Background and causes of the Iranian Revolution

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The Iranian Revolution was a nationalist and Islamic revolution that replaced a secular totalitarian monarchy with a religious democracy based on "Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists" (Vilayat-e Faqih).

Iranian Revolution Revolution in Iran to overthrow the Shah replace him with Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution or the 1979 Revolution, was a series of events that involved the overthrow of the last monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the replacement of his government with an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leader of one of the factions in the revolt. The movement against the United States-backed monarchy was supported by various leftist and Islamist organizations and student movements.

Nationalism is an ideology and movement characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation's sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power. It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity—based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history—and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation's traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism. Nationalism is often combined with other ideologies, such as conservatism or socialism for example.

Shia Islam Denomination of Islam which holds that Muhammad designated Ali as his successor and leader (imam), whose adherents form the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain

Shia Islam is one of the two main branches of Islam. It holds that the Islamic prophet Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor and the Imam (leader) after him, most notably at the event of Ghadir Khumm, but was prevented from the caliphate as a result of the incident of Saqifah. This view primarily contrasts with that of Sunni Islam, whose adherents believe that Muhammad did not appoint a successor and consider Abu Bakr, who they claim was appointed caliph by a small group of Muslims at Saqifah, to be the first rightful caliph after the Prophet.


Its causes — why the last Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was overthrown and why he was replaced by an Islamic Republic — are the subject of historical debate. The revolution was in part a conservative backlash against the westernization, modernization and secularization efforts of the Western-backed Shah, [1] and a more popular reaction to social injustice and other shortcomings of the ancien régime . [2]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the last shah of Iran

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also known as Mohammad Reza Shah, was the last Shah of Iran from 16 September 1941 until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979. Mohammad Reza Shah took the title Shahanshah on 26 October 1967. He was the second and last monarch of the House of Pahlavi. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi held several other titles, including that of Aryamehr and Bozorg Arteshtaran ("Commander-in-Chief"). His dream of what he referred to as a "Great Civilisation" in Iran led to a rapid industrial and military modernisation, as well as economic and social reforms.

Westernization (US) or Westernisation (UK), also Europeanization/Europeanisation or occidentalization/occidentalisation, is a process whereby societies come under or adopt Western culture in areas such as industry, technology, law, politics, economics, lifestyle, diet, clothing, language, alphabet, religion, philosophy, and values.

Secularization is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance. The term secularization is also used in the context of the lifting of the monastic restrictions from a member of the clergy.

Background 1906–1977

Shi'a clergy (or Ulema,) have had a significant influence in Iran. The clergy first showed themselves to be a powerful political force in opposition to Iran's monarch with the 1891 Tobacco Protest boycott that effectively destroyed an unpopular concession granted by the shah giving a British company a monopoly over buying and selling Tobacco in Iran. To some the incident demonstrated that the Shia ulama were "Iran's first line of defense" against colonialism. [3]

Tobacco Protest

The Persian Tobacco Protest, was a Shi'a revolt in Iran against an 1890 tobacco concession granted by Nasir al-Din Shah of Persia to Great Britain, granting British control over growth, sale and export of tobacco. The protest was held by Tehran merchants in solidarity with the clerics. It climaxed in a widely obeyed December 1891 fatwa against tobacco use supposedly issued by Grand Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi.

A concession or concession agreement is a grant of rights, land or property by a government, local authority, corporation, individual or other legal entity.

Ulama Muslim legal scholar

In Sunni Islam, the ulama are the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of religious knowledge, of Islamic doctrine and law.

Reza Shah

The dynasty that the revolution overthrew – the Pahlavi dynasty – was known for its autocracy, its focus on modernization and Westernization and for its disregard for religious [4] and democratic measures in Iran's constitution.

Pahlavi dynasty Dynasty that ruled Iran from 1925 until 1979

The Pahlavi dynasty was the last ruling house of the Imperial State of Iran from 1925 until 1979, when the Persian monarchy was overthrown and abolished as a result of the Iranian Revolution. The dynasty was founded by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, a former brigadier-general of the Persian Cossack Brigade, whose reign lasted until 1941 when he was forced to abdicate by the Allies after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. He was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.

An autocracy is a system of government in which a single person possesses supreme and absolute power. The decisions of this autocrat are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control. Absolute monarchies and dictatorships are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.

The founder of the dynasty, army general Reza Pahlavi, replaced Islamic laws with western ones, and forbade traditional Islamic clothing, separation of the sexes and veiling of women (hijab). [5] Women who resisted his ban on public hijab had their chadors forcibly removed and torn. In 1935 a rebellion by pious Shi'a at the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad was crushed on his orders with dozens killed and hundreds injured, [6] rupturing relations between the Shah and pious Shia in Iran. [7] [8]

Reza Shah Shah of Iran, Founder of the Imperial state of iran

Reza Shah Pahlavi, commonly known as Reza Shah, was the Shah of Iran from 15 December 1925 until he was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran on 16 September 1941.

Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh is often described as the human understanding of the sharia, that is human understanding of the divine Islamic law as revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah. Fiqh expands and develops Shariah through interpretation (ijtihad) of the Quran and Sunnah by Islamic jurists (ulama) and is implemented by the rulings (fatwa) of jurists on questions presented to them. Thus, whereas sharia is considered immutable and infallible by Muslims, fiqh is considered fallible and changeable. Fiqh deals with the observance of rituals, morals and social legislation in Islam as well as political system. In the modern era, there are four prominent schools (madh'hab) of fiqh within Sunni practice, plus two within Shi'a practice. A person trained in fiqh is known as a faqīh.

