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Iranian Revolution of 1979

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was many years in the making. In simple terms, the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by a coalition of opposition forces dominated by Shīʿī Muslim fundamentalists. The acknowledged leader of the revolution was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989). Although the specific events leading up to the ouster of the shah took place over a period of approximately one year before his departure from Iran on January 16, 1979, the social conditions underlying the revolution spanned several centuries.

Early Religious-Secular Conflict.

The Ithnā ʿAsharī (Twelver) branch of Shīʿī Islam had been the official state religion in Iran since the founding of the Ṣafavid dynasty in the sixteenth century. Almost from the beginning of Ṣafavid rule, religious officials criticized the court for laxity in observance of Islam, establishing an opposition between religious and secular leadership that continued into the twentieth century.

The impoverished shahs of the nineteenth-century Qājār dynasty found themselves in military and economic conflict with European powers. They faced growing criticism by the clergy over territorial losses, foreign economic penetration, and incompetent government. The Qājārs began to sell agricultural and commercial concessions to foreigners to raise money. Religious leaders, inspired by the efforts of the reformer Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (d. 1897), became alarmed at the marketing of the Iranian patrimony and launched a series of public protests. This culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, in which the Qājār monarch was forced to accept a constitution and a parliament. About twenty years later the dynasty collapsed. [See Afghānī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-; and Qājār Dynasty.]

The rivalry between the successor Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979) and Khomeini had a long history. In 1921, Reza Khan, an army officer, emerged as a national leader. Ruhollah Khomeini was then entering theological studies in the shrine city of Qom south of Tehran. In 1926 Reza Khan formally crowned himself Reza Shah and established the Pahlavi dynasty. Khomeini was qualified as a mullah that same year.

Reza Shah ignored the new constitution and ruled by decree, initiating a series of drastic reforms in Iranian life designed to modernize the nation, many directed at the religious establishment. Religious institutions were placed under the control of the state, thus depriving the clergy of a major source of power and income. Public protests, supported by the clergy against these reforms, were ruthlessly suppressed.

In September 1941 Reza Shah was forced by the Allied powers to abdicate for his pro-German sentiments. He was succeeded by his young son, Muhammad Reza. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then began a long career of attacking the Pahlavi regime. He started in 1941 in an essay, Kashf al-Asrār (Unveiling of the Mysteries), in which he suggested that decisions from the throne should first involve consulting the clergy. His frustration with the Shah's rule increased from year to year, culminating in December 1969 and January 1970 in a series of lectures in which he espoused the controversial view that the mullahs should not just teach and advise; they should play the central role in governing the country. This doctrine decrees that the legitimate rule of the twelfth imam of Twelver Shiism, Muḥammad al-Mahdī, who disappeared into “occultation” in the ninth century, should be carried out under the doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh (regency of the chief religious jurisprudent), who would govern until the Mahdī's return to earth.


In 1964 Khomeini, now acclaimed as an Ayatollah, was exiled by the shah. His religious status prevented his outright execution. After seven months in Turkey, he settled in the Shīʿī holy city of Najaf, Iraq, where he continued to issue pronouncements against the Pahlavi regime.

The National Front.

Secular oppositionists with claims to leadership also arose in the years following World War II. Chief among these was a coalition of parties known as the National Front, established in 1949 and led by Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had opposed Reza Shah's ascent to the throne in 1926. The National Front espoused many of the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic reformers, such as limiting the powers of the shah and ending foreign domination, but it did not advocate Islamic dominance of government.

The popularity of the National Front brought Mossadegh to power as prime minister in 1951. He came into conflict both with religious leaders and with the shah, who tried unsuccessfully to oust him from office. The shah was forced to flee in 1953, but the United States and Great Britain promptly restored the shah to power. This act established the United States as the chief foreign interventionist in Iranian affairs.

Another important opposition group was the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq (People's Warriors), established in 1965 from other similar opposition groups. Their doctrine combined Islamic religious commitment with socialist doctrine.

[See Mujāhidīn, subentry on Mujāhidīn-i Khalq.]

Prelude to Revolution.

The United States continued active support of the shah. It anointed him as a protector of Western interests in the Persian Gulf and sold Iran advanced weaponry to support a powerful military. Under U.S. pressure the shah launched a massive economic and social reform program in 1963 known as the White Revolution. Economic growth was furthered through foreign investment in partnership with the throne and other economic elites.

In 1971 Britain withdrew its military from the Persian Gulf, and the United States began to arm Iran even more heavily. Then, in 1973 Iran and Saudi Arabia led the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in a massive price increase in crude oil, providing the Shah with even more funds for military and economic development.

GNP growth continued, but the national income was derived almost exclusively from petroleum sales, and profits were limited largely to the top echelons of society. The shah thus achieved financial independence from the Iranian people and enjoyed seemingly unlimited control in the exercise of power.

Consequently, the shah and his largely technocratic ministries turned the nation into a private economic and social laboratory based largely on Western modernist thinking. Life became uncomfortable, as the traditional population was shocked by the sudden appearance of public behavior that they deemed indecent. One noted social critic, ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933–1977), accused the regime of “Westoxication” or “Occidentosis” (gharbzadagī, literally “weststruckness”) in the pursuit of Euro-American modernity at any social price. See SHARīʿATī, ʿALī.

By 1975 despite GNP growth, inflation had begun to make itself felt at a rate exceeding 60 percent. Agricultural production went into a steep decline. Iran became a net importer of meat and grains for the first time. Housing costs rose precipitously. Ordinary Iranians, particularly those on fixed incomes, or on rigidly limited government salaries, began to suffer. The government of Jamshīd Amūzgār (August 1977) cut off subsidies to the clergy and religious institutions that had been instituted by the former prime minister, Amīr ʿAbbās Huvaydah. The shah later identified this act as the mistake that caused his downfall. Large sections of the traditional population became alienated. This gave the religious establishment its opening, and the revolutionary exhortations of Ayatollah Khomeini began to take effect throughout the population.

The Revolution.

On January 9, 1978, theology students in the city of Qom began a protest against a pseudonymous article published in the newspaper Ittʿilāʿāt accusing Ayatollah Khomeini of licentious behavior and crimes against the state. The author was widely thought to have been Minister of Information Daryūsh Humāyūn (Daryoush Homayoun). The demonstration met with violent confrontation by the police. Several students died, touching off a cycle of mourning ceremonies, which turned into increasingly violent public demonstrations.

Protests increased throughout the spring and summer. On September 7, 1978, the shah declared martial law and banned all demonstrations. Unfortunately, word of this decree had not spread. A demonstration in Jaleh Square in Tehran was confronted by the military, and a large number of defenseless people were shot. Protests then spread to every part of the nation.

The shah seemed to have no strategy for dealing with the crisis. Though it was not generally known at the time, he was sick with lymphatic cancer, which contributed to his irresolute behavior. He tried a number of tactics to defuse the revolution, changing prime ministers, and ordering arrests. Finally, he coerced Iraqi officials into expelling Khomeini, who eventually settled in Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris. Ironically, he was better able to communicate with internal revolutionary forces from Paris by way of long-distance telephone than from Iraq. Khomeini's powerful central message was the same one that religious oppositionists had been preaching for a hundred years: the shah had conspired with foreign powers—primarily the United States—to exploit the Iranian people and undermine Islam.

Eventually it became clear to the shah that he must leave Iran if stability were to be preserved. He attempted to appoint several different men prime minister in a caretaker role, but all refused. Finally, Shahpour Bakhtiar (Shāpūr Bakhtiyār), a venerable National Front politician, accepted the job in order to allow the shah to leave. On January 16, 1979, the shah left Iran. The United States dispatched General Robert Huyser to Tehran to ensure the support of the Iranian military for the Bakhtiar government. Bakhtiar was, however, doomed from the start, as Khomeini appointed his own Provisional Revolutionary Government headed by another National Front politician, Mehdi Bāzargān. The real power during January and February of 1979 resided in roving komitehs (committees) of revolutionaries organized in mosques. They joined veteran guerrilla fighters, such as the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq, to rule the streets of the large cities. See BāZARGāN and KOMITEH.

Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, with great public enthusiasm. Units of the military began to defect. Tension between military groups reached a climax on February 9, 1979, in the victory of air force cadets and technicians who had declared their loyalty to Khomeini over the shah's Imperial Guards at the air force base at Doshan Tappeh on the outskirts of Tehran. This touched off a series of armed confrontations throughout the capital. On February 11, the Supreme Military Council announced that the military would no longer participate in the political crisis. Bakhtiar fled to Paris and the Khomeini-led government officially assumed power. February 11 is now marked as the anniversary of the Revolution.

The Aftermath of the Revolution.

February to November 1979 was a transitional period in which the religious leaders fully established themselves in power in Iran. The Provisional Revolutionary Government established by Khomeini consisted largely of nonclerical National Front leaders. These leaders favored a secular democracy based on European models. Hard-line religionists, however, had a different vision, favoring an outright Islamic theocracy. On March 30–31, the Provisional Revolutionary Government held a national referendum asking whether Iran should become an Islamic republic. Official tallies placed the “yes” vote at 98 percent.

The nation next decided on a constitution for the new government. After several drafts, the proposed constitution invested ultimate power in a faqīh (chief jurisprudent) along with a five-person religious Council of Guardians. The secular National Front leaders led extensive public opposition, fearing, as Bāzargān asserted, a new “dictatorship of the clergy.” Fate intervened in the constitutional ratification process. The former shah, now deathly ill, appealed to the United States for medical treatment. Despite dire warnings from the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the Carter administration allowed him to fly to New York on October 22, 1979.

