Written By: Brig/Ambassador Tariq M. Mir (R)
We felt we were in the presence of a dervish. We sat down on the bare floor beside him. The Imam Khomeini sat as for prayer. His eyes downcast, he did not look up even once. His face was expressionless and he remained motionless during the entire interview. He spoke in a low soft voice. PM Bazergan explained our presence. The Imam expressed his pleasure and satisfaction that Pakistan had been the first country to recognise the Islamic regime as he had expected that and looked forward to a close brotherly relationship. His kindness was enough to convey the deep and strong relation between Iran and Pakistan.
In September 1978, I was serving as Joint Secretary in the Cabinet Division, also Secretary to the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, when I was offered a lateral entry into the Foreign Service for appointment as Charge-de-Affairs of our Embassy in Tehran. Iran was then in the throes of a revolution. Due to uncertain conditions then prevailing, many states had temporarily re-called their ambassadors and some had even suspended their mission for lack of security. This was indeed the third great revolution of the twentieth century. In the circumstances it was not thought expedient, at this stage to accredit an Ambassador.
I had earlier served in Iran for many years and had many friends who were kind enough to receive me with great warmth. Many officials holding high and sensitive assignments had been fellow students in UK and U.S. colleges, and we were able to renew social contacts. At the higher echelons of government, the feeling appeared to be that the aspirations of the people would be fulfilled because a liberal social and democratic program was in the offing. However, among the lower functionaries one could detect sympathy for the revolution. The Army command appeared firm and disciplined. Diplomatic life in North Tehran was undisturbed while unrest appeared to be centered in South Tehran. The wealthy citizens appeared anxious and insecure while an exodus, albeit a trickle, had already started.
The uprising of the people was universal and unrest was throughout the country. Villagers flocked to the cities and demonstrations were widespread. Civic services were disrupted. As foreigners, we assessed that social discontent was due to glaring inequality; minimal outlets for political participation and suppression of protest; SAVAK repression; imposition of alien culture; all seemed to have aroused the nation. The masses surged with discontent, and seemed to embrace all shades of political thought. Some opposition groups were organized while others remained underground. We were able to establish that no foreign hand was involved. No externally based religious scholars had any input. However, the bazaars were disrupted. The law enforcement forces appeared to be in a state of withdrawal with limited presence.
We tried to make contact with the organizers of this massive revolt but without any worthwhile success. However, we did obtain tapes of Imam Khomeini’s speeches which were under clandestine circulation, and were apparently fuelling the movement. The Imam, since October 6, 1978 was in Paris, having been exiled in 1984. He was clearly the established national hero and the single unifying force. Even the Tudeh leaders were ready to swear that his image had been seen on the moon! Eventually after much effort, with the help of kind friends I was able to have an audience with Ayatollah Shariat Madari in Qom. He had declared support for the opposition ten months earlier (May 10, 1978). I gathered in discussions with him and other clergymen that it was a movement to restore the "centrality of religious edicts in everyday life and to bring a sense of spiritual happiness and fulfilment”. Luxurious lifestyle of the rich had all helped to accentuate inequality. In 1905 the clergy had also intervened in similar circumstances. However, religion, it was said, did not inhibit the acquisition of western knowledge, technology and the advancement of science because of its contribution to a happier, healthier life. Also, the people regarded the ‘monarchical’ regime as the family of a military officer who had illegally usurped power some fifty years ago and hence, the people’s demand was to restore demoratic rule.
Much later after the change of regime in February 1979, I was able to meet Dr. Mahmud Beheshti later Chief Justice regarded as the Chief Organizer of the people’s movement and probably no. 2 to the Imam. He was a man of a towering personality. Fluent in European languages and well versed in all the modern trends in international politics, economics, sciences and jurisprudence. He had a vision for a future Iran. He agreed Iran and Pakistan were connected by strong bonds of brotherhood. His assassination a few months later, along with other leaders, was a grievous loss for Iran and the Islamic World.
On the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr (November 1979) the Heads of Islamic Missions were invited to the palace and instead of the usual salaam ceremony, the ambassadors, after the presentation, were asked to be seated. The Shah had a brief discussion on the situation and inter alia said “Every Iranian citizen has a standard of living the peasant in India still dreams about. Household appliances, cars and homes are common possessions. What does the Iranian man want?” He was later (on November 5, 1978) to address the nation with the famous speech “Sadai Shuma Shenidam”. “I have heard your voice”. Alas too late!
The people’s uprising gathered momentum, there was general strike covering bazaars, universities, schools, oil installations, banks, ministries, post offices, railways, newspapers, customs, etc. Everyday life was severely disrupted. At night a blackout was imposed. In the darkness, seemingly the entire populace came out on the roof tops and in unison recited the Kalma. It was a soul stirring experience. Foreigners were frightened. A mass exodus commenced. Later, we visited the scene of the most violent protests. It was amazing to see that the flower beds had not been trampled, street lights were not broken or shop windows damaged. It was the culture ingrained over several centuries of civilisation, that had infused civic sense among the people. One evening an Iranian grandee and his wife dropped in for a cup of tea. On learning that the family of a mutual Pakistani friend had gone to Pakistan to attend a wedding and noting that the guest with us at the time was Mr. Altaf Hussain, Editor Urdu Digest who had just arrived from Pakistan, the Iranian lady could not restrain herself. She stood up with tears of anguish streaming from her eyes and said “Poor proud Iran, the families are being sent away and journalists are coming in”. Indeed, the hotels were swarming with journalists from all over the world.
Events began to proceed rapidly. Shah Hussain of Jordan arrived to help devise a settlement; emissaries were sent to meet members of Marja (Ecclesiastic Council) in Najaf; Huyser mission commenced work; An Ashura resolution called for abdication; Shapour Bakhtiar, a respected nationalist opposition leader was appointed as Prime Minister, though the impact was nullified as he had to act under a Royal Council. Finally on January 16, 1979 the Shah left Tehran. The diplomatic corps were not informed in time to see him off. The situation, thereafter, changed dramatically. On February 1, 1979, Imam Khomeini on arrival from Paris, received a tumultuous welcome with 5 million people lining the streets. On February 4, 1979, he announced a Revolutionary Government, with Mehdi Bazergan as Prime Minister and called upon all embassies to recognize the new government or face expulsion. With Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in the chair and the Army intact, the most difficult time in the life of a diplomat commenced. The large Pakistani community influenced by the fervour in the streets looked towards the embassy for guidance.
General Huyser mission was a mystery. Many versions, including one by the General have appeared and documents of the period have been declassified. However, a source report which we received at the time but appeared much later in the press and is therefore authentic, reported that between February 7-9, General Gharabaghi, Chief of Joint Staff had convened a series of meetings with military commanders to discuss the future role of the military. The point under discussion was the attitude and reliability of the soldiers in the present crisis. It was decided that in order to preserve the integrity of the Army, it should declare neutrality and withdraw to barracks. The officers present did not know how and whom to contact to convey the decision of the Army. To the surprise of everyone, as the meeting progressed, a foreign officer who was also present, provided the telephone numbers of leaders in the opposition with whom negotiations could be opened. Perhaps, as a result of this meeting the withdrawal of troops from the streets began. This development was greeted with joyous acclamation by the public and the withdrawing troops were showered with flowers and greetings. However, very soon we heard that General Amir Hossein Rabii, the Air Force Commander, the Imperial Body Guard Commander (who was well known to us) and few other General officers, all later executed, were planning a counter coup to restore a situation which was slipping away fast. It was said that General Gharabaghi, son of a respected cleric and a very religious man himself, justified his decision to withdraw the troops because Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar had dismissed the Royal Council on January 23, and therefore, loyalty to the monarchy was no longer an imposed obligation. The Shah, in exile, was to declare Gharabaghi a traitor.
On February 9, disintegration within the military apparently began to take shape. Late in the evening, we saw mobs storming an army base and the troops fleeing while the people armed themselves and freed the prisoners. As we roamed the streets at night, we witnessed a rebellion at the Air Force Academy and saw the public rejoicing and joining in the demonstration. On February 10, Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar declared martial law and tried to impose curfew. We learnt that attempts were being made to re-constitute the military and intelligence services with new leaders. The situation was described to us by an erstwhile Chief of Intelligence. He said such attempts were too late and utterly futile. We heard reports that the loss of control and slide towards anarchy could become irreversible. Late at night on February 10, I discussed the situation with higher authorities in Pakistan. They were sympathetic to the revolution and delegated the decision to me for recognizing the revolutionary government at the appropriate time.
At 7 a.m. on February 11, I told the assembled embassy officers to fan out in the streets and observe the law and order situation. At 9.30 a.m., I decided we should recognize the change of regime and accompanied by a few officers, we were ushered into the presence of the Foreign Minister (a former ambassador to Pakistan). He was taken aback. He stood up and flung the letter on the ground, loudly proclaiming that I had come to the wrong place and that a counter attack was in progress to restore the writ of government. In the circumstances he could not vouch for the safety of the Pakistani community in the country. (He was later executed). As we left the office, Mr. Techkavi, a DG in the Ministry, who had accompanied us said, “This is great news”. He thereafter joined us and took us through the many alleys of Tehran before stopping at a door. As we entered, Mr. Mehi Bazergan was on the phone and on learning the purpose of our visit jubilantly announced on the phone that Pakistan had recognized our government – “Nukhasteen! as expected from brothers. He explained that he was talking to revolutionaries who had just captured the radio station.
