We are approaching anniversary of an extra ordinary event in the history of our nation, which had a profound effect over the lives of every single Iranian in one way or another even if we had no contribution to it. I remember those days that when traveling on the roads, from one place to another, we would encounter mobs of people with clubs in their hands while blocking the road asking you to say “death to shah” so they let you go! Then they put a picture of Khomeini on the windshield of your car after getting what they wanted and before you run into another group of them a bit further. It was a truly unusual scene to see and live in those days in a country, which was considered an “island of stability” in a troubled region, not much earlier!
When about a year before that, I heard about some demonstrations and clashes between students and police around Tehran University for the first time, I took the news with a grain of salt. I was very familiar with how the news, traditionally, traveled with so much of exaggeration, while living and working far away from Capital in a small industrial town. Sometime before that, I had heard about “fazaaye baaze siyaasi” or “open political atmosphere” that late Shah had mentioned a few times in his speeches and was broadcasted in news programs during the previous couple of years. But I did not know this would require violent demonstration and clash with police to show it! I thought that open atmosphere would result in activating people who were willing to have a role in political affairs of the nation and would end all those bickering about how everything was pre-planned by others and “we” could not change anything!
A few years earlier in 1975, foundation of “Rastaakhiz Party” that everyone had to become a member of, by late Shah had opened door for critics to denounce single party, single leader dictatorship. Shah himself seemed to believe that Rastaakhiz, would bring new and pure forces into play and inject new blood into veins of Iranian political body that had become too comfortable with leaving everything to be done by Shah himself. The trick did not work and all it did was a superficial change to appearance of Iranian political body with same people and same names. The hand over of position of Prime Minister to Jamshid Amouzegar after more than 13 years of late Hoveyda’s government, made no difference towards “open political atmosphere” in the eyes of those who saw the hands of Shah behind every political activitt. At the same time, a true political opposition that could provide a viable alternative to the situation was missing or failed to present itself to the society within available opportunities.
No doubt that bitterness and distrust of some political forces towards late Shah because of memories from previous couple of decades, were still at work and affecting the political atmosphere of the nation. Majority of Iranians in every sector of society seemed to be comfortably keeping their own status of being mere audiences to the events in those days. Papers were reporting the news and publishing articles, which indicated different atmosphere in the society while skeptics, held their position and considered everything as a show by government and Savak to identify and arrest opposing elements! Political environment showed some change and new people seemed to show interest and courage in getting involved and test the waters of new political order, but the change was not coming fast enough to satisfy growing demands, mainly by intellectual community, for more drastic changes. Complaints against corruption in government were publicly discussed and reported by the media but no one seemed to believe the sincerity of reports and the justice system to resolve any of the issues. Many people looked at the trials as just another show and the rumors about many thousands of political prisoners were circled around to prove the point!
Strikes that were mostly initiated under influence and inspiration of some groups who considered themselves defenders of workers rights against injustice of “capitalist world”, spread from one work place to another and, it seemed that it had turned into a fashionable thing to do. In many cases, the demands did not really reflect a true economic problem other than just taking advantage of the newly practiced liberal atmosphere of the country to bring some “change” but it was not clear to many that, what particular “change” was needed and what that “change” would result in. Later on, demand for freeing political prisoners became part of the agenda in the strikes, which by then, it had taken most of the country. In one of these days, an article was published in Iranian media blaming Khomeini for instigating and stirring the unrest in the society and trying to take advantage of newly achieved political liberties to advance his backward agenda. In this article the background of Khomeini has been brought into focus through using his original family name “Hendi” which some of his relatives have not changed to this very day.
A violent demonstration by clerics and theological students in Ghom followed the next day hence, the clash with police forces. Right after that, rumors flew far and wide through out the country about a big number of deaths and injuries in Ghom’s demonstration, which was supposedly committed by government forces when trying to disperse demonstrators. This became a staring point for “Islamic Revolution”.
