Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Consequences of the Iranian Revolution

Steve Muhlberger

Despite the early success of  the religious forces led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, he and his followers were not in complete control.  A variety of opposition forces had existed before the fall of the shah and they continued to exist now.  Even those who favored an “Islamic republic” were not necessarily in favor of Khomeini’s leadership (he was not the only Ayatollah), or even in clerical leadership.  

The confusion of Iranian politics increased not only by post-revolutionary disorder, but by the peculiar and uncertain structure of the government itself.  On one hand, there was a fairly normal republican structure, including an elected president (there was none yet elected in 1979) and a prime minister responsible to an elected parliament.  On the other hand, the constitution gave ultimate authority—but no defined responsibilities—to the supreme jurist.

Khomeini, in fact, made the waters even muddier, by taking, at least ostensibly, a rather hands off attitude to the daily business of government, while reserving to himself the right to disallow the policy of the PM or other ministers.  He did this in an unpredictable manner, which made life for his first, hand-picked PM, Mehdi Bazargan (a pious but modernist layman) miserable.

However, the clerical supporters of Khomeini were determined from the beginning to dominate politics in the new Iran, and implement their uncompromising vision of a new Islamic state under their sole direction.  To do this, they began to create a power structure parallel to the constitutional government.

Elements included:

These various forces (not always in perfect agreement or coordination) worked to destroy or intimidate their political rivals, and to enforce a cultural revolution in Iranian communities (enforcement of Islamic principles and behavior).

Their efforts were comparable to efforts of Ataturk to create a vanguard party, and even more  reminiscent of revolutionary government in Paris during the French revolution, because it was an intolerant government by “revolutionary action” rather than a legal and regular government.
It is hard to say how much Khomeini approved of or directed these efforts.  His implied approval, however, was the ultimate political weapon.

Two events of late 1979 helped push the Iranian Revolution in the direction of a more extreme rejection of all outside influence.

First:  the occupation of the American embassy.  University students  and Revolutionary guards stormed into the embassy on November 4, 1979, and took 60 diplomats and employees of the embassy hostage.  Reason:  Admittance of the shah to the US for medical treatment.   This became both an international and internal crisis.

The occupation became the symbol of  revolutionary fervor, and huge demonstrations denounced the US as the Great Satan (the great adversary) of the revolution, Islam, and God.  The government of Iran (some elements of which had been complicit in the takeover) found it impossible to deal with the US about this situation on a sensible basis.  Indeed, when PM Bazargan met in November with US Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algiers, and was shown on Iranian TV shaking hands with Brzezinski, he was denounced as a sell-out and was forced out of office.   The shadow government was running the show—or at least, the formal government found itself helpless in the face of mobilized Islamic fervor.

Second:  the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   In 1978, the People’s Democratic (communist) Party of Afghanistan took over the country with Soviet support.  But the PDPA found itself unable either to enforce its will in the countryside or contain factionalism within the party.   By late 1979, revolts in the name of Islam were taking place in the mountains, and the various leftist leaders were fighting each other in the capital.  Rather than lose a country that seemed to be turning into a new Soviet satellite, the Soviet Army invaded in December 1979.

In the context of the growth of political Islam, the invasion  had a special significance.  In Iran, Islamic forces had just begun a showdown with one of the superpowers, when, suddenly, right next door, the other superpower intervened to crush the Islamic movement.  Heightened the sense of crisis. In the wider Islamic world, these crises gave special prestige to Iran’s religous movement and others who had a similar orientation.  It was Islamic revolution rather than national revolution.

Inside Iran, the effect was also to bolster the most extreme religious forces in the Revolution.  If it was Islam against the world, it was also the world against Iran.  This justified repression of opposition to the IRP and its allies.  Among other things, a new SAVAK was created, called SAVAMA.

Throughout 1980, the politics of Iran centered on the continuing imprisonment of the Americans from the embassy.  Not everybody was happy with this.   The first president of the Islamic Republic, a man named Abolhassan Bani Sadr, had been elected in 1980.   Like Mehdi Bazargan, he found himself constantly harassed by the radical clerics, who used their majority position in parliament (elected in spring of 1980) to saddle Bani Sadr with a PM he did not want, removed his supporters from offices in the government and the army, and at one point, according to Bani Sadr, collaborated in a coup aimed at him.  All this was played out against the continuing hostage drama, in which the radicals had all the good parts.

In September of 1980, while the hostages were still being held, a new crisis blew up.  Saddam Hussein, the dictatorial president of Iraq, invaded Iran.

At first, Iranian disarray did allow some dramatic gains for Saddam Hussein, and this worked  against the clerics of the IRP.  Bani Sadr, as president and commander-in-chief, was put in the limelight.  This led to the clerics attacking his position within the government, and turned Khomeini against him.  Bani Sadr appealed to the population to resist the dictatorial ambitions of the IRP.  But he had no organization to resist the revolutionary network, and ended up fleeing the country.  Later he was impeached from office.

Although the US hostages were released in January of 1981, Iran, because of the Iraq war, continued to be in crisis.  It lasted until 1988, and was a bloody war on both sides.

By 1982, Iran had driven Iraqi troops from Iran and started a counter-invasion.  In other words, the country was out of danger for 6 years before peace was declared.  Between 1982 and 1988, hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed.

This is clear indication of Khomeini’s radicalism.  He did not want the war at first, but once it started, its successful conclusion was seen as necessary for the spread of true Islam.  (Saddam Hussein as a Sunni ruler of the chief Shiite holy cities, especially the site of Husayn’s tomb.)   Also, war, as usual, bolstered the power of the Iranian state.  This power used to create a clerically dominated Iran where radical Islamic doctrines were enforced.

During the 1980s, despite the losses associated with the war, and despite some occasionally violent infighting between Iranian political groups, the Islamic Republic became the status quo, and not a desperate revolutionary movement.   It was able to survive the death of Khomeini in 1989 without losing its legitimacy

Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued to be considered, and to consider itself, as the banner bearer of Islamic revolution in the world, and as an example to sympathetic forces elsewhere.

It has in fact given practical support to Islamic forces in various parts of the world where Islam seems to be under attack:   Palestine, Bosnia.

It may be though that its symbolic importance is greatest.    One of the most famous acts of Ayatollah Khomeini before he died in 1989 was to publish an edict condemning Salman Rushdie, a British author of Indian Muslim background, to death for his blasphemies against the Prophet in his book, The Satanic Verses.   This put Iran and Khomeini once again on the wrong side of international law, but all in the name of Islam, and in the debates around this action, many Muslims who wouldn't kill anybody or support revolutionary anything were forced into the position of saying, "Well, he has a point."    Khomeini was able to put himself forward as a global symbol of Islam, and present Islam as a clear alternative to the irreligous West.


Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown:  the Islamic Revolution in Iran
Mir Zohair Husain, Global Islamic Politics
Kemal H. Karpat, Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East
Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution
T.E. Vadney, The World since 1945

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.