The Iranian Revolution of 1979 defies reductive categorization. Third Worldist, Islamic Marxist and radical Shi’i ideologies converged and proliferated throughout Iranian society during the movement to end the autocracy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. These factions developed and disseminated radical political ideas reflecting socio-economic and cultural grievances that emphasized themes of anti-Americanism in visual media. The deep economic and cultural rifts produced by the Shah’s American-inspired reform policies in the 1960s and 1970s greatly shaped the discursive battle between various opposition groups and the Pahlavi monarchy. The opposition groups that subverted and ultimately destroyed the regime’s vice-like grip on the levers of state and military power relied on the powerful mobilizing factor of anti-Americanism in order to build a broad-based resistance movement that appealed to a multifaceted Iranian society. In this way, labeling the movement as an Islamic Revolution collapses the heterogeneity of this movement, and assumes Shi’i Islamism was the only major feature of opposition ideology.
The purpose of this article is to critically examine the role of the United States in Iran before 1979, and to determine to what extent anti-Americanism represented a powerful mobilizing symbol that united the eclectic ideologies of opposition groups. While some scholars overstate the role of the U.S. in sparking the 1979 Revolution (Bill 1988), the historiography on this uprising has generally skirted around the importance of anti-Americanism to the radical ideology of Iranian opposition factions (Abrahamian 2008, Keddie 2006). I argue that the opposition factions’ revolutionary discourse harnessed the deep entanglement of the Pahlavi and American states to supplement their struggle through by making the U.S. a repeated feature of their visual repertoire, expressed through political posters. The symbolic use of the United States intersected with numerous political discourses at once, serving as a catch-all for diverse socio-economic or cultural issues, produced by the Pahlavi regime’s policies, that mobilized various opposition groups. In other words, anti-Americanism could embody the multiple threads of a collaged opposition, reflecting each faction’s ideological aim. It spoke to global conversations on non-alignment by Third-Worldist intellectuals like Ali Shari’ati, who was popular among Iranian student organizations. It was emblematic of the consumer capitalism that Marxist groups like the Mojahedin-e Khalq sought to purge from Iran during the Cold War. And finally, it represented an analogy for the Khomeinist camp in framing their struggle against the Shah (and his American backers) as a mystical, timeless struggle against all forms of oppression, echoing the Battle of Karbala. Thus, I argue that anti-Americanism constituted a distinct discursive mode and artistic motif that broadly captured radical anti-imperialist, Third Worldist, Marxist, and religious struggles in its net, embracing the international landscape of liberation movements and their ideological underpinnings in order to establish the anti-Shah struggle as a part of worldwide rejoinders to oppressive systems. Furthermore, anti-Americanism was the most malleable tool to capture the prismatic Iranian revolutionary factions’ anti-Shah sentiments.
Understanding the roots of anti-Americanism in the Iranian Opposition’s discourse requires an analysis of the White Revolution and its aftermath. Primarily, this article will evaluate how these various elements translated into an increasingly negative and binary image of the U.S. among Iranians who opposed the Pahlavi regime. In this context, the article will examine the place of America in the war of ideas between the opposition and the Shah through the lens of the poster art produced by opposition groups, uncovering why it was important for the opposition to wield the United States as such an important symbol in the fight against the Shah. Lastly, it will shed light on why anti-Americanism is, even today, such a persisting feature of the Islamic Republic’s political message.
The White Revolution: From Reform to Revolt
Economic ties between Iran and the U.S. grew very close through collaboration in the oil, military, and commercial spheres. In geopolitical terms, the Shah’s development projects served to nurture the country into a “modern state, capable of rational government, economic growth, and military preparedness,” or, in other words, the ideal regional proxy against the Soviet Union. (1) This mutually dependent relationship increasingly tied the Shah to the United States, and vice-versa. As tensions between the Pahlavi state and Iranian dissenters grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the imbrication of the Shah and his American patrons became especially compelling within the troubled social context brought about by the White Revolution. The White Revolution was an ambitious, broad-based program launched by the Shah in 1963 to implement social and economic restructuring through “land reform, education, literacy campaigns, and women’s emancipation.” (2) The Shah, whose “inspiration was first and foremost the United States,” designed the program alongside Western economists in order to follow the path to “modernization” promised by the American capitalist system. (3) Alongside social and economic reforms, however, arrived significant numbers of Western, particularly American, expatriates to Iran. The wholesale importation of U.S. consumer capitalism provoked sentiments that Iranian cultural sovereignty was as under threat as its independence.
The White Revolution’s reform program disrupted conventional political and economic power in Iran through an aggressive modernization program that invoked political repression to achieve its ends. This state-led effort magnified the intense economic and military interdependency between the United States and Iran by “opening up [Iran] for foreign investment.” (4) Foreign investment mirrored the state’s promotion of Western cultural norms. Dissenters, in the form of militant guerilla groups, the ‘ulema, and student activists, nurtured a hostile stance towards the United States in this period that became an integral part of the 1979 Revolution’s mobilizing ideologies. The reform program benefitted some Iranians (particularly those tied in some way to the state or foreign business), but did not coherently address the ruptures it created for others. And while social tension and economic inequality grew, meaningful political reform that would have enabled Iranians to voice these concerns never occurred. The Shah’s policies encouraged the spread of American commercial influences and consumer culture, elements that alienated both leftist and religious conservative groups within Iranian civil society, who found Jalal-e Ahmad’s conception of gharbzadeghi (Westoxication/Weststruckness) especially compelling in light of the rapid changes occurring in their country.
