Why is the Iranian Revolution Successful


Monika Gronke

The Islamic scholar Prof. Monika Gronke has been teaching Islamic and Iranian studies at the Oriental Seminar of the University of Cologne since 1991. Due to numerous publications on the history and culture of the Islamic Orient and the publication of the series "Documenta Iranica et Islamica", she is internationally recognized as a specialist in the history of Iran. In the C.H. Beck Verlag published her book "History of Iran. From Islamization to the Present", new edition in 2016.

With the toleration of the West, Mohammed Reza Shah rose to become the sole ruler from the 1950s onwards. In 1963, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became politically active for the first time, and later became the identity-creating figure of the Islamic Revolution. Monika Gronke summarizes the events.

In 1978 there were repeated large demonstrations against the Shah like here in Tehran. The protesters belong to different political directions. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

British and Soviet troops invaded Iran in August 1941 during World War II. As a result, Reza Shah, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, was forced to abdicate on September 16, 1941 and expelled to South Africa, where he died in 1944. With the approval of the occupying powers Great Britain and the Soviet Union, he was succeeded by his son Mohammed Reza (1919-1980), who cooperated with the Allies and was considered their ally. Mohammed Reza's rule only became truly independent after the end of the occupation in 1946.

At this point in time, the new Shah appears to have been undecided about Iran's political future. Parliament presented a disappointing picture: under his father Reza Schah it had only served as an alibi, but now it has fallen back into party struggles, rendering itself practically incapable of acting. In 1949 an assassination attempt on Mohammed Reza failed. The communist Tudeh Party ("People's Party"), founded in 1941, was accused of the act and then banned. Both - the inability of parliament and the assassination attempt - led the Shah to the conclusion that the state could not be run by democratic means. As a result, Mohammed Reza pursued two goals: on the one hand, to secure his dynasty through an heir to the throne, who was born to him after two divorces from his third wife, and, on the other, to expand his powers at the expense of parliament.

The coup against Mossadegh

As early as 1949, a constitutional amendment authorized the Shah to dissolve parliament. In the same year a House of Lords was created, of which he appointed half of its 60 members. But with the election of the leader of the party alliance of the National Front, Mohammed Mossadegh (1880-1967), as Prime Minister, a conflict with the Shah soon arose. On May 1, 1951, Mossadegh announced the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in order to keep the money from the oil business in the country. The result was a boycott of Iran by almost all international oil companies and a financial crisis in the country. Nevertheless, he received special powers of attorney for twelve months from parliament.

Prime Minister Mossadegh wanted to nationalize Iran's oil industry, for which he was celebrated by his supporters. But in 1953 he was overthrown by parts of the Iranian army and with the help of the American secret service CIA. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Armed with these powers, Mossadegh ordered a land reform that also affected the Shah's inherited lands, which were now under public ownership. The court's budget was cut and the Shah prohibited from negotiating directly with foreign diplomats. Such contacts were now the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After an unsuccessful attempt by Mohammed Reza Shah to remove Mossadegh from his office and the ensuing fighting between supporters of the two opponents, the Shah fled abroad. On August 19, 1953, parts of the Iranian army carried out a successful coup with the help of the US secret service CIA: The US feared an rapprochement between Mossadegh and the Soviet Union. Mossadegh surrendered to the new government of Iran and the Shah returned from exile.

It remains to be seen whether this, as experts occasionally say, was the last - wasted - chance for Iran to maintain a liberal government with parliamentary legitimacy. For many Iranians, it has been clear since then that all important political decisions in Iran were apparently taken from abroad. This was true until the 1979 revolution.

Characteristically, the new prime minister was Fazlollah Zahedi, the general who had led the coup against Mossadegh. He took vigorous action against any possible opposition. In order to get the economy going again, a consortium of nine international oil companies was formed in 1954, which shared the profits with the national Iranian oil company National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). With this income, especially the Iranian army - with the support of the United States - was modernized and enlarged. Also with foreign help, the Shah built up his dreaded secret service SAVAK, which started operating in 1957.

The sole ruler Mohammed Reza Shah

In the years that followed, up to 1962, there were half-hearted attempts at democratization due to US pressure. Ultimately, the Shah rose to become the sole ruler and modernized Iran in his spirit, which essentially meant an alignment with the "West", that is, with Europe and the USA. From this point on, Mohammed Reza spoke of the "White Revolution" when he meant his development program, including an - ultimately unsuccessful - land reform. Against these reform plans, which had initially been supported by the majority of the population, serious unrest broke out in mid-1963 and was brutally suppressed.

The country's religious leaders, the Shiite clergy, played a major role for the first time in this unrest. Above all, the clergy feared the loss of their land holdings, the government's planned dissemination of secular educational content among the rural population and the introduction of women's suffrage.

Likewise, for the first time the most important figure in politics became active in the future: Ayatollah ("Sign of God", a high religious title) Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989). After the Shah cursed the clergy as reactionaries, parasites of the people and British agents, Khomeini replied in a sharp reply. After two short stays in prison, he had to go into exile in Turkey in 1964. From there he immediately went to Nadjaf in Iraq, as many opposition clergymen had done before him. Najaf is one of the holy places of the Shia. In October 1978 Khomeini was expelled from Iraq at the request of the Shah and went to Neauphle-le-Château near Paris, from where he continued to fight the Shah. Audio cassettes with Khomeini's speeches and sermons calling for the overthrow of the Shah were circulating in large numbers alongside leaflets with the same content in Iran.

Both the government and the secret service seem to have initially misjudged the significance of these events. Although the SAVAK also persecuted clergymen in the opposition, a network of connections was formed that consisted of mosques and madrasas (Koran schools), religious discussion groups and religious associations.

The revolutionary movement is growing - the end of the Shah's era

The actual beginning of the Islamic Revolution can be precisely determined: On January 7, 1978, the Tehran daily newspaper Ettela'at published an article in which Khomeini was massively insulted. The author, whose identity is still unknown, probably came from high government circles. As a result, there were numerous demonstrations and protests, which were bloodily suppressed by the police. These processes were repeated over and over again. The security forces were taken by surprise by the large number of protesters from all political backgrounds. The main part of the demonstrations was impoverished rural residents who had moved to the cities in search of better living conditions. The Iranian Revolution was a revolution of the cities, especially the capital. Unsuccessful and uprooted, the impoverished turned to religious circles, which gave them a certain sense of security. It was these poor and disenfranchised who called the Khomeini mostaz'afin, "the weak", and on which he relied urgently.

During mass protests against the Shah, the portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini is shown again and again: for many, he becomes a figure of identification. Khomeini wants an Islamic state, but left groups also participated in the victory of the revolution. (& copy AP)

The Shah himself no longer pursued consistent policy in the face of these events. He reintroduced the Islamic calendar, which he had abandoned in 1976 in favor of a calendar dating back to the beginning of the ancient Iranian Achaemenid Empire (550 BC), released political prisoners and lifted the existing entry restrictions for oppositional Iranians abroad. When Mohammed Reza Shah also admitted in a televised address at the end of 1978 that his government was overshadowed by corruption and cruelty, asked the population for forgiveness and approved the revolution, the army, which might have saved his rule, was morally incapable of acting . Desertions increased; Oppositionists flocked home to Iran from abroad. The Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979, and Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran on February 1.

The return of Ayatollah Khomeini

Khomeini's first step after his arrival in Iran was the dissolution of the transitional government under Shapur Bakhtiyar, which was still set up by the Shah; On February 5, he commissioned the religious engineer Mehdi Bazargan to form a revolutionary government. With this election of a non-clerical technician, Khomeini reassured large circles in the military and business leaders who suspected that the Shiite clergy could seize power.

But Khomeini was faced with an even bigger problem: the left-wing groups in Iran, especially the left, played a major role in the victory of the revolution modjahedin-e khalq ("Volksmodschahedin"), who had fought as a resistance group against the Shah since 1965 and were militarily very efficient. Their leader Mas'ud Radjavi called for fair land reform, the right to freedom of expression and equal rights for women. Other left groups went even further and demanded the nationalization of all factories and the execution of those who had previously been responsible. For Khomeini, whose goal was an Islamic state, it had to look at this point in time as if "his" revolution was turning into a Marxist class struggle.

The Islamic Republic of Iran - by constitution to theocracy

So Khomeini pretended to respond to some demands and increasingly interwoven radical slogans that sounded familiar to left-wing groups in his speeches. At the same time, clergymen were sent to the provinces to give money to the rural poor mostaz'afin, distributed and thus entered into competition with left-wing groups and at least partially suppressed their influence. After these preparations, Khomeini ordered a referendum on March 30, 1979, in which the population was asked to vote for the establishment of an Islamic Republic, which they did with an overwhelming majority - foreseeable in the absence of alternatives.

The Islamic Republic was officially proclaimed on April 1, 1979, and a corresponding constitution was adopted by referendum on December 2. This constitution was drawn up by an assembly of experts, the majority of which were clergymen. According to this constitution, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, i.e. God or the hidden Twelfth Imam as his representative is the sole ruler. The Twelve Shia has been the state religion in Iran since 1501: The basic doctrine of the imam, which assumes a specific chain of twelve imams, i.e. legitimate leaders of the Shiite community. According to the teaching of the Twelve Shia, the Twelfth Imam did not die, but lived in secrecy. He is a redeemer who will one day return and establish a kingdom of righteousness on earth.

Until the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam, the principle of the so-called velayat-e faqih, the "rule of the legal scholar", which was programmatically formulated by Khomeini in his writing Hokumat-e eslami ("The Islamic Government"), comes into force. After that, the leadership of the Shiite community, in this case the state, is taken over by the religious leader in place of the hidden imam.

This convergence of the vicarious role of the clergy in the exercise of actual political rule is not provided for in the traditional Shia, nor is the office of supreme spiritual and political leader of the Khomeini type. The idea of ​​a politically active Shia was new and goes back in principle to Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century.

The constitution gave the religious leader far-reaching powers; Among other things, he determines the guidelines for foreign policy, appoints the army command, the heads of the influential Revolutionary Guards, the members of the Guardian Council. This Guardian Council, which is made up of clerical and secular jurists, monitors, among other things, the conformity of the laws passed by parliament with Islam; On the occasion of presidential and parliamentary elections, the Council reviews the religious-Islamic attitudes of the candidates, which it may refuse admission to if necessary. With the entry into force of this constitution in December 1979, the Islamic Republic became a reality.