Iranian Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Iranians overturned twenty-five hundred years of monarchy in a revolution that spanned the period 1978-1980, but in doing so, they established a repressive theocracy.

Summary of Event

Iran in the twentieth century was a mixed story of autocracy, limited reform, economic growth, rising expectations, and revolutions. The revolutions started with a failed effort at constitutionalism in 1905-1906, featured a U.S.-backed coup in 1953, and concluded with a religiously inspired movement in 1978-1979. Pre-1978 revolutions either failed to limit significantly the authority of Iran’s traditional monarch, the shah, or enhanced the shah’s power at the expense of influential merchants, reform politicians, and clerics. Revolutions and coups;Iran Iranian Revolution (1978-1980) Iran;revolution (1978-1980) [kw]Iranian Revolution (Jan., 1978-1980) [kw]Revolution, Iranian (Jan., 1978-1980) Revolutions and coups;Iran Iranian Revolution (1978-1980) Iran;revolution (1978-1980) [g]Middle East;Jan., 1978-1980: Iranian Revolution[03100] [g]Iran;Jan., 1978-1980: Iranian Revolution[03100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan., 1978-1980: Iranian Revolution[03100] [c]Government and politics;Jan., 1978-1980: Iranian Revolution[03100] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Jan., 1978-1980: Iranian Revolution[03100] Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Khomeini, Ayatollah

Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Iran’s clerics held significant, albeit latent, power through their ability to direct the nation’s Shiite Muslims. Long suppressed by the ruling Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), Iran’s religious infrastructure became restive in the early 1960’s. Agitated by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s 1963 White Revolution, which sought to limit their influence further, radical clerics turned to an outstanding religious scholar and opponent of the shah: Ruhollah Khomeini. Already an ayatollah, one of the highest ranks within Shiite Iran’s Muslim community, Khomeini led demonstrations against land reform (which targeted religious holdings), suffrage for women and non-Muslims, and extraterritorial rights for the large numbers of American military personnel involved in modernizing the Iranian army. Drawing thousands of protesters, however, was not enough to halt government actions. Instead, the shah’s military and security services, including the dreaded SAVAK (secret police), crushed the opposition. Rather than make Khomeini a martyr, the government exiled him; during his exile, he lived in Turkey, Iraq, and later France.

Mohammad Reza viewed success over Khomeini as the culmination of his struggle with the deeply conservative clerics. The 1960’s and 1970’s seemed to confirm this view, as the shah discarded what little representative government remained for Iranians, finally creating a one-party state in 1975. With a small support base, and no forum, moderate and secular opponents of the shah became radicalized, and many opted to join the religious party. Shiite clerics, with their clear hierarchy, attracted these people, along with small and midlevel merchants called bazaaris, into a growing opposition.

This opposition gained strength as imperial Iran faced numerous challenges during the early 1970’s. First, the government was inefficient and corrupt, with friends of the shah gaining great benefits from Iran’s oil export bonanza while average Iranians suffered from inflation that came on the heels of all the petrodollars. Second, Iranian nationalists resented the special status enjoyed by the United States, which by 1970 had stationed more than fifty thousand military personnel and civilian advisers inside Iran. Finally, the import of Western culture and ideas, through the large foreign presence and upper-class affluence, was especially disturbing to pious Muslims, who viewed Western ways as corrupting Islam.

The increase in Western influence served as a goad to unite most Shiite clerics against the regime. Good organizers, they obtained resources from bazaari allies, fighters from unemployed laity, and leadership from Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite living in exile, Khomeini had never lost touch with his lieutenants, and he directed a growing force through personal letters and sermons that were mass-distributed on inexpensive audiocassettes. By the late 1970’s, antigovernment actions picked up while the Iranian economy sputtered and the shah’s health declined. Simultaneously, the new president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights broke with previous U.S. policies and requested that the shah’s government make improvements in human rights and civil liberties in Iran.

The active phase of the Iranian Revolution began in January, 1978, when government press attacks on Khomeini led to mass protests in the holy city of Qom. Security forces dispersed the crowds, but only after killing nearly one hundred. This led to further protests and more deaths. Violence cycled up and down as the shah vacillated between policies of reconciliation and repression. Strikes and guerrilla warfare followed as workers and leftist groups joined the clerical revolt. These produced economic disaster, as millions were now standing against the shah.

By the summer of 1978, Iran’s oil production, the nation’s main source of much-needed foreign revenue, was down by 80 percent. Force combined with massive repression might have ended the antigovernment resistance, but except for certain elite units, the Iranian army seemed incapable of violence on that scale. Hoping to preserve some Pahlavi influence, Mohammad Reza abdicated in favor of his son on January 16, 1979, boarded a plane, and left Iran forever.

Although sporadic and sometimes intense fighting continued for a month, the royalists’ hopes ended in February, when Khomeini returned from exile and was greeted as a liberator by the vast majority of Iranians. His lieutenants already dominated the capital, Tehran, and most large cities, and they were quickly extending their authority into the countryside. Concurrently, the new regime purged the armed forces and government of former imperial officials, executing hundreds and tossing many more into prison. An Islamic security force—the Revolutionary Guards—assisted in these actions and quickly grew into a military organization purposely designed to counter the still suspect army.

Now the revolution took a new form as the clerics moved to create an Islamic republic. This goal dovetailed with Khomeini’s desire for religious domination over all aspects of government and culture. It began with a new constitution that made Khomeini the supreme leader—a lifetime appointment. He was now empowered to appoint all government officials and to select half the members of the Guardian Council, a kind of upper house that could veto any action of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament).

Although most Iranians welcomed the monarchy’s demise, significant numbers were equally opposed to its replacement with a theocracy. During 1979-1980, this opposition was the cause of political infighting and violence as the revolution turned on itself. This struggle, just as violent as efforts to depose the shah a year earlier, reduced central authority and allowed many radical groups to prosper. Left-leaning secularists were among these; they fought a guerrilla war against the clerics that led to the assassination of more than one thousand government officials in 1980. Militant students also formed autonomous groups, one of which seized the American embassy and took hostages on November 4, 1979, sparking a 444-day impasse between the United States and Iran. Iran;hostage crisis The two nations broke off diplomatic relations on April 7, 1980, quickly altering their old alliance into an adversarial relationship.

Seemingly at war with itself, and nearly so with the United States, Iran next had to deal with an invasion from Iraq, which began on September 22, 1980. Paradoxically, the hot war with Iraq (which caused approximately one million casualties and lasted nearly eight years), combined with the American embassy hostage crisis, increased support for the Islamic Republic, allowing Khomeini to stabilize his regime and eliminate or silence domestic opposition.


The Islamic Revolution in Iran radically altered that nation’s international standing while making much less change in internal politics. Although the shah was gone, Iranians found that the Islamic Republic could be just as repressive as the old regime. Political debate outside the clerical base was not tolerated, and Iranians were encouraged, indeed coerced, to avoid Western culture. The new government experienced swings as reformist and conservative clerics struggled for power and control, but as Iran entered the twenty-first century, it was still a theocracy at loggerheads with many of its own citizens and much of the First World. Revolutions and coups;Iran Iranian Revolution (1978-1980) Iran;revolution (1978-1980)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Updated ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. A noted authority on Iran presents a well-written account of the revolution and its aftermath. Includes an excellent introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milani, Moshen M. The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy to Islamic Republic. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Provides an intricate look at many aspects of the revolution. Some critics have disagreed with this author’s interpretations while also praising his adroit use of sources and his writing style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Excellent biography by a former Iranian cleric who became head of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Persian Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naraghi, Ehsan. From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution. Translated by Nilou Mobasser. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1994. Iranian sociologist who served as an adviser to the shah describes the end of the shah’s regime, the revolution, and his own time in prisons of the new Islamic Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stempel, John D. Inside the Iranian Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. An examination of the revolution by an American diplomat who served in Iran from 1975 to 1979. Argues that Khomeini was not the shah’s antithesis but “merely his mirror-image in clerical dress.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, Lawrence A. “America Held Hostage. The Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981 and U.S. Iranian Relations.” Magazine of History, May, 2006, 27-30. Presents a useful lesson plan for high school teachers attempting to explain the hostage crisis to their students. Other articles in the same issue look at relations between the United States and other Middle Eastern nations.

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