It is now ten years since the triumph of the Iranian revolution and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his forces on February 11, 1979. If the revolution itself was a surprise, destroying an apparently strong and capable regime and bringing a most unexpected clerical leadership to power, its subsequent course has also contained quite a few unanticipated elements. In the first place, the Islamic Republic of Iran has survived: The clerical regime has consolidated its hold on the country, crushed its many opponents, greatly reduced external political and economic influence within Iran, and overcome the supreme test of foreign invasion. The Islamic Republic has, with many a theatrical turn, upheld its principle of “neither East nor West,” something that has eluded most other modern revolutions, and, despite many uncertainties about the cohesiveness of the ruling group, it seems set to survive the departure of its founder and chief inspiration.

For all its failings and its violence against its own people, in which by far the largest number of those killed were from among those who supported the revolution in its first phase, the Islamic Republic is probably the most widely supported Iranian regime in modern times. It has broken with some of the main elements of the Iranian past: It has created a republic in a land where there was a long tradition of monarchy; it has mobilized significant numbers of people to fight, and an Iranian army has performed well in combat for the first time since the middle of the eighteenth century; by reducing foreign influence within the country it has ended a century of external manipulation and intrusion. After the pretensions of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and his fantasy of a “Great Civilization,” Iran is today an autonomous and substantial force in regional politics, affecting Afghanistan to the east as much as the Arab world to the west and south.

Uncertain Point

As it enters its second decade, the Iranian revolution would appear to be at an important and uncertain point — not because it seems to be in imminent danger of collapse or overthrow, but because many of the issues it confronts remain unresolved and the cost of failing to resolve them is rising. The war with Iraq both exacerbated these problems and provided a convenient excuse for postponing their resolution. The war may now be over. Khomeini himself cannot remain as supreme figure forever. The prestige and justifications of the initial revolutionary period are waning.

Most evident are the economic problems: high inflation (over 60 percent in early 1988) and unemployment; continued mass