How the Shah's Imperial Army Failed to Protect the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979

The Shah put the Iranian military on high alert during the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79. Its high-ranking officers who were in charge of different branches of the Imperial Armed Forces performed their duties under direct orders of the Shah. Thus, from the beginning of the first wave of protests in summer of 1978, the military encountered the protestors in various ways that included declaring Martial law. However, when Shapour Bakhtiar was appointed to the office of prime minister by the Shah who shortly after left the country in January 1979, the military malfunctioned and was unable to continue to perform its duty effectively. As a result, the protestors gained more ground and Bakhtiar’s government collapsed after 37 days when General Abbas Qarabaghi, the Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the neutrality of the armed forces in the Revolution.

In this paper, I argue how the military establishment failed in its objective to keep the Pahlavi dynasty intact due to its lack of confidence in its own leadership that was mainly the consequence of the shah’s egocentric management of the military leaders’ training. Additionally, I argue that because Bakhtiar was not yet settled into his position as the new prime minister in the heat of those chaotic days in January 1979, the military refused to take heed of his orders, and that is why he could not continue his work as Iran’s newly appointed prime minister.

This paper is based on two sets of primary sources. The first group is a collection of videotaped interviews that are now archived in the Iranian National Library. These interviews were recorded in 2009-10 in Europe and North America. Over 500 hours in total, I have examined over 100 relevant hours of these interviews. They include interviews with Lieutenant General Abdullah “Shapur” Azarbarzin, the commander of Iranian Royal Air Force, General Khalil Shojaee, the director of Iranian military counterintelligence, Rear Admiral Amir Houshang Aryanpour, the deputy commander of the Iranian navy, Amir Aslan Afshar, the Shah’s chief of staff in exile, and the Iranian ambassador to the United States Ardeshir Zahedi, amongst others. The second group is a collection of transcripts of confessions and court proceedings of ex-military leaders of Iran after the Revolution had succeeded and once the provisional government put them on the infamous kangaroo trials led by Sadeq Khalkhali.