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June 22nd, 2009
05:00 PM ET

On Tehran streets, echoes of 1979 Iranian revolution

Editor's Note: David Fitzpatrick was a producer for CBS News based in London during the Iranian revolution and hostage taking crisis.  He spent 26 years at CBS News before joining CNN in 2001

Image obtained on June 21 shows Iranian riot police blocking protesters on a street of Tehran on June 20.

Image obtained on June 21 shows Iranian riot police blocking protesters on a street of Tehran on June 20.

David Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

The events playing out on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities offer an eerie mirror image of the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeni to power in 1979.

Protestors are surging through the streets, international governments are unsure how or even if they should act and Iranian politics are as difficult as ever to decipher from abroad.

There is also another constant that is clear over the course of three decades: the ability of the authoritarian Iranian government to close down international journalists at the precise moment when objective observation of stark events on the ground is needed the most.

I know. I was in Tehran and other Iranian cities for months in 1979 and 1980. I was part of a very large contingent of international broadcast journalists allowed into the country just as the American hostages were being taken at the U.S. Embassy.

There seemed to be no limit on the amount of personnel we were allowed to bring in.  For CBS News, where I worked, I think we had close to 50 people brought in from England (where I was based), the U.S., Germany, France and nearly every other international bureau where CBS News had set up shop.

We were not unusual in the least.  Both ABC News and NBC News flew in truckloads of people. All the major U.S. networks had producers like me, correspondents, cameramen, editors, technicians and even administrators. At its peak, it’s a reasonable to suppose that nearly 200 men and women were working for the then Big Three broadcast networks inside Iran.

All of us then—as are international journalists today—were inside the country at the whim of the Ministry of Guidance—that wonderful, inapt name given to the bureaucracy in charge of us all.

From the moment you stepped onto Iranian soil, in theory, you were under the control of the Ministry. Most often, that meant a young man—or usually a young woman—assigned to you as a “minder”, making sure you didn’t violate the dozens of written and unwritten rules  that surrounded your presence.

Why would revolutionary Iran even allow U.S. and other international journalists inside the country in the first place?

For one clear cut reason:to portray as much as possible events on the ground in a manner that would benefit the government. Hundreds of thousands of protestors shouting “Death to America” outside the U.S. Embassy? While it certainly angered most U.S. viewers, the Iranians were reaching for a far more subtle audience—Islamic leaders around the world who would see the birth of something new, aggressive and potent: crowds on the street that eventually could make policy.

When the government of revolutionary Iran in 1979 and 1980 found it could not control the message to its liking, the response was equally clearcut: refuse to extend the visas of international journalists and eventually expel them all from the country.

It happened to me in the late winter of 1980 just as it happened last week to the dozens of international journalists who traveled to Iran to cover the elections in mid June. When their presence was deemed detrimental to the State, they were forced to leave.

I am certain the correspondents, producers and technicians inside Iran for the elections all worked as hard as we did three decades ago to get the story right.  And I am sure they did all they could to extend their visas.

When I was inside Iran, there was nothing more important aside from the news of the day then securing even an additional few days permission to work legally in Iran.  That often meant long suffering hours at the Ministry of Guidance offices, listening with at least surface politeness to lecture after lecture on the virtues of the revolution, the demonic nature of the United States and Britain (two themes repeated still today of course)  and how the world had to hear the “truth” about the brave men and women who toppled the Shah.

In 1980, as the hostage crisis consumed month after month, the Iranian authorities began to allow international journalists back into the country—only when the authorities felt they had the upper hand.   This time, instead of four dozen representatives from each network, they insisted on a limit of only five per broadcast news organization and only one each from a newspaper or news magazine.

It’s likely that some sort of similar model will follow in the next month or two—but only if and when the theocracy in charge of Iran decides that such presence will be in their benefit.

In late April of 1980, those of us still working inside Tehran had begun to establish an uneasy, but workable relationship with the authorities. It all went up in smoke on April 24, 1980 when word came of the aborted rescue mission launched by President Carter in the Iranian desert.  Almost instantly, enormous crowds of anti-American demonstrators filled the streets.

Ultimately, we were all expelled from the country again.

In 2009, it’s impossible to predict the next steps. Thirty years ago, the cycle of funerals, a 40 day mourning period for the dead killed on the streets and the always fiery Friday prayers made the country seem unsteady and dangerous.

Today, as Iran continues to bar most international journalists from covering this remarkable story, that pattern may well repeat.


Filed under: 360° Radar • David Fitzpatrick • Iran
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. eric

    President obama should take a tougher stance on wallstreet

    June 23, 2009 at 3:16 am |
  2. gayle

    Let's not forget, 30 yrs ago Iran was able to have a revolution without U.S. support.
    CNN, please continue reporting the news, don't try to whip Obama and the American people into a war mongering frenzy. Don't forget how you let the American people down in the lead in to the Iraq war. War sells, keeps reporters fully employed, peace doesn't sell as well, at least not in the United States.

    June 23, 2009 at 1:13 am |
  3. Mari

    McCain, Graham, and all the rest of the GOPers, calling for President Obama to do something, are WRONG.

    For far too long, the U.S. has been the "policeman" of the world. Its high time we show some respect for other nations, rather than demand that they "play by our rules"!

    The U.S. would be seen as arrogant and a bully, IF we demanded anything from Iran!

    Democracy and FREEDOM can not be imported into another country!
    FREEDOM must be born within the people and their nation!

    YES YOU CAN BRING CHANGE, IRAN!

    June 22, 2009 at 8:29 pm |
  4. Alice

    Did anybody really think that those old foggies were going to allow a winner who would give women more freedom.. get real. They know that that would be the begining of their end. But we are now reassured that not all Irainians think like the ridiculous President they have. It may take time, but it has already made the world realize that he is not as strong as he wants us to believe. There is a CRACK in the government.. it can only go down from here. Patience everyone.

    June 22, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  5. Tim Gibson

    Our nation cannot speak out on this issue, not with the blood of our own students at Kent State who protested the war and were shot and killed by American Army National Guard troops. Our leaders would react the same way to an uprising.

    I do hope this time we do not have people left in Iran to be taken hostage as we did when the Supreme Leader was brought into power.

    June 22, 2009 at 6:40 pm |
  6. Herold Dor

    I don't nothing about Iran But I know to make a change it will take a lot sacrify.... they need to keep fighting forwhat their believe in. I hope one day they will get what they want.. I leave you with these word"
    In overthrowing "NEDA" you have cut down in Theran Street only the trunk of the tree of liberty, it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep. one day they will come back alive..

    June 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm |
  7. Karen

    This is our cahnce right here.

    what is Obama waiting for? Everyone to get killed?

    June 22, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  8. JIM S

    They are not like 1979 revolution. Carter made a big mistake by not supporting the Shah of Iran. he is the main reason we are in this predicament. This will end like Tiananmen Square. There will be no compromise. The Mullahs will prevail unfortunately. However, if Mousavi manages to get elected, it won't improve relations with the world community. They will still be shouting Death to the Infidels, having nuclear bombs, threatening Israel and the Western countries. . Thank you Barack Hussein Obama

    June 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm |
  9. Let's Grow Some Balls in America

    Anderson,
    It's Not Iran that is important today. Neda is committed to freedom and American lost theirs on May 4th 1970 with Four Dead in Ohio. No one was ever accountable, and that day we buried the Constitution and Bill of Rights Once and For ALL. Check out NamelesWonderer on Twitter today to catch the drift and shadow of America.

    June 22, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  10. Melissa

    Joe, you didn't see the video, did you? Well I did. At the beginning of the video, there is no blood. It only takes seconds for her face to become covered in it as it spews from her mouth. Its absolutely horrifying.

    I understand why CNN blurred it. Because Americans are the biggest prudes I've ever seen and anything that might be disturbing is not shown unless its later in the day. And even then, there are networks that will actually resist it.

    Images of her when she was not bloody are alot more tolerable to most Americans than images of her when blood covered her face.

    June 22, 2009 at 2:19 pm |
  11. kevin mccabe

    Why are many stations now showing neda"s death with her face masked out. The world needs to see her, when she was shot and the life of her physical body died and her spirit left her body. I wasnt there in person, but I will never forget................

    June 22, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  12. Banafsheh

    This is a respond to Joe, who commented earlier on this story..the video of Neda was the first thing I saw on Saturday morning after I woke up. I've been following the events there non-stop as I still have friends and family in Iran. Neda's bloody face is the actual image, CNN had blurred it for a while, I know. But when they showed it, it was the real thing. I saw the raw youtube feed before CNN had even aired it. It made me sick to my stomach. She was shot in the heart while watching protests from the side, on her way to a music class it is said, by a basij from a rooftop who had a clear aim at her. One of the men helping her was a doctor standing near by, the video was filmed by the doctor's friend. She died in less than 2 mins. CNN never doctored the video, you just couldn't see the blood when her face was blurred.

    June 22, 2009 at 1:11 pm |
  13. kevin mccabe

    Oh, If you think i deride catholics...I am a catholic, Kevin McCabe

    June 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  14. Jeremy

    I hope the best for Iran, but i doubt any good will come of this. There will be allot of dead people, and the countries leaders will be showered with condemnation from the world, but in the end, nothing will change.

    June 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm |
  15. AJ

    To the person that pulled the trigger that took the life of Neda
    Soltani:

    How does it feel to be despised by so many? Remember this, she will be remembered by millions as a martyr and you as the gutless assassin that shot a young innocent girl to death and ignited a revolution.

    May you be haunted by her blood soaked face as she lay listless and dying in the street for the rest of your days and nights. Know this, you killed her but have awoke a nation.

    She will be a martyr and shall be the symbol of all oppressed people fighting for the most basic of all human rights, freedom. While you, have just paved your way into ignomany. I am sure Allah and all his prophets weep today, for you have evoked all that is evil and dispicable in mankind.

    The People.

