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The Iranian Revolution of 1979


During the summer of 1978, Iranian streets were flooded with thousands of citizens in a fight for change, throwing aside their religious beliefs, economic class, and political stances. The protests ended up being a bloody uprising against the Shah, Iran’s self-appointed ruler. The Pahlavi Dynasty of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah and his father Reza Shah ruled Iran for over fifty years. Their reign over Iran was only a blip on Iran’s timeline of a 2,500-year-old monarchy. When the Iranian monarchy was abolished, it marked a massive turning point for the politics and citizens of Iran. The revolution involved a plethora of strikes, boycotts, public prayer, and destruction of property. The people of Iran were done with the Shah.

The Revolution

The 1979 Iranian Revolution Protests

The 1979 Iranian Revolution Protests

The Shah

The Shah, whose full name was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, became the symbolic leader of Iran at the young age of 22 and endured a bumpy relationship with his people. He remained leader of Iran throughout the Allied occupation of World War II and assumed full control of the country’s government upon the withdrawal of the Allied forces (Palmer 2006). In 1955, the Shah joined a US-sponsored alliance of the Middle Eastern states called the Baghdad Act (Palmer 2006). This reflected the Shah’s subservience to the United States and also provided the US with a convenient reason for stabilizing the Shah’s regime. There is no question that the US was one of the Shah’s major backers. Many Iranians saw him as a brutal, American-puppet dictator with too much control over their lives.

The Shah exercised absolute power and demanded that anyone who questioned his rule be imprisoned or tortured. The opening monologue in the movie Argo says that the “Shah was known for opulence and excess. He has his lunches flown in by Concorde from Paris. The people starved, and the Shah kept power through his ruthless internal police: the SAVAK. It was an era of torture and fear” (Affleck 2013). Although the Shah publicly claimed that he had a strong and reciprocal kinship between himself and his people, many Iranians did not feel this way. Due to his young age at the time of ascending to the throne, he was criticized as an unfit ruler. He spoke highly of himself and of his dynasty, hosting many parties at his palace in his own honor. Citizens that actively challenged his rule risked being taken to prison or death. The people that spoke against the Shah’s regime were systematically punished. This included many artists and intellectuals that were highly regarded by the population. By the end of 1975, twenty-two distinguished poets, novelists, professors, theater directors, and filmmakers were imprisoned for making critical remarks about the regime. The iron-fisted Shah, a persona that led to his demise, is how many revolutionists remember his reign. Many protesters saw him as a spoiled and power-hungry king who had run the economy into the ground, would stop at nothing to silence any opposition, and let corruption run rampant in his Imperial Court.

Muhammad Reza Shah

The last Shah of Iran

The last Shah of Iran

White Revolution

In an attempt to make the monarchy survive, the Shah began a reform process in 1957 that forced the political system into having only two parties. “Both parties were controlled by close friends of the Shah and offered little real choice to Iran’s voters” (Palmer 2006). The elections in the new systems had to be delayed because people were so upset. When the elections finally did happen in 1961, the results caused strikes and political violence. Voters were very displeased with the Shah’s fruitless attempt at a democracy.

After failed political reforms, the Shah introduced the White Revolution, which was to be a huge economical reformation of the country. It was called the White Revolution to imply that it was going to be much better than the Red Revolution that the communists brought forth in China and Russia. This revolution was opposed by landowners and the clergy. The landowners didn’t like the land reforms mostly because it affected their wealth. The clergy claimed that the White Revolution promoted anti-Islamic values and were also against it because it separated religion from the educational system. Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a central figure of the first modern Islamic Revolution, organized riots that erupted in 1963 and were crushed by the Shah. “Khomeini was exiled to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, from which he continued to attack the Shah’s policies via sermon and pamphlets smuggled into Iran via the bazaari (merchant) network” (Palmer 2006). Khomeini was eventually forced to flee to Paris after residing in Iraq for thirteen years after the Shah pressured the country to expel the Ayatollah. Despite the Shah’s reforms, the tensions that were created by the White Revolution made both the Shah and his American advisors realize that they would require more patience in their quest to make the Shah a powerful monarch. Until their goal could be realized, they focused on Iran’s security forces to ensure the regime’s control. “Both the military and SAVAK, the Shah’s main intelligence organization, were strengthened and purged of suspected leftists,” making Iran quite the police state (Palmer 2006).

Subsequent to the White Revolution came the Shah’s push for an industrialized country. After oil prices skyrocketed during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Shah started to see Iran’s revenue quadruple. He became obsessed with luxury and gross wealth. Iran was historically a country of agriculture and rural development. The forced industrialization unleashed a backlash of hostility and an increased activity of guerrilla groups in the mid 1970’s. Iran slid into an economic recession that hit the working class very hard. The Shah’s ambitious modernization plan caused the rate of unemployment to balloon and worker wages dropped by 30%. Iran’s income inequality became the widest in the world. Citizens looked to the government to offer assurance and resolution, but the Shah’s indifference did not help the situation. Due to the volatile nature of Iran’s economy at this time, many citizens spent their incomes on gold coins to secure their savings. If fleeing the country, people would conceal their gold by sewing coins into the linings of jackets or folding them into their kerchiefs to avoid any problems with customs. The Shah continued to anger the population by making further disliked changes. For example, he announced in 1976 that the traditional Islamic calendar would be “replaced by an Iranian imperial calendar based upon the date of Cyrus the Great’s ascension to the Iranian throne” (Palmer 2006). It seems the Shah was very much out of touch with his people and the reasons behind any protests. His downfall can primarily be blamed on his dreams and obsessions of a massive empire. What also did not help at all was the fact that everyone that surrounded him found it more convenient to flatter him rather than to be the bearer of bad news. The Shah’s advisors basically found it easier to reassure him rather than be honest about the state of the nation.

Capital of Iran

Ayatollah Khomeini

The primary leader of the movement to overthrow the Shah and Time Magazine’s 1979 “Man of the Year,” Ayatollah Khomeini, had a zeal for religious philosophy and developed a fundamentalist view of the Quran’s teachings. He preached about Islamic theocracy and the ills of the Shah’s regime. His speeches, writings, and audio recording became illegal. Ayatollah Khomeini criticized the Shah’s regime for crippling free speech. Khomeini was also a strong critic of the Shah’s White Revolution plan for modernization and focused on the moral corruption and submission of Iran to the United States and Israel. He was in strong support of a “strong, independent, Islamic Iran.” He recorded many of his speeches on tapes and promised that no one should remain homeless in Iran. He continued to promise that under him, everyone would receive free phone service, heating, electricity, bus transportation, and oil. His supporters viewed his stance as a way to reclaim their country from the greedy West and an indulgent Shah. Some of the most influential revolutionary messages were communicated on cassette tapes. The tapes were smuggles into Tehran, duplicated, and covertly circulated. They would feature the speeches of exiled clerical leaders and outspoken intellectuals who called for unarmed resistance and non-cooperation. These messages were incredibly effective in mobilizing the people and it prompted leaders of the revolution to claim that the tapes were stronger than fighter planes. Ayatollah Shariatmadari, an Iranian Grand Ayatollah urged his follower to refrain from violence. He asked that his people speak their minds but with calm a dignity. In addition to strikes and boycotts, public prayer was one of the many forms of non-cooperation with the regime.

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The Ayatollah

Iranian Shia Muslim religious leader, philosopher, revolutionary and politician.

Iranian Shia Muslim religious leader, philosopher, revolutionary and politician.

Black Friday

Early in the morning on September 8, 1978, martial law was declared in Tehran and eleven other cities across Iran. This declaration was of course ignored, which led to an outbreak of violence that became known as Jommeyeh Siaah: Black Friday. The events of Black Friday were an explosion of years of frustration with the Shahan Shah, the King of Kings, and of the Pahlavi regime. Massive support from the US, huge oil revenues, and an expanded military did not do any good for the citizens of Iran. The country had the ninth largest economy in the world by the end of 1978 as well as the fifth largest army. The SAVAK had swelled to an enormous size and their torture victims are estimated to be in the thousands. In the eyes of Iranians, all this had nothing to do with meeting basic human rights or the opportunity to make a sustainable living. Clashes between protesters and the military happened in bursts on the early morning of Black Friday. Protesters pushed forward, soldiers opened fire, people retreated to the side streets to tend to the wounded, and prepared for the next round.

The main reason behind the large number of fatalities on Black Friday stemmed from the military’s internal confusion. To secure further control, the Shah decentralized the military power but his method backfired. Authorities were unsure of their duties and were unsure of how to deal with protesters. This resulted in a disrupted chain of command, inexperienced soldiers, and an inaccurate measurement of force followed by major civilian casualties. In the end, the reported number of casualties greatly differed between regime supporter provided numbers and that of the opponents.

The more righteous protests of the revolution involved burning down banks, schools, and destruction of any and all government property. Revolutionary literature was regularly posted on city walls. Public spaces became battle grounds of free speech where graffiti and vandalism represented the response to the Shah’s regime. Although protesters were unmatched against the Shah’s massive military forces, civilians came up with alternate ways of retaliating by making Molotov cocktails and throwing rocks. On the final days of the revolution, the anti-Shah rebel groups were finally able to access weaponry. They looted arms from police stations, raided government facilities, and began to station themselves in camps across the city in an effort to defend citizens from army fire. Many protesters that sustained injuries avoided going to a hospital in fear of being arrested. Many doctors and people with medical knowledge compromised their own safety to treat wounded protesters. Sometimes doctors and fellow protesters would transport the injured to nearby homes or other safe places where they could receive medical attention with makeshift supplies.

Burning Photos

Protesters burned photos of the Shah.

Protesters burned photos of the Shah.


In short, The 1979 Iranian revolution stemmed from a number of cultural, political, and personality factors of the Shah regime. Many Iranians were wedded to their Shi’a traditions and had a negative view of the Shah’s reforms. Due to the push for industrialization, peasants were driven from the agrarian lands and filled the slums of cities. Savings vanished, inflation skyrocketed, and civil unrest became a daily occurrence. The bazaaris closed their storefronts, oil workers went on strike, and a chain reaction of strikes in government institutions followed. The universal desire for change impassioned people of all background to unify and join in on the revolution. Half a million protesters marched through the streets of Tehran in early September 1978. Journalists reported they could see nothing but crowds for at least four miles in either direction of the main square. In December of 1978 it was reported that between six and nine million protesters marched throughout Iran over the course of two days, accounting for 10% of the population at the time, setting a record for the largest national involvement in a revolutionary protest. After the months of nationwide strikes, mass protests, arrests, and murders, the Shah was no longer able to fight the will of his own people. He abandoned his throne in January 1979 and left Iran to die of cancer in exile a year later.

Protesters for Miles



Affleck, Ben, Grant Heslov, and George Clooney. 2013. Argo. Neutral Bay, N.S.W.: Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Australia.

Palmer, Monte. 2006. The politics of the Middle East. Belmont, CA, United States: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

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