The Iranian Revolution: Islamic Fundamentalism Confronts Modern Secularism

views updated

The Iranian Revolution: Islamic Fundamentalism Confronts Modern Secularism

The Conflict

Iran is an Islamic fundamentalist state that has repressed dissent for the last twenty years. There have been recent attempts at secularization—attempts to offer dissenting views and liberalize lifestyles.


  • Iranians have supported reform party candidates, and seem to want a country with meaningful political choices and participation, including multiple views and lifestyles.
  • Many younger Iranians—who were not born when the Shah ruled Iran—are not as threatened by and hostile toward the West.
  • Iran's leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has warned against reformers and reforms and has threatened to nullify elections if reform candidates win.


• Some Islamic leaders believe that they must have an Islamic state, where all law is based on the Qor'an (also spelled Koran), in order to be moral and holy.

In 1997 the citizens of Iran elected Hojjatoleslam Mohammed Khatami president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite his long association with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his support of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, most Westerners heralded his election as a move away from the strict Islamic regime of Khomeini and past presidents. This remarkable reception was due in large part to Khatami's own political journey, which moved him from Khomeini's camp toward a broader perception of Iran's role in world affairs.

Khatami is the son of a respected ayatollah (Islamic religious leader) and a graduate of the Qom Seminary, where he studied ijtihad, or the practice of religious leadership. Khatami worked closely with the Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1970s and was elected to the Iranian Parliament for the first time in 1980. It was during the Iran-Iraq War that Khatami began to change his political perspectives. Today, Khatami's government has made overtures to the United States and has engaged in modernization efforts many thought impossible only five years ago.

Khatami's election to the presidency in 1997 introduced a shift in power in the Islamic nation. Political observers considered Khatami's election to be a turning point and, indeed, the parliamentary elections held in February 2000 indicate a substantial change may have occurred in Iranian politics. The Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), a reform party supporting increased secularization (secularization is a movement away from religious considerations) and increased contact with the West, won a majority of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament). This marked the first time since the Revolution of 1979 that the conservative Islamic Republic Party was not in control of the government.

The election was an astounding victory for reform party members. Not only did reform party candidates win twenty-nine of thirty seats in the capital city of Tehran, but ballot counts in mid-March indicate that various reform factions now control more than half of the 290 seats in the Majlis, giving President Khatami a powerful ally in his efforts to reform Iran. Reform party candidates currently control at least 165 seats, with fifty-two of those belonging to the Islamic Iran Participation Front. The IIPF's president is Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the brother of President Mohammed Khatami. The IIPF is one of several reform parties now active in Iran.

Having reform parties in control of the Majlis does not guarantee that Iran will moderate its strong anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric or policies, however. In accordance with the Iranian Constitution, Article 107, the Iranian government is composed not only of elected officials but also of a "Leader of the Islamic Revolution," a cleric appointed by the Assembly of Experts. This leader has broad powers to modify or overrule acts of the Majlis or the president. The current leader is Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei (1939-), former president of Iran and a close follower of the Ayatollah Khomeini. He and his Guardian Council (a religious body overseeing Iranian government and politics) remain conservative and opposed to moderation. Moreover, even though the Islamic Iran Participation Front is a "reform" party, it does not support the separation of church and state as does exist in the United States and some other democracies. The members of IIPF are still Muslim in political outlook.

Immediately after the election, Ayatollah Khamenei lashed out against reformists, warning Iranians that the reform party was no more than a tool to implement American-style political reforms and to end Islamic rule in Iran. Khamenei and the Guardians Council have threatened to nullify many reform candidates' victories. On May 8, 2000, the Guardians Council charged the Interior Ministry (a reform agency under the control of President Khamati) with vote fraud. Before this action the Guardian Council had overturned twelve reformist victories outside Tehran, giving two of those seats to unyielding candidates.

Khamenei's threat to annul election results has created a political crisis in Iran. The Islamic Students Association announced on May 13, 2000, that if the Guardian Council were to annul the reform victories in Tehran they would stage nationwide protests. The Islamic Students Association is a student movement supporting reform and claims to have more than ten thousand members. This would be the first time a large association like this actively opposed the hard-line regime in Iran.

What has brought about such a change in Iranian politics? Only ten years ago such support for reform would be impossible to imagine. Before 1997, for example, sources on Iranian politics failed to mention Khatami or the IIRP. Why has Iranian politics shifted so dramatically in what appears to be such a short time? The answer lies in the many changes Iran has undergone in the last half-century. Not only has Iranian politics changed, those who make such policies have changed as well. Many of those voting in the 2000 election are younger voters who did not live under the regime of the Shah of Iran. These are students who engage in dialogue with the West regularly through Internet communications, through study abroad, and through tourism. Today's youth of Iran are not the youth who waged the revolution in 1979.

Historical Background

Geography and People

Iran is a relatively large Middle Eastern/South Asian nation bordering Iraq to the west, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan to the east, the Caspian Sea to the north, and the Persian Gulf to the south. The strategically important Gulf of Oman and Straits of Hormuz, through which millions of barrels of oil flow every day, are located just south of the Iranian city of Bandar 'Abba-s. Iran is 1.65 million square kilometers (approximately 636,000 square miles) in size, making it slightly larger than Alaska or slightly smaller than Mexico. As of 1999, Iran has a population of more than sixty-five million people, making it about as populated as the Philippines. Roughly thirty percent of Iran's land is cultivated for crops or pastures. Most Iranians work as either agricultural (thirty-three percent) or industrial (twenty-one percent) sector workers. Unemployment is about thirty percent of the workforce, due to the long war with Iraq and due to international sanctions.

The people of Iran represent several distinct ethnic groups. Persians are the largest group, representing about fifty-one percent of all citizens. Azerbaijanis account for an additional one-quarter of the population, and the remainder are from such diverse ethnic groups as the Kurds, Arabs, Lur, Turkmen, and Balochi. The people of Iran speak several unique languages as well. Persian and Persian dialects are spoken by fifty-eight percent of Iranians, twenty-five percent speak Turkic and Turkic dialects, and the remainder speak Kurdish, Luri, Balochi, Turkish, and other languages.

The vast majority of Iranians are Muslim. Islam has two major branches of faith, the Shiite (often spelled Shi'a) and the Sunni. Eighty-nine percent of Iranians are Shiite Muslim and, as such, the Shiite control Iran. The Shiite believe that leadership in the Islamic community follows a dynastic succession (rulers from the same line of descent) from Imam Ali (a cousin of the prophet Mohammed) and his children. About ten percent of Iranians follow the Sunni faith. Sunni Muslims are "orthodox" Muslims. They are more willing than Shiite Muslims to interact with the West and are more likely to interpret the Qor'an (or Koran) broadly. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Baha'i represent about five percent of Iranians.


The modern history of Iran may be broken into four events: World War II occupation, the 1953 coup restoring the monarchy, the Revolution of 1979, and the Iran-Iraq War and aftermath. Iran's role in World War II and the aftermath is a common story of a nation caught in a cold war between superpowers: the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies (the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Iran engaged in constant efforts to avoid capture by either group and its strenuous efforts to pursue its own foreign policy make it a unique Middle Eastern nation.

World War II

Iran's importance to Allied plans in World War II is rooted in the fact that in 1941 the Allies were losing the war against Germany. The Allies needed oil and access to Africa, and Iran made an ideal base of operations for the African theatre. Unfortunately, the Shah (monarch) of Iran, Reza Khan, later known as Reza Shah and who reigned from 1926 to 1941, was sympathetic to the German cause. The Allies feared that Germany would expand its control over the Middle East and its vital oil supplies. Britain, Turkey, and the Soviet Union overthrew Reza Shah's regime in 1941 and jointly administered Iran until the end of the war. Reza Shah was deposed in favor of his son Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1941 (who reigned from 1941 to 1979 and died July 27, 1980). (Throughout this essay, Reza Shah refers to the father; the Shah to the son.) From 1941 to 1951, the new Shah often faced strong opposition from the Majlis, which was led by Dr. Muhammed Mossadeq (sometimes spelled Mossadegh).

Mossadeq (1882-1967) was the prime minister of the Iranian government and a powerful opponent of Reza Shah. Mossadeq wanted to nationalize the Iranian oil industry and to remain neutral in the power struggles between the Soviet Union and the West. He successfully fostered a sense of Iranian nationalism until his efforts in 1951 to take control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (A-I). Iran had become a central supplier of crude oil for the West. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was an important producer of that oil, but most of the profits from A-I went to its British owners. Mossadeq's efforts to create an independent Iran, coupled with his pursuit of neutrality between the Soviet Union and the West led the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to sponsor a coup d'état (violent overthrow) that drove him from power.

