Anniversary of Iran hostage crisis marks four decades of repression of dissent, hostility to the West

By Claude Salhani

Forty years after Iranian pro-revolution students besieged the US embassy and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostages, relations between Tehran and the West have hardly improved. 

The 14-month crisis beginning in November 1979 was inspired by an “Islamic revolution” that led Iran on a path of repression and hostility to the West that has fundamentally reshaped its foreign policy. 

Iran’s “revolution” jumpstarted in September 1978 when the army, under the control of Shah Reza Pahlavi, fired on anti-government protesters, killing a number of them.

The slain demonstrators were commemorated at mosques the following Friday when imams stoked the fire among the crowds who emerged onto the streets filled with rage and craving revenge, only to be met by more troops who, again, fired on the crowds.

The scenario was repeated the following Friday when more protesters took to the streets, where more of them were killed and the reprisals continued.

As the crowds grew every week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fanned the flames from Neauphle Le Chateau, a quiet residential neighbourhood near Paris where he sought refuge after being expelled from Iraq.

In speeches from his sanctuary, the ayatollah called for the overthrow of the shah.

According to a source close to French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French president phoned the shah and told him the ayatollah was “becoming dangerous” and, if the shah chose to act, Giscard d’Estaing said it could be arranged that French security could be made to overlook certain aspects.

The shah is said to have responded: “Let him shout all he wants. We are not concerned.”

As opposition to the shah grew and Khomeini became more vociferous, the source reported that Giscard d’Estaing cautioned the shah a second time. “This man is really becoming dangerous. We cannot act because he has not threatened the French or France. Again, if you chose to act, we can certainly look the other way,” the French leader said.

Once again the shah refused the offer, saying: “Let him shout all he wants.”

The French were right to worry. As marches, protests and demonstrations in Tehran grew in violence, so too did the pressure mount on the shah to resign.

On January 17, 1979, accompanied by his wife, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran for exile, flying to the United States and Panama, only to be asked to leave for fear of upsetting the mullahs in Iran. He arrived in Aswan, Egypt, the only country that welcomed him, on February 11.

The emperor of emperors — the shahanshah — had become a pariah. He remained in Egypt until his death July 27, 1979.

Reforms introduced by the shah, particularly his policy of separating religion from politics had upset the Shia clergy as well as the powerful bazaaris, considered to be the backbone of Iran’s influential merchants. That, and reports of corruption among the royal family and, above all, the behaviour of his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, were issues he should have dealt with but ignored.

Shortly after the shah’s departure from Iran, the mullahs who had taken over formally abolished the monarchy and declared Iran an Islamic republic.

Thus began a new era in the Middle East. Iran began trying to export its revolution. It became embroiled in a lengthy war with neighbouring Iraq during which Iran lost 500,000 men.

Iran went from being a staunchly pro-Western country that enjoyed cordial relations with the United States and Israel to having tense relations with most, if not all, Western nations, primarily the United States following the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran and the detention of 52 American hostages from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.

Iran further irritated Western powers by its efforts to acquire nuclear technology and capability for military purposes, although the leadership insists that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes. The ayatollahs severed diplomatic relations with Israel, saying “it should be wiped off the map.”

Iran under the mullahs has delved into politics beyond its borders, financing and training militias in Lebanon and Yemen. Seeing itself as a regional superpower, it sent its military as well as its proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, to fight in Syria.

More than forty years into its revolution, the government continues to crack down on dissent. Several popular requests for it to allow greater freedom were brutally suppressed.

Despite claims that some resistance to the mullahs has made headway, there is no sign the regime in Iran is about to change.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

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