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History, The Islamic Revolution

general strike, Qum, mass movement, Tabriz, martial law

The spark that ignited the revolution was a pro-Khomeini demonstration in Qum in January 1978. Police intervened, the demonstration turned into a riot, and about 70 people were killed before calm was restored. From his exile in Iraq, Khomeini called upon his followers to commemorate the victims on the 40th day after their deaths, in accordance with Iranian mourning customs. In February they held services at mosques throughout the country, and demonstrations in Tabriz turned into riots during which more people were killed. Thus began a cycle of nationwide mourning services every 40 days, some of which turned violent and resulted in more fatalities. By late summer, when it became clear that the government was losing control of the streets, the shah imposed martial law on Tehran and 11 other cities. This move only escalated tensions. Employees in different industries and offices began striking to protest martial law, and within six weeks a general strike had paralyzed the economy, including the vital oil sector.

By October the strikes and demonstrations were becoming a unified revolutionary movement. From the security of his exile in Iraq, Khomeini continued to denounce the corruption and injustices of the shah's regime, as well as its dependence on the United States. His sermons were recorded, duplicated on thousands of cassette tapes, and smuggled into Iran. The tapes appealed equally to religious Iranians and members of the secular middle class. Alarmed by Khomeini’s growing influence, the shah persuaded the Iraqi government to expel him. Khomeini immediately found asylum in France, where access to the international media made it even easier for him to communicate with supporters in Iran. In November the shah realized that the army could not indefinitely contain the mass movement, and he began making plans for his departure from Iran. He left the country in mid-January 1979. Two weeks later, Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph after more than 14 years in exile. On February 11, 1979, the royalist government was overthrown, and in a referendum on April 1 Iranians voted overwhelmingly to establish an Islamic republic.

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