THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION in 1979 brought a sudden end to the rule
of the Pahlavi dynasty, which for fifty years had been identified
with the attempt to modernize and Westernize Iran. The Revolution
replaced the monarchy with an Islamic republic and a secular state
with a quasi-theocracy. It brought new elites to power, altered
the pattern of Iran's foreign relations, and led to the transfer
of substantial wealth from private ownership to state control.
There were continuities across the watershed of the Revolution,
however; bureaucratic structure and behavior, attitudes toward
authority and individual rights, and the arbitrary use of power
remained much the same. In 1987, nearly a decade after the Revolution,
it was still too early to determine whether the continuities--always
striking over the long sweep of Iran's history--or the changes
would prove the more permanent.
The Revolution ended a pattern of monarchical rule that, until
1979, had been an almost uninterrupted feature of Iranian government
for nearly 500 years. The tradition of monarchy itself is even
older. In the sixth century B.C., Iran's first empire, the Achaemenid
Empire, was already established. It had an absolute monarch, centralized
rule, a highly developed system of administration, aspirations
of world rule, and a culture that was uniquely Iranian even as
it borrowed, absorbed, and transformed elements from other cultures
and civilizations. Although Alexander the Great brought the Achaemenid
Empire to an end in 330 B.C., under the Sassanids (A.D. 224-642)
Iran once again became the center of an empire and a great civilization.
The impact of the Islamic conquest in the seventh century was
profound. It introduced a new religion and a new social and legal
system. The Iranian heartland became part of a world empire whose
center was not in Iran. Nevertheless, historians have found striking
continuities in Iranian social structure, administration, and
culture. Iranians contributed significantly to all aspects of
Islamic civilization; in many ways they helped shape the new order.
By the ninth century, there was a revival of the Persian (Farsi)
language and of a literature that was uniquely Iranian but was
enriched by Arabic and Islamic influences.
The breakup of the Islamic empire led, in Iran as in other parts
of the Islamic world, to the establishment of local dynasties.
Iran, like the rest of the Middle East, was affected by the rise
to power of the Seljuk Turks and then by the destruction wrought
first by the Mongols and then by Timur, also called Tamerlane
(Timur the Lame).
With the rise of the Safavids (1501-1732), Iran was reconstituted
as a territorial state within borders not very different from
those prevailing today. Shia (see Glossary) Islam became the state
religion, and monarchy once again became a central institution.
Persian became unquestionably the language of administration and
high culture. Although historians no longer assert that under
the Safavids Iran emerged as a nation-state in the modern sense
of the term, nevertheless by the seventeenth century the sense
of Iranian identity and Iran as a state within roughly demarcated
borders was more pronounced.
The Qajars (1795-1925) attempted to revive the Safavid Empire
and in many ways patterned their administration after that of
the Safavids. But the Qajars lacked the claims to religious legitimacy
available to the Safavids; they failed to establish strong central
control; and they faced an external threat from technically, militarily,
and economically superior European powers, primarily Russia and
Britain. Foreign interference in Iran, Qajar misrule, and new
ideas on government led in 1905 to protests and eventually to
the Constitutional Revolution (1905-07), which, at least on paper,
limited royal absolutism, created in Iran a constitutional monarchy,
and recognized the people as a source of legitimacy.
The rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who as Reza Khan seized power
in 1921 and established a new dynasty in 1925, reflected the failure
of the constitutional experiment. His early actions also reflected
the aspirations of educated Iranians to create a state that was
strong, centralized, free of foreign interference, economically
developed, and sharing those characteristics thought to distinguish
the more advanced states of Europe from the countries of the East.
This work of modernization and industrialization, expansion of
education, and economic development was continued by the second
Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. He made impressive
progress in expanding employment and economic and educational
opportunities, in building up strong central government and a
strong military, in limiting foreign influence, and in giving
Iran an influential role in regional affairs.
Such explosions of unrest as occurred during the 1951-53 oil
nationalization crisis and the 1963 riots during the Muslim month
of Moharram, indicated that there were major unresolved tensions
in Iranian society, however. These stemmed from inequities in
wealth distribution; the concentration of power in the hands of
the crown and bureaucratic, military, and entrepreneurial elites;
the demands for political participation by a growing middle class
and members of upwardly mobile lower classes; a belief that Westernization
posed a threat to Iran's national and Islamic identity; and a
growing polarization between the religious classes and the state.
These tensions and problems gave rise to the Islamic Revolution.
In the late 1980s, they continued to challenge Iran's new rulers.
Data as of December 1987