Between the august 1978 and February 1979, a period of less than the seven months, iran witnessed a revolution that brought down the Pahlavi regime and abolished the institution of monarchy, wiped out all privileges of the Pahlavi elite, and significally weakened its secularised middle classes. In its stead Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates created the Islamic republic which aimed to establish the “Guardianship of the jurist” (welayat –e-faqih)The revolution of 1979 which happened in Iran was a revolt of the society against the state in the history of world Islam, The revolt is totally different from Western revolutions, because the state did not just represent an ordinary dictatorship but an arbitrary system which lacked political legitimacy and a social base across the society in some of the norms and characteristics.
The Mohammed Reza shah Pahlavi was a self proclaimed king of kings ruled Iran from 1941 replacing his father. His father was deposed by Britain and Soviet Union, when they occupied Iran during second war. The Iranian believed that the new shah would be more cooperative to their needs, allowing more control of such a strategically placed oil rich country. But the shahs closeness to the foreign countries or the shah foreign relation always made Iranians question his legitimacy. The seeds of discontent over his reign were started during the early days of his reign. The shah’s ambition to make oil-rich Iran the fifth most powerful country in the world began to go awry in the mid-1970s when a mass protest movement that began in 1977 picked up momentum in late 1978. It was backed by Islamic activists, many of them radicals, the urban poor, merchants of the bazaar, and for a while atleast by youth, the university students and so on.
Western and Secular Influences
The Shah was heavily backed by US and he promoted westernization which many Iranians believed, it was diluting their indigenous culture and values. The Separation of sexes, which had been a traditional practice, had been banned. Women during this period wore western clothes instead of hijab and could now go to school, vote, and work. The new rights to women were embraced by the elite society while Islam Puritans viewed it as secularization. A more secular take on religion was adopted, where religious minorities could hold office.
Discontent with the Pahlavi Dynasty
Due to the Shah’s economic reforms, Iran had ascended into the ranks as a globally formidable industrial economy. By late 1970s, the economy had stagnated, and inflation led to a higher cost of living. Iranians all over the country were dissatisfied with the regime and viewed it as having failed on its economic promise coupled with corruption and incompetence among public officials. The regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was very oppressive, and used the SAVAK, who were the American-trained secret police, for mass murder, torture, and imprisonment of those against his government. The Shah’s ideology that westernization was the tool for Iran’s progress was seen as having failed, and the Iranians felt that they should turn back to Islam.
Student, Left-wing, and Conservative Shia Sentiments against the Shah’s Government
The government was heavily opposed by the Conservative Shia Muslims led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The basis of their arguments against the government took a cultural and religious approach. The Conservative Shia accused the Shah of destroying Islam through the popularization of Western values.
Iranian Muslim Students, who had been exposed to the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini, increasingly began to support the idea of an Islamic State. The left-wing Islamist groups encouraged the use of armed struggle as the means to topple the Shah’s regime.
Setting the Revolution into Motion
In the mid 1970s and as late as 1977, only the most radical trends on the Iranian left, such as the Fadaiyan-e khalq and mojahendin-e khalq guerrilla organisations yearned for a revolution on the Marxist modal, a prospect unforeseen at the time even by the most astute hour. The road to revolution was to be paved, however not by guerrilla warfare but by mass support for a prophetic figure, the likes of whom Iran had rarely seen in its recent past.
Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts, who reaped the fruits of many decades of fury, benefited from a unique opportunity to build their own monopoly on power. The early 1970s brought with it inflation in Iran’s economy, and the Shah was criticized for his extravagance while most Iranians were suffering in poverty. The Shah’s government suppressed any form of resistance and had exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. By the start of 1977 however, Khomeini ideologies began to spread in Iran through smuggled audio cassettes. Khomeini called for strikes, refusal to pay tax, boycotts, and even martyrdom for the Islam religion. The death of Khomeini’s son in 1977, which was blamed on the SAVAK, increased Khomeini’s popularization. Organizations opposed to the government also cropped up in Iran which encouraged open resistance.
Signs of political protest came rather unexpectedly with a change in the international climate. During the US presidential campaign in the fall of 1976, jimmy carter a democratic candidate made human rights and free speech the major concern of his foreign policy. Though it was mainly aimed at the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, even before assuming office in January 1977 carters advocacy sent a positive signal to Iranian liberal opposition, including to veterans of the former national front, lawyers , intellectuals, journalists and so on. In early 1977, individuals and small groups began writing open letters address to the premier Hovayda and to the shah, criticising human rights violations and demanding greater accountability , they also concerned about the states flawed economic policies, wasteful and mismanagement development projects and ill effects of the shahs autocratic style.
The only road to salvation and relief from the current difficulties and pitfalls that threaten the future of Iran is to abandon autocratic rule, fully comply with the values of the constitutional regime, restore the rights of the people, truly respect the constitution and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set aside the one party system and allow the freedom of the press and freedom of the association, free political prisoners, and political exiles and elect the representatives who are accountable for the conduct of the government.
