Forty years af­ter Iran’s rev­o­lu­tion, the im­pact of a sin­gle gun­shot still res­onates

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - wil­liam.brani­[email protected]­ WIL­LIAM BRANI­GIN

Forty years later, I can still hear that ear­split­ting crack.

It was the sound of a bul­let from a high­ve­loc­ity ri­fle break­ing the sound bar­rier, just be­fore it slammed into the chest of Joe Alex Mor­ris Jr., the vet­eran Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent of the Los An­ge­les Times.

Joe Alex was stand­ing in front of me when he was fa­tally shot on Feb. 10, 1979. We were cov­er­ing a mil­i­tary mutiny in Tehran that cul­mi­nated the next day in the fall of Iran’s 2,500-year-old monar­chy and the tri­umph of the coun­try’s Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion led by Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini.

He died in a sec­ond-floor photo stu­dio where we and two other cor­re­spon­dents had taken refuge with sev­eral Ira­ni­ans when we were caught in a cross­fire be­tween re­bel­lious, pro-Khome­ini air force cadets and Im­pe­rial Guard troops loyal to Shah Mo­ham­mad Reza Pahlavi. Peer­ing through vene­tian blinds, we had been watch­ing the bat­tle un­fold in the street below when a sin­gle shot came through the win­dow, killing Joe Alex, 51. Con­sid­ered the dean of Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dents, he was the only Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist to die cov­er­ing the Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion.

Mon­day marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the rev­o­lu­tion, a mo­men­tous event in the his­tory of the 20th cen­tury and one that re­shaped the Mid­dle East. As Iran holds mas­sive state-spon­sored demon­stra­tions to cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary, the rev­o­lu­tion con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate, and schol­ars are re­vis­it­ing it. Some ar­gue that if only the United States had more strongly sup­ported the shah, or had in­ter­vened in some fash­ion, the rev­o­lu­tion and all that en­sued could have been averted.

As a young re­porter who by then had lived in Iran for more than three years, I wit­nessed events that gave me a different per­spec­tive: The tide of his­tory was turn­ing — you could feel it — and noth­ing in the world was go­ing to stop it.

Cast­ing a pall over those heady days for me was the tragedy out­side Doshan Tappeh Air Base in east­ern Tehran that claimed the life of my friend and men­tor.

I first met Joe Alex when I was a Tehran-based stringer for The Wash­ing­ton Post and other news out­lets, and he would drop in oc­ca­sion­ally from his base in Athens to re­port on de­vel­op­ments in Iran, par­tic­u­larly the mount­ing op­po­si­tion to the shah. Later, when I was liv­ing for a time in Beirut, we would make the rounds to­gether while cov­er­ing the may­hem of Lebanon’s civil war and the in­ter­ven­tion by neigh­bor­ing Syria.

Joe Alex was the quin­tes­sen­tial for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. A 1949 Har­vard grad­u­ate, he started work­ing in the Mid­dle East in 1950 for United Press be­fore mov­ing on to the New York Her­ald Tri­bune, Newsweek and, in 1965, the L.A. Times. He cov­ered the 1956 Suez cri­sis, the 1967 Six-Day War, for which he won an Over­seas Press Club Award, and the 1973 Arab-Is­raeli war.

The son of renowned news­man and au­thor Joe Alex Mor­ris Sr., he chron­i­cled “the down­trod­den, the ma­nip­u­lated, the can­non fod­der” with de­vo­tion and hon­esty on nu­mer­ous dan­ger­ous as­sign­ments, said his close friend and vet­eran Post for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Jonathan C. Ran­dal. “If he was ever phys­i­cally afraid, I never knew it.”

“Joe Alex was the epit­ome of Hem­ing­way’s phrase: ‘grace un­der pres­sure,” an­other friend wrote to the slain cor­re­spon­dent’s wife, Ulla, on the day of his death.

He was fear­less, but not reck­less. I re­call him telling me: “It’s not the bul­let with your name on it that you worry about. It’s the one marked ‘to whom it may con­cern.’” I took that to mean you had to cal­cu­late your risks — and take only the ones that were re­ally nec­es­sary. It was ad­vice that we didn’t al­ways fol­low as we tooled around Beirut in the se­verely used 1964 MG con­vert­ible I had bought, cross­ing the no­to­ri­ous Green Line with the top down. Or when we played ten­nis on courts that we had to sweep clear of shrap­nel. I re­mem­ber botch­ing a shot one af­ter­noon as ar­tillery boomed in the dis­tance, prompt­ing Joe Alex to call out, “What’s the mat­ter? Rat­tled by a lit­tle shelling?”

