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May 1999

This essay is not concerned with the Revolution itself,

but with the very long build up to it.



Evaluate explanations of the Iranian Revolution of 1979

in terms of social and religious factors.

Before World War II Britain still held Imperialist ambitions. Taking an active interest in the internal affairs of foreign nations, British attention was drawn towards the potential profits to be made from Iran's oil production. Investing capital and expertise had proved lucrative; however, in order to maintain profits, "Britain thought it essential to have a strong administration in Iran."(1) A possible solution was found in the ambitious Colonel Reza Khan of the Cossack Brigade. With Britain instigating his rise to power, Reza Khan deposed of the Iranian government and installed himself as war minister in February 1921. He proved satisfactory to the British by suppressing active dissent within Iran and later gaining the public support of senior mujtahids. Reza Khan symbolically changed his family name to Pahlavi and in 1925, relatively unhindered, crowned himself king. The increasingly despotic reign of Reza Pahlavi Shah was to last until 1941. During this time, the Shah relentlessly suppressed all internal opposition and embarked upon the largest programme of modernisation that had ever been attempted in Iran. The military was numerically increased by the 1926 conscription law and strengthened with modern equipment, that necessarily entailed high expenditure. "Military expenses were for a time the largest budget item."(2) That same year, the Shah instigated Civil Service reform that established a modern form of bureaucracy. These measures created employment opportunities for Iranian youth, either in the military or, for the educated, within the Civil Service.

In his efforts to modernise Iran, the Shah continually attacked, and restricted the powers of, the ulama. The 1925 commercial code transposed the existing religious law that had restricted the practise of usury and had entrusted "certain commercial rulings to the ulama."(3) This was soon followed by a civil code that "brought Sharia courts under state control and increased the authority of the state's religious endowments department."(4) As the authority of the ulama and their means to financial independence was eroded, the government of the Shah appeared to deliberately pass legislation intended to antagonise them further. The 1928 Uniformity of Dress Law required all males to dress in a western style and in 1934, under the Shah's orders, all public places were opened to women. However, what really incensed the ulama was the Shah's outlawing of the veil, particularly the chador, in 1935. This was perceived as a direct affront to the sanctity of the Quran; yet despite their protests and anger, the ulama were powerless to stop the Shah's actions. There are a number of reasons why resistance to the Shah proved futile. As mentioned above, the Shah had systematically diminished the power and influence of the ulama throughout his reign. He had established a loyal and growing bureaucratic civil service together with an expanded and modernised military that effectively divided, threatened and silenced all forces of opposition. These policies may have protected the Shah, but his position was secured and maintained by an Iranian society that had altered significantly during his reign.

At the start of the Shah's reign, central government had consisted of a few relatively ineffective ministries, lacking any real influence in the provinces. By 1941, there were thirteen ministries employing around 90,000 civil servants, all of whom needed to have reached a sufficient level of education. The responsibility of the Ministry of Education grew from 600 primary schools, 58 secondary schools and six colleges in 1926, to 2300 primary schools, 245 secondary schools and eleven colleges, consolidated into the University of Tehran by 1941. Similar increases in responsibility were witnessed in all thirteen ministries, largely financed by "higher customs duties and taxation on such mass consumer goods as sugar, tea, fuel and tobacco."(5) A new middle class of professionals, civil servants, office employees and students in higher education emerged during this period.(6) Increasingly Westernised in both outlook and practice, they benefited from the Shah's policies. However, the majority of Iranians remained poor, heavily taxed and were excluded from the opportunities available to the modern middle class. This created a "situation of 'two cultures' in Iran".(7) Westernised, the modern middle class "scarcely understood the traditional or religious culture of most of their compatriots."(8) In contrast, the poor remained faithful to the guidance of the ulama, despite its political impotence.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 created a conflict of interest for the Shah. He had previously had dealings with Britain, Russia and Germany and his sympathies for Nazi Germany were well known. Germany was keen to utilise Iranian oil and use Iran as a base for the planned 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Both Britain and Russia demanded that the Shah terminate his links with Germany and called for the immediate expulsion of all Germans from Iran. As the Shah hesitated and did neither, the Allied forces invaded Iran and forced the Shah to abdicate in favour of his twenty-three year old son Muhammad Reza. The ulama were greatly relieved, having "endured fifteen years of relentless pressure from the Shah which had considerably reduced their power and prestige."(9) When Muhammad Reza Pahlavi Shah ascended to the throne, he was inexperienced, his kingdom was occupied by foreign powers "and his government beset with acute problems stemming from the Second World War."(10) The ulama were only too happy to offer assistance and guidance to the young Shah during these difficult times. This resulted with a number of restrictions and the openly anti-Islamic rulings, previously imposed by Reza Shah, being lifted or reversed.

Without the despotic rule of Reza Shah and with the encouragement of the Allies, political activity returned to Iran. The British allowed Sayyid Zia ad-Din, a former exiled Prime Minister, to return and form the right wing National Will Party. The Russians favoured the Tudeh (masses) party, formed in 1941 and the Americans sent advisers to the military and several key government departments. Even the Germans were active amongst southern tribes, although this was greatly diminished by the British, with the arrest of General F. Zahedi. Iranian oil was the prime cause of Western (including Russian) involvement, although the 1940s also saw the emergence of a number of parties with little or no backing from the West. Trade Unions, having been suppressed in the 1920s and outlawed in the 1930s, began to re-emerge along with a number of protest movements. Throughout this period the Shah, aware that he had little active support within any significant sector of society, tried to avoid anything that could be construed as controversial.

The Western interest in Iran, and in particular with oil, increased nationalist sentiment and provoked denouncements from, amongst others, the seasoned anti-British activist, Ayatollah Kashani. Collaborating with the National Front, he embarked upon a campaign calling for the nationalisation of Iranian oil. However, the relationship between Mossadeq, the party leader, and Kashani became strained once they came into power. Mossadeq distanced himself from Kashani and appeared "thirsty for power"(11) when he requested that the Shah grant him full executive powers. The British and the Americans, in response to growing concerns about the nationalist demands involving oil, together with the increased activity of the leftist Tudeh party, aided the orchestration of a coup d'état in 1953. With Mossadeq and the nationalists removed from power, the Shah was able to exert his authority unopposed. He immediately began to revive his father's policy of building a strong centralised state. The realisation of his ambition was boosted by the oil revenue which rose from $34 million in 1954 to $20 billion by 1976. Again like his father, the Shah invested heavily in the military. "By the time of the revolution, Iran had one of the largest modern-equipped armies in the Third World, the largest navy in the Persian Gulf, and the largest airforce in Western Asia."(12) The growth of the J2 Bureau and the creation of the National Security and Information Organisation (SAVAK) also strengthened internal security. Once more, Iran was subject to a rapid modernisation programme under the autocratic rule of a Shah obsessed with power. This may have stirred resentful memories of the 1930s among those who remembered the despotism of his father, however Muhammad Reza Pahlavi Shah was more than able to attract his own critics.

