96. Report Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

No. 1293


Key Judgments:

Khomeini is in a serious period of testing, as some of the regime’s weaknesses grow and may be tending to get out of control.

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—But the Khomeini regime and the Islamic republic seem likely to continue for at least the next 6 to 12 months, despite such problems as the insurrection in Tabriz.2

—During that time, the regime will face increasing problems, chiefly as a result of the need to assert full control over the country and to improve the economy.

—Implementation of the regime’s ill-defined policies continues to be chaotic and is unlikely to improve significantly.

—When Khomeini dies or is incapacitated, he will probably be succeeded by a strong religious leader, a coalition of secular opposition forces, or a combination of a moderate cleric and some of the more moderate opposition leaders.

—No single element of the opposition or a coalition among them can be identified as the likely eventual successor to the present government.

—There is little chance for the left to assume power in the near future.

As the Iranian revolutionary regime approaches its first anniversary, it faces mounting problems. The current situation is highly fluid and in particular will be affected by the ultimate resolution of the US Embassy hostage situation.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The strength and legitimacy of the Khomeini regime rest on:

—religious authority;

Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary charisma;

—mass support;

—abundant money;

—the opposition’s weakness; and

—the outside world’s tolerance.

But the regime does have weaknesses which have been increasingly evident:

—collapse of the broad coalition which overthrew the Shah;

—lack of institutions; it is a government that relies on individuals, chiefly Khomeini himself;

—limited experience in running an effective government;

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—lack of full control over important sub-centers of power such as the students occupying the US Embassy and the ethnic and tribal minorities in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Khuzistan, and Baluchistan.

The hostage crisis was originally a welcome opportunity for the regime to reassert its strengths in the face of mounting weaknesses. As it is developing, the crisis may actually have demonstrated a weakness, i.e., inability to control the hostages’ captors.

Thus, Khomeini’s government is in a period of crucial testing. The situation is not out of control, but the trend is clearly in that direction.

The Islamic Government and Its Tasks

How much is accomplished over the next 6 to 12 months toward building institutions for the Islamic republic will determine its longevity. If little or nothing is accomplished, the relative strength of the opposition forces will be greatly increased.

A significant amount has already been accomplished. The adoption of the constitution in the referendum sets the institutional shape of the Islamic republic. Elections for president and parliament will be held soon. Clerics and their allies will be the chief victors.

But what the new government’s policies will be is not much clearer now than when Khomeini first proposed an Islamic republic. In theory, the regime seeks the elimination of Western cultural and social “dominance” and its replacement by Islamic values. Khomeini has been particularly interested in dismantling the Western-inspired legal apparatus. In general, though, the government must undertake a major effort before its policies will be fully defined.

Two other tasks require urgent attention. One is the economy. We know little about what an Islamic economy would be. Iran’s leaders have suggested that all relationships which are not “beneficial” will be eliminated, without defining that key word. It will certainly involve a realignment of all international contacts, with a strong emphasis on self-dependence. The regime probably will curtail consumer imports and may be prepared to embark on fairly radical land and agricultural reform programs. Oil income will, of course, continue to be the essential ingredient to make the economy run.

Even though economic policies may not be clear, the problems are. The food supply in the coming months is uncertain, unemployment is growing, and business and relevant government activity are stagnant. From what can be inferred from government policy, it appears unlikely that these difficulties will be improved soon. Prolonged failure to make progress in the economic realm would spur discontent with the regime.

The other area where government action is needed is the reassertion of central authority over and the depoliticizing of ethnic and tribal minorities. Historically, Iran has always had strong centers of decentral[Page 258]ized power. The Shah’s firm control over the country during most of the 1960s and 1970s was an exception to the general rule. With the Shah gone, rival power centers are reasserting themselves. The Azerbaijanis have now joined the Kurds in actively pressing Tehran for autonomy.

Khomeini, given his many problems, has no chance for the present of reestablishing firm control over all elements of Iranian power. Thus, the key question is whether he has the flexibility to reach necessary compromises with other competing power centers—the tribes, the left, the ethnic minorities. Khomeini’s experience and style so far indicate a complete lack of flexibility. Consequently, his chances of reimposing full authority or of reaching a modus vivendi with these dissidents are not good. Maintaining central government control will, thus, remain a major problem.

