Lost History of Iran’s 1981 Coup

The U.S. mainstream media avoids the word “coup” when a disfavored leader is ousted, but the silence around Iran’s 1981 coup also may have served Ronald Reagan’s political self-interest in keeping secret his own “coup,” as Mahmood Delkhasteh reflects.

By Mahmood Delkhasteh

Brazil’s suspended President Dilma Rousseff calls her impeachment a coup d’état. Many academics and political experts agree that the old guard and corrupt capitalist elite in Brazil have overthrown the president, despite the fact that all the legal procedures for her impeachment have been observed. As one pro-Rousseff Brazilian protester remarked, this is a “civilian coup – capitalism doesn’t need guns and soldiers; it is enough to have an anti-democratic judicial system.”

Now go back 35 years to Iran. The 1979 Iranian Revolution is less than two-and-a-half years old. The clergy have, gradually, monopolized the state. The aim is, as the head of the Islamic Republic Party (Ayatollah Beheshti) has stated, to establish a “despotism of the pious.” The only remaining obstacle to the total monopolization of power is the office of the recently elected president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. He insists upon defending the democratic goals of the revolution despite being offered increased powers to reject them, therefore, he writes to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sitting under a portrait of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sitting under a portrait of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“I joined you because I saw you as a man of belief and action. I accepted the post of presidency in order to serve the people according to my belief and spend all my power in defending the principles. However, it has become obvious that you do not want a man of belief and action, but a lackey. The title of presidency is not a status to violate my principles and belief for them. If I am not able to serve, I have no attraction to such titles. If you are looking for a lackey, there are so many lackeys, do not expect such a thing from me. The Shah was not overthrown to be replaced with a worse system.”

So Bani-Sadr refuses to bow to Ayatollah Khomeini’s threats and warns people to resist the coup he sees is in motion. While Bani-Sadr is still president, the head of the Revolutionary Courts (Ayatollah Gillani) issues a fatwa for his execution seven times over. Army generals suggest that Bani-Sadr might conduct his own coup against the clergy but he refuses on two grounds.

First, Bani-Sadr opposes military intervention into politics; second, he does not want to weaken the forces defending Iran against the Iraqi army, which still holds some Iranian territory under its control. The clergy are not so concerned; as Khomeini’s grandson, (Syed Hussein) later revealed, the leaders of the Islamic Republic Party – Ayatollah Beheshti, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei – would prefer to lose half of Iran’s territory than for Bani-Sadr win the war with Iraq.

“I have debated with them [the IRP],” he said, “and they told me that even if we lose Khusezestan and even half of Iran, it is better than Bani-Sadr winning this war.”

Driving Bani-Sadr Underground

Bani-Sadr’s enemies bring Revolutionary Guard units from the warfront to Tehran in order to carry out their coup. At this point, President Bani-Sadr goes underground and sends a message to the Iranian people. He says:

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. (Photo credit: Peter Weis)

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. (Photo credit: Peter Weis)

“What is important is not the elimination of the president, but the fact that the demon of despotism and oppression once again wants to impose itself upon you, the people, and to make the precious blood shed for Islam and freedom, worthless.”

His house is bombed, the presidential office is attacked, and many members of his staff are arrested. Some of them are executed: Manuchehr Masudi, the advisor to the president on human rights who exposed the widespread use of torture in prisons; Navab Safavi, a journalist and presidential advisor of the president; Rashid-Sadr-Alhefaazi, whose detailed investigation showed that Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had made a clandestine agreement to postpone the release of over 52 American hostages in Iran to increase Reagan’s election chance (over Democratic candidate) President Jimmy Carter.

This agreement later became known as the “October Surprise.” [For the most detailed account of the evidence regarding the alleged Republican/Iranian deal, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

During this time, the Offices of Cooperation of the People with the President, the only political organizations to have emerged democratically and horizontally across the country, are relentlessly attacked. Thousands of people are arrested, and many are tortured and executed. Other people who shelter the president while he is underground are arrested and executed.

Ayatollah Beheshti then tries to remove the president through the Supreme Court on the ground that he has violated the country’s constitution. The judges, who until this point have maintained their independence (unlike Brazil’s “anti-democratic judicial system”), resist and argue that there are no constitutional grounds for removing the president. Later, Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, the country’s public prosecutor, revealed why the attempt to remove Bani-Sadr through the Supreme Court failed.

