The Iranian Revolution (1979- )

Figure 1.--This is Ayatollah Khomeini who spebnt 15 years in rxile and had retuned to Iran to take control of the Islamic Revolutio (1979). The crowd is pressing forward in an effort to kiss his hand. He was a man of uncompromising beliefs and resolutely opised to the Shah's secularism. He died a decade later after firmly established an Islamic theocratic state in Iran. He was fervently venrated by millions. Authorities afte his burial had to cover his grave with thick concrete slabs to prevent griving followers from disinterring his corpse.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran is emerging as one of the primary issues of the early 21st century. Iran was on the perifery of world events until World War II when Iran became the primary route for American Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union. After the War Iran became more important as a najor oil producer. The Islamic Republic's persuit of nuclear weapons is the issue of greatest concern to the international community. The Islamic Revolution poses a variety of other issues, in particular its theocratic government, undermining democracy, support of terrorism, determination to destroy Israel, and its human rights record. Of primary interests is just what are the intentions of Iran.

World War II (1939-45)

Reza Shah's Government declared Iran neutral with the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The British suspected that the Shah was sympathetic with the NAZIs who were active diplomatically in Iran. The Iranians rejected British demands to expel Axis agents. After the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union it became vital to open supply lines to the Soviets. The British and Soviets thus launched a coordinated invasion (August 26, 1941). The Soviets invaded from the north. The British from Iraq where they had defeated a pro-Axis rebellion and by troops landed along te Persian Gulf. There was only limitedd resistance. Reza Shah abdicated (September 16). His son ascended the throne as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. At the time of the War, Iran had just begun to develop its petroleum indutry. It did not play an important factor in the War. Britain fought the War largely with American oil, although the 8th Army fought the War in the Western Desert largely with Iraqi oil. Iran's importance in the War was largely as a conduit for American Lend Lease shipments to the Soviets.

The Shah

The British during World War II replaced Reza Shah with his young son--Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (September 1941). This permitted the Allies to use Iran to tranport huge quantities of war material to the Soviet Union. With the departure of Reza Kahn, Iran's political system began to become more open. Political parties were developed. The first Majlis (parlimentary) elections elections were held (1944). These were the first genuinely democratic elections in more than 20 years. The Western Allies withdrew their troops from Iran as required under the Tripartite Treaty. The Soiviets who had been supporing independence movements refused to remove their troops or provide a time table for doing so. The Soviets under international pressure finally evsacuated their troops (May 1946). Tensions continued for several months. The episode was one of the opening shots in the developing Cold War. And Mohammad Reza Shah would become a staunch Americam ally in that struggle. The British-owned Angelo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) continued to produce and market Iranian oil. Some Iranians had begun to advocate the nationalization of the AIOC. With the deoparture of the British this began to become a major politicsal issue. The young Shah wanted to continue his father's reform policies, but he was left with a more open political system than tolerated by his fathers. A struggle developed between the Shah and an older and more experienced politician--the fervent nationalist Mohammad Mosaddeq. The Shah had pledged to act as a constitutional monarch who would defer to the Majlis. The Shah despite this vow, however, began to involve himself in governmental affairs, often to oppose prime ministers. Historians tend to describe the young Shah as indescisive. He focused his efforts on strengthening the Army and to make sure it remained under royal control. This would be the monarchy's main power base. An attempted assasination, probasbly carried out by the Tudeh Party, failed (1949). The Government as a result, banned the party. Laws were also passed expanding the Shah's constitutional powers. Iran rapidly developed its oil industry after the War, generating huge income to finance an ambitious development program. The United States supported the Shah in the Cold War. The Shah used the oil income to begin the modernization of the country. He did not allow the development of democratic institutions. This led to growing popular resistance. The modernization program offened conservatibe Muslim elements. The Shah's secret police suppressed democratic reforners and Islamic fundamentalists alike. Iran made considerable ecnomic progress financed by oil revenue during the Shah's reign. Despite the economic growth and modernization or perhaps because of it there was considerable opposition to the Shah. Much of it was centered on the Shia community. The Shah made no effort to develop a democratic system in Iran and instead turned to the the secret police, Savak, to control Iran.

