Protesting against Dictators: Ahmadinejad and the Shah
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
25 Sep 2009 02:56
A history of protest in the Iranian diaspora.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his annual visit to New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly. Iranian expatriates from all over North America, and even Europe, flocked to Manhattan to "greet" him with large demonstrations. Many in the diaspora wanted to show the world that just like their compatriots active in the opposition Green Movement in Iran, they too did not recognize Ahmadinejad as the legitimate President of Iran.
This, of course, is not the first time that a president of the Islamic Republic makes his way to New York. At the height of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987, Ali Khamenei -- Iran's president at the time -- delivered a fiery speech at the UN in which he blasted the organization as "a paper factory for issuing worthless and ineffective orders." He criticized the United States as "a lying imperial-minded Great Satan" whose military activities in the Persian Gulf had turned the region into a "dangerous powder keg."
Khamenei's UN speech came at a time when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), led by the United States, had sent its navy to the Persian Gulf. Iranian oil tankers were under attack by Iraq there and NATO wanted to safeguard oil tankers of Arab Gulf states against a possible Iranian retaliation. NATO and the U.S. re-flagged the oil tankers, giving them their protection, and granting themselves the "authority" to attack Iran's navy. The United Nations did not bat an eye.
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami also attended several annual meetings of the General Assembly. When he first spoke at the UN in September 1998, he introduced himself as "a man of the East, the origin of brilliant civilizations and the birthplace of Prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, peace be upon them all."
Khatami is known for his gift of oratory. "I come from the noble land of Iran," he said. "A great and renowned nation, famous for its age-old civilization as well as its distinguished contribution to the founding and expansion of the Islamic civilization."
Khatami wooed his global audience by talking about a freedom-loving and law-abiding Iran. He quoted from the New Testament and the Quran, and read Persian poems. Khatami's eloquence inspired the United Nations to declare 2001 the "year of dialogue among civilizations," after his mantra.
As Khatami was speaking at the UN General Assembly, Laila Jazayeri, a 37-year-old Iranian woman, burst past the guards in the General Assembly hall, and screamed that Khatami was a murder and torturer -- allegations that were completely groundless. Meanwhile, a block away from the UN, two thousand supporters of the Islamist-socialist Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) had gathered to protest Khatami's visit. They were joined by then Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, whose election campaign had received generous donations from MKO supporters.
The current Iranian president has attended five UN General Assembly meetings since starting his first term in office in 2005. Unlike Khatami, his speeches contain outright lies ("Iranians are the freest people in the world"), absurd proposals (to outdo Khatami, he recommended the UN designate a year for 'express kindness to others'), and vitriol against Israel.
Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust has incited the wrath of Jewish groups, who turn out in large numbers every year to protest. As his government grew increasingly repressive toward its own people, US-based Iranians also began joining in the demonstrations.
This year, the anti-Ahmadinejad frenzy hit its climax. Iran's widely disputed June 12 presidential elections and its violent aftermath prompted the Iranian Diaspora to organize large-scale demonstrations against Ahmadinejad in New York and other major cities around the world.
The rallies against Ahmadinejad are reminiscent of those held to protest the visits of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Following the CIA-MI6 coup in August 1953, which overthrew the popular government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Shah retained little, if any, legitimacy in the eyes of Iranian nationalists and intellectuals. As his regime grew more repressive, the voice that opposed him grew louder.
Iranian students and political activists living abroad, particularly in America and Europe, formed an important part of this opposition. In 1952, a student group called the Iranian Student Association (ISA) was founded under the joint sponsorship of Iran's embassy in the United States and an organization called American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), which was a front organization for the CIA.
Beginning in 1954, the ISA began receiving monthly stipends of $10,000 from the AFME. It was only later discovered that the payments actually came from the CIA. In any event, the payments abruptly ended in 1959.
After the 1953 coup, Ardeshir Zahedi, son of the coup leader General Fazlollah Zahedi and future son-in-law of the Shah, was put in charge of the Iranian Student Program at the Foreign Ministry from 1954 to 1959. In 1959 the younger Zahedi was appointed Iran's ambassador to the U.S. When the funds to the ISA were cut off, Zahedi offered help. The ISA held a meeting in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in September 1960 at which Zahedi was present.
In the same year, the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS) was formed to oppose the Shah. The CIS had its roots in the anti-Shah activities of the Iranian students living in France, West Germany, and Britain. The students' movement in Iran had been crushed by the Shah after the coup. In particular, after three students from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran -- Mehdi Shariat Razavi, Ahmad Ghandchi, and Mostafa Bozorgnia -- were killed on December 7, 1953, by the Shah's security forces during a demonstration against the visit to Iran of Richard M. Nixon, then the U.S. Vice President, the students' movement inside Iran became more or less dormant for a few years.
Thus, in April 1960, representatives of Iranian students from West Germany, France, and Britain met in Heidelberg, in West Germany, and announced the establishment of the CIS. In that year's meeting, the ISA announced its affiliation with the CIS.
In the same meeting, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (1936-1982), who later became a key aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution (and later executed by him), attacked the Shah strongly in a speech. Then, in 1961, in a meeting held at a hotel in Washington D.C., Ghotbzadeh once again spoke very strongly against the Shah. When Zahedi protested the verbal attack, Ghotbzadeh slapped him in the face.
The CIS changed its name in January 1962 to the Confederation of Iranian Students National Union (CISNU) to signify that the ISA and other U.S.-based Iranian student organizations had joined forces with it, as well as the Association of Tehran University Students, which was affiliated with the National Front -- Dr. Mosaddegh's political opposition group. The Iranian government was unable to control ISA.
The Confederation began publishing Shanzdahom-e Azar (the 16th of Azar) and Namaa-ye Parsi (Persian picture). The 16th of Azar in the Persian calendar is equivalent to December 7th, the day the three Tehran University students were killed in 1953. They published regularly and on time, and were effective means of propagating the Confederation's message.
Over time several factions with different political leanings developed within CISNU, but the organization continued to play a leading role in every demonstration organized against the Shah, whenever he traveled abroad. This coupled with the fact that the CISUN was not controlled by any foreign government (which was even acknowledged by the Shah) and financed solely by contributions and dues from its members and supporters, gave the organization solid credibility.
Initially, CISUN had developed its charter based on Iran's Constitution. But the uprisings of June 5, 1963, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, failed to dislodge the Shah's government and the Ayatollah was exiled. After that failure, radical leftist armed groups -- both communist and Islamic -- emerged in Iran calling for armed struggle against the Shah and his regime. In this manner, CISUN also took up a more revolutionary cause. Because those years were marked by revolutions in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria and Latin America, CISNU was pushed further along to becoming a revolutionary organization.
CISUN called for the overthrow of the Shah's regime. It began working with human rights, legal, and foreign student organizations in order to expose the Shah's regime as a repressive dictatorship.
Around this time, the number of Iranian students grew rapidly from 4000 in 1957, to 31,000 in 1965. The number spiked to 100,000 in 1978, when the Revolution began. CISUN's membership and support base grew rapidly as well -- so much so that even the Shah acknowledged that it was an effective opposition organization. It was estimated that the confederation had about 5000 members in 1971, and thousands of sympathizers and supporters.
When in February 1972, the Organization of People's Fedaayan Guerrilla began a military struggle against the Shah, the Confederation was declared illegal, and its membership an offense punishable by prison. But the Confederation continued to recruit new members and to be active against the Shah.
The confederation was most effective in organizing large demonstrations against the Shah in the U.S. and Europe. When the Shah began traveling abroad to present his case as a "progressive" ruler, he was opposed every step of the way by the Confederation. One of the first demonstrations against him took place on April 18, 1962, when the Shah received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. That event was followed by other demonstrations against him during his visits to Austria and Italy in the winter of 1964. In June of that year, the Shah received an honorary degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was greeted by protesting Iranian students.
Knowingly or not, the Shah fed the protests against himself, not only by his dictatorship at home, but by his generosity abroad. To buy the favor of leading American statesmen and organizations, the Shah began donating large sums of money to many leading American Institutions, and forging close relations with important American politicians and media personalities, such as David Brinkley and Barbara Walters. He provided large funds to Harvard, MIT, Princeton, University of Southern California, Kent State, Georgetown, Howard, and the American University in Washington. All in all, 55 American institutions of higher education benefited from the Shah's largess.
How did such institutions reciprocate the Shah's generosity? They often gave him honorary degrees, which meant that in addition to his regular visits with U.S. presidents, he had to travel to the U.S. to receive the degrees, hence providing perfect opportunities for the Confederation to protest against his regime. There was practically no instance in which the Shah visited the U.S. without provoking demonstrations.
One of the most effective demonstrations against the Shah organized by the Confederation occurred on June 2, 1967. On that day the Shah was visiting West Berlin, and the Confederation, in collaboration with Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (a German national organization of socialist students) organized a huge demonstration in which thousands took part. The demonstrations turned violent. One German student was shot to death by the police. [It was recently revealed that the policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was in fact an agent of the Stasi, the East Germany intelligence agency that had penetrated West Germany's police.] Fifty people were injured, and many arrested.
The demonstrations and the ensuring violence were, according to many German political scientists and historians, a prime reason for the rise of the Maoist Baader-Meinhof (BM) group in West Germany, which was involved in many terrorist acts, and more generally behind the rise of extra-parliamentary opposition to European governments. One of the most notorious terrorist hijackings took place in the 1970s when the BM group demanded the release of Andreas Baader from a German jail in return for releasing the airliner and its passengers. West Germany refused to go along. The hijacking was a failure and Andreas Baader landed in prison where he eventually committed suicide, according to reports. Apparently then, the demonstrations organized by the Iranian Confederation against the Shah played a significant role in the rise of radicalism in Europe in the 1970s.
Demonstrations abroad against the Shah continued unabated throughout the 1970s. By then, in addition to being active in France, England, West Germany, and the United States, CISNU had established a presence in Austria, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, and even India. Due in part to the relentless activism of the Confederation, international criticism of the Shah's regime by international human rights groups, news media, political circles, and governments increased dramatically.
One of the first demonstrations against the Shah in the 1970s occurred on June 17, 1970, in Helsinki, Finland. The Shah was visiting that country and receiving an honorary degree. Once again, the Confederation, in collaboration with Finish leftist students, organized demonstrations against him. Similarly, when the Shah was awarded an honorary degree by Columbia University, there was a large demonstration against him in Manhattan, which had been organized by the Confederation.
Even when the Shah was not visiting a foreign country, the Confederation was organizing demonstrations against his government. One of the most well known occurred in June 1976, when the Confederation's members and supporters occupied Iran's consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, and obtained documents showing that the consulate was in fact the European headquarters for the SAVAK, the Shah's dreaded secret intelligence organization. The documents showed that the SAVAK was collecting information, not only on the activities of the opposition in Europe, but also on European politicians, such as members of the British parliament.
The revelations led to calls in the U.S. for investigating the activities of the SAVAK there. This was led by journalist Jack Anderson (1922-2005), whose articles in the Washington Post were instrumental in discrediting the Shah's regime. His articles eventually led to the investigations of the SAVAK's activities by a Congressional committee.
The last demonstration in the U.S. against the Shah as Iran's ruler, organized by the Confederation, occurred on November 15, 1977. The Shah and his wife, Farah, were paying an official visit to Washington to see President Jimmy Carter. At least 4000 students and others took part in the demonstration. Violent clashes broke out between the demonstrators and the police, resulting in injuries to 100 demonstrators and 20 policemen. Fifteen people were also arrested.
The demonstrators broke through police lines and got to about 100 feet of the White House. Tear gas had to be used to keep demonstrators from getting any closer. So, while the Shah and the President were going through the formal welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn, both of them, along with their wives, had to keep wiping tears from their eyes because of the tear gas.
The Confederation had succeeded. Through a relentless and continuous campaign that lasted for nearly two decades, culminating in a tearful President Carter and the Shah on the White House lawn no less. About a year later, the Shah was gone. He had been toppled in the 1979 Revolution.
end of part 1
Photos: ISA members in May 1978 (top). Students protest outside CIA headquarters with placards proclaiming the Shah a CIA man.