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Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran on January 16, 1979, in the face of a revolution that had reached its zenith. But the seeds of the Iranian revolution were planted decades earlier, as is usually the case in these situations, and you can make a pretty good case that they first sprouted in 1963, during the 15 Khordad demonstrations. These took place on, surprisingly enough, the 15th of Khordad, which is June 5 (and 6; they were a two day affair) for those of us who aren’t using the Iranian calendar. Not only did they establish the Shah’s unpopularity, but they also empowered the man who would ultimately replace him, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
By 1960 or so, dissatisfaction with the Shah was already beginning to reach critical levels. Iranians were still angry about the 1953 coup that ousted the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, and to make matters worse the Iranian economy was in tatters. Inflation was high, the government had invested little in developing domestic industry, the housing market was overinflated, and there was no longer any democratic release valve for people’s frustrations, since the Shah was rigging every election to one degree or another. In the parliamentary elections of 1961, the Shah decided to allow a more reformist slate of legislators to be elected and then appointed as prime minister Ali Amini, the former Iranian ambassador to the US. But the following year the Shah orchestrated Amini’s ouster before his program of land reform and broader political participation could turn him into another Mosaddegh (i.e., a pain in the royal ass). The shah already had a negative reputation as a playboy partier from the pre-coup days, and now people were beginning to see him as a tyrant.
It was at this point that the Shah embarked on his own grand reform project, the “White Revolution,” intended to assuage public discontent and shore up his rule. Its main tenets were land reform to bring down costs for poor and middle class Iranians, nationalization of some natural resources and denationalization of some industries, women’s suffrage, and investment in education. It was immediately opposed by large landowners, on the land reform issue, and the religious establishment, over the land reform (which affected religious endowments) as well as “Westernizing” reforms in areas like education and women’s rights. The Shah implemented these reforms wholly on his own authority, and the increasingly dictatorial nature of his rule lost him support at all levels of Iranian society. So the attempt at reform really caused more political strife than it was able to resolve.
Khomeini addressing a crowd in Qom on June 3, 1963 (emam.com via Wikimedia Commons)
On June 3, 1963 (which also coincided with the Shiʿa holy day of Ashura), general disenchantment with the White Revolution assumed a voice, and a face, when Khomeini addressed a crowd of demonstrators in the city of Qom. Khomeini called the Shah “wretched” and compared him to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I, who as the man responsible for killing Imam Husayn in 680 is one of the most reviled historical figures in Shiʿism. Iranian authorities arrested Khomeini the next day, and riots began the day after that. Violent demonstrators took to the streets of the largest cities in Iran—Tehran, Qom, Mashhad, Shiraz, and others—attacking police and government offices. The following day the protesters took to the streets again, this time confronted by government security forces with “shoot to kill” orders. Estimates of the number of dead vary, from “thousands” according to the opposition to a scant 90 if you go by official government figures. Both sides were probably exaggerating, but I’d guess the figure was closer to “thousands” than to “ninety.”
June 5 protesters in Tehran, some holding pictures of Khomeini (Wikimedia Commons)
Demonstrators continued to flood cities throughout the country. Hardliners close to the Shah recommended executing Khomeini, but officials eventually decided that to do so would only inflame the situation further. Instead, Iranian authorities kept Khomeini under house arrest until April 1964. They arrested him again in November 1964, this time for speaking out against Iran’s subservient relationship to the US, and sent him into exile, not to return to Iran until…well, you know.
The White Revolution proceeded apace, as did the Shah’s consolidation of power, but instead of expanding economic opportunities the reform simply allowed land wealth and oil revenue to concentrate among a slightly different upper class than had existed previously. The Shah’s education reforms, to be fair, worked fairly well—well enough, in fact, that they created a whole host of Iranians who were well-educated enough to realize just how badly they were getting screwed. Those people, angry at government corruption and frustrated at the lack of political freedom, turned to the Shiʿa clergy to champion their cause, and to Khomeini (despite his exile) in particular. The results were not terribly difficult to predict.