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