The Iranian Revolution

Imagine living in Iran in 1970. It was a time of great boom and great bust. There was much wealth to be had from oil production, and at times things were very prosperous. This prosperity was overshadowed though, by the many socio-economic failures of the Shah. His unwise use of power and his greed made Iran a country ripe for revolution. By 1979 the stage was set for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who because of cunning historical and political maneuverings was able to use politics, religion, and a little bit of trickery to persuade the people of Iran to overthrow Mohammad Reza Shah.

In the years leading up to the actual revolution in 1979, Shah Pahlavi had done a good job of making himself unpopular with the people in his country. Among the varying classes there was much discontent with the socio-economic changes that the shah was implementing. To understand some of the problems that the Iranian Imams, and especially Khomeini, had with Mohammad Reza Shah, one has to explore some of the actions that the first Reza Shah Pahlavi had taken. After seizing power in 1925 and crowning himself shah, he undertook extensive programs he believed would bring Iran into the modern 20th century. He remodeled the government to more closely resemble a European state. Reza Shah took control of the justice system from the local courts and religious leaders and began collecting taxes. He continued the policies of allowing European countries such as Great Britain to operate oil companies in Iran in exchange for the taxes they paid him. The shah put much greater emphasis on Iran's Persian history at the expense of the newer Muslim culture. He changed Iran back to a Persian solar calendar and replaced many Arabic words that had been integrated into the Farsi language. Reza also directed the schools to emphasize subjects other than Islam and ordered women to stop wearing the veil. As January notes, "for Ruhollah Khomeini and thousands of other Iranian clerics, Reza's campaign was disturbing. His attacks on Islam threatened their authority, put pressure on their livelihoods as community leaders, and demonstrated open contempt for their beliefs (2008, p.18).

During World War II, the first Reza Shah supported Germany, prompting Great Britain and Soviet Union to send troops into Iran to protect their war-related oil interests. This protection of oil interests by the allies forced Reza Shah to flee the country leaving his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in charge. The new Reza Shah was very interested in keeping things going in the direction his father had begun. Because the new Reza Shah was relatively inexperienced and politically weak, many different parties began to struggle to gain a foothold under the new regime. In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq became Prime Minister of Iran, and laws were passed that nationalized the oil industry. Nationalization caused retaliation on the part of many of the western countries to boycott Iranian oil. In 1952, Mosaddeq wrested governmental control away from the shah and hoped to institute a parliamentary form of government in place of the monarchy. His government had trouble with revenue because of the oil boycott, and despite the popularity of Mossadeq's programs, Reza Shah eventually overthrew the prime minister with the help of the CIA. Cleveland concludes that the return of Reza Shah brought, "an intensification of US interference in the domestic affairs of Iran (2004, p. 292). It now became a common belief of the Iranian people that the CIA was everywhere, conspiring against an independent Iran (January, 2008, p. 21).

It is during this period of governmental upheaval that the idea of a revolution to permanently remove the shah began to take root. In 1942, Khomeini published Secrets Exposed, a book in which he railed against the shah for the ruler's adoption and acceptance of western culture (Wright, 2000, p. 46). Politically speaking, the shah's regime was seen as brutal, extravagant, and corrupt. The secret police, SAVAK (Sazeman-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar) quickly put down any talk of disloyalty to the shah. Reza controlled all of the elections and only allowed certain approved parties to be involved in them. However, under pressure from the US, which did not condone many of the shah's actions, Reza was compelled to enact some reforms known as the White Revolution. Reforms consisted in part of the redistribution of lands and giving women the right to vote. In the area of education, progress was made because many more children and women were becoming educated than in the past. One of the things the shah did, though, following in the footsteps of his father, was to remove as much religion from the school and teachings as possible. At the same time, as we see in the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the schoolbooks claimed that the shah was "chosen by God (2003, p. 19). Khomeini spoke out against the shah on all of these issues as much as and as often as possible.

Beyond simply speaking out, Ayatolla Khomeini began plotting to use religion as a catalyst for revolution. At the time when Khomeini first started to speak out publicly against the shah, most of the other Imams did not believe that the clergy should play a role in politics. Khomeini believed the ulama (community of legal scholars of Islam and the Sharia) to be a "pillar of the state(Bakhash, 1984, p. 23). He believed that Iran should be an Islamic state and that only by reinstating Islamic traditions could the country continue to move forward. In 1963, during the time of Muharram, Khomeini delivered a speech in which he called the shah an "unfortunate wretch (Bakhash, 1984, p. 29), and the shah finally decided to arrest the cleric. The Ayatollah probably selected this time to escalate his rhetoric because of the significance of Muharram to Shi'a Islam. Muharram was the time when the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala is observed by the faithful. Here Khomeini made a metaphorical choice to equate the current struggle to the struggle between Husayn and Yazzid. After being arrested, the Muslim leader was finally released. However, after issuing more insults to the shah, Khomeini was exiled and eventually went to Iraq and then on to Paris. From exile in Iraq he continued to be the symbol of the Iranian revolution. Bakhash argues that, "in exile abroad, he was able to be more uncompromising than religious or political leaders at home (1984, p. 19). Khomeini used a network of loyal followers both students and clergy, back in Iran to distribute cassette tapes of his lectures. Khomeini was incensed by the shah's removal of religion from the government and replacement of it with secular and western ideas. Khomeini did not come right out and claim to be the 12th imam, whose return the people longed for, but "appealed to the Shiite longing for the return of a just ruler (January, 2008, p. 36.).

