Iranian Revolution

Causes and Perceptions of the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Author: Alana Blumenthal

The varied factors leading to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and those that led foreign governments to consider the events as an "intelligence failure," stem in equal parts from the cultures and the individuals involved.  Powerful personalities like Mohammad Reza Shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini certainly played impressive roles in this political upheaval, yet one cannot forget the equally forceful activities of the average Iranian.  Equally, with its millennia of rich governmental history, Persia provides an intricate backdrop for intrigue.  However, the region serves as a keystone between the Eastern and Western worlds, and as such its fate is inextricably linked to the policies and actions of foreign powers, as has been the case arguably since the first Western conquest by Alexander of Macedonia in 330BCE.  A fundamental key in understanding the context for the rapid success of the revolutionary movement in Iran is the nature of the country, its culture, and its people.  Many aspects of the Iranian worldview differ from that of the Western observer in a way that makes it hard for Americans to understand the widespread support for governmental upheaval. 

Iran, formerly Persia, has arguably the longest tradition of continual centralized leadership, one that is dominated by the legacies of conquest and foreign control.  This instability and internal discord had an effect on the Iranian psyche, both positively and negatively.  While it creates strong cultural currents of nationalism, individualism, and pragmatism, it also breeds paranoia, egotism, and a dependence on authoritarian leadership.  This lack of extended generational leadership also results in a very fluid social hierarchy, wherein a soldier may easily become a king and a king an outcast, as in the case of Reza Shah.  As a result, there is a lack of distinction between the expectations for the behavior of king or commoner, and each is wary of the other's intentions.  Therefore, it is considered quotidian that leaders should mistrust their subjects' loyalty and willingness to support the state; and the populace equally is reluctant to believe the integrity of promises made by their rulers.  Indeed, unlike in Western culture it is in no way hypocritical for an Iranian to publicly acclaim policies which he is known to privately denounce, merely polite.  In such a society, one of the highest shows of skill and savvy is the successful conduct of intrigue and conspiracy.  (Amuzegar, 103)

Additionally, it is a culture that, since its intellectual and economic decline around 1200CE, has looked to the past for models of an idealized society.  This is a concept with which Americans constantly struggle, since it is a complete contradiction of the ideology that strives toward an undefined utopian future and actively disregards the examples of the past.  This, perhaps, is why Western powers, and even the Westernized Shah, failed to anticipate that the revolution would favor a return to Islamic rule and Sharia law.  For the majority of Iranians in the mid-seventies, the glorious example of past success to aspire to was the rise and expansion of Islamic power.  Although Islam began in what is now Saudi Arabia, the Shiite majority in Iran views the period after the conquest of Persia as central to their religious identity.  This same tenet, sanctifying the succession of Imams that began with Ali, encourages Shiite Muslims to identify one man as supreme ruler of all the faithful.  Until the return of the "Hidden Imam," any secular political leader is tolerated, but considered secondary to the authority of the clerics. (Bozeman, 391)   This belief has been consistent in Iranian government since the seventh century, including a legal validation in the 1906 constitution allowing any law passed to be overturned if a religious authority deemed it "unislamic."  Since the combination of secular administration and Islamic principle in Iran after the conquest, Ayatollahs have incited revolutions against any Shah proclaimed to violate religious decrees, which traditionally serve as direct evaluations of the leader.  (Shawcross, 111)

            Despite his attraction to Western culture, Mohammad Reza Shah embodied many of the essential Iranian characteristics and traditions.  In conducting government affairs he was highly independent, often failing to consult his advisors or even the parliament.  He was also defined by his paranoia, investing billions of dollars in military development and instituting internal security measures against perceived threats.  Additionally, he was fascinated with the nation's past, although he wished to revive the period of the Persian, rather than Islamic, Empire.  Like his father, Mohammad Reza Shah saw definite parallels between his dynasty and that of Cyrus and Darius.  The trajectory of his kingship mimicked that Darius in many ways.  Mohammad Shah's father had united the region under a popular ruler, and he used the newly achieved central authority to pour money into public works and modernization projects.  Mohammad Shah did all that he could to emphasize these similarities, including the elaborate and somewhat infamous international summit held at Persepolis, the seat of power for the first Persian Empire.  The final irony was that he was also the second and last ruler in his empire's succession, Darius having been defeated and replaced by Alexander of Macedonia, who later burnt the palace at Persepolis to the ground.

