It is actually hard to pin down the exact date of any popular revolution. Each one tends to gain momentum when enough people come out into the streets for long enough to give them a collective sense of belief in the justice and victory of their cause. But that’s only one scene in a multi-act drama. You could say the key moments in Iran included: The shah’s ill-judged decision in January 1978 to authorize the publication of a letter directly attacking Ruhollah Khomeini; the fire at the Cinema Rex in Abadan in August the same year, which was attributed to SAVAK at the time by those who had really started it, the radical supporters of Khomeini; the refusal of soldiers to fire on the first real mass demonstration in Tehran on Sept. 4, Eid Al-Fitr, or the moment others did so to murderous effect four days later; the earthquake in Tabas; the expulsion of Khomeini from Iraq in early October; the Ashura demonstrations that December; and the departure of the shah in mid-January 1979 and, two weeks later, the return of Khomeini — the event that Tehran has (of course) decided to mark above all.
Equally you could quite reasonably argue — as both Roy Mottahedeh in his great book, “The Mantle of the Prophet,” and Hamid Dabashi in his rather less urbane “Theology of Discontent” have done — that the revolution had its origins in the ideologies of subaltern resistance, sometimes owing as much to Marx or Fanon as to Islam. These emerged in Iran, as they did elsewhere in the Islamic world, from the late 19th century onwards and accelerated toward confrontation as the modern Middle Eastern state system became more militarized, authoritarian and oppressive.
No revolution succeeds without an ideology. Equally, no revolution succeeds without luck. Would the October Revolution in Russia have happened the way it did if Vladimir Lenin, newly returned from Switzerland, had been detained at a checkpoint earlier that year instead of being waved through in disguise by careless police? Would Khomeini have been able to establish his theocracy if the
And this suggests another important point. It was not inevitable that Khomeini would win. The Iranian communist party was powerful and had deep wells of support among the industrial classes, whom the
Khomeini allowed a constitution to be written for the new republic. But the Islamic Republic is not a constitutional state, as Khomeini’s own seizure of power and the machinations surrounding the emergence of Ali Khamenei as his successor both showed. It is not law that rules in Iran but the decisions
This does not seem to have made Iranians as
An intriguing sidelight is cast by events in Iraq, where recent demonstrations against misgovernment in the southern governorates
This doesn’t mean that Iran is going to disappear any time soon. It has significant support from those who have benefited from its patronage — a huge state-funded clerical class, the security forces (including the Basij), devout conservatives and well-connected business people. And it is unlikely that Iranians want another violent revolution: Hardly anyone ever does.
But it does mean that the regime has almost certainly failed to persuade a majority of Iranians that rule by Shiite clerics produces anything remotely resembling the rule of the just. That is a failure not just for them but for all Islamists everywhere. The Iranian Revolution was the first and, in many ways, still the most startling success for political Islamism, which in both its Shiite and Sunni forms makes similar claims to singular legitimacy and authenticity. The experience of the last 40 years in Iran has shown that, while Islamists — with a large helping of luck — can capture a state, they are incompetent, corrupt, harsh and oppressive when they try to manage one. That is a lesson the brutal failure of ISIS also illustrates. But Iran, precisely because it is a complex and sophisticated state rather than a ramshackle and besieged imaginary caliphate, is the more potent case.
The rule of ISIS can certainly be destroyed by military force, but its ideology cannot. In the case of Iran, the only military option is containment. And we need our own hard-headed clarity, patience and resolve to deal with the ideological challenge. A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine on
And, in many ways, the best outcome would be for the Islamic Republic to change — gradually or dramatically — under the strain of its own internal contradictions. This would do more to discredit the ideology behind it than a million essays by agonized critics like Abdolkarim Soroush or a manufactured external crisis. And that can only be a matter for Iranians. When they want our support, we should give it — something we have failed to do in recent years as we pursued the illusion of normality. But they themselves have to find the better way to join the rest of the world many of them mistakenly thought they had found in 1979. I just hope it doesn’t take another 40 years for them to do so.