205. Paper Prepared in the National Foreign Assessment Center, Central Intelligence Agency1

PA 80–10121

Iran: Exporting the Revolution [portion marking not declassified]

An Intelligence Assessment

Key Judgments

Iranian leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini and President Bani-Sadr, are ideologically committed to aiding other Islamic revolutionaries. The Iranians see their revolution as an example for other “oppressed” peoples and believe that the organizational and ideological techniques they developed to topple the Shah can be used by others.

Internal problems have thus far forced Tehran to limit its official support for other revolutionaries largely to propaganda. Even this rhetoric, however, has greatly alarmed some of Iran’s neighbors, espe[Page 527]cially those with significant Shia Muslim populations, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s efforts to export its revolution have been complicated by the confusion that has marked all facets of Iranian politics since the fall of the Shah. Iranian leaders and groups often have acted independently of the government and have embarrassed the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to maintain correct relations with Iran’s neighbors.

If Iran’s internal problems ease in the next year, Tehran probably will step up efforts to destabilize its neighbors. Bani-Sadr appears to be taking steps to increase support for unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian support to Afghan insurgents could give the Soviets an excuse to intervene in Iran.

Iran’s efforts to export its revolution are a threat to key US interests. US allies in the area would have reason to be nervous if the Iranians were to play a more active role. Iranian-supported unrest could lead to sabotage and strikes by oil workers, since Shias inhabit many of the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf states.

One year after the fall of the Shah, Iran’s leaders appear more determined than ever to export their Islamic revolution to other countries in the Near East and South Asia. Although internal problems continue to limit Iran’s ability to export the revolution, Tehran radio broadcasts a steady stream of propaganda every day to Iran’s neighbors. The country’s leaders—including Ayatollah Khomeini and President Bani-Sadr—often express their commitment to the liberation of oppressed peoples throughout the Muslim world. Khomeini, for example, said on 20 February:

I hope that (Iran) will become a model for all the meek and Muslim nations in the world and that this century will become the century for smashing great idols . . . O meek of the world, rise and rescue yourselves from the talons of nefarious oppressors; O zealous Muslims in various countries of the world, wake from your sleep of neglect and liberate Islam and the Islamic countries from the clutches of the colonialists and those subservient to them.

Bani-Sadr was quoted on 4 February:

Our revolution will not win unless it is exported. We are going to create a new order in which deprived people will not always be deprived. As long as our brothers in Palestine, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and all over the world have not been liberated, we Iranians will not put down our arms. We give our hand to deprived people all over the world. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric and its actions in the last year have greatly alarmed its neighbors. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf region have been the most visibly disturbed. Iraq has initiated a program of aid to dissidents inside Iran in order to weaken the Khomeini regime [Page 528]and prevent it from actively subverting Iraq’s majority Shia Muslim population. [4 lines not declassified]

Ideological Basis

The leaders of Iran have consistently believed that their revolution should be a model for other countries in the region. Former Foreign Minister Yazdi commented right after the fall of the Shah’s government in February 1979 that the monarchy’s collapse signaled a “new era of Islamic struggle triggered by our revolution.” [portion marking not declassified]

Khomeini, Bani-Sadr, Yazdi, and other Iranian leaders believe that their revolution was a triumph of Islamic values over the decadence of a corrupt, repressive, Westernized regime. They stress that the revolution was based on Islamic idealism—a spiritual awakening—which in turn led to the polarization of society between the enlightened masses and the corrupt elite. As a result Tehran’s revolutionary lessons are not exclusively Iranian but common to all Muslim countries and even all Third World countries. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran’s leaders argue—with some justice—that their revolution is unique in the modern history of the Middle East. Rather than seizing power through a military coup, they achieved their goal through the mass mobilization of society. Their people are first reminded of the virtues of Islam, which alienates them from their corrupt rulers. Armed with faith in Allah and the justice of their cause, this argument goes on, the people as a whole are ready to confront the regime. [portion marking not declassified]

PLO chief Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son Ahmad, and President Bani-Sadr expressing solidarity with the world’s “oppressed” at the celebrations marking the first anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

The revolutionary leadership believes that if Iran fails to export its revolution, the country will be isolated in an unfriendly environment of hostile regimes. Most of these leaders are preoccupied with the example of Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government in 1953, which, [Page 529]they believe fell because it lacked allies against the United States and the United Kingdom. The survival of the Islamic Republic is closely tied, in this view, to the overthrow of pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. [portion marking not declassified]

