February 15, 2009

"We Had Done It. The Ayatollah Had Come"

"We Had Done It. The Ayatollah Had Come"

By David Patrikarakos Published: February 7 2009 02:00

As late as 1978, US security officials were lauding the stability of Iran, their Gulf ally. The oil-rich state had a highly sophisticated army and ruthlessly effective secret police. It was also bulging with US-supplied arms. And yet a year later, it imploded in the face of mass civil disobedience and public demonstrations. How - and why?

The reasons are clearer than the mechanisms. The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had been dependent on the west throughout his rule - a source of anger among his subjects. Iranians couldn't forgive Britain's meddling in their country during its 19th-century power struggles with Russia in central Asia - or London and Washington's role in the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. It was the CIA's first overthrow of a foreign government - salad days for 20th-century international politics.

The same allied powers - Britain and the USSR - that had forced the Shah's father, Reza Pahlavi, to abdicate in 1941 put his son on the throne the same year. Aware of his debt to them, he ruled cautiously. But opposition was never far from the surface. In 1963, the Shah's so-called White Revolution, a series of modernising reforms, brought him into conflict with a scowling mullah from the dusty town of Khomein in central Iran - the Ayatollah Khomeini. Angered at government encroachment on traditional areas of clerical responsibility, notably education and family law, Khomeini publicly denounced the Shah. His subsequent arrest sparked three days of rioting that left hundreds dead. He was sent into exile the following year.

The crackdown on communists and Islamists - "the red and the black" - in the 1960s and 1970s saw an increasingly authoritarian government clash with dissidents unhappy at western influence in the country, growing state profligacy and low standards of living. But then came the 1973 oil boom, when prices quadrupled and revenues poured into the national coffers - now the Shah was free to indulge his twin tastes: luxury and paranoia.

"Under the Shah, we had an expression: 'Your thoughts smell like gormeh sabzi' [a pungent green stew]. It meant you were in danger because you were thinking," says Farrokh Negahdar, the former leader of the communist group Fedayeen-e Khalq who spent 10 years in the Shah's prisons, and now lives in London. Negahdar was one of the many who took the struggle from the universities to the streets. "I knew from an early age that my life was never going to be peaceful," he shrugs. "Khomeini's [1963] revolt against the Shah was an example to us all. But things really got going in the late 1970s."

"As the Shah's minister of information it was a busy time for me," says Daryoush Homayoun, now living in Geneva. "People were unhappy. All this oil wealth and their lives were no better. My job was to whitewash things. I was constantly talking to the press. In the final year, I must have done around 150 interviews. I was the public face of monarchy."

But widespread unrest continued, inspired by tape recordings of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches against the Shah, smuggled into the country and stealthily distributed among the people. Government clashes with demonstrators in the holy city of Qom and repeated student protests in Tehran increased pressure on the Pahlavi government. "I told the public," says Homayoun, that "if the leftists or Islamists take over, you won't be as free as you are now; they are totalitarians and we are not. I coined the slogan: 'Now is the Time to Choose'. Unfortunately, they did."

"It was important that everyone choose," says Mohsen Sazegara, one-time aide of Ayatollah Khomeini and founder of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Today he lives in Washington, but during the 1970s he battled against Pahlavi's rule. "I organised strikes and demonstrations. But what I really wanted to do was create a slogan for the revolution that everyone could rally around. So I hit upon 'The Shah Must Go', which, when it filtered down to the streets, became 'Death to the Shah'." Old television footage shows thousands of people in the Tehran streets chanting these words. "It was important because it divided the revolutionaries from the reformists - those who wanted change but sought reconciliation with the Shah," adds Sazegara. "That wasn't an option for us."

The Revolutionary Shah

On September 8 1978, the government declared martial law in the face of the worsening situation. But the bloody crackdown never came. Instead, on November 6, the Shah went on Iranian TV and radio to address the nation. He promised not to repeat past mistakes and to make amends: "I heard the voice of your revolution... as Shah of Iran, as well as an Iranian citizen, I cannot but approve your revolution," he said.

On that day the Shah became the first person in Iran to publicly describe the piecemeal demonstrations and intertwining strands of political discontent as a revolution. He also urged the people to allow him to implement it. He competed with Khomeini for its leadership.

"The Islamic revolution is the most flagrant example of how a regime loses, not how a revolution wins," insists Homayoun, the former minister of information. "People say the Shah made mistakes. But he didn't. He pursued a clear strategy - to surrender. He did whatever the revolutionaries wanted - he paved the way for them." After the broadcasts, many government officials, including Homayoun, were arrested. To appease the opposition, the Shah further isolated himself and augmented his weakness.

