Think back 40 years. Every baby boomer is old enough to do just that. Many of us were in a different place; all of us were a far sight younger! For BoomerCafé’s executive editor and co-founder Greg Dobbs, thinking back 40 years is thinking back to one of the most impactful stories he ever covered as a journalist. And as he writes in this Boomer Opinion piece, it’s a story whose impact is still with us today.
This week makes 40 years since the revolution in Iran. Which is especially shocking to me, since as a journalist I had a front row seat, spending the better part of two years there, covering the peaceful protests, then the pitched battles, then the all-out urban warfare that spun the Western-oriented monarchy known simply as Iran into the decidedly anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.
I can’t say it feels like yesterday, because as with any baby boomer, 40 years is more than half-a-lifetime back. But I also can’t say that the revolution is only a distant memory, not only because I had some of my closest brushes with death in Iran and you don’t ever forget threats like that, but also because in so many ways — in too many ways — the revolution is still with us today.
That’s what made Iran a real, if radical, pioneer: revolutions go back to the beginning of centralized governments, but never before did they deliberately breech a nation’s borders. Iran’s did, by design. That was the meaning, and the motive, of what came to be called the “Islamic Revolution of Iran.”
All of us who spent those years on the streets of Iran could see the change coming, the change that pivoted this oil-rich, strategically located nation from ally to adversary. Although our diplomats were telling Washington that the Shah’s support was strong, they were living in rarified company and couldn’t see beyond their blinders.
On the streets, anger with the Shah was all we heard. He was modernizing the nation, letting western decadence corrupt a conservative civilization, which the common people didn’t want. He was distributing the nation’s oil riches to a handful of wealthy families, in which the common people didn’t share. And the real emotional spark was the Shah’s savage secret police, Savak. Reporters like me rarely met anyone who didn’t have a cousin or a neighbor or a workmate who hadn’t lost a job, or an apartment, or an arm or a leg or an eye or maybe a life to Savak. The Shah was a bad guy. The catch was, he was our bad guy.
So while western governments stuck with the Shah, we who worked the streets could see that a revolutionary reordering was inescapable. What we didn’t see though was the force that would make this revolution unique: that it would break out of its own national borders and motivate militants to make their mark throughout the Islamic world, sometimes throughout the Western world too.
As it happens, I saw it soon enough, becoming maybe the first western reporter to witness the first steps of the Islamic Revolution. It was after the change of power and I was back in Beirut, covering Lebanon’s wholly uncivil civil war. One day a camera crew and I left Beirut to drive to Damascus, because Syria had a strong arm in that war. As we passed through the Bekaa Valley, we stopped for lunch in an ancient city called Baalbek. But when we got out of our car at the city’s central square, there were tanks with strange markings, and soldiers with strange faces and heavy beards — we almost thought we were back in Iran. Some kind of military training was going on right in front of us.
When they leveled their machine-guns at us, we got the message and got back on the road to Damascus. But what we saw, I later could confirm, was the infancy of Hezbollah, the Iranian-seeded terrorist organization that today controls much of Lebanon’s government and has fought wars with Israel along its northern border. Since then, Iran also has been a backer of Hamas, the most radical Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, at Israel’s southwestern edge. And over the years it has aligned with the most radical elements of Iraq, and Syria, and Yemen.
I tell these stories because although every baby boomer has lived through all this, it can be instructive to learn a few lessons from it, or at least to re-learn lessons we too quickly forget.
First, as all of us in the West have learned the hard way, it can be tortuous to stop armies that believe they are fighting in the name of God. That’s why, while driven underground, al-Qaeda and ISIS and others of like mind haven’t been driven from the face of the earth. To the contrary, the United States in ways big and small is battling terror in some 80 countries around the world.
Second, be careful what you wish for. Once the savagery of the Shah became known in the West, there was some sympathy for whomever would replace him. As it turns out, it was a bad deal. Holding our nose and supporting those who support us sometimes is the lesser of two evils, when the alternative is even worse. It’s called geopolitics, and to come full circle, sometimes it is a necessary evil.
Third, don’t depend solely on what our governments tell us. They might have our best interests in mind— or theirs, at least— but they only know what they think they know and in my long experience covering crises overseas, too often what they think they know is wrong. If we didn’t learn that from Iran, we should have learned it from Iraq.
Fourth, don’t condemn the whole of a nation for what we see in only a part of it. In the case of Iran, there was almost universal spitefulness for the Shah. But that didn’t mean everyone wanted to replace him with religious fanatics. They didn’t. But when it looked like the ayatollahs drove the bandwagon that would shove the Shah from power, they got on it. And now they, like we, must live with the outcome.
We are now on our fourth consecutive baby boomer president. They all should have learned some of these lessons themselves. From some of the messes we’ve been in, they didn’t.