The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a pivotal moment in revolutionary history. A multiclass opposition overthrew an autocratic ruler, leading to the establishment of a theocratic state. This outcome contrasts sharply with other modern revolutionary movements, which have been fought in the name of nationalism or socialism and which have concluded with the transfer of power to a secular, modernizing intelligentsia. The causes of the Iranian Revolution are numerous, with many different groups in the opposition claiming different grievances and hoping for different outcomes. However, by the height of the revolution, they had all mobilized behind the calls for freedom, justice, and liberty espoused by the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. ‘Fourth Generation’ theories are effective in explaining the sources of revolutionary grievances held by the Iranian people and how the opposition successfully mobilized. One theory in particular, George Katsiaficas’s “Eros Effect,” explains why and how an opposition of such diverse groups with varied claims managed to consolidate, mobilize, and enable the establishment of a theocratic regime.
The Iranian Revolution has been called a “revolution for every theory”, and indeed many scholars have tried to analyze it through various theoretical lens (Parsa 3). It featured an organized alliance of opposition groups, each with their own distinct grievances and revolutionary goals. That revolutionary discontent was incited by numerous factors makes it difficult to pinpoint a single root cause, thereby limiting the capacity for ‘Third Generation’ revolution theories to adequately analyze it. However, elements of the ‘Fourth Generation’ of theories help provide context to the revolutionary discontent which erupted between 1977 and 1979. Of particular importance are critiques of state intervention and consolidation in the economy and theories about solidarity movements. These theories help explain why so much of Iranian society became dissatisfied with the Shah’s regime, and how the collective organization and action which toppled his regime came into being.
One particular theory of the ‘Fourth Generation,’ George Katsiaficas’s “Eros Effect,” lends itself well to an analysis of the Iranian Revolution. The “Eros Effect” refers to the transcendental qualities of social movements. As basic assumptions about the nature and structure of government and society begin to vanish, a new way of life and imagining politics begins (Katsiaficas 1). As more people begin to recognize the collapse of the old ways of life and the possibility for new ways emerges, they initiatively mobilize for action (Katsiaficas 8). Between 1977 and 1979, as the Shah’s state began to collapse under the pressure of the opposition, a growing number of Iranians began to associate with the calls for a re-imagined political and social reality being put forth by revolutionary leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini. Recognizing the possibility for a new way of life, the masses mobilized and joined the opposition, eventually providing enough revolutionary momentum to topple the Shah.
The Iranian Revolution occurred between 1977 and 1979, beginning with a series of demonstrations and ending with the overthrow of the Shah. However, the causes of revolutionary discontent can be traced back decades, and must first be analyzed. Poor living conditions during the Shah’s rule and events such as the 1963 rebellion contributed heavily to the widespread disillusionment which would erupt in 1977. Serious issues such as abject poverty, wealth inequality, high taxes, and rising interest rates plagued most in Iran following World War Two and were already a source of discontent (Keddie 120) In 1953, a coup d’état backed by the United States deposed the democratically elected, nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose father ruled Iran leading up to World War Two but was deposed by the Soviets, was instated as Shah.
Quickly, the Shah and those around him were determined to ally with the West and try to develop the Iranian economy along Western lines (Keddie 135). Mosaddegh’s overthrown was a source of much opposition throughout Iran. When overthrown, he was in the process of nationalizing the oil industry, a highly popular and heavily supported move, and was beginning to address structural issues within Iranian society. The coup organized against him and the Shah’s subsequent courting of the West drew nationalistic ire from many. The government was seen as being a pawn of the West, which was unfairly exploiting Iran (Keddie 135). Throughout the early 1960s, elections to the parliament were rigged, stirring popular discontent. In 1961, strikes were threatened across Iran, and in Tehran schoolteachers demonstrated in front of the parliament building demanding higher pay. Violence broke out during the strike, and two teachers were killed. As the situation intensified, rumors began circulating of a possible military coup or serious royal concessions. To stabilize the situation, the Shah asked Ali Amini, a member of the independent opposition, to form a government. Amini agreed, but only if parliament was suspended (Keddie 142).
Amini’s opposition to past governments under the Shah gave him some credibility with opposition groups, and the suspension of parliament at first pleased the opposition. However, he felt that strong government and the seriously needed land reform was only possible during a period of rule without elections, and the Shah agreed. When new elections weren’t called, Amini began to be seen as ruling by decree, dissipating most support he controlled. Demonstrations were held, and in July 1961 a demonstration resulted in the arrest of several leaders of an oppositional group called the National Front, and strong restrictions were placed on National Front political activities (Keddie 144). In November, a royal decree allowing the government to legislate by decree without a parliament brought further pro-election agitation. In January 1962, a major riot by Tehran University students, using National Front slogans, was brutally suppressed by the police and the army. The government arrested numerous rightist opposition figures in response (Keddie 144).
