The Anti-Shah Revolutionary Movement

While Khamenei was in prison, the anti-Shah movement continued gathering steam, leading to a small-scale uprising that presaged the Islamic Revolution. In March 1975, the Shah reversed his earlier gestures towards political liberalization. Initially, he had allowed the formation of two political parties, one of which was nominally an opposition party. After the opposition party contested and won a parliamentary by-election, the Shah decided he could not abide the appearance of dissent and abruptly moved to dissolve both parties. In their stead, he created a single political party called the Resurgence Party, which became the only legal party in Iran. While membership was not mandatory, the Shah clarified that non-allegiance to the Resurgence Party was treason. From exile in Iraq, Khomeini declared the new party un-Islamic and stated that public participation was haram (religiously forbidden) for Muslims.

As anger against the Shah grew due to his attempts to manipulate the limited political space that existed for Iranians, the students at the Fayziyyah seminary in Qom planned major pro-Khomeini, anti-Shah demonstrations that year to commemorate the June 1963 15th Khordad uprising. The Shah’s security forces were prepared, and on the evening of June 5, 1975, they surrounded the seminary, preventing students from chanting pro-Khomeini slogans (public mentions of Khomeini had been banned in Iran since his exile over a decade prior) and exiting the building to take their protest to the streets. The trapped students, aided by sympathetic townspeople outside the seminary who rallied to their cause, clashed with the Shah’s agents, facing assaults by tear gas and water cannons. A standoff ensued, prompting the Shah’s security forces to call military reinforcements to pacify the uprising. The students called upon local religious leaders to mediate, but the quietist clergymen, concerned about losing the Shah’s religious protections, urged the pro-Khomeini students to stand down.

On June 7, the Shah’s forces cleared the area outside the seminary of townspeople and launched an assault on the student protestors inside. The military and security agents beat the students, armed only with sticks and stones, for over an hour and made over 200 arrests, finally quelling the uprising. During the melee, the Shah’s forces caused significant damage inside the seminary, breaking all the building’s windows and doors. There were no fatalities among the students, but rumors of multiple deaths and brutality by the Shah’s forces spread, increasing anger at the Shah.

The Shah reacted strongly to the 1975 15th Khordad riots, blaming the “ugly and filthy” unrest on an “unholy union of stateless reds and black reactionaries,” an attempt to discredit Khomeini’s followers by linking them to communist subversion. According to the contemporaneous diaries of one of his advisors, the Shah had thought at the time that Khomeini was no longer relevant in Iran. Upon hearing his name shortly before the riots, the Shah retorted, “Khomeini? No one mentions his name any more in Iran, except, perhaps, the terrorists.” The Shah’s dismissive attitude towards Khomeini until the riots indicated that he was out of touch with Iranian society and lacked an accurate sense of the growing opposition against his rule.

By the time of the 1975 riots, the fissures that had emerged in Iran and led to the initial 1963 15th Khordad uprising had intensified. The Shah’s White Revolution had aimed to rapidly modernize the country’s economy and social norms, but the jarring pace of change imperiled the livelihoods and traditional ways of life for broad swathes of the population, engendering significant reaction. Booming oil revenues had generated substantial wealth for the most educated and well-connected, forming a nouveau riche class of elite businessmen, bankers, and oil brokers who gravitated toward ostentatious, Western lifestyles. The fruits of the oil boom were unevenly distributed, however, and many Iranians were left behind due to poor planning and lack of foresight by the Shah, who boasted of his disdain for the expertise of technocrats.

The influx of petrodollars into Iran, especially after a price spike in 1974, led to a rapid rise in inflation. In stark contrast with the conspicuous consumption of the elite, 60 percent of the Iranian population lived on subsistence wages. They lacked the necessary skills and training to participate in the emerging modernized economy and faced housing shortages and food insecurity. The land reform policies of the White Revolution were an attempt by the Shah to co-opt the peasantry and inoculate them against the lure of communism. The government sold small subdivided tracts of land at affordable prices, but only a small percentage of the peasantry could take advantage of the opportunity. As a result, millions of peasants and agrarian laborers were pushed to the outskirts of large cities, where they became disaffected as they struggled to acclimate to urban life and make ends meet. This underclass of dislocated urban migrants would form a core constituency among Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries.  

Meanwhile, banking and commerce reform threatened the economic and political power of the bazaari and merchant class, who operated largely informally and chafed against efforts to impose regulation and central authority. The bazaaris’ shops were historically concentrated in dense alleyways surrounding mosques, seeking to draw in customers from those going to and from the mosques, which served as the focal points of communal life and political organization. The Shah’s attempts to create a centrally planned economy and impose price control measures, which cut into their profits, drove the bazaaris into a tactical alliance with the Shi’a clergy. Both groups tapped into local mosques to recruit and politically mobilize against the Shah.

The rapid pace of social and economic change, widening inequality, and erosion of traditional ways of life created conditions ripe for revolution. Khomeini and his revolutionary cohort of Shi’a clergy blamed the Shah’s modernization program and Western-style capitalism more generally for Iran’s systemic corruption, social licentiousness, inequality, and political repression. This critique resonated strongly with marginalized Iranians. Khomeini and his allies pitched a return to Islam and tradition as the antidote to the alienation many felt. This message even appealed to disaffected elites who lacked spiritual fulfillment despite their material wealth. A growing trend toward religiosity had taken root, most visibly witnessed by an increase in veiling by women, increased mosque attendance, and an uptick in religious pilgrimages to Shi’a holy sites, serving as a direct rebuke of the Shah’s modernization agenda.

The 1975 15th Khordad riots were the first major sign that these emerging trends had created fault lines leading to increased violence and unrest against the Shah in the future. The Shah and his inner circle of advisors took the July 1975 riots as a wake-up call, realizing that Khomeini and his backers could not be easily dismissed as irrelevant or backward reactionaries. Having ransacked the Fayziyyah seminary, the seat of revolutionary clerical fervor, the Shah’s authorities shut it down entirely as a show of state power. Following the uprising, the Shah began imploring Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s de facto strongman leader, who had started a campaign of repression against Iraq’s majority Shi’a population out of fears of an uprising, to expel Khomeini from Iraq. The Shah hoped that this action would weaken Khomeini’s growing influence in Iran.

However, these steps were not enough to quell the rising tide of Islamism. While the Shah effectively suppressed nationalist and communist secular opposition, he could not fully stamp out religious-oriented opposition centered around fiery sermons and mass processions. This was due to the potential backlash from an increasingly religious and traditional population. The space to organize and mobilize through mosques, with the assistance of the bazaari networks, was a crucial factor in why Khomeini’s Islamist backers were the best positioned to shape the future contours of the Iranian state. Ayatollah Khomeini had succeeded in building the ideological and theological structure for a state built on Islamist values and governance in the preceding years. He had also cultivated clerical networks to disseminate his ideology in communities nationwide, laying the groundwork for revolution. While Khomeini built the ideological and organizational frameworks for revolution, ultimately, the Shah’s increased repression, coupled with non-responsiveness to demands for reform and an economic downturn, was the catalyst for his own overthrow.

In August 1975, Khamenei was released from prison after enduring his most challenging sentence to date. He emerged into an increasingly restive Iran that had entered a new phase while he was behind bars. Despite increased surveillance by the Shah’s intelligence agents and a prohibition against him from giving public sermons or speeches, teaching, or even holding classes on Quranic exegesis at his home, Khamenei risked further imprisonment and torture to carry on his intellectual and revolutionary activities in secret from his home base of Mashhad. He continued giving underground speeches against the regime and holding discussions with secular and religious students to further Khomeinist precepts and inculcate revolutionary anti-Shah sentiment. During this period, in 1977, Khamenei and other conservative revolutionary clerical backers of Khomeini created the Association of Combatant Clergy, an umbrella group for recruiting and organizing the activities of anti-Shah clergy around the country that still exists in Iran as a quasi-political party for hardliner, or principlist, clergy.

Later-revealed SAVAK documents showed that the Shah’s authorities were aware of Khamenei’s activities and actively sought to infiltrate his meetings to gather evidence against him and other activists in his circle during this period. According to SAVAK’s files on Khamenei’s revolutionary activities:

“Khamenei is an intellectual, a mujtahid, and a teacher at a high level at the Seminary of Qom, who is familiar with social issues and today’s cultural tools. He has been involved in political activities since 1962, instigating an uprising among the people. He was involved in 15 Khordad and encouraged religious zealots and naïve students to join in activities against national security. He has translated several books. He is an expert speaker, has a warm personality, is liked by the youth, and is an individual that socializes with all social classes. He has recently changed the manner of his political activities. He expresses his views through teachings, and interpretations of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis), ḥadīth and Qurʾanic verses in a revolutionary and anti-regime tone. … His activities lead students and religious zealots to anti-government activities. He absolutely rejects the current government and its principles, and insists on the establishment of an Islamic system. He is considered Khomeini’s representative and a follower of his doctrines and ideology. … We are confident that he is Khomeini’s representative.”