Iranian Civil War (1979-1981)

The Iranian Civil War was a conflict which arose out of the Iranian Revolution following the departure of the Shah and the internal struggles between various opposition groups during the presidency of Abolhassan Banisadr, who attempted to forge a moderate coalition with prime minister Mehdi Bazargan in the face of mounting opposition from conservative groups which formed the so-called Guardian Council and which included Hezbollah as its enforcers.


The Iranian Revolution had been greeted with great optimism by the public as Bazargan emerged as its principal leader following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini from a heart attack as he was preparing to return from exile. Khomeini’s death left a void in the fundamentalist leadership that Hezbollah attempted to fill with the assistance of the Revolutionary Council, which had the support of the military and Islamic Republican Party. Conflict between leftists and fundamentalists divided the new government as the fundamentalists insisted on strict imposition of Sharia law as envisioned by the late Khomeini.


The civil war itself began in November, 1979 as student revolutionaries sympathetic to the fundamentalists attempted to attack and take over the American Embassy in Tehran. Although the takeover was defeated, the students, with the backing of the Islamic Republican Army and Hezbollah, were able to encourage elements of the Iranian Army and Air Force to stage a coup against Bazargan’s government. Bazargan and Banisadr were both forced into exile in France, where they directed an official government response with covert aid from the United States and Britain.


The civil war finally began to turn in the moderates’ favor as public opinion began to turn against the fundamentalists beginning in the summer of 1980 and Iraq launched an invasion in September, beginning the long-running Iran-Iraq War. Banisadr returned from exile in February, 1981, where he negotiated the formation of a new government with Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. In March a referendum was held for a new Constitution, and in May the last pro-fundamentalist Army units surrendered as the government turned its attention to the ongoing war with Iraq.


The defeat of the fundamentalists would ensure that Iran remained an American ally throughout the 1980s until 1989, when growing opposition to the war with Iraq led to the “Second Iranian Revolution” and the election of Ali Khamenei as Ayatollah Khomeini’s spiritual successor and Iran’s current Supreme Leader, who led Iran into an increasingly conservative direction in the 1990s which would ultimately culminate in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

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