By Emily L Blout
February 20, 2019
In what has been deemed the “most important conquest of the revolution,” on February 11, 1979, Iranian activists seized control of the headquarters of the National Iranian Radio and Television Service (NIRT), and, with it, command over all Tehran-based radio and television broadcasting. In the days and months prior, Tehran had waffled between martial law and a civilian caretaker government under Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar. Then, 10 days after Khomeini’s triumphant, masterfully staged return to Iran after 15 years of exile, the Shah’s caretaker government fell, along with the Imperial Army’s justification for continued occupation of the headquarters of NIRT, the state broadcasting monopoly.
The Tehran headquarters had continued to operate during the last throes of the revolution, and some staff had remained on the job to oversee a limited schedule of programming. Still others chose to quit in protest. They organized several days of general strikes, one of many public-sector strikes that brought the economy under the Shah to a standstill.
Ali Hosseini was among the employees who refused to work under the military occupation. But on February 11, 1979, Hosseini, along with a band of armed revolutionaries, returned to NIRT and demanded the military relinquish control to the state. Tanks were filmed leaving the NIRT compound later that day. At 6 pm that evening, Hosseini took to the airwaves to proclaim their conquest: “This is the voice of Tehran, the voice of true Iran, the voice of revolution.”
This was the voice of revolution, but was it an “Islamic” revolution?
As we look back at four decades of politics and change in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is worth remembering (or perhaps discovering for the first time) the truly popular nature of the revolution at its origination. It is equally worth remembering how the people’s revolution was co-opted by Khomeini’s faction of religious nationalists — a process that Michael Fischer once dubbed “the second revolution” of 1979.
End of the Popular Movement
The seizure of NIRT on February 11, 1979 both proclaimed the victory of the popular revolution and marked the beginning of its demise. It marked the commencement of the relatively swift process of consolidation of power behind the religious nationalists.
People from all sectors, classes of society, and ethnicities participated in the revolution — whether through labor strikes and street protests; low-risk demonstrations of defiance, such as wearing hijab; or declaring “God is great” from the rooftops at night. National Iranian oil company employees and other public sector workers, civil servants, and public intellectuals, minor clerics and grand ayatollahs, judges and lawyers, university professors and students, school teachers, journalists, bazaariand bankers, women and men, children and grandparents — they all took part in some way.
A number of political groups came together to spur on the revolution. In addition to the religious nationalists aligned with Khomeini, these groups included: the secular nationalist National Front, which was once led by deposed prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and its offshoot, the Islamic-nationalist Nehzat e Azadi Iran (Liberation Movement of Iran) led by Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the new regime; another offshoot of the organization, the militant Islamist socialist group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), founded by children of National Front members in the 1960s; the communist pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, established in 1941; the militant communists Fedaian-e Khalq, which was founded by the children of Tudeh Party members in the 1960s; the anti-Soviet communist confederation of Iranian Students in Europe and the United States; and several other Islamist, pro-China, pro-Albania and Trotskyite organizations.
These groups and political factions had different economic interests, ideologies, religious identities, and even mother tongues (there are dozens of languages and dialects spoken in Iran). Where they all agreed — the connective tissue that united the broad political movement — was in their opposition to the Shah and his authoritarian monarchy. This is all to say that the original revolution — the first revolution of 1978 to 1979 — was a revolution against the status quo.
The Second Revolution
The seizure of the NIRT on February 11, 1979 both proclaimed the victory of the popular revolution and marked the beginning of its demise. In this way, it was the voice of “Islamic revolution,” of Khomenei’s branding. It signaled the commencement of the relatively swift process of consolidation of power behind the Islamist faction of the religious nationalists. In the process, NIRT was re-named Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic. Many staff members were fired or forced into retirement. The ranks of the organization’s leadership were filled with Khomenei loyalists.
According to academic Hamid Dabashi, the Khomeneist faction owed their successful power grab to an extremely effective campaign of violence and populist maneuvering. “What happened in Iran between 1977 and 1979 was not an ‘Islamic’ revolution but a revolution that was forcefully and violently ‘Islamized,’” he writes.
Shah loyalists were stripped of power and hundreds were executed. Next came the elimination of competing political factions. Socialists and communist groups, so instrumental to the success of the revolution, were systematically targeted and executed. The MEK, for instance, had 198 of its members executed and 800 sentenced to prison in the first year alone.
The victims were not limited to the secular left. Even the most prominent leaders of the opposition within the ranks of the clergy found their voices muzzled and their power diminished under Khomeini’s hand. The plight of a founding member of the religious nationalist faction of the opposition, Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, is a case in point. Unlike Khomenei, Shariatmadari advocated a decidedly secular, nationalist vision for the post-Pahlavi state. He vocally opposed the installation of Islamic jurists within the formal structures of corporeal government. In his opposition to the referendum on the constitution of the Islamic Republic, Shariatmadari shattered the public façade of consensus within the religious establishment.
The Muslim People’s Republic Party (MPRP), the group associated with Shariatmadari, contested the constitutional referendum, which offered voters a binary choice between an Islamic Republic (with a green ballot) and a monarchy (with a red ballot). As part of the protest, they took control of a number of government buildings in Tabriz, including, significantly, the provincial NIRT radio station.
The guerrillas hoped to use the station to speak to the Tabriz population and create a coalition of resistance beyond Shariatmadari’s religious constituency. On December 7, Shariatmadari broadcast an appeal to the National Front to join them in forming a movement for democratic government. The message was broadcast three times on the Tabriz radio station but to no avail. On December 8, the group again used the radio station to issue an open letter to the provisional government. Claiming to represent the sentiment of the majority of the population of Tabriz and East Azerbaijan, it demanded that the “inadequate and flawed constitution, which is the principal cause of recent events, be revised and amended as soon as possible.” The group took credit for the Tabriz unrest and rejected assertions by the Tudeh leadership, Soviet-linked radio broadcasts, and Khomeini lieutenants that the unrest was the work of foreign conspirators.
The group’s declaration received a rapid, decisive response from Tehran. In a speech broadcast on the national television and broadcasting organization the next day, Khomeini deemed that the events in Tabriz were an “uprising against Islam” and “deserving of punishment of great magnitude.” The same day, armed guerrillas descended upon the Tabriz radio and television station and forcibly removed the occupiers from the premises, thus silencing a major communicative outlet for the would-be religious democratic movement.
Within the next years, the religious nationalist faction systemically eliminated rival political groups, including Shariatmadari, who was stripped of his title of Marja-e taqlid of Tabriz in 1982.
The second revolution was at an end, with Velayat-e Faqih (the governance of the supreme jurisprudent) the undisputed voice and vision of the revolution and post-revolution Iran.