Iran has been a center of controversy in the recent years. Particularly, the nation’s poor relations with the United States have dominated the international political arena. Apart from the United States, Iran is also not in good terms with its Gulf neighbors such as Saudi Arabia. The United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran for supporting terrorism in the Middle East. On its side, Iran considers the United States an imperial nation that wants the entire globe to conform to its ideologies. Although the relationship between Iran and the United States has further deteriorated in recent times, it began after the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran.
The 1979 Iranian revolution refers to the event entailing the overthrowing of the Persian monarchy leadership in Iran and the creation of an Islamic republic. Most historians and political observers maintain that the revolution in Iran continues to shape the political activities in the Middle East and other Islamic nations particularly those who are under monarchial leadership. However, this was not the first time that Iran experienced a revolution. According to January, Iran experienced a constitutional revolution in the early 20th century (11). In this revolution, the citizens revolted against the Shah who had sold Iranian oil fields to foreigners to support his lavish lifestyle. These acts infuriated the Iranians who revolted in 1906 demanding for a greater political power through parliament (January 11). This revolt led to the creation of a democratic type of leadership that limited the King’s abilities as the new constitution empowered the citizens.
However, the successor to the king contravened the directives of the constitution. According to January, this new king collaborated with Britain and Russia who were conducting oil business in Iran to suppress the voice of the people (11). Consequently, these two nations responded by sending troops to Iran. After a period of bloody conflicts, the king with the aid of these two European powers was able to disband the parliament and prosecute its members. However, this revolution set the tone for the famous 1979 civil revolt against the Persian kingship in Iran.
The 1979 revolution in Iran took the world by surprise. Iranians’ move to overthrow their king surprised the world because the nation’s economy was performing exceptionally. In particular, the revolution did not align with the common factors that lead to an uprising in a country such as defeat after a war, financial crisis, or peasant uprising. Instead, unpredicted forces emanating from the citizen’s dissatisfaction with the King’s rule caused it. Consequently, the unpredicted occurrence of the Iranian revolution led to a series of unexpected results. This paper explores the causes, events and the effects of the Iranian revolution. This revolution is instrumental in understanding the deteriorating relationship between Iran and the United States. Moreover, it is crucial in expounding why Iran is seen as a threat in the Middle East by its regional neighbors such as Saudi Arabia.
The Causes of the Revolution
Although the Iranian revolution surprised the world, Iranian citizens had anticipated it from the onset. According to Wagner, the revolution was caused by an amalgamation of political and economic activities that infuriated the citizens (52). As earlier outlined, the Iranian citizens had successfully executed a constitutional revolution in 1906. From this revolution, a democratic type of leadership was instituted in the nation. Therefore, the citizens had more powers than the Shah. However, a change in the leadership led to the violation of the citizens’ authority and the abolition of the parliament. As Wagner points out, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who replaced his father as the Shah through the aid of the United States, acted as the catalyst for the revolution. This young ruler was immature politically.
As a result, he acted out of aggression and insecurity. Wagner states that the Shah created the resurgence Party in Iran in 1975 (52). The creation of this party led to the rise of political aggression and oppression. All Iranian adults were forced to join the political party. People who declined to join the party faced a mandatory expulsion from Iran. These coercive political strategies infuriated the citizens who were used to political freedom. To enforce his political ambitions, the Shah used the secret police to ensure that all Iranians were supporting the Resurgent party (Wagner 52).
These political aggressions had detrimental effects on the relationship between the shah and the citizens. The citizens felt that the ruler was infringing their rights by forcing them to support his government. As a result, they began opposing the Shah’s leadership. The citizens wanted a government that respected their freedom. In fact, political freedom was the primary reason why the Iranians participated in the constitutional revolution. They felt that the only way to end the ongoing political oppression in the nation was through public action.
