The 1978-79 Iranian Revolution succeeded in removing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from power. The main factors accounting for the occurrence of discontent towards the Shah are economic, political and cultural in nature. However, these factors alone could not have led to a successful revolution. In fact, resentment towards the Shah had existed for decades, whether it be due to his ties with the West or due to the land reforms of the “White Revolution” of 1963 (Graham, 1980). Furthermore, unemployment and inflation during the recession of 1975-76 were at similar levels to those of 1978 (Kurzman, 2005). The reason why the 1978-79 revolution was successful – and why there was not a revolution beforehand – is largely due to the individual character of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the uniqueness of Shi’a Islam. In 1978-79, Khomeini had put himself in a position in which he could use the immense organisational power of religion within Iran to give a powerful voice to the economic, political, and cultural grievances of the Iranian people. Islam in Iran was capable of bringing virtually all groups of people together, even secularists, and therefore the revolution grew to a level that became uncontrollable for the Shah. Thus, Islam can be seen as the means for creating a successful revolution. It can also be argued that the Soviet Union, which eventually came to support the revolutionaries, had a strong impact, as its anti-Shah rhetoric cautioned the West from trying to intervene on the side of the Shah like they had successfully done in 1953 when toppling the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq.
Continued economic problems were of key importance in maintaining resentment towards the Shah. One problem was the issue of inflation. The increase in oil prices since the 1973 Oil Crisis gave the Shah an immense increase in finance, which in theory should have alleviated many economic problems (hence why so many commentators were surprised by the revolution). However, modernisation was pursued at too great a speed, with all modernisation of infrastructure taking place in the period 1927-77 (Keddie, 1995). As a result, as Gholam Afkhami points out, ‘the disparity between the manifold increase in the Iranian income and the limited absorptive capacity of the economic infrastructure proved beyond the capabilities of the central government to deal with’ (Afkhami, 1985: 83-84). The inability of the Shah to deal with this problem led to an inflationary spiral, with price increases surpassing wage increases (Bashiriyeh, 1984), and, frequent shortages of materials (Wright, 1989).
The inflationary pressures were particularly felt by the poor (Walton and Seddon, 1980), although as is the case in capitalist crises, the rich were in turn affected by the inability of many people to consume. Yet, the effects were small compared to the plight of the poor. Income disparity between rich and poor became greater during the post-1973 modernisation period (Afkhami, 1985; Bashiriyeh, 1984; Wright, 1989). An official source wrote, ‘although the level of public welfare has risen there are now spectacular inequalities among various social classes (BMAR, 1977; 68). The gap between rich and poor began to grow, leading to ‘mass discontent and grievances’ (Bashiriyeh, 1984). However, economic conditions had been bad for years, and whilst the new pressures were bad they were not substantially worse than had existed before (Kurzman, 2005). Only when economic conditions became absolutely unbearable for a large number of people could there have been a real possibility of a revolution. However, as this was not the case, continued economic issues can only be argued to be a factor in the occurrence of the discontent, which was then harnessed to create the revolution, and not as a reason why the revolution succeeded. Thus, without Khomeini and Islam, the economic issues – assuming they didn’t get worse – could not have toppled the Shah.
Political issues also created discontent against the Shah. The Shah had begun to take an ‘increasingly greater role in the daily political life of the country’ (Afkhami, 1985; Wright, 1989). The Shah had also announced in March 1975 that all legal parties should merge to form a single party – the Iran National Resurgence Party (Rastakhiz). The effect of these two acts was to increase political fragmentation in Iran (Afkhami, 1985). Afkhami points out that beforehand for Iranians, ‘the difference in their experiences related more to their relative wealth and poverty than to their weltanschauung and ideational orientation’ (Afkhami, 1985: 75). Furthermore the Shah increased repression (Wright, 1989), so much so that Nikkie Keddie argues he was the most despotic monarch in the Middle East (Keddie, 1995). Keddie argues that the large and increasing oil income had ‘obviated concern about taxpayers’, and that the Shah sought to emulate his autocratic father (Keddie, 1995: 25). Consequently, various groups losing influence, combined with a greater concentration of power in the Shah’s hands ‘radicalised the opposition’ (Afkhami, 1985: 76). However, like with the economic issues, political issues and repression had long been a problem, particularly with the rise of the secret police force SAVAK, established in 1957 (Wright, 1989). The new issues did make the situation worse, but not to a large extent. Therefore, the issues instead served to maintain and solidify discontent that had existed for decades, which was then harnessed by the clerics, rather than been the reason for the successful revolution.