Moreover, many Iranian leaders spent years in exile as leaders of the anti-Shah opposition during which they developed close ties with a broad range of Middle Eastern radical movements. Khomeini, for example, was one of the earliest supporters of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement, and Bani-Sadr has long had close ties with the radical Lebanese Shia movement formerly led by Imam Musa Sadr. The Iranians clearly feel obligated to support their fellow revolutionaries. [portion marking not declassified]

Although the Iranians claim that their revolution should be a model for all Islamic peoples, actual support has been primarily given to other Shia Muslims in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. This reflects Tehran’s sympathy for its Shia brethern and the continuing potency of Shia-Sunni differences. [portion marking not declassified]

[Page 530]

Most Iranian leaders, including Khomeini and Bani-Sadr, have been careful to say in public that Tehran has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors and that since a revolution is primarily a spiritual awakening, it must begin in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. As such it cannot be simply exported by Iran, and no quantity of external aid can act as a substitute for the mobilization of each nation’s own internal forces. Nonetheless, the Iranians believe that they can teach other Islamic peoples the necessary revolutionary techniques and organizational theory. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran so far has provided mostly rhetoric and propaganda to other revolutionaries, safe haven for foreign dissidents, and a meeting place for radicals. In part, this reflects the ideological basis of their world view. It also reflects, however, the weakness of the central government in Tehran which has been preoccupied with consolidating its power and lacks the means to more actively export revolution. [portion marking not declassified]

Confusion and Ambiguity in Tehran

Although there is a broad consensus in principle among Iranian leaders favoring support for other revolutionaries in the area, some have argued that Iran should devote its attention primarily to its own problems and should not waste energy and resources on exporting the revolution at this time. Former Prime Minister Bazargan was often identified with this argument, while Iran’s clerical leadership has generally been far more militant. [portion marking not declassified]

The collapse of the Bazargan government last November largely—but not entirely—removed the ambiguity in Iranian attitudes. Bazargan’s successors in Tehran including President Bani-Sadr and Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh are far more inclined to aid other revolutionaries than was Bazargan. They have spent years in exile working with other radicals, and their own political beliefs are much more radical than Bazargan’s. [portion marking not declassified]

These differences in emphasis have been accompanied by uncoordinated actions typical of the confusion that has plagued Iran since the fall of the Shah. Iran’s support for foreign revolutionaries has occasionally appeared to be less the work of the government than of individual Iranian leaders and groups. The militants who seized the US Embassy in November, for example, held a conference of liberation groups at the Embassy in January without the explicit backing of the government but with the support of Ayatollah Khomeini. One Iranian cleric last December recruited several hundred volunteers on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization without any authorization by the Tehran government. [portion marking not declassified]

But the government, inspired by revolutionary fervor, has progressively expanded Iranian contacts with a wide variety of revolution-[Page 531]minded groups in the Middle East. Tehran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established an Office of National Liberation Movements, headed by Sodebeh Sodeifi, to identify revolutionary groups worthy of Iranian support. In late February, for example, Sodeifi visited Algeria and extended Iran’s diplomatic recognition to the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic, the political wing of the Polisario Front. Tehran also has established contacts with dissidents in most Persian Gulf states, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. [portion marking not declassified]

Iranian policy in the future is likely to put more emphasis on exporting the revolution. Some traditionalist Foreign Ministry officials and diplomats will argue for maintaining correct relations with Iran’s neighbors, but their voices are not likely to have much resonance in Tehran. [portion marking not declassified]

In any case, Iran’s militant Shia clergy will continue to press for exporting the revolution. Individual clergymen will support their favorite foreign causes. Given its weaknesses, the Tehran government has little ability to curb the clergy’s activities, which have already included providing guerrilla training and some arms for foreign radicals inside Iran. [portion marking not declassified]

US Policy Implications

If the internal chaos in Iran persists in the near term—as seems likely—Iranian support for groups and causes inimicable to US policies and interests will continue to be limited primarily to propaganda and perhaps some increased financial backing. One press report indicates that Iran plans to provide $14 million to liberation movements this year. [portion marking not declassified]

Even limited Iranian support and propaganda will unnerve US allies in the area and complicate US efforts to improve ties with Tehran. If Iran continues to find an audience among Shias in oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the chances for sabotage and strikes by oil workers will be great. [portion marking not declassified]

If Iranian leaders succeed in consolidating their hold on the country in the next year, the threat to neighboring regimes—especially pro-US regimes—is likely to increase. Iran could then devote more attention and resources to sponsoring subversion. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran’s efforts to destabilize its Iraqi and Afghan neighbors also pose dangers for US interests. Increased tensions between Tehran and Baghdad threaten to disrupt oil production in the area, since many of both countries’ facilities are located close to the border. If Iran succeeds in promoting increased Shia unrest in Iraq—the strongest Arab country in the Gulf—the threat to other countries in the area, especially Saudi Arabia, would be greatly increased. [portion marking not declassified]

[Page 532]

A deterioration in Afghan-Iranian relations also could pose problems for the United States. While the United States might benefit from further deterioration in Tehran’s already strained ties with Moscow, widespread Iranian support for the Afghan insurgency might give the Soviets an excuse to intervene in Iran. [portion marking not declassified]


Country Case Studies

Iraq: The Baathist Target

Tehran believes Iraq is its most promising target for subversion in the Arab world. Shias constitute approximately 55 percent of Iraq’s population, but they traditionally have been ruled by Sunni Arabs who compose only 25 percent of the country’s 12.5 million people. The Shias are concentrated in southern Iraq. Major oil pipelines, strategic installations such as the port of Basrah, and the Persian Gulf oil terminals are located in this area, and the southern oilfields depend heavily on Shia labor. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran has long had close ties with the Iraqi Shias. About 250,000 Shias of Iranian ancestry reside in Iraq, most near the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. One of Iran’s most respected clerical leaders, Ayatollah Khoi, resides in Najaf, and Ayatollah Khomeini spent 13 years in exile there. [portion marking not declassified]

The Iranian leadership sees the Baathist regime in Baghdad as a militarist regime devoid of popular legitimacy and insufficiently Islamic. Khomeini doubtless recalls with some bitterness that Iraqi leaders ousted him from his Najaf exile in October 1978 because of their desire to keep relations with the Shah on an even keel. [portion marking not declassified]

Moreover, Tehran views the Iraqi Government as a threat to the Islamic Republic. Tehran is well aware that the Iraqis are supporting dissident groups in Iran, including the Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi minority groups and is probably aware of former Prime Minister Bakhtiar’s contacts with Iraq. Iran also recognizes that Iraq is its major competitor for influence in the Persian Gulf. [portion marking not declassified]

Since early 1979, the Iranians have provided some limited support to Iraqi Shia dissidents. This support primarily has been propaganda—leaflets and tape cassettes advancing Khomeini’s views have circulated among the Shias calling for the overthrow of the Baathist regime. [portion marking not declassified]

Iranian media have also focused on Iraq, making the Baghdad regime Iran’s second major target of hostile propaganda after the United States. Tehran radio features a 45-minute daily program [Page 533]directed at Iraq and highlighted by an anti-Iraqi commentary entitled “The Baath in the Dock.” The main themes of Iranian propaganda are:

• Iraq secretly supports the United States and Israel against Iran.

• Iraq is fomenting sedition in Iran.

• Iraqi Shias are oppressed and should rise against the Baathist leadership.

The programs directed toward Iraq occasionally include messages from little known Iraqi dissident organizations supporting Tehran and attacking the Baathists. [portion marking not declassified]

Iran also has provided some training and arms for Iraqi Shia dissidents. According to one account Iran had given military training to about 1,000 Iraqi militants by February 1980. There have been several small border clashes between the two countries, and some have probably been caused by dissidents crossing the border from Iran. [less than 1 line not declassified] a clash in mid-December was the result of Iraqi commandos raiding a Shia guerrilla center in Iran. [less than 1 line not declassified]

[1 paragraph (8 lines) not declassified]

Baghdad has assets of its own to counter Iranian support for the Iraqi Shia dissidents. Iraqi President Saddam Husayn has not hesitated to order Iraqi security forces to pursue Shia rebels, and his Information Minister said last June that “if there are those in Iraq who seek martyrdom, the government is prepared to accommodate them.” Baghdad also seeks to exploit Persian-Arab differences and uses economic and welfare programs to improve the Shias’ standard of living and loyalty. [portion marking not declassified]

Tehran’s support for the Iraqi Shias also has been hindered by the Shias’ traditional inability to unite. [3 lines not declassified]

Tehran will probably continue to provide propaganda backing to the Iraqi Shias and may increase direct assistance. Bani-Sadr probably will seek to prevent relations with Baghdad from deteriorating too far, however, because he recognizes that the Iranian military is far inferior to the Iraqis’. Iranian revolutionary leaders hope that limited support for the Iraqi Shias will keep Baghdad off balance, prevent Iraq from interfering in Iran, and ultimately create the revolutionary mobilization of the Iraqi masses necessary for the creation of an Islamic Republic to replace the Baathists. [portion marking not declassified]

