History of Iran: The Islamic Revolution

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my posts of 5.10, 5.11, 5.19, 5.27 and 6.1.


“Freedom! Islamic Republic!”

The troubled reign of the Qajars (1794-1925) was terminated by military officer Reza Khan, who took the name of Pahlavi (after the pre-Islamic language) and declared himself Shah, founding the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Shah began a program of rapid industrialization and secularization (modeled in part after Turkish contemporary Ataturk, including a program of westernization of dress), which was to a certain extent successful but also created many opponents. His son, Mohammed Reza Shah, would be the last king of Iran.

Mohammed Reza’s problems began in part with his cooperation with the CIA in a successful coup to overthrow the popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who had just nationalized the country’s oil industry to the great disadvantage of the British, who were operating a concession. Economic mismanagement and harsh persecution of dissidents through a secret police led to widespread discontent, leading to yet greater protests and crackdowns. Finally, in 1979, Mohammed Reza Shah fled Iran, and an exiled opposition leader named Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran to seize control.

Bank bills immediately after the Islamic Revolution, left in circulation but with the portrait of Mohammed Reza stamped out

Opposition to the policies of Mohammed Reza Shah were spread across a wide swath of the political spectrum. However, Ayatollah Khomeini with quick and ruthless organization in the months following the departure of Mohammed Reza Shah founded the reactionary and undemocratic Islamic Republic of Iran.

Home of Ayatollah Khomeini following the Islamic Revolution

Shiite Islam became the language of the Iranian state, and laws based on a medieval reading of Islam, including the hejab, or Islamic dress code, and the reduction of the marriage age for girls to 9, were enacted. Capital punishment became the law for homosexual sex, apostasy (rejection of Islam) and numerous other offenses. Stoning and other corporal punishments were revived. Khomeini became the unelected “Supreme Leader,” who (rather than the elected President) controlled the military and the judiciary, and appointed the “Guardian Council” that has an effective veto on the laws passed by the democratically elected parliament, the Majlis, and as supervisor of elections can disqualify politicians from running for office.

Khomeini blessed the invasion of and taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, calling the U.S. the “Great Satan” and making opposition to the U.S. a key aspect of Iranian state policy. Khomeini also made opposition to Israel a key Iranian position [more on this to come in a future post on Iranian identity].

Defaced seal of the U.S., Former U.S. Embassy, Tehran

Art on the walls outside the former U.S. Embassy, Tehran

Following the death of Khomeini in 1989, he was succeeded by Ayatollah Khameini, who, as Supreme Leader, was able to thwart the reform ambitions of former President Khatami.

This shrine at Qom (described a bit in my post of 6.2) and the shrine in Mashhad, the holiest one in Iran, are essentially two huge construction projects, with additions being built (in a somewhat shabby manner, it appeared to us) at a fast rate. Some Iranians that we spoke to complained about the state funds that were expended on expansions of religious buildings, including Shiite mosques in other countries (such as Lebanon and Bahrain, both of which are substantially wealthier than Iran) and gold domes, and religious education (to the detriment of secular education).

Finally, a political joke told to us by an Iranian man in one of Tehran’s many beautiful parks: A man walked by a mosque and saw that it was serving food. Puzzled, the man asked his friend where the worshippers were. The friend said that to see people praying, you should go to the University. (Tehran University is famously the site of Friday prayers in Tehran, although few students attend.) “If the University is filled with worshippers, where are the students?” he asked. “The students are all in prison.” “If the prison is filled with students, where are the criminals?” “They are running the government!”

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