Land reform, enacted in Iran at the behest of President Kennedy, reflected one of the most important facets of the White Revolution’s proposed economic transformations. (5) But despite accomplishing its political goal, namely, to dismantle the influence of notable families and large landowners of Iran’s countryside by “[enabling] the government to buy surplus land from the old landlords and sell land titles to the richer peasants,” the land reform program catalyzed significant demographic shifts in Iran. (6) Poor peasants were still unable to purchase land in the newly commercialized agricultural economy, causing massive rural migration to the cities. (7) The proportion of Iranians living in cities increased from 22 percent of the total population in 1940 to almost 50 percent in 1976. (8) The state’s land reform also served to “bring foreigners deeper into the fabric of the society instead of replacing them with Iranians” by contracting multinational corporations to farm large tracts of land. (9) This had wide-ranging effects. Frances Fitzgerald attested in 1974 that “Shelcott, Hawaiian Agronomics and other multinationals have taken over huge tracts of newly irrigated land to develop with foreign technicians and modern farming machinery,” displacing almost 17,000 Iranian rural workers but achieving lackluster productivity levels. (10) Consequently, the displacement of the rural population created huge economic inequality in urban centers and “created large armies of shantytown poor” who would become “battering rams for the forthcoming revolution.” (11)
At the same time, the Shah reinforced his political autocracy within the government throughout the prerevolutionary period by brutally repressing dissident political groups that had supported Mossadegh before 1953. While the Kennedy Administration urged the Iranian government to enact social and economic adjustments, “it intended to protect the Shah by preserving the political system.” (12) Following its advice, the Shah squeezed shut the brief political window that had emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, banning the Tudeh, the National Front, and other popular parties from partaking in government. As an alternative, in the 1970s the Shah formed the Hizb-e Rastakhiz (Resurgence Party), inspired by Samuel Huntington’s work Political Order in Changing Societies, which argued that developing societies in the Third World undergoing “rapid modernization” of their economy and society required a one-party state to keep a lid on the internal rifts created by restructuring programs like the White Revolution. (13) In one stroke, the royal family demonstrated their unwillingness to cede any measure of power. (14) Those who did not join the Hizb-e Rastakhiz “belonged in jail,” according to the Shah, “and should leave the country for good.” (15) The censorship of the Rastakhiz prevented thousands of books per year from being published. Moreover, they subjected numerous writers and intellectuals to imprisonment and torture, seeking to purge any trace of dissent from Iranian cultural life. As such, “the disillusionment of the intelligentsia was deepened and reconfirmed.” (16) By June 1977, there were at least 3,000 political prisoners in Iran, kept under watch by the brutal organization known as SAVAK. (17)
In 1957, the Shah formed SAVAK, whose operatives were trained by the FBI and had intimate links with the CIA, to serve as his personal watchdog over the public. (18) The agency, numbering 5,000 operatives at its peak, had permission from the state to use any and all means to suppress dissent, thereby creating an “Orwellian environment where intellectuals were not allowed to utter the name of Marx, who became ‘a nineteenth-century European social philosopher.’” (19) SAVAK severely repressed the intelligentsia in particular, and held “publicized trials of people it describes as Communists and/or traitors and saboteurs.” (20) Maziar Behrooz provides insight into how powerful these show trials were in the minds of disillusioned Iranians when she recounts that, during the trial of the renowned poet Khosrow Golesorkhi:
Golesorkhi, alongside Karamat Daneshian, was defiant, and used the occasion to put the regime on trial, accusing it of torture and human rights violations. He said, “You animals, you have tortured me, I accuse you” of this and that. So, here was this character on live television. Seeing him when I was fourteen or fifteen years old shook me to my foundation. Before that time, I did not believe such a person could exist in Iran. I thought nobody could challenge the Shah. (21)
Behrooz’s incredulity at such dissent illustrates how repressive the political atmosphere was under SAVAK and the Rastakhiz. Yet contrary to both President Kennedy and President Johnson’s superficial “concern for human rights,” the Shah’s American supporters made little attempt to warn him of his alienating reforms. (22) The White Revolution presupposed American support; Odd Arne Westad explains that “to both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, the Shah’s [reform plan] was a welcome one, dovetailing their own emphasis on modernization as a prerequisite for development and security.” (23) At its core, American policy towards Iran relied on the economic and geopolitical purposes the country served. As Keddie writes, despite the political tensions that arose between the U.S. and Iran in the 1970s that were aggravated by increased oil prices, “major United States business interests became more closely tied to, and even dependent on, the Shah’s regime than ever.” (24) Iran’s enormous military spending greatly benefitted arms manufacturers in the United States, bailing them out of bankruptcy on some occasions. (25) Furthermore, the Shah and his Pahlavi Foundation used American banks to invest the money siphoned off from Iran’s oil revenue, creating a central role for the Shah in the American business sphere. (26) Due to his crucial position, “neither the United States government nor major American business interests wanted to see a fundamental change in Iran’s orientation in the direction of nonalignment, reduction of arms and other deals profitable to Americans,” and thus never pressed him on the raft of social and political tensions that were rapidly reaching their boiling point in Iranian society. (27)
