The Iranian Revolution was one of the pivotal events that define many aspects of international relations today. With issues about sanctions in the news, many people are once again asking questions about the Islamic Republic of Iran and just why it matters so much. Understanding the story behind the Iranian Revolution will help you see why tensions between the United States and Iran are still frozen.
16. The Pahlavi Dynasty Controlled Iran
On February 21, 1921, Reza Khan Pahlavi, later known as Reza Shah, and 3000 of his troops marched into Tehran and overthrew the government, which at the time was a constitutional monarchy. The monarch at the time was Ahmed Shah Qajar; the Qajar dynasty was reviled for its incompetence, doing things such as selling off Iran’s territory to fund the royal family’s lavish lifestyle. When Reza Khan Pahlavi became prime minister and was later declared shah, he seemed to be a savior of sorts, someone who would restore Iran to the former glory of the Persian Empire.
However, Reza Shah established himself as an autocrat. Many viewed his reign as a “one-man rule” that disregarded the Iranian constitution and parliament. Many people, particularly in rural areas, starved under his land reform policies; they were said to bear the brunt of his rule. He was deposed in 1941, during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran (World War II), and his son, Mohammad Reza, became the new shah. He would not only continue with the popularizing and modernizing reforms of his father but would add his own, bringing Iran into closer alliance with the West. The secular Pahlavi dynasty would hold power until Mohammad Reza Shah was ousted in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution.
15. The Pahlavi Shahs Wanted to Westernize and Modernize Iran
During the reigns of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah, many circularizing reforms were introduced to Iranian society. Whereas education had formerly been in the hands of religious clerics, the Pahlavi shahs built secular schools, including the first European-style university in Tehran. He implemented a secular law that existed outside of Sharia and established secular courts and even banned Iranian women from wearing the hijab (the traditional headscarf that many Muslim women wear). Not everyone supported these secularizing reforms; in fact, many Iranians opposed them. One of the most outspoken opponents of these reforms was a cleric named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In addition to depolarizing the country, there was also a goal of modernizing. The Trans-Iranian Railway connected Tehran to the rest of the country, and the White Revolution was intended to modernize the country’s agriculture. However, the most far-reaching and consequential modernizing policy was that of the monarchy’s alliance with Western powers, mainly the British, who wanted control of Iran’s oil supply. This alliance led to the exploitation of Iran’s people, who were viewed as slave labor for the oil company, as well as the country’s natural resources. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company proved to be one of the most significant catalysts of the impending Iranian Revolution.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest supporters of the Western-friendly shah was the United States of America. In 1856, the United States welcomed Iran’s first ambassador, Mirza Abolhasan Shirazi. In 1883, Samuel G. W. Benjamin became the first American ambassador to Iran. The two countries were friendly with each other, but there was no large-scale diplomacy or other political interactions before World War II. Even through all the political turmoil in 1906 and later 1911, when Iran was undergoing its Constitutional Revolution, the two countries remained cordial. The United States was not seeking to expand its imperialism to this remote country in Central Asia, and Iran was content to be left alone.
One of the keys to fighting and winning World War II was oil because the new heavy weaponry used in the war – things like tanks and airplanes – required large amounts of fuel. Iran had massive oil reserves, and its possession of this commodity forever changed its relations with the West. Additionally, the Cold War – which effectively began after the end of World War II ¬- polarized the world between the capitalists and the communists. Iran’s geography made it ideal for positioning American forces close to the Soviet border. America quickly realized the strategic importance of Iran and cozied up to the shah.
13. Britain and the United States Wanted Iran’s Oil
The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which was created through a series of concessions made by the Qajar shahs to the British at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries, was one of the biggest drivers of Western influence in Iran during the twentieth century. APOC enabled Iranian oil to fuel the British Royal Navy, an interest that the British were keen to protect during World Wars I and II. Oil agreements between the British and Iran’s shahs led to exploitation of the land and people — a form of colonialism — which the Iranian people deplored. They wanted Iran’s resources to be used to help the people there, not Western powers.
APOC was added to the list of grievances that the Iranian people had against the monarchy. They were starving and falling into increased poverty, while the Shah and his Western allies were becoming increasingly wealthy. However, the need for oil by Western countries was not going anywhere; in the industrial and economic booms following World War II, the United States and Britain were becoming more and more dependent on Iran’s oil reserves. To protect their interests there, they needed to keep up friendly relations with the Shah, even if the shah’s people were increasingly turning against him.
12. In 1953, the US Sponsored a Coup to Overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister
In 1951, Iranians rallied around a politician named Mohammad Mossadegh, who became prime minister. Although Mossadegh was in favor of secularization, he stood up to Western interests by, among other things, nationalizing the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, thereby bringing it under Iranian control and ending the British exploitation of the Iranian oil fields. Such a move was undoubtedly in the best interests of Iran, whose people were tired of being puppets of Western countries while the shah grew increasingly rich and powerful. However, the oil-hungry West was increasingly reliant on its control of oil fields in the Middle East, and Western countries were not keen to give up the oil fields or their addiction to oil.
The United States and Britain responded with a coup that overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. The coup spawned deep resentment towards the West among the Iranian people. With the help of the United States, Muhammad Reza Shah, who had been in power since his father had abdicated in 1941, set up the Iranian intelligence agency, SAVAK, to brutally suppress dissent against the Western-backed Pahlavi dynasty. Despite his efforts to modernize the country, Muhammad Reza Shah failed to upgrade it politically by bringing democracy and listening to the increasingly discontent voice of the people.
One of the first things that Mohammad Mossadegh did as prime minister was to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He canceled all the British concessions, which were not due to expire until 1993 so that Iran now had complete control over its oil assets. Winston Churchill, who was then prime minister of Great Britain, was distressed over these events and sought the help of the United States to regain its influence in Iran. President Eisenhower reluctantly agreed and enlisted the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in what came to be known as Operation Ajax.
The goal of Operation Ajax was to get the Shah to dismiss Mossadegh from his place as prime minister voluntarily. The CIA created rumors and spread them throughout Tehran, fueling protests against Mossadegh. One of the tales was the threat of severe punishment for any who dissented with him. He came to be viewed as an autocratic dictator and not a popular politician who had been elected through a democratic process. In August of 1953, the Shah officially stripped Mossadegh of his position and went into hiding, fearful of possible repercussions.
Mohammad Mossadegh was the first leader of Iran elected through a democratic process, and the world’s two leading democracies – the United States and Great Britain – had him overthrown. Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the intelligentsia which was keen on what had actually happened, and he was furious at what America had done. America’s continued support of the monarchy was like a slap in the face. He decried American imperialism at every turn and wanted to take Iran back from Western interests.
10. A Radical Cleric Named Ayatollah Khomeini Spoke Out Against American Involvement in Iran
As the Iranian people began to lash back against the Westernizing reforms of the Pahlavi shah, Islamism became a galvanizing point for government discontents. Religious centers, particularly in the holy city of Qom, became centers of dissent. Religious clerics, who had previously been removed from public life and had disavowed political participation, were now indicative of the burgeoning popular uprising against the Shah and his Western-inspired reforms and particularly against the coup of Mohammad Mossadegh. One of the foremost of these religious clerics was Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who, in 1979, would spearhead the Iranian Revolution and become the Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic.
Beginning in 1965, Khomeini gained strong support against what he believed was the godless tyranny of the Shah, who served as an agent of the United States and furthered its imperialist goals. In January and February of 1970, during his exile in Najaf, Ayatollah Khomeini delivered a series of theopolitical lectures that became compiled into a book called Vilayat al-Faqih. This book outlined his vision of a proper Islamic government in Iran, how that government would be structured, and the theological, political, and historical rationale for such a government.
9. The Shah’s White Revolution Led to Social Decline
Meanwhile, the Shah continued in his reforms that continued to earn the support of Western powers. Beginning in 1963, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi started a far-reaching series of US-backed changes known as the White Revolution, which aimed to modernize Iran further. The White Revolution was preceded by a series of land reforms that redistributed ownership of land in rural areas in exchange for shares in industry owned by the Iranian state. A goal of the redistribution of land was to help modernize Iran’s rural areas.
However, many of the new farms failed. Farmers and their families had to leave their farms and head to major cities, such as Tehran, seeking employment in the industrial sector. This rapid urban flight caused some of the strong bonds to the land and extended family — both critical social structures in Iranian culture — to break down. Furthermore, people who had previously been able to support themselves off the land were reduced to urban poverty and misery. Lack of food, as a result of the failed farms, meant that many people did not have enough to eat, and a growing urban population meant that there were more hungry mouths with fewer people growing food. Levels of discontent and opposition to the Shah exploded.