Soon, later the venues were dominated by radical activists. By September 1978 the public shift from acts of protests to a revolutionary mode was palpable. The Amunezar government flickered a hope to rescue the troubled regime from the verge of revolutionary inferno; this was dashed by frequent mass demonstrations, acts of Islamic extremists, and crippling strikes by workers in the public sector and the oil industry.
In June 19, 1977 the death of Ali Shariti was believed by many among his supporters to be because of the foul play. Three months later news of the death of the Mostafa Khomeini, the ayatollahs older son was also received similar death by public. The demonstrations in Tehran University among the growing ranks of Shariti’s followers, which coincide with a deluge of condolence from all quarters forwarded to Khomeini.
After 14 years of exile in Najaf, Khomeini once more was about to emerge as the relentless critic of the Pahlavi state. He enjoyed support not only from among his clerical and lay followers but also within the general public, who hailed him as a champion of resistance. Exiled but not forgotten, he patiently had waited out years in the social wilderness, perhaps with little hope of ever going back to Iran, let alone leading a revolution. For younger generations of Iranians Ayatollah Khomeini was a figure of the opposition from the past who had returned to the political stage. An opportunity moment seemed to have miraculously propelled him to the forefront of powerful movements and despite his best of expectations.
On September 14, 1977, the congregational prayer for the feast of Fitr, at the end of the fasting of the month, ten thousand of the people chosen by Khomeini’s supporters for the occasion. The former students of the Khomeini went on to announce that the Iranian “Muslim Nation”.
Outraged by the ettelaat article, a day later on January 1978 supporters of the Khomeini, mostly seminarians, rallied in the city of Qom and clashed with security forces. As many as six of the protestors were killed and more injured. The Qom riot in retrospect triggered a turning point in the calendar of the Islamic revolution, for it launched a whole year of rallies, strikes, and violence, resulting in a steady waning of states power in all major cities.
By January 18, Tabriz, then the second largest Iranian city was the sense of a violent two day uprising with much causality. The angry crowd burned down banks, government’s buildings, provisional headquarters of the Rastakhiz Party, cinemas and a Pepsi-Cola bottling facility. The government declared the marital law and this was the first time since the uprising of June 1963 that the marital law had been declared. Further unrest in Ahwaz, Yazd, and Isfahan turned the crisis national and gave it the appearance of ominous regularity.
In university rallies, where the left held the upper hand, varies of victory to peoples (khalq-ha) of Iran and an end to the “exploitation of the masses” were audible. The fastest growing political movement among youth, called for victory of the “disinherited of the earth” (mostaza fin- e arz) and establishment of a “classless” Islamic society. The organizing capabilities of the Islamic opposition were on display only three days later , on September 4, 1978, when more than two hundred thousand marchers in Tehran carried thousands of placards with Khomeini’s portrait and banners openly hostile to the regime. They rallied to Shahyad Square, soon to be renamed Freedom Square, crying out “death to the shah” and calling for “sovereignty, freedom, and Islamic government”.
The impact of the revolution
The Iranian revolution was a cataclysmic event that not only transformed Iran completely, but also had far-reaching consequences for the world. It caused a deep shift in Cold War and global geopolitics. The US not only lost a key strategic ally against the communist threat, but it also gained a new enemy. Emboldened by developments in Iran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. This was followed by the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980, designed to bring down the new Iranian theocratic regime. The US supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and training, helping him clinches his grip on power in Iraq.
Was the revolution a success?
- From the perspective of longevity, the revolution still stands. It has managed to survive four decades, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq war as well as decades of economic sanctions. Comparatively, the Taliban’s attempt at establishing an Islamic state only lasted five years.
- On the other hand, Khomeini and his supporters promised to end the gap between the rich and the poor, and deliver economic and social progress. Today, the Iranian economy is in poor shape, despite the oil revenues that holds back the economy from the brink of collapse. People are dissatisfied with high unemployment rates and hyper-inflation. They have little hope for the economic fortunes to turn.
- The most important premise of Islamism – making society more religious through political power – has also failed to produce the desired results. Even though 63% of Iranians were born after the revolution, they are no more religious than before the revolution.
- Although there is still significant support for the current regime, a significant proportion of Iranians wants more freedoms, and disdain religion being forced from above. There are growing protests demanding economic, social and political reforms as well as an end to the Islamic republic.
- Most Iranians blame the failures of the revolution on the never-ending US sanctions. Even though Iran trades with European powers, China and Russia, they believe the West does not want Iran to succeed at all costs.
- Hard social and political conditions and forces of time have an uncanny ability to test and smooth ideologies. While the struggle between secular and Islamic models for society continues in Iran and the greater Muslim world, it is likely that Iran will evolve as a moderate society in the 21st century.
Abbas Amanat, Iran: A modern history, published by Yale university press, new haven & London.
Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, published by Cambridge university press.