I was surprised to find no write-up on the Iranian Revolution here on E2. Encarta, amazingly, also lacks an article. The Iranian Revolution had a huge impact on the entire Muslim world; although the Iranians are not Arabs, the effect on their Arab neighbours was greatest. If we hope to understand the region, we must understand the Iranian Revolution and what it symbolised. I hope the following adds to knowledge on this subject.


"They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no-one will have the right to interfere."
~ Ayatollah Khomeini, shortly before exile, commenting on capitulatory laws

Iran was ruled by Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been on the throne since 1941. He was the son of Reza Pahlavi, who was on the throne from 1925 to 1941. The dynasty was an upstart, and only furnished Iran with two Shahs. It has sometimes been compared to the House of Saud, but the two dynasties differed sharply in their beliefs and governing philosophy. The Saudi state was based on religious fundamentalism; in his day and afterwards, Reza Shah had been compared to Ataturk, the great seculariser and moderniser of Turkey.

Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was not a popular ruler. In 1953 a socialist coup had forced him to flee the country, only coming back due to a counter-coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA. This experience should have taught the Shah humility; instead, it taught him that he could get away with anything and the West would bail him out. Over the following decades, the Shah increasingly ruled without reference to any group in society. The economic and military aid he received from the West could help him build a strong military and police apparatus, which gave him power, but they could not give him authority. The oil wealth he exploited could make him rich, but it gave him the dangerous idea that he could rule without reference to any aspect of Iranian society.

A state, even a dictatorial one, needs to rely on some sort of social support to remain in power. The Shah managed to alienate almost every group in society, so when the decisive moment came he could rely on no-one but his state apparatus and those who would suffer for crimes they had committed at his whim. He alienated the landlords with his land reform program. He alienated the merchant and bazari classes by preferring the modern sector of the economy and by attacking and jailing them for "profiteering", on which he blamed rampant inflation. He alienated the clergy by the oppressive and secular aspects of his rule. And he alienated everyone by his anti-clerical and pro-Western, as well as pro-Israeli, policies.

The Shah had good reason to fear the power of the clergy. The Iranian ulama are unique among the ulama of the Islamic world in several ways. Firstly, since Shi'ism became the state religion of Iran in 1501, they have demanded obedience from the laity. In Islam, the Iranian ulama are the closest institution that are analagous to the Papacy of Christendom in the Middle Ages. They were also unique in being rather rich, as they continued to collect religious taxes from the population - in other Islamic countries, the state tended to have taken over this function, undermining the independence of the ulama. This allowed the ulama to become a centre of anti-government forces and also have the finance and independence to spread their views.


...could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits - and then
Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
- Omar Khayyam

It has been remarked that the Iranian Revolution was at once revolution and counter-revolution, because it installed in power a traditional class concerned with restoring what had been lost rather than radical change. This is true but does not increase our understanding of the event. It was revolutionary because, like the French and Russian Revolutions, it occured due to an accumulation of pent-up socio-economic energy which had no political outlet. It also profoundly changed Iran and the Islamic world.

Opposition to the shah had tended to come from the educated middle-classes, who would have settled for a constitutional monarchy. But it was the poorest segment of the population which had the real revolutionary potential, as they trusted the ulama and, not being Westernised, most despised the shah's programs, which had done nothing for them. Khomeini, a respected member of the ulama, had started protesting against the regime in 1962, and had become popular. He was exiled in 1963 following some anti-government demonstrations which he was believed to have inspired. He took up residence first in Turkey, then in Iraq, and moved to France when the revolutionary crisis began in 1978: crucially, here he had access to modern communications with which to contact his followers. However, while in France he was also at risk, as the French secret service offered to subject him to a "lethal accident" - the shah declined, saying this would make him a martyr.

In January of 1978, the regime press published a libellous story about Khomeini. In Qom, where Khomeini had been a religious teacher, students and ulama came out in protest against the story. The army was sent in to put down the crowds, and several students were killed. This set off a chain of events. Shi'ite custom states that memorial services are to be held for a person's death forty days after the event. Hence, forty days after the deaths of the students, groups marched to mourn their passing and hail them as martyrs - and violence broke out in Tabriz, were several hundreds were killed. The same happened again forty days later and forty days after that.