8. The Shah Didn’t Realize the People Were Increasingly Opposing His Policies
The Shah seemed to be blissfully unaware that his people were so absolutely opposed to his reforms. In fact, he was convinced that they were good for the country and that the people loved them. So he did what any self-deluded monarch in his place would do: continued implementing reforms that he thought people loved. Additional changes that he performed by the White Revolution included introducing liberal laws for empowering women; reducing the local power and autonomy of ethnic groups, especially in the countryside; and bringing healthcare and education to rural areas.
Some of these reforms probably were beneficial, but the overall impact was a breakdown of local ties, such as in tribal areas, where people viewed themselves primarily as members of the tribe and connected to their land rather than citizens of the country who owed allegiance to its ruler. Furthermore, as part of the White Revolution, the Shah advocated strong diplomatic ties with the West, especially with the United States. However, the role of the United States in the coup that ousted Muhammad Mossadegh had not been forgotten by the Iranian people. Additionally, the encroaching Western influence promoted a lifestyle of lascivious sin and materialism, things that were adamantly opposed by Islam.
7. Some of His Policies Were Considered an Affront to Islam
One of the Shah’s reforms included replacing the Islamic lunar calendar with a solar one, a move that made Iran’s calendar the same as many Western calendars. However, this change meant that time was no longer measured according to Islamic tradition, something that many clerics chafed at. He also reformed education so that it was no longer in the hands of the clerics, and secularized it, so much so that women were now able to study at Tehran University. Islam was quickly losing influence in the country, and the Muslim clerics were losing power.
Clerics had long earned their salaries through religious endowments; the Shah brought these endowments under state control so that he now effectively was able to decide who could and couldn’t work as a cleric. The shah also banned women from wearing a hijab and encouraged, sometimes forced, them to wear Western dress; clerics were forbidden from wearing the traditional robe and turban. Sharia courts were replaced with secular courts, which were run by secular lawyers and judges who may not have been friendly to Islam.
Perhaps the greatest insult, though, was that the Shah licensed a liquor store to run in the holy city of Qom. Many clerics were incensed at how he was taking Iran, which had long been a nesting ground for Shi’a Islam, was falling under increasing Western influence and its people were falling prey to Western materialism and lack of morals. APOC; the new, secular constitution; and the reforms implemented by the Pahlavi regime made Westernization and secularization an inescapable aspect of Iranian life.
6. The US Continued to Support the Shah, Even Though the Monarchy Was in Trouble
Meanwhile, the United States, under diplomatic leaders such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, continued to support the Shah’s regime. Its border with the Soviet Union made it a critical strategic point for the US to increase its hegemony and power against communism. One of America’s strategies during the Cold War was to prevent the further spread of communism, and it was keen to keep communism out of Central Asia as much as possible. Additionally, the country’s abundant oil reserves proved too tempting for the American economy, which was becoming totally dependent on oil. Iran became a bastion for America’s policies in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The degree of confluence between the American and Iranian cultures can be seen in the interactions of the people who lived in both countries. Between 1950 and 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, as many as 850,000 Americans visited Iran. In the decade leading up to the revolution, 25,000 American technicians went to Iran to work on and support military machinery there. Many Iranian students and other citizens visited America and generally had a warm, welcoming view of the country. However, underneath the veneer of smooth, implacable relations, trouble was brewing with the monarchy.
5. In 1971, the Shah Threw a Festival to Commemorate 2,500 Years of Monarchy in Iran
Cyrus the Great founded the Imperial State of Iran in the sixth century BCE, and in 1971, the Shah wanted to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy. He threw a massive party in the ruins of Persepolis, near the city of Shiraz. The party took an entire year to plan and organize. The Shiraz airport had to be revamped for all the VIP passengers that would land there, and the highway between Shiraz and Persepolis had to be renovated.
Instead of housing all the visiting dignitaries in Shiraz, the Shah wanted them to stay at Persepolis. To accommodate them, he built an elaborate tent city – the tents were actually luxury apartments covered with Persian cloth – and had trees planted and 50,000 songbirds imported. Over 600 guests attended the party. The menu served was absolutely decadent – it consisted of delicacies like quail eggs, mousse made of crayfish tails, and champagne sorbet – especially compared with the squalor that many Iranian citizens were living in.
Events were planned at the historic locations of Pasargadae, the tomb of Cyrus the Great, and the ruined palaces of Persepolis. The centerpiece of the celebrations and the symbol of the entire event was the Cyrus cylinder, which is primarily regarded as the first declaration of human rights in history. Unfortunately, the Shah didn’t realize that his people viewed him as only paying lip service to the contributions of Cyrus and not living up to the standard that he set. To many of them, he didn’t seem to be at all concerned about the human rights of the people living there.
4. When Protestors Organized Against the Shah, He Had the Military Fire on Them
While some were benefiting from the shah’s reforms, by and large, the Iranian people were becoming increasingly destitute while the Shah was further consolidating both his wealth and his power over the country. And many were furious that he threw such an extravagant party at their cost. They believed that money spent on the festivities should have been used for helping increase things like food security, not showing off for leaders of other countries. Ayatollah Khomeini, in particular, was very outspoken against the celebration. To him and many others, this was the last straw.
Shortly after the 2,500-year celebration, protests against the Shah became more and more frequent. He had defamed Islam, kowtowed to Western imperialism, and caused a breakdown of Iran’s social fabric, all while under the support of the United States. SAVAK, his secret police, had tortured and killed an untold number of Iranians. The Shah responded by having the military open fire on protestors. Many people died or were wounded as a result. The casualties were regarded by many as martyrs for the cause of revolution and were held up as symbols of the resistance and of the Shah’s tyranny, leading to an increase in hostility and opposition. The Shah had Iranian blood on his hands, and the people could not be silent.
3. The Iranian Revolution Began on January 7, 1978
The Islamic Revolution could be said to have begun on January 7, 1978, when an article published in the newspaper Ittila’at vilified Khomeini, who was now the pre-eminent symbol of the Resistance. Within hours, the newspaper office was ransacked, and a popular uprising began in Qom. A series of government crackdowns and more popular protests and riots ensued, culminating in the overthrow of the shah, the return of Khomeini from his exile in France, and the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The shah would stay in power for another year, not realizing that his people had turned entirely against him. During that year, the country would change so dramatically that it would have little resemblance with the land that the Shah had ruled.
The revolution came as a shock to much of the international community. Just a few years ago, dignitaries from all over had partied and celebrated in the ancient city of Persepolis to commemorate 2,500 years of Iran’s monarchy. Iran had long been friendly with Western powers, and leaders like President Jimmy Carter hadn’t realized just how unpopular he really was with his own people. This wasn’t a surprise, as the Shah himself hadn’t realized how unpopular he was. Apparently, 2,500 years of the monarchy was not enough to secure his reign.
The protests against the Shah continued. In September of 1978, clerics directed as many as half a million people to march through the streets of Tehran. Believing that the mass demonstrations against him were a passing phase that he was in control of, the shah ordered the military to open fire in what came to be known as Black Friday. A total of 89 demonstrators were killed. Protests and demonstrations against him intensified until he realized that it was no longer safe for him to stay in the country. The Shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979, and left the government in the hands of a regency council.
Many in the international community believed that the Islamic Revolution was a blip that would soon dissipate, and the Shah would be able to return to a restored Iran. However, that was not to be the case. World leaders would quickly have to figure out how they would negotiate with the new Islamic government, which was founded almost entirely on the religious ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini. This challenge was exacerbated by a group of students from the University of Tehran, who laid siege to the American embassy and took dozens of diplomats hostage in what came to be seen as the enduring legacy of the revolution: the Iranian hostage crisis.
1. Ayatollah Khomeini Headed the New Islamic Government
Ayatollah Khomeini had long been considered a symbol of the popular resistance against the Shah. Even Iranians who were not particularly devout flocked to his teachings, not because they agreed with the religious precepts on which they were based, but because he was viewed as the one who would be able to overthrow the shah. Soon after the Shah fled, Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years of exile in Turkey, Iraq, and France. He was welcomed with cheers by millions of Iranians, who now felt that the revolution would soon be complete.
On February 11, 1979, the regency government that Mohammad Reza Shah had left in place collapsed. A new government was organized under a constitution that was written mostly on the premise of Vilayat al-Faqih, Khomeini’s manifesto of how an Islamic government should be structured. Of central importance in this government structure was a Grand Faqih, a religious cleric who would oversee all the workings of the government and have the authority to override any jurisprudential decision. When elections were held to elect who the Grand Faqih, an overwhelming 99% of the population voted for Khomeini. He was now the leader of Iran’s revolutionary government. The Shah would not be coming back.
World leaders now had to determine how they would negotiate with this new government, which was founded almost entirely on the religious ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini. This challenge was exacerbated by a group of students from the University of Tehran, who laid siege to the American embassy and took dozens of diplomats hostage in what came to be seen as the enduring legacy of the revolution: the Iranian hostage crisis.
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