Ayatolah Khomeini (1902- )

Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini came from a family of destinguished Shi'ia religious scholars. His father Seyed Moustafa was a respected cleric. Rouhollah was born in the small town of Khomeini (1902). His father was murdered after provoking a local landlord while he was still an infant. Responsibility for the family devolved to Rouhollah's older brother Seyed Mourteza (later to become Ayatollah Pasandideh). His aunt, Sahiba, played an important role in Rouhollah childhood and rearing. He lost both her and his mother, Hajar (1918). Rouhollah following the family avocation began his education at the age of 6 years by memorizing the Qoran at a maktab /madrassa (traditional religious school). His brother sent his him to Arak (Sultanabad) which had more important Islamic educatinal institutions that Khomeni (1920-21). Finally Khomeini went to Qom, the most important center of religious instructiion in Iran (1923). Much of his subsequent life would be assiociated with Qom. There he completed his Islamic education. As a young Islamic cleric, Khomeini was largely apolitical deferring to the judgement of senior clerics who klargely avoided confrontatiion with civil authorities, meaning Reza Khan who seized control of the Government and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty (1921-25). His political stance joining the pro-American Baghdad Pact and thhen Iranian coup d'état (1953). Khomeni's first important political activities were actually in support of the Shah. Reza Shah had largely protected the Baha'i faith from clerical critics who wanted it supressed as apostophy. Reza Shah's political weak son, Muhammad Reza, decided to ininiate a camapign against the Baha'i, largely to gain support of Iran's important clerical establishment (1955). Khomeini strongly believed that the Baha'i should be supressed, but important clerics had more tolerant attittudes, especially Ayatollah Boroujerdi Khomeini's superior and the most respected Islamic cleric in the country. [Mottahedeh, p.231.] Khomeini achieved ayatollah status (1950s). Khomeini's activities began to take on a more political nature after the death of Ayatollah Boroujerdi (1961). Khomeini began to emerge as one of the most important successors to Boroujerdi's mantel of leadership. He began to publish some if his writings, focusing on 'fiqh'. He opublished a handbook of religious practice. His oprimary message was one of resisting secuklarism. He began to be accepted by other Shi'ia clerics as Marja-e Taqlid. Khomeini confriontation with the Shah began when the Iranian Givernment published new laws governing elections to local and provincial councils. The new laws deleted the long-established requirement that elected officials be sworn into office on the Holy Qoran (1962). Khomeini was furios, seeing this as part of a larger plan to enable the Baha'isto infiltrate public life. He telegraphed both the Mohammad Reza Shah and the prime minister, accusing them of violating both the law of Islam and the Iranian Constitution of 1907. He threatened that unless they desisted that the Ulama (Islamic community) would launch a campaign of protest. The Shah largely ignored the challengeb and announced a six-point program of reform--the White Revolution (1963). Ayatollah Khomeini convoked a meeting of important Islamic clerics in Qom to convince them that they needed to oppose the Shah's White Revolution. Ayatollah Kamalvand was sent tom meet personally with the Shah and assess his intentions. The Shah was not prepared to compromis. Ayatollah Khomeini pressed the other senior clerics in Qom to persuade them to issue a decree boycotting the referendum that the Shah planned to obtain the appearance of popular support fior his White Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a sharply worded declaration denouncing the not ionlt the White Revolution and the Shah personally. Two days later Shah entered Qom with an armored column and delivered a speech attacking the Ulama as a class. This was the beginning of the struggle between the two leadeers.

The Shah's White Revolution

To counter American criticism that the Shah's regime was authoritarian and reressive, the shah announced his White Revolution. The name refers to the fact that it was a bloodless revolutiin. It was a package of measures designed to give his regime a more liberal and progressive image. It was not aimed at the Islamic clergy, but was a secularist program. Its rather step was land reform, to break up large estates. The Shah hoped to gain the loyalty of the peasantry. While the central step was land reform, but a whole series of modernization efforts were launched. One was the enfranchisement of women which Khomeini did oppose. Ironically although the Ulama led by Khomenini opposed the White Revolution and its secularist goals, its long term impact was to undermine support for the Shah. The modernization effort substantially increased the middle class which the Shah proved unable to win over and Khomeini and the Ulama was able to generate considerable support by ctiticising the Shah's absolutist approach and repressive rule. Unsaid was Khomenini's plan to replace the Shah's authoritarian rule with rule by the mullas (Islamic Ulama) and an even more repressdive regime.

Overthrow of the Shah (1978-79)

The Shah's Governent with oil income made impressive advances in modrnizing Iran which athe tome of World war II waa a still very poor and backward country, only minimally touched by the modern world and technology. Conservative Iranian society found some of the modrnization efforts profoundly disturbing, especially the lack of focus on Islam and the Western values such as women's rights. What was not part of the shah's modernization program was creating a modern democratic society. SAVAK was used to supress all political oppisition. They might have supported a constitutionl monarchy. As a result, opposition to the Shah increased. It was not just from the powerful religious community, but from the new educated, urban middle class that the Shah's program had helped create. Even young women who were being educated gror the firm time were among the Shah's critics. The Shah became seen as not only corrupt, but beholden to Western imperialists, both the British and Americans. Many Iranians believed that the national oil boom, wealth was not being equally distributed. It is not clear, however, if this actually imprived by the Islamists ho seized control after the oberthrow of the Shah. Pprotests grew in Iran despite the represive measures of SAVAK. Some Iramians wanted to replace the Shah with a new democratic parlimentary system based on the majlis. The most powerful movement, however, became the Islamists which ould demand a ore Muslim way of life (tabriz) and respect the religious clerics (ulama). The country by 1978 was moving toward civil war. Ayatollah Khomeini living in exile in France led the opposition to the Shah. While the Shah's government controlled media, Khomenini managed to circulate his message through tape cassettes which were smuggled into Iran and then duplicated in large numbers. In this fashion they were circulated throughout the country. Protests increased. And the Army was rediddled with young conscripts and officers who wre attracted by Ayatollah Khomeini preaching. Finally the Shah's government cn no longer control the situation. The Shah finally was forced from Iran (January 16, 1979).

Islamic Revolution (1979)

The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran (February 1). An era of antagonism bgins to fundamentally change Iran. The middle class was thinking of a democratic revolution. Fundamentalist Shia clery were thining of a an Islamic theicracy. Actions began against the Shah;s suppoters. Khomenni's supporters executed hundreds of people. A range of new fundamentalist-based regulations were introduced, such as regulations on women's dress. Protests were met by force. The referendum on the new Iranian constitution is held (March 30).

Hostage Crisis (November 1969)

Militants storm the U.S. Embassy taking 70 hostages, most American diplomats. The militrants release 18 people before the end of the month. The rest are held more than a year. The hostage affair more than any other set the image of the Islamic Revolution in the American mind. The Iranians finally release the American hostages (January 20). The released was timed to ensure it did not occur while President Carter was still in office. The United States conceded to transfer funds owed to Iran.

Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)

Saddam Hussein orders an invasion of Iran (1980). Saddam concluded that Iran without its American ally was too weak military to resist. Saddam claimed territory inhabited by Arabs, as well as territory lost to Iran in 1971. The Iraqi Army gained some early victories, but is stopped by the Iranians and a long, brutal war of attition commenses. This was the longest most-distructive war ever fought between two Muslim powers. More than 1 million are believed to have been killed during the fighting.

Salman Rushdie (June 1989)

The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Indian-British author Salman Rushdie as a result of the presentation of Islam and Muhammad in his book Satanic Verses published in 1988. Soon after this Khomeini died. Rusdie has had to live under police protection.


Iranian officials condemn both Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the allied forces military action to liberate Kuwait.

U.S. Policy

The United States imposes a total ban on trade with Iran (1995). A U.S. law includes a provision penalizing any company, even non-U.S. companies investing in Iran and Libya (1996).

Theocratic Government

Sharia Law


Iran after Islamic Revolution slowly evolved into an increasingly vigorous democracy, unusual in the Middle East. Iranian officials and religious-dominated courts first began closing liberal newspapers. Then they disqualified all but conservsative candidates in the Majlis (parliament) elections. The result was a low turnout ans a decisive victory for conservative representatives (February 21, 2004). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is elected president in the second round of the popular elections. (June 24, 2005).

Nuclear Weaponds

Support of Terrorism

Determiation to Destroy Israel

Human Rights


Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (One World, Oxford, 1985, 2000).


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Created: 9:33 PM 6/25/2007
Last updated: 6:59 AM 7/22/2017