Thirty Years of Islamic Revolution

I wrote this three years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. I’d not say that much has changed in the last three years. Things have maybe gone even worse.

By Abbas Djavadi – Iran’s Islamic Revolution didn’t exactly start 30 years ago on February 1 when the Shah left Iran and exiled Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini returned home from Paris. Nor exactly on February 10, Bahman 22, when the Shah regime was declared overthrown and the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan took over. It started at least a year or two earlier with demonstrations and strikes, speeches by Khomeini taped and distributed in the country and actions, occasionally harsh and brutal, by government forces. With increasing numbers of social and labor groups striking, pouring into streets and chanting anti-Shah slogans, millions, women, elderly people, youths, kids, workers, bazaris, unemployed, and finally soldiers and officers just demanding one thing: the Shah must go!

In 1979, it all developed to something none of us, those considering themselves educated individuals caring about the fate of their nation, could even imagine. Intellectuals, students, writers, teachers, and opposition groups were all involved in some sort of activity against the Shah regime. Main reason: lack of freedom and democracy, arrest and torture of opponents. But once those who you didn’t expect to rise, came to become sympathetic to and later demand a regime change, everybody understood that it is serious: bazaris, government employees, and later even officers of the royal army… It was not about hundreds and thousands. Millions were out, every week and every other day. The Shah regime had no way but to go.

Where Was the «Islamic» of the Revolution?

And that was the main demand by everybody. Not an ideology, not a political system, not religion, but just: the Shah must go! With his charisma, consequent anti-Shah position, thousands of mosques and tens of thousands of mullahs increasingly joining in ranks as fierce supporters, Khomeini became the symbol of the movement, a national leader whose words, once he arrived in Tehran, were to immediately considered law once spoken. No dispute, no doubt.

To be sure, the main force carrying out Khomeini’s plans and orders were mullahs. But everybody else, from leftists to nationalists, from all other ayatollahs and Islamist groups privately criticizing Khomeini to activists of ethnic groups, from non-partisan small business people and even politics-fearing government employees to the until-yesterday-disinterested poor of rural origin — all became united in one thing: Khomeini is the symbol, the leader who has to finish the job «and then we will see.»

We, living in the West, too. Most of us were thinking mullahs had no skills (and probably no interest) in running a complex government business that required experience, skills, and a Western-style education the mullahs lacked. We thought Iran had enough educated, intellectual, secular, modern-thinking, democracy-minded, men and women to both prevent the mullahs from usurping power and to soon take over from the mullahs. The Khomeini folks, supported by all, had to lead the showdown. The new elite would then take over.

We thought. Once taking over the government, Khomeini started to reverse his promises back in exile: that he would return to the holy city of Qom to perform his religious duties and to leave politics to politicians, and that Iran would become a democratic country with all political forces freely operating and competing in a harmonious system where all ultimately contribute to the nation’s independence and prosperity…

Eliminated: One After Another…

Most high-ranking Shah government officials had already fled. In all those weeks and months before and after February 1979, you could see them — and many others, wealthy businessmen, bureaucrats, and technocrats — hastily selling their houses, emptying their accounts, and leaving the country — in hundreds and thousands.

What remained from the regime, a few hundred high-ranking bureaucrats and army officers, mid- and low-level officials were caught and executed.

Not only them. Most members of non-Muslim religious communities such as Jews, Baha’is, and Christians also fled.

Khomeini staged a referendum on the future political system and said: «Islamic Republic – Nothing Less and Nothing More!» And people overwhelmingly voted for it, something they didn’t know much about, and a hastily formulated constitution they didn’t quite understand – something they had to suffer from at least for the next 30 years.

The new constitution established a Supreme Leader, Khomeini himself, as the ultimate authority about everything: from military and justice to foreign policy and media, from education and election to trade and agriculture. The Supreme Leader is not elected by the people but selected by «clerical experts» who are picked up by the Supreme Leader himself and «elected» by the people.

Ignorance made us all still hope and we had no choice with increasing pressure and persecution.

Pressure and persecution even worsened with Iraq’s aggression against Iran (that was followed by eight years of a bloody war) and the occupation of the US Embassy and the following hostage crisis. The revolutionary government was being transformed into a regime of dictatorship led by a group around Khomeini liquidating all others and gradually, but consequently concentrating all power in their own hands.

«Death to…!» Any group or personality, any way of thinking or action not closely associated with the inner circle of Khomeini supporters was condemned as anti-Islamic, anti-revolutionary, pro-American, liberal – and eliminated.

In the following waves, all leftist and nationalist organizations were persecuted. Thousands of their supporters were put in prison, tortured, and executed.

Then came moderate Muslim groups and personalities who had joined the first revolutionary government. Those influential ayatollahs who initially supported Khomeini but were against the new political system were pressured. Their «aba,» the religious clothing, were taken away, and they were put in prison or under house arrest. Khomeini’s own first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was ousted and came under house arrest. Khomeini’s first president, Abolhasan Banisadr, fled the country. And Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whom Khomeini decided to become his successor as Supreme Leader, was later put under house arrest.

It took some 10 years. After the Iran-Iraq war and after Khomeini’s death and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s tricky appointment to this position, once all others were widely eliminated, new groupings began to emerge from within the inner circle of hijackers of the revolution: pragmatists, principialists, reformists…

Harvesting What We Sowed Then

And here we stand today, after 30 years: an Iran ruled by an unelected Supreme Leader who is not accountable to anybody and his manager, the president who is selected by him and «elected» by the people; an Iran with no freedom and liberty; an Iran isolated from the developed world; an oil-rich country that imports 40% of its gasoline; an official unemployment rate of 12% and an official inflation of 17%; with people running from one work shift to another to make the ends meet, tired and fearful of any other revolution and just concerned about living in dignity.

Let’s face it: we did it, we deserve it. And we are the ones to fix it…

(A slightly different version was published on RFE/RL’s website)