The strong military and commercial relationship that developed between the American and Iranian states had visible effects on the ground; in 1970, there were only about 8,000 Americans in Iran, but by 1979 there were nearly 50,000. (28) Although a paltry figure in comparison to the total population, as Michael Axworthy explains, “in Tehran it dominated advertising, TV and print media - even when the medium was Persian-language.” (29) Furthermore, the most visible benefactors of the Shah’s top-down reforms, the “Westernized” urban elite, flaunted their wealth by appearing on the “raceways” of Tehran “where Mercedes-Benzes, Opels, Simcas, Volvos, and huge American cars jockey for position.” (30) Tehran became the central site of the Shah’s vision for modernization, fulfilling in part the social aspect of the White Revolution that aimed at making Iran a cosmopolitan island in the Middle East. Yet with the wholesale and very sudden importation of many aspects of American culture, including rampant commercialism and greater women’s freedom, many Iranians felt increasingly alienated from their own country. As Axworthy notes, “The West, and the U.S. especially, were constant presences, from the Coca-Cola and Pepsi on sale everywhere to the American advertising and the American Forces Radio playing Abba and Blue Oyster Cult,” but these were accompanied by an equally persistent discomfort for these imports. (31) One can observe how ubiquitous American companies were in the television advertisements of the pre-revolutionary period. (32) Especially important to note in these advertisements is the overt presence of women, since part of the Shah’s White Revolution included granting women’s suffrage, raising the age of marriage, liberalizing divorce laws, and legalizing abortion. While leftists in Iran took issue with the classed nature of these reforms, which targeted wealthier urban women who could afford to partake in Western-style consumer modernity, Janet Afary argues that these reforms drew power from their symbolic welcoming of women into the public space through advertising and other media. (33) Urban women were increasingly hired into the workforce and participated in formal political organizations like the Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI). (34) However, this jarring break from women’s traditional behavior in Iran greatly angered many of the more conservative elements of Iranian society, including the ‘ulema and the bazaaris, who had already felt the brunt of the Shah’s reform program. (35) Both leftists and conservatives alike saw shifting gender norms as representative of the regime’s “growing proximity to the West.” (36)
This rapid encroachment of Westernized cultural life occurred alongside a greater presence of American expatriate employees brought in tow by the multinationals that arrived during the White Revolution. These Americans did not always peacefully assimilate into Iran, and as Bill describes, “in Isfahan, hatred, racism and ignorance combined as American employees responded negatively and aggressively to Iranian society.” (37) In turn, this bred an equally hostile reaction from Iranians as increasing numbers of violent incidents instigated by Americans occurred. Bill illustrates how this manifested directly in a scathing newspaper report attacking the “drunken” and “pleasure-crazed Americans” who had infiltrated Iranian society. (38) Fitzgerald too recounts the words of one Iranian who summed up his frustrations in the face of Western-style modernization:
The consumer society every day accepts more of the culture and values of the colonial West, and destroys its cultural bond with the people of Iran. This society cannot see the deprivation of the other society but looks down from its lofty throne at the deprived community without recognizing it. The technocratic values of the colonial West, with the old bureaucratic values, are the criteria and support of this society’s existence. Profiteering, opportunism, isolation, individualism, and self-worship are the rules of life. (39)
As American-style consumerism represented the new normal for Iranians, many began to reconsider the legitimacy of the Shah’s claim to rule. His nationalist credentials suffered a serious blow in his intimacy with the American government and his outward imitation of Western economic and cultural customs. Although the legacy of the White Revolution is still debated today, it is clear that the Shah’s attempt to fast-track Iran into a Westernized nation-state opened significant ruptures that turned Iranians who had suffered from his reforms against his monarchy. Furthermore, the transformation of public urban space into a playground for the elite angered many who pointed to burgeoning slums as the victim of the Shah’s lavish spending. Importantly, the American presence in Iran served as a constant reminder of who lay behind the Pahlavi state’s Westernizing machinations.
While the American cultural presence in Iran grew alongside the disruptive reforms of the White Revolution, the figures of America and the Shah became wrapped together as powerful symbols of cultural imperialism and tyranny. The Shah’s political autocracy alienated huge portions of society, who were now entirely unrepresented in the mad dash to modernization, and these tensions intersected and combined with socio-economic ruptures to lend the opposition movement serious intellectual, social, and political capital in their fight against the Pahlavi regime’s policies. Nikki Keddie writes that “the socio-economic element of Iran’s revolution had its origin in the decline of feudalism, economic injustices, political repression, violation of human rights, and colonial transgression by foreign powers.” (40) As this article will now show, the presence of the U.S. lurking behind the scenes outwardly manifested in the opposition’s discourse to tie together a dual U.S.-Shah ‘axis of evil’ (to borrow from George W. Bush). This axis relied on a multilayered understanding of how intimate the Iranian and American governments were becoming. Iranians felt the presence of the American-trained SAVAK, of U.S. expatriates and corporations, and of the Shah’s particularly American version of ‘modernity’ in their everyday lives. The Shah’s Westernizing reforms and his U.S.-endorsed autocracy fomented an atmosphere within which the anti-Americanism of the Opposition factions bloomed among disaffected Iranians from multiple segments of society.
The Discursive Battle: Creating the Great Satan
As is clear, the political, economic, and socio-cultural context of pre-revolutionary Iran was saturated with direct or indirect American involvement. Mohammad Reza Shah’s overt emulation of American economic and cultural systems was intended to produce American society as the symbolic object of desire for Iranians. His White Revolution was, first and foremost, aimed at civilizing an Iran which he perceived to be lagging behind the modern world. (41) But by politicizing modernity in this narrowly Americanist vein, he directly sparked dissent from those who were abandoned and oppressed by the Shah’s ‘new’ Iran, which crushed political expression and barred economic participation. This dissent manifested as a mosaic of non-aligned, leftist, and religious thought that subverted the regime by appealing overtly to anti-American sentiment ballooning among many Iranians.
I will focus on three of the major factions in the Iranian opposition (domestic and international) that featured anti-Americanism as a central component of their political activism, namely, the student faction, represented by the Confederation of Iranian Students National Union and the Iranian Students Association in the United States, the ‘Islamic Marxists’ represented most publicly by the Mojahedin-e Khalq, and the religious wing led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. These groups were some of the most prolific distributors of politically activating technologies like cassette tapes and political posters. Anti-Americanism served as a central visual feature in these materials, precisely because it could mobilize a variety of Iranians against the Shah in addition to creating bonds of solidarity with like-minded groups. The centrality of the United States to Pahlavi Iran infused it as an object of desire in the Shah’s eyes. However, the Iranian opposition masterfully re-appropriated this symbol of America, transforming it into the object of resistance. This perspective echoes the framework of Melani McAlister, who argues that “by asking the right questions of a photograph, we may discover what rendered it powerful at a particular place and time.” (42) In this vein, by asking the right questions of the role of anti-Americanism in Iranian revolutionary discourse, it becomes apparent that this resonant sentiment served to empower and unify opposition movements and to wrap socio-political struggles into a greater, universal battle, be it for Third Worldist solidarity, anti-capitalism, or a novel form of Islamic modernity.
Understanding the ubiquity and more importantly the persistence of anti-Americanism in Iranian revolutionary ideology requires an examination of how this seed was embedded within opposition movements. Although the Shah saw his state-building policies as a guarantee of his power over Iranian civil society, this was undermined by the fact that “in an age of nationalism and anti-imperialism, he came to power as a direct result of the CIA-MI6 overthrow of Mossadeq – the idol of Iranian nationalism.” Additionally, “in an age of neutralism, he mocked non-alignment and Third Worldism” and instead “appointed himself America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf,” while siding with American policies on Vietnam. (43) The visibility of the Shah’s alliance with the U.S. dealt a mortal blow to his ruling mandate, thus subverting the massive apparatus he had created to prevent dissent from arising. And as the United States and other foreign powers gradually wove themselves into the fabric of Iranian society, nationalist and anti-imperialist rancor emerged as part of a long legacy of opposition to foreign intervention in 20th century Iran. Thus, the symbols of the Shah and America were fused, because “while it was the Shah’s rule that created revolutionary fomentation, a quarter-century of U.S. foreign policy reinforced these feelings, and resulted in strong anti-American sentiment.” (44) Thus, anti-Americanism was produced by opposition factions in the Iranian Revolution as a discursive mode that could frame the anti-Shah struggle within the global context of similar liberation movements stressing anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and Third Worldism. It is clear that anti-Americanism’s centrality to revolutionary mobilizing propaganda ensured its continuity after the Islamic Republic was established.
The Student Movement: CISNU and ISAUS
The Iranian student movement, made up of a cross-cutting coalition of National Front supporters, Communists, and Khomeinists, played a crucial role in mobilizing the intelligentsia (domestic and diasporic) against the Shah. (45) The movement’s rhetoric espoused a particular brand of anti-Americanism that called for solidarity with other resistance movements of the time. (46) University students, as part of the Confederation of Iranian Students (CISNU) and the Iranian Students Association in the United States (ISAUS), advocated against the Shah by holding demonstrations from Tehran to the White House. (47) Along the way, these groups produced a raft of political posters that frame the U.S. as a symbol of oppression, drawing on anti-imperialist and Third Worldist themes to convey their message to a broad audience. For example, in Figure 1, the Shah-U.S. axis is displayed in stark terms, with a call for a demonstration against the “Shah’s Fascist Regime, And U.S. Involvement in Iran.” (48) By integrating the anti-monarchist struggle with broader struggles against imperialism and oppression, the student movement echoed the ideas of Ali Shari’ati, an Iranian intellectual who advocated Shi’ism as a revolutionary ideology that merged ideas of Islamic modernism and Marxism, and who was a critical influence on Iranian student activists mobilizing against the Shah. (49) Although Shari’ati was quite cynical about Marxism itself, his use of Marxist frameworks to approach Shi’ism as a revolutionary ideology was particularly novel. Shari’ati’s “division of individual societies and whole nations into the categories of oppressor and oppressed” held a prominent role in the discourse of the student opposition, manifesting in their depiction, in Figure 2, of Jimmy Carter and Uncle Sam handling the Shah (depicted as a dog) on one side, countered by protesters on the other. (50) The poster calls for the exposure of the hypocrisy in Carter’s simultaneous human rights rhetoric and support for the Shah’s brutal regime, which at the height of the opposition movement was carrying out brutal suppression of protestors and dissidents with American military hardware and expertise. The figure of the Shah, wearing a crown inscribed with “Made in U$A,” appeals to burgeoning Third Worldist beliefs among non-aligned states that imitation of American and Soviet forms of modernity constituted an inauthentic importation of political systems that were blind to local history. The White Revolution’s attempt at modernization slotted into these conversations seamlessly, due to the Shah’s dependence on American commercial ties and foreign policy cues to cement his rule in Iran.
