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Wind of Change In Iran


THERE HAS BEEN good news in Iran this past week. The Iranian people have taken to the streets in one of the largest mass uprisings against the police state of Shah Reza Pahlevi since his regime regained power. There has also been bad news--martial law has been declared, and the Shah's police have struck back with a quick lash of repression. But such a response is only to be expected from a regime whose legitimacy rests largely on state terror. No one can doubt that it will take a great deal of bloodshed and violence before the Shah is deposed. In the meantime, opponents of the Shah--those who have suffered torture in his prisons, and the growing community of Iranian dissidents in exile--can only take heart that these recent events may mark the beginning of the end of the Shah.

At the same time, it is not yet clear what the longterm political implications of these latest protests will be. The challenge does not appear to be explicitly political. Rather, it originates from the Iranian community of fundamentalist Moslem clergy--socially more conservative than the Shah--who oppose several of his recent moves toward Westernization. For the time being, one can only note the irony that the first dent in the armor or this fundamentally despotic government may come in response to its attempts at liberalization. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will be room at a later stage in the movement--or in a future government--for a united front between the conservative religious leaders and the more political Iranian left.

There is one thing that does remain clear: the Shah must go. For 25 years now, since he deposed the nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh with the help of the CIA in 1953, the Shah's grip has been one of social inequity and political terror. His regime has been one of the most systematic violators of human rights in the history of post-war dictatorships. This reign of terror has been materially underwritten by a supply of U.S. arms and military training--both because of America's economic interest in Iranian oil, and because Iran has been perceived as a solid anti-communist bulwark in the ideologically mercurial Middle East. (Last weekend, President Carter phoned the Shah to express support for his police crack-down.)

The pay-off for the oil companies and the U.S. government has been what Henry A. Kissenger '50 used to like to call "political stability." The price paid by the bulk of Iranian people has been continued mass poverty in the face of petro-dollar plenty and perpetual intimidation by the SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. For Pahlevi's most out-spoken critics it has often meant imprisonment and grotesque torture that has been only too vividly documented by some of those who escaped.

THE SHAH is beginning to run scared. In response to the recent upheaval, he has ordered several cosmetic political reforms. He has shaken up his cabinet, ostensibly to make it more responsive to the conservative Moslems. He has also promised that all legal parties will be allowed to offer candidates in the future elections. More to the point--because it points up the pattern of the Shah's manipulation of America's anxieties about "stability"--he has begun to fulminate about the role "extremist Islamic marxists" have played in this month's protests. One only has to look at Prime Minister Ian Smith's current hedging about the progress of his much-vaunted "internal settlement" in Rhodesia to see that behind this combination of internal face-lift and cold-war saber-rattling lies the separate attempt to cling to power.

It can be expected that Harvard, with all the money and technological advice it has invested in Iran over the past few years, will grab at these superficial concessions to adopt an optimistic "wait and see" response to the crying moral questions about involvement with the Shah's government--the same response the University has made to investment in South Africa. The rest of us should not be fooled. A regime that has lived by the sword of repression can only be expected to survive and eventually to die, by that same cycle of repression. It is because that cycle has been so unusually cruel, and has brought so much misery to the Iranian people, that those of us who have watched the recent uprising from afar can only see it as a sign of hope.

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