Over the weekend the violent demonstrations which have wracked Iran for about a year reached into the city center of Teheran, the nation's capital. Youthful demonstrators, about 3,000 strong, vented their wrath against the symbols or Iran's Westernization — smashing the windows of banks, hotels, tourist shops and businesses selling alcohol.
The weekend eruption forced Iran's beleaguered leader, Shah Reza Pahlavi, to install a military government and to intensify marshal law. Practically with one stroke he was forced to suspend all the liberalization measures he had been introducing over the past few months — removing press censorship, permitting the formation of political parties, and the freeing of political prisoners. With every freedom, it seemed, came increased turbulence and greater demands. The Shah has now turned to his greatest ally, the 400,000 strong military establishment, up until now loyal to the Shah but feeling hamstrung with political constraints on dealing with the crescendo of violence.
Will the new tough measures of the Shah work? Will striking laborers — especially the 37,000 in the crucial petroleum industry — go back to their jobs? Perhaps for now they have little choice.
The United States has consistently expressed sympathy for the Shah in his mounting dilemma. But the Shah's crackdown runs counter to Washington's human rights drive — which many prominent Iranians feel helped fuel Iran's turbulence in the first place.
What happens in Iran is critical for several reasons. The country is the world's second largest exporter of oil (after Saudi Arabia). It supplies roughly 8% of u.s. import needs, but is proportionately far more important to the economies of Japan and Western Europe.
Equally important is Iran's geographical position in the tense Middle East/Far East region — an area that an American expert once called "the real center of the world."
A stable pro-West Iran is absolutely essential to the stability of the region. Ever since the British pulled out of their Mideast sea bases, the United States has depended upon Iran to fill London's shoes as the region's "policeman." The Shah has willingly undertaken this task and has purchased $21 billion worth of military hardware from the U.S. to step into this role.
Now, however, this role is threatened, the Shah having been forced to divert massive funds to the civilian economy in an attempt to quell the unrest.
Brooding over Iran's troublesome future is the Soviet Union, Teheran's neighbor to the north, with whom it shares a 1,500 mile border. Moscow, of course, supports the Iranian Communist Party, Tudeh. But even if the Communists don't come to power someday, the Kremlin would still benefit from a neutral, traditional Islamic government. One which would undoubtedly trim back Iran's military links to the United States and Europe and put the brakes on Westernization.
The importance of a stable Iran to the entire free, world was summed up by a report in the November 13, 1978 issue of U.S. News and World Report:
Iran guards the sea-lanes over which most Iranian, Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabian oil flows to the U.S., Western Europe and Japan.
Russia already has a foothold in neighboring Iraq and is entrenched in Ethiopia and Yemen- Aden, which command the Red Sea access to the Suez canal. Emergence of a Soviet-aligned Iran thus could give the Kremlin control over both of the West's major oil-supply routes. A major goal of the soviet Union has long been the acquisition of warm-water ports in South Asia and easy access to the Indian Ocean. Russian naval strength is expanding in that region, but to get there Soviet warships must make the long voyage from Black Sea and Northern Pacific ports.
With a pro-Soviet government now ruling Afghanistan next door and nearby Pakistan boiling with political unrest, a stable government in Teheran is a must if Washington hopes to block further expansion of Moscow's influence in a critical corner of the world.
The Shah's drastic measures may break the back of the violence in his country for the time being. But many experts believe he can't ultimately prevail against the determined opposition of the powerful Shia Moslem leaders and their impassioned followers.