By September, martial law had been imposed and the right to association curtailed. Throughout the summer the economic situation had worsened, with a wage freeze imposed by the government. On September 8, the shah used all the military might at his disposal to crush protests in Tehran - in 1905 the Russians had their Bloody Sunday, and now the Iranians had their Black Friday. Tanks and helicopter gunships rained down fire on unarmed protesters, mainly students, and hundreds were killed. The shah's reign was epitomised in this resort to overwhelming military force rather than political compromise. He would later propose a constitution and a prime minister; by then it would be too late.

In October, a general strike was called, and the economy - including the oil industry that was so vital to the shah - shut down. By the early days of December, hundreds were killed each day by the regime, but each new day brought new crowds on the streets of Tehran. On December 12, two million people flooded into the streets and called for the shah's abdication. However, the loyalty of the people to Khomeini was immense - only when he called, from abroad, for the abdication of the shah was the last of the Pahlavis ready to admit defeat. He fled the country and Khomeini re-entered it on February 1 of 1979. Like Lenin, he returned to his country when the first Revolution was over. And also like Lenin, he returned with plans for a second.

Revolutions have the tendency to unite, but their aftermaths have a tendency to divide. Although Khomeini was the most popular figure in Iran, there were dozens of revolutionary groups - nationalist, Marxist, anarchist, liberal and secularist. Throughout the early years of the revolution, a battle was fought between these various groups as they jockeyed for power. When the shah was admitted to asylum in the USA in October, many feared an imperial restoration was being plotted, such as had happened in 1953. This fear stemmed in a large part from an apparent rapprochment between the moderate Iranian PM and the American National Security Advisor, who reportedly had shook hands in Algeria.

The result was the Iranian hostage crisis, in which Islamic radicals seized 52 Americans in the embassy in Tehran. Ten hostages, African Americans and women, were released immediately, but the rest were kept until 444 days had passed and Ronald Reagan came to power. By this time, the damage that was intended had been done - Iranian radicals had made sure their country would not be on good terms with the United States. They had also by this point consolidated their power, with an Islamic Constitution and Khomeini as Supreme Leader.


Of the three events that most energised the ummah in the 1960s and '70s, the Six Day War destroyed its confidence and the oil embargo and Iranian Revolution inspired it. To many Muslims and many others in the Third World the Revolution represented different things. To the Shi'i of other countries, who tended to be in a minority, they associated it with the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressors. But there was also ambivalence at the involvement of the ulama so directly in politics, something anathema to many Shi'i who believed in subservience until the coming of the Mahdi. To the Saudis, the Iranian Revolution was a challenge - Wahhabism considers the Shi'i to be apostates, and the international attention they garnered took attention away from the Wahhabi cause.

Perhaps most of all despite theological differences, Khomeini's revolution signified the victory of the oppressed over the 'Great Satan', and the return to more traditional ways. In the Qu'ran Satan is not just the embodiment of evil, but a seducer - just like the West with its commerce and jahili ways of government. The image of Khomeini vs. the arrogant West could have resonance not just in Muslim countries, but everywhere. It was also an example of modern revolutionary techniques applied to the Third World. For although the revolution preached old doctrines, it relied on modern techniques of a mass base and modern communications and indoctrination. The summary execution of ideological opponents, the confiscation of huge amounts of property, and the driving of hundreds of thousands of people into exile owe more to modernity than to the Islamic historic experience.

The legacy of the revolution in Iran is violence, torture and opppression. As this became obvious throughout the 1980s, support and appreciation of the revolution diminished somewhat. The Iranian nuclear program is perhaps another attempt at an Islamic revolution, to once again propel Iran to the position of leader of the Muslim world which it held in the heady and optimistic aftermath of the Revolution.

For further reading, see the Islamic Resurgence.


Nikki Keddie, Iran and the Muslim World
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam
Bernard Lewis, The Middle East
Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam