The 1979 Revolution in Iran: The Multiple Facets of a Historical Paradox
Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, Darioush Bayandor reflects on the complex factors that led to the fall of a millennia-old regime in just over a year. His latest book The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States is now available here.
The fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Revolution shall soon be celebrated in Iran and remembered worldwide. The potency of the event and its repercussions in the region can hardly be overstated. In the words of a keen observer of the scene, the challenges born out of the Iranian Revolution are as contemporary as today’s headlines.1
The passage of four decades provides enough perspective for the historian to reexamine the event in its multifaceted architecture. At the broadest level of abstraction it could be observed that in an alliance of convenience, disparate if well-entrenched socio-political forces – the clerical estate, secular nationalists of Mosaddeq School and various leftist currents – coalesced against the reigning imperial order to form a revolutionary climate that a terminally ill monarch was unable to control.
How did such an unlikely alliance form and succeed in overpowering the millennia-old monarchy in just over a year? This benignly abstracted question captures the essence of what the historiography of the Islamic Revolution is about. It does not lend itself to facile explanations. In effect, it is not uncommon to point to the myriad of systemic flaws inherent in an autocratic rule to explain upheavals. But outside Western powers, few countries then embraced democracy; still fewer had achieved all-round progress on the scale that Iran saw during the during the 1960s and 70s under the Shah. The author has looked into a range of cultural, historical, political, socioeconomic, demographic and even psychological factors to conclude that an aggregate of many elements rooted in those spheres fermented a revolutionary climate.
To make things even less simple, the swift collapse of the imperial order resulted from a different set of dynamics. It was tied, on the one hand, to the inexorable aggravation of the Shah’s ailment – lymphoma, diagnosed in early 1974 – and, on the other, to the vanguard role played by radical clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the heightened crisis in 1978, the patriarch found a window of opportunity to fulfill his long-held Shia dream of resuscitating the rule over the Islamic nation by the Prophet’s progeny that had been brutally curtailed in Kufa in 661 AD and catastrophized in the Karbala tragedy in 680. Khomeini’s revivalist dogma drove him to hamstring all efforts to compromise and resolve the crisis in a non-violent manner.
In this complex equation yet another factor looms. True, the Islamic Revolution was singularly indigenous – credit for its victory as well as blame for the regime’s collapse go to Iranian protagonists on either side of the divide. Yet as always, in the contemporary history of Iran, external factors left their mark. To start with, the anti-establishment zeitgeist in the West and the post-Vietnam climate of opinion that ushered in the Carter era had ripple effects in Iran where a blend of reality and ‘perception’ helped foment defiance and revolt.
A case in point was the fallacy of ‘Carter ambiguity’ towards the Shah, a cognitive distortion replete with consequences. The politically initiated Iranians presumed that unlike his predecessors, President Jimmy Carter disapproved of the Shah’s authoritarian rule. The latter’s decision in 1976-77 to gradually transform the royal autocracy into a constitutional monarchy – a policy dubbed azadsazi or liberalization –coincided with the advent of Carter. The opposition assumed that the autocratic monarch – an American stooge, in their eyes – had been strong-armed by Washington to change tack. Even the regime’s moguls saw in the new policy an attempt by the Shah to ‘flee forward’. As it was, ‘the liberalization policy’ became the gateway to the revolution as it jolted civil society into oppositionist activism which the Shah was unwilling to curtail.
The author has argued that the fateful decision late in 1976 to redirect the regime slowly towards democracy emerged out of dynastic concerns stemming from the Shah’s failing health. The underage Crown Prince could hardly ride out the post-Shah adversities unless recast as a constitutional monarch akin to European royal houses. In this reckoning the Carter factor was marginal at best.
Later, during the final phase of the crisis, a faction within the Carter administration, spearheaded by the American Ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan, managed by underhanded means to accelerate the downfall of the regime – by then deemed to be doomed. Assessments about the survivability of the regime were realistic, but what drove this faction to play a manipulative role was rooted in yet another fallacy. It was broadly assumed that Ayatollah Khomeini was merely the spiritual leader of the ongoing revolutionary movement and once the victory was attained, he would withdraw from earthly politics to let pious Moslem men of Mehdi Bazargan stamp run the state affairs. Western ambassadors in Tehran drew parallels with Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha while foreign analysts at large used the Gandhi-Nehru model as an analytical tool to project the upcoming political transformations in Iran. President Carter ended up falling for that alluring logic and allowed the American diplomacy to navigate away from its traditional course to embrace regime change.
Published accounts by American authors – mainly memorialists from the ranks of the former officials of the Carter administration – have on the other hand tended to downplay Washington’s mishandling of the Iranian crisis. The more discerning authors like Gary Sick have underscored factors such as policy myopia, intelligence failure and bureaucratic inertia;2 yet fingers are in the main pointed at Ambassador Sullivan, portrayed as a rogue element that betrayed Washington by pursuing a course that was not sanctioned by the White House. President Carter himself questioned his loyalty on the eve of the victory of the revolution.3 The point overlooked in these narratives is that the Ambassador’s bizarre game plan had the encouragement and backing of the Department of State and the complicity of Secretary Cyrus Vance, in person. The leadership deficit at the Oval Office is otherwise hardly ever admitted. On the contrary, a new revisionist current seeks to polish the somewhat tarred image of Carter’s presidency – a trend abstracted in a recent New York Times book review title, “Was Jimmy Carter the Most Underrated President in History?”4
Confronted with such cacophony, the challenge of historians of the Revolution – beyond disentangling the internal jumble – is to illuminate the American role, especially in that last stretch of the saga, without falling into the trap of conspiracy theories that still live in the collective memory of old-timer Iranians. The author has devoted several chapters to this end, drawing on declassified and mainly untapped American as well as on Foreign Office archives.
Darioush Bayandor is a Swiss-Iranian scholar and a former diplomat and United Nations official. He is the author of Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited (Palgrave, 2010). His latest book, The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States, is available now.
1Stuart Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter. The White House Years, (Thomas Dunne Books 2018) p.719.
2Gary Sick, All Falls Down, (I.B. Tauris 1975), pp.41-2.
3Jimmy Carter, White House Diary, (Farrar, Straus, Giroux-2010), entry for February 5, 1979, p.288.
4The New York Times book review, June 5, 2018. Author Stuart Eizenstat is quoted saying, “He [Carter] has more than redeemed himself as an admired public figure by his post-presidential role,” … “Now it is time to redeem his presidency.”