The Iranian Revolution: why 1979’s uprising still shapes the Middle East

Forty years ago, Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Tehran – and 2,500 years of monarchy ended, to be replaced by an Islamic republic. Here, Ali Ansari examines the causes and legacy of the Iranian Revolution of 1979

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, last Shah of Iran, pictured in 1967 with his third wife, Farah Diba, and their son Reza. His attempted reforms during his final years in power alienated many of his nation's people. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

On 5 November 1978, a weary Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah (‘King of Kings’) of Iran and Aryamehr (‘Light of the Aryans’), sat uncomfortably behind his desk at Niavaran Palace in Tehran in preparation for an impromptu television broadcast to the nation. After months of mounting protests against his rule, some of his officials had determined that it was time to make a decisive break with the past. The shah should take control of events, they suggested, placing himself at the head of this ‘revolutionary’ movement.

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Film rushes of this moment show a monarch, clearly uneasy with the situation, being handed a script with barely time to scan it. Haltingly, he read out the prepared statement acknowledging his past mistakes. In a particularly striking passage, he proclaimed to his somewhat bewildered subjects that he had “heard the voice of your revolution”.

The broadcast proved to be a turning point in the history of Iran – but not in the way the shah and his supporters had hoped. Far from presenting a sense of strong leadership, the shah appeared not only to waver but to also confirm that the country was indeed in the throes of a revolutionary upheaval. People who had hitherto been uncommitted now made preparations for the future. And that future did not include the shah – who was to be the last of the monarchs who had ruled this land for some two and a half millennia.

Dream of progress

The year 1978 had begun on an upbeat note for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. US president Jimmy Carter, on his way home from a summit in Poland, had called in to spend New Year’s Eve with the shah. British sources regarded the visit as a great triumph for the shah, and an indication of the international esteem in which he was held. Carter went even further in his toast at the New Year dinner, praising the shah’s leadership and referring to Iran as “an island of stability” in an otherwise troubled region.

The shah had reasons to be cheerful, reinforcing the sense of complacency that had come to define the previous few years of his rule. Buttressed by enormous oil wealth – Iran’s revenues had increased enormously after Middle Eastern oil producers vastly hiked prices in December 1973 – he had spent much of the 1970s pursuing his dream of the ‘Great Civilisation’, a sort of welfare state on steroids. The shah envisaged a state that, by the turn of the millennium, would care for its citizens from cradle to grave, allowing Iran to take its place among the top five global powers. The speed with which he hoped to achieve this goal was at least partly motivated by an early diagnosis of cancer, which had reinforced his sense of mortality and fatalism. Few were aware of that diagnosis, instead ascribing the urgency to hubris; regardless, it is certainly true that the shah’s impatience for progress led to a series of politically inept decisions intended to circumvent the last vestiges of constitutional monarchy and place even more power in his own hands.

American approval: US president Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi share a toast at New Year 1978. The American leader called Iran "an island of stability". (Photo by Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match via Getty Images)
American approval: US president Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi share a toast at New Year 1978. The American leader called Iran “an island of stability”. (Photo by Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match via Getty Images)

The decision to abolish what Mohammad Reza Pahlavi referred to as the “tiresome” two-party system and replace it with a single-party state might have been considered a sensible rationalisation; after all, everyone knew that the two separate parties existed only for cosmetic purposes. However, the shah’s proclamation that everyone should join his Rastakhiz (Resurgence) Party or leave the country did little to enhance his reputation among the very people who might have endorsed his reforms. Similarly, his decision to abruptly change the official calendar to an imperial system dating to the accession of Cyrus the Great in 559 BC displayed the worst kind of tunnel vision that rendered him blithely ignorant of a political hinterland that was becoming increasingly restive.

The shah was clearly much more interested in articulating his ‘vision’ and in the dynamics of international politics. His ministers, seemingly overawed by the adulation he received from foreign leaders, were disinclined to provide him with the details of domestic politics that did not conform to his lofty ambitions. The consequence was a dangerous regress into sycophancy; one courtier later told the shah that, whereas officials were scared of telling his father a lie, they had been scared of telling him the truth.