The 1953 Coup

In order to prevent Soviet expansion into Iran and to secure continued access to Iranian oil, the CIA staged a coup in 1953 that toppled the Mossadeq government and restored the Reza Shah to power. The Shah then engaged in a series of reforms in Iran that modernized the nation, adopted many Western customs and practices, and promoted economic and commercial development.

Although the Shah was successful in creating a modern industrial state in Iran, he did it at tremendous social costs. Many Iranians opposed his secular views about government and called for the restoration of an Islamic government. Others called on the Shah to reform his policies and to rein in the power of his secret police forces. Overall, the Shah's vision of creating a global Iranian power failed due to poor administration and implementation of his modernization policies, poor management of the economy (inflation was very high during the 1960s and 1970s), increasingly strict control of political life, and his challenges to the ruling ayatollahs and other religious leaders in Iran. By ruling in such an authoritarian manner, the Shah managed to alienate almost every important sector of Iranian society except those in his family and court who benefited most from Westernization. By 1960 Iran's religious leadership, joined by many student revolutionaries, began a series of engagements that would result in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The Revolution of 1979

Despite the diverse factions who opposed the Shah, as late as 1978 there was no one spokesperson around whom these various factions could rally. Many ayatollahs had spoken against the Shah's regime, but it was not until 1978 that the Ayatollah Khomeini (often called The Ayatollah) rose to the leadership of the anti-Shah factions. In part, the Ayatollah's role in the revolution was a result of poor judgment on the part of the Shah and his followers.

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini (1900-89) opposed the Shah's rule for many years. Khomeini was a respected elder clergy within Islam, but he was also a powerful populist speaker. His opposition to the Shah was primarily religious, but his attacks against the Shah's regime were based on religion, economics, and on gaining rights for the poor of Iran. His attacks against the government had led to many arrests and, in 1978, he was exiled to France. It was during this exile that Khomeini's power grew significantly.

The Shah wanted to undercut Khomeini's power. In the summer of 1978, the government printed a pamphlet attacking Khomeini and accusing him of certain religious indiscretions. Unfortunately for the Shah, the propaganda attack backfired and people rallied to Khomeini's defense. As a result of the attack, Khomeini became a central figure in the revolution and he began planning for a return to Iran.

The opportunity for his return came early in 1979, when the Shah came to the United States for treatment of cancer. While he was out of the country, the Ayatollah returned to Iran and quickly set about organizing an unusual cohort of religious leaders and young college students who then staged a series of revolutionary acts. By the middle of 1979 it was clear the Shah would not be able to return to Iran and that a revolution was under way. Charging that the Shah had been a tool of the "Great Satan"—the United States—Islamic forces stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and on November 4, 1979, took fifty-three American embassy workers hostage. U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his administration seemed at a loss to resolve this impasse.

Carter attempted to force the students to free the hostages by freezing Iranian assets, imposing economic and military sanctions on Iran, and finally by attempting a military rescue in April 1980. That rescue attempt failed and cost the lives of the rescue team. Three helicopters crashed miles outside of Tehran before the rescue attempt had begun and the rescue was aborted. It was not until January 20, 1981—the day President Carter left office—that the hostages were freed after being in captivity for 444 days. Carter's response to this crisis may have been one of the factors that cost him reelection in 1980.

The Shah left office in 1979, leaving Iran under the control of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution Party. By November 1980, the new regime found itself involved in a ten-year war against neighboring Iraq. This war led (on both sides) to some one million dead, two million wounded, and 157 Iranian villages of populations greater than five thousand destroyed. In the end, the war cost both countries close to $1 trillion. As with so many such conflicts, this terrible war could have been avoided.

The Iran-Iraq War

The conflict between Iran and Iraq seems to have been based on three Iraqi goals: the overthrow of the Ayatollah's regime, Iraqi desire to expand their territory and control in the Middle East, and the creation of greater oil reserves for Iraq by moving the borders between the two nations. Iraq's attacks against Iran created a serious political dilemma for the United States and for many Arab nations. The Iranian government hated the United States. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, also opposed American involvement in the Middle East. No matter who won this war, American interests in the region were in jeopardy. Moreover, the government in Iraq seemed to have close ties with the Soviet Union. An Iraqi victory could enhance the presence of the Soviet Union in this crucial oil-producing area.