He said: “the court in the Judiciary in those days was not ready; the judges were not cleansed yet and of those who were like minded to the president and supporters of liberalism and small organizations [goroohakhaa, a derogatory term for organizations like the Mojaheddin and Marxist Fedaeeyaan organization] were in top jobs in courts.”

Once again, Ayatollah Khomeini intervenes. In direct violation of the constitution, he orders the head of parliament, Rafsanjani, to start a process of removing the president through the parliament. Instead of pointing out that this demand is in violation of the constitution, Rafsanjani enthusiastically starts the process and in less than two hours gathers 120 signatures of ministers of parliament to debate the removal of the president on grounds of incompetency through numerous and repeated violations of the constitution.

Widespread Intimidation

MP Ahamd Ghazanfar-pour dares to read a message from the president in parliament. In it, Bani-Sadr informs people that the Iraqi government has agreed to a peace deal which is advantageous to Iran, as Saddam Hussein had agreed to remove his troops out of Iran’s occupied land and pay a hefty compensation. (It should also be noted that had the process of overthrowing the president been postponed by even one week, a peace deal with Saddam Hussein would have been signed.)

Ronald Reagan and his 1980 vice-presidential running mate George H.W.  Bush.

Ronald Reagan and his 1980 vice-presidential running mate George H.W. Bush.

Attempts are made to assassinate Ghazanfar-pour and his colleague as they left the parliament, but they are able to dodge the bullets.

During an ensuing two-day debate about Bani-Sadr’s presidential competence, the parliament is surrounded and occupied by hezbollahis threatening to kill whoever dares to speak in favor of the president, chanting “Bani-Sadr, anti-God, should be executed” (Banisadr zedo-allah-edaam bayaad gardad). Later, Rafsanjani raised this terrorization of the pro-president MPs, stating: “and now the real force, which was Hezbollah, had entered the front, the real force of Imam’s line. There were these hezbollahis who surrounded the parliament and inflicted so much suffering on [the opposition] MPs.”

Thus, while 10 MPs had enrolled to talk in support the president, half of them are so terrorized that they absent themselves and three switch sides to demand the removal of the president. Just one, Ali-Akbar Moin-Far, openly defends the president. Significantly, he ends his defense with a verse from the Koran which is always spoken at the time of death: “To Allah we belong and to Him/Her we shall return,” as he had readied himself to die at the hands of the mob.

Those MPs in favor of removing the president fail to present any evidence to demonstrate that the president has violated the constitution. The most important reasons given for his incompetency are: his opposition to the occupation of American embassy; his opposition to torture and the execution of prisoners; his opposition to the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of jurist); his advocacy of human rights and democracy; and his opposition to creating a cult of personality around Khomeini.

Moin-Far argues that the reasons introduced for Bani-Sadr’s incompetency are in fact cases for his competence in trying to uphold the constitution, and that he should be praised for it. [For Bani-Sadr’s own account of the October Surprise case, see Consortiumnews.com’s “‘October Surprise’ and ‘Argo.’”]

Why 35 Years of Silence?

The removal of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr as president of Iran in June 1981 drastically altered the outcome of the Iranian Revolution and post-revolutionary Iranian politics, in particular, closing its democratic path and institutionalizing its dictatorial trajectory.

President Ronald Reagan, delivering his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1981, as the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran are simultaneously released.

President Ronald Reagan, delivering his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1981, as the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran are simultaneously released.

The question is why, after 35 years, does the academic community still fail to recognize these events as a coup d’état and continue to endorse the official narrative of the president’s removal, describing it in terms of “dismissal,” “impeachment,” “ousting,” and his being “thrown out”?

In response to an article I attempted to publish about this case in a reputable academic journal, for example, one reviewer argued that the “legal process was carefully drawn up and constitutional shortcomings … were bridged using legislation.” Why, in 35 years, has no research been done to interrogate the nature of such an historical event, with so many documents and testimonies clearly pointing towards a coup being ignored and left to the dust?

It is understandable that those in Iran’s ruling regime, both conservative and reformist, have every interest in portraying Bani-Sadr’s removal as legal and constitutional: they all actively participated in the coup, and recognizing the events as a coup would render all the subsequent governments as unconstitutional.

