Remembering Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution

As part of a series of conversations marking 1979 as a seminal year in the Muslim world, Steve Inskeep talks to Iranian-born journalist Kasra Naji about the Islamic Revolution. Naji was a student in Iran at the time and has been in and out of the country since then. He's a special correspondent for BBC Persian Television in London. He also is the author of Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There's an old saying in politics: Nothing is ever over. Political fights just go on. That is definitely true in the Muslim work, where many arguments go back centuries. This week, we'll talk about events that shook the Muslim world 30 years ago, in 1979. Those events still resonate today. Just think of two American wars. In 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The event that seized the world's attention in 1979 was Iran's Revolution. Here's how one broadcaster described the scene.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: There might have been tears in the eyes of the shah as he left Iran for what could be the last time. There was nothing but sheer delight on the faces of the demonstrators who took to the streets of the capital in their thousands to celebrate the departure of the man they have hated for so long.

INSKEEP: The ouster of Iran's ruler and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic government that rules Iran to this day, and that now faces its own street protests. BBC journalist Kasra Naji was a young demonstrator then.

Give me an idea. What was it like to be an Iranian on the street of Tehran in early 1979?

Mr. KASRA NAJI (BBC Journalist): It was most exciting. We were university students in those days in 1979. The dominant politics of universities was leaning towards the left, if you remember. And those days, a revolution was something we were all looking for, anyway. And what happened in Iran was exactly what we were looking for. We wanted democracy, and the revolution was promising that.

INSKEEP: And there are images of what looked like millions of people on the streets of Tehran as the shah of Iran, the ruler of that time, abdicated and left the country.

Mr. NAJI: Yes. It was a most popular revolution, you can imagine, throughout Iran, not just the capital Tehran. Even in remote villages, people were up in arms against the shah and were demonstrating. I was part of some of these demonstrations when I was in Tehran. These demonstrations, mostly in central parts of the capital Tehran, mostly, often and invariably descended into running battles with the army soldiers who were in charge of maintaining the security, and they used to shoot in the air and occasionally, very occasionally, into the crowds. They used to fire tear gas at us. We used to run away and sort of regroup down the street. And this is how it went. We used to shout these slogans: Down with the shah. And that was the unifying slogan, if you like.

INSKEEP: You mentioned university students who have leftist ideologies. You mentioned people who wanted democracy. They wanted more freedom. They wanted more openness. They wanted things that sound, to our ears, like Western values. And yet this same giant crowd was the crowd that welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini when he returned to Iran to take control.

Mr. NAJI: He played a very clever game. Those days, before he returned to Tehran, all he would talk about was democracy and freedom. He would not talk about a religious revolution. He wouldn't talk about a religious state, and democracy and freedom worked for us too, on the left, in a sense that we wanted to have a say. And freedom and democracy would provide that.

INSKEEP: How long did it take for a wide group of Iranians, not just student intellectuals, to begin doubting the direction that the country was taking under Ayatollah Khamenei in those early years?

Mr. NAJI: The doubts had begun even before the overthrow of the shah. But, of course, as more people joined this doubt, if you like, had more doubts, and these groups were - the groups that were started to be eliminated from the political process. And Iran became pretty ugly.

I remember a few months after the Revolution, they were executing about 100, 150, 160 people a day and they would announce and print their names in the afternoon papers. I used to - I remember, I used to go and get the afternoon papers and just go home and sort of cry because you just, you know, just going through these names of, you know, a lot of people you didn't know, but obviously, you know, the night before 160 people had been executed. And this went on for months on end.

INSKEEP: It's striking to hear you say that the regime, the new regime was not sticking political opponents on airplanes and flying them out and dropping them over the sea, for example, the kind of thing that was done in other countries. They weren't secretly executing people. They were doing it openly and allowing it to be published in the newspaper.

Mr. NAJI: Absolutely. They wanted to make sure that people get the message that leftist groups and secular groups are not wanted and they would not be tolerated.

INSKEEP: Are the people who ran the Revolution or who won, the ones who were not executed at that time, still the people in power today, by-in-large?

Mr. NAJI: No. This is very interesting. This whole establishment is divided into an extremist wing and a moderate wing, and they fight each other, and the moderates are eliminated. And then you'll have the extremists taking over.

And then a year or two down the line, the extremists are divided into two between the moderate extremists and the other extremists. And then the moderate extremists are eliminated, and so on and so forth. And we've got to this point, that today, the extreme of the Islamic establishment is in power today in the shape of President Ahmadinejad and his supporters. And even amongst them now, we would see this fight between the moderates - if you like - extremists, and the extremists behind President Ahmadinejad.

INSKEEP: Moderate extremists is not a phrase that I've heard used that often.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAJI: No.

INSKEEP: Is there any way, in your mind, that Iran has been - I don't want to say frozen in time, exactly, since 1979, but is there any sense that you have that - maybe we could put it this way: that Iran is - that 1979 was the beginning of some novel or epic poem, and Iran hasn't reached the last page of that story yet?

Mr. NAJI: No, it's an ongoing revolution, of course. And you see that, and not just in the last month or two. Over the years, Iran has - always is in turmoil these days for one reason or another. It hasn't settled down. And people quite have - haven't quite accepted what they see as their government, as their regime. And this has led to all sorts of turmoils and changes within the system. And that has been going on for many years.

INSKEEP: Kasra Naji joined us from London. He's a special correspondent for BBC Persian television and author of "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader." Thanks very much for your insights.

Mr. NAJI: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He spoke about one of the events of 1979 that still affect us today. Tomorrow, we'll go to Pakistan, where 1979 was the year the military sent a civilian leader to the gallows.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist): What Bhutto does, he comes in, becomes president and then prime minister, initiates a constitution, and then, in a way, re-empowers the army to fight for him and rebuilds the army - which, of course, then overthrows him.

INSKEEP: Journalist Ahmed Rashid talks about the execution of a Pakistani politician. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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