In January, Amini devoted himself seriously to implementing a land-reform decree. However, he resigned in July when the Shah refused to reduce the army budget. The new prime minister, an old time friend of the Shah, met with National Front leaders. Their requests for free elections and other freedoms were refused. In response, the National Front created a new unified central council December of 1962 and began open attacks on the shah. Most of the council and many National Front leaders were arrested shortly thereafter. The Shah announced the major land reform in 1963, calling for a national plebiscite on a combined six-point reform program. It included land reform, sale of government-owned factories to finance the land reform, a new election law including woman suffrage, the nationalization of forests, a national literacy corps, and a plan to give workers a share of industrial profits. The program, called the “White Revolution,” was passed overwhelmingly by the public in January, though rumors circulated about vote rigging (Keddie 145).
A large opposition movement led by the ulama rose in response to the “White Revolution”. The ulama is the religious establishment in Iran, a group of clerics with great influence over society and which had historically been tied to the landowning elite class. While leading ulama in Iran had been relatively pro-Shah since Mosaddeq’s overthrow because they feared the rise in secularist and communist power under Mosaddeq, the economic and political crisis of the past years had increased open opposition to the regime and to its subservience to Western groups (Keddie 146). Most of the clergy opposed the reforms. The majority opposed land reform, as land belonging to mosques and religious institutions was slated to be confiscated. Others opposed the vote for women (Parsa 192). Among the ulama opposition, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeinin had emerged as a key antigovernment spokesman. From his pulpit in Qum he expressed uncompromising opposition to the Shah’s absolutism and foreign influence, denouncing the United States as “an enemy of Islam in all its policies, this hostility being particularly apparent in its support for Israel and the nature of its influence in Iran” (Esposito 20). He denounced the reform as an attack on Islam and the clergy.
The “White Revolution” became a source of dissent for other groups, as well. Land reform undercut landlord political power to benefit the central government but produced large numbers of independent farmers and landless laborers with no feelings of loyalty to the Shah. While their support towards the increasingly corrupt government withered, their loyalty to the clergy, seen as more concerned about the fate of the people, increased. The reform’s economic ‘trickle-down’ strategy further concentrated money in the hands of the top elites instead of distributing it throughout society, thereby exacerbating the wealth inequalities in Iran. The government reduced credit to the bazaars, which had been experiencing bankruptcy on a widening-scale (Parsa 50). Instead of increasing stability and class loyalty to the Shah, the “White Revolution” united the people against him.
In March of 1963, Khomeini’s madrasa was attacked by government forces and he was arrested. Released after a short period of detention, he resumed his denunciations of the government and its policies. He was arrested again on June 4th, an important Shiite holiday, after delivering a scathing criticism of the regime. Upon hearing the news, religious processions in Tehran turned into violent demonstrations (Keddie 147). These demonstrations spread to the university and to other cities around Tehran and were only suppressed after several days, with loss of life in the hundreds. Khomeini was released in August, but later circulated pamphlets strongly denunciating the parliament when it passed a bill granting diplomatic immunity to American military personnel and advisers and agreed to a $200 million loan from the US for military purchases. As a result, Khomeini was exiled to Turkey in 1964 and went to Iraq in 1965. It was from here that he taught and spoke, with his words being distributed and spread into Iran through writings or cassettes (Keddie 148).
The rebellion in 1963 failed because of the weakness of opposition organizations from the repression that followed the 1953 coup. Participants in the action consisted primarily of segments of bazaars, or marketplaces, and the urban poor. Students did not join the demonstrators, and, more importantly, white-collar employees, professionals, and industrial workers did not go on strike. In the face of a weak and disorganized opposition, the regime was able to crush it and demobilize the regime’s opponents (Parsa 51). Still, the rebellion was an important harbinger of things to come. It demonstrated that collective action could be taken against the Shah, and that serious discontent was beginning to surface in parts of Iranian society. It revealed to members of the opposition that more effort needed to be placed on solidarity and the consolidation of their movements. After these riots, there was to be deeper cooperation between religious and nationalist opponents of the Shah both within Iran and among students and exiles abroad (Parsa 50). However, the rebellion also increased repression within Iran, and many oppositional groups were driven underground or into exile. This would be of enormous importance later, because it left the mosques and bazaars as the only organizations through which the opposition could organize and mobilize in the Iranian Revolution.