Perhaps similar to Darius, Mohammad Shah lived and led in the shadow of his dynamic and forceful father.  As a child, he was encouraged to favor military might rather than formal education, since Reza Shah viewed this as the reason behind his sweeping success against the Qajar dynasty.  This strict upbringing, in combination with the aforementioned attributes of the Iranian worldview, contributed to the highly discussed personality traits of the controversial Shah of Shahs.  Yet unlike his father, he was unable to balance the power with the necessities of monarchy in many ways.  Insecurity was so central to his character that one of his courtiers would make the comparison, "that Reza Shah was a man to whom no one dared lie.  With his son, no one dared to tell the truth."  (Shawcross, 34)  This powerful and eventually destructive insecurity also had roots in the economy of Iran during the latter portion of Mohammad Reza Shah's reign.  As a stubbornly independent autocrat, he held almost complete control over the designation of the nation's vast wealth of newly acquired petrodollars.  As a result, after 1971 the small faction of external and internal contacts with the Shah who had remained honest with him on matters of policy steadily decreased.  Courtiers and foreign representatives alike found it in their best interest to flatter and support him in return for better chances at receiving their share of the money being spent as rapidly as it was earned.  (Shawcross, 48)  In the case of the foreign powers, this proved an example of realpolitik at its most short-sighted.  The reluctance of friendly nations such as France and the United States to attempt to advise the Shah against overextension and unwise spending habits contributed to the downfall of a major ally in their foreign policies.

In addition to his self-sufficient/paranoid aspect, Mohammad Reza Shah also had a dichotomous tendency towards a perception of invincibility.  Having survived a number of illnesses as a child and a series of assassination attempts as king, Mohammad Shah held a belief that God approved of him and his authority throughout his adult life.  The major turning point in his allowing this belief to overwhelm political reality came in 1953, when a failed attempt by his Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq to oust him saw him exiled, resulting in a popular outcry for his return to restore order to the nation.  He was later noted as considering this as a moment of inspiration for his later autocratic behavior.  Before 1953, he understood himself as a hereditary sovereign; after his return, he believed he was an elected ruler with the mandate of the people.  (Shawcross, 72)  In a way, this made him a confident leader, who theoretically would have defended his government against any and all conflicts by a tendency towards self-preservation.  However, the opposite occurred in what might be attributed to an overestimation of himself and his support system.  In an interview given to an American reporter in June of 1978, he firmly declared that, "nobody can overthrow me.  I have the support of 700,000 troops, all the workers, and most of the people.  I have the power."  (Amuzegar, 224)  Instead of fighting to preserve this sense of divine and popular approval of his right to lead, he allowed it to overwhelm his judgment and in essence leave him defenseless. 

It is, of course, an injustice to Mohammad Reza Shah, who ruled Iran for 37 years, to depict only the negative qualities.  As previously mentioned, he, like all Iranians, possessed also the positive attributes associated with individualism, ambition, and political prudence, and these in fact led to great advancements in Iranian infrastructure and society under his direction.  However, for the sake of this argument, focusing on those factors that contributed to the Iranian revolution, these negative aspects possess the most relevance.  A major part of the Shah's negative image resulted from his complicated relationship with Western powers.  He constantly attempted to separate himself from nations like England and the United States due to their general unpopularity in Iran.  Yet despite this outward obstinance, he was almost cripplingly dependant on their material and moral aid, a reliance that ironically increased concomitantly with his belief in his internal support. Both psychological phenomena occurred after 1953, and it is worthwhile to examine briefly the events of that period in order to better understand the behavior of the Shah in 1979.

