On 1 February 1979, Air France flight 4721 landed at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport at 09:27. On board were 120 international journalists and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini had been exiled by the Shah's regime for 15 years, first to Turkey, Iraq and then to France. His return was prompted by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's decision to flee Iran on 16 January 1979, in response to popular unrest on the streets and demands by protesters that he step down. Khomeini's return was regarded as a sign of the success of the revolution, of which he later became the leader.
What: Khomeini arrives back in Iran after 15 years of exile, signalling the start of the Iranian revolution.
Where: Tehran, Iran
When: 1 February 1979
Iran had been struggling to reconcile its loss of territorial sovereignty, modernisation, constitutionalism, democracy and authoritarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In response to European colonisation of neighbouring countries, foreign encroachment into Iran and the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, a social and intellectual revolution unfolded in Iran called the constitutional revolution (1905-1911). The movement demanded parliamentary democracy, the end of arbitrary and authoritarian powers of the Shah (king), and a broad range of social reforms. The movement had mixed success, but normalised modernising and democratising trends within Iran.
During the First World War British troops were stationed in Iran to protect the country's oil fields and to prevent Germany and its Ottoman ally from securing the country. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Iran became a springboard for the British Army to launch attacks into Russia against Communist revolutionaries. Fears that Iran would be the next target for a Communist revolution – with help from Russia – prompted the British to support a coup against the 11-year old Shah in 1921, toppling the Qajar dynasty.
Iran would not have another king until 1925, when the British convinced Reza Khan – head of the Iranian military and leader of the 1921 coup – to declare himself Shah of Iran. Reza Khan won the support of parliament and founded the Pahlavi dynasty; he ruled Iran with an iron fist and responded to any protests or discontent with brute force. However, his rule came to an end in 1941, when Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran out of fear the Iranian government might side with Nazi Germany. His son Mohammed Reza was installed as the new Shah.
Despite a new Shah being installed, Iran still proved to be a problem for the British government. British Petroleum (BP) controlled access to Iranian oilfields, but in 1951 Mohammad Mossadegh won the general election and became Prime Minister of Iran. He promised to nationalise Iran's oilfields and take control away from the British, which frightened the UK government. The UK then turned to the US and asked for help instigating a coup to topple Mossadegh. The US agreed and, with the help of the Shah, attempted to arrest Mossadegh in 1953.
The initial coup failed and the Shah fled Iran, but supporters of the Shah soon took control of the streets; Mossadegh was arrested and the Shah returned. Upon resuming control, a massive wave of repression followed, with many thousands of suspected enemies of the regime rounded up, arrested and tortured. While becoming more autocratic, the Shah enacted a programme of modernisation that included changing the status of women, building infrastructure and other projects. The Shah would also spend large amounts of state money on personal gratification – in 1971 he held a festival to honour 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, which is estimated to have cost $22 million.
Criticism of his rule continued to grow in the 1970s and the Shah's secret police would meet any criticism with arrest and torture. In 1975, the Shah banned all political parties and set up his own to govern the country; Iran remained a single party state until the 1979 revolution. While Iran had great wealth from its oil income, the gap between rich and poor increased massively during the later period of the Shah's rule, while economic inequality was made worse by the government's decision to enforce austerity.
The Shah made himself yet more unpopular when, in 1976, he decided to replace the Islamic Hijra (lunar) calendar – which Iran had followed for centuries – with a new Imperial calendar. Iranian went to bed with the Islamic year being 1355 and awoke the next day in the year 2535 of the new Persian imperial calendar. All of this alienated the Shah from his people and caused discontent to grow further.
In 1978 discontent turned to protests. In January, members of the Shah's security apparatus planted articles in Iranian newspapers calling Khomeini – who was rising in popularity at the time – a British agent and part of an anti-Iranian conspiracy. This angered religious seminary students in Qom, a city south of Iranian capital Tehran, who took to the streets and clashed with the police. A number of people were killed during these clashes. The deaths added fuel to the fire; by February, through a network of bazaars and mosques, Khomeini's messages were spreading across the country. Protests began to breakout across Iranian cities and by March 55 Iranian cities were rocked by protests, riots and disorder.
As summer came, the protests seemed to be dying down and many thought they had drawn to a close. However, all this changed on 19 August when arsonists attacked a cinema in Abadan, near Iran's southwestern border with Iraq. The death toll remains unknown, but the Shah's regime was ultimately blamed and the protest movement bloomed once again. On 4 September, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan came to an end, the Shah's government lifted restrictions on public gatherings to allow people to celebrate Eid and pray in public. The prayer meetings soon turned to protests and were the largest Iran had seen during this period.
A few days later, the Shah declared martial law and troops were deployed to public squares to quell protests, soldiers opened fire and between 64 and 89 people were killed. The reaction to the massacre – which became known as Black Friday – led to more protests and nationwide strikes. Iran came to a standstill and there was little the Shah could do to calm the situation. He tried political reforms, releasing prisoners and even embracing the protesters, but to no avail.
As 1979 came around, it became clear that not only had the Shah lost control but he had no prospect of regaining his authority. On 16 January the Shah formally left Iran and his rule came to an end. On 1 February, Khomeini arrived from Paris, France and, within a few days, the Iranian military had declared neutrality.
The aftermath of these events brought post-revolutionary chaos, as different factions fought for control over the future direction of Iran. On 1 April 1979, Iranians voted to become an Islamic Republic in a nationwide referendum. Not everyone was happy with the new government and there were uprising and protests by different factions. While turmoil threatened the viability of the new state, Iraq invaded Iran on 22 September 1980, hoping to take advantage of the chaos and establish itself as a regional power. The invasion led to an eight-year bloody war, which ironically enabled the Islamic Republic to crush its internal opponents. The legacy of the revolution continues to have repercussions until today, and has profoundly shaped politics in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.