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Now Available: Iran Under the Ayatollahs

Imam Khomeini

First published in 1985, this is a comprehensive study of the Middle East's most strategic country, set against the background of the Islamic heritage of Iran and the rise and fall of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Dilip Hiro’s critique of Iran Under the Ayatollahs

What a coincidence! 11 February 2011 is set to go down in the Egyptian history as the day when a massive protest forced President Hosni Mubarak, a secular autocrat, to resign. And it was on 11 February 1979 that the popular movement in Iran hammered the last nail in the coffin of the secular Shah’s dictatorial regime.

But that is where the similarity between the two events ends. What happened in Egypt was regime change – not revolution which convulsed Iran. Revolution means a complete uprooting of the established system and rebuilding a different social order on new foundations.

For popular discontent to precipitate into large-scale demonstrations, ordinary people must lose fear of the police and paramilitaries. Then, for the escalating street demonstrations to culminate into revolution, a set of conditions must be satisfied. The protest must keep widening its popular base, crucially inducting the productive segment of society which leads to the freezing of the economy. It must either throw up a leader or raise the profile of an existing one who rallies different sections of society on a maximalist platform. This leader, or a collective, must keep escalating popular demands at the first sign of weakness by the current ruler – always demanding more than what the existing regime is prepared to concede. Finally, unable to withstand the popular surge, the military, police and intelligence agencies fracture and collapse.

That is what happened in Iran – from October 1977 to February 1979. The revolutionary process went through seven steadily rising stages before reaching its goal of overthrowing the Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi.

Two elements make the Iranian revolutions different from the ones in Russia (1917) and China (1949). It was led by a religious figure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with mullahs playing a crucial role in mobilizing the masses. And, unlike the triumphant communist upheavals, which occurred in wartime or in the aftermath of a war, the Iranian revolution happened in peacetime.

Part I of my book, consisting of three chapters, provides the background to the 20th century’s last great revolution, and how 76-year-old Khomeini helped to create ever rising popular upsurge to advance the anti-Shah movement.

In several ways, consolidating a revolution is more demanding than overthrowing the ancien
regime. There is the urgent task of reconstructing the armed forces, police and intelligence services while defeating the repeated attempts by the displaced elite of the previous regime to undo the revolution.

Two major events assisted the new leaders to rally Iranians irrespective of their class or the degree of their religiosity: The occupation of the United States embassy in Tehran, and holding American diplomats hostage, in November 1979 was one. The other was the invasion of Iran by the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in September 1980.

By backing the American hostage-taking by militant students, Khomeini’s government highlighted its radical anti-imperialist policy. That helped it to win over many young Iranians who until then belonged to several Marxist and quasi-Marxist parties. Iraq’s aggression stirred deep nationalist feelings among Iranians thereby fusing nationalism with revolution – in the way Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union did in 1941.

Meanwhile, the Islamic regime, headed by the popularly elected president and parliament, with Khomeini at the helm, pressed ahead with Islamization of government and society, purging them of all elements of secularism.. .

The five chapters in Part II of the book cover these subjects at length.

The upturning of the social order at home, which is inherent in a revolution, impacts sharply on the foreign policy of the country. A revolutionary upset in a strategic land such as Iran was bound to create apprehension in the region. And it did.

When Khomeini began attacking monarchy as an un-Islamic institution, he earned the wrath of the hereditary rulers of the six Arab Gulf states across the Persian Gulf. They increased their material backing for Iraq in its war with Iran which, lasting almost eight years, would become the longest conventional war of the last century. .

While professing neutrality in that conflict, the US initially tilted towards Iraq and later enhanced its naval presence in the Gulf to intimidate Tehran. Having lost a valuable ally in Iran, adjoining the Soviet Union, in its Cold War with Moscow, Washington embraced Pakistan as a strategic partner especially after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979.

Khomeini’s anti-Americanism did not translate into a pro-Moscow stance despite the assistance the Kremlin gave to Tehran after the West’s imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. Indeed his regime bolstered Islamist resistance to the pro-Moscow government in Kabul – but independently of what the US did for the Afghan Mujahedin. In short, revolutionary Iran stuck to its policy of “Neither East nor West”.

Part III, titled “Iran and the World”, deals with these topics in three chapters.

A quarter century after the publication of Iran Under the Ayatollah, Khomeini’s imprint on contemporary Iran remains intact. While the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, the rivalry between America and the Islamic Republic remains as strong as it was during the rule of Khomeini.

Order your copy of Iran Under the Ayatollahs today!

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