The Iranian Revolution


Demonstrators rallied in Tehran. (AFP/Hamed Malekpour)

What were the Iranians dreaming about, wondered Michel Foucault, among many other Western intellectuals, as “the Island of stability, in a sea of instability” delved into anarchy and imposed martial law in the latter half of 1978? As a large subset of the country’s population found themselves invigorated, chanting passionately in the streets in face of military presence, against their formerly beloved Shah,  he knew the bitter end was approaching. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was accused by critics of vast corruption, using his secret police to strangle political rights, and not doing enough to utilize capital oil wealth to help the poor. Regardless of ongoing debate of the validity of these claims many of which could have been fairly argued as quite exaggerated, somewhat true in measures, and in others, outright false the Shah’s subjects had already risen against him, and the Sword of Damocles was finally at his throat. The only solution to maintain Iran’s 2,500 year legacy of monarchical rule as suggested by the renowned and highly skilled Imperial Iranian Air Force General, Nader Jahanbani was to put down the demonstrators with deadly force. The Shah, a soft, sensitive man, with a genuine love for his people, refused to go with his general’s advice as he could not fathom engaging in mass murder for the sake of a silly crown. On a rainy January morning at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, he tearfully said goodbye to his officials, generals, compatriots, and friends, unsure of whether he would ever return to the land he loved so much. He died of cancer a year later, in exile.

In Feb. 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini flew to Tehran from Paris and took over as leader of the new revolutionary government. His charisma seduced the minds and imaginations of millions of Iranians, as well as foreign observers such as acclaimed Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci who, after interviewing him, called him, “the most handsome old man I had ever met in my life…not a puppet like other dictators I met in the Islamic world…sort of Pope, a sort of king—a real leader.” The Iranian nation of the 1970s was far different than that which Khomeini tried to shape into his own image over the years. The Shah’s Westernization programs were replaced by a forced “reintroduction to Islamic roots.” Persian holidays were replaced by Islamic ones, and, most significant of all, Iran left the Western, U.S.-allied bloc of the Cold War and transformed into a pariah state: a self-proclaimed anti-imperialist nation which would fight colonial forces throughout the world such as the U.S. and assist all anti-colonial endeavors. Ayatollah Taleghani, an influential colleague and friend of the Supreme Leader Khomeini, stated, “We have common ideas with the Marxists in negating exploitation and imperialism, and for safeguarding freedom… For us, the Cuban Revolution is a magnificent revolution. In fact, any revolution in any part of the world which is against injustice, despotism, and imperialism, is in our view an Islamic revolution.”

As the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution is soon approaching, it is more than fair to say that the initial popular enthusiasm for the Revolutionary regime and hatred for who came before it has subsided. With an almost cruel irony, the Islamic Republic, that has many young Iranians resenting their mothers and fathers for the revolution they supported, has committed crimes that far surpass those of its predecessor. The Khomeini regime executed thousands more people in its first year in power than the Shah did in his 38 years, and has stolen billions more than the Pahlavi family could fathom.  Economically, the country is growing far below its potential, at rates embarrassingly low compared to the 1970s under monarchy. For the entirety of the regime’s existence, it has used fear and intimidation to keep people under control. Protests and uprisings, such as those in 1999 and 2009, were limited to small affairs, often in the capital, where people were careful not to direct criticism towards the system and ruling oligarchs itself, but individual problems, such as corruption and inequality, to avoid violent crackdown. However, this all changed with the protests starting on Dec. 27.

Throughout the country’s lower-class provinces, usually the regime’s strongest bases of support, thousands of people, in a shock to the regime and Western observers as well, rose up in fiery protest against the government. They chanted things never heard publicly in the last 39 years. “Death to Khamenei,” “Death to the Dictator,” “Death to the Islamic Republic,” “God Bless the Shah.” When the government tried to respond with force by sending government loyalist thugs to stab demonstrators, hit them with cars, or shoot them, many of the brave stood their ground, and some even fought back. Though the protests have begun subsiding, fear of the government is disappearing fast. Fans at soccer games freely chant anti-regime slogans, unheard of even a few years ago. There are videos of school children, walking and chanting “death to the Supreme Leader.”

These examples show that the people of Iran, after all these years, have now called the regime’s bluff. The government’s paranoid, almost hysteric response to protests made clear that they were not the tough, yet skillfully Machiavellian masters of statecraft they portrayed themselves to be. Their only redeeming quality in the eyes of the people was its self-proclaimed ability to maintain security and control. Considering the regime blames protests on American infiltration, does that not show they failed at internal security too? Though still in power, it is only a matter of time until people rise again for their freedom. The regime’s support is almost exclusively limited to the segment of the population reliant upon government patronage, with enough guns and guts to bring the nation to civil war if they decide upon that route, but too fragile to rule with any level of confidence. Though time and time again, guns and money are not everything. The government in Iran knows that its people, with a rich pride in their civilization of over 2500 years, are fiercely nationalistic and are loyal to the nation. Loyalty to the nation, however, is not equivalent to loyalty to an idea. And the Islamic Republic is no more than an idea. The regime may be banking on its Revolutionary Guards to engage in mass murder when need be, but whether fellow countrymen would actually be willing to commit atrocities upon each other, in defense of an idea–seems like a foolhardy miscalculation on their part.

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