The Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 caught nearly everyone—expert and non—by surprise, yet in retrospect the signs appear obvious. Why? It seems to me the “magical Khomeini” view runs rampant today,
but the idea that a singular force of history seduced ordinary Iranians into revolution is wrong. In fact, I think the Iranian Revolution probably would have happened in the absence of a titanic leader figure, and exploring why will shed some light on how contemporary personality-based electoral analyses aren’t particularly apposite in Iran. Bluntly: no one really cared who Khatami or Mousavi were before their presidential runs, political figures are generated quite messily, and they’re often pulled by the electorate rather vice versa.
In many ways, the revolution was unlikely, and statements to that effect from the mid-to-late 70s should not be discounted if we earnestly desire to learn anything from their oversights. Dozens of authors have offered disparate accounts of the revolution, each placing emphasis on certain factors. In the interest of analytical clarity, these long and overlapping lists of factors should be divided into structural and proximate causes; that is, the long-term prevailing conditions that made amenable the population to revolution combined with specific triggers or tactical mistakes made by the Shah.
Fakhreddin Azimi, in examining the history of democratic agitation in Iran, places blame first and foremost on the Shah’s unqualified stifling of political dissent, somewhat in opposition to frequently proffered explanations championing Khomeini’s role in the revolution. Yet, with initial fascination in the clerical revolutionaries having waned, authors began to question whether opposition to the Shah or support for Khomeini better explained the revolution. In Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a dream sequence between his protagonist and “the Imam” distills this critical issue with clarity: “You see how they love me, says the disembodied voice [of Khomeini.] “No tyranny on earth can withstand the power of this slow, walking love.” Rushdie’s hero, Gibreel, retorts in sobs: “This isn’t love. It’s hate. She [the metaphorical Shah] has driven them into your arms.”
Rushdie rather obviously argues for the cruel political brilliance of Khomeini, rather than the accumulated hatred of the Shah, as the basic motivating factor for the revolution. After the Pahlavi dynasty’s flight, his hero observes Khomeini: “the Imam grown monstrous, lying in the palace forecourt with his mouth yawning open at the gates; as the people march through the gates he swallows them whole.”
This explanation comforts the liberals and secularists, buffeted by accusations of a “hijacked revolution” and wanton violence. But their cries of unfairness and despondency thus argue for precisely Azimi’s thesis: the Islamic Revolution fundamentally represented an expression of political fury against the Shah rather than for a particular vision of postrevolutionary Iran.
Two disjointed lines of evidence support this conclusion: 1) the stifling of political expression by the Shah and relative popular disillusionment; 2) the bizarre tactical alliances between secular and theocratic elements who would soon butcher one another over their visions for modern Iran.
Since the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-06, Iran had enjoyed substantially more genuine flirtations with democratic practice than any other autocratic state in the region. Heightened societal awareness of constitutional self-government during the relatively free years of the late 40s and early 50s made certain that the average Iranian citizen understood and desired something more than paternalistic autocracy. Their experience of a functioning parliament, especially when mixed with zealous nationalism under Mossadegh, precluded the longevity of any non-representative system.
The Shah, by contrast, deployed a rubber-stamp parliament, outlawed genuine political parties, and mandated participation in his own party in 1975. All these actions infuriated Iranians, yet their political dissatisfaction did not find purchase as the 1961-3 White Revolution and 73-4 oil boom promised substantive socioeconomic progress. When these skyrocketing expectations were not met—and worse, were undercut by monarchic profligacy in weapons purchases, coronations (1967), egotistical circlejerks (Persepolis, 1971)–Iranians concluded that representative government would provide the only checks and balances on this sort of behavior. To accede to the autocrat’s arguments that “democracy prevented progress” no longer felt tenable.
