Iran’s revolution in global history

About the author

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday's many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

The months of strikes and demonstrations that convulsed Iran in 1978-79 reached a dramatic culmination in the first eleven days of February 1979, when an epic tide of revolutionary fervour brought the return to Iran from exile of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and overthrew the hitherto powerful regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the ensuing weeks, the victorious leaders of the popular wave established a new state, the Islamic Republic of Iran; this was proclaimed on 1 April and its constitution ratified in a national referendum on 2-3 December 1979. In consolidating power, as in executing their enemies, the mullahs and their political allies did not waste time. Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005). His critical analysis of the Shah's regime, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin, November 1978) was subsequently translated into nine languages, among them Spanish, Persian and Arabic

This article is based on a lecture given at the LSE on 23 February 2009

Among Fred Halliday's many columns in openDemocracy:

"Iran's revolutionary spasm
" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008) 

Three decades is not a long period in the normal lifetime of a revolutionary regime - Cuba's celebrated its half-century in January 2009, China's will mark its sixtieth year in October, Russia's passed its seventieth before expiring. But it is an appropriate point to reconsider - in the perspective both of Iranian reality and of global history - events that were by any account among the most unexpected and influential of modern times.

Their scale was immense but their impact also individual and personal. In my own case, as someone who knew Iran in the time of the Shah and visited it in the early and heady post-revolutionary months, this was one of the most challenging periods of my political and intellectual life: both in understanding and engaging with these enormous and complex popular mobilisations, and in coming to terms with the repression, killing and exile to which many of my friends and comrades were later subjected.  

A six-point pattern

The revolution of Iran can be seen as part of a series of such transformations that had overturned regimes in three continents in the previous two centuries: France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1949), Cuba (1959). What happened in Iran shares six broad points of comparison with these earlier moments (see Revolution and World Politics [Palgrave, 1999]).

First, a broad coalition of opposition forces came together to overthrow a dictatorial regime, building on longstanding social grievances but also energising nationalist sentiment against a state and ruler seen as too compliant to foreign interests. The coalition mobilised under Ayatollah Khomeini's leadership ranged from liberal and Marxist to conservative and religious forces: in effect a classic populist alliance.

Second, the victory of the revolution both required and was facilitated by the state's weakness of leadership and internal divisions. The Shah was ill, his advisers and generals were uncertain. The resemblance to other figures and regimes in a time of crisis - Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II, as well as Charles I of England - is evident.  

Third, the revolution possessed the quality that distinguishes mere coups d'etat or rebellions from major revolutions: namely, it was not just political (in the sense of changing the political elite and the constitution or legitimating system of the country) but had profound and ongoing social and economic consequences. Because of it, Iran today has a new social order and a new set of social values - even as a new revolutionary elite, an Islamic nomenklatura, united by ties of power, business and marriage, controls state revenues (see "The matter with Iran", 1 March 2007).

Fourth, the revolution's core ideology may have propounded the need for a new, radical and egalitarian order; but it was supplemented by pre-existing ideas that were crucial to sustaining domestic support (above all nationalism and a sense of the country's historic standing and mission). Ayatollah Khomeini at first refused to use the word mihan (fatherland), and denounced secular nationalism as an insult to Islam. But with the invasion by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1980 all this changed, and he and other leaders adopted the Iranian version of the term used by French revolutionaries in the 1790s, la grande nation - in Persian, millat i bozorg.  

Fifth, the explosion of revolution at the centre of a multi-ethnic country - and driven especially from within its dominant ethnic component - had profound reverberations on the relations between the Iran's different national components. In particular, it led not to the era of fraternal cooperation and solidarity anticipated in much of the political rhetoric of the time, but to conflict and war.

Here again, the pattern - a revolt at the heart of a plural country and the consolidation of a new authoritarian regime provoking contrary forces in the periphery - has rich historical precedents. The Young Turk revolution of 1908, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 are prime examples; their echo in Iran concerned, above all, the Kurds. The hopes of this significant part of the population, of an autonomous Kurdistan within a democratic Iran (and they knew the first was impossible without the second) were to be dashed.

Sixth, the revolution in Iran had explosive international consequences. There were persistent attempts to export the revolution to neighbouring countries, which intensified regional rivalries and fostered conditions that led to inter-state war. The Iranian revolution's efforts to promote its state interests and extend itself soon acquired resemblances to a reviving empire - with traces of France and Russia in particular, not least the contradictory trends whereby some forces in the region were inspired by the revolution while others drew on older antagonisms (such as Saddam Hussein's excoriation of Khomeini as a magus [Zoroastrian priest] and more recent concerns about a powerful new Shi'a "crescent").  Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006) 

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009) 

At the same time, the revolution's enduring influence was forged in these post-revolutionary conflicts. It was the international impacts of the 1979 revolution - above all the 1980-88 war with Iraq - that shaped the politics, defined the state institutions and steeled the will, of the Islamic Republic (just as the civil war of 1919-21 was formative for the Bolshevik regime). The fact that many of those who went through the experience of that terrible war - such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his associates in the Revolutionary Guards - are now seeking to revive the revolutionary discipline and spirit of those years echoes similar attempts by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, Mao Zedong in the 1960s "cultural revolution", and Fidel Castro in his 1980s rectificación of the 1980s (see  "Iran's revolutionary spasm" , 30 June 2005). All in the end failed, though the regimes themselves lasted.  