Such was the atmosphere at the start of 1978. The shah began the year urging his minister of information to deal with Ayatollah Khomeini, a particularly troublesome Shia cleric who had been preaching in increasingly robust terms against the shah. Khomeini was the ostensible leader of the religious opposition to the shah, and had been sent into exile in Iraq after an especially abrasive speech in 1964. Yet his appeal was not merely based on religion, and he was careful to cultivate the loyalty of Iran’s burgeoning student population – a constituency that should have naturally leaned towards the shah and his vision.

Khomeini appealed to both left-wing and religious dissidents, and made pointed attacks on the character of the shah

Although the shah, convinced that his son should inherit a more consultative system with a functioning constitution, had begun to toy with a measure of liberalism, he held back from engaging with the serious political reform the country needed. Indeed, the imposition of the one-party state seemed to be a move in the wrong direction. Students, bereft of avenues through which to engage in politics, increasingly allied themselves to the underground politics of the left or to the politics of religion. That latter move, towards Islam, appeared to bother the shah less, because he considered his primary foe to be communism. Yet the shah’s officials, recognising Khomeini’s genius in appealing to both left-wing and religious dissidents along with his pointed attacks on the character of the shah, realised finally that the situation needed to be addressed.

Attack on the Ayatollah

On 8 January 1978, a scurrilous anonymous article was published in the newspaper Ettelaat. It seemed relatively innocuous at the time, but historians now think it may have been the firing of the starting gun of the revolution.

The article, which attacked Khomeini and described his character in deeply unflattering terms, sparked a series of demonstrations – encounters for which the regime was not ready. Iran’s security forces were not prepared for civil disturbances, and lacked the equipment to deal with mass protests. As a consequence, the military was deployed – with the kind of results that often ensue when soldiers are asked to perform a policing role for which they are ill-suited: demonstrations in many cities turned to violence, and a number of protesters were killed. This led to political paralysis and the unravelling of a government machinery overly dependent on decisions from the top.

Even so, until the summer of 1978 few people took the demonstrations seriously; still fewer considered them a threat to the regime. Diplomats, somewhat naively, urged the shah to handle these protests with a light touch, arguing that they were the natural consequence of his admirable decision to ‘liberalise’. The British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons later conceded that the relaxed approach was partly dictated by the fact that the shah’s problems seemed to be the envy of Arab rulers. Indeed, in contrast to other Arab states of a similar size and population, Iran was generously endowed with resources and a growing economy that, for all its flaws, held great promise for the future.

It was clear the shah was losing control, not least because he appeared unwilling to make any decisions

By autumn, though, it was clear that the shah was losing control of the situation, not least because he appeared unwilling to take any decisions. A belated attempt to impose martial law resulted in serious bloodletting: more than 80 protesters were killed by troops in Tehran, most of them in Jaleh Square, on ‘Black Friday’ 8 September. This event appears to have been a psychological turning point for the shah who, for all his dictatorial pretensions, found himself ill-suited for that role. As he later said, a dictator might shoot his people, but “a sovereign may not save his throne by shedding his compatriots’ blood”.

At this point he appeared to be genuinely bewildered by the dawning realisation that large sections of the population might not hold him in strong affection, and became gripped by paralysis. Contingency plans were made at alarming speed by people in Iran and farther afield. Those Iranians who might have been considered the shah’s natural constituency prepared to move abroad or made pledges of loyalty to the opposition. Western governments, meanwhile, began preparations for a political transition, accelerating the pace of the now inevitable unravelling of the shah’s regime. On 16 January 1979 Mohammad Reza Pahlavi departed, initially to Egypt, ostensibly for a holiday. It was an enforced absence that effectively rendered useless the final pillar of the regime – the army. And by February, Khomeini had returned to the country, to a rapturous reception.

This twofold turn of events provoked widespread disbelief. The shock spread to the triumphant revolutionaries, who could not believe the speed of the transformation and, arguably, the relatively low cost of that victory. Claims that martyrs of the revolution numbered up to 70,000 were hyperbole; thanks to the shah’s unwillingness to shed the blood of his people, in the year preceding his departure 2,781 deaths were recorded. The real reckoning occurred only after his departure, when the revolution turned on itself.