"The Shah was always afraid," says Ahmad Salamatian, a leading figure in the National Front, a democratic opposition group, who left Iran for Switzerland soon after the revolution. "Of the Americans; of the British. He owed his throne to them. And this is the problem. This is why the Shah became so terrified in the late 1970s, when he thought that England and the US would no longer help him."

More than anyone, even Khomeini, the Shah was the architect of the Islamic revolution: "And this is the problem with all the dictators in our region," says Salamatian. "They dig their own graves."

The Revolutionary Cleric

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was born in Khomein in 1902 to a religious family. Devout from youth, he became - via a brief dalliance with poetry -political, determined to challenge the secular ideals of his day. During his years in exile he gradually fused his theological and political beliefs until he arrived at the velayat-e Faqih (rule of the jurist) - a doctrine arguing that those most qualified to govern were the Islamic jurists, those equipped to interpret God's will.

The Shah's rule was based on the personification of power. In Khomeini, this found its mirror. He offered Iranians a simple dichotomy - him or the Shah. "The choice was simple," says Salamatian. "The Shah was darkness; Khomeini was light." But he was also more than this. "Khomeini was never just a mullah," says Salamatian. "He was the most effective revolutionary strategist Iran ever had, and one of the most accomplished political strategists the 20th century ever saw. He understood two things: the power of Shiism, and its power to mobilise the people. He was the Lenin of the Islamic revolution."

The roots of Shiism lie in 7th-century Medina. The birth of the Shia branch of Islam was, in part, a political act - a challenge arising from disputes over the succession following Mohammed. The Shia supported the rule of Ali - the prophet's cousin and son-in-law - and his descendents, an assertion that split the faithful. An iconic scene at the centre of Shia consciousness is the martyrdom of Ali's son Hussein at Kerbala (in modern-day Iraq) in 680AD at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid. It was, Shias believe, the martyrdom of the just at the hands of a tyrant, and it's easy to read contemporary parallels into this, particularly if you have a leader who understands its political possibilities. In 1963, Khomeini had begun his protest by describing the Shah as Yazid.

An important ritual in Shia Islam is the passion play Tasu'a - Hussein's death re-enacted each year on the ninth of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, the day before Ashura, the annual ritual of mourning for Ali's death. It is Kerbala "brought home", given emotional proximity. Go to Iran during Ashura and ask the people why they're crying. "Thirteen-hundred years ago, Hussein was killed," they will tell you. What Khomeini understood was that through the collective memory of Kerbala and the ritual of Tasu'a, the emotion of sacred memory could be harnessed and mobilised towards a political goal.

In early September 1978, a crowd of 50,000 marched through Tehran protesting against the Shah. Almost all the demonstrators were middle-class. But mullahs led it, and the slogan was "Freedom, Independence and Islamic government". The people marched and then, en masse, they prayed. But 90 per cent of them didn't know how - they just copied the mullahs. "The revolution was never religious in its true sense," argues Homayoun. "[Religion] was just its form of political expression."

In late 1978 and early 1979, the religious calendar coincided with popular unrest to finish the Shah. On December 11 1978, the day of Ashura itself, more than two million people, filled with the righteous anger of Ali, gathered in Tehran's Shahyad Square to call for the downfall of the Shah and the return of Khomeini. The discontent of previous years, now intensified and channelled through the medium of Shia Islam, was too strong to resist. Just weeks later, on January 16 1979, the Shah fled Iran, leaving the prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in charge. He never returned.

Khomeini in France

In October 1978, Saddam Hussein had told Ayatollah Khomeini to leave Iraq, where he had been in exile for 13 years. Khomeini, his son Ahmad, his aide Ebrahim Yazdi and several others went to Kuwait but were turned back at the border. That night, they debated where to go next. Syria and Algeria were suggested, but Yazdi favoured a western country, since the freedom of speech there would make it easier to denounce the Shah and sustain the revolution. Khomeini agreed. The great political strategist was to use the freedoms afforded by liberal democracy to complete his Islamic revolution.

The group decided on a small village outside Paris, Neauphle-le-Chateau. Sazegara was summoned and, together with Yazdi and Khomeini's son, they made their plans in the orchard of a French villa.

Sazegara focused on creating a "people's army". He rented a room in the only hotel in the village and began to teach Iranian dissidents the arts of revolution. And he read: on the tactics of the Romans, the Vietnamese and the Israelis. He was particularly impressed with the Israelis - how a man could be an accountant one day and a colonel the next. He began sending students to Lebanon and Syria to be trained in warfare. This was in December 1978 - just weeks before the Shah fled. "We had no idea it would be so easy," he says. "We were planning for years of struggle. The Shah's fall took everybody by surprise."

