Days of God author James Buchan on Iran’s transformation in 1979

Iranian protestors hold a up a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Picture: Getty
Iranian protestors hold a up a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Picture: Getty
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JAMES Buchan tells David Robinson why he believes Iran was transformed so suddenly, violently and completely in 1979

I meet James Buchan next to Eduardo Paolozzi’s giant bronze sculpture of Newton mapping the heavens outside the British Library. There’s probably no more determinedly rationalist part of London, yet as we chat, that haven of cool, ordered western thought seems to fade away, as we start talking about suicidal onslaughts, riots, cinema burnings, mass executions, and the prospect of nuclear war. We are talking, in other words, about Iran.

James Buchan. Picture: Adrian Lourie

James Buchan. Picture: Adrian Lourie

The Iranian revolution of 1979, Buchan points out at the start of his book Days of God, was one of those moments when history jumped tracks so spectacularly that it’s hard to remember what the country was like before. Even at the time, it didn’t seem to make sense to either side in the Cold War: here was a country where ordinary people, starving just a generation ago, had never been richer. Where the Shah had armed forces vastly bigger than Britain’s, equipped with US fighters so advanced that even the Israelis were jealous. Where the mullahs had been faced down and women had been given the vote and capitalism was ripping through society like there was no tomorrow.

Then, suddenly, it all came crashing down. What the people wanted instead, what they turned up in their millions to demand, as 1978 turned into 1979, wasn’t more money or material goods but the return of an unsmiling mystic then living in exile in Marguerite Duras’s old house in Paris.

Has there ever been such a mass yearning as that for Ruhollah Khomeini? Have there ever been crowds as big as the ones that welcomed him back to Tehran in February, six million lining the streets, waiting patiently for their severe messiah? The night before the Shah flew out for the last time, a box of Iranian earth in his luggage, all over Iran people looked up at the moon and swore they could see Khomeini’s face on it.

Why did Iran change so suddenly, so violently and so completely that as James Buchan points out, by comparison the fall of the Berlin Wall was just “the tying up of historical loose ends”? Why did the Shah’s massive military might melt away so absolutely “that one searches in vain for its like, whether in modern or ancient history”? That is, essentially, the subject of his latest book, a sharply written and persuasive study of a revolution whose consequences remain a massive threat to world peace.

Iranians demonstrate in Tehran in January 1979. Picture: Getty

Iranians demonstrate in Tehran in January 1979. Picture: Getty

Buchan is well placed to tell its story. He went to Iran in 1974, a long-haired 19-year-old taking a break from studying Persian and Arabic at Oxford to learn the language properly.

He spent eight months in Isfahan, teaching large classes of the Shah’s air cadets and small ones of teenage Iranian girls. That formed the basis of his 1999 novel A Good Place to Die, in which he imagined what kind of life he would have had if he had, instead of returning to Oxford, stayed behind and married one of those teenage girls, living through the downfall of the Shah, the revolution and horrendous war against Iraq.

The novel attracted rave reviews even from critics not known for them (“I can’t think of any other English novelist who is held in such esteem by his fellows” – Philip Hensher), yet Buchan knew that he still had more to say about the country that remains, he admits, “my first love”. “I suppose the novel was a romantic alternative, but this book is an attempt to say what actually happened at the time. I wanted to treat it not as an epic, which is how the Iranians treat their revolution, nor as a tragedy, which is how the Americans treat it.”

Back in 1974, he knew some sort of cataclysm was on its way but couldn’t tell what. “The price of oil had quadrupled that winter, so Iran had money coming out of its ears. Everyone was trying both to make a quick buck and to preserve a traditional way of life. In the 1940s, the older generation had just about been kept alive by Brits bringing in grain, yet all of a sudden here was a society in which you could have whatever you wanted as long as you had money.

“At the time everyone thought that the main threat came from the armed Left – the Iranian equivalent of the Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades. Khomeini had fallen silent. Most people thought that his moment had passed and that society was moving away from him, with women enjoying their new liberties such as being able to divorce and to keep their children.

“The Shah’s image was everywhere – in the schools, post offices, in the newspapers, yet nobody seemed to have any loyalty or enthusiasm for him. The young people and cadets I taught were politically neutral. Loyalty to the Shah really only extended to the armed forces, and even then, when it came to the crunch, they proved useless.”

Buchan talks about Iran quietly and insistently, without any of the cosmopolitan braggadocio of the veteran foreign correspondent. He has plied that trade himself, but only until 1990: thereafter his career broadened, into both award-winning novels (A Parish of Rich Women, Heart’s Journey in Winter) and acclaimed non-fiction books on money, Enlightenment Edinburgh, and Adam Smith. Owning a small farm in Norfolk (“really, it’s just two fields; cows and sheep in one and organic beans in the other) adds further to an already impressive hinterland – as does being the John Buchan’s grandson. He was born more than a decade after his famous grandfather died, but his literary legacy is clearly important. “It’s not that it opened the possibility of writing,” he smiles. “It’s that writing is the only option.”