    June 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm |
  16. Kourosh

    I wanted to thank CNN for the coverage on Iran, first for sending Iranian's voice to the world, and mostly for showing to the world that Iranian people are not like the goverment of Iran.
    I think regardless of the consequences of the crises in Iran, people of Iran have proven to be peaceful, and want to connect to the real world. The goverment might be able to force women to cover their hair in Iran, but they could not shut their mind.
    Thanks again

    June 22, 2009 at 12:45 pm |
  17. kevin mccabe

    Lets pray for the youth and the intellectuals, and the ones that think for themselves, to rise above the tyranny of fascist repressive religious fanatics, whether it be the catholics, with the inquisition in the past, or those that want to crush the soul of equality and freedom of expression. let us pray, while the mullahs cringe...they may dampen the flame...but it will never be snuffed, to my Iranian friends, to those that have answered the call.......be brave....for your time has come!

    June 22, 2009 at 12:45 pm |
  18. Anna Hartline

    Lindsey Graham and William Bennett want to see President Obama step up to the plate and do something about Iran. Why? So the Republicans can say, how he blew it? They would love to goad our President to make a fool of himself. They can say, like the drug dealer, "I didn't do it." The republicans are constantly trying to show Obama as ineffective. They should shut their pie hole and find a way to be helpful to our President. Can't they be anything but the party of "NO". Everyone of them knew that Bush stole the election and gave it to Cheney. He ran the country and lined the replubican's pockets. Ain't it a shame that they can no longer rip the USA off for their own gains. Get out of the way, republicans, we have a honorable man running the government.

    June 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  19. Michael C. McHugh

    It doesn't surprise me that the election was a fraud in Iran or that the votes were probably never counted at all. Nor does it surprise me that the regime is using Gestapo methods against its own people, or trying to blame the US, Britain, the Jews, the media and George Soros for all the troubles of its own making. Ever since 1979, I have never thought that the regime in Iran was anything else but a clerical-fascist police state–which replaced the secular fascist police state that it overthrew.

    I am surprised at just how stupid and out of touch with reality it leaders must be, particularly its Supreme Fuehrer. But as any historian can tell you that's what happens to most dictators and tyrants the longer they are in power, including Hitler and Stalin. They start living in a paranoid fantasy world of their own propaganda. In this case, Iran's Supreme Leader seems like a particularly harsh, rigid and doctrinaire old Nazi, completely out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the women and young people of Iran.

    June 22, 2009 at 12:16 pm |
  20. Michelle

    I know nothing about Iran in the 70's but I do believe that we
    are witnessing a very elaborate subterranean communication
    network with the young people of Iran. This whole thing has
    been well organized.A while back I saw something on Current
    about Iran and how the young people use social networking to
    meet and gather for social events.I believe it was done by a
    student's whose film was once featured on 360 .I think it might
    have been one of Current's megapods and that she is an
    Iranian-American who was able to get the young people of
    Iran to open up and talk with her.

    June 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  21. Joe

    Let's keep them honest, Anderson. Explain why "Neda's" face was partially blurred after her face is shown briefly before it was blurred. Let's keep CNN Honest....Why is it that after CNN deciedes to show Neda's face for a while, that at the 11:30am hour of Newsroom on June 22nd Neda's face is now, for the first time, supprisingly bloody...not like previous videos of her face? Let the video's speak for themselves, CNN doesn't need to be doctoring and photoshopping the videos, we get the point. Let's keep them honest. This move is in very poor taste. The video is shocking enough.

    June 22, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  22. Richard

    It appears their Supreme Leader will not make any decisions that make their country less safe. They obviously don’t have the absolute rule of law that our country does (even though Dick Cheney states he can take any and every action to ensure national security, including breaking the law which is inherent in his Constitution.). Maybe their delicate balance, to ensure security, has a different standard. So it is with absolute pride that with our absolute rule of law, our security can protect freedom, and in every other country in the world, security without rule of law, can only take it away. I heard their security and intelligence services are using a very weak standard of reasonable suspicion (like ours of1%) to “investigate” any potential (like ours, by 1%) threat. If they use the same standards your FBI does, they can accuse absolutely any and every one of being a potential threat or spy. Like our FBI, without any proof of guilt, they can use investigative pretences to derail and steer people’s lives. It is pathetic but at least their people, willing to assume some risk, know what they are dealing with. It may be easier to legally address a Supreme Leader than Supreme Repercussions, because that is what the FBI dumps on people to keep many of their failures, illegal activity, and repulsive abuse of the law, from ever seeing the light of day. The people of Iran should feel blessed that they do not have the Terrorist Surveillance Program, because the dire and grave consequences would be attached, like a counterweight, to every one trying to make a difference or incorrectly and intentionally accused of being a threat. When their Supreme Leader states he can do anything and everything to ensure national security and not held to a rule of law, he is obviously suppressing freedom. When Dick Cheney states he can do anything and everything to ensure national security and not be held to the rule of law, he is obviously protecting freedom. Scale and plausibility is the only difference but by the time you find out that you are the target of extreme law enforcement, you will see how little difference there is at the individual level. In the mean time, best of luck to the brave men and women who assume a lot of risk to try and live freer lives, and define their balance of secuirty vs. liberty, because they probably realize they can’t have both.

    June 22, 2009 at 11:48 am |