literacy and enfranchisement in Iran

The White Revolution

In January 1963, the Shah of Iran held a national referendum to obtain approval for his total program which was known as the White Revolution  or the Revolution of the Shah and the People. His policy agenda was designed to achieve the following six goals:

  1. land reform (see Iran 1060: Kennedy Pushes Land Reform)
  2. sale of some state-owned factories to finance the land reform
  3. the enfranchisement of women
  4. nationalization of forests and pastures
  5. formation of a literacy corps
  6. institution for profit-sharing for workers in industry.

The most important of the 6 points was, of course, the land reform discussed above. According to Said Arjomand, during its first phase:

the landowning Thousand Families, including the tribal chiefs, lost their socio-legal base and were thus liquidated as a class. Though many of its members retained large holdings of land and became mechanized commercial farmers, joining the petrobourgeoisie in the prosperity of the 1970s, and many even remained in the Pahlavi political elite, there can be no doubt that the traditional peasant-landlord relationship which was the power basis of the landowning class and accounted for its prominence in the Majles, was destroyed. Furthermore, by failing to give any or enough land to the majority of the peasants, the land reform accelerated the massive migration from the rural areas into the cities.

Referendum in Iran: January 1963

While the referendum indicated overwhelming support for the reform movement, so much friction soon developed that, in the end, land reform in Iran was less comprehensive than a similar program in Taiwan, chiefly because it antagonized prime political constituencies.

Because the KMT government had no ties to local Taiwanese landowners they did not have to be concerned with the political impact of their land reform Since the shah’s plan emphasized economic development, it focused the public’s attention on the economic problems of the early 1960s.

Ayatollah Khomeini: A Formidable Opponent

One of the shah’s most outspoken opponents was a member of the clergy, Ayatollah Khomeini, who publicly accused the Shah of “violating his oath to defend Islam and the Constitution.” According to Arjomand (again), “the authoritarian rule of the Shah was denounced as a violation of the Constitution, and he was attacked for the maintenance of relations with Israel.”

Assuming a leadership role for the first time, Khomeini was adept at centering attention on concerns that resonated with the general public.

He denounced the regime for living off corruption, rigging elections, violating the constitutional laws, stifling the press and the political parties, destroying the independence of the university, neglecting the economic needs of merchants, workers, and peasants, undermining the country’s Islamic beliefs, encouraging gharbzadegi–indiscriminate borrowing from the west–granting “capitulations” to foreigners, selling oil to Israel, and constantly expanding the size of the central bureaucracies.

Public Protests

Protests against the shah’s reform effort began at the time of the Iranian new year in March (Now Rouz). The confrontation came to a head later that spring and summer.

Demonstrations were centered in the urban areas of the country, especially Tehran, Qom, Shiraz, Tabriz, Mashhad, Kashan, and Isfahan. Rallies occurred in the bazaar areas where “small traders, shopkeepers and artisans, students, workers, the unemployed, and political activists “participated.

The Iranian Army Responds and Khomeini is Forced into Exile

During the gatherings, the army fired on the crowds; casualties were estimated at several thousand by observers, but less than 90 by the government. Whatever the actual number, martial law, mass arrests, and a number of executions were required to quash the movement. Khomeini was first imprisoned, then kept under house arrest from October 1963 to May 1964; in November 1964, he was exiled to Turkey.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

Introducing Islam

For additional Cold War news and events, please be sure to connect with us on Facebook. And of course, don’t forget to ‘Like’ us!

Stay Up to Date: Join Cold War Studies

Sign up to receive email updates and our latest blog posts.


  1. Cyrus Kadivar says

    Dear Mrs Lisa Reynolds Wolfe
    I’m afraid this comment is factually misleading and wrong:

    During the gatherings, the army fired on the crowds; casualties were estimated at several thousand by observers, but less than 90 by the government.

    Most credible Iranian sources and Western journalists dispute that. You may want to refer to an article I wrote based on Emad Baghie’s research on the people who lost their lives in 1963 and other times under the Shah’s reign. It is called “A Question of Numbers.” There is a tendency to exaggerate the repression under the Shah often for different political agendas which does not serve history. I know because I lived in Iran from 1966-1979.

    Kind regards,

  2. says

    Thanks for your comment Cyrus. Information for the section you are contesting is drawn from two academic sources. The first is Ervand Abrahamian’s highly acclaimed work, Iran Between Two Revolutions; the second is John Foran’s work, Fragile Resistance. Since neither of us was in Iran in 1963 to see the events firsthand, I guess we have a “battle of the sources.” I am an academic, so I’m going with highly reputable academic research as opposed to journalism or other impressions. Readers may want to take a look at both approaches, depending on their objectives. It’s always good to be aware of alternate interpretations, so thanks again — Dr. Wolfe.