All public domain photos via Iranian.com, unless otherwise stated, and where possible accredited to their original owner.
Thirty years ago Iran’s revolution began with a popular democratic movement and ended with the establishment of one of the world’s primary Islamic states. Today the oppressiveness of such theocracies and the threat of Islamic Jihadists dominate the international agenda, and it is hard to imagine a time when they won’t. Environmental Graffiti has decided to take a closer look at an event that lies at the heart of the West’s difficulties with Iran.
Image via wikimedia
Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled as emperor of Iran for nearly forty years before the events of 1979 forced him from power, eventually driving him to death through ill health. The pro-Western Pahlavi was seen as beholden to – if not a puppet of – the West, whose overly ambitious economic programs had only served to widen the gap between Iran’s rich and poor. Furthermore there was widespread distrust of his brutal autocratic style, his extravagant lifestyle and what was commonly perceived as a gradual westernising and secularising of Iran presided over by Pahlavi.
Opposition voices rallied round Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric living in exile in Paris after challenging the Shah in the early 1960s. Khomeini promised social and economic reform, as well as a return to traditional religious values and a state where Islam formed both the sole religion and dominant political ideology (under strictly enforced Sharia law) – a platform that struck a chord with disenfranchised Iranians.
As the 1970s drew to a close a series of large-scale, increasingly violent anti-Shah protests swept Iran. Instability continued throughout the year, including a wave of strikes which crippled the country’s economy, and as the frequency of demonstrations grew, so the brutality by which the government quashed them increased. The numbers killed by the Shah’s army mounted, fuelling further outrage and demonstration, which in turn led to more deaths and larger and more violent demonstrations.
The US Carter administration pledged full support for the Shah, but rumours abounded that the CIA had advised the White House that the situation was too far advanced to warrant American intervention. The US clearly believed a revolution was now unstoppable. Pahlavi, increasingly disturbed by events, adopted a policy of appeasement (or as close as he could get to one) by promising elections the next year, reigning in the police and army, appealing to moderate clergyman, and introducing sweeping economic cutbacks in an attempt to combat inflation.
Unfortunately Pahlavi’s appeals fell on deaf ears and his economic reforms only served to force a sharp rise in layoffs – particularly among young, unskilled, male workers living in slum areas. By summer 1978, these workers, mostly men from traditional and pious rural backgrounds, joined the protests in their thousands.
In August 1978 the Cinema Rex in Abadan burned to the ground, killing over 400 – and although cinemas were common targets for anti-West demonstrators, such was the distrust of the Shah that the public believed the government had started the fire in order to frame the protestors. Weeks later an event that was to completely kill any hope of compromise would go down in history as the notorious ‘Black Friday’.
Following the Cinema Rex fire the Shah introduced martial law and banned all demonstrations – but on the 8th of September thousands gathered in Jaleh square in Tehran. In what was to become a pivotal moment in Iran’s history, security forces opened fire, killing dozens and ending the dialogue between the protest movement and the Shah’s regime.
In an attempt to weaken the demonstrators, the Shah petitioned Iraq to deport Khomeini, who Pahlavi believed was orchestrating events from behind the scenes. Khomeini left the shelter of Iraq for Kuwait, but was refused entry, and eventually returned to Paris where, ironically, communication with the protestors in Tehran was easier than from other Middle Eastern countries. Events were now far beyond return.
On the 10th and 11th of December 1978, between 6 and 9 million took part in anti-Shah demonstrations. Even allowing for exaggeration this is likely to have been the largest protest the world has ever seen, far beyond the scale of the French or Russian revolutions (in terms of percentage of population involved).
In January 1979 the Shah left Tehran for an ‘extended vacation’. He was never to return, and all over Iran statues of him were torn down by demonstrators. On 1st February the Ayatollah Khomeini made a dramatic return from exile, to a chorus of ‘Islam, Islam, Khomeini, we will follow you!’ – belted out by several million welcoming Iranians.
Khomeini’s return only served to escalate the violence. Political and social instability increased as battles raged in towns and provinces between pro-Khomeini demonstrators and those members of the police and security forces still loyal to the Shah’s effete imperial regime.
Fears persisted amongst the protest movement that the Shah’s army would attempt to re-seize power from their now de facto leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, perhaps even with US support. On the 11th of February tanks rumbled through the streets of Tehran, amid rumours of impending military action, yet as the day wore on it became apparent that the army had little appetite for staging a coup.
The final collapse of the remnants of the Shah’s provisional non-Islamic government came at 2pm when the Supreme Military Council declared itself ‘neutral in the current political disputes… in order to prevent further disorder and bloodshed.’ Finally army and clergy stood hand in hand in peace – if only for a brief few hours.
Without the support of the army, Prime Minister Bakhtiar, appointed by the Shah before he fled, was forced to resign. Two months later Ayatollah Khomeini won a landslide victory in a national referendum and was appointed Iran’s political and religious leader for life. All over Iran pictures of the Shah were burned as the protestors rejoiced at the declaration of the new Islamic Republic.
Twenty years on, the impact of such a tumultuous event is still unfolding. We can easily see how the revolution served to redouble anti-Western feeling amongst Arabs, revitalise enthusiasm in strict Islam and focus the notion of Islam as the third (and greatest) way, between Western and Eastern (US capitalist and Soviet socialist) models of society.
But more difficult to quantify are the myriad of political events that were influenced by what was commonly perceived in Arab states as a victory for the people. First, we might look obviously to the Iran-Iraq war which, although started by Saddam Hussein, quickly became a crusade for Khomeini against what he considered the decadent Arab monarchy in Baghdad. Less obviously we might consider the support, both direct and indirect, that Muslims around the world took from the revolution, particularly in Third World countries such as Somalia – or even the support revolutionary leaders in Tehran gave to other non-Muslim revolutionaries, such as the the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, the IRA in Northern Ireland and the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa.
Western notions of human rights have undoubtedly deteriorated under the new Islamic republic – stricter control of women, lower rates of literacy and oppressive control of the media have all characterised Iran since the revolution. But to many these imperfections are forgiven as necessities of an Islamic state, especially when viewed in the context of the Shah’s excesses. This to-ing and fro-ing between moderate and strict religious observance, between a state respectful of or enslaved by Islam, is perhaps symptomatic of Iran’s, and indeed much of the Middle East’s, political difficulties.
Younger Iranians find it hard to understand what their parents were so passionate about when they overthrew the Shah in the name of the people. And today Iran finds itself in a tragically ironic situation where these very youngsters are rising up and rejecting, in the name of freedom, the very ‘freedoms’ their parents marched in the millions for in 1979, spilling yet more blood. Witness the recent clashes between supporters of the oppressive Ahmadinejad and more moderate (by Iranian standards) Mousavi.
Religious and political conflict will go on in the Middle East – Islam has too much of a hold and is too thorny an issue for it to be otherwise – and as such Western interference will likely only increase. Iraq and Afghanistan appear only the beginning – Pakistan and even Iran itself seem likely to be dragged into the fray as the US and Nato continue to stir up a hornet’s nest. And all this will, of course, have massive significance for that other bloody story that is currently being played out in the Holy Lands, between the Israelis and the Palestinians.