By John Rogers
Random reflections and questions about the momentous events in Iran four decades ago:
- It was a genuine revolution, overthrowing an authoritarian ruler (himself established in power by a coup in 1953). It had backing from the people and the armed forces and established a new system of government, as did the French (1789) and Russian (1917) revolutions.
- One can query whether the Shah would have been overthrown if the figurehead of the Islamic opposition, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had not been an impressive physical presence and had not been exiled thousands of kilometres away in France before returning.
- Heavy-handed security under the Shah fuelled the opposition movement (notably the Jaleh Square massacre in Teheran in September 1978, where soldiers shot dead some 80 protesters and wounded more than 200 people).
- Martial law and night-time curfews in Teheran (where chants of “Allahu-Akbar,” or “God is great,” echoed through the streets the nights before Khomeini’s return) also helped fuel the opposition.
- Many Western journalists and officials read the revolution wrong, failing to realise the powerful attraction for many Iranians of a republic based on religion. When Khomeini returned to Iran from France, many expected a liberal, social democratic government to emerge from the revolution. Wishful thinking? In the Islamic Republic, the first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who would have fitted that profile, lasted only nine months. He resigned after militant students took over the U.S. Embassy, seizing 52 hostages. The anti-Western, fundamentalist colours of the new rulers had become clear.
John Rogers worked for more than 35 years as a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief or editor, with postings in India, Algeria, Thailand, Iran, Canada, Egypt and Vietnam, and stints as London-based diplomatic correspondent and senior desk editor in London and Washington. His biggest story was the 1978-79 revolution in Iran. In retirement, he taught an undergraduate course on International News at City University, London, from 2004 to 2012.