As dramatic events began to unfold in Iran in 1978, photojournalists and reporters took to the streets to document history in the making. For many, the chief chronicler of Iran’s Islamic Revolution is the legendary photographer Abbas, whose photographs recorded the people, the events and the extraordinary emotions that swept across the nation, and throughout the world.
To celebrate the launch of an exciting new project about Abbas’s life and work, IranWire and Journalism is Not a Crime talked to journalists who covered the revolution about their memories of the incredible events in Iran — and how they see the country today.
Not long after the collapse of the Pahlavi Dynasty in February 1979, BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt went to Iran to report on the unfolding events and power struggles that took place in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Speaking to Journalism Is Not A Crime, Hewitt remembers some of the significant moments from a time of great uncertainty, tumult and paranoia – and comments on how it has shaped the Iran of today.
How would you describe Iran in the aftermath of the revolution?
It was apparent on my first visit to Iran that what we were seeing on the streets was a struggle for the heart and soul of the revolution. Most people who opposed the revolution in its broadest sense were in retreat. But those who wanted change were engaged in a struggle to see who would come out on top and find the new Iran. As a journalist working there, you were very aware of this on the streets. You could find yourself with leftist groups, with communist groups, with people who wanted an Islamic revolution, or people who just wanted a different kind of Iran than had existed under the Shah. So the first impression I got was this gigantic struggle, and each day would bring its rumors – about what the bazaaris were going to do, or what the students were going to do, and so on. But it was also clear to me that those who wanted an Islamic revolution had one great advantage, particularly in the big cities: They had established networks in the poorer areas, like in south Tehran, which were often connected to the mosques. They could revive those networks. Many poor people had been alienated by the extravagance of the Shah’s years and wanted to reclaim an authentic sense of Iran. Therefore a revolution that in some senses would be backward-looking would find a lot of support amongst those people.
You were in Iran during the 444-day occupation of the US Embassy in 1979-81. How do you remember this event?
When the American embassy was taken over, I understood that this was not really about the Americans, although it was presented like that. It was actually about trying to embed the revolution and to tie in the people who came out onto the streets on a daily basis – and there were vast crowds – to the revolution. And if you could then make out that the American embassy was a nest of spies, if you could demonstrate through documents and other things that it had been part of the apparatus of the old regime, it was easier to inculcate loyalty for the emerging revolution. I think it should be remembered that it wasn’t absolutely clear at the time the American embassy was seized which way the country was going. There were a succession of prime ministers or leaders who came along and then were pushed aside because they were too moderate, whereas some of the revolutionary committees that were behind what was happening at the American embassy wanted in place those people who were absolutely part of and believed in an Islamic revolution. Their purpose was to absolutely knit into the fabric of the emerging society the large numbers of people who felt that this was a struggle that they were engaged in. And therefore the roots of the Islamic revolution were being put down by the offense that swirled around the embassy.
Is there any specific moment of Iran at the time that has stuck in your memory?
One moment, which was a rather surprising moment, was in the midst of all of this, when the UN secretary general, Kurt Waldheim, came to Iran to see if he could somehow negotiate his way through the crisis. Shortly after he arrived at the airport, he was taken to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. I remember there were some people in the cemetery, I don’t think they were there accidentally; they were put there deliberately in order to show him some of the fallout from the revolution and what the reality had been like in the days before the revolution.
When Waldheim got out of his car these people ran towards him; some of them were clutching artificial limbs, some had lost their legs or their arms. He looked terrified. His car left in a great hurry. I always remember that because it seemed to me that the diplomatic world, the international world, hadn’t yet understood how significant the Islamic revolution in Iran was at that moment, or how long it would take before that revolution would build bridges and become part of the international community. And you might even say that it’s only in the last few weeks that we’ve seen some of those barriers come down. But I think at that moment, bizarrely in a cemetery, and with the look of utter fear and perplexity on the face of the secretary general, you realize that what was happening there would have a dramatic impact on the international community, but also on the Muslim world.
How was it to work as a journalist in the aftermath of the revolution?
It was very difficult, but you were able to work as a journalist during the revolution and in the period immediately afterwards. It was difficult because you didn’t know from one street to the next whom you would be dealing with. I found each day very unpredictable. And there was a climate of great suspicion at the time. There was an endless searching out for spies, people all over the city who would stop you and ask for papers, and self-appointed revolutionary committee people who would take you off to question you. So there was a climate of extreme paranoia that somehow the revolution would be overthrown, or that outside forces would manipulate the revolution. As a journalist you would sometimes be taking the most innocent looking pictures, and this could be misinterpreted. So you needed great patience, but you also needed a very good instinct as to when something might go wrong, or when you could be misinterpreted. So it was a very difficult assignment to be on, but all the time you had no doubt that it was a hugely significant story; one of the most important stories that had happened for decades. Then, later, it became increasingly difficult to work there; it became harder to get a visa. So that period came to an end for me.
Why is the Iranian Revolution an important event that people should care about today?
We should care about it today because to a certain extent that revolution is still working its way out. The international community wants normalization of relations with Iran on the basis of certain conditions, and I think much of what keyed into the power structures in Iran today stems from what happened in 1979. We should care about it and follow it because the various struggles that are going on in Iran today, and how they work their way through, will have a big involvement on how Iran positions itself in the international community. And I think that whatever standpoint you come from, nobody would underestimate the huge importance and significance of Iran. So anybody who has an interest in international affairs or in the wider Middle East has to have an interest in what’s going on in Iran and what happened in the revolution, the subsequent period, and then in the Iran-Iraq war. It all feeds into the mindset of people who will have responsibility for Iran over the next 20 years.
Photo: Two armed revolutionaries chant slogans in front of the seized American embassy, Tehran, November 1979 © Abbas/Magnum Photos