The Day the Shah Left Town
In the 1970s Tehran was one of the few cities in the Middle East where alcohol was available for the local population and tired travelers. The city was cosmopolitan, the Persian people were friendly and the fashions were right out of Paris. Other parts of the country were different, more traditionally Persian and some opposed to the Shah.
Arriving at and departing from Mehrabad Airport on commercial flights was always interesting. The Iranian Air Force maintained a fighter base at the airport and commercial flights were constantly harassed by the F-14A Tomcat and F-4 Phantom jets flying on their wing tips and asserting priority for take-offs and landings. It was common for a commercial flight on final approach into Mehrabad to abort its landing to avoid a fighter jet taking off or landing in front, ignoring air traffic control.
There were many stories about the Iranian Air Force including one about a pilot who decided to test his ejection seat to make sure it worked. The aircraft was parked inside the hangar.
My second visit to Tehran was in late 1972 at the request of the government-owned company to investigate a quality problem with the material shipped earlier. The government withheld payment pending resolution of the complaint.
The meetings with the government were held at offices on Pahlavi (now Valiasr) Avenue and with the company on Takte Jamshid (now Taleghani) Avenue near the US Embassy. The technology was provided by a US company so discussions with the American management were more productive.
We traveled to the new industrial city of Arak, about three to four hours by car southwest of Tehran via QOM, the holy city and center of opposition to the Shah. From Arak we drove a further eight hours to the port of Bandar Sharpur (now Bandar Iman Khomeini) on the Persian Gulf. Bandar Sharpur had no facilities for handling or storing bulk cargo so the material had been shipped in large plastic-lined bags stacked on wooden pallets. After arrival the pallets were to be loaded onto trains for the long haul to Arak.
I inspected the shipment when it arrived at Arak. The timber pallets, valuable building materials in Iran, had been stolen so the loose bags were thrown into open rail cars; some torn open with their contents scattered everywhere, and then hauled to the factory storage facility by trucks.
There were no bulk handling or storage facilities at the factory and the bags were stored in a building 500 yards from the processing plant. When the material was needed workers climbed to the top of the pile and dropped the bags to the dirt floor where they broke open. The workers used shovels to fill their barrows with the material which they delivered to the plant for processing. There was little resemblance between the pure raw material that arrived at Bandar Shahpur and the contaminated material that was delivered to the processing plant. The government had to invest in bulk handling facilities to solve the quality problem.
Travel in Iran by car was interesting. My driver, “Johnny” from the Royal Taxi Service, spoke some English and we were able to communicate on most things. His driving skills while suitable for Iran sometimes scared the “bejesus” out of me. He had faith in Allah while I thought obeying traffic rules was important. I was taught that one-way streets meant all traffic flowed just one-way. In Tehran it was okay if the car was only going one way.
The road to Arak was a single lane with a line of trucks, buses and cars moving slowly in each direction. To get ahead Johnny pulled out into oncoming traffic, accelerated and passed as many vehicles as possible before forcing his way back into the line to avoid a smash with something heading towards us. A lot of shouting and hand waving was necessary to complete the maneuver. All drivers seemed to do this even when there was a bend in the road and drivers could not see what was coming in the other direction. As Johnny’s taxi did not have seat belts I moved into the back seat and hollered at him from there. His comment was: “If Allah wishes us to be killed then we will be.” I didn’t use him to travel over the mountains to the Caspian Sea.
Further visits throughout the 1970s were focused on resolving difficulties with the central bank and government over on-time payment in foreign currency. Iran was changing, becoming more industrialized but the banking system was traditional and always to their advantage. Other changes taking place were political and social.
My visits to Iran were for business. I was not an explorer, adventurer or tourist but sometimes curiosity led me to push the boundaries. Some of the places I wanted to see were the ski resorts in the Alborz Mountains, Ramsar on the Caspian Sea, Isfahan, the ruins of Persepolis and nearby Shiraz, the city of literature and the wine capital of Iran. It was a ten hour drive from Tehran to Shiraz so I felt Allah would be happier if I took my chances with Iran Air. Persepolis was about 40 miles from Shiraz.
I planned to visit some of the 300 wineries in the Shiraz area in search of my favorite red wine. Reportedly, Shiraz was a favorite place of the Persian poet Omar Khyam who also enjoyed a jug of wine and a loaf of bread.
To my disappointment I discovered the wines of Shiraz were not red, they were white and sweet. In my desperation to visit the wineries I assumed the wine would be red, of the Syrah variety. Like the mythical “moving finger having writ I moved on.”
No wine is officially produced in Shiraz today, only grapes and raisins, so I have no reason to go back just for the literature.
There was some rumbling below the surface in Iran from an increasing number of disgruntled and deeply religious fundamentalists, especially in Qom, who objected to the “westernization” of Iran, the political system and the lack of free speech, including by the media. They were kept under control by the SAVAK, the secret police established by the Shah with help from the CIA and Mossad.
For security reasons the company decided that if possible two representatives should travel together on future visits to Iran. I was happy to have a traveling companion and to share my new-found knowledge of Iran.
We arrived at Mehrabad Airport late at night and bought a ticket at the taxi booth in the carpark for the short ride to the Arya Sheraton Hotel. After circling the Shahyad the little taxi, with our bags stowed on the roof rack, headed towards the center of Tehran.
The driver said something we didn’t understand as he unexpectedly turned off the main highway and began to drive along narrow back streets, heading in the direction of the hotel. There was no other traffic except a car following closely behind. After several more turns I noticed the other car was still there, now without lights, so I alerted my colleague. Again I told the driver we were going to the Arya Sheraton Hotel and he seemed to understand.
The taxi turned down a dirt road with no buildings or street lights and the car behind followed. It was a dead end and our taxi stopped. The driver looked in the rear view mirror and shouted something in Farsi we didn’t understand. I told my colleague we were in trouble and to be prepared to run or fight.
As I started to open the door the driver reversed, turned the taxi around and raced back the way we came. The other car followed. We could see the lights of the Kordestan Expressway and the taxi headed towards them until a police roadblock stopped us.
I knew the Sheraton Hotel was on the other side of the expressway so we grabbed our bags from the roof rack and started running towards the lights, ignoring the shouts from the police. We reached the expressway and I could see the Sheraton on the other side less than a mile away. There was no traffic so we ran across the six lanes to the hotel, no one chased us. Exhausted but safe we walked into the hotel lobby and across the carpeted floor to the front desk.
The hotel staff stared at our shoes and the black footprints on the carpet leading from the front door. I looked down and there was a hot, tacky substance all over my shoes. It was bitumen from the Kordestan Expressway which apparently was closed for resurfacing. The taxi driver had been trying to find his way to the hotel through the backstreets of Teheran; and the other driver obviously thought our taxi knew where it was going so followed us.
In 1977 the Shah was in complete control but the following year things changed quickly as protests and unrest increased across Iran. The Shah was ill from cancer and was confined to his summer palace at Ramsar for treatment. He was losing control and the military brutally put down protests in Qom and Tehran.
Being risk averse I became more cautious where I went, especially at night. Trucks and cars loaded with young Iranians patrolled the streets of Tehran, shouting obscenities at any woman wearing western clothes. The head scarf and longer dresses were being worn more frequently. There was less laughter and more young people were leaving Iran to study in other countries.
On my last visit there were few people on the flight or in the arrivals hall at Mehrabad Airport. Entry into Iran was quick and I headed for the taxi carpark. The departure hall, areas outside the terminal and Sharyad Square were unusually crowded. It was a cold night.
There was little traffic heading into the city and I arrived at the Hilton Hotel just before sunset. The lobby was quiet and the garden restaurant and bar was closed. The man at the desk didn’t go through the usual “we don’t have a record of your reservation” routine and I found my own way to a room overlooking the Alborz Mountains.
Next morning I caught a taxi to Takte Jamshid Avenue for my meeting with the Iranian company’s chief executive.
As we passed the US Embassy there was a large crowd of people shouting and waving banners. I couldn’t read the banners or understand what the protesters were shouting.
At the company’s offices I asked for the CEO and was told he wasn’t in and they weren’t sure when he would be back. Annoyed that I had traveled so far for the meeting and the CEO wasn’t there I asked to see someone who knew what was happening. A middle-aged Persian appeared from a nearby office and said: “They have all gone!” “What do you mean they have all gone? Gone where?” I replied. “They have all gone back to America” he said.
We went into his small office where he explained the American management team had been warned by a contact in the SAVAK to leave because the Shah was preparing to flee the country. He suggested that I should leave too as it was not safe for foreigners anymore.
I returned to the hotel, packed and caught a taxi to Mehrabad. The airport was chaotic, with hundreds of thousands of people desperately trying to get on flights to Europe. Abandoning my Anglo Saxon willingness to wait in line I climbed over baggage and pushed people aside to get to the check-in desk.
I handed over my ticket and passport with $200 inside, and asked for a seat on any flight out of Tehran. I didn’t want to become part of the revolution… Single seats in first class were easier to get and I was handed a boarding pass for an Air France flight leaving in six hours. For another $50 my bag was weighed, tagged and put on the conveyor belt; and I forced my way through the crowd to the departure lounge where I waited for what seemed to be eternity until Air France arrived. I don’t remember where it took me.
The Shah and his family fled to Cairo on January 16, 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran on February 1 to lead the Islamic Republic. Two weeks later militants invaded the US Embassy and returned on November 4 to occupy it and hold the staff hostage until early 1981. Bans were immediately placed on alcohol, satellite television, social mixing of the sexes and western-style clothes for the women.
In 1979 I held meetings with representatives from the new Iranian Government in a London hotel. I was not willing to return to Iran and they were happy to fly to London. While everything else in Iran had changed, the discussions were still about payment of invoices. That is until we stopped doing business at all.
- Image: Ruins of the Gate of All Nations, Persepolis by Alborzagros via Wikimedia.org and used under a Creative Commons 3.o license; Karim Khan Citadel, Shiraz by Ali Naderi via Wikimedia.org and used under a Creative Commons 43.o license; and Shahyad (King’s Memorial) Tehran: 1971 by Unknown via Wikimedia.org (public domain).