Reign of Doom: Iran’s Revolution Turns 25

There is a famous Iranian saying that serves as a warning to evildoers: watch yourself, since the wrath of the person you have wronged is far more dangerous and destructive than yours. The revenge-seeker always wins. It’s a popular proverb, burrowed deep into the Iranian psyche, yet it’s this exact warning, foolishly ignored by the all-powerful (or so he thought) Shah of Iran, which led directly to his downfall in 1979.

The revenge-seeker was a bitter septuagenarian cleric — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — an avid hater of the Shah and the Pahlavi regime, who years earlier, having been forced into exile, had steadily and surely plotted his revenge. On 16 January 1979, after months of bloody demonstrations against the regime — with particular focus on the uneven distribution of wealth, rapid westernization, and the atrocities committed by the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK — Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, boarded a plane with his wife, and departed his nation, never to return. Upon his departure, he grabbed a handful of Iranian soil, and with a final teary look at his homeland, left to resume his turbulent exile. Thus ended 2,500 years of monarchy.

Headlines, screaming “The Shah Left”, were almost surreal, yet spelled the ominous change that lay around the corner. For those who were in Iran during those tumultuous days of the revolution, life in Tehran had come to a standstill as Iranians held their breath, wondering what the future held in store. For months, anti-Shah demonstrators raged in the streets, screaming “Allah Akbar” (God is great) from rooftops, and setting fires to buildings and cars. The government, angered and frustrated by the mobs, finally ordered martial law, but to no avail. Every night the lights in the city would go off around 9pm, and families would crowd around gas lamps watching their children do their homework in the dim light. The city was in complete chaos, as the multitudes of Americans, British and other foreign nationals who were living in Iran crowded airports to flee the godforsaken place, and many Iranians, namely “Shahees” (those affiliated with the Pahlavi regime) contemplated doing the same.

My father, a career diplomat, had finished an assignment in Sweden, and my family had returned to Tehran in late 1978, during what would become the initial stirrings of the Iranian Revolution. Having lived most of our lives in Europe and now living in the affluent suburb of north Tehran and attending one of various British schools in the city, we had been regarded by some as Westernized Taghootis (members of the elite), and lived in fear of repercussions, even though my father and most of his contemporaries were often critical of the Shah’s regime and eager for a more democratic Iran. On a couple of occasions, a few bricks were thrown into our pool, and when entering and departing our school (which had been founded by one of the Shah’s brothers), local youths would yell deprecating slurs. Tempers were hot; patience was at an all-time low; and Iran was poised for anarchy.

Enter Ayatollah Khomeini, who on February 1st, 1979 landed in Tehran with his traditional mullah garb, bushy brows, and piercing stare. The nation came to a standstill as the old cleric spelled his vision for an Islamic Republic. Who would have thought? As author and Iran expert William H. Forbis writes in Fall of the Peacock Throne (publisher? 1980): “. . . Perhaps the only person who might have predicted the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini would have been the Ayatollah himself.” And rise to power, he did.

On February 11th, the government of the last Shah-appointed prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, fell to pieces and the Islamic Republic was born, and with it, chaos and bloodshed. Mass executions of former Shah-appointed officials, random seizing and confiscation of wealth and property, introduction of the Islamic hejab (mandatory head scarves) for women, and other religious laws turned Iran into an Islamic state overnight. And as Iran began to change, millions of Iranians opted to leave, causing a mass exodus that resulted in a huge “brain drain”, as some of the nation’s most educated and talented individuals sought to emigrate.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Iran’s revolution and the Islamic Republic, which has proven to skeptics and nay-sayers that Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state has been firmly cemented. Despite the Hostage Crisis, during which Khomeini’s government managed to humiliate the US and basically manipulated the fall of President Jimmy Carter and the eventual succession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency (the hostages were released the day that Reagan was sworn in as president), Iran went unpunished. Despite the bloody eight-year war with Iraq (during which the US, ironically, supported Saddam Hussein), and the death sentence placed on British author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains firmly intact. Despite support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas, a crippling economy, human rights violations, and severe societal restrictions, the Islamic Republic, oddly enough, still enjoys a prominent role in the Middle East.