Of greater importance, however, is that the rebellion began Khomeini’s unwavering criticism of the regime. Exile rendered Khomeini more invulnerable to repression. Throughout his time in exile, he continued to issue political statements and give speeches on political matters. He began sending great numbers of letter to the clergy and Iranian students which attacked the Shah’s dictatorship, the government’s violation of Islamic principles, and the imperialist pillage of Iranian national resources. He refused to accept the inevitability of the existing situation and consistently called for the monarchy’s overthrow (Parsa 217). This would propel him to a position of prominence and leadership during the Revolution. He successful projected himself as a progressive and open-minded revolutionary during exile, making him attractive to sections and groups in Iranian society who might otherwise equate him with reactionary clergymen (Irfani 162). As he represented popular unity, members of the opposition began to align and organize themselves behind his movement. This would have vital importance during the mobilization and collective actions of the revolution.
Through the analytical lens of Katsiaficas’s “Eros Effect” theory, the rebellion of 1963 also has significant importance. Katsiaficas writes that, “the eros effect postulates that popular movements spontaneously internalize new levels of activity which previous episodes of revolutionary struggle already developed, thereby explaining why newly emergent movements have continually identified with their predecessors” (Katsiaficas 8). The revolution in 1979 continued the struggle that began in 1963, drawing largely off the same popular grievances which had incited it. The movement in 1979 drew from organizational alliances that formed during the 1963 rebellion between the secular and religious opposition, and put into practice revolutionary methods such as protests, demonstrations, and religious processions that were unsuccessfully attempted in 1963. Participants in the 1979 revolution saw themselves continuing the struggle which had failed a decade earlier.
In the years between 1963 and 1977, the regime embarked upon a policy of rapid economic development through state intervention in capital allocation and accumulation. While Iran’s GDP grew at impressive rates, housing shortages and considerable social and economic equalities grew because of rushed development programs (Parsa 54). Agriculture was neglected, resulting in a deterioration of conditions for the peasantry. Inflation threatened portions of the working and middle classes dependent on fixed income. Housing policies jeopardized the working class and shantytown dwellers. Allocation policies paid little attention to less developed regions and regional inequalities were magnified as a result. Meanwhile, the upper class controlled a disproportionate amount of the state’s wealth (Parsa 85). Opponents of the regime proclaimed that the Shah’s reforms and economic policies benefited mainly the rich without making necessary structural changes to Iranian society (Keddie 149).
State intervention into the economy was a major cause of the 1979 revolution, and has thus been a focus of scholarly analysis. States with control over the economy become the primary vehicle for distributing wealth, and are often the major wealth holder. As such, they affect all aspects of social and economic life. In the case of Iran, state-sponsored development policies adversely affected the working classes and eventually polarized the population (Parsa 21). The state limited and politicized market and economic issues, making it vulnerable to attack by adversely affected classes and groups that have consolidated their forces and that are able to seize state power (Parsa 13). Given the subordination of market forces and the entire private sector to the state, the Shah could not avoid being blamed for adverse policies and conditions. The contradictions in Iranian society and the poor conditions most Iranians lived in were seen as his fault. As such, the wide array of grievances held by different sections of the Iranian population could be consolidated and targeted against the state. Meanwhile, economic organizations and actors, such as the bazaars, could mobilize against the state and the Shah as a response to their economic policies. This would later set in motion the widespread mobilization that would eventually topple the Shah.
Other events during these years also contributed to growing popular discontent. Using oil revenue brought in by the oil boom, the Shah began purchasing massive amounts of up-to-date and sophisticated military equipment from abroad. The allocation of these funds towards the military, instead of towards resolving the problems in Iranian society, was a source of opposition to the regime (Keddie 164). Foreign contractors took over key positions in the economy, further contributing to the opposition’s nationalist sentiments. To celebrate the mythical 2,5000th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, the Shah put on a massive and opulent celebration. The discrepancy between the seemingly unlimited wealth of the Shah and the poverty of most of his subjects revealed to most the contradictions in Iranian society (Keddie 167). In 1975, the Shah announced that all legal political parties would be merged into a single party. Membership was required of most government and university employees. This greatly disturbed the liberal bourgeois elements of society, which saw it as a further erosion of political liberties (Keddie 166). Also in 1975, a Family Protection Law was passed which introduced a number of reforms in marriage, divorce, and family law, which had until then been strictly based on Islamic law. This greatly upset the religious community, and alienated much of the moderate ulama which had still supported the regime (Keddie 167).