A third important source of discontent in Iran was western influence in the country. Iran had been incorporated into the Western economic exchange system, which impacted negatively on native manufacture, as well as consolidating a Western political arrangement (Bashiriyeh, 1984). Iran came under heavy influence from the United States, mainly due to the toppling of Mossadeq, leading to many Iranians seeing the regime as nothing more than a ‘puppet of external forces… whose influence in the country, exercised through the mediation of the state, had also to be curtailed’ (Panah, 2007: 35). The movement towards the West had been damaging for many, in particular because they had been ‘culturally deracinated’ (Keddie, 1980: 39). Therefore, anti-Westernism was a key component of the anti-Shah discontent. As Khomeini argued:
‘They have sold us, they have sold our independence… They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog… The government has sold our independence, reduced us to the level of a colony, and made the Muslim nation of Iran appear more backward than savages in the eyes of the world… today it is America that we are concerned with’ (Khomeini, 1986: 181-188).
Turning large scale discontent into a successful revolution is very difficult, hence why a successful revolution had not taken place earlier in Iran. The success of the revolution in overthrowing the Shah can be mostly credited to the impact of Khomeini and the organisational capabilities of Shi’a Islam. As Afkhami argues, the most significant event during the revolution was the ‘gradual transformation of the manifest character of the anti-Shah movement form secular to religious’ (Afkhami, 1985: 89). There are several reasons why religion was so important. Firstly, Islam within Iran had an incredible ability to organise protests against the Shah (Afkhami, 1985; Bayat 1987; Keddie, 1980). The religious organisation network had what Afkhami describes as an ‘inimitable structure for revolutionary action’ (Afkhami, 1985: 91). Afkhami argues that Islam’s ability to communicate ideology to other masses, organise groups in which adherents could gather, establish channels of communication that eluded the police, and get people to believe so strongly in an ideal that they were willing to die for it, made it ideal for revolutionary activity (Afkhami, 1985). Such was the organisational capacity of Islam that, in October 1978, it was able to get ‘40,000 oil workers, 40,000 steel workers, and 30,000 railway workers to put down their tools within less than three weeks’ (Bayat, 1987: 79). Keddie identifies two reasons for this. Firstly, the Shi’a ulama – scholars who are recognised as having specialised knowledge of Islamic law – have important family economic and other ties with the bazaar classes – a wide range of middle class, merchants, and wealthy people. Secondly, the ulama were also able to build up a large power base during the long period of decentralisation in Iran, with the Shahs been unable to do anything about it (Keddie, 1980).
Furthermore, the wide-ranging scope of Islam was also able to bring secularists into the movement as it provided a ‘nationally indigenous way to express common opposition to an aloof monarch’ (Skocpol, 1982: 275). Ahmad Karmin-Hakkak argues that this cohesion between the two groups can be seen in the way ‘secularists stood together surrounded by a powerful sense of oneness voice in poetry’.
How glorious is our night
And cries of “God is Great”
Our anxious hearts
From the two sides of the night
Units the town
(Karmin-Hakkak, 1991: 515)
Thus, as Mackey argues, ‘unlike its predecessors, this revolution engaged every stratum of society and every region of the country’ (Mackey, 1998: 277).
