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The Iranian Revolution was the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from an autocratic pro-west monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic, theocratic democracy under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolution is divided into two stages: the first saw an alliance of liberal, leftist, and religious groups oust the Shah; the second stage, often named the Islamic Revolution, saw the ayatollahs come to power.
The Shah had been in power since 1941, with a brief interruption in 1953; through the 1960s and 1970s he faced continued opposition, from religious figures as well as from urban middle classes, who were not among the wealthy elite benefitting from the Shah's extravagance, and who supported a constitutional democracy. The Shah enforced a strict regime, imprisoning hundreds of political activists and enforcing censorship laws. While living conditions for most of the population were poor, there was little popular demand for constitutional reform.
In 1978 a series of protests, triggered by a libelous story attacking Khomeini in the official press, created an escalating cycle of violence until, on December 12, over two million people filled the streets of Azadi Square in Tehran to protest against the Shah. The army began to disintegrate as conscripts refused to fire on demonstrators and began to switch sides. The Shah agreed to introduce a more moderate constitution, but it was too late for compromise. The majority of the population was loyal to Khomeini, and when he called for a complete end to the monarchy the Shah was forced to flee the country on January 16 1979. Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, invited by the anti-Shah revolution already in progress, and rapidly displaced the more moderate elements, creating an Islamic Republic with Khomeini as Supreme Leader.
Precursors to the revolution
, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
, had been in power since 1941, with a brief interruption in 1953, but faced continued opposition.
Pahlavi was returned to power in Iran after he had fled the country in 1953. This was achieved by overthrowing the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh with the aid of a CIA covert operation, codenamed Operation Ajax. Pahlavi maintained good relations with the United States, but experienced conflict with traditional Iranian Muslim views on alcohol, gambling, and pre-marital sex, all of which he refused to ban. The regime was renowned for its corruption and its brutal practices that, in response, witnessed protests in Iran and elicited criticism from many parts of the global community.
Strong opposition arose in many sections of society during the Shah's reign. Of particular importance in this respect were the religious figures that had long grown to be an important voice of opposition in Iran. Since the 19th century Tobacco Protests, the Ulema had been steadily growing in political as well as religious influence. The dominant theology in Iran was one that closely linked religious and secular concerns with a strong history of social activism. These included opposition to government brutality and a commitment to fight poverty. This activism was matched by a strong conservatism toward the maintenance of Islamic values. As this opposition grew, the Shah struck hard on dissidents. In 1963, for example, he attacked theology students who tried to stop the opening of a liquor store.
Ayatollah Khomeini was a leader of the opposition, who claimed that the Shah's reign was a tyranny. Following the arrest of Khomeini, and his subsequent exile from Iran in 1964, rioting among the cleric's followers increased. Pahlavi frequently chose to answer the riots with violence, arresting and killing demonstrators. It is unknown how many lives were claimed in this campaign; the Pahlavi government claimed it to be 86, while Iranian exiles have estimated it in the thousands.
During 1963 and 1967, the Iranian economy grew considerably due to a rise in the value of oil and steel exports. Inflation accelerated at the same time, however, and the economic boom failed to better the lives of middle-class and poor Iranians. Instead, much of this wealth was siphoned off by the Shah and his allies into private reserves. The leaders in the Shah's regime, and those who acted as intermediaries with western companies, became extremely wealthy, indulging in conspicuous consumption that angered both those who were not sharing in the wealth and the Islamic leaders who questioned its morality. The government also began to spend vast amounts of public money in purchasing modern weapon systems, primarily from the United States.
Faced with growing opposition from the religious leaders, who were joined by small business leaders in 1975, the Shah launched a new effort to assert his control over Iranian society. This effort attempted to minimize the role of Islam in the life of the kingdom, lauding instead the achievements of pre-Islamic Persian civilization. Thus, in 1976, the solar Islamic calendar was abolished from public usage and replaced with a calendar dating from the rule of Cyrus the Great. Muslim and marxist publications were also heavily censored.
The Shah's reform is known as the King's or White Revolution. It also abolished the feudal system (causing consequences such as breaking up property owned by some Shia clergy - which reduced their income) and it gave suffrage to women (which was protested by the clergy as being a plot to "bring the women to the streets").
Pre-revolutionary conditions inside Iran
The poorest section of the Iranian population tended to be the most religious and the least westernized. The poor were largely rural or inhabited slums outside the large cities, especially the capital Tehran. They wanted the basic Islamic lifestyle to return, in opposition to the Shah's efforts for modernism and progress, which they believed to be westernization. They viewed the Shah's reforms as self-serving and his promise of providing "progress" to be false based on the increased gap between rich and poor. In addition many felt that much of the great wealth created by the oil industry was creating an increasing gap between the rich vs. the poor.
As the Iranian middle classes became more urbanised, educated, and exposed to Western values, many came to see the regime as being part of the problem. In addition in the years following his restoration in 1953 the Shah's position became increasingly perilous. This was due in large measure to his close ties to the West, unpopular reforms enacted during the White Revolution, internal corruption, and the despotic nature of his regime especially its secret police known as SAVAK.
