The Lasting Lessons of the Iranian Revolution

Interior of the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense Museum, Tehran (Pe3k via Shutterstock).

by Assal Rad

February 11 marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Iran, which toppled the country’s monarchical system and ushered in the Islamic Republic. The outcomes of that fateful day continue to shape the discourse on Iran and are particularly pertinent in today’s political climate. With a U.S. administration taking an increasing hard line toward the Islamic Republic and even calls from Washington for a new revolution, it is imperative to understand the lessons of 1979 rather than let them fall into the forgotten annals of history.

In contrast to contemporary narratives that make the revolution seem like a spontaneous occurrence or strip the agency of the people that participated, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was decades in the making. Before 1979, the Iranian people were avid participants in their country’s progress. Their calls for greater self-determination stretch back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and characterized the proliferation of political activism in the 1940s, the democratic movement in the 1950s to nationalize Iranian resources, and the various political factions that resisted the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s. This dedication to political engagement and struggle for liberty continues to this day inside Iran.

Though groups outside of Iran often distort the history of the revolution, the wealth of scholarship on the uprising is revealing. In the global atmosphere of anti-colonial resistance and national liberation movements that colored the second half of the twentieth century, Iranians staked their claim to the same ideas of democracy and independence that had long been ideologically espoused in the United States. Viewed by many as a foreign puppet, the shah was censured for his detachment from the Iranian populace and his partiality for imported, Western culture. Understood in this light, the revolution became analogous to a call for independence from foreigners. This was precisely the rhetoric that Ayatollah Khomeini capitalized on in order to establish his own legitimacy.

The revolution’s call for independence was a large factor behind its immense popularity. As sociologist Charles Kurzman notes, the Iranian Revolution was “one of the most popular upheavals in world history.” Eyewitness accounts gathered by scholars such as Nikki Keddie, along with abundant photos and films taken by Iranians at the time, highlight the mass appeal of the revolution. In fact, the shah himself declared in November 1978, “Your revolutionary message has been heard. I am aware of everything you have given your lives for.”

However, the popularity of the revolution forty years ago must not be conflated with approval of its political manifestation. After the shah’s overthrow, the Islamic Republic’s architects appropriated the discourse of the revolution and consolidated power. The new government went on to continue many of the shah’s authoritarian practices.

The revolution’s still relevant lesson is that it was a rallying cry for national independence and freedom. Forty years on, Iranians participate in their national politics and struggle for reforms in hopes of fulfilling the neglected promises of that now distant revolt. Although Iranians express justified and deep-seated grievances, which government officials ignore at their own peril, most Iranians are staunchly opposed to foreign intervention into their affairs. Their suspicions stem as far back as nineteenth-century land grabs by Russia and Great Britain and the U.K./U.S. coup that brought the shah back to power in 1953. They have been reinforced today with the Trump administration’s pocketing of Iranian nuclear concessions and reneging on sanctions relief promised under the July 2015 nuclear deal.

Today, Iran’s most prominent political prisoners echo this emphasis on political independence. In January, women’s rights activist Farhad Meysami wrote a letter from Evin prison:

I would rather spend all my life imprisoned by a group of oppressors from my own wrong-doing countrymen and spend my life trying to reform their wrongdoing, but to not spend a second submitting to disgraceful support from those who broke their commitments and withdrew from the rational and peaceful JCPOA against all principles of morality.

In addressing the question of Iran and how to move forward in the current political situation, a look back at the road to this point is critical to building effective policy. To say that justified opposition to the Islamic Republic is the same as a desire for foreign-led regime change is a dangerously false equivalency.

If U.S. policymakers are sincere in their efforts to broker a deal with Iran, they must acknowledge the historical context that precludes an agreement based on capitulation. This is essential for circumventing another prolonged and fruitless war in the Middle East. Rejection of foreign control was one of the catalysts of the Iranian Revolution 40 years ago. The outcome of another foreign intervention in Iran may have equally unpredictable consequences.

Assal Rad is a policy analyst at the National Iranian American Council. She received her PhD in History at the University of California, Irvine

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  1. “Forty years on, Iranians participate in their national politics and struggle for reforms in hopes of fulfilling the neglected promises of that now distant revolt.”

    It is very naïve to say that Iranians participate in elections. Only the regime’s workers and those who want to get married or have to travel, participate out of fear. They are hostage to the Ayatollahs.

    “Although Iranians express justified and deep-seated grievances, which government officials ignore at their own peril, most Iranians are staunchly opposed to foreign intervention into their affairs.”

    Iranians are opposed to the most foreign intervention in the history of Iran, namely the Ayatollahs’ coup d’etat in 1979.