Khomeini's cohort knew that by leaving Iran, the Shah was finished. But they were still anxious. The army remained loyal to the government and the exiles might be killed if they returned. But after a few days, Khomeini decided that Bakhtiar was stalling and that they had to go back.

Khomeini's Return

Five weeks later, on February 1 1979, on board an Air France 747 to Tehran, Sazegara was having a bad day. In charge of the press, he had issued tickets for the 450 journalists who had come to witness the return of Khomeini and the birth of a revolution. But Bakhtiar's last-minute announcement that he would not allow the plane to land in Tehran was causing problems. Worried officials had reduced passenger numbers in case extra fuel was needed to fly on to Turkey. The journalists who had been told to stay behind "didn't like that. I had a big problem telling some they couldn't come. Right up to boarding, they were still arguing."

Squabbling continued after they landed at Tehran's Mehrabad airport after Bakhtiar backed down. As the plane sat on the runway, Sazegara looked out of his window. He could see air force guards around the plane and, in the distance, Ayatollah Pasandideh, Khomeini's elder brother, among the waiting dignitaries. People were now bickering about who would help the Ayatollah down from the plane - he was almost 80 years old. Finally, to avoid showing favouritism, Khomeini opted for the French pilot. The stairs were connected to the plane; the journalists, it was decided, would disembark first. Sazegara went down ahead to help organise them; he was the first person off the plane.

"All around me flashbulbs started going off like explosions - for a second I thought the army was firing on us. I looked up, and Khomeini was being helped slowly down the steps on to Iranian soil. We had done it. The Ayatollah had come."

About three miles across town, in northern Tehran, Daryoush Homayoun sat in the communal room of Jamshidabad military prison watching TV. "I still remember it; even after all these years," he says. "The stairs going up to the plane; the door opening; and then not Khomeini but this little man in a suit scampering down the steps. You could see him gesturing at the herd of journalists. And then the Ayatollah appeared. There was a feeling of great awe in the room. But there was also the sense of total loss - for both us and the country. We knew what Khomeini would do, what was coming."

On the flight back to Iran, ABC reporter Peter Jennings asked Khomeini: "What do you feel in returning to Iran?"

"Hich ehsasi nadaram," he answered ("I feel nothing").

Nothing. "That for me summed everything up," says Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah, who was on a pilot training scheme at Reese Air Force base in Lubbock, Texas, when he watched the footage on US television. "This was shocking for many Iranians, including many of the pro-Khomeini faction, and is at the core of what ensued. Now, three decades later, that one word encapsulates the whole raison d'etre of this regime."

Farrokh Negahdar, the communist leader, was in a meeting when the news came through. "After a quick vote we decided to welcome him. We made banners saying 'We welcome Ayatollah Khomeini back on to Iranian soil' - and our members took strategic positions along the road from the airport to the cemetery. There were millions there. It was then I truly understood the phenomenon of Khomeini."

Amid the jabbing, shoving crowd of journalists, the revolutionary party had left the airport to make the 4km drive to Behesht Zahra cemetery, where Khomeini would make his victory speech to the masses. Sitting in a minibus behind the Ayatollah's Mercedes, Sazegara gawped at the throngs lining the streets: "Among the crowds, I could see the old leftwing activists - the godless communists - holding up large banners welcoming the Ayatollah. That made me smile." Khomeini's car had forced its way through the crowds, but the rest of the entourage was at a standstill. Assured that the Ayatollah had sufficient numbers with him, Sazegara got out and took a cab to his parents' house. All his family except his father had gone to see Khomeini. None of them knew he had been on the plane.

The Islamist ascent

The coalition of nationalists, leftists and Islamists that had overthrown the Shah was always unlikely to hold. The battle between monarchists and revolutionaries had been decided. The revolutionaries now split; a mass of political groupings versus the Islamists.

On February 10 1979, the communist group Fedayeen-e Khalq, led by Negahdar, marked the eighth anniversary of the group's foundation in Tehran University. As the Fedayeen were celebrating, news came through from Farah Abad army base in east Tehran of a clash between the group's supporters and soldiers loyal to the Shah. The Fedayeen ran to the base and overwhelmed the soldiers. After that, they marched on all the army bases and police stations in Tehran. Momentum gathered. Across the city, people began to attack soldiers. At around 2pm on February 11 1979, the army declared itself "neutral" and gave up its arms - it would not fight the people. The revolution had succeeded.

