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Revolutionary Iran

A History of the Islamic Republic

By Michael Axworthy
16-minute read
Audio available
Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

Revolutionary Iran (2013) tells the story of modern Iran, from the early twentieth-century origins of the 1979 revolution through to reactions to Ahmadinejad’s second presidential victory, in 2009. The book also dispels misconceptions and examines internal politics and cultural debates within the country.

  • Students of contemporary global politics
  • Curious minds wanting to know more about contemporary Iranian history
  • Followers of the Middle East interested in understanding the relationship between religion and democracy

Michael Axworthy is the author of two other books dealing with Iranian history, The Sword of Persia and Iran: Empire of the Mind. From 1998 to 2000, he was the head of the Iran Section of the British Foreign Office. He became a research fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham in December 2001, and he is now Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter.

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Revolutionary Iran

A History of the Islamic Republic

By Michael Axworthy
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy
Synopsis

Revolutionary Iran (2013) tells the story of modern Iran, from the early twentieth-century origins of the 1979 revolution through to reactions to Ahmadinejad’s second presidential victory, in 2009. The book also dispels misconceptions and examines internal politics and cultural debates within the country.

Key idea 1 of 10

The foundations of the 1970 Iranian revolution were laid at the start of the twentieth century.

Iran, though an ancient nation, was no less vulnerable than younger countries to the upheavals and revolutionary atmosphere of the early twentieth century. And so, in 1905, when faced with economic instability, Iran felt the first stirrings of civil unrest. Demonstrators soon took to the streets.

Things soon escalated when, in July 1906, police killed a theology student at a rally. This led to further protests and the deaths of 22 more people. The situation culminated in mass strikes and vocal denunciation of the country’s monarch, Mozaffar od-Din Shah.

It was clear that the Shah would have to cave. On August 5, he accepted one of the protestors’ main demands and issued an order that an Iranian national assembly should be established. In October 1906, the Majles convened for the first time.

The Majles set about swiftly drafting a constitution, which was ratified by the Shah on December 30, just five days before he died of a serious illness. It confirmed that the Shah’s sovereignty was given by the people, not by God, and that this power had been given in trust. It also declared Shi’ia Islam as the state religion and established a committee of Iranian clergy, ulema, to review legislation passed by the Majles.

This legislation represented a political victory, but the revolutionary momentum that had ushered them into law was already dwindling.  

By 1908, the ulema were turning against constitutionalism; they regarded new reforming legislation as a threat to their traditional authority. The Shah’s successor, his son Mohammad Ali Shah, was equally skeptical of the Majles. In 1908, set on a return to absolute monarchy and with the backing of the ulema, Mohammad Ali staged a military coup.

Though he met with success in Tehran, he failed elsewhere. The revolutionaries successfully countered, and, in 1909, the Shah was forced into exile. His young son Ahmad succeeded to  the throne. The constitutionalists were back in control.

But these changes didn’t solve the country’s deeper problems – political polarization and a dangerously out-of-control revolution. The country was descending into complete disorder; assassinations were common on both sides.

Then, in December 1911, conservative factions in the cabinet staged what amounted to a successful coup and the Majles was dismissed. It seemed to everyone that the revolution had been stopped dead in its tracks. However, the seeds for later revolutionary changes had been sown.

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