Part I: The Day the Shah Left - this is the first in a series of articles that looks at how the Iranian Revolution came to be in 1979, and where it has led Iran over the course of four decades.
“The Shah is Gone” was the headline in all newspapers in Iran forty years ago today on 16 January 1979. The phrase was short but it signalled the end of an era.
It came after over a year of demonstrations across Iran. In Qom, Tabriz, Mashhad, Yazd, Isfahan, Abadan and Tehran hundreds of thousands of protesters chanted “Down with the Shah” as national strikes, especially in the oil industry, brought the country to a standstill.
Once the Iranian army backed the protests, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, knew his days were numbered.
On this day the divergent groups that had come together with the aim of replacing the Shah’s autocratic monarchy were finally victorious. The liberal democrats, nationalists, communists, clandestine militant groups, students, bazaar merchants and the general public were overjoyed.
Soldiers put red carnations in the barrels of their guns as a symbol of defiance of orders to shoot civilians.
The Shah had tears in his eyes as he boarded the aeroplane which he piloted to Aswan in Egypt. This wasn’t the first time he was leaving Iran. He had also left in August 1953, then to Iraq, as the UK-US coup was being prepared to secure his position against mounting opposition.
The Shah had perhaps forgotten that the same coup had removed from power the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh and over the years his secret police SAVAK had pushed out, imprisoned and tortured many of the political players including Mossadeq’s National Front, the communist Tudeh Party and the clergy.
In 1979 it was a new generation of the same groups that were coming back to retake power.
Meanwhile, the Shah’s relations with the West had also deteriorated. While over the past two decades he had become an ambitious dictator, nurtured and armed by the West, in the early 70s he fell out of favour with them as he sought a more independent foreign policy and despite repeated requests by the Americans he continued to push for higher oil prices.
So, unlike in 1953, there were no Western saviours in 1979.
“Tehran's spontaneous enthusiasm about the Shah's departure seems unlikely to be reversed,” wrote the Washington Post.
One week before, on 4-8 January 1979, at a summit in Guadeloupe hosted by the French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and attended the British, German and American leaders it was suggested the Shah “must leave as soon as possible.”
President Giscard’s personal representative, Michel Poniatowski, had gone to Iran and met with the Shah, subsequently reporting: “the Shah was sick suffering from cancer …”
The French president kept that sickness a secret but allowed France to be used as the main base for one the most relentless voices against the Shah.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, landed in Paris in October 1978, from where he subsequently led the revolution. His edicts and interviews were reported daily by the international media which had converged near his residence in Neauphle-le Chateau.
The BBC Persian Service broadcasts on shortwave made it possible for all Iranians, whether at home or abroad, to hear his directives. Additionally taped recordings of his speeches were sent to Iran from Paris by his supporters.
The first calls for change, however, had not come from Khomeini but from the liberalising classes. It was the Poetry Nights in October 1977 at the Writers’ Union which triggered the open call for “freedom” and “justice”.
But as the revolution gathered momentum it became clear that the divergent groups which had united on the ticket of toppling the Shah had very different understanding of these terms.
“Freedom” for the Islamists was from the onslaught of modernity, whereas the liberal classes praised “freedom” as part and parcel of modernity. The leftist groups understood “freedom” in the ideological context of the Soviet revolution of 1917.
Khomeini's simple, and daring rhetoric “the Shah must go,” and his uncompromising stance against foreign interference in his slogan “neither east nor west” plus his support of the oppressed resonated with the masses.
The liberal classes which had started the call for “freedom” did not have a strategy of their own as Khomeini pushed for an “Islamic Republic”. Their broad preference was for a republic and a balanced relationship with the West. They failed to achieve that.
The country the Shah left behind was shattered and his supporters left to the ruthless violence of the revolution.
The authoritarian state he had built around his monarchy had not allowed debate and discussion or any form of political participation. As such, the divergent groups that were victorious in ousting the Shah in January 1979 were in no position to run a complex country like Iran.
Forty years on, Khomeini’s heir, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with an even worse catalogue than the Shah of suppression, injustice, and corruption is hearing similar calls: “Down with Khamenei” has echoed in an increasing number of demonstrations since 2009.
Ironically many are now asking for the return of the Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi.
History has a habit of repeating itself. And we never learn.
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