In Days of God, Iran stumbles towards revolution almost by accident: there seems nothing inevitable about it. In the early 1970s, for example, the Shah’s prospects could hardly have been brighter. The British, who had used Iranian oil to create BP and to help pay the cost of two world wars, were now no longer leaving just a pittance to the Iranian Treasury – instead, they had already pulled out east of Suez. Regional rivals in the Arab world had been hammered in their wars against Israel. Even America had been humiliated in Vietnam and was looking to the Shah as a bulwark against the USSR, promising him virtually any conventional weapon he wanted, including ones only just reaching the US forces themselves. The Shah pushed the country’s economic throttle as far as it would go, all the way to an annual 25 per cent growth target. He’d planned on buying 30 per cent of UK arms exports and to boost his armed forces to 760,000 while he was at it.

The troubles, when they arrived, didn’t look insurmountable. Granted, the 1974 decision to go for all-out growth rather than copy the Kuwaitis and invest abroad, soon started to look like a mistake, especially when the western economies collapsed two years later and the economy had to be thrown into reverse. True, the ultra-lavish celebrations of 2,500 years of the Persian empire at Persepolis in 1971 struck nearly everyone as madly hubristic, particularly since few Iranians seemed to either know or care about Cyrus the Great and no-one at all apart from the Shah liked the idea of changing the country’s calendar from an Islamic calendar to an imperial one.

Yet even then, says Buchan, revolution wasn’t inevitable. “I don’t think there was any point at which the Shah’s fall was irreversible: it wasn’t a case of great forces slowly moving into place. Certainly you can’t analyse the Iranian revolution in economic terms, as people did with the French and Russian revolutions.

“Instead, this was a cultural revolution, a revolt of a culture with very deep roots. That doesn’t make it any easier for westerners to understand, because it sees a reversal in causes that matter to us. If you go to Iran right now and talk to people about the revolution, and ask them what benefits it has brought, a lot would say ‘Modest dress among the women’ – which we wouldn’t see as an advantage at all.”

Scots should understand the Iranian revolution better than almost anyone, says Buchan. “All we have to do is to think back to the 17th century and see Khomeini as someone like Knox, because just like 17th century Scots, Iran was a deeply religious society – yet without a hierarchical religious structure – where people felt that God had a particular purpose for their country.”

So look what happens that winter of 1978-9. There’s an earthquake and 11,000 die. The will of God, obviously. A cinema fire in Abadan in which 400 people burn to death. Somehow, that too becomes the fault of the Shah, even though everyone knows – but nobody dares say – that the only people running round torching cinemas are the religious fanatics. It doesn’t seem enough to kickstart a revolution – and it isn’t. Buchan agrees. “We’re back to that most unfashionable theory of all, the great man theory of history, that it’s all down to the force of Khomeini’s personality. But I make no apologies for writing it like that, because everyone arguing that the revolution was down to impersonal forces entirely failed to predict it.”

Like any historian, Buchan is not in the business of guessing the future. All the same, as we edge closer to the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran to prevent it acquiring its own nuclear weapon, his Days of God does offer a number of valuable, if frightening insights.

Sooner or later, he believes, Iranians will start to modify their view of Khomeini. “I can say things in this book that Iranians can’t, because Khomeini has made pronouncements on certain historical events and it is very difficult for modern Iranian historians to gainsay him. Some of his statements don’t correspond to the documentary evidence and sit in front of Iranian historians like rocks in a navigation channel: they have to steer round them. The Abadan cinema fire is one example, but there are others.

“At some stage they are going to start to realise that, when they carried on the war against Iraq on Khomeini’s orders [after rejecting Iraq’s unconditional ceasefire offer in June 1982] the loss of 200,000 more men in six more years of war was needless, that they were lions led by donkeys.”

That whole catastrophic war, he points out, began because Khomeini deliberately destroyed the leadership of the Shah’s forces, executing the generals almost as soon as he had come to power in 1979. “From his point of view, he was quite right. Khomeini realised that the armed forces were channels by which modernisation and foreign influence had come into Iran – and they were.”

Iranian suspicion of a large standing army, he points out, hasn’t gone away. “That’s one of the reasons they want to have a nuclear bomb in the first place – because they fear that if they have a large army it will become dependent on foreign suppliers and the generals could get uppity, so a bomb becomes a substitute for having large conventional forces.”

An Iranian nuclear bomb will be popular among ordinary Iranians, he claims, and even the economic agonies inflicted on them by UN sanctions won’t make them turn completely against their theocratic regime. Instead, Buchan expects the quietistic strain within Shia Islam – the notion that the virtuous man should have nothing to do with politics – to gain ground.

The whole impasse is all the more absurd because there is no intrinsic hostility between Israel and Iran. “They are elective enemies – in Israel’s case because in the 1990s the Arabs were no longer a threat, Egypt and Jordan had long since made peace, Syria was stable and they were looking for an enemy – particularly one that was also hostile to the United States. Iran fitted the bill perfectly. But as often happens, what began as a fabricated animosity gradually became real.

“In Iran, they’re at the stage with the nuclear issue where it’s a matter of diminishing returns. In 1971 you used to be able to get 120 rials per £1, now it’s getting on for 50,000. Maybe they can find some face-saving formula and step back. But I’ve got to admit, it looks very unlikely.”

• Days of God by James Buchan is published this week by John Murray, price £25.