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Iranian Revolution

The success of the revolutionary movement ushered in a new era in Iran's political history. The 1978-79 revolution represented by far one of the most dramatic departures from the traditional mold of Iranian politics, at least in appearance if not in substance. For the first time ever in Iranian history, a revolution had been launched and had resulted in the permanent termination of dynastic rule in the country. Even the Constitutional Revolution, that lasting and almost mythical milestone in Iranian history, had not achieved so much by not only curbing the autocracy of the crown but by overthrowing it altogether. The dreams and ideals of many thousands who had risked their lives by chanting revolutionary slogans in the daily street demonstrations had finally come true. Revolution filled the air in Tehran and other Iranian cities. The house of the Middle East's most powerful ruler, supported by a superpower and a sophisticated military of its own, had crumbled in the hands of the revolution. Twenty-five hundred years of monarchical despotism had finally come to an end, and, supposedly, a new era of personal and political liberties had begun.

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While the dramatic events of January and February of 1979 marked the end of the Pahlavi dynasty, for the new power holders the real revolution had just begun. The movement against the Shah had been launched by a mostly unorganized de facto coalition of groups with highly divergent ideological persuasions. The personification of Ayatollah Khomeini as the embodiment of the movement against the shah did not necessarily endear the clergy as well as the other, nonreligious revolutionary groups, notably the Fadaiyan and the Mujahedeen guerrillas. These guerrillas had played a pivotal role in the final days of the shah's reign by attacking several military installations in Tehran and in other cities. They now wanted a share of power in the post-revolutionary era. Similarly, most of the secular intellectuals who had rallied to Khomeini's support and who had emerged as prominent figures within the revolutionary movement did not share Khomeini's narrow interpretation of Shiite principles and developed increasingly sharp differences with the Ayatollah and his emerging block of new allies. What resulted was an ugly but inevitable breakup of the anti-shah coalition, a bloody and violent jockeying for positions, and eventually the emergence of one of the camps, that of Khomeini and his ardent followers, as the revolution's prime beneficiaries.

The 1978-79 revolution removed once and for all the system of monarchy from Iranian history and politics. But this permanent change in the system of government did not fundamentally alter the form of governance practiced in Iran. The Shah was removed, all of his loyal supporters were purged and many were executed, new government machinery replaced the old, and nearly every single policy of the old regime was reversed. But the former regime's most ample characteristic, autocracy, continued to be equally prominent in the new order. The revolution, in essence, succeeded in achieving all of its peripheral goals. It changed names, titles, and personalities. It banished many individuals and glorified others but it failed in its most fundamental goal and challenging task of establishing democracy in Iran. When the dust raised by the revolution was finally settled, there were little substantive differences between the political systems of the pre- and the post-revolutionary eras. The political feature which many of the revolutionaries wanted to get rid of, autocracy, continued to remain intact. Autocracy was, in fact, exercised in post-revolutionary Iran with zeal rarely evident during the reign of the Pahlavis.

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While autocracy continued to persist through the 1978-79 revolution, so far there were signs of a revolution against the relatively young Islamic Republic. Several developments since the revolution appear to invalidate such an assertion. The Kurdish rebellion in quest of self-autonomy and the relentless and bloody campaigns of groups like the Mujahedeen to eliminate the regime's key leaders represent two examples of an apparent embryonic revolutionary movement against the regime. Yet, in one way or another, such developments are all outgrowths of the 1978-79 revolution itself. Although the Mujahedeen claims to be spearheading a "second revolution," for them the "first" revolution never really ended: they never attained the freedom of expression and the political power they had sought under the shah. As for the Tudeh party and the Fadaiyan guerrillas, for the Mujahedeen the revolution had been "pirated" by groups even more brutal than the shah.

The mammoth unity of February 1979, that unprecedented demonstration of solidarity between men and women, politicians and commoners, proved as impermanent as it was intense. The priorities of the revolutionary project had suddenly shifted, almost overnight. The principal goal was no longer to topple the Pahlavis but to construct a new polity, and not just any polity. The growing direction of the post revolutionary regime toward Islam was assuming a finer point every week, month, and year that the new regime added to its life. The question of political correctness was no longer one of Islam or the ways of the others, that of the collective "infidels"--the communists, the "liberals," and the Mujahedeen. That was settled long ago, soon after the Ayatollahs began their crusade to purge, imprison, and kill those who were misguided and unwilling to repent. With age came the growing sophistication of the regime and hence the growing subtlety of the political questions itself: which brand of Islam, or, more accurately, whose Islam, was to guide the new theocracy toward national salvation? This was the question that the ayatollahs began asking themselves in silence but with increasing frequency, one whose relevance assumed greater poignancy as the patriarch Imam's age drew him closer to his ultimate fate.

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While factions did and in fact still continue to exist within the Islamic Republic, pinpointing them is made difficult by the fluidity of the system and by the elusive nature of the factions themselves and their respective proponents. This difficulty is further compounded by the dispersion of factions throughout the different organs of the government and the subtlety of the factional conflict between the various groups. Nevertheless, factions do exist within the regime and some of the government's most visible members have repeatedly called for "unity of word as well as deed" in order to lessen the frictions caused by factional infighting.

Due to the political and the organizational configuration of the regime, the boundaries of each faction are often not clearly identifiable and at times the positions that the factions take overlap depending on the nature of the issues at hand. This elusiveness of factional delineations is further exacerbated by the very patrimonial bases on which the regime rests. Less powerful figures that have neither a secure base of support nor the patronage of influential allies are often forced to change allegiances and switch alliances in order to maximize their political longevity. This built-in necessity to alternate between allies and rivals and to adopt different positions on different issues itself serves to further deepen existing factional and ideological rivalries.

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But to mistake the increasingly hostile cleavages which began separating once-unanimous clerics on purely ideological grounds is to fall into a trap nourished by no one other than stewards of the Islamic Republic itself. It is true that alternative interpretations of specific Islamic concepts provided locus for the activities of fringe groups such as the Hujjatiyeh and the Fadaiyan-e Islam. But often the sources of intra-elite conflict among the new rulers were neither religious nor in any sense necessarily doctrinal. What separated groups of ayatollahs and their respective followers from one another were such issues as the role of the government vis-à-vis the economy, the question of political succession, and the extent to which exporting the revolution abroad was considered feasible and prudent. Equally important were a number of non-ideological factors: the clash of personalities among the clerics themselves; variations in ethnic background, class, and place of birth; and the degree of privileged access to the person of Khomeini. Added to all of this were the shrewd hands of the Great Leader himself, the masterful political engineering of the Imam designed to keep his "children" not only in line but at one another's throats as well. Whatever his moral or ethical shortcomings, Khomeini was surely a politician of the first order.

Ayatollah Khomeini's emergence as the sole source of power in the Islamic Republic warrants further investigation, for, after all, the revolution directed much of its energies toward the obliteration of personal autocracy from Iranian politics. More specifically, it is important to see what factors underlie the unimpeded rebirth of personal patrimony after being so violently overthrown by the revolution. Clearly, a large part of the equation was the ayatollah himself, who slowly gained power through subtle and careful maneuvering. Why did Khomeini try so ceaselessly (and effectively) to become the ultimate source of authority in the Islamic Republic? His intents cannot simply be discounted as political avarice and lust for personal aggrandizement. Khomeini was too shrewd a politician simply to want to augment his already extensive powers. He had already successfully achieved this goal as early as 1982, when all "nonbelievers" and even those "believers" with potential for undermining the faqih's authority were eliminated through internal purges or assassinations. Khomeini's practice of keeping the factions in check was derived from a more fundamental realization: that ongoing factional infighting could potentially erupt into open warfare once he departed from the scene. Thus, by reducing the powers of all factions, he tried to make it difficult for the various camps to effectively overpower each other and that no faction did so without his personal blessing. Clearly, factional rivalries and purposely manipulated divisiveness continually hampered the evolution of clear policies by the government and frustrated whatever progress had been achieved in a particular direction. This disarray was most poignant and its consequences most disruptive in regards to areas where vital policy decisions needed to be made. There were considerable disagreements and ultimately indecisiveness over the government's foreign policy, the basic economic model to be adopted for the country, and other vital issues such as when and how to end the war with Iraq. Largely because of its internal debates and indecisiveness over the adoption of a government-controlled or a free market economy, a decade after the revolution the government had yet to devise medium and long-term development plans. From 1985 onward, Khomeini called every year the year that the war with Iraq would end. Yet the war continued until late August 1988. Pragmatists such as Rafsenjani continually sought to improve Iran's relations with the U.S. and with other Western powers, only to meet obstacles and at times even embarrassment at the hands of those opposing the "Great Satan."

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As long as he was alive, Khomeini was the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic, the supreme arbiter of all conflicts, and the master without whose knowledge and consent any decisions were not made. With the system so extensively dependent on his personality and his presence, whether anyone will be able to fill the void after his death remains to be seen. Yet shrewd as he was, Khomeini himself determined who his successor would be (i.e., Khamenei) long before he left the political scene. He also made certain that Rafsenjani and other pragmatists have the upper hand over the more doctrinaire and radical elements. Khamenei's effectiveness as a faqih and Rafsenjani's political longevity as his lieutenant are two crucial tests the Islamic Republic will undergo in the post-Khomeini era.

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