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Why was Ayatollah Khomeini able to lead a successful Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979?

In 1921 Reza Khan, commander of an Iranian cossack force, overthrew the decadent Kajar dynasty, and, as Reza Shah Pahlevi, established the Pahlevi dynasty in 1925.  During his reign, transportation and communication systems were improved, and a program of Westernization was begun. In 1941 Britain and the Soviet Union occupied areas of the country to protect the oil fields from German seizure. Because of this Allied presence, Reza Shah Pahlevi, who had been friendly to the Axis powers, abdicated.  His son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi, succeeded to the throne and adopted a pro-Allied policy. In 1945 the Iranian government requested the withdrawal of occupying troops, concerned that Soviet forces were encouraging separatist movements in the northern provinces. All troops were withdrawn by 1946.
In the 1950s, a major political crisis developed over control of the oil industry. In 1951 Muhammad Mossadegh, a militant nationalist, became prime minister. When parliament approved a law nationalizing the property of foreign oil companies with widespread popular support, Mossadegh pressed the shah for extraordinary powers. The dissension between pro- and anti-Mossadegh forces reached a climax during 1953 when the shah dismissed the prime minister. Mossadegh refused to yield, and the shah fled to Rome. After three days of riots, the royalists won back control of Teheran, the shah returned, and Mossadegh was sentenced to prison.  The shah then opened negotiations with an eight-company oil consortium that guaranteed Iran a margin of profit greater than anywhere else in the Middle East.
Throughout the 1960s, the shah began to exercise increasing control over the government after dissolving parliament in 1961.  Programs of agricultural and economic modernization were pursued, but the shah's Plan Organization took charge of economic development, leaving very few benefits to reach the ordinary citizen.
Despite growing prosperity, opposition to the shah was widespread, fanned mainly by conservative Shiite Muslims, who wanted the nation governed by Islamic law. They were directed, from France, by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Ruhollah ibn Mustafa Musawi Khomeini Hindi), a Muslim clergyman who had been exiled in 1963.
As the Shah's regime, supported by the U.S., became increasingly repressive, riots in 1978 developed into a state of virtual civil war.  In early 1979 popular opposition forced the shah to leave the country. Hundreds of the shah's supporters were tried and executed, others fled the country, and the westernization of Iran was reversed.  Khomeini, who had returned to Iran in triumph in February 1979, presided over the establishment of an Islamic republic.
On 4 November 1979, after the shah had been allowed entry into the United States for medical care, militant Iranians stormed the US embassy in Teheran, taking 66 Americans hostage. The militants demanded that the shah be turned over to face trial and that billions of dollars he had allegedly took abroad be returned. Thirteen of the hostages were soon released, but another 53 were held until an agreement was negotiated that freed the hostages on 20 January 1981.  Unable to persuade Iran to release them, President Carter ordered a military rescue mission, which failed, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen when their aircraft collided in the Iranian desert.
In September 1980 Iraq took advantage of Iran's internal political disputes to seize territory in the Shatt al Arab and oil-rich Khuzestan province. The full-scale war that resulted severely reduced Iran's oil production and disrupted its economy. The government was also beset by unrest among ethnic minorities. The war ended with a cease-fire in 1988 and cost the two nations an estimated 1 million dead and 1.7 million wounded.
In 1989, Khomeini died and Hojatolislam Said Ali Khamenei became Iran's supreme leader. Iran's relations with the West improved, due in part to President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's role in obtaining the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon. In 1993 Rafsanjani was reelected president.

  • 6 June 1963, martial law ordered as riots follow the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
  • 16 January 1979, shah left the country after turmoil.
  • 1 February 1979, revolutionary forces under Khomeini seize power after his return to the country (He had gone into exile after arrest in 1963.).
  • 31 March 1979, referendum approved the establishment of an Islamic republic with Khomeini in de facto control.
  • 7 April 1979, prominent Iranians executed.
  • 4 November 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held sixty-six occupants hostage, demanding the return of the shah from the U.S.  After the shah's death in 1980 in Egypt, an agreement was negotiated that freed the hostages on 20 January 1981.
  • 2 December 1979, Khomeini became absolute ruler for life.
  • 27 July 1980, shah died.
  • November 1980, the First Gulf War broke out between Iran and Iraq.

WWW sites
There are a lot of materials now avaliable online about the crisis; start by checking a major reference source such as Brittanica, Answers.com or even wikipedia.  A good overview of the Iranian Revolution is on the web, as well as a paper on the religious background of the revolution.
For biographical information, see Reza Shah, Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89).  There are many biographies of Khomeini, including this one.

In retaliation for the seizure of the hostages, President Carter, imposed an oil embargo on Iran on 12 November 1979.  Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher briefed the press on Iran's Release of American hostages on 21 January 1981.

Other sites.

The series of articles by Time Magazine during the Iranian Revolution.

  • The Crescent of Crisis - 15 January 1979
  • One Man's Word Is Law - 22 January 1979
  • The Shah Takes His Leave - 29 January 1979
  • Waiting for the Ayatullah - 5 February 1979
  • The Khomeini Era Begins - 12 February 1979
  • A Government Collapses - 19 February 1979
  • A Nation on Trial - 26 March 1979
  • The World of Islam – 16 April 1979
  • A Nation Still in Torment -21 May 1979

    Recommended Books
    Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet:  Religion and Politics in Iran (1985) is a thoughtful study of the role of Islam in Iran in the twentieth century.  Another useful work is Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs:  Iran and the Islamic Reception, rev. ed. (1990).  Others include:  Said Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown:  The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1988); D. Hiro, Iran under the Ayatollas (1985); N. R. Keddie, The Roots of Revolution:  An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (1981); and Amin Saikal, The Rise and Fall of the Shah (1980).
    On the hostage crisis in particular, see:  B. Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience in Iran (1981).

    Related Events

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

Ayatollah Khomeini


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