Iranian Revolution: What caused it and what was the outcome?

On February 11, 1979, the ruling Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown while overseas. As a result, the state of Iran was made an Islamic republic under the supreme leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who played a key leadership role in the revolt.

The revolution shocked the world, as it was not backed by the usual factors that had caused other revolutions in other countries. At that time, Iran was a prosperous nation with Western ideals and one of the few countries in the Middle East to promote religious diversity, tolerance and women’s rights. Following the revolution, however, the country instantly became an anti-Western theocracy.

Unbeknownst to many, when the uprising started, protesters simply wanted to get rid of the shah’s repressive and corrupt government. There was actually no intention of creating an Islamic state.

Therefore, the question that begs to be answered is: How did such protests against economic inequality and a corrupt regime morph into the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and thereafter an authoritarian theocracy? And who were the people involved in this revolt that forever transformed Iran and the Middle East?

World History Edu takes an in-depth look at major events that triggered the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Reza Shah & Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Shah Pahlavi was the last shah to reign in Iran. His father, Reza Shah, ruled before him and is credited with some of the major transformations of Iran in the first part of the 20th century. During that period, he ruled as an authoritarian monarch and his works focused largely on the Westernization of Iran. Although there were numerous developments that put Iran on course to become a wealthy nation, the fast-paced modernization of the state also disregarded religion, as well as democratic procedures.

The first shah of the House of Pahlavi, Reza Shah Pahlavi reigned from 1925 until his abdication in 1941

In 1941, Reza Shah was interrogated by British and Russian troops who suspected him of being sympathetic toward Nazi Germany. But the monarch also could not trust the British and Russian armies, as they had long interfered in the affairs of Iran. As a result, he abdicated the throne, and his son, Shah Pahlavi, inherited the throne.

As the new ruler of Iran, Shah Pahlavi continued to maintain close ties to the United States, as both nations had a common interest in ensuring that Soviet Union did not expand southwards. During his reign, Shah Pahlavi transformed Iran into a Westernized state, following the policies and ideals of his father under his “White Revolution” program reform.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was only 21 years old when he ascended the throne in 1941

There were rapid advancements in education, as it became more accessible and there were many institutions established to accommodate Iranians. The Middle Eastern nation also witnessed significant improvements in women’s rights, with women having the opportunity to vote. Iran was on track to becoming one of the most prosperous nations not only in the Middle East but worldwide.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s opposition to Shah Pahlavi

Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution, but before then he had been active in Iran’s political scene from 1963. The religious scholar had built quite the following for his protest against Shah Pahlavi’s “White Revolution”, which had granted women equal rights as men, allowed religious minorities to hold high positions, and had taken large portions of lands from the elite.

Khomeini believed that the shah was on a mission to destroy the Islamic religion in Iran due to his alliance to the United States. He denounced Shah Pahlavi in public, calling him a “wretched miserable man.”

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the chief orchestrator of the Iranian Revolution. The Muslim cleric wielded tremendous amount of influence in the religious establishment. He became a bearer of hope for Iranians that opposed the shah and his government. However, Khomeini’s appetite for fundamentalist ideology soon the nation into an isolated one.

But his protests did not go unnoticed, and in June 1953, he was arrested. After the news of his arrest broke, many of his supporters orchestrated riots throughout the country and they claimed the Iranian police had killed 15,000 of them. Khomeini was placed under house arrest for 8 months.

Unfazed by his detention, the Shia cleric continued to soldier on, while encouraging his growing followers to reject the shah’s regime. Once he was a free man, he continued to speak against Shah Pahlavi, as well as Iran’s close ties with Israel. Khomeini was arrested yet again in November 1964 and sent into exile in Paris, France.

Khomeini continued to work while in exile, receiving help from the growing Islamic revolution that believed that Iran was turning into a secular state and that its Western culture needed to be exterminated.

The political and religious activist continued to speak in support of a revolt, believing that it was a sacred duty of Shia Muslims to end the so-called hedonistic reign of the Shah. Khomeini called on Muslims to reject Western and Soviet economic ideologies with the statement, “Neither East, nor West – Islamic Republic!”

He also proposed replacing the monarchy with “velayat-e faqih”, which advocates for Muslims to be placed under the guardianship of a group of jurists. Khomeini felt that this rule would protect others from breaking sharia laws and would also bring an end to poverty and foreign exploitation.

In 1970, he published a book about his ideologies and beliefs. This book was distributed extensively among several religious circles. As a result, a strong and deeply-connected network of opposition groups began to form, including clerics, traditional business leaders, and guerrilla groups.

Causes of the Iranian Revolution

By December 1978, it had become apparently clear that the protesters did not intend backing down, as more and more people poured into the street calling for the end of the shah’s reign.

Shah Pahlavi believed that Iran could become a world powerhouse through Westernization. While there had been some success in transforming the state, he received backlash for abandoning the Islamic religion and tradition. In 1976, he changed the Islamic calendar to an imperial calendar. The change meant that the state of Iran recognized the reign of ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great as the first day of the year instead of Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina.

Aside from the above, his reign was also seen as extremely extravagant, corrupt, and oppressive. Shah Pahlavi ruled like a dictator, which went against the Iranian 1906 Constitution. Many people were either silenced, arrested, tortured or exiled by security services or by the brutal secret police called Savak.

