Reuters Supporters of the leader and founder of the Islamic revolution Ayatollah Khomeini hold his picture in Tehran during the country's revolution, February 1979.

In Iran, the Wounds of the Revolution Reopen

New Evidence of the 1988 Mass Killings

Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 turned violent almost immediately after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Dozens of top figures of the previous regime were captured, summarily tried, and executed by a firing squad, night after night, on the roof of a school where the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had taken residence in central Tehran.

The photographs of their bullet-riddled bodies, naked from the waist up, were published on the front pages of the newspapers. The message was clear: there was no going back to the previous era. The brutality shocked a nation previously unused to this level of violence, especially as those responsible were Shiite clergymen, men of God. But Iranians, still united in the revolutionary fervor that had just overthrown one of the most powerful regimes in the region, went along with it. In recent memory there was no precedent anywhere in the world for the clergy taking power. Nor was there a revolution on this scale. The revolution had to be protected. 

Ayatollah Khomeini, with his flair for ruthlessness, laid the groundwork for a culture of endemic violence and impunity that have endured to this day. In the name of the revolution, this culture of violence led the country astray, earning it a reputation as a rogue state, stunting its development.

There are no shortages of examples of this brutality in the 37-year history of the Iranian Revolution—particularly in the first decade. But an audiotape from nearly three decades ago that has recently surfaced in Iran throws a spotlight on perhaps the most horrific episode of the country’s clerical rule.

The audiotape focuses on the events in the summer of 1988, when, on the order of Khomeini, thousands of political prisoners who had been sentenced to jail for political activities were executed in secret in a matter of weeks. The prisoners belonged to a variety of political groups, such as the Mujahideen Khalq Organization, or the MKO, and the leftist Fedayeen and Paykar.

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