The Iranian Revolution: the Seculars, the Clergy and the Pahlavis

Abstract: This article, based on a reading of Ervand Abrahamian’s ‘Radical Islam: Iranian Mojahedin’, attempts to trace the history and origins of the Iranian Revolution, an event which marked the end of 2500 years old monarchy. It is a story of how an unpopular government faced opposition from both left and right ideological sections of society and how a politics of rhetoric enabled one ideological stance to capture the imagination of the masses more than the other.

Samuel P. Huntington has described a revolution as “a rapid fundamental and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structures, leadership and government activities and policies”. Simply put when a system of either beliefs or leadership or social structure undergoes a complete and sudden change often accompanied by violence, the situation is described as a revolution. This definition more or less correctly sums up the phenomenon of the revolution.
Prominent examples of revolutions have been the French, the Chinese, the Russian etc. Much has been written and researched into these events in detail. Moreover these events have not only been significant in context of their own internal structures but also in relation to the international structures as each of them have given rise to new sets of values, politics and practices in the world. In the past 30 or 40 years, one example that particularly stands out is that of the revolutionary process in Iran which witnessed the end of a more than two millennia old monarchy and a classic struggle between religious, liberal and radical values in determining the new direction of the Iranian Republic. This marks a difference from the other examples because here there were not the characteristic class coalitions and the classic conundrums but a constant shifting and re-shifting of the power equilibrium between a dominant clergy, a liberal government and a radical intelligentsia.
In this article we try to firstly, trace the origin of the historical regime change in Iran, secondly, locating the reasons of this change in the series of events that preceded it and thirdly, also identifying various pressure groups (political, economic and religious) and their respective politics that played out to yield this revolutionary change.


Iran until the revolution had been a monarchy for about 2500 years. On January 1926, the army commander, Reza Khan, crowned himself Shah and the Pahlavi Monarchy came into power. At this point in time the machinery of the central government in Iran was small, rudimentary and its reach extended no further than the provincial capitals. Yet Reza Shah was able to consolidate his power only by forging alliances with different social groups. Reza Shah since ascending to the throne until 1941 devoted his reign in creating a strong centralized state based on a strong military, a far reaching state bureaucracy and a very centralized court establishment. In 1941 however the allied powers forced him to abdicate the throne in favour of his son- Mohammed Reza Shah.

The three pillars of Reza Shah’s strong state i.e. the military, the bureaucracy and the court establishment grew to gargantuan proportion only after Mohammed Reza Shah (his son) consolidated his power after the 1953 coup d’ etat and renewed his father’s policy  of building a strong centralized state. The Shah also strengthened the internal security forces by (among many other moves) creating the National Security and Information Organization soon to become notorious (under its acronym) SAVAK.

As for the state bureaucracy, it was for the first time in Iranian history that the state had extended its reach into the village level as well. A number of large institutions such as the National Iranian Oil Company, the Central Bank and the National Iranian Radio and Television Organization were also created.

The court establishment also grew remarkably especially after the creation of the charitable Pahlavi Foundation, “whose chief function was to provide the royal family with a tax haven and a lucrative annual subsidy”[i]. By 1979 the Pahlavi state with all its affiliated institutions was spending 50% of the state budget on the government employees while employing directly and indirectly as many as 1,600,000 people.


In creating an all powerful, highly centralized and an all pervasive state, the Palhavi dynasty managed to alienate all the politically articulate social forces i.e. the old landed elites, the modern intelligentsia and the traditional bazari middle class.

They lost their support from the old landed elites due to a number of reasons:

1.              The state power shifted from the parliament which was predominantly dominated by the landed families to the royal court where the Shah had the final say.

2.                 The extension of the central bureaucracy undermined the provincial notables.

3.             The land reforms of the 1960s severed the traditional ties between the peasants and  the landlords by replacing sharecropping with wage labour.