    But our most difficult problems are not political or religious or foreign policy. They are our inability to discuss our differences without judgement. Just witness the reactions here to my right to express here.

    It is a very sad situation.

  2. Mostofi, it’s rather ironic for a troll like you who has systematically insulted every single great author of this website with words like “the author is delusional” rejecting every single write up and never offering substance just ad hominem and Ayatollah this Ayatollah that, is shamelessly playing the victimhood card now.

    It’s a good thing that you are not in any position of power anywhere.

  3. Ya Ali Mostofi (the bearer of the name of the Prophet of Islam and his son in law) read (and weep) the comment by Farhad Meysmai in the article

    “I would rather spend all my life imprisoned by a group of oppressors from my own wrong-doing countrymen and spend my life trying to reform their wrongdoing, but to not spend a second submitting to disgraceful support from those who broke their commitments and withdrew from the rational and peaceful JCPOA against all principles of morality.”

    Yes, read and weep.

    Iran does not need the sycophants of late Shah or his son to plead for it. It will welcome wholesome positive efforts to improve it. Believe it or not but Islam and Imam Hussein are in the DNA of Iran. Any effort to deny this fact are doomed to fail. Islamic identity of Iran is here to stay and evolve, but do not expect it to be abandoned.

  4. Thank you Ms Assal Rad. Perhaps you could have commented the following for the benefit of many our dear countrymen who were either too young to remember or were not born yet at the times of the uneducated puppet Pahlavi and his imbecile and corrupt followers.
    The educated Iranian society was seriously disappointed in Pahlavi, his family, his corrupt and stupid followers, and his foreign supporters such as US and Israel. During my travel to Iran in 1975 many of our educated people including many of the physicians had already switched and were switching from the western block to the Eastern block ideology!
    Obviously this phenomenon was known to the Security apparatus in Iran and the CIA and the migration had to be stopped. Otherwise, the communists would have taken over the country and they would have killed the entire Pahlavi family and their followers just like what Kareem Ghassem did in Iraq in 1958. It didn’t take too long for the US and the CIA to plan and execute the removal of the Pahlavi and his followers especially following the Jimmy Carter and zbigniew Brzezinsky’s visit to Tehran. Of course the best group that could withstand and reject the influence of the Communist party directed by Moscow was the aged Nationalists, Islamist hardliners and the Islamist socialist groups who were armed and had been opposing the Pahlavi for many years.
    Well as usual the end of this overthrow wasn’t calculated and the islamists were gradually purged the Nationalists and the socialist islamist group! This major failure of the US foreign policy towards Iran didn’t set well well with the US policy makers lead by Reagan. Reagan by extending an olive branch but at the end he betrayed the Islamists by encouraging Saddam Hossain of Iraq to attack Iran militarily in 1980. This betraying was just like what Reagan did with the Mojahedins in Afghanistan after the Mojahedins kicked the Russians out of Afghanistan!
    The wounds are very deep and old and I don’t see a way out of this political stalemate between the US and Iran especially during Trump’s administration and presence of Pompeo and Bolton!

    AliMostofi, you better apologize because you don’t understand or you don’t want to understand the position of the Iranian people with the domestic politics or their regional and international foreign policy! So SDFU!

  5. In article by Assal Rad, a political analyst for NIAC (National Iranian American Council) which is widely accused of acting as a lobbyist group for the Islamic Republic, she claims that the reason people revolted against the Shah was because they perceived him as a puppet of America, importing Western culture and selling out Iran’s independence. I will hereby present my arguments against this very simplistic view of the circumstances which gave rise to the revolution of 1979.

    First of all, let’s take a look at the definition of ‘independence’:

    According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of ‘independence’ is as follows:

    freedom to make laws or decisions without being governed or controlled by another country, organization, etc.:

    So, was Iran under the reign of the Shah and his Imperial Government free to make laws and take decisions without being governed or controlled by another country or organization? I would like Ms. Assal Rad to tell us about one single instance when during the reign of the late Shah another country prevented Iran from making laws or taking decisions? And please do not cite the couple of years that premier Mossadeq wreaked havoc in Iran. For two reasons: 1) There are conflicting views of precisely what happened and how that so called “coup”played out, surrounding a very complex situation. It would take an entire discussion to deal with just that chapter of Iran’s modern history. 2) Although Britain threatened to invade Iran, it never did. All it did was to pull out its workers and experts from the oil refineries in Abadan. And regardless of all, didn’t Iran end up with its oil nationalized even though the Shah returned to power? So please give us other examples of instances where Iran’s government could not make laws or take its own decisions without foreign intervention.
    I can on the other hand give you plenty of evidence that the Shah was NOT a puppet, but rather on the contrary, much too independent for some to be comfortable with it:

    – The Shah had access to the world’s most advanced weapons and military hardware. No other foreign leader or country enjoyed such freedom of circumventing U.S. congressional approval and being allowed to buy arms and military hardware that were prohibited to be sold to other foreign states. No other leader/country had permission to buy the most high-tech U.S. arms and military hardware at the time – not even Israel! That’s not in line with how a puppet would be dealt with! Hence, the Shah’s Iran had the fifth most modern and powerful military in the world in 1978. Unlike the Shah, the Islamic Republic relies heavily on purchasing very outdated weapons and military hardware from Russia at up to five times their monetary worth! Basically, Russia has managed to sell a vast volume of arms and military hardware from its outdated surplus from the days of the Soviet Union to the Islamic Republic. It’s not consistent within the puppet-puppeteer relation for the puppet to have access to the most advanced weapons/military hardware of the puppeteer state and to be allowed to buy arms and military technology that all other foreign states are barred from purchasing! It is however very consistent within the puppet-puppeteer relation for the puppet to rely heavily on the puppeteer state to obediently purchase whatever outdated arms and military hardware that nobody else even wants, and to buy them for up to five times their monetary worth!

    – It was the U.S. that suggested to the Shah that he should invest in nuclear energy and solely sell the oil for profits to finance his ambitious development projects. It did so however by having in mind to sign very lucrative contracts and profit in a very significant way by providing U.S. expertise and materials in constructing Iran’s nuclear reactors. Needless to say, the U.S. was therefore shocked and very dismayed when it learned that the Shah and his government had decided to instead turn to the Germans for assistance in constructing its nuclear reactors. That’s also not at all consistent with the behavior of a puppet, is it?
    The Islamic Republic on the other hand decided to pursue the Shah’s nuclear program after having first opposed it as “one of the Shah’s extravagant projects”, with the help of the Russians. It took 35 years and became one of the by far most costly nuclear reactors in the world. Iran’s entire nuclear program is believed to have cost upwards $500 billion during the the incompetent reign of the Islamic Republic! And what did Iran get in return, so far? Russia, once again, had the Islamic Republic wrapped around its finger, belittling it, disrespecting it and duping it as it pleased! That is consistent with how a puppeteer state would treat its puppet, and how a puppet would allow itself to be treated by its master!

    – In a coordinated effort to counter the radical Baath regime in Baghdad, the Shah’s regime, the CIA and Israeli Mossad cooperated in providing financial/logistical aid and arms to the Kurds of Iraq. Suddenly, in 1975, the Shah shocked both the Israelis and the Americans by pulling out of the Kurdish operation without consulting his two allies. The Shah had managed to strike a favorable deal with Baghdad in its long border dispute with Iraq, and in return Iran would cease its support of the anti-Baghdad Kurdish operations. Now, is that consistent with the behavior of a puppet? I would say certainly not! That’s a leader and a regime that boldly takes its own decisions based on the best interests of their sovereign state, without even consulting its powerful allies!

    – No other example is more evident of that the Shah indeed was not at all a puppet than his aggressive push for a drastic hike in the price of oil! A stance that angered many of his most ardent allies and put them at odd with him and his regime. Such a policy which would cause his Western allies some very serious and detrimental headaches is certainly not at all consistent with how a puppet would behave and act, but rather how one would act if one would prioritize the best national interests of one’s country!

    – When the Shah’s regime received a letter from the U.S. government, demanding a report of the number of Iranian intelligence agents active in the U.S. and the nature of their activities there, the respective Iranian authorities courteously responded that it would do so as soon as it would receive a similar report from the U.S. Not quite how a puppet would respond!

    As far as the assumption that the Shah was “importing Western culture”, it is quite remarkable that people who live in the West and enjoy Western freedom and democracy can have such a severely limited understanding of the meaning of “freedom”. I wish Ms. Rad could explain to us precisely how the Shah imported Western culture and what he should have done differently in order to avoid the unflattering label of being an “importer of Western culture”. Should he have prohibited Western movies, music and fashion? Should he have prohibited Western culture? I’m old enough to have seen Iran first hand during the reign of the Shah. Iranian movie theaters showed mostly Iranian movies, but also some American, French, British as well as Indian movies. 90-95% of all the movies were Iranian. Iranian TV showed mostly Iranian music programs – everything from Iranian popular music to Iranian traditional and folklore, but also a few programs from foreign countries, such as Western pop music and classical music. But I would say that probably 95% of the music programs were Iranian. As for fashion, Iranians dressed in everything from the most fashionable Western attires to traditional châdors. So, I’m not really sure what Ms. Assal Rad is referring to when she implies that the Shah was “importing Western culture”. Does she seriously believe that he should have prohibited all Western movies, screenplays, music and fashion?

