Iranian Revolution of 1979

Ali Ansari
War & Peace: The Middle East in Transition

In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini ousted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who succeeded his father as Shah of Iran in the early 1950’s. Reza Shah, the elder Pahlavi, came to power during the 1920’s after promoting the idea of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy (Mohammadi 38). As the first Pahlavi monarch, Reza Shah determined to modernize and centralize the operations of Iran. Using a Western model of industrial development, he quickly instigated a system of political dictatorship by using his own magnetic authority and leadership of the army. In addition, Reza Shah banned political parties, suppressed revolts, formed a police force, and curtailed the power of the clergy (Mohammadi 49). In the late 1940’s, political opposition to the Shah arose under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, an outspoken individual who strived to limit the powers of the monarch (Mohammadi 56). At this time Mohammad Reza Pahlavi began to position himself to assume his father’s throne. When Mossadeq demanded control of the war ministry in July of 1952, a series of violent demonstrations erupted. During this period of unrest, a parliamentary crisis resulted in a vote to dissolve Parliament on August 2, 1953 (Mohammadi 57). Fearing the spread of communist influence in Asia, President Eisenhower stressed U.S. readiness to oppose Soviet expansion in Iran. During the ensuing weeks, a CIA-sponsored coup culminated in the arrest of Mossadeq and the reinstatement of the Shah, who had fled to Rome in exile. The return of Mohammad Reza Shah marked the beginning of the reign of the second Pahlavi monarch (Mohammadi 58).

After his reinstatement, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi enacted martial law that continued through 1953. Basing his policies on the same theories held by his father, the Shah established a monarchial dictatorship designed to facilitate Westernization. As a result, he centralized the beaurocracy to ensure rapid capitalist development. Like his father before him, the Shah strictly controlled the press and monitored all political opposition (Mohammadi 59). However, during the early 1960’s, the Kennedy administration began to exert pressure on Iran and other Third World governments to begin reform programs, especially with regards to land. Under pressure from the United States, the Shah developed a six-point program that became known as the "White Revolution." The program included wide-ranging policies such as the sale of state-owned factories, the nationalization of forests, and other programs designed to maintain US-Iran relations (Mohammadi 64). Despite stated goals of land reform, the Shah’s government did not make agriculture and rural development a high priority. As a result, the landless peasant class began migrating to urban areas (Mohammadi 65). In 1975, the Shah shifted all political activity into one party, the National Resurgence Party, in an attempt to provide the country with stronger political leadership (Mohammadi 69). Leading his people toward the "Great Civilization," the Shah established himself as the Farmandar, the Great Commander. To give credibility to the new one-party system, the Shah used a nationally televised address to call for elections (Mohammadi 70). While many people labeled the Shah’s policies as oppressive, others noted the stark contrast to the governments of Iraq and South Yemen. Politically active Iranians under the Shah’s regime enjoyed many freedoms that included practicing the religion of their choice, engaging in trade and industry, travelling and studying abroad, and living "according to their individual preferences" (Looney 2).

Although the 1950’s proved unfavorable for individual political expression in Iran, the era characterized itself as one of incredible economic growth. As a result of oil revenues, the gross national product grew seven to eight percent. With the influx of government monies, the economic outlook remained expansionary as capitalists promoted an atmosphere of competition. The surplus of income from increasing oil prices allowed the Shah to accelerate the modernization of his country (Stempel 8). The process of industrialization, started in the late 1950’s, reduced Iran’s dependence on the export of primary products and increased the rate of economic growth. For example, in 1953, oil revenues amounted to 34 million dollars. By 1963, they had risen to 555 million and to 19 billion dollars by 1975. Oil revenues, along with foreign investment, enabled the government to diversify the economy by expanding a wide variety of industries including energy, steel, petrochemicals, machine tools, and rubber (Mohammadi 60). According to John D. Stempel, "The frenzied economic development policy from 1974 to 1978 had a certain rationale. In addition to improving the standard of living, the Shah felt his country had to build up its armed forces in order to protect Iran’s oil shipping lines . . ." (8). In order to guard Iranian interests, the Shah named Houshang Ansari, the new minister of finance, to a three-person arms-purchasing commission entrusted with a fifteen billion dollar budget (Farmanfarmaian 430).

