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40 Years Later: Iran after the Islamic Revolution

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A woman walks in front of a mural in Tehran.

In 1979, Iran was in tumult. The country’s then-monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, left for exile; protests and violence were erupting across cities; and the Iranian government was replaced by the Islamic Republic, led by Ruhollah Khomeini, who became the country’s Supreme Leader. These were only some of the events which encompassed the Islamic Revolution, a maelstrom with a legacy that continues to impact Iran.

With this year marking 40 years since the rise of the Islamic Republic, we sat down with SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari. We also spoke with an expert on Iranian culture who asked to remain anonymous. We wanted to learn more about the Islamic Revolution and how its effects are still felt by present-day Iran.

Sowing the Seeds of Tension

Before diving into the revolution, it’s important to understand what catalyzed it. From 1925 to 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi was the monarch of Iran who, during his rule, introduced numerous social, political, and economic reforms that he believed would modernize the country. His attempts at western reforms, repression, and American policies inadvertently sowed the seeds of the revolution.    

In 1941, during World War II, British and the Soviet troops invaded Iran, deposed Reza Shah, and installed his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, as the country’s monarch. In 1953, the CIA led a coup against Muhammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s first democratically-elected prime minister. According to Professor Mokhtari, the weak, young monarch’s power was strengthened by the coup, and he kept close relations with the United States:

“The perception among Iranians was that, essentially, the United States was able to pursue its interests at the expense of Iranians and that was something that gave fuel to the anti-imperialist element of the revolution,” says Mokhtari.

Grievances with Westoxification

From 1963 to 1978, Pahlavi, like his father before him, launched a program of reforms to socially, economically, and politically modernize Iran; it was called the White Revolution. At the time, Pahlavi was preoccupied with a fear of communism, specifically of the Tudeh party (a political party, which translates to ‘Party of the Masses’) and he thought the reforms of his White Revolution could preempt a possible Red Revolution that would topple his regime.

“In theory, the White Revolution was good. It established education, health, and agriculture corps to benefit the rural areas,” says the anonymous expert. “And so, when you were drafted, instead of serving in the army, navy, or air force, you went through a training program and you were sent to a village far away to help them with agriculture—to teach the people who lived there how to read and write. The concept was excellent, but the implementation of that concept was not very effective.”

Adding to this, Mokhtari explains that there was a growing discourse among Iranians over the cultural influence of the West through these reforms and among a new elite class. An overarching grievance formed, with the idea that the elites in Iran were intoxicated by western culture and wanted to emulate it.

“The answer [to this grievance] was created by a lot of the people who were piecing together the theoretical foundations of the [Islamic] Revolution,” says Mokhtari. “They believed there was a need to return to an authentic and, for many, Islamic identity.”

The Rule of Religion

A variety of groups with a wide range of ideological perspectives were unified by their resentment of the Shah and their desire to see him overthrown, but the group that was able to consolidate and monopolize power was the Islamic clergy. The anonymous expert states: “The mosques in Iran became the centers of agitation against the Shah. Pahlavi gave voting rights to women; the clergy was against that. He started land reform; the clergy was against that. The clergy was against every modern reform.”

The clergy was led by a man who would become the central figure of the Islamic Revolution: Ruhollah Khomeini, who sought to it that Pahlavi was overthrown.

He was called highly charismatic, he had a very stern austere persona. He had this theology that he developed—this political theory that until the 12th Imam, [the ultimate savior of humankind according to Shia Islam], returns, the responsibility to build a morally-guided Islamic society through the vehicle of the state rests on clerics,” says Mokhtari.

Aftermath and Present-Day Iran

The initial aftermath of the revolution, according to Mokhtari, came with freedom of speech. Debates, liberties, and freedoms that were once repressed under the shah came to light, but, shortly after, a new form of repression emerged: people who hadn’t fled the country who were a part of the Shah’s regime or opposed the revolution were executed or held hostage. Iran became unstable with violence and repression.

It was not long after that Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq at the time, sensed Iran’s instability and vulnerability and attacked, starting the devastating, eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war.

Decades later, Iranians still live under the 1979 constitution, adopted as part of the Islamic Revolution. Mokhtari says the current revolutionary regime is more oppressive than the one that was overthrown. Essentially, an authoritarian regime was replaced with a religious authoritarian regime, and the class divides of the Shah’s era were replaced with new class divides: “Sons of the revolution’s leaders and the business class that decides to work within the rules of the regime—they are the upper class in Iranian society. They flaunt their wealth, driving luxury sportscars around Tehran, posting Instagram pictures of their ski trips and beach trips around the world, all while the poor and the middle class are struggling to survive or maintain the appearance of a dignified life,” says Mokhtari.

Both Mokhtari and the anonymous expert say that Iran is in social decay, with the effects of the revolution forcing people to live double lives. It has trapped them in a paradox of increasingly adhering to secular values while going through the motions of religiosity as a means of avoiding trouble with the government.

The anonymous expert believes that “this regime has ruined the Iranian people’s belief in religion. You have a dual culture. You have the street culture, and you have the home culture. At home, rather than teaching your children to always tell the truth, you actually teach them to lie. So, for instance, if a child is asked [on the street] if their family drinks or not, you teach them to lie, to say ‘no.’”

Hope in the Youth

Mokhtari says that, societally and politically, there have been many negative transformations in Iran due to the revolution, but there are promising transformations taking place alongside them, specifically among the Iranian youth: “They are increasingly adopting and subscribing to cosmopolitan values. The youth have been a part of very impressive social movements—the women’s movement, for example—and there are protests all the time in Iran. There’s this practice of resistance and dissent on a small scale happening all the time despite the repression. I think this provides a ray of hope that there can be political change.”