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Secularism Period in Iran: Lessons Learnt


It could be stated that the issue of relationships between religion and politics is a considerably difficult question to solve. There are numerous examples of the religious institutions’ direct influence and integration into the political life of a country from various historical periods. Not only this issue is highly problematic due to the immense complexity of political and social processes related to it, but it is also possible to state that each religion has its distinct characteristics as well as the cultural background that have a direct impact on the government, in which religious institutions are integrated. Therefore, it is essential to consider numerous aspects from different spheres of the country’s life when analyzing the influence of religion on politics. Another approach to governance is secularism, a perspective that implies the separation between religious and political institutions.

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The scope of this paper is the investigation of both of the mentioned approaches to the example of the history of Iran. The period of secular governance in Iranian history appears to be one of the most interesting aspects to elaborate on since its significance is recognized by numerous researchers. However, the period of secularism resulted in the outbreak of the Islamic revolution (also referred to as the Iranian revolution) in 1979. There were numerous reasons involved in the development of tension between society and secular governance.

Thus, the primary purpose of this paper is to develop a profound understanding of the lessons that could be learned from the pre-Islamic revolution Iran’s experience with secular governance under the shah’s rule. In order to achieve this goal, the essay will dwell upon the following topics: Iran in the period of secularism, growing tensions between the state and the society, the impact of these events on the Iranian foreign policy, and the consequences of the Islamic revolution for the current state of social and political life in Iran as well as its significance for other Islamic countries, namely the United Arab Emirates.

The History of Secular Thought in the Islamic Country

It could be hardly doubted that Iran is traditionally perceived as the country where the influence of Islam of nearly every sphere of social and political life is immense. It is also mentioned by Bank, Richter, and Sunik (2015) that Iran (before the Islamic revolution in 1979) was one of the most recognized examples of a monarchy in the Arabic region. The combination of these two factors – a strong influence of traditional religion and monarchic governance – appears to confront the emergence of secularism. However, the history of Iran represents the opposite situation, and there are significant peculiarities regarding the development of secular thought in Iran and its practical implementation by the shah’s government. It is also of high importance to observe that “an authoritarian monarchy has not broken down in the Middle East since the Iranian revolution of 1979” (Bank et al., 2015, p. 180). Therefore, it could be stated with certainty that Iran represents a highly interesting and unique example in the history of the Arabic region and world history as a whole.

This section aims to give a profound overview of the causes and aspects that lead to the particular state of the country, which caused the outbreak of the Islamic revolution in 1979. As the primary source of information on this topic, the dissertation by Glassman (2014) will be employed since it represents a profound investigation of the issue of secularism and religious thought in Iran. Other sources from the scholarly literature will also be used.

The Premises for the Development of the Shah’s Growing Control over Iran

First of all, it is essential to observe that Iran represents a considerably unique example of combining secular and religious premises in its governance. This assumption is the central point in the work by Glassman (2014), who strives to prove that the simultaneous development of these two dissimilar approaches has resulted in what he calls the “Islamization of secularism” (p. 1). Bank et al. (2015) assume a relatively similar point since the authors state that the component of religion is highly important for monarchies in the Arabic region, but it is also important for Iran as an authoritarian republic that emerged as the result of the Islamic revolution in 1979. These assumptions are of high significance; however, they will be elaborated later since it is essential to observe the history of this development firstly.

According to Glassman (2014), one of the most crucial aspects, which has to be considered to understand how the shah’s governance was established and how it later influenced the outbreak of the revolution in 1979, is the impact of the Cold War. It is stated that within the decade after the end of World War II, Iran became “a central theater for the Cold War and post-colonial political intervention” (Glassman, 2014, p. 7). Even though the British colonial occupant was no longer physically present in the country, they still maintained their control over the Iranian oil industry. However, the situation changed in 1951, when Mohammad Mossadegh, the leader of the secular-nationalist National Front Party, legislated the nationalization of the oil industry in the Iranian Parliament (Glassman, 2014). This decision was highly popular among Iranian people, and thus Mossadegh became a considerably important political figure in Iran. With the support of numerous citizens and a landslide parliamentary vote, he was elected as the new Prime Minister in 1951 (Glassman, 2014).