Hijab veil worn by Muslim women

A hijab in common English usage is a veil worn by some Muslim women in the presence of any male outside of their immediate family, which usually covers the head and chest. The term can refer to any head, face, or body covering worn by Muslim women that conforms to Islamic standards of modesty. Hijab can also refer to the seclusion of women from men in the public sphere, or it may denote a metaphysical dimension, for example referring to "the veil which separates man or the world from God." People usually talk about "the hijab" rather than "a hijab", as evidenced by this article.

The last Shah of Iran comes to power

Reza Shah was deposed in 1941 by an invasion of allied British and Soviet troops [9] who believed him to be sympathetic with the allies' enemy Nazi Germany. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed by the allies as monarch. Prince Pahlavi (later crowned shah) reigned until the 1979 revolution with one brief interruption. In 1953 he fled the country after a power-struggle with his Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh is remembered in Iran for having been voted into power through a democratic election, nationalizing Iran's British-owned oil fields, and being deposed in a military coup d'état organized by an American CIA operative and aided by the British MI6. Thus foreign powers were involved in both the installation and restoration of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran Invasion during World War II

The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, also known as the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Persia, was the joint invasion of Iran in 1941 during the Second World War by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The invasion lasted from 25 August to 17 September 1941 and was codenamed Operation Countenance. Its purpose was to secure Iranian oil fields and ensure Allied supply lines for the USSR, fighting against Axis forces on the Eastern Front. Though Iran was neutral, the Allies considered Reza Shah to be friendly to Germany, deposed him during the subsequent occupation and replaced him with his young son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

1953 Iranian coup détat overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran

The 1953 Iranian coup d'état, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup d'état, was the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in favour of strengthening the monarchical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on 19 August 1953, orchestrated by the United States and the United Kingdom. It was the first covert action of the United States to overthrow a foreign government during peacetime.

The shah maintained a close relationship with the United States, both regimes sharing a fear of/opposition to the expansion of Soviet/Russian state, Iran's powerful northern neighbor. Leftist and Islamist groups attacked his government (often from outside Iran as they were suppressed within) for violating the Iranian constitution, political corruption, and the political oppression by the SAVAK (secret police).

Rise of Ayatollah Khomeini

Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, [10] first came to political prominence in 1963 when he led opposition to the Shah and his program of reforms known as the "White Revolution", which aimed to break up landholdings owned by some Shi’a clergy, allow women to vote and religious minorities to hold office, and grant women legal equality in marital issues.

Khomeini declared that the Shah had "embarked on the destruction of Islam in Iran" [11] and publicly denounced the Shah as a "wretched miserable man." Following Khomeini's arrest on June 5, 1963, three days of major riots erupted throughout Iran, with Khomeini supporters claiming 15,000 were killed by police fire [12] Khomeini was detained and kept under house arrest for 8 months. After his release he continued his agitation against the Shah, condemning the regimes's close cooperation with Israel and its "capitulations" – the extension of diplomatic immunity to American government personnel in Iran. In November 1964, Khomeini was re-arrested and sent into exile where he remained for 14 years until the revolution.

A period of "disaffected calm" followed. [13] Despite political repression the budding Islamic revival began to undermine the idea of Westernization as progress that was the basis of the Shah's secular regime and form the ideology of the revolution. Jalal Al-e-Ahmad's idea of Gharbzadegi – that Western culture was a plague or an intoxication to be eliminated; [14] Ali Shariati's vision of Islam as the one true liberator of the Third World from oppressive colonialism, neo-colonialism, and capitalism; [15] and Morteza Motahhari's popularized retellings of the Shia faith, all spread and gained listeners, readers and supporters. [14] Most importantly, Khomeini preached that revolt, and especially martyrdom, against injustice and tyranny was part of Shia Islam, [16] and that Muslims should reject the influence of both capitalism and communism with the slogan "Neither East, nor West - Islamic Republic!" (Persian : نه شرقی نه غربی جمهوری اسلامی)

One of Tehran's major hospitals is named after Iranian Islamist leftist Ali Shariati Shariati hospital tehran.jpg
One of Tehran's major hospitals is named after Iranian Islamist leftist Ali Shariati

To replace the shah's regime Khomeini developed the ideology of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) as government, that Muslims – in fact everyone – required "guardianship," in the form of rule or supervision by the leading Islamic jurist or jurists. [17] Such rule would protect Islam from deviation from traditional sharia law, and in so doing eliminate poverty, injustice, and the "plundering" of Muslim land by foreign unbelievers. [18] Establishing and obeying this Islamic government was "actually an expression of obedience to God", ultimately "more necessary even than prayer and fasting" in Islam, [19] and a commandment for all the world, not one confined to Iran. [20]

Publicly, Khomeini focused on the socio-economic problems of the shah's regime (corruption, unequal income and development), [21] not his solution of rule by Islamic jurists.

He believed a propaganda campaign by Western imperialists had prejudiced most Iranians against theocratic rule. [22] [23]

But his book was widely distributed in religious circles, especially among Khomeini's students (talabeh), ex-students (clerics), and traditional business leaders (bazaari). A powerful and efficient network of opposition began to develop inside Iran, [24] employing mosque sermons, smuggled cassette speeches by Khomeini, and other means. Added to this religious opposition were secular and Islamic modernist students and guerrilla groups [25] who admired Khomeini's history of resistance, though they were to clash with his theocracy and be suppressed by his movement after the revolution.

