The Iranian Revolution

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In 1978, Iran was on the verge of revolution. In little more than a year, a popular uprising would topple the government and overthrow the Shah, establishing a repressive Islamic theocracy in its wake. Although this event came as a shock to Western audiences who had increasingly perceived Iran as a modernising, secular state, dramatic constitutional change was nothing new to the country.

Indeed, only 71 years earlier, in 1907, widespread discontentment with the ruling Qajar dynasty had led to the ‘Persian Constitutional Revolution’ as the Shahs were forced to cede their autocratic power to a National Consultive Assembly. By 1921, however, the British, who wielded vast influence in Iran, had come to see the Qajar dynasty as hopelessly inefficient and non-compliant. General Ironside, the commander of the local British forces, was thus prompted to persuade an Iranian army officer – Reza Khan – to launch a coup and depose the dynasty which had been in power since 1789.

Reza Khan crowned himself ‘Reza Shah Pahlavi’ and his reign would be marked by modernisation, industrialisation and secularisation. However, he also oversaw a budding relationship with Nazi Germany, prompting an Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 to protect vital Allied supply lines and oilfields. Reza Khan was thus promptly deposed and replaced with his more malleable son, Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

At first, the newly crowned Mohammad Reza Shah ruled over a constitutional monarchy in the only truly democratic period in the Iran’s history. This freedom was short-lived. In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh decided to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP), which owned most of Iran’s oil and the resulting profits. The British and Americans feared that Mossadegh was an anti-Western leader liable to turn Iran (and its plentiful oil reserves) towards the Soviets, and so they supported a military coup which deposed his government. They promptly replaced Mossaddegh with a Prime Minister – Fazlollah Zahedi – more pliant to the Shah, a staunch Western ally.

With the autocratic power of the monarch restored, Mohammad Reza Shah embarked on a vast program of reform. Much like his father before him, Mohammad Reza had a deep desire to modernise, westernise and secularise his country. In 1963, he thus inaugurated a new campaign of radical and far-reaching reforms – the ‘White Revolution’. He oversaw the implementation of massive infrastructure projects, land reform, literacy programs, military build-up, and female emancipation. The result was an unprecedented era of economic growth, yet the White Revolution ended up causing more problems for the Shah than it solved.

Many Shi’ite leaders resented the Shah’s secular stance as they felt that this contravened Islamic teachings. Moreover, his land reforms broke up vast tracts of land previously administered by the Shi’ite clergy, thus diminishing their power. To counter this opposition, the Shah grew increasingly reliant on his secret police – SAVAK – to suppress dissent.

One notable Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, began to speak out against the Shah’s reforms from 1963, leading to his arrest by the government. His incarceration only fanned the flames of discontent, leading to widespread riots demanding his release. Eventually, the government exiled him to Iraq, where he became a vocal leader of Iranian opposition movements.

Simultaneously, left-wing groups detested the Shah for his autocracy and Western bias. Over the sixties and seventies, popular discontent with the Shah’s regime grew, with rising anger over the unequal distribution of Iran’s wealth. The money which Iran made from its oil was mostly funnelled towards the Shah, and his government became ever more corrupt. Heavy government spending coupled with the oil price boom of the 1970s resulted in high rates of inflation, damaging the purchasing power and living standard of ordinary Iranians while the rich only became richer. The Shah’s ostentatious displays of wealth, most infamously the massive party he held at the 2500-year celebration of the Persian Empire, garnered further resentment.

The growing dissatisfaction with the Shah’s rule was compounded by the growing unity of his opposition. Many left-wing groups, such as the Communist ‘Tudeh Party’, began to form an unlikely informal alliance with the Shi’ite clergy, hoping to use the populist appeal of the still exiled Khomeini to get their own hands on power.

The simmering opposition to the imperial regime ultimately exploded into open revolt. On 7 January 1978, an article appeared in the national daily newspaper Ettela’at, which criticised Ayatollah Khomeini and slandered him as a ‘mad Indian poet’. In the city of Qom, thousands of religious students immediately took to the streets in protest, correctly assuming that the article had been written by a government agent. The protestors clashed with police; many died.

It is a traditional Shi’ite practice that memorial services are held 40 days after a person’s death and thus, on 18 February, massive riots (commemorating the deaths in Qom) took place across Iran. The crowds were mostly composed of the young, poor and religious. They were met in the streets by the Imperial Iranian Army. Predictably, more died, perpetuating the cycle of violence. Government institutions and signs of western influence (e.g., bars – alcohol is illegal under Islamic law) were particularly targeted.

An ageing Shah, cancer ridden, was surprised by the sudden protests. He was indecisive, alternating between strategies of appeasing and crushing the protestors. However, by the summer, the situation seemed to have calmed, as the 40-day cycle of protests shrank in size to just a few thousand in every city.

Whilst it seemed that the worst of the fervour had passed, the revolution had, in fact, only just begun. On 19 August 1978, four unidentified men committed a horrific arson attack on the ‘Cinema Rex’ in the city of Abadan, resulting in the deaths of over 400 people. Khomeini immediately blamed SAVAK, prompting a new round of protests. On 8 September, protestors in Tehran came under fire from imperial troops, resulting in the deaths of around 100. Shocked by this incident – later known as ‘Black Friday’ – hundreds of thousands walked out of work in impromptu nationwide strikes and protests, bringing the nation’s industry to a halt. The oil sector was particularly affected.

The Shah grew yet more indecisive, insisting that the army should no longer use force to break up the protest. This only allowed the riots to spiral increasingly out of control. On 5 November, a clash between the army and student protestors at the University of Tehran grew into a city-wide riot, which saw widespread looting and burning. On the next day, the Shah appointed a military government, whilst simultaneously pursuing his policy of trying to appease the protestors. This met with little success, as the crowds by now were calling for the complete overthrow of the Shah’s regime.

In December 1978, Khomeini called for yet another round of protests, which were given special significance as it was the holy Islamic month of Muharram. On 10 and 11 December, the holy days of Tasu’a and Ashura in the Muslim calendar, as many as 9 million protesters took to the streets all over Iran – as much as a quarter of Iran’s population. It was clear that the Shah’s position was untenable. He fled the country with his family in January 1979, handing over control to a provisional government and regency council. In February, Khomeini returned, greeted at the airport by a crowd millions strong. Within months, the provisional government had been toppled by the overwhelming popular support for Khomeini, while the army stood neutral.

Khomeini declared the creation of an Islamic Republic on 1 April 1979, marking the official end of the monarchy. Over the next few years, he consolidated his power, employing the same repression for which he had condemned the Shah. The liberal, secular groups who had supported his revolution were pushed to the side, and thousands associated with the old regime were executed. Traditional Sharia law became enforced by the repressive Guidance Patrol (morality police), whilst a Revolutionary Guard was established to defend the new regime. Soon, the Islamic Republic managed to establish total control, creating a deeply repressive and hostile regime which endures to this day.

Abrahamian, E., 1980. Structural Causes of the Iranian Revolution. Middle East Research and Information Project, Inc. (MERIP).

Amuzegar, J., 1991. Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis’ Triumph and Tragedy. State University of New York Press.

Parsa, M., 1989. Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution. Rutgers University Press.