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The Iranian Revolution

The events which are composing the recent history of Iran, are undoubtedly unique.
Over the last century, the Iranians experimented great political transformations which caused
important changes at the level of political structure. The Iranian Revolution, also known as
the 1979 Revolution or the Islamic Revolution, is by far one of the most significant events
which occurred within the state and represents a real turning point in the history of Iran. Not
only it did overthrow the monarchy but also it was designed ,,from the outset to achieve a
complete revolution, by Islamization of all spheres of life.1 After long years of fear and
repression, the Iranians were able to choose for their own, the referendum organized late in
the 70 in order to find out people preferences, was a free one. Thus, the revolution marked
the remove of the Reza Shah in favor of the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, whose
traditional oriented beliefs were about to influence the structure of power in the state. Iran
and the world would never be the same.
Focusing on the Iranian Revolution, the present essay intends to outline the specific
characteristics which belong to this event in order to prove that this revolution is one of the
worlds historys pivotal moments. The first part of this paper will analyze the historic
context and the origins of the Iranian Revolution. The outbreak and the evolution of the event
will make the subject for the next section and finally, it will be presented characteristics
which make the Iranian Revolution so special when compared to the others revolutions who
took place in the history.
I.Historic context and the origins of the Iranian Revolution
Kenneth Pollack, a United States government official, was stating in an official
declaration from 2004, that although the recent past is of greatest relevance to the near
future, when dealing with a nation such Iran, there is no escaping a more distant past. This

1 Bhattacharya, Nandini, Iranian Revolution, 1979, in International Encyclopedia of Revolution

and Protest,,
accesed at 4th june, 2015.

mean that, in order to be able to understand the origins of the Iranian Revolution, it is
necessary to take a look at the history of the state.
The roots of the Islamic Revolution and the modern Iran, as author Brendan January
argues in his 2008 book called The Iranian Revolution2, reach back to ancient times. A nation
in the Middle East, Iran represented the center of the Persian Empire, which has been a great
power in the 600s B.C. Invaded by the Arabs in the seventh century, Iran was needed to adopt
a new religion-Islam. From this moment on, the history of Iran goes hand in hand with the
religion of Islam. The Arabs or, better said, the Islamic leaders built an empire that would
spread throughout all the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East, and by the mid-eight century,
,,the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to central Asia.3 More than one billion people
from all over the world would practice Islam, in the modern times. Iran would separate itself
from the Arabian Caliphate during the IX th and Xth century, its following history counting as
important moments the establishment of Safavid dynasty, which will reorganize the Iranian
state as a centralized one, the decline registered after the wars with Russia and the
modernization of the state which came with the XXth century.
But one of the most important events which has direct link to the Iranian Revolution
is the change of dynasty within the state. In the early 1920, Reza Khan, a young army officer,
seized power from the existing Iranian shah, and he crowded himself shah in 1925, changing
the name of the dynasty into Pahlavi. The ambitious Reza embarked on an extensive process
to modernize Iran. His intention was to reduce the influence of ancient traditions in Iranian
culture because, in his view, these traditions prevented the kind of progress enjoyed by the
European states. To understand the modernization implemented by the Reza Shah, we must
first make a brief description of the main characteristics of the Islam. There are two main
branches, the Sunni and the Shiite. Although the big part of the Muslims around the world are
Sunni, the majority of the Iranians are part of the Shiite branch. As a global and
comprehensive religion, Islam ,,covers every aspect of the life4, governing the social, the
2 January, Brendan, The Iranian Revolution. Pivotal Moments inHistory, Twenty
First Century Books, Minneapolis, 2008.
3 January, Brendan, The Iranian Revolution, p. 7.
accessed at 5th june, 2015.

economic and even the political life of the society, being characterized by a ,,real system of
worship, civil rights, code of behavior, dress code, diet, laws of marriage5, providing
objective solutions to the individual, social and even international problems. These being
said, we can now expose and understand the process of modernization implemented by the
Reza Shah. Among the reforms, first there must be mentioned that the foreigners were no
longer allowed to use the ancient name Persia but Iran. Also, the government was designed
by Reza on the model of the modern European state and the laws of the nation were
standardized and written down. Taking into consideration that Iran hold important oil
reserves, Reza also allowed European oil companies to operate in Iran, companies which
instead exerted significant influence on Irans government. All in all, many of the Shahs
reforms involved weakening the power of Islam, which Reza saw as an old-fashioned
But for a great number of Iranian clerics, these reforms were disturbing, causing
pressure on the lives of people and poisoning the Iranian people. Among the opponents of the
Shah, the most important one is, by far, Ayatollah Khomeini whose name means, in the
Islamic culture, a great religious leader who carries great authority due to its extraordinary
learning, wisdom and piety. Since the early 1960s, Khomeini opposed to the reforms
performed by the Shah from an Islamic moralist standpoint. He attracted in this way much
popular attention. Being ,,vehemently opposed to the spread to the spread of the western
model of secularization, introduced in Iran by the Shahs reform program6, he was
considered by the Reza Shah a real danger for the society, and therefore he was repeatedly
exiled and imprisoned more than once. Khomeini spent, after being exiled in 1963, about a
year in Turkey and the rest of 14 years in Iraq religious city called Najaf, and finally, for a
short period of time, in France.
Iran will become in short time one of the greatest oil exporters. To the outside world,
Iran presented an impressive image. The economy overall was growing and the Teherans
hotels and resorts were bringing great numbers of tourists. Underneath this glitter, however,
5, accessed at 5th june, 2015.
6 Bhattacharya, Nandini, Iranian Revolution, 1979, in International
Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest,
volution_1979, accesed at 5th june, 2015.

repression reigned as the secret police of the Shah was closely watching peoples every move.
But the economic crises which affected the world wide commerce, will mark a significant
drop in oil revenues in 1975. The cuts in wages will produce a large discontent among the
population, and one may say that the very origin of the Iranian Revolution lies in the popular
protests which were manifested against the Reza Shah, who represented the political
authority at the moment. The dependence of the Shah on the United States and the illconsidered economic policies served to fuel the protests, while the Ayatollah Khomeini, even
though was in exile, continued to exert a great influence on the Iranian population through its
writings. One may say that the ,,Irans Islamic revolution was in a way the outcome of a long
struggle between two men: Shah Muhammad Reza and Ayatollah Khomeini.7

II. The Iranian Revolution: outbreak and aftermath

The significant drop in oil revenues in 1975 accompanied by the economic crisis paved the
way for widespread popular protests. In 1977 thousands of people protested, for the first time
in 14 years, in Teheran, against the Shah. The participants to protests were mainly workers
and the urban poor, but soon other sectors of society were to get involved. For example, the
intellectuals and mullahs-the traditional clergy who had felt left outside the earlier economic
boom and squeezed by the outside companies, soon joined the protests. These movements
culminated in one of the largest demonstrations in history, as Nandini Bhattacharya mentions,
bringing together two millions people in Teheran, in June 1978. A great number of people,
,,were killed by the government forces in anti-regime protests8 due to the imposition of the
martial law. As a react to this, more protesters came into streets, specifically targeting the
shah and the Westernalization. As more troops were sent into the city, Reza Shah found
himself in a downward spiral: more protesters, more police, more fury. It was obvious the the
Shah did not know how to react while the political atmosphere was growing more andf more
tense. It was obvious that ,,that the shahs regime was about to topple.9 In the middle of
7 Hoveyda, Fereydoun, The Shah and the Ayatollah: Iranian Mythology and
Islamic Revolution, Preger Publishers, Westport, 2003, p. 1.
8, accessed at
5th june 2015.
9 January, Brendan, The Iranian Revolution, p. 40.

these events, the prestige and the strength of the shah vanished as more and more protests
broke out around the country. All these people who were protesting chanted for the return of
Ayatollah Khomeini.
In all this time, Khomeini was coordinating from the exile, this opposition, requiring
the shahs abdication. In this tense atmosphere, the Shah and his family left Iran for what it
was officially known as ,,vacation. This act proved that even the shah, after more that thirtyeight years as the ruler of Iran, recognized that his reign was ending. On January 16, 1979,
the shah boarded an airplane for, what he called, a vacation. The reality was, after more than
twenty/five hundred years, the rule of kings in Iran was over. The Regency council whose job
was to run the country during the shahs absence, could not work properly, being unable to
get to a compromise with the protesters.
After the shahs departure, the Iranian people, experiencing an intense state of
freedom, were finally able to express their resentment against the existing political order. All
over the country, people were attacking military bases and the police stations. They even
abruptly sentenced to death the members of the shahs government. All these events meant
revolution, a time of high changes when everything could be questioned.
Taking the opportunity of the shahs absence, Khomeini appeared in Iran on February
1979. The departure of the shah left a significant hole at the center of the Iranian government,
society and culture and the Ayatollah seemed to be the only person who could, at the moment,
fill the gap. After fifteen years in exile, Khomeini was coming home. The charismatic
personality of the Ayatollah made him an attractive leader who coul give the Iranians the long
expected freedom. At his returning, crowds estimated in the millions, gathered along the route
as Khomeinis car was riding through the streets.
But many people soon wondered: what would the Khomeini do? ,,I shall appoint my
own government10, declared the Ayatollah right from the beginning, indicating in this way
that he was going to play an important role.
The Iranian Revolution followed the Shiite variant, more exactly, Khomeinis version
of Shiism, based on an experimental model of a traditional Islamic brand ideology. The
model proposed by Khomeini had to prove that its dogma could cure societys ills, this task
10, accessed at 6th june,

becoming also one of the main challenge for the revolutionary regime. The new leaders
intention was to bring back into the Iranian society, the traditional values of the Islamism.
Both the theological and political power was thus transferred to the highest religious
authority, the marja-al-taqulid, abolishing in this way the office of the shah and bringing the
political, ethical, cultural and religious responsibilities under a new model of the Islamic rule.
Khomeini was also using the Islam as the tool to to contest and combat western political and
cultural ideologies.
The new constitution of the state, which expressed the ideas of the revolutionary
regime, was prepared under the strict and direct supervision of Khomeini. But the changes
brought by the new leader seem, in some ways, to combine the traditional view of Islam with
some western practices. For example, the women were allowed to vote in local elections,
there was manifested a respect towards the private sector in agriculture, trade, services and
small industries. The right to private property was also carefully secured.
All in all, we can see that the model of the state, as imposed by the Islamic
Revolution, is a interesting combination, which talks about Islam and the importance of the
traditional values, but also is characterized by a set of western ideas such as the support for
the private sector. Nonetheless, the Iranian Revolution was a major turning point in the
history of revolutions.
III. The Iranian Revolution- a new model
The Iranian Revolution plays an unique role in the history of revolutions. Whereas the
French Revolution meant radical change towards modernization and the secularization of the
state, the Iranian Revolution is considered to be the only great revolution who does not
respect the standards imposed by the former.
For a great part of the Islamic countries, the laic and nationalist revolutions, after the
Second World War, were thought to bring the economic equality, the societys liberty and the
equality of the state in what concerns the relationship with the occidental powers. However,
the results proved to be disappointing. For many arabs leaders, the experience of the
secularization and revolution in the occidental style brought nothing.
The Islamic Revolution however, used a very different pattern. Although it brings
back into the society the Islamic traditions, it does not mark a returning to then caliphate, to
the medieval leaders. Instead, it means a new beginning for the Islam in the Iranian society,

who was adopting in the same time the democracy institutions, such as the parliament but
which is ruled according to the principles of the culture and the norm of Islamism. The
revolutions from 1979 means also the sunrise of a new era, a modern era of the Islamic
These being said, it is obvious that the Iranian revolution is something completely
new. It signifies a departure from the laic model of occidental world or, in other words, it
represents the sign that a progressive revolutionary change is possible within an Islamic
Within the history of the revolutions, the Iranian one holds a major relevance. It can
be said that it represents the incarnation of the post-laic revolution, the proof that the
revolution is possible to happen even if it means bringing back the old traditions and values.
IV. Conclusions
The Iranian revolution is by far one of the most important events which occurred in
the modern history of Iran. If the reign of the Reza Shah meant the westernalization and of
the society, the returning of the Ayatollah Khomeini was about to bring back the old traditions
proposed by the Islamism. The success of the hybrid model proposed by the Khomeini is
proved if we take into consideration that since the late of the 70 the structure of the state has
remained, mainly, the same.
Even though the revolution does not seem to have too many things in common with
the other revolutions from the Arab world, this is because not only did it refuse the occidental
model of the revolution, but also tried to bring back the Islamic traditions.

1. Bhattacharya, Nandini, Iranian Revolution, 1979, in International Encyclopedia of
Revolution and Protest

2. January, Brendan, The Iranian Revolution. Pivotal Moments inHistory, Twenty First Century
Books, Minneapolis, 2008


5. Hoveyda, Fereydoun, The Shah and the Ayatollah: Iranian Mythology and Islamic
Revolution, Preger Publishers, Westport, 2003