At the outset of war, the two sides were relatively evenly matched. Iraq had a more technologically sophisticated army, but it was only about half the size of Iran's forces. Iran's military was also well-trained, due in large part to efforts by the Shah. Iran's population was roughly three times that of Iraq's in 1980 (about thirty-six million to Iraq's almost twelve million). Both sides were equipped with American and Soviet military hardware.

The immediate consequence of the outbreak of war was severe economic disruption. Neither Iran nor Iraq could export oil—their main commodity—as long as the conflict continued. Policy-makers in the United States and in the Middle East faced another dilemma. If either nation won the war, that nation would become a major player in Middle Eastern politics. Initially the United States attempted to negotiate a truce between the two belligerents, but as the war dragged on, American policy shifted.

United States president Ronald Reagan came into office strongly opposed to communism anywhere in the world. Articulating what is now called the Reagan Doctrine, the president and his advisors attempted to support internal anti-Communist insurgents (those revolting against the government) wherever they might have been operating. One such place was in Nicaragua, where the Contra rebels were attempting to overthrow the government. In 1983 Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which prohibited U.S. aid to the Contras. At the same time, Middle Eastern forces in Beirut took seven hostages. The United States had intelligence sources who indicated that Khomeini's forces knew where the hostages were being kept.

Reagan recalled the hostage crisis of the Carter administration. He wanted to avoid a similar situation in his presidency and so he reversed the Carter arms embargo against Iran, hoping the sale of weapons would facilitate the release of the hostages. Moreover, administration officials saw the profits from the arms sales as a way to evade the Boland Amendment's requirements and continue to assist the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Early in 1986, the U.S. Congress discovered what was going on and the whole program collapsed. Not only was the policy a political embarrassment to the Reagan administration, it was only partially successful in freeing the hostages. The policy also failed to change Iran's sentiments towards the United States.

The war dragged on until 1989, when Iran and Iraq signed a peace agreement. Why this conflict lasted as long as it did, especially since the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein seemed willing to sign peace accords in early 1986, is a key question. Part of the answer lies in what the Iranian religious leadership gained from the conflict.

Most observers argue that there were three reasons the Iranian religious leadership pursued the war after 1986. First, the war allowed the religious leadership (the ulama) to eliminate political opponents in Iran, which permitted the Ayatollah and his followers to consolidate their control over Iran. Second, the ulama portrayed the war as a continuation of the struggles of Islam. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis were Baath (or Ba'ath), a sect of Islam traditionally opposed to the Shiite sect. The Ayatollah Khomeini portrayed the war as a religious battle against the infidels—those who acknowledge no religious belief—of Iraq. Finally, the war effort allowed the Ayatollah's followers to promote Shiite followers to key command positions, thus gaining greater control of the military. In other words, the primary objective for the Ayatollah and his followers was to increase their control over Iran rather than to defeat Iraq.

Because Iran's population was so much larger than Iraq's, the leadership simply fought a war of attrition—everyone lost people, but Iraq had less people to lose. Iran agreed to peace terms in 1988, one year before the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was succeeded by the Ayatollah Khamenei, who is now the leader of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei has served as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and was a close ally of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution. The end of the war opened a new era in Iranian politics, one the hard-line Islamic leadership could never have foreseen.

Recent History and the Future

The Iran-Iraq War involved almost forty percent of the adult male population of Iran. Many of those drafted into service were either wounded or killed. However, since 1989, a new cohort of Iranians has arisen. Like the cohort of 1979, these college students and activists desire more freedom, more opportunities, and more of the goods and services western nations have. They are connected to the outside world through study-abroad programs and the Internet. Many of those in the voting population (Iran has a universal right to vote for all citizens age fifteen or older) never lived under the Shah, and as much as one-third of those voting today never served in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of those who did serve in the war believe it should have ended before it did. One consequence of the war, then, has been an erosion of support for the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The young people of Iran have forged a successful alliance among themselves, the poor, and women's groups in order to bring about the moderate revolution making headlines in Iran. The ruling religious leaders promised these groups that the revolution and war would improve their lives. It did not. Most of these groups found themselves in worse situations politically and economically and many leaders of these groups became enemies of the state for calling for change.

