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Monday, 23 May 2011

The Islamic Revolution 1979 – putting pieces together

At the time we were not aware that Ayatollah Khomeini was behind all the disobedience and turbulence and that the BBC radio served as a loudspeaker for Khomeini and the opposition. Today I know how it all started.

Strange as it sounds the plan to overthrow the Shah was hatched skillfully by Ayatollah Khomeini 15 years earlier, during his exile in Iraq and later in France. The story goes back to1963 when the late Shah had launched a series of social, cultural and economical reforms. His intention was to transform Iran into a global power – a noble concept. The movement was called the "White Revolution”: it was a long-range plan and consisted of 19 initiatives to be enacted within a 20 year-time period. Among the reform were: abolishing Feudalism, profit sharing with industrial workers, formation of literary and health corps, free education, women’s suffrage, and many measures to fight the existing corruption.
On January 26, 1963, the elements of the White Revolution were put under a referendum and were overwhelmingly approved. These changes didn't sit well with clergy and landowners. They were worried and feared that they would lose their footing. Clergy headed by Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the White Revolution and condemned the Shah for spreading moral corruption.

The feud between clerical class and the state was nothing new; it dated back to the 1920s when Reza Shah Pahlavi, the father of our late Shah, brought forth measures to modernize Persia. The opposition of Ayatollah Khomeini to the Shah lasted almost a whole year, during which he attacked the Shah several times and created riots and disturbances. During those riots I was at middle school; I remember martial law being imposed in Tehran.

At first Khomeini was placed under house arrest, but finally on November 4, 1963, he was escorted to the airport and sent into exile. In his lectures and attacks, Khomeini referred to the Shah as a "wretched miserable man." He rejected the monarchy and warned people: "The day will come when his regime will be overthrown..."

In exile, the Ayatollah spent his time planning a comeback. Over the following decade he built and strengthened his position and set the course of the Revolution of 1979. He reached out to the Shah's secular enemies, to those with democratic ideas, and to the young educated Iranians outside of Iran. He mobilized an army of followers. They spread out through different countries. They organized meetings condemning the monarchy. They systematically steered young Iranians towards an anti-monarchy movement, promoting an Islamic revival.

They were able to win over naive students by brainwashing them. Some of the students who turned against the Shah had been among those whose education abroad had been funded by our government – another travesty.

When I was growing up, I had a notion that the Shah was Devine and it was unthinkable that there would “come a day that he had to say goodbye to his country.” On January 16, 1979 the Shah and his wife, Queen Farah, were forced to leave the country before completing the program of reforms that they had started. Their children had left a few months earlier.

That is how a thirty-seven-year tenure and the golden years of Iran ended.
There are two sides to everything... I say: “the Shah was unjustly criticized.” I recall a few years prior to the revolution we could read articles in Time and Newsweek about the cruel and uncivilized ways the Shah was treating his subjects. It was not true.

I clearly remember an article about President Carter's humanitarian diatribe and how he had targeted the Shah in his human rights campaign by disapproving of the Shah and his policies. 

Farah Pahlavi in her biography "An Enduring Love" says: "...Western journalists, who were so punctilious about respecting freedoms, seemed to see Ayatollah Khomeini as the incarnation of the spiritual..." In my opinion the Shah had dedicated his life to the love of his country and instead he was judged as a dictator.

On February 1, 1979, just two weeks after the Shah left, Khomeini triumphantly returned to Tehran and was greeted by a jubilant crowd estimated at two million. It is said on his way back to Iran, Khomeini was asked by journalist Peter Jennings how he felt to be back after fifteen years in exile. To everyone's surprise, Khomeini answered: "Hitch ehsâssi nadâram" (I don't feel a thing). The answer resonated in the media and made headlines. It was startling. If he didn't have any feelings, why had he pushed so vehemently to oust the Shah? This is how a rigid and oppressive Theocracy replaced the beautiful life we had in Iran.

My kids often ask me, “Mom, why do you get so emotional when remembering the Shah and his family?” I hope this serves as an answer. Recently, I received an email with old pictures of the Shah and his family. I forwarded it to my friend and I got this response: “I think Farrah is so elegant, so beautiful and so calm and poised – a real queen. I thought the Shah was very handsome too. He died homeless - very sad.” Yes, it is sad.


  1. I remember very well my feelings when in 1978 there were reports on uprising in Tehran. In our news it was told that students and religious rebels were against the Shah-regime because it was not a democracy (as you say, he was mentioned as if he was a dictator.)

    A few years earlier I had heard that Uncle Zaven had been in Denmark in order to have a look at the new buildings in suburbs of Copenhagen, intended to encourage local business, small shops and restaurants even if other buildings were "grand scale". I never met Zaven but heard that he was vice minister and could not become minister because there still was a kind of non-tolerance in the broader Iranian masses - I experienced a serious divide between rich and poor the only time I was in Tehran, in 1965. In '67 he met my brother and told him about starving poors in southern Iran.

    So there were many loose ends at that time when I in '78 heard about Iran. On top of that I just got at job in the Danish Radio which I hoped could be the basis of a life career and I was busy working with pupils all over Copenhagen. My sparse reflections thus went like this: Media has a tendency to focus on unrest and students 10-years ago played a major positive part in creating a better social welfare for workers in Denmark, so having students in Iran siding with poor people could mean that the students were hoping to help the poor. However, I was not inclined to hope for that because I also knew some of the major points of Russian revolution, betrayal, oppression in the name of the good and so on.

    (Dividing comment, this was part 1).

  2. Hi again - it seems that does not allow me to place the second comment here - maybe it is too long or maybe there is something else wrong, such as me posting from Denmark using a Wordpress-account which seems to be American or something. There could be many explanations; when I try to use my Google-account it also fails.

  3. OK - so this time things went well. I think I will split part-2 further into pt.2 and pt.3 - hoping that someone desires to read all that stuff :)

  4. Comment, part 2.

    Thus, when I first heard of the '78 uprisings in Tehran I feared that it would release a civil war where the students and academics were fooled into supporting a fundamentalist system.

    I knew some of the cultural differences between rich landowners and poor farmers and workers, I had (in '65) experienced the city development with shop-centres, big boulevards, hotels, cinemas and theatres, the nice resorts at the Caspian Sea, the rise of the middle class and also the unimaginable wealth of the industrial leadership. Not because my family had told
    me about the demography of Iran, but just what I as a young man had seen and read about.

    Also, from Europe we knew already at that time that when "Tito" would eventually die then Jugoslavia would explode. Tito had said so - the tensions between parts of Jugoslavia were so great. So it could be that Iran had tensions. It would incur that such a country would not develop a democracy but more likely needed another central-power system of some kind. The alternative was war.

    That, I think, is the essence of the notion of "Vacuum of Power": if there are no suited leaders and the power of a country lies open for everyone to fight for then they *will* fight. The fight is unpleasant! and only those with a special kind of drive actually emerges at the top. Normal people do not vie for power, and without kind of electional process there would be nothing but unrest.

    I felt like I could do nothing about it and reacted by taking an interest in local politics. Then, maybe, one could say more.

  5. Comment from Donald - part 3.

    But on the other hand, if it was possible to gather that many students and workers on the streets of Tehran, then maybe there were things to object against. I did not research into the Mossadegh episode because I did not have reliable sources, but I knew as much as Mossadegh was removed from office in not-so-nice ways. There was also talk about Savak and torture. The wildest things in Denmark was secret tapping of politician's phones, never arrests, nor interrogations.

    Now you can read the whole story on Wikipedia, more or less objective as is always the case, but it is a strange, even strong story about a capable prime minister having solved the problems with oil industry. So maybe the workers and students had in common that they wanted to restore government by election, maybe not.


    The sad thing is that such a street-revolution never bears any real significance; it is the persons drawing in the threads and curtains who really get things done.

    When in January Khomeini returned to Iran and had this jubilant crowd you mention, I felt bad. That was head under arm. I can see from what you write that it was terribly naive that most western news agencies interpreted this return as a victory. I could not help thinking "why should he be treated like a hero? He was not a politician nor a philosophical thinker, he had not let his voice out in European debates, he had enjoyed western hospitality and now wanted to create an islamic country?"

    I vaguely remember this incident where he said
    "felt nothing", but I did not consider it especially important. Maybe it was OK to keep cool in the midst of emotional turmoils, but on the other hand he had no real message about building a friendly society with equal opportunities for all. Maybe he was just a sly person who wanted revenge?

    The Shah was a nice person, I think, and I remember he said that he should have been closer to his people. That was a nice thing to say.

  6. typically naive can khomeni be so clever that he brainwash millions of millions of could he deceived democrats,communists and so u think he was kind of superman.he brain washyouths according to you and yet shah with full western support media power military power couldnot inspite of those must be kidding.plz tell us some thing about 1979 celebration of 2500 monarchy on which 100million dolalrs were spent.tell us something about his ertoica how can he be a leader of a muslim country with such morals.what you call reforms were nothing just imposition of wester imoorality on islamic civil norms.but i can understand as pakistan sunni muslim what u didnot as nonmuslim armenian.make an impartial study of iranian revolution if u want and truth will come to you.carter was not human right activist he warned several time khomeni he always sided with shahpour bakhtiar.iran under shah was nothin but just another opressive military dicatorship.anothr floating united states aircraft carrier besides israel.