Iran's 1979 revolution: Political quake still shaking Middle East

Shah's ruling 'over and done'
Shah's ruling 'over and done'

On Feb. 11, 1979, after days of running street battles and uncertainty, Iran's military stood down and allowed the Islamic Revolution to sweep across the country.

The caretaker government left behind by the cancer-stricken Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who weeks earlier left the nation, quickly crumbled as the soldiers once backing it embraced the supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Foreigners who hadn't fled, including a vast population of Americans, soon began trying to leave. President Jimmy Carter said "we stand ready to work with'' Iran's new leaders, slowly loosening America's long embrace of the shah as its main Mideast ally.

Islamic Revolution
Islamic Revolution

The victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was an earthquake that upended the political order in the Middle East, and the aftershocks are still being felt 40 years later.

When Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the shah's last government in February 1979 it was a moment that for many was completely "unthinkable, unexpected", said Clement Therme, a researcher on Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"The victory was an immense surprise for the Middle East and the world," Therme told

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been a seen as a pillar of stability and a bulwark of US influence in a region where Cold War tensions were playing out with the Soviet Union.

But the tumult of the revolution soon ended that spectacularly.

The unexpected, unthinkable
The unexpected, unthinkable

"One of the founding events for the foreign policy of the new regime was the taking hostage of American diplomats," said Therme.

The saga at the US embassy in Tehran ran for 444 days from November 1979 and ruptured ties between Washington and its one-time regional ally.

And events in Iran did not just reverberate on the global stage: across the region it fired up political Islam that represented a major threat to monarchies and ruling elites.

"For Sunni Islamist movements and for the Shiite minorities in the region", the message of the Iranian Revolution was "a source of inspiration", Therme said.

According to the official narrative of the Islamic Republic, the revolution did not stop in 1979 with the overthrow of the monarchy but remains a process that is still going on.

Khomeini's kind of ruling
Khomeini's kind of ruling

"The Islamic Revolution has three levels in the view of the Imam (Khomeini); one is Iran, the other is the Islamic world and the last one is the world of the oppressed," said Abdullah Ganji, managing director of ultra-conservative Javan daily.

"We did not have any plans at the beginning for the Islamic Revolution to go beyond Iran's borders," Ganji told, drawing a distinction with Soviet military interventions abroad.

But he said the changes in Iran inspired a string of startling events in the Middle East: attacks against US embassies, protests by Shiites in Saudi Arabia and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The convulsions rattled rulers around the region and fears of Tehran were "among the reasons that led to the invasion of Iran by Iraq" in September 1980, said Therme.

Never ending political turmoil
Never ending political turmoil

Khomeini's followers took over Tehran Radio and issued a series of directives from the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

The broadcast said Bakhtiar's government had fallen and all members of parliaments had resigned.

They also reported fighting continued in some cities but urged Tehran residents "to refrain from attacks on the armed forces now that the revolution has triumphed and the armed forces have surrendered.''

Gen. Abbas Gharabaghi, chief of staff of the armed forces, met with Khomeini's Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, 70, and said he would support the government set up by Khomeini to establish a "revolutionary'' Islamic republic.

'Guns and Hibiscus'
'Guns and Hibiscus'

The ayatollah appealed to his followers to remain calm.

The military decision to follow "the will of the people'' and return to their barracks came after two days of bloody rioting in which many soldiers joined the opposition.

The violence left more than 200 dead and 800 wounded. The military defections to Khomeini's side exploded the notions that the armed forces were united behind the government.

The 78-year-old religious leader, who returned to Iran Feb. 1 after 14 years in exile, declared in a statement ``victory is near.''

The decision to pull back the troops followed a weekend of vicious fighting between Khomeini's followers and government troops for control of police stations, government offices and other landmarks in the city.

Initial reports indicated heavy casualties in other Iranian cities as well, but no figures were available. A 25-hour battle was reported at the central police station in the southern city of Shiraz.

Cutting through Shah's westernisation
Cutting through Shah's westernisation

The ayatollah, spiritual head of Iran's 32 million Shiite Moslems, demanded Bakhtiar resign so Iran could be transformed into a non-aligned Islamic republic.

Khomeini leads the religious opposition that feels the shah's "westernization'' of Iran has eroded Islamic values. Also opposing the monarch is a rising middle class which has demanded more say in the government.

At 5:45 p.m. the state radio said it was in the hands of Khomeini followers. An announcer proclaimed the radio "the voice of the revolution, the real voice of the people of Iran,''

The radio earlier said insurgents occupied the historic Golestan Palace in Tehran, used as a guest house for visiting heads of state.

Huge crowds jammed the narrow, winding streets around Refah School, Khomeini's headquarters. Reporters there were told 16 soldiers and a colonel were taken prisoner when insurgents stormed the Ministry of Commerce.

Hundreds of Khomeini followers blocked streets around the Hotel Intercontinental, headquarters for most of the Western press. They refused to let anyone enter or leave.

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