Saudi Arabia

Tehran’s relations with the Saudi monarchy have been predictably uneasy since the fall of the Shah. To many Iranians, the Saudi royal family shares many of the Pahlavis’ worst characteristics—a pro-US regime that has embarked on a massive modernization program with[Page 534]out any significant effort to change the autocratic and backward political system. Moreover, Riyadh’s claim to be a world spokesman for Islam because of its status as defender of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina irritates the Iranian leadership. [portion marking not declassified]

Saudi Arabia is next after Iraq as a major Arab target of hostile Iranian propaganda. Tehran has focused principally on the Saudis’ close ties to the United States. An editorial on 11 December told Saudis that “oil-guzzling America is plundering your blood . . . and is crushing you with the arms purchased with your own oil money.” It called on all Saudis to recognize that “an uprising against America is a divine duty.” [portion marking not declassified]

Iranian propaganda also has called explicitly for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and has frequently broadcast messages supporting a little known Saudi dissident group called the Islamic Revolutionary Organization in the Arabian Peninsula. In one six-day period—31 January to 6 February—this group was mentioned at least four times by Tehran radio as upholding the banner of Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia. [portion marking not declassified]

The Iranians have focused their attention on the 150,000-strong Shia minority concentrated in the Eastern Province (about 3 percent of the country’s population). Saudi Shias traditionally have been discriminated against by the predominant Wahhabi Sunni sect. In the Eastern Province they constitute about one quarter of the native population and have played a major role in the oil industry, amounting to between one quarter to one-third of the work force. Iranian propaganda has urged the Saudi Shias to strike and sabotage the oil industry to show solidarity with Iran. [portion marking not declassified]

Tehran’s appeals have had some success. Saudi Shias have rioted in the Eastern Province twice in the last six months, openly calling for the overthrow of the monarchy and expressing support for Ayatollah Khomeini. In late November during the holy days of the Muslim mourning month of Moharram, riots broke out in the largest Shia towns in the Eastern Province following pro-Khomeini demonstrations. Saudi security forces quelled them at a cost of 60 Shia lives. Rioting occurred again on 1 February during demonstrations marking the anniversary of Khomeini’s return to Iran in 1979. In both cases the Saudi authorities concluded that many of the young Shias involved had been influenced by Tehran’s propaganda. [portion marking not declassified]

[Omitted here is a picture of Iraqi, Afghan, and Palestinian delegates to a liberation conference in Tehran.]

There is some evidence of more direct Iranian involvement in the Shia unrest. One report in February indicated that the Saudis had intercepted a shipment of arms for the Shias that may have come from Iran. Last fall, Iranians making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (the [Page 535]Hajj) reportedly also visited Shia towns in the Eastern Province to preach the Khomeini line to the devout. The Saudis subsequently expelled several Iranian clerics. [portion marking not declassified]

The Saudi Shias are too few in number and too isolated from the mainstream of Saudi society to overthrow the monarchy. Their strategic location and participation in the oil industry, however, give them the ability to pose a serious security problem for the regime. Tehran will almost certainly continue to support Shia dissidence in Saudi Arabia, even if diplomatic relations between the two countries remain correct. [portion marking not declassified]

Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Gulf States

Iran’s relations with the small Persian Gulf monarchies also have been troubled by Tehran’s support for Shia unrest. Iranian propaganda often has criticized the Gulf states for failing to support Iran against the United States. Government officials have stressed that Iran would like to maintain good relations with the Gulf states, but have also argued—as Bani-Sadr said in early February—that “we are not responsible for other peoples oppressed by rapacious and unpopular governments (in the Gulf) who are attracted by our deeds to follow our example.” [portion marking not declassified]

Tehran’s attention has focused largely on Bahrain because about half of its population is Shia and because until 1971 the island was claimed as part of Iran. One Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Sadiq Rouhani, has been especially outspoken in his support for Bahraini Shias and on occasion has demanded the return of Bahrain to Persian sovereignty. Rouhani’s statements had caused considerable embarrassment for former Prime Minister Bazargan’s government and never appeared to have had full support in Tehran. Since the fall of the Bazargan government, Rouhani has continued to call for the overthrow of the regime in Manama, but it remains unclear how much support he enjoys among his fellow clerics. [portion marking not declassified]

Nonetheless, some Bahraini Shia dissidents and clerical leaders have made several trips to Tehran and Qom to meet with Iranian officials including Ayatollah Khomeini. Some have been arrested or expelled upon their return to Bahrain. Radio Tehran, moreover, has broadcast statements from the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain praising the Iranian revolution and appealing for support to overthrow “internal and foreign despots.” Antigovernment leaflets also have been sent to Bahrain from Iran. [portion marking not declassified]

[1 paragraph (11 lines) not declassified]

The level of Shia unrest in Bahrain has been relatively low since last fall, and support for Ayatollah Khomeini has apparently fallen off because of the hostage crisis. Tehran probably will continue to try to [Page 536]maintain correct but cool relations with Manama while giving some low-level support to dissidents. Individual Iranian leaders like Ayatollah Rouhani may be more active on the dissidents’ behalf, and given the confusion in Iran, they will be able to do what they please. [portion marking not declassified]

Kuwaiti-Iranian relations also have been strained by the Shia revolution in Tehran. The US Embassy in Kuwait has been the target of several pro-Khomeini demonstrations that may have been organized at least in part by the Iranian Embassy. Kuwait has a Shia population estimated at approximately one quarter to one-fifth of the country. As in other Gulf states many Kuwaiti Shias are of Iranian background, and some are also Iranian citizens. [portion marking not declassified]

As in Bahrain, some religious leaders in Iran have supported Shia unrest in Kuwait. There have been several pro-Khomeini demonstrations in the country, and a major Kuwaiti Shia leader, Sayyid Abbas al-Mihri, was deported on 26 September along with 18 members of his family. Kuwaiti authorities have also recently arrested several Iranian Shias who were preparing to distribute antiregime and anti-US leaflets. In one arrest, the authorities discovered an arms cache. [portion marking not declassified]

The Iranian media, on the other hand, generally have been fairly favorable to Kuwait. Tehran radio promptly and favorably reported Kuwait’s opposition to the foreign military buildup in the Gulf, the US decision to freeze Iranian assets, and the call for UN economic sanctions against Iran. [portion marking not declassified]

Afghanistan—the Communist Menace

Iran has viewed the government in Kabul as a threat since the Marxist military coup in April 1978. Even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Iranian leaders were providing some support to insurgents opposed to the Kabul regime. The Soviet intervention has only increased Tehran’s concern about the problem. The Iranians particularly fear that Afghanistan may be used as a base for subverting Iran, especially the Baluchi minority in southeast Iran. [portion marking not declassified]

Tehran radio has broadcast a steady stream of attacks on the Marxist government, branding it an atheistic enemy of Islam and a tool of Soviet designs in the region. Several Afghan leaders have visited Tehran and Qom appealing for aid from the Iranians. Ayatollah Khomeini last August appealed to the Afghan people to “take a lesson from Iran” and “kick out” its Communist rulers. President Bani-Sadr has been especially outspoken and has often promised to provide aid to the rebels, including military training and arms, financial support, propaganda, diplomatic assistance, and even volunteers to fight with the rebels. [portion marking not declassified]

[Page 537]

Substantial evidence indicates that since the revolution toppled the Shah in early 1979 Iran has been providing some limited support to Afghanistan:

• [3 lines not declassified]

• [3½ lines not declassified]

• [4½ lines not declassified]

• [2½ lines not declassified]

• [2½ lines not declassified]

[Omitted here is a picture of Afghan insurgents near Herat.]

There are now about 100,000 Afghan refugees in eastern Iran, and some are reportedly using the refugee camps near Zahedan and Mashhad to train militants and mount cross-border operations into Afghanistan. The border is more than 400 kilometers long and poorly supervised. Tribal groups like the Baluchis live on both sides of the border and have traditionally passed back and forth with ease. Smuggling is a major business in the area. [portion marking not declassified]

• [2½ lines not declassified]

• [2½ lines not declassified]

• [4½ lines not declassified]

Iranian aid appears to have had little impact on the Afghan insurgency. Although dissident tactics in Herat have at times been patterned after those used in Iran to bring down the Shah, there is no good evidence to support Afghan Government charges of direct Iranian involvement. The Shia Hazaras (Shias compose only 12 percent of Afghans) look to Khomeini for leadership, but their success in limiting government control to some towns is chiefly due to their own efforts and to the low priority Kabul has given to the Hazara insurgency. [portion marking not declassified]

[Omitted here is copyright information on the photographs.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Support Services (DI), Job 81T00208R: Production Case Files (1979–1980), Box 2, Folder 16. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. Prepared by the Iran Task Force and coordinated with the Office of Strategic Research and the National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia.