On 11th February 1979 came the proclamation of the victory of the revolution that deposed the Shah. A historical analysis of the causes and the protagonists of an event that changed the Middle East

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:15

Šāh raft, Imām āmad. These are the words that best capture the very essence of what happened on 16th January and 1st February 1979, paving the way for the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 11th February of that year. A tired and sick sovereign left Iran, thus bringing an end to the Pahlavi dynasty, whose founder, Reza Khan, styled his reign on the Turkish Kemalist republic and was encouraged by the clergy to take the crown. An energetic albeit no longer young Ayatollah came forward as the symbol of the new Iran, the unexpected leader of a multi-faceted revolution spawned by a process of modernization that had got under way in Iran in the early 20th century and rolled forward in a succession of specific events. An unforeseen and, perhaps, unforeseeable revolution dominated by the charismatic figure of Ruhollah Khomeini, its undisputed leader. It was a revolution marked by the rhythms of religion itself, built around demonstrations that respected the ritual intervals, the days of mourning for martyrs, and the slogans singing the praises of God. I still remember the atmosphere of the tumultuous days that followed the birth of the Islamic Republic. In the first few months, the revolution throbbed with a thousand hearts, not all beating in time, often at odds, but all with the purpose of a better future. Then, after the taking of the US embassy on 4th November 1979, came tension, uncertainty, growing international isolation, a permanent state of conflict. The following year then saw the offensive launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Iraqi leader thought he saw an Iran that was too divided to put up resistance and decided to seize the opportunity to take control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the oilfields of Iranian Khuzestan. On 22nd September 1980, the Iraqi dictator ordered his troops to march on the Iranian border, thus changing the history of the newborn Republic and the entire Middle East. The Iran-Iraq war that ensued was the first shedding of blood that continues to flow in the region today.



Fazlollah Nouri and the Constitutional Revolution

But let us proceed in order. The ancient cultural and religious roots of what happened go deep into the plains of Karbala where the third Shiite Imam, Hussein, met his death. Or, perhaps, they are to be found even further back in time, in the extraordinary capitals of the Persian empires of antiquity where the Iranic identity—the sense of being a nation that still pervades Iranian politics—was shaped. At a more immediate level, the political roots of the Revolution are to be sought in the events of the Constitutional Revolution, between 1906 and 1909, and, in particular, in an eminent cleric, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri (Šeikh Fażl-allāh Nūrī), who played a major role in these events, initially as initiator of the movement, then champion of the restoration of the monarchy, and who was eventually sentenced to death when the constitutionalists returned to power. The Constitutional Revolution consecrated the clergy-bazaar alliance that combined features of clear conservatism with aspirations for reform and, one might even say, for democracy. Fazlollah Nouri, a man of uncommon qualities, gave voice to the deeply-held feelings of the clergy, questioning the legitimacy of parliament in passing laws without the consent of the jurists. This stance may bring a smile to the face of the modern Western reader, who takes as a given the famous phrase from the Synoptic Gospels, reddite quae sunt Caesaris Caesari et quae sunt Dei Deo, but poses a much more serious problem in a Muslim and, above all, Shiite context, where the clergy also provides a legal interpretation of traditions and exercises greater authority over the decisions of the faithful. Despite being one of its early leaders, Nouri soon left the constitutionalist movement; he was in disagreement with its calls for the creation of a parliament (majles), to which he preferred the setting up of a “House of Justice” (ʿadālat-khāna) composed of representatives of the various corporations and tasked with ensuring the enforcement of Sharia (Šarīʿa). It is not by coincidence that Khomeini always considered Nouri as the man who first voiced the political aspirations of the Iranian clergy, affirming that religious law should prevail over political decisions. The Constitutional Revolution was, to some extent, supported by the British Empire, with London allowing protesters to camp out in its Tehran embassy gardens. It should, however, be remembered that nationalism was, at that time, already an important element in the ideology of those who rebelled against the dominion of the colonial powers, Russia and Great Britain, which ruled respectively over the north and the south of the country. This nationalism was then to be the war cry of not only Reza Khan, who started his career as a sergeant in the Qajar army and went on to command the Cossack Brigade and rise through the hierarchy to become sovereign, but then also his son, Mohammad Reza, who, in 1971, in the city of Persepolis, celebrated 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy with a surreal and theatrical pageant.


Fazollah Nouri’s legacy was taken up by Ruhollah Khomeini who, from 21st January to 8th February 1970, while in exile in Najaf, held a series of 19 lectures during which he expounded the concept of Hokumat-i Islāmī, “Islamic government”, based on Velāyat-i Faqīh, the authority of the jurist, a concept that would then be incorporated into the Constitution of the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran. This was a significant revolution for Shiite doctrine, which only acknowledged the authority of the twelfth Imam, who would remain in hiding until the Day of Judgement; it was a concept that clashed with that of the main Shiite marājī (plural of marja, or “source of imitation”), leaders of a clergy that had always been predominantly quietist.


