Special Edition Iran – Part VI, The Rise of the Ayatollahs

By Jay Holmes

As an intelligence operative, I need a good foundation in history to do my job. After all, if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. This series outlines Iran’s past as we move toward an analysis of that country’s current nuclear capability and what it means to the West. (See Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V.)

Today, we look at the rise of the Ayatollahs.

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Ayatollah Khomeini, image from public domain

September 2, 1945

In Tokyo Harbor on the deck of the USS Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur, representing the Combined Allied Forces, accepted the surrender of Japanese General Yoshijiro Emezu and Japanese Rear Admiral Tadatoshi Tomioka, ending World War Two. Admiral Chester Nimitz signed on behalf of the United States of America. The War was so vast and hideous that between fifty-five and seventy million people died worldwide, and another fifteen million human beings would remain forever unaccounted.


As a direct result of the political maps drawn up at Potsdam Conference at the end of World War Two by the UK, USA, and USSR, both the Soviet Union and the UK departed from Iran. The agreement did not require the UK to leave, but it choose to voluntarily.

June 26, 1950

Haj Ali Razmara became Prime Minister of Iran. Though he had attempted a better deal, he planned to sign a new agreement with British Petroleum and the UK government that was less favorable to Iran than other agreements in force in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Razmara also planned on instituting more democratic reforms and granting local authority to locally elected officials. This frightened the Shia religious leaders.

March 7, 1951

A member of the Fadayan e Islam assassinated Razmara. The Shia religious leaders controlled the Fadayan e Islam, but no plot was tied to them.

Nationalist Muhammad Mossadeq became prime minister. He nationalized the oil industry, and Great Britain declared an embargo on Iranian oil. A power struggle brewed between the Shah Reza Pahlavi and Mossadeq.

August 16, 1953

Prime Minister Mossadeq, supported by a growing communist movement, refused an order from the Shah to resign his office. The Shah went into exile in Rome.

August 19, 1953

Before the Shah and his entourage could finish unpacking, the CIA and MI-6 arranged a counter coup against Mossadeq. Because of their fear of communism, the Shia Mullahs quietly supported the coup.  General Fazlollah Zahedi was installed as prime minister. The Shah returned to Iran.


Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan signed the Baghdad Pact. The Pact granted Great Britain a leadership role in the region’s fight against communism.


The CIA trained a secret police organization for the Shah named the SAVAK. SAVAK answered directly to the Shah, and not to the elected members of the Majlis.


The Shah announced the White Revolution. The plan was to increase local democratic institutions, build more industry, complete land reforms, and lessen rural Iranians’ dependency on the Mullahs. The White Revolution included voting rights and equal protection under the law for Iranian women. The Mullahs were incensed and did all they could to resist modernization. “Ayatollah” Khomeini was jailed for plotting against the government.


Khomeini was released from jail. He immediately attempted to organize a revolution against the government and against the modernization of Iran. He was exiled to Iraq, where he continued his work against the government of Iran.


US President Richard Nixon agreed to arm the Shah with the intention of preparing Iran to better resist threats by the USSR. Iran purchased $4 billion USD in arms shipments.


Continued military expenditures and a drop in oil revenue caused economic problems in Iran. Khomeini’s forty-nine year old son died, and the Mullahs accused SAVAK of murdering him. Others suspected the Soviet KGB of the murder.


The Shah announced more modernization reforms. The Mullahs were angered and organized more protests. Rioting broke out. The Iranian police killed several hundred protestors in Tabriz, Tehran and Qom. Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled to Paris. Khomeini did a great job playing the Western press. He managed to sell himself as a democratic reformer and a supporter of freedom.

January 16, 1979

The Shah and his family fled Iran as the government collapsed.

February 1, 1979

Posing as a religious leader, political con man Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran with promises of new freedoms and democracy. He brought, instead, a new Dark Age of ignorance and oppression to Iran.

Khomeini’s return from exile, image from public domain

February 14, 1979

The Mullahs’ thugs invaded the US Embassy in Tehran, but withdrew.

April 1, 1979

Happy April Fools Day. The Islamic Republic of Iran was announced. The Ayatollah declared himself “Supreme Leader.” The people of Iran lost judicial protection. Politicians could only run for office if Khomeini approved of them. The “Revolutionary Guards” become the new enforcement arm of the Ayatollah.

The Revolutionary Guards were new in the secret police business, and they used many SAVAK members to build their organization. Women lost their civil rights. The Ayatollah announced that America was the great Satan and kicked off his “Great Satan” PR campaign. He nationalized all foreign assets, and book burnings began. Witch hunts against non-Muslims became a new recreational pastime.

November 4, 1979

After the USA allowed the exiled Shah to enter the USA for cancer treatment, Khomeini’s thugs invaded the US Embassy in Tehran and kidnapped 52 Americans. Many American reservists started reporting for duty voluntarily. They knew President Carter would likely order a mobilization and attack on Iran. The order never came.

Next time, we will look at the action President Carter did take, which was the attempted hostage rescue, Operation Eagle Claw.



14 comments on “Special Edition Iran – Part VI, The Rise of the Ayatollahs

  1. Wow – what a creepy history lesson. I was only 6-7 when the Iranian Hostage Crisis was going on… I remember not knowing many details (my parents kept us from violent news and television as children as much as possible) but I did hear about it in school and it scared me.

    Some very disturbing pictures, indeed Piper.

    Great post.