Alternatively, the revolution could have been caused by the unseating of Mosaddeq as the prime minister by the Shah through the assistance of the United States. In fact, many historians point out that this was the primary cause of the revolution as it exposed Iran to foreign aggression. January asserts that the Shah become loyal to the United States after the defeat of Mosaddeq. It is vital to remember that Mosaddeq was the leader of the parliament and was mandated with the responsibility of making laws. However, the Shah felt that the parliament suppressed his authority and sought help from the United States to overthrow it.
Initially, Iran and the United States had healthy trade relationships. However, after the United States’ involvement in the removal of Mosaddeq, this relationship soured (January 24). Afterwards, the United States supported the Shah with money and ammunition to progress his oppressive rule in Iran. In a move to appreciate America’s aid, the Shah and the American government signed an agreement in 1964 stating that the United States citizen who committed crimes in Iran would be tried in United States courts (January 24). This move was received negatively by Iranians, particularly the revolution’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who described it as an oppression of the citizens by foreign forces. Subsequently, Iranians saw the revolution as the primary way of eliminating foreign dominance from their nation.
Moreover, the revolution was inspired by the economic meltdown in Iran. Wagner contends that Iran experienced substantial economic expansion in 1970 (51). This development was caused by the increase in global oil prices. However, the Shah used this income to finance his extravagant lifestyle and procuring ammunition. The Shah also spent a significant portion of these finances to modernize Iran. As a result, the nation experienced a massive rural to urban migration which created a housing shortage in the urban areas and a decline in agricultural production. Therefore, the country’s economy started to dwindle. As Wagner expounds, Iran experienced a drastic increase in inflation with commodity prices nearly doubling between 1973 and 1978. As a result, the citizens were prompted to act through a revolution to salvage the nation’s economy.
The revolution was also triggered by the infringement of Islamic doctrines by the ruling regime. The Iranian revolution had a strong foundation in Islam (Cashman and Robinson 277). In fact, the rise of the revolution’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini was accelerated by his religious opinions on the political situation in Iran. The revolution leader argued that Iran was an Islamic nation thus required to be governed by Islamic law.
Moreover, January points out that the Shia Muslim doctrines are against secular leadership (18).With Iran being a nation dominated by Shia Muslims, the citizens felt that it was their obligation to institute the accepted form of leadership that complies with the Islamic law. For instance, Ayatollah Khomeini criticized the reforms by the Shah Reza claiming that they intended to weaken the power of Islam. According to January, some of the controversial reforms included the move by the government to take over religious schools and stop women from wearing veils (18). These reforms were considered to be insulating the dominant Islamic culture in Iran. In this respect, they had to revolt as a means of protecting their religious and cultural heritage from corruption.
Event of the Revolution
The Iranian revolution was rocked by a series of both violent and non-violent civilian protests. Initially, all the demonstrations were non-violent. However, they later turned violent after the involvement of the army. Mass protests broke out in the city, Qom after the publication of a controversial article depicting the revolution leader Khomeini as a British agent (Arjomand 130). This article infuriated religious seminary students in the city who took to the streets leading to clashes with the police. This protest marked the beginning of civil demonstrations in Iran. These demonstrations were followed by others in different cities during the commemoration of the students killed by the police in the Qom protests. As Arjomand points out, these mass protests enabled the opposition to consolidate its power and act in unison. This move suppressed any government actions to intimidate the revolutionists.
However, Cinema Rex arson remains one of the key events in the Iranian revolution. This arson attack led to the death of over 400 people (January). In fact, it was considered the world’s worst terrorist attack before the September 2001 bombing of the United States. Accordingly, this attack provoked mass demonstrations in various cities in Iran with the citizens blaming the Shah’s government for the attacks. Later on, it was discovered that four revolutionist sympathizers executed the arson attacks. Moreover, the revolution was defined by the Iran hostage crisis. In this crisis, students who claimed to be acting on behalf of the revolution’s leader stormed the United States embassy in Tehran and held 52 American’s hostage for 444 days (Delgado and Gibson 73). This act marked the beginning of the poor diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran which has continued to the present.