Long years of economic malaise and repressed desires for political freedom had set the stage for potential turmoil. In early 1977, spurred by Jimmy Carter’s campaign promises of championing the cause of universal human rights and cutting back arms sales to Third World countries, members of the old opposition began to speak out against the regime’s alleged wrongdoings (Amuzegar 242). Throughout the spring, opposition voices became louder and more poignant. Still, until the end of 1977, the opposition’s campaigns against the regime took a largely nonviolent format. (Amuzegar 245).
The impact of the international environment on a country’s domestic conditions, and revolutionary movements, has often been studied by scholars of revolution. The interaction between the international environment and a country experiencing a revolutionary moment may spark, impede, or assist the outcome of that moment. Jack Goldstone, in his analysis on ‘Fourth Generation’ theories, noted that often “it is the absence of intervention or the withdrawal (or threatened withdrawal) of ongoing support for a regime that allows a revolutionary movement to grow” (Goldstone 7). This was clearly the case in the beginning stages of the Iranian Revolution. Carter’s concern for global human rights spread the perception that support for the Shah was diminishing and inspired intellectuals and other members of the opposition to begin calling into question the Shah’s regime. Though the opposition was at this stage peaceful and limited, it brought again to the surface the discontent and grievances harbored by the Iranian people for decades. The stage was being set for a more violent and widespread uprising.
In mid-1977, to combat growing inflation, the Shah appointed Jamshid Amuzegar as prime minister, and a deflationary program was launched immediately (Keddie 164). As part of the program, bazaaris faced fines, banishment, and prison sentences for profiteering and price violations. This measure did much damage to private entrepreneur’s confidence, the country’s investment climate, and the bazaars waning loyalty to the regime. The deflationary program also brought a sudden growth in unemployment, especially among the unskilled and skilled. The combination of inflation, shortages, large income-distribution inequalities, and other sources of dissent contributed to an ever growing popular discontent (Keddie 164).
The deflationary program set in motion the mobilization of Iranian society which would eventually topple the Shah. At this point, the theory of collective action must be addressed, as it lends itself well to an analysis of the build up towards revolution. Collective action such as mobilization, demonstrations, and protests result from the pursuit of common interests by adversely affected groups (Parsa 13). For such action to take place, victimized groups must identify an entity responsible for their suffering. In the case of Iran, the Shah became that target. Groups seek out organizations in existence for mobilization, as they can provide ready-made networks and channels of communication to coordinate various protest activities. Conflict is likely to escalate when a group has appropriate resources for broadcasting the government’s use of violence and sustaining mobilization and collective action (Parsa 24). In countries were high levels of social and economic inequalities exist, such as pre-revolution Iran, the majority of the population experiences a common condition of exploitation and injustice. They thus find it easier to form alliances and consolidate against the ruling minority (Parsa 25).
The policies instituted in the deflationary program set the stage for intense conflict between the state and the bazaars. They reduced divisions in the bazaar and, combined with a slight reduction in repression, allowed mobilization to occur. After all, most bazaaris were free of ties to the government, which might have made them hesitate to join a really revolutionary movement (Keddie 227). The bazaars began to mobilize in late 1977. As a more traditional segment of society, members of the bazaar were closely tied to the ulama, and their struggles were soon channeled through the mosque because government repression left no other option for mobilization (Parsa 29). From this point forth, the bazaars and the mosques provided key organizational and financial support to the anti-regime demonstrations and strikes which would occur through 1978 and 1979. Regime suppression against the nationalist and leftist opposition had made those groups ineffective and unable to mobilize the population (Parsa 216). As Parsa noted, groups turn to organizations that are able to provide ready-made networks and channels of communication. This was available in the form of the bazaar and the mosque. Mosques provided a national network for mobilization and a safe place for gathering and, through sermons and religious processions, communication. That the opposition coordinated and mobilized through these organizations would have a serious influence on the character and outcome of the revolution.
In early 1978, an article was posted in the newspaper Ettela’at entitled “Iran and Red and Black Colonialism,” which called into question Ayatollah Khomeini’s nationality, character, and patriotism. The article angered the militant clergy and leftist armed guerrilla supporters, and in response they organized street demonstrations set to occur in Qum on January 8th through their mosques and the bazaars. These demonstrations turned violent, with security forces shooting into the crowd, and several people were killed. Condemnations of the Qum killings came from the entire Shiite hierarchy, including much of the silent, moderate majority of clergy. In no previous political rebellion against the government was the religious establishment so closely unified. The Qum incident thus began to unify the fragmented clerical factions, preventing potential splits which might have undermined the consolidation of opposition (Amuzegar 248). For followers of Khomeinin, it provided a magnificent opportunity to unify city and village mullahs across the country in defense of Islam. For university students, intellectuals, and the secular opposition, Qum demonstrated the people’s readiness to risk their lives in opposition to the Shah’s rule. For undecided moderates, the incident demonstrated the regime’s vulnerability to a nationwide rebellion and undermined the Shah’s legitimacy (Amuzegar 249). However, the incident at Qum and mobilization through the mosques and bazaars also swung the initiative in protest movements from the secular forces to the religious led opposition. By this point, the religious opposition appealed to far larger numbers than did the secular liberals (Keddie 225).