Fragmentation and fracture

The Iranian revolutionary Ebrahim Yazdi liked to comment that the real leader of the Islamic Revolution was, in fact, the shah, because only he was able to unite the disparate groups into a single opposition. Once he had departed the scene, that focus was removed – with devastating results. Khomeini, now Iran’s titular leader, found himself buffeted by competing forces aligned with the religious right and the populist left. A third group, the secular nationalists, found themselves squeezed out in the bloody struggle that was to follow.

Indeed, 1979’s ‘Spring of Freedom’ proved all too brief, and the left succumbed in a bitter and bloody struggle against Islamist forces determined to seize control of the revolution. Having abolished the monarchy through referendum, a new constitution was drafted, marrying elements of the French Fifth Republic with a theocratic structure developed by Khomeini that saw the entire system supervised – and, in practice, dictated – by a supreme ‘religious jurist’: Khomeini. This attempt to weld western and Islamic ideas in the form of an ‘Islamic Republic’ was to prove contentious and unwieldy, but survived largely because of the charismatic Khomeini’s hold over his followers.

March against the veil: Women demonstrate against the new Islamic Republic's compulsory hijab ruling in Tehran in March 1979. More than 100,000 took to the streets to protest against strict new edicts, one of which required all women to wear a headscarf to cover their heads in public. (Photo by Getty Images)
March against the veil: Women demonstrate against the new Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab ruling in Tehran in March 1979. More than 100,000 took to the streets to protest against strict new edicts, one of which required all women to wear a headscarf to cover their heads in public. (Photo by Getty Images)

Two fractures in international relations – one self-inflicted, the other imposed – also served to shore up a tenuous stability. First, Khomeini approved the seizure on 4 November 1979 of the US embassy by armed Iranian students. The justification given was that the Americans, having admitted the ailing shah into the United States for cancer treatment, were intent on repeating the 1953 coup that had toppled the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The occupation of the embassy was intended to be a temporary protest. Instead, it became a protracted 444-day exercise in hostage-taking that transformed an already fraught relationship into one of growing enmity.

Then, in September 1980, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein launched an opportunistic invasion of Iran – an action that the international community, still reeling from the occupation of the US embassy, could not bring itself to condemn.

Hostage crisis: Blindfolded American hostages, among 66 taken as Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, beginning 444 days of occupation. The last of the hostages were released on 20 January 1981. (Photo by Getty Images)
Hostage crisis: Blindfolded American hostages, among 66 taken as Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, beginning 444 days of occupation. The last of the hostages were released on 20 January 1981. (Photo by Getty Images)

Shadow of the revolution

The eight-year war with Iraq and the growing antipathy with the United States had a profound effect on the direction of the revolution and the Islamic Republic it spawned. They created an acute sense of ongoing crisis that the political settlement, marred by inconsistencies and contradictions, did little to assuage. For all its democratic pretensions, the Islamic Republic remained stubbornly authoritarian, as the office of the Supreme Leader – as the religious jurist became known – gradually grew in size and took on the characteristics of the monarchy it had replaced.

Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 June 1989, under a year after the end of the war with Iraq. One of his immediate legacies was another international crisis: on 14 February 1989 he issued a fatwa on British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie for alleged blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. Khomeini’s successors have been fighting over his legacy ever since but, given a choice between tackling the serious structural problems still facing the country and being diverted by a foreign crisis, they seem all too willing to lean towards the latter.
In this, they have been well served by successive US administrations. The revolutionary elite have become so preoccupied with their continuing confrontation with the United States that they have neglected urgent domestic problems such as the economy and the environment, at great long-term cost to the stability of the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution has cast a long shadow. Not only were the geopolitics of the Middle East transformed and political Islamism thrust uncompromisingly into the lime-light, but the dramatic fall of the shah also had a profound effect on a generation of developing-world leaders. This became all too apparent when, during the Arab Spring of 2010–12, a number of Middle Eastern autocrats wondered whether they, too, might go the way of Iran’s monarch. In that febrile atmosphere, Russian president Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to show regional allies – notably Bashar al-Assad of Syria – that, unlike the US, the Russians can be relied on. The impact of all this has been so profound that 1979, rather than 1989, might be considered the truly transformative year of our modern age.

Ali Ansari is professor of history at the University of St Andrews, and author of Iran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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This article was first published in the February/March 2019 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine