To veteran news correspondents — including this one — who were in Tehran in 1979, some of the events unfolding last week were eerily familiar. Thirty years ago, as this past week, the violent ebb and flow filled the streets day after day, as the Shah’s security forces battled supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Yet thirty years ago, there were surprisingly few actual deaths: Iranian army personnel carriers and tanks were tucked away in side streets in Tehran waiting for the order to suppress the unrest. But the Shah, weakened by cancer and under pressure from the Carter administration to limit the bloodshed, never gave it.
At nightfall, a general curfew confined correspondents in Tehran to the Intercontinental Hotel. When a few reporters ventured out, they were beaten up by police just outside the hotel entrance.
But if the correspondents could no longer witness the revolution, they could certainly hear it. From the rooftops all across the city came the defiant chant of “Allah-u-Akbar” — God is Great — against the Shah’s rule. Well into the small hours, the chanting continued, interspersed with occasional bursts of gunfire and the wail of ambulance sirens.
Nightly rooftop protests using the same invocation to Allah were reported last week, as the Iranian revolution turned upon itself.
With the departure of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from his French exile in Feb. 1979, Iran’s Islamic revolution quickly strengthened its grip on the country. In those early days, three English-speaking front men — laymen with good anti-Shah credentials, who had been close to Khomeini in exile — handled relations with foreign media.
In interviews and briefings, Sadeq Qotbzadeh, Ebrahim Yazdi, and Abdolhassan Banisadr, conveyed the impression that Khomeini’s intention was to establish a democratic republic. They may well have believed it, since Khomeini was very secretive about his intentions. When, instead, a fundamentalist, theocratic regime took shape with Khomeini as its all-powerful spiritual leader, all three were summarily removed, in the revolution’s first internal power struggle. Banisadr fled to France, and Yazdi to Texas. (Yazdi later returned to die in Tehran.)
Qotbzadeh, the most flamboyant and aggressively anti-American of the three, was arrested, tried for plotting to overthrow the regime with U.S. help, and executed.