However, one could point out that, like the economic, political, and cultural issues discussed, religion had always been around. This is true, yet there was never an individual who could exploit it successfully until Khomeini. The Ayatollah was capable of inspiring Iranians across the country. Khomeini’s influence can be seen in the way that he was able to successfully direct protests after the publication of a personal attack upon him by the newspaper, Ettelaat, and the march of 500,000 people through Tehran in September 1978, demanding his return, after the Shah had exiled him (Wright, 1989). Sandra Mackey writes that Khomeini ‘possessed a charisma not seen in Iran since Ismail rode out of Gilan in the late fifteenth century and Muhammad Mossadeq strode over the fields of Khuzestan in 1951… He was able to grasp their pain and alienation… In the process, he turned their silent anger into an articulate voice of dissent, stamped with God’s approval’ (Mackey, 1998: 276). Khomeini was only able to do this, however, because of the uniqueness of Shi’a Islam. Keddie argues that Shi’a institutions in Iran ‘lent themselves to control by a single powerful revolutionary cleric’ (Keddie, 1995: 21). During the eighteenth century a school of thought became dominant that ‘every believer must choose one qualified jurist to follow… and must accept his rulings’ (Keddie, 1995: 22). The ulama can claim, ‘as well or better than monarchs, to represent authentically the will of the Hidden Imam’ – the ultimate saviour of humankind (Skocpol, 1982: 273). Therefore, Khomeini’s individual charisma would have counted for little if he had no means of influentially articulating his views and those of the Iranian people.
The Shah’s contradictory response to the initial protests also contributed to the success of the revolution. Whilst the Shah was autocratic, he also acted in a liberal manner, such as pardoning a number of political prisoners (Bashiriyeh, 1984). Keddie argues that fears in the face of President Carter’s Human Rights policies, constant seeking of American and British policy advice, the Shah’s natural character, and also the Shah’s illness with gallstones, were influential in creating the ‘contradictory trends in the Shah that undermined that same autocracy’ (Keddie, 1995: 25). As well as undermining autocracy, the regime’s liberalisation ‘increasingly indicated its weakness… The regime’s pretentions to liberalisation further unleashed constitutional opposition from below… Political groups which had been considered subversive began to re-emerge’ (Bashiriyeh, 1984: 106). Therefore, the religious movement against the Shah encountered less resistance than one would have expected, thus making the revolution much easier to achieve.
The influence of the Soviet Union is often overlooked, yet some commentators believe it was important to the revolution (Lenczowski, 1979; Atkin, 1981; Chubin, 1983). George Lenczowski argues that the Soviet’s hostile anti-Shah propaganda through the National Voice of Iran; invocation of Article 6 of the 1921 Soviet-Iranian treaty, allowing Soviet troops into the country if Russia felt threatened by anti-Soviet aggression; and the growth of the Communist Tudeh Party show that the Soviets helped the revolution succeed (Lenczowski, 1979). However, Khomeini was anti-Soviet as well as anti-Western, stating, ‘we will not collaborate with the Marxists’ (Atkin, 1981: 13), thus suggesting that any Soviet influence was more likely in preventing the West from intervening to help the Shah than in helping the internal movement. With the Shah isolated, the revolution could succeed more easily.
In conclusion, continued economic, political, and cultural issues maintained discontent towards the Shah. These grievances had more or less to the same extent existed for decades. However, what was different in 1979 was that an individual, Ruhollah Khomeini, was able to use the unique apparatus of Shi’a Islam – as well as the unique contradictory response from the Shah and moral support from the Soviet Union – to turn these grievances into a successful revolution to finally overthrow the Shah. Without, a powerful cleric who could articulate these issues in such an effective way it is unlikely that the revolution would have succeeded. Many did not expect such a revolution to happen, which highlights the unique set of circumstances. As Skocpol writes, the Iranian Revolution ‘challenged expectations about revolutionary causation’ (Skocpol, 1982: 265).
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