A revolution is a mass movement that aims to establish a new political regime by violently transforming the existing government. The Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979 violently ended the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980) and replaced it with an Islamic republic, the theocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1901–1989). The shah’s reign had been briefly interrupted between 1951 and 1953 with the interlude of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq (1881–1967).
The shah’s rule began on September 16, 1941, and witnessed twenty-four different prime ministers heading over forty cabinets. In 1951 Iranian nationalist Mohammed Mossadeq rose to power and amassed enough support to oust the shah. He presided over the establishment of the National Front, composed of divergent forces with similar goals. Mossadeq forced oil nationalization through parliament, which provoked boycott by European powers. Shah supporters and the U.S. administration perceived him as too far to the political left. A 1953 coup restored the shah’s central authority. Alarmed over Mossadeq’s leftist backing in nationalizing the oil company, numerous clergy and the bazaaris (those who make their livelihoods in the bazaars), among some others, supported the shah in regaining power. They welcomed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) pivotal involvement in the coup.
The shah aimed to lead his country towards a great civilization, which he asserted to have pre-Islamic, Aryan roots. This insulted Iran’s devout Shi‘is. Shi‘ism, a branch of Islam that began as an opposition party, was the official state religion. Approximately ninety percent of the population was Shi‘i. The shah’s monarchy was based on the constitution of 1906 and 1907. Guided by U.S. and Israeli intelligence officers, he established the National Intelligence and Security Organization (SAVAK) in 1957. It became the government’s strong arm and scrutinized allegedly suspicious organizations, such as labor unions, peasant organizations, student groups, guilds, and mosques. SAVAK’s tactics instilled pervasive fear of consequences for criticizing the regime or of disagreeing with its policies. Suspects were imprisoned, stories of torture circulated underground, and censorship laws prevailed.
The shah’s vision for Iran included a modernization program modeled after the West. In 1961 he ordered the government to implement a land law that limited the amount of land anyone could hold. Nevertheless, the Pahlavis continued to be one of the largest landowning families. The law elicited opposition predominantly from landowners, the clergy, and the resurgent National Front, culminating in riots at the University of Tehran. The peasants’ economic position generally worsened as a result of the law’s policies. Land reform also had economic consequences for religious institutions that relied on a network of exchange. In 1963 the shah inaugurated a six-point program, the White Revolution, to reshape Iran’s economic, political, and social life. Numerous Iranians saw the measures as being imposed on Iran by the United States in order to bolster the shah’s power and wealth while expanding U.S. dominance in the region. A religious uprising and a bloody counter-revolution resulted. In this context, Ruhollah Khomeini, bearing the title ayatollah, or man of God, became an emergent leader in opposition to the shah. His opposition ultimately landed Khomeini in exile in Iraq, from where he sent taped edicts and sermons to his followers.
The shah sought to develop an industrial base with an influx of foreign contractors and corporations. Some of these invested directly. In 1976 Iran was the fourth largest oil exporter in the world, and in 1977 its economy ranked fifteenth in the noncommunist world. A quantum jump in oil revenues created problems of absorbing those funds into the economic development process, resulting in dramatic increases in spending. Iran entered into a cycle of inflation, greater income inequality, corruption, and growing dependence on the West to help resolve increasing disparities. Peasants displaced to cities by land reform had to cater to thousands of Westerners for economic survival while also being confronted by the impressions Western culture had made in the cities. They found solace in the mosques, where they heard the taped sermons of Khomeini.
These massive cultural and structural changes, monitored by SAVAK, destabilized Iran’s social order. With the exception of the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, which demanded the observance of human rights and restricted the availability of military equipment, the United States supported the shah’s rule. Accommodating Carter’s human rights demands, the shah relaxed his grip over the country in 1977, but the experiment failed. Instead of dialogue at the negotiating table, a series of demonstrations in the streets ensued. Khomeini continued his attacks against the shah.
On January 9, 1978 students and clergy in Qom, Iran, protested Carter’s visit to the country as well as a libelous story about Khomeini in the state press. This began a cycle of escalating violence as demonstrations became more massive and frequent. The shah declared martial law and banned demonstrations, which only provoked his opponents further. The infamous September 8 Black Friday resulted when the Iranian military responded to the public unrest and killed several hundred demonstrators in Tehran. Increasingly alienated Iranians took to the streets and hundreds were killed daily. Iran’s allies abroad distanced themselves. During the holy month of Muharram, on December 12, several million demonstrated against the shah in Tehran. The military disintegrated and the regime crumbled.
The revolution saw an eclectic alliance of secular and religious factions, including intellectuals, students, workers, peasants, bazaar merchants, trades people, and clergy. They coalesced around the Ayatollah Khomeini, who symbolized identity, stability, and social justice. In contrast to the shah, supporters perceived Khomeini as leading a simple life, refusing to compromise with foreign powers. All of the revolutionaries wanted to end the shah’s rule. They differed on their vision for the type of government for Iran, but the theocratic republic prevailed. The shah was forced from the throne and left Iran on January 16, 1979, and Khomeini returned from exile on February 1.
With its platform of social justice and autonomy, the Iranian Shi’i theocracy had a potentially destabilizing effect on neighboring countries with Shi’i populations. Worried over Iran’s call to oppose corruption and foreign influence, particularly U.S. and Soviet policies, neighboring governments feared internal social unrest. Iran supported developing African nations, Cuba, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), among others. Iraq, with its Shi’i majority in numbers, but minority in terms of access to power, felt particularly threatened and invaded Iran in 1980. The invasion was an effort to preempt a possible Shi’i attempt to gain political power and overthrow the Sunni-controlled government of Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein. Thus began a costly and bloody eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, in which Iraq was largely supported by the United States and most Arab regimes. The war had an unanticipated consequence: Iranians with previously divergent views banned together behind their government in the face of this external threat. This development reinforced the outcome of the revolution. At the same time, as it united Iranian hard-liners and moderates even more against the United States, it influenced the nature of the future relationship between the two countries.
SEE ALSO Dictatorship; Fundamentalism, Islamic; Iran-Iraq War; Revolution
Abrahamian, Ervand. 1982. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Area Handbook of Iran. 1978. Iran: A Country Study. 3rd ed. Ed. Richard F. Nyrop. Foreign Area Studies. Washington DC: The American University.
Esposito, John L., ed. 1990. The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida.
Fischer, Michael M. J. 1980. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Brigitte U. Neary
Iranian Revolution (1979)
IRANIAN REVOLUTION (1979)
Mass, nationwide uprising lasting several months and culminating in the overthrow of the monarchy.
In February 1979, the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi collapsed in the face of an organized popular revolution. This event marked the end of over 450 years of monarchical rule that had begun with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in 1501; a republican form of government replaced the deposed monarchy. Some scholars trace the origins of the Iranian Revolution to the 1953 coup d'état against the prime minister and National Front leader Mohammad Mossadegh or to the abortive 1963 uprisings sparked by the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The more immediate cause of the revolution, however, was the failure of the shah's government to address the multifaceted cultural, economic, political, and social grievances that had been building up in Iranian society during the 1970s. The shah not only ignored these grievances but used his secret police agency, the SAVAK, to repress expressions of discontent and both real and suspected opposition activities.
During 1978, Khomeini was the person who succeeded in uniting the diverse currents of discontent into a unified anti-shah movement. He was a senior clergyman of Shiʿism living in exile in Iraq since 1965. Khomeini effectively used popular Shiʿite themes, such as the moral and religious righteousness of struggling against oppression and for justice, to appeal broadly to both religious and secular Iranians. By 1977, his network of former students had begun circulating tapes of his sermons at religious gatherings; these sermons denounced the shah's injustice and called for strict adherence to the 1906 constitution, which had established a constitutional monarchy, with the shah subordinate to the elected Majles, or parliament. (The shah, like his father before him, had asserted his authority over the Majles by controlling parliamentary elections and creating what in practice amounted to a royal dictatorship.) The government tried to counteract Khomeini's growing popularity by placing in a pro-regime newspaper an article that defamed the ayatollah's character. Its publication provoked major protest demonstrations in Qom (January 1978), which resulted in several deaths and the closure of the city's bazaars. The incident galvanized opposition to the shah and set in motion a cycle of protest demonstrations—and brutal repression—every forty days, the fortieth day after a death being a traditional Iranian commemoration of the deceased.