Like the majority in Iran, the Shah followed the teachings of Islam. As the head of his country, he exerted great influence in the arena of religion. During the Shah’s reign, religious leaders disagreed with his interpretation of the Koran. However, the Shah continued to emphasize his position as a deeply religious man while speaking out against the clergy’s exploitation of Iranian superstition and ignorance. Opposing the mass fanaticism used by the clergy to further their own political goals, the Shah maintained that some religious leaders pursued power for themselves and, in the process, moved the country away from progress. As a result, the Shah affirmed his belief in the separation of clergy, monarchy, and national will as described in the country’s constitution

(Naraghi 7).

When Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran to begin his revolutionary movement, he was returning from a fourteen-year exile. After Khomeini led a campaign against many of the Shah’s reform programs, government officials arrested him and forced him to leave Iran. Having first settled in Turkey, Khomeini then moved to the Shiite holy city of Najef, Iraq. Iranians visiting the holy places of Najaf returned home with tapes of Khomeini’s sermons. Although the ideas presented in the tapes posed direct opposition to the Shah’s authority, the imperial government in Teheran did not consider Khomeini a revolutionary threat as long as he remained in Najaf (Simpson 15). Khomeini’s teachings included a belief in rule by eminent Shiite Islamic figures. In addition, Khomeini believed that any individual who possessed the qualities of a religious ruler could lead his people. Although he deliberately obscured many of his basic philosophies in public speeches, Khomeini, from the beginning, sought to destroy the Pahlavi regime. In order to achieve his goal, Khomeini emphasized the need for clerical control over secular power (Stempel 47). According to his taped sermons, Khomeini insisted that "government derives its legitimacy from God, and proper government requires a radical Islamic reconstruction of society" (Stempel 47). Thus, Khomeini’s religious principles involved radical reinterpretation of Islamic social standards dating back 1,300 years. Asserting himself as Allah’s own spokesman, the Ayatollah achieved authority from his belief that he embodied ideal Islamic principles (Stempel 48).

Demographic changes in Iran furthered Khomeini’s cause during the late 1970’s. After a period of rapid urbanization, the Shah’s government did little to provide support for urban migrants who looked to the clergy for financial and moral support. In addition, the modernization of Iran produced a climate of social upheaval, which increased the turmoil in the country. As a result, migrants who faced incredible change began to turn to religion for a foundation of familiarity and identity. Furthermore, during the 1970’s, the age structure of the country began to shift so that by the middle of the decade twothirds of the population ranged from birth to thirty years of age. The youthful populace had grown up as products of the television era and the economic boom, emerging as a people of greater exposure to outside ideas (Mohammadi 73). Within this group the language of religion, previously considered old-fashioned, surfaced as a new source of inspiration with the promise of justice and equality (Naraghi 7). According to John D. Stempel, "Such an ideology is particularly challenging to a regime like the Shah’s, criticized for its authoritarianism, corruption, and brutality" (47). Thus, the widespread cultural dissatisfaction, coupled with the introduction of radical religious ideas, provided the foundation for increased Iranian political activity (Mohammadi 76).

Although Khomeini’s movement began as a religious one, the economic, social, and cultural changes that occurred within Iran ultimately contributed to the breakdown of the Pahlavi political system and eventually to the destruction of the monarchy (Stempel 8). Situated in the heart of the Middle East, Iran has always existed as "a cultural crossroads between East and West" (Mohammadi 43). From the early Qajar period of the mid-1700’s, Western influence has had a profound impact on the country. During the modernization era, foreign countries vied for control of resources and trade in Iran (Mohammadi 43). For many Iranians the concept of modernization became associated with Westernization, and a growing number of groups began to resent the "increasing foreignness of the general environment" (Mohammadi 71). In addition, the expansion of industry fostered the development of a more defined middle class and urban working class (Mohammadi 73). Members of these two emerging classes did not realize as many benefits as the upper class from the rapid economic growth. As the process of Westernization exposed Iranians to the concept of dissatisfaction with the government, these groups had no viable means of expressing their grievances within the system; consequently, the "gulf between the government and the social structure widened" (Mohammadi 75). Other factors contributed to widespread discontent within Iran during the 1970’s. Transportation problems, energy shortages, unchecked inflation, sky-rocketing housing costs, government waste and corruption, and budget deficits shook the core of the Shah’s progressive policies. Although the monarchy emphasized "trickle down economics," promising a future of shared wealth, many of the Shah’s subjects began to blame his policies (Mohammadi 75). During this period of widespread dissatisfaction, Khomeini began to move from religious leader to political leader. As an agitator he stirred the young and fanatical members of the clergy to oppose the monarchy and rebel against Westernization. To further his goals, Khomeini used religion to de-stabilize the Shah’s government (Naraghi 10). Ehsan Naraghi describes the new political outlook encouraged by Khomeini:

When religion seeps into every aspect of political life, the society moves toward a kind of puritanism and citizens become very demanding of the people governing them. They expect them to be guardians of the faith, to be saints. In the face of these demands the political class must adopt a new life-style and avoid ostentatious luxuries. Its actions and demeanor will be subjected to public scrutiny. (13)

While the economic and cultural gap between the elite and the members of the lower classes widened, the Shah failed to acknowledge that Iran was moving toward "a revolutionary explosion" (Naraghi 14). As tensions mounted, young people and others dissatisfied with the Shah’s regime began to completely accept Khomeini’s authority (Naraghi 37).

The final stages of the revolutionary process began in October of 1978 when Khomeini moved from Najaf, Iraq to a small village near Paris. Along with his hand-picked associates, Khomeini constructed a well-orchestrated media campaign. During this period Khomeini met with leading opposition politicians such as Karim Sanjabi of the National Front and Mehdi Bazargan of the Liberation Movement. At the same time, Khomeini continued to oppose the Pahlavi dynasty by refusing to meet with the Shah and persisting with demands for the monarch’s removal (Stempel 48). A series of demonstrations in Tabriz, Teheran, and Isfahan turned the social unrest into political chaos. After several students died during one strike, the Shah sent troops in an effort to stabilize the agitation. Under pressure from Western countries, the Shah promised more reforms; however, the populace expected immediate change that the government could not provide. Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian describe the widespread sense of alienation felt by the people of Iran:

There was genuine indignation at the excesses of capitalism, and neither the Shah, the law, nor the elite was capable of plumbing the culture for the necessary moral guidance. To the Iranian people the Great Civilization was turning out to be an affront to their dignity as the influx of foreign expertise clashed humiliatingly with the old ways of doing things. The common man was lost, and the country began to veer . . . between the Shah’s increasingly unsteady authoritarianism and the promise of a more spiritual life proposed by the clergy. (441)

Tensions continued to mount until August of 1978 when a crisis ushered in revolution.

Political and social unrest reached its height when the Rex Cinema in Abadan burned with 400 people trapped inside. As grief and horror swept through the population, Iranians cried out for an explanation, and revolutionary leaders used the catastrophe as a turning point for their movement. Mourners and other angry citizens began to riot in Abadan. Many people hoped that the Shah would make a personal visit to the area, but he remained in Teheran (Farmanfarmaian 481). On September 4, the end of Ramadan coincided with massive demonstrations in which crowds called for "the expulsion of the United States from Iran and a return to more religious principles" (Farmanfarmaian 443).

