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Iranian Politics

1963-1975: Heyday of the Shah

Elections to the twenty-first Majlis in September 1963 led to the formation of a new political party, the Iran Novin (New Iran) Party, committed to a program of economic and administrative reform and renewal. The Alam government had opened talks with the National Front leaders earlier in the year, but no accommodation had been reached, and the talks had broken down over such issues as freedom of activity for the front. As a result, the front was not represented in the elections, which were limited to the officially sanctioned parties, and the only candidates on the slate were those presented by the Union of National Forces, an organization of senior civil servants and officials and of workers' and farmers' representatives, put together with government support. After the elections, the largest bloc in the new Majlis, with forty seats, was a group called the Progressive Center. The center, an exclusive club of senior civil servants, had been established by Hasan Ali Mansur in 1961 to study and make policy recommendations on major economic and social issues. In June 1963, the Shah had designated the center as his personal research bureau. When the new Majlis convened in October 1963, 100 more deputies joined the center, giving Mansur a majority. In December, Mansur converted the Progressive Center into a political party, the Iran Novin. In March 1964, Alam resigned and the Shah appointed Mansur prime minister, at the head of an Iran Novin-led government.

The events leading to the establishment of the Iran Novin and the appointment of Mansur as prime minister represented a renewed attempt by the Shah and his advisers to create a political organization that would be loyal to the crown, attract the support of the educated classes and the technocratic elite, and strengthen the administration and the economy. The Iran Novin drew its membership almost exclusively from a younger generation of senior civil servants, Western-educated technocrats, and business leaders. Initially, membership was limited to 500 hand-picked persons, and it was allowed to grow very slowly. In time it came to include leading members of the provincial elite and its bureaucratic, professional, and business classes. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when trade unions and professional organizations affiliated themselves with the party, full membership was reserved for a limited group.

In the Majlis the government enjoyed a comfortable majority, and the nominal opposition, the Mardom Party, generally voted with the government party. An exception, however, was the general response to the Status of Forces bill, a measure that granted diplomatic immunity to United States military personnel serving in Iran, and to their staffs and families. In effect, the bill would allow these Americans to be tried by United States rather than Iranian courts for crimes committed on Iranian soil. For Iranians the bill recalled the humiliating capitulatory concessions extracted from Iran by the imperial powers in the nineteenth century. Feeling against the bill was sufficiently strong that sixty-five deputies absented themselves from the legislature, and sixty-one opposed the bill when it was put to a vote in October 1964.

The measure also aroused strong feeling outside the Majlis. Khomeini, who had been released from house arrest in April 1964, denounced the measure in a public sermon before a huge congregation in Qom. Tapes of the sermon and a leaflet based on it were widely circulated and attracted considerable attention. Khomeini was arrested again in November 1964, within days of the sermon, and sent into exile in Turkey. In October 1965, he was permitted to take up residence in the city of An Najaf, Iraq, the site of numerous Shia shrines, where he was to remain for the next thirteen years.

With this assistance, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was able to maintain political stability despite the assassination of his prime minister and an attempt on his own life. On 21 January 1965, Mansur was assassinated by members of a radical Islamic group. Evidence made available after the Islamic Revolution revealed that the group had affiliations with clerics close to Khomeini. A military tribunal sentenced six of those charged to death and the others to long prison terms. In April 1965 there was also an attempt on the Shah's life, organized by a group of Iranian graduates of British universities. To replace Mansur as prime minister, the Shah appointed Amir Abbas Hoveyda, a former diplomat and an executive of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Hoveyda had helped Mansur found the Progressive Center and the Iran Novin and had served as his minister of finance.

Hoveyda remained in office for the next twelve years, the longest term of any of Iran's modern prime ministers. During this decade, the Iran Novin dominated the government and the Majlis. It won large majorities in both the 1967 and the 1971 elections. These elections were carefully controlled by the authorities. Only the Mardom Party and, later, the Pan-Iranist Party, an extreme nationalist group, were allowed to participate in them. Neither party was able to secure more than a handful of Majlis seats, and neither engaged in serious criticism of government programs.

In 1969 and again in 1972, the shah appeared ready to permit the Mardom Party, under new leadership, to function as a genuine opposition, i.e., to criticize the government openly and to contest elections more energetically, but these developments did not occur. The Iran Novin's domination of the administrative machinery was further made evident during municipal council elections held in 136 towns throughout the country in 1968. The Iran Novin won control of a large majority of the councils and every seat in 115 of them. Only 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Tehran, however, a demonstration of public indifference that was not confined to the capital.

In 1971 celebrations were held to mark what was presented as 2,500 years of uninterrupted monarchy (there were actually gaps in the chronological record) and the twenty-fifth centennial of the founding of the Iranian empire by Cyrus the Great. The ceremonies were designed primarily to celebrate the institution of monarchy and to affirm the position of the shah as the country's absolute and unchallenged ruler. The lavish ceremonies (which many compared to a Hollywood-style extravaganza), the virtual exclusion of Iranians from the celebrations in which the honored guests were foreign heads of state, and the excessive adulation of the person of the shah in official propaganda generated much adverse domestic comment. A declaration by Khomeini condemning the celebrations and the regime received wide circulation. In 1975, when the Majlis, at government instigation, voted to alter the Iranian calendar so that year one of the calendar coincided with the first year of the reign of Cyrus rather than with the beginning of the Islamic era, many Iranians viewed the move as an unnecessary insult to religious sensibilities.




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