The Iranian Revolution of 1979

The Iranian Revolution which ended in 1979, resulted in the removal of Iran’s last monarch and the creation of a new Islamic Republic.  Prior to the revolution, Iran was led by the Shah (emperor) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah ruled Iran with an oppressive force that was seen as corrupt, intimidating, and intolerant of public criticism. However, he also sought to westernize Iran and was pressured by the U.S. to instate a national development program called the White Revolution.  This program disrupted the wealth and power dynamics of landowners and religious leaders, but it also catapulted Iran into a period of economic growth and prosperity. Despite some of its successes, the program created social disparities and was not accepted by everyone in Iran. Most notably, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an outspoken critic of the White Revolution and the Shah’s government.

Khomeini was a professor and cleric who was exiled for speaking out against the Shah and his policies.  While living in Paris, he continued to criticize the regime as tensions in Iran grew due to the massive social and economic changes brought on by the White Revolution. Thus, Khomeini became a symbol and main opposing force against Mohammad Reza. Khomeini wanted to reintegrate religion back into the government and decrease the western influence in Iran.  Despite his conservative religious ideas, Khomeini was supported by many groups in the resistance (rich, poor, working class, upper class, men, women, etc.).

The revolution finally reached a boiling point in 1978 after a newspaper article slandered Khomeini. This led to a massive protest by religious school students who were later joined by more young protesters. The government responded violently to the protests and many dissenters were killed.  Demonstrations continued and the death toll rose sharply after the military open fired on protesters in Tehran later that year. Shortly after, government employees and oil workers went on strike which intensified the conflict. As public unrest grew increasingly difficult to manage, the Shah fled Iran in 1979. This allowed the beloved Khomeini to return to Iran and take control of the government.  After a national referendum vote on April 1st, Khomeini succeeded in creating the Islamic Republic.

Note from Caroline: Afsane Rezaei’s video in this week’s module picks up after this, giving more context on what happened after the rise of Khomeini.



“Iran 1979: Anatomy of a Revolution.” Al Jazeera, 1 Feb 2019, Accessed 9 Feb 2020.

Ansari, Ali. “Iranian Revolution of 1979.” EDGE, Stanford University, 23 Aug 1999 Accessed 9 Feb 2020

 “The Iranian Revolution of February 1979.” Middle East Institute, 29 Jan 2009, Accessed 9 Feb 2020

Afray, Janet. “Iranian Revolution.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20 Sep 2019, Accessed 9 Feb 2020

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