Photo by ESLAMI RAD via Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
On April 1, 1979, exactly two months after returning to Iran from exile, Ayatollah Khomeini announced that the country was now an Islamic Republic. This was directly after Iranians voted to approve a referendum imposing religious law.
According to initial results, an overwhelming 99% voted in favor of the referendum, though the government would later admit they tampered with the votes.
Khomeini promised the new regime would improve both the morality of the country and the socio-economic status of the dispossessed, providing affordable housing, free electricity, free water, and free public transit to all.
Many of the reforms that had taken place under the Pahlavi’s rule were quickly abolished, including many advancements for women. For example, the Family Protection Act was repealed, cutting the minimum age girls could marry from 18 to 9 years old.
Fearing a foreign-backed coup to reinstate the shah like what transpired in 1954, Khomeini, now the Supreme Leader of Iran empowered loosely organized militias known as the Revolutionary Guards to patrol the streets. These officers enforced a new traditional Muslim dress code and delivered improvised justice to perceived enemies of the revolution. Hundreds were beaten, jailed, tortured, and executed.
Almost immediately, the secular left that had been an integral part of the revolution were labeled enemies and stripped of power.
Mehdi Bazargan who helped found the Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI) was appointed Prime Minister by the Ayatollah but clashed with Khomeini and his clerics almost immediately. A pious, yet moderate voice, he quickly tired of being overruled at every turn by the Ayatollah’s Revolutionary Council.
The Ayatollah’s cabinet would often make decisions without gaining the approval of the new government, or even consulting with its leaders. Bazargan threatened to resign on multiple occasions — but Khomeini refused to accept these attempts at resignation.
The Iran hostage crisis
Meanwhile, hatred toward the west continued to fester, exacerbated by the news that President Carter had allowed Shah Pahlavi into the United States to receive cancer treatment.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamist militant students smashed the windows to the American embassy and seized 66 hostages. Ayatollah Khomeini supported their actions and demanded the United States return the shah to Iran to face punishment.
The incident outraged Prime Minister Bazargan, who finally resigned in protest.
14 of these hostages were released, but 52 remained in the embassy for over a year, continuing months after the exiled shah died in Egypt.
Under mounting pressure to bring the hostages home, President Carter launched Operation Eagle Claw in April 1980. The top-secret mission to free the hostages by force failed miserably when a sandstorm caused a helicopter to crash into a transport plane, killing eight U.S. soldiers and ending the mission before it even began.
Harsh economic sanctions proved similarly fruitless, and many analysts believe that Carter’s inability to resolve the crisis cost him the 1980 election.
Finally, on Jan. 21, 1981 the hostages were released, hours after President Ronald Reagan took office and freed $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
While the crisis was resolved peacefully, the incident further legitimized the new Islamic Republic, which, until then, many had believed to be a temporary installment until a more stable regime took power.
The Iran-Iraq war and the Iran-Contra scandal
Around the same time, Iraq took advantage of the post-revolution chaos, invading Iran on Sept. 22, 1980. Iraqi forces claimed the city of Khorramshahr in an extended, bloody battle.
Following the victory, Saddam Hussein began bombing Tehran relentlessly in an attempt to weaken the entire country by taking out its capital. Iraq also used mustard gas on Iranian troops and civilians on several occasions.
The United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union provided logistics support to Iraq during the war, further souring Iran’s relationship with foreign countries.
During this time, the Reagan administration was secretly selling weapons to Iran to fund anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua and to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. This was a stark contrast to the policy the U.S. presented to the public, which was to staunchly oppose arms sales to Iran under the assertion that the regime supported terrorism. The dealings were exposed in 1986, and later became known as the Iran-Contra affair.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted until 1988 when Khomeini and Hussein agreed to the United Nations-brokered ceasefire.
At the end of the internecine struggle, borders remained as they had at the outset of the war. Approximately 500,000 soldiers on both sides were killed, as well as thousands of civilians. A large portion of Iran’s casualties were child soldiers between 16 and 17 years old.
Life in the Islamic Republic: 1979 to 1989
Ultra-conservative religious fundamentalists were pleased with the direction the new Islamic government was taking, but a growing number of progressives were horrified by the repressive and violent actions, which they felt even exceeded the brutality of the former regime.
Women and girls over the age of nine were now forced to cover their hair and bodies in public or face lashings. They lost the right to divorce their husbands without making a prior agreement before marriage and could be flogged and stoned if convicted of adultery.
Also, women in government positions were stripped of their titles. Female educators were similarly cut from their jobs as many schools closed down due to a decree that disallowed coeducation between sexes.
These schools remained closed until 1982 when the government reshaped the curriculum to reflect Islamic values.
The textbooks were changed to depict women wearing the veil and participating in traditional gender roles.
In higher education, women were no longer permitted to study abroad and were restricted from taking many of the mathematics and computer science classes offered to male students. In many other fields, quotas were put in place to limit the number of female students.
Men, on the other hand, were barred from “feminine” subjects like fashion design and midwifery.
But despite the restrictions on women’s education, women’s literacy and enrollment in higher education continued to increase.
Khomeini sought to limit western influence on Iran by censoring and banning films and books, as well as discouraging fashion trends that came from America and Britain. This created a black market for western music and cinema — cassettes and VHS tapes were smuggled and distributed throughout the country.
