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Factors That Led to the Iranian Revolution Research Paper

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The Iranian revolution took place from 1978 to 1979 and culminated in Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s dynasty being overthrown. It was subsequently replaced by an Islamic state under the stewardship of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The activities of the uprising were being pushed by several interest groups, among them student movements, as well as Islamist and leftist organizations. Protests against the Pahlavi dynasty started in October 1977. The demonstrations were characterized as civil resistance, as they developed out of religious and worldly elements. In 1978, the unrest intensified to a point where Rex Cinema was burnt, thus triggering the revolution. This resulted in a paralysis across the country, which forced Ruhollah Khomeini to leave the country in exile in January 1979. In April that same year, the country became an Islamic republic through a national referendum that was also used to approve a theocratic-republican constitution. This new development meant that Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the country’s supreme leader. The Iranian revolution, whose goal was to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty, was caused by religious motives, social injustices, and discontent with the Shah’s rule.

Various interest groups that included farmers, intellectuals, the clergy, and merchants had a history of uniting to champion reforms in the history of Iran. They were highly influential during the Constitutional Revolution that took place from 1905 to 1911. One of the interesting things about these groups with regard to their opposition towards Shah’s regime is that they did not have a cohesive political ideology. The clergy who belonged to the far right wing advocated for a theocratic government, while groups in the far left wing favored communist ideologies. However, the foreign influence that was coming from Russia, the United Kingdom, and America was their main reason for coming together because they feared losing their identity. The Iranian revolution was largely a resistance that was formed to fight westernization and modernization, which were starting to manifest across the country.

The Iranian revolution was different from what people had been accustomed to with regard to the factors that caused it. Many insurgencies worldwide were mainly caused by common factors that included a disgruntled military or defeat in war. In the case of Iran, the situation is a bit different because the triggers of its revolution involved a crash between religion, culture, and westernization. First, the uprising happened in a country that at the time was experiencing a high degree of prosperity and stability. The revolution gained popularity across the world, mainly because it resulted in many Iranians going into exile. Additionally, the replacement of a pro-western authoritarian monarchy with an anti-western Islamic state also popularized the revolution. The Iranian revolution was generally nonviolent, an element that was unique from other uprisings that had been witnessed earlier on. The revolution left Iran in a crisis that was characterized by a collapsed economy, nonfunctional government apparatus, as well as a disorder among the law enforcement agencies. Revolutionaries used this opportunity to change the constitution and end Shah’s rule.

When Shah was admitted to an American hospital for cancer treatment in 1979, leftist groups were angered because they felt that he should have been deported back to face trial. That year, the American embassy in Tehran was invaded by youthful Islamists who seized 52 American diplomats whom they held hostage for more than 400 days. This move was in response to a joint operation between the American CIA and British intelligence to overthrow Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been validly elected by the people. Khomeini believed that holding the hostages gave a clear indication that the Iranian people were united, thus their opponents would not attempt to make any moves. At the time, an attempt to rescue the hostages was thwarted, much to the jubilation of the revolutionaries. The crisis was finally resolved on 19 January 1981 through the Algiers Accords that were signed for the release of the hostages to the United States. This happened shortly after President Ronald Reagan had been sworn into office. Khomeini was determined to suppress opposition, as evidenced in his pronouncement that nobody was allowed to use the word “democracy” as he believed it promoted westernization.

One of the main factors that triggered the Iranian revolution was the western influences on Iranian society. Before the revolution, Iran was a monarchy under the rule of Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had the backing of the United States. This was a source of disunity among Iranians because the support meant that Shah’s empire promoted western culture. According to Iranians, they risked losing their identity because westernization was diluting their cultural values. For example, traditional practices such as the separation of the sexes had already been prohibited. Additionally, women had stopped wearing a headscarf to conceal their hair and neck, as well as veils that covered their faces. Under Shah’s rule, women were allowed to access education, seek employment, and participate in voting exercises. The elite members of the society did not show any opposition towards the new rights for women, as well as a secular approach to religion where people belonging to minority religious groups were allowed to take up elective positions. Islam puritans viewed these developments as secularization and felt it was within their mandate to protect their identity.

