In 1978, New Yorker writer Joseph Kraft visited Iran. The Shah, after twenty-five years in power, was losing his grip on the country. The clerics, mainly based in the Shi’a holy city of Qom, sensed that Iran was losing its Islamic core to Western culture and U.S. interests; the working class, faced with rising inflation and poverty, was restless; everyone was pushing for free elections. Every week, it seemed, brought a new round of protests. And the Shah, instead of cracking down, tried to find a compromise with his political opponents. It didn’t work. By February 1979, the Shah was in exile, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had returned from his exile in Paris under the banner of revolution.
Kraft’s Letter from Iran ran on December 18, 1978. At the time, the Shah and his people did not consider Khomenei’s strident Islamism the greatest threat to the regime—instead, they feared the rise of the more pragmatic Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Shariatmadari, who was based in Iran, and an array of secular activists. Revolution seemed inevitable as the new year approached, and Kraft captured the confusion of the regime and the strategic patience of the opposition:
Sensing peril, the military government on November 28th banned “processions of any kind” during Moharram. Nevertheless, crowds demonstrated in Teheran during the first two days of the holy month, and there were violations of the curfew on a large scale. Oil production dropped from 5.8 million to below 2 million barrels a day. An exodus of Americans got under way. But even as high noon approached, the major protagonists drew back. The Shah ordered that a hundred and twenty political prisoners be freed on
Sunday, December 10th. On December 6th, Karim Sanjabi, the National Front leader, was released from custody. On December 8th, Ayatollah Shariatmadari, at a press conference in Qum, urged his followers to avoid violence. That same day, the military government announced it would permit the religious processions, and the next day pledged to keep troops only in the northern sections of Teheran, out of the line of march.
On Sunday and Monday, December 10th and 11th, crowds of several hundred thousand paraded through the downtown streets. They shouted Islamic religious slogans, and showed hostility toward the Shah, the military government, and the United States. But there was no serious violence, and those who tried to make trouble were constrained by more responsible elements in the procession. The troops drawn up in the northern section of town, in the vicinity of the Niavaran Palace, were not even tested.