  2. J Holmes says:

    Hi Darlene. I think your parents were wise to try to protect you from the non-stop crisis coverage in the news. I was overseas when 9-11 occurred before I called Washington for new orders I called home and asked my father and wife to protect my young sons from the news. Once I had the essential facts I shied away from TV coverage. That kind of coverage can leave a person in a distracted and useless state of mind.

  3. tomwisk says:

    So we had the Bobbsey twins of the Middle East Iran and Iraq. They tried to kill each other off and now we have Iran a closed country and Iraq as training ground for would-be terrorists. We should have stayed out in 1953. One other point you would think a man who was in a command position, Carter, would appreciate the fact that the occasional rescue mission should be carried out with the force necessary. A little missle action before the choppers came in would’ve helped.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Tomwisk. I guess the motive in 1953 came down to oil and keeping the USSR out of Iran.

      Carter had several options presented to him and he and his cabinet chose a rescue mission vs. a demand for their return under threat of escalating retaliation each day they ignored us. The rescue mission needed the element of surprise to get the hostages out alive before they were murdered. I was much younger at the time (and not much listened to by anyone other than myself) and I favored the counter threat method. Iran needed to sell that oil far more than we needed to buy it. That’s still the case today.

  4. Loving this series, Jay. When you get through, if you have enough info, a post or a series on the valiant Contras might be good reading.

  5. Good stuff Holmes. I don’t think there was any doubt that Saddam had chemical weapons, just that he got rid of them by the time we invaded. They’re probably buried like so many of his aircraft etc. Only in those cases they were “ok” if they rotted, chemical weapons in rotting drums might not be such a good thing.

    The earthquake in Iran is a reminder that no matter what we humans do with wars and such, we don’t own anything, mother nature does.

    The rise of nuclear weapons should be interesting.


    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Nigel. I enjoyed tour article today.

      I run into people all the time that tell me “It was always obvious that there were never any WMD in Iraq…”. I don’t bother making my ideas or any facts known to them. There is little point in it. They heard what Sean Penn had to say on the matter and they are now informed to their own satisfaction.

      At least the majority of the chemical weapons were shipped out to Syria and other locations further afield. How much is buried there is beyond anything I can guess at.

  6. Dave says:

    Did we have any other useful leverage that could have been applied to Iran besides oil at that point in time? America was in a recession and experiencing very high inflation simultaneously. I can see where precipitating another oil shock would have required a great deal of political courage by Carter.

    • J Holmes says:

      The following represents my personal opinion:

      Hi Dave. Oil effects both the seller and the buyer but that’s not the primary tactic that I would have employed in the hostage crisis. The Saudis and the other Gulf States (they are Sunni) were traumatized by Khomeini and his anti Sunni stance. Saudi Arabia likely would have been willing to pump more oil for a while if Oil stopped flowing from Iran. The United States had the capacity to pump more oil from capped wells that had already been drilled.

      My message to Iran would have been brief and simple: I’ll see you 52 hostages and raise you 1 hydroelectric dam. If the hostages are harmed we will destroy all your damns. At the time they had fourteen major dams and desperately needed every last one of them not just for electricity but to sustain agriculture. We were in a position to up the ante each day, but Iran was not.

      The strategy that I would have pursued (had I been the dictator of the United States) against Iran would have been very direct and impatient. Their military was in disarray. In particular, their Air Force and their Navy were unlikely to want to back the new regime. They were both looking for a chance to throw a coup. Iran was highly vulnerable and had much to loose.

      In most cases, I would seek to avoid military intervention except as a last resort, but in the case of the Iranian hostage crisis, it was evident to observers that there was little reason to waste more time on diplomacy. Khomeini needed the time to consolidate his power, train his young radicals, and kill off the most high powered dissenters within Iran. He needed time to gain effective control of his military. He was simply buying time with bogus diplomacy. From the point of view of the United States, “sooner” definitely would have been better than “later.” That’s why Khomeini ordered that his thugs to leave the US embassy the first time that they invaded it. He knew that he was not close to ready for a confrontation with the USA. When he finally allowed the embassy invasion to go forward, he still wasn’t ready, and we let him get away with that mistake.

      There were plenty of Iranian military officers, businessmen, and politicians that were willing to throw a coup, but President Carter was trying to move toward a less interventionist foreign policy.

  7. […] Things are heating up as Holmes dissection of Iran’s past reaches the modern era. Check it out in Timeline Part V & The Rise of the Ayatollahs & the Hostage Rescue Attempt. […]

  8. So we get all these facts. What do we do with them? I have a hard time processing Iran because of Hezbollah’s position toward Israel. Iranian fanatics are so overtly hostile to the only democracy in the Middle East, it just boggles my mind. And Iraq was doing a very good job of keeping them in check, but then we had to step in and interfere. I don’t think there is any dispute that Saddam had chemical weapons. I think the dispute is over nuclear weapons. I’ve really been reading this series intently, trying to make sense of all the facts. I’m still not sure what to do with it. Such an unstable part of the world. If only we could offer the people stability, maybe they would be less hateful. I don’t understand it.

  9. […] Timeline Part I, Timeline Part II, Timeline Part III, Timeline Part IV, Timeline Part V, and The Rise of the Ayatollahs. Today, Holmes takes us behind the intelligence scene as he walks us through Iran’s Nuclear Age […]

  10. […] – Timeline Part I, Timeline Part II, Timeline Part III, Timeline Part IV, Timeline Part V, The Rise of the Ayatollahs, and Iran Crosses the Nuclear Rubicon. Today, Holmes brings us to the present day and tells us […]

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