The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in April 1979 after the revolution overthrew the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Years of turbulence preceded the revolution, led by exiled Shi’i cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Khomeini was an Islamic scholar from the conservative city of Qom; under the shah’s regime he had been exiled to Iraq. After being expelled from Iraq, at the shah’s prodding, Khomeini moved to France, where he coordinated a revolution using the press, radio, and audio cassettes to incite Iranians to rise up against the shah. After the shah fled the country, Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979.
The Ayatollah exhorted Iranian citizens (male and female) over 16 years of age to vote for the creation of an Islamic Republic. In free and open elections 98 percent voted in favor of the republic.
The overthrow of the monarchy—although celebrated by most Iranians tired of rampant corruption, overspending, and the police state created by the shah—nevertheless worried many secularists who were alarmed by the new government, which was controlled by the mullahs, or Shi’i clergy.
Under the new 1979 constitution a supreme leader ruled over a theocracy; beneath the supreme leader a 12-member cabinet, or Council of Guardians, oversaw the constitution and had veto power over legislation passed by the Majlis, or parliament. Khomeini served as the first supreme leader until his death in 1989. Khomeini sought to establish a government that adhered to a strict Shi’i code of law and conduct.
Iranian women, who had the right to vote and to work outside the home, nevertheless were restricted regarding dress and modes of behavior. The secularists within the government who had struggled against the shah were marginalized by the new Islamist forces, and many fled the country for Europe and the United States.
Following the shah’s overthrow, Iranian relations with the United States, a strong ally of the Pahlavi dynasty, deteriorated. When the shah entered the United States for cancer treatment in 1979, riots broke out in Tehran and angry students stormed the U.S. embassy and took many hostages.
Khomeini encouraged the students and labeled the United States the “Great Satan.” Many Iranians blamed the United States for its support of the shah and his repressive regime. The students demanded that the shah be handed over to the new Islamic regime for trial in exchange for the release of the embassy hostages.
The United States refused to return the shah and severed diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. The resulting crisis dragged on for more than a year before the hostages were released, and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran had yet to be resumed.
Neighboring Arab governments were also alarmed at Khomeini’s attempts to export Islamic revolution to other Muslim nations. Neighboring Iraq, with its large Shi’i population, was particularly concerned. The Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein, with at least the tacit support of other Arab states and the United States, decided to preempt the Islamic revolution by attacking Iran in 1980.
Although the Iranians were taken by surprise, Hussein severely underestimated the national determination of Iran, and a long, eight-year war of attrition began. The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988 and caused massive casualties and destruction on both sides.
Western and Arab governments provided arms and assistance to Iraq, while several communist-bloc countries, Libya, and Syria provided support to Iran. By 1988 both nations were exhausted and agreed to a United Nations–brokered truce.
Khomeini died the next year, and Ali al-Khameini became the new supreme leader. Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a mullah who advocated resumption of relations with the West, was elected president and purged many hardline members from his cabinet.
However, reformist governments elected by wide margins in the 1990s were thwarted in implementing reforms and liberalization by the hard-line Council of Guardians, who retained final say on legislation. Although the youthful Iranian population, many born after the revolution, wanted liberalization of the media, social life, and dress, the conservative mullahs clung to power.
In the 1990s Iran also started to build up its nuclear capabilities. Prior to the 1979 revolution Iran had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gave Iran the right to use and research nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. However, after the 2005 election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a conservative and controversial populist, as president, Iran’s nuclear research appeared to escalate.
The United States threatened sanctions and military action were Iran to continue its nuclear ambitions, but Ahmadinejad appealed to Iranian nationalism and argued that Iran had the right to develop nuclear weapons as other nations such as Israel, Pakistan, and India had done.
After the occupation of Iraq in the Second Gulf War, Iran emerged as a major regional power. It continued to lend financial and military support to Shi’i communities in Iraq and to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Its oil reserves also gave Iran considerable leverage economically, as it threatened to switch from selling oil in dollar prices and move to gold or the euro; this could devastate the dollar and weaken the U.S. economy.
Mired in protracted conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States protested Iranian policies but had few options to force it to drop its support for Islamist movements or its nuclear program.