Shah’s economic reforms were also a cause of discontent among revolutionists. Although the country had managed to achieve the economic prosperity of most industrial economies around the world, things started changing in the late 1970s. There was a high level of stagnation within the economy, escalating inflation levels, and a rise in the cost of living. In addition, Iranians showed dissatisfaction with the high levels of corruption and abuse of office by government officials. These challenges were enough reasons for them to label Shah’s regime as having failed to deliver on its promises. Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi faced many accusations of oppressing, killing, torturing, and imprisoning people that opposed the decisions of his government. Shah believed that westernization was the right strategy that Iran needed in order to progress and open up its economy to foreign investments. However, Iranians felt that his ideologies were not working, and it was acceptable for them to revert to Islamism.

Shah’s regime was also accused of its unpopular disregard for Islamic values. The most notable change that angered most Iranians was shifting from using an Islamic calendar to an imperial one. This meant that the beginning of their calendar shifted from the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina as they were used to and replaced by the reign of Cyrus the Great. Shah was also accused of his authoritarian tendencies that were in contravention of governance principles. Studies of the causes of the revolution have shown that lack of effective leadership may have played a pivotal role in its success. Shah underestimated his opposition by disregarding the need to prepare his law enforcement officers to deal with protests and demonstrations. Security forces used live ammunition during their crowd control measures, which led to many of the protests being disastrous.

Another element that worked to Shah’s disadvantage was the personalized nature of his government. This led to divisions within the security forces and the political elite, who failed to offer him the necessary support when he needed it the most. At the beginning of the revolution, Iranians of the upper and middle class left the country, thus leaving Shah with little resources to counter the demonstrations. Ayatollah Khomeini was leading students and conservative Shia Muslims in protests against Shah’s government. While in exile, he promoted campaigns against the manner in which the country was being run down by Shah’s extravagant life when the majority of Iranians were struggling to meet their basic needs. With time, people started to embrace his ideologies and heeded his calls for strikes, boycotts, and refusal to pay taxes, among other strategies. Khomeini’s popularity grew when his son was killed in 1977, thus encouraging various organizations that supported his ideologies to participate in open resistance. Islamist groups favored the use of armed struggle to overthrow Shah because they felt that the support of the United States would make the process highly complicated.

Ayatollah Khomeini was the leader of Iran following the conclusion of the Iranian revolution. His exile in Iraq and France for fifteen years sparked a period within which Shah’s regime was brutally attacked for several failures. Iranians were angered by the decision to send away a leader who had captured their imaginations with a promise of liberation from a corrupt and dictatorial regime. Khomeini first came to prominence in 1963 when he strongly opposed Shah’s White Revolution reforms. He argued that the government had a plan to destroy Islam and its traditions across the country. Khomeini did not support the close relations between Iran and Israel, as he felt such external influence was affecting service delivery to Iranians because of misplaced priorities. Khomeini was also known to fight the decision by Shah’s government of extending diplomatic immunity to Americans working in the country. He strongly felt that the United States was one of the biggest threats the country had to deal with because they had influenced Shah to support their westernization and liberalization ideologies. His rise amidst the evolution showed a charismatic leader who had the necessary qualities to mobilize people into opposing a dictatorial regime that threatened to erode their cultural identity as a nation and Muslims.

White Revolution refers to the several reforms that Shah had introduced in Iran from 1963 to 1978. The reforms contributed to the uprising that resulted in the Iranian revolution because they were centered on oppressing people that continued with their support of traditional systems instead of adopting western ideologies. Some of the notable reforms that Shah introduced included the nationalization of forests, the creation of literacy corps, and the formation of schemes to facilitate sharing of profits with workers across various industries. Shah had also proposed the sale of certain state-owned factories in order to facilitate the implementation of land reforms. However, the reform that gave the clearest indication that Iranians were experiencing a white revolution was the proposal to enfranchise women. According to Shah, the reforms were meant to create a foundation for westernization and legalize his dynasty. The proposal on land reforms was intended to minimize the influence of property owners, which would pave the way for the incorporation of peasants and the employed people whom Shah needed the most in his rule. However, Shah did not anticipate the social tension that emanated from the White Revolution. This meant that he had created a much bigger problem in addition to the ones his government was trying to address through the reforms.

The White Revolution increased the number of people that challenged Shah’s rule instead of reducing it as it was intended. The urban working class, as well as the educated and intellectual elite, felt betrayed by the reforms, especially when the government decided to dissolve all the groups that represented their interests. Shah decided to dissolve political parties, trade unions, and any type of professional organizations as a way of achieving full control over the people. His desire to manipulate Iranians into supporting his bid for westernization also pushed him to stop the operations of independent media outlets. The reforms created a new class that comprised independent peasants and laborers who did not own any property. This created more problems for Shah’s regime because this group became the number one oppose of the government, as they did not offer any guarantees of being loyal to a leader who was denying them their source of livelihood. This created the right environment within which the Islamic revolution was crafted and executed. People had grown frustrated with the White Revolution’s economic strategy that channeled the oil money to the elite, who were expected to create jobs through the building of factories.

Political and cultural organizations across the country played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of the Iranian revolution. At the time of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had built a reputation for himself as a leader who had the best interests of Iranians at heart and was willing to work with anyone with similar interests to save the country. He believed that westernization was eroding the Islamic values that defined the people of Iran. Khomeini’s confidence levels, charisma, as well as ability to capture the imaginations of Iranians and connect with their emotions made it easy for him to convince the masses to follow his directions. He had managed to present himself as the savior who was willing to do anything within his abilities to rescue the country from westernization. This phenomenon is evidenced by the ease with which Khomeini managed to successfully, organize demonstrations against Shah’s regime while in exile.

Cultural and political organizations were the easiest avenues for reaching the masses in the revolutionaries’ efforts to spread the Islamic ideology. Modern Islamists worked closely with Khomeini to win over the support of the country’s middle class, which was yearning for a modern, liberal, and appealing cultural setup that would guarantee the protection of their identity. Secularists and leftist groups always expressed confidence in their ability to control the revolution, which was crucial in getting the support of Iranians. Anti-Shah sentiments were being spread across the country using various platforms that the government had failed to handle effectively. Khomeini was shrewd in his strategy to win the support of liberals and leftists to accomplish the objective of the revolution. He knew that protecting the interests of his secular and modern Islamist allies was important because their input would be needed in the aftermath of the revolution.

The tactics used by organizations linked to Khomeini in brutalizing the manner in which Shah was using his security forces gave the people enough reasons to believe that a change of regime was inevitable. Khomeini’s team focused on convincing the people that Shah’s government was violating human rights, as security forces were brutalizing people using excessive force and live ammunition during protests. This kind of radicalization played a pivotal role in building the momentum with which the revolution took off. Demonstrations were characterized by anti-Shah sentiments where people decried the manner in which westernization had affected the economic, social, and political stability of the country. The social disruption that had been caused by the rapid modernization had caused anger among Iranians who felt that foreign influence over the running of their affairs had gone beyond acceptable levels. Additionally, the fact that Khomeini had already been exiled for his efforts to fight for the rights of Iranians who wanted to protect their sovereignty influenced various political and cultural organizations to mobilize people to support a campaign against Shah’s regime. This gave Khomeini confidence that he had the ability to dominate the revolution and play his part in rescuing the country from the trappings of westernization that had already caused a considerable degree of disorder.

The success and failures of foreign forces in Iran also contributed to the progression of the Iranian revolution. The United States was one of the biggest supporters of Shah’s government through their foreign policy frameworks. Several years before the revolution, the American government had indicated its intention to democratize Iran by ensuring more rights for women. Unlike in the western world, where women had equal opportunities to access education, go to work, vote, and own property, Iran was still operating with strong Islamic cultural values that put men in a dominant position within the society. People that were opposed to Shah’s regime argued that the United States had turned him into a “puppet” that could no longer make decisions in the interest of his people. It was hard for Iranians to understand why the United States was supervising its government amid intensified pressure for Shah to liberalize the country. However, the failure of the United States to accurately, read the nature and objective of the revolution that Khomeini was pushing while in exile created room for the heightened radicalization that made the revolution a reality.

