The Iranian revolution of February 1979 was a watershed in modern Iranian history. Subsequently modern Iranian history is divided into events which occurred during the pre and post revolution period. Pre-revolution Iran was a monarchy headed by the Pahlavi family whose system of governance was based primarily on Iran's national identity. The Pahlavis used Iran's (formerly known as Persia) monarchical history as their justification to single handedly rule the country. Economic and social modernisation of Iran were some of the main goals of the Pahlavi regime. As a result the government spent lavishly on nationalistic symbols such as the country's military and grand show case economic projects. Although the regime was more successful in its efforts to change Iran's economy, its modernisation plans regarding Iran's social norms faced major obstacles. This was mainly due to the fact that the government's social plans included major reduction in the role and influence of Islam in Iranian society. As Islam is one of the important elements in the DNA of Iran's identity, calls to reduce its role raised the ire of many of Iran's citizens, especially the majority who consisted of the country's non – urban low income population. Furthermore the advantages of the economic modernisation plan left out the same group of the country's population. As a result calls for change become stronger from this sector. Later on such calls started to reach the low income sector of the population of the country's urban areas, especially those living in Iran's main cities. As accusations of torture and abuse by the regime's forces against demonstrators increased, so did the public's anger against the monarchy.
Subsequently opposition against the government started to spread to Iran's affluent merchant class (called the Bazaris) who started to provide financial support to the opposition forces. Facing increasing calls for his departure, Iran's head of the monarchy (the Shah) left the country in January 1979. Imam Khomeini, Iran's spiritual leader arrived 15 days later. Within one month the new Islamic republic of Iran was born. The process of change in Iran's political system is described as a revolution precisely because the promises from the new regime were so fundamentally different in comparison to the old regime. One of them was the promise for democracy. During the first year of the Ayatollah Khomaini 's rule, Iranians saw democratic measures such as open criticism of the government in the press, caricatures of important public figures and political power being shared between political parties who opposed the monarchy. Previously this was unheard of. Furthermore the revolution affected Iran's economy and foreign relations. Whereas before wealth was in the hands of the few educated and merchant upper class, the new Islamic government confiscated their private resources and embarked on a massive nationalisation scheme.
Furthermore the Islamic regime started an overhaul process of Iran's foreign relations. The biggest change affected Iran's relations with the USA which was one of Iran's major allies during the time of monarchy. The new Islamic regime not only cut relations with the US, it also started to openly attack its interests in Iran which culminated in taking 52 members of the US embassy in Tehran as hostages for the duration of 444 days. The process of revolution continued however with one major change and that was regarding democracy. One year after the birth of the Iranian revolution Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. According to Saddam the goal of his attack was to defend the rights of Iran's minority Arab population who lived in the oil rich Khuzestan region of south west Iran. Saddam also stated that he no longer recognised the Algiers Agreement of 1975 which gave sovereignty to Iran over half of the Shat Al Arab water way between the two countries.
The attack took the leaders of Iran by surprise. However those opposed to democracy took the invasion as an excuse to stop the democratisation process. Henceforth any other party not belonging to Ayatollah Khomeini's Hezbollah party was shut down, and its members imprisoned or even executed. The war against Iraq placed a very heavy burden on Iran's human and economic resources. Fighting was further complicated by the fact that the Iranian government had cut off its relations with the US. The crisis in relations damaged Iran's economic capability due to the US imposed economic sanctions. It also reduced the capability of Iran's military campaign as majority of Iran's weapons were US made. Therefore due to US military sanctions Iran was unable to import important spare parts for its military equipment. After eight years of fighting Iran and Iraq agreed to an armistice agreement in October 1988. The long duration of this war made it into the record books as the longest conventional war in human history. The war served as an excuse for the ruling clergy to refuse calls for political reform. Therefore after the end of the war the lack of political freedom continued, whilst economic and political power remained in the hands of the clergy and those around them. Nevertheless after a number of years the Iranian ruling authority started to feel the pressure from the growing ranks of the country's young and unemployed population. The situation was made more complicated by an under performing economy which had to manage a war reconstruction bill of approximately $400 Billion USD. As a result of growing opposition a small window of political opportunity was opened in the Iranian political arena which allowed the emergence of a more moderate wing of the ruling authority.
The ‘moderates' as they are known are headed by President Khatami. Their goal was allowance of more political freedom and relaxation of imposed Islamic social rules, especially for the country's growing young population. They also called for improvements in Iran's relations with the Western world through a process which they called “dialogue of civilisations”. The popularity of President Khatami was confirmed by his resounding success and that of his supporters in Iran's parliamentary elections in 1997. Although the reformist wing of the Iranian political hierarchy did manage to bring a number of changes, nevertheless its progress was hampered by opposition from the stronger conservative wing of the Iranian government. As a result a number of parliamentary bills calling for reform were canceled by Iran's supreme ruling authority (called the Guardians Council). Furthermore parliamentary election results in 2001 which confirmed popularity of the moderates were canceled by the conservatives. As the weaker reformists were unable to resist against decisions made by the conservatives therefore their popularity decreased. Simply because the Iranian population who were longing for change saw the moderates as unable to fulfill their promises of change. This situation continued until the elections in June 2005.
Feeling disappointed by the reformist's inability to bring change many Iranian voters shunned the reformist candidate Mostafa Moin in the new elections. So much so that he didn't even make it to the second round of voting which was left between the more centre of the left reformist Ayatollah Rafsanjani and the Islamic conservative candidate Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Despite the expectation of majority of analysts Ahmadinejad won the 9 th Presidential race in the history of the Iranian revolution.
His victory was due to a number of factors including the overwhelming support showed by Iran's revolutionary armed forces (the Pasdaran and the Basij) plus the unofficial backing provided by Iran's supreme leader, the Mashad born Ayatollah Khamenei. However the most important factor behind the success of Mr Ahmadinejad was the fact that unlike Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Mr Ahmadinejad's reputation was that of an uncorrupt official. This factor boosted his popularity with Iran's poor who are tired of corruption by government officials. Furthermore Ahmadinejad also has a reputation as a man of action. As Tehran's Mayor he promised many improvements in Tehran's impoverished areas which he actually carried out. This factor increased his popularity even further.
The election of Ahmadinejad marks a new milestone in the post revolution Iranian history. He is the first non Ayatollah to hold such a senior post. He is also the first government official to have a PhD in a non religious field. Although he is more conservative in his approach towards the role of Islam in Iranian politics it is expected that his approach towards the liberalization of the economy will be less conservative. In the tenure of Mahmud Ahmadinejad we expect to see more efforts to increase Iran's self sufficiency drive in crucial economic areas such as the oil sector. We also expect to see increase in government spending in Iran's rural areas. We do expect to see the introduction of more strict Islamic rules into the lives of everyday Iranians, however their extent will be limited.
By: Meir Javedanfar