Reasons advanced for the revolution and its populist, nationalist, and later Shi'a Islamic character include
- a conservative backlash against the Westernizing and secularizing efforts of the Western-backed Shah,
- a rise in expectations created by the 1973 oil revenue windfall,
- an overly ambitious economic program,
- anger over a short, sharp economic contraction in 1977–78,[Note 2]
- and other shortcomings of the previous regime.
The Shah's regime was seen as an oppressive, brutal, corrupt, and extravagant regime by some of the society’s classes at that time. It also suffered from some basic functional failures that brought economic bottlenecks, shortages, and inflation. The Shah was perceived by many as beholden to – if not a puppet of – a non-Muslim Western power (the United States) whose culture was affecting that of Iran. At the same time, support for the Shah may have waned among Western politicians and media – especially under the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter – as a result of the Shah's support for OPEC petroleum price increases earlier in the decade. When President Carter enacted a human-rights policy which said countries guilty of human-rights violations would be deprived of American arms or aid, this helped give some Iranians the courage to post open letters and petitions in the hope that the repression by the government might subside.
The revolution that replaced the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi with Islamism and Khomeini is credited in part to the spread of the Shia version of the Islamic revival. This opposed Westernization and saw Ayatollah Khomeini as following in the footsteps of the Shi'a Imam Husayn ibn Ali and the Shah in the role of Husayn's foe, the hated tyrant Yazid I. Other factors include the underestimation of Khomeini's Islamist movement by both the Shah's reign – who considered them a minor threat compared to the Marxists and Islamic socialists – and by the secularist, opponents of the government – who thought the Khomeinists could be sidelined.
The Shi'a clergy (Ulema) had a significant influence on Iranian society. The clergy first showed itself to be a powerful political force in opposition to the monarchy with the 1891 Tobacco protest. On 20 March 1890, Nasir al-Din Shah granted a concession to Major G. F. Talbot for a full monopoly over the production, sale, and export of tobacco for fifty years.
At the time the Persian tobacco industry employed over 200,000 people, so the concession represented a major blow to Persian farmers and bazaaris whose livelihoods were largely dependent on the lucrative tobacco business. The boycotts and protests against it were widespread and extensive because of Mirza Hasan Shirazi's fatwa (judicial decree). Finally Nasir al-Din Shah found himself powerless to stop the popular movement and cancelled the concession. The Tobacco Protest was the first significant Iranian resistance against the Shah and foreign interests, and revealed the power of the people and the Ulema influence among them.
Persian Constitutional Revolution
The growing discontent continued until the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911. The revolution led to the establishment of a parliament, the National Consultative Assembly (also known as the Majlis), and approval of the first constitution. Although the constitutional revolution was successful in weakening the autocracy of the Qajar regime, it failed to provide a powerful alternative government. Consequently, in the decades following the establishment of the new parliament, a number of critical events took place. Many of these events can be viewed as a continuation of the struggle between the constitutionalists and the Shahs of Persia, many of whom were backed by foreign powers against the parliament.
Insecurity and chaos created after the Constitutional Revolution led to the rise of General Reza Khan, the commander of the elite Persian Cossack Brigade who seized power in a coup d'état in February 1921. He established a constitutional monarchy, deposing the last Qajar shah, Ahmed Shah, in 1925 and being designated monarch by the national assembly, to be known thenceforce as Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. There were widespread social, economic, and political reforms introduced during his reign and a number of these reforms led to public discontent which provided the circumstances for the Iranian revolution. Particularly controversial was the replacement of Islamic laws with Western ones and the forbidding of traditional Islamic clothing, separation of the sexes and veiling of women's faces with the niqab. Police forcibly removed and tore chadors off women who resisted his ban on the public hijab. In 1935, dozens were killed and hundreds injured in the Goharshad Mosque rebellion. On the other hand, during the early rise of Reza Shah, Abdul-Karim Ha'eri Yazdi founded the Qom Seminary and created important changes in seminaries. However, he would avoid entering into political issues, as did other religious leaders who followed him. Hence, no widespread anti-government attempts were organized by clergy during the rule of Reza Shah. However, the future Ayatollah Khomeini was a student of Sheikh Abdul Karim Ha'eri.
Mosaddegh and The Anglo Iranian Oil Company (today BP)
From 1901 on, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1931), a British oil company, enjoyed a monopoly on sale and production of Iranian oil. It was the most profitable British business in the world. Most Iranians lived in poverty while the wealth generated from Iranian oil played a decisive role in maintaining Britain at the top of the world. In 1951 Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh pledged to throw the company out of Iran, reclaim the petroleum reserves and free Iran from foreign powers.
In 1952 Mosaddegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company and became a national hero. The British, however, were outraged and accused him of stealing. The British demanded punishment by the World Court and the United Nations, sent warships to the Persian Gulf and finally imposed a crushing embargo. Mosaddegh was unmoved by Britain's campaign against him. One European newspaper, the Frankfurter Neue Presse, reported that Mosaddegh "would rather be fried in Persian oil than make the slightest concession to the British". The British considered an armed invasion, but U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided on a coup after U.S. President Harry S. Truman refused to provide American military support. Truman sympathized with nationalist movements like Mosaddegh's and had nothing but contempt for old-style imperialists like those who ran the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mosaddegh, however, learned of Churchill's plans and ordered the British embassy to be closed in October 1952. All British diplomats and agents were forced to leave the country.
