The 1979 Iranian Revolution transformed Iran’s governmental landscape. For much of its history, Iran was ruled by monarchs, beginning as far back as the Median Empire of the seventh century BCE. Immediately before the revolution, Iran was controlled by another monarchical dynasty, the Pahlavi Shahs. Pahlavi Iran was aligned heavily with Western powers, was often an authoritarian government, and ignored Iran’s Shi’a identity, thus paving the way for revolution. Here are the political effects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Government & Politics Before the Iranian Revolution
Monarchy in Iran had a long and storied history by the time the Pahlavi Dynasty came to power. The tales of ancient Persian kings were well-known, and many kings had come after, for better or for worse. The Shah who ruled before the 1979 revolution was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, installed with help from the United Kingdom in 1953. The coup d’état that helped the Shah gain power overthrew a democratically-elected prime minister and instead once again returned the governance of Iran into the hands of one leader.
In addition to the fact that the Shah had forcibly taken over as the political leader of Iran, he began cultivating relationships with non-Muslim powers, namely the United States. This, along with the White Revolution, in which the Shah aimed to move Iran toward Westernization, alienated and ostracized swaths of Iranians whose political identities were tied to their religious identities.
The Shah’s regime was one of contradictions. Socially, he attempted to move Iran toward Western ideals, modernizing the country to keep up with world powers like the United Kingdom and the United States. However, his political power was also one of increasingly dictatorial and oppressive measures.
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The Pahlavi dynasty was seen as a lavish, brutal, and corrupt regime that took no measures to allow political freedom outside of the hands of the Shah. This caused upheaval in many social classes, including those of the intelligentsia and the urban working classes. Both liberal ideologues and strict Islamists opposed the Shah’s political policies that, in their eyes, essentially made him a puppet of the United States.
Politics During the 1979 Iranian Revolution
Protest events started in the summer of 1978 and developed rapidly until it was obvious that Iran was on the eve of revolution. This was all spurred on by an exiled religious-political leader named Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric who had led the opposition against the Shah’s westernization since 1963.
Khomeini quickly became the figurehead of opposition to the Shah’s regime and seemed open to working with the liberal facets of the revolution while maintaining his stance as an Islamist. When the Shah eventually left Iran, he appointed a liberal member of the opposition prime minister. Shahpour Bakhtiar, the provisional prime minister, immediately invited Khomeini back to Iran, intending to build a government structured like the Vatican. Bakhtiar saw himself as the legitimate ruler of Iran and Khomeini as a religious leader.
Khomeini, on the other hand, immediately denounced the government of Bakhtiar on his arrival in Tehran. He was quoted as saying, “I shall kick their teeth in. I appoint the government. I appoint the government by support of this nation.” As soon as he arrived, he did just that, all but ignoring Bakhtiar’s government and instead appointing his own prime minister.
Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan to the role of prime minister, and after several violent clashes with Bakhtiar’s government, Khomeini and Bazargan won the day. Bakhtiar fled to prevent more bloodshed in the revolution, effectively taking the legacy of Iran’s monarchy with him. Khomeini immediately began his theocracy while attempting to keep up the façade of reforming the Shah’s overreaching political power.
Bazargan was a liberal figurehead and eventually resigned based upon Khomeini’s desire to make Iran an Islamic Republic based solely on Sharia law. Though the relationship eventually spoiled, Bazargan and Kohmeini’s provisional government had won out during the revolutionary period, and the beginning of it is still celebrated every year on February 11.
Political Systems Established After the Revolution
After the collapse of the monarchy for good, Khomeini and his government immediately established Iran as a theocratic republic. Nationalists and liberals initially supported this, but quickly it became apparent that Khomeini intended to make Iran solely Islamist.
In March 1979, a referendum was held to declare Iran an Islamic Republic. This was followed by referendums to establish a constitution, which gave the provision that Iran’s Islamic government would be based upon wilayat al-faqih, or “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.” These referendums were largely made up of Khomeini’s followers, and they passed easily, making Khomeini the Supreme Leader of Iran.
This governmental structure, the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, is based on an absolutist form of Islamic law stipulating that an Islamic Jurist must rule politically and religiously in preparation for the arrival of the “infallible Imam.” Twelver Shia law, in this case, became the established government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
According to Khomeini, he was an expert in Sharia law, which contained everything that ruling a state entails. Thus, as its Supreme Leader, Khomeini was simply following religiously pious governance, as any other form of government would lead to sin and injustice. Under Khomeini’s ideals, the Supreme Leader became a demi-god, and his rule was equated to religious obedience.
Domestic Effects of the Iranian Revolution
Initially following the revolution, Iran’s government was overhauled. The monarchy was discarded in favor of a republic that ran under the rule of a Supreme Leader. Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, was established. In addition to parliament, Iran established the Guardian Council, a group of 12 Islamic Jurists and experts in Sharia, who still reserve the right to veto any legislation, supervise elections, and approve or disqualify candidates for elections.
The immediate effect of the revolution was that local, provincial, and national positions became more open to the people of Iran, and several elected bodies of government were given more power than under the Shah’s regime. This was, however, because every office was highly regulated by the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council. Elections were held for several positions, but those that held the most power, the Supreme Leader and Guardian Council, were solely held by appointment. This was, ironically, not necessarily different from the monarchical rule of the Shah, but under the terms of a theocracy.
Immediately following the revolution, several organs of the Shah’s government were dismantled in favor of the republican system, but only one political party was established and legalized. The Islamic Republican Party was essentially an arm of power exercised by Khomeini, as it was focused solely on upholding his power and supporting his policies. This was enforced by the party’s considerable clerical membership, as well as its disdain for any liberalism in the Iranian government. It was dissolved in 1987 because Khomeini assumed he had eliminated any loyalty toward liberal or reformist government.
Other effects domestically took the form, for the most part, of strict suppression and loyalty to God by way of loyalty to the Supreme Leader. All non-Islamist operations, including newspapers, movies, audio recordings, and cultural groups, were either outright forbidden or subject to censorship. Following the revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran squashed rebellion with violence and forcible silence and kept the opposition out of the public eye through censorship. This was followed by the people for the most part because, under the theocracy, if they were disobedient to the Supreme Leader, they were disobedient to God.
In theory, women in post-revolutionary Iran were not explicitly excluded from political life, but in practice, the laws created around women’s ability to work and the forcible closing of childcare centers meant that they were often pushed out of political life anyway. Several women held leadership roles within the Shah’s government, which was reversed by the Republican government. Women could vote if they were of age (16 at the time), but voting in Iran was not free or democratic. As Khomeini said, “do not use this term ‘democratic.’ That is the Western style.”
Though the government gave the impression that it would have a more equal distribution of power after the revolution, the republican government simply replaced the Shah’s repressive monarchical institutions with repressive theocratic institutions. This made the political landscape of Iran one of secrecy and based heavily on the religious elite for years to come.
Foreign Relations After the Iranian Revolution
After the 1979 revolution, foreign relations soured quickly for Iran. Naturally, with situations like the Iran Hostage Crisis as well as Khomeini’s distaste for all things Western, relations with countries like the United States and Canada were completely severed. After the hostage crisis, several European countries imposed sanctions on Iran in a show of solidarity with the United States. The United Kingdom, as well, completely cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Iran adopted an anti-Zionist policy, which also severed its relationship with Israel.
Despite the political severance with nearly all other Western nations, Iran enjoyed a close relationship with Switzerland, which was not a part of the European Economic Community, nor a member of NATO. Switzerland had a unique position in being able to do business with Iran and retain their embassy in Tehran, but also to serve as a middleman in relations between the United States and Iran.
One of the most significant international effects of the Iranian Revolution was the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted nearly eight years between 1980 and 1988. The war was a spoiling of relations between two countries that had seen periods of intermittent conflict for decades during the 20th century. Iran’s pan-Islamic ideology clashed with Iraq’s more secular Arab nationalism. Khomeini called for an overthrow of Iraq’s secular Ba’ath government, as it was against the fundamentalist Shia movement in Iraq. To Saddam Hussein, this seemed like meddling in the domestic affairs of his country, and, along with border skirmishes that had been ongoing for some time, it gave him reason enough to see Iran as an enemy.
The end of the war was facilitated by United Nations Peacekeepers in Geneva, Switzerland. Both sides had lost considerable amounts of people, numbering at least one to two million. Though Iran claimed that the war was a victory for the Islamic Republic against nationalism, most scholars consider the war a stalemate that cost both nations significantly, both in money and lives.
Long-Term Political Effects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution
After the death of Khomeini, several political reformers sought to better the oppressive and restricted system of government in Iran, but many attempts at reform failed, and today Iran’s political system is still largely in the hands of the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader.
Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, has been in power since his predecessor died in 1989. His regime saw the increase in power of different political factions, namely the principalists (a rebrand of the Islamic Republic Party) and the reformists. Though several different factions are allowed to participate in government, the main politicians in Iran must still be approved by the Guardian Council. There is a perceived ability for the people to elect their leaders, but every politician in Iran must still adhere to the preservation of the Shia Islamic Republic and uphold the ideals of Khomeini’s initial constitution.
Political oppression is still alive and well in Iran. Though many reform groups have cropped up, and political protests are common, any opposition to the establishment of the Supreme Leader is still harshly dealt with. Censorship laws and moral conduct are facets of the everyday lives of Iranians, and many of these policies are enforced by the Revolutionary Guard, whose job is to uphold the ideals of the revolution, and the Guidance Patrol (better known as the morality police). Though the number of protests has significantly increased in the past few decades, the theocratic regime has effectively silenced all opposition through its law enforcement. This has led to the deaths of thousands of protestors and opponents of the government.
Iran’s government is still considered one of the worst concerning human rights, especially recently, wherein many laws overlooked by the previous president were reinforced by Ebrahim Raisi, who came to power in 2021. Recently, however, the enforcement of Sharia has been put on hold. Iran’s recent protests over the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody resulted in a crackdown and violent retribution from the morality police.
This violence was once again met with protests by women, principally those in cosmopolitan centers like Tehran, who have since refused to cover their hair. Since the protests began in the autumn of 2022, women have been detained or harassed for refusing to follow the law, and it is thought that there is a debate in government about how to deal with the protestors. Whether this will result in governmental reform is up for debate, but many are optimistic that since the protests of 2022 were some of the largest in a decade, the government will reconsider its draconian political enforcement of morality.
Several deeply complex contradictions exist in the Iranian political sphere. The 1979 revolution ushered in a regime that was like a different side of the same coin. While the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader still control virtually all aspects of Iranian politics, just as the Shah did before them, the country’s political sphere is changing. Just as the protests in the 1970s called for an end to the Shah’s reign, today’s political demonstrations call for the end of the republic. It should not be understated that the political effects of the revolution were grave and led to unrest within Iran. Today, a younger generation is still feeling the repercussions and is increasingly willing to go against the government.