I en­vied the way, af­ter a day of re­port­ing, of­ten wear­ing his cus­tom­ary tweed sports coat and clench­ing his pipe be­tween his teeth, he would sit down at his por­ta­ble type­writer and tap away at a steady pace, in­ter­rupted only by the ding of the car­riage re­turn, and not stop un­til he had fin­ished a finely crafted story. I also ad­mired how he would in­ject his sense of hu­mor into even the weight­i­est of sub­jects.

A can­cer sur­vivor with a wife and three daugh­ters, Joe Alex was af­fa­ble and even-keeled. But he was also tena­cious and de­ter­mined in pur­su­ing a big story.

Those qual­i­ties were on dis­play in early 1979 as the up­heaval against the shah gath­ered strength.

Over­whelmed by more than a year of grow­ing op­po­si­tion, the ail­ing, 59-year-old monarch flew into ex­ile on Jan. 16, 1979, with his wife, a few aides and a box­ful of Ira­nian soil. Af­ter an emo­tional de­par­ture cer­e­mony at the Tehran air­port’s Im­pe­rial Pav­il­ion, where a loy­al­ist sol­dier knelt down to kiss his shoe, the shah left be­hind a ten­u­ous new gov­ern­ment. It was headed by a sec­u­lar op­po­si­tion fig­ure, Shah­pour Bakhtiar, as the newly ap­pointed prime min­is­ter — a move aimed at head­ing off a takeover by Khome­ini and pre­serv­ing the monar­chy.

Os­ten­si­bly, the un­pop­u­lar au­to­crat was fly­ing to Egypt for a tem­po­rary “win­ter va­ca­tion” and med­i­cal treat­ment, but the box of soil was a give­away (his fa­ther had also brought Ira­nian soil with him when forced into ex­ile in 1941, never to re­turn). It was clear the shah was not com­ing back, and the cap­i­tal ex­ploded with joy at the news of his de­par­ture.

Six­teen days later, Khome­ini, then 78, made a tri­umphant re­turn, fly­ing into the same air­port on the morn­ing of Feb. 1. Crowds of ju­bi­lant Ira­ni­ans, es­ti­mated at roughly 2 mil­lion strong, thronged the streets to wel­come him back from more than 14 years of ex­ile. He had spent most of that time in neigh­bor­ing Iraq but had been liv­ing more re­cently in a Paris sub­urb af­ter the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment ex­pelled him.

In an ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion, The Post, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and other pub­li­ca­tions banded to­gether to cover Khome­ini’s re­turn, dis­patch­ing cor­re­spon­dents to var­i­ous venues to file pool re­ports back to writ­ers for each out­let stand­ing by at the Tehran In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel. My col­league Jon Ran­dal drew the as­sign­ment of cov­er­ing Khome­ini’s speech that morn­ing at the Be­hesht-e Zahra ceme­tery south of Tehran, spend­ing the night there to be sure to beat the crowds.

Khome­ini moved into a for­mer girls’ school not far from Doshan Tappeh, the head­quar­ters of the Im­pe­rial Ira­nian Air Force and the site of train­ing fa­cil­i­ties. There, young pro-Khome­ini cadets soon be­came the van­guard of a grow­ing re­bel­lion within the shah’s vaunted armed forces.

It was to check out re­ports of overnight tur­moil at the base that Joe Alex and I set out in a taxi be­fore dawn from the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal on Feb. 10. Af­ter pass­ing the re­mains of fiery street bar­ri­cades, we reached the main en­trance and were joined there by two other Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists — Arthur Hig­bee of United Press In­ter­na­tional and Ray Mose­ley of the Chicago Tri­bune — who had ar­rived sep­a­rately.

Led by Joe Alex, we man­aged to get in­side the base and went look­ing for the cadet com­man­der, but we were soon es­corted out. Mean­while, pro-shah troops of the Im­pe­rial Guard’s crack Javi­dan (Im­mor­tals) brigade had ar­rived to dis­perse a demon­stra­tion at the main gate by civil­ians and cadets. An­other group of guards­men faced off against demon­stra­tors far­ther up the street.

The protest at the gate sud­denly es­ca­lated, and the guards­men fired bursts from their au­to­matic ri­fles into the air. Cadets started throw­ing rocks and bricks at the guards­men, who then lev­eled their guns and opened fire through the gate.

We ducked into a build­ing be­tween the two groups of Im­pe­rial Guards at ei­ther end of the street and ran up to the sec­ond-floor photo shop. The cadets be­gan fir­ing back. From the win­dow, we saw two guards­men get hit in the legs and limp away up the street. Cadets ran out of the com­pound and, joined by civil­ian youths, set fire to an army jeep.

More Im­pe­rial Guards ar­rived in a truck with a rear-mounted .50-cal­iber heavy ma­chine gun and backed it down the street to­ward the main gate, fir­ing all the way.

Then came that loud crack and a groan. We all tum­bled to the floor. Look­ing around, I saw that Joe Alex had been hit. As Hig­bee knelt over him, we shouted for help. Not know­ing what else to do, I reached for a tele­phone and tried to call for an am­bu­lance. While I was on the phone, a cou­ple of cadets ran in and looked at Joe Alex.

“Mon­sieur est mort,” one of them said in French.

The cadets took an in­te­rior door off its hinges to use as a stretcher, and they and Hig­bee took ad­van­tage of a lull to carry Joe Alex’s body out of the build­ing to­ward a hos­pi­tal on the base. I gave up my fu­tile at­tempt to call for an am­bu­lance, and Mose­ley and I went to fol­low them.

Just then, Im­pe­rial Guard re­in­force­ments ar­rived, and a fierce house-to-house bat­tle be­gan. Mose­ley and I dashed back into the build­ing and took cover again in the photo shop. In­tense gun­fire went on for more than an hour, much of it in the street out­side.

Strug­gling to over­come my shock, my blood­stained note­book in hand, I tried to do what I knew Joe Alex would have done: re­port the story.

I saw cadets armed with G-3 au­to­matic ri­fles run­ning up and down the stairs. When the shoot­ing died down a bit, I fol­lowed them up to the roof. Eight cadets were crouch­ing on the flat rooftop. To my amaze­ment, the air­men had con­trol of the area in a wide ra­dius. They had beaten back the vaunted Im­pe­rial Guard. Armed civil­ians and air­men were on rooftops all around for sev­eral blocks. An army truck burned on the main av­enue. A dozen other fires in the neigh­bor­hood belched black smoke into the clear morn­ing sky. Peo­ple were putting up street bar­ri­cades and help­ing to sand­bag rooftop po­si­tions. Many civil­ians car­ried ri­fles and pistols.

I saw one well-dressed young man, run­ning down the street, hold­ing a ri­fle in front of him with both hands like a trained sol­dier — un­doubt­edly a prod­uct of Iran’s manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice, which now seemed to be back­fir­ing on the shah’s regime.

Mose­ley and I then left the build­ing and headed east on foot, try­ing to get out of the area. We saw youths busy mak­ing molo­tov cock­tails. Civil­ians ran up and down the streets with au­to­matic ri­fles, pistols, knives, clubs and any other weapons they could find. One man bran­dished an ax. A woman in a black chador, the full-length cloak worn by many Ira­nian Mus­lim women, showed a small boy how to light a molo­tov cock­tail and throw it. Ev­ery­where, peo­ple were dig­ging up dirt and fill­ing sand­bags to for­tify gun po­si­tions or make bar­ri­cades.

As we made our way east, we ran into more fight­ing and had to take refuge in an Ira­nian fam­ily’s house. When civil­ians reap­peared in the streets, we set out again. We saw a col­umn of Bri­tish-made Chief­tain tanks of the Im­pe­rial Guard mov­ing to­ward Doshan Tappeh along a main av­enue. Civil­ians and air force men opened fire on them from rooftops. At least three guards­men were cap­tured, and an­gry civil­ians marched them back to­ward the base. Af­ter about six hours caught in the area, we even­tu­ally made it back to the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal, where we found Hig­bee, who had re­turned ear­lier.

Which side had fired the shot that killed Joe Alex re­mained a mys­tery. Some re­ports at­trib­uted it to a “sniper.” That made no sense to me. I be­lieved it was a stray bul­let, but we’ll never know for sure.

His death left me an­gry, grief­stricken and racked by sur­vivor’s guilt. I was the one, af­ter all, who had called his ho­tel room early that morn­ing and asked if he wanted to come with me to check out re­ports of a re­volt at Doshan Tappeh.

That night, I wept as I toiled over my story of the day’s events. And I choked up sev­eral times while dic­tat­ing it over the phone. Fi­nally I reached the stan­dard sign-off: “Pe­riod. Para­graph. End of story.”

The dic­ta­tion­ist at the other end seemed at a loss for words. “I’m so sorry you had such a bad day,” she said.

It seemed like a civil war had bro­ken out. But the shah’s armed forces — in­clud­ing the 20,000mem­ber Im­pe­rial Guard — crum­bled with stun­ning speed. By Feb. 11, a Sun­day, the Bakhtiar gov­ern­ment had col­lapsed, and the monar­chy was no more.

Thou­sands of gun-wield­ing civil­ians — armed dur­ing the rebel takeover of Doshan Tappeh and the sud­den fall of nu­mer­ous ar­mories and mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions — cel­e­brated their vic­tory over the Guard.

At Doshan Tappeh, at least six Guard tanks and as many as 50 army trucks sat burned out or aban­doned af­ter the fierce bat­tle for the base. Iran’s Pars News Agency re­ported that more than 200 peo­ple were killed and nearly 800 wounded in the fight­ing as of Sun­day morn­ing.

The or­deal, how­ever, was far from over. Joe Alex’s body was still at Doshan Tappeh. Or so we thought.

Ac­com­pa­nied by an Ira­nian for­mer col­lege class­mate, I set off to try to re­cover it. But anar­chy and chaos still ruled the streets, and check­points manned by young “rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies” had sprung up ev­ery­where. At one of them, a boy of grade-school age held a molo­tov cock­tail as he stood next to an older youth, pes­ter­ing him for per­mis­sion to throw the gaso­line bomb un­der our car. My ex-class­mate, a per­sua­sive woman, ob­jected stren­u­ously, telling the boy sternly in Farsi to do no such thing. Ul­ti­mately, though, we had to turn around.

Los An­ge­les Times cor­re­spon­dent Ken Freed, on his first for­eign as­sign­ment for the pa­per, man­aged to get into the base, but the body was gone. He later found it af­ter search­ing a packed morgue.

Early on Feb. 14, Freed and I went to the U.S. Em­bassy, hop­ing to get some con­sular help in ar­rang­ing to get Joe Alex’s body out of the coun­try. We were in a tem­po­rary con­sular sec­tion on the ground floor of the main chancery build­ing when ma­chine gun rounds be­gan hit­ting the out­side walls.

In a well-or­ga­nized as­sault, heav­ily armed left­ist guer­ril­las, part of the ar­ray of un­der­ground anti-Shah groups, were at­tack­ing the em­bassy. Af­ter block­ing off the street in front of the com­pound’s main en­trance, they opened fire from sur­round­ing rooftops. Soon they were com­ing over the walls. Armed with tear gas and shot­guns loaded with No. 9 skeet shot — rarely lethal — the em­bassy’s con­tin­gent of 19 Marine guards fought to hold them off.

Fear­ing that the guer­ril­las’ plan was to spark a gun bat­tle that would en­rage Ira­ni­ans and trig­ger an over­whelm­ing mob at­tack with un­pre­dictable con­se­quences, Am­bas­sador Wil­liam H. Sul­li­van or­dered the Marine guards to sur­ren­der if pos­si­ble. One Marine who did so was shot and wounded with his own shot­gun.

About an hour into the at­tack, as bul­lets smacked into the em­bassy walls and came through win­dows, walkie-talkies crack­led with word that 200 peo­ple were com­ing in the main gate, and ev­ery­one on the ground floor was or­dered up­stairs. Marines tear­gassed the lower cor­ri­dors and locked a metal door to the stairs.

With gun­men now storm­ing the build­ing and tear gas fumes seep­ing un­der the door, about 100 of us were di­rected into a large vault filled with the em­bassy’s se­crets. There, sev­eral staffers were shred­ding and burn­ing clas­si­fied doc­u­ments, while oth­ers used sledge­ham­mers to smash sen­si­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear and cryp­to­graphic code plates.

Cheers went up when word came that pro-Khome­ini forces, in­clud­ing re­bel­lious air­men, had ar­rived to con­front the at­tack­ers and take con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. “Happy Valen­tine’s Day,” some­body said in­side the vault, and a few Marines with us passed out cig­a­rettes and cold beers from a nearby re­frig­er­a­tor.

But at­tack­ers were now in­side the am­bas­sador’s of­fice. We were or­dered to file out of the vault with our hands up and frisked every few paces. As shoot­ing re­sumed out­side, one trig­ger­happy guer­rilla fired his G3 ri­fle into the ceil­ing, while oth­ers tried to blast open an­other vault with gun­fire. Even­tu­ally, we were herded out of the em­bassy at gun­point. Out­side, Khome­ini loy­al­ists were min­gling with the at­tack­ing guer­ril­las. Sev­eral mul­lahs ar­rived to help re­store or­der, and ev­ery­one was ul­ti­mately re­leased.

Nine months later, em­bassy per­son­nel wouldn’t be so lucky. Af­ter Is­lamic mil­i­tants seized the em­bassy with Khome­ini’s bless­ing, 52 Amer­i­cans were held hostage for 444 days.

In any case, it was now clear to Freed and me that the em­bassy would not be of much help.

In fact, the rev­o­lu­tion was en­ter­ing a bloody post-vic­tory phase. Fir­ing squads armed with sub­ma­chine guns be­gan ex­e­cut­ing lead­ers of the shah’s regime on the roof of Khome­ini’s head­quar­ters. One of the first to go was the head of the feared SAVAK se­cret po­lice. In re­porters’ short­hand, these sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions were dubbed “rooftop­pings.” Their vic­tims were said to have been “rooftopped.”

From Athens, mean­while, my Post col­league Jon Ran­dal tire­lessly worked the phones, call­ing his con­tacts in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment and try­ing to ar­range per­mis­sion to repa­tri­ate Joe Alex’s body. We wor­ried that it would end up be­ing taken to Be­hesht-e Zahra ceme­tery for burial with Ira­nian “mar­tyrs” of the rev­o­lu­tion.

At the morgue, Freed paid a hefty bribe to have the body re­leased. It was then sent to a mor­tu­ary and placed in a heavy, zinc-lined cas­ket.

The L.A. Times char­tered a Lear­jet car­ry­ing Ran­dal and Times Lon­don bureau chief Bill Tuohy on a mis­sion to re­trieve Joe Alex’s body. It was Feb. 15, and Tehran’s Mehrabad Air­port was closed. In the dis­or­der still grip­ping the cap­i­tal, Ran­dal wor­ried that their spe­cial per­mis­sion to land would be re­scinded and the plane shot down. Af­ter some hag­gling with the con­trol tower, the plane set down safely, then was quickly sur­rounded by con­fused armed guards.

Freed, my Post col­league Bill Clai­borne and I ac­com­pa­nied the cas­ket from the mor­tu­ary to the air­port, where we found Tuohy and Ran­dal wait­ing on the tar­mac.

A zeal­ous guard, sus­pect­ing that these for­eign­ers were try­ing to smug­gle out con­tra­band, or even a live coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary, in­sisted on open­ing the sealed cas­ket. It was a de­mand that par­tic­u­larly dis­gusted Tuohy.

But af­ter the cof­fin was pried open and the guard peered in­side, we sealed it again and car­ried it to the plane, only to find that it was too big to fit through the door. The pi­lot had to re­move a seal around the door be­fore we man­aged to ma­neu­ver the cas­ket in­side.

Now cleared for take­off min­utes be­fore a dusk dead­line, the Lear­jet climbed into the Ira­nian sky, be­gin­ning the con­sum­mate for­eign cor­re­spon­dent’s long jour­ney home.


Los An­ge­les Times re­porter Joe Alex Mor­ris Jr., above, shown here in a book­let of his ar­ti­cles, was the only Amer­i­can cor­re­spon­dent killed while cov­er­ing Iran’s Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion. He was fa­tally shot on Feb. 10, 1979, while cov­er­ing a mil­i­tary mutiny in Tehran, top, with friend Wil­liam Brani­gin.

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