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I. Introduction to the Islamic Revolution

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I. Introduction to the Islamic Revolution

Islamic Revolution of Iran, widespread uprising in 1978 and 1979 in which Islamic fundamentalists and their supporters overthrew Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran. The revolutionaries, led by an exiled religious leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dismantled the shah’s secular (nonreligious) monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new republic rejected Western influences and was guided by Shia Islamic teachings (Shia Islam).

Rule of the Shah and Rise of Khomeini

In 1963 the shah began a series of social, economic, and political reforms known as the White Revolution. The revolution gave more freedom to women and increased secular education at the expense of religious education. These and other changes questioned the dominant role of Iran’s religious leaders, most of whom feared losing power and moral authority under the White Revolution. Throughout the 1970s the shah continued to anger traditional Shia Muslims, who formed a large proportion of the population. For example, the shah held festivals in 1971 to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire; this was perceived as a direct rebuke to the millions of Iranians who viewed the coming of Islam in the 7th century as the founding date of modern Iran.

Other sectors of the population were also becoming disenchanted with the shah. Students and intellectuals were frustrated by his autocratic rule and by the corruption of the royal family, who had become wealthy from their five decades in power. Many of these dissidents favored some form of democracy as well as a more equitable distribution of the country’s income. Members of the traditional middle class, or bazaaris, were angry as well, because they had received little benefit from either the White Revolution’s development schemes or from the country’s rapid, oil-fed growth in the 1970s. Most of the earnings had instead gone to larger companies, especially to ones with international ties or connections to the shah’s family. Both bazaaris and fundamentalist Muslims disapproved of Iran’s growing ties with the West.

All of these factors contributed to the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini, who in the early 1960s was a relatively unknown Islamic ayatollah, or holy man. Khomeini had several assets that other leaders lacked. First, he was seemingly fearless: In 1963 he was the only cleric to openly attack the shah’s White Revolution. Second, he spoke the language of the people, condemning the shah’s “injustices” in the name of the “downtrodden” masses. Third, and most importantly, Khomeini was able to transform Shia Islam into a mass ideology that appealed to many groups. In the past, Shia leaders had argued that although Shia Muslims were a righteous minority who suffered under cruel leaders, it was not their role to overthrow the ruling regime and create an Islamic state. Instead, Shia clerics should defend the religion and await the return of the 12th imam, the messianic figure of Shiism whose presence was needed for the establishment of an Islamic state. Khomeini, however, rejected this passive approach. He argued that by overthrowing the shah, Iranians would hasten the return of the 12th imam. Indeed, Khomeini did not discourage Iranians from thinking of him as the messianic imam. Khomeini spread his alluring mixture of revolutionary ideology and messianic revivalism by mobilizing a vast network of loyal disciples. He was also able to galvanize the support of the bazaari middle class, which had close links to the ulema, Iran’s religious leaders.

In 1964 the shah exiled Khomeini from Iran. Khomeini eventually settled in the Iraqi holy city of An Najaf, from which he broadcast his messages to his Iranian followers. In 1978 the Iraqi government, fearful that the ayatollah’s powerful message would create similar disturbances in Iraq, expelled Khomeini. He then went to France, from which he sent audio tapes of his revolutionary message to Iran.

The Revolution

In 1978 opponents of the shah had several bloody encounters with his security troops. The most notorious of these clashes was on September 8, when soldiers fired on 20,000 demonstrators in Tehrān. Several hundred people were killed and thousands more were wounded in what became known as Black Friday. Two months later, young people took to the streets of Tehrān, burning shops, banks, liquor stores, and other symbols of Western “corruption.” Tensions escalated in December with the coming of Muharram, the sacred month marking the martyrdom of Husayn, an early Shia leader. Emboldened by the strength of the opposition, Khomeini called on Iranians to “begin the month of epic heroism ... the month in which the leader of the Muslims taught us to struggle against all tyrants.” On December 10 and 11, the two holiest days of the Shia calendar, a group of soldiers rebelled and attacked the officer’s mess of the shah’s Imperial Guard. With that, his regime collapsed, and the shah fled Iran in January 1979. He died two years later in Cairo, Egypt.

Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, and began to establish control over the government. He forced the shah’s prime minister out of office and appointed a new prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan. Bazargan was known as a liberal who favored democracy, so many observers believed the new government would represent a wide range of opinion. In a late March referendum Iranians voted on a new form of government, and in April, with overwhelming public approval, Khomeini declared the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In November 1979, after the shah had been allowed entry to the United States for medical care, hundreds of Iranians overran the U.S. embassy in Tehrān and took the staff hostage. Khomeini refused to release them until the United States apologized for its support of the shah and met other demands. (The hostages were eventually released in January 1981 after Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as president). Khomeini used the fervor of the hostage taking to mobilize radical Islamic students against Bazargan. After Bazargan resigned, Khomeini held a December referendum in which more than 99 percent of voters supported a new constitution. Khomeini became faqih, or ultimate leader, and used his unlimited powers to eliminate opponents. First he attacked liberals and leftists, including President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who fled Iran in February 1981; later, he repressed his clerical opponents. By 1981 some 1600 people had been executed under Khomeini.

Khomeini filled key positions in the government with his closest clerical allies. He also conducted a purge of all “un-Islamic” elements from universities, newspapers, and other cultural institutions. In time, many Iranians—particularly less religious Iranians—found themselves living under a politically and culturally repressive regime. However, the creation of a clerical regime also led to vexing problems and ideological conflicts that embarrassed Khomeini and his allies. Conservative clerics in the Council of Guardians—the group created to ensure adherence to Islamic code and the constitution—vetoed reform legislation proposed by the less conservative Majlis (parliament). The reformers wanted to nationalize some industries and to change the way land was distributed; the conservative clerics, who controlled much of the land, were opposed to such reforms. The clerics also wanted to pursue a stricter religious policy than did their opponents. The result of this stalemate was that domestic policy was largely paralyzed.

In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. The ensuing conflict temporarily distracted attention from Iran’s internal strife. The invasion, caused in part by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s desire to end the propaganda directed at his secular regime, touched off a vicious eight-year border war (Iran-Iraq War). Using waves of child “martyrs” who crossed the battle line, Iran turned the tide of the war against Iraq in the spring of 1982. Emboldened, Khomeini proclaimed his determination to spread his revolution throughout the region. But Arab governments were equally resolved to contain Iran, and with the support of the United States they backed Iraq’s efforts to stop Iran.

Institutionalizing the Revolution

As the human and financial costs of the war mounted, pressure grew in Iran to break the enduring and paralyzing standoff between conservatives and reformers over domestic policy. Initially Khomeini tried to avoid intervening in the conflict—even when it prevented the passage of vital social legislation—but he eventually intervened on behalf of the reformers in the Majlis. He did so in part because he wanted to give the Majlis and other institutions more authority. He was also encouraged to intervene by the speaker of the Majlis, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wanted to end the war with Iraq and begin economic reconstruction. Pressed by Rafsanjani and his allies, Khomeini created an extra-constitutional body called the Expediency Council, which was given the power to override vetoes by the Council of Guardians. Khomeini then supported the drafting of a new constitution, which was passed after his death in June 1989.

Many Iranians hoped the new constitution would give them greater social freedoms. Rafsanjani, who was elected president in 1989, encouraged these hopes. But while the constitution partly diminished the religious authority of the wali faqih and placed clerics on an equal footing with politicians, it reinforced the government’s powers to impose its decisions on society. Thus the revolution had become institutionalized, but at the cost of much of its popular support.
Islamic Revolution – Group Work

  1. Describe Iranian government and life under the rule of the Shah.

2. Identify two groups who disagreed with the Shah; explain the nature of their displeasure.

3. Who led the Revolt against the Shah? How was he able to convince Iranian citizens to follow him?

4. What happens to the Shah in January 1979?

5. Describe Iran’s new government implemented in 1979. Were these changes a positive or a negative move for the country?

6. How did other countries respond to Iran’s new government?

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