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1979 - Iranian Rev

Iranian Revolution -  Ayatollah Khomeini spearheads an Islamic Revolution that deposes Iran's shah, ushering in a new era of repressive theocracy

People poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, chanting "Marg bar Shah" or "Death to the Shah," and "Death to America!" Middle-class Iranians, leftist university students, and Islamist supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini united to demand the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. From October of 1977 to February of 1979, the people of Iran called for the end of the monarchy - but they didn't necessarily agree on what should replace it.

In 1953, the American CIA helped to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister in Iran and restore the Shah to his throne. The Shah was a modernizer in many ways, promoting the growth of a modern economy and a middle class, and championing women's rights. However, the Shah also ruthlessly suppressed dissent, jailing and torturing his political opponents. Iran became a police state, monitored by the hated SAVAK secret police. In addition, the Shah's reforms, particularly those concerning the rights of women, angered Shia clerics such as Ayatollah Khomeini, who fled into exile in Iraq and later France beginning in 1964.

Throughout the 1970s, as Iran reaped enormous profits from oil production, a gap widened between the wealthy (many of whom were relatives of the Shah) and the poor. A recession beginning in 1975 increased tensions between the classes in Iran. Secular protests in the form of marches, organizations, and political poetry readings sprouted all across the country. Then, late in October of 1977, the Ayatollah Khomeini's 47-year-old son Mostafa died suddenly of a heart attack. Rumors spread that he had been murdered by the SAVAK, and soon thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Iran's major cities.

This uptick in demonstrations came at a delicate time for the Shah. He was ill with cancer and seldom appeared in public. In a drastic miscalculation, in January of 1978, the Shah had his Information Minister publish an article in the leading newspaper that slandered Ayatollah Khomeini as a tool of British neo-colonial interests and a "man without faith." The next day, theology students in the city of Qom exploded in angry protests; security forces put down the demonstrations but killed at least seventy students in just two days. Up to that moment, the secular and religious protesters had been evenly matched, but after the Qom massacre, the religious opposition became the leaders of the anti-Shah movement.

In February, young men in Tabriz marched to remember the students killed in Qom the previous month; the march turned into a riot, in which the rioters smashed banks and government buildings. Over the next several months, violent protests spread and were met with increasing violence from security forces. The religiously-motivated rioters attacked movie theaters, banks, police stations, and nightclubs. Some of the army troops sent in to quell the protests began to defect to the protesters' side. The protesters adopted the name and image of Ayatollah Khomeini, still in exile, as the leader of their movement; for his part, Khomeini issued calls for the overthrow of the Shah. He spoke of democracy at that point, as well, but would soon change his tune.

In August, the Rex Cinema in Abadan caught fire and burned, probably as a result of an attacked by Islamist students. Approximately 400 people were killed in the blaze. The opposition started a rumor that the SAVAK had started the fire, rather than the protesters, and anti-government feeling reached a fever pitch.

Chaos increased in September with the Black Friday incident. On September 8, thousands of mostly peaceful protesters turned out in Jaleh Square, Tehran against the Shah's new declaration of martial law. The Shah responded with an all-out military attack on the protest, using tanks and helicopter gun-ships in addition to ground troops. Anywhere from 88 to 300 people died; opposition leaders claimed that the death toll was in the thousands. Large-scale strikes rocked the country, virtually shutting down both the public and private sectors that autumn, including the crucial oil industry.

On Nov. 5, the Shah ousted his moderate prime minister and installed a military government under General Gholam Reza Azhari. The Shah also gave a public address in which he stated that he heard the people's "revolutionary message." To conciliate the millions of protesters, he freed more than 1000 political prisoners and allowed the arrest of 132 former government officials, including the hated former chief of the SAVAK. Strike activity declined temporarily, either out of fear of the new military government or gratitude for the Shah's placatory gestures, but within weeks it resumed.

On December 11, 1978, more than a million peaceful protesters turned out in Tehran and other major cities to observe the Ashura holiday and call for Khomeini to become Iran's new leader. Panicking, the Shah quickly recruited a new, moderate prime minister from within opposition ranks, but he refused to do away with the SAVAK or release all political prisoners. The opposition was not mollified. The Shah's American allies began to believe that his days in power were numbered.

On Jan. 16, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced that he and his wife were going abroad for a brief vacation. As their plane took off, jubilant crowds filled the streets of Iran's cities and began tearing down statues and pictures of the Shah and his family. Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, who had been in office for just a few weeks, freed all political prisoners, ordered the army to stand down in the face of demonstrations and abolished the SAVAK. Bakhtiar also allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran and called for free elections.

Khomeini flew into Tehran from Paris on Feb. 1, 1979 to a delirious welcome. Once he was safely inside the country's borders, Khomeini called for the dissolution of the Bakhtiar government, vowing "I shall kick their teeth in." He appointed a prime minister and cabinet of his own. On Febr. 9-10, fighting broke out between the Imperial Guard (the "Immortals"), who were still loyal to the Shah, and the pro-Khomeini faction of the Iranian Air Force. On Feb. 11, the pro-Shah forces collapsed, and the Islamic Revolution declared victory over the Pahlavi dynasty.


Further Reading


History ExtraThe Iranian Revolution: Why 1979’s Uprising Still Shapes the Middle East

The Guardian - To Each His Own Weapon, I Have My Camera’: Iran's 1979 Revolution In Pictures

Associated Press - Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution Sweeps Nation

Abbas Attar - Abbas and the Revolution

Nicaraguan Revolution -  Sandinista rebels overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in a national revolution, bringing health, education and land reform to one of Latin America's poorest countries

1979 saw the victory of an authentic revolution in Nicaragua that combined a popular uprising, self-organization of cities and neighborhoods in rebellion, and the action of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional — FSLN), a political-military organization inspired by a Marxist-Guevarist/Castroist model.

The revolution put an end to the 42-year authoritarian rule of the Somoza dynasty, which had appropriated the state — its armed forces, administration and significant parts of its economic assets — and established a strong alliance with the United States. The Somoza dictatorship proved to be an effective bulwark against progressive political forces. Multinationals could maintain and increase their plundering of Nicaragua’s national resources in exchange for commissions that added to the increasingly important wealth of the ruling family.

The FSLN was founded in the 1960s as a leftist group opposing the government mainly through guerrilla warfare. It was not until some of its guerrillas took high-ranking members of the Nicaraguan ruling classes as hostages, in December 1974, that it was considered a potentially serious threat to the dictatorship. After the spectacular action of the Sandinista guerrillas, the regime declared a state of emergency, increased its repressive grip over Nicaraguan society and hunted down the FSLN.

The regime lifted the state of emergency in 1977, thinking that the guerrilla movement was defeated and the conditions for entering negotiations with the liberal opposition were ripe. But FSLN factions were prompt to resume their armed actions in urban areas. In January 1978, the murder of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, an opposition leader, by regime soldiers was caught on video. It sparked tremendous anger among the liberal opposition as well as among the population.

A general strike supported by the liberal bourgeoisie was launched while FSLN groups staged armed actions against Somoza’s National Guard. In August another general strike was called. Sandinista guerrillas staged an assault against the National Palace, where a joint session of both chambers of the parliament was taking place, taking hundreds hostage. This resulted in the liberation of several political prisoners from Somoza’s jails.

More importantly, spontaneous uprisings took place against the regime, enabling the Left to gain momentum over the liberal opposition. After the FSLN called for insurrection, several urban uprisings errupted in September 1978. While these were decisively defeated by the National Guard, this scared the liberal opposition, whose representatives sought to enter negotiations with the regime that were to be mediated by the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States. The “Terceristas”, who had always advocated an insurrectionist strategy, denounced this turn of events and withdrew from the Front they had helped to build with the liberal opposition.

As the FSLN prepared to launch a broad military offensive, they called for a general strike in June. As mass urban uprisings occurred, the armed insurrection quickly moved in to liberate areas of the country, one after the other. Somoza’s army disintegrated. When the army stronghold in the capital was finally liberated on July 19, 1979, its remnants had no choice but to flee, in particular to neighboring Honduras.

In the new government, the revolutionary political forces pledged to install a democratic regime, guarantee a non-alignment of Nicaragua’s foreign policy — thus putting an end to the alliance with the United States — and develop a “mixed economy.” The development of cooperatives and state-owned enterprises would be encouraged while the existence of private capital would not be fundamentally threatened as long as it was perceived as “patriotic,” that is, loyal to the Sandinista Revolution rather than to the overthrown Somoza regime or U.S. imperialism.

Over the 1980s, major social progress was made in the areas of health care, education, improving housing conditions (even if they remained rudimentary), fuller rights to organize and protest, as well as access to credit for small producers (thanks to nationalization of the banking system). These represented undeniable progress.

But the FSLN government was forced to fight a decade-long war against counterrevolutionary forces known as the Contras, who were heavily supported by the United States. Unable to satisfy its ambition of direct military intervention, Washington settled for a “low-intensity” conflict that would strangle Nicaragua economically and isolate the FSLN politically.


Further Reading


VianicaSandinista Revolution

War Is Boring - Women With Guns Helped Win the Nicaraguan Revolution

NACLA - Nicaragua: Memories of the 1979 Final Offensive

Susan Meiselas - Nicaragua

1979 - Nicaraguan Rev
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