The 1979 Revolution: Victory goes to Khomeini

Revolutionary figure, Ayatollah Khomeini, is one of the most influential political figures of the twentieth century. Imagine the roaring crowds of up to five million passionate Khomeini supporters welcoming his return after 14 years of exile on the 1st of February 1979. Now imagine the manner Khomeini would have chosen to have carried out his political sentiments against the monarchy of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. Like a tidal wave that affects everything in its path, Khomeini’s political vogue mobilised a strong united force of many Iranians against the Shah. Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic on April the 1st  1979 and to approve a new theocratic constitution whereby Khomeini emerged as the Supreme Leader of Iran in December 1979. How did Khomeini invoke such a strong desire for an Islamic republic amongst the vast majority of Iranians?

Game on: Khomeini VS. the Shah

Let’s pause and think about the common perceptions of Khomeini. Perhaps a stern forbidding cleric whose imagination was frozen in time might suit. However, this perception does not explain his enormous popularity. In reviewing Khomeini’s political conquest we come to see a man whose movements were achieved with a remarkable level of intelligence and tactical dexterity. Viewing Khomeini as a man who strategically capitalised upon the state of the Shah’s political affairs provides us with a deeper understanding of Khomeini’s victory. The revolution in part was a conservative backlash against the increasingly westernising efforts of the Western backed Shah and a liberal backlash to social injustice. Borrowing his ideas from leftist ideologues, Khomeini utilised modern technologies to perpetuate his message whilst remaining vague about his objects. From 1963, the Shah’s relationship with the United States intensified which also seemed to provide the foundations for Khomeini’s public denouncements.

Strike 1: The White Revolution Crisis

The 1963 White revolution crisis offered Khomeini the perfect opportunity to claim the leadership of anti-Shah Forces. With fears of Soviet rise, the Kennedy administration placed increasing pressure on the Shah to modernise at a faster pace in introducing a series of political, social and economic reforms collectively recognised as the White revolution. An American diplomat sighted the Shah as an anxious man when American diplomats urged him to modernize at a pace faster than his careful crawl. The fraudulent referendum results of 1963 that returned with a hardly credible 99% in favour, provided Khomeini with the perfect opportunity to condemn the Shah’s program. The John F. Kennedy administration had an immense role in the transformation of Khomeini from a bit player to the chief protagonist in leading the revolution. Denouncing the Shah as “America’s puppet”[1], Khomeini moved to issue a manifesto that held the signatures of eight other senior Iranian Shiite scholars which listed the Shah’s submission to the U.S and Israel, violation of the constitution and condemned the spread of moral corruption. The Shahs White revolution created the ideal conditions to stage  larger and more reactionary verbal stand offs against the Shah.


Strike 2: Khomeini’s speech on the day of Aushra

One of the most explicit and obvious events in which Khomeini directly took advantage of the state of the Shah’s political affairs in conjunction with cleverly intertwining Islamic heroes is Khomeini’s speech issued on the climax of Muharram, the day of Aushra. Muharram is a period where Shiite Muslims commemorate the events that took place in the battle of Karbala. An army of 30,000 was mobilized by the Umayyad regime, besieged Imam Hussein, the grandson of the holy prophet Mohammad, and 71 of his loyal companions forcing them to pay allegiance to the corrupt caliph Yazid and submit to his authority. The group resisted which saw a serve battle in which the Imam and all his companions were killed.  For Shiite Muslims, Muharram represents the greatest tragedy where they believe Imam Hussein stood for a noble cause in the defence of Islam and was killed in such a cruel manner.

Khomeini’s speech drew parallels between the tyrant Yazid and the Shah. Khomeini branded the Shah as the “new Yazid”[2] with the crowd often chanting “death with the Yazid regime.”[3] Khomeini referred to a number of preachers in Tehran forcibly being taken by the Shah’s security organisation and ordered not to publicly criticise the Shah, not to evoke anti-Israeli movements or publicly express that endangerment of Islam. Khomeini questioned the Shahs links with foreign forces asking “does the SAVAK mean that the Shah is Israeli, Mr Shah, do you want me to say that you don’t believe in Islam and kick you out of Iran?”[4] Khomeini strategic speech on the day of Aushra proved to work in his favour. The next day copies of Khomeini’s speech appeared on the walls of holy shrines and an Islamic college where thousands gathered to read and discuss. Khomeini’s popularity only continued to grow.

Result: Khomeini’s victory

Khomeini’s victory is linked to his capitalisation on the state of the Shah’s political affairs from 1963.

[1] Mottanhedeh, R. “Iran’s Foreign Devils”. Foreign Policy, no,8 (1980)

[2] Abrahamian, A. “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution”, Radical History Review, no. 105 (2009) p.37

[3] Abrahamian, A. “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution”, Radical History Review, no. 105 (2009) p.37

[4] Hiro, D. Iran under the Ayatollahs. 1ed. USA: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1985, p.46

5 comments on “The 1979 Revolution: Victory goes to Khomeini

  1. sa41321782 says:

    I researched the Iranian Revolution for my project too, though from a US-perspective, so this was a particularly interesting read for me, roya300. What I found was that the Shah did little to help himself from being deposed – assuming that the US could have helped somehow – as he never let on to his American allies how strong the opposition was. It’s difficult to tell from the sources I read whether this was in an effort to save face with his allies in the US or because he was simply unaware of the strength of the opposition himself – though that hardly seems likely considering the numbers that showed their support for Khomeini when he returned from exile!

  2. Mike Nugent says:


    Your study of the Iranian revolution was certainly quite illuminating. The idea that Khomeini was able to draw upon an historical narrative of Mohammed is fascinating. I like the way you’ve characterised it as a struggle between Khomeini and the Shah.

    This leads me to my question of you; would you characterise the successful Iranian revolution as a success by Khomeini, or a failing of the Shah?

    Thanks for a great read!

  3. bm says:

    Thanks for this – this was a really good read.

    It’s interesting how Western collusions to suppress democratic alternatives to the Shah’s rule from the 1950s negated any sort of choice by the 70s, where the only opposition was a cluster of weak but resilient leftist groups and Khomeini’s own, much more powerful Shia movement. Khomeini may not have succeeded, given the influence of a Mosaddegh-esque leader, but there really was no option – it was either Khomeini or the status quo.

    Did you come across the Iranian women’s movement in your research? The feminist movement was closely associated with the Shah – his wife being a prominent leader – and the Western powers that supported him (Betty Friedman famously visited Iran in 1972). Its ideals/agenda were exploited by both the Shah and Khomeini et al – the former to suppress religious opposition, and the latter to uplift rural areas/ seek the support of conservative Iranian women against leftist opposition. Its gains weren’t really realised until 1979…

    Have you read ‘Shah of Shahs’ by journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski? It’s not ‘history’ and some might fault his work for that reason (the facts shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve read into it), but it provides a very human, oft ignored insight into the everyday actors of the Revolution. It’s a very breezy, well-written read!

  4. lauraj11190 says:

    I have also studied the Iranian Revolution for other subjects and thoroughly enjoyed your evaluation of Khomeni’s rise to power. The Shah’s relationship with America and the modernization which the White Revolution entailed were definately key aspects of the revolution and of Khomeni’s success and think that your evalutaion of this period was well artivulated! I also loved your analysis of Khomeni’s speech and its impact on creating a public groundswell. This is an aspect of the Revolution which I had not previously considered so it was incredibly interesting to read.
    Khomeni was obviously instrumental in overthrowing the Shah’s regime and establishing the Islamic Republic but I wonder whether the Revolution would have occured if he had not been involved. It would be interesting to consider what other opposition to the Shah existed at the time and whether there would still have been support for a regime change without Khomeni’s involvement.
    Just food for thought! 🙂

  5. jessazar says:

    The Islamic revolution of Iran is of great interst to me, I have done quite a bit of reading on this subject and it has been the basis for a number of projects throughout high school and uni so this post was a very interesting read for me! When I had previously studied the revolution I approached it from a slightly different angle, I was fascinated by the fact that women were in support of a revolution which I felt was inherently anti-feminist. My main area of focus was ‘Why did women support the revolution?’…is this something you have any insight or ideas on? I’d love to know what you think 🙂

    Khomeini’s ideological beliefs and his interpretation of Islam, the way in which he put his religious beliefs into practice are absolutely fascinating (and often disturbing), it would have been great to have read a little more about that in this post however there were some excellent ideas presented here regardless!

    I especially enjoyed your take on the Kennedy Administration as it is not something I had focused on at all in my own research on this topic. You have obviously done a thorough job at researching and analysing key events and know this topic well.

    Great read, thanks!

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