An overview of Iranian revolution
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
It was too late. Too many of those who had at least tolerated the Shah’s rule had been lost. Demonstrations continued.
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.
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.
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.”
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.