A new-old order

The Iranian revolution thus bears comparison with its historic predecessors. But just as each earlier revolution can be seen in relation to others even as it displays its own singularity, this true of Iran also. 

This is most obviously the case in regard to the leadership, ideology and goals of the revolution. For in the vanguard was not the secular radicalism of the inheritors of 1789, but a revolution under the banner of Islam; led by clerics, and ostensibly inspired by the goal not of advancing to a new and "progressive" future but rather of returning to the model of Islam -defined as simple, puritanical and authentic - of the age of the prophet. This form of ideology and leadership is all the more distinctive in that many other Islamist revolutionary movements before and since - such as those of Afghanistan, Egypt or Algeria (and, by extension, al-Qaida) - have had non-clerical leaders.  

But in any event the "religious" ideas of the Iranian revolution, and the application to modern politics of terms and images taken from the Qu'ran, should not be taken entirely at face value. True, Islamic ideas (in regard to women, the law, and the status of the clergy for example) had a major impact on the social values of the Islamic Republic. But on closer examination the programme and actions of Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates have much in common with other modern social upheavals. Here are just five such affinities:

▪ the appeal to the mass of poor people (in Iran termed the mostazafin) against the corrupt, foreign-linked, elite (the mostakbarin)

▪ the cult of the leader - Khomeini's official and entirely secular state title was rahbar inqilab va bonyadgozar i jumhuri yi islami (leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic)

▪ mobilising nationalist sentiment in a country that had been unilaterally invaded, by Russia and Britain, in both world wars

▪ using, albeit in a chaotic and inefficient way, the country's oil wealth for egalitarian social programmes in city and countryside

▪ analysing the world in terms of a just struggle of oppressed peoples against a dominant power; Khomeini cited those of South Africa and Nicaragua, and though he did not often use the word "imperialism" he deployed an apt Qur'anic term as substitute - istikbar i jahani (global arrogance).  

Above all, the Islamic revolutionaries of 1979 did what all revolutionaries do - namely overthrow an oppressive government, seize power for themselves and their allies, crush not only their opponents but all dissidents within the regime, and then impose a new and even more exacting and intrusive authoritarian regime. In summer 1979, I was a witness of the brutal repression visited by the new state on its former, now discarded, liberal and socialist allies. In this perspective, the template followed by the Islamic Republic is not that of Mecca and Medina in the 7th century but that of Paris in the 1790s and Moscow and St Petersburg in the 1920s.  

A triple innovation

The common emphasis on the apparently unique religious character of the Iranian revolution may also mislead the analyst, in the sense that it obscures other dimensions in which it was distinct. For in at least three other ways the events of 1978-79 were indeed different from what had gone before.

First, this revolution - more than any other in history - relied not on force, military insurrection or guerrilla war but on politics. This is true in particular with regard to the two instruments that European revolutionaries had themselves long dreamed of using - the mass mobilisation of people in the streets (in the Iranian case, the largest such opposition demonstrations ever recorded anywhere) and the political (as opposed to industrial) general strike (which, from October 1978, paralysed the economy and foreign trade). This, not the religious garb, was perhaps the most paradoxical and original aspect of the Iranian revolution: in its political form and process, and despite its religious and "traditional" guise, it was the first modern revolution. 

Second, Iran's experience departed from the norm prescribed by both historical precedent and textbooks of historical sociology: namely, that a revolution's indispensable precondition was the weakening of the state, usually as a result of foreign pressure - either defeat in war or by invasion, or via the withdrawal of support from an external patron (in the case of China and Cuba, this was the United States).

In Iran, none of this occurred. The Shah's regime was backed by the US (as also by China) to the end, while the Russians did not know what to do or think; no outside state gave any support to the revolutionaries; and the Shah's army had not been defeated in war. In another respect the Iranian revolution was almost unique in modern times, namely that it did not occasion rivalry between great powers: Russia, China, Europe and the US were united against it, and supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in his aggression of 1980.

Third, this was a revolution that was well organised, through a network of mosque and local committees - yet had no revolutionary party. It failed later, moreover - as the Cubans, for example, did - to consolidate one; the brief experiment with a ruling party after 1979, the Islamic Republican Party, soon petered out.

A living current

Against this background, the Iran of today appears as another case of a revolution that approaches its middle years far from abandoned or defeated. In domestic terms, the post-revolutionary climate is far freer and diverse than that seen in any other revolution; a wide range of opinions and interpretations of the revolution itself and its programme can be heard - even if violence, cruelty and intimidation are never far away. The presidential elections of June 2009 are even more important in this regard in signalling how Iran's past will influence its future course; though given the plurality of power-centres and opinions, even they will not be definitive.

In international terms, Iran - exactly like its other post-imperial counterparts, France, Russia and China - is pursuing a "dual" foreign policy: one that combines aspirations to regional and military power with continued promotion of radicalism in neighbouring countries.

A thirty-year story is thus far from ended. No one involved in and affected by it - the region, the wider world, and above all the resourceful, sardonic and enduring people of Iran - have not yet heard the last of the Islamic revolution and of this "great nation".