Unfortunately for Khomeini's plans, by the mid 1970's, Iran had experienced a few years of relatively good economic times under the shah as brought on by the boon of the oil industry. The shah had improved the country's infrastructure and was steadily overseeing improvements in healthcare and education. In addition, in 1974, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) raised the price of oil, and within a few years, the product prices had quadrupled. This resulted in greater expansion of industry and education and served to increase the numbers of the urban middle class, and the working class (Abrahamian, 1980). While socioeconomic progress of this sort might seem like a good thing, there were reasons why it did not work out in favor of the shah. Many of the upper class grew rich from the oil profits, but most of the population still lived in abject poverty. The earlier reforms of the shah had done away with unions, professional associations, and political parties, which antagonized these outcast groups and created a coalition of discontented citizens who might more easily embrace revolution. Also, the shah set up policies that benefitted the upper class and left out the other classes, especially because they had no groups to help get their voices heard. At this point the economy suffered intense inflation, and the cost of living became very high. Khomeini was able to use these problems to his advantage in his quest for revolution by promising things would be better by overthrowing the shah.

During these years, urban middle class unrest had grown steadily. And, with the massive inflationary problems, discontent grew to intense dissatisfaction as the shah's policies of favoritism began to threaten the middle class way of life. From this disenchantment came the emergence of various opposition parties. Two of the most prominent were the conservative ulama faction, which included Khomeini, and the Freedom Movement, which included many of the urban intellectuals. Khomeini realized that he was going to need the help of the other opposition groups if the shah was to be overthrown. The intellectuals could see that Khomeini was perhaps the one individual who could unite all of the different opposition groups to successfully overthrow the shah. The Freedom Movement was interested in a secular government based primarily on the constitution of 1906. These other opposition groups realized they were going to have to unite with Khomeini to acheive the common goal of revolution, but they intended to lead the country way they wanted after the shah was overthrown. Khomeini did nothing to disavow the Movement of this idea and even went so far as to promise that some of the members would be put into positions of leadership after the revolution. It appears in hindsight that this was most likely a bald-faced lie by Khomeini, and nave wishful thinking on the part of the other opposition groups. These groups, in favor of a more secular form of government, underestimated the Ayatollah's steadfast belief that the only valid government would be a theocracy, "Vilayati-i Faquih: Hukomat-i Islami (Government of the Islamic Jurist) (Cleveland, 2004, p. 427). Khomeini, in an unexpectedly sophisticated political maneuver, tricked these other groups into siding with him.

The stage was now set for revolution. Under pressure from the United States once again, after Carter's inauguration in 1977, the shah relaxed his control over the press a move which the opposition parties quickly took advantage of. They began to become more organized in their resistance to the shah. Finally, early in 1978, an article was published which was not very flattering to Khomeini. The shah, who controlled most of the country's newspapers, was certainly the one who had the article published. Many followers of Khomeini took to the streets in unarmed protest. In these first protests, people were killed, and, from his exile, Khomeini encouraged his followers to practice the Islamic tradition of gathering in forty days to commemorate their deaths. This began a cycle of more protests and riots every 40 days. For the most part the protestors were armed only with voices and the occasional stone; forces with tanks and machine guns met them. As Satrapi vividly describes, "My parents demonstrated every day ... the army shot at them, and they threw stones at the army. (2003, p. 19). Things continued to deteriorate, until in August of 1978, the shah declared martial law and banned all public demonstrations. The ban was ignored though, and on Friday, September 8, 1978, the capital city became embroiled in a series of confrontations between protestors and the Shah's armed forces. The episode became known as Black Friday, and many civilians were killed that day as the military used all of the means at their disposal to confront the protestors (Cleveland, 2004, p. 429). On December 2, Khomeini again used Muharram to inspire his followers to protest. December 2 was the day of Ashura and the day on which the martyrdom of Husayn was observed. The increasingly disenfranchised masses eagerly took up Khomeini's call to protest and demanded the removal of the Shah. At this point many of the military personnel began to switch sides and refuse to take up arms against the protestors. The shah came to realize that his time was coming to an end. Shortly thereafter, on January 16, 1979, Reza Shah left Iran. On February 1, 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile. He gave a speech which included his plans for the nation of Iran: "... I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me. (BBC, "Speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini).

The final act of the revolution is still unfolding. The Iranian Revolution, or perhaps the more aptly termed Islamic Revolution, was the most visible example at the time of what became a move in Middle East towards fundamentalism, or Islamism. Governments like those of the Shah in Iran or Ataturk in Turkey saw Islam as a barrier that undermined progress. But oftentimes, the undertaking of this secularly based modernization did not afford average citizens the prosperity they desired. They average citizen, sometimes with the help of religious rhetoric, began to see this "progress as an impediment to their success. Islamism stresses a strict adherence to the teachings of the Qur'an and Sharia. After what was seen by many as the failure of westernization efforts, the masses desired a return to the roots of their faith. The Ayatollah correctly read the signs of disenchantment with the shah's lopsided "reforms and seized the opportunity to combine politics, religion, and a little bit of trickery to lead a successful revolution against the shah's regime.


Abrahamian, E. (1980). Structural causes of the iranian revolution. MERIP Reports, 87, 21-26.

Bakhash, S. (1986). The Reign of the ayatollahs. USA: Basic Books.

BBC World Service (1979). The Speeches of ayatollah khomeini. Retrieved from

Cleveland, W. L. (2004). A History of the modern middle east. Cambridge, MA: Westview Pr.

January, B. (2008). The Iranian revolution. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty First Century Books.

Satrapi, M. (2007). The Complete persepolis. New York: Pantheon

Wright, R. B. (2001). The Last great revolution. New York: Vintage Books.

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