by Marc Martorell Junyent

A wall painting of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Source: Felix van de Gein, Flickr

Major historical events are very often unexpected. The fall of the USSR was a case-in-point, but something similar happened with the Iranian Revolution. The images of Khomeini coming back to Iran after 15 years of exile and being cheered by the crowd are undoubtedly some of the most iconic of the twentieth century. However, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which is being commemorated this year, it seems necessary to re-examine why Khomeini was able to take the reins of power soon after his return.

When dealing with the Iranian Revolution, we find at least two misconceptions. The first is that the revolutionary process was restricted to 1979 and the second is that the revolution was uniquely Islamic. The reality is far more complex. The events leading to the fall of the Shah started in January 1978, when a semi-official Iranian newspaper defamed Khomeini and even questioned his religious credentials, enraging the Ayatollah’s supporters.

That the initial spark of the revolution was an attack on Khomeini should come as no surprise. At that time Khomeini was the most charismatic representative of the opposition to the Pahlavi regime, including for the millions of secular Iranians who would later feel he had betrayed their cause. The ensuing revolution was, in the words of the Iranian-born historian Arang Keshavarzian, ‘ideologically inclusive’. Once the Shah fled Iran on 16 January 1979, different forms of government could have replaced the Pahlavi monarchy.

It must be noted, however, that the religious/political faction led by Khomeini started the race for power far ahead of other political groups. This faction, referred to by the renowned historian Ervand Abrahamian as the ‘clerical populist’ grouping, enjoyed several advantages over other forces that had opposed the Shah. One of the factors benefiting the clerical populists was the support of the mainly conservative bazaari (merchant) class, which could provide decisive funding. But probably more important than this was the fact that the clerical populists had an important comparative advantage in their organisational proficiency compared to other power contenders.

The clerical populist group had a clear leader in Khomeini and was not internally divided as was the case for left-wing groups. At the same time, the organisational strength of this Iranian faction also benefited from aspects not directly under its control. During the dictatorship of Reza Pahlavi, the Marxist-Islamist Mojahedine Khalq, the Communist Tudeh Party and the National Front (the left-wing nationalist political party of the deposed former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh) suffered the harshest repression at the hands of the SAVAK secret police. This was in no small part due to the role the US had in creating the Shah’s security apparatus.

At that historical juncture, the main American concern was the fight against global communism. As would be seen in Afghanistan, Washington had no qualms in using the forces of radical Islam in its battle with Moscow. The Shah of Iran, a key US ally in the Middle East, shared this preoccupation with the dangers posed by leftist political activity. At the same time, the Shah, aware of the important role that Shia clerics played in Iranian society, knew that there were limits to the repression he could impose on the clerical class. The mosques often represented a safe haven for the Islamist opposition, which was able to widely distribute tapes of Khomeini’s lectures from exile.

This notwithstanding, major clerical figures such as later President Hashemi Rafsanjani spent years in prison. The difference in the treatment meted out to left-wing opponents of the regime was the severity, with many of the latter sentenced to longer prison sentences or summarily executed. As British historian Vanessa Martin has written, ‘the suppression of the left created an opportunity for Shi’i Islamism’.

When the Pahlavi regime miscalculated and attacked Khomeini in January 1978, it set the Revolution into motion. The Shah had committed a major strategic mistake in so offending the clerical class. Furthermore, he had done so at a time of rising inflation, with a decreasing quality of life for the majority of the Iranian population and consequent weakening of the Shah’s popular support. When the police attacked the Qom seminary – the most prominent site of Shia learning in Iran – to quash the protests against the newspaper article defaming Khomeini, the Shah inadvertently convinced several major clerics that direct action was needed to bring down the man in the Peacock Throne.

History is not predetermined and the face of post-revolutionary Iran could well have been very different. Disunity between the political groups that suffered the most under the Shah’s dictatorship reduced their chances of decisively shaping the post-revolutionary future. At the same time, Khomeini was very adept at concealing the views he espoused in his 1970 work Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist. He had advocated for clerical rule in Iran at that time, and sure enough he was to become the country’s ultimate authority until he passed away in 1989.

After his death it was, however, the clerics that were elected as President – Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani – who were to diverge more radically from Khomeini’s positions, as compared to the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had a professional background as an engineer. Their clerical credentials afforded a certain legitimacy to Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani, and offered them more leeway to pursue reforms. It is difficult to imagine how Mohammad Khatami, in particular, could have avoided the veto of the Council of Guardians when pushing his reformist agenda had he not been an important cleric.

Khomeini found fertile ground in 1979 to establish an Islamic Republic. Four decades afterwards, a young Iranian population may be the motor of gradual change. Over 60 percent of Iran’s 80 million people are under 30 years old. These new generations did not experience the hardships of the Iran–Iraq War and are increasingly connected with the outside world. There is certainly the possibility of a split between the reformist and pragmatist political factions that could facilitate the conservatives regaining the presidency in 2021. However, the dynamics that portend change within Iran have come to stay. Change does not need to imply revolution, so it remains to be seen whether these dynamics will lead to reform.


Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate in International Relations. His research is focused on the politics, economy and history of the Middle East and North Africa (particularly Iran). He has studied and worked in Ankara, Istanbul and Tunis. He is the author of the blog A Non-Orientalist Review and tweets at @MarcMartorell3

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