In 1978 opponents of the shah had several bloody encounters with his security troops. The most notorious of these clashes was on September 8, when soldiers fired on 20,000 demonstrators in Tehrān. Several hundred people were killed and thousands more were wounded in what became known as Black Friday. Two months later, young people took to the streets of Tehrān, burning shops, banks, liquor stores, and other symbols of Western “corruption.” Tensions escalated in December with the coming of Muharram, the sacred month marking the martyrdom of Husayn, an early Shia leader. Emboldened by the strength of the opposition, Khomeini called on Iranians to “begin the month of epic heroism … the month in which the leader of the Muslims taught us to struggle against all tyrants.” On December 10 and 11, the two holiest days of the Shia calendar, a group of soldiers rebelled and attacked the officer’s mess of the shah’s Imperial Guard. With that, his regime collapsed, and the shah fled Iran in January 1979. He died two years later in Cairo, Egypt.
Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, and began to establish control over the government. He forced the shah’s prime minister out of office and appointed a new prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan. Bazargan was known as a liberal who favored democracy, so many observers believed the new government would represent a wide range of opinion. In a late March referendum Iranians voted on a new form of government, and in April, with overwhelming public approval, Khomeini declared the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In November 1979, after the shah had been allowed entry to the United States for medical care, hundreds of Iranians overran the U.S. embassy in Tehrān and took the staff hostage. Khomeini refused to release them until the United States apologized for its support of the shah and met other demands. (The hostages were eventually released in January 1981 after Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as president). Khomeini used the fervor of the hostage taking to mobilize radical Islamic students against Bazargan. After Bazargan resigned, Khomeini held a December referendum in which more than 99 percent of voters supported a new constitution. Khomeini became faqih, or ultimate leader, and used his unlimited powers to eliminate opponents. First he attacked liberals and leftists, including President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who fled Iran in February 1981; later, he repressed his clerical opponents. By 1981 some 1600 people had been executed under Khomeini.
Khomeini filled key positions in the government with his closest clerical allies. He also conducted a purge of all “un-Islamic” elements from universities, newspapers, and other cultural institutions. In time, many Iranians—particularly less religious Iranians—found themselves living under a politically and culturally repressive regime. However, the creation of a clerical regime also led to vexing problems and ideological conflicts that embarrassed Khomeini and his allies. Conservative clerics in the Council of Guardians—the group created to ensure adherence to Islamic code and the constitution—vetoed reform legislation proposed by the less conservative Majlis (parliament). The reformers wanted to nationalize some industries and to change the way land was distributed; the conservative clerics, who controlled much of the land, were opposed to such reforms. The clerics also wanted to pursue a stricter religious policy than did their opponents. The result of this stalemate was that domestic policy was largely paralyzed.
In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. The ensuing conflict temporarily distracted attention from Iran’s internal strife. The invasion, caused in part by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s desire to end the propaganda directed at his secular regime, touched off a vicious eight-year border war (see Iran-Iraq War). Using waves of child “martyrs” who crossed the battle line, Iran turned the tide of the war against Iraq in the spring of 1982. Emboldened, Khomeini proclaimed his determination to spread his revolution throughout the region. But Arab governments were equally resolved to contain Iran, and with the support of the United States they backed Iraq’s efforts to stop Iran.