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Monday, 11 February, 2002, 18:08 GMT
Looking back at Iran's revolution
Iranian revolution
Revolutionaries burn an effigy of the hated Shah
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

The Iranian revolution unfolded amid high idealism and expectation.

Triggered by a number of social, political and economic factors the revolution began as a pro-democracy movement, but evolved into something that was no more egalitarian than the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi it replaced.

What we had not predicted was that a 78-year ayatollah could forge together these forces and turn all of these volcanoes... into a real revolution

Stansfield Turner, former CIA director
Revolution leader, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, spoke of democracy and freedom upon his return from exile in Paris, and initially his government was dominated by liberal figures.

But few Iranians would have predicted that barely two years later Iran would be a theocratic state governed by strict Islamic law, with Ayatollah Khomeini established as supreme leader.

The origins of the revolution can be seen in a widening gap between sectors of Iranian society during the 1970s.

Class gap

A series of land reforms during the 1960s had resulted in an economic boom, increased per capita income, and had created conditions for rising social and economic aspirations.

Shah Reza Pahlavi
The Shah pursued a course of lavish capitalism

But while the ruling elite continued to support the monarchy, many poor people felt they had not sufficiently benefited from economic growth and modernisation.

Iran's growing middle classes fluctuated between supporting the status quo - and thereby their own continued prosperity - and expressing desires for social democracy and for reform.

The catalyst came in 1974. Iran was hit by hyperinflation triggered by a combination of the economic policies of the Shah, and rising oil prices.

To those who are asking only for freedom, we ask, you want the freedom to do what?

Shah Reza Pahlavi, 1977
Poor Iranians suffered most. Those with fixed incomes experienced huge losses, while the economy stalled and discontent among the middle classes grew.

In 1977 the Shah told French TV that under his stewardship, Iran would enjoy parity with European living standards within a decade - a promise seen as a hollow by many Iranians.

And increasingly Khomeini, exiled to Turkey in 1963 for speaking out against the Shah's autocracy, struck a chord with Iran's poor and disenfranchised.

Promising social and economic reform, the ayatollah prescribed a return to traditional religious values and more sustainable development for the country.

Khomeini emerges

Ayatollah Khomeini - who relocated to Paris in 1978 - also became a figurehead to a number of radical religious groups, who receiving greater support.

Ayatollah Khomeini
The ayatollah appealed to a broad spectrum of society

In parallel, the Shah's standing among Iranians fell further when it became increasingly apparent that Iran's large oil revenues were being ploughed into the military and further industrialisation.

In mid-1977 several people were shot dead when police forcibly broke up opposition demonstrations. The year ended with large scale student disturbances, and the closure of some universities.

In a speech to parliamentary leaders, the Shah described the opposition movement as being orchestrated by "revolutionaries who wish to take the nation back 2,000 years."


The following year began with clashes in Qom in which left dozens of people dead, and continued with a wave of increasingly violent demonstrations, general strikes and instability which left Iran's economy in ruins.

On 10 December 1978, an estimated eight million people across Iran marched to protest against the Shah.

Demonstration, 1979
Millions took to the streets

A little over a month later, the Shah left Tehran for an "extended vacation", appointing a regency council headed by his Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar to run the country.

He was never to return.

Initially, Mr Bakhtiar attempted to stave off an imminent opposition takeover. He refused to allow Ayatollah Khomeini to form an interim government.

Ayatollah Khomeini responded by appointing Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of the revolution's provisional government.

Mr Bakhtiar's slender grip on power began to erode when it became increasingly apparent that the army, and key government ministries were beginning to side with Mr Bazargan.

Street battles

Political and social instability reached a climax in February 1979.

As the two sides vied for position, street battles raged in towns and provinces between pro-Khomeini demonstrators and police and security officers, and supporters of the imperial regime.

On 1 February, Ayatollah Khomeini made his dramatic return from exile.

I am a military man and will not interfere in politics

General Amir Hosseign Rabiei, Iranian Air Force
On the 11 February, army tanks rumbled through the streets of Tehran, as rumours began to circulate of an impending military coup.

But as the day wore on it became increasingly apparent that the military had little appetite to attempt to take power by force.

Fighting broke out on the streets of Tehran and revolutionaries took control of a string of police stations, while behind-the-scenes negotiations took place between the revolutionary leaders and senior military officers.

The High Council of the Iranian Armed Forces released a statement broadcast across the country in which it declared "neutrality in the present political conflicts."

Revolutionaries stormed Tehran's main radio and television station and declared: "This is the voice of the revolution of the Iranian people!"

Mr Bakhtiar resigned, and two months later Ayatollah Khomeini won a landslide victory in a national referendum. He declared an Islamic republic, and was appointed Iran's political and religious leader for life.

Islamic law was introduced across the country. Women were required to wear the veil, and alcohol and Western music were banned.

Absolute power

The next two years saw a series of power struggles between the moderate and conservative elements within the revolution.

Iranian women, 1979
Islamic dress code was quickly established

For a time, Ayatollah Khomeini appeared to side with the liberal elements, appointing middle class intellectual Abul Hassan Bani-Sadr as prime minister in November 1979 following the resignation of Bazargan.

However, frustrated with the relatively slow pace of change, Iran's disenchanted lower classes, who had been the dynamos in the revolution, increasingly demanded that Ayatollah Khomeini adopt a more radical course.

In mid-1981, he dismissed Bani-Sadr and assumed complete control of the country himself. The media was taken under complete government control, and extreme measures were adopted to stamp out any opposition.

Twenty-three years later, although more moderate voices are emerging once again, conservative forces still hold political sway.

See also:

11 Feb 02 | Middle East
Thousands join anti-US rally in Iran
06 Feb 02 | Americas
Analysis: The 'axis of evil' debate
08 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
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