What is Going On in Iran Right Now: Historical Context (Part 1)

Iran: from one revolution to the next.

Iran is going through one of the biggest human rights fights right now, and the world is turning its back. Learning about Iranian history is essential to understand the context behind the current revolution. 

We need to go back all the way to 1979. I’m going to be condensing a ton of history here to relay the information quickly, but for greater insight into the events, I highly encourage you to do additional research- this Al Jazeera documentary is a useful resource: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x71ou6u 

The Pahlavi monarchy drew criticisms for their lavish lifestyle and western interests.


So, how did Iran get here in the first place? Essentially, Iran was under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from 1941-1979. He was notorious for his luxurious lifestyle, extravagant parties, and love of western culture. He was often seen with the world’s most famous leaders, including Queen Elizabeth, the Kennedys, and President Nixon. Many Iranians considered him to be an embarrassment to their country and a sellout to western interests. Iran has been under the influence of western powers throughout their history- particularly when it came to oil. Iran has huge oil reserves, and the British had a monopoly over the industry through the Anglo-Iranian Oil company. The British had immense influence in the country and were reaping the benefits of Iranian natural resources; the British were living a privileged lifestyle while Iranians worked in dangerous conditions at the oilfields.



Oil center in Abadan

The English not only asserted their superiority in the economy, but also in society, where Iranians were the targets of British harassment. This injustice infuriated the country and gave rise to fierce nationalism. The prime minister, Mohammad Mosadegh, was a huge advocate for nationalization of Iranian oil. This got the British nervous, knowing their power was in jeopardy. Additionally, the United States was getting nervous because Mosadegh had very socialist views. The two countries agreed that they didn’t want Mosadegh in power. So, in a very American move, the CIA staged a coup and reinstated and strengthened the Shah’s power. Back in power, Pahlavi began to roll out what is known as the “White Revolution”.  The White Revolution was a series of land, agriculture, and social reforms that were aimed to “modernize” the country. Part of the reform included land distribution, which angered many landowners and clerics. One of the most influential clerics who spoke out against these reforms and the Shah was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who will basically become the face of the revolution later.


Khomeini’s face was plastered on protest signs.

Pahlavi didn’t like Khomeini’s influence, so he was exiled to Paris, where he continued to write and produce pamphlets that were distributed back in Iran. The Shah is continuing to grow in power, and criticism starts to grow. Pahlavi’s policies surrounding rapid modernization made the economy crumble after he used the enormous oil funds all at once, which caused devastating inflation; housing prices rose incredibly high and a new lower working class arose. Additionally, the country’s “intelligence” agency, SAVAK, was kidnapping, torturing, and murdering political opponents who posed a threat to the monarchy. Protests grew around the country, with many calling for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. Iranians throughout the country went on strike for six months.

Protests were massive with men, women, and children joining on the streets.

The protests became very dangerous and in one 1978 incident, over a 100 people were killed by government forces on what is known as “Black Friday”. Additionally, in 1978, a fire broke out in the Rex Theater in Abadan, which killed over 400 people. The monarchy blamed it on the Ayatollah’s followers, while others say SAVAK was involved to make a statement on those who engage in anti-government media and to pin it on the protestors .

Aftermath of the fire at Cinema Rex.

 Either way, the tragedy rallied the country into even bigger protests. The Shah realized that his government was in danger of collapse. So, he goes to Egypt on “vacation”,  leaving the country to the prime minister, and doesn’t come back. This gives Khomeini his chance to return and he is greeted with cheers from all around the nation. He speaks on large promises like “from now on all men and women will be free unless they want to do something against the country’s interests,” and freedom of political parties. Hedayat Matin-Daftari, leader of the Democratic Front, states: 



“People like myself, including thousands of government employees and even factory workers, who went on strike for about six months and had no demand, but liberty. And Iranian intellectuals, who demanded democracy, none of these people went on strike for Islamic revolution, or Islamic rule, or Islamic government- they wanted a secular government”. 

Hedayat Matin-Daftari on Al Jazeera, Iran 1979: Anatomy of a Revolution

Khomeini is established as the head of the government; however, Iranians quickly realize that he is not the man they thought he was and that everything he promised was a series of lies. 

Thousands greeted Khomeini upon his return.

Khomeini insisted that the government should not be led by clerics (what is known as a Velayat-e Faqih) and that he himself would return to the holy city of Qom to continue his religious studies. This was not how events played out, however, and the entirety of the prime minister’s government was overthrown in less than 6 months, putting Khomeini at the head of the state and explicitly going against what he had assured the people. Additionally, there was no political freedom, and speaking against the regime was strictly prohibited and had brutal consequences. In 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed under the orders of Khomeini. It is estimated that between 2,800-5,000 people were murdered during these purges.  Radio Farda includes a quote from one of their readers about Khomeini: 

Khomeini did not plan to promote freedom in the first place. He was a fundamentalist who wanted to establish a religious government. His successor is also continuing the same path. He misled people by his false comments about women’s freedom and political freedom. People such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights activist Nargess Mohammadi and dual national Nazanin Zaghari would have not been in jail if there was freedom in Iran” 

-Radio Farda, statement by reader, Farid

Women quickly became targets of Khomeini’s policies. Only a month after Khomeini rose to power, he made the hijab required for all Iranian women working “public spheres”- whether they were Muslim or not or chose to wear a veil. After two years, Khomeini extended this rule to a mandatory veil at all times, as well as coats that cover the body. Women also lost their rights to child custody, a right they previously held.

Iranian women protesting mandatory hijab laws in 1979, days before the law was finalized.

 Such laws were passed not through a parliament or a constitution, but rather the “Council of the Revolution” . Shirin Ebadi, political activist establishes that,

 “It is interesting that, according to this law, any woman living in Iran – Muslim or non-Muslim, Iranian or non-Iranian – should follow the law, when in fact non-Muslims are not be obliged to be veiled. Forcing women to be veiled is not correct and even Muslim women in Iran want to be able to decide for themselves what clothes to wear. Women in Iran are not against the veil, they are against the fact that it is compulsory”

-Shirin Ebadi, The National News

Currently, along with millions of other protestors, Iranian girls schools are protesting President Raisi and Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime.

I’ll conclude the article with this quote, as the sentiment becomes more relevant than ever with the current revolution in Iran. In order to understand what is going on in Iran, it is essential to know the history and how it got to where it is now, which is why I focused on the history here. This is a two part series and the second part will focus on what Iran looks like today, 43 years after the revolution, and how, right now, they are fighting once more.








Al Jazeera

Associated Press News

Brookings Institution

Human Rights Watch

The National News

Radio Farda