The Opposition

During this difficult time, the government will be faced by pressure from four different directions by forces that would like to see the replacement of the Khomeini regime.

Ethnic and Tribal Minorities. The minorities seek as much decentralized power as possible.

—The largest group is the Azerbaijanis under Ayatollah Shariat-Madari. Their recent seizure of power in Tabriz, demanding changes in the constitution to permit greater autonomy, will be difficult for the government to handle. The Azerbaijanis have a powerful, recognized leader and widely shared grievances.

—The Kurds, of course, are continuing to fight for greater autonomy as well, although they lack the heavy weapons necessary to be able to consolidate control over the urban centers in their area.

—The Arabs are quiet now but are capable of causing trouble again.

—Elements of the Qashaqai and Bakhtiari tribes are armed.

—The Baluchis have ambitions but have not done much to accomplish their aims.

Individually, none of these groups can overthrow the regime, but they present it with a great challenge which must be met if Tehran’s authority is to be countrywide. This becomes a chicken-and-egg problem in which the minorities are not likely to accept terms until a strong government insists on them, but a strong government is not likely to exist until the minorities give up their opposition.

The Left. Iran’s leftist forces are not prepared to assault Khomeini frontally. Instead, they ride his coattails where they can and strengthen their own position for the longer run. They are already represented in several key places: the student movement, the oil workers, the fedayeen movement, the PLO’s activities.

Three leftist organizations are particularly significant:

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Fedayeen-al Khalq: These secular Marxists have broken with Khomeini. Their activities are illegal, their headquarters has been raided and closed, and their leaders are underground. Individual members may be associated with the Embassy occupation. They may have connections with the Kurdish rebels.

The Tudeh (Communist) Party: This party, now open and legal, supports Khomeini and carries on various activities, such as organizing meetings and publishing a newspaper. Its membership strength is unknown, but it was quite small during the Shah’s period.

Mujahiddin-al Khalq: These Islamic Marxists during the summer became estranged from Khomeini. Like the fedayeen, they were attacked and criticized. They have not gone underground, however, and are trying once again to win Khomeini’s support.

Many observers have suggested that if the Khomeini regime collapses, power will fall to the left. But the latter so far is not sufficiently organized or strong to assume power. For the longer term, the left breeds and grows on troubles and turmoil. If, however, there is real political power in the left’s future, it is a distant future.

The Military. The Shah’s once-vaunted armed forces remain shattered. Personnel is at about half-strength; equipment suffers from lack of use; spare parts are in short supply. Competing armed groups, such as the Revolutionary Guards, exist in many key locations. The officer corps is well aware that the troops are more responsive to the religious leaders than to military commanders. Thus, for the present, the armed forces are not a potential source of anti-government activity.

They do, however, contain important resources for the future: a tradition of backing strong leaders, an established institution in a country where there are few, and some remaining leaders of intelligence and ambition. The military could eventually be a force of real political significance, but first it must decide where it is politically. With the loss of the Shah, the armed forces lost their raison d’etre, and a new one has not reappeared.

The Moderates. Most of Iran’s moderate, secular leaders (including those of the National Front) are in hiding or exile. They have been almost eliminated as participants in the current political process leading to the establishment of the Islamic republic. They will have little or no representation in the new parliament. What remains of their strength is among escapee groups, chiefly that of Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris. But Bakhtiar is only beginning to organize and seems to understand that his problems far outnumber his realistic hopes.

Thus, none of the opposition groups is likely to wield much power in the coming year or so. Their weakness is one of Khomeini’s main strengths.

A nascent cooperation among some of these opposition groups is, however, developing. It involves Bakhtiar, other moderate secular [Page 260] figures, some escaped senior military officers, and elements among the tribal and ethnic minorities. This is a coalition with precedent in Iranian history, and so it is possible to imagine its assumption of power some day.


This survey of the political scene suggests four general developments that are possible over the coming months:

1. The Islamic republic under Khomeini moves haltingly to implement its ill-defined policies. This is the most likely possibility for the next 6 to 12 months. Khomeini remains Iran’s essential figure. No alternative leader or group exists. A significant amount of the forward thrust from the revolution still exists, the constitution and its institutions are about to come into being, oil money is still flowing in, and the masses are still on Khomeini’s side. These considerations should suffice to keep the leaders of the new republic in power.

But problems will mount. As noted above, the economy and the minorities need urgent attention. Many members of what remains of the armed forces are increasingly unhappy and frustrated. Iran has still not found a comfortable place on the international scene. Khomeini’s rule to date has given no indication that he and his associates will be able to move rapidly and effectively to solve any of these problems. Thus, the unhappy opposition will surely grow. The question is: how long will the regime’s basic strengths continue to outweigh its mounting problems?

2. A coup. It is possible to imagine a coalition developing among some of the opposition groups—Bakhtiar, the moderate secular figures, minority leaders, and a few senior military officers—in an effort to seize power. But the opposition groups which these leaders represent lack wide popular support or means to appeal to the lower-class masses that form the base of Khomeini’s power. Such a coalition would be united chiefly by opposition to Khomeini, and that would not provide sufficient unity to overcome the underlying mistrust and rivalries between the constituent factions. It is not likely, therefore, that this broad grouping could act effectively enough to take over.

3. The greatest threat to the regime is simply that it could collapse under the weight of its problems. This might happen if the government lost visible control over events. The Embassy’s captors might even emerge as an alternative power center as a result of the hostage crisis. Insurrection in Tabriz could spread to all of Azerbaijan if Shariat-Madari were to depart Qom and openly lead the rebellion. That could facilitate successful Kurdish action against the regime. The government’s inability to handle ethnic dissidence on a broad scale coupled with economic reverses and maldistribution of food would severely undermine the [Page 261] regime’s support. However, Khomeini still retains much charisma, and none of these problems has yet gone past the point of no return.

4. Khomeini dies or is totally incapacitated. When Khomeini’s hand is no longer at the helm, the Islamic republic will have lost the man who has held the revolutionary cause together. His departure will not, however, bring an end to either the republic or the revolution. The momentum of the revolution, the strategic placement of his associates, the new constitution, and the dominance of religious figures in the new parliament and cabinet will give some shape to the successor regime. Khomeini’s assassination would add uncertainty, but the basic religious framework of the government would still be a major factor in determining the future.

Khomeini’s death will most likely be followed immediately by the creation of an informal coalition of the most senior religious and governmental figures—held together at first by their desire to protect their power and the revolution. The Council of Guardians, the president, a few senior clerics, and one or two top military figures would keep the country going. But such a coalition would not last for long. It would contain too many ambitious men and too many political and religious schisms.

As this informal coalition began to split, several successors would be possible:

—One strong man could emerge to dominate the apparatus, but not with the stature of Khomeini. Ayatollahs Beheshti and Montazeri, Admiral Madani, and Foreign Minister Qotbzadeh would be leading possibilities.

—A religious, but anti-Khomeini, coalition. This could be under the overall religious leadership of Ayatollah Shariat-Madari, but with day-to-day power in the hands of secular figures, such as Bakhtiar or Madani.

—A traditional coalition of opposition forces: National Front (Bakhtiar, former Prime Minister Bazargan, and Hedayatollah Matin-Daftari), tribal leaders (Qashqais and other Bakhtiaris), and some moderate bazaar and religious figures.

A broad coalition would make the most sense in terms of Iranian tradition and centers of power. But the pull of the Khomeini revolution would probably be too great for at least a while for such a clear break from the dominance of the religious establishment to occur. Thus, the first of the above possibilities would be the most likely one to follow the initial informal coalition of Khomeini’s followers.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P800009–0568. Secret; Noforn. Prepared by Grummon. Approved by Harris.
  2. During the previous week, thousands of Azerbaijanis in Tabriz marched in support of Ayatollah Kazem Shariat-Madari who was critical of the new constitution. Demonstrators also took control of local government buildings and the central government’s radio and television stations. (Pranay Gupte, “Thousands of Azerbaijanis Parade in Tabriz to Support Their Ayatollah,” New York Times, December 8, 1979, p. 6)