President Jimmy Carter’s government contributed a lot to the collapse of Shah’s government. During the oil boom, President Carter managed to convince Shah to support the decision by OPEC to increase the price of petroleum in exchange for American support towards his government. At the time, Shah received a considerable amount of positive coverage across western media and had a chance to hold talks with several political influencers. OPEC had several guidelines that its members were required to follow in a bid to create a united front that would negotiate for better prices during the boom. Iraq and Iran were required to work out their differences, which resulted in Shah asking Saddam Hussein, who at the time was the Vice President, to expel Ayatollah Khomeini from the country. Saddam agreed to this request because Khomeini was a critic of the Iraqi regime at the time and moved to France, where he continued planning the revolution.

Over the years that preceded the revolution, the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and the United States had been competing against each other in attempts to dominate the Iranian territories. Britain had the longest dominance because it had control of the oil industry, which was the country’s biggest revenue generator. The United States and the Soviet Union were also interested in controlling a fraction of the industry in the northern part of the country. Americans used their military influence because Shah had expressed interest in engaging their services in reorganizing his army. Additionally, Shah needed support in implementing his economic agenda of boosting the economy, thus the United States had a good opportunity to push their interests. It believed that its continued involvement with the government and presence in the country would allow it to reduce the spread of communism. However, the United States started raising concerns about the level of corruption within Shah’s government and started to reduce its funding. In 1958, American forces were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Shah and replace him with a more reform-oriented leader. However, in 1961 President Kennedy prevailed and convinced Shah to liberalize his policies upon the realization that the country’s economy was too reliant on the United States.

President Kennedy’s administration backed Ali Amini for the Prime Minister’s position despite not being popular among Iranians. His agenda was to address the challenge of corruption within the government, restore the economy, introduce land reforms, as well as limit Shah’s powers and his influence on the military. The United States was willing to make any moves that would necessitate the fulfillment of its interests in Iran. However, Amini did not get the necessary support from the Tudeh Party owing to his unpopular nature. His administration faced numerous challenges, such as the harsh criticism for spearheading anti-communist agendas. However, Amini’s rule lasted for just a year and three months following a move by Shah to convince President Kennedy to shift back his support because people had lost trust in his preferred leader. In 1962, Shah appointed his friend Asadollah Alam who helped him to consolidate power and lay the ground for him to continue his dictatorship.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union relied on the support of the Tudeh Party in its efforts to gain control of the resource. The interests of these external factors in the affairs of the country contributed to the many divisions within Shah’s regime that allowed the revolution to be executed with ease. The United States had a lot of influence and control over the decision-making process in Shah’s government. It had mastered the art of manipulating Shah in order to push their liberalization ideologies.

The Iranian revolution is one of the uprisings that shook the world because of the manner in which it happened and the circumstances that caused it. The uprising was mainly triggered by the opposition to westernization, modernization, and liberalization. The social injustices of Shah’s regime, coupled with high levels of corruption and failed economic programs, pushed Iranians to limit the influence of foreigners on the operations within their government. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader who planned and executed the revolution that restored Iran to its traditional systems that were free of interference by western countries. His fifteen years in exile formed the basis of the revolution, owing to the fact that his efforts to critic Shah’s regime were the reason he suffered the fate. The Iranian revolution will always be referenced as one of the most nonviolent insurgencies to have been witnessed in history. One of the greatest lessons that can be learned from it is the importance of protecting one’s cultural identity. Shah’s disregard for Islamic values in favor of western ideologies led him to lose the trust and support of his people, thus triggering the revolution that ended his regime.

Bibliography

Alimagham, Pouaya. Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. New

York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Daneshvar, Parviz. Revolution in Iran. New York: Springer, 2016

Guerrero, Javier. The Carter Administration and the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty: US-Iran Relations on the Brink of the 1979 Revolution. San Francisco: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016.

Mirsepassi, Ali. Iran’s Quiet Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Morady, Farhang. Contemporary Iran: Politics, Economy, Religion. New York: Policy Press, 2020.

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