Opinion: The revolution in Iran that became a nightmare

Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, the regime in Iran appears to be firmly in the saddle, thanks to its effective use of violence and censorship, but it may not continue for long, says DW's Jamshid Barzegar.
Jamshid Barzegar
Jamshid Barzegar

Forty years ago, when the Islamic Revolution successfully deposed Iran's last monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, I was only seven years old. But age didn't stop me from becoming part of the demonstrations back then. My family, more precisely the part of the family that supported the revolution, took me to some of them. Our family, like many others in Iran at the time, was split into two camps: a majority against the Shah and a minority against the revolution.

In the first few months, political discussions at home and on the streets were still part of everyday life. At school we had to line up to chant slogans praising Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies, but on the streets there were times when the revolution's opponents rounded us up and made us shout critical remarks against the clergy that had come to power. At home, we children were soon warned to be careful and to stay out of trouble.

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The question of which side one should stand for no longer arose: we were taken out of school so that we could watch "opponents of the revolution" being hanged from the gallows. Even today this "criminal title" is attached to opponents of the Islamic republic and suffices to justify particularly harsh punishments.

Violence against enemies of the system

Execution, imprisonment and exile were the main tools of the Islamic republic's leaders to thwart any opposition to their rule from taking shape. It started with the execution of Shah's officials and some army commanders only a few days after the monarchy was overthrown. But soon after, in the 1980s, thousands of "ex-revolutionaries" were also killed, in most cases without trial.

Jamshid Barzegar heads DW's Farsi service

The new Islamic regime has never been reluctant to open fire on protesters whenever they took to the streets, as it happened in 2009 and again in 2018.

Another development that made it clear that the regime would hold on to power by all means was the so-called serial murders, including those of writers. At that time, I was a journalist and a member of the Iranian writers' association.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

'I feel nothing'

On February 1, 1979, Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile in France. When a reporter asked him how he felt upon his return to Iran, Khomeini replied: "Nothing — I feel nothing." Some analysts interpreted his remarks as the Shiite leader's idea about embarking on a "divine mission" where emotions hardly mattered.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

The Shah ran out of time

Two months before Khomeini's return to Iran, an estimated six to nine million people took to the streets in the country's major cities. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, compared to the violent September 8, 1978, protests. The Shah regime, headed by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had realized that its time in power was over and that they could not stop Khomeini's return.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Even women rooted for Khomeini

The revolutionary mood was so intense in Tehran that even many women celebrated Khomeini's return, ignoring the fact that Khomeini had slammed Shah's measures for women's emancipation in exile. In 1963, the Shah of Iran granted women the right to vote.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

A spectacle of exuberance

In 1971, the Shah and his wife Farah Diba (seen in the picture) staged a lavish spectacle on the ancient site of Persepolis to mark the "2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy." Many heads of state attended the event. Khomeini, in his message from exile, condemned the monarchy as "cruel, evil and un-Islamic."

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Exile and death

Under pressure from the Islamic Revolution, the Shah (left) had left Iran on January 16, 1979. After spending time in several countries, he succumbed to cancer on July 27, 1980 in Cairo, Egypt.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Consolidating power

In the beginning, women's rights were not a major issue for the Islamic revolutionaries. They only imposed hardline Islam after consolidating their victory.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Soldiers join the revolution

Upon Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979, the military did not confront the protesters. On February 11, the army declared itself neutral. Despite that, the revolutionaries executed several generals in February and April.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

New government

Soon after his return, Khomeini declared the monarchy, the previous government and parliament illegal, and said he would appoint a government "because of the fact that this nation believes in me." According to Iran experts, it was not self-deception but reality.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

The liberal face of the revolution

Mehdi Bazargan, a scholar and pro-democracy activist, had campaigned against the Pahlavi dynasty, for which he had been incarcerated for several years. Khomeini appointed him as his first prime minister, although Bazargan was critical of him as well. Bazargan had called Khomeini a "turbaned Shah" after a meeting with the Ayatollah in Paris. He remained in office for only nine months.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Occupation of the US Embassy

In November 1979, radical Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took the embassy staff hostage. The students were fearful of Shah's return to power with US help. Khomeini took advantage of the situation. He dismissed his opponents as "US allies."

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Ali Khamenei – guardian of the revolution

In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was elected by the expert council to succeed Khomeini. Khamenei, to this date, has the ultimate power over all state institutions. Although the 79-year-old does not have the same charisma as his predecessor, he represents the policies of Iranian hardliners who refuse to reform the system and continue to persecute dissidents.

In the autumn of 1998, the mutilated bodies of Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, two political activists, were found in their homes; two days later, in the desert outside Tehran, the bodies of the writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, who were also members of the writers' association, were found.

Shortly before, there had been an attempt to plunge a coach with more than 20 writers on board down a slope. While our association's meetings, filled with fear, were a new experience for young members like me, the older ones among us remembered the atmosphere in the first years after the revolution; a time when a left-wing poet was arrested at his own wedding party and shortly thereafter executed by a firing squad.

Although it was revealed, at the insistence of reform-oriented President Mohammad Khatami, that employees of the nation's infamous Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) were behind the murders, leading to some convictions, the system itself was not shaken. On the contrary, press censorship was massively intensified, and there were new waves of arrests of reform-oriented journalists and authors.

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New political fronts

The omnipresent and persistent repression has so far given the opposition little opportunity to reorganize itself into a credible and potent force. But as Iran celebrates the 40th anniversary of the revolution, changes are emerging in the political landscape that may lead to real political changes in the future.

Within Tehran's power structure, the division into camps — "hard-liners" against "reformers" — has become as vague as never before.

But as the hope for a way out of the economically hopeless situation diminishes, advocates of systemic change are increasingly distancing themselves from both the uncompromising guardians of the current system as well as the reformers.

In other words, there are now two new camps, which faced each other for the first time during the nationwide protests at the turn of the year 2017-18. On the one hand are defenders of the status quo and the Islamic Republic, on the other, the advocates of far-reaching changes, which would mean toppling the current regime.

In the almost 20 years since I left Iran, I have often been asked in interviews and by friends about how things will continue in Iran. Even now I have to say: I don't know the answer to this question. But the situation today is comparable to the one 40 years ago — and what happened then was beyond most people's imagination.

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