Opposition groups and organizations

Constitutionalist, Marxist, and Islamist groups opposed the Shah:

The very first signs of opposition in 1977 came from Iranian constitutionalist liberals. Based in the urban middle class, this was a section of the population that was fairly secular and wanted the Shah to adhere to the Iranian Constitution of 1906 rather than religious rule. [26] Prominent in it was Mehdi Bazargan and his liberal, moderate Islamic group Freedom Movement of Iran, and the more secular National Front.

The clergy were divided, allying variously with the liberals, Marxists and Islamists. The various anti-Shah groups operated from outside Iran, mostly in London, Paris, Iraq, and Turkey. Speeches by the leaders of these groups were placed on audio cassettes to be smuggled into Iran. Khomeini, who was in exile in Iraq, worked to unite clerical and secular, liberal and radical opposition under his leadership [27] by avoiding specifics – at least in public – that might divide the factions. [28]

Marxists groups were illegal and heavily suppressed by SAVAK internal security apparatus. They included the communist Tudeh Party of Iran; two armed organizations, the Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas (OIPFG) and the breakaway Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas (IPFG); and some minor groups. [29] The guerillas aim was to defeat the Pahlavi regime by assassination and guerilla war. Although they played an important part in the 1979 overthrow of the regime, they had been weakened considerably by government repression and factionalization in the first half of the 1970s. [30]

Islamists were divided into several groups. The Freedom Movement of Iran, made up of religious members of the National Front of Iran who wanted to use lawful political methods against the Shah and led by Bazargan and Mahmoud Taleghani. The People's Mujahedin of Iran, a quasi-Marxist armed organization that opposed the influence of the clergy and later fought Khomeini's Islamic government.

The Islamist group that ultimately prevailed was that containing the core supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. Amongst them were some minor armed Islamist groups which joined together after the revolution in the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. The Coalition of Islamic Societies was founded by religious bazaaris [31] (traditional merchants). The Combatant Clergy Association comprised Morteza Motahhari, Mohammad Beheshti, Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Mofatteh, who later became the major leaders of the Islamic Republic. They used a cultural approach to fight the Shah.

Because of internal repression, opposition groups abroad, like the Confederation of Iranian students, the foreign branch of Freedom Movement of Iran and the Islamic Association of Students, were important to the revolution.


Several events in the 1970s set the stage for the 1979 revolution:

In October 1971, the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire was held at the site of Persepolis. Only foreign dignitaries were invited to the three-day party whose extravagances included over one ton of caviar, and preparation by some two hundred chefs flown in from Paris. Cost was officially $40 million but estimated to be more in the range of $100–120 million. [32] Meanwhile, drought ravaged the provinces of Baluchistan, Sistan, and even Fars where the celebrations were held. "As the foreigners reveled on drink forbidden by Islam, Iranians were not only excluded from the festivities, some were starving." [33]

By late 1974 the oil boom had begun to produce not "the Great Civilization" promised by the Shah, but an "alarming" increase in inflation and waste and an "accelerating gap" between the rich and poor, the city and the country. [34] Nationalistic Iranians were angered by the tens of thousand of skilled foreign workers who came to Iran, many of them to help operate the already unpopular and expensive American high-tech military equipment that the Shah had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on.

The next year the Rastakhiz party was created. It became not only the only party Iranians were permitted to belong to, but one the "whole adult population" was required to belong and pay dues to. [35] The party attempted to take a populist stand fining and jailing merchants in its "anti-profiteering" campaigns, but this proved not only economically harmful but also politically counterproductive. Inflation morphed into a black market and business activity declined. Merchants were angered and politicized. [36]

In 1976, the Shah's government angered pious Iranian Muslims by changing the first year of the Iranian solar calendar from the Islamic hijri to the ascension to the throne by Cyrus the Great. "Iran jumped overnight from the Muslim year 1355 to the royalist year 2535." [37] The same year the Shah declared economic austerity measures to dampen inflation and waste. The resulting unemployment disproportionately affected the thousands of recent poor and unskilled migrants to the cities. As cultural and religious conservatives, many of these people, already disposed to view the Shah's secularism and Westernization as "alien and wicked", [38] went on to form the core of revolution's demonstrators and "martyrs". [39]

In 1977 a new American president, Jimmy Carter, was inaugurated. Carter sought to make American post-Vietnam foreign policy and power exercise more benevolent, and created a special Office of Human Rights. It sent the Shah a "polite reminder" of the importance of political rights and freedom. The Shah responded by granting amnesty to 357 political prisoners in February, and allowing Red Cross to visit prisons, beginning what is said to be 'a trend of liberalization by the Shah'. Through the late spring, summer and autumn liberal opposition formed organizations and issued open letters denouncing the regime. [40] Later that year a dissent group (the Writers' Association) gathered without the customary police break-up and arrests, starting a new era of political action by the Shah's opponents. [41]

That year also saw the death of the very popular and influential modernist Islamist leader Ali Shariati, allegedly at the hands of SAVAK, removing a potential revolutionary rival to Khomeini. Finally, in October Khomeini's son Mostafa died. Though the cause appeared to be a heart attack, anti-Shah groups blamed SAVAK poisoning and proclaimed him a 'martyr.' A subsequent memorial service for Mostafa in Tehran put Khomeini back in the spotlight and began the process of building Khomeini into the leading opponent of the Shah. [42] [43]

General causes

The Iranian Revolution had a number of unique and significant characteristics. It produced profound change at great speed; [44] and replaced an ancient monarchy with a theocracy based on Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (or velayat-e faqih). Its outcome – an Islamic Republic "under the guidance of an 80-year-old exiled religious scholar from Qom" – was, as one scholar put it, "clearly an occurrence that had to be explained.…" [45]