Student groups could thus draw a connection between the Shah and other American-backed authoritarian rulers in order to form intercommunal ties with other anti-American movements, such as opposition to the Vietnam War. Solidarity between the Vietnam War and the revolution in Iran is explicitly drawn in Figure 3, where the Iranian anti-monarchy movement is called “another Vietnam.” (51) Iranian students in 1960s and 70s America were steeped in a milieu of concurrent social movements decrying the United States Government’s domestic and international policies. Within Iran, the student movement took on a different form. As Daneshvar mentions, while the total amount of students in Iran reached 8.5 million in 1975, this did not erase the “humble social origins with strong religious affiliations” of many students. (52) This is not to say that all students in Iran were religiously motivated, but rather to suggest that the left-leaning and anti-imperialist ideology of the ISAUS and CISNU can be distinguished from the more religiously-inflected tone of students within Iran, who more closely engaged with Shari’ati’s perspective that the “task of the contemporary intelligentsia was… to rediscover and revitalize the true essence of revolutionary Islam.” (53) These ideas, as Abrahamian asserts, were “spreading like wildfire among the young intelligentsia.” (54) As we will see, Ayatollah Khomeini echoed and recycled this language in his more overtly religious ideology, in an attempt to tie together the various factions in the Opposition movement.
The Islamic Marxists: The Mojahedin-e Khalq
The Mojahedin-e Khalq represented an ideological blend of Iranians who subscribed to both the revolutionary ideas of Marxism and those of Ayatollah Khomeini. While Khomeini’s right to spearhead the revolutionary factions was contested among the fractious leadership of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, he was seen as a potent source of mobilizing charisma. The organization engaged in anti-regime activities throughout the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the form of guerilla attacks (including bombings and assassinations), losing hundreds of its members as a result. (55) The Mojahedin espoused radical, violent action as the preferable route to overthrowing the shah, following the inspiration of prominent Marxist and Third Worldist ideologues like Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara, but through a political Islamist lens derived from Shari’ati’s thought. (56) The influence of these intellectuals featured prominently in the anti-imperialist and class-warfare themes of the Mojahedin’s visual media and their actions on the ground, both of which took on an anti-American tinge. They also collaborated to a great degree with CISNU, who “circulated extensively [Mojahedin] communiques, pamphlets and books.” (57) The Mojahedin serves as an important example of how fluidly the revolutionary discourse disseminated across factional lines and overlapped between ideological platforms.
Abrahamian traces the source of this anti-Americanism among the Mojahedin to the massacre of 15 Khordad (June 5, 1963) when the Shah’s armed forces suppressed an uprising among unarmed demonstrators, leaving thousands dead. (58) The young generations of the Mojahedin, whose “political baptism,” was the 15 Khordad bloodbath perpetrated by regime soldiers equipped with American weapons, “viewed U.S. imperialism as the major external threat,” a break from older generations who still viewed the British as the main colonial threat against Iran. (59) Significantly, they were also dedicated to the leadership of Khomeini and the ‘ulema, resulting in the adoption of religious symbolism into Mojahedin propaganda. It is no surprise that throughout the 1970s the Mojahedin saw Americans living in Iran as a prime target for furthering their cause. The Marxist Mojahedin (who splintered from the Muslim Mojahedin in 1975) assassinated in August 1975 three Americans working for Rockwell International to “protest the waste of billions on military hardware” by the Shah. (60) The American expatriate communities, previously the beneficiaries of the White Revolution and foreign investment into Iran, now embodied the physical and ideological object of radical groups’ ire towards the Shah’s profligate spending. The imagery in Figure 4, a poster commemorating May Day, exemplifies the synthesized ideological framework deployed by the Mojahedin that pictured America as the true threat to Iranian and proletarian liberation. A worker, wielding a wrench, stands ready to strike Uncle Sam, ensnared in the grasp of the working class. (61) With an overtly Marxist outlook on the struggle against the Shah and the United States., the Mojahedin also embraced the language of Khomeini’s radical religious message. Abul-Hassan Bani-Sadr, one of the leaders of the Mojahedin, expressed his anger at the Shah’s “hijacking [of] religion and taking over [of] religious institutions,” in addition to criticizing the “cultural imperialism” conveyed through the White Revolution’s Americanizing reforms. (62) To understand the Mojahedin’s synthesized Marxist/religious outlook, it is crucial to understand the demographics of its members. The young Mojahedin came, in many instances, from religiously-minded bazaari families disenfranchised by the Shah’s promotion of a state-employed bureaucratic middle class, and, in Abrahamian’s eyes, “were reluctant to cut themselves off from their families and their cultural roots.” (63) However, it is also important to note that the alliance between bazaaris and the ‘ulema constituted a central faction in the opposition, underscoring the informal political networks that threaded together superficially distinct ideological camps. Thus, despite Khomeini’s aversion towards Marxists and leftists more generally, the Mojahedin and the Khomeinist camp overlapped in their activities and ideologies in service of the greater revolutionary cause. The Mojahedin also used its devotion to Marxism and Third Worldism to link itself with CISNU and ISAUS, creating an interlinked network that would influentially shape how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini expressed his revolutionary vision to the wider Iranian opposition movement.
