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Nigel Harris


Tanks and guns can’t stop us now

(December 1978)

From Socialist Worker, 9 December 1978.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, London 1993, pp.175-176.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


THE SUN glistens on the mountain snow high above Teheran. From the top you would see the whole sprawling city spread out, the bare brown hills churned up to make way for underground railways, for blocks of flats, luxury hotels and highways.

The city holds its breath. It has vowed to destroy the 25-year-old tyranny of the Shah.

The Shah, sits in his gigantic palace to the north, cold as an icicle, while a dozen telephones ring at his elbow, an endless stream of messengers bring documents to sign and advisors to worry, all to befuddle the moment of crisis.

In the barracks young soldiers polish their automatic guns, worrying. What will happen if they ask me to shoot my brother or my sister tomorrow?

In the bazaar, the fortress of the revolution, they are busy organising, scribbling the illegal wall newspapers, now the only source of news in the city. And in numerous living rooms the argument rages – what will the Shah do?

A girl arrives to say the military have seized the television station. Quick, find a telly to see what fools they make of themselves.

Already the general strike has begun. An engineer, just back from Abadan, the southern oil centre, says no oil is moving – he counted 42 tankers anchored off the Kharg Island terminal.

The telephone workers are out. The one newspaper still operating after the military crackdown – the government’s own – has been silenced by a printer’s strike.

The universities and schools are shut. The university of Teheran is under military occupation to prevent students coming together. Bread shops collect enormous queues, and half a mile or more of cars wait at the petrol stations.

The foreigners flee. The hotels are empty. Every flight from the airport is packed.

Central bank staff have just released an unofficial list of government officials guilty of sending out of the country more than 10 million dollars each.

Three Chieftain tanks belching smoke and swaying dangerously get caught in a traffic jam. Young men on the pavement cheer and lob bricks, and soldiers in a fury fire volleys.

The tanks are impotent, like beached whales. Enraged, a sergeant looses his revolver into the sky.

One hour after 9pm curfew the first greeting for Moharram begins. From every area of the city, from every house – a mighty shout rises, Allah Akbar.

First the deep shriek of men, answered by a shrill chorus of women. Then from all round the roar of crowds breaking the curfew followed by the splatter of automatic fire.

The power workers pull the switches – the whole city is plunged into darkness, lit only by the flash of the rifles. Helicopters, clattering hawks, plunge to launch a volley at those on the ground. And a squadron of the Shah’s Phantoms rip across the night sky.

But shoot as they may – officially five were killed, unofficially 300 – they cannot silence the endless chorus, the macabre chant of a city in darkness.

Only exhaustion does that as the cries grow hoarse around 2 a.m.

They say half a million demonstrated that night. The children were in the front line, facing the troops. Behind them the women, then the men. The soldiers started shooting. The people rushed them and fought with sticks.

A BBC reporter saw bodies cleared from the streets and dragged on to army carts.


THE STRIKE is now complete, but it does not stop the cars packing the roads, the endless traffic jams.

Soldiers are now everywhere; young men in steel helmets, unshaven and scowling to keep up their courage.

Trucks and armoured cars around the bazaar. Soldiers sit with automatics between their knees. Some grin sheepishly at passers-by. Someone asks one whether he will shoot more people today and he flushes. He shoots no-one he said hotly; it is the others.

We are all conspirators. There are no defenders of the regime. Only the wavering bayonets protect him.

At night the drama begins again. The wails rise from the city just as the lights go out. The flash of rifles make a splatter of sound amid the cries and the roar of rage from a multitude of demonstrators.

Two slogans from every throat. ‘Death to the Shah’ – ‘Tanks and machine guns can no longer stop us’ The Shah in his palace counts the hours, and watches the generals from the corner of his eye.

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Last updated: 11 March 2010