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In the early weeks of 1979, Iranians from across the nation raised a unified cry, a cry against imperial oppression. For more than half a century, the Pahlvi Dynasty, the last reigning royal dynasty of Iran, had ruled the Kingdom of Iran. During the reign of Iran’s last Shah, Mohommad Reza Pahlavi (who ruled from 1941 until his overthrow in 1979), opposition to the dynasty bathed in abundance, luxury and wealth was exploited. The excesses of the monarchy stood in stark contrast to the poverty of most Iranians. Unlike his predecessors, Reza Pahlavi built his monarchy into an unpopular and arbitrary system steeped in terror and oppression (Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy has strong connotations with Saddam Hussein’s government in subsequent years). The Shah made extensive and full use of SAVAK, the secret service of the Pahlavi dynasty; and these officials were responsible for state-sanctioned repression. In addition to his absolutist and authoritarian rule, Shah Pahlavi instituted a series of misguided economic policies dubbed the “White Revolution”. These economic reforms aimed at land reform, profit-sharing for commercial farmers, price stabilization and women’s suffrage. For the most part, the White Revolution resulted in explosive economic reforms, but the benefits of the reforms were not shared equally, further imprinting the wealth gap in Iranian society. Furthermore, having adopted much of Western culture, Reza Pahlavi and his family imported the ideas of freedom and women’s emancipation into Iranian society. This was loathed by Iranian Shia clerics and a certain Ruhollah Khomeini, also known as Ayatollah Khomeini.
Shah Pahlavi was also deeply influenced and controlled by the West. At the height of the Cold War, the Americans and Soviets struggled to forge alliances specifically targeting Asia and Africa. America claimed to play a central role in the birth of modern Iran, closely supporting and funding large sectors of the White Revolution and funding lavish programs of technical and financial assistance. The Shah’s close allegiance to America further spurred opposition to the dynasty and monarchy, and fueled a popular creed that the Shah was the puppet king of Americans with an “unholy alliance.” Coupled with the orchestration of indiscriminate mass repression, corruption, economic reforms that shifted wealth into the hands of a minority group, and close ties with America, the loudest voice of opposition came from Ayatollah Khomeini, who believed that Shah Pahlavi would alienate Iran from the US order Pure Islam would lure away. What is most disregarded is that when Khomeini was a very young boy, his father fell victim to the Shah’s repression and was murdered under suspicious circumstances; he harbored that grudge against Pahlavi forever.
What has changed? It was a revolution between the Iranian people and the state to overthrow the monarchy and transform Iran into a republic. From August 1978 the revolution was now in full swing; Thousands of Iranians are calling for the Shah to be deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini installed as Iran’s leader. In the midst of the crisis, US President Jimmy Carter publicly pledged American support for the Shah. Nevertheless, the shah, coerced by his countrymen, was deposed and the ayatollah became the new spiritual leader of the republic; Iran ceased to be a kingdom with the collapse of the royal dynasty. The revolution ended liberal Iran and ushered in religious conservatism. The Iran hostage crisis (during which Iranian revolutionaries held the American embassy hostage in addition to all embassy officials for over a year) is an indication of the hostility the new republic would have towards Western powers.
Why is 1979 important today?
The Islamic revolution in Iran ushered in a new era for the republic, the new Islamic populism of the Ayatollah called on Iranians to spread Islam around the world, a vow that remains in Iran to this day. The western-anchored Pahlavi state was destroyed when the revolution inherited Iran. The revolution changed the regional geopolitical dynamic forever and unnerved Iran’s neighbors (Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan) who feared the threat of a spreading revolution. Iran’s ally when the Shah was still on the throne now became its worst enemy; Saudi Arabia, with a majority Sunni population, feared the religious radicalism of the Khomeini and pledged to prevent the revolution from spreading. Even today, the two nations have not resumed diplomatic relations. At the beginning of the revolution, the ruling House of Saud praised the Khomeini for establishing a state on purely Islamic principles, but feared that they would meet the same fate as the Shah when Khomeini began to call for the downfall of the ruling house. 1979 therefore had a global impact, transforming not only the Middle East’s external relations but also its relationship with the West. The intricate web of external relations we see in the Middle East today, and its more intricate connection with the West, is somewhat rooted in the events of 1979.