State bureaucracy grew to encompass almost every level of society, even reaching the local village level.(13) Simultaneously, the Shah managed to alienate almost every sector of Iranian society. The Shah's relationship with the West was subject to suspicion and resentment; both generations of the Pahlavi regime had come to power through military coups aided by the West. They therefore "never enjoyed widespread legitimacy."(14) The Western influence was extended further within the Shah's modernisation programme which, for many, appeared to be alien and relatively secular when applied in Iran. The emergence of modern forms of distribution, retail, banking and finance infringed upon the role traditionally performed by the bazaar. Although the bazaar merchants resented the modern competition, much of Iran's internal financial and commercial activity remained under their control. They benefited from the expansion of economic activity created by modernisation, but were publicly blamed by the Shah each time Iran experienced any form of price increase, inflation or economic crisis. The popularity of the Shah continually decreased and this situation was not remedied by his personality. Often locking himself away to meditate, the Shah was completely out of touch with normal life in Iran. He had no idea of how the ordinary person lived and no understanding of how his policies affected the populace. The oil industry was the impetus for the economic expansion that appeared, on paper, to benefit all. "By the late 1970s, per capita income in Iran was over $2000, industrial output was growing at over 15 per cent a year, and up to half the population was living in the towns".(15) However, the divide between the rich and the poor had dramatically increased during this period. By the 1970s only the elite 10 per cent of the population, namely those closely connected to the Pahlavi court and family, senior civil servants and top military personnel, accounted for 40 per cent of expenditure.(16)

Nearly every section of urban life financially benefited from the Pahlavi regime and this was reflected in the higher wages that could, relatively successfully, be demanded by urban dwellers. Urban posterity attracted many from rural areas. However, the cities were not prepared for such a mass influx and many of those who fled the poverty of the countryside found their conditions were unimproved in the city. They may have found better paid jobs, but their migration had created a housing shortage "with the result that (by the mid-1970s) some had to spend up to 70 per cent of their income on rents."(17) Their move also excluded them from the supports of village life. This effectively increased their own alienation, their attraction to the ulama and their resentment towards the Shah. Widespread animosity to the Shah's rule increased from 1953 throughout Iran, however, as during the reign of Reza Pahlavi Shah, an effective opposition was not forthcoming. The forces of resistance were too divergent to present a unified front against the Shah's despotism until the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini first entered the political arena in the early 1960s, soon after the death of the man he had addressed as grand ayatollah, Ayatollah Mohammad Hosayn Borujerdi.(18) Khomeini had served as his teaching assistant and personal secretary and had respected his instruction to stay out of politics. However, after Borujerdi's death, Khomeini added his distinctive voice to the growing opposition towards a new series of reforms proposed by the Shah. A number of ayatollahs and politicians centred their protests on the suggested land reforms, the major aspect of the 'White Revolution' as the proposals later became known. Khomeini stood out amongst the opposition for attacking "the new electoral law enfranchising women and the referendum itself endorsing the White Revolution."(19) He advised the ulama not to make an issue of land reform, for he believed that the Shah would later be able to portray opposition to land reform as support for landlord mullas. Instead, he denounced the electoral law as un-Islamic and declared the referendum as unconstitutional, analogous to "Mossadeq's 1953 referendum for dissolving Parliament."(20)

Having held back his political comments for so long, Khomeini now unleashed a number of vehement denouncements of the Shah's regime. His attacks were aimed specifically at the regime's weakest points. Ervand Abrahamian lists these "highly explosive topics as court corruption, constitutional violations, dictatorial methods, election rigging, granting of capitulations to foreigners, betrayal of the Muslim cause against Israel, undermining of Shii values, unremitting expansion of the bureaucracy, and the neglect of the economic needs of merchants, workers and peasants."(21) The precision and rapidity of Khomeini's attacks, covering such a wide range of topics, indicates that, whilst apparently concentrating on teaching theology under Borujerdi's guidance, he had taken a very keen interest in Iranian politics.