As for the loss of support from the intelligentsia, it was more conspicuous as even though the Pahlavis did carry out many policies which were appealing for the modern intelligentsia such as: the creation of the strong centralized state, the disarming of troublesome tribes, the eradication of feudal landlordism, the introduction of modern industry as well as the extension of the modern education system, yet many of Reza’s apparently self serving tactics such as: the accumulation of private fortunes, undermining of the constitution, murder of prominent intellectuals, and probably most serious of all, the replacing of the Qajar monarchy with a republic, did provide a substantial basis for the modern intelligentsia to be alienated from the Shah’s regime.

The relationship between the Palhavis and the traditional middle class was also very complex, as it “… moved back and forth from tacit alliance to open hostility”[ii]. This was because the clergy formed a major part of the middle class owing to its familial, occupational, financial, historical and ideological ties to the urban bazaars. So while on the one hand Pahlavis in establishing the law and order, helping internal commerce, retaining the monarchy and vowing to enforcing shari’a were winning approval of the clergy and the bazaaris, yet on the other through their secular policies such as replacing the clerical courts with state courts, opening up some large mosques to tourists, permitting publishing of anti-religious tracts etc. also drew their ire at the same time.

Besides these reasons the fact that Iran’s income distribution by the 1970s was one of the most distorted in the world, with a massive waste of resources on ultra sophisticated weapons and failure of land reforms to raise production and ameliorate the rural masses among others, were not helping Shah’s case as far as its alienation from the different sections of the society was concerned.


To limit the appeal of social radicalism in Iran, especially Marxism, the Palhavis intentionally tried to nurture Islam. Notable attempts in this direction included: permitting pious intellectuals notably Mehdi Bazargan to organize an Islamic student association (Anjoman-e Islami-ye Daneshjuyan), giving conservative preachers such as Fakhr al-Din Hejazi, access to the mass media, and allowing the clerical establishments to set up mosques, charity offices and hayats ( prayer meetings). All these facilitations did pay up as the high ranking clergy appropriately reciprocated. In these years in fact the Shah and the Ulama had grown so close that many critics such as Ayatollah Taleqani’s right hand man once commented that the clergy had become a ‘pillar of the Palhavi state’.[iii]

However this special relationship began to crack in the 1960s due to two precise reasons: firstly, the White Revolution of 1962, (especially the aforementioned land reforms which severed the ties between the feudal landlords and the peasants), and the extension of the new electoral system to women along with the recognition of Baha’ism as a legitimate religion and secondly, the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi and the subsequent competition between the leading clerics to fill his position. Among these clerics arguably the most important was Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini who later emerged as an inseparable identity of the revolution.


Khomeini in the 1960s was at 64 one of the youngest of the leading clerics. Prior to this he had briefly entered the politics in 1943. After Borujerdi’s death, he re-entered politics and began to denounce the Shah’s regime unequivocally. As already mentioned Shah’s secular policies did not sit well with the clergy and Khomeini used highly explosive topics such as court corruption, constitutional violations, dictatorial methods, election rigging, granting of capitulations to foreigners, undermining of Shii values, unremitting expansion of the bureaucracy and the neglect of the economic needs of merchants, workers and peasants to make his case against the regime. Abrahamian in The Iranian Mojahedin makes an observation that Khomeini intentionally kept out the issue of land reforms from these allegations and only made a passing mention of the women suffrage. The Shah’s counter claims against the clergy were based on these issues precisely. He claimed that the clergy was against the regime because of land reform and the female suffrage.


Khomeini’s denunciations sparked off major protests against the regime; especially during the Moharram processions the unarmed demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran, Qom, Mashhad, Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan shouting ‘Imam Hosayn protect us from injustice’. It is interesting to notice that throughout the series of events preceding and following the monarchy overthrow, there was a heavy usage of religious slogans against the regime in which the Moharram processions played an important role as they became the sites of major mass mobilizations with people coming together and an otherwise religious ceremony often became a method of protest against the Shah’s regime.

