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Iran's Islamic Revolution Resonates 30 Years Later


It's been described as one of the most important revolutions in history, one that changed the face of a country and sent shock waves around the world. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed Iran from a monarchy into a theocracy and made political Islam a force to be reckoned with around much of the globe. The revolution unfolded 30 years ago, but its impact is felt to this day.

Not far from a beach in Dubai is the home of Iranian writer and filmmaker, Siba Shakib. "I miss [Iran] tremendously," she said. "I miss it a lot."

Shakib is one of an estimated two million or more Iranians who have left their homeland. Some go back to visit; others, not at all.

The reason is a revolution 30 years ago that toppled a monarchy, and ushered in rule by Shiite Muslim clergy.

Tension had been brewing between Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and opponents ranging from far left Marxists to constitutional reformers to conservative Islamists.

The regime became increasingly unpopular amid allegations of widespread corruption, political oppression, and unpopular reforms. The Shah was viewed by many Iranians as a western puppet who had sold the country's oil wealth for the benefit of a small, westernized and extravagant elite.

Former British Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen said by the late 1970's, the Shah had managed to alienate much of Iranian society. "The Bazaaris [merchants] were upset by inflation, which was roaring ahead with no curbs on it at all," he said. "The religious mullahs were upset by [the Shah's] apparent flouting of ... the Islamic faith; the students were upset because there wasn't enough liberty and democracy."

Protests spread throughout the country.

On 16 January 1979, the Shah fled Iran, and 18 months later died of cancer in Cairo.

The revered cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, return from exile in France on 1 February 1979 to a hero's welcome and as the undisputed leader of the revolution.

By April, the Islamic Republic was officially established. The revolution was about change.

Like many professionals and intellectuals, human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi had supported it. "The slogan of the revolution was freedom and independence, and they had promised we would achieve the two," Ebadi said.

Change came, but not as many had hoped. There were executions, mass arrests, purges and chaos.

In November of 1979, a group of students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Washington severed ties and imposed sanctions; relations have yet to recover.

Christopher Rundle was a British diplomat in Iran just after the revolution. He says that while the revolution may have brought isolation, inside Iran it was seen as a victory.

"The people in power in Iran would say that one of the great achievements of the revolution has been independence from the United States, in particular," Rundle stated. "They are very proud of that achievement."

But, hard times followed. Iran's neighbor and arch rival Iraq used the chaos to launch an attack in 1980. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war cost as many as one million lives on both sides.

Internally, as the Islamists consolidated power, draconian laws were passed to curb personal and social freedom.

Speaking to VOA in London, Shirin Ebadi said the revolution threw off western influence, but did not deliver on other promises. "I never saw the freedom that I wanted being realized," Ebadi explained. "That is why I became a defender of human rights, and I am fighting so that we actually gain that freedom."

Shirin Ebadi was a judge under the Shah, but she lost her post after the revolution. She stayed in Iran and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work in human rights.

Experts on Iran say first and foremost, the revolution survived. It threw off western influence and exported political Islam as a force to be reckoned with.

But because of its support for radical groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran has been labeled a supporter of terrorism.

Its pursuit of nuclear technology, possibly for nuclear weapons, has been met with widespread condemnation and sanctions.

For Iranians under the age of 30 and born after 1979, the revolution has little meaning, some experts say.

"A lot of them have access to the Internet, to satellite television," Rundle said. "In the background and in people's houses, a lot is going on that the mullahs would not necessarily approve of."

Many Iranians are looking to America's new president, Barack Obama, to make a difference.

Iranians like Siba Shakib in Dubai are optimistic. "I think we have very, very, very good chances, if everyone does what they have to do," Shakib added. "Including us."

Talks between Iran and the U.S. are considered more likely under the Obama administration, but with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, progress is not expected to come easy. Analysts say the West must accept that Iran's revolution is here to stay. How it evolves remains to be seen.

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