From that point on, Khomeini was a dominant figure in all opposition activities and he ordered his supporters to commemorate the dead in a week and then in 40 days as per Iranians traditions to pay respect to those who had died. This kind of demonstration became a daily affair almost all over the country and every time, rumors of clashes and killings followed. Khomeini and his followers seemed to have taken the center stage and became the main force behind the events which were speeding up in an unusual manner and leaving everyone confused while pushing them aside to become mere audiences of those events and demonstrations by Islamic fanatics! Burning of theatres, vandalizing liquor shops and music stores became a trademark of Islamic fanatics that showed to be working on a predefined agenda and according to precise instructions and in a very organized fashion. Islamic Revolution had started!
Cinema Rex and Black Friday
Burning of Cinema Rex in Abadan that resulted in murder of more than 400 innocent people became another turning point event in the process of “Islamic Revolution”. Through out all these months, Iranian police and security forces were mysteriously absent and did not show any seriously active role in bringing the situation under control. Burning of Cinema Rex was quickly turned into a propaganda issue against government and Islamic revolutionaries successfully discredited the government by claiming that the action was done by SAVAK . One of my cousins who, used to work for NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company) as an ambulance driver, had friendship with cinema manager (who also worked for NIOC) and other staffs in the cinema. He usually got to see all the movies for free and, was inside the Cinema Rex that night talking to one of his friends who, was in charge of controlling tickets and checking and collecting the amount of sale at the end of night. Tickets have been sold out for the last show that day as it usually did for that movie and, except him and the operator of the projector no one was there. Their conversation dragged a few minutes beyond the starting time of the movie and his friend told him that he wanted to go inside the theatre and watch the movie and he had to lock the main door which was already closed, from inside, before going. This was nothing unusual and it was for not letting outsiders in without a ticket and when tickets were sold out and theatre was full. He invited my cousin to join him but he declined and said he had to go home.
My cousin left after his friend opened the main door, near the ticket kiosk in the hallway where they were talking, for him to leave. His father’s house, where he lived, was in one of alleys from Khaghani Avenue, which was not that far and he usually walked there. About an hour later, when he arrived, after seeing some other friends on his way to home and chatting with them a little, he noticed unusual crowd in the alley for that time of the night. Asked neighbiors what’s going on and someone told him that Cinema Rex was on fire! “I was there a moment ago, this is not true”, he replied. But, other neighbors, who had heard about that, confirmed the news. He told me that he ran back to the cinema and saw it with his own eyes. Except some smoke coming from rooftop, there was not much of evidence of fire. He saw the police and spoke with some of them who did not let anyone to get close to the scene. His friend died that night and his other friend, the cinema manager, a totally innocent man who, was not even present there that night, was executed by Islamic regime after the revolution.
Islamic revolutionaries later spread the rumor about SAVAK burning the Cinema Rex and blamed head of police, General Ramzi for failing to save people’s lives while claiming that he locked the door from outside so that the terrorists do not escape! In those days, it seemed that any negative propaganda against government was quickly absorbed and accepted by most people and government’s agencies confusion and failures had greatest contribution to make these propagandas work easier and faster.
After that incident, situation in the whole country became worse and government’s officials had hard time enforcing their own authority and taking charge of the situation in order to conduct proper investigation and find true murderers. PM Amouzegar resigned and, Jafar Sharif Emaami, a known freemason with religious family ties, formed another government. Coming of Sharif Emami in that sensitive situation was a surprise to many who were aware of his past as a person who took advantage of his own status in government to take commission of a contract for construction of Shiraz petrochemical plant.
It was not long after that when Iraqi government declared that they have someone in their custody who, had claimed that he had set fire on the Cinema. The news was quickly spread all over the country and that person was soon handed over to Iranian authorities but he was found to be a mentally disorder patient who was not capable of such actions. Case was not resolved and one more time, government was accused by Islamic demonstrators of having a hand in that horrible crime. After “revolution”, the real culprit behind Cinema Rex fire disclosed the true story about that criminal act which was planned and committed with the help of some of the important figures of Islamic Revolution in those days. After that trial, Islamic regime executed a few innocent people alongside Takbe-alizadeh, the person who set the fire and was known to Islamic revolutionaries from beginning, to close the case.
