In the final years before the 1979 Iranian revolution, political freedom in Iran was so restricted that professors caught criticising the Shah’s regime risked imprisonment.
The repressive environment forced one professor to come up with a very creative way to speak his mind.
“You couldn’t criticise the regime directly — you had to be discreet about it,” Dr. Abbas Milani, a former assistant political science professor at the National University of Iran from 1975 to 1977, told Business Insider. Milani is now the director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies program.
The regime used fear and terror, according to Milani, to keep people like him in line.
“If you made direct criticism of the Shah, that was a red line. You would end up in prison,” explained Milani. “It depended on how much you challenged the government. You could have been reprimanded, thrown out of the university or banned from teaching. There was not one punishment. It was a fluid situation … and the regime negotiated its way to create enough terror that people didn’t dare overstep the bounds.”
Despite this environment, Milani was determined to speak his mind. To that end, he used a creative strategy to evade censorship.
Rather than criticising the Shah or talking about problems in Iran directly, Milani would talk about the regimes and social problems in Iran’s neighbouring countries. His students in turn would understand that he was really talking about the situation in Iran.
Here’s how Milani explained it to Business Insider:
If you wanted to talk about Iran, you would talk about a country that had similar circumstances. And you would talk about the political difficulty of that country.
You could criticise Iran, although you were talking about, for example, Afghanistan. And you would criticise the Afghan king for incompetence. The working assumption was that, and I don’t think it was a bad working assumption, the students understand you are talking about Iran, but you can’t, so you’re talking about Afghanistan.
Milani’s strategy worked until 1977, when he was arrested on suspicion of involvement with an underground opposition movement. He spent a year in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, a prison in northwestern Tehran with an entire wing devoted to housing political prisoners.
At the same time, Iranian students were at the forefront of protests against Iran’s financial corruption and Westernization. Those protests boiled over in 1979 into the Iranian Revolution, when longtime monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by a theocratic government led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Milani stayed in Iran through the Revolution, but was barred from teaching. He left the country in 1986, and has since written a number of books on Iranian history.
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