The Iranian Revolution | Sarah Stook
Second in Sarah Stook’s series on Iran.
In 1979, three things occurred in Central Asian and The Middle East that changed the region, opening it up to fundamentalism, authoritarianism and fervent anti-Western thought. One was the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR, in hopes of protecting the communist government. During their time there, we saw the rise of what would later become the Taliban. Another was the terrorist occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. After several weeks of occupation that left many people dead, the Saudi Arabian government moved to make the country more conservative. Sharia law was enforced more harshly, the religious police were given more power and fundamentalist clerics had more say.
The third was the Iranian Revolution. Though it officially started in 1978 (though some say 1977), it concluded in 1979 when the Shah and his family fled, the monarchy was abolished by a referendum and the Ayatollah came to power. Its occurrence has had huge repercussions for Iran, the Middle East and the entire world. As this is written, Iran is making the headlines again due to a state of active conflict between it and the United States.
So let’s explore the Iranian Revolution.
Originally called Persia until 1935, Iran has been a hub of civilisation and culture since pre-historic times. The first national Iranian Parliament was established in 1905, with Iran suffering heavily later because of WW1 and a huge famine. Though officially neutral during WW2, things changed after Germany invaded Russia, with the USSR and Britain later invading Iran. In 1941, the Shah gained rule after his father abdicated. The Soviets remained occupiers of Iran until 1946.
In 1953, the US and UK joined together to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister, mainly due to his decision to nationalise the oil industry and throw foreign executives out of the country. This led to the Shah consolidating his power as an absolute monarchy.
Protests, Disobedience and Strikes
The 1970s revealed the cracks in Iranian society, things that will be explored later. The initial trigger of the immediate protests was the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Mostafa Khomeini. His death was widely regarded as suspicious; though Iranian forces said it to be heart attack, and many believe he had been assassinated. As a result, protests broke out across Iranian cities. Many regard an event of early 1979 to be the official start of the revolution, when an anonymous government source criticised the Ayatollah in a popular newspaper. Religious students were enraged and a clash in the city of Qom killed two.
The Ayatollah and his followers used this as a catalyst to get things moving. Forty days after the deaths, the official memorial stories were held, due to Shiite tradition. Before the forty days arrived, the radicals ensured that mosques and other religious places honoured the students who had died. Upon the arrival of the memorial services, riots broke out. Some cities became a war zone; with Western owned property and government controlled operations were broken into and set ablaze. Though the government managed to reign it in, the damage was done. Forty days after that, there were more protests, and again after another forty days.
The Shah had not been aware of his own unpopularity and was therefore shocked by what occurred. Though he loosened censorship, restrictions and asked his police not to use military force, it did not work. Riots quelled and all seemed well until the Cinema Rex fire (to be discussed later). After that, the protests got larger, more violent and a lot more intense.
Things came to a head when at the end of Ramadan; protestors went to the streets, demanding for the Ayatollah to return from exile. As a result, martial law was declared in major cities. An event later known as Black Friday- also to be discussed- was the breaking point, essentially ensuring the Shah could not stay.
Strikes started to occur, the most crippling being from the oil industry. Aware of his image, the Ayatollah and his followers used Western media to portray the Shah badly and portray the Ayatollah as an apolitical religious man who wanted to liberate the people of Iran. Soon after, an opposition leader flew to Europe and along with the Ayatollah, signed an agreement and draft constitution that created an alliance between the fundamentalists and secular opposition.
Riots continued and got worse, with Tehran essentially becoming a complete warzone. The British embassy suffered arson, with the American embassy narrowly avoiding suffering the same fate. Military government was declared, but a speech by the Shah backfired when he showed perceived weakness. The Muharram Protests signalled the beginning of the end, especially since security forces were commanded by the Shah not to be too harsh on protestors.
It was after the Muharram Protests that the Shah realised the jig was up.
Fall of the Monarch and a New Iran
The Shah was incredibly resistant to the idea of leaving, believing he could say. He delayed for as long as possible, but was convinced that Western leaders were set to abandon him after several met at a retreat. Knowing he had no Western back up and that his countrymen did not support him, the Shah realised it was the end for him.
He spoke to the Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, an enemy, and an agreement was reached. On 17th January 1979, the Shah and his family left for permanent exile. He died a year later from cancer after bouncing around the globe in search of a home. His two youngest children sadly killed themselves, but his third wife and his remaining children live in the USA.
After all images and memories of the Shah and his family were gotten rid of, Bakhtiar went to the Ayatollah to ask for time to prepare democratic elections and for there to be a religious unity government. To his shock, the Ayatollah refused and announced that he would head an Islamic government with himself as leader, and dismissed Bakhtiar as PM (Bakhtiar would later flee to France and after attempting a coup, he was assassinated).
On February 11th, after a referendum in which 98% voted in favour of a republic, the monarchy was over and a new regime began.
