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.

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The Shah of Iran and the Road to the 1979 Iranian Revolution

On January 16th 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, accompanied by his wife, Farah Diba, stood at Mehrabad Airport facing a bleak future. He was leaving behind his throne and his country – a country he would never see again. In less than a month, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would disembark from an Air France jet, after many years of exile, to take over and establish an Islamic regime that has ruled Iran to this day. But how did this revolution happen? How was an elderly cleric able to dethrone the Pahlavi dynasty?

The Pahlavi Dynasty

Shah of IranOur story begins in 1921 when Reza Khan, Mohammad Reza Shah’s father, together with the journalist Sayyed Zia, staged a coup d’etat in Tehran. Iran, until then under the rule of the Qajar dynasty, swiftly came under the control of Reza Khan, who quickly gained political power. In October 1925, he moved to dethrone the Qajars and through a parliamentary vote, crowned himself Shah (Persian for ‘king’) and established his own dynasty, the Pahlavis. Over the next decade, he modernised Iran’s infrastructure and its education system. Reza Khan looked to Europe as a model for industrialisation and sought to implement similar changes for Iran. However, in doing so, he sought the help of Germany and in 1941, Britain and Russia invaded Iran. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza (pictured).

“Oiling the wheels of chaos”

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