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. 

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.

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 Khomenei 

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 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.

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. 

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. 

Indeed, 1979’s ‘Spring of Freedom’ proved all to 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. 

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.

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. 

Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 June 1989, under a year after the end of the war with Iraq. 

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).

By Ali Ansari

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