The Iranian Revolution turns 40 but its origins are at least 140 years old

Statue of the Shah unrolled by students in Tehran in September 1978

Iran is one of the few examples of theocracy in the world. The source of the current regime is the surprising Iranian revolution of 1979 in a country that is still experiencing strong economic growth and was considered at that time to be one of the most stable in its region. This event is still central to understand the geopolitics of the region but what are the origins?

Iran, secular empire but under foreign domination

Iran’s Map in 1900
Above Red dotted line means Russian Influence and blue line closed the british one in the south

Iran remains traumatized by the domination of the European and American powers over the country. Western imperialism manifests itself as early as the 19th century. The British then occupied India from where they organized incursions into Afghanistan, the first of which, in 1842, ended in a major disaster. In the 1860s, it was the turn of the Russian Empire to move closer to the Iranian borders by invading Central Asia. The country, then ruled by the Turkish Qajars dynasty, unable to respond to this increasingly threatening situation. Indeed, it is sparsely populated and especially technically very late on European nations then in full industrial revolution.

NB: In the end, Iran will never be officially colonized. On the other hand, from the end of the 19th century, it became a protectorate of Russia and Great Britain, the first inheriting a zone of influence in the north of the country and the second in the south. The growing influence of these two foreign nations causes deep resentment among Iranians, especially in Shiite religious circles.

In addition, the discovery of major oil deposits in Iran in 1908 opened up new opportunities for the country, but they were mainly exploited by the British….

The Qajars, weakened by their failures and foreign influence, were overthrown in 1925 by a Cossack officer who took power under the name of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

The new emperor is launching an ambitious modernization program inspired by Ataturk’s secular and pro-Western Turkey. However, he was expelled from power in 1941 by the Anglo-Russo-American Allies who blame him for his « ambiguities » with regard to Nazi Germany.

His son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the permission of the allies, succeeded him and continued his work of modernizing the country with strong and almost absolute governance.

Portrait of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

The New Shah is too ambitious

Faithful ally of the Westerners after the Second World War, he intends to restore his prestige to Iran. From the 1960s, the oil rent ensures a large income and feeds the strong economic growth of the country. However, this money is badly reinvested in the economy. Indeed, it does not support the emergence of an industrial exporting sector and is largely used to increase military or purely « sumptuary » expenditures.

While those close to the government are taking full advantage of this period of prosperity and a middle class is emerging in the big cities, the majority of the Iranian population continues to lead an austere life marked by ancestral traditions …

Ignoring this reality and « misjudging » the importance of the development of the secondary sector in the prosperity of Western Europe of the Thirties Glorious, the Shah is nevertheless convinced that his country can catch up with the most modern economies in a few years!

It also strives to fundamentally reform the Iranian society by promoting a certain cultural penetration of the West. In the cities, women began to leave the veil in favor of clothing from Europe or North America.

Young iranian in the seventies decade under the Shah

This modernization, however, remains very relative and hardly affects the people of the countryside, the majority.

Moreover, the relative success of the agrarian reform encourages the Shah to establish a reform plan aimed at modernizing Iranian society in all its aspects: women’s rights with the 1963 electoral law in particular, extension of education, worker participation to production activities … On the educational level, an army of knowledge aimed at spreading instruction in the countryside is set up. The progress made by these reforms is indisputable even if the Shah is still not inclined to share power with his government, Iran being a constitutional monarchy! However, this progress should not distract us from the essential: unlike Japan in the same decade, Iran fails to transform itself into economic power.

If the growth of the Iranian economy is strong, it is not enough to offset the dramatic increase in the Iranian population (about 21 million in 1960, 37 million in 1979). This economy remains too dependent on the hydrocarbon sector does not pass the relay to the industry and innovation.

Above all, the reforms of the Shah deeply undermine the beliefs of certain segments of Iranian society, especially conservative and religious circles. They are led by a charismatic and respected religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, the imperial power no longer satisfies liberals and progressives who are angered by the authoritarian and police nature of the regime.

All these movements also have reasons to turn away from the foreign policy of the Shah, pro-Western and especially favorable to Israel.

NB: The Jewish state, in fact, has made Iran one of the cornerstones of its peripheral strategy to ally itself with distant countries, because of the impossibility of maintaining normal relations with its countries neighbors.

In the 1970s, the Shah seems more powerful than ever and the first oil shock of 1973, by highlighting the fragility of Western countries highly dependent on hydrocarbons, further strengthens its ambitions. The regime is also becoming more and more repressive, particularly through the action of SAVAK, its main intelligence and internal security service. Many political opponents are abused and tortured.

Mohammad Reza Shah, sure of his power, seems hardly to be formalized and multiplies the demonstrations of power and wealth. In 1971, he organized, near Persepolis, sumptuous ceremonies to celebrate the 2500 years of the foundation of the Achaemenid Empire. This event, which generates extravagant costs, shocks many observers in view of the still deep poverty in the countryside of the country.

Luxuroius Ceremony over the 25OO anniversary’s Empire

The Iranian monarchy seems « unbeatable » and yet …

However, the escalation leading to the Revolution will be sudden, rapid and unexpected. Indeed, imperial Iran still appears as a solid state at this time, a growing middle class and apparently satisfied by a strong state. The latter, relying on an effective repressive apparatus … but criticized by the new President of the United States Jimmy Carter who recommends the Shah to relax his regime, which the latter seems willing to do.


The Shah of Iran (left) meeting with members of the U.S. government: Alfred AthertonWilliam SullivanCyrus VanceJimmy Carter, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1977

This American pressure has the flaw of highlighting the American influence on Iran and making the sovereign appear weak, an impression reinforced by the incurable disease from which he then suffers.

In addition, a large part of the middle class of bazaars (bazaar traders), especially its youth, is paradoxically seduced by the protest ideas that spread at that time.

The year 1978 was marked by strong tensions, particularly with traditional Shia circles. In August and September 1978, large demonstrations took place in the country and spread to Tehran.

If the protesters come from various political backgrounds, it is the mullahs, representatives of cultural traditions and ideologies properly national, who best embody the struggle against an authoritarian ruler and deemed too close to the West. The Shia clergy themselves seduce part of the Iranian youth by holding a revolutionary speech fighting against social and political injustices and for the sovereignty of the country.

During the same year, two other events illustrate the incompetence of the power to manage crises and complete its discredit.


Demonstration of 8 September 1978. The placard reads, « We want an Islamic government, led by Imam Khomeini ».

Indeed, on September 8, 1978, « Black Friday, » security forces fire on the crowd, killing several hundred protesters. Shortly after (on September 16th), the Tabas earthquake, which causes the death of about fifteen thousand people, and the ensuing relief operations make blatant the unpreparedness of the authorities in front of the reactivity of the religious foundations quickly mobilized.

Towards the fall of the Shah and the advent of Ruhollah Khomeini

Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (left) and Ayatollah Khomeyni (right)

Unenthusiastic about the idea of provoking a bloodbath, the Shah seems to hesitate on the way forward while misjudging the scale of the events.

The Revolution then in progress acquired a leader in the person of Khomeini, who enjoyed strong credit because of his constant opposition to power since the 1960s. The Ayatollah, whose messages were broadcast all over the world from his French exile in Neauphle-le-Château, was uncompromising and demanded the sovereign’s departure.

On December 10 and 11, 1978, one million people took to the streets of Tehran to celebrate the martyr, Imam Hussein (Shia martyr who died in 680 AD in Kerbala (Iraq)). The security forces are totally powerless and do not intervene. The Shah, sick and weakened, has definitively lost. On 31 December, he appointed the Liberal opponent Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister and left the country a few weeks later.


Shah and his wife, Shahbanu Farah leaving Iran on 16 January 1979

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeiny returned to Iran after fourteen years in exile. The Bakhtiar government falls on February 11 and March 31, 98.2% of the Iranians support the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Khomeyni back to Iran after 14 years exile

One of the oldest monarchies in history has been falling!

by Alexandra Allio De Corato

A propos de Alexandra Allio De Corato 15 Articles
Traductologie, Linguistique & Géopolitique Analyste, Spécialiste du Moyen-Orient.

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