Among the activities of Sharif Emami’s short-lived government was introduction of martial law in Tehran less than a month after taking over. Dr. Manoucheh Ganji, a minister in Sharif Emami’s cabinet, in his book “Defying the Iranian Revolution”, speaks about what happened in that day. He says:
"On 7 September 1978, I had barely returned from Geneva at 9:30 P.M. from what turned to be my last U.N. Human Rights Committee meeting when my wife told me at the airport that the prime minister had convened an extraordinary session of the Council of Ministers and I should be there. I arrived forty minutes later to discover the unprecedented presence at the council of all the military commanders, the heads of police, SAVAK, and the gendarmerie. The prime minister told me that all present had decided on the immediate introduction of martial law in most cities, but the question they were discussing was when to announce it to the people: the same evening on the radio on the twelve o'clock news or early the next morning at 6:00 AM. That same evening, someone from inside the meeting leaked the information. Was there an informer around the table? There certainly was. A huge demonstration took place around Jaleh Square towards east of Tehran at around 5:30 AM to protest establishment of the martial law, the martial law that still remained undeclared! Official figures admitted to 168 casualties; the organizers claimed 2000 to 3000. September 8 was coined by revolutionaries as "Black Friday""
So-called “Black Friday” became a huge subject of propaganda against Shah and Iranian government and it was followed with a lot of myths which all turned to be false shortly after revolution. A bit further in the book, Mr. Ganji continues:
"Numerous documents have revealed in the aftermath of that day the clerics had arranged for sharpshooters with automatic machine guns to occupy strategic places around the square. They needed open confrontation and more blood to be shed. The presence at that time in Iran of several hundred Palestinian (PLO) guerrilla has been confirmed since then. Many reliable sources even refer to their mission in Iran as agitating and initiating shootings by soldiers, similar to the one that occurred that Friday...... I vividly recall General Gholam-Ali Oveisi's statement the day after Black Friday at the meeting of National Security Council. He said:
'I swear to god and my soldier's honor that their sharpshooters started the firing into the crowd and towards the soldiers. Since yesterday I have more than thirty soldier family who are in mourning in Tehran alone. They also belong to this country. You have declared martial law, forced me to bring my soldiers into the streets and then his Majesty has tied our hands from behind. We have strict order not to shoot under any circumstances, even in self-defense. They allowed only to shoot in the air. Our police is not equipped with tear gas canisters and with modern riot control equipment. The U.S. and other friendly western countries have decided not to sell them to us. You have thrown us into the ring and then tied our hands from behind. The army is being used like a scarecrow. The people are using bad language at my soldiers. They want to provoke them into scuffle and action. How long do you think this situation can last? Which one of you is willing to come and console the families of my soldiers who have lost a dear one these days? What tangible benefits their families going to receive? Why should they continue to serve in these circumstances? Aren't they human beings?'"
and again a bit further in same book Mr. Ganji quotes General Moghamd, the head of SAVAK, as saying: "We have information that the Communists and the religious groups are distributing ammunition among their supporters. Demonstrations are becoming more violent every day"
In fact, despite declaration of martial law, one could see and obtain almost any kind of hand guns or rifles in unlikely places in those days! Selling guns on the street corners side by side with revolutionary books of all kinds, with very nice and clean print and fine papers, had become a good business for some people while no one knew where exactly they were coming from. I remember once on the road from a town to another, near a village with some midway relaxation coffee shops and restaurants, I made a stop to take a look at a huge collection of guns and rifles spread on the ground by different sellers who seemed to be in competition with each other! I looked at a few hand guns and automatic rifles and when I asked the seller if they have more, while shooting smoke out of his mouth, he made a meaningful smile and said anything you want! I had never seen so many guns in one place before except in the barrack when I was doing my mandatory military service years before that!
About a month later, based on request from Iranian government, Khomeini was forced to leave Iraq for Kuwait after he refused to agree with demand by Iraqi government to stop his political activities. Kuwaiti government did not allow Khomeini to enter their country. Khomeini was also denied re-entry to Iraq and had no place to go in the middle of desert. At this time, Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, who was informed of the situation, contacted Richard Cottam, a long time friend and an agent of CIA to get help in resolving this issue so he could take Khomeini to Paris. According to Gary Sick of US Department of State in his book “All Fall Down”, Richard Cottam contacted him and asked for a favor and he agreed to make some arrangements about this matter. Dr. Yazdi could take care of problem with the help of influential friends and led Khomeini back to Baghdad and from there, to Paris, where his friend Ghotb-Zaadeh had a place ready for them. A few days later, Islamic fanatic followers of Khomeini burned a mosque in Kerman to add another story to their list of stories, which were commonly blamed on Shah, the government and Savak.
In those months many events were happening mysteriously and among them were disappearance of some of obscure elements from within the government, were most puzzling but not widely noticed. Mr. Hushang Ansary, head of National Iranian Oil Company was among those people who left the country for United States, very quietly after a visit to Kharg island a few months earlier, in order to take care of his own “health”.
I remember this matter was brought up later on in a meeting which a group of us had with military governor of Khuzestan, late General Buqrat Jafarian, in order to reach an agreement for ending the strike in our portion of NIPC (National Iranian Petrochemical Company). The poor General had no clue that Hushang Ansari had fled the country while he was in charge of the province that had direct relation with NIOC and related companies. He was a little uncomfortable when we told him of this and made a short pause and went silent for a short moment before continuing! That meeting of course ended with no conclusive result but when after about 8-9 hours, we returned to our little town, a big crowd was waiting for us right at the entrance! They were all our colleagues who had gathered there as they had become worried about our delay. One of them told me that we wanted to tell government that we were ready to go to work if they let all of you came back without harm!
During our meeting with Governor, I realized that how we were all played with by some mysterious forces which seemed to be in control through invisible tools. I felt embarrassed in presence of such honorable person who was trying his best to run one of the most important parts of the country in such crucial times and yet he was so humble with such important duty that he was assigned to. He told us that he would relay our concerns to Shah directly because he was in direct contact with him as his personal adjutant. There was a direct phone to Shah on his table and he was pointing at it when he said that. The General begged us to tell our colleagues to go back to work and stressed that he was ready to meet us anytime we had any concerns. Our answer was that we convey the message and decision should be made collectively. In fact we were just wasting his time without having any genuine concern or reason for our strike, which seemed to have reached us like an infectious disease that we had no control over it! The strike in our complex alone was costing loss of around $5 millions worth of different industrial and agricultural products a day at that time.
Combining these two particular events of meeting with Governor and reaction of the colleagues to our delay, made me think that, things were more complicated than they appeared and someone in high places does not want this situation to end at this time yet. Otherwise, it was not very hard to enforce ending the strikes with minimal action by government law enforcing divisions. Late General Jafarian was killed in helicopter crash the day after revolution while on his way to Tehran with a few other officers and this incident was added to trail of mysterious events during Islamic revolution days! Dr. Manouchehr Ganji in his book, “Defying the Iranian Revolution”, has mentioned that General Jafarian has been part of the group which was formed later by General Badrei for a military coup to take the control of the country.
Imposition of martial law had made no difference and Mr. Sharif Emami was forced to resign as situation worsened with more frequent demonstrations by Islamic fanatics. Appointment of a high-ranking military man, General Azhari, as prime minister made no difference in the situation either. Country was swirling down in chaos uncontrollably and vandalizing different banks and businesses of people with the justification of their link with this or that government agency was order of the day for Islamic revolutionaries and anarchists. A sense of confusion seemed to have taken the whole nation and government attempts to bring situation under control did not have any effect. Most of the nation’s work force was in strike and country was moving towards complete bankruptcy after a few months of widespread unrest that had brought all industrial productions to a halt.
Through out the last few turbulent months before the Islamic revolution of 1979, organized religious masses were regularly demonstrating against government with different excuses and religious characteristics of demonstrations were evident in all their activities. Representatives of Khomeini were freely traveling from one place to another and giving lectures in mosques and other places while echoing messages of Khomeini to people to continue their activities against government. These representatives of Khomeini openly used offensive language and all kinds of unfounded accusations against government, Shah and members of royal family as part of their speeches to display their own courage while facing no reaction by any government agencies. Secular portion of the movement had been forced out of the scene entirely and their leaders had turned into just another bunch of Khomeini’s followers while repeating his rhetoric with different words and leaving everything up to Khomeini.
