This Feature has not been recently maintained and therefore may contain outdated information.

The Islamic Republic of Iran

History of Iran

The modern state of Iran was established in 1925 when Reza Shah Pahlavi was crowned, marking the end of the Qajar Dynasty. Prior to this, Iran was part of the Persian Empire, which lasted from 550 BC until it became the current nation-state following World War I. Reza Shah notably propelled Iran into industrialization and generally adopted a policy of western development. This included the construction of the Trans-Iranian railroad and an eventual policy of compulsory education. Iran also has historically controlled large amounts of oil and natural resources that has kept it within British and other Western national interests. Because of this, Reza Shah enjoyed support from the British throughout his tenure, until his relationship with the Germans during World War II became a concern for the Allied -- most prominently Britain. As a result, the British and Soviet-led Allied Powers essentially forced Reza Shah to abdicate the throne to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Mohammad Mossadegh gained popularity in the late 1940s in response to the influence that Western Powers continually exercised over Iran and its resources. One of the primary goals of Mossadegh and his National Front Party was to nationalize Iranian Oil, the basis for this strong foreign interest. Mossadegh was eventually elected prime minister in 1950 with wide popular support and followed through with his plan to nationalize the oil industry weeks after his election. Failed attempts between Mossadegh and the West to come to an agreement surrounding oil rights led to the Shah fleeing the country and upset Britain and other Western powers. Classified documents released in 2013 confirm that the CIA and MI-6 led a successful coup to overthrow Mossadegh in 1953 in response to his nationalization of oil. The coup harbored a period of unrest and economic downturn that destabilized the country.

Mohammad Reza Shah was reinstated following the Western-backed coup. Many scholars attribute his low popularity in part to his connections to Western powers, and explain that the funding and support he enjoyed from the West made much of the populace perceive him as a pawn of the West's influence. His links to the West combined with his increasingly dictatorial reign ultimately led to unrest and opposition, which many scholars explain laid the groundwork for the 1979 Revolution. The American and British participation in the 1953 coup to overthrow Mossadegh is also attributed to the widespread anti-Western sentiment in Iran leading to the Revolution and into today.

Iranian Revolution of 1979

After years of prevailing social, political and economic difficulties, the people of Iran deposed their king, elevated a clerical exile to the seat of power and ushered in a new era: this was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The king, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was the figurehead for the country's monarchy, a government supported by the West, which had replaced the pro-Axis monarchy under the Shah's father. International oil interests dating back to 1908 had led to the Western intervention in Iranian politics that was responsible for the Shah's ascension to power. Under his reign, he assured his Western allies that the country's oil industry would not be nationalized, as had been attempted by the country's prime minister in April 1951. The Shah's policy of promoting modernization and bolstering infrastructure (referred to as the "White Revolution"), though reigning in some prosperity, did not ultimately yield the promised reforms.

National discontent swelled with the Shah's changing policies. Primarily nonviolent demonstrations by different classes of Iranian society, from intellectuals to clerics to laborers, characterized the resulting popular movement. The demonstrations, combined with labor strikes involving up to nine million Iranians at any one time, crippled the country's economy and eventually led to the Shah's abdication in November 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once-exiled for his opposition to the Shah's alignment with the West, returned as the monarchy crumbled, and assumed control of the country. Following a referendum that earned the overwhelming support of the country's citizens, Iran officially became the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Islamic students, influenced by the revolutionary rhetoric, seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held American hostages in what was to be a crucial showdown between the newly born Republic and the country's former ally under the Shah: the United States. Khomeini, recognizing the potential political and international leverage to be gained, condoned the detainment of the hostages until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

When compared with other Western revolutions, the Iranian Revolution stands in stark contrast for the fact that its social upheaval was not characterized by a dichotomy between the rich and the poor or the privileged and the oppressed; it was instead religion that catalyzed the revolution in Iran, and this theological unifier brought the disparate classes together with a common purpose. Understanding the Iranian Revolution from a Western perspective may run the risk, as one source puts it, of oversimplifying a complex historical transformation that does not easily fit the Western understanding of revolution. Further setting the Iranian Revolution apart from analogous movements during the era is that the crucible of conflict produced not a liberal democracy, as it had in other regions of the world (like Nicaragua), but rather birthed another authoritarian regime. This regime, spearheaded by religious elites, altered the very fabric of Iranian society to create what is today the modern state of Iran.

Iran Hostage Crisis

The Iran Hostage Crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, lasted for 444 days. It began just after the arrival of the Iranian Shah in America, and ended on the day of the inauguration of US President Ronald Reagan. 52 American citizens were held hostage by members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line as part of the Iranian Revolution for the entire 444 days, with a few Americans released earlier in the crisis.

The student revolutionaries, who supported the Iranian Revolution to overthrow the contemporary Iranian government, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. They declared that they would hold the Americans until the US government returned the Shah to Iran for trial. The Shah was in the US at the time, having been admitted for humanitarian reasons related to his cancer treatment. The student group used the hostage situation to express their outrage at the US for taking the Shah into the country. The students, as well as the other revolutionaries, wanted the Shah to be tried for crimes against Iranians. At first, the hostages were kept in the Embassy, but after a rescue mission ("Operation Eagle Claw") failed, the hostages were moved to various locations in order to prevent further attempts to free them.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious leader in Iran in 1979, publicly supported the students in their hostage-taking, and also supported the demand that the US force the Shah to return to Iran. The Iranian government described the hostages as "guests" of Iran, and while none of the hostages were injured, their actions were severely limited and they were "blindfolded and paraded in front of TV cameras and jeering crowds" as well as being subjected to "mock executions" in which the hostages believed that they were going to be shot while blindfolded.

The Iran Hostage Crisis was a major news story, and it dramatically affected President Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Negotiations for the release of the hostages began in September 1980, but ultimately the hostages were not released until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office on January 20, 1981. The hostages were then taken into US custody and flown out of Iran. As a result of the Iran Hostage Crisis, there have been no diplomatic relations between the US and Iran since, and neither maintains an embassy in the other's country.


Support JURIST

We rely on our readers to keep JURIST running

 Donate now!

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.