Tyranny, uprisings, overthrow. Sounds like the American—or French or Russian—revolution. But what likely began as a rebellion of frustrated citizens against a corrupt government quickly became the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Forty years later, the consequences still rumble ’round the world.
Iran, also known as Persia, is part of one of the world’s oldest and formerly largest civilizations. Its history dates from the 6th century B.C.
King Cyrus of Persia was chosen by God in 2 Chronicles 36 to build a temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus established the first Persian dynasty, or line of rulers.
A parade of Persian dynasties followed, each with its own contributions to the Persian way of life. Two later dynasties shaped the fundamentals of modern Iran’s identity. Shia Islam was established as the official state religion. Intense political power was given to the Muslim clergy. These two ideals contributed to the downfall of the final Persian dynasty. They influence present-day politics even now.
The Pahlavi dynasty began in 1925. It had only two rulers. The second, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, ruled from 1941 to 1979 and would be the last shah (king) of Iran. He ended centuries of Persian rulers in part because he abandoned his country’s devotion to Shia Islam.
Pahlavi saw himself as a Persian—not Muslim—ruler. He celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the pre-Islamic Persian empire. He discarded the Islamic calendar for a Persian one. He introduced economic, political, and social reforms, including women’s right to vote. To Western nations, the Shah seemed progressive. To many Iranians, he was anti-Islamic.
BACK TO FUNDAMENTALS
Iranian politician and religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini strongly objected to the Shah and his policies. Khomeini expressed his disapproval publicly. In response, the Shah’s government exiled him in 1964. Khomeini spent almost 15 years outside Iran.
But Iran’s staunch Shia Muslims kept in touch with Khomeini. His supporters grew more disgruntled with Pahlavi and his pro-Western ways.
To bolster his waning authority, the Shah employed ruthless secret police. Arrests, censorship, and torture became commonplace in Iran. Unemployment skyrocketed.
The first official anti-Shah protests began in 1977. Shah Pahlavi cracked down. His attempt to quash the rebellion created more and stronger protests. From afar, Khomeini encouraged the rebels.
In 1979, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last ruling shah, fled Iran. He left others in charge of his government. The Iranian Prime Minister invited Khomeini back.
FROM OUTCAST TO AUTHORITY
The next month, Ayatollah (Shia Muslim religious leader) Khomeini returned from exile. Cheering crowds greeted the triumphant leader of the Iranian Revolution.
Khomeini insisted that a Muslim scholar would lead the new Iranian government. And who better than himself to take control? The new Iran would have a president, legislature, and a prime minister as always. But their rulings would be second to Khomeini’s. He called himself the representative of Iran’s official god, Allah.
To rid the country of lingering opposition, Khomeini created a political party and terrorist group called Hezbollah (hez-BO-luh). His courts applied sharia (shuh-REE-uh) religious laws harshly. Thousands were executed. The people had exchanged one tyrant for another.
In the decades since, the effects of the Iranian Revolution have reached worldwide. They are terrorist attacks, spy operations, nuclear enrichment activities, border breaches, trade embargos, and military strikes. Still today, the United States believes Iran supports Islamist movements in the Middle East, including training warriors intent on jihad—“holy war” against enemies of Islam.
Iran’s past is full of greed, idolatry, and violence—as is all of human history. It’s good to remember that all were sinners at war with God. (1 Corinthians 6:11) The one true God alone can redeem such stories.
A timeline of key moments leading up to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. Embassy hostage crisis:
UNREST AHEAD OF THE SHAH’S DEPARTURE
—Jan. 7, 1978—Religious riots break out in the city of Qom. Seven demonstrators are killed, setting off a cycle of anti-Shah violence.
—Aug. 1 —Hundreds die in an intentionally set fire at a cinema in the southern city of Abadan. Authorities and the opposition blame each other for the fire.
—Sept. 8—100,000 anti-Shah demonstrators stage a protest march in the Iranian capital. Troops open fire on demonstrators in the capital’s Jaleh Square, killing 121 and wounding 200.
—Sept. 11—U.S. President Jimmy Carter calls on the Shah to reaffirm the “close, friendly relationship” between the United States and Iran.
—Oct. 31—Iran’s oil workers begin strikes that reduce production from five million barrels daily to a trickle and cause U.S. gas prices to soar.
—Nov. 6—The Shah pledges that “past mistakes of unlawfulness, cruelty, and corruption will not be repeated.”
—Nov. 13—Anti-Americanism intensifies. An exodus of American citizens in Iran begins.
—Nov. 25—From Paris, Khomeini calls for resistance against the Shah’s “illegal” military government.
—Dec. 10—Anti-Shah demonstrations take place. An estimated 300,000 to two million people take part in a peaceful march.
—Dec. 24—U.S. Marines fire tear gas at a mob trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
—Jan. 1, 1979—The Shah appears before reporters saying he “would love” to go on vacation “if the situation permits.”
—Jan. 13—Khomeini announces from Paris the formation of a revolutionary council to prepare for an “Islamic Republic.”
—Jan. 16 —The Shah departs Iran, never to return.
REVOLUTION AND THE HOSTAGE CRISIS
—Feb.1—Khomeini returns to Iran.
—Feb. 10—Islamist and leftist guerrillas battle imperial guard troops, forcing the Shah’s troops to retreat with heavy losses.
—Feb. 16—Execution by firing squad of four top generals, including the former head of the Shah’s secret police.
—March 5—Iran resumes oil exports for the first time since anti-Shah labor strikes shut down oil production.
—March 30—Millions of Iranians vote “yes” in a referendum on replacement of the monarchy with an Islamic revolutionary regime.
—Aug. 3—Iranians elect a clergy-dominated 73-member Assembly of Experts to draft a new constitution.
—Oct. 23—The Shah enters the United States and is admitted to a New York City hospital to undergo treatment for cancer.
—Nov. 4—Militant Iranian students overrun the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They take hostages, including 52 Americans, demanding the extradition of the Shah.
IRAN HOSTAGE CRISIS
After leaving Iran, Shah Pahlavi entered the United States for cancer treatment. Iran demanded his returned to stand trial. The United States refused. Iran saw this as U.S. support of the Shah and his rule.
On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian Muslim college students took over the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Tehran. The group held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days—until January 20, 1981. The incident is the longest hostage crisis in recorded history and likely cost then-President Jimmy Carter a second term.
Iranians viewed the hostage crisis as a revolt against U.S. influence in Iran. Pro-Muslim revolutionaries believed America undermined the Iranian Revolution and supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The crisis reached a climax after diplomatic negotiations failed to win release for the hostages. U.S. rescue attempts failed. Finally, just hours after President Ronald Reagan took office, Iran released the hostages on January 20, 1981.