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U.K. declassifies revolution documents.

Like American officials in 1978, British officials came to see Iran's Islamic revolution as unlikely to succeed until the September-October period, according to official documents released by the U.K. government Tuesday.

Under British law, historical documents are released after a 30-year period, so the documents for 1978 are now being published.

American documents have previously shown that there was little expectation in Washington of the revolution succeeding until after a major protest and shooting in the streets in September. In succeeding weeks, fears grew exponentially in Washington that the Shah would fall.

The new British documents show a parallel shift in view in London.

The revolution effectively began in January 1978 with an anti-Shah protest in Qom at which several people were killed. Few even noted that protest at the time. The anti-Shah movement organized more protests on the traditional 40th day of mourning after death. That protest resulted in more deaths. The revolution snowballed through succeeding 40th day of mourning protests. After one year, the Shah left Iran January 16, 1979, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned early in February to take the reins of power 10 days later when the Shah's last prime minister was driven from office.

The West was slow to see the power of the mushrooming revolution--although that should not be surprising as Iranians, including many revolutionaries, generally did not see the protests as a real revolution for many months too.


In May 1978, Britain's ambassador to Tehran, Sir Anthony Parsons, wrote: "It is not so much that the regime is in danger; more that their car has bogged down in soft ground and it is difficult to see how they are going to pick up speed again."

Parsons kept London updated on the situation in Iran throughout 1978 in a series of messages.

In one of the longest, on May 10, 1978, he said he did not think there was a serious risk of the Shah being overthrown and dismissed the influence of religious leaders.

"The religious leadership ... thunder from the mosques about the destruction of traditional Islamic and Iranian values by the blind adoption of Western customs, Western technology and so on," Parsons wrote.

Speaking of the opposition more generally, he added: "I do not believe that this conjuncture poses a threat to the present shah's regime."


A briefing from Britain's Tehran mission to the Foreign Office on August 29 added that "the Islamic church as such has no real interest in seeing the Pahlavi regime overthrown when the complexion of any alternative is so uncertain."

On September 8, Britain's ambassador to the United States, Peter Jay, sent a message to London indicating the United States was not thinking in terms of the Shah being deposed, either. Jay reported that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher (who became secretary 14 years later) had "confirmed U.S. concern, though he saw the shah as given to pessimism and was not aware of anything really new."


Eight days later, after the largest anti-Shah demonstration to date in Tehran--and the one that set American officials to changing their minds--Parsons sent another note to London that an official annotated with a note of concern about the Shah's "passivity and depression." depression." Prime Minister James Callaghan added: "Yes. But he can come back!"


Amid more violence and the imposition of martial law in major cities, Callaghan later became uncertain. On October 24, he wrote on a report from Parsons: "On the basis of this, I wouldn't give much for the shah's chance."

Intensifying unrest saw an attack on the British embassy in Tehran on November 5. By November 20, Parsons was voicing "very little cause for optimism."

"The only hope I can see at present is that, for reasons of exhaustion and general concern about a slide into total anarchy, the temper of the country may abate and Khomeini's simple anti-shah message decline in attraction," he added.

In a letter to President Jimmy Carter on December 2, Callaghan said it was "impossible" to forecast whether the shah would cling on. By this time American officials had largely written the Shah off.

Callaghan predicted that if the Shah did not survive, it would have the "gravest" implications "for our two countries, with their great stake in Iran, in particular."


"It is only a minor consolation that continued chaos in the country or the emergence of an extreme government dominated by the religious right wing might create almost as many problems for the Soviet Union," Callaghan wrote.

By December 7, Parsons was telling London that it was "increasingly difficult" to see the Shah remaining, just a few days before Jay got in touch, quoting Carter as saying he "fully expected" him to retain power. But Carter's intelligence analysts and State Department Iran specialists had been saying the opposite for some weeks.

On December 19, Parsons said it was "as difficult as ever to predict the outcome" and said the "only hope" for continuing the dynasty was for the Shah to become a constitutional monarch and hand over to his son quickly.
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 2, 2009
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