The Iranian Revolution of 1979

In Part One we read about the Road to the Iranian Revolution. Here, in Part Two, Rowena Abdul Razak describes the return in February 1979 of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini descended an Air France jet at Tehran Airport, stepping on his native soil for the first time after 18 years in exile. Looking solemn in his black robes, he arrived to lay the foundations of the new government.

For many years Khomeini had been the figurehead for opposition to the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah. Groups from socialists to nationalists put aside their ideological differences to unite under his leadership. In the previous article, we discussed the dissatisfaction and anger in Iran that led to the 1979 revolution. But how was Khomeini able to spearhead and guide the uprising from his exile in France?

‘Death to the Shah’

Despite the ban on political parties in Iran, revolutionary opposition existed in the form of a number of different groups: the Tudeh Party (a communist party founded in the 1940s), the Marxist Fedaiyan-e Khalq(‘Devotees of the People’), the Maoists, and the Islamic Mojahedin-e Khalq (‘Fighters for the People’). These parties had distinct ideologies but one common goal: the overthrow of the Shah. Their members came from the intelligentsia: some had been exiled, whilst others had been imprisoned or tortured by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. These parties had a strong following amongst high-school graduates unable to find a university place, and university graduates unable to find a job.

In 1978, these parties, together with displaced merchants from the bazaars and unemployed migrants from rural areas, began to demonstrate against the Shah, and the situation in Tehran became increasingly volatile.

On September 8, 1978, the Shah imposed martial law in Tehran; the same day troops fired on demonstrators in the city’s Jaleh Square, killing more than 500 people. This incident, which became known as ‘Black Friday’, did not deter the demonstrators. The Shah condemned the killings, but demonstrations continued with slogans of ‘Death to the Shah’.

The Shah was forced to employ other methods to quell the protestors. He began to relax his control over the political arena by allowing more press freedom and releasing political prisoners. He also allowed the publication of SAVAK’s torture methods and ended full censorship of the press. In addition, he dismissed Prime Minister Hoveyda, who was seen as one of the causes of Iran’s economic problems. However, this was too little, too late.

The Charisma of Khomeini

Despite the many different opposition groups calling for the overthrow of the Shah, the uprising still needed a figure to rally and unite the disparate groups. It was a role Ruhollah Khomeini was well suited for. Born on September 24, 1902, Khomeini was a cleric by profession, a religious scholar and a member of the ulema (‘religious class’). He had obtained the rank of Ayatollah after he finished the highest level of religious study. In addition, Khomeini had been deeply involved in politics from a young age. In the 1960s, he began writing and preaching against the Shah, accusing him of promoting “Western decadence” at the cost of Islam. This led to his exile in 1964, first to Turkey, then Iraq, and finally to France.

Despite his exile, Khomeini continued to actively fight the Pahlavi dynasty, speaking out against the Shah and imperialism. He made recordings on tape cassettes in Iraq, which were smuggled across the border to Iran. These cassettes, like modern-day Twitter or Facebook, broadcast his messages to Iranians. He talked about their plight and voiced many of their grievances and hatred towards the Shah. As a cleric, he commanded considerable respect from the religious Iranians, and spoke in a simple and appealing manner that appealed to many of Iran’s poor and unemployed.

While Khomeini was in exile in France, many of the leaders of opposition groups began to call on him, to seek his support and to take advantage of his following. He was clever enough to play down his desire to establish an Islamic government in Iran and instead concentrated on uniting the different groups with the sole objective of overthrowing the Shah. Khomeini became the face of the 1979 revolution, a cleric at the head of a largely secular opposition.

The End

On December 11, 1978, a massive demonstration in Tehran officially called for Khomeini to lead Iran in the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. Terrified, the Shah made last-minute efforts to form a new democratic government, and dismantled SAVAK in the hope of restoring his subjects’ faith in him. The crowds, however, ignored these efforts and called for Khomeini’s return from exile. Admitting defeat, the Shah, accompanied by his wife Farah Diba, left Iran forever on January 16, 1979.

Left to hold the crumbling fort, the Shah’s last Prime Minister, Bakhtiar, tried to stop Khomeini’s return by closing the main airport, but to no avail. Bakhtiar could not keep control of the demonstrators, or keep their leader away. Khomeini left France on a specially chartered flight and landed in Tehran on February 1, 1979 to formally lead the revolution. With the final defeat by armed opposition groups of the Shah’s army, the Imperial Guard, a coalition of Khomeini and the other leaders of the opposition came to power on February 111979. Iran was now a republic for the first time in two and a half millennia.

Rowena Abdul Razak.