What events led to Iran becoming an Islamic republic? Find out here.
In the early 1960s, the Shah (King) of Iran, pictured here, launched a series of reforms called the White Revolution. “White” meant change without bloodshed. With U.S. aid, he built roads and schools, and set up industries. He also gave women new rights, including the right to vote. Religious leaders objected to the reforms, saying that they violated many rules of Shia Islamic law, which dictates all aspects of people’s lives, including how they should dress and behave. Political leaders protested the Shah’s tightening hold on power.
The Shah’s secret police, called SAVAK, used force to squelch opposition to his rule or policies. (Shown here: General Nematollah Nassiri, SAVAK’s chief, in 1971.) During the 1970s, the Shah’s government grew increasingly corrupt and became wealthy from Iran’s oil reserves. In 1975, the Shah ended multiparty politics, making himself head of the only party allowed.
SAVAK imprisoned, beat, exiled (sent out of the country), tortured, and killed critics of the Shah and their family members. Yet protests, as shown above, grew louder and more violent. Religious leaders, such as Islamic scholar Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, encouraged the protesters. Riots broke out in some cities. Realizing that he could no longer stifle opposition, the Shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini, pictured here, appointed a new government and was declared Iran’s religious and political leader for life. He established strict religious law, called sharia (shuh-REE-uh). Women had to wear veils in public, and most of their rights were abolished. Khomeini also banned Western- style culture and activities, such as popular music. Iranians who violated sharia were jailed or executed.
In October 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah into the U.S. for medical care. On November 4, young revolutionaries reacted by storming the U.S. Embassy in Iran’s capital. They took 52 Americans hostage (see photo), most of whom worked at the embassy. The revolutionaries vowed not to release the hostages until the U.S. sent the Shah back to Iran for trial.
President Carter refused to turn over the Shah. Anti-U.S. feelings in Iran intensified, and the hostage crisis continued. In April 1980, Carter ordered a military rescue of the hostages. Plagued by problems, such as the plane crash pictured above, it failed. The Shah died on July 27, 1980. On January 20, 1981—the day Carter left office— the Iranians released the hostages.