Why Islamic Revolution Erupted?

  October 09, 2021   Read time 3 min
Why Islamic Revolution Erupted?
The revolution erupted not because of this or that last-minute political mistake. It erupted like a volcano because of the overwhelming pressures that had built up over the decades deep in the bowels of Iranian society.

There has been much speculation on whether the revolution could have been prevented if only this or that had been done: if the shah had been more resolute in crushing or reconciling the opposition; if he had not been suffering from cancer; if his forceful advisors had still been alive; if he had spent less on high-tech weaponry and more on crowd control gear; if his generals had shown a semblance of esprit de corps; if human rights organizations had not pestered him; if the CIA had continued to monitor the country closely after the 1950s; if the White House had ignored selfcensoring diplomats and heeded the dire warning of skeptic academics; and if, in the final stages, Washington had been more consistent either in fully supporting him or in trying to reach out to Khomeini. Immediately after the debacle, Washington grappled with the question “Who lost Iran?” Some blamed President Carter, some the CIA, some the shah, some his generals.1 Such speculation, however, is as meaningless as whether the Titanic would have sunk if the deckchairs had been arranged differently.

The revolution erupted not because of this or that last-minute political mistake. It erupted like a volcano because of the overwhelming pressures that had built up over the decades deep in the bowels of Iranian society. By 1977, the shah was sitting on such a volcano, having alienated almost every sector of society. He began his autocratic rule adamantly opposed by the intelligentsia and the urban working class. This opposition intensified over the years. In an age of republicanism, he flaunted monarchism, shahism, and Pahlavism. In an age of nationalism and anti-imperialism, he came to power as a direct result of the CIA–MI6 overthrow of Mossadeq – the idol of Iranian nationalism. In an age of neutralism, he mocked non-alignment and Third Worldism. Instead he appointed himself America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, and openly sided with the USA on such sensitive issues as Palestine and Vietnam. And in an age of democracy, he waxed eloquent on the virtues of order, discipline, guidance, kingship, and his personal communication with God.

He not only intensified existing animosities but also created new ones. His White Revolution wiped out in one stroke the class that in the past had provided the key support for the monarchy in general and the Pahlavi regime in particular: the landed class of tribal chiefs and rural notables. His failure to follow up the White Revolution with needed rural services left the new class of medium-sized landowners high and dry. Consequently, the one class that should have supported the regime in its days of trouble stood on the sidelines watching the grand debacle. The failure to improve living conditions in the countryside – together with the rapid population growth – led to mass migration of landless peasants into the cities.

This created large armies of shantytown poor – the battering rams for the forthcoming revolution. What is more, many saw the formation of the Resurgence Party in 1975 as an open declaration of war on the traditional middle class – especially on the bazaars and their closely allied clergy. It pushed even the quietist and apolitical clergy into the arms of the most vocal and active opponent – namely Khomeini. While alienating much of the country, the shah felt confident that his ever-expanding state gave him absolute control over society.

This impression was as deceptive as the formidable-looking dams he took pride in building. They looked impressive – solid, modern, and indestructible. In fact, they were inefficient, wasteful, clogged with sediment, and easily breached. Even the state with its vast army of government personnel proved unreliable in the final analysis. The civil servants, like the rest of the country, joined the revolution by going on strike. They knew that the shah, the Pahlavis, and the whole institution of monarchy could be relegated to the dustbin of history without undermining the actual state. They saw the shah as an entirely separate entity from the state. They acted not as cogs in the state machinery but as members of society – indeed as citizens with grievances similar to those voiced by the rest of the salaried middle class.

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