries.  They also misread or underestimated the Iranian political culture.

Washington therefore accepted a cabinet chosen by Khomeini himself after the fall of Bakhtiyar government in the hope that Khomeini and his allies form clerics would peacefully retire to Qom while the moderates and technocrats would emerge as dominant in Iran.  They thought that Iran’s oil production would still have to continue and would be sold to the West at higher level to repair the economic damage the revolution had caused and to meet the aspirations of the Iranian people for improving the social-welfare benefits.

Khomeini and the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran presented Washington as the main foreign power that had ruled Iran using the shah as a puppet and as being responsible for all bloodshed during the revolution. They also accused the United States of stealing the oil wealth of the country; consequently, the Iranian revolution would be a model for a whole series of uprising in the Islamic countries to upset the imperialist system.

Nonetheless, there were many revolutionaries, including those close to Khomeini himself, were not hostile to America because they believed that the latter was too beneficial a friend.  When the American embassy was briefly occupied by armed leftists, some officials associated with the new regime including Ibrahim Yazdi helped to free the American hostages. In fact, several of them associated to Khomeini acted as mediators. The Americans did not understand this precedent was to mislead them during the later takeover.

The Iranian new Islamist government after all needed spare parts for the mostly American-made military equipment. They wanted the Americans to continue the maintenance of the Iranian weaponry and the completion of ongoing development projects. All these factors made the Americans expect the new regime in Iran would act normally and in Iran’s rational interests.

Additionally, the reason that might have forced the Americans not to respond to the hostility  of the  new Iranian leaders towards the United States might be the growing  concerns over the Soviet Union’s influence in the region; given Iran’s proximity to the Soviet Union which in December 1979 invaded neighbouring Afghanistan.

No matter how hostile Iran’s leaders were toward the United States, American interests remained essentially the same as they had been since 1946. There were fears among US policymakers that Iran might be pushed into Moscow’s arms if the Americans pressed the clerical regime or encouraged the destabilisation of Iran’s revolutionary government.  Additionally, the rise of the leftists in Iran increased Washington’s fear that they would takeover the power during the first months of the revolutionary government with possible support from the Soviet Union.

It was clear that the policies of Carter administration were aiming to build a new relationship with Iran.  It is reflected in various gestures that Washington used  to show  friendly intentions and soft policy towards Iran including rapid recognition of the Bazargan regime, holding direct meetings with Iranian officials and mutual cooperation with the new regime, in addition to offering to sell Iran’s  oil and agricultural products like wheat and rice, as well military spare parts. The American administration, in fact, believed that the mullas in Iran would not be able to run the complex post-shah state, therefore its strategy was a soft power towards Iran.

The hopes of the Americans, however, started to vanish with the thorough purge of members of Iran’s former military and shah-era figures. The Khomeinists began to control various government institutions including military and political and judicial organs.

The Khomeinist ideological view  was used heavily by the new Iranian regime  in  anti-American rhetoric and in  Khomeini’s speeches and those of his allies attributing the regional and internal turbulences, economic problems, as well as the August 1953 anti-Mosaddaq coup to covert American conspiracies.

Khomeini’s ideology, which enjoyed hegemony in the post-shah political scene, was presented in a popular dictatorship legitimized by Islamic symbols and practices. Anyone who objected Khomeini was treated as a traitor and a foreign agent seeking to establish some new client regime. Khomeinists, therefore, considered the leftists, liberals and autonomists  such as Azerbaijanis and Kurds as extensions of American power seeking to weaken Iran.

In one of his statements Khomeini said: “All the problems of the East stem from those foreigners from the West, and from America at the moment…..All our problems come from America… They want to milk us…they have no desire to give us anything….If only we could totally divorce ourselves from them, we would be better off.”


[1] See Barry Rubin, ‘American Relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979-1981’, Iranian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1/4, Iranian Revolution in Perspective (1980), pp. 307-326.


About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.