The proposed White Revolution incited wider criticism of the Shah's regime from the ulama and several politicians, often, though not exclusively, with National Front connections. The increased critical activity culminated with major street demonstrations in Tehran, Qom, Mashhad, Tabriz, Shiraz and Isafahan in June 1963. The unarmed protestors were met by the full force of the Shah's internal security, with the resulting casualties estimated as somewhere between a few hundred (the regime's official figures) and 20,000 (the figures cited by the opposition).(22) The June Uprising of 1963 brutally demonstrated the strength and power of the Shah's internal security forces. In contrast, the opposition had been unprepared and disorganised; "the National Front had not expected riots and there was no prior collaboration with Khomeini."(23) The opposition had lacked homogeneity in their criticism of the regime and had only been united by their aversion towards the Shah. A greater co-operation between the religious and nationalist opponents of the Shah developed in the aftermath of the June Uprising "both in Iran and among students and exiles abroad."(24) For the loyal supporters of Khomeini, labelled Khomeinists by Ervand Abrahamian, the June Uprising signified the birth of the Khomeini movement.(25) It certainly raised his profile, but he was not the only ayatollah connected with the crisis. Their involvement "raised the clerical opposition to a level where it could easily overshadow the secular opposition, notably the Tudeh Party and the National Front."(26) During the crisis, Khomeini was arrested and then detained for two months. After making further denouncements the following year, he was deported and was not to return to Iran until 1979.

After 1965, Khomeini maintained a conspicuous silence, rarely making public statements, declining interviews and appearing to have withdrawn from public life altogether in order to concentrate on the teaching of religious law. When Khomeini broke his silence in 1970, his attack on the Shah was as vehement as ever, although now, instead of just criticising the Pahlavi regime, he offered a radical alternative. In his 1970 lectures, entitled Velayat-e Faqih: Hokumat-e Islami (The jurist's guardianship: Islamic government), Khomeini dismisses all arguments legitimising the Shah's reign as inherently un-Islamic. This was not a personal attack against the Shah or even the Shah's actions, but a theoretical attack against the institution of monarchy itself. Muslims, he claimed, have a sacred duty to oppose all monarchies, as Moses had opposed the pharaohs. It was the pharaoh's royal title, not necessarily the pharaohs themselves, that had been judged immoral. Khomeini added more examples to support his argument, such as his claim "that Imam Hosayn had raised the banner of revolt in Karbala because he rejected hereditary kingship on principle."(27) Without a monarchy, the only form of rule compatible with Islam and the only form acceptable to Khomeini was Hokumat-e Islami, later to be defined as Jomhuri-e Islami (Islamic Republic). This form of argument was vaguely analogous to the arguments that had raged in seventeenth century England. The English Civil War and the impersonal trial and execution of Charles I had questioned the legitimacy of monarchical rule, rather than the actual reign of the King and had attempted to create the Commonwealth, by replacing the authority of status with 'democratic' Parliamentary power. Khomeini's Jomhuri-e Islami would establish the rightful, and divine, rule of the fuqaha (religious judges), in place of the illegitimate monarchical rule of the Shah. However, democracy was not mentioned, for "the Prophet Mohammad had handed down the authority to interpret and implement the law, as well as the duty to protect the community, to the Imams."(28) With the absence of the Twelfth Imam, sovereignty was passed onto the ulama. However, Khomeini insisted that not all members of the ulama were capable of exercising a true interpretation of the shari'a; only the fuqaha had the necessary knowledge and expertise to shoulder such responsibility. Although remaining true to Shiism, Khomeini's interpretation had two notable differences to the position taken by classic Islamic theologians. Firstly, "instead of paying occasional lip service to the 'meek', he aggressively espoused the general rights and interests of the mostazafin."(29) In addition, he refused to take the quietist position, espoused by, among others, the late Ayatollah Borujerdi, calling instead upon all Iranians to rise up to overthrow the Shah and establish an Islamic Republic.

