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Islamic Studies The Iranian Revolution
by
Nader Entessar

Introduction

The Iranian revolution of 1978–1979 has been one of the most significant sociopolitical developments in the Middle East and the entire Muslim world since the early years of the 20th century. The revolution brought a profound transformation in Iran’s sociocultural fabric and its polity by overthrowing a centuries-old monarchical system and establishing an Islamic republic based on the rule of a Shi’a jurisconsult (velayat-e faqih). The Iranian revolution has had a far-reaching impact on several Islamic regions and countries, especially in the Persian Gulf region and the Levant. As the Iranian revolution has matured, the founding principles and institutions of the Islamic Republic themselves have now come under severe scrutiny in Iran by a young generation whose increasingly cosmopolitan outlook and aspirations are at odds with the theocratic ideas and ideals of the founders of the Islamic Iran.

Historical Context

The start of the sustained popular demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi dates back to late 1977. However, the genesis of the anti-Shah movement and the subsequent regime delegitimization dates back to the oil nationalization crisis and the establishment of a dictatorial system by the Shah. As explained in Gasiorowski and Byrne 2004, Kinzer 2003, and Katouzian 2009, in the early 1950s, Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) after a prolonged period of dispute with that foreign firm. Mossadeq had also rankled the Shah’s authority by demanding that the Pahlavi monarch adhere to his constitutionally mandated authority. Both the AIOC and the Shah viewed Mossadeq as a threat to their interests and undertook measures to destabilize his administration. Mossadeq’s moves had struck a receptive cord with Iranian nationalists with a long memory of Western domination of their country and autocratic rule by despotic monarchs. Partly due to a strong and cohesive base of nationalism existing in Iran (Cottam 1979), Mossadeq succeeded in generating enthusiasm among the Iranian populace, ultimately causing the Shah to flee the country in August 1953. The Shah’s departure from Iran was followed by a series of machinations by domestic forces hostile to Mossadeq and the Anglo-American interests who had come to view Mossadeq as a threat to their strategic interests in the Middle East. These foreign and domestic constituencies managed to organize a coup d’état that brought the Shah back to power and overthrew Mossadeq’s government. Azimi 2008, Afary 1996, Ansari 2003, and Gheissari and Nasr 2006 underline Iran’s deep-rooted struggle against authoritarian rule and foreign domination. This, along with the Shah’s increasing dictatorial rule after the 1953 coup, explains why the Shah was never able to establish legitimacy among a critical mass of the Iranians or to sustain his rule, notwithstanding developments in the Iranian economy and the standard of living.

  • Afary, Janet. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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    Afary analyzes the cohesiveness of grassroots alliances that led to a massive social movement for democratization of Iranian authoritarian rule and societal structures.

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  • Ansari, Ali M. Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and After. New York: Longman, 2003.

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    This is a good historical overview of the development of the Pahlavi dynasty, its achievements and shortcomings, and factors that undermined the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

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  • Azimi, Fakhreddin. The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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    This is a sophisticated and detailed study of Iran’s popular struggles since the early 20th century and search for enduring democratic rule.

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  • Cottam, Richard W. Nationalism in Iran. Updated ed. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.

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    This is a very informative and historically rich treatment of Iranian nationalism in its different manifestations among the country’s rich ethnic, religious, and social groupings.

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  • Gasiorowski, Mark J., and Malcolm Byrne, eds. Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

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    This excellent volume is one of the most comprehensive collections of articles on the 1953 coup in Iran. It is rich in primary sources.

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  • Gheissari, Ali, and Vali Nasr. Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    This is a highly readable and well-researched book on the long struggle between state building and democracy in Iran and the triumph of the state during the Pahlavi monarchy.

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  • Katouzian, Homa. The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

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    In this comprehensive history of Iran, Katouzian explains how the system of arbitrary rule in Iran created a deep chasm between authoritarian rulers and their subjects, leading to popular upheavals in the country.

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  • Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.

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    A highly readable book by a knowledgeable American journalist about the US-supported coup in Iran and its impact on the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979 and for American foreign policy in Iran and the greater Middle East.

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Bibliographies

There are several extensive sources of primary documents and databases on the Iranian revolution. Almost all of these sources are online, and they must be consulted for a thorough understanding of the causes and consequences of the Iranian revolution. Examples include the Iranian Revolution Documentation Center, the Institute for Contemporary Iranian Historical Studies, the Iran Chamber Society, the National Library and Archives of Iran, the Political Studies and Research Institute, the Mossadegh Project, and the Iranian Oral History Project, Harvard University.

Journals

Journals that publish articles on Iran and the Iranian revolution are mostly interdisciplinary in nature. Some, such as Iranian Studies, Iran Nameh, and the Journal of Persianate Studies, focus almost exclusively on greater Iran. Other journals in the field, on the other hand, contain articles on the broader Middle East but regularly publish articles about Iran, including its revolution and contemporary developments. Examples include the Middle East Journal, the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Middle East Critique, and Al-Tawhid.

Opposition to the Shah

The opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule came from different segments of Iranian society. A segment of the Shi’a clergy constituted one important element of this opposition. Led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his clerical and lay supporters, this segment of the opposition came to political prominence after the Khomeini-inspired mass uprisings in 1963 against the Shah’s rule, leading to the house arrest and subsequent exile of Khomeini to Turkey and later to Iraq (Akhavi 1980, Keddie 2003). Notwithstanding Khomeini’s forced exile, the clerical antagonism toward the Shah increased as his secular, authoritarian, and pro-Western tilt intensified after 1964. As Hairi 1977 and Mottahedeh 1985 demonstrate, religion and politics had deep and established roots in Iranian society, and several Shi’a thinkers and ideologues were laying the foundation of the Islamic revolution in Iran (Dabashi 1993). On the nationalist and secular front, several groups were likewise laying the foundation for the post-Pahlavi era. These groups included the old National Front and its religio-nationalist offshoot and the leftist movements that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s (Siavoshi 1990, Chehabi 1990, Behrooz 1999).

  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.

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    This is a detailed scholarly treatment of the role of the Shi’a clerics, or ulama, in state–society relations in Iran. Akhavi explains factors that have affected clergy–state relations over the past hundred years, the emergence of the Islamic government, and the collapse of the bureaucratic state in Iran.

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  • Behrooz, Maziar. Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran. London: Tauris, 1999.

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    This book is a comprehensive review of the leftist groups, both old and new, in Iran and their ideology, structure, and form of opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy.

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  • Chehabi, Houchang E. Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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    This is the most comprehensive analysis of the role of the most significant religio-nationalist movement in recent Iranian history that is available in English. Chehabi explains the crucial role played by the Liberation Movement and its leader Mehdi Bazargan in bridging the gap between the religious and secular elements of the opposition to the Shah.

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  • Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

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    This is an important book about the various ideologues of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the role played by them in popularizing theological arguments for the establishment of an Islamic state.

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  • Hairi, Abdul-Hadi. Shi’ism and Constitutionalism in Iran: A Study of the Role Played by the Persian Residents of Iraq in Iranian Politics. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1977.

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    This erudite book adds a much-needed historical dimension to the discussion of the role of Shi’a clergy in the politics of Iran. By doing so, Hairi allows us to better understand clerical opposition to the Shah as it emerged in the second half of the 20th century.

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  • Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

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    This scholarly book provides an excellent overview of Iranian history in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular emphasis on the emergence of the royal dictatorship and the subsequent popular opposition to it.

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  • Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

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    This engrossing book provides a unique view of the Shi’a clerical thought process and thus helps readers understand Khomeini’s opposition to the Shah.

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  • Siavoshi, Sussan. Liberal Nationalism in Iran: The Failure of a Movement. Westview Special Studies in the Middle East Series. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990.

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    This is a good book on the rise and fall of liberal nationalism in Iran, especially during the Pahlavi monarchy. The author explains the reasons for the failure of liberal nationalist movements in Iran to offer a sustained and robust opposition to the Shah.

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Monarchical Fissures

The decade of the 1970s was, in many ways, a tumultuous period in recent Iranian history. In 1971, the Shah staged an extravagant event near Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, to celebrate 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran and the country’s imperial past. Milani 2011 notes that no expenses were spared in staging this extravaganza. Heads of major states politely declined to attend while many Iranians viewed the Shah’s celebration as yet another example of the corruption and wastefulness that had dogged his regime throughout its latter years. As noted in Saikal 1980 and Halliday 1979, the oil boom of the early 1970s contributed to rising inflation and the widening income and wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. The Shah’s economic austerity measures to fight the country’s spiraling inflation had a disproportionate impact on the urban poor and unskilled migrants who had left untenable living conditions in the countryside and settled in the margin of the society in major urban areas (Kazemi 1980, Hooglund 1982, Moghadam 1996, Bayat 1997). Last but not least, the Shah sought to fight inflation and economic inefficiency through antiprofiteering campaigns under the auspices of the newly established Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party. The haphazard nature of jailing or imposing heavy fines on those deemed to have profited illegally angered many ordinary shopkeepers and merchants and further politicized the merchant class against the monarchy (Graham 1980).

  • Bayat, Asef. Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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    This fascinating book dissects the trials and tribulations of Iran’s underclass and its inspiring and tenacious struggle against the government. The author evinces a deep understanding of Iranian society and its underclass.

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  • Graham, Robert. Iran: The Illusion of Power. New York: St. Martin’s, 1980.

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    This is a critical study of the Shah’s regime by a veteran British journalist who studied uneven wealth accumulation and economic corruption in the last decade of the monarchy and their impact on the revolutionary upheavals of 1978–1979.

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  • Halliday, Fred. Iran: Dictatorship and Development. New York: Penguin, 1979.

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    This book by one of the most astute observers of the Middle East analyzes the development of a myriad of sociopolitical and economic fissures that occurred during the second Pahlavi monarchy.

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  • Hooglund, Eric J. Land and Revolution in Iran, 1960–1980. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

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    This is a comprehensive study on the Shah’s land reform program and its impact on rural socioeconomic changes in Iran and the out-migration of the rural poor to the urban areas.

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  • Kazemi, Farhad. Poverty and Revolution in Iran: The Migrant Poor, Urban Marginality, and Politics. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

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    This is an important field study on the rise of the migrant poor and urban marginals and the role they played in the Iranian revolution.

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  • Milani, Abbas. The Shah. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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    This is one of the most through and balanced accounts of the rise and fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It is rich in detail and well researched, with numerous references to primary sources.

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  • Moghadam, Fatemeh E. From Land Reform to Revolution: The Political Economy of Agricultural Development in Iran, 1962–1979. Library of Modern Middle East Studies 4. London: Tauris Academic, 1996.

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    This book is a sophisticated examination of the interconnectedness between the Shah’s land reform program of the 1960s and the revolutionary upheavals of the 1970s.

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  • Saikal, Amin. The Rise and Fall of the Shah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

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    This is a scholarly analysis of Iran’s political history in the 20th century. It includes chapters on the Shah’s oil policy and the emergence of Iran as a regional power.

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Outbreak of the Revolution

The first major anti-Shah demonstrations that augured the beginning of months of sustained street protests occurred in October 1977 in reaction to the death of Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Mostafa (Kurzman 2004). Khomeini’s supporters blamed the Shah’s intelligence service, SAVAK, for Mostafa’s death. In January 1978, major demonstrations, especially by the clerical students in the holy city of Qom, were staged in reaction to an inflammatory article against Ayatollah Khomeini published in the mass circulation daily Ettela’at. These demonstrations resulted in the first casualties of the revolutionary uprising (Abrahamian 2008). By summer 1978, a sophisticated system of mosque networks had been established to disseminate Ayatollah Khomeini’s messages to the Iranian people and to organize large rallies against the monarchy. At the same time, middle-class and working-class protests as well as those led by a host of leftist and secular groups began to fill the streets and provide an alternative narrative to the increasingly religious discourse of the uprisings (Abrahamian 1982). As Dorraj 1990 notes, what made religious populism appealing to many Iranians was the long history of populist dissent in Iran, dating back to both the pre-Islamic period and the early years of Islam. By the end of summer 1978, contending social forces had coalesced to provide a united front against the Shah’s government (Parsa 1989). The traditional bazaar merchants played a very important role in providing financial, moral, and social sustenance to striking workers and their families (Keshavarzian 2007). In short, the same social forces that had challenged dictatorial rule in Iran for more than one hundred years once again coalesced to overthrow an authoritarian regime in the latter part of the 20th century (Foran 1993, Foran 1994).

  • Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

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    This erudite book has served as a main source for understanding the causes of popular uprisings in Iran for over a century. It is especially useful for examining the politics of social conflict in historical and contemporary contexts.

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  • Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    This book, by a prominent historian of modern Iran, places contemporary developments in Iran within the context of Iranian history in the past hundred years.

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  • Dorraj, Manochehr. From Zarathustra to Khomeini: Populism and Dissent in Iran. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990.

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    This book begins by introducing the concept of Islamic populism and then places it in the context of pre-Islamic Iranian religious traditions. Dorraj analyzes the populism of Iran’s secular and religious intelligentsia as well as clerical populism in the country.

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  • Foran, John. Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.

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    This book traces the transformation of Iran’s social structure from the rise of the Safavid dynasty in 1501 to the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in 1978. Foran argues that resistance movements in Iran have largely been based on fragile social bases.

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  • Foran, John, ed. A Century of Revolution: Social Movements in Iran. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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    This book is a collection of articles on the origins and development of social movements in Iran. The book also provides theoretical perspectives on social movements in Iran.

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  • Keshavarzian, Arang. Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    This is one of the best books about the political role of traditional merchants in Tehran’s marketplace. The arguments can also apply to merchants in other major Iranian cities.

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  • Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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    This book is a detailed study of the emergence of the anti-Shah protest movement in the last two years of the Pahlavi monarchy. The author seeks to provide a multidimensional approach to the causes of the Iranian revolution.

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  • Parsa, Misagh. Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

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    This book explains the interplay of contending social forces that led to the revolutionary upheavals of 1978–1979 in Iran. It is theoretically rich and solidly grounded in an understanding of Iran’s social history.

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Violent Confrontations

By late summer 1978, it had become abundantly clear that the Shah’s grip on power was deteriorating and that there existed a total lack of trust between the monarchy and a large segment of the Iranian population. In August 1978, a fire was set in Cinema Rex in the southern city of Abadan, killing more than four hundred people. The opposition, especially the religious elements of the anti-Shah movement, blamed the regime’s operatives for this horrific crime. However, in a book published in Germany (Boroujerdi 2002), Hossein Boroujerdi claimed that his team, operating under the direction of the Islamic Coalition Society, one of the most powerful pro-Khomeini groups, set the fire in Cinema Rex. This episode was a turning point in the escalating confrontation between the Shah and his regime. To stem the tidal wave of street demonstrations, the Iranian government declared martial law on 8 September 1978 and banned all demonstrations. Ignoring martial law, the demonstrators staged a major rally on the same day in Jaleh Square in central Tehran. In response, the Shah’s security forces shot and killed several demonstrators in what was later called Black Friday. The killings of demonstrators on Black Friday proved to be another seminal event that solidified religious and secular opposition to the Shah (Fischer 1980, Kamrava 1990, Moin 2000). Khomeini’s messages took a distinctly populist tone as opposed to being strictly fundamentalist (Abrahamian 1993). Although the opposition claimed that more than one thousand people were massacred on Black Friday, it now appears that the numbers were significantly lower than originally reported in the aftermath of the Jaleh Square violent confrontations. According to the journalist and historian Emaddedin Baghi, himself a revolutionary figure who was later jailed for his reformist tendencies, the total number of fatalities on Black Friday in Tehran was eighty-eight. As posted on Baghi’s website (Kadivar 2005), his study remains the only empirically studied and verifiable report on the number of casualties during the revolutionary upheavals of 1978–1979. Baghi’s unique position as the chief researcher at the Martyrs’ Foundation (Bonyad-e Shahid) afforded him extensive access to the names and other identifying characteristics of the victims of the Iranian revolution. On 6 November 1978, the Shah delivered a brief but fateful speech on National Iranian Radio and Television promising to rectify his mistakes and declaring that he had heard the voice of the Iranian revolution. This was tantamount to a surrender speech by the Shah and signaled the beginning of the end of his reign (Pahlavi 2011). By this time, Ayatollah Khomeini had already been expelled from Iraq and had settled in the suburban village of Neauphle-le-Chateau near Paris. As Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi 1994 argues, despite greater access to the media and electronic means of communication, Khomeini’s most effective means of communicating with his popular constituencies in Iran remained leaflets and cassettes of his speeches that were widely distributed in Iran.

