Sepehr Zabih, Iran’s Revolutionary Upheaval: An Interpretive Essay (San Francisco: Alchemy Books, 1979).

This is the first book to appear in the US on the Iranian revolution. It clearly was written in a hurry. Zabih’s thesis, in so far as he has one, seems to be that in the past few years, and especially during 1978, the Shah had become enamoured of the peaceful transition from Franco to Juan Carlos in Spain and was trying to pave the way toward a similar constitutional monarchy in Iran. With the example of Spain and the constant reminders about human rights coming from the Carter administration, the Shah, according to Zabih, liberalized too fast and in response to the ongoing conflict without first creating the political forms necessary for the transition from absolutism to liberalism.

Zabih’s problematic begins and ends with the royal perspective, and even that is limited to questions concerning how the Shah could have created the forms of liberalism, pluralism and democracy while not seriously altering the social and economic system in Iran. Problems that existed before 1978 and contributed to the crisis are problems of “mismanagement” rather than structure. Land reform failed because the government did not follow through with the necessities of modern farming rather than because of the stratification of the peasantry that resulted from limited land distribution. This and other forms of government bungling led to alienation and revolution. Zabih calls on the high canons of modern political science to prove his point — to wit: “One pioneering study has shown how there may be both negative and positive forms of challenge to the established political order depending on the degree of alienation and the goals of the challengers.”

Zabih makes only a perfunctory attempt to relate social forces to the struggle in Iran. He devotes two chapters to the politicization of the bazaar and government mismanagement but concludes that “economic grievances were not among the major reasons causing the dissidents’ espousal of radical political goals.” Social justice and economic equality disappear as moving forces behind the crowds in urban Iran. Social class does not seem to exist for Zabih either as an analytical tool or as an historical reality. The national minorities are virtually unmentioned. Everything is reduced to politics and politics is reduced to the Shah and a one party, two party or multi-party system. Politics becomes a scholastic abstraction.

There are indeed similarities between the rise to power and rule of Franco and the Shah. The generalissimo had German Stuka dive bombers to help him at Guernica in 1937; the Shah had the CIA in Tehran in 1954. Both dictators remained in power as a result of American policy decisions in the 1950s. The Shah may have given lip service to liberalization (in the recent interview with David Frost he said he mistakenly did so at the urging of the Americans), but he did not give up his throne until it became clear that the army refused to slaughter thousands of additional demonstrators in order to maintain Pahlavi absolutism.

Leonard M. Helfgott

How to cite this article:

"Zabih, Iran’s Revolutionary Upheaval," Middle East Report 86 (March/April 1980).
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