The Lonely War

One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran


By Nazila Fathi

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In the summer of 2009, as she was covering the popular uprisings in Tehran for the New York Times, Iranian journalist Nazila Fathi received a phone call. “They have given your photo to snipers,” a government source warned her. Soon after, with undercover agents closing in, Fathi fled the country with her husband and two children, beginning a life of exile.

In The Lonely War, Fathi interweaves her story with that of the country she left behind, showing how Iran is locked in a battle between hardliners and reformers that dates back to the country’s 1979 revolution. Fathi was nine years old when that uprising replaced the Iranian shah with a radical Islamic regime. Her father, an official at a government ministry, was fired for wearing a necktie and knowing English; to support his family he was forced to labor in an orchard hundreds of miles from Tehran. At the same time, the family’s destitute, uneducated housekeeper was able to retire and purchase a modern apartment — all because her family supported the new regime.

As Fathi shows, changes like these caused decades of inequality — especially for the poor and for women — to vanish overnight. Yet a new breed of tyranny took its place, as she discovered when she began her journalistic career. Fathi quickly confronted the upper limits of opportunity for women in the new Iran and earned the enmity of the country’s ruthless intelligence service. But while she and many other Iranians have fled for the safety of the West, millions of their middleclass countrymen — many of them the same people whom the regime once lifted out of poverty — continue pushing for more personal freedoms and a renewed relationship with the outside world.

Drawing on over two decades of reporting and extensive interviews with both ordinary Iranians and high-level officials before and since her departure, Fathi describes Iran’s awakening alongside her own, revealing how moderates are steadily retaking the country.


More Advance Praise for The Lonely War

“Nazila Fathi’s The Lonely War is both a touching personal story that illuminates the struggles of life in Iran and a broader reflection on the sociopolitical effects of the Islamic revolution on the Iranian people. With so much misinformation about Iran in the national discourse, Fathi’s book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to read beyond the headlines.”

—Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran

“A poignant portrait of Iran’s tortured contemporary history through the eyes of one of the country’s most thoughtful and courageous journalists.”

—Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“As fearless as it is honest, The Lonely War tells the inside story of how Iranians have grappled with—and also been inspired by—their Islamic Republic. Journalist Nazila Fathi gives us a powerful personal account of coming of age in revolutionary Iran, exploring Iran’s turbulent modern history through a remarkable cast of real characters, and deftly navigating Iran’s cultural and political divide to provide us a superb picture of what makes Iran today.”

—Scott Peterson, author of Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran—A Journey Behind the Headlines

“Drawing on more than a decade of reporting for the New York Times in Iran, Nazila Fathi has written a lucid and highly engaging portrait of Iranian politics from the 1979 revolution to today. One of the book’s most illuminating features is her vivid portrait of the impoverished recruits for the paramilitary Basij and Revolutionary Guard Corps—including their subsequent disillusionment and adoption of a more middle class, secular life style. Highly recommended for college courses.”

—Janet Afary, author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran


When I was ten years old and entering the third grade, my mother stopped my younger sister and me at the front door of our Tehran apartment on the first day of school. “If anyone asks you whether your parents support the revolution,” she told us, “you must say, ‘Yes, they do.’”

I nodded solemnly. She didn’t have to explain; these were the rules of the new Iran, and although I was only a child, I understood them all too well.

Less than a year had passed since the 1979 revolution that replaced the Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with a conservative Islamic government, but we had already learned that if our parents were identified as anti-revolutionaries, they could face the firing squad. My friend’s father had been executed, my father’s friend was killed, and we knew many ordinary young people who had disappeared into the country’s prisons, all for the crime of opposing the new regime. The first lesson the revolution taught me, then, was to lie to protect my family and myself.

I was born a few days before the end of 1970, but as it is for every Iranian of my generation, my story truly begins with the revolution. The events of 1979 transformed our world in ways that we are still struggling to understand. For me, the change was profoundly traumatic. It was as if there had been a calm music to life until then, as if even the leaves danced to the breath of the wind and the singing of the birds. But that music ended in the winter of 1979, and a new sound began: the drumbeats of the new regime, which drew its inspiration from Islam and which intended to wipe out secular people to create a theocracy. The revolution changed every aspect of our lives. By the age of eleven, I could no longer choose what clothes to wear. The new regime dictated the styles and colors that were acceptable for girls and women. We could only wear dead colors: black, grey, dark blue, or brown. One of the requisite articles of clothing was a headscarf, knotted under the chin and on the throat—a reminder with every breath that the regime was in control of your life. If you appeared in public without one, you could be whipped with an electric cord on your back: seventy-four lashes that would leave deep, bloody welts.