In early 1970s as the price of oil continued its upward climb many became increasingly angered by the regime's cronyism, internal corruption, and repressive nature. The internal decadence is well illustrated by the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. These celebrations consisted of a three-day party held at the site of Persepolis in October, 1971 costing more than $300 million. The party included extravagances such as over a ton of caviar prepared by some of the two hundred chefs flown in from Paris. Meanwhile, many within Iran had insufficient food and shelter of their own.
In the 1970s, as the rise in global crude oil prices increased the gulf between rich and poor in Iran, the pressure for a change in government policies became more acute. Even pro-Western elements in Iran became disturbed by the increasingly autocratic style of government and increased use of the secret police. Many fled Iran before the Revolution, and others began to organize. At the same time a broader populist movement found its source of organization in mosques, and in sermons that denounced the wickedness of the West and Western indulgences. The collision between a young and growing population and a social structure which offered neither advancement in a modern state nor the stability of a traditional society, created the conditions which were ripe for revolution.
In 1977, following human rights pressure from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (who threatened to cut arms shipments), more than 300 political prisoners were released, censorship was relaxed, and the court system reformed. This loosening of restrictions led to more campaigns from the opposition where writers campaigned for freedom of thought, and people began to demonstrate.
This early opposition was lead by Mehdi Bazargan and his Freedom Movement of Iran . It was a liberal secularist group that was closely linked to Massadegh's movement of the 1950s. This group saw significant support in Iran and abroad in the West.
More radical was Ali Shari'ati who combined Marxism and Shia orthodoxy in a revolutionary movement inspired by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions . His alleged murder in London in 1977, which was blamed on SAVAK agents, greatly inflamed tensions.
The Ulema were divided, some allying with the liberal secularists and others with the Marxists. Khomeini, who was in exile in Iraq, led a small faction that advocated the overthrow of the regime and the creation of a theocratic state. In late 1977, Khomeini's son Mostafa was found dead of unknown reasons; again the Shah security forces were blamed.
The various anti-establishment groups operated from outside Iran, mostly in London, Paris, Iraq, and Turkey. Speeches by the leaders of these groups were placed on audio cassettes to be smuggled into Iran. The speeches could then be listened to by the largely illiterate population.
During the period up to 1978, the opposition to the Shah mostly came from the urban middle class, a section of the population that was fairly secular and would support a constitutional monarchy. It was the Islamic groups that first managed to rally the great mass of the population against the Shah.
In January of 1978 the official press ran a libelous story attacking Khomeini. Angry students and religious leaders protested against the allegations in the city of Qom. The army was sent in dispersing the demonstrations and killing several students.
According the Shi'ite customs, forty days after a person's death memorial services are held. In mosques across the nation, calls were made to honour the dead students. Thus on February 18 groups in a number of cities marched to honour the fallen and to protest against the rule of the Shah. This time violence erupted in Tabriz and over a hundred demonstrators were killed. The cycle repeated itself and on March 29 a new round of protests began across the nation. Luxury hotels, theaters showing "unethical movies", and other symbols of the Shah regime were destroyed; again security forces intervened, killing many. On May 10 the same occurred.
The damage from the demonstrations, along with rampant inflation, further ravaged the Iranian economy. As a result, in the summer of 1978 the government introduced austerity measures that saw many public works projects shut down and wage freezes imposed. These measures created widespread unemployment and labour unrest, mostly among the poor labourers living in the slums around Tehran and other major cities. Increasingly, the working class joined the students and middle class in the protests against the regime.
Overthrow of the Shah
By September the nation was rapidly destabilizing with major protests becoming a regular occurrence. The Shah introduced martial law and banned all demonstrations. On Friday, September 8 a massive protest broke out in Tehran, and in what became known as Black Friday the regime used the full force of its weaponry to crush the protests. Tanks, helicopter gun ships, and machine guns killed hundreds.
Black Friday succeeded in alienating much of the rest of the Iranian people, as well as the Shah's allies abroad. A general strike in October resulted in the collapse of the economy, with most industries being shut down.
The protests of 1978 culminated in December during the holy month of Muharram, one of the most important months for Shia Muslims. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed each day, yet each day the protests grew. On December 12 over two million people filled the streets of Tehran to protest against the Shah.
The army began to disintegrate as conscripts refused to fire on demonstrators and began to switch sides. Some soldiers turned on superior officers, killing them, and took over military bases.
The Shah agreed to introduce a constitution and appoint the moderate Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister, but it was too late for compromise. The majority of the population was loyal to Khomeini, and when he called for a complete end to the monarchy the Shah was forced to flee the country on January 16, 1979. Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, invited by the anti-Shah revolution already in progress.
Khomeini takes power
There was great jubilation in Iran at the ousting of the Shah, but there was also much disagreement over Iran's future path. While Khomeini was the most popular political figure, there were dozens of revolutionary groups, each with a differing view of the proper direction of Iran's future. There were strong liberal, secularist, Marxist, and anarchist factions, as well as a wide array of religious groups looking to craft the future of Iran.
The military, economy, and foreign relations of the nation all were in turmoil. The early years saw the development of a government with two centres of power. Bazargan became Prime Minister, and the Freedom Movement worked to establish a liberal secular government. The clerics led by Khomeini formed a separate centre of power, the Islamic Republic party . The groups tried to cooperate, but tensions grew between the two factions.
It was the theologians who were the first to bring order to the nation, as revolutionary cells became local committees. Becoming known as the Revolutionary Guards in May 1979, these groups soon were running local governments across Iran and wielding most local power. They also gained control of the judicial tribunals that were passing judgment on the former officials in the Shah security services and the military.
In June, the Freedom Movement released its draft constitution; it referred to Iran as an Islamic Republic, but gave no official role to the Ulema or Islamic law. The constitution was sent to the newly elected legislature for review, dominated by allies of Khomeini. The chamber rejected the constitution agreeing with Khomeini that the new government should be based "1000% on Islam."
A new constitution was made that created a powerful post of Supreme Leader for Khomeini, which would control the military and security services and could veto candidates running for office. A president was to be elected every four years, but only those candidates approved indirectly by the Supreme Leader (through a Council of Guardians) were permitted to run for the office. Khomeini himself became Head of State for life, as "Leader of the Revolution", and later "Supreme Spiritual Leader". Feeling powerless and disagreeing with the direction the nation was moving, Bazargan resigned as Prime Minister in November.
Opposition to the revolution
That same month saw anger at the United States, which continued to support the Shah and was blamed for encouraging counter-revolutionary activity. That feeling peaked as youthful supporters of Khomeini took a number of hostages at the American embassy in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis. The students responsible would blame it on the United States for accepting the Shah in to the country for cancer treatments, but the message was clear; they could defy the U.S.
Opposition by neighboring regimes
The leaders of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were also distressed by the Iranian revolution and feared similar events in their own nations. Thus, in 1980, Iraq, with financial support from the other nations and the backing of the United States, invaded Iran in an attempt to destroy the revolution in its infancy. This began the eight year Iran-Iraq War that would see a huge cost in lives and resources.
The invasion by Iraq helped rally the people of Iran behind the new regime and past differences were largely abandoned in the face of the external threat. In the same year the new constitution was passed in a referendum by a large majority. For those who did remain opposed to the new regime, mostly the Soviet-backed leftist groups, the war became an excuse for harsh treatment that saw the new regime use torture and illegal imprisonments just as the Shah had.
While Iraq was, in the end, unsuccessful at defeating the revolution, the Islamic revolution failed to spread beyond the borders of Iran. The significant Shi'ite populations of Iraq and the Gulf States did not embrace the new model. Rather it was the very different Sunni Muslim strain of radical Islam that became an important force in the region leading to the creation of the hostile Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The one area where Iranian influence was extended was into the Lebanese Civil War where Hezbollah became closely allied with the Iranians, fighting first the Iraqi and Syrian factions in Lebanon and later the Israelis. This support for a group regarded as terrorists by much of the world, especially the United States, further ostracized Iran from the world community. Since the end of the civil war Hezbollah has developed a significant domestic base and is no longer reliant on support from Iran, but relations between the two remain close.
Exile of previous regime
Upon the ascension of the new Shi'ite regime, scores of the Shah's secret police, the SAVAK, and other supporters of the Shah were executed (most importantly by Sadegh Khalkhali, the Sharia ruler). The Shah himself found political asylum in Egypt under Anwar Sadat (a move that further alienated Sadat from his Islamic counterpart nations). The Shah, already terminally ill with cancer, died in Cairo on July 27, 1980.
In the long run the revolution did result in a lessening of foreign influence, which had tended to be imperialistic. The distribution of wealth also became far more equitable.
However, despite a fair degree of democracy in the post-revolutionary political structure (see politics of Iran for more depth), the violation of human rights during theocratic regime have been of a similar level of brutality as during the monarchy. Torture, the imprisoning of dissidents, and the murder of prominent critics is common place. The oppression of women and religious minorities, particularly the members of the Bahá'í Faith, has been common since the revolution as their faith has been declared heretical. More than 200 Bahá'ís have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses, and educational opportunities. All national Bahá'í administrative structures have been banned by the government, and holy places, shrines and cemeteries have been confiscated, vandalized, or destroyed.
The revolution also left Iran isolated internationally, outcast from both the capitalist and communist worlds with significant trade sanctions that continue to this day (by the United States).
On the other hand, the revolution also had the impact of allowing internal evolution of the political system rather than evolution imposed by external pressures. For example, in 1997, reformist president Mohammad Khatami was elected, and the relatively high level (for the region) of internet penetration (as of 2004, Iran had about 5 million internet users - , see also Iranian blogs) makes it difficult to stop this continued internal evolution of political thought and organisation.
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Last updated: 05-15-2005 22:14:07