Revolutionary Iran | Michael Axworthy

Summary of: Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic
By: Michael Axworthy


Dive into the turbulent history of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the gripping book ‘Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic’ by Michael Axworthy. In this summary, you’ll explore Iran’s journey through political transformations, social struggles, and dynamic international relations, from the early twentieth century to the eve of the 2009 presidential elections. Witness the power shifts between absolute monarchy, constitutionalism, and the Islamic Republic while discovering the role of key figures such as Mozaffar od-Din Shah, Reza Khan, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Through Axworthy’s detailed chronicle, understand the ongoing struggle between theocratic and democratic principles that shaped Iran, with potentially far-reaching implications for the region and the world.

The Iranian Revolution: A Historic Uprising

Iran faced a civil unrest in 1905 due to economic instability, which developed into mass strikes and vocal denunciation of the country’s monarch. The Shah agreed to establish an Iranian national assembly to soothe the anger of protestors, leading to the formation of the Majles in October 1906—the very first parliament of Iran. The Majles drafted and ratified a constitution in December 1906 that established Shi’ia Islam as the state religion, confirmed that the Shah’s sovereignty was given by the people, and declared the formation of a committee of Iranian clergy. In 1908, the ulema, conservative factions of the clergy, turned against the constitutionalism, resulting in Mohammad Ali Shah staging a military coup in 1908 with the support of the ulema. The revolutionaries counter-attacked and Abdul Hamid was forced into exile. His young son, Ahmad Shah Qajar, succeeded the throne. However, the country was descending into complete disorder with political polarization and assassinations being common. Later, in December 1911, conservative factions in the cabinet staged a successful coup and disbanded the Majles, effectively halting the revolution. Although this coup stopped the uprising in its tracks, it was the catalyst for later revolutionary changes.

Iran’s Dramatic Transformation

In 1921, a military coup in Tehran led by Iranian soldier Reza Khan propelled him to power, and he established a new regime in Iran. He bridged the gap between two groups by implementing nationalist and secularizing reforms that reorganized the legal system and established Iran’s first university. The Pahlavi dynasty was founded, and Khan crowned himself as Shah. His significant reforms also included an education drive, which saw school attendance rise from 55,000 to 450,000 by 1938. However, the Shah’s ban on traditional dress and headwear proved controversial. Nevertheless, the Pahlavi dynasty marked a dramatic transformation for Iran, albeit relatively short-lived.

Iran’s Rise and Fall

In the 1970s, Iran’s increasing wealth from oil production couldn’t mask the inequality and corruption plaguing the nation under the rule of Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah. International pressure due to his regime’s human-rights abuse forced the Shah to loosen his control, which emboldened political opposition groups. Small changes, like the release of political prisoners and the improvement of prison conditions, were made. Activist groups emerged, calling for a constitutional monarchy. The mood shift was evident in the Goethe-Institut’s hosting of poetry readings in Tehran, criticizing the Shah’s regime to growing crowds. A popular movement led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini gathered enormous crowds, demanding societal change. When soldiers fired into the crowds at a follow-up demonstration, around 80 people lost their lives, which only fueled the fall of the Shah’s regime and the eventual reshaping of Iranian society.

The Islamic Revolution

In 1979, Iran underwent a revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Islamic Republic. Ruhollah Khomeini, a popular ayatollah who had been exiled for repeatedly criticizing the government and the Shah, advocated for the foundation of an Islamic government based on the principle of velayat-e-faqih. His book, Islamic Government, argued that the only legitimate law was Islamic law as interpreted by Emams. Khomeini declared the Iranian Constitution illegitimate and planned for a referendum, a constituent assembly, and elections to create a new government. The Shah fled the country before Khomeini’s return, and fighting broke out between the old government and anti-government factions. The army declared itself neutral, and the old government fell. Iran celebrated the victory of the Islamic revolution, but stability had not yet returned.

The Chaos and Consolidation of the New Islamic Republic

After the fall of the Shah, Iran plunged into chaos as staple goods were in short supply, violence was rampant, and power had scattered among various newly formed committees. Despite the uncertainty and violence, Khomeini and his allies carefully managed their ambitions and collaborated with a diverse range of groups, including secular politicians, resulting in a stable religious, cultural, and social power until Khomeini’s death in 1989. The initial caution prevented the situation from deteriorating into a second revolution, as seen in previous historical events. However, the three defining features of the Islamic Republic’s early days – uncertainty, multipolar political system, and extrajudicial violence – still exist today.

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