Coming of new PM, Dr. Bakhtiar, a former ally of Dr. Mossadegh, created some hopes for positive change and avoiding further chaos in the country. His immediate actions in freeing political prisoners, which turned to be a few hundreds instead of tens of thousands, and closure of a portion of SAVAK that was responsible for internal security and monitoring internal opposition were seen by many as signs that things would be moving in right direction from that point on. The initial hopes turned to be false after Bakhtiar’s former allies turned their back on him and expelled him from National Front for accepting to become Prime Minister of the Shah. Bakhtiar declared that he will not leave his stronghold of Iranian constitution and expressed regret about decision made by his former allies while warning about replacement of one dictatorship with another one, which was worse than the first.
Shah left the country after months of turmoil and many Iranians celebrated his departure with joy. Daily papers published with the largest headline in the first page that I have ever seen: Shah went! A couple of weeks later, Khomeini returned to the country and was received by hundreds of thousands including secular opposition figures who were waiting for him in the airport but did not get a chance to see him at that time as Khomeini ignored all and proceeded towards Behesht Zahra grave yard to deliver his first speech. Khomeini declared that his intention was to create Islamic government but Bakhtiar told media that he will not tolerate another government for the country besides his own without knowing that his army commanders were in negotiation with opponents, through mediation of General Huyser, a high ranking American officer and second in command of NATO forces, to transfer the power.
Through out all those events, majority of Iranian population remained indifferent and chose to play the role of being merely audience to what was unfolding while a noisy minority of not more than a couple of millions in the whole country, took the streets and forced its intentions on the nation to put the country on a backward path. By the time that ordinary secular Iranians had decided to make themselves heard half way in the ruling days of Prime Minister Bakhtiar and in support of constitution, it was already too late. Head of Iranian army, General Ghara-baghi, had decided to abandon support for Bakhtiar’s government, as per advice of General Huyser, and take an impartial position in the battle between revolutionaries and the government. General Ghara-baghi advised PM Bakhtiar of this decision later in the day after the impartiality of the army had been declared through radio broadcast. Dr. Bakhtiar was completely disappointed after hearing this and asked General Gharabaghi: impartiality between whom and whom? Between “law” and “anti-law”? Between “Iranian” and “anti-Iranian”? At this point, Prime Minister Bakhtiar was left with no real power to enforce his decisions while revolutionaries were emboldened by declaration of the army’s impartiality and, certain that they would not face a serious resistance to their actions for taking over all institutions of the government.
In fact, despite statement of General Ghara-baghi that the decision about declaration of impartiality of army has been made by a council of all top ranking officers, many of those top officers were caught off-guard when Islamic revolutionaries rushed into the streets under order of Khomeini to take over the government. General Rahimi, the governor of Capital during martial law who was arrested by Islamic revolutionaries shortly afterwards, was among these officers. Later in the night, in an interview with revolutionaries that was being broadcasted on TV, General Rahimi insisted that people should respect the martial law and go back to their homes but revolutionaries told him that the government had fallen to revolutionaries and he should be obeying Khomeini now. General Mehdi Rahimi refused to obey and was executed a couple of days later on Feb the 15th/1979 after his arms were brutally cut by revolutionaries. Many other army officers were executed during following days and weeks simply because they were committed to their oath to serve their nation.
The obvious intervention of foreign elements like General Huyser and Ambassadors of United States and Britain in the affairs of the nation in final months and plenty of documents from US government which have been declassified recently, all indicate that a major role was played by those external factors in setting the direction of events of 1978-1979 in Iran. But questions remain that why the United States government would change their friendly policies towards a staunch ally, which had special importance in the region, for its strategic location in the south of Soviet Union, that was considered greatest threat to western interests? Why should the change in policy of United States have such deep effect in a magnitude to create such huge change in the political course in Iranian nation?
Who decided about the change of policy and when? How the change in policy was implemented and what elements were at work? Did Iranian government and late Shah himself know about this? Was it possible to avoid the revolution, which had such huge negative and disastrous impact, not only on Iran, but also on the region and the world? Did those who decided for such change of policy achieve their goals or not?
These are the questions that need to be addressed separately and under a different topic but by now, it has become very clear that, Islamic Revolution in Iran had a great positive impact for western world, not only economically, but also politically. And this is while the region has been suffering much more than before and from many new problems since the creation of new entity in the world of politics called “Islamic Republic” in Iran.
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