In 1978, Four Terrorists Burned 420 Movie-Goers Alive in Iran
History, Middle East
It reshaped the history of America and the middle east forever.
At 9 PM on August 19, 1978, four men entered the lobby of the Rex Cinema in Abadan after having been disappointed to find the nearby Soheila cinema closed. After snacking on grilled kebabs, they entered the theater to attend the show.
What could have been the beginning of an ordinary night’s entertainment out would instead culminate in what was then the deadliest terrorist attack ever—one that would prove an inflection points in the history of the Middle East.
That evening, 700 movie-goers in the Rex were attending a showing of Gavaznha (“The Deer”)—a 1974 drama directed by Masoud Kimiai. It told the story of a thief on the run from the cops who seeks the aid of a once charismatic high school friend, now a despondent drug addict. The film reflected the economic despair of many Iranians, and its depictions of police violence had barely escaped government censors.
So attending The Deer could be seen as a radical act. And some in attendance may have recalled that August 19 was the anniversary of a coup orchestrated by the U.S. government in 1953 that unseated a president who had the gall to threaten the profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, placing the Pahlavis back into power.
By the late 1970s, the modernizing, Western-oriented regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi found itself under pressure both from socially conservative Shia Muslim clerics loyal to the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, centrists and Marxists critical of economic inequality and political repression—particularly the brutal use of assassination, torture and rape by SAVAK, the Shah’s feared secret police.
Pahlavi attempted to contain mounting grievances through a limited degree of political liberalization. But the Shah’s reforms ended up letting in just enough oxygen for the situation to catch fire.
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