The reaction in Tehran was immediate. On November 4 a group of students took over the U.S. embassy and took all its personnel hostage. The Americans remained captive for 444 days, touching off huge anti-American protests. Officials of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, notably Bāzargān, were blamed for the decision to seek refuge for the shah in the U.S. and resigned. On December 2–3, 1979, the nation accepted the new constitution with a 99 percent “yes” vote establishing a theocracy with Khomeini at its head.

In the ten years from the onset of the revolution until Khomeini's death on June 3, 1989, the new government groped its way toward stability. Despite continued infighting between political factions, internal political transitions were generally peaceful. A debilitating war with Iraq, begun in September 1980, was fought to a standstill in July 1988. The continued power of the komitehs and their successors, the Sipāh-i Pāsdārān-i Inqilāb-i Islāmī (Revolutionary Guard) caused alarm. These groups continued to enforce a rough-and-ready Islamic morality in addition to keeping the peace. [See Sipāh-i Pāsdārān‑i Inqilāb‑i Islāmī.] The new government continued hostile toward the United States but improved its relations with most other nations. Ayatollah Khomeini was replaced by Ayatollah ʿAlī Khameneʿi, one of his followers who had also served a term as President.

Although opposition to the monarchy had long existed in Iran, no one could have predicted with certainty that the final outcome of the revolution would be a theocratic government. For Muslims eager for reform and escape from Western domination, in Iran and in other nations, the revolution was a deeply inspirational event. For secular nationalists and for most of the Western world, the Revolution continues to be seen as a threat.



  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. Albany, N.Y., 1980. Important work laying out the background leading to systematic clerical opposition to Pahlavi rule in Iran. Find it in your Library
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York and Oxford, 1988. One of the most complete accounts of the events of the revolution from an acknowledged expert on Iranian contemporary history and politics. Find it in your Library
  • Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. Rev. ed. New York, 1990. Account of the revolution by a seasoned journalist and historian, highly critical of the religious regime. Find it in your Library
  • Beeman, William O.The “Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs”:How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. Westport, Conn., 2005. Extensive treatment of the estrangement of the United States and Iran as a result of the Revolution. Find it in your Library
  • Bill, James A.The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. New Haven, Conn., 1988. Account of relations between the United States and Iran during the Pahlavi era showing how the Iranian government systematically hid its internal political actions from U.S. officials. Find it in your Library
  • Ebadi, Shirin, and Azadeh Moaveni. Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. New York, 2006. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ebadi teams with Time correspondent and author Moaveni to present a personal memoir of an intrepid reformer in the post-Revolutionary period. Find it in your Library
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1984. Classic anthropological work showing how the revolution was constructed in Shīʿī religious symbolic terms by the militant clergy. Find it in your Library
  • Hegland, Mary. Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village. Stanford University Press, 2013. Find it in your Library
  • Huyser, Robert E.Mission to Tehran. New York, 1986. The final word by the American general thought to have engineered the Iranian military's capitulation to the Kohmeini-led revolutionary government. Find it in your Library
  • Keddie, Nikki R.Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven, Conn., 1981. Find it in your Library
  • Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shiʿism from Quietism to Revolution. New Haven, Conn., 1983. Two important works by a premier historian of Iran detailing centuries of confrontation between religious and secular officials. Find it in your Library
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. Ayatollah Khomeini's philosophy of revolution and government in his own words. Find it in your Library
  • Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge, Mass., 2004. Sociologist Kurzman examines five sets of analytic accounts of the Iranian revolution—political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military—and finds each valid but problematic. Find it in your Library
  • Ramazani, Ruhollah K.Revolutionary Iran: Challenge and Response in the Middle East. Baltimore, Md., 1986. Excellent account of government and international relations in postrevolutionary Iran. Find it in your Library
  • Rubin, Barry. Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1981. Masterful review of U.S. military and development efforts in the period leading up to the revolution. Find it in your Library
  • Sick, Gary. All Fall Down. New York, 1985. The Iranian Revolution from the standpoint of a U.S. military analyst who saw it all. Find it in your Library
  • Wright, Robin. In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade. New York, 1989. A journalist's account of Khomeini's leadership in Iran, replete with facts and dates. Find it in your Library
  • Wright, Robin. The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. New York, 2000. Journalist Robin Wright provides many insightful interviews and direct observations of ordinary Iranians highlighting the effects of the Revolution. Find it in your Library
  • Zonis, Marvin. Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah. Chicago, 1991. The author's account of the shah's failure to respond to the revolutionary challenge to his regime is based on his theory that the shah was unable to cope psychologically with a series of personal tragedies in the last years of his regime. Find it in your Library
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