Although the British were initially turned down in their request for American support by President Truman, the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as U.S. President in November 1952 changed the American stance toward the conflict. On 20 January 1953, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, director of the C.I.A. Allen Dulles, told their British counterparts that they were ready to move against Mosaddegh. In their eyes, any country not decisively allied with the United States was a potential enemy. Iran had immense oil wealth, a long border with the Soviet Union and a nationalist prime minister. A fall into communism and a "second China" (after Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War) terrified the Dulles brothers. Operation Ajax was born, in which the only democratic government Iran ever had was deposed.
1953 Iranian coup d'état
In 1941 Reza Shah was deposed, and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was installed by an invasion of allied British and Soviet troops. In 1953, foreign powers (American and British) again came to the Shah's aid. After the young Shah fled to Italy, the British MI6 aided an American CIA operative in organizing a military coup d'état to oust the nationalist and democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi maintained a close relationship with the U.S. government, as both regimes shared an opposition to the expansion of the Soviet Union, Iran's powerful northern neighbor. Like his father, the Shah's government was known for its autocracy, its focus on modernization and Westernization, and for its disregard for religious and democratic measures in Iran's constitution. Leftist and Islamist groups attacked his government (often from outside Iran as they were suppressed within) for violating the Iranian constitution, political corruption, and the political oppression by the SAVAK secret police.
The White Revolution was a far-reaching series of reforms in Iran launched in 1963 by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and lasting until 1978. Mohammad Reza Shah's reform programme was built especially to weaken those classes that supported the traditional system. It consisted of several elements including land reform; sales of some state-owned factories to finance the land reform; the enfranchisement of women; nationalization of forests and pastures; formation of a literacy corps; and institution of profit sharing schemes for workers in industry.
The Shah advertised the White Revolution as a step towards westernization, and it was a way for him to legitimize the Pahlavi dynasty. Part of the reason for launching the White Revolution was that the Shah hoped to get rid of the influence of landlords and to create a new base of support among the peasants and working class.
Thus the White Revolution in Iran was an attempt to introduce reform from above and preserve traditional power patterns. Through land reform, the essence of the White Revolution, the Shah hoped to ally himself with the peasantry in the countryside, and hoped to sever their ties with the aristocracy in the city. What the Shah did not expect was that the White Revolution led to new social tensions that helped create many of the problems the Shah had been trying to avoid. The Shah's reforms more than quadrupled the combined size of the two classes that had posed the most challenges to his monarchy in the past – the intelligentsia and the urban working class. Their resentment towards the Shah also grew since they were now stripped of organizations that had represented them in the past, such as political parties, professional associations, trade unions, and independent newspapers. The land reform, instead of allying the peasants with the government, produced large numbers of independent farmers and landless laborers who became loose political cannons, with no feeling of loyalty to the Shah. Many of the masses felt resentment towards the increasingly corrupt government; their loyalty to the clergy, who were seen as more concerned with the fate of the populace, remained consistent or increased. As Ervand Abrahamian pointed out: "The White Revolution had been designed to preempt a Red Revolution. Instead, it paved the way for an Islamic Revolution." The White Revolution's economic "trickle-down" strategy also did not work as intended. In theory, oil money funneled to the elite was supposed to be used to create jobs and factories, eventually distributing the money, but instead the wealth tended to get stuck at the top and concentrated in the hands of the very few.
Rise and exile of Ayatollah Khomeini
The post-revolutionary leader – Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – first came to political prominence in 1963 when he led opposition to the Shah and his White Revolution. Khomeini was arrested in 1963 after declaring the Shah a "wretched miserable man" who had "embarked on the [path toward] destruction of Islam in Iran." Three days of major riots throughout Iran followed, with 15,000 dead from police fire as reported by opposition sources. However, anti-revolutionary sources conjectured that just 32 were killed. Khomeini was released after eight months of house arrest and continued his agitation, condemning Iran's close cooperation with Israel and its capitulations, or extension of diplomatic immunity, to American government personnel in Iran. In November 1964 Khomeini was re-arrested and sent into exile where he remained for 15 years (mostly in Najaf, Iraq), until the revolution.
Ideology of the Iranian Revolution
In this interim period of "disaffected calm", the budding Iranian revival began to undermine the idea of Westernization as progress that was the basis of the Shah's secular reign, and to form the ideology of the 1979 revolution: Jalal Al-e-Ahmad's idea of Gharbzadegi – that Western culture was a plague or an intoxication to be eliminated; Ali Shariati's vision of Islam as the one true liberator of the Third World from oppressive colonialism, neo-colonialism, and capitalism; and Morteza Motahhari's popularized retellings of the Shia faith all spread and gained listeners, readers and supporters.
Most importantly, Khomeini preached revolt, and especially martyrdom, against injustice and tyranny was part of Shia Islam, and that Muslims should reject the influence of both liberal capitalism and communism, ideas that inspired the revolutionary slogan "Neither East, nor West – Islamic Republic!"
Away from public view, Khomeini developed the ideology of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) as government, that Muslims – in fact everyone – required "guardianship," in the form of rule or supervision by the leading Islamic jurist or jurists. Such rule was ultimately "more necessary even than prayer and fasting" in Islam,[Note 3] as it would protect Islam from deviation from traditional sharia law and in so doing eliminate poverty, injustice, and the "plundering" of Muslim land by foreign non-believers.
This idea of rule by Islamic jurists was spread through his book Islamic Government, mosque sermons, and smuggled cassette speeches by Khomeini among his opposition network of students (talabeh), ex-students (able clerics such as Morteza Motahhari, Mohammad Beheshti, Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Mofatteh), and traditional businessmen (bazaari) inside Iran.
Opposition groups and organizations
Two armed men during demonstrations, behind of them is written: "Long live anti-Imperialism and Democratic forces".
Other opposition groups included constitutionalist liberals – the democratic, reformist Islamic Freedom Movement of Iran, headed by Mehdi Bazargan, and the more secular National Front. They were based in the urban middle class, and wanted the Shah to adhere to the Iranian Constitution of 1906 rather than to replace him with a theocracy, but lacked the cohesion and organization of Khomeini's forces.
Marxist groups – primarily the communist Tudeh Party of Iran and the Fedaian guerrillas[Note 4] – had been weakened considerably by government repression. Despite this the guerrillas did help play an important part in the final February 1979 overthrow delivering "the regime its coup de grace." The most powerful guerrilla group – the People's Mujahedin – was leftist Islamist and opposed the influence of the clergy as reactionary.
Some important clergy did not follow Khomeini's lead. Popular ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani supported the left, while perhaps the most senior and influential ayatollah in Iran – Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari – first remained aloof from politics and then came out in support of a democratic revolution.
Khomeini worked to unite this opposition behind him (except for the unwanted 'atheistic Marxists'), focusing on the socio-economic problems of the Shah's government (corruption and unequal income and development),
while avoiding specifics among the public that might divide the factions – particularly his plan for clerical rule, which he believed most Iranians had become prejudiced against as a result of propaganda campaign by Western imperialists.[Note 5]
In the post-Shah era, some revolutionaries who clashed with his theocracy and were suppressed by his movement complained of deception, but in the meantime anti-Shah unity was maintained.
Several events in the 1970s set the stage for the 1979 revolution.
The 1971 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire at Persepolis, organized by the government, was attacked for its extravagance. "As the foreigners reveled on drink forbidden by Islam, Iranians were not only excluded from the festivities, some were starving." Five years later the Shah angered pious Iranian Muslims by changing the first year of the Iranian solar calendar from the Islamic hijri to the ascension to the throne by Cyrus the Great. "Iran jumped overnight from the Muslim year 1355 to the royalist year 2535."
The oil boom of the 1970s produced an "alarming" increase in inflation, waste and an "accelerating gap" between the rich and poor, the city and the country, along with the presence of tens of thousands of unpopular skilled foreign workers. Many Iranians were also angered by the fact that the shah's family was the foremost beneficiary of the income generated by oil, and the line between state earnings and family earnings blurred. By 1976, the shah had accumulated upward of $1 billion from oil revenue; his family – including 63 princes and princesses had accumulated between $5 and $20 billion; and the family foundation controlled approximately $3 billion. By mid-1977 economic austerity measures to fight inflation disproportionately affected the thousands of poor and unskilled male migrants to the cities working construction. Culturally and religiously conservative, many went on to form the core of the revolution's demonstrators and "martyrs".
All Iranians were required to join and pay dues to a new political party, the Ḥezb-e Rastakhiz party – all other parties were banned. That party's attempt to fight inflation with populist "anti-profiteering" campaigns – fining and jailing merchants for high prices – angered and politicized merchants while fueling black markets.
In 1977 the Shah responded to the "polite reminder" of the importance of political rights by the new American president, Jimmy Carter, by granting amnesty to some prisoners and allowing the Red Cross to visit prisons. Through 1977 liberal opposition formed organizations and issued open letters denouncing the government. Against this background a first crucial manifestation of public expression of social discontent and political protest against the regime took place in October 1977, when the German-Iranian Cultural Association in Teheran hosted a series of literature reading sessions, organized by the newly revived Iranian Writers Association and the German Goethe-Institut. In these ″Ten Nights″ (Dah Shab) 57 of Iran's most prominent poets and writers read their works to thousands of listeners. They demanded the end of censorship and claimed the freedom of expression.
Also in 1977 the popular and influential modernist Islamist theorist Ali Shariati died under mysterious circumstances. This both angered his followers, who considered him a martyr at the hands of SAVAK, and removed a potential revolutionary rival to Khomeini. Finally, in October Khomeini's son Mostafa died of an alleged heart attack, and his death was also blamed on SAVAK. A subsequent memorial service for Mostafa in Tehran put Khomeini back in the spotlight.