Today in Middle Eastern history: the Iranian Revolution (1979)

In all the time I’ve been running this blog and posting on important events in Islamic history, I haven’t done a February 11 post to commemorate the Iranian Revolution. And to be honest, it’s partly because I’ve never really been able to figure out why February 11 is considered the anniversary of the event. The date is not insignificant–February 11 is when the royal Iranian army surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance to the revolution, which isn’t nothing. It’s just that I’m not sure why it’s a bigger milestone than the shah’s departure (January 16), the dissolution of the regency council he left to run the country in his absence (January 22), Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile (February 1), the creation of the Islamic Republic (March), or the adoption of its constitution (December). Really everything after the shah hightailed it into exile seems anticlimactic.

Nevertheless, February 11 is considered the anniversary of the revolution for those who like to put one single date on things, and as I’m writing this post it’s specifically the 40th anniversary of the revolution. So I guess we should note that. I’m in the middle of a podcast miniseries about the revolution at Patreon, if you’re interested in subscribing to hear it, and so I don’t want to go into heavy detail about the revolution here and duplicate the work I’m doing there. But since we’ve already talked about Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran, I suppose we can talk about the specific events that led to it and to the surrender of the royal army ten days later.

The causes of the Iranian Revolution run all the way back to the 1953 coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh–or really, if you want to be comprehensive about it, all the way back to the late 19th century and a growing popular and religious sentiment that Iran’s rulers were too corrupt, too compromised by the West, and/or too secular to legitimately run the country. A century of repeated British and then US interventions in Iranian affairs added to the building sense of outrage. Resistance to the increasingly authoritarian shah and Iran’s increasingly broken economy were the main immediate triggers.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his wife, Farah, just before they left Iran in January 1979 (Wikimedia Commons)

But if we’re going to pick a start date, again for those who like these things to be tidy, then the one most often cited is January 7, 1978. On that day, Iran’s Ettelaʿat newspaper ridiculing Khomeini in extremely derisive terms (among them was the accusation that he was a “British agent,” which is pretty wild coming from a newspaper supportive of the thoroughly westernized shah). Khomeini’s son, Mostafa, had recently died under highly suspicious circumstances in Najaf, Iraq (the accusation that agents of the shah’s SAVAK secret police murdered him is widely accepted in Iran to the present day). So the editorial added to a sense that Khomeini was being brutalized by the Iranian regime, and it was enough to cause seminary students in the city of Qom to riot.

Khomeini (right) and his son Ahmad (left) meeting with Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, who participated in the revolution but opposed Khomeini’s plans for an “Islamic republic” (Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously he couldn’t have known it at the time, but those riots marked the beginning of the shah’s end. Two people were killed by Iranian police, and 40 days later (the end of the traditional mourning period in Shiʿism) on February 18, protests broke out again, only this time in several major Iranian cities. Six people were reportedly killed in those demonstrations, and at the next 40 day mark (March 29), the protests went nationwide. The pattern repeated itself again in another 40 days, on May 10, and every 40 days for most of the rest of the year, though after the May 10 demonstrations they began to level off or even diminish a bit.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi reacted to these protests with something approaching total bewilderment. He clearly hadn’t seen the tension building up in Iranian society, and when it exploded his response was indecisive. The Shah already believed he was under pressure from US President Jimmy Carter to curb his human rights abuses and general authoritarianism (he was not, actually, but he’d become a little paranoid by this point), he opted not to go completely repressive, but neither did he offer what the protesters seemed to want, which was an immediate return to governance according to the principles of the 1906 Iranian constitution. Instead he promised to continue slowly liberalizing the Iranian political system as he’d been doing for the past few years, scheduling a parliamentary election for sometime in 1979. Which clearly wasn’t good enough for the protesters. Meanwhile, though official policy was to use a light touch with demonstrators (those who were detained were to be quickly released), the shah’s poorly equipped and even more poorly trained security forces kept killing people anyway because they were unable to handle basic riot control.

Still, things did start to calm down. The experts at the CIA determined that there was no risk of an outright revolution in Iran and Washington relaxed accordingly. But the demonstrations kicked back into high gear in August, bolstered by large working class and merchant contingents. Then, on August 19, a group of what I think could be fairly called terrorists locked the doors to a movie theater in Abadan and set the place on fire. They killed 422 people. Revolutionary leaders, including Khomeini from exile, blamed the shah and SAVAK for the fire, though there’s copious evidence now suggesting the attackers were revolutionaries of some stripe and possibly Islamist revolutionaries. Growing desperate, the shah named Jafar Sharif-Emami as his new prime minister because Sharif-Emami was known to be close to Iran’s religious community.

Sharif-Emami quickly set out to basically reverse the last 5-10 years of Iranian policymaking, undoing anything the shah had proposed that had any whiff of unpopularity about it. He dissolved the Resurgence Party, the only legal political party in the country. He began firing SAVAK bosses left and right. He released political prisoners. He ended official censorship and cracked down hard on official corruption. It was all too little, too late, and at this stage of the game actually seems to have emboldened the revolutionaries by showing them how desperate the regime had become.

With protests still growing, the shah now lurched in the direction of repression, declaring martial law in several cities, including Tehran, at midnight on September 8. Later that day, thousands of people turned out in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, either unaware of or unfazed by the declaration. Police and soldiers met them in the streets and a bloodbath ensued. The government officially acknowledged that somewhere in the neighborhood of 88 people were killed, some of them police but most of them protesters, while opposition leaders cited figures in the thousands, and most of the Iranian public believed the latter. The shah immediately ordered that his security forces no longer make any effort to break up protests, despite the fact that much of the country remained under martial law. Jomʿe-ye Siyāhi, or “Black Friday,” as the day became known, marks what many consider to be the “point of no return” for the revolution. From that point on, even protesters who had merely been demanding reform and a return to the 1906 constitution began demanding unequivocally that the shah must go.

Black Friday, September 1978 (Wikimedia Commons)

At this point, Khomeini moved his exile (he’d been out of the country since 1964) from Iraq to France (with the strong blessing of Iraq’s Baathist government, which was increasingly uneasy about his politics), where he quite skillfully portrayed himself to Western media as a freedom fighter and saw his prestige really take off among Iranians of all backgrounds. It’s while in France that he became the de facto leader of the revolution. Leaders from the secular National Front, the movement that Mosaddegh had formed back in the late 1940s, visited him in France to begin making plans for a post-shah Iran. The shah, increasingly panicking, dissolved Sharif-Emami’s government on November 6 and appointed a military government in its place. In a speech announcing the change, the shah apologized for errors he’d made and pledged his support for the revolution and its ideals. Again this had the effect of emboldening, rather than appeasing, the revolutionaries.

The protests hit their peak in December, during the Islamic month of Muharram. It’s believed that upwards of 10 percent of the Iranian population turned out on Ashura (December 10 and 11) to demand the shah’s removal and the return of Khomeini, which according to people who study revolutions is a stunning figure that vastly exceeds what the French or Russian revolutions, for example, can boast. By this time the movement to oust the shah crossed nearly every Iranian social class apart from maybe the royals themselves, and while we won’t get into it here it’s important to note at this point that there was no particular reason to believe the revolution was inherently religious in nature. Though Khomeini was clearly the lodestone for the movement, many believed he would remain merely a symbolic figure and let the real work of shaping and governing Iran be done by secular politicians. Oops.

Ashura protests in Tehran, December 1978 (Wikimedia Commons)

The shah was done for as 1978 became 1979. On December 7 he learned that the leaders of the US, UK, France, and West Germany were planning to meet in early January to discuss what to do about the crisis in Iran, and he assumed they were going to talk about how best to abandon him to the revolutionaries. Then reports began to trickle in that senior Iranian generals were starting to meet with opposition leaders, and that was probably the final straw. In late December, the shah cut a deal with National Front politician Shahpour Bakhtiar wherein Bakhtiar would take over as prime minister and the shah would go into a self-imposed exile, leaving a council in place to carry out royal duties. This happened on January 16, but Bakhtiar was basically dead on arrival with the Iranian public, who perceived him not as an opposition leader who’d been handed power by the hated outgoing ruler but as the shah’s last prime minister and conduit for remaining in power. The chair of the new royal council, meanwhile, hopped a flight to France and presented his resignation to Khomeini.

Iranian man holding a newspaper with the headline “The Shah Left,” January 1979

Bakhtiar invited Khomeini to return, and it quickly became apparent that not only was Bakhtiar’s term as PM going to be extremely short-lived, but that Khomeini had no intention of letting anybody else control Iran’s destiny. Khomeini set up his own Iranian government, under Mehdi Bazargan, on February 5, and violence ensued. The Iranian military, under Bakhtiar’s control, battled a cacophony of rebels including street protesters, leftist guerrilla fighters, and elements of the Iranian military that defected over to the Khomeini/Bazargan side. The rebels clearly had the upper hand, and so to avoid additional bloodshed the Iranian military declared itself politically neutral on February 11, effectively surrendering to Khomeini’s forces. One phase of the revolution was over, but there was much more to come over the next several months.

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One thought on “Today in Middle Eastern history: the Iranian Revolution (1979)

  1. Interesting point about the revolution not necessarily being entirely religious in nature. Heard Lancaster University’s Simon Mabon speak recently, and he seemed to be arguing something similar with regards to historical perceptions of Iran and its rivalries with countries like Saudi Arabia — too often people view Iran through a realist framework, with everything being about either power or religion; it’s often more complicated than that, and in the West we tend to simplify and Otherize nations we don’t fully understand (or don’t fully want to understand!).

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