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  • James Houser

February 1, 1979 - Khomeini's Return and the Iranian Revolution

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 1, 1979. A bearded man with regal bearing steps off an Air France flight into the heart of a country torn by revolution. With his coming, he signals the end of one era and the beginning of another. The Ayatollah Khomeini has returned to Tehran.

Ayatollah Khomeini

The 1979 Iranian Revolution is widely misunderstood by the West. One of the major mistakes people make is to view it as a unified effort by any one faction. Like most revolutions, the Iranian Revolution fractured pretty much as soon as the Shah was out of power, with liberal politicians that had been opposed to the Shah and who had spearheaded the protests quickly sidelined by Islamic revolutionaries who seized power.

American progressives often perceive it as a backlash to the 1953 coup spearheaded by Western Powers that reinstalled the Shah over a democratically elected government, but this is typical Western-centrist thinking. The truth is much more complicated; the Revolution came from forces within Iran instead of forces without.

Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah (read: King) of Iran, was an authoritarian ruler. He had reigned since 1941, and his regime was...well, quite the mixed bag. On the one hand, he was a Westernizer and a liberalizer, and introduced women's rights, land reform, literacy programs and a campaign to increase private ownership of businesses and industry. These reforms were mostly intended to forestall the threat of socialist or Communist revolution, something that Reza Shah feared with the Soviet Union on his northern border. On the other hand, Reza Shah was oppressive and totalitarian, with secret police, torture rooms and harsh reprisals against liberals, leftists and religious radicals.

Thus, Reza Shah was under constant attack from liberals, communists, and radical Muslim leaders. Among these leaders was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led resistance to the Shah's "White Revolution" of 1963. Khomeini claimed that the Shah was trying to westernize and corrupt the practices of Islam, portraying him as a colonizer for his close relationships with the West. Many revolutionaries and followers of Khomeini viewed Western influence, including capitalism, communism, liberalism and Christianity, as corrosive forces that would destroy the Islamic traditions and culture that Iran lived under. The slogan was "Neither east nor west," referring to the rejection of both Western capitalism and Soviet communism. This led to Khomeini's exile in 1963.

Mass Demonstration in Iran, 1979. Some protestors are holding Khomeini's picture

The Shah's reforms, intended to create a rural power base, only antagonized the urban working classes and intelligentsia, while creating a class of independent farmers that bore no real loyalty to the Shah due to their reverence for tradition. Squeezed between these forces - the liberals, the left, and the religious right - the Shah was helpless when protests began in 1977. This escalated into all-out violence, mass strikes, and huge demonstrations in 1978. When that year finally ended, the Shah's number was up.

The Shah leaving Iran, 16 January 1979

On January 16, 1979, Reza Shah fled Iran into exile. His subsequent activities would cause the Americans no end of headaches, but that was in the future. He left behind a liberal government under an old opposition leader, hoping that this would stem the communist and Islamist tides and allow for his return one day. To many Iranians, though, it was time for Ayatollah Khomeini to come home.

Khomeini returns to Iran, 1 February 1979

On February 1, Khomeini was greeted by almost three million Iranians when he arrived at Mehrabad International Airport. He immediately traveled to a nearby graveyard, where he paid homage to many victims of the Shah's oppression and declared, "I will appoint the government! I will strike the present government on the mouth! With the support of the people, I will appoint the government! I will do this, because the people approved me!" This rejection of liberal ideals heralded the new phase in Iran's Revolution: the Islamic Revolution and the birth of the Islamic Republic.

Over the next several months, both insufficiently committed liberals and what Khomeini called the "atheistic Marxists," both of whom had helped remove the Shah, were suppressed, driven underground, or killed. Within a few days after his return, Iranian revolutionaries seized police stations and government buildings; the Army swore loyalty. Soon the liberal interim government had fled and Khomeini was in control of the state. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born; its Revolutionary Guards would soon take to the land to enforce Khomeini's demands. Among the new Guards was 22-year old Qasem Soleimani.

The last great revolution of our times, the Iranian Revolution demonstrated to any who was paying attention that history does not flow in one direction. The victory of socialism, progressivism, or even liberalism is far from assured in the long run; there are real and competing ideologies to these creeds and they are strong. To underestimate them, as Reza Shah did, is to underestimate your own peril.

Best book I know of on the Revolution is Michael Axworthy's Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.)

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