Reasons why it happened
- Black Friday- A day after the government declared martial law, unaware protestors gathered in a square in Tehran for a religious demonstration. Officials ordered them to disperse, but the protestors continued to fight back and push back against the military. This action caused security to fire upon the crowd. It is believed that around 88 people were killed and many more were injured, some putting the figure in the thousands. This broke any chance of peace and turned many even further against the Shah. Therefore, 8th September 1978 is henceforth known as ‘Black Friday.’
- Cinema Rex Fire- In the city of Abadan, people gathered inside a cinema to watch ‘The Deer,’ an Iranian film. Though what happened is somewhat muddled, what is known that several men seized upon the place and set it alight using fuel. Those attackers blocked exits and caused chaos, as the entrance doors were where the fires started. At least 420 people died in the incident and no one was able to escape. The government blamed Islamic Marxists, but the fundamentalists stated it was the government. Later on, the Islamic government blamed a police guard and had him executed. Years later, it was discovered that a pro-Khomeini group was responsible, likely to use the government as a scapegoat and to go against ‘Western’ cinema.
- Economics- Whilst Iran was prosperous, there was a huge wealth gap. This is best exemplified in 1971 when the Shah held a party celebrating 2,500 years of the Persian Empire in the historical Persepolis. Iranians were banned from the event, which was even more stinging considering many were hungry. Foreigners arrived for three days of alcohol (banned in Islam) and caviar, with the estimated cost at $100 million. The oil boom sent prices skyrocketing and many Iranians resented foreign workers coming in.
- Political Deaths- In 1977, two major figures died. The first was an Islamic sociologist with socialist leanings, the popular moderate Ali Shiarati. He was imprisoned several times for going against the government, and was both a friend and rival of the Ayatollah. Shiarati eventually fled to England but died only a week later. A heart attack was reported, but others believed the Shah’s men killed him. Only a few months later, Mostafa Khomeini, the Ayatollah’s eldest son, died in Iraq. He’d also been imprisoned before going into exile with his parents, later working underground in Iraq. Government said he’d died of a heart attack, but many believe they also killed him.
- Reform- The Shah’s so called ‘White Revolution’ was part of his reforms in hopes of a more liberal society. His main opponents were land lords due to his land reforms, and the conservative clergy. One main aim was the promotion of women, who were banned from marrying young, were able to gain political roles and were given suffrage- much to the anger of the clergy. They were also banned from wearing hijab, something that caused great pain- the most pious of women either stayed at home or committed suicide. Eventually, the Shah revoked the ban but hijab was still encouraged and impeded success in the workplace.
- Corruption- Many believed the Shah and his government to be incredibly corrupt. He used inheritance money to create a tax-exempt foundation. Rising oil prices put money in the pockets of friends and family. Millions were raised from the confiscation of estates, some family members were in the illegal drug trade and prostitution was rumoured. The Shah’s organisation was also a tax haven, something that angered poorer Iranians. It is said that the Shah and his family were the biggest source of corruption in the country.
- Oppression- Though the Shah was more moderate than his father and seen as less oppressive than the current regime, he was still not a figure who gave freedom. His main muscle was the SAVAK, the secret police of Iran. The SAVAK hunted down opposition figures, killing them without mercy and torturing brutally beforehand. Many who opposed the Shah were imprisoned, from the deeply religious to secular Marxists. Censorship was also a key theme, with the news media unable to state the truth in papers. Several mentioned in this article were imprisoned and seen as enemies of the state.
- Secularism- The Shah was Muslim, but was seen as anti-religious by many, not least because of his behaviour. An early example is the crackdown on the hijab, which caused huge offense to the clergy and conservative families, which saw it was a religious necessity. Alcohol was served at the Shah’s parties and he was rumoured to receive prostitutes. Popular religious leaders, such as the Ayatollah, were either imprisoned or expelled from the country. The Shah was also pro-Western, which religious folk found offensive. An even bigger sin on the Shah’s side was his support for Israel, the Jewish nation hated by most of its neighbours. Support for Palestine is and was popular in Iran, and religious fundamentalists like the Ayatollah are enraged by the idea of Zionism.
What followed the Iranian Revolution is something no one predicted, not even its proponents. Secular supporters of the Ayatollah watched as he created an Islamic republic based on Sharia law. Women who had cheered the Ayatollah supporting hijab were horrified when they were soon forced to wear it, when it was promised as a suggestion. Conservative Muslims were thrilled at the return of the values they believed in. Across Iran, you’d find no people with the same opinion.
Much like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, this created a fundamentalist revival- though a Shia revival, not Sunni like in the aforementioned countries. Iran has few allies now, hated by the West and despised by its Sunni monarchist neighbours.
There’s a lot to unpack after 41 years of Islamic fundamentalist rule. With the tensions between the USA and Iran at a boiling point, with neighbouring Iraq being dragged in the middle, we can no doubt trace this conflict back to the memorial of two religious students killed by Iranian security forces.
It is my hope that this has enlightened and informed you of the Iranian Revolution and its history. With what is happening at the moment, I believe a clear image of Iran is necessary so that we can all understand what is going on and know the truth so that we may form our own opinions.