The Role of the Islamic Fundamentalists in the Overthrow of the Shah

An Iranian woman protests against the desecration of the Quran.
... Majid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Islamic fundamentalists contributed significantly to the eventual unseating of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran. When decades of land and economic reforms began to encroach upon the traditional way of life, a determined Shiite Islamic clergy began to oppose the shah, who was perceived as having close relations with the United States. Those tensions, coupled with the widespread intimidation by SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, aided the uprising that became known as the Iranian Revolution.

1 Land and Economic Reforms

The shah instituted widespread reforms that were geared toward increased industrialization and development of large agricultural businesses. At the time, farmers operated under what was considered, at least by the shah, an antiquated agrarian system. The landlords were the primary stakeholders because they rented land to the farmers. Landlords also comprised an estimated 60 percent of the Iranian legislature until the Land Reform Act of 1962. Under the law, the landlords were compensated for the real estate seized by the government and resold to the peasant farmers. The changes in the traditional power structure upset the Muslim clerics. The move was intended to develop industry, but may have backfired when the landlords no longer paid tithe to the Islamic clergy, further disrupting the traditional way of life.

2 Secularism or Modernism?

Civil rights and education for women were expanded greatly under the shah. Between 1925 and 1941, during the so-called “White Revolution,” the shah initiated many other reforms that impacted Iranian civil society. The level of general literacy increased, as well as the overall health care in the country. Many of these efforts were undercut by the corruption in Pahlavi’s government. There were also several reports that he used SAVAK, the secret police, to intimidate his enemies. The presence of ever more Americans in Iran also became evidence that the country had veered toward Western secularism, disturbing the Islamic fundamentalist who longed to maintain the old way.

3 The Ayatollah's Return

Ruhollah Khomeini, one of the harshest critics of the shah, was imprisoned and subsequently expelled from the country in 1964. The mounting reasons to oppose the shah became a rallying cry for a revolution in the 1970s, when street protests began. Political posters depicting Khomeini were created; his experience had become a symbol of martyrdom. Khomeini became the ayatollah and the most respected Shiite religious authority. In 1979, the shah fled under the pressure of protests from Islamic fundamentalists.

4 Reversing the Shah’s Reforms

Amidst the turmoil of the shah’s exit from the country, a group of students seized the American diplomatic embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for several weeks. Khomeini later said the situation, eventually referred to as the Iranian hostage crisis, helped solidify the Islamic fundamentalists' grip on the country. All of the reforms adopted by the monarchy were repealed and civil society returned to the Islamic orthodoxies from decades before.

Mike Finch is a writer and reporter based in Miami. He has reported from West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg (Fla.) and New Orleans. He has a degree in political science.