London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When the Shah ordered the Shahyad monument to be built, as part of the nationwide celebrations to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great, he could not have imagined that, in less than a decade, the square would act as the starting point of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Re-named Azadi (freedom) monument, this historical tower in north Tehran saw thousands of Iranians celebrate the revolution’s 27 th anniversary last week. What is the history behind this longtime symbol of the capital and one which continues to feature in its celebrations? How did the Iranian press cover the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Shah’s departure to exile in 1979? How do Khomeini’s associates remember the revolution?
The beautiful Shahyad square was built on a recommendation by the Shah’s advisor Prince Assad Allah Alam. One of Iran’s most prominent architects was hired for the project. It comprises a great tower on the road from “Mehrabad” international airport to the capital. Its name means the tower, which reminds of the Shah.
The building was inspired by Safavi architecture, after the Safavi dynasty in Iran during which hundreds of mosques, palaces and historical monuments were built. Construction lasted for 18 months and the monument was inaugurated as part of the ostentatious Persepolis celebrations in October 1971. Participants at the Asian Games which Tehran hosted in 1974 marveled at the grandeur of the building which also housed an underground museum which the Shah’s wife, Shahbanou Farah transformed into a museum for historical art and drawings. Iran Air, the national airline, used to organize a short tour of the tower to passengers transiting via Tehran ’s airport on their way to the USA or Central Asia . Shahyad square also served as a recreation and picnic ground for the capital’s inhabitants.
With the escalation of protests against the regime, the role of the square changed dramatically. It became the focal point of demonstrations against the Shah. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned triumphant from exile in Paris, Shahyad square saw the biggest rally in the history of Iran , as more than half of Tehran came out to greet the Ayatollah, according to newspaper estimates.
Reclaimed by the revolution, Tehran’s Western gate was re-named Azadi Sqaure, or freedom square. Every year, since 1979, military parades are held to commemorate the anniversary of the Islamic revolution and demonstrations, in support of the regime, use it as a starting point. In the run-up to the revolution, when protests were being held against the regime, the monument’s walls were covered with pamphlets and statements opposed to the Shah calling for freedom. Nowadays, any graffiti or writing is punishable with thirty lashes.
Shah- raft, or the Shah has left, was the biggest headline ever featured in the Iranian press, after the leader fled Iran on 16 January 1979 following months of increasingly violent protests against his regime.
The popular newspaper Ittilaat (or the news), its competitor Kihan and the morning paper, Ayendegan (or the future) all carried the headline “Shah Raft”, or the Shah has left, on their front page, using bold and large fonts. This signaled a complete break with the past, given that the word Shah had been outlawed following the coup that ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq from power in 1953. Instead, the titles Shahanshah (or King of Kings) and Aryamehr (literally Light of the Aryans), following the Persepolis , celebrations were used.
As the Shah prepared to leave Iran for exile, then Prime Minister Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, asked him to delay his departure until after parliament approved his program. He feared that, if parliament was to withdraw its support and the army interfered, the government would fall to be replaced by military rule.
But the Shah wanted to promptly leave Iran, in the hope that after his departure, the situation would soon return to normal. On 16 January 1979, Baktiar accompanied by Jawad Said, then parliamentary speaker, executed after the revolution to the airport. After an official farewell ceremony lasted less than 20 minutes, the Shah and Shahbanou boarded their plane to Egypt, their tears caught on camera by the photographers at the scene.
When the news of the Shahs’ departure spread, millions of men and women took to the streets of the capital and other Iranian cities in a mass expression of joy and happiness. Hundreds of revolutionary young men who would later form the nucleus of the revolutionary guards marched towards the city’s squares, which were adorned with statues of the Shah and his father, to remove the symbols of the Pahlavi dynasty. When the chief of police General Rahimi (executed three days after the return of Khomeini) contacted the Prime Minister to inquire what should be done about those tearing down and destroying the pictures and statues of the Shah, Bakhtiar answered, “Nothing”.
Less than an hour after the Shah’s departure, evening papers were published with the headline Shah Raft. Ten days later, in a popular celebration Tehran has never seen the likes of, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran triumphant. Up to five million people lined the streets of the nation’s capital, to witness his homecoming. Crowds stretched from the air port to the Cemetery of Martyrs where Khomeini addressed 250,000 supporters in a famous speech where he promised to establish a democratic regime in Iran .
Once again, the capital’s newspaper used bold and large fonts on their front page to indicate the historical importance of the imam’s return and many carried the headline “Imam Amad”, or the Imam is back, next to a picture of Khomeini disembarking from his airplane.
When he recalls the early days of the revolution, Abu al Hassan Bani Sadr, who was elected the first president of the Islamic Republic in 1980 and later expelled, he is overcome with sadness. He remains hopeful he will return to Iran one day. Speaking to Asharq al Awsat from exile in France , he said, “[President Mohammad] Khatami used to conceal the face of the regime whereas [President Mahmoud] Ahamdinejad represents its true face. The Iranian people see nowadays the regime in its entirety in Ahmadinehad’s behavior, speeches and slogans.”
For his part, Ali Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, once the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini who has since then fallen out with the regime, currently lives under house arrest in Qom, surrounded by dozens of police and security guards. Following an attack by supporters of the Iranian Hezbollah who damaged his offices and house, the Ayatollah no longer leaves his residence. Students and supporters visit him from time to time but are intimated by religious police and the security services.