The first real test of the reformers' power was the presidential election of 1997. The election of Mohammed Khamati signaled a change in popular sentiment in Iran, but the ruling religious leaders have so far refused to accept these changes. Parliamentary elections in February 2000 have intensified the division between older Iranians and the rising younger cohort. The Guardian Council has substantially weakened its position by threatening to nullify the February election. If the Guardian Council does overturn as many as twelve of the twenty-nine seats reformers won in Tehran, there is a very real chance of protests and demonstrations against the ruling Muslim leadership.

This is not to say that these moderates desire a fully secular state with American-style separation of church and state. Many student leaders are calling for increased trade and access to the West, but deny that they want constitutional reforms. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the Guardian Council is reminiscent of the language Ayatollah Khomeini used to attack and undermine the Shah's regime. Guardian Council members have charged reformers with attempting to undermine the Islamic state:

They [reformers] do not mean progress of the Islamic system, they mean removal of Islam and the position of the supreme leader. They promote American reforms. As long as I have responsibility and I'm alive, I will not allow these people to play with the country's interests. As long as the great principle of the position of supreme leader exists, conspiracies may create headaches but will not be able to destabilize this strong base. ("Iran's Khamenei," May 12, 2000)

Khamenei and his followers have attacked Iran's reform press as well. Khamenei accused the press of "portraying a distorted, unrealistic and disappointing image about the present and the future. It is portraying an atmosphere of tension in the society." These are the same kinds of charges Ayatollah Khomeini made against his enemies in 1978, before he began his crackdown against opposition parties and newspapers.

The future for Iran is uncertain. The Guardian Council's decision regarding the February 2000 elections will set the tone for the immediate future. However, the sweeping nature of the elections and the size of reformist control in the Majlis indicates that many Iranians support a secular reformist agenda. This is especially true since elections in Iran are non-partisan, meaning candidates do not run on a specific party label.

Whether the Guardian Council permits the results to stand or not, Iran's political culture is being changed by the same kinds of forces that created the 1979 Islamic Revolution: college students, poor urban workers, and farmers. They are changing Iranian politics for the same reasons as their fathers and grandfathers. The promises of the revolution have not been borne out by the government and these groups are trying to create the changes they believe will bring about those promises. For the short term, Iran's politics appear to be unstable and contentious, but the broad support for reform indicates that Iran is moving towards secularist reforms that will alter the structure of power in the Middle East.


Amuzegar, Jahangir. The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahvalis' Triumph and Tragedy. New York: SUNY Press, 1991.

Baker, James A., III. The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992. New York: Putnam, 1995.

"Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran." (1 May 2000).

Crabb, Cecil. American Foreign Policy in a Nuclear Age. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

Dareini, Ali Akbar. "Reformers Sweep Iranian Elections,"Anderson Independent Mail, 7 May 2000, 10A.

——. "Iran Students Warn of Vote Protest." 13 May 2000. (13 May 2000).

"Iran." CIA Factbook. (8 May 2000).

"Iran's Khamenei Blasts Reformists." 12 May 2000. (12 May 2000).

Keddie, Nikki, and Mark Gasiorowski, eds. Neither East Nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union and the United States. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Lorentz, John H. The Historical Dictionary of Iran. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

McCormick, James M. American Foreign Policy and Process. Itasca, Ill.: Peacock Press, 1998.

Murphy, Richard W. "A Thaw in Iran," Foreign Policy, Winter 97-98.

Robertson, Charles L. International Politics Since World War II: A Short History. London: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

Russett, Bruce, and Harvey Starr. World Politics: A Menu for Choice. San Francisco, Calif.: W.H. Freeman Company, 1981.

Sarbakhshian, Hassan. "Iran Ministry Denies Vote Fraud." 8 May 2000. (12 May 2000).

Sharif, Taha. "The Price to Pay," Iran Daily, 16 May 2000, 1.

Weiner, Myron and Samuel P. Huntington, eds.Understanding Political Development. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Co, 1987.

Workman, W. Thom. The Social Origins of the Iran-Iraq War. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994.