However, this does not explain why many experts in the field who are working in the West passively or even actively support this official line, even at the cost of academic freedom and critical thinking, particularly as they do not have to tiptoe around the regime.

Why, instead of providing space for counter-narratives, are they are doing their best to snuff them out the critical exploration of an historical event whose reinterpretation could fundamentally transform our understanding of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and current Iranian politics?

A Mystery of Silence 

Apart from the political and ideological forces which clearly bear on this debate, maybe such unbending resistance to the entrance of this narrative into the literature can be understood in terms of the discourse which needs to make such an event invisible.

After all, as Michael Foucault has illustrated, one of the main functions of discourse in regimes of truth is to make anything outside as other, unthinkable and unsayable. Maybe an alteration of the broader discourse framing these events would undermine the foundation of existing scholarly work.

Once, Albert Einstein asked fellow physicist Niels Bohr whether he believed that “the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it.” Bohr replied: “he would not be able to prove that it does.”

And once the philosopher George Berkley asked, “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound”? The answer is no, since in order to hear a sound there should be a listener. The question is, if a thing takes place within social reality and is observed, but the ones who guard the borders of “what is permissible knowledge” refuse to acknowledge them, what happens to this experience?

Foucault was interested in what he called “subjugated knowledges,” which he described in two forms: first, “historical contents that have been buried or masked in functional coherences or formal systematizations,” and second, “knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naïve knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowleges, knowleges that are below the required level of eruditio or scientificity.”

The question is how to bring such knowledge to the fore. Foucault argued that archaeological and genealogical methods of critique can “desubjugate” these historical knowledges in order “to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal and scientific theoretical discourse.”

Thomas Kuhn, in his ground-breaking analysis of paradigm shifts in scientific knowledge, demonstrated that shifts in scholarly consensus of this sort emerge from continuous struggle as the beliefs and institutions of “normal science” depend on the consensus for their survival.

It seems that such determination is also needed to challenge the consensus within political and academic discourse. The battle to crack the consensus on the nature of president Bani-Sadr’s removal in 1981 can be fought by exposing the anomalies between the existing historical consensus and the alternative interpretations.

We can fundamentally transform our understanding of the Iranian revolution by letting the untold stories to be told.

Mahmood Delkhasteh has a sociology doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently working on a new book based on his doctoral dissertation, Islamic Discourses of Power and Freedom in the Iranian Revolution, 1979-81. He has held lecturing positions at the American University — Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) and Kingston University (UK). He presently works as an independent researcher, columnist and political activist.

11 comments for “Lost History of Iran’s 1981 Coup

  1. Evangelista
    June 24, 2016 at 20:43

    “Lost History of Iran’s 1981 Coup” is, indeed, an article of higher than average intellectual level and insight. The focal question, or questions, appear to go over the heads of most. In fact, most appear to not recognize the central questions, which Foucault attempted to explore, the popular, and academic and intellectual rejection of both question and alternative, at least for the duration a perspective is “durant”, meaning ‘enduring’ and ‘durable’, meaning somehow fixed, or ‘fixeé’ in the cultural/societal mind. This occurs in science, politics, religion, history and, effectively, everywhere else human personal imaginations are constructed based on adoptions on faith in concepts other human beings advocate as “true”.

    The reasons ideas become fixed in cultural mind-scape appear to be multiplex, more than complex, and appear to boil down to personal utility of some kind, ranging from convenience, to absence of immediate alternative, and compassing disinclination to have to adjust what has been adopted as a useful foundational perspective, and that other convenient mental constructions have been then built upon. Change that would require rebuilding of the base structure are thence rejected, the already adopted construction being defended. Usually a generation, a next emergence of forming intellects looking for something new and ‘old-challenging’, is required to shift the cultural thinking from the old. The shift is from the old to a next, which, for the emerging generation, becomes the ‘ideé fixeé’, and requires the same generational shift to change. It is for this that historical records created ‘too soon’ after events tend to be in the vein of currently perception, or be rejected. The rejected, where rejection is for ‘unaccepted’, or ‘unacceptable’ perception may thenafter become ‘gold’ to future historians, who need the documentation outside the cultural norm perspective when they record sbsequent impressions not confined by the ‘old’ norms.