By August 1978, it had become obvious that the repressive tactics that had worked in the past no longer were effective in containing the ever-growing protest movement. The shah sought to defuse the opposition by appointing a new government of royalist politicians who had maintained ties to the clergy, by freeing some political prisoners, and by relaxing press censorship. This led to a major demonstration in Tehran, where more than 100,000 people marched through the city carrying photos of Khomeini and handing out flowers to the soldiers and police; the latter were asked to join the call for free elections. Similar peaceful but smaller-scale demonstrations took place in many other cities. Apparently frightened by the strength of the movement and the evident solidarity among religious and secular groups, the shah declared martial law in Tehran and eleven other cities and ordered the arrest of National Front and Freedom Movement leaders. The first day of martial law, 8 September 1978, became known as Black Friday because several hundred people were killed in Tehran as troops forced thousands of demonstrators to leave the area of the parliament building, where they had gathered to demand free elections.
Black Friday first stunned and then enraged the people. In response to urging from Khomeini, strikes spread throughout the country, affecting factories, shops, schools, the oil industry, utilities, and the press. By the end of October, Iran's economy was paralyzed. The shah appointed a military government with authority to force oil workers and others back to their jobs. He also freed imprisoned National Front, Freedom Movement, and clerical leaders in hopes that they would go to Paris, where Khomeini had moved, and convince the ayatollah to moderate his views. These tactics failed. Many army conscripts were refusing to shoot at unarmed civilians and even deserting their units, and the strikes continued. Khomeini announced he would accept nothing less than the removal of the shah, and the main secular and religious opposition leaders supported his position. Despite the military government, demonstrations continued throughout November, and each day produced more martyrs as people were killed in cities and towns when the army tried to suppress protest marches. It was clear that the shah's government had lost control of the streets. Fearful of more bloodshed during the Shiʿite religious month of Muharram (the religious calendar is a lunar one, and Muharram began on 1 December in 1978), the government agreed to allow traditional mourning processions if religious leaders promised to keep order. Millions of Iranians participated in peaceful marches throughout the country, but instead of mourning the martyrdom of the saint Imam Hosain, they called for the downfall of the shah. The popular slogan chanted everywhere became "Azadi, Istiqlal, Jomhuri Islami " (freedom, independence, Islamic republic). These terms meant political freedom from the oppression of the secret police, independence from the shah's alliance with the United States, and a republican government based on Islamic principles of justice.
The popular message of Muharram was clear, even to the shah, who now sought a dignified way to leave Iran and preserve the throne for his eighteen-year-old son. He persuaded longtime National Front opponent Shapur Bakhtiar to form a government. On 16 January 1979, the shah left Iran on a trip officially described as a medical rest. On 1 February 1979, Khomeini, triumphantly returned from exile, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Bakhtiar's government and appointed a provisional government headed by Freedom Movement leader Mehdi Bazargan. Demonstrations against Bakhtiar and in favor of Bazargan took place throughout the country. On 11 February 1979, military leaders ordered their forces back to their barracks and to remain-neutral in the civilian political struggle. This announcement led to the collapse of the Bakhtiar government and the victory of the revolutionary movement.
see also bakhtiar, shapur; bazaars and bazaar merchants; bazargan, mehdi; freedom movement (nezhat-e azadi iran); khomeini, ruhollah; mossadegh, mohammad; muharram; national front, iran; pahlavi, mohammad reza; qom; shiʿism; tehran.
Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Hooglund, Eric. Land and Revolution in Iran, 1962–1980. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.