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Thematic Guide to the Iranian Revolution: Causes and Effects

Christoph Marcinkowski, Senior Political Analyst, Berlin, Germany


Shīʿism and Early Modern Persia

Apart from the Arab conquest that brought Islam to the region, the Ṣafavid dynasty (1501–1722) is unrivaled in its influence on present-day Iran. Under Shah Ismāʿīl I (c. 1501–1524), the Ṣafavids both consolidated Persian-majority population centers and converted large sections of the population to a moderate kind of Twelver Shīʿī Islam. The result was a polity distinguished from its Sunnī neighbors which coalesced around a set of external hostilities. Conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, which was perceived as an existential threat from the West, as well as conflicts with the Uzbeks to the north, and the Indian Mughal emperors to the east, gradually created a sense of broad Persian consciousness. Although the Ṣafavid state collapsed in 1722, it was viewed by successive generations as a model state in which most of the current Shīʿī religious institutions and many Shīʿī practices have their origins.

Toward Revolution: Qājār Weakness, Constitutional Revolution, and Pahlavi Shahs

By the nineteenth century, the Qājār dynasty (1795–1925) had brought Iran toward geopolitical insignificance. The complete overestimation of the empire's resources coupled with involvement in avoidable wars led to massive territorial and economic losses. The result was a weakening of state sovereignty, as well as a deepening of economic and political dependence on Russia and Britain. The distrust of foreign powers—particularly the United Kingdom—by modern Iranians can be traced back to this former dependence.

Another major consequence of the Qājār's loss of authority was a decisive increase of authority and influence by the Shīʿī clerics. The clergy had always enjoyed significant cultural influence among the religious sectors of society and those opposed to Western influences in Iran, but its political influence expanded significantly in 1891 when it successfully opposed a tobacco concession granted by Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh (1848–1896) that would have given control over Iran's entire tobacco trade to a British corporation.

From 1905 until roughly 1911, Iran was caught in the midst of a Constitutional Revolution, a liberal movement led by Western-oriented merchants, craftsmen, aristocrats, and some reform-minded Shīʿī clerics. The aim of the movement (Persian: mashrutiyyat) was to replace the absolute monarchy with a parliamentary system of government and to introduce a modern legal system. In 1912, however, northern Iran was occupied by Russian troops, while the south was invaded by British soldiers, scuttling the movement's gains. The establishment of a stable parliamentary system would next come about after the end of World War I.

In 1941, Soviet and British pressure forced Reza Khan, the military–backed ruler who had taken the title "shah," to resign, and his eldest son, Muḥammad Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979), became his successor. By the 1960s, rising oil revenues had catapulted Iran from a developing country to an emerging industrialized nation. From 1963 onward, Muḥammad Reza, typically referred to as the Shah, launched his "White Revolution," an ambitious program of economic, political, and social reforms. However, the nation's rapid modernization, which had been opposed by parts of the Shīʿī clergy from the very beginning, was not without costs. In 1963 Ayatollah Khomeini spoke out against this reform program, and a leftist guerrilla movement carried out various acts of terrorism.

Revolution and Republic

Economic problems and rising unemployment in the second half of the 1970s contributed to widespread dissatisfaction in a wide stratum of the population. The liberalization of political debate, which had begun in 1977, degenerated into violent demonstrations. Murder and arson attacks shook the country to its very foundations.

Alarmed by the growing instability, a handful of Western powers with interests in the region convened the Conference of Guadeloupe in January 1979. At the summit, which was hosted by France and attended by representatives of the United States, Britain, and West Germany, participants agreed to end their support of the Shah and to seek dialogue with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, was commissioned to establish contact with Khomeini and to discuss a possible regime change. Although the Europeans had seen an opportunity for reform in the Shah's regime, President Jimmy Carter's decision not to support him—in a total reversal of previous U.S. policy—saddled the heads of state with a fait accompli.

On December 31, 1978 the Shah appointed Shahpour Bakhtiar as interim prime minister. After confirmation by Parliament, Bakhtiar took up his duties and the Shah, worn out and ill, left the country in mid-January 1979. Following an odyssey through the Bahamas, Egypt, Morocco, and Mexico, the cancer-stricken Shah arrived in October 1979 in New York City for treatment. On November 4, 1979 the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students, who took all of the members of the embassy staff hostage. In an attempt to avoid further escalation, the Shah was forced by the Carter Administration to leave the United States after his cancer treatment. The Shah died in 1980 in Cairo, Egypt. On February 1, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, having lived in exile since 1964. The monarchy finally collapsed, and on April 1, 1979 the previous constitution was abolished and replaced with a constitution for an "Islamic republic" with Khomeini named as Supreme Leader. After a violent effort to eliminate any remaining opposition groups, the Ayatollah quickly established himself as supreme political authority.

Post-Revolution Legacy

The Iranian political system remains completely influenced by the events of 1979. Most crucially, governance is legitimized exclusively by the religious establishment. To do so, the government draws on the doctrine of "custodianship of the [Islamic] jurist" (vilāyat-i faqīh), which holds that during the occultation of the Mahdī (ghaybah) the "leading" and "most knowledgeable" Shīʿī jurist (faqīh) is given guardianship over the Muslim community (ummah). During the 1970s, this idea was advanced by Ayatollah Khomeini in a series of lectures and now forms the basis of Iran's Constitution.

Pursuant to Article 5 of the Constitution of 1979, the Twelfth Imam, Muḥammad al-Mahdi, is Iran's head of state. The Mahdi plays a central role in Twelver Shīʿism, as his arrival will announce the "golden age of Islam." In practical terms, however, the supreme authority of the state is the religious and political "leader" (Persian: rahbar), often referred to as the "revolutionary leader," "spiritual leader," or "supreme jurist." The rahbar (since 1989 Seyyed ʿAlī Khameneʾi) has unlimited power; his rule is present in every corner of the state apparatus. Among other duties, he appoints the chief justice; he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the head of Iran's radio and television networks, and chief of the joint staff of the armed forces; and he signs the decree formalizing the presidential elections. (He can also issue decrees for national referendums and can dismiss the president). Last but not least, he is the supreme judicial authority of the country and thus (often literally) the last instance for those on death row. In case of the Rahbar's absence, a council of religious leaders represents him.

Article 57 of the current Iranian constitution relegates the power of the state—including legislative, executive, and judicial sovereignty—to the Rahbar. None of the three branches of government are therefore autonomous in their decisions, but dependent upon the "supreme leader." The judgment of the "leader of the revolution" is fundamental in all matters of the Islamic Republic. The president is Iran's highest elected position, although recent contests have been marred by allegations of widespread voting abuse, most recently in the 2009 election. The president serves a four-year term and may not serve for more than two consecutive terms. He is considered the head of the Iranian government, though he is subordinate to the Rahbar, who is head of state. He is responsible for executive-branch duties such as signing treaties, national planning and budget, and appointing ministers, governors, and ambassadors.

The power of the president and Parliament, however, is severely restricted since all elected candidates and all laws must be confirmed by the Guardian Council, a twelve-member, judicial-legislative body composed of equal numbers of clergy and lawyers. (While the clergy are appointed directly by the Rahbar, the lawyers are elected by Parliament—subject, of course, to approval of the chief justice.) The president does not have full control over foreign policy, the armed forces, or nuclear policy, which are all ultimately under the control of the Rahbar. Ultimately, the last word in all matters is the Rahbar, making him more powerful than any of the late Qājār or Pahlavi shahs.

Further Reading

  • Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • Amanat, Abbas, Vanessa Martin, Said Amir Arjomand, Mansoureh Ettehadieh, Ali-Akabr Saidi Sirjani, and Sorour Soroudi. "Constitutional Revolution." Available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/constitutional-revolution-index
  • Ansari, Ali. Crisis of Authority: Iran's 2009 Presidential Elections. London: Chatham House, 2010.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. After Khomeini: Iran under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi'ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Ashraf, Ahmad. "Iranian Identity: Perspectives on Iranian Identity." Available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/iranian-identity-i-perspectives
  • Bayat, Mangol. Iran's First Revolution: Shīʿism and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Bill, James A., and W. Roger Louis, eds. Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
  • Chehabi, Houchang. Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Gheissari, Ali. Contemporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Iran Chamber Society. "The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran." Available online at http://www.iranchamber.com/government/laws/constitution.php
  • Keddie, Nikki. Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
  • Lambton, A. K. S. Qajar Persia. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1988.
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. "Between Iran and Persia: Islam and Nationalism in Iran's Resurgence as a Regional Power." IDSS Commentary 106/2006. Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, September 28, 2006. Available online at http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/IDSS1062006.pdf
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. Shi'ite Identities: Community and Culture in Changing Social Contexts. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010.
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. "Twelver Shi'ite Islam: Conceptual and Practical Aspects." IDSS Working Paper 113. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, July 2006. Available online at http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/WorkingPapers/WP114.pdf.
  • Milani, Abbas. The Shah. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.
  • Schirazi, A. "Guardian Council." Available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/guardian-council
  • Turner, Colin. Islam Without Allah? The Rise of Religious Externalism in Safavid Iran. London: Routledge, 2001.

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