Iranian Revolution | Summary, Causes, Effects, & Facts | Britannica

Prelude to revolution

Reza Shah Pahlavi
Reza Shah Pahlavi

The 1979 revolution, which brought together Iranians across many different social groups, has its roots in Iran’s long history. These groups, which included clergy, landowners, intellectuals, and merchants, had previously come together in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11. Efforts toward satisfactory reform were continually stifled, however, amid reemerging social tensions as well as foreign intervention from Russia, the United Kingdom, and, later, the United States. The United Kingdom helped Reza Shah Pahlavi establish a monarchy in 1921. Along with Russia, the U.K. then pushed Reza Shah into exile in 1941, and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took the throne. In 1953, amid a power struggle between Mohammed Reza Shah and Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.K. Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) orchestrated a coup against Mosaddegh’s government.

Years later, Mohammad Reza Shah dismissed the parliament and launched the White Revolution—an aggressive modernization program that upended the wealth and influence of landowners and clerics, disrupted rural economies, led to rapid urbanization and Westernization, and prompted concerns over democracy and human rights. The program was economically successful, but the benefits were not distributed evenly, though the transformative effects on social norms and institutions were widely felt. Opposition to the shah’s policies was accentuated in the 1970s, when world monetary instability and fluctuations in Western oil consumption seriously threatened the country’s economy, still directed in large part toward high-cost projects and programs. A decade of extraordinary economic growth, heavy government spending, and a boom in oil prices led to high rates of inflation and the stagnation of Iranians’ buying power and standard of living.

In addition to mounting economic difficulties, sociopolitical repression by the shah’s regime increased in the 1970s. Outlets for political participation were minimal, and opposition parties such as the National Front (a loose coalition of nationalists, clerics, and noncommunist left-wing parties) and the pro-Soviet Tūdeh (“Masses”) Party were marginalized or outlawed. Social and political protest was often met with censorship, surveillance, or harassment, and illegal detention and torture were common.

For the first time in more than half a century, the secular intellectuals—many of whom were fascinated by the populist appeal of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a former professor of philosophy in Qom who had been exiled in 1964 after speaking out harshly against the shah’s recent reform program—abandoned their aim of reducing the authority and power of the Shiʿi ulama (religious scholars) and argued that, with the help of the ulama, the shah could be overthrown.

In this environment, members of the National Front, the Tūdeh Party, and their various splinter groups now joined the ulama in broad opposition to the shah’s regime. Khomeini continued to preach in exile about the evils of the Pahlavi regime, accusing the shah of irreligion and subservience to foreign powers. Thousands of tapes and print copies of Khomeini’s speeches were smuggled back into Iran during the 1970s as an increasing number of unemployed and working-poor Iranians—mostly new migrants from the countryside, who were disenchanted by the cultural vacuum of modern urban Iran—turned to the ulama for guidance. The shah’s dependence on the United States, his close ties with Israel—then engaged in extended hostilities with the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab states—and his regime’s ill-considered economic policies served to fuel the potency of dissident rhetoric with the masses.

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Outwardly, with a swiftly expanding economy and a rapidly modernizing infrastructure, everything was going well in Iran. But in little more than a generation, Iran had changed from a traditional, conservative, and rural society to one that was industrial, modern, and urban. The sense that in both agriculture and industry too much had been attempted too soon and that the government, either through corruption or incompetence, had failed to deliver all that was promised was manifested in demonstrations against the regime in 1978.

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