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The Iranian Revolution of 1979

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The exiled Shia Ayatollah Khomeini inspired the anti-Shah protesters in Iran.

Banner of the Ayatollah Khomeini, on display during Iran's Islamic Revolution, 1978

Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

People poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, chanting "Marg bar Shah" or "Death to the Shah," and "Death to America!" Middle class Iranians, leftist university students, and Islamist supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini united to demand the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. From October of 1977 to February of 1979, the people of Iran called for the end of the monarchy - but they didn't necessarily agree on what should replace it.

Background to the Revolution:

In 1953, the American CIA helped to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister in Iran, and restore the Shah to his throne. The Shah was a modernizer in many ways, promoting the growth of a modern economy and a middle class, and championing women's rights. He outlawed the chador or hijab (the full-body veil), encouraged education of women up to and including at the university level, and advocated employment opportunities outside the home for women.

However, the Shah also ruthlessly suppressed dissent, jailing and torturing his political opponents. Iran became a police state, monitored by the hated SAVAK secret police. In addition, the Shah's reforms, particularly those concerning the rights of women, angered Shia clerics such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, who fled into exile in Iraq and later France beginning in 1964.

The US was intent on keeping the Shah in place in Iran, however, as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Iran borders on the then-Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, and was seen as a potential target for communist expansion. As a result, opponents of the Shah considered him an American puppet.

The Revolution Begins:

Throughout the 1970s, as Iran reaped enormous profits from oil production, a gap widened between the wealthy (many of whom were relatives of the Shah) and the poor. A recession beginning in 1975 increased tensions between the classes in Iran. Secular protests in the form of marches, organizations, and political poetry readings sprouted all across the country. Then, late in October of 1977, the Ayatollah Khomeini's 47-year-old son Mostafa died suddenly of a heart attack. Rumors spread that he had been murdered by the SAVAK, and soon thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Iran's major cities.

This uptick in demonstrations came at a delicate time for the Shah. He was ill with cancer, and seldom appeared in public. In a drastic miscalculation, in January of 1978, the Shah had his Information Minister publish an article in the leading newspaper that slandered Ayatollah Khomeini as a tool of British neo-colonial interests and a "man without faith." The next day, theology students in the city of Qom exploded in angry protests; security forces put down the demonstrations, but killed at least seventy students in just two days. Up to that moment, the secular and religious protesters had been evenly matched, but after the Qom massacre, the religious opposition became the leaders of the anti-Shah movement.

In February, young men in Tabriz marched to remember the students killed in Qom the previous month; the march turned into a riot, in which the rioters smashed banks and government buildings. Over the next several months, violent protests spread, and were met with increasing violence from security forces. The religiously-motivated rioters attacked movie theaters, banks, police stations, and nightclubs. Some of the army troops sent in to quell the protests began to defect to the protesters' side. The protesters adopted the name and image of the Ayatollah Khomeini, still in exile, as the leader of their movement; for his part, Khomeini issued calls for the overthrow of the Shah. He spoke of democracy at that point, as well, but would soon change his tune.

The Revolution Comes to a Head:

In August, the Rex Cinema in Abadan caught fire and burned, probably as a result of an attacked by Islamist students. Approximately 400 people were killed in the blaze. The opposition started a rumor that the SAVAK had started the fire, rather than the protesters, and anti-government feeling reached a fever pitch.

Chaos increased in September with the Black Friday incident. On September 8, thousands of mostly peaceful protesters turned out in Jaleh Square, Tehran against the Shah's new declaration of martial law. The Shah responded with an all-out military attack on the protest, using tanks and helicopter gun-ships in addition to ground troops. Anywhere from 88 to 300 people died; opposition leaders claimed that the death toll was in the thousands. Large-scale strikes rocked the country, virtually shutting down both the public and private sectors that autumn, including the crucial oil industry.

On November 5, the Shah ousted his moderate prime minister and installed a military government under General Gholam Reza Azhari. The Shah also gave a public address in which he stated that he heard the people's "revolutionary message." To conciliate the millions of protesters, he freed more than 1000 political prisoners, and allowed the arrest of 132 former government officials, including the hated former chief of the SAVAK. Strike activity declined temporarily, either out of fear of the new military government or gratitude for the Shah's placatory gestures, but within weeks it resumed.

On December 11, 1978, more than a million peaceful protesters turned out in Tehran and other major cities to observe the Ashura holiday and call for Khomeini to become Iran's new leader. Panicking, the Shah quickly recruited a new, moderate prime minister from within opposition ranks, but he refused to do away with the SAVAK or release all political prisoners. The opposition was not mollified. The Shah's American allies began to believe that his days in power were numbered.

Fall of the Shah:

On January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced that he and his wife were going abroad for a brief vacation. As their plane took off, jubilant crowds filled the streets of Iran's cities and began tearing down statues and pictures of the Shah and his family. Prime Minister Shapour Baktiar, who had been in office for just a few weeks, freed all political prisoners, ordered the army to stand down in the face of demonstrations, and abolished the SAVAK. Baktiar also allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran, and called for free elections.

Khomeini flew into Tehran from Paris on February 1, 1979 to a delirious welcome. Once he was safely inside the country's borders, Khomeini called for the dissolution of the Baktiar government, vowing "I shall kick their teeth in." He appointed a prime minister and cabinet of his own. On February 9-10, fighting broke out between the Imperial Guard (the "Immortals"), who were still loyal to the Shah, and the pro-Khomeini faction of the Iranian Air Force. On February 11, the pro-Shah forces collapsed, and the Islamic Revolution declared victory over the Pahlavi dynasty.

Sources:

Roger Cohen, "1979: Iran's Islamic Revolution," New York Times Upfront, accessed February 2013.

Fred Halliday, "Iran's Revolution in Global History," OpenDemocracy.net, March 5, 2009.

"Iranian Civil Strife," GlobalSecurity.org, accessed February 2013.

Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

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