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Iranians overthrow the Shah, 1977-79
Agitation in Iran was visible by May 1977 in predominantly intellectual circles. A group of lawyers—upset by the government’s interference in the judiciary—drafted a strongly worded manifesto chronicling the legal abuses that had occurred under the Shah’s regime. Poets formed a Writers’ Association to call for an end to censorship and the activity of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. A National Organization of University Teachers began fighting for academic freedom while university and seminary students called for academic freedom in the schools.
Leading up to the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, Iranians had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Shah. Many Iranians were upset by the Shah’s administration because, even in the wake of a national oil boom, wealth was unequally distributed. Initially, protestors wanted to reestablish 1906-1909 laws that created a constitutional monarchy. The 1906 Constitution required the Shah to adhere to the laws of Islam and to gain the approval of the Parliament (majlis).
In the first phase of the revolution, much of the nonviolent resistance arose from the creativity of the students. When banned from holding demonstrations, University of Tehran activists stood in silence in front of their library, quietly agitating for freedom of speech. The students also targeted U.S. President Nixon because of his military support of the Shah; they dribbled basketballs on the path of the Nixon-Shah motorcade, an allusion to a popular photograph circulating of Fidel Castro playing basketball.
The National Front party, which had earlier opposed Western domination of the oil industry, was revived in late 1977 by Dr. Karim Sanjabi and called on the Shah to hold free and fair elections, restore the constitution of 1905, respect freedom of speech, free political prisoners, and allow for an independent Iran in foreign affairs. Sanjabi and the two other leaders of the National Front—Foruhar and Bakhtiyar—also accused the Shah of wrecking the economy by neglecting agriculture. By the end of 1977, professionals and students had created organizations, written manifestos, and sent letters to the Imperial Palace, but had not mobilized the support of the nation.
A turning point came on January 7, 1978. A government editorial in a newspaper accused anti-regime clerics of working with communists and the Ayatollah Khomeini of licentious behavior and of being a British spy. In Qum, the headquarters of the ulama (clergy), seminaries and bazaars closed in protest and the ulama staged a protest meeting, articulating their goals as calling for dissolution of the single party and peaceful release of political prisoners. Qum’s 4,000 theology students, in the meantime, initiated street protests but were quickly shut down by the police, who killed two students in the clash.
Khomeini seized this opportunity to congratulate the Qum clergy on their peaceful opposition while he called for more demonstrations. The more religiously affiliated cleric Shari’atmadari called on the country to mourn the students killed in the traditional Islamic manner: forgoing work and attending mosque services on the fortieth day anniversary. This process caused three upheavals to occur in 40-day cycles.
On February 18, 1978, peaceful demonstrations occurred in twelve cities on the fortieth-day anniversary of the death of the Qum students. In Tabriz, after a police officer shot a teenage protestor, angered demonstrators began to attack particular kinds of property that symbolized either the Pahlevi state (police stations and Resurgence party offices) or un-Islamic values (luxury hotels and liberal movie houses). After two days, the military intervened to quash the uprising, which had been the largest public protest since 1963.
Forty days later, on March 29, attendees of a commemorative religious service in Yazd were energized by the words of a fiery preacher, who inspired them to take to the streets shouting “Death to the Shah.” The police again shut down the street protest by firing at the crowd, precipitating a three-day crisis that killed over 100.
Again, Khomeini and Shari’atmadari encouraged Iranians to attend services forty days later, on May 10. On that date police violently repressed demonstrations in 24 towns, with violence escalating noticeably in Tehran and Qum, where troops broke into the homes of religious leaders and killed theology students taking sanctuary there.
Before the next round of fortieth-day services the regime took increasing action; it used the secret police SAVAK to intimidate leaders of the secular opposition while abandoning a few of its most criticized policies and issuing apologies. The regime made economic reforms to cut inflation. These small concessions were enough to temporarily pacify the public, who supported a contented Shari’atmadari rather than Khomeini, who still agitated for overthrow of the Shah.
A major shift occurred in June 1978 when the urban poor and working class people joined what had previously been an upper-middle class movement. Government measures to control inflation had caused an economic recession that affected urban employment. Workers went on industrial strikes throughout the summer, demanding health insurance, bonuses, and wage increases. When employees of Tehran’s electrical system and water system stopped working, they shut down the city. Workers organized demonstrations in Ifsahan, where the government declared martial law and shot down the demonstrators.
In August, a fire burned down a movie theater with several hundred people trapped inside, and mourners blamed SAVAK even without decisive evidence.
Fearful of another series of forty-day cycles, the Shah made more concessions: allowance of all parties to campaign in the next election was given, amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners was granted, and a new premier Sharif Emami—who would be far more willing to negotiate with the oppositional religious establishment—was appointed.
Sharif Emami came to an agreement with opposition leaders for the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan). He issued demonstration permits in exchange for the protestors’ agreement to demonstrate in a prescribed area and avoid personal attacks on the Shah in their slogans. The feast passed without repression, although 5,000 students staged a sit-in, 700 oil workers went on strike, and countless more Iranians protested in the street.
Despite the opposition leaders’ efforts to dampen the militancy of the demonstrations, the protestors increased their level of enthusiasm and radicalism over the next few days. On September 8 the Shah declared martial law in Tehran and other cities and ordered the killing of any demonstrators who refused to disperse. The blood-letting became known as “Black Friday” and drew the attention of the U.S. government, the Shah’s chief ally. President Jimmy Carter issued a statement backing the Shah. The mass of Iranians drew a different conclusion from the day on which helicopter gun-ships hovered above unarmed Iranians packed into city squares, raining bullets upon them. A critical mass of Iranians reached the conclusion that a full revolution was the only answer.
A wave of strikes in late 1978 shut down the Iranian economy, with peaks on October 6 (when Khomeini was expelled to Paris) and October 16 (the fortieth day after Black Friday). Strikers expanded their articulated goals to encompass political turnover, the abolition of SAVAK, the return of Khomeini, and the end of martial law. Strikers brought bazaars, schools, government ministries, and the oil industry virtually to a standstill.
This proved to be the tipping point for the Shah, whose country’s economy was supported almost entirely by oil.
In December, a giant wave of demonstrators shouted, “God is Great” from their rooftops. When the demonstrators descended to the streets they were rolled over by tanks, marking the first of several bloody clashes between protestors and police that month.
As a concession the Shah appointed former opposition-leader Bakhtiyar as Prime Minister. This was not enough; the campaigners forced the Shah to leave Iran in mid-January. Prime Minister Bakhtiyar dissolved the oppressive infrastructure of the state, including SAVAK. Under continued pressure he invited back Khomeini, who, upon his February 10, 1979 arrival in Qum, publicly denounced Baktiyar’s conciliatory regime and consolidated power in the Revolutionary Council.
Iranians celebrated the victory by embracing soldiers in the street and stuffing flowers in the barrels of their rifles. Despite the hostile slogan of “Death to the Shah,” the Iranians had just led one of the largest nonviolent revolutions in history.