Iran's referendum and the transformation to the Islamic Republic

3:04am on Tuesday 30th April 2019
The 1979 Islamic Republic referendum fused Iran's religion and politics and changed the country's legislative landscape.

Qom, Iran - The year was 1979. An Islamic revolution had just overthrown Iran's powerful US-backed king, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was now in charge of what for centuries had been an ancient empire.

In the months after Khomeini seized power, Iran's revolutionaries began the difficult work of rebuilding government institutions using Islam as a guide.

The first major act of the new leaders was to hold a referendum. On March 30 and 31, the shaky leadership asked all Iranians over the age of 16 a simple yes or no question: should Iran be an Islamic republic?

Looking back, it may seem strange to ask that of a country that had just experienced a successful Islamic revolution. But even though Mohammad Raza Pahlavi - the shah of Iran - was gone, Iranians remained divided about what they wanted the future to look like. At the time, the Islamic Republic of Iran was far from a foregone conclusion.


40 years on: Khomeini's return from exile and the Iran revolution

In one of his first speeches after returning from exile, before the revolution had taken hold, Khomeini seemed to know he would have to put his leadership claim to some kind of vote.

"I must tell you that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that evil traitor, has gone. He fled and plundered everything. He destroyed our country and filled our cemeteries. He ruined our country's economy," Khomeini said.

"I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me."

But even after Pahlavi's removal, revolutionaries were hit by infighting, the new government was still suppressing anti-revolution dissent in parts of the country, and just weeks before the referendum tens of thousands of women marched in the streets of Tehran to protest against a new mandatory veil law.

For Khomeini and his supporters, the referendum was a way to legitimise their rule. Nearly 99 percent of Iranians voted in favour of abandoning Iran's old constitution and using Islam as the blueprint to write a new one. The vote and its results were scrutinised by critics all over the world. But in December, Iranians voted again in favour of ratifying their new Islamic constitution.

Today, defenders of the Islamic system of government point to the referendum as a democratic mandate for Iran's current theocratic system.

It's one of the lesser known events of 1979, but the referendum was a pivotal moment that fused religion and politics, and transformed Iran's legislative landscape.