On September 7, the Shah imposed martial law on the country and banned all unauthorized meetings. However, on September 8, members of Tehran’s working class and university students gathered at Jaleh Square. When security officers opened fire, more than a hundred people died, and as many as 400 suffered injuries. This incident, known as "Black Friday," became the beginning of the Revolution (Farmanfarmaian 443). By November, the Shah had appointed General Azhari, the army chief of staff, as head of the military government. Nevertheless, his appointments could not satisfy the revolutionaries who attacked banks, theaters, and hotels, setting parts of the city on fire. Furthermore, when workers at the Abadan Refinery went on strike, oil production dropped to 150,000 barrells a day, a quarter of the normal output (Farmanfarmaian 447). During the erupting chaos, Khomeini, situated in Paris, issued statements in which his goal of becoming the only leader of the Revolution became clear. Claiming a Revolution for Islam, Khomeini vowed to make no concessions. On December 6, 1978, President Jimmy Carter made a public statement in which he expressed his uncertainty concerning the Shah’s ability to maintain the throne. Considering Carter’s statement as the final betrayal, the Shah believed that he had lost the support of the West

(Farmanfarmaian 451).

In the remaining days of 1978, the Shah remained secluded in his palace, unable to decide whether to stay in Iran or to flee. King Hussein of Jordan, a close of ally of the Shah’s, tried to advise the monarch. Hoping to boost the Shah’s confidence, Hussein told the Shah to speak to the people, assuring him that his presence would appease the crowd. However, the Shah never made a public apperance. During his seclusion, Khomeini used radio addresses to convey the message that he would not leave France for Iran until the Shah had fled. In addition, Khomeini told the people that his "homecoming would signal the beginning of a new era, . . . one in which he would act as the nation’s spiritual leader" (Farmanfarmaian 452). On January 16, 1979, with his family and several devoted servants, the Shah left Iran for Egypt, bringing the Pahlavi era of rule to an end (Abdelnasser 197).

When Khomeini arrived in Iran, millions of supporters greeted him. Farmanfarmaian describes Khomeini’s reception in Teheran:

Khomeini came like a dragon, evaporating everything that lay before him. He had achieved the miraculous – he had ousted the monarchy – and his triumph was boundless. . . . The crowds reached out to touch him, hoping to catch a glimpse of this man of God who had done the impossible and brought them freedom. (454)

Initially, Khomeini made few changes other than lifting the curfew that the Shah had imposed during the last months of his reign. Meanwhile, chaos continued to erupt in the streets of Tehran. On February 11, 1980, Khomeini issued his final blow on the old regime. His forces attacked the Imperial Guard, signaling the triumph of the Islamic Revolution (Farmanfarmaian 454).

The exile of the royal family and the imprisonment of those who remained provided the opportunity for Khomeini to assume control of governmental institutions and to implement his programs (Hooglund 58). Immediately, Khomeini set up Bolshevik-style revolutionary committees that initiated acts of cruelty against political enemies. Establishing himself as head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khomeini ruled by the principle of "government of the expert" (Halm 138). His lieutenants, assuming free reign, began executing hundreds of citizens including members of Parliament, bankers, government employees, and land owners. The executions, often occurring in the streets, became a commonplace event. Khali, one of Khomeini’s ministers, carried the Koran with him as he condemned anyone who caught his eye to immediate death in the streets (Farmanfarmaian 455). Working with the Revolutionary Council, a group of powerful Ayatollah’s, Khomeini established the Pasdaran, a new security force that helped Khomeini carry out his rule of terror. According to Farmanfarmaian, Khomeini used religion to achieve his purposes:

His conviction was fanatic and sincere. He crushed all argument and imposed his views by refusing to compromise. Religion, as Khomeini interpreted it, was transferred into a political doctrine the likes of which neither Iran nor any other Islamic country had ever known. For Khomeini Islam was democracy. (456)

As a result, Khomeini justified mock trials and mass executions by asserting that Islam had no need to adhere to corrupt secular laws. As he condemned those who refused to follow him as deserters of the regime and the religion, Khomeini ordered members of the opposition shot, property seized, civic laws overturned, alcohol banned, and new dress codes imposed. Khomeini issued all of his orders in the name of Islam

(Farmanfarmaian 457).

