“Revolution – Iran” from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History

(c) Berkshire 2005

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a defining moment in modern Iranian history, a precursor to bringing Islam and Shia (Muslims of the branch of Islam comprising sects believing in Ali and the prayer leaders as the only rightful successors of the Prophet Muhammad) clerics into the center of political authority, an unprecedented notion in the Middle East and the Islamic world of modern times. The Iranian Revolution had its origins in several preconditions that were intertwined with other issues: political oppression, modernization/Westernization of Iran, and foreign dependency, eventually leading to the collapse of Muhammad Reza Shah’s political order and its replacement by an Islamic republic.

Political Oppression

Political oppression in Iran can be traced to Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. His autocratic role, particularly after 1930, is easily identifiable as an undermining of the constitution, especially when one notes how the deputies of the Majles (Parliament) were handpicked and how the appointments of the ministers were based upon personal loyalty to the shah (sovereign), not to the general public. In addition, events brought about change to the political atmosphere of Iran during World War II. Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Iran, having already declared neutrality, refused the Soviet and British request that the ally forces be allowed to transport lend-lease material through its territory to the Russians. This refusal by Iran turned the request into an ultimatum and eventually led to invasions and occupation by England and Russia. Reza Shah was forced into exile and replaced with his twenty-two-year-old son, Muhammad Reza Shah.

The young shah’s lack of political experience inaugurated a period of political freedom that subsequently produced organized political parties with the authorization to publish their own newspapers, naturally giving birth to a new era of ideological rivalry between political contenders. This rivalry ultimately underwent a series of internal conflicts among the nationalists who dominated the Majles under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq and the pro-shah faction. To consolidate the nationalists’ position in the government, Dr. Mosaddeq in 1949 created the National Front, a coalition representing different groups and political parties. Its primary goal was to restrict foreign interests, particularly the British domination and exploitation of the Iranian oil industry, as well as to safeguard the 1906 constitution that restricted the power of the monarch. The National Front’s popularity reached great heights when Dr. Mosaddeq gained the approval of the Majles to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951 and soon after became the prime minister of Iran. British officials called for a boycott of Iranian oil. Through worldwide diplomatic maneuvers, major oil companies boycotted Iranian oil. This boycott nearly brought the Iranian economy to a standstill. The economic hardship of the early 1950s caused a severe strain on the implementation of all Mosaddeq’s promised domestic reforms and, in turn, commenced a decline in his popularity.

Fearing the spread of nationalization of domestic industries throughout the Middle East, along with the spread of Communist ideology in Iran, particularly through the popularity of the Tudeh (the masses) Party, the U.S. CIA and British intelligence executed a military coup d’etat against Dr. Mosaddeq’s government in August of 1953. After the coup the shah was returned to Iran from his self-exile and resumed control over the nation. He also settled the oil dispute through a consortium of eight European and U.S. companies by agreeing to fifty-fifty profit sharing by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. With the throne restored and the support of the United States, the shah began to take extreme measures to ensure the longevity of his dynasty. The first step toward this goal was the creation of an internal security force, with the help of the U.S. CIA and FBI, known as “SAVAK” (Sazeman-e Amniyyat va Ettela’at-e Keshvar or Organization for State Intelligence and Security). Its aim, for all intents and purposes, was to crush and demoralize opposition of any political nature, manipulate the behavior of all citizens, and control and redirect public opinion in the interest of the regime.

In 1958, in response to mounting pressure for democracy, the shah created a two-party system consisting of the Melliyun (Nationalist) and Mardom (People) parties, neither of which had the worthiness of an opposition party. However, in 1975 the two-party system merged into a single-party system known as “Rastakhiz” (resurgence), with membership required for all government employees and other people eligible to vote. Elections to the Majles were held; however, candidates had to have approval of SAVAK. Therefore, true representation of the people, via parliament, never emerged under the shah’s regime. Mass censorship of television broadcasting, newspaper circulation, books, and journals and imprisonment of intellectuals, students, and trade unionists boiled over into total political frustration, resulting in mass demonstrations, strikes, and armed resistance against the shah’s regime by the late 1970s.


The oil settlement of 1953 gave the shah the revenue to continue his father’s aspirations of modernization., Since the First Seven-Year Plan (1948–1955) did not achieve its expectation, the shah initiated a second Seven-Year Plan which began in 1955. However, due to corruption and mismanagement, the plan did not achieve its expected goals. To demonstrate his popularity among Iranians and decrease the pressure for reforms from the administration of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the shah announced his six-point program popularly known as the “White Revolution” (or the “Revolution of the Shah and the People”) in 1963. It encompassed land reform, the sale of government-owned factories to finance land reform, women’s suffrage, the nationalization of forests, a national literacy corps, and profit-sharing plans for recruits in industry.

The goals of land reform were twofold: to gain support from the peasants living in agricultural villages of Iran and to eliminate the big landlords as an influential class. Although some big landlords lost their prominence, many retained their large holdings and became modernized commercial farmers and eventually were incorporated into the shah’s political elite. Land reform also failed to give sufficient amounts of land and resources to the majority of peasants; thus, a massive migration to the cities began; the cities were not equipped to cope with the massive influx.

The national literacy corps was another important component of the White Revolution. The shah realized that for Iran to become modernized, the people of Iran would have to become more educated. Thus, high school graduate conscripts were recruited to spend fifteen months, in lieu of their compulsory military service of two years, in rural villages or small towns teaching in primary or adult literacy schools. With the help of the literacy corps and the opening of more schools, technical colleges, and universities, the shah succeeded in increasing the national literacy rate from 14.9 percent in 1956 to 74.1 percent by 1976. This increase was a major accomplishment by any modern standards. Nonetheless, these reforms undermined the religious schools and were resented by the cleric class, who had until then held the monopoly on education through their parochial schools. In addition, a higher literacy rate meant that political awareness in the cities, rural areas, and small towns would not be uncommon.

The women’s suffrage component of the White Revolution changed the political status of Iranian woman forever. Clerics and conservative families who did not like the emancipation of Iranian woman opposed this suffrage. Consequently, uprisings occurred in the theological seminaries and among shopkeepers in major cities. Clashes between the government and the opposition resulted in imprisonment and exile of the opposition leaders, including a less-prominent clergyman, Ruhollah Khomeini, who would play a major role and become the leader of the 1979 revolution.

Along with the aforementioned reforms, other social and economic reforms were undertaken to further modernize the country. Among the most notable reforms was improvement of the infrastructure of Iran, including the construction of better medical facilities, improvement in the accessibility to health care, reforms in family laws, and expansion of women’s rights. The modernization and secularization of Iran made the shah’s leadership powerful and secure; however, at the same time his autocratic rule disassociated him from an important segment of society. Although the economic and social reforms brought many improvements, they also alienated many groups, such as the Bazaaris (traditional merchants), who consisted of hundreds of thousands of major merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who could not compete in a Western-style economy. Lack of a viable political platform also alienated many intellectuals and students.

Foreign Dependency

The British and Soviets had dominated Iranian politics until the early 1950s, but the United States began to alter the role of the two competing powers in Iran after the 1953 military coup. The Truman Doctrine aimed to impede the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Because Iran had an extensive border with the Soviet Union, the U.S. administration saw Iran as a candidate for being influenced by Communist ideology. The first sign of the U.S. administration’s curbing Soviet influence came in October 1955 when Iran signed andjoined the Baghdad Pact along with Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and Great Britain. Creation of this pact would ensure Iran of the U.S. military and economic assistance that it badly needed. This pact, along with an earlier U.S.-Iran mutual defense agreement, set up Iran to receive great quantities of military equipment.

During 1972 the tide turned in favor of the shah. Great Britain had pulled out of the Persian Gulf due to worldwide military cutbacks, and this vacuum was soon filled when the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon underwrote the shah as the policeman of the Persian Gulf. This underwriting gave Iran carte blanche to purchase up-to-date non-nuclear weapons from the United States. During the 1973 meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), when the shah pushed to increase oil prices, in light of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and an ongoing oil embargo, the timing was right for him to strengthen his presence as a leader in the region. With increased OPEC oil prices, the Iranian oil revenue augmented from $2.3 billion in 1972 to $20.5 billion in 1977, dispersing any monetary obstacle that might have prevented the shah from strengthening his military forces.

With the increase in oil revenue, Iran’s annual military budget increased from $1.8 billion in 1973 to $9.5 billion in 1977, and the size of the military increased to 410,000 troops. The purchase of arms from the United States alone totaled $6 billion by 1977. In 1976 the two countries signed a bilateral agreement that anticipated that non-oil and non-military trade between the two countries would reach $15 billion by 1981. By 1978 more than fifty thousand U.S. military advisors and civilians were residing in Iran with extraterritoriality (or exterritoriality; privilege of immunity from local law enforcement of the host country) privileges. Ironically, the shah had now reinstated the same extraterritoriality act that his father had so fervently abolished in 1928. In general, the Iranian people never forgave Muhammad Reza Shah for that reinstatement.

Other factors leading to the Iranian Revolution included inflation, widespread corruption, inequities in income distribution, and the failure of political reform. Hence, by 1978 a rapidly growing and resounding discontent existed among a majority of Iranians. Strikes and demonstrations became a daily occurrences throughout 1978 and as a result hundreds died in clashes with riot police forces. The Shah’s inability to curb the situation encouraged the opposition to be more vigorous in their demand to end the monarchy. With the hope that a new government may be able to solve the political problems, he appointed one prime minister after another. They were, however, either old acquaintances or army generals who were already despised or mistrusted by the opposition. His final attempt was to ask Dr. Shahpur Bakhtiar, an opposition figure that had gone to jail for his anti-Shah activities, to form a new government. Even though, on January 3, 1979, the parliament gave its approval to the new government, it was too late for Bakhtiar to gain the trust of the people and remedy the situation. As a result, the Shah realized that his departure from the country might help ease the discord, so on January 13, 1979, he named a Regency Council to take his place while out of the country. His departure on January 16, 1979, however, marked the end of the Pahlavi era and the monarchy in Iran.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was unceremoniously forced out of Iraq, where he had been in exile since 1963, and was given permission to go to Paris. Suddenly the world’s major media personalities discovered a simple religious man who opposed the tyrannical leadership of his native country. Khomeini’s message was broadcast to the world and specifically to Iranians via various media outlets. His message was very simple; abdication of the Shah and reinstatement of the Iranian Constitution of 1906. In Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini set up an Islamic Revolutionary Council with the task of establishing a transitional government and a few days after his arrival in Iran, on February 1, 1979, he appointed Mehdi Bazargan, a devout Muslim and supporter of Dr. Mossadeq and an anti Shah activist, as the prime minister of a provisional government while Dr. Bakhtiar’s government was still in power. Dr. Bakhtiar and his government became increasingly unpopular to the point that he was forced underground and eventually fled the country on February 10, 1979.

Like with any other modern political revolution, a period of uncertainty and political chaos ensued during the month of February, 1979, in Iran. Almost overnight, hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary courts headed by clerics were set up throughout the country to deal with the former regime’s loyalists. High-ranking military officers, former prime minister, ministers, and any who opposed the new government were summarily tried and executed without having any legal representation. Along with the Islamic courts, the formation of a Revolutionary Guard Corps with recruitments primarily from the lower class and those loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini and Islam, was set up to defend the revolution against any possible military coup or civilian opposition. In order to abolish any sign of the old regime, on March 30–31, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a national referendum to choose the future form of the Iranian government. The choice was either Monarchy or an Islamic Republic. With this limited choice, after the people had just gotten rid of the monarchical system, they overwhelmingly approved the formation of an Islamic Republic over a monarchy. Soon after, the Council of Experts, its members mostly composed of clergy, was set up by Ayatollah Khomeini to draft a new constitution. The most debatable aspect of forming the new constitution was the principle of Velayat-e Fqih (the rule of juristconsult). In Shi’ism, it is believed that in the absence of the twelfth Imam (one who was the direct descendant of prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima, and his son-in-law and cousin Ali, went into occultation and will return as the Mahdi or Messiah), the most learned jurist, one who knows the divine law and the will of the Mahdi, should be the supreme head of the government. With the approval of the new constitution, Ayatollah Khomeini was declared as such a jurist and as head of the new government was given more power than any other previous leader in modern Iran.

By November 1979, it was Ayatollah Khomeini through his mouthpiece, the Islamic Revolutionary Council, who was running the country, not Prime Minister Bazargan and his cabinet. The final showdown between the two political rivals came to a head with the seizure of the American Embassy by so-called “Students Following the Line of the Imam [Khomeini.].” Bazargan and his moderate supporters adamantly opposed and condemned this act and demanded an end to the seizure of the American embassy and the release of American Embassy personnel. However, Ayatollah Khomeini eventually supported the students and called it Iran’s second revolution. Two days after the takeover of the American Embassy, Prime Minister Bazargan resigned and Ayatollah Khomeini and his high-ranking clerics began to consolidate their political, economics, and social power in Iran.

Farid Mahdavi

Further Reading

  • Abrahamian, E. (1982). Iran between two revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Amir Arjomand, S. (1988). The turban for the crown: The Islamic revolution in Iran. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Keddie, R. N. (1981). Roots of revolution: An interpretive history of modern Iran. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Milani, M. (1988). The making of Iran’s Islamic revolution: From monarchy to Islamic republic. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.