The revolution took away Iranians’ personal liberties, but it also gave many people a taste of power and opportunity that had long been denied to them. Those who continued supporting the Islamic regime despite its repression came from impoverished and traditional families that had never embraced the former regime’s modernizing policies. Whereas the shah had robbed them of their religious identity by introducing secular schools and secular courts to Iran, the new regime’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, reorganized Iranian society in a way that prioritized religious values. The regime drove the old governing classes out of power and replaced them with its own supporters. It mustered all levels of conservative Iranian society, encouraging traditional women to take responsibility outside the house. After the regime enforced gender segregation, families that had balked at the prospect of coed public spaces finally felt comfortable sending their daughters to school, to university, and into the workforce. Far from chafing at the new regime’s restrictions, these women felt empowered.

The regime drew a huge number of Iranians from the margins of society into its center—and not just women. To satisfy its rural supporters, the government improved the quality of life in villages. It provided rural areas with electricity and clean water, and built roads that connected them to modern city life. The country’s new leaders offered rural Iranians upward mobility on a fast track, in the process providing the rural poor with a new identity: they became the enforcers of the new laws.

Over the years, a large section of this once-impoverished population became part of Iran’s middle class, in a socioeconomic revolution driven by major demographic changes. Two-thirds of the country’s population was born after the revolution; these young men and women studied, traveled abroad, and—from the early 1990s on—were exposed to new ideas and opinions through technologies such as satellite television and the Internet. Today, more than 70 percent of Iran’s population lives in cities, compared to less than 50 percent before the revolution. More than 60 percent of Iranian university students are women, and Iranians under the age of twenty-four have a literacy rate of over 99 percent. By 2009, 43 percent of the population was identified as middle-class—30 percent of which is rural—and another 40 percent as lower-middle-class, together more than two-thirds of Iran’s population.

This newly expanded middle class longs for a regime that can deal with critical matters of running the country rather than busying itself with what its citizens do in their private lives. Satellite television and the Internet have exposed the population to a global culture that defines the job of the government as providing comfort and opportunities for its citizens. As a result the desire for economic prosperity and political and social freedoms has spread among the majority of people.

Whereas technology has propelled positive change in Iran, the country’s vast material wealth has often impeded it. The revenue from the country’s thriving oil industry enabled the regimes both before and after the revolution to splurge on their political goals without needing a genuine base of support. Nationalized in 1952, the oil industry has been a source of inequality as well as progress. The Islamic regime relied on oil revenue to wage eight years of war with Iraq and to solidify its rule by rallying the Iranian people against an outside enemy. Yet the regime also rewarded its supporters with jobs in the civil sector, provided free public education from kindergarten to university to all Iranians, and thereby expanded the very middle class that would someday come to oppose many of its most hard-line policies.

Iran’s economic progress since the revolution has left much to be desired, but after a sharp decline in the 1980s, the economy has been growing steadily. Since the mid-1990s, it has expanded at a rate of about 3.5 percent per year. In 2008, after oil prices rose sharply, per capita income caught up with its prerevolution peak.

Nearly thirty-six years after the revolution, there is nothing left of Iran’s revolutionary regime other than its ideological skeleton—and even that is wobbly. Except for the Revolutionary Courts and the Revolutionary Guards—two law enforcement apparatuses set up in the early weeks after the shah’s ouster in 1979—and the leader of the revolution (as the supreme religious leader is known), the fundamentalist ideals that the Islamic regime spawned have completely lost their appeal. The leader, the Revolutionary Courts, and the Guards remain ideological, while elected governments headed by presidents have become more pragmatic in the face of changing public opinion and international pressure.

The Iranian people, meanwhile, have taken on the role of transforming their society. By imposing draconian and inflexible restrictions on Iranians’ personal freedoms, the regime gave them no choice but to challenge its policies, turning many law-abiding citizens into defiant rebels. Iranians’ longing for freedom was on full display in 2009, when many believed the regime had stolen the presidential election on behalf of the incumbent at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The resulting protests, which have come to be known in the West as the Green Uprising, after the political movement that gave them their impetus, were violently put down but testify to an enduring truth about Iranians: like the citizens of many other nations, Iranians vie for honesty in their politics.

Many of the revolutionaries who created the inner workings of the system have turned into anti-revolutionaries today. Many of them evolved into pro-democracy activists and are now living in exile or in prison. In a letter from prison in the summer of 2010, a deputy interior minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, pleaded for forgiveness—not from the regime, but from the people. He apologized for building what he termed a regime “that is a far cry from the democratic pledges of its leader, who had once promised to embrace freedom and human rights.” Some activists are more vociferous in their opposition. Another revolutionary who fled the country in 2009, Mojtaba Vahedi, called for overthrowing the regime altogether.

But the idea of overthrowing the Islamic government is no longer as palatable to many Iranians as it once was. The majority of people fear instability and institutional breakdown. The bloodshed after Iran’s revolution and eight years of war—and even more recently the eruption of what many called a civil war in neighboring Iraq after the fall of Saddam—are evidence fueling those fears. Therefore Iranians are continuing to work from within to reform their political system—an effort that is sure to yield the transformation they have been seeking but that could easily be undone by a war or an external threat. A trauma like Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 would radicalize the nation and rally even the opponents of the regime to defend the country—a fact that other foreign powers would do well to keep in mind as they continue to engage with, and seek to influence, Iran.

This book tells the story of a country and its people struggling to find their way, but it is also my story. I was nine years old when the revolution swept into Iran and set the country on its current course. As I grew up, I watched my homeland continue to change around me. So while the evolution described in this book is Iran’s, it is also mine: the story of how a girl grew into a woman, discovered a world beyond the one she had imagined, and eventually was forced to choose between the two.

The choice wasn’t easy. When, roughly a decade after the revolution, I decided to pursue a career as a professional journalist, I knew that I would be putting myself at risk. What I couldn’t know—indeed, what none of my countrymen could have known at the time—was that Iran would be transformed so profoundly over the next two decades that many of its people and their children would rise against the very government they had ushered in with the revolution. This uprising was the biggest story of my career, but in covering it I earned myself the enmity of the regime. Once they had merely treated me with suspicion, but now they were determined to incarcerate me. So in July 2009, at the height of the crisis, my family and I slipped out of Iran. To this day we have not returned.

It has not been easy to write this story, for reasons both personal and practical. I have relied on my memory in reconstructing some of the events that took place during the first decade after the 1979 revolution, but when possible I have also used YouTube videos and newspaper articles to compose scenes and verify facts. For the second and the third parts of the book, which describe what took place after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, I have used thousands of documents I gathered over a period of two decades. These include my interviews, tapes, notes, videos, newspaper clips, and other published sources. On occasion I have reconstructed dialogue from memory or changed the names of certain individuals (or simply refrained from using their full names in order to protect their identities), but I have only taken liberties like these when doing so had no impact on the veracity and substance of the story.

History has many narrators. In this account, the story is mine: that of a girl who grew up after the revolution, became a journalist, and witnessed the metamorphosis of the society around her. I hope that other Iranians will add their voices to mine, just as I have contributed my tale to the river of stories flowing from Iran. Mine is the story of the hope and perseverance of a nation that has never surrendered to tyranny.






In the winter of 1979, when I was nine and my sister was six and a half, the incessant drumming of a bouncing ball triggered utter boredom in me. Schools had been closed on and off for weeks because of anti-regime demonstrations, and my sister, Golnaz, whom I called Goli, had grown fond of a small rubber ball. While I busied myself rearranging my Barbie dolls, Goli walked around our apartment, dropping her heavy ball on the parquet floor, grabbing it when it sprang up, and letting it drop again in a monotonous, hammering beat. For me, the sound had become synonymous with the disruption of the world around us.

People were flooding the streets of our hometown, Tehran, and staging rallies against the king, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, demanding that he step down. Our parents had told us that the demonstrations were so large that Pahlavi—whom everyone referred to by his Persian title, shah—had brought out the army, with tanks and machine guns, to confront the protestors. The soldiers had opened fire, killing scores of people. The demonstrators reappeared, dressed in white, the color of shrouds in Iran, to symbolize their readiness to die.

Because of the demonstrations, our parents took us outside only for quick and urgent trips. My parents feared that shooting could take place at anytime, anywhere. A tragic fire at a cinema had deepened the fear. In August 1978 a fire broke out in a movie theatre in the southern city of Abadan. Someone had locked the doors from the outside, and four hundred people, including many children, burned to death. It was clearly not an accident but unclear who had been behind the massacre—the shah’s men or the opposition?

Secular, middle-class opponents of the shah had united with leftist intellectuals as well as Muslim activists. Together they’d launched a campaign of civil resistance that attracted civil servants and oil industry workers, who went on strikes and took part in demonstrations. The opposition had initially called for more political liberalization, but then as the strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country in the final months of 1978, they demanded that the shah abdicate.

We often felt lucky that we lived in a gated housing complex, an oasis in the middle of the capital called Behjat Abad. A cluster of fourteen twelve-story buildings, the first high-rises in the country, Behjat Abad housed some four hundred middle- and upper-class families on seven acres of land. Right in the center a lush garden surrounded a pool. The garden was our own private world where in the warmer months we played with dozens of other children. Now it was too cold to play outside, and most parents were too nervous to let their children out of their sight.

As I waited for normalcy to return, Goli bounced the ball in the background. When I complained about it, she simply looked at me. Her pleading black eyes were fringed with long curling eyelashes, and her pale face was framed by straight black hair that barely touched her shoulders. The ball was her companion, her comfort. It was the exact opposite for me. The beat of the ball hitting the floor mimicked the countdown to our unknown future and served as an awful reminder of the sound of gunfire that we’d heard echoing through the city on some evenings.

One afternoon, my mother, Azar, finally gave in and agreed to take us out for ice cream. Goli and I grabbed our coats and dashed out the door. The department store that sold ice cream was only a ten-minute walk away. I remember the date: January 16. As we stepped onto the street, we heard a racket in the distance—a kind of devilish celebratory roar. My mother, who’d been jittery at every sound, quickened her pace and pulled us by the hand on either side of her toward Pahlavi Avenue, the tree-lined street that stretched from south Tehran to north.

When we reached the avenue, the street was packed with people and cars. Men and women danced in a frenzy, clambered on top of cars and buses, pounded their feet on the roofs, and swung their arms in the air. A young woman gave us candies. Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the street, honking their horns in a singsong tone. We walked up the street and saw that the traffic had halted. The city was in ecstasy. Many of the people we passed held up the day’s newspaper or rolled it around their heads like a hat. The two-word headline in bold and stark print read: “Shah Raft,” meaning “The Shah Left.”

That night my parents and I watched on state television as the shah, teary-eyed, headed toward a plane. His wife, Farah, wrapped in a fur coat and hat, stood at his side, along with their four children. Men in dark suits bowed to them continuously; a few raised the shah’s hand to their lips. The shah looked uneasy. As opposition against him had peaked, he had learned that he was suffering from lymphoma. No one knew if it was the seriousness of his illness, the effect of the pills he was taking, or the rage on the streets that had weakened his will. But he had decided to leave the country he had ruled since World War II and hand over his duties to a regency council and an opposition-based prime minister. He flew with his family and a small entourage to Egypt, for what he called a vacation, on a plane he piloted himself. Later, the pilot who flew with him would return with the plane and join the revolutionaries.

On February 1, two weeks after the shah left, a newscaster announced that the revolution had triumphed. A seventy-eight-year-old cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had just returned to Iran after fourteen years in exile—first in Baghdad and then in a town near Paris—to take the helm of the revolution and complete its overhaul of the nation’s political system.

“Ayatollah,” a title used for senior Islamic scholars, means “sign of God,” and Khomeini’s arrival in Iran had the air of a religious spectacle. The historic day was broadcast on television, as millions of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran to get a glimpse of the man who’d been the spiritual inspiration for their resistance to the shah. “Once the monster left, the angel appeared,” people chanted. Khomeini descended from an Air France plane, leaning against the arm of its pilot, showing no visible sentiment despite the crowd’s outpouring of emotion. He wore a black turban, a sign in Islam of a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad through his two grandsons, Hassan and Hussein.

Filming from a helicopter, the state network TV camera captured a human river flowing down the wide avenues leading from the airport to the capital. The people waved their fists in the air and smiled broadly. Men in tight-fitting suits, some sporting thick mustaches, tried to reach a Chevy Blazer surrounded by the crowd. Inside, Khomeini was on his way to the city. People tried to climb over the moving car, but the vehicle continued to move through the throngs.