    It is evident that Ms. Assal Rad was born long after the revolution of 1979 and thus cannot first hand recall or have any personal experiences of what the situation and circumstance were in those times, and instead must rely on the abundance of biased books and documentaries relaying a far from entirely correct perspective on the issues at stake. After all, the Shah and his regime were the subjects of one of history’s most brutal and merciless slander propaganda campaigns ever – being attacked from many different directions – by both allies and foes! Hence, the literature and documentaries available on the subject reflect this unfortunate truth. It’s quite sad that there are people living in the West, considering themselves educated, enlightened, and well-informed, and yet they make such erroneous assessments of an era in Iran’s history where so much effort and money was invested into preserving and promoting Iranian culture. No time in Iran’s entire history has there been such a conscious effort into preserving and promoting Iranian culture. So what if alongside one decided to create a national ballet that would perform Iranian as well as Western classical ballet? Is that so terrible? Where does it say that the palette of cultural variety available in a country must be only indigenous, or only Eastern, or solely Western? Why shouldn’t all be available for the people to chose from? Thanks to the Pahlavi legacy, Iran is by far the richest museum capital in the region and one of the biggest in the world. It was during the Pahlavi monarchy that Iran created national folklore ballets and ordered the preservation, promotion, registration and recording of folklore music, dances and customs. It was during the Pahlavi monarchy that Iranian music in all its forms were created and promoted through various venues. And during this same era, Iranian art – both traditional, fine arts, and contemporary flourished. In a free society one cannot and one should not limit what they people have access to as far as culture. It should all be available, and up to the individual to choose that which he/she prefers. That’s the way it is in most countries, and that’s the way it was in Iran during the Pahlavi era.

    Certainly there were people among those who revolted against the Pahlavi monarchy who did so because they loathed Western culture and influence. But it’s a big mistake to generalize and think that all the people who revolted against the Shah wanted the same things. As a matter of fact, you had different groups wanting very different things. Those in the middle class who opposed the Shah wanted for instance more political freedoms, but had no problem with Western culture and influences. The religious fundamentalists on the other hand wanted only political freedom for themselves and to restrict political, social and cultural freedoms for everyone else. The mujaheds and communists wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat, with all its restrictions. And the left wing of the National Front (Jebhe Meli) or the so called ‘religious-nationalists’ had their own agenda, whatever that was… So, you can’t really say that people revolted solely for the reason that they were against the Shah’s pro-Western policies or because he was viewed as a puppet. Every group had its own reason, and some of their reasons may have coincided with one another.

    Many of the Shah’s critics who accuse him of having been a “puppet” confuse independence with cooperation with other states based on mutual interests. They erroneously think that having excellent relations with America means that one has assumed the role of being a puppet state.
    One of the things many people who were not born in those days fail to understand is the significance of the COLD WAR and how it impacted relations between certain states and the foreign policy of Iran in very profound ways. The threat of the Soviet expansionist state sharing a vast border to the north of Iran was very real! Look what happened to Afghanistan – and they didn’t even have oil or much else! Naturally, the Shah relied heavily on the antagonist of the brutal and repressive Soviet empire! So did all of Western Europe! But that does not make neither one American puppets! The Shah’s excellent relations with the U.S. was based on mutual respect and shared interests. The cold war left a very profound hallmark on the entire 37 years of Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. I’m convinced that without its existence a lot of things would have been dealt with differently. But since it was a very real and serious threat throughout his reign, he relied on having excellent relations with the U.S., since he had nobody else to rely on for help and protection against the imminent and consistent threat on Iran’s northern border by its powerful communist neighbor which had its eyes on Iran like it didn’t have on anyone else – mainly for two reasons: 1) Oil 2) Access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Thus, the Shah wisely remained a staunch ally of the U.S. while firmly asserting Iran’s independence and sovereignty.
    Although the Soviet Union posed by far the most dangerous threat to Iran, it was not the only antagonist of Iran in those days. A number of radical Arab states supported by the Soviets were also fiercely engaged in an anti-Iranian agenda: Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yasser Arafat’s PLO. Hence, the Shah also relied on having very good relations with Israel. But once again, he didn’t do so at the expense of Iranian sovereignty and independence. And he did also express his grievances to the Israeli authorities about the plight of the Palestinian people.
    Much of what Ms. Assal Rad expresses in her flawed article about the causes of the revolution, and her accusations against the Shah and his regime, particularly pertaining to the Shah being a puppet and selling out Iran’s independence, but also the accusation that he was a ruthless importer of Western culture, is all part of a concept that has its roots in radical leftist and fundamentalist ideologies of the time. Hence, it echoes an old rhetoric that is outdated and worn out. And since it also does not reflect the truth, it pretty much echoes hollow and is tiresome as well.

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