But trouble seems to be coloring Iran’s murky horizon. Student uprisings and mounting frustrations about unemployment, poverty, and intolerable social restrictions have unnerved Iran’s Islamic powers-that-be. As Saman Sepehri writes in the International Socialist Review (Issue 9, August – September 2000):

Today, many of the problems faced by the poor who led the revolution of 1979 have resurfaced more acutely. The rhetoric of anti-imperialism used by the Islamic regime rings hollow to many who are faced with unemployment and fallen living standards.

The current so-called “moderate” president, Mohammad Khatami, has consistently battled the Islamic hierarchy in an effort to end Iran’s isolation from the world and bring the nation back into the global fold, despite the “axis of evil” label recently placed on it by President George W. Bush after 9/11. Whether Khatami and the moderate reformists will succeed remains to be seen. His success has mainly centered on promotion of Iranian arts, and Iranian filmmakers have, in recent years, emerged as some of the world’s most intriguing talents. Attorney Shirin Ebadi, whose valiant efforts against government repression landed her the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, also scored a double-edged victory for Iran: the Nobel Committee awarded the prize to a malcontent who has constantly battled the current regime.

For the millions of Iranians living in exile in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, the problem is two-fold: a deep desire to return to Iran (on the condition that the current government will change), and adapting to their adopted homelands (even for those who were mere children when they went into exile). Eerily, my father’s last diplomatic assignment was in West Berlin which coincided with the November 1979 Hostage Crisis, initiated by a group of Iranian “militant students” who seized the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

The implications of being an Iranian were first made clear to me at the Berlin American school, when a “Nuke Iran” note was taped to my locker. My anonymous harasser was not alone. The frequent cracks about burning the Iranian flag or bombing the fanatics not only confirmed my isolation from the American kids, but invariably provoked even further resentment toward Iran. Meanwhile, the hostile Iranian faces spewing anti-Western rhetoric on my television set were unfamiliar. A misfit amongst Americans by virtue of my nationality (though, ironically, I had spent most of my life in the West) I would stare, dumbfounded, at images of these frenzied few. I was confused that as an Iranian, I was supposedly a token of this chaotic nation that was as foreign to me as I, undoubtedly, was to it.

A few years later, having left Europe for the States, I struck up a conversation with a cranky cab driver who halfway through my monologue about the Iranian revolution and my family’s decision to move here, snapped: “You’re an American now, like everyone else.” Unable to determine whether I was amused or angered by the sudden Americanization, I curtly asked: “What does that mean?” whereupon the cab driver shot back: “It means, find employment.”

I did find employment down the road, and obtained a social security number and a green card, issued by a surly woman at the INS who flatly muttered: “Congratulations . . . .in a few years you can become an American citizen.” I recall silently scribbling the date of my impending citizenship on my notepad, astonished that I had received refuge from a nation other than my own.

It’s 20 years later, now, and I am still the tourist who, though quite familiar with the turf, still feels like the visitor. America’s youthful optimism (which abounds even after the horrific tragedy of 9/11) has often left me yearning to return to a more subdued, world-weary Europe. Though I have some enduring American friendships from my college days, I am still surprised on occasion by the differences in customs and traditions. Though American men are some of the most interesting and intelligent I have met, I wish to marry an Iranian or European, for the simple reason that they are more culturally and traditionally familiar.

Iranians are true skeptics, true realists. We do not suffer from delusions about restored monarchies. For most of us, Iran has become nothing more than a few cherished photographs of a forgotten era. Yet the occasional glimpse of a war-torn weary Iran with its dirt-smeared children playing in the wreckage left from an Iraqi air raid, or damage caused by the recent earthquake in Bam, still produces an inexplicable ache. We have become immune to the incessant talk of our elders lost in their time warp — forever baffled at the gods for bestowing them with such a curious fate. Yet, we listen patiently, hoping to make sense of our national history. Exhausted by exile, we seek to place our feet forever on solid ground, grateful to be living in adopted homelands that have graciously allowed us to do this.