Thirty years ago Iran’s revolution began with a popular democratic movement and ended with the establishment of one of the world’s primary Islamic states. Today the oppressiveness of such theocracies and the threat of Islamic Jihadists dominate the international agenda, and it is hard to imagine a time when they won’t. Environmental Graffiti has decided to take a closer look at an event that lies at the heart of the West’s difficulties with Iran.
Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled as emperor of Iran for nearly forty years before the events of 1979 forced him from power, eventually driving him to death through ill health. The pro-Western Pahlavi was seen as beholden to – if not a puppet of – the West, whose overly ambitious economic programs had only served to widen the gap between Iran’s rich and poor. Furthermore there was widespread distrust of his brutal autocratic style, his extravagant lifestyle and what was commonly perceived as a gradual westernising and secularising of Iran presided over by Pahlavi.
Opposition voices rallied round Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric living in exile in Paris after challenging the Shah in the early 1960s. Khomeini promised social and economic reform, as well as a return to traditional religious values and a state where Islam formed both the sole religion and dominant political ideology (under strictly enforced Sharia law) – a platform that struck a chord with disenfranchised Iranians
As the 1970s drew to a close a series of large-scale, increasingly violent anti-Shah protests swept Iran. Instability continued throughout the year, including a wave of strikes which crippled the country’s economy, and as the frequency of demonstrations grew, so the brutality by which the government quashed them increased. The numbers killed by the Shah’s army mounted, fuelling further outrage and demonstration, which in turn led to more deaths and larger and more violent demonstrations.
In August 1978 the Cinema Rex in Abadan burned to the ground, killing over 400 – and although cinemas were common targets for anti-West demonstrators, such was the distrust of the Shah that the public believed the government had started the fire in order to frame the protestors. Weeks later an event that was to completely kill any hope of compromise would go down in history as the notorious ‘Black Friday’.
History may teach us that when it comes to the Middle East anything is possible – but it also, regrettably, promises us that whatever happens, it will be inevitably be accompanied by further bloodshed.