Islamic Studies The Iranian Revolution
Nader Entessar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0204


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.

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

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

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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

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

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

    DOI: 10.1093/0195189671.001.0001

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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