Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Iran revolution: 30 years on

Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Thousands marched yesterday in Tehran in celebration of the anniversary chanting anti-US slogans, just as they did 30 years ago. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the rally and said Iran was prepared to talk to the US to end international sanctions provided the dialogue was based on “mutual respect”. He also praised the revolution saying that “although it started in Iran and is the core of the Iranian nation, it belongs to all nations anywhere in the world.”

If anyone could have been the judge of that statement, it would have been the late Polish writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski witnessed 27 revolutions in the third world, including the Iranian one. He believed that although the consciousness of poverty and oppression are the seeds of a revolution, it also needs another factor. What is needed, he wrote in Shah of Shahs (his version of the downfall of the Pahlavi regime), was the conviction that poverty and oppression were not of the world’s natural order. The indispensable catalyst for this mind shift was, he said “the word, the explanatory idea”.

The Shah thought he controlled the explanatory idea. On 8 January, 1978 the pro-government newspaper Etelat published an article attacking Khomeini who was still in Paris. Etelat tried to undermine Khomeini by calling him a foreigner, whose grandfather came from India. The article said the Shah was right to expel him and he was a traitor working together with foreign enemies of the country and a danger to the health of the country.

When news of the article reached the Iranian holy city of Qom, the locals were outraged. Khomeini was the idol and conscience of the people. Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini was born in 1902 in the small town of Khomein, about 160 kms southwest of Qom. After getting early schooling at a local maktab (religious school) he arrived in Qom in 1923 to become a religious scholar. By 1955 he was the most prominent religious leader in the city. There he denounced the Shah’s secular reform program and growing alliance with the US and he was arrested twice. In 1965 he was exiled to Najaf in Iraq where he continued to attack the Pahlavi regime.

By 1975 his supporters back in Qom rioted on the anniversary of his arrest. Military forces put down the riot harshly as they did three years later in the wake of the Etelat article. The Shah also sought Saddam’s agreement to expel Khomeini from Iraq. After he was refused entry to Kuwait, Khomeini flew to Paris where he became the darling of foreign journalists.

Following the Qom massacre, other towns rose against the regime’s despotism. In Tabriz, a crowd marched in the streets shouting “Death to the Shah”. The army opened fire as they did against demonstrators in Isfahan. But the growing anger forced the Shah to backtrack and he sacked generals involved in the Tabriz massacre and also dumped the head of Savak, his secret police. These latter actions did not help his popularity and only created more enemies within his support network.

Demonstrations and strikes continued through the end of 1978. The Shah declared martial law but was powerless to prevent a two-million strong demonstration in Tehran’s Azadi Square in December. Their demands were simple: the Shah must go and Khomeini must return. The Shah appointed the moderate liberal Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister in a desperate effort to appease his opponents and shore up his own power. But the Shah underestimated him. Though he only lasted 36 days in the job, in the time Bakhtiar dismantled Savak, released all political prisoners and finally demanded that the Shah leave the country. Pahlavi and his wife departed on 16 January 1979 to enormous joy across the country. But Bakhtiar then made his biggest mistake, he allowed Khomeini back into the country.

Khomeini quickly denounced Bakhtiar as a stooge of the Shah and the prime minister was forced to follow his former leader into exile. Khomeini arrived back in Iran on 1 February to be greeted by millions. He immediately made his intentions known to his political enemies saying “I shall kick their teeth in”. Within a week he had won the crucial support of the armed forces. He assuaged Iran’s middle class by installing another moderate Mehdi Bazargan as Prime Minister but the real power stayed with Khomeini and his clerically dominated Revolutionary Council. Bazargan was forced to resign after he opposed the US embassy takeover and the path was clear for the creation of a fully-fledged Islamic Republic.

By 1980 Khomeini has established himself as outright ruler and the darling of the Muslim world. As Time magazine wrote at the time, the revolution was unique in several respects: “a successful, mostly non-violent revolt against a seemingly entrenched dictator, it owed nothing to outside help or even to any Western ideology.” The revolution was ultimately strengthened by the ordeal by fire of the gruelling eight-year war with Iraq.

Most of the 1990s was spent in introspection and rebuilding. Its nuclear power program dates back to the Shah’s era but has gotten increasing emphasis in recent years with the aid of Russia and China. Bushehr I expected to open later this year. In 2002 US concerns that its nuclear program might have a military component led George W Bush to use his infamous State of the Union speech to label Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” (with its unlikely soul mates of Iraq and North Korea). Relations between the two nations have yet to fully recover from the outcry of this classification.

There are now hopes in both countries that the election of Obama may be the trigger for a more positive relationship. While Obama is still talking tough against a nuclear Iran for a sceptical domestic audience, behind the scenes his administration will be looking to improve matters. Similar while Ahmadinejad spouts the usual anti-American slogans at rallies, his government is making overtures in the background. A foreign ministry spokesman today tried to soften Ahmadinejad’s message. “As President announced, Iran is ready for talks with the United States based on mutual respect and justice,” he said. “We want the opportunity of fundamental and basic changes to be given to Mr Obama so that the world can see what happens in practice, we don’t want to prejudge and to prevent it we must give this opportunity.”

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