The United States and the Iranian Revolution

By late 1978, it had become clear to many inside Iran that the Shah’s days were numbered. In the United States, many in the Carter administration had by then concluded that the Shah was no longer able to govern Iran effectively, and Washington was planning for a post-Shah Iran (Shawcross 1989, Stempel 1981, Sullivan 1981, Sick 1985). In early January 1979, US Air Force General Robert Huyser, who was the deputy director of European Command with close ties to senior Iranian air force commanders, was sent to Tehran to prevent the disintegration of the Iranian military. Also, Huyser was to devise a contingency plan for a military takeover in case of the complete collapse of the Shah’s government (Huyser 1986, Ward 2009). However, after meeting with senior military commanders in Iran, Huyser concluded that they were more interested in leaving than in remaining cohesive and supporting the system without the Shah at the helm. The Shah and several of his top officials had bitterly complained that the United States was abandoning them and forcing the Shah to leave the country, which he ultimately did on 16 January 1979 (Pahlavi 1980, Nahavandi 2010).

Fall of the Monarchy

Before leaving Iran, the Shah, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to coax his erstwhile secular opponents to join his government by accepting premiership, finally managed to install Shapour Bakhtiar as the country’s prime minister. Notwithstanding Bakhtiar’s credentials as a nationalist figure, he soon found himself a lonely man without any popular base to sustain his administration. The collapsing Iranian military and the unwillingness of the senior military officers to support Bakhtiar doomed his administration from the beginning (Bakhash 1984, Entessar 1988, Arjomand 1988, Zabih 1988). On 1 February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from his long exile and immediately declared Bakhtiar’s government illegitimate. On 11 February 1979, Iran’s Supreme Military Council declared its neutrality in the ongoing dispute between Bakhtiar and the revolutionary forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini, thus bringing to an end the last vestiges of the monarchical system. Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that his goal was to establish a system of governance based on the tenets of Shi’a jurisprudence; to free Iran from Western, especially US, domination, which had been one of the hallmarks of the Shah’s regime; and to end the corruption and grandiosity of the Pahlavi era (Mottahedeh 1980, Zonis 1991). One of the enduring legacies of the Iranian revolution has been the estrangement between the United States and Iran, with negative consequences for both countries (Bill 1988, Beeman 2008).

  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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    This book analyzes the struggle between temporal religious forces in Iran and the emergence of theocratic absolutism after the victory of the Islamic revolution in 1979. It also covers forces involved in the overthrow of the monarchy.

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  • Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

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    This is a highly readable description of the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and its major institutions and the emergence of the Islamic Republic.

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  • Beeman, William O. The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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    This book by one of the most knowledgeable American scholars of Iran explains how the United States and Iran perpetuate negative myths about each other and why both sides need to adopt a different approach in dealing with each other.

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  • Bill, James A. The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

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    This is a superb book that analyzes Iranian–American relations over a span of sixty years. Bill offers a nuanced and sophisticated picture of this relationship and examines Washington’s foreign-policy failure toward Iran.

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  • Entessar, Nader. “The Military and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In Post-Revolutionary Iran. Edited by Hooshang Amirahmadi and Manoucher Parvin, 56–74. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988.

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    This book chapter examines the fall of the imperial armed forces and causes of its internal decay during the prerevolutionary period in Iran. It also explains the post-revolutionary purges and the development of parallel military organizations in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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  • Mottahedeh, Roy Parviz. “Iran’s Foreign Devils.” Foreign Policy 38 (1980): 19–34.

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    This article explains how Khomeini was able to link the misdeeds and corruption of the Shah’s era with US support of the system, thus portraying the Shah as a pliable client of Washington.

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  • Zabih, Sepehr. The Iranian Military in Revolution and War. New York: Routledge, 1988.

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    This is a comprehensive study of the role of Iran’s military in the Shah’s era and during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988.

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  • Zonis, Marvin. Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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    This is a very informative book on weaknesses of the Shah and his regime. Zonis focuses both on the Shah’s character flaws and the structural deficiencies of the government as well as the implications of the Shah’s dependence on the United States.

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LAST MODIFIED: 04/24/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0204

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