It must be noted that not all of the Shah’s reformation programs worked. As a result, the country suffered from myriad of economic issues, including high unemployment, food shortages, and inflation. Many believed Shah Pahlavi to be a puppet of the West, particularly the United States.

In 1975, the Shah created a single party system with mandatory memberships and dues. This political monopoly largely interfered with the socio-economic, political and religious lives of the people.

Shah Pahlavi also largely underestimated the power of opposition groups and made no effort in trying to appease them. He also failed to train security forces on how to handle crowds and protests. During demonstrations, state troops used live ammunition instead of water cannons or shields. As a result, many protests often ended up disastrous, with many people dying. Perhaps the most chaotic protest was the Black Friday protest that took place on September 8, 1978, where 100 people were shot dead.

The monarch also spent too much of his time trying to please other nations during Iran’s oil boom. This act resulted in many Iranians losing confidence in him. The fact that Shah Pahlavi’s health was fast deteriorating as a result of cancer did not help matters either, as his people yearned for a strong and bold leader to arrest the social and economic issues that were plaguing Iran in the 1970s.

Basically, the Shah deployed a top-down modernization policy whose benefits failed to trickle down to the poorest Iranians. On top of all that he encouraged the suppression of dissent. His regime was described by the Shia clerics as one that engaged in constitutional abuses and neglected the poor and their need for safety. Reza Shah’s power was also seen by the religious establishment in Iran as unIslamic.

Timeline of the Revolution

It was in 1977 that first showed some signs of opposition against Shah Pahlavi’s government from sections of Iran’s middle classes. Those events kickstarted a series of protests throughout the country. The following year, many students took to the streets in protest against the negative and false remarks on Khomeini.

By that time, Shah Pahlavi was too ill and was slowly succumbing to his cancer. He was shocked to see how his people had turned against him and assumed it was a plot orchestrated by other international powers. Security forces clamped down on the protesters. As the death toll from those protests soared, chaos and uncertainty became the order of the day.

Following the Black Friday massacre, the oil workers embarked on a strike, bringing the entire oil industry to a standstill, and by December 1978, thousands of Iranian protestors filled the streets of the capital, Tehran. Iranians wanted their problems effectively nipped in the bud.

Sensing that his time to strike had come, Khomeini, who was by then in exile, called for the abdication of Shah Pahlavi, but the monarch refused to step down.

Towards the end of 1978, the situation in Iran had gotten to tense that the royal family had to flee the country in January the following year. Not even the Regency Council could effectively run the country. So, the people turned to the exiled Khomeini, who arrived in Iran in February. Ten days later, the religious cleric had successfully ousted Shah Pahlavi.

Outcomes of the Revolution

Fed up by the high levels of censorship, arrest and torture, Iranian Revolutionaries successfully brought the end of the Persian monarchy – a monarchy of more than 2,500 years.

Two months after the overthrow of Shah Pahlavi, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic republic. The state returned to its conservative social values instead of the Western secular ones.

Leadership Style

Some people believed that what had initially been an attempt to preserve Iranian culture and beliefs had quickly turned into a power grab. Others also thought Khomeini was more qualified to serve as a spiritual guide instead of a political ruler. At that time, the new leader was in his mid-70s, he had spent most of his life living in exile, and he had never worked in public office.

Women’s rights in Iran take a tumble

The Family Protection Act, which had given Iranian women more rights during Shah Pahlavi’s reign, was nullified and religious revolutionary groups called “komītehs” roamed the streets and enforced stricter dress codes and conduct. Failure to adhere to those stringent codes of conduct resulted in instant justice.

Suppression of Opposition

Following the revolution, several international human rights groups revealed that thousands of people who opposed Khomeini’s government had been executed. Between 1981-1982, it was reported that the new government had executed close to 10,000 dissidents. Many other anti-Khomeini supporters had also been tortured or placed in detention. Khomeini also ordered for non-Islamist newspapers to be closed down. As result, press freedom was curtailed in so many ways.

International Impact

Iranian Revolution slogans.

The Iranian Revolution made a strong impact at the international level. Many people who supported the idea of overthrowing monarchies began to call for the same in other Middle Eastern countries. This became a problem for other neighboring countries, including the West who desired nothing than a stable Middle East in order to keep the oil taps on.

As a result, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. However, by 1982, Iran had successfully regained most of its territories and Iraqi forces were pushed out. The Iraq-Iran war continued for six years, claiming the lives of several tens of thousands of people.

The toppling of the shah in 1979 sent massive shockwaves around the world. For starters, it pitted the Persians against Saudi Arabia, a regional power and Sunni-majority country. The Saudis feared that the wave of revolution would creep into its kingdom. As a matter of fact, Saudi rulers constantly accused the new regime in Iran of financing revolutionaries in the region in order to weaken the influence wielded by Saudi Arabia.

To this day, Iran and Saudi Arabia constantly clash on so many issues in the region. The two nations are constantly engaged in fierce proxy warfare, from Syria to Yemen. There is no doubt whatsoever that the 1979 Iranian Revolution severely fractured the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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