Not the People's Revolution

The Origins and Development of the Iranian Revolution of 1979

“There was no precise moment when I stopped and discerned the broad outlines of what was taking shape before me. There was no obvious signal that the fracas was more than overheated politics, that it was an unfolding revolution under the banner of Islam.”

Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lAWYER, HUMAN RIGHTS aCTIVIST, AND Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

The foundations and legitimacy of the Pahlavi Dynasty were not yet secure when Reza Khan was deposed by foreign powers, undermining the long-term success of the dynasty. These issues atrophied under the ineffective and repressive rule of Reza Shah. Unpopular from the start, Reza Shah grew increasingly despotic, undermined national autonomy, and violently suppressed his people. While cogent opposition coalitions coalesced early in his rule, the Shah’s violent repression of his political adversaries left only the clerical class free to speak against him as popular unrest rapidly grew. Although the clerics were the only viable voice of the revolution, the revolution itself was driven by the legitimate, non-religious, grievances of the Iranian people with their government- the Pahlavis attempted to modernize Iran without modernizing politics. The new national-democratic sentiments of the people chafed under the dynasty’s increasingly despotic rule. This anger culminated in the 1970s with the failures of the White Revolution, the growing violence of SAVAK, and the Shah’s increasing megalomania.

It was at that moment that Islamism found its way into the Iranian Revolution, largely unseen, and not yet to manifest. Ayatollah Khomeini, an outspoken cleric living in exile, began to take center stage, lambasting the Shah and mobilizing the Iranian people. The revolution had finally found strong leadership- it was of little practical importance to the people that it was Islamic leadership. As the violence and unrest of 1978 came to a close and the Shah fled Iran, it seemed as if the Iranian people had won their republic.

Although Islamic leadership had been essential to the success of the revolution, it had not been inherently Islamic in nature, focused on ending the monarchy rather than adopting a strict traditional government. Even those who sought Islamic government could not have conceived the form the new republic would ultimately take under Khomeini. As Khomeini consolidated power, it became clear that his government would be unrecognisable from the republic that many Iranians had envisioned, but would instead follow his own violent brand of Islamism- entirely new and entirely dependent on his discretion. While the Iranian Revolution had been an organic expression of the frustrations of the people, it had been quietly co-opted, transformed into the so-called “Islamic Revolution” at the hands of one man. Iran had thrown out one dictator only to run right into the hands of another.

A list of references on the subject is available here.

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