    In the article the sentence, “In response to an article I attempted to publish about this case in a reputable academic journal, for example, one reviewer argued that the “legal process was carefully drawn up and constitutional shortcomings … were bridged using legislation.”” is a key:

    Legal processes and constitutions are defining in constructions of state structures, so a new structure, as that created for Iran after the 1979 revolution, would be defined by, first of all, the constitution created to define the structures of the new state, and second, the legal processes that assign and define the relevant content of the constitution in appllication situations. Legal processes, by nature, are adjusting; they are the means for fitting principles and realities together. how legal processes may be utilized may either bring realities under principles, or may be utilized to stretch and reform, even deform, principles to cover per “requirements”, or preferences. “Constitutional shortcomings”, in the quoted passage, is particularly revealing and interesting, since it indicates variance between the cultural perspective of the assigner of “constitutional shortcoming” and the constitution in question, as written, and “realities” as the assigner of “shortcomings” might perceive. In the United States the Amendment 2 arguments all revolve around perceived “shortcoming” of the U.S. Constitution’s second aendment, as such appear in the intellectual eyes of the perceivers.

    Why are legal chicaneries demanded, or required in recordings of historical perspectives? appears to be the question explored in the last sections of the article. The exploration is valid, and of importance. As the quoted passage indicates, even when it is the legal manipulations of a past and done event are exposed, the exposure exposes the process as it is present current, as the same is, and is to be, depended on by persons, such as the noted reviewer, in their desired or advocated “adjustments” of principles and principle-based definitions, such as are the stock in trade of constitutions. In a generation or two the events that shaped the Iranian state that emerged from the 1979 revolution will become more ‘acceptable’, as the events, themselves, especially the wrong-doings and betrayals, of trusts and ideals and principles, involved become more remote and distance-able from a current situation. Some day the triumph of power-politics over principle-politics in the post-revolution Iranian state formation willl be as discussable as those that undid the ideals of the French Revolution, that reduced that revolution from republican ideals to imperial dictatorship. meanwhile, even here in the U.S. full and analytical discussion of the constitutional bridgings using legislations would draw such attention to the uses of those same processes of manipulating current in our own system, and the fact that they are being used for the same purposes, to undo republicanism and manipulate, or restrict, and even negate, democratic decision-making processes that cans full of wormy questions would be opened. And so the constrictions of cultural morays are resorted to to keep status quos status quo, even across cultures.

  2. Lawrence Magnuson
    June 22, 2016 at 21:24

    The Foucault part is laughable.

  3. Oz
    June 22, 2016 at 17:53

    This is a very interesting article, and calls attention to the deep corruption in Western academia and news media. The suppression of the story about the deposing of Bani-Sadr reminds me in many ways of the suppression of the story about how the US government attempted to destroy the political movement of Lyndon LaRouche, using spectacularly illegal means and unusually heavy-handed propaganda. LaRouche and Bani-Sadr saw eye-to-eye on many points.

  4. Deschutes
    June 22, 2016 at 14:42

    Wow this is one of the BEST articles I’ve ever read on this site! I had never even heard about Iran’s 1981 coup. I thought there was just the 1979 coup removing the Shah, and that the Shia ‘ayatollas’ or whatever you call them took control. As the author eludes to, there indeed has been a total news blackout regarding Iran’s inner workings and history in the MSM. They much prefer to be obedient scribes demonizing Iran, its nuclear program, blah blah effing blah. Kudos Mr. Delkasteh!

  5. Stan
    June 22, 2016 at 10:44

    What I did not see in this article is the fact, as I remember it, that Bani-Sadr was a “transitional” appointee of the ousted U.S. puppet Shah, giving him cover to flee the country. The Iranian revolution, like the French and Russian(1917-18) was a “real” revolution, a tearing down of pre-existing social and political institutions and their replacement with “new” institutions. All the hoopla about Bani-Sadr and the pre-existing Iran Parliament being the object of coup is simply non-factual. It is to the credit of Khomeini and his supporters that they waited over two years to do away with those Shah regime holdovers (who were still U.S./CIA puppets). The last section “Mystery of Silence” is a lot of nonsensical and diversionary philosophical babble.

    This article is a pro-western slant that ignores the facts “on the ground” as they were n Iran in the1978-198 revolutionary period.

    • David Smith
      June 22, 2016 at 13:21

      “Stan”, your history is erroneous. Bani-Sadr was a compatriot of Khomeini in Paris, traveled with Khomeini in Feb 1979 to Iran and held minister appointments under the Revolutionary Gov’t before being elected President. He was not appointed by the outgoing Shah. Philosophically, Bani-Sadr is an Islamist. You description of the Iranian Revolution is bizzare, it was not a ” tearing down of preexisting social and political institutions” but the retrenchment of the power of the Mullahs in the form of a theocratic state. I do agree with you that what happened was not a coup. In a Shia Islamic State, the priests(Mullahs) have veto authority over anything done by the republican government. To use your comparison with the French Revolution, imagine King Louis XVI overthrown and replaced by direct rule by the Roman Catholic Church. There is an interpretation of the Iranian Revolution that holds that the Shah’s land reform program and rural education program threatened the Mullah’s power as the Mullahs owned the land and extracted rent and the Mullahs opposed humanist education and sought to keep the poor in Islamic ignorance. I was forced to attend a Christian parochial school run by a demagogue priest who extracted economic sustenance from the idiot parents(he drove a Mercedes with leather seats), badly educated their children, and tried to enforce a Protestant inquisition, so Ayatollah Khomeini was dead obvious to me.

      • FobosDeimos
        June 23, 2016 at 08:53

        Good points, David. The fact that US policies on Iran were and are disastrous, and one therefore tends to reject anything resembling a pro-US stance, must not make us insensitive to the realities of a harsh and repressive theocracy. Bani Sadr has been accused of many things, but Prof. Delkhasteh deserves credit for shedding some light on the character, and also for daring to upset “believers”.

  6. Gabe
    June 21, 2016 at 22:11

    Very interesting. To your point, it seems that power structures always seek to sustain narratives that project a continuance of their power. It would be counterproductive to powers in Iran and The United States to accept that The Iranian Revolution had a large democratic base.

    Out of curiosity, why did you decide to write this piece at this given point? What prompted your interest.


  7. Erik
    June 21, 2016 at 21:20

    The debate on this would have to be enlightened with considerable knowledge of political events in Iran since that time, probably a large body of knowledge with much controversy. What are the other views on Bani-Sadr, similar figures, changes since then in the extent of democracy, degree of religious control, repression, dominance of the military, etc.

    It is difficult to evaluate a single divergent view without the broader knowledge; one does not have confidence in any conclusion. It would be good to have the entire matter debated issue-by-issue by all sides, with summaries at several levels commented by each viewpoint, so as to study the matter efficiently. This is the purpose of the College of Policy Analysis that I often propose, as a knowledgeable debate branch of federal government.

    • June 23, 2016 at 07:20

      The problem was there was a picture of Mt banisard negotiating with the US during the hostage crises and when he fled Iran he joined forces with Saddam Hussein mercenaries rajavi leader if MK

      • Pirouz
        June 29, 2016 at 12:07

        There is a mistake here, Mr. Banisadr tried to make an alliance to include *all* Iranian opposition forces (which had participated in the revolution of 1978-79) which were being *physically* eliminated, to resist the theocratic coup. MEK was one of those forces which joined the alliance. This, however, was before Mr. Rajavi decided to defect and join forces with Saddam Hossein. In fact the alliance with Mr. Rajavi ended when he defected to Iraq.

        There is, however, one point that I wish to add. The real analogy to the coup of 1981 in Iran, was not the coup against Ms. Rousseff in Brazil. The true analogy of the coup of 1981 was the coup against Yanukovych’s elected government in Ukraine in 2014. But I am guessing (and this is only a guess on my part) that since Mr. Banisadr called the Ukrainian 2014 coup a “revolution”, it would be very awkward for Mr. Delkhasteh to now make that analogy!!

        One last point that I would like to make is that our stance with respect to Mr. Banisadr’s opinions, beliefs and worldview must be totally independent from our trying to set the historical record straight. I personally disagree with the majority of Mr. Banisadr’s views and positions (though I must add that his positions were not quite the same in the 80’s as it is now), including his support for the Green coup (he glorified it as an attempt to ‘revolution’), BUT I do call a spade a spade. What was done against his government in Iran in 1981 was indeed a coup which led to the darkest period in Iran’s recent history (even darker than Shah’s dictatorship).

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