On Jan. 3, 2020, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike while leaving Baghdad International Airport. The attack — authorized by President Trump — escalated a tense conflict between Iran, the United States, and their respective allies. 

Days later, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed responsibility for ballistic missile attacks on two U.S. air bases in Iraq.

On Jan. 8, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a commercial plane the Iranian government claimed was mistaken for an incoming missile.

The bombings serve as the latest violence in a strained relationship between Iran and the West dating back nearly a century. During this time period, Iran would experience drastic cultural, economic, and political shifts.

1954: Mohammad Mossadeq is overthrown 

In 1954, fueled by economic interests in the oil-rich region, US and British intelligence officers organized a coup that ousted Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister.

Mossadeq had planned to nationalize Iran’s oil industry — an idea that was supported by many Iranians. 

A great majority of Iranians were frustrated by western powers taking advantage of Iran’s resources, while the working poor reaped little reward.

Following the coup, Iran’s last monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi assumed power.

Pahlavi returned 80% of Iran’s oil reserves to the US and Great Britain in exchange for millions of dollars in aid.

The coup was considered a massive victory for the CIA at the time, but devastating repercussions would be felt many years later.

Though relations between the United States and Iran in the coming decades weren’t always affable, the United States relied on the shah to keep Soviet influence from spreading in the surrounding region, selling Iran “virtually any conventional weapons it wanted,” according to a 1972 staff report from the Nixon administration.

Pahlavi promised to use the millions he’d received in foreign aid to modernize Iran, turning the country into an economic powerhouse and a hub of industry. And to this end, he succeeded. He also deliberately limited the power of Islamic clerics, drastically increasing the power of the centralized government.

The ‘White Revolution’

As Iran’s government secularized, its economy, educational opportunities, and cultural freedoms expanded.

During the decades prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iranian women enjoyed an expansion in their rights and freedom: The minimum age of marriage was gradually raised from 13 to 18, both sexes were granted the right to ask the courts for divorce, and men were required to gain permission from the court to take a second wife under the Family Protection Law.

Sweeping social, political, and economic changes were implemented as part of the shah’s “White Revolution,” which began in 1963.

The movement was suggested to Iran by the Kennedy administration as an alternative to the “red revolutions” sprouting up in surrounding countries, which proliferated communism and hostility toward the West. 

Land was redistributed to workers and cultivators and former landowners were compensated in the form of shares in industrial and agricultural profits.

Health and literacy programs spread to Iran’s rural areas, weakening the power of tribal groups and further advancing women’s rights in the region.

While these efforts had positive effects for education and women’s freedoms, the often brutal repression of tribes and their laws and the strengthening of the central government alienated many Iranians and sowed animosity toward the shah and the government.

The White Revolution further secularized Iran’s education system, further weakening clerical power, which had been declining since the development and expansion of secular courts.

One important and incredibly popular program created during the White Revolution was the creation of the Literary Corps.

According to a 1958 Manpower Survey, 67.2% of men and 87.8% of women over 15 years old were illiterate. Pahlavi recognized that this had to change if Iran was ever to gain the infrastructure needed to compete with international superpowers.

To combat illiteracy, young men who had completed secondary education were given the option to teach middle school children in rural areas as their two-year military service. Most of the corpsmen and corpswomen were urban middle-class youth who had no labor skills or could not be drafted in the army.

The Literary Corps taught 2.2 million children between six and 12 years old and 1 million adults who hadn’t received a formal education.

This program educated much of the rural population at a fraction of the cost of formal schools and was so successful and popular that it remains in operation even after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Parliament, Iran, women's rights
Women members of Iranian Parliament circa 1970s. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1963, women’s rights organizations like the Organization of Iranian Women, The Women’s Democratic Organization, and the Women’s Progressive Movement succeeded in petitioning the Shah to grant women’s suffrage and the ability to serve as members of parliament.

Foreign trade and domestic growing pains

As Iran industrialized internally, it became increasingly involved in foreign politics, cementing the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a military alliance between Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey to contain Soviet influence in the region.

Iran was also instrumental in forming the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) alongside Turkey and Pakistan.

The involvement in foreign affairs also had a great influence on Iranian culture as well. Many Iranian women adopted western clothing styles, including short-sleeved shirts, tight jeans, and miniskirts. Women and men mixed freely in the cities, schools, and workforce and some, albeit a small number of women, were elected into parliament and appointed into the senate.

But as advancements in industry and cultural freedom transpired, resentment against the pro-western royal family and government grew.

The rapid modernization of previous decades, which depended on considerable government spending, led to high inflation rates and an artificially high rate of employment that depended largely on loans and credit. 

Dependency on the unpredictable oil trade fueled by western consumption further contributed to economic instability, despite the shah’s efforts to diversify Iran’s economy.

As oil prices skyrocketed when supply couldn’t meet demand, Iranian’s standard of living began to deteriorate.

The land reform efforts of the White Revolution proved disastrous for many rural workers. Without a good system in place to take over the land owner’s role of providing farming necessities to tenants, agriculture stagnated and many workers fled rural areas for the cities.

There they found little respite from the high cost of living, poor working conditions, and erosion of their traditional family structure and support system.

At the same time, the shah became increasingly feared and hated for his brutality. SAVAK — Iran’s secret police — repressed dissidents, censored the media, surveilled politicians, and even tortured militants to death.

Opposition grows

Outspoken Shi’ite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was relentless in denouncing the shah, inspiring disenfranchised leftists and conservative religious clerics to demonstrate and riot against the government.

In 1963, Khomeini delivered a fiery sermon condemning the shah as a “wretched, miserable man,” at the Feyziyeh School. The passionate speech inspired around 100,000 protesters to march past the shah’s palace in Tehran, calling for “Death to the Dictator.”

When the Ayatollah was arrested and thrown in prison two days later, mass demonstrations erupted in the streets.

The shah responded by invoking martial law to quell the riots. Soldiers opened fire on protesters that refused to disperse, killing and arresting hundreds.

Ayatollah Khomeini was imprisoned for a year before being exiled to Iraq, where he continued to criticize the shah and spread his philosophy of velāyat-e faqīh [guardianship of the jurist], which called for an Islamic Republic in Iran.

His exile only made him more popular — tape recordings of his sermons were smuggled across the border and played in mosques and homes throughout the country, sowing dissent and hostility toward Pahlavi’s regime.

For as much as the shah feared the clerics, he feared leftists even more. Political parties like the National Front and Tudeh Party were ostracized, and dissenting voices were censored, repressed, and surveilled.

Both major political parties that remained were subservient to the monarch.

Even as guerrilla groups and revolutionaries were brutally repressed by the Iranian army, Marxist and religious groups became increasingly vocal about their opposition to the shah. Secular and Islamic revolutionaries formed a tentative alliance against the regime. 

Islamic Revolution
Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Around this time, Pahlavi attempted to unite the country under a Persian nationalist identity, adopting the title Shahanshah [King of Kings] but was heavily criticized for throwing extravagant parties and celebrations while much of the country was impoverished.

In 1971, a large party that celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy was met with outrage from many Iranians.

“By this time, the shah was already very much disliked and some believe this image of excess and indulgence may have contributed to events leading up to the revolution eight years later,” Baroness Haleh Afshar, a professor of the University of York told BBC News.

Things reached a fever pitch in 1978.

Leftist intellectuals, landowners, clerics, and impoverished working-class youth set aside their differences and came together in opposition to the shah. Many were angered because they felt Iran had modernized too fast, and the regime had failed to deliver on its promises to share the benefits. 

Dissent was further fueled by the belief that the shah had sold out the country to the United States, Britain, and Israel.

While these countries and the upper class profited from Iran’s rich oil resources, the rest of the country felt betrayed.

1979: Iranian Revolution

In January 1978, Eṭṭelāʿāt, a Tehran newspaper published critical remarks about Ayatollah Khomeini, enraging religious students, who took to the streets to demonstrate. They were quickly joined by hundreds of disaffected workers and unemployed immigrants from rural regions who were angered by the lack of opportunity they found in the city.

The regime responded with violence to quell the riots, killing scores of people. But the brutality turned the protesters into martyrs, and further enraged the masses.

More and more demonstrations, orchestrated by Ayatollah Khomeini began sprouting up, and the violence kept escalating.

In September 1978, the shah declared martial law. Tanks and soldiers descended on the streets of Tehran, opening fire on demonstrators.

Then, government officials and oil workers went on strike, crippling the economy.

The streets became saturated with demonstrators, all demanding the shah’s abdication.

Khomeini called for soldiers to defect, and an increasing number complied, ditching their fatigues for street clothes and joining the demonstrations. Twelve officers were killed by their own troops on Dec. 11, 1979, causing more soldiers to flee the ranks.

Finally, in January 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — weakened by cancer and disheartened by the avalanche of enmity toward him — fled Iran with his family under the guise of a vacation.

President Carter was reluctant to assist the shah in reclaiming power due to reports of human rights violations but agreed to allow him into the United States to receive cancer treatment.

Iran’s Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar and the Regency Council were given the impossible task of cleaning up the mess. 

Islamic Revolution
A confrontation between revolutionary militiamen and followers of Reza Shah in the streets of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. (Photo by Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images).

Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile on Feb. 1, 1979, to great fanfare.

The crowd uproared in applause after the ayatollah gave a victory speech, but they were quickly silenced by clerics.

“Khomeini deemed clapping too perverse, too Western, and not at all Islamic,” writes Nazila Fathi in The Lonely War. “On television, we could see people look at one another in confusion. The bearded man raised his arms and invited the crowd to chant with him. After a brief commotion, the crowd joined him: ‘Allah-o-Akbar, Allah-o-Akbar (“God is Good).’”

Less than two weeks later, Iran’s military gave up the fight and sealed the fate of the old regime.

Prime Minister Bakhtiar fled to France, allowing the revolutionaries to take full control. In the coming years, many more changes would take place — and a lot more blood would be spilled.

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