The rise of modernization and encroachment of stronger Western powers in the late nineteenth century led to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. Reformers hoped the constitution would strengthen Iran against imperial Russia and Britain by centralizing and modernizing it. Ultimately the constitution became law, but its provisions were seldom followed during most of its history. In 1921, Cossack army officer Reza Khan (known as Reza Shah after assuming the throne) staged a coup against the weakened Qajar dynasty. An autocrat and supporter of modernization, Reza Shah initiated the development of modern industry, railroads, and establishment of a national education system. Reza Shah sought to balance the influence of Russia and Britain by seeking out assistance and technology from European powers traditionally not involved in Iranian affairs, but when World War II started his closeness to Germany alarmed allied powers Russia and Britain, Germany’s enemies.
Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Iranian prime minister overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1953In summer of 1941 Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to prevent Iran from allying with the Axis powers. The Allies occupied Iran, securing a supply line to Russia, Iran’s petroleum infrastructure, and forced the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1951, a nationalist politician, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh rose to prominence in Iran and was elected Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, Mossadegh became enormously popular in Iran by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, BP) which controlled the country’s oil reserves. In response, Britain embargoed Iranian oil and began plotting to depose Mossadegh. Members of the British Intelligence Service invited the United States to join them, convincing U.S. President Eisenhower that Mossadegh was reliant on the Tudeh (Communist) Party to stay in power. In 1953, President Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax, and the CIA took the lead in overthrowing Mossadegh and supporting a US-friendly monarch.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Farah Pahlavi former Empress of IranThe CIA faced many setbacks, but the covert operation soon went into full swing, conducted from the US Embassy in Tehran under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. Iranians were hired to protest Mossadegh and fight pro-Mossadegh demonstrators. Anti- and pro-monarchy protestors violently clashed in the streets, leaving almost three hundred dead. The operation was successful in triggering a coup, and within days, pro-Shah tanks stormed the capital and bombarded the Prime Minister’s residence. Mossadegh surrendered, and was arrested on 19 August 1953. He was tried for treason, and sentenced to three years in prison.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned to power greatly strengthened and his rule became increasingly autocratic in the following years. With strong support from the US and UK, the Shah further modernized Iranian industry, but simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition with his intelligence agency, SAVAK. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah’s White Revolution and publicly denounced the government. Khomeini, who was popular in religious circles, was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. After his release in 1964, Khomeini publicly criticized the United States government. The Shah was persuaded to send him into exile by General Hassan Pakravan. Khomeini was sent first to Turkey and then to Iraq. While in exile, he continued to denounce the Shah.
Starting in late 1977, protests began to build against the Shah and his autocratic, secular, pro-Western policies. By December 1978 millions of Iranians were in the streets and the country’s economy was paralyzed. The Shah left the country in mid-January 1979 and two weeks later the Revolution’s pre-eminent leader, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to tumultuous, adoring crowds. The final collapse of the old regime came on February 11 when royal troops were defeated by guerillas and rebel troops in armed street fighting. Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on April 1 after Iranians overwhelmingly approved a national referendum declaring the country so.
The 1979 revolution was populist, nationalist and most of all Shia Islamist. It reversed the Shah’s close political, social and cultural relationship with America and the West. Beyond that, Khomeini and his supporters worked to implement his vision of an Islamic state with sharia, or conservative Islamic laws, and clerical rule. Iran’s unique new theocratic constitution included the post of Supreme Leader for Khomeini and his successors, and other bodies of clerics to veto new laws and vet candidates for public office.
Iran’s relations with the United States became deeply antagonistic following the revolution. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized US embassy personnel labeling the embassy a “den of spies” and accused its personnel of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government, as the CIA had done to Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Khomeini did not stop the students from holding embassy employees hostage and instead supported the embassy takeover.. Women, African Americans and one hostage diagnosed with multiple sclerosis were soon released, the remaining 52 were held for 444 days. The students demanded the handover of the shah in exchange for the hostages, and following the Shah’s death in the summer of 1980, that the hostages be put on trial for espionage. Subsequently attempts by the U.S. administration to negotiate or rescue the remaining hostages through such methods as Operation Eagle Claw, were unsuccessful until January 1981 when the Algiers declaration was agreed upon. The U.S. promised (among other things) in the accord to release Iranian assets that had been frozen, but as of 2007 those assets still remain frozen.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran Meanwhile, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of what he perceived to be disorder in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and its unpopularity with Western governments. The once-strong Iranian military had been disbanded during the revolution, and with the Shah ousted, Hussein had ambitions to position himself as the new strong man of the Middle East. He also sought to expand Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf by acquiring territories that Iraq had claimed earlier from Iran during the Shah’s rule. Of chief importance to Iraq was Khuzestan which not only boasted a substantial Arab population, but rich oil fields as well. On the unilateral behalf of the United Arab Emirates, the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs became objectives as well. With these ambitions in mind, Hussein planned a full-scale assault on Iran, boasting that his forces could reach the capital within three days. On September 22, 1980 the Iraqi army invaded Iran at Khuzestan, precipitating the Iran-Iraq War known as Saddâm’s Qâdisiyyah in Iraq and the Imposed War in Iran. The attack took revolutionary Iran completely by surprise.
Although Saddam Hussein’s forces made several early advances, by 1982, Iranian forces managed to push the Iraqi army back into Iraq. Khomeini refused a cease-fire from Iraq, demanding huge reparation payments, an end to Saddam’s rule, and that he be tried for crimes against humanity. Khomeini also sought to export his Islamic revolution westward into Iraq, especially on the majority Shi’a Arabs living in the country. The war then continued for six more years until 1988, when Khomeini, in his words, “drank the cup of poison” and accepted a truce mediated by the United Nations.
Tens of thousands of Iranian civilians and military personnel were killed when Iraq used chemical weapons in its warfare. Iraq was financially backed by Egypt, the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states, the United States (beginning in 1983), France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, and the People’s Republic of China (which also sold weapons to Iran). All of these countries provided intelligence, agents for chemical weapons as well as other forms of military assistance to Saddam Hussein. Iran’s principal allies during the war were Syria, Libya, and North Korea.
With more than 100,000 Iranian victims of Iraq’s chemical weapons during the eight-year war, Iran is the world’s second-most afflicted country by weapons of mass destruction, only to Japan. The total Iranian casualties of the war were estimated to be anywhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Almost all relevant international agencies have confirmed that Saddam engaged in chemical warfare to blunt Iranian human wave attacks, while unanimously announcing that Iran never used chemical weapons during the war.