The Khomeinist Movement
The conservative religious movement, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, professed a complex ideological platform deeply informed by the ecosystem of opposition groups present in 1970s Iran. Much of the Islamic Republic’s post-revolutionary rhetoric can be traced back to the ways in which Khomeini and the religious faction negotiated the complex intellectual terrain in the lead-up to the Pahlavi regime’s ousting. Khomeini’s opposition to the Shah manifested publicly within a nationalist framework, illustrated in his claim that the Shah and the U.S. “have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog.” (64) He argued that Iran had become “enslaved” to the United States as a result of the immunity, or, as Khomeini called it, the “capitulation” agreement. (65) This agreement secured diplomatic immunity for American military personnel serving in Iran, and for Khomeini provided a powerful example of how readily the Shah had surrendered Iran’s sovereignty to the United States. Thus, Khomeini willingly engaged with ideas of anti-imperialism that characterized leftist opposition to the Shah and the U.S.. Memories of Mossadegh’s overthrow by U.S. and British action provided fertile ground for Khomeini to appeal to Iranians’ sense of disenfranchisement at the hands of Western governments. By funneling ideas of anti-imperialism through Shari’ati’s theories of Shi’ism as a revolutionary ideology, Khomeini could effectively co-opt leftist and Third Worldist platforms into his religiously-charged movement.
Khomeinist visual media represented political goals going beyond simply overthrowing the Shah. The cultural depravity of the White Revolution, known popularly as gharbzadegi (Westruckness/Occidentosis/plague from the West), would end with the reification of Iran as a sovereign state. Gharbzadegi, a term first coined by Jalal-e Ahmad (another ideologue of the Iranian opposition), referred to “undermining Islam by blindly imitating all things foreign.” (66) Khomeini’s central place for Islam within his radical ideology performed an oppositional function to the gharbzadegi that he accused the Shah of injecting into Iran. (67) For instance, Figure 5 depicts a portrait of the Shah with demons lurking in the background, whispering into his ears. (68) These demonic figures position the Shah, dressed in full military regalia, as simply a grandiose figurehead for the true enemy. It is not a stretch to interpret the ghostly devils as the United States, whose place as the Shah’s puppet-master was a repeated motif in the opposition posters. However, this image demonstrates how the depiction of the master-servant relationship between the Shah and the U.S. morphed from political factors stressing American capitalism or as a human rights violator to that of deep moral, spiritual, and cultural depravity. This depiction of the U.S. and the Shah did not rely overtly on one particular ideological strand, its very ambiguity representing how widespread the understanding of the U.S. as the Shah’s insidious manipulator had become.
This overtly political concern was imbued with the power of the Karbala legend, exploited by the Khomeinists as an analogous struggle to that of the Iranians against the Shah. Karbala was a battle in 61 A.H/680 C.E. where forces under the leadership of Husayn, the third Shi’i Imam, were massacred by Yazid I, the second Umayyad Caliph. This event, commemorated in yearly Moharram rituals, served as a useful mobilizing tool for Khomeini. By reinterpreting the battle of Karbala as a struggle by Shi’i revolutionaries against a foreign despot, Khomeini was able to frame the Iranian opposition movement both as a nationalist struggle against illegitimate, imperialist rule and as a parallel to the martyrdom of the second Imam, a message that “[elevated] mundane political forces to cosmic proportions, demanding and thus extracting a hyperbolic demonstration of anger and anxiety.” (69) Through this viewpoint, it is possible to understand how social, political, and economic concerns were transformed and charged with religious fervor so as to situate the Shah and the United States within a trans-historical process of oppression. Khomeini, responding to the “Black Friday” massacre of September 9, entreated Iranians to see “the hands of the oppressive superpowers… emerging from the sleeves of the Shah’s butchers.” (70) Similarly to how CISNU and ISAUS posters portrayed the Shah as a hollow front for more insidious imperial power, Khomeini situated the Shah as the oppressor, or the new incarnation of Yazid, but the United States as the true source of evil. In Figure 5, a poster produced after the revolution, a wounded protester bleeds on the ground with a flag bearing the words “Esteghlal, Azad, Jomhuri Islami” (Independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic). (71) But, above the man bleeding for these aims, hovers Khomeini’s visage, tearing through an American flag. The juxtaposition of martyrdom and victory in the same image encapsulates the use of the Karbala narrative in mythologizing the struggle against the Shah. Although this poster was created in the aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow, it demonstrates how prominent a role the U.S. played in the Khomeinist narrative of the revolutionary struggle. Khomeini’s true power, as expressed in the image, derived from his ability to break American economic, military, and cultural supremacy in Iran.
Khomeini’s frequently used leftist and Third Worldist language, for instance when he declared in 1979 that “Islam belongs to the oppressed… not the oppressors… Islam represents the slum-dwellers… not the palace dwellers… Oppressed of the world, create a Party of the Oppressed… Islam will eliminate class differences.” (72) Khomeini, who embodied the collective power of the Shi’i ‘ulema, publicly interpreted Islam simultaneously as the end of class struggle and as the non-aligned form of modernity sought by Shari’ati and his followers. Moreover, Khomeini could appeal to leftists in Iran who perceived the booming urban consumer economy and women’s increasing participation in public life as representative of imperialist machinations by the United States. (73) By playing upon grievances with the Shah’s regime in a blended leftist-religious language, Khomeini managed to frame the revolution as a class, Third Worldist, religious struggle, fomenting what Afary dubs a “tenuous ‘Red-Black,’ anti-shah coalition of anti-imperialist leftists and conservative Islamists.” (74) In both battles, the United States took on a central role as the ultimate antagonist. This is illustrated in Figure 7, where the Shah is portrayed leaving Iran with two suitcases (labeled with the American and British flags) full of money. (75) The devil that lurks in the background, similar to the ones in Figure 5, embodies the malfeasance of American imperialism and emphasizes that although the Shah may be gone, the real battle of good and evil will be waged against the forces of gharbzadegi led by the U.S.. Rising above the depiction of Iran in revolt is Khomeini, willing away the Shah with a Qur’an in hand, illustrating clearly the Khomeinists’ use of Shi’i Islam as the panacea to Western forms of modernity that had compromised Iran’s political and cultural sovereignty.
Within the particular historical context that emerged through a complex intersection of social, economic, political, and cultural incursions of the U.S. into Iran, Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology not only held legitimacy but persisted past the revolution, demonstrating the potency that this ideological tool held for Khomeini’s clerical faction even after they had taken power. By asserting Shi’i Islam as a unifying revolutionary umbrella for straightforwardly political causes, the Khomeinists masterfully stitched together a wide range of differing political beliefs into a coherent anti-Shah and anti-American coalition that firmly asserted the revolutionary movement’s commitment to erasing class boundaries, promoting an authentic Iranian modernity, and disseminating Islamic principles into society. These utopian goals, expressed through visual media around the world, lent immense power to the opposition movement on whole.
Anti-Americanism constituted a key component of the revolutionary movement that toppled Muhammad Reza Shah’s regime in 1979. As is clear, while all opposition groups united around their antipathy towards the monarchy, American involvement in Iran over the course of the mid-20th century had inseparably imbricated the U.S. government and the Shah. Socio-economic disruption brought about by the Shah’s U.S.-sponsored state building program, the White Revolution, was not easily forgotten by the bazaaris and ‘ulema who suffered from the transition to a salaried middle class. Social shifts, represented by increasingly Westernized gender norms and growing expatriate communities, became two highly visible symbols of American transgression of Iranian cultural and economic sovereignty. Discourses on anti-imperialism and Third Worldism spread widely among Iranians (at home and abroad) seeking to partake in more authentic, non-aligned forms of modernity. I have thus argued that the symbol of the United States as an imperialistic, morally depraved, and tyrannical power served a critical role in elevating the struggle of the Iranian people against the Shah into an international, cosmic struggle through either the narrative of a “new Karbala” or a Marxist or Third Worldist struggle against foreign capitalism and imperialism. Whether the victims were the oppressed masses or the Shi’a martyrs, the United States as a symbol could be reinterpreted in a variety of ways as an ultimate source of evil that belied its role as the crucial backer of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Thus, in the broad Iranian revolutionary discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, America and its principles could be written into a narrative of Karbala, of Marxian class revolution, or any other struggle for the rights of the oppressed. The opposition therefore mirrored the Shah’s dependence on the United States in their revolutionary discourse, negatively expressing this same relationship but within the ideologically heterogeneous vocabulary of Third Worldism, Islamic Marxism, and Shi’i radicalism that emerged in this period.
1. Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 289
2. Ibid, 290
3. Ibid, 289
4. Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pg. 290
5. James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 151
6. Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); 131-2, and Frances Fitzgerald, “Giving the Shah Everything He Wants,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1974, pp. 67
7. James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 296
8. Ibid, 296
9. Fitzgerald, 78
10. Ibid, 78
11. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 156
12. Ibid, 150-1
13. Ibid, 149
14. Michael Axworthy, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 89
15. Ibid, 90
16. Ibid, 90
17. Ibid, 91
18. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 126
19. Ibid, 126
20. Fitzgerald, 58
21. Danny Postel, Kaveh Ehsani, Maziar Behrooz, and Chris Cutrone, “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Platypus Review, 20 February 2010. Accessed online, http://platypus1917.org/2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/
22. Bill, 154
23. Westad, 290
24. Keddie, 165
25. Ibid, 165
26. Ibid, 165
27. Ibid, 165
28. Axworthy, 79
29. Ibid, 81
30. Axworthy, 81; Fitzgerald, 56
31. Axworthy, 78
32. “1969 to 1978: Iranian TV Ads, before the Iranian Revolution,” YouTube, 10 September 2014. Accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1TA5arkx28.
33. Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 198
34. Ibid, 206-11
35. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 152
36. Afary, 198
37. Bill, 381
38. Ibid, 382
39. Fitzgerald, 77
40. Keddie, 168
41. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 131
42. Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 268
43. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 155-6
44. Matthew Shannon, “An Augury of Revolution: The Iranian Student Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1972.” (Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 2009), 2. Accessed online: http://dl.uncw.edu/etd/2009-1/shannonm/matthewshannon.pdf
45. Ibid, 2
46. Ibid, 2
47. Ibid, 121
48. Figure 1: “Demonstrate on Aug. 18 In Opposition to Shah's Fascist Regime, and U.S. Involvement in Iran,” Poster work on paper. Black. 15.25 in HIGH x 11 in WIDE (38.73 cm HIGH x 27.94 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive (Oakland: Oakland Museum of California, 2010). Accessed at http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/201054237
49. Gelvin, 297; Daneshvar, 83
50. Figure 2: “Oppose Fascist Shah’s U.S. Visit!” Poster work on paper. Late 20th century. Offset Lithograph Paper. 17.25 in HIGH x 12.90 in WIDE (43.81 cm HIGH x 32.77 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive (Oakland: Oakland Museum of California, 2010). Accessed at http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/20105410790
51. Figure 3. “Iran: Another Vietnam.” Poster work on paper. Late 20th - Early 21st Century. Offset Lithograph paper. 22.25 in HIGH x 14.00 in WIDE (56.51 cm HIGH x 35.56 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive. Oakland: Oakland Museum of California. Accessed online: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/20105410837
52. Daneshvar, 83
53. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 144
54. Ibid, 148
55. Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 23
56. Ibid, 89
57. Ibid, 154
58. Ibid, 21
59. Ibid, 84
60. Ibid, 166
61. Figure 4. “Fa-qatilu a'immat al-kufr. 11-i Urdibihisht ruz-i jahani-i kargar.” 1979/1988. 24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm). Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives. Stanford: Hoover Institution Library & Archives, http://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/20467/faqatilu-aimmat-alkufr-11i-urdibihisht-ruzi-jahanii-k?ctx=dac8df89-0a76-484e-a10f-25bd2e304573&idx=16#details
62. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 157
63. Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, 101
64. Bill, 159-60
65. Ibid, 159-60
66. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 147
67. Ibid, 147
68. Figure 5. “The Shah with Demons,” c.a. 1978–1980, Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 3, Poster 164. Special Collections Research Center (Chicago: The University of Chicago Library). https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/demonizing.html
69. Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran, (New York: New York University Press, 1999, 75
70. Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 239
71. Figure 6. “Wounded Protester under Khomeini Breaking Through U.S. Flag, ca. 1980,” Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 2, Poster 59. Special Collections Research Center (Chicago: The University of Chicago Library). Accessed online: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/revolution.html
72. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 148
73. Afary, 199
74. Afary, 199
75. Figure 7. Hasan Isma’ilzadah “The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return, 1979.” Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 1, Poster 11. Special Collections Research Center. Chicago: The University of Chicago Library. Accessed online: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/revolution.html
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Crittenden, A. “Bankers Say Shah’s Fortune is Well Above a Billion.” The New York Times, 10 January 1979
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Khomeini, Ruhollah. “Speech on American conspiracies,” Qom, 5 November 1979. Accessed online at https://www.princeton.edu/irandataportal/laws/supreme-leader/khomeini/usconspiracies/
Mcalister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)
Pincus, Walter and Dan Morgan, “Pahlavi Fortune: Many-Branched Tree, Rooted In Iran.” Washington Post, 23 December 1979. Accessed online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/archive/politics/1979/12/23/pahlavi-fortune-many-branched-tree-rooted-in-iran/f912429f-a971-4157-b259-14725de9f7bc/?resType=accessibility
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Postel, Danny, Kaveh Ehsani, Maziar Behrooz, and Chris Cutrone. “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Platypus Review, 20, February 2010. Accessed online, http://platypus1917.org/2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/
University of Chicago. “The Graphics of Revolution and War: The Iranian Revolution.” Accessed online at: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/revolution.html
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“1969 to 1978: Iranian TV Ads, before the Iranian Revolution.” YouTube, 10 September 2014. Accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1TA5arkx28.
Figure 1. “Demonstrate on Aug. 18 In Opposition to Shah's Fascist Regime, and U.S. Involvement in Iran.” Poster work on paper. Black. 15.25 in HIGH x 11 in WIDE (38.73 cm HIGH x 27.94 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive. Oakland: Oakland Museum of California. Accessed online: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/201054237
Figure 2. “Oppose Fascist Shah’s U.S. Visit!” Poster work on paper. Late 20th century. Offset Lithograph paper. 17.25 in HIGH x 12.90 in WIDE (43.81 cm HIGH x 32.77 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive. Oakland: Oakland Museum of California. Accessed online: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/20105410790
Figure 3. “Iran: Another Vietnam.” Poster work on paper. Late 20th - Early 21st Century. Offset Lithograph paper. 22.25 in HIGH x 14.00 in WIDE (56.51 cm HIGH x 35.56 cm WIDE). All Of Us Or None Archive. Oakland: Oakland Museum of California. Accessed online: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/20105410837
Figure 4. “Fa-qatilu a'immat al-kufr. 11-i Urdibihisht ruz-i jahani-i kargar.” 1979/1988, Poster collection. Stanford: Hoover Institution Archives. Accessed online: http://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/20467/faqatilu-aimmat-alkufr-11i-urdibihisht-ruzi-jahanii-k?ctx=dac8df89-0a76-484e-a10f-25bd2e304573&idx=16#details
Figure 5. “The Shah with Demons.” Ca. 1978–1980. Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 3, Poster 164. Special Collections Research Center. Chicago: The University of Chicago Library. Accessed online: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/demonizing.html
Figure 6. “Wounded Protester under Khomeini Breaking Through U.S. Flag, ca. 1980.” Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 2, Poster 59. Special Collections Research Center. Chicago: The University of Chicago Library. Accessed online: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/revolution.html
Figure 6. Isma’ilzadah, Hasan. “The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return, 1979.” Middle Eastern Posters Collection, Box 1, Poster 11. Special Collections Research Center. Chicago: The University of Chicago Library. Accessed online: https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/revolution.html