Surprise and absence of customary causes

The revolution was unique for the surprise it created throughout the world, [46] and followed the maxim of appearing "impossible" until it seemed "inevitable". [47]

Some of the customary causes of revolution that were lacking include

The regime it overthrew was thought to be heavily protected by a lavishly financed army and security services. [49] [50] As one observer put it: "Few expected the regime of the Shah, which had international support and a modern army of 400,000, to crumble in the face of unarmed demonstrators within a matter of months." [51]

Another historian noted the revolution was "unique in the annals of modern world history in that it brought to power not a new social group equipped with political parties and secular ideologies, but a traditional clergy armed with mosque pulpits and claiming the divine right to supervise all temporal authorities, even the country's highest elected representatives." [52]


Explanations advanced for why the revolution happened and took the form it did include actions of the Shah and the mistakes and successes of the different political forces:

Policies and political mistakes of the Shah

  • His strong policy of Westernization and close identification with a Western power (the United States) despite the resulting clash with Iran's Shi'a Muslim identity. [53] This included his original installation by Allied Powers and assistance from the CIA in 1953 to restore him to the throne, the use of large numbers of US military advisers and technicians and the capitulation or granting of diplomatic immunity from prosecution to them, all of which led nationalistic Iranians, both religious and secular [54] to consider him a puppet of the West; [55] [56]
  • Unpopular disregard for Islamic tradition in his 1976 change from an Islamic calendar to an Imperial calendar, marking the beginning of the reign of Cyrus the Great as the first day, instead of the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. Overnight, the year changed from 1355 to 2535. [57]
  • Extravagance, corruption and elitism (both real and perceived) of the Shah's policies and of his royal court. [58] [59]
  • His failure to cultivate supporters in the Shi'a religious leadership to counter Khomeini's campaign against him. [60] [61]
  • Focusing of government surveillance and repression on the People's Mujahedin of Iran, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, and other leftist groups, while the more popular religious opposition organized, grew and gradually undermined the authority of his regime. [62] [63] [64]
  • Authoritarian tendencies that violated the Iran Constitution of 1906, [65] [66] including repression of dissent by security services like the SAVAK, [67] followed by appeasement and appearance of weakness as the revolution gained momentum; [68] [69] The idea of Alexis de Tocqueville that "when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it." [70]
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Queen Farah MohammadRezaPahlavi1977.jpg
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Queen Farah
  • Failure of his overly ambitious 1974 economic program to meet expectations raised by the oil revenue windfall. A short, sharp period of economic contraction and decline in 1977–78 following a considerable period of economic growth, that according to scholar of revolutions Crane Brinton creates disappointment much greater "than if people had been left in poverty all along." [71]
  • Bottlenecks, shortages and inflation that were followed by austerity measures, attacks on alleged price gougers and black-markets, that angered both the bazaar and the masses. [72]
  • His antagonizing of formerly apolitical Iranians, especially merchants of the bazaars, with the creation of a single party political monopoly (the Rastakhiz Party), with compulsory membership and dues, and general aggressive interference in the political, economic, and religious concerns of people's lives. [73]
  • His overconfident neglect of governance and preoccupation with playing the world statesman during the oil boom, [74] followed by a loss of self-confidence and resolution [68] and a weakening of his health from cancer [75] as the revolution gained momentum. The shah's terminal illness was a secret at the time, but the shah knew he was dying of cancer, and his medication made him "depressed and listless". In addition several of the shah's closest advisers had recently died, and palace personnel were reportedly fired wholesale in the summer of 1978. [76]
  • Underestimation of the strength of the opposition – particularly religious opposition – and the failure to offer either enough carrots or sticks. Efforts to please the opposition were "too little too late," [77] but no concerted counter-attack was made against the revolutionaries either. [68]
  • Failure to prepare and train security forces for dealing with protest and demonstration, failure to use crowd control without excessive violence [78] (troops used live ammunition, not riot shields or water cannons), [79] and use of the military officer corps more as a powerbase to be pampered than as a force to control threats to security. [80] This lack of training turned many protests to disasters, the most notorious one being the events on 8 September 1978, also known as Black Friday. [81] [82] [83] [84] [85] [86] [87]
  • The personalised nature of the Shah's government, where prevention of any possible competitor to the monarch trumped efficient and effective government and led to the crown's cultivation of divisions within the army and the political elite, [88] and ultimately to a lack of support for the regime by its natural allies when needed most (thousands of upper and middle class Iranians and their money left Iran during the beginning of the revolution). [89] The monarch "took a personal interest in the most picayune governmental matters, discouraged initiative by frequently overruling and dismissing officials, and refusing to allow officials to cooperate, for fear of regicidal conspiracies. The shah was careful to meet with each of his top aides and generals individually. In the absence of a fully functioning shah, the system could not function." [76]

Failures and successes of other Iranian political or cultural forces

  • The Ayatollah Khomeini's self-confidence, charisma, and most importantly his ability to grip the imagination of the masses by casting himself as following in the footsteps of the beloved Shi'a Imam Husayn ibn Ali, while portraying the Shah as a modern-day version of Husayn's foe, the hated tyrant Yazid I. [90] Alternately, while in distant Paris, Khomeini filled the figure of the Hidden Imam, sending his messages through special representatives. [91] In so doing he was seen by millions as a savior figure, [92] and inspiring hundreds to feats of martyrdom fighting the regime.
  • Success of modernist Islamists Abolhassan Banisadr and Ali Shariati in presenting an Islamic ideology that "appeared modern, liberal and appealing," and in so doing won over much of the Iranian middle class. [93]
  • Overconfidence of the secularists and modernist Muslims, of liberals and leftists, in their power and ability to control the revolution, [94] a belief that "the clergy would not be capable of governing the state ... and would have to hand over power to others," so that "even the opponents of the Islamicists accepted their leadership of the revolution" at first, [95] and failure to anticipate Khomeini's "total domination of the Iranian revolution" and to study his writings and try to understand what his true goals were. [96]
  • The 40-day (Arba'een) cycle of mourning by Shia that commemorated with new street protests the deaths of earlier protesters, thus strengthening and spreading the anti-Shah sentiments for many months. [76]
  • Shrewdness of the Ayatollah Khomeini in winning the support of these liberals and leftists when he needed them to overthrow the Shah by underplaying his hand and avoiding issues (such as rule by clerics or "guardianship of the jurists") he planned to implement but knew would be a deal breaker for his more secular and modernist Muslim allies. [97]
  • Cleverness and energy of Khomeini's organizers in Iran who outwitted the Shah's security forces and won broad support with their tactical ingenuity – amongst other things, convincing Iranians that the Shah's security was more brutal than it was. [80]

Failures and successes of foreign forces

  • Policies of the American government, which helped create an image of the Shah as an American "puppet" with their high profile and the 1953 subversion of the government on his behalf, but helped trigger the revolution by pressuring the Shah to liberalize, and then finally may have heightened the radicalism of the revolution by failing to read its nature accurately (particularly the goals of Khomeini), or to clearly respond to it. [98] [99] [100]
  • Waning support for the shah among Western politicians and media—especially under the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter—as a result of the Shah's support for OPEC petroleum price increases. [101]
  • Alleged treachery of the Americans and other foreigners. Among those who blame American or Western forces for the collapse of the shah's regime include the director-general of the French intelligence service, who claimed that American President Jimmy Carter `decided to replace` the Shah; [102] one of the shah's generals, who claimed the U.S. `took the Shah by the tail, and threw him into exile like a dead rat,` [103] Iranian expatriates surveyed in Southern California", [104] and Iranians surveyed in Isfahan. [105] These beliefs have usually been mentioned by historians as examples of how "Iranians hostile to the revolution appeared to feel more comfortable blaming outside forces than their own compatriots," rather than as plausible explanations for the revolution. [106] Still another conspiracy theory is that when American general Robert E. Huyser, Deputy Commander of US forces in Europe," went to Iran to encourage the Iranian military to either support the new but non-revolutionary Bahktiar government or stage a coup d'état, he was approached by "representatives of the revolutionary forces" who made it clear to him that "if the United States did not wish its personnel to be harmed or to allow uncontrolled, armed guerrillas, some with pro-Soviet sympathies, to gain access to its sophisticated weapons" he had "better see to it that the military surrendered to the popular revolutionary forces." Thus, according to Sepehr Zabih, Huyer chose between American personnel/materiel, and America's strategic ally in the Persian Gulf, and this explains why Huyser's mission to Iran was accompanied by "the disintegration of the Imperial Army" in final days of the revolution. [107] It has also been argued that the revolution could not have succeeded without help from inside of Iranian military at some level. [108]
  • OPEC policies that discouraged infighting among members in order to create a united front to best take advantage of the oil boom. OPEC had Iran and Iraq sat down and made to work aside differences, which resulted in relatively good relations between the two nations throughout the 1970s. In 1978 the Shah made a request to then-Vice President Saddam Hussein to banish the expatriate Ayatollah Khomenei from Iraq, who had been living there in exile for the past 15 years. In light of keeping up good relations with Iran and that Khomenei was not overly supportive of the current Iraqi regime, Hussein agreed to do this. From this point Khomenei moved to France, where he better coordinated the nascent Islamic Revolution.

External factors

Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union long competed with each other for the domination of Iran. Britain maintained its control of the Iranian oil industry for a long time using its alliance with power bloc, landlords and courts and was able to reduce the power of the US and the Soviets in Iran. On the other hand, the United States and the Soviet Union were mainly interested in logistically important location of Iran and wanted an oil concession in northern part of Iran. The United States used its influence in the army and courts while the Soviet Union had the total support of the Tudeh Party and the CCFTU. The Shah himself was very interested in involving the United States in Iran’s affair to reorganize the army and boost the economy with the US assistance. The US also, could reduce the influence of the communism in Iran by its more open presence in Iran . [109] By the late 1950s the US was fed up with the widespread corruption in Iranian government and started reducing in its financial assistance to Iran. In 1958, the US also attempted, although turned out to be unsuccessful, to replace the Shah with Iran’s chief of staff, a reform orientated politician, to push for the social reform in Iran . [110] As Shah realized that his government and the Iranian economic health were depended on the US, he decided to liberalize his policies. Therefore, the Shah, with some pressure from the Kennedy administration, opted for Amini group, which had no popular base, but a full US support and a clear reform program.

Amini’s agenda was to broadcast land reform, reduce corruption, stabilize the economy, limit the power of the Shah and reduce the size and influence of the Army.. Despite having a reformist ideology, Amini did not gain popular support from the National Front, identified with Mossadegh, and the Tudeh Party. Amini’s government was very distrusted by the people because of his infamous backing of the Consortium agreement and was widely criticized by the Tudeh Party as spreading anti communism and being an American puppet. Amini’s government fell apart after fifteen months of struggle with economic dilemmas, popular distrust and the Shah trying to convince Kennedy to shift his support from Amini to him. In 1962, Amini resigned and Alam, a faithful friend of the shah who had no intention of reform but to consolidate the power of the monarchy, became the new prime minister and laid the ground for the Shah to reestablish his dictatorship in early 1963. [111]

In the mid 1970s, the Shah was once again taken under the US pressure for violation of the human rights and mistreatment of the political prisoners. The paralyzing crisis of the state made the Shah concerned about the future of his throne. Although, very undesirable for Shah to introduce another round of liberalization policies, the first round being in the early 1960s, he had no other choice but to do so. Therefore, in the early 1977 Shah announced liberalization policies to gain the US support once again and resolve the crises of the state. In the mid 1977, Shah allowed open discussion forum for the Rastakhiz Party to discuss the social issues publicly. As Amjad quotes Tocqueville in his book, the political liberalization following a long period of repression results in a social upheaval and revolution. In the Iranian case, although the aim of the policy was to appease the oppositions and gain the US support, instead it provided the suitable condition for the opposition to organize its forces against the regime. Following the liberalization policies, the network of 80,000 mosques run by 180,000 mullahs played a crucial role in mobilizing the people against the regime.[ citation needed ]

Doubts about causes

Charles Kurzman, author of The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran [112] has postulated that the explanations offered by observers for why the revolution occurred "are only partially valid," and that "the closer we listen to the people who made the revolution - the more anomalies we find." [113]

Kurzman points out that one explanation for the Shah's overthrow - the 40-day (Arba'een) cycle of commemorating deaths of protesters - "came to a halt" on June 17, 1978, a half year before the revolution's culmination. Moderate religious leaders (Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari) called for calm and a stay-at-home strike which prevented more casualties to commemorate 40 days later. [114] Kurzman also argues that the mourning rituals in Iran had been a political act only once before.

Could we have said in early 1977 that because Iranian culture includes a forty-day mourning cycle, the country was more likely than other countries to undergo a revolution? I think not. Rather, a knowledgeable observer would probably have noted that this mourning cycle had been put to protest purposes only once in Iranian history, in 1963, and that movement had come to naught. [115]

Alexis de Tocqueville's idea that "steadily increasing prosperity, far from tranquilizing the population, everywhere promoted a spirit of unrest", has been offered by several observers as an explanation for the 1978–79 revolt. But this does not explain why "there was very little oppositional activity" in the recession of 1975–76 when unemployment and inflation were at similar levels to those of 1978. [116] Furthermore, revolutions were conspicuously absent in other "high-growth autocracies" – Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq – in the 1970s and 1980s despite the fact that those countries also suffered from oil wealth problems (corruption, debt, fraud, repression). [117]

Another cause, or partial cause, in doubt is the Shah's liberalization as a result of the encouragement of President Jimmy Carter. Kurzman points out that "even as the shah arrived in Washington" for a state visit in late 1977, "his regime's partial tolerance of oppositional activity was disappearing. ... In November 1977, as the shah ingratiated himself with Jimmy Carter, liberals were in retreat." [118]

Another author, Moojan Momen, questions whether Carter "could have said or done" anything to save the Shah – aside from foregoing his human rights policy – since "any direct interference by America would only have increased resentment" against the pro-American Shah. [93]

Special theories

Skocpol's cultural theory

Theda Skocpol, an American socialist specializing in study of social revolutions, proposed an unprecedented cultural theory to account for the unique aspects of the Iranian Revolution, which she admitted falsified her past history-based theories on causes of social revolutions.

Skocpol argued that the revolution diverges from past revolutions in three distinct ways:

  1. The revolution does seem to have been solely caused by excessively rapid modernization by the state that led to social disruption. Skocpol’s studies on prior modern social revolutions had falsified this popular but simplistic theory.
  2. In a departure from historical precedents, the regime’s large, modern army and the police were defeated by an internal revolution without the occurrence of a military defeat in foreign war and without external pressures aimed at causing fracture between the state and the dominant social classes.
  3. The Iranian Revolution is the only modern revolution which was deliberately and coherently fomented by a revolutionary movement consisting of different social classes united under the leadership of a senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This was achieved through demonstrations and strikes advancing with fervor against even lethal military repression. As thus the revolution achieved “what the Western socialists had long only dreamed of doing.”

Although the Shah’s regime had several political vulnerabilities none of them could have mattered as the Shah was still wealthy and powerful enough to overcome waves of social discontent just as other even less wealthy Third world despots had been able to. The fact that the revolution was successful can only be explained by reference to sustained extraordinary efforts by the urban Iranians to wear down and undermine the regime.

Despite the negative impact of Shah’s hectic modernization on the traditional form of urban life, it caused more people, consisting of the displaced villagers and farmers, to come into contact with members of traditional urban communities such as bazaaris and artisans. Bazaars in particular became centers of associational life, with Islamic groups and occasions tying people together through clerics' interpreting Islamic laws to settle commercial disputes and taxing the well-to-do to provide welfare for devout poorer followers. An endless succession of prayer-meetings and rituals were organized by both clergy and the laity. Bazaars also enjoyed ties with more modern sectors of Iranians society as many Iranian university students were from the merchant class. But since 1970s, Shah aroused the defense and oppositions of the bazaar by attempts at bring under control their autonomous councils and marginalizing the clergy by taking over their educational and welfare activities.

In the mass revolutionary movements during 1977-8 the traditional urban communities played an indispensable role in making sustained mass struggle possible. The workers relied on economic aid from bazaar during their strikes and the secular opponents depended on alliance with clerics and lay leaders of the bazaar to mobilize the masses. Without these autonomous sources of support and sustenance, successful resistance against the modern political and economic power holders would’ve been impossible.

The next question is how as part of a unique historical precedence, millions of Iranians were willing to face death in the mass demonstrations against brutal suppression by the army and how the clerics could rise as the leaders of the revolution. This is explained by the potential role of the Shia beliefs and clerical organization in the Iranian society. Shi'a Islam embodies substantial symbolic content to inspire resistance against unjust rule and to justify religious leaders as alternative to secular authority. As Shah aimed to marginalize the Shia clergy and eliminate their influence by its modernization policies, clerics in Qom and their followers developed a populist, anti-Imperialist interpretation of Shia theology to delegitimize Shah for his injustice and his reliance on the anti-Islamic foreign imperialists. The story of Husayn's just revolt against the usurper caliph, Yazid I, and his eventual martyrdom, as well as the belief in the Islamic Messiah, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who clerics claim to represent during his Occultation, were particularly influential in victory of the revolution. As protests against the Shah began, the Shi'a clerics could claim legitimate leadership of the protests and the Husayn legend provided a framework for characterizing the Shah as a modern incarnation of the tyrant Yazid. The revolution also attracted secular Iranians who saw Shi'a Islam and Khomeini's unwavering moral leadership as an indigenous way to express common opposition to an arrogant monarch too closely associated with foreigners. Khomeini’s message and appeal spread through existing networks of social links with the urban life and gradually resonated with the majority who saw Shah as being subservient to foreign powers instead of the indigenous demands of his own people. With the inspiration found in Hussein, the devout Iranians consistently defied the army with an audacity unprecedented in European revolutions and despite sustaining casualties. This sustained resistance, gradually undermined the morale of the military rank-and-file and their willingness to continue shooting into the crowds, until the state and the army succumbed before the revolution. As such a very "traditional" part of Iranian life could forge a very modern-looking revolutionary movement. This represented the first revolution to ever be deliberately “made” by a revolutionary ideology and organization that mobilize mass followings. [119]

See also

References and notes

  1. Del Giudice, Marguerite (August 2008). "Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran". National Geographic.
  2. Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, (1982), 534-5
  3. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p. 117
  5. Mackey, The Iranians, (1996) p.184
  6. Bakhash, Shaul, Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution by Shaul, Bakhash, Basic Books, c1984 p.22
  7. Taheri, Amir, The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution, Adler and Adler, c1985, p. 94-5
  8. Rajaee, Farhang, Islamic Values and World View: Farhang Khomeyni on Man, the State and International Politics, Volume XIII Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine (PDF), University Press of America. ISBN   0-8191-3578-X
  9. "Dismissal of Reza Shah". Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  10. "Imam Khomeini (and clerics) leadership, Islamic Revolution". Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  11. Nehzat by Ruhani vol. 1 p. 195, quoted in Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 75.
  12. Islam and Revolution, p. 17; Later, much lower estimates of 380 dead can be found in Moin, Baqer, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatolla, (2000), p. 112.
  13. Graham, Iran 1980, p. 69.
  14. 1 2 Mackay, Iranians (1996) pp. 215, 264–5.
  15. Keddie, Modern Iran, (2003) pp. 201-7
  16. The Last Great Revolution Turmoil and Transformation in Iran, by Robin WRIGHT.
  17. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent (1993), p.419, 443
  18. Khomeini; Algar, Islam and Revolution, p.52, 54, 80
  19. See: Velayat-e faqih (book by Khomeini)#Importance of Islamic Government
  20. khomeinism
  21. Abrahamian, Ervand, Khomeinism : Essays on the Islamic Republic, Berkeley : University of California Press, c1993. p.30,
  22. See: Hokumat-e Islami : Velayat-e faqih (book by Khomeini)#Why Islamic Government has not been established
  23. Khomeini and Algar, Islam and Revolution (1981), p.34
  24. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985), p. 196.
  25. Graham, Iran (1980), p. 213.
  26. Abrahamian, Iran Between (1980), pp. 502–3.
  27. Mackay, Iranians (1996), p. 276.
  28. Abrahamian, Iran Between (1980), pp. 478–9
  29. "Ideology, Culture, and Ambiguity: The Revolutionary Process in Iran", Theory and Society, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jun., 1996), pp. 349–88.
  30. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (2004), p. 145-6
  31. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p.80
  32. Hiro, Dilip. Iran Under the Ayatollahs. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985. p. 57.
  33. Wright, Last (2000), p. 220.
  34. Graham, Iran (1980) p. 94.
  35. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 174.
  36. Graham, Iran (1980), p. 96.
  37. Abrahamian, Iran (1982), p. 444.
  38. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 163.
  39. Graham, Iran (1980), p. 226.
  40. Abrahamian, Iran (1982), pp. 501–3.
  41. Moin, Khomeini (2000), pp. 183–4.
  42. Moin, Khomeini (2000), pp. 184–5.
  43. Taheri, Spirit (1985), pp. 182–3.
  44. Amuzegar, Jahangir, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution, SUNY Press, p.10
  45. Benard, "The Government of God" (1984), p. 18.
  46. Amuzegar, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution, (1991), p.4, 9-12
  47. Sachs, Albie (1990). The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter. University of California Press. p. 164. ISBN   9780520959446 . Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  48. Arjomand, Turban (1988), p. 191.
  49. Harney, Priest (1998), p. 2.
  50. Abrahamian Iran (1982), p. 496.
  51. Iran’s tide of history: counter-revolution and after. Fred Halliday, 17 July 2009
  52. Iran Between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian, p.430-5
  53. Mackay, Iranians (1998), pp. 259, 261.
  54. Khomeini's speech against capitalism, IRIB World Service.
  55. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (2001).
  56. Shirley, Know Thine Enemy (1997), p. 207.
  57. Persian pilgrimages By Afshin Molavi
  58. Harney, The Priest (1998), pp. 37, 47, 67, 128, 155, 167.
  59. Mackay, Iranians (1998), pp. 236, 260.
  60. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985), p. 136.
  61. Arjomand Turban (1998), p. 192.
  62. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 178.
  63. Hoveyda Shah (2003) p. 22.
  64. Abrahamian, Iran (1982), pp. 533–4.
  65. Mackay, Iranians (1998), p. 219.
  66. Katouzian (1981), The Political Economy of Modern Iran: Despotism and Pseudo-Modernism, 1926–1979.
  67. Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (1985).
  68. 1 2 3 Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985) pp. 234–5.
  69. Harney, The Priest (1998), p. 65.
  70. economist Jahangir Amuzegar quoted Tocqueville in his book, Dynamics The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis' Triumph and Tragedy, SUNY, 1991, p.241, 243.
  71. According to Kurzman, scholars writing on the revolution who have mentioned this include:
    • Sick, All Fall Down, p.187;
    • Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, Harvard University Press, 1980, p.189;
    • Keddie, `Iranian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective,` American Historical Review, 1983, v.88, p.589;
    • Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, p.13
  72. Graham, Iran (1980), pp. 19, 96.
  73. Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (1982) pp. 442–6.
  74. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985) p. 205.
  75. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 188.
  76. 1 2 3 Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (p.107)
  77. Graham, Iran (1980) p. 231.
  78. Graham, Iran (1980) p. 228.
  79. Harney, The Priest (1998).
  80. 1 2 Graham, Iran (1980), p. 235.
  81. The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution By Abbas Milani, pp. 292-293
  82. Seven Events That Made America America, By Larry Schweikart, p.
  83. The Iranian Revolution of 1978/1979 and How Western Newspapers Reported It By Edgar Klüsener, p. 12
  84. Cultural History After Foucault By John Neubauer, p. 64
  85. Islam in the World Today: A Handbook of Politics, Religion, Culture, and Society By Werner Ende, Udo Steinbach, p. 264
  86. The A to Z of Iran, By John H. Lorentz, p. 63
  87. Islam and Politics By John L. Esposito, p. 212
  88. Arjomand, Turban (1998), pp. 189–90.
  89. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985), p. 233.
  90. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (2001), pp. 44, 74–5.
  91. Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.288
  92. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985), p. 238.
  93. 1 2 Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.287
  94. Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran (1997), pp. 293–4.
  95. Schirazi, Asghar, The Constitution of Iran : politics and the state in the Islamic Republic, London ; New York : I.B. Tauris, 1997, p.292
  96. Zabih, Sepehr, Iran Since the Revolution, Johns Hopkins Press, 1982, p.9
  97. Moin, Khomeini (2000), p. 200.
  98. Harney, The Priest (1998), p. 177.
  99. Graham, Iran (1980) p. 233.
  100. Zabih, Blah Blah Iran (1982), p. 16.
  101. Andrew Scott Cooper. The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East. Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN   1439155178.
  102. Marenches, Alexander de. The Evil Empire: The Third World War Now, Interviewed by Christine Ockrent, trans Simon Lee and Jonathan Marks, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988, p.125
  103. Air Force Commander Amir-Hossein Rabi'i quoted in Arjomand, Said Amir, The Turban for the Crown, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.114
  104. a survey of which found the leading explanation for the Iranian revolution to be foreign plots, [Hakimfar, Bahram Bob `The Downfall of Late King Muhammad Reza Pahlavi: View of the Iranian Community in Southern California` Ph. D. dissertation, U.S. International University
  105. [interviews with the families of Iran-Iraq War Casualties, according to a sermon by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, December 20, 2002, translated by BBC Worldwide Monitoring.]
    • Amuzegar, Jahangir, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991, p.79-96
    • Daneshvar, Parviz, Revolution in Iran, St. Martin's Press, 1996, p.94, 126
    • Moshiri, Farrokh, The State and Social Revolution in Iran, NY, Peter Lang, 1985, p.220 ] *The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (p.13)
  106. Iran Since the Revolution by Sepehr Zabih Johns Hopkins Press, 1982 p.12-15
  107. "dead link" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-02. Retrieved 2013-07-06.
  108. Amjad, Mohammed. Iran from Royal Dictatorship to Theocracy. New York : Greenwood Press, Inc., 1989. p. 52
  109. Amjad, Mohammed. Iran from Royal Dictatorship to Theocracy. New York : Greenwood Press, Inc., 1989. p. 74
  110. Amjad, Mohammed. Iran from Royal Dictatorship to Theocracy . New York : Greenwood Press, Inc. , 1989.p.74-79
  111. Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Harvard University Press, 2004)
  112. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, p. 163
  113. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (p.51)
  114. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (p.57)
  115. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, p. 99
  116. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, p. 93
  117. Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, (2004), p. 25
  118. Skocpol, Theda (1994). "Rentier state and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution". Rentier state and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution (Chapter 10) - Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Cambridge Core. pp. 240–258. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139173834.011. ISBN   9781139173834 . Retrieved 2017-06-24.


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