How Ayatollah Khomeini Guided the 1979 Iranian Revolution


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In January 1978, a scandalously offensive editorial about exiled Shia Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appeared on the front page of the Iranian newspaper Ettela’at. Within hours of its publication, the newspaper’s offices were ransacked. Days later, religious students in the shrine city of Qom took to the street in protest, and at least five demonstrators were killed in a clash with police. The Iranian Revolution was underway.

Iranina religious women protests in 1978
Religious students protested the scandalous editorial against Khomeini, who guided the Iranian Revolution even in exile. (Image: Khabar/Public domain)

A Dangerous Cycle

Khomeini and others outside of Iran condemned the attacks. Inside the country, the streets were quiet for 40 days as the Shi’as’ traditional period of mourning was honored. At the end of this time, another student died in another confrontation with police, followed by another 40 days of mourning. A dangerous pattern had been initiated. 

Each time Iranians took to the streets, the crowds grew larger, and their presence expanded from Qom to dozens of other cities. The ranks of religious students were now joined by university students and merchants. As the number of protesters grew, so did the number of deaths.

The Shah’s Strategic Mistakes

Seeking to mute the exiled Khomeini’s ability to use this tragedy against the government, the shah convinced his neighbor, Saddam Hussein, to deport Khomeini from Iraq. But Khomeini’s destination, Paris, heightened his political effectiveness. It gave him greater access to the world media. Now, as the shah negotiated with opposition figures to stabilize the situation, Khomeini gained the influence to thwart him.

Khomeini in Paris while surrounded by journalists
Khomeini’s deportation from Iraq to Paris worked wonders for the Iranian Revolution. (Image: Sa.vakilian/Public domain)

Curfews were routinely disobeyed. Strikes, demonstrations, and violence plagued the government into the fall and early winter. The shah’s readiness to use SAVAK and his military to deal with his political opponents, his perpetual willingness to serve American interests, the weight of the country’s deteriorating economic conditions, and an increasingly influential and vocal Islamic opposition combined to make continued Pahlavi rule untenable.

Khomeini’s Return to Iran

In December, millions of Iranians filled the streets demanding the shah’s overthrow and Khomeini’s return. On January 12, 1979, Khomeini formed a Revolutionary Council from Paris, anticipating that the government would break up. He envisioned the council as acting as a provisional government. 

Four days later, the shah and his family boarded a plane out of the country. Although he said publicly that he was going on vacation, his reign had come to an end. In the expectation that he would never return, he brought a jar of Iranian soil with him.

The shah put the government in the hands of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar. But a mobilized opposition was calling for Khomeini to come home. And on February 1, 1979, he arrived in Tehran on a chartered Air France 747. Millions of supporters flooded the streets to welcome him. The crowds were so boisterous that Khomeini’s motorcade was nearly overrun.

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Two Prime Ministers

Khomeini gave a speech thanking the Iranian people for their sacrifice and devotion and said, “The imperialist shah regime is all in the past and cannot be brought back.” Three days later, Khomeini appointed the pro-democracy activist Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of an interim government. 

Khomein and Mehdi Bazargan next to each other
Mehdi Bazargan became the prime minister of an interim government. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The shah’s successor, Bakhtiar, claimed that he represented the only legitimate government in Iran. He challenged Bazargan’s appointment. But Bakhtiar’s authority had been irrevocably tarnished when he’d ordered troops to fire on demonstrators days earlier.

Khomeini urged Iran’s armed forces to join the revolutionary struggle and sought to unite disparate factions by appealing to Islamic principles that would form a new Iran. Indeed, he stated that the new government, based on Sharia law, was an extension of God’s will. As such, it deserved the people’s full support. 

The revolutionaries welcomed deserters from the military and gave them civilian clothes and bus fare home. SAVAK was suddenly powerless. People looted the shah’s former palaces and freed inmates from prisons. Soon, Bakhtiar knew he was out of options. Ten days after Khomeini returned to Iran, Bakhtiar himself fled to Paris.

Triumph of the Iranian Revolution

Iranians have since celebrated February 11 as the day the revolution triumphed. But Khomeini wasn’t done yet. He was determined to not let the clerical leadership recede into the background, as it had in 1906 and again in 1953. Instead, he announced his intention to establish an Islamic republic and scheduled a national referendum on the matter for the end of March. It received near-unanimous support.

In May, Khomeini established a paramilitary force called the Revolutionary Guards to ensure that counter-revolutionaries couldn’t dismantle what so far had been achieved. Then, the trials and executions of former members of the shah’s regime began. The “government of God” became the retributive arm of revolutionary justice.

A ‘Revolution for Islam’

Meanwhile, conservative mullahs and Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council railed against corruption and freedom of the press. The new government shut down independent-leaning newspapers, and it banned Western movies, music, and art. Khomeini didn’t apologize for this. Instead, he made it clear that Iran’s “revolution was for Islam”.

On October 14, 1979, a cleric-dominated body called the Assembly of Experts approved the draft of a new constitution to be popularly voted on in December. A unique political system with two parallel tiers was envisioned: a republican tier, with an elected parliament and president, and a theocratic tier, consisting of 12 clerics who’d serve as a check on the parliament, even determining which candidates could run for office. At the head of this body, Ayatollah Khomeini was designated supreme leader.

Common Questions about How Khomeini Guided the Iranian Revolution of 1979

Q: What happened after the Iranian newspaper Ettela’at published an editorial about Khomeini?

The editorial was offensive to the character of Khomeini, which led to the newspaper’s offices being ransacked within a few hours of its publication. In a few days, a vicious cycle of protests and people dying would start from Qom and reach other cities, kickstarting the Iranian Revolution.

Q: What were some of the factors that made the Pahlavi rule untenable?

Mohammad Reza Shah was always ready to use SAVAK and his military against his critics, and he was always willing to serve American interests. Iran’s deteriorating economic state and increasingly powerful Islamic opposition were some of the factors that made Pahlvi’s rule untenable and influenced the Iranian Revolution.

Q: What did Khomeini do after the revolution triumphed on February 11?

Khomeini was determined not to let clerical leadership slip into the background of the Iranian Revolution, so he scheduled a national referendum for an Islamic government. Afterwards, he established the Revolutionary Guards, a paramilitary force to keep the revolution safe from the plans of any counter-revolutionaries.

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