Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
Watching From The Journalistic Sidelines
Published on June 20, 2009 By PranayGupte In International

By Pranay Gupte


It all seems terribly familiar, the chaos and uncertainty in Iran these days -- the daily headlines that highlight protests, the television images of vast crowds in a state of agitation, the truncheon-wielding cops plowing through swarms of people, the vague sense that some major social upheaval is being generated, however inchoate.


It may be premature to call today’s angst a full-scale revolution, but in my mind, at least, there are haunting resonances of what happened 30 years ago when the mass movement – led by the middle classes, the bazaaris, and the mullahs -- toppled Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his theocrats to power.


I was there when the Iranian revolution began, although now, long years later, the names and faces have changed, and there are different external players in the theater of global politics. I was there in those cool November days when militants seized the American Embassy and took 52 hostages and kept them mostly blindfolded for 444 days.  


Just as is happening today, in those days the hopes of a population reconciled to the capriciousness of an isolated ruling class were raised by newcomers to governance who promised deliverance from the dynasty whose secret police had long terrorized Persia. The “newcomers” this time, of course, are political figures who weren’t necessarily around back then, but are now challenging the establishment – precisely for the same reasons: that those in power have failed to deliver on their promises of progress and social equity in Iran.


Iran occupies a special place in my heart. It was my first big story as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. The year was 1979, and my son had just been born, and I was with my then wife’s family in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad celebrating Jaidev’s arrival. The phone rang.


It was Joseph Lelyveld, then the deputy foreign editor of The New York Times. Would I go to Iran immediately, Lelyveld said. I had an Indian passport in those days, there was an Iranian consulate in Hyderabad and India enjoyed friendly ties with Iran, so getting a visa wouldn’t be a problem. That, at least, was Lelyveld’s reasoning. The birth of my son didn’t figure in it.


Lelyveld was right in that the Iranians immediately granted me a visa. The consul general cheerfully insisted on offering tea and savories. There was no e-mail in those days, so he sent off a telex to the authorities in Tehran about me. When my Air France flight from Delhi landed in Tehran, there was a welcoming committee at the airport. I was graciously guided through immigration and customs, and deposited at the Intercontinental Hotel, where most foreign correspondents covering the revolution were staying.


They were anxiety ridden. They were not sure what was going on. They weren’t certain who actually ran government. They weren’t even confident that the new revolutionary regime would let them stay on. Some of the trepidations weren’t warranted. In those days, at least, local officials didn’t much bother what journalists were writing and who they were meeting. Diplomats like Humayun Kabir, the Bangladesh ambassador to Iran, became very popular – not the least because he offered delicious spicy snacks to his visitors, a welcome relief from the bland cuisine of the Intercontinental.


In the event, all foreign journalists were given laminated badges, and we could travel the length and breadth of Iran at will.


Such travel wasn’t without its perils, of course. James Walker, then of ABC News, and I once found ourselves in the remote eastern city of Zahedan when tanks opened fire on protestors; James and I were caught in the crossfire. Needless to say, we lived to tell the story, although our nerves were certainly shot to shreds.


It took nerves to cover the 1979 revolution because several things were going on simultaneously. There was the hostage crisis, and big crowds assembled day and night outside the American Embassy chanting “Death to America!” There was the bureaucratic struggle between the holdovers from the Shah’s regime – mostly experienced Western-educated men whom we quickly gave the moniker of “neckties,” because of their suits and smart ties – and the “turbanheads,” the young conservatives who were being rapidly inducted into government by the ayatollahs but who – at least then – had no clue about the rudiments of administration.


And it took nerves because one never could tell when members of the Revolutionary Guards – the Pasdaran – might knock at the door of your hotel room, and proceed to search your belongings. In all fairness to the Pasdaran, they never seized any of my notes. My Smith-Corona portable typewriter survives to this day.


It took nerves because of the randomness with which justice was administered in the courts by temperamental ayatollahs. I remember one presiding mullah who sentenced several young men to death because, he said, they weren’t being respectful enough in his courtroom. Another young man was given a life sentence because a judge didn’t like his name. Life in those days was as capricious as that.


It also took nerves to cover the Iranian revolution because one’s friends sometimes vanished overnight. The minister of justice, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh – who was quite accessible to foreign reporters – was suddenly arrested one day, and put to death. The president, Abolhassan Banisadr, found himself impeached by the majlis – the Iranian national parliament – and escaped the country by shaving off his slightly comical mustache, dressing like a woman, and boarding a plane piloted by a friend. He now lives in a heavily guarded house in the Parisian suburb of Versailles.


The courageous Shapour Bakhtiar wasn’t so fortunate. He was the last prime minister under the Shah, and spoke out against what he correctly sensed was the mushrooming authoritarianism of the new theocratic elite. He managed to flee to France, but was assassinated in 1991. His murderers were never caught, but the suspicion was that they were associated with Tehran.


And so, as I follow developments in Iran in these tumultuous days – privately lamenting that I’m not covering them as a journalist -- a cavalcade of images from my personal history cascade through my mind. Was it really three long decades ago? It seems like it all happened just yesterday. There may or may not be another revolution like the one I covered in 1979. Iran has a great history, and a warm and wonderful culture, and one cannot but wish that everyday Iranians will find the security and social stability that they seek – and deserve. But I’ve wished this before, and it did not happen.


(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author who has worked for The New York Times, Newsweek International, and Forbes.)



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