I spent the better part of two months, from Christmas 1978 until late February 1979, covering the Islamic revolution in Iran. There was no internet, no mobile phones, no Twitter. No one wore masks to hide their faces. The anger was immediate and raw. It led to the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the founding of the Islamic Republic.
I watched those demonstrations occur almost daily. Some rallies, planned ahead, would assemble a half million people. Others, more spontaneous, would converge quickly, and once started, word would hastily spread. It would take only minutes for hundreds, even thousands, of people to show up and add their voices to the protests against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his reign.
Trying to keep up with these events in a world where communication was limited to the occasional working pay phone was a challenge. More than once I found out about something happening just blocks from my hotel by hearing a dispatch from the BBC World Service on my pocket-size shortwave radio.
The political unrest highlighted Iran’s serious economic and political challenges. It was surprising to see the cars of a cross section of society lined up, sometimes for hours, for fuel as people suffered through shortages in a country rich with gas and oil.
Nearly every morning I would leave the hotel and walk a couple of blocks to a bakery, where the fresh fragrance of sangak, the traditional Persian bread, made with hot stones in a blazing oven, would permeate the air. In the line of customers, it was not unusual to have an animated discussion about politics and what “the people” needed to do to see a change in regime.
After covering anarchy and dissent for much of my career, the signs of unrest are very familiar to me. It is no small irony that my pictures of the Iranian revolution of 1979 are only now being exhibited, for the first time this month, at an art gallery in Tehran.
On Nov. 15, Iran suddenly and significantly increased gas prices, and large protests erupted in cities and towns across the country. Since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iranian oil sales in May 2018, Iran has been in an economic crisis. The Iranian currency has lost more than half of its value against the dollar in the past year and a half, and the economy’s painful contraction is expected to continue.
The people were furious. Looking at news clips and photographs from Iran’s November protests I saw an unmistakable similarity to the tension of the crowds protesting against the Shah in 1979. The recent image of a burning car surrounded by protesters was a chilling reminder of the quiet January 1979 afternoon in Tehran when a Molotov cocktail ripped apart the silence. With glass and gasoline showering the air, Maj. Gen. Taghi Latifi, a ranking officer of the Shah’s police, was pulled from his car, dragged and beaten by a huge crowd near Tehran University. It was as if all the anger of the uprising was for that moment focused on one man.
Many who form the Iranian regime today were the protesters of 1979. They must surely remember what it was like to be on the outside 40 years ago and how, with finality, events played out. Yet throughout November the Iranian government forces attacked protesters with brutality reminiscent of the desperate days of the revolution, killing at least 304 people between Nov. 15 and 18, according to Amnesty International.
The recent protests were sparked by a sharp rise in gasoline prices and underscored widespread economic discontent. But there were also slogans for the removal of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is unlikely there will be a change in leadership, but it is always a bad idea to underestimate the power of the people in the streets.
David Burnett has been a photojournalist for six decades and worked in over 80 countries. He is a co-founder of Contact Press Images.