Apart from the protests, the revolution was also characterized by the declaration of the martial law in the major cities across Iran. This move was intended to thwart the mass demonstrations that were being witnessed in the country. According to Arjomand, civil protests had increased in Iran after the public learned that the United States was withdrawing its military support from the Shah (132). For this reason, the martial law was the only viable solution to contain the revolutionists.
The Iranian economy relies on oil as its primary source of income. In a move to air their grievances to the government, the revolutionists used the labor sector to paralyze the economic activities in the nation. During the revolution, Iran experienced nationwide labor strikes that paralyzed economic activities throughout the country. These nationwide strikes were supported by public protests in the streets. In a move to contain these protests, the Shah appointed a military government. The appointment of the military government angered the revolutionists resulting in the acceleration of bloody conflicts between civilians and security forces.
Finally, the Shah gave in and fled the country driving the return of the revolution’s leader, Khomeini to Iran from exile. January states that Khomeini was received by thousands of jubilant Iranians (4). The revolution leader had been in exile for fifteen years. For the Iranian’s, his return marked the beginning of a new era of leadership founded on Islamic law. However, Khomeini first had to deal with Bakhtiar who took over after the fall of the Shah. With the support from the public, Khomeini dislodged Bakhtiar with ease, marking the beginning of an Islamic Iranian State.
The aftermath of the Revolution
The Iranian revolution had a significant impact on the country, its neighbors, and its diplomatic relations in the global arena. Importantly, the revolution led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The formation of an Islamic State was the primary goal of the revolution. The revolution leaders felt that the Shah’ governance was contravening the Islamic law. Consequently, this achievement meant the end of the Pahlavi’s dynasty rule in Iran. Additionally, the revolution resulted in the deterioration of the diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran. Iranian citizens perceive the United States as an oppressive nation because of its military support to the Shah during the initial stages of the revolution. On the other hand, the United States remains infuriated by the occurrence where its 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days by a group of students (Delgado and Gibson 73).
The Iranian revolution also had a significant ideological implication on the neigbouring muslim nations that were under monarchy rule. According Wagner, the main ideology behind the revolution was the establishment of an Islamic state and putting an end to monarchial form of leadership. Moreover, the revolution leaders believed that the events in Iran would trigger a civil uprising in the Gulf region. Although this idea did not materialize, it created tensions in the Gulf region. In fact, it was responsible for the eruption of the Iraq-Iran war. Furthermore, it resulted in the rift between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. The GCC members view Iran as a threat to the region’s stability through its advocacy for the establishment of Islamic States in the Arab world.
The revolution also led to the inception of an Islamic political culture in the world. Iran has proved that it is possible to align the region with contemporary politics. Although the success of this strategy has been highly questioned, it has served Irans successfully over the years. Interestingly, Arjomand points out that the revolution also led to the harassment of the opposition in Iran (141). After his institution as the leader of Iran, Khomeini declared war on the opposition leaders. In fact, he confirmed that the nation was not reinstituting the democratic form of leadership. This move killed the hopes of those who thought that the revolution would bring democracy like the one attained by the constitutional revolution. At present, researchers continue to examine the effects of the Iranian revolution particularly on the Arab world. In fact, a section of political observers claims that the Iranian revolution was influential in the Arab uprisings observed in 2010.
The Islamic revolution in Iran was caused by multiple factors. Scholars point out that the revolution was caused by political oppression, religious ideologies, and economic meltdown. The revolution was characterized by mass protests, Cinema Rex arson, and the return of the revolution leader, Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran after fifteen years of exile. Thus, the revolution led to the establishment of the Islamic State of Iran, deterioration in the diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States, and the development of tensions between Iran and the GCC members.
- Arjomand, Said, Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Cashman, Greg and Leonard C Robinson. An Introduction to the Causes of War: Patterns of Interstate Conflict from World War I to Iraq. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
- Delgado, Magdalena C, and Bryan Gibson. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Florida: CRC Press, 2017.
- January, Brendan. The Iranian Revolution. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.
- Wagner, Heather Lehr. The Iranian Revolution. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010.