The Iranian Revolution was one of the most significant revolutions in the Middle East in the 20th century. From January 1978 to February 1979, the revolution was not only successful in establishing an Islamic Republic after overthrowing the monarchical Shah regime, the influence of the event extended far beyond Iran, and had profound impacts to other Islamic regions and to the entire world.
The massive social discontent in the 1970s which resulted in the Iranian Revolution had multiple critical dimensions. the
The westernisation process brought conflict between the Shah’s regime and the traditional Iranian social forces. Supported by the United States, Iran carried out the “White Revolution”, a comprehensive modernisation and westernisation plan which included land reform, reduction of the autonomy of the clergy, and enfranchisement of women. Even though the reforms gave the common people more power by secularising the government and the society, the process was caused by discontent. For Iranian people who previously lived in a conservative Islamic society, they believed that being manipulated by the US, the Shah’s government posed a threat to their traditional identity.
Socio-political repression by the regime of the Shah likewise increased in the 1970s. As an authoritarian government, the Shah centralised the political power completely. The lack of political freedom led to massive discontent. At the time, the majority of the Iranians were excluded from political participation. Opposition parties such as the National Front and the pro-Soviet T?deh Party were marginalised or outlawed as well. With Iran becoming a single-party state, the social and political stability were purely depended on Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, which was assisted by CIA and Mi6. Every corner of society was subjected to surveillance, censorship, and political supervision. Shah’s dictatorial ruling and loss of legitimacy resulted in the withdrawal of popular support from the Shah and in the development of serious opposition which threatened his reign.
Protests started to emerge when an Iranian newspaper published an article which was considered as a slanderous allegation of Khomeini in January 1978. As the opposition to the Pahlavi regime and the social discontent caused by economic problems accumulated, more demonstrations followed. Shocked by the sudden uprising and the hostility against his government, the Shah tried to suppress the demonstrations by force. Many people were shot by the government arm force. However, the killing did nothing but to fuel further demonstrations. From Islamists to Marxist to secular intellectuals, the ideologically divided revolutionaries were united under the same goal of overthrowing Shah Pahlavi. The scale of the Iranian Revolution was enormous, as sometimes up to 10% of the whole population would participate in the protests, demonstrating their dissatisfaction towards the regime.
The main leader of the opposition force against the Pahlavi regime was Ayatollah Khomeini, a high cleric of the Shi’a Islam. Despite being the spiritual leader of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini was absent during the course of the revolution. Being exiled to Iraq and after 1978 France due to anti-Shah activities, Khomeini coordinated the revolution and continuously urged Iranian people to fight the Shah’s government and its westernisation process. He denounced the evil of the Shah’s government, accusing shah’s subservience to Western powers and its tyranny of secularisation and irreligion. With thousands of cassettes and print copies that contained Khomeini’s preaching smuggling back to Iran in the 1970s, Khomeini’s message was widely spread across the country.
The massive uprising eventually led to the fall of Shah’s monarchy, as on January 16, 1979, the Shah left Iran. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1. Only two months later, on April 1, with the overwhelming 98% of the affirmative vote to the question: “Should the monarchy be abolished in favour of an Islamic Government?”, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic republic after a national referendum.
The new regime impacted on the Iranian government constitution substantially. Unlike a democracy which is run by the will of the people, Islamic Republic is operated under Khomeini’s theory of vel?yat-e faq?h (government of the jurist), which appoints god as the country’s ultimate authority. Therefore, as the direct representation of god, vel?yat-e faq?h gave the rahbar (Supreme Leader), who was Khomeini at the time, absolute power and control over the country.
To secure his domination over the country, Khomeini established the unofficial militia of the Revolutionary Guards, which engaged in numerous political repressions in 1979. Political groups that were not under the direct control of Khomeini’s clerical organisations of Islamic Republican Party and Revolutionary Council had subjected to repression and intimidation. The brutality and violence involved in these activities were shocking that the Iranian government had executed approximately 10,000 Iranians by the end of 1988.
Under Khomeini’s ruling, he adapted the Shi’a Islamic doctrine and turned the once secular Iran back to a conservative Islamic society. Firstly, Khomeini ended Iran’s geopolitical dependence on the US and began Iran’s antagonistic relationship with the United States which has lasted until today. Then, he started the de-secularisation process within the society by repressing Western cultural influence. Laws that restricted the consumption of alcohol and tobacco were issued, the study of the Koran and Islam became a compulsory school curriculum, and the practice of other religion was banned.
The outcome of the revolution affected the women significantly. After 1979, women were forced to wear veils in public. However, the impact did not stop with the appearance, as the Family Protection Act, which provided women with more rights in marriage, was repealed after the revolution. Furthermore, the Islamic government passed laws which prevented women from receiving higher education in 140 fields.
Not only the revolution changed Iran drastically, but it also rippled across the Middle East. With Khomeini’s intention of exporting the revolution after 1979, Iran’s Arab neighbours including Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf States were concerned about the stability of their monarchies. As the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was especially threatened by Iran, as he feared with the majority of the Iraqi population being Shia Muslim, a rebellion would be incited by the Iranian revolutionary government. Combined with other factors, Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 in the attempt to contain the spread of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution.