Iranian Revolution of 1979: Definition, Causes & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was unexpected, to say the least. In this lesson, we're going to see how a protest of clerics and students turned into a rapid revolution, and explore the impacts this had on the world.

The Iranian Revolution

By the mid-20th century, the world had seen a number of revolutions. Mexico had one in 1910, China a few years later, Russia in 1917, Germany just after that, and on and on and on. People were fairly confident that they understood the recipe for revolution: take a dissatisfied peasantry, add an oppressive aristocracy, then toss in some agitated military generals and a military conflict, and shake violently. Guaranteed revolution.

It was a tremendous surprise then when Iran broke into revolution in 1979, overthrowing an ancient Persian empire while the nation had been experiencing barely any of the prerequisites for revolution. How could this happen? The world just did not understand, but in Iran, a new recipe for revolution represented a precedent for new revolutionary tastes.

The Cold War

Before we can go into the revolution itself, we need to understand why the expectations of revolution were so important. From roughly the 1950s through 1991, the world was defined by the global struggle between capitalist and communist spheres of influence. We call this period the Cold War.

As the USSR sought to expand communism around the world, and with it their global influence, America and Western Europe did the same with capitalism.

Throughout the Cold War, revolutions became powerful symbols. If a nation overthrew a capitalist government and created a communist one, is was a victory for the USSR in demonstrating that communism was superior to capitalism. The same idea was true of capitalist-based revolutions.

So, the USA and USSR put lots of time and money into secretly funding revolutions to topple governments, or into securing governments from being toppled. Revolutions, and how they occurred, mattered.

Events in Iran

Iran was caught in the middle of this global conflict. Iran controlled vast natural resources like oil, and represented a gateway between Europe and Asia. In 1954, an Iranian party supported by the United States overthrew the government and implemented its own emperor, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi therefore entered Iran into the Cold War as a supporter of America and Western Europe, and a strong capitalist empire.

US president John F. Kennedy with Shah Pahlavi.
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When Shah Pahlavi came into power, his first actions were aimed at modernizing Iran along a Western, industrial model. He pushed for a stronger capitalist economy that was more integrated with global trade networks, and passed numerous reforms focused on giving more power to the common people.

However, these reforms also included Western ideas like the secularization of government and Iranian society. For Iranians, traditionally members of a strongly Muslim nation, these reforms were extremely troubling.

Protests Emerge

Leading the protests against Shah Pahlavi's reforms were the clerics of the Shi'a branch of Islam. Most notable was an Ayatollah, or high cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Khomeini protested against the government and reforms, and he wasn't alone. A great number of Iranians opposed reforming Iranian society along Western models.

In 1963, the government retaliated and attacked theology students in the holy city of Qom. Ayatollah Khomeini declared the Shah to be a tyrant, which by Shi'a theology meant the people had a religious and moral obligation to rebel. Shah Pahlavi responded by arresting Khomeini, then violently breaking up the subsequent riots and protest. Khomeini fled in exile to Iraq.

Ayatollah Khomeini
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At the same time that this was happening, Shah Pahlavi's economic reforms were facing increasing difficulty. Economic modernization was costly and time-consuming. New factories and industries were developed, and while the national economy boomed, most private citizens did not see the benefits of that growth. The wealthy grew wealthier, while the rest of society stagnated.

Revolution

In 1976 and 1977, further secularization reforms by Shah Pahlavi isolated Iranians from all social classes. Demonstrations against the Shah erupted across the nation. By this point, communist organizations were also supporting the rise of the poor against the rich. Between the theology students, the clerics, and communist groups, the resistance against Pahlavi was gaining major popular support.

In 1978 the Shah declared martial law, with protestors being killed by police across the nation. After further skirmishes between national troops and protestors, the nation's capital of Tehran broke into riots.

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