Twenty-four years ago today, a 78-year-old ayatollah with fierce eyes named Ruhollah Khomeini landed in an Air France plane to make a revolution.
As it has done every year since then, the Islamic Republic that was created in his name is celebrating the 10 days between his arrival and the surrender of the shah's army.
Big colored lights were strung on the city squares and public buildings. Iranian flags hung from lampposts. An honor guard on horseback waved bright red banners. Parachutists jumped from helicopters on huge rainbow-hued kites. Paintings and billboards were hung throughout the capital with sayings like, “The revolution was victorious only because of the sacrifices of our martyrs.”
But the revolutionary fervor that moved a nation to sacrifice for so long evaporated long ago. Ayatollah Khomeini promised a heaven on earth in which the poor and the oppressed masses would rule and be free. Instead, the country is plagued by political paralysis, corruption, unemployment, social restrictions and uneven and unnerving repression. A fierce guerrilla battle wages between those claiming to speak in the name of Islamic purity and those who call themselves democrats.
Iranians love to rhyme, and street vendors and taxi drivers have taken to calling the 10 days of “fajr,” meaning dawn, the 10 days of “zajr” — torture. There is so little zeal left that even the apparatus of the Islamic Republic, with its revolutionary foundations, the police and the Armed Forces, made almost no effort to mobilize the masses today.
Nowhere was that more evident than at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. That was Ayatollah Khomeini's immediate destination 24 years ago, where he honored those who lost their lives under the regime of the fallen shah and vowed to topple the monarchy forever. He was so badly jostled by the wave of people trying to touch him that his turban fell off.
Today, despite an official call to pray and remember, only about 300 men and a few dozen women came. Many of the folding chairs brought in for the occasion were empty. Schoolgirls in pale blue head coverings and royal blue coats came on a field trip not to honor Ayatollah Khomeini but to visit the tomb of a rival ayatollah who was silenced after he objected to the intrusion of religion into politics.
A soldier on guard duty cried out — about fatigue. “My legs are breaking,” he shouted to a colleague.
The anniversary of the coming of the ayatollah has set off the memories and recalled the dashed dreams of revolutionaries like Mohsen Sazgara, a leading reformist writer. A college student in the United States when Ayatollah Khomeini set himself up in exile in Paris in 1978, Mr. Sazgara quit school and borrowed $200 to join him there. He was one of the 190 aides and journalists on the historic plane trip.
“I remember the night before we were going to leave on that plane that Imam Khomeini called us together and said: 'This journey may have some dangers. Everyone who wants to stay behind, please stay.' But everyone said, 'We want to be with you.' We were ready to be martyred.”
In the early part of the revolution, Mr. Sazgara worked to shape the official radio and the Revolutionary Guards. Then he fell from grace.
“Gradually they considered me part of the opposition,” he said. “I write books and they don't allow them to be published. I started a newspaper and they shut it down. I was teaching history at a university and they stopped me.
“Let me confess something to you. My son just graduated from university this semester. Once he asked me, 'O.K., father, is it good that you were in the United States and gave up your studies and went to Paris and came to Iran to make this government?' I said: 'You're right. We made a mistake.' ”
That sense of defeat is felt even in clerical circles in Qum, the country's training ground for clerics.
For Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a mid-ranking cleric who is in the vanguard of the clerical movement to reform the Islamic Republic, Feb. 11, 1979, the day when the shah's army surrendered, was “the happiest day” of his life. On that day, the revolution triumphed, and Mr. Ayazi's first child, Yasser, was born.
But Yasser Ayazi, a physics major in Qum, will not celebrate the anniversary. “People are not too happy these days,” he said. “People need a democratic Islamic republic and justice, but I see a lot of problems still untouched, unsolved. So I am not feeling particularly warmly toward this celebration.”
Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989. But even at the shrine where he and his son Ahmed are buried, there was little Islamic fervor today.
None of the country's major political figures came to speak, and it was left to Hassan Khomeini, the ayatollah's grandson, to address the crowd. As he has done in past years, he praised his grandfather as “a selfless hero” who sacrifice all for the revolution.
“We should value the achievements of the revolution,” he said. “This is a country that elects its own president, its own Parliament, its own leadership.” By contrast, he said, George W. Bush was elected president “fraudulently with the power of the judiciary behind him.”