And yet, when the Revolution erupted, few would have expected the outcome. The reason for this was that traditional Islamism was only one of the many groupings encompassed by the revolutionary movement: the nationalist heirs of Mossadegh; the Islamic left inspired by Ali Shariati (Alī Šarīʿatī); the Tudeh Party (ezb-i Tūdeh-ye Irān), which had links with the Soviet Union and in whose ranks served the fiery writer Jālal Āl-i Ahmad (1923-1969), renowned for having made famous the term Gharbzadegi (variously translated as “Westoxification” or “Occidentosis”); leading figures of a middle class disillusioned by the hollow promises of the Shah; conservatives opposed to the modernization wanted by Mohammad Reza; students returning from universities in the United States and Europe; any many others. Many left-wingers in the West looked kindly on the Revolution, welcoming its distancing from both the USA and the USSR but without fully understanding its refusal to fully accept modernity. The term Gharbzadegi, which had been coined by the philosopher Ahmad Fardid in the 1940s, earned a new meaning thanks to Āl-i Ahmad when he used it to describe the passive acceptance of Western values and the parallel and inevitable loss of traditional ones that affected Iranian society with the only exception of the religious field. With this new meaning, the term, with this new meaning, became the backbone of revolutionary ideology, providing a necessary clue to understanding events.



The removal of Mossadegh

The second half of the 20th century saw another episode that went further to undermine Iranians’ faith in the international order. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Reza Shah, suspected of having harboured pro-German sympathies, was forced to abdicate in favour of his young son, Mohammad Reza. After a few years, Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister. He was a man who embodied the elites guided by strong nationalist sentiments. This able politician headed two governments from 28th April 1951 to 19th August 1953—briefly separated by that of Ahmad Qavam—and bravely stood up to Western powers and to the “Seven Sisters” who dominated, unchallenged, the oil and gas markets. A prominent lawyer, leading figure of the ancient Qajar dynasty and politician of extravagant habits, Mossadegh succeeded in nationalizing the Iranian oil industry and thus bolstering the country’s independence. Abandoned then by his longtime ally Ayatollah Kashani (Abulqāsim Mutafavī Kāšānī), the Prime Minister succumbed to pressure from Great Britain and the United States of America, whose Operation Ajax brought back to power Mohammad Reza Shah, who, just as was to do again in 1979 (albeit with very different results), had left the country, waiting for better times to come.


The Revolution was undoubtedly born of the disappointment that followed the failure of the experiment carried out by Mossadegh, a failure that was brought about by Great Britain and the United States and that bred a still-smouldering resentment among many nationalists. It was also perhaps born of the ousting of Reza Shah at the end of the Second World War, an episode felt by many as yet another example of foreign interference. It was certainly born of Mohammad Reza’s failure to understand his own country and a driving ambition, bordering on megalomania, which led him to seek to modernize the nation without taking any account at all of the desires, needs and beliefs of the vast majority of the Iranian people. Examples of this lack of understanding certainly include the celebrations for 2,500 years of the monarchy, but also the contemporary arts festivals held in Shiraz from 1967 to 1977 on the initiative of Farah Pahlavi and organized for the benefit of the country’s Westernized elite and the many foreigners who then thronged Iran, but totally incomprehensible for the many Iranians still closely tied to tradition.



Two events change the course of the Revolution

Without the taking of the US embassy by students close to the Imam and, above all, without the devastating, bloody war waged by Saddam Hussein, the Revolution would perhaps have gone differently. In the eighteen months between February 1979 and September 1980, many different movements came up against each other in a climate often conducive to violent clashes. Some of these groupings, like the Mojaheddin-e Khalq and the Fedayn-e Khalq, were not averse to the use of violence and were, in turn, the victims of fierce reprisals. The Tudeh remained longer on the political scene, collaborating initially with the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) but then, in 1982, outlawed. In the years that followed, Tudeh leaders publically confessed that they had “betrayed” the revolutionary principles in order to please the Soviet Union. Islamic leftists, more directly influenced by the thinking of writers like Ali Shariati, lost ground too, even though they stayed within the system and were able to have some effect on developments.



At a turning point

Khomeini came out on top thanks to his charisma, to the greater closeness of the clergy to the population and to the abilities of the group of people closest to him, with figures destined to dominate Iranian politics for decades to come, including the five founders of the Islamic Republican Party: Mohammad Javād Bāhonar, Mohammad Beheštī, Abd-al-Karīm Mūsavī Ardabīlī, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei. The first two died on 29th June 1981 in the bomb attack on the headquarters of the IRP that claimed 70 lives; the third was an influential religious leader and head of the judicial authorities. The final two in the list are, unquestionably, the protagonists of the last forty years of Iranian history. Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of Khomeini’s closest collaborators, President of the Republic and the man behind many political decisions of fundamental importance. Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as leader of the Islamic Revolution and is still, today, the undisputed dominus of Iranian politics. Today, forty years on from the Revolution, we find ourselves at a turning point. Of the five founders of the Islamic Republican Party, only one is still alive; fewer than a dozen of those who played a pivotal role in the events of 1979 are still politically active. A new generation is coming forward to gather their legacy, a generation shaped in the long years of war, years in which their solidarity and ability to work as a group were cemented; a generation that now feels ready to take up the reins of power. The first member of this new elite to come to power was Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose political strategies often came under criticism. This generation includes very differing figures, people with diverse political visions and from varied walks of life: politicians, members of the armed forces, extremely competent and internationally-experienced businessmen. They make up a leadership of which little is known yet and whose intentions are only gradually becoming clear; today, however, we cannot know exactly where they will take the country. What is certain is that they will do their best to guarantee continuity for the Islamic Republic but with the prospect of changes that may well be significant.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
Text translated from Italian