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The Iranian Revolution

An overview of Iranian revolution

Between 1953 and 1963 much poverty remained among the Iranian people, and the gap between the rich and poor grew. There was talk of the oligarchy of one thousand families. One of the great landowners was the Shah (king), Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Another was the Shia clerical establishment, which had acquired land through religious endowments. But under the Pahlavi dynasty, secularism increased and the power and influence of Shia scholars decreased, and the Shah allied himself with secularists in conflict with Muslims who held traditionalist values on such matters as tobacco, alcohol, movies, gambling and foreign dress.

The Shah launched an effort to modernize Iran economically and socially. He sought to balance his increase in power with reforms that would win more favor from common Iranians. Landlords and some clerics were outspokenly opposed to these reforms. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict) against the reforms. The government-owned radio station responded to Khomeini with a ridicule. The Shah announced that his reforms would take Iran into the jet age while the mullahs wanted to remain “in the age of the donkies.” Numerous clerics went over to the side of Khomeini. Fearing opposition, the Shah cracked down on dissent. On March 22, 1963, in the holy city of Qom, theological students who were agitating against a scheduled opening of liquor stores were attacked by the Shah’s paratroopers and by his security agents — SAVAK. The disturbance spread to students in the city of Tabriz. There and in Qom, according to some, government forced killed hundreds.

When speaking to honor the dead, Ayatollah Khomeini called the Shah’s rule tyrannical. Then the government retaliated against Khomeini. For many Iranians Khomeini became an anti-Shah hero. His arrest on June 5 caused anti-government demonstrations and rioting in a variety of cities. The Shah declared martial law. Tanks and troops with orders to shoot to kill were sent against the rioters. Iran’s airforce strafed a great column of marchers. In two days the rioting was crushed. Many had been arrested, including twenty-eight ayatollahs. A Western academic in Iran estimated that many thousands had died. An Iranian, Dr. A.R. Azimi, put the number at 10,000, while the government estimated the number of dead at 86.

The Shah’s government sent Khomeini into exile, Khomeini settling in a Shiite community in southern Iraq. From Iraq Khomeini continued his attacks on the Shah, sending into Iran pamphlets and tape recordings. Khomeini stated that Islam was opposed to monarchy. He described the title “King of Kings” used by the Shah as the most hated of titles in the sight of God. Monarchy, he said, was shameful, disgraceful and reactionary.

The Pahlavi Monarchy Falls

In 1976 the Shah upset some clerics by replacing the old Islamic calendar with a new secular calendar. And when a prominent critic of the change in calendar was found murdered, many assumed that it was the work of the Shah’s security agents, SAVAK.
It was too late. Too many of those who had at least tolerated the Shah’s rule had been lost. Demonstrations continued.
 
The Shah declared martial law again and a curfew, following a fire at a theater that killed 410 people. From Iraq, the Ayatollah Khomeini was giving guidance to people eager to overthrow the Shah, and he ordered work stoppages that swept the nation. The Shah  responded by managing to have Khomeini expelled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Khomeini flew to Paris, where he found that he had more freedom of action, and to newsmen he began giving four to five interviews per day. There were more demonstrations in Iran and more killings by the army. The work stoppage spread. Oil workers, postal employees, bank employees, journalists, mineworkers, customs officials, transportation workers all went out on strike. So too did almost all universities and high schools. There were demands for better wages, for the dissolution of SAVAK, the ending of marital law and for allowing Khomeini’s peaceful return. Iranians with a lot of money, including high ranking military officers, were sending their wealth abroad. Everywhere people were destroying portraits of the Shah.
Two men had been prominent in the rising against the Shah. One was Khomeini, whose education was parochial, in other words he was Madrasa-trained. The other, Ali Shariati, had both a traditional education in religion and he was also a sociologist with a Ph.D. from France’s Sorbonne University.

Political Divisions, Cleric Power and Totalitarianism
The portraits of both Shariati and Khomeini were carried on placards in demonstrations and the portraits of both were displayed side by side in people’s homes. Shariati had been popular with students and Iran’s religious communities, with thousands of students and non-students having flocked to his lectures, fascinated by his point-of-view. He had been imprisoned under harsh conditions by the Shah’s regime and in 1975 released following popular and international pressure. Shariati favored a reinterpretation of the Islamic faith in order to take it back, he believed, to its true meaning, including its commitment to social justice. He was hostile to “Westernization.” He has been described as a utopian. His mentor, the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, said that if he were to choose a religion “it would be that of Shariati’s.” Shariati disliked U.S. influence in Iran. He was driven into exile as Khomeini had been. In June 1977, three weeks after having arrived in England, he was found dead in his apartment. His followers suspected the Shah’s security agency, SAVAK.

From France, Khomeini denounced Prime Minister Bakhtiar for having accepted the Shah’s appointment as head of the new government, and Khomeini called upon his followers to disobey the Bakhtiar government. Bakhtiar allowed Khomeini’s return anyway — a part of the liberal spirit of the day. On February 1, 1979, after nearly fifteen years in exile, Khomeini returned in triumph from France.

On February 4, Mahdi Bazargan became the revolution’s first prime minister. His revolutionary credentials included having been imprisoned several times during the 1960s and 1970s for non-violent opposition to the Shah’s regime. As prime minister his power hardly existed. Governors and millitary commanders were inclined to reject the authority of officials appointed by the prime minister. Hundreds of revolutionary committees were performing a variety of functions in major cities and towns across the country. Factory workers, civil servants, white-collar employees, and students were demanding their say. A range of political groups were pushing rival agendas and demanding immediate action from the prime minister.

Clerics led by Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti established the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and with Khomeini this became the country’s leading political organization.On February 11, government buildings and radio station were seized by bands of youthful revolutionaries. Huge quantities of arms had been seized, and armed militias roamed the streets and looted. Various factions tried to exercise power. The 40,000 or so Americans, who had been serving in various technical capacities in Iran, were returned home, fearing for their safety. The followers of Khomeini were more numerous and dominated. Khomeini was allied with a largely anonymous committee of clerics and civilians and in contact with local supporters, and he established what many recognized as legitimate authority.

Khomeini and his ulama allies wanted a judiciary government — rule by Islamic law: sharia. Something unprecedented was happening in the history of Islam. Scholars were the backbone of sharia, but the scholars had not ruled. Noah Feldman of Harvard University writes that “scholars had traditionally functioned as a balance against the executive authority of the ruler, now the scholars for the first time actually were the ruling class.” Feldman writes of a Platonic structure called the Council of Guardians, scholars who would “review all legislation for its Islamic content” and eventually “play a key role in vetting candidates for office and even selecting a new supreme leader after Khomeini’s death.”

On March 3, Khomeini announced that no judge was to be female. On March 6, he announced that women were to wear the hejab head covering.  Khomeini declared that all non-Islamic forces were to be removed from the government, the military, judiciary, public and private enterprises and educational institutions. Corrupt behavior and customs were to be ended. Alcohol and gambling were to be banned and so too were nightclubs and mixed bathing. Friday noon prayer and sermons were to be the focal point of the week, and all Friday prayer leaders were to be appointed by Khomeini. Men and women were to be publicly segregated, women to enter busses through one door, men through another, each with a separate seating section. In school classrooms prayers were to become mandatory. Khomeini spoke of music corrupting youth, and he banned all music on radio and television and closed twenty-two opposition newspapers.On March 30-31 a national referendum was offered for choosing a political system, but the only form of government to appear on the ballot was an Islamic republic, Khomeini proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Newspapers were banned. Protests by a left-of-center political movement, the National Democratic Front, led to the group being banned. The Khomeini regime weakened Iran’s bourgeoisie by nationalizing banks, insurance companies, major industries, expropriating some urban land and expropriating the wealth of some families and by appointing managers to various companies.

Students seized the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979. Khomeini wavered at first but then gave the students his support. Khomeini called the United States the “Great Satan” and the U.S. embassy a “den of spies.” Prime Minister Bazargan and his cabinet resigned on the 6th following the hostage taking. Bazargan compained about the ” atmosphere of terror, fear, revenge and national disintegration.” Those occupying the U.S. embassy held fifty-three Americans hostage and demaded that the U.S. deliver to Iran the Shah as an exchange. The Carter Administration refused, and Americans were to remain as hostages until November 1980.

Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages in April, 1980, failed. The Shah died of cancer in July. The Khomeini regime began new negotiations to free the hostages, fearing perhaps the tougher man, Reagan, more than they had Carter. In January 1981, on the day that Reagan was inaugurated president, Iran agreed to free the hostages in exchange for $8 billion in frozen assets and a promise by the United States to lift trade sanctions.

Khomeini and the Shia clerics around him relished the success of their return to what they saw as Islam’s fundamentals, and they wished it to be an influence outside Iran. Many in the Middle East were enthusiastic about the creation of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic — much as the Bolshevik capture of state power had encouraged socialists in the West. Half of the people of the region was under twenty-five years of age, and many tried shaming their parents into adopting Islamic dress. Sermons at Mosques increased the demand for militant action in behalf of advancing Islam.

PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, had been the first foreign dignitary to visit Khomeini, back in 1979,

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