Fear and Terrorism Overthrown in Iran

(This story was taken from Fifty-Two True Stories of Nonviolent Success, the War Resisters League 2002 Peace Calendar.)

For 25 years, from 1953 through 1978, the U.S.-installed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, ruled with absolute power. The secret police, SAVAK, created a climate of fear as it tortured and killed dissidents.

Opposition leaders were forced into exile, but resistance grew through the 1960s. By 1977, religious leaders were fully involved in the resistance, and through their networks they wer able to distribute detailed instructions for boycotts, strikes, and other protests. The Ayatollah Khomeini led the nonviolent resistance from exile in Iraq.

In 1978, sparked by propaganda against the Ayatollah, public demonstrations spread throughout the country. Citizens were killed at every demonstration for a year, and more demonstrations followed funerals. Up to 60,000 resisters died during the revolutino, but bloodshed might have been limited had it not been for the ongoing influence of the United States. In September 1978, immediately following a demonstration at which 3,000 unarmed civilians were gunned down, then-President Jimmy Carter called the shah to offer his “full support.”

When Iran’s oil workers called a general strike and shut down the oil industry in December 1978, the Iranian economy came to a virtual halt. Within weeks the United States finally advised the Shah to leave the country. In reaction to the corruption of the Shah and Western influence, Ayatollah Khomeini turned to Islamic fundamentalism and ushered in an era of oppression with a different face. Still, the Iranian revolution offers a clear examply of how mass nonviolence succeeded in overthrowing a ruthless, well-organized government.