Khomeini’s revolution transformed every aspect of Iranian society. The people began to express intolerance toward everything associated with the Shah’s regime, even the positive elements. Khomeini reinforced this intolerance by reversing all laws passed by the Shah’s administration. After Khomeini’s forces had eliminated their enemies, the government turned on many supporters whom it deemed less fanatic or less religious than the committed followers (Farmanfarmaian 458).

As the chaos continued, Khomeini emerged as the only clear winner. Day after day pictures and posters proclaiming his deity filled the streets of Iran. In addition, radio broadcasts proclaimed his wisdom, judgment, and grace. Included in Khomeini’s message, new calls urged the people to consider the history of Iran as darkness and the future as light. While the people began to call Khomeini "Imam", or prophet, "Iran was gripped by a fever—a madness—that grew more acute with every passing day" (Farmanfarmaian 466). Fortunately, Khomeini died at the beginning of the ‘90’s and Iran began to change its political stance with the coming of a hopefully more moderate President, Mohammad Khatami.

President Khatami was elected President of Iran on August 4, 1997 in hope of gaining freedom for the people of Iran, which have been under the control of the Hizbola’s. The Hizbola’s are the religious clergy in Iran that have had total dominance over the country since the coup of the Shah. Led by Kameini, the Hizbola’s are fierce and will seek to destroy anybody in opposition to their regime. In order to stop the Hizbola’s from taking over the Presidency, the people voted Khatami as President of Iran mainly because he was opposed to a majority of Kameini’s regime. Khatami was considered as a religious moderate. In hope of reuniting ties with the United States, Khatami plans to slowly decrease the power of the Hizbola’s. Even though Khatami has the most powerful social role in Iran, the power belongs to the Hizbola’s. In today’s society, the Hizbola’s monitor and make major decisions for Khatami, because they have the power of the military which Khatami has no affiliation or control over. In one of Khatami’s famous speeches on inaugural day he declares his belief:

The destiny of the religion’s social prestige today and tomorrow will depend on our interpretation of the religion in a manner, which would not contradict freedom. Whenever in history a religion has faced freedom, it has been the religion, which has sustained damage. Even if justice has contradicted freedom, justice has suffered and when progress and construction have curtailed freedom, they have been undermined (Farmanfarmian 36).

In this quote, Khatami’s destiny is clear, and he will not surrender to the fanaticism of the Hizbola’s. Khatami is committed to forming the ties with the United States and will do everything necessary to bring back the country the way the Shah of Iran had left it before he was dethroned.

Since the late 1970’s, Iran’s leadership has experienced major problems with the people of the country, as well as the United States; yet with Khatami as Iran’s leader the future looks very prosperous.





Works Cited


Abdelnassar, Walid M. "Islamic Organizations in Egypt and the Iranian Revolution of

1979: The Experience of the First Few Years." Arab Studies Quarterly 22 Mar. 1997: 197-202.

Farmanfarmaian, Manucher, and Roxane Farmanfarmaian. Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a

Persian Prince. New York: Random, 1997.

Halm, Heinz. Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Trans. Allison Brown.

Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1997.

Hooglund, Eric. The Society and Its Environment: Countries of the World. New York:

Bureau, 1991.

Looney, Robert E. Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution. New York: Pergamon,


Mohammadi, Ali, and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi. Small Media, Big Revolution:

Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Naraghi, Ehsan. From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution. Chicago: Dee,


Simpson, John. Inside Iran: Life Under Khomeini’s Regime. New York: St. Martin’s,


Stempel, John D. Inside the Iranian Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1981.

Top Back Home