As Mohammad Mossedeq gained more power and support through the parliamentary grant of "emergency powers," the Shah became increasingly upset and confused, and he looked to English and American officials for advice.  One report, a collaboration between American and British intelligence, identified Mohammad Reza Shah in 1952 as, "aware of the communist danger, but vacillating and weak.  Recently he has showed himself to be too easily swayed by Mossadeq's threats."  (Shawcross, 64)  In attempt to strengthen the Shah's determination, a number of international figures extended informal support for him against the powerful Prime Minister.  The varied responses he received set in his mind an unrealistic precedent for the extent to which the international community would be willing to support him.  Winston Churchill, through the American Ambassador Loy Henderson, extended reassurances of the two nations' commitment to his reign.  Still, the American and British reactions were dualistic at best.  Even Churchill's message exemplified this diplomatic ambiguity when he said, "While we do not interfere in Persian politics, we should be very sorry to se the Shah driven out."  (Shawcross, 66)  This only aggravated the Shah's already acute insecurities, and in combination with his exclusion from Operation Ajax he became convinced that England was part of the actions against him, similar to their replacement of the Qajar dynasty with his father.  As a result, he took little initiative in combating the growing internal dissent.

In the end, the coup against Mossadeq succeeded only due to the intervention of the CIA and MI6, largely because of the conservative leanings of the governments at that time and their determination to prevent Iran from falling into the Communist sphere of influence.  This reality has serious implications for our understanding of the events of the Islamic revolution in 1979, in that it formed contrasting opinions between the Shah and the general population as to his relationship with the Western powers.  As Henry Kissinger explained, "One of the reasons for the Shah's progressive demoralization was his very real doubt whether we were actually supporting him.  He certainly had the means at his disposal to resist more strenuously than he did.  And he chose not to exercise them because he must have had doubts about our real intentions."  (Shawcross, 152) By 1977, Mohammad Shah truly believed that the discord was being sown by the West as a response to some unknown affront he must have committed.  He theorized that England may still harbor resentment about the nationalization of oil that cut their profits from the region, or that perhaps the Americans were planning to sacrifice him as part of a separate peace with the USSR.  In his mind, the revolutionary movement was too well organized to be the product of internal forces, and therefore the means by which he tried to stop it included offering appeasements to England and the United States rather than focusing on his domestic policies.  (Amuzegar, 80)  Ultimately, this backfired, resulting in a much more rapid and confident revolutionary movement.

Much of the lack of internal response stemmed from the fluctuation of use of what Kissinger referred to as the "means at his disposal."  Here he is discussing the Savak, the Iranian intelligence and enforcement community, which was also a direct result of the 1953 experience and the Western reaction. Savak served as the intellectual descendant to the "eyes and ears of the king," a system of proto-intelligence agents that operated under Darius during the Persian Empire.  However, there were very few actual parallels between the modern organization and its ancient model.  Trained by the CIA and Mossad, Savak was in practice far more interested in the bureaucratic and enforcement aspects of their mission than in actual intelligence gathering.  Additionally they, under the close direction of the Shah, were entirely preoccupied by eliminating the Tudeh party, the communist element in Iran, instead of trying to discern all of the internal networks, particularly the Islamist groups, which proved far more capable of inciting revolution.  They also failed to gauge the extent of dissatisfaction with the regime amongst the general population, largely because of their tactic of targeting individual members instead of infiltrating groups and identifying the central leadership.  (Amuzegar, 167) 

The final failure of Savak resulted from the Shah's characteristic confusion when deciding on a policy concerning their actions.  As part of his designs for Iran becoming a Westernized, egalitarian society, the Shah began to reduce the violent aspects of his security network.  However, he chose a disastrous time to do so, arguably because he believed that this would ingratiate him to the Western nations and convince them to come to his aid.  Had he remembered the soothing words of Winston Churchill, he may have behaved differently.   Churchill had advised him that, "It is the duty of a constitutional monarch or president when faced with violent tyrannical action by individuals or a minority party to take the necessary steps to secure the well-being of the toiling masses and the continuity of an ordered state."  (Shawcross, 66)  Instead, through his "liberalization" policy he eradicated the highly controversial extra-legal powers of the Savak, which infuriated its members to the extent that they began participating in and even inciting riots "in order to teach the monarch a lesson."  (Amuzegar, 168)  The major flaw in his plan occurred in the aftermath of the September 8 protests and what became known as Black Friday.  After a huge outcry arose against the regime for the declaration of martial law and the killings of dozens of protesters, the Shah reversed his decision.  He opted for a more humanitarian route, ordering that security forces no longer fire upon demonstrators under any circumstances.  The people soon realized the implications of this, and often taunted the officers.  Ultimately, leaders of the revolutionary movement mistook this act of appeasement as one of surrender, and thereby encouraged even more rapid and vehement measures against the government.  (Zonis, 590)  The Shah's inconsistency not only failed to prevent, but also even precipitated his own downfall.

It was the failure of Savak and more importantly of Mohammad Reza Shah himself to understand the attitudes of the population that brought the government to such a weakened position by 1978-1979.  By that point, antipathy towards the Shah and his rule characterized nearly every faction of Iranian society, creating allies amongst otherwise ideologically inconsistent demographics.  Religious and secular, elite, middle-class, and poor, all felt that their lives and their country was worse for Mohammad Reza Shah's influence.  The most vocal of these discontented groups, as in any society, was the educated youth.  The typical cynicism and mistrust of these young men was exacerbated in a culture distinguished for its high perception of injustice stemming from an easy disillusionment with individual leaders.  Yet the people certainly needed some justification for upheaval other than a simple propensity towards dissension, and the Shah undeniably provided ample provocation.  Unfortunately, many of the perceived affronts were in fact part of the effort of the Shah to modernize his country and improve the quality of life of its citizens, issues which he considered a personal crusade as well as a guaranteed way to ingratiate himself to both his subjects and the international community.

The 1960's and ‘70's in Iran saw a dramatic influx of money as a result of the nation's wealth of oil reserves.  It also saw the grandiose plans of the Shah's White Revolution, a plan to modernize the country through land reform, large-scale urban development, and extension of civil liberties to women and other previously disenfranchised groups.  Portions of this program, which included the replacement of the traditional calendar dating from the Hegira with one that focused on the reign of Cyrus, wer in blatant disregard of the majority Shiite population by its secular leader.  On a more commercial level, it aggrieved most of the people the Shah hoped to help: the youth, middle class merchants, and political activists.  (Shawcross, 195)  In general, nearly every section of society was of the opinion that the White Revolution was merely a pretext for increasing the role of the central government in their daily operations.  With all of these groups against him, he essentially lost the support of the illiterate peasantry in the country and the educated elite in the city at once.  Their leadership, religious clerics and wealthy businessmen, would prove strange but effective bedfellows in the movement to depose the Shah.  (Zonis, 592)

The general consensus is that the Shah simply tried to progress too quickly in a region that observes change on a millennial scale.  Land prices skyrocketed as the government bought up land for development, driving businessmen and tenets alike out of their homes and often leaving them bankrupt.  Workers were imported into the city to build magnificent homes and skyscrapers, meanwhile spending their nights in shanty towns and sometimes even in holes in the ground.  As the British Ambassador Anthony Parsons observed, a large contributory factor in the popular uprising was the enormous influx of laborers, young and impoverished men with no roots in the community and therefore no reason to avoid confrontations.  (Shawcross, 27)  Politically, the Shah's policies were contradictory at best.  In 1967, he wrote that, "Censorship and suppression of liberty for no part of our plans…we will take no such authoritarian measures…and at no time must the means of attaining our goal be in conflict with the individual's right of belief and freedom."  (Amuzegar, 149)  However, in 1975 he abolished the state's opposition party in favor of the single Rastakhiz party, without following the legal procedure of consulting the parliament; nor did he reach out to any of his advisors in making this decision.  (Alam, 415)  The Shah expected people to be exuberant over free elections and universal suffrage, but instead they viewed his actions as another way to advance the interests of his relatives and courtiers above those of the people, as he had by driving up the value of land.

 Despite all of the attention paid to internal security and policies by the Shah, many argue that it was still inadequate when compared to his focus on foreign military and diplomatic affairs.  His personal political insecurities made him constantly suspicious of intrigue from neighboring countries as well as the major powers.  In order to combat the immediate geopolitical risks, he constantly sought the most advanced weaponry manufactured in the United States.  It was an apparent obsession, and he frequently tested new presidents by attempting to renegotiate the limits on his spending, striking the most satisfactory deal with Richard Nixon for billions of dollars in return for the newest airplanes and tracking systems.  However, this directly violated warnings dating back to 1961, when John W. Bowling of the US State Department noted that the Shah needed to abandon this "near-obsession" with military development in order to effectively manage increasing internal pressure.  (Zonis, 587)  Nine years later, the U.S. Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that, "Iran could not afford extensive new arms purchases and still maintain the level of economic development that the Shah deems necessary for political stability…Increased military spending could thus lessen rather than enhance Iranian security."  (Shawcross, 158)  By the time President Carter opted to act on these and similar precautionary documents, the situation had deteriorated sufficiently that they could no longer prove adequate.

Carter was not the first foreign leader to understand the precarious nature of Iranian politics and the monarch who embodied them.  When John F. Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, the Russian leader informed him of the looming danger surrounding the Shah's position.  Khrushchev identified the incompatibility of the Shah's self-image and the reality of public perception, observing that the Shah viewed himself as endowed with a divine right to leadership that would overcome any adversary.  He astutely remarked that the Shah's power rested on the military success of his father, not on divine grace, and that this was surely how his subjects viewed him.  Khrushchev explained to Kennedy that he found it inevitable that Iran would undergo major upheaval, resulting in its conversion into a part of the soviet sphere.  President Kennedy was humbled by these observations, and immediately ordered an intelligence estimate to verify them.  The report concluded that, "profound political and social change in one form or another is virtually inevitable," and that such change was most likely to come through a revolutionary movement.  (Shawcross, 85)  As a result of these revelations, Kennedy acted quickly to reform the policy on Iran, enacting proactive measures to diagnose potential threats and intervene where necessary.

Given the clarity an insight of understanding nearly two decades before the revolution actually succeeded, how is it that history views the event as sudden and unpredictable?  Sources concede that intelligence circles throughout the democratic and communist worlds still found the idea of a successful revolution inconceivable in 1978.  In fact, only two reports, one Israeli and one French, mentioned the serious danger ahead for the Shah, and these went virtually unnoticed.  (Amuzegar, 12)  The general belief of diplomats in Tehran in 1978 was that the Shah would not need their countries' support, that internal security would handle the unrest.  The majority believed that the Shah still held the loyalty of the influential middle class, that they were merely adjusting to the details of the "liberalization" policy and would gradually accept it with proper encouragement from the central government.  The most glaring mistake was the accepted opinion that the revolutionary forces, particularly the religious factions, were poorly organized and largely ineffective.  (ibid., 229) 

Had intelligence in the region been more thorough, diplomats would have recognized rapidly that reality was the exact opposite of their assumptions.  Networks of bazaar businessmen and local clerics provided the ideological and financial wealth sufficient to make a truly organized, efficient revolution.  As Israeli Ambassador Uri Lubran recalled, "the only organized infrastructure which had leeway to operate within the country was the religious community."  (Shawcross, 276)  This dilemma was exacerbated by the Shah, who had already strengthened the religious movement by proscribing a nearly all other political outlets, when he chose to give approval for France to accept the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.  In his new, Western base, the Ayatollah had access to the most modern amenities, allowing him to phone his speeches directly to his supports in Iran, who would record and immediately distribute them throughout the country.  France also gave him an increased level of credibility, as if he were a foreign dignitary rather than an exiled priest.  In October of 1978, the perception became solidified as leaders of the secular opposition movements like Mahdi Bazargan visited the Ayatollah in France to officially endorse him as the head of the national anti-Shah movement.  This act allayed the fears of the middle-class bazaar merchants that a government without the Shah would be moderate and would not result in chaos.  (Stempel, 50)  The middle class, depended upon for support by foreign diplomats as well as the Shah, had now committed themselves to a revolution under Khomeini. 

Part of the failure to understand the immediacy of the revolution, at least in the case of the Americans, was symptomatic of diplomatic communities throughout the world: they were isolated from the population they needed to observe.  The American Embassy in Tehran is a perfect example of this systematic communication failure.  Purchased in 1928 from a wealthy family who used it as a country home, the building began as an ideal compound suitable for dignitaries and resting just beyond the city limits.  However, as the population boomed and the city expanded, the urban area spread to surround the walls of the lavish complex.  The effect was that American diplomats were removed completely from a population only a few feet away from them, who largely resented the luxury of their lifestyle.  Additionally, the Shah was strict concerning whom representatives of friendly nations could meet.  In order to maintain a favorable relationship with the Shah, most of the American officials living in Iran obeyed his order and did not pursue meetings with non-diplomatic or anti-Shah elements.  (Shawcross, 263)  With these crippling limitations, it becomes more apparent why U.S. intelligence on Iran in the months leading to the overthrow of the Shah contained so many oversights and false assumptions.

However, the problem with American intelligence on Iran in the mid and late 1970's depended on more than physical isolation; it resulted from an ideological separation as well.  The American approach to what Adda Bozeman refers to as "strategic thinking" is ahistorical, valuing an estimate of current situations and relies very minimally on understanding the cultural and geopolitical traditions in a given region.  The drawback of this attitude is that its outcomes are equally fleeting as its assessments.  As seen in Iran, it leads to immediate rather than lasting allies.  Additionally, it often fails to allow for constructive advice in times of upheaval, since it cannot anticipate trends or underlying motivations.  (Bozeman, 402)  American understanding of international events also assumes certain universalities that simply do not exist.  It views religion as secondary in government and Westernizing/modernizing actions as inherently favorable.  As discussed at the beginning of this argument, neither of these beliefs translates into Iranian culture.

Perhaps if Western intelligence possessed a better understanding of the full extent of Iranian/Persian history and its impact on the modern mentality, they could have foreseen and even prevented the expulsion of the Shah in favor of an Islamist regime.  Certainly, the event brought about a shift in Middle East policies, finally alerting the West to the fact that one must consider religious issues alongside political and economic factors when assessing the Islamic world.  This, in turn, leads to a reevaluation of the emphasis placed on human rights in countries obedient to the Sharia.  As Bozeman explained in late 1979, "it is not only illusional but counterproductive to make "human rights" the focus of our foreign policy [in the Middle East.]"  (Bozeman, 391)  The inability of U.S. policy makers to grasp this essential incongruity meant that, even granted access to individuals outside of the Shah's court, it is unlikely that they could have recognized the scope of revolutionary activities and their repercussions.

Still, it is important to remember that we now view the Iranian revolution as a fait accompli, and this makes it easy to analyze the failure of those involved.  As Henry Kissinger points out, he could remember an interview where he posited that, "a rate of economic advance like Iran's was bound to lead to revolution.  But it was an idle musing, for I added immediately that apparently the momentum of a very rapid rate of growth could overcome the political perils of industrialization.  I was wrong."  (Shawcross, 275)  History may very well look back on the events of 1979 and see them more as a startling combination of erroneous actions, rather than the successes of revolutionary methods.  Had the Shah been more connected with his people's demands, had the foreign powers chosen to intervene or provide encouragement, had the various factions chosen infighting over unity, Iran might have remained a constitutional monarchy.  That, however, is exactly why it is the duty of diplomats and intelligence officers to appreciate as much as possible about the situation in a given country, so that it does not become the responsibility of the historian to analyze what might have happened.


  1. Alam, Asadollah. The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran's Royal Court, 1969-1977. C. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1991
  2. Amuzegar, Jahangir. The Dynamics of Revolution. C. Albany: State University of New York. 1991
  3. Bozeman, Adda. "Iran: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Tradition of Persian Statecraft." Orbis, pp 387-402. Summer 1979
  4. Shawcross, William. The Shah's Last Ride. C. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1988
  5. Stempel, John D. Inside the Iranian Revolution. C. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1981
  6. Zonis, Marvin. "Iran: A Theory of Revolution from Accounts of the Revolution." World Politics vol. 35, no. 4, pp 586-606. July, 1983

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About the Author

Alana Blumenthal is an historian with a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.