Robert Fisk: I saw a mesmeric Islamic uprising turn to savagery

Tuesday 10 February 2009 01:01 GMT

The fall of the Shah was an epic, a morality play or a Greek tragedy if he had been a truly great man rather than just another American satrap, complete with US fighter aircraft, a swamp of corrupt officials and a sadistic intelligence service. When one of my colleagues suggested that the Iranian revolution could be compared to the fall of the Bastille and of the Tsar – he quoted Charles Fox’s line about “how much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world” – I thought his trust in Ayatollah Khomeini’s liberal intentions was born of wishful thinking.

When Khomeini’s prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, appeared on television to condemn the revolution’s bloody kangaroo courts as a disgrace to “a wonderful revolution of religious and human values” and appealed to the Ayatollah to set new rules for the trials, Khomeini agreed, then forgot his promise. The size of the street demonstrations in Tehran – a million one day, one and a half million the next – gave the Iranian revolution a mesmeric quality. It was anarchic, animalistic, ritualistic, very definitely Shia, but, in its earliest days, strangely moving.

I was then working for the pre-Murdoch Times, which was temporarily closed by a printing dispute, and made my way to Iran to report for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But I still have the notes I sent back to my then news editor, Ivan Barnes. The Shah’s acolytes, I said, had been insufferably arrogant, but “I found that this arrogance had disappeared with the revolution. I was treated with courtesy and kindness almost everywhere I went and found Iranians much more aware of the implications of world events than ... the inhabitants of Arab countries. There was a straightforward quality about Iranians in the country as well as the towns that I couldn’t help admiring. They were thirsting to talk about anything.

“The only trouble I had was on the train to Qum [sic] when a gang of Islamic Guards (green armbands and M16 rifles) opened the compartment door and saw me recording a cassette with train sounds. I was accused of being a CIA spy (what else?) but explained that I was a journalist working for Canadian radio. The interpreter, a leftist student who travelled with me everywhere ... repeated the same thing and they relaxed. I had been told in Tehran to always say ‘Long live Khomeini, death to the Shah!’ to anyone nasty. I said my piece, at which the Guards raised their right fists in the air and shouted their approval. Then they all shook hands with me with giant smiles and tramped off down the train to torment someone in another compartment.”

The Shah’s gruesome medical odyssey through the hospitals of central America, New York City and, eventually, Cairo gave grim satisfaction to the mullahs who had already ordered his assassination. Not long after his departure I had sat at the feet of Hojatolislam Sadeq Khalkhali, the “hanging judge”, as he listed those of the Shah’s family sentenced to death in absentia. Khalkhali it was who had sentenced a14-year-old boy to death, who had approved of the stoning to death of women in Kermanshah, who earlier, in a mental hospital, would strangle cats in his prison cell. “The Shah will be strung up; he will be cut down and smashed,” he told me. “He is an instrument of Satan.”

Weeks later, in Evin prison, he discoursed again on the finer details of stoning to death. I still have the cassette of our conversation, his lips smacking audibly on a tub of vanilla ice cream as he spoke. From where did this brutality come? One of the regime’s new officials said the Shah’s Savak intelligence men were Nazi-type criminals. And how could I argue with this when reporters such as Derek Ive of the AP had managed to look inside a Savak agent’s house just before the revolution was successful? “There was a fishpond outside,” he told me. “There were vases of flowers in the front hall. But downstairs there were cells. In each of them was a steel bed with straps and beneath it two domestic cookers. There were lowering devices on the bedframes so the people strapped to them could be brought down on the flames. In another cell, I found a machine with a contraption which held a human arm beneath a knife and next to it was a metal sheath into which a human hand could be fitted. At one end was a bacon slicer. They had been shaving off hands.”

Derek Ive found a pile of human arms in a corner and, in a further cell, he discovered pieces of a corpse floating in inches of what appeared to be acid. Amid such savagery was the Iranian revolution born.

Robert Fisk’s full account of the 1979 Iranian revolution appears in his book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

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