Iran General NewsIranian Revolution: Telegraph correspondent relives 1979

Iranian Revolution: Telegraph correspondent relives 1979


ImageDaily Telegraph: They danced on the rooftops and they danced in the streets when back in 1979 national radio announced that the Shah of Iran had left the country.

The Daily Telegraph

The Telegraph correspondent who covered the Iranian Revolution remembers the momentous events of February 1979.

By James Allan

ImageThey danced on the rooftops and they danced in the streets when back in 1979 national radio announced that the Shah of Iran had left the country. Even though it was ostensibly only for a holiday, no one believed he would be back.

And nor was he, but what followed was not exactly as a lot of Iranians expected. There were the civil rights activists and lawyers who were confident the country would be returned to the democratic 1906 constitution while others, like the Marxists, Fedayeen Khalq, believed they would play a dominant role in a new Iran in gratitude for their part in the revolution.

In Paris, however, one man who had been plotting the overthrow of the Shah since the monarch ousted him in 1964, had other ideas and radical ones at that.

He was the 78-year-old Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, who was credited with leading a "cassette revolution" by which his vitriolic pronouncements against the Shah were distributed throughout the country via a network of mosques and shrines. His main call was for a government with its basis in Islamic ideology and an end to foreign influence, particularly American, in his country.

And that was exactly what he got but not before much blood had been shed and the civil rights activists and Marxists had been quashed.

He had also to organise his return to Tehran from Paris. This happened on Feb 1 and immediately brought him into conflict with the then prime minister, Dr Shahpour Bakhtiar, who had been appointed by the Shah, to rule in his absence.

But events were to overtake both men. While watching a television programme about Khomeini on Feb 9, young air cadets at a base in south-east Tehran became excited and began demonstrations around their barracks in his support. They refused orders from troops guarding the barracks to stop and took up arms.

Rapidly the violence spread as local civilians joined in the clamour for Khomeini to take over the controls of the country, though Dr Bakhtiar threatened to bomb the area if they persisted. But they did and the premier fled the capital and then the country, turning up in Paris where he was to be assassinated in 1991.

Senior army officers were reluctant to attack the civilian population and their control over events fell away. The reins of government were taken over by Mr Mehdi Bazargan, the appointee of Khomeini, though he was appalled at the bloodshed unleashed by the leaders of the revolution who took their uncontrolled vengeance on those ministers who had served under the Shah, murdering them in cold-blooded fashion after, in many cases, ruthless torture.

Families of those who had suffered under the Shah were handed automatic weapons and invited to open fire on the chosen victims.

These killings took place on the roof of a girls' school where the Ayatollah had set up his headquarters in the south of the city.

Meanwhile revolutionary committees were springing up in Khomeini's support around the country and they enforced Islamic tenets, like a total ban on alcohol and the stoning to death of women found guilty of adultery.

In some places there were so many cases that tipper trucks were brought in to pile rubble on the heads of women buried in the ground up to their necks. In many cases their degree of guilt was questionable.

Opposition to Khomeini arose in many of the tribal areas, particularly in the oil fields of the Arab dominated south west where neighbouring Iraq was actively stirring up sentiments, jeopardising the main source of income for Iran.

But despite all opposition, Khomeini managed to ride rough shod over all his opponents and push through a new constitution which gave him unfettered powers as president for life and to set his country on an irrevocable path as the Islamic Republic of Iran, which it remains to this day.

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