The crisis revealed that now a strong opposition had emerged in the form of the clergy against the regime. This opposition in turn overshadowed the secular opposition to the regime which was going on side by side from the Tudeh Party and the National Front primarily.“It proved to be a dress rehearsal for the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, especially in its use of Moharram and Shii protest symbols”[iv]. More importantly this crisis propelled Khomeini onto the forefront of the political arena following which he was deported to Turkey. This is where, (in exile), he developed a populist clerical version of Shii Islam of sorts. And the most important aspect of this formulation was the founding of the concept of Velayat-e faqih: hokumat-e Islami (the jurist’s trusteeship: Islamic government) through which the ultimate sovereignty in all matters, especially the political ones, rested with the ulama.

But at the same time Khomeini did pay attention to the popular appeal of this concept in order to counter any possible secular, Marxist appeals to the masses by playing up the idea of mostazafin- a loose term used to depict the general populace i.e. the meek, the poor, the masses, the exploited and the dispossessed. Moreover he also used radical sounding phrases such as ‘Islam belongs to the mostazafin’; ‘A country that has slums is not Islamic’; ‘We are for Islam, not for capitalism’ and ‘Islam will eliminate class differences’ among many others. Thus Khomeini strategically appealed to the religious sentiments of people and at the same time taking a radical, anti-capitalist and somewhat socialist stance. However Abrahamian suggests “This populism… contained much radical rhetoric especially against imperialism, comprador capitalism and the political establishment. But it did not actually question the principle of private property and did not propose specific reforms that would have undermined the propertied middle classes”[v].  Thus instead of institutional reforms, he called for political and cultural revolutions against tyranny, bad government and oppression.

Moharram processions as earlier mentioned remained an active instrument of mobilization as well as demonstrations against the regime. Moreover Shah was also identified as Yazid- the evil caliph who had murdered Imam Hosayn. At the same time industrial disputes frequently escalated into strikes and street confrontations. Guerrilla activities like bombings, bank robberies, political assasinatons and street shoot outs became weekly occurrences.

The regime from its side tightened the censorship and the number of magazines, journals etc. fell sharply. Government was countering the clerical propaganda by its own, that monarchism was an integral part of Iranian culture and that the dissidents were contaminated with western ideas especially with Marxism as well as by promoting the state version of Islam among the peasantry to counter the Khomeini’s interpretations of Islam in order to antagonize religious establishment. As a result the religious oppositions intensified and increasing number of Khomeini’s disciple found themselves in prison.

At the same time while the radical clerics were advocating the creation of a classless society in the name of Imam Hoseyn as the ‘champion of the poor’, the clerical populists were extolling Khomeini as ‘the Great’ advocating the establishment of an Islamic republic (the first time that such a demand was made by a clerical group).

In March 1975 the Shah dissolved the two party system and launched a one party system composed of the Resurgence Party (Hezb-e Rastakhiz) and declared it to be a patriotic duty of the citizens to join the new party or else as communists be gaoled or exiled[vi].Amir Abbas Hovayda, the premier since 1965 was elected as the general secretary of the new party.

But as became evident later the Resurgence Party was out to implement an even stricter state-centralization plan than before. It took over the main civilian ministries, placed its members in charge of the other important bureaucracies and further still launched an intensive voter registration campaign where the central committee warned ‘those who did not register will be answerable to the party’[vii]. In other words the Resurgence party had set out to control not only the society, but also the bazaars as well as the clerical establishments, areas where the previous government had feared to tread.

To underline the importance of his regime the Shah created a new calendar allocating 2500 years for the monarchy and 35 years for his own reign. As Abrahamian remarks “few contemporary regimes have been so foolhardy as to undermine their country’s religious calendar”[viii]. The western admirers of the Shah meanwhile were celebrating the regime’s grandiose historical claims and attributing Iran’s stability to its monarchist legacy since ancient times. Such arguments as Abrahamian suggests may have worked outside but within Iran they did not fair much too well.

Thus by creating a one party system in the Resurgence Party, Shah further antagonized the intelligentsia and drew in even those dissenters in protest who earlier were sitting on the sidelines. By barging in the bazaars he further alienated the traditional middle class. The number of political prisoners escalated and the party that had been created to salvage the faltering regime ended up in endangering it even more.


In the midst of the aforementioned tensions, an editorial in January 1978, in the semi-official newspaper Ettela’at, was published. It contained a “vicious as well as an ill-judged diatribe against the opposition clergy in general”[ix]. Khomeini was stated a foreigner who in the past has worked for the British and led a licentious life. This led to massive protests demanding an apology from the state. Protests especially in Qombecame violent where a few were killed as claimed by the authorities and many were killed as according to the opposition. Ayatollah Shariamatdari called upon the whole country to observe the fortieth day of the Qom massacre through a sort of civil disobedience and thus began the three forty day cycles of street demonstrations that shook the very foundations of the Pahlavi state.

The first started on 18 February with major bazaars and universities closing down, memorial services being held and peaceful demonstrations taking place in general. But in Tabriz another chain of violent revolutions broke out with even more casualties resulting in a second forty day cycle which began on 29th March. This time an otherwise peaceful nationwide protests, turned violent in Yazdagain with many casualties and thus the third cycle began on 10thMay. But this time protests turned bloody in as many as 24 towns. In all the authorities estimated that the three 40 days cycles had left 22 dead and 200 injured but the opposition claimed as many as 250 dead and 600 injured.

It was then that the Shah tried to make peace with the opposition through a number of steps including: calling off the anti-profiteering campaign; dissolving the inspectorate teams; allowing the Tehran bazaar to form a Society of Merchants, Traders and Craftsmen; dismissing the notorious chief of SAVAK; and promising that the forthcoming parliamentary elections would be 100 percent free. Besides, he also apologized for attack on Shariamatdari’s home, released some of the clerics and the bazaaris arrested in 1975.

As for the economic grievances regarding the high inflation Amuzegar, the new premier after Hovayda, tried to cool down the overheated economy by cutting the government expenditures, cancelling many development projects and sharply reducing state contracts to the construction industry. Through these steps, the regime had managed to control inflation by engineering an economic recession. But this, far from alleviating the crisis only intensified it. The root causes of the economic problems were not addressed and the economic recession only lowered the real wages, produced large scale unemployment especially among the poor urban construction workers. This sparked off the protests against the regime from the aggrieved middle class as well as the worker class. Abrahamian suggests that “the 1978 recession helped shape the future regime”[x].

Now not only the demand for Shah to abdicate was being raised but also Khomeini was now regarded as the ‘Imam’ (the first time that a living individual was given such a charismatic title by the Iranians). Almost all religious ceremonies now turned into sites of protests. Realizing that the situation was getting out of hand the Shah decided to deal with it more strictly by imposing martial law in many cities, ordering the arrest of opposition leaders and also banning public gatherings and street demonstrations. Many confrontations occurred, the worst on 8thSeptember which happened to be called the Black Friday due to massive casualties. This day set off a whirlwind as all possibilities of compromise were ended and now the only solution was the complete overthrow of the regime.

One of the main pillars of Shah’s state that is the bureaucracy and the middle class now joined hands due to the sweeping up of the entire nation by the wave of strikes. On the days of Tasu’a and ‘Ashura the crowds ratified manifestos of many precise administrative demands thus, as the New York Times put it, “the opposition has demonstrated that there already is an alternative government”[xi].

Subsequently the Shah made even more concessions like dissolving of Resurgence Party, allowing back Khomeini in Iran etc. He even went on to apologize on national television for ‘past mistakes’ and offered to form a government of ‘national reconciliation’ with the National Front (the Secular opposition). But most of the leaders of the National Front rejected this proposal as they were doubtful about its success without the endorsement of Khomeini. The only solution now was the abdication of Shah which he finally did on 16th January. On 1st February Khomeini returned to Irantriumphantly. As the revolutionary council was formed to decide the future course of the country, amid the negotiations, events on the street got out of control. Certain air force cadets and technicians mutinied. The Imperial Guards moved to crush the mutiny. But before that the armed volunteers- Mojahedin and Feda’iyan guerrillas- rushed to the base. A long battle ensued. Many local police stations were assaulted and the cities were flooded with weapons. Thus even the clerical appeal failed which so far had directed the course of revolution. Bakthiyar fled the country. And two days of street fighting completed the destruction of the 2500 years old monarchy and the 53 year old Pahlavi dynastic rule.


Through this article as mentioned in the introduction my aim was to trace the beginning of the Iranian revolution, identify the reasons of dissent and also the pressure groups involved in the process.

The grounds for Iranian revolution as suggested earlier had arisen precisely due to the policy objectives of Reza Khan who aimed at creating a highly centralized state structure. The policy was reified by his son Mohammed Reza Shah with his plans to centralize the three pillars of monarchy, the military, the bureaucracy and the vast court establishment. Such strengthening resulted only in the alienation of the monarchy from basically the old landed elites, the traditional middle class and the intelligentsia. The traditional middle class in turn was a coalition of the bazaaris and the clergy. The clergy were an important factor due to their huge involvement in all aspects of the society. Thus, when the relationship of the Shah and the clergy deteriorated, the dissent in the society began surfacing. Moreover with the vacating of the top clerical leadership position, a struggle for supremacy ensued within the clerics. It was here that Khomeini emerged as an ideological leader.

Khomeini denounced the regime and was exiled yet he commanded the respect and following of a huge population in Iran. The economic policies of Shah were being criticized left, right and centre. The growing dissent led to many protests and struggles with massive casualties. Eventually due to certain incidents the Shah’s regime became completely unacceptable to the people. Although certain reconciliatory steps were taken by the regime to pacify the dissenters but they largely failed and the revolution materialized.

Having settled the question of the origin and reasons for the revolution, we now identify the different pressure groups. There was firstly the radical Marxist secular front which included the Tudeh Party and the National Front who criticized both the clergy and the government on secular and economic grounds respectively. Similarly the clergy was also against both the intelligentsia as well as the regime due to mostly an alleged Western bias in their understanding of things. The regime was naturally threatened by both these fronts and wanted to curb them. It is interesting to see that while both the left and the right blocs were trying to mobilize the masses against the regime, it was the right bloc that had the upper hand because besides using the religious rhetoric against the regime it could also take up a socialist stand to appeal to all classes, whereas the left due to its secular stance was in no way open to any religious propaganda. From this struggle Khomeini emerged as the leader of the revolution, so to speak.

The religious nature of the revolution was evident not only in its leadership but also in the form of protests as well as the slogans of the revolution. As pointed out earlier Moharram marches became an important mechanism to convert mass gatherings into sites of protests. Shah was often compared with the ‘evil’ caliph- Yazid. Thus a complete religious imagination was employed in furthering the revolutionary design.

Finally as Abrahamian has concluded “of the three pillars the Pahlavis had built to hold up their state, the main one- the military- was immobilized, the second- the vast bureaucracy- had turned against its creator; and the third- the court establishment- had become a huge embarrassment. The voice of the people had proved to be mightier than the Pahlavi monarchy”[xii].

End Notes

[i] Abrahamian, Ervand (1989): Radical Islam: Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Tauris); 14.
[ii] Ibid:17
[iii] Ali-Babai A.; ‘An open letter to Khomeini’; Iranshahr (15 June 1982-16 July 1982), Ibid: 21.
[iv] Ibid: 21
[v] Ibid: 22
[vi]Interview with Shahenshah’, Kayhan International, 8 March 1975. Ibid: 25
[vii] Kayhan International, 31 May 1975. Ibid
[viii] Ibid: 26
[ix] Ibid; p 30
[x] Ibid; p 33
[xi] Ibid; p 37

[xii] Ibid; p 41

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