According to the Shiite customs, memorial services are held forty days after a person’s death. The ulama and bazaar leadership, sensing their new power and the grievances of their constituency, used the forty-day ritual to organize massive demonstrations. The forty-day interval gave the organizations a much-needed hiatus to regroup forces, spread the word orally, bring people together almost automatically without the need to argue about date and place, and to utilize ritual emotion to intensify opposition to the regime (Keddie 226). On February 18, memorial services began in various different cities throughout the country and quickly turned into protests against the Shah and in support of Khomeini. In most cities the protests were peaceful and ended by police, but in the city Tabriz, a full riot broke out after a protester was shot dead. Crowds rampaged through the city setting on fire anything considered un-Islamic, and attacked and burned state buildings, banks, and a Rastakhiz party hall (Amuzegar 248). The Tabriz incident was the first well-planned and efficient defiance of the regime, demonstrating the government’s total lack of preparation to face a hostile crowd. The opposition, by attacking symbols of affluence as sinful and immoral, added a crucial religious motive to its objectives of fairness, justice, and freedom. A firm alliance was forged between the clergy and the radical left for the first time (Amuzegar 248). The incident also demonstrated the growing role of young males, especially students organized by the ulama, in the opposition.
As mentioned, the incident at Qum and popular mobilization through the bazaars and mosques gave the revolutionary initiative to the religious opposition. In turn, Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence and popularity grew. For the urban poor, Khomeini and his words were supreme guides, and his lectures were widely distributed through the bazaars of the major cities. As revolutionary enthusiasm and activity grew, Khomeini’s refusal to make any compromise with the monarchy and his implication that problems could be solved by a return to Islamic ways had increasing appeal to the masses (Keddie 232). Members of the moderate clergy who argued for reform began to align with him, as they were bound to lose influence to his more uncompromising positions during a revolutionary moment (Irfani 162). With the rapid pace that the revolutionary movement was undertaking action, no political organization was capable of assuming leadership. Only the clergymen, given their national organizational networks, direct contact with people, and the uncompromising leadership of Khomeini, appeared to present the only possible avenue for leading the movement.
As such, Khomeini soon took on the character of a national revolutionary leader. His successful blending of politics and religion in an anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial framework made his leadership attractive and acceptable to the various sections of society. His calls for a new society built around Islamic principles coupled with “freedom, liberty, and justice” became the new way of life many Iranians imagined would emerge from the revolution. Goldstone pointed out numerous methods through which elites could become associated with the character of a revolution. He stated that elites must create a protest identity and protest grievances, which need to be seen “not merely as miserable conditions but as a direct result of the injustice and the moral and political failings of the state, in sharp contrast to the virtue and justice of the opposition” (Goldstone 15). Khomeini succeeded in this through his persistent and unwavering attacks on the Shah and his calls for a just Islamic state brought about by the opposition’s efforts. Additionally, elites must link up with popular mobilization through the organizations coordinating and supporting that mobilization (Goldstone 13). Khomeini succeeded in this because of his ties to the mosque and its ties to the bazaar, which allowed his rhetoric and ideas to be spread throughout the dissatisfied and oppositional elements of Iranian society.
On August 19th, in the city of Abadan, four arsonists barred the door of the Cinema Rex movie theater and set it ablaze. Khomeini immediately blamed the Shah and SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, for setting the fire in an attempt to frame the opposition. The protest movement immediately expanded in size, and tens of thousands of people from all parts of Iranian society took to the streets shouting “Burn the Shah!” and “The Shah is the guilty one!” Anger over the fire reinvigorated the revolutionary movement, and created a massive anti-Shah sentiment among the protesters (Amuzegar 251). In the face of vast protests, the Shah replaced Amuzegar as prime minister with Jafar Sharif-Emami. His government then began instituting a series of concessions, abolishing the hated Rastakhiz Party, legalizing political parties and releasing hundreds of political prisoners, increasing freedom of expression, curtailing SAVAK’s powers, closing down casinos and nightclubs, and abolishing the imperial calendar. Still, these concessions failed to appease the opposition, and slogans shouted by demonstrators became openly political and pointedly anti-shah (Keddie 231).
