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In pictures: 40 years of Iran's Islamic Republic

Gabriel Duval, AFP | Photo from February 1979 as demonstrators rally in Tehran to support the new government of the Ayatollah Khomenei.
Text by: Marc DAOU
7 min

On February 11, 1979, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and religious hardliners established an Islamic Republic in Iran after the fall of the Shah. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the last 40 years in pictures.




Forty years ago, after several months of mass protests against social injustice and corruption in Iran, the authoritarian regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fell after he was deserted by his American backers. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who returned to the country on an Air France flight from Paris on February 1 after 15 years of exile, takes power.

February 11 marks the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, which initially united students, communists, laypeople, liberals, merchants from Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and Shiite clerics. But it was the clerics who ultimately seized power. An Islamic Republic was proclaimed by Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomenei on April 1. Under the principle of "velayat-e faqih", which gives religion pre-eminence over politics, the Supreme Leader must be "fair and virtuous as well as a courageous and clever leader". He is the ultimate religious authority and guide of the Islamic people, according to the Iranian constitution.

The 'Great Satan'


The Islamic Republic begins an ideological and political stand-off with America’s "Great Satan" and adopts a hostile stance toward Israel (despite having been the second Muslim country to recognise the Jewish state in 1950). In November 1979, relations with Washington reach a crisis point with the seizure of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran, just a few days after the United States granted asylum to the Shah of Iran.

Direct diplomatic relations remained suspended until 2013, when presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone. Such efforts were subsequently reversed by the election of Donald Trump, who campaigned on a stridently anti-Iranian platform.

A million martyrs

The Islamic Republic becomes a source of concern for both the West and the mostly Sunni Arab countries, which fear that the Iranian regime has ambitions to export its Shiite revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. Backed by the Gulf monarchies, Saddam Hussein attacks Iran in September 1980; the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) subsequently claimed nearly a million lives.

Islamisation and repression

Since its establishment, the "regime of the mullahs", which seeks to prevent any Western influence in the country, has been criticised for the violent repression of its opponents and its attacks on human rights, including limiting freedom of expression and requiring women to wear headscarves. Tehran has also been accused of fuelling international terrorism (including attacks and hostage-takings) and funding armed movements hostile to Westerners, such as that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, considered terrorist groups by both the European Union and the United States.

Khamenei succeeds Khomenei


The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took power in 1989 following the death of the man considered the father of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei. Appointed by the Assembly of Experts and elected by direct universal suffrage, Supreme Leader Khamenei continues to hold most of Iran’s political and religious power. As the supreme commander of the Iranian armed forces, he determines policy in the country and has the last word on security, defence and foreign policy.

The diatribes of Ahmadinejad


Tensions with the West reach a climax under ultraconservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in power from 2005 to 2013. A former officer of the Revolutionary Guard, the regime's militia, and backed by the Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is particularly unwavering on Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear programme. While in office Ahmadinejad launched multiple diatribes against Israel, saying it will one day be "wiped off the map". Sensing an existential threat, Israel threatens to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if the programme is not dismantled by the international community through diplomatic means.

The nuclear crisis

The extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme is more fully revealed in 2002. The regime claims that its nuclear research is focused solely on peaceful civilian uses but the West fears it is pursuing nuclear weapons. To force Iran to abandon its nuclear plans, several UN resolutions – accompanied by drastic political and economic sanctions – are passed.

The Green Revolution repressed


Plagued by accusations of fraud, Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election sparks protests on a scale not seen since 1979. Demonstrations are violently suppressed by the cornerstones of Iran’s security apparatus, the Revolutionary Guard, backed by a volunteer paramilitary force known as the basiji. Two reformist presidential candidates who were leaders of the “Green Revolution” protest movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, are placed under house arrest, where they remain today.

The 2015 nuclear accord

Elected in June 2013 with the support of both moderates and reformists, President Hassan Rouhani began to ease tensions with the West over the nuclear crisis, promising a diplomatic solution as the Iranian economy continued to collapse. In 2015 a historic nuclear accord was signed in Vienna after more than a decade of tense negotiations, providing for the gradual and conditional lifting of international sanctions if Tehran commits to scaling back its nuclear progress for several years. The goal is to make it almost impossible for Iran to build a bomb while acknowledging Tehran's right to develop a civilian nuclear industry.

Trump brings an end to détente


The period of détente proved fleeting, however. Backed by Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and encouraged by Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord in May 2018 and announced the reinstatement of sanctions on Tehran. Trump’s decision came despite assurances from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had respected the terms of the Vienna agreement. The move ushers in a period of tense negotiations between Washington and its European allies, and increasing uncertainty about stability in the Middle East. According to the Trump administration, Iran is a destabilising force and a threat to security in the region, citing its interference in the affairs of several nations including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

An economy in crisis


Forty years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic is still standing. But inside the country, anger is growing. Since late 2017, demonstrations against the rising cost of living and financial corruption have proliferated – sometimes turning into anti-government rallies – with many on the streets saying they have not reaped any of the economic benefits that Rouhani had promised.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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