The decision to take to the streets had therefore been primed by a confluence of factors, including political and economic disillusionment, constant infringements upon basic civil and political rights, and a ruler that flaunted his own wastefulness without any mitigating nationalistic or charismatic overtures. The proximate cause, a hit piece on Ayatollah Khomeini in January of 1978, triggered massive protests in Qom that were met by a massacre. Kapuscinksi, in Shah of Shahs, explains the conflagration in terms of a popular loss of fear, which sounds quite heartwarming without improving our analytical understanding of why the Islamic Revolution happened. Undoubtedly, said loss of fear always militates for revolution: Daneshvar concludes Savushun with a didactic message, one in which the martyr’s death has rid his wife of her fear of authority. But while the abolition of fear precedes all revolutions, it is itself only a byproduct of political or economic exasperation. An Iranian in 1969 could still hope for improvement—that the Shah might expand civil and political liberties, as he continually promised, that the five-year industrialization plan might alleviate poverty and create a burgeoning middle class. By the late 70s, none of these hopes remained. The average Iranian could no longer believe promises emanating from Tehran; he had, in short, increasingly little to lose.
To his credit, Kapuscinki offers more concrete evidence for the revolution’s inception, describing the Shah’s vacillation as the post-January riots worsened. His counterrevolutionary strategy, hemming and hawwing between conciliation and punishment of the key actors, only succeeded in significantly undermining his own position. The people, given promises of restitution, political inclusion, and police restraint, were then rewarded only with further massacres. He fired army officers, hoping to mollify the people, and lost the support of his dearest institution. He did the same to SAVAK, but then switched course to appeasement by granting them the equivalent of prosecutorial free-fire zones, enraging the demonstrators.
Average Iranians expressed furious political agency, of course, but any revolution has two inputs, and the weakness of Shah Pahlavi as an institution opened wide the doors of revolt. His natural disposition must be accounted for alongside the far more important fact that he had terminal cancer. Without the resolve to crush uprisings, nor the political intelligence to co-opt or prevent them with subsidies and moves toward genuine representation, the Shah doomed his own regime. One also cannot overlook, alongside the failure of repression during 1978, the absence of outside intervention. Normally, outside intervention dooms the insurgent or revolutionary, as entrenched regimes are far better able to garner support. In Cuba, for example, the lack of external support for Batista explains best the only successful large-scale revolution in twentieth-century Latin America. Granted, the Cuban model contained far more violence, but as in Iran, Castro faced a diffident ruler with disjointed security services and a politically embarrassed population ripe for inspiration and revolution. Such conditions for revolution are rare. In this context, the occurrence of the Iranian Revolution during Carter’s presidency has been relatively overlooked. Vigorous Beltway support for widespread repression in 1978 could possibly have stymied the revolutionaries, as confirmed by their fears of a 1953 Ajax coup repeat both during and after their struggle.
An aerial view of the wide range of mistakes Shah Pahlavi made beginning in the mid-60s leaves one with the impression that the revolution arguably would have happened even without Khomeini as a catalyst. Add to these domestic mistakes simultaneous regional occurrences: the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure and Pakistani overrunning of a US embassy; the 1982 Hama massacre, numerous credible Shi’a uprisings in Gulf states, and the Afghan mujahid movement. The growth of political Islam had been a long time coming, and Khomeini-like figures appeared in every hotspot, though few are nearly as well-known.
Care should be taken to avoid oversimplifying, but in every case these instances saw popular Islamic resurgences against entrenched authoritarian or autocratic regimes. While each flare-up had its own specific causal drivers, most of these popular sentiments had been brewing for several decades, perhaps resulting in the surprise many observers felt. Iran’s Islamic movement was aided and abetted more than any other country’s by its leftist, secularist counterparts. Unsurprisingly, then, the first to find expression and success (and act as an inspiration, example, and trigger for several others) was Iran’s: the population most intimately tied to a history of democratic expression, self-respect, and a deep-seated belief in constitutionalism.
Next up: a parochial look at the 2009 elections and why any of what you just read might matter in today’s Iran with respect to voting patterns.