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The Islamic Revolution by Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, Ph. D

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The Islamic Revolution

by Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, Ph.D.
To understand the political forces and factions which led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution we should begin with the post World War II period. Social and economic difficulties of this period had taken their toll on Reza Shah's regime (1926-1941) and this weakness had provided the opposition with the rare opportunity to expand its activities.
Fearing that the loss of control by Reza Shah might lead to the empowerment of the left, The United States and Britain pressured Reza Shah to resign. This move was intended to remove one of the main reasons of opposition. Reza Shah resigned and left the crown to his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. This change, however, did not slow down the opposing social movements. These movements, nourished by different thoughts and ideologies, aimed at defining and implementing a national policy, which would bring economic development and also guarantee social and individual freedom.
Short-lived Reforms Under Prime Minister Mossadeq

The apogee of these movements was the selection of Mohammad Mossadeq, one of the nationalist leaders, as the prime minister (May 1951). To implement parts of his national policy -- including the nationalization of Iran's oil industry -- he relied heavily on public support and in many occasions called for street demonstrations to force his agenda. His government, however, did not last long. In 1953, through a coup that was planned and funded by the CIA, Mohammad Reza Shah removed Mossadeq and put an end to his progressive policies.

Opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah's Regime

One of the major efforts of Mohammad Reza Shah was the creation of a secret police (SAVAK, 1957) whose main duty was to find and uproot anti-government organizations. SAVAK was successful in this endeavor but the anti-government movement continued its subjective and conceptual existence within three major ideological frameworks: Islam, Marxism, and Nationalism. SAVAK's violent tactics prevented these movements from having a significant social presence until the year 1963, when the Shah proposed a social and economic reform plan and after a rigged referendum declared that more than 99 percent of the voters had endorsed his plan. Reacting to this plan and the referendum, many political figures including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini initiated and organized a number of demonstrations in major cities. The upheavals lasted three days and left hundreds of dead. Shortly after that Khomeini was deported from Iran to Iraq, where he continued his activities from Najaf (Iraq). But his voice did at first find a strong echo inside Iran. It seemed that Shah had overcome this first anti-government wave.

The second wave of uprisings began around 1971. This period is marked particularly by armed struggle of guerilla groups. The two largest groups were Mojahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran and Fada'iyan-e Khalgh-e Iran. These groups had chosen Islam and Marxism, respectively, as their leading ideologies. The majority of their members were from the intelligentsia and their main recruiting domain was the universities. During 1971-1977 university students became increasingly involved in political activities and organized a number of large demonstrations. These activities popularized the anti-government culture and provided practical experiences, which in the following years became quite important.
While social uprisings were gradually penetrating different aspects and layers of the society, the Shah was busy preparing for the celebration of 2500 years of monarchy. He clearly considered himself the legitimate heir of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenian dynasty. His following steps also aimed at strengthening the legitimacy of his rule and concentrating more power in his own hand. He declared that the Iranian calendar had to be changed and the first year of this calendar should refer to the beginning of the Achaemenian dynasty. Almost simultaneously he formed the Rastakhiz (Resurgence) party (1975) and coerced every individual and the few remaining political parties to become part of it.
The increasing number of street demonstrations finally made him realize that his control over the situation was threatened. His first measure to regain control was to change his long time prime minister, Amir 'Abbas Hoveyda (July 1977), who was replaced by Jamshid Amuzegar. This move, which implied a slight desire to liberalize the situation, resulted in radicalization of the movement. Demonstrators now attacked police stations, banks, and headquarters of Rastakhiz party. Police and army were sent to confront demonstrators. The confrontations resulted in many casualties, and mourning for each martyr triggered another demonstration.
1978: The Year of "Black Friday"

From the middle of 1978, street demonstrations reached an unprecedented level. The Shah replaced Amuzegar with Sharif-Emami (August 27). Many cities were placed under martial law. It was too late. People poured to the streets to defy the Shah. Sharif-Emami, once more, sent the army in front of the people. This time tanks were used to disperse demonstrators. The tactic was not successful. Soldiers were ordered to shoot. They did, and according to the opposition, more than 600 people were killed in Zhaleh Square alone. This day (September 8) became known as the Black Friday and that square's name was changed to the Square of Martyrs.

Since the beginning of his appointment Sharif-Emami had tried to reach a kind of compromise with moderate groups of opposition; Black Friday made any compromise impossible. Shah, once more, changed the prime minister. This time he appointed a military man, General Azhari (November 6). It was useless. Along with daily demonstrations, workers strikes in major industries-including oil-had paralyzed the country.
The Shah Flees and Ayatollah Khomeini Returns

On January 6, 1979, the Shah appointed his last prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar knew many members of moderate groups of opposition. This appointment, therefore, was supposed to imply that Shah has agreed to accept parts of the demands of opposition. But Khomeini, who since October 6, 1978 had been living in France, and other anti-government groups and organizations simultaneously, dismissed this move and demanded the Shah to leave Iran. By the end of January 1979 he was out of the country and on February 1, 1979 Khomeini, after fourteen years of exile, returned home.

Four days after his arrival, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan (affiliated with moderate/nationalist groups) as prime minister of the provisional government. Real power, however, was concentrated in the Council of Revolution which was controlled by Khomeini. The Council's first move was to decide upon the form of the government. In March 1979, a referendum took place where people were asked to answer the following question: "Islamic Republic, Yes or No?" The majority of political organizations objected to this question on the ground that it did not provide any opportunity for people to express their ideas about the government's form. Radical groups boycotted the referendum but the Islamic Republic of Iran was born in the month of March 1979.
The second item of the agenda was the constitution. In June, Khomeini and the Council of the Revolution prepared a draft of the new constitution. In August, elections for the Council of Experts took place. This Council was supposed to finalize the draft. The governing laws of the election were written with the specific purpose of preventing small, radical groups from having any representation in the Council. Once more many political groups boycotted the election. The resulting 73-member Council became another powerful organization which was closely controlled by Khomeini and the Council of the Revolution. In objection to the results of the election demonstrations began to take place in major cities. In the middle of August 1979, Khomeini expressed his dissatisfaction with these demonstrations. Shortly after that many journals and newspapers were closed. While the government of Bazargan was trying to find a moderate solution to these problems, the Council of the Revolution increased the pressure on the opposition. On November 5, Bazargan who found himself in disagreement with the Council and Khomeini over major issues such as human rights and foreign affairs -mainly with regard to the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution- offered his resignation to Khomeini.

The "Islamicizing" of Government

On November 15, 1979 the final draft of the new constitution was published and immediately drew criticism. The most common objection (even from some top rank clerics) was the extreme power allocated to the Velayat-e Faqih (the supreme religious leader) who is not an elected official. In the referendum, however, the new constitution was ratified. Following the constitution, the first presidential election was to take place. 124 individuals announced their candidacy. Khomeini announced that he did not recommend that a cleric become president. Another Council was selected to decide upon candidates' eligibility. Many other tactics were used to reduce the number of potential rivals. Finally, in January 1980, 'Abolhassan Bani-Sadr who was Khomeini's favorite candidate was elected to be the first president of Iran. With elections for the Majlis (parliament) which were governed by similar rules and regulations the process of islamicizing major institutions of political power was almost complete.

At the same time the power struggle had reached its peak. To eliminate the opposition, government relied not only on legal procedures but also on "questionable" practices of pro-government entities such as Komiteh (local organizations), Sepah-e Pasdaran (the revolutionary guard), and pressure groups. The increasing violence exercised by these entities expedited the disillusionment process of the opposition. By early summer 1980 all political groups opposing the government had to go underground. In the meantime border clashes between Iran and Iraq which had begun around the end of 1979 began to turn into a full-size war. (1980-1988).
Violent Polarization Again

Bani-Sadr, who did not have much control over political power institutions, tried to begin his quest for power by riding the nationalist/anti-Iraq wave. He immediately lost Khomeini's support and soon after that clerics in power began their efforts to force him out. Bani-Sadr had popular support, and once he faced ruling clerics he received the support of many radical political groups as well. This situation led to a polarization, which forced Bani-Sadr to move closer to the now-disillusioned Mojahedin-e Khalq. On June 1, 1981, he was removed from power and knowing the inevitable fate that awaited him he immediately went into hiding. A few weeks later he was in Paris.

The last event of this period, which delineated the antagonism between the ruling clerics and the opposition, was the explosion of two bombs in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party (June 28, 1981). Mojahedin-e Khalq accepted the responsibility. Most of the 74 dead were right-wing leaders. This event and the expansion of Iran-Iraq war were the government's main arguments to use institutionalized violence against the remaining opposing forces.
Part I: Guiding Questions

  1. What were the causes of the Islamic Revolution?

  2. Why did the US have a problem with Reza Shah?

  3. What problems did the citizens of Iran have with the new constitution?

  4. What happened to all those who criticized the new government?

  5. What are the major effects of the revolution?

Part II: Timeline

Create a timeline of the major events that lead to the Islamic Revolution. Use the dates that have been bolded in the article and provide a brief description of the event. Place all the events in chronological order.

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