Sharif-Emami’s proclamation of reform and reduced repression greatly expanded popular mobilization and collective action. The liberalization policy allowed the Pahlavi’s’ three traditional enemies – the liberal intellectuals, the fundamentalist Shiite clergy, and the radical left – to openly lambast the regime from their own vantage points, and unite in opposition. The partial lifting of restrictions on public speeches, and reduced censorship on printed materials, allowed both religious and secular dissenters to gradually step up their activities. The mosque network of distribution and communication began to openly pass cassettes of Khomeini’s anti-Shah sermons to the people and to mobilize the bazaars’ source of manpower and wealth. The opening of prisons and release of Marxist guerillas gave the freed dissidents a chance to regroup and lead the mass movements. Guerillas played a key role in bullying members of the bazaar into supporting the revolution, and old communist party members freed began to reorganize labor strikes and in the capitals industrial work places (Parsa 225).
On September 8th, the Shah adopted a hard line approach to the demonstrations. He declared martial law in Tehran and other major cities throughout the country. Street demonstrations were banned, arrest warrants were issued for prominent opposition leaders, and a night-time curfew was established. During a massive demonstration in Tehran, a crowd that reached Jaleh Square was gunned down by security forces. In other parts of the capital, protesters set up barricades and threw Molotov cocktails at troops (Keddie 232). The incident, which would be known as “Black Friday,” gave Islamic fundamentalists a new opportunity to call for nationwide sympathy and support. Khomeini called for strikes and work stoppages in the public and private sectors. From this point on, urban industrial workers, white-collar professionals, and civil servants gradually filled the oppositions ranks. By now, the mosque had become the revolution’s domestic rallying point. Demonstrations, marches, strikes, and other activities were planned and supervised by the clergy (Amuzegar 252).
The role repression plays in exacerbating or suppressing a revolutionary movement is enormous. Goldstone writes that “repression that is not strong enough to suppress opponents, or that is so diffuse and erratic that innocents are persecuted, or that is aimed at groups that the public considers representative and justified in their protest, can quickly undermine perceptions of the regime’s effectiveness and justice” (Goldstone 23). The SAVAK’s repression of opposition movements throughout the Shah’s reign undermined the regime’s legitimacy and eroded popular support. As the revolution picked up, the military’s inability to repress the growing demonstrations revealed a weakness in the regime, inciting more segments of the population to mobilize. Acts of repression, such as the “Black Friday” and the Cinema Rex fire, allowed the opposition to paint the regime as unjust and gave a greater moral legitimacy to the opposition. After all, as Goldstone points out, “when the regime is judged to be losing support and capable of being overthrown, protestors may bear great risks, and great regime violence may simply further persuade people that the regime has got to go” (Goldstone 23). Violence against protestors failed to suppress further mobilization; if anything, it persuaded more people to join the opposition.
Throughout the fall the industrial and salaried working classes entered into the mass protest movement. These groups had little choice but to join forces with Khomeini, who had taken on a role as a revolutionary leader (Keddie 232). By November, the vast majority of Iranians had mobilized and developed at least some degree of organization and networks to bring about social change. Encouraged by the scale of the opposition, students and the younger generation began to organize to counter government-supported assaults. As people became increasingly fearless, enthusiastic, and aroused, even in the face of death in demonstrations, and as total opposition to the regime spread to new classes of people, massive political-economic strikes began against the Shah. On September 9th, 700 workers at Tehran’s main oil refinery went on strike, and on September 11th the same occurred when refineries in 5 other cities joined the strike. The economy was paralyzed, and leftist, liberal, and religious groups encouraged the strikes. The return of members of the opposition from abroad and the revival of protest encouraged open activity by guerilla groups. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations of Khomeini supporters began to grow, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, and posters that helped spread his revolutionary ideas (Keddie 233).
On November 6th, the Shah sacked Sharif-Emami and appointed a military government headed by General Azhari, imposing martial law throughout the country. In response, workers in major factories remained on strike or returned to work to organize and coordinate their striking efforts. The mobilization of the bazaars, industrial workers, and white-collar employees and the disruption of important social functions indicated the existence of broad-based opposition. Protests and demonstrations grew in size and frequency across the country (Parsa 224). In December, oil workers went on strike, declaring their opposition to the monarchy and support for Ayatollah Khomeini. The bazaars went into indefinite shutdown to protest the imposition of martial law. Neighborhood self-defense groups formed in many cities to fight off hooligans and strike back at armed forces. During this period, numerous actions were directed specifically against agents of state repression, with the result that many military personnel and police officers were assassinated (Parsa 232). On some occasions, groups of protestors challenged the army in direct confrontations. Young people and students, often organized by the clergy, took control of many cities, forming governments of their own (Parsa 236).
By late December and into early January of 1979, the vast majority of Iranian society had mobilized against the Shah. As a result, the economic and political institutions which had sustained the state were completely immobilized. On December 11th over a million people filled the streets of to demand the removal of the Shah and the return of Khomeini. The Shah desperately searched for members of the liberal opposition to fill the role of prime minister, hoping that a final attempt at reform and conciliation would save his regime (Keddie 237). Dr. Shapour Bakhtair, a long time opposition leader, accepted the post on the condition that the Shah leaves Iran indefinitely. He promptly dissolved SAVAK, freed political prisoners, ordered the army to allow mass demonstrations, promised free elections, and invited Khomeini and other revolutionaries into a government of “national unity”. However, Bakhtair was expelled by opposition groups as a ‘traitor’ to the revolution (Keddie 238). Meanwhile, on January 16, 1979, the Shah and the empress left Iran.
On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was greeted back into Iran by a crowd of several million Iranians. He immediately made clear his fierce rejection of Bakhtiar’s government and, on February 4th, appointed Mehdi Bazargan as the “real” prime minister. As Khomeini’s movement gained momentum, soldiers began to defect to his side. On the evening of February 9th, units of the elite Imperial Guard tried to suppress a Tehran rebellion of pro-revolutionary air force cadets. Revolutionaries and rebel soldiers gained the upper hand and began to take over police stations and military installations, distributing arms to the public. The final collapse of the provisional non-Islamist government came on February 11th when the Supreme Military Council declared itself neutral in the political crisis. Without the armed forces support, the Bakhtair government collapsed, and Khomeini forces took the reins of power (Amuzegar 291).
Revolutionary scholars have long pointed to the actions of the armed forces as playing a key role in the success or failure of a revolution, and this is decidedly true in the case of Iran. The downfall of the Shah’s regime was sealed when top military commanders caved in (Amuzegar 292). Had they more forcefully repressed the demonstrations, or had played a heavier hand during the political struggle between Bakhtair and Khomeini, the outcome of the revolution may have been different. The dissolution of the armed forces can be attributed to the formation of the broad national coalition and disruption of the social order, which paralyzed the military (Parsa 247). The violence targeted against the regime by self-defense groups and other oppositional groups weakened the military, undermining its ability to keep order. The military came into close contact with the popular movement through 1978, and revolutionary ideas began to spread throughout its ranks. Soldiers became increasingly unreliable and insubordinate as a result, with widespread desertions and organized groups of soldiers making attacks against their commanding officers (Parsa 248). The desertion of the Shah shattered army moral and cohesion, and as overwhelming popular attacks against personnel, buildings, and munitions grew the army was rendered ineffective (Parsa 248). Various factors thus played into the weakening of the armed forces, resulting in their ineffectiveness as a tool of repression or stability. There is enormous importance to the military’s impotence in the final months of the revolution. It was not until opposition centrists were absolutely assured that the Shah was not prepared to use force, and that military was ineffective, that they openly supported Khomeini’s movement (Amuzegar 294).
The Iranian Revolution lends itself well to analysis by Katsiaficas’s “Eros Effect” theory. The theory postulates that, as basic assumptions about the nature and structure of government and society begin to vanish, a new way of life and imagining politics begins. People are intuitively driven to mobilize. The revolution began in 1977 with criticisms aimed against the Shah. The discontent harbored by the Iranian people for decades was therefore brought to the surface, but the limited scale of the opposition meant that the “basic assumptions about the nature and structure of government” did not disappear. As such, participation in the rebellion was limited. When the bazaars mobilized, however, their deep connection to the mosque meant that Khomeini’s calls for freedom, justice, liberty, and an Islamic state were widely spread and accepted. He presented a new way to imagine life and politics for the people of Iran, an integral part of Katsiaficas’s theory. The free and just society he proposed was, for most Iranians, a far better alternative than the status quo. As such, the scale of the opposition and demonstrations grew and the stability of the state began to collapse. As Katsiaficas’s theory describes, basic assumptions about society and government began to vanish as more and more people joined the opposition and the regime began to crumble. By the end of the revolution, most sectors of Iranian society had mobilized. They represented a diverse array of backgrounds, held a wide array of different ideologies and beliefs, and had different grievances against the Shah’s regime. However, they were all unified in their mobilization against the Shah because the possibility of a reimagined way of life and politics seemed attainable. Furthermore, when the revolution succeeded, they accepted Khomeini’s leadership because of their hopes that his reimagining of politics might come true.
