“They found records and video-cassettes at their place, a deck of cards, a chess set. In other words, everything that’s banned today.” – Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis
Few countries in the world have had as eventful a history as Iran. Home to one of history’s first civilisations, the region that is Iran today has witnessed the rise and fall of massive empires and great conquerors from Cyrus and Alexander to Genghis Khan and Nader Shah.
Fewer countries have seen as rapid a transformation in the past five decades as Iran has.
In 1979, it seemed as if the world had gone irreversibly mad. There was a sudden upsurge of violence, war, famine, and political turmoil. This turbulent year was epitomised in Iran. In a matter of a few weeks, seas of Iranians took to the streets demanding democracy and secularism. For a minute, it seemed as if they had won. But their betrayal was as swift as their victory.
Before the dust had settled, an oppressive monarchy obsessed with modernisation had been replaced with an even more oppressive theocracy obsessed with Islamisation.
This is the story of how Iran became the religious, fundamentalist state it is today. It begins, as many geopolitical tragedies do, with a young democracy with a lot of oil reserves.
From fledgeling democracy to autocratic monarchy (1951-1953)
“In Iran, CIA propaganda assets were to conduct an increasingly intensified effort through the press, handbills and the clergy in a campaign designed to weaken the Mossadeq government in any way possible … The Army very soon joined the pro-Shah movement and it was [soon] clear that Tehran, as well as certain provincial areas, were controlled by pro-Shah street groups and Army units … By the end of 19 August … members of the Mossadeq government were either in hiding or were incarcerated.” – Donald N Wilber, CIA spy.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Iran was a democracy. Mohammad Mosaddegh was a popular Prime Minister, revered by his people for his secular credentials and his reforms to combat poverty. He earned the wrath of Western governments when he nationalised Iran’s bountiful oil supplies. This move irked the British in particular: the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was a British corporation, the first to extract petroleum from Iran, and the precursor of today’s British Petroleum (BP), the world’s sixth-largest oil and gas company.
The British government and America’s Central Investigation Agency (CIA) orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government. The 1953 Iranian coup d’état lasted for barely five days, but its implications were far-reaching. Iranian democracy was deposed, Prime Minister Mosaddegh was thrown in jail, and the US and UK reinstated monarchy in Iran. The coup was also the first time the US had overthrown a foreign government during the Cold War.
The new ruler of Iran was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – the Shah of Iran. He was backed by the West and initiated a period of industrialisation, military expansion, and economic reforms.
From autocratic monarchy to revolution (1953-1979)
“It seems that amassing a fortune is not the Shah’s chief aim in life. What appears to motivate him most, the thing to which he devotes all his energies, has much vaster implications: He wants to become a part of history, to engrave his name for all time not only on the history of his country of his country but on that of the entire world.” – Gérard de Villiers, The Imperial Shah: An Informal Biography
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was an autocrat. He proposed to secularise and modernise Iran, but he alienated his people with his violent methods and rancid corruption. His secret police, the SAVAK, “most hated and feared institution” in the country conducted arbitrary arrests and employed torture to silence or murder opponents of the Pahlavi regime.
The Shah was also obsessed with modernising Iran and raising the standards of living in the country to those of Europe’s. He called his vision for Iran the “Great Civilisation” and initiated several progressive reforms that were collectively called the White Revolution.
During the last years of his regime, the Shah’s government became more autocratic. In the words of a US Embassy dispatch, “The Shah’s picture is everywhere. The beginning of all film showings in public theaters presents the Shah in various regal poses accompanied by the strains of the National Anthem … The monarch also actively extends his influence to all phases of social affairs … there is hardly any activity or vocation which the Shah or members of his family or his closest friends do not have a direct or at least a symbolic involvement. In the past, he had claimed to take a two-party system seriously and declared, ‘If I were a dictator rather than a constitutional monarch, then I might be tempted to sponsor a single dominant party such as Hitler organised'”
When the Iranian Revolution arrived, it came as a surprise to almost all observers. There were protests and demonstrations as early as 1977, but nobody assumed that they would escalate to a full-blown revolution that would force the Shah to flee and throw Iran into revolutionary turmoil.
From revolution to revolutionary crisis (1979)
“When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of dream?” – Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
The 1979 Iranian revolution was one of the most important events of modern world history. It altered the dynamics of the Middle-east and set the stage for decades-long animosity between the Muslim world and the West.
Demonstrations began in 1977, fuelled by economic problems and opposition to the Shah’s policies. The participants in the Revolution were united in their dislike of the Shah but politically incongruous. From secular student activists to Marxist ideologues to Islamists, the revolutionaries had violently different visions for Iran – but all these visions involved an Iran without Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest against the Shah. On some days, as much as 10% of the country’s population would be on the streets. This is a higher percentage than most revolutions. It is rare for a revolution to involve as much as 1% of a country’s population. In fact, the French, Russian, and Romanian revolutions may have barely passed the 1% mark. Much of the Revolution was nonviolent in nature; however, there was violent resistance in parts of Iran.
Finally, on 16 January 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left the country, never to return. He was the last Shah of Persia, ending a 2,000-year-old line of Persian monarchs.
Much of Iranian society was in euphoria following the Shah’s supposed abdication. Secular and leftist politicians piled onto the movement hoping to gain power in the aftermath, students celebrated in the streets and cheered for democracy and the people’s power, women walked hand-in-hand with men and lauded the fall of autocracy.
But they were all deceived.
From revolutionary crisis to autocratic theocracy (1979-1983)
“Through the [power] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him, he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing this government means opposing the sharia of Islam … Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.” – Ruhollah Khomeini.
Ruhollah Khomeini was a radical Muslim cleric who was a vocal critic of the Shah. Arrested for his anti-Shah activities, Khomeini was imprisoned for 18 months in 1963. After his release in 1964, he refused to apologise and was eventually sent into exile.
Khomeini was a popular figure in Iran well before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. But he was absent during the Revolution itself, living in exile thousands of kilometres away in Paris. As the “spiritual leader” of many Iranian revolutionaries (meaning, the orthodox Islamist ones), Khomeini urged Iranians not to compromise and battle tirelessly against the Shah’s regime.
Two weeks after the Shah left Iran, never to return, Khomeini returned to Iran. He was welcomed by a joyous crowd of over five million people. While it was increasingly clear to secular Iranians that Khomeini was not a liberal, he was widely perceived as a figurehead; moderates and liberals assumed that power would eventually be handed to the secular groups.They were completely wrong.
At this time, Iran was under an interim Prime Minister – Shapour Bakhtiar. Khomeini, already popular and growing increasingly popular, appointed his own Prime Minister (Mehdi Bazargan). Khomeini openly claimed, “Since I have appointed [Bazargan], he must be obeyed … [This is] God’s government … and disobedience against me is a revolt against God.”
Bakhtiar himself was murdered, the interim government collapsed, and Khomeini consolidated power swiftly. On 30 March, barely two months after Khomeini returned to Iran, a referendum to replace the monarchy with an Islamic republic passed with 98% voting in favour of the replacement, with the question: “Should the monarchy be abolished in favour of an Islamic Government?”
Meanwhile, Marxist guerrillas and federalist parties revolted in some regions comprising Khuzestan, Kurdistan, and Gonbad-e Qabus, which resulted in fighting between rebels and revolutionary forces. These revolts began in April 1979 and lasted for several months. These rebellions, along with the outbreak of war with Saddam Hussein-ruled Iraq and the rise of Iranian nationalism (particularly during the Iran Hostage Crisis), enabled the theocrats and fundamentalists to consolidate power and establish the Islamic Republic of Iran.
1979: A dream betrayed
“… the promise of the great Iranian revolution that pitted unarmed civilians against an oil-crazed megalomaniac [was destroyed]. At the moment when Iran stood at the threshold of modernity, a black-winged ghoul came flapping back from exile and imposed a version of his own dark and heavy uniform on a people too long used to being bullied and ordered around.” – Christopher Hitchens.
Hardly anyone foresaw the Revolution. Similarly, hardly anyone foresaw the betrayal of the Revolution.
Before 1979, Iran was a country obsessed with Hollywood, where women without burqas frequented nightclubs public spaces freely. It had an autocrat as its ruler, but its standard of living was gradually improving and it was embracing modernism and secularism. But economic troubles, corruption, and a thirst for the return of democracy precipitated the great Revolution of 1979.
There is no doubt that millions of Iranians who opposed the Shah in 1979 wanted the Islamisation of Iran, that millions were ardent disciples of Khomeini. But the majority of the Iranians who took to the streets in opposition to the Shah dreamt of a democratic Iran, a secular Iran, a free Iran. These revolutionaries included thousands of women who marched in solidarity across Iran for an Iran very unlike the Iran of today.
The Revolution was an epic alliance of men and women, of liberals and conservatives, of communists and fundamentalists, of the young and the old. They had wildly different worldviews, but most of them had in mind an Iran where democracy and tolerance would thrive, an Iran that would work for all.
The Iranian revolution turned a somewhat repressive modernising monarchy into a thoroughly repressive theocracy. The dreams of millions of Iranians were destroyed in a matter of days by a demagogue who did not participate in the Revolution in the first place. He turned a promising democracy into one of the most repressive regimes of modern times.
Two things happened in 1979: a revolution and a betrayal. The revolution gave dreams and aspirations to millions of Iranians and observers around the world; the betrayal thrashed all these hopes and forced a long-oppressed people to tolerate even more oppression.