Despite the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) strict crackdowns on anyone found possessing or distributing this type of paraphernalia, Iranian fashion styles began to reflect western pop culture. For example, the release of Top Gun caused Ray-Ban sunglasses, tight-fitting jeans, and bomber jackets to become popular among young Iranian men.
While personal and civil liberties were slashed after the Islamic Revolution and dissenters were violently suppressed, many of Iran’s downtrodden, or mostazafin, saw an improvement in their living conditions. Infrastructure and basic services were expanded outside the cities into rural communities, bringing clean water and electricity to those without.
Poverty rates dropped and rural literacy rates climbed. To many ra’iyat, or agricultural laborers, Khomeini was hailed as a hero.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s death and succession
On June 3, 1989, Ruhollah died at the age of 86 as the result of several heart attacks. Masses poured into the streets to mourn their fallen leader. Hundreds of people swarmed the funeral procession, knocking into the coffin and spilling Khomeini’s body. After guards dispersed the crowd and placed his body in a helicopter, Frantic mourners tried to hold onto the landing gear as it took off.
The entire world turned their eyes on Iran: Having fired his advisor days before his death, Ruhollah Khomeini left no clear blueprint for succession.
Progressive Iranians quietly hoped for reform and a loosening of the restrictions on basic freedoms.
Iran’s President Ali Khamenei was elected as Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts the day after Khomeini’s death, and remains in the position to this day. Khamenei continued the work his successor started, greatly expanding the power and influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into trade and politics.
Social and economic advancements and regression: 1989-2013
A hardline conservative, Khamenei clashed with reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997-2005.
To progressive Iranians, Khatami represented hope, promising to reform corrupt institutions, repair relationships with foreign countries, and advance women’s rights. Despite believing that a woman’s place was at home, Khatami relaxed the restrictions on quotas for women in universities and lifted bans on women taking certain subjects. He also relaxed censorship and bans on secular cinema and expressed interest in repairing relations with the United States.
Supreme Leader Khamenei refrained from openly criticizing liberal politicians, but he quietly supported conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his bid for the presidency, assisting him to a surprising victory.
The two leaders got along well during Ahmadinejad’s first term.
Ahmadinejad rolled back much of the progress made by the previous administration.
Women’s education was once again restricted by quotas and bans on fields of study, and the state-sponsored media was drastically censored of any content deemed objectionable to the government.
Ahmadinejad also rolled back any progress toward reconciliation with the west and its allies made by the previous administration, flaunting Iran’s new nuclear program, famously blaming the United States for the 9/11 attacks, and referring to the holocaust as a “myth.”
Despite economic growth during Ahmadinejad’s first term, infrastructure failed to improve.
Many working and middle-class Iranians — largely frustrated by the crippling sanctions from foreign governments brought on by Ahmadinejad’s nuclear expansion program — rallied behind Ahmadinejad’s challenger former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
The 2009 election promised to be a close one. But when the votes were counted, the incumbent President won by a landslide.
Many reformists accused Ahmadinejad and Khamenei of rigging the election, leading to massive street demonstrations in acts of protest that came to be known as the Green Movement, after the Mousavi campaign’s chosen color. Despite brutal attempts at suppression, the protests continued throughout the year.
During Ahmadinejad’s second term, relations between the president and the supreme leader began to wear thin.
Accusations of corruption, as well as the president’s unwillingness to compromise with the ayatollah on domestic issues and the employment of certain advisers in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, strained the relationship between the president, his conservative allies, and Khamenei himself. The final straw came when Ahmadinejad accused the supreme leader’s son of embezzling state funds. Khamenei advised the incumbent president not to seek a third term.
The continued struggle: 2013-Present day
Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 and serves as Iran’s current President.
He is seen as a moderate and reformist, who has restored many of the personal liberties and women’s advancements that were stripped away by his predecessor, and expressed support for government transparency and free access to information.
He’s also made progress repairing Iran’s diplomatic relations with other countries.
However, to many Iranians, this progress is too little, too late.
2017 and 2018 saw massive protests against both the Islamic Republic’s economic policies and theocratic rule, calling for the supreme leader’s abdication.
President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal) and re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian exports saw an 80% collapse in Iran’s oil exports and a rapid increase in Iranian unemployment and inflation rates.
Recently, 2019 and 2020 saw more violence, as protesters once again took to the streets after a massive increase in fuel prices. According to Iran’s interior minister, approximately 200,000 people took part in the unrest, which destroyed 140 government sites, 731 government banks, several gas stations, and dozens of security bases.
To quell the riots, the government — reportedly responding to express orders from Supreme Leader Khamenei to “do whatever it takes to end it” — shut down the internet and opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops.
Human rights organizations released reports of the torture of jailed organizers and threatening of the families of killed demonstrators. Reuters News reported that the casualties of the unrest — which lasted less than two weeks — reached around 1,500 deaths.
Despite clerical officials labeling the demonstrators as “thugs” under the influence of foreign powers, evidence of mounting frustration with the Islamic Republic’s economic policies and repressive tactics seems apparent.
Iranian Parliamentary elections will be held on Feb. 21, 2020.
It’s unclear what effect recent events, like the riots, the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, and the missile attack that brought down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, will have on voter turnout.
In Iran, low voter turnout has been known to predominantly hurt reformist candidates.