The Modern Past - The Islamic Republic of Iran is born out
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, is greeted by large crowds after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Khomeini was welcomed by many Iranians as an antidote to the corruption of the pro-Western Shah. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The Islamic Republic of Iran was born out of a power struggle
over the extent of foreign influence inside Iran. The conflict
began in the early 1950s, when Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq,
who intended to nationalize the country's oil wealth, momentarily
seized control from Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the constitutional
monarch representing Anglo-American oil interests. The CIA intervened
in 1953, engineering a coup that ousted Mossadeq and reinstated
Shah Pahlavi's pro-Western regime. Iranians came to perceive
the shah's state, characterized by despotic repression and economic
upheaval, as the betrayal of their nation for the benefit of
Western powers, particularly the United States.
Growing opposition to the shah found a leader in the influential
cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His calls for a new religious
government, to be based on the strict fundamentalist principles
of Shi'iah Islam, represented a complete rejection of Western
influence and values. Khomeini's message, readily accepted by
a population angry at foreign intervention, ignited the Islamic
Revolution that toppled the shah in 1979.
Khomeini declared the country to be an Islamic republic, and
over the next two decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran became
a tyrannical state itself. Khomeini's theocratic political system,
rooted in Islamic law, granted absolute command to one ruling
cleric, the Supreme Leader, a position Khomeini held until his
death in 1989. A popularly elected president gave the republic
a semblance of participatory politics, but this office was largely
subject to the command of the Supreme Leader. Lower-level clerics
controlled the everyday political operations of the regime.
Religious austerity and stifling social constraints became
the hallmarks of the fundamentalist Islamic Republic. Opposition
members could expect imprisonment and torture, often even execution.
Untold numbers of political prisoners languished in jails throughout
the country. Women were forced to endure the harsh constraints
of religiously sanctioned discrimination. The ruling clerics
and their families personally controlled most of the country's
wealth while ordinary citizens suffered from high unemployment
and a rising cost of living. Young people, who made up nearly
three-quarters of the population, were forbidden to listen to
Western music, openly criticize their rulers or mingle with
the opposite sex.
By 1997 the children of the Islamic Revolution, raised under
oppressive social and economic conditions, were ready for a
revolution of their own.
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