World News

The Shah at bay

Michael Clugston January 8 1979
World News

The Shah at bay

Michael Clugston January 8 1979

The Shah at bay

World News

The teen-agers, about 30 of them, rushed into the road dragging tires

and debris that were quickly set ablaze, sticking posters on windshields and creating an enormous tangle of hooting cars. By the time harried soldiers had chased them off, the burning barricade had hung another ominous smudge over Tehran and all around the familiar chant went up: “Bag mah Shah” (Death to the Shah).

That and more could be seen from hundreds of minarets in Iran any day last week as the civil disorders reached their highest pitch in three months. Every sign indicated that the Shah was

at least temporarily out of control of his domain. While moves continued to replace the military government with a civilian administration and doubts persisted about the Shah’s future role (though not in the minds of the demonstrators), transport broke down, the banking system all but collapsed, oil production ceased, the mobs controlled the streets for hours at a time, and

dozens of people died in battles with soldiers and police. It seemed the country was telling Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi what Louis XVI was told after the Bastille fell: “Sire, it is not a revolt; it is a revolution.”

The violence, which took on a pronounced anti-American tone, began in earnest on Tuesday when protesters, threatening to kill Americans on the streets, set fire to two dozen vehicles and paralyzed the business district of the capital. Troops armed with tear gas and riot guns fought them in more than 20 instant battlefields in the city.

The fighting continued through Wednesday in Tehran amid the burned ruins of liquor stores, nightclubs and

movie theatres destroyed earlier in the year because they were offensive to the Shiite sect of Moslems, whose leaders are guiding the insurrection. Anti-Shah marchers also took to the streets in Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Zanjan and Ker-

man. The strain on the soldiers began to tell when army riflemen fired on a funeral procession that had been approved by the military. Fashionably dressed housewives, men in neat business suits and children were cut down. “The army cannot cope with it [the insurrection] and the people know it,” explained a Western diplomat. “The result is that elements of the army are becoming more furious by the day. A military coup is a real possibility now.” By Thursday the disorders had penetrated every aspect of life. Schools were closed. Garbage collections ended in Tehran while prices soared in shops with merchandise left to sell. As banks closed, promissory notes, the main instrument of commerce, could not be met. At least nine people died in demonstrations near the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the Iranian-American Cultural Centre in Shirza. Foreign experts said the oil wells might be permanently damaged by the shutdown—loss of pressure in the pumps, seepage of water and corrosion were the main threats. “They may never get up to six million

[barrels per day exported] again,” said one investigator.

On the political front, the Shah spent all week trying to patch together a civilian administration which might command sufficient respect with the masses to take some of the heat out of proceedings on the streets. By week’s end, after a frustrating run with former interior minister Gholam-Hossein Sadiqi, he appeared to have had some success. A veteran international lawyer, Shapour Bakhtiar, agreed to form a cabinet.

Bakhtiar, slim and deceptively softspoken, was a clever choice. A cousin of the Shah’s former wife, Princess Soraya, whom the Shah divorced when she did not bear him a son, he has a long and honorable record of opposition which has several times landed him in jail, and might command enough loyalty in the ranks of the opposition National Front and among leaders of the country’s Shiite Moslems to enable him to restore order. Significantly, too, he believes that while corrupt officials must be punished and top office holders purged, the Shah could continue in office, with his powers reduced to those of a constitutional monarch.

By the weekend, however, there was still confusion over the ruler’s future. Reports that he was about to step down were swiftly denied while others, not denied, suggested that after Bakhtiar’s government had taken over the Shah would take a “winter holiday” to allow tempers to cool. The unanswered question: would he ever return?

Meanwhile, like sailors in a storm, worried outsiders—the United States, Israel, and South Africa especiallykept anxious eyes on the heaving waters. Iran’s tumult was scarcely the “purely internal crisis” that Moscow called it. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, stressed Washington’s immediate, strategic concern that “an arch of crisis” might develop along the shores of the Indian Ocean should the Shah fall. “The resulting political chaos could well be filled by elements hostile to our values and sympathetic to our adversaries,” he said.

The fear was very real. But from Carter down it was beginning to seem that the United States might now be ready to see the Shah dump himself if it could be satisfied that the dumping would be an orderly process. Thus, where Carter had been forthright in backing the Shah he was now said to be “continuing to insist” that the Shah should have a role in forming a regime of conciliation. Former U.S. under-secretary of state George Ball, called in for a recent twoweek rethink of relations with Iran, was more forthright. “The Shah,” he told an inquirer, “is someone that nobody feels

sorry for. He’s asked for it. He was very repressive . . . denying a whole generation their right to govern themselves.”

Clearly the hope was that a Bakhtiar government would make possible a return to stability. But the U.S. was taking no chances. Plans were made to evacuate 80 top-secret, Grumman Tomcat fighters which the Iranians had at their Khatami airbase, in case they should fall into unfriendly hands, and the 80,000-ton aircraft carrier Constellation was ordered from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf.

The throttled production of the

900.000 barrels of Iranian oil that the U.S. currently uses each day (about eight per cent of its consumption) posed no direct threat to the U.S. economy. However, the prospects for the U.S. and other consuming countries were considered interlocked because of historic alliances, the integrated nature of the world oil system and international agreements to share shortages. While hoping for production to resume, major consumers were relying on the oil companies to see that available supplies were spread as evenly as possible. If shortages become severe, a pact among members of the International Energy Agency could be activated, but it would require sharp—and unpopular—cutbacks in domestic consumption.

The main victims of Iran’s striking

37.000 oil workers—apart from Tehran’s treasury, which was losing $60 million a day—were Israel and South Africa. Israel gets 60 per cent of its oil from Iran, but Washington is committed to make up the difference should deliveries fail. South Africa, which gets 90 per cent of its oil from Iran, faces a major economic recession or worse (see box) should that flow be permanently stanched.

As the oil dried up last week sources in Washington indicated that Israel was turning to Mexico and China—both oil exporters—to make up for the Iranian losses and the U.S. state department was said to be helping smooth negotiations. South Africa, for its part, was thought to be negotiating with Mexico and Venezuela.

Such shifts, of course, were likely to be unnecessary if Bakhtiar could get the oil workers back to the pumps and the country off the streets. But the Shah’s bitterest opponent and the ringleader of the revolt, Ayatollah Khomeini, was adamant that only the Shah’s removal could bring about a solution. From his outpost of exile in France, he dismissed the Bakhtiar moves as unacceptable and there was thus no guarantee that the religious ferment could be calmed and that the tide of revolt, let alone revolution, turned.

Michael Clugston, with correspondents’ reports