Iranian Revolution

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Image:IranianRevolution1.jpg The Iranian Revolution was the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a pro-western constitutional monarchy, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to an Islamic, populist theocratic republic under the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution has been divided into two stages: the first stage saw an alliance of liberal, leftist, and religious groups oust the Shah; the second stage, often named the Islamic Revolution, saw the Ayatollah's rise 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, many of which supported a constitutional democracy with fewer powers resting with the Shah. The Shah enforced a strict regime, imprisoning hundreds of political activists, and enforcing censorship laws. At the same time, however, living conditions for the people improved significantly, and many basic human and democratic rights were established (e.g. extending suffrage to women), which were fiercely opposed by the islamic fundamentalists opposing the Shah. The Shah was denounced by many for being a puppet of the United States.

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, an estimated two million people filled the streets of Azadi Square (Then Shahyad 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. On January 16, 1979 the Shah and the empress left Iran on demands of prime minister Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar (a long time opposition leader himself), who sought to calm down the situation. He dissolved SAVAK and freed all political prisoners, allowed Khomeini to return to Iran after years of exile, asking him to create a Vatican-like state in Qom and called upon the opposition to help preserve the constitution, promising free elections. Khomeini rejected Dr. Bakhtiar's demands fiercely and appointed an interim government on his own. Shortly after, with the military announcing their impartiality in the conflict, the overthrow of monarchy was completed at the hands of the revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.


Precursors to the revolution

Template:Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was returned to power in Iran after he had fled the country in 1953. This was achieved by overthrowing the government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh with the aid of a joint CIA and MI6 covert operation, codenamed Operation Ajax. Pahlavi maintained good relations with the United States, but his government came to be criticized for its political corruption and the brutal practices of SAVAK that, in response, witnessed protests in Iran and elicited condemnation from many parts of the international 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 clergy had been steadily growing in political as well as religious influence. 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 one of the leaders of the religious 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. The Shah 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, as well as steel exports. Inflation accelerated at the same time, however.

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 empire, lauding instead the achievements of pre-Islamic Persian civilization. Thus, in 1976, the beginning of the Iranian solar calendar was changed from the Islamic date to the ascension to throne by Cyrus the Great. Muslim and Marxist publications were also heavily censored.

The Shah's program of reforms was known as the 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 disrupt the nuclear family unit).

Pre-revolutionary conditions inside Iran

Image:Mohammadreza Shah.jpg The poorest section of the Iranian population tended to be the most religious and the most opposed to perceived foreign imperialism. The poor were largely rural, or inhabited slums outside the large cities, especially the capital Tehran. Many of them wanted the basic Shi'a Islamic lifestyle to return, in opposition to the Shah's efforts for modernism and progress, which they believed to be imperialism. They viewed the Shah's reforms as self-serving and his promise of providing "progress" to be false, based upon the massive gap between the rich and poor.

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, unsuccessful reforms enacted during the White Revolution, internal corruption, and the despotic nature of his government, especially its secret police known as SAVAK.

In the early 1970's, 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, to which only foreign dignitaries had been invited to attend. Officially, the celebrations cost $40 million, but unofficial estimates were more in the range of $100-120 million.Template:Ref 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.

Early protests

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. Also, the policy of land reform which the Shah implemented, and had also been caused by pressure from the Carter administration, infuriated the mullahs (who declared a holy war against the Shah), and contributed to the Shah's problems.

This early opposition was led by Mehdi Bazargan and his Freedom Movement of Iran. It was a liberal, secularist group that was closely linked to Massadegh's National Front. This group saw significant support in Iran and abroad in the West.

More revolutionary was Ali Shariati, a popular and well respected teacher and philosopher who sought to achieve social justice and democracy through a modern interpretation of Islam. Prior to the rise of Khomeini, Shariati was the most prominent and outspoken leader of the opposition. His murder in London in 1977 greatly inflamed tensions. As a result, Khomeini eventually became the primary figurehead of the Revolution.

The clergy were divided, some allying with the liberal secularists, and others with the Marxists and Communists. 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; Khomeini himself blamed the Shah's secret police.

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.

United States

Image:The Shah with Atherton, Sullivan, Vance, Carter and Brzezinski, 1977.jpg

Facing a revolution, the Shah of Iran sought help from the United States. Iran occupied a strategic place in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, acting as an island of stability, and a buffer against Soviet penetration into the region. He was pro-American, but domestically oppressive. The U.S. ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, recalls that the U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski “repeatedly assured Pahlavi that the U.S. backed him fully," however these reassurances would not amount to substantive action on the part of the United States. On November 4th, 1978, Brzezinski called the Shah to tell him that the United States would "back him to the hilt." At the same time, certain high-level officials in the State Department decided that the Shah had to go, regardless of who replaced him. Brzezinski, and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger (former Secretary of Defense under Ford), continued to advocate that the U.S. support the Shah militarily. Even in the final days of the revolution, when the Shah was considered doomed no matter what the outcome of the revolution came to be, Brzezinski still advocated a U.S. invasion to stabilize Iran. President Carter could not decide how to appropriately use force, opposed a U.S. coup, ordered the Constellation aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean, but soon countermanded his order. A deal was worked out with the Iranian generals to shift support to a moderate government, but this plan fell apart when Khomeini and his followers swept the country, taking power 12 February 1979.

Escalating protests

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 to 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 the 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.

On January 16, 1979 the Shah and the empress left Iran on demands of prime minister Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar (a long time opposition leader himself), who sought to calm down the situation. He dissolved SAVAK and freed all political prisoners, allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran after years of exile, asking him to create a Vatican-like state in Qom and called upon the opposition to help preserve the constitution, promising free elections. Ayatollah Khomeini rejected Dr. Bakhtiar's demands fiercely and appointed an interim government on his own. Shortly after, with the military announcing their impartiality in the conflict, the overthrow of monarchy was completed at the hands of the revolutionaries led by the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini takes power

Image:Khomeini.jpg 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, economic, and foreign relations of the nation all were in turmoil. The early years saw the development of a government with two centres of power. Mehdi 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 Republican 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 of the local power. They also gained control of the judicial tribunals that were passing judgment on the former officials in the Shah's 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 "100% on Islam."

A new constitution was made that created a powerful post of Supreme Leader for Khomeini, who 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

Western/U.S.-Iranian relations

Anger began to build against the United States for accepting the Shah into the country for cancer treatments. In response youthful supporters of Khomeini took a number of hostages at the American embassy, in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis.

Failed Nojeh Coup

In July 1980, the U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski met Jordan's King Hussein in Amman to discuss detailed plans for Saddam Hussein to sponsor a coup in Iran against Khomeini. King Hussein was Saddam's closest confidant in the Arab world, and served as an intermediary during the planning. The Iraqi invasion of Iran would be launched under the pretext of a call for aid from Iranian loyalist officers plotting their own uprising on July 9, 1980 (codenamed Nojeh, after Shahrokhi/Nojeh air base in Hamedan). The Iranian officers were organized by Shapour Bakhtiar, who had fled to France when Khomeini seized power, but was operating from Baghdad and Sulimaniyah at the time of Brzezinski's meeting with Hussein. However, Khomeini learned of the Nojeh Coup plan from Soviet agents in France,Pakistan, and Latin America. Shortly after Brzezinski's meeting with Hussein, the President of Iran, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr quietly rounded up six hundred officers and executed many of them, putting an effective end to the Nojeh Coup [1]. Saddam would decide to invade without the Iranian officer's assistance, beginning the Iran-Iraq war on 22 September 1980.

Opposition by neighboring regimes

The leaders of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf States were also distressed by the Iranian revolution, as a Shi'a minority exists among their nations (except in Iraq and Bahrain where Shi'a are the majority) and it would stir a civil war. Also Iran called for social justice in the Middle East and an end to corrupt rule in the region and the world. Great support was given to South Africa's Black population, the Developing nations of Africa, Cuba, and the PLO by Iran's new governments. Iran declared that it was not East or West and opposed both American and Soviet policies to master the world. The emergence of a radical Shia dominated theocracy scared many of its Sunni Arab neighbors. Thus, in 1980, Iraq, with financial support from the rulers of the majority of Arab 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.

Iran was much stronger and organised than Saddam Hussein had thought. The invasion by Iraq helped rally Iranians 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. Thus the war partially fulfilled its goals and instead of the revolution spreading to other nations it was only maintained within Iran. The significant Shi'ite populations of Iraq and the Gulf States did not embrace the new model even though they sympathised with the system.

The one area where Iranian influence was extended was into the Lebanese Civil War, where Hezbollah became closely allied with the Iranians, fighting Sunni and Christian factions in Lebanon, and later the Israelis. This support for a group regarded as terrorists by much of the world 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 thousands of other supporters of the Shah and members of the civil and military elite were executed (most importantly by Sadegh Khalkhali, the Sharia ruler). Among those executed - practically without trial - was Amir Abbas Hoveida, former Prime Minister of Iran. Another former Prime Minister, Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar, was assassinated in Paris, 1991, after a previous failed attempt on his life. The Shah himself found political asylum in Egypt under Anwar Sadat. The Shah, already terminally ill with cancer, died in Cairo on July 27, 1980.

Post-revolutionary impact

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 violations of human rights during the 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 commonplace. The oppression of women has been common since the revolution. So has the oppression of religious minorities, particularly the members of the Bahá'í Faith, which 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. In March 2006, a United Nations report informed the world that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has instructed a number of government agencies, including the revolutionary guard and the police force, to 'collect any and all information about members of the Bahá'í Faith'. — [2]

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 2005, Iran had about 7.5 million internet users — [3], see also Iranian blogs) makes it difficult to stop this continued internal evolution of political thought and organisation.

See also

Further reading

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  • Template:Cite book (Chapter 6: Iran: Revolutionary Fundamentalism in Power.)
  • Kapuscinski, Ryszard. Shah of Shahs. Translated from the Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand. New York: Vintage International, 1992.
  • Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Habib Ladjevardi (editor), Memoirs of Shapour Bakhtiar, Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Legum, Colin, et al., eds. Middle East Contemporary Survey: Volume III, 1978-79. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1980.
  • Abbas Milani, The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution, Mage Publishers, 2000, ISBN 0934211612.
  • Munson, Henry, Jr. Islam and Revolution in the Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Nafisi, Azar. "Reading Lolita in Tehran." New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Nobari, Ali-Reza, ed. Iran Erupts: Independence: News and Analysis of the Iranian National Movement. Stanford: Iran-America Documentation Group, 1978.
  • Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Response to History, Stein & Day Pub, 1980, ISBN 0812827554.
  • Rahnema, Saeed & Sohrab Behdad, eds. Iran After the Revolution: Crisis of an Islamic State. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995.
  • Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • William Shawcross, The Shah's last ride: The death of an ally, Touchstone, 1989, ISBN 067168745X.
  • Smith, Frank E. The Iranian Revolution. 1998.
  • Society for Iranian Studies, Iranian Revolution in Perspective. Special volume of Iranian Studies, 1980. [Volume 13, nos. 1-4].
  • Time magazine, Jan 7, 1980. Man of the Year. [Ayatollah Khomeini]
  • U.S. Department of State, American Foreign Policy Basic Documents, 1977-1980. Washington, DC: GPO, 1983. [JX 1417 A56 1977-80 REF - 67 pages on Iran]
  • Yapp, M.E. The Near East Since the First World War: A History to 1995. London: Longman, 1996. [Chapter 13: Iran, 1960-1989]

External links


  1. Template:Note Hiro, Dilip. Iran Under the Ayatollahs. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985. p.ón iraní

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