The Iranian Revolution of 1979
In 1979, a popular mass revolution in the name of Islam overthrew the Shah, the autocratic ruler of Iran, and sought to establish a theological republic in place of a secular monarchy. The Iranian revolution disrupted the Iranian society and changed the nature of the Iranian regime radically. Liberals, Marxists, and Islamists all came together in their opposition to the Shah and his Western allies. The revolution had been so effective simply because the opposition against Shah was massive and presented a solid united front.
Furthermore, the Islamic revolution of 1979 was not just a rebellion against the Shah of Iran, who was perceived to have compromised Iranian interests by allowing the United States to dominate its domestic and foreign agenda; it was also a rejection of both western capitalist liberalism and the Soviet’s communist totalitarianism. The revolution sought systemic, cultural, ideological, and institutional transformation of Iran into an ideal Islamic republic. In this ultimate goal, however, it had much more limited success. In Iran, the position of Shah (Persian for King) was that of an absolute dictator who had no check on his authority.
The previous shah, Riza Pehlavi, decreed many laws against Islam, for instance, a law prohibiting the wearing of head scarves by Muslim women. His son, Muhammed Riza, began his rule in 1941 and embarked on an ambitious program to modernize the country. Although his original intentions may have been laudable, his approach was unfortunately any thing but. Although he endeavored to bring Iran into the twentieth century, he relied on old-fashioned repression to quell any dissent. There was a profound self-contradiction in Shah’s policy and actions, which finally proved to be his undoing.
On the one hand, he was trying to liberalize and modernize the country, and on the other, he was ruthlessly suppressing the voice of its people, with his secret police routinely arresting and torturing hundreds of civilians. In addition, Shah did something much more unforgivable, he turned over control of the country’s resources to the Americans and the British. The abnegation of sovereignty created a severe dent in the pride of the nation for decades. Over this time, the rift between the shah and the Iranian people continuously widened.
The shah led a lavish lifestyle while many of his subjects lived in abject poverty. He had absolutely no qualms, and no notion of fairness, equality and democracy. Resentment festered in the Iranian populace, until it finally burst. In 1978-1979, within a short span of three months, protests, demonstrations and strikes brought about the downfall of the Iranian monarchy (Kurzman 1). Decades earlier, in 1952, the people of Iran had carried out a successful revolution against the Shah and tried to establish a democratic republic, the Shah had to flee the country.
But in 1953 the American CIA backed a coup d’etat of the charismatic Mohammed Mosaddeq, the new prime minister, and reinstated the despotic shah. The shah, instead of trying to become more popular at least now, become even more ruthless in his ways, almost wreaking vengeance against his own populace. Subsequently there had been another popular uprising which was also efficiently crushed. In the early 1960s, a then little-known cleric named Ayatollah Khomeni led a movement of opposition to the despotic Shah. But Khomeini ended up being banished from the country and the shah once again managed to successfully consolidate his power.
He went on to pursue his plans for modernization, in his own despotic and arbitrary manner. … Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah, who began as a weak monarch both politically and temperamentally, ended up thinking he was God’s gift to earth before this intricate system of personal rule crumbled in a hurry. (Akbarzadeh, Saeed 51) Understandably, the widespread dissatisfaction and resentment against his rule took ever deeper roots. In the 1970’s, however, his stance softened a little, as he grew physically weak from lack of health.
Also there was pressure from Carter administration, making him reconsider his approach. In this climate, secular intellectual liberals launched demands for the end of the Pahlavi regime and called for widespread reform. However, the movement of opposition to Shah’s rule soon began to be led by not these secular intellectuals but by Ayatollah Khomeini still in exile. When the excesses of the Shah’s regime could not be tolerated by the populace any further, the exiled Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Khomeini came to the forefront of the movement to the topple the Shah.
He used smuggled cassette tapes and booklets to rally ordinary Iranians against heir king. Student-led protests began to swell into general strikes, and people all over Iran declared their desire for freedom from dictatorship. Iran under the Shah Pahlavi was one of the richest of Third World Countries. But the Iranian revolution was out to reverse the modernizing autocracy of the Shah. The revolution in Iran was in search of a new Islamic theocracy. It was led by the fanatic mullah. Yet, at the same time, it was a spontaneous revolution of unarmed civilians. The opposition to Shah’s rule was nearly universal.
The Iranian revolution was opposed to Stalinist totalitarian style of the shah’s rule, as well as the Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. The Shah did attempt repeatedly to appease the calls for political change, as the opposition grew stronger and more united against him. However, the rapid series of concessions by the Shah were not sufficient to satisfy an opposition that now seemed to settle for nothing less than his complete fall. The shah in his last days had tried to brutally squash the revolution and the Iranians believe that the United States was not only advising the Shah but also helping him in oppressing his own people.
Such suspicions were not groundless because the Shah’s notorious security forces, the dreaded SAVAK, were in fact trained in America by the CIA. In one last desperate move, in late December 1978, the Shah appointed one of the leaders of the National Front (his primary opposition for more than twenty-five years) as the new prime minister. However, the newly appointed Prime Minister Bakhtiar was considered too moderate by followers of Khomeini and was unsuccessful in calling off a strike by civil servants and oil workers.
Bakhtiar was also unsuccessful in persuading fundamentalists to favor a more secularized form of political leadership. In January 1979, the Shah was forced to leave the country on an “extended vacation” and never returned to Iran. Within days, the Regency council, designed to preserve the monarchy, was dissolved. With the Shah officially being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the loyalty of the powerful Iranian military was uncertain. It was left leaderless and largely unable to follow the mercurial, ever-shifting political situation.
On February 9, 1979, the military proclaimed itself neutral in the domestic power for struggle. Within forty-eight hours after that, Ayatollah Khomeini was back in Iran ending his fifteen-year exile. His prime minister, Mahdi Bazargan, formed a new government. The rebellion against the modernizing Pahlavi monarchy in Iran arose from numerous other complex and deep reasons, at grass root level. For instance, the tensions generated by the expanding modern economy were a crucial factor. The values and practices of the secular elite and its centralized capitalism ran against the traditional merchant class and the Shi’a clergy.
As a consequence, they wanted to see the shah overthrown. In the end, the shah was overthrown by a populist coalition that included students, businessmen, Islamic traditionalists, Islamic modernists, Marxists, and Islamic liberals, among others, but it was the militant Shi’a clergy led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini that emerged as the most dynamic force. The success of the Iranian revolution in securing power can be attributable in part to the force of leadership provided by the ayatollah and in part to the overwhelmingly broad base of support it had in the population.
For example, about 8 million people, or one fifth of the population, demonstrated against the shah and his regime on one single religious holiday in December 1978 (Zahedi 1). There was political unrest within Iran’s student radicals, middle classes, and urban poor. Underneath the glitter of modernization that the shah had projected and promoted, Iranian society developed serious flaws. Shah encouraged the growth of an educated urban middle class, mainly through developing a relatively superior system of education, but absolutely denied this growing middle class any political voice. Free speech and free press were prohibited.
Student radicalism was one of the elements that spearheaded the Islamic revolution. Paradoxically, these students were Marxists and Islamists at the same time, they called themselves socialist Shiites. Rapid modernization also destabilized another important social group. The masses of young immigrants from the countryside who had been drawn to town by the promise of prosperity, only ended up in the packed slums of Tehran. Although the immigrants from the countryside and the ordinary working people of the cities were doing better than before, the economic uncertainty and dreadful living conditions contributed to unrest among this population.
Certain sections made huge profits, while income inequalities, high inflation, and corruption ran rampant in the society. There was a growing awareness of government failure in meeting its promises of greater economic and social equity. The discontent among the factory workers was rapidly aggravated (Keddie 161). In the end, loyal Shah’s supporters were in minority and in the wake of the revolution they had to bear the brunt of violent reprisals.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s success in overthrowing the Pahlavi regime derived fundamentally from his acceptance among the important ulama and intelligentsia as well as from the various strata of Iranian society. Khomeini’s religious organization captured the urban enthusiasm for change and eventually enabled it to win the battle on the streets. During and after the revolution, in a protracted struggle for power from 1979 to 1983, the clergy eliminated their colleagues in the rebellion against the shah and went to on to construct an Islamic state that enforced a socially conservative Islam.
The revolution in Iran entrenched the power of the militant clergy in a constitution that included the institution of the velayet-e-faqih (theocracy). The most senior Islamic expert was to hold almost absolute political and religious authority and had the last world in worldly rule. Khomeini himself became the Supreme Leader. The revolution also sought to dismantle exploitative capitalism, achieve social equality, and resist Western culture and economic penetration. The new order, however, did not mean completely narrow-minded traditionalism.
To some extent, the Revolution tried to promote a mix of both traditional and modern elements. Nonetheless, it was predominantly theocratic. The charismatic leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, sought to create a theocratic state to preside over a religiously guided polity. At the helm of this state he envisioned a wise and pious Islamic jurist, the custodian of a true and sacred worldview, leading the faithful and supportive community toward salvation. (Siavoshi 125) On February 23, 1979, the Iranian Revolution ushered in a new phase in Iran’s political and cultural history.
Iran’s revolution was the world’s first televised revolution, and its inflammatory passion and cold brutality was brought into people’s living rooms in “living color. “It transformed Iran and impinged upon the lives of Muslims everywhere by influencing the policies of Muslim states throughout the region and beyond (including countries not typically considered Muslim, such as India). The revolution presented a symbolic beginning of a vigorous sense of Islamic self-assurance (Schulze 226). The Iranian revolution of 1979 raised tremendous hopes among Islamists in Malaysia, Africa and throughout the Islamic world.
Iran was to be the showpiece of the Islamist movement. For the first time since the seventh century, a truly Islamic society was to be constructed. (Rubin 197) It was a truly a popular revolution, though its impact and legacy remain contentious. It gave rise to a new phase of militant Islamism. During the period of over two and a half decades since the Islamic revolution, Iran has stood out as a state that utilizes terror in order to facilitate and achieve its goals in the international arena.
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