Thirty years ago, when Iran's last Shah hosted the-then British Prime Minister Callahan at the Sadabad Palace, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's current president, was fifteen- or sixteen-years-old. Today, the world recognizes Ahmadinejad better than the former Shah and newspaper write about him more; his picture is in more places than the Shah's, and he has been to the United Nations and spoken there more times than the Shah. The Shah, however, was worried about Ahmadinejad, because at his meeting with Callahan he said, "My thoughts point to thirty years from now."
At that time, neither the Shah nor anyone else could imagine that in thirty years Iran would be consumed in an election that would send Ahmadinejad to the Sadabad Palace as President. Thirty years ago, the Iranian people, a majority of their thirty-and some odd million people, carried out a revolution that was predicted nowhere in the world and not preceded by any sign or alarm.
When the revolution took place, a while had passed since anyone was looking for an important headline in newspapers. Newspaper pages were similar and those days' colorful magazines summarized society's worries, be they traffic in Tehran, difficulty of obtaining a construction permit or lost cows on provincial highways, and so on. The country's mighty censorship apparatus had not been able to find much to censor for some time.
In the second half of the seventies, the Shah and his government insisted that the youth become more politicized, but they weren't interested. The regime was worried that the indifference of the youth was harmful for national security, but at the same time the Savak [Shah's infamous intelligence organization] would throw young people in jail for possessing a banned book. Still, the Shah, his ministers and general still complained that the youth cared too much about jeans and looking like Elvis Presley and Allen Delon. They asked, why isn't there any activism? Why doesn't anyone care about issues? Why is the city dead? They worried so much that they finally decided to establish a full political party for the youth to channel their political activism- though to no avail.
Then news came that students were preparing themselves in dormitories for armed struggle against the regime. Suddenly it was revealed that several youngsters had gone to Iran's northern mountains to emulate Fidel Castro's armed resistance. The royal army mobilized its tanks and helicopters to suppress the uprising.
For the regime, even the handful of youngsters was surprising. The guerillas were killed. The Savak was happy and proud, but in March 1975 the Shah confided in his chief of staff, Asadollah Alam, "It is surprising that out of one thousand students at the Tehran University yesterday, six hundred paid homage to the killed guerillas." Acknowledging the Shah's concern, Alam responded, "This is the result of controlling thoughts." Alam adds in his memoir, "He [the Shah] asked why can't we do that ourselves [police thoughts]?"
Neither could journalists control thoughts for the regime, nor could writers paid by the palace or other institutions. And so, the revolution began.
When the revolution heated up, no one worried about people's indifference anymore. Suddenly everyone was politicized. The newspapers were politicized. When the government wanted to pressure them, they staged a powerful strike that ended only with the full lifting of censorship. And when they ended their strike, they all published on their first page the image of their country's next leader, whose image no one had seen in newspapers for a quarter of a century. From then on, all newspapers began criticizing the regime.
The situation continued until the revolution's victory. Immediately afterward the American embassy was invaded. Before long, war arrived too and Saddam's missiles began an ominous dance in city skies.
Everyone had forgotten that six years before, in the very same Iran, the Shah was worried about thirty years after. People were consumed in the struggle to prepare essential goods in wartime and talked politics while waiting in line to purchase them.
Gradually, officials entertained the thought of preventing society's further politicization. Women's magazines, cooking and sewing journals flourished. Though wartime and post-war reflections politicized journalists and newspapers, it didn't liberate them. Censorship grew, and so journalists were left in the same predicament they were in before the revolution, and to change which they had revolted. The situation continued until the 1997 presidential election and the coming to power of Khatami, which ushered an era of unprecedented journalistic freedom.
The conservatives renewed their war on the media. More than one hundred newspapers were shut down and two hundred journalists were sent to prison. Silencing the media, however, is not possible after a revolution whose main goal was liberty.
There was a time when the government could control the media as it wished, but that time has passed. It may be possible to control journalists for a short time, but to silence them forever- that is an impossible wish.
* Published in Iran's ROOZ on Feb. 1.