Goldstone writes that “the state itself may create or reinforce a sense of oppositional identity by labeling a group as its enemies or by acting against the group, thus demonstrating that the group is now outside the protection and justice of the state. Members then are forced to look to the group for justice and protection. The protest group, in other words, gains commitment through manifesting the same qualities that are expected from the state, namely justice and effectiveness” (Goldstone 27). This analysis also plays into the “Eros Effect” theory. The opposition represented the potential for a new way of life and politics for the people of Iran, but became targeted by the regime. People either had the option to mobilize and face repression, or passively wait the revolution out and risk continuing the status quo. As Katsiaficas points out, people were driven to mobilize because of the promise of a reimagined way of life. As they joined the opposition, they needed to look to it for protection and justice. This is what enabled such a broad coalition of diverse groups with diverse grievances to become a single, unified opposition. This, in turn, further supported Khomeini’s movement, as Khomeini had become the spokesperson for justice in the opposition.
The decade of Khomeini’s rule was marked by the ever-growing power of his followers and the elimination, often by violence despite resistance, of opposition groups. Enforcement of ideological and behavioral controls on the population were increased, and widespread desires for greater freedom and social equality were not fulfilled (Keddie 241). In the years following the revolution, Khomeini built up powerful clerical institutions, despite the initial appointment of a secular government. In effect, his movement took power away from what had been a multiparty revolution and led to the establishment of a theocratic state. Conflicts continued after the revolution with the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Various groups and classes mobilized to advance their interests and gain what they had demanded during the revolutionary conflict. However, they failed to consolidate their opposition because of divergent interests (Parsa 312). Divisions erupted within every social class and among political organizations, further preventing the formation of coalitions and the consolidation of opposition. They lacked access to channels of communication and support, such as the mosque, which had been so vital to the mobilization against the Shah. Unlike the struggle against the monarchy, repression on the part of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic Party, the main Islamist political party formed by Khomeini after the revolution, did not lead to the escalation of conflict. Instead, in the absence of consolidation, it was able to defeat its opponents (Parsa 313).
Goldstone notes that “after a revolution, its supporters often divide and fall out among themselves, and once they attain absolute power, many leaders are blinded by it. Thus it is no surprise that revolutions often fail to achieve their prerevolutionary aims” (Goldstone 19). This was decidedly the case in Iran, and the consolidation of power by Khomeini can also be analyzed by the ”Eros Effect” theory. The Shah was toppled because of a unified opposition imagining a new way of life espoused by Khomeini, one of liberty, justice, and freedom. However, once Khomeini attained power, these ‘new ways of life’ were manifested in a conservative, Islamic regime, something that many groups in the opposition did not want. For many who supported Khomeini, their revolutionary aims were not achieved. However, there was no alternative way of imagining life or politics that emerged like what happened against the Shah. No single group or individual was able to convey such a reimagining as effectively as Khomeini had. As a result, the opposition failed to consolidate and many segments of the population, despite their opposition to the new regime, were not intuitively driven to mobilize. Khomeini was therefore allowed to consolidate his rule without impediment.
The Iranian Revolution succeeded because various groups from all parts of Iranian society, including but not limited to the ulama, the bazaars, the urban poor, the working class, and white-collar professionals, mobilized in widespread opposition to the Shahs rule. As more people mobilized, the state was immobilized and began to waver and then crumble. Ayatollah Khomeini, having become the leader of the revolution, was propelled into a position of power and presided over the creation of a theocratic state. These events can be well explained by the “Eros Effect” theory. Decades of malaise and repression had bred discontent among the people of Iran, and they hoped for a new way of life and politics. They found this in Khomeini’s attacks on the Shah, his calls for the overthrow of monarchy, and the establishment of a new state based on the principles of justice, freedom, and liberty. As Katsiaficas theorized, once mobilization began in 1977 through the mosque and bazaar, people intuitively joined the opposition. The possibility for a reimagined way of life became realistically attainable. As the state began to crumble under the weight of the opposition, previously held assumptions about society and government vanished. More people joined the revolution. By 1979, the opposition was too heavy for the regime, and the Shah fled Iran. The revolution had succeeded, and the people called to Khomeini to institute the reimagined way of life and politics they had fought for. He was now in the perfect position to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran.