Dominic Sandbrook: After the revolution (Iran)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dominic Sandbrook is a British historian and writer.]

On the first day of February 1979, an Air France plane landed at Tehran Airport. It was carrying an elderly Islamic cleric from Iran’s rural hinterland who had not been in his native land for 15 years. As he stepped down from the plane, dressed entirely in black, supported by a French flight officer, a thousand waiting admirers began to chant his name: Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini.

As a Mercedes van carried him towards the city centre, the streets were lined with people peering from windows and from rooftops, people packed on to building sites and into flats, people who had been up since dawn to claim a space by the roadside, people hanging off cranes and on to ledges, people screaming and shouting with ecstasy. Journalists estimated that there were perhaps five million people on the streets, the biggest crowd in human history.

Thirty years on, the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the ensuing Iranian Revolution looms as perhaps the central event of the late-twentieth-century world. The 76-year-old preacher was not an obvious candidate to become a historical icon: born to a family of clerics in the obscure, dusty town of Khomein, he had spent much of his life as a teacher and scholar, before being sent into exile in 1964 after denouncing the Shah's regime and his fealty to foreign interests. Yet he became the face of a revolution that toppled a corrupt, repressive monarchy, unleashed a devastating oil shock and global economic crisis, inspired a new brand of religious fundamentalism, and bequeathed an autocratic regime that, for all its manifest corruption, stagnation and brutality, still endures today. It was a turning point in the history of relations between the west and the Middle East, and between the United States and the Islamic world.

Yet there was nothing preordained about the way things worked out; indeed, the largely untold story of the revolution is that if a handful of people had made different choices, then the history of American-Iranian relations might have been much less tortured. And while nobody can expunge the record of three decades of hostility, the advent of a new administration in Washington does offer grounds for hope. Like every other American politician of his generation, Barack Obama has rattled his sabre in the direction of Tehran, but he has also talked of meeting Iranian leaders and even holding direct talks with President Ahmadinejad. Three decades on, it is time to bury the bitter legacy of the revolution and the hostage crisis. Nixon went to Beijing, Reagan to Moscow; is it too fanciful to picture Obama in Tehran?..

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