COMMENTARY: Witnessing a Revolution Forty Years Ago

By Cyrus Kadivar

A short time ago, I published my first book. It was a memoir of my childhood and adolescence in Shiraz, a tale of innocence and awakening, but also an investigation, after decades of exile, into what had happened to my beloved homeland, Iran, during and after the Islamic Revolution. I wrote not merely to remember, but to inform, to document my experiences and emotions at a time of nation building and rebellion.

Prior to the cataclysm that struck my country, Iran had appeared an island of stability in a troubled region. Under Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iranians had been catapulted from a feudal world to a modern one. His son and successor, the pro-Western Mohammad Reza Shah, had built on his father’s achievements. The White Revolution launched by him in 1963 had given land to the peasants, and women had gained the right to vote, but he had also turned a mostly conservative, religious and agrarian society upside down.

In the Seventies, while the Shah evoked the glories of the Persian Empire and spoke of creating a ‘Great Civilization,’ billions of dollars from oil exports had been spent by the government on education, hospitals, infrastructure development projects, sophisticated weaponry for the armed forces, and cultural festivals. A vibrant, affluent and capable, professional middle class had emerged. But the royal autocracy had come at a price—the lack of genuine political parties, economic dislocation and a frenzied dash to modernization and industrialization at the expense of religious and traditional values. Despite these advances, something was decaying.

As the Shah felt a need to take matters more firmly in hand, his grandiose vision for Iran started to diverge from that of the majority of his subjects and his international allies. Worse still, unbeknownst to his people, the monarch was afflicted by cancer, and his attempts to liberalize the state and grant free elections came too late.

The revolution destroyed all hopes of a peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. Hundreds of thousands of protestors — students, bazaar tradesmen, oil workers, civil servants — went on strike and took to the streets of every city, town and village. The calls for democracy and improved human rights of the middle classes were hijacked by Islamic Marxists and very quickly by pro-Khomeini extremists and leading mullahs, who used the mosques to subvert the secular movement with the aim of establishing a theocracy based on medieval interpretations of the Koran. Banks, cinemas, boutiques, government offices and symbols of Pahlavi Iran were attacked and set on fire.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Cyrus Kadivar.” captionposition=”center” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]


Even today, I remember the precise moment when the last Shah abandoned his throne after a 37-year reign and took tearful flight from Tehran. It was January 16, 1979 and I was a 16-year-old student in the southwestern city of Shiraz. The announcement was delivered at my school at around two o’clock by a fellow student who had heard it on the radio. Chairs and desks were overturned in the classroom. Our teacher became powerless to stop my classmates from tearing the king’s pictures from their schoolbooks and burning them in the kerosene heater. In the hallway, I came across the flag, with its Lion and Sun emblem, trampled on the floor. I picked it up, tucked it under my winter coat, hurried downstairs, and ran across the schoolyard.

Everywhere, people rejoiced. Some shed a few discreet tears for the end of an imperial era. On February 1, 1979 Mohammad Reza Shah’s nemesis, the exiled religious leader, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, returned from Paris to great popular acclaim. Ten days later the caretaker government of the social democrat Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar melted away.

The collapse of the old order followed a three-day uprising by rebel air force cadets and armed revolutionary groups and the withdrawal of the royalist generals from the political fray, which sealed the fate of 2,500 years of monarchy.

After Khomeini and his followers took power, hundreds of the Shah’s key former officers and ministers were arrested, tried in kangaroo courts and summarily executed by firing squads. Women were forced back to wearing their chadors. The military, government ministries, universities, businesses, the media, and the entertainment industry were purged. Ethnic and religious minorities were persecuted. In the years that would follow tens of thousands of Iranians would be shot or hanged by the new so-called Islamic regime as enemies of the state and a million of our people would die or be injured in a senseless war with Saddam’s Iraq that would last eight years.

The clock was turned back and the mullahs proceeded to force a proud nation into a veil of darkness and ignorance.

Then began the exodus of over three million Iranians to the West. My family fled Iran in August 1979. We left behind everything we had once cherished: our way of life, our home, our friends, the land and the memories.

The fall of the Shah in 1979 brutally transformed Iran and the entire Middle East. It not only altered the history and trajectory of my country, but also the lives of countless millions of Iranians.  Revolution, war, hostilities, terror, corruption, economic mismanagement and political repression have left deep scars that have not entirely healed. Such historic and personal trauma is not easily erased despite the passage of time.

Today, forty years after the events, I remain, like many of my contemporaries in exile, a member of an uprooted generation. Despite the changes that took place in Iran during the post-Khomeini decades, there seems no end to the political quagmire in the Islamic republic and the 80 million people who are governed by it. 

Meanwhile, those Iranians in the Diaspora who have built new lives in distant lands still wait to see a time when in our homeland our young compatriots can be truly liberated and look forward to living in a peaceful world, with our country, once a cradle of civilization, taking its rightful place as a secular, progressive nation.

Cyrus Kadivar is the author of Farewell Shiraz: An Iranian Memoir of Revolution and Exile (The American University in Cairo Press, 2017)