Michael P.Bobic


1921 Reza Shah overthrows Qajar Dynasty, beginning the era of the Shahs.

1941 Reza Shah abdicates in favor of son, Mohammed Reza Shah.

1944 Muhammed Mossadeq enters Parliament.

1951 Iran begins nationalization of Anglo-Iranian Oil.

1953 Muhammed Shah is forced out of Iran.

1954 CIA stages a coup d'état to topple Mossedeq regime and restore the Shah.

1963 Ayatollah Khomeini is arrested in Iran.

1964 Khomeini is exiled from Iran.

1978 Khomeini organizes a revolution from France.

1979 Muhammed Shah comes to the United States for surgery. Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran. The Iranian Revolution begins. Iranian students capture the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking fifty-three hostages.

1980 War with Iraq begins.

1981 U.S. hostages are released after 444 days in captivity.

1988 Iran-Iraq war is concluded.

1989 Ayatollah Khomeini dies. Position of leadership is taken by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

1997 Muhammed Khatami is elected president of Iran.

2000 Reformist parties capture Parliament.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

1919-1980 Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the word Shah means King), the eldest son of Reza Shah Pahlavi, was born October 26, 1919, in Tehran, Iran. Mohammad Reza was educated in Switzerland, and returned home in 1935 to attend the Iranian military academy. After his father was exiled during the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II, Mohammad Reza became Shah on September 16, 1941.

By ignoring the parliament, the Shah exercised autocratic rule. Many considered the Shah a pawn of Western interests. The religious clergy denounced his social reforms, including promoting women's literacy, as anti-Muslim. In 1949 he escaped an assassination attempt. In 1953 he was briefly exiled after an uprising led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq.

The Shah was returned to the throne after a coup d'état facilitated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency deposed Mossadeq. As discontent grew in Iran in the 1970s, the Shah used his secret police, SAVAK, to silence opposition and murder dissidents. Amid civil unrest, the Shah fled the country January 16, 1979.

When Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in October 1979, they demanded the Shah be returned to Iran to stand trial in return for the American hostages. The Shah refused to return; he died in Cairo, Egypt, on July 27, 1980.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

1900-1989 Ayatollah Khomeini (sometimes called The Ayatollah) was born May 17, 1900, in Khomeyn, Iran. Born Ruhollah Musawi, he was the son and grandson of mullahs (Shiite clerics). After his father was murdered by the local landlord, Khomeini was raised by various family members, and attended Islamic schools.

As he became known as a scholar of Islamic law, Musawi took the surname Khomeyn (his hometown). In the 1950s, he was declared an Ayatollah ("chosen by God"), and by 1961 had become one of the most powerful religious leaders in Iran. After protesting the Shah's secularization policies as anti-Islamic, Khomeini was arrested, and then exiled from Iran.

Khomeini's call for a "pure" Islamic republic gained support within Iran as discontent with the Shah grew. After the Shah fled Iran in 1979, the Ayatollah returned to Tehran, the capital of Iran. Later that year, Khomeini was declared political and religious leader for life of the newly created Islamic republic. Under Khomeini's rule, Islamic law was reinstated, women were required to be veiled in public, and opposition was suppressed. The Ayatollah also denounced the United States, the USSR (Soviet Union), and non-Muslim influences. His death in 1989 caused millions to mourn in the streets of Iran.

Mohammad Khatami

1943- Mohammad Khatami was born in 1943 in Ardakan, central Iran, the son of a well-known cleric. While obtaining university degrees in philosophy, theology, and education, he became politically active, writing pamphlets and organizing against the Shah. In 1978, Khatami taught briefly in Germany, but returned home after the revolution in 1979 to serve in Iran's national assembly, and as head of a government news group.

As minister of culture from 1982 until his dismissal in 1992, he was considered too liberal by the ultra-conservative mullahs (clerics), whom he defied by permitting concerts and female performers and by refusing to censor literature and film that some considered subversive. He served as director of the National Library until the 1997 presidential elections. Endorsed by a broad range of Iranians, Khatami swept the elections, receiving seventy percent of the vote.

Khatami's pledge to free the press and relax enforcement of Islamic law appealed to many Iranians, and especially to young people and women. As a Muslim cleric and direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, he also appealed to many religious Iranians. President Khatami is married, and has three children. In addition to his native Farsi, he speaks fluent English, German, and Arabic.

About this article

The Iranian Revolution: Islamic Fundamentalism Confronts Modern Secularism

Updated About content Print Article