The Associated Press
Ayatollah Khomeini, pictured during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

History of Iranian Revolutions

April 26, 2011 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Modern Iran has been shaped by a series of revolutions and government upheavals during the 20th century.

Constitutional Revolution

For much of its history, Persia—the name of Iran until 1935—was ruled by monarchs, known as “shahs.” The Qajar Dynasty began its rule of Persia in 1794, but by the 20th century there was growing resistance to the weak and corrupt monarchy led by Moazaferedin Shah.

Under pressure from merchants and the clergy, the shah agreed to sign a new constitution in 1906 that restricted the power of the monarchy and formed an elected parliament, the Majlis.

Pahlavi Dynasty

Reza Khan, an Iranian soldier, led a coup d’etat against the constitutional government in 1921 and became shah in 1925 under the name Reza Shah Pahlavi. He established a strong central government that brought modern industry and infrastructure to the country.

His downfall came with the outbreak of World War II. Though Iran remained neutral, Reza Shah was sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Britain and Russia, wanting to transport weapons through the country, sent troops into Iran, forcing Reza Shah to abdicate his throne to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Mossadegh and the CIA Coup

Following the death of pro-Western Prime Minister Ali Razmara, nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister in 1951. He immediately sought to nationalize the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The British government, fearing the loss of Iranian oil revenue, first organized a boycott of Iranian oil and then developed a plan for a coup to remove Mossadegh.

Fearing that Iran could become communist, President Eisenhower agreed to join the British plan in 1953. In August of that year, the CIA led a disorganized coup that removed Mossadegh from power and forced him into exile. The operation, code-named TP-Ajax, is described in detail in an account written by its organizer, Donald Wilber, that was obtained by The New York Times.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, son of Reza Shah, was installed as shah. With Western funding and support, he consolidated his power and became increasingly dictatorial. Opposition was silenced through the CIA-trained Iranian intelligence organization, the SAVAK.

Today, the coup is blamed for removing a democratically elected leader and ushering in 26 years of authoritarian rule. In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued an apology to Iran, saying, “the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development.” In June 2009, President Obama, in a speech in Cairo, became the first president to publicly acknowledge the United States’ role in the coup.

Islamic Revolution

Many in Iran saw the shah as a pro-Western puppet, and religious leaders feared that the modern reforms of his White Revolution threatened traditional Iranian culture and undermined their power. Opposition rallied around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would be exiled in 1964 for his outspoken resistance to the shah.

The shah faced increasing resistance from Islamic clerics in the late-1970s and in January 1979 he decided to flee the country, leaving Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar in charge. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile on Feb. 1, 1979, and established his own government; soon, the military declared itself neutral and the monarchy collapsed.

With widespread support, Khomeini seized control of the government and in April declared the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would be ruled by an unelected “supreme leader.” The new regime would be fervently anti-Western, and Khomeini would declare the United States to be the “Great Satan.”

In November, a mob of Iranian students attacked the U.S. embassy and took more than 60 American “spies” hostage. With the support of Khomeini’s government, the group kept 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, causing great embarrassment to the U.S. government. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Iran during the Hostage Crisis, and they have yet to be restored.

The Islamic Revolution incited anti-Western sentiment throughout the Middle East. Writing in February 2009, the 30th anniversary of the revolution, the Tehran Times declared, “The Islamic Revolution of Iran galvanized oppressed Muslims and non-Muslims alike with renewed hope, not only in the Middle East but also around the world. It demonstrated that oppressed people acting under the guiding principles of Islam could overthrow a ruthless dictator, even one who was supported by the United States.”

The government created during the revolution continues to rule. Ayatollah Khomeini ruled as supreme leader for 10 years until his death in 1989, succeeded by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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