Throughout the 1970s, Khomeini gathered support from those sectors of Iranian society who had been oppressed, impoverished or alienated by the Shah's regime. His consistent denunciations of the Shah were accompanied by radical, populist slogans such as: "Islam belongs to the oppressed, not to the oppressors" and "In a truly Islamic society there will be no landless peasants." As Abrahamian correctly concludes, the rhetoric used by Khomeini was "remarkably vague on specifics."(30) Also, it should be noted that his defiant stand against Marxism did not stop his use of Marxist inspired rhetoric, for example: "Oppressed of the world, unite" and "Islam is not the opiate of the masses."(31) These slogans were to be reiterated in the demonstrations, strikes and agitation that occurred throughout the 1970s, often orchestrated by Khomeini and his growing support. His combination of third world revolutionary theory (normally associated with Mao and Giap), effective populist rhetoric(32) and Shi'ite theology, appeared to contain elements that would appeal to all those who opposed the Shah. In contrast, the Shah was seen as acting despotically, effectively banning competitive political elections in March 1975 with the launch of "a one-party system composed of the Resurgence Party (Hezb-e Rastakhiz)."(33) His reliance upon a large, yet unstable, oil revenue led to an uncontrollable boom and bust economy. This was perpetuated by his excessive military expenditure that indebted Iran to Western multinationals and governments. Consequently this created resentment amongst the new middle class who, having previously benefited from the Shah's modernisation policy, were now facing the threat of bankruptcy. Khomeini was able to win their support by assuring them that under true Islamic law, private property was sanctified. The Shah's precarious position was weakened still further by allegations that members of the Royal household were involved in corruption, especially concerning oil revenue.

The Shah consistently blundered his way throughout his reign, creating more enemies than allies, whilst Khomeini capitalised upon the Shah's mistakes and united the growing opposition. It has been well documented however, that Iran and the position of the Shah appeared stable to international observers until as late as 1978. American Intelligence has been criticised for its inaccuracy at the time, as has the ambiguity of American foreign policy that neither supported, nor opposed the Shah just before the revolution. It is not possible to state with any certainty whether revolution was inevitable in Iran without Khomeini. However, it is clear that only with his presence could the Iranian Revolution be fought, under the banner of Islam, with the intention of establishing an Islamic Republic.




2) Nikki R. Keddie - ROOTS OF REVOLUTION p.94

3) Nikki R. Keddie - op. cit. p.95

4) Dilip Hiro - op. cit. p.152


6) See Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.16

7) Nikki R. Keddie - op. cit. p.111

8) Nikki R. Keddie - op. cit. p.111

9) Dilip Hiro - op. cit. p.153

10) Dilip Hiro - op. cit. p.153

11) Yann Richard - Ayatollah Kashani: Precursor of the Islamic Republic? in RELIGION AND POLITICS IN IRAN - ed. Nikki R. Keddie p.112

12) Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.13

13) See Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.14 Especially the quote by R. Loeffler.

14) Fred Halliday - The Iranian Revolution: Uneven development and Religious Populism in


15) Fred Halliday - op. cit. p.39

16) See Fred Halliday - op. cit. p.39

17) Fred Halliday - op. cit. p.40

18) See Ervand Abrahamian - KHOMEINISM p.9

19) Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.10

20) Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.10


22) See Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.21 and Nikki R. Keddie - op. cit. pp. 158-9

23) Nikki R. Keddie - op.cit. pp. 158-9

24) Nikki R. Keddie - op.cit. pp. 159

25) See Ervand Abrahamian - KHOMEINISM p.10


27) See Ervand Abrahamian - KHOMEINISM p.24 My Italics.

28) Ervand Abrahamian - RADICAL ISLAM: THE IRANIAN MOJAHEDIN pp.21-2

29) Ervand Abrahamian - op. cit. p.22

30) Ervand Abrahamian - KHOMEINISM p.31

31) See Ervand Abrahamian - op.cit. p.31 for a longer list of slogans.

32) Abrahamian compares Khomeini's populism to that used in Latin America.

See Ervand Abrahamian - op.cit. pp.37-8





Ervand Abrahamian


(I.B.Taurus & Co.1993)


(I.B. Taurus & Co. 1989)

Fred Halliday


(I.B. Taurus & Co. 1995)

Fred Halliday & Hamza Alavi (eds.)


(MacMillan, 1988)

Dilip Hiro


(Paladin, 1989)

Nikki R. Keddie


(Yale University Press, 1981)

Nikki R. Keddie (ed.)


(Yale University Press, 1983)

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