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This event introduced a considerably serious challenge to the power of shah. There were several reasons for this situation. Firstly, the most evident reason was the growing domestic popularity of Mossadegh combined with the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry (Glassman, 2014). Secondly, Mossadegh represented the political view of nationalism as he was one of the leaders of the National Front Party. This fact was significantly threatening to the power of shah since he was largely supported by Western countries, namely the United States of America. The interest of Western supporters comprised primarily the benefits obtained from the Iranian oil resources (Glassman, 2014). Therefore, the fact that the oil industry was nationalized by Mossadegh “stripped the Shah’s Western supporters of a major source of oil wealth” (Glassman, 2014, p. 8). The third reason is derived from the global political climate of the Cold War. The United States was significantly worried about the growing tendencies of the Soviet Union’s influence on Iran, and thus the American CIA and the British MI6 launched an operation to overthrow Mossadegh in 1953 (Glassman, 2014).

These reasons could be considered as the basis of future tensions between Iranians and the shah’s government. The basic premises, which would later translate into the causes of the Iranian revolution’s outbreak, were solidified in the minds of Iranian citizens in this period. First of all, the fact that Pahlavi was largely supported by the Western countries in exchange for economic benefits of the oil trade was perceived as the exploitation of Iran’s natural resources by foreigners. Secondly, the recent overthrow of the newly elected Prime Minister, who was recognized as the national hero for his actions, had strengthened the idea about the Western countries’ negative interference and encroachment into the political freedom and independence of Iran.

The Observation of Iran’s Political and Social under the Shah’s Rule

After the overthrow of Mossadegh, Pahlavi had to eliminate the rest of the political powers that could intervene with his governance. Firstly, he dismissed the remaining secular-nationalist supporters of Mossadegh. Secondly, the pro-Soviet, Marxist Tudeh Party was also removed from the political landscape of Iran. Thus, the Shah gained complete control over the social and political life in the country by destroying Iran’s two dominant political factions (Glassman, 2014). Glassman (2014) points out that, as a consequence of these actions, a political vacuum was created, and in this situation, Pahlavi was able to implement his project of “modernization, secularization, and Westernization” of Iran in the early 1960s (p. 8). This project, which is also referred to as the White Revolution, aimed to transform the social and political life in the country, complying with Western standards of modern society.

It is worth mentioning that the majority of the initiatives, which were implemented by Shah, appeared to be beneficial at their core. It is possible to suggest four primary directions of the modernization project. First of all, Pahlavi redistributed a significant amount of Iranian land from the feudal-like landowning elite of the country to Iranian peasants (Glassman, 2014). Secondly, the revenues from the oil trade were used to subsidize new businesses, economic initiatives, and industrialization (Glassman, 2014). The infrastructure of Iran, including its road systems and transportation networks, was modernized and facilitated as well (Glassman, 2014). The fourth direction of the modernization project was to provide women with equal rights and emancipation at least to some extent (Glassman, 2014). The question of women’s position in Iranian society is highly important, and it will be later elaborated since it is one of the better examples of the development of secularism and religious thought in Iran.

The modernization project and its key premises about ways of Iran’s future development were supported even by the “few remaining supporters of the secular-nationalist and the Marxist political parties” (Glassman, 2014, p. 9). However, it is possible to state that the mentioned initiatives were not realized to the full extent by the shah’s government. For example, the positive effects of the land redistribution were almost eliminated by the mass migration of Iranians from rural to urban areas, which was induced by the processes of industrialization and the overall development of the quality of life in cities. Secondly, this mass migration of a large portion of rural populations has posed a considerable challenge to the policy of secularism since the majority of newly urbanized Iranians were proponents of traditional Islamic values. Also, the level of illiteracy was considerably high among these people. Thus, one of the core directions of the Pahlavi’s modernization project – a trend for rapid urbanization – had met significant obstacles. Overall, it is mentioned by Glassman (2014) that the shah’s plan failed to overcome the country’s trend of economic stagnation, despite the fact that some economic and social benefits were achieved.

Regarding the aspect of social relations, it is evident from previously mentioned facts that Pahlavi’s societal policies were largely based on the employment of secularism. It was another factor, which created tension between the majority of Iranians and the government (Glassman, 2014). It is apparent that numerous people criticized the implementation of modern social models borrowed from the West as these models conflicted with traditional cultural and religious values of the country (Glassman, 2014). It could be hardly doubted that the secularization of Iranian society had its benefits. For example, it became easier to attract tourists and foreign investors. Also, access to the contemporary and classical forms of art such as cinema and music became easier. However, it is essential to notice that these benefits were serving the country only on the surface level. The primary rationale behind the implementation of secularism in Iran was the shah’s perception of it as a means of eliminating opposing forces, which naturally derived from traditional Islamic views (Glassman, 2014). It is also worth mentioning that secularism was largely associated with the oppression of the West in the minds of Iranian citizens since it was one of the most evident manifestations of Western culture.

