“Is that the sound of firecrackers, Mom?”
“No. That’s the sound of bullets, Ali. You should stay inside.”
That was my first revolution, in January 1979. We lived in the upper-middle class North Tehran neighborhood of Saltanat Abad (“Monarchyville”), but I could still hear the report of gunshots from Jaleh Square far south. What were people fighting over? To a six year old, it didn’t make any sense.
The standard narrative of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 reads something like this: The Shah was a dictator who did a fair amount to build up and reform the country but was also profligate and repressive. He used the Savak, his secret Police, to silence and torture dissenters. Eventually, his time came up, and a monolithic popular uprising brought Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, a.k.a the Ayatollah, to power.
That’s not even close to the whole murky, thrilling and heartbreaking story.
James Buchan, the author of Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, was a student in Tehran in 1973. From that vantage point, he observed firsthand the gradual unraveling of the regime of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – “the Shah” – and the forces involved in it. Fluent in Persian, he has consulted hundreds of sources to reconstruct meticulously the 20th-century history of Iran – from before the ascension of Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza’s father, to the events culminating in the Revolution of February 1979, to the ceasefire of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989. Buchan understands the variables at play in the Shah’s ouster:
It is hard to say at what moment it became clear that Mohammed Reza would go. With the center of his regime disintegrated, both extremes of it required him off the stage: whether for a civilian government headed by an elder statesman or moderate oppositionist, or so the army in the manner of 1953 ‘rectify the situation.’ Few knew of the Shah’s illness, but he appeared to be badly in need of rest on the Caspian, or Kish Island or at Bandar Abbas, where, as Mohammed Reza put it later, he could ‘visit his navy.’
To this day, people argue over what actually happened in Iran during those times of tumult. Who was responsible for the 1953 coup ousting the popular premier Mossadegh? Why didn’t the Shah suppress his opponents when he had the time, resources and political capital? Who set fire to the Rex Cinema in Abadan, killing 400 people and triggering the cascade of events leading to the Shah’s abdication? (Answer: a lone, bored twentysomething religious fanatic and drug dealer, who later turned himself in out of unbearable guilt). How did Khomeini, in exile for 14 years, overnight and seemingly unanimously become the leader of the disparate opposition factions? Who decided to take the US Embassy hostages and hold them for 444 days? (Rogue unauthorized students – one of whom a young President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose cause the revolutionary leaders retroactively co-opted.) What really happened with Iran-Contra?
Out of disparate, scattered and conflicting sources, Buchan constructs a narrative of modern Iranian history that is the most historically accurate I have encountered. It is a magisterial account of all the different forces pulling at Iran’s soul over the course of a century: murderous neighbors, foreign superpowers, oil, greed, imperial ambition, Shi’a Islam, and deeply flawed actors invested with too much power and not enough principle.
It’s a riveting account and a real-life thriller – especially if you were a boy who lived through the decline and fall of the Shah, the rise of the Islamic Republic, and the Iran-Iraq war. Today, 34 years later, I finally realize how little I understood of what happened in that swirl of passion, gunfire and fate that was the Iranian Revolution. For example:
- Outside of Tehran, the average Iranian is far more religious than I had imagined. Shi’a Islam dominates their minds in a literal, unquestioning way as Christianity does the American Bible Belt.
- The revolution started out with democratic intention and then, echoing 1789 France, quickly morphed into a bloody, autocratic one.
- Far from being a bullying dictator, the Shah’s cardinal sin was “discomfort wielding power,” directly leading to his demise.
What broke my heart reading this book were the accounts of near-misses and dumb luck that could have dramatically shifted the fortunes of Iran. For example, in 1978, the Rex Cinema arson and a 7.8 Richter earthquake killing thousands in the provinces happened in rapid succession. The opposition blamed the regime for both, fanning the fires of foment. At the same time, the Shah contracted lymphoma, and his doctors hid it from him, delaying treatment for an already weakened, vacillating man. Khomeini almost got crushed by the crowd of welcomers upon his arrival from exile in Tehran. Were it not for a helicopter that materialized deus ex machina, the 76-year old leader would have perished on the first day of the Revolution. Khomeini’s designated successor and favorite student, Montazeri, openly criticized Khomeini for the torture and mass murder of political prisoners. Furious, Khomeini disowned and banished him and picked the far less moderate Ali Khamene’i as his regent, who has been the bugbear of the West ever since. And in 1982, Saddam Hussein offered Khomeini a cease-fire — plain admission of defeat. Khomeini rejected it; hundreds of thousands of young men perished for 7 more years of pointless war.
Khomeini died in June 1989, soon after the end of that war. Buchan’s account of the funeral encapsulates the events of the book and all of Iranian history:
Amid clouds of dust and in blinding heat, the Tehran fire brigade sprayed the mourners with jets of water, both to calm the excitement and also as an element of ritual. Iranian history is a sort of passion play, a constant recitation of the foundation tragedy of Shi’a Islam, which is the Prophet’s family, ringed by murderous enemies and tormented by heat and thirst, at Karbala in Iraq in October 680. Many in the crowd were mourning not a revolutionary leader or a canon juris, but the “Imam,” a title applied in Iran up to then only to the perfect Shi’a saints of the Middle Ages.
I managed to escape that war in 1985, when the rain of Saddam’s bombs on Tehran could no longer be sanely ignored. We restarted from zero in West Los Angeles, where this once-pampered kid had to share a bedroom with his mother. To support us, she talked herself into a job as a seamstress at the only laundromat that didn’t ask for her Green Card. I got into Harvard and turned out okay. In the meantime, a kind, hospitable and ingenious people were set back a century and consigned to status of pariah nation for the next 34 years.
The best history is the kind that bears useful instruction for its living readers, and Days of God is such a book. I’m grateful for James Buchan’s lucid account, which provides a salve of understanding for both the still-bereaved Iranians who lived through the Revolution, and the rest of the world that feels its aftershocks to this day.