On return to the embassy I began to get calls from fellow diplomats to confirm the radio news. A Soviet diplomat called and said according to his information Bakhtiar was still in office. A U.S. diplomat called to say the revolutionaries had captured the radio station and were broadcasting fake news. The gravity of the situation dawned on us and I become very concerned about the Pakistani community who it was reported had joined the street celebrations. At 12 p.m. President Zia-ul-Haq called and said that he had heard the news on BBC. I confirmed the news and explained the situation. At 14:30 p.m. news came that mobs had overrun the Prime Minister’s office and Shapour Bakhtiar had fled. The streets were filled with joyous crowds and many brought huge baskets of flowers to our embassy and also to the consulates. It was really a remarkable moment. Incidentally, during the blackout at night, with non-existent police, and the populace armed, the traders including jewellers, remained open for business.
On February 12, Revolutionary Committees were formed and the government agencies and administrative offices resumed work. In response to my request, to meet the Imam, Prime Minister Bazergan, Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi, myself and officers of the embassy were taken to a school building in the poor section of Tehran. The outer courtyard was swarming with armed revolutionaries. As we passed through rooms we saw clergymen busy on several telephones. These were the control rooms that had played a vital role in directing the people’s movement. At last we entered a large bare room with no furniture or floor covering. In the far corner, we observed the Imam seated on a prayer carpet. Silence and calm prevailed. No telephones, files, messengers, protocol officers, secretaries, or even a desk cluttered the surroundings. We felt that we were in the presence of a dervish. We sat down on the bare floor beside him. The Imam Khomeini sat as for prayer. His eyes downcast, he did not look up even once. His face was expressionless and he remained motionless during the entire interview. He spoke in a low soft voice. PM Bazergan explained our presence. The Imam expressed his pleasure and satisfaction that Pakistan had been the first country to recognise the Islamic regime as he had expected that and looked forward to a close brotherly relationship. His kindness was enough to convey the deep and strong relation between Iran and Pakistan. We took our leave. We were then conducted to another corner of the room. We sat on the floor with Prime Minister Bazergan and Foreign Minister Yazdi. A lunch of boiled rice and curd was served. A new era had dawned.
Foreigners were impressed with the zeal and sense of duty displayed by the revolutionary leaders as they valiantly tried to bring profound changes and to shape society in keeping with the aspirations of the people. In these attempts they had to be mindful of the immutable traditions of their glorious heritage.
The Iranian Revolution, although Islamic and universal was a combination of several schools of thought i.e., communists, Tudeh, Mujahideen Khaliq and in social ideology ranging from left to right in various degrees. However, the clergy group covered a broad spectrum from the left leaning Ayatollah Taleghani to the more conservative Ayatollah Shariat Madari and Ayatollah Rafsanjani. By February 18, within 7 days, Ayatollah Beheshti had formed the Islamic Republican Party with top aides, Ayatollah Bahonar, Khomeini, Hashim Rafsanjani etc. Many clergymen aspired for a leadership role and various power centers erupted. The situation became very complicated for diplomats.
Many Pakistani citizens, over the years, while on visit or pilgrimage to Iran, had established very close friendship with some Iranian clergymen who had now risen to prominence. One such Pakistani millionaire businessman was well known for his many endowments to shrines etc. Another Pakistani international shipping magnate claimed to have known the Imam’s family when they were in exile in Najaf, Iraq. He claimed to have contacts at the highest level. Many of these Pakistanis now descended on Tehran and began to flood the authorities at home with information and advice which often resulted in recriminations. A sage advised us that ‘in a crisis, a diplomat should always deal through the ministry and remain anonymous.’
In the aftermath of the revolution, the Iranian government organised tours for citizens and diplomats to be taken on visits to see the houses and opulent living style of the rich and of the Royal Palaces. One such tour concluded in a Royal Palace, and the diplomats who were invited for snacks, were seated around a gold leafed table, served by liveried servants. A European diplomat observing the scene cracked aloud “Déjà vu, back to normal”! A young clergyman, probably educated abroad, jumped onto the table and said, “No, we despise this luxury, a waste of the people’s money”. I asked to take a photograph of him sitting on the table, to which he agreed saying, “It is a People’s Revolution.”
Events of those far off days are perhaps no longer relevant but I write to convey the flavour of the world’s third revolution of the 20th century. Internal divisiveness did not detract from national unity and solidarity when faced with a foreign threat. The Iranian nation are the custodians of a noble and glorious heritage.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Iraq.