146. Report Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

No. 146


The discovery in mid-September that terrorists had infiltrated the staff of the US Embassy in Tehran indicates the persistence and adaptability of violent political dissent in Iran. Driven deep underground in recent years by the Iranian security service, SAVAK, terrorists patiently stalked US officials in hopes of:

—disrupting the regime’s ties with the US;

—embarrassing the regime by proving its inability to halt political violence;

—exploiting nationalist resentment against privileged Americans; and

—eliciting tough reprisals that would provoke widespread popular hostility against the government.

The Terrorist Organizations. The Mujahidin-e-Khalq, which was responsible for the infiltration of the Embassy Staff, represents the fusion [Page 437] of religious and Marxist reaction against the Shah’s rule. A tiny clandestine organization—as far as is known, it contains less than 100 activists—it has ties with Iranian opposition elements abroad. Funds come from Libya and from émigré Shia religious leader Khomeyni, now in Iraq. Some training is carried out in a Lebanese fedayeen camp and at two Libyan sites. Its foreign organization appears to include a cell in Paris.

The Mujahidin-e-Khalq has recently stolen the limelight from the other principal Iranian terrorist band, the equally tiny and little known Charikha-ye-feda’i-ye-khalq, a radical leftist-oriented, anarchist faction that has been quiescent during the past 10 months.

Both organizations are anti-imperialist and rabidly anti-US—much in the Tupamaro urban guerrilla mold. Neither has an ideology designed to exploit Iran’s substantial regional and tribal differences. But the Mujahidin has gained the edge in attracting recruits by stressing the Islamic component of its ideology, on the one hand, while emphasizing income inequalities and the Shah’s heavy dependence on American advisers and arms, on the other. As a result, the Mujahidin has been able to draw its membership from both the religiously oriented lower-middle class and left-leaning students. It now has access to more recruits than it needs.

Iranian terrorists view urban guerrilla activity as the most effective means of demonstrating their opposition to the regime. They appear to calculate that the government depends so directly on the person of the present Shah that it is particularly vulnerable.

Tactics. Terrorism has taken two new directions in Iran since the fall of 1974.

—Hitherto, scattershot violence had been practiced; targets were selected at random to generate publicity, to embarrass the Shah, or simply to demonstrate that the opposition was still alive.

—Subsequently, the Mujahidin enlarged its goals to include the intimidation of the security forces through assassination of unpopular figures. In the past year or so, terrorists have killed two American officials2 and a number of prominent Iranian officials including General Zandipur, head of the Anti-dissidence Committee.

—Having sampled public opinion (especially on the university campuses), the Mujahidin seems now to have concluded that further targeting of SAVAK officials would be dangerous and counterproductive. A recently arrested Iranian terrorist leader confirmed that the terrorists have shifted their campaign of violence to a primary focus on American officials in the belief that action against Americans will ap[Page 438]peal to nationalist, anti-foreign sentiment and engender less savage reprisals from SAVAK.

These new tactics are well designed to exploit popular grievances:

—Many traditionalists have long been disaffected from the regime because of the Pahlavi dynasty’s alleged hostility to Islam and its suppression of the activities of various clerics. These circles also deeply resent government corruption, as well as the materialism of modern Iran, which is widely associated with the US.

—A sizable number of Iranians are disturbed by the enormous influx of foreigners in connection with industrial expansion and military purchases; the increasing foreign presence heightens the demand for housing and other scarce commodities.

—Much of the Iranian intelligentsia withholds allegiance to the system. Traditionally, ambitious Iranians are wary of deep personal commitments.

—The professional middle class and those associated with higher education often are not satisfied despite their economic gains. They regard the military program as wasteful and believe that, given its oil revenues, Iran should provide a better quality of life for its citizenry.

The Regime’s Response. In this situation, the regime has not yet found effective ways to defuse dissatisfaction, which is usually expressed sotto voce because of the repressiveness of the internal security organization. During the Iranian calendar year 1353 (March 21, 1974, to March 20, 1975), SAVAK arrested some 2,158 terrorists, 50 percent more than the year before.

In the past six months, the upsurge of terrorism has somewhat undermined SAVAK morale and belied its predictions of a year of quiet. SAVAK is hopeful, however, that with the arrest of Afrakhteh, a Mujahidin leader, on July 28 and with the roundup in mid-September of several Iranian employees of the US Embassy as Mujahidin members, the terrorists may now be running short of trained and well-placed personnel. At the same time, the regime has initiated a modest radio, television, and press campaign to portray the terrorists as deluders of idealistic Islamic youth.

Outlook. Repression and crude counter-propaganda do not seem likely to be effective in undercutting the terrorists’ appeal over the longer run. Rapid economic and social changes and unchanging authoritarian rule may not lie well under the same roof. Moreover, Iran has had a history of xenophobia; hostility to foreigners should prove particularly troublesome in view of the large anticipated buildup of the American community. By 1980, the Americans in Iran will number at least 50,000 and perhaps as many as 80,000. This increase will probably provide abundant targets, especially in the more isolated areas where many Americans will live and work.

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Although terrorists may find that the agreement of March 6, 1975, between Iran and Iraq will hamper their ties with Khomeyni and other supporters abroad, they will no doubt continue to recruit and train committed operatives within Iran. While these small, tightly knit groups will remain fearful of SAVAK, they will be willing and able to kill Americans, a tactic that will put increasing pressure on the security forces. The continuing inability of the regime to prevent terrorism could fray SAVAK at the edges, jostle its privileged position within the Iranian power structure, and upset US-Iranian relations as the Shah wrestles with the dilemma of mollifying Iranian anti-foreign sentiment while maintaining close ties with the US, his chief ally and arms supplier.

  1. Source: Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, Asia, Middle East, and Europe Files, Iran 1973–1980. Secret; Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals; USIB Departments Only; Not Releasable to Contractors or Contractor-Consultants. Prepared by F.P. Huddle.
  2. See Document 128.