Overall, it is possible to state that the course for secularization could be performed in a better manner. As it is observed by Glassman (2014), Pahlavi was capable of “creating a secular society that allowed for peaceful conflict resolution, religious freedom, and a non-coercive state structure” (p. 11). However, the shah’s interpretation of secularism was a mere elimination of the influence of Islam from every sphere of the social and political life of the country. There are numerous examples: Pahlavi ordered to remove hijabs (despite the fact the majority of women wear it willingly), he “forced Shi’ite clerics to take tests to qualify to wear a turban,” and he also changed the schooling system completely as the religious teacher were replaced with secular, pro-regime figures and commingling of the sexes were forced (Glassman, 2014, p. 11). The observed aspects of social and political life in the country appear to be the key reasons for the development of the tension between the state and society that later translated into the outbreak of the Islamic revolution in 1979. The following section will elaborate on the peculiarities of the period of growing tension.

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Tension Between The State and Society

The Concept of Structural and Perceived Opportunity

To investigate the development of Islamic opposition before the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in 1979, it is possible to employ the concept of structural and perceived opportunity, borrowed from social-movement theory. The article by Kurzman (1996) investigates this question in detail. The structural opportunity is defined by Kurzman (1996) as “the vulnerability of the state to popular political pressure,” and perceived opportunity is “the public’s awareness of opportunities for successful protest activities” (p. 153). One of the primary premises proposed by the authors is that the result of the opposition’s protest against the current government is only successful in the case when structural and perceived opportunities overlap (Kurzman, 1996).

However, in the context of the Iranian revolution and the event that preceded it, the article’s primary assumption appears to be inapplicable. Kurzman (1996) argues that the country’s government under the rule of the shah could not be view as having any structural vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, the members of the opposition were capable of acquiring perceived opportunities in order to protest against Pahlavi’s regime successfully. It could seem paradoxical, but the amount of effort, which was put into the protest movement, outbalanced the power of the shah in terms of political and social powers. Therefore, it is possible to propose that the development of the opposition’s power could not be explained solely by reference to the concept of structural and perceived opportunities. The following subsections will investigate other factors that were involved in the situation.

The State’s Oppression as the Factor of Revolutionary Mobilization

The article by Rasler (1996) explores the effects of the state’s repressive policies of accommodation on the escalation of the revolutionary mobilization before the Islamic revolution. The author employs several theoretical frameworks in order to explain the empirical connections between various aspects of the protest movement: “micromobilization theory, value expectancy, and bandwagon (critical mass) models” (Rasler, 1996, p. 132). One of the article’s primary conclusions is that the oppression from the shah’s government had positive effects on the elimination of the protest movement only in the short term, while the long-term impact turned out to be negative for the state. It is also interesting to draw a parallel between the article under consideration and the one that was discussed in the previous subsection. Both Rasler (1996) and Kurzman (1996) emphasize the importance of the population’s overall involvement in the protest movement. Rasler (1996) argues that at a certain point the number of protesters gained critical mass for the successful overthrow of the shah.

The Role of the Economically Marginalized Classes

Economic factors should never be overlooked when the question of big social movements is investigated. The article by Saffari (2017) is dedicated to the investigation of the role of the economically marginalized classes in the Iranian revolution. It is suggested by the author that the participation of these classes, which are also collectively referred to as “the mostazafin (downtrodden)” in the official literature of the Islamic Republic, was immensely important for the success of the revolution (Saffari, 2017, p. 287). The participation of these classes in the revolution could be explained by two concepts, which are mentioned by Saffari (2017): Shi’i liberation theology and Shi’i Islamism. By the appropriation of pro-mostazafin discourse, the opposition was able to attract a large number of participants, and thus to gain the critical mass for changing the situation in the country. Later, these marginalized classes became the supporting foundation of the Islamic Republic’s society and its primary economic force.

Implications of the Revolution for Further Development

The Impact on the Foreign Policy

Further, it is of high importance to discuss the impact on the foreign policy, which was caused by the Islamic revolution in 1979. First of all, it is apparent that in the decade after the revolution’s success, the effects of the Cold War were still evidently present (Amin, 2015). It could be stated with certainty that after the overthrow of the Shah, who was largely connected and supported by Western countries, the new government of the Islamic Republic was negatively perceived by the Western politicians, and thus political and economic connections were aggravated (Amin, 2015). Despite that 1990s were a relatively successful period of relations between Iran and Western world, after the 11 September 2001 tragedy Iran became a “rogue state” (Amin, 2015, p. 23).

As it is observed in the article, the concept of the rogue state is widely recognized in the scholarly literature on the topic of international relations since it has been applied in numerous contexts, including “Bolshevism in Russia, Militarism in Asia, and Nazism in Germany” (Amin, 2015, p. 24). It is also stated that the term “rogue state” is used in the research of the Cold War period, where Iran is mentioned among such states. It is evident that there are numerous aspects, according to which Iran could be perceived as a rogue state. Aside from its changed socio-political course from secularism to Islam, it is also possible to mention such facts as Iran’s support of radical groups and terrorists as well as the development of the weapons of mass destruction (Amin, 2015). Thus, it could be concluded that the country’s current foreign policy is in considerable conflict with the majority of Western nations.

The Changing Role of Women in the Society

The role of women in the Iranian society has changed immensely since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The article by Hussain and Altaf (2015) proposes a significantly interesting perspective on this question. The authors argue that, paradoxically enough, the establishment of the Islamic Republic resulted in the increased social role of women in Iran (Hussain & Altaf, 2015). According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, a woman is stated to be “the fellow struggler of man in all the different areas of life” (Hussain & Altaf, 2015, p. 43). Therefore, women were given greater opportunities for education and participating as labor force as well as political figures.

Lessons that Could Be Learned by the United Arab Emirates

Since various aspects of the revolution’s effects on the internal and external political life of Iran were discussed, it is possible to observe the lessons that the United Arab Emirates could learn from Iran. Primarily, it is essential to state that Iran and the United Arab Emirates have a considerably long story of political and economic relationships (Molavi, 2015). Also, they are geographically close, and thus it is evident that the event within Iran and its foreign policies have a considerable influence (or, at least, significance) for the UAE. One of the primary lessons, which could be learned from Iran, is that it is dangerous to underestimate the power of traditional values in search of political and economic prevalence. Another lesson that is already acquired by the UAE (at least to a considerable extent) is that the foreign policy and the country’s position on the international stage have a direct influence on the country’s prosperity.

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From the conducted study, it is apparent that the Islamic revolution is one of the most influential events in the history of Iran and the international relations at large. This paper discussed different aspects of Iran’s social and political life before and after the revolution. It is evident that numerous factors were involved in the outbreak of the revolution, and its aftermath appears to be changing the face of Iran on the international stage to this day. The role of secularism as the instrument of the shah’s reinforcement of his pro-Western policy was profoundly elaborated. Other political forces and their interests were discussed along with the observation of the consequences of the revolution of Iran’s position on the map of international relations. Moreover, the essay has discussed the lessons that could be learned from Iran by the United Arab Emirates. In conclusion, it should be stated that the role of the Islamic revolution in shaping the modern condition of Iran is immense.


Amin, Z. T. K. (2015). Analyse Iran’s behaviour since the Revolution in 1979. Is its behaviour rational or that of a rogue state?. Global Security Studies, 6(1), 23-33.

Bank, A., Richter, T., & Sunik, A. (2015). Long-term monarchical survival in the Middle East: A configurational comparison, 1945–2012. Democratization, 22(1), 179-200.

Glassman, J. (2014). The Implications of the Iranian reform movement’s islamization of secularism for a post-authoritarian Middle East. Web.

Hussain, A., & Altaf, S. (2015). Women in contemporary Islamic society: A study of Iran. IAU International Journal of Social Sciences, 5(1), 43-47.

Kurzman, C. (1996). Structural opportunity and perceived opportunity in social-movement theory: The Iranian revolution of 1979. American Sociological Review, 61(1), 153-170.

Molavi, A. (2015). Iran and the Gulf states. Web.

Rasler, K. (1996). Concessions, repression, and political protest in the Iranian revolution. American Sociological Review, 61(1), 132-152.

Saffari, S. (2017). Two pro-mostazafin discourses in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Contemporary Islam, 11(3), 287-301.

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