"That day was the end for us, whether we knew it or not," says Negahdar. "It was us that had risked our lives to disarm the soldiers, us that had forced the army to declare itself neutral. But Khomeini always had access to the people."

Through the mosques, Khomeini had instructed his supporters to take all the weapons the Fedayeen had seized. At the entrance to each army base stood a lorry manned by the Ayatollah's supporters. Anyone who came out with arms had to hand them over. "The next day, we were in our base - the technical faculty of Tehran University - and three of our lorries turned up with weapons," says Negahdar. "Three. Out of the scores of lorries that were filled."

In the coming weeks, Khomeini made his mark. Almost immediately, he set about correcting the gender "problem": no judge was to be female; all women were to wear the hijab. On April 1, following a national referendum, more than 98 per cent of the population voted in favour of the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

Alone again at last

The return of Khomeini brought change to Iran. But it was with the hostage crisis seven months later that the Islamic Republic raised its flag to the world. The 444-day siege of the US embassy in Tehran, in which a militant group, The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, held 52 diplomats hostage from November 4 1979 to January 20 1981, was the October of the Islamic revolution. Outraged, Washington severed relations with Iran and much of the international community followed suit. Khomeini had achieved his goal - the destruction of links with the Great Satan. Iran would now conform to a fundamental tenet of Khomeinism - self-sufficiency. Never again would it look east to a heretical USSR, or west to a tyrannical US; instead, it would look skywards, to God.

In the following months Khomeini turned his attention to leftwing groups, denouncing them as "counter-revolutionaries" and "western-style, imported intellectuals". Non-clerics within government were either driven out or resigned in frustration. The introduction of the Islamic Republic's constitution on December 3 1979 that created the role of "Supreme Leader" for Khomeini, and a "Guardian Council" to veto "un-Islamic" legislation, formalised a new political establishment built on Islam. The Revolutionary Guards corps, founded in May 1979 to uphold the ideals of the revolution, gave it teeth. All competing factions had been defeated. The republic had had its October, and Iran would have its winter.


What is the legacy of that old man's return three decades ago? "Make no mistake, the Islamic revolution was the greatest calamity of Iranian history since the Mongol invasion," says Homayoun. Reza Pahlavi agrees: "Iran gave the world its first human rights declaration under Cyrus the Great. Now it has become a synonym for repression."

Sazegara, who grew disaffected with the republic and, no longer bound by personal loyalty to Khomeini when the Ayatollah died in 1989, turned against it, is gloomy: "We thought we were bringing society something new. But we were wrong. If you want to bring something new to the world, you have to co-operate with it."

But Iran is changing. Two-thirds of the population is under 25. There are an estimated 75,000 bloggers in the country and despite state restrictions, satellite TV and natural curiosity make for an engaged population. And people are fighting the regime, not least on a cultural level, as cinema and the arts continue to flourish in the shade of the state's hungry censure.

Will the Islamic Republic last another 30 years? Farrokh Negahdar is hopeful for change: "After the revolution a popular slogan was 'Democracy and Patriotism are Illusions'. Today, the youth believes that democracy and patriotism are the very things to fight for."

A westerner flees amid turmoil in the streets

By Ashley Dartnell

In August 1978, I was 19 and nearing the end of my summer vacation in Tehran, where I was born and where my father worked as a civil engineer. In the city, troops and tanks patrolled as students took to the streets. Where we lived, though, in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, it was glassy and still. No one was around, not even Mom's bridge buddies. But it was an unreal, unstable calm.

On the day my father drove me to the airport for my flight to the US and my studies, demonstrators had again brought traffic to a standstill. Suddenly, a group of young men, chanting and banging sticks, spotted that we were foreigners and rushed our car. They beat the roof, screaming "Ferangi go home" and "Amreeka devils!"

"Get down and don't meet their eye," ordered my father.

I cowered in the foot-well. The men stuck their angry, bearded faces to the windows, pounding with rocks, sticks and fists. My father simply stared ahead. Suddenly, the students surged off to join a larger crowd of demonstrators nearby. Shaking with fear, I asked my father what would happen. "Nothing," he said. "The Shah arrests the people involved and it blows over."

"It's so sad they'll all be put in jail," I said.

"Yes," said my father, "they'll disappear and then the next group will rise up and walk into the firing squad."

"Oh God," I groaned, knowing that my father was about to go away on business. "Is it safe for Mom and the boys?"

"Of course," he scoffed. "No one would ever hurt us."

On the plane, I looked out at the wispy desert clouds as the city receded. It was the last time I saw Tehran. My mother and brothers got out in autumn; my father stayed behind, running from one government office to another trying to save his business. But by the time martial law was imposed, he had lost almost everything.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009