Then the television showed Tehran’s vast Beheshteh Zahra cemetery, crowded with people. On his first day Khomeini went to pay his respects to those who’d given up their lives for the revolution. The television showed Khomeini’s men push back swarms of fervent followers to make room for the Ayatollah’s helicopter to land. At some point he’d been put on a helicopter to reach the cemetery in southern Tehran. A few moments later, Khomeini was seated on a platform with a group of supporters. Scuffles broke out as Khomeini’s bearded guards roughly pushed back people in the audience who wanted to get close to the cleric. Eventually the guards cleared a space between the crowd and Khomeini, and he began to speak.

Khomeini’s voice sounded dry, and his words were strange to my ears. He came from a rural background, and he wasn’t as eloquent as the officials in the former regime. As an eight-year-old, I was amused by his accent, the way he dragged the words out and added an extra a at the end of every sentence. My parents, who had never heard Khomeini before, were immediately shocked that many of their educated friends had been captivated by his passionate speeches against the shah. The camera zoomed in on the faces of his supporters as they sat crossed-legged in the dirt, mesmerized by his words, their eyes unblinking.

“We are going to elevate your financial status as well as your morality,” he said, in a singsong tone. “Don’t think that we will only build you housing. Electricity and water will be free too. Public transportation will be free.”

“Good luck,” my father said with a chuckle, breaking the silence in our apartment. “He probably thinks that he can run the country like he would run a seminary. Free electricity and water for a population of thirty million?” My father was a senior manager at the Ministry of Power, responsible for expanding the electric grid.

But the crowd on television took the ayatollah at his word. As he made these outlandish promises, the people at the cemetery burst into applause. They’d struggled to overthrow the shah and his dictatorship, and a freer country finally seemed within their reach. Khomeini had led their revolution to victory, and now that he was promising to deliver more, they believed him.

People were still clapping, cheering, and whistling when a full-bearded man sitting next to Khomeini rose. “Allah Akbar,” he chanted from the top of his lungs—“God is great” in Arabic.

Khomeini deemed clapping perverse, too Western, and not at all Islamic. From the outset of the revolution, he had been determined to introduce the nation to a realm of sin and virtue, the parameters of which would be his to determine. This new chant was the first indication to many Iranians of these grand designs—and of just how different this new regime would be.

On television, we could see people look at one another in confusion. The bearded man raised his arms and invited the crowd to chant with him. After a brief commotion, they joined him: “Allah-o Akbar, Allah-o Akbar.”



Nessa dropped the knife on the floor and tapped on her eyelids with her index finger. “I swear on the life of my children, I saw his face with this pair of eyes,” she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a big pile of herbs. She picked up the knife and began mincing the herbs again on a wooden cutting board.

My mother was washing the herbs at the sink to prepare ghormeh sabzi, an aromatic Persian stew. She raised an eyebrow and cast Nessa a skeptical look. “On the moon?” she asked.

Nessa nodded. “With these two eyes.” She dropped the knife again and tapped on her eyelids, leaving a small piece of herb above one eye. “My daughter says he is the savior of the poor and this was a sign.”

“Are you sure that you didn’t hear about it from your daughter?” my mother asked.

“He is a man of God,” Nessa responded with a wide smile, flashing eight little teeth and a row of toothless gums.

Nessa was our maid. She came to our house once a week to clean, making the long trip from her home in the slums on the south side of the capital to our apartment complex in the city center. For my relatively well-off family, Nessa provided insight into the thoughts and opinions of the underclass that had supported the revolution. And now, a few days after Khomeini’s return to Iran, it was clear that she was utterly in the thrall of the new leader.


On Sale
Oct 14, 2014
Page Count
360 pages
Basic Books

Nazila Fathi

About the Author

Nazila Fathi worked for two decades as an Iranian correspondent for the New York Times before being forced to flee the country in 2009 at the height of the Green Revolution. Currently a writer for NPR and Foreign Policy and a commentator for Persian Language Voice of America television, she has held fellowships at Harvard University’s Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics, and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, as well as at Lund University in Sweden. Fathi holds an MA in Political Science and Women’s Studies from the University of Toronto.

A frequent guest on BBC, CNN, NPR, and Fox News, she has also written for the New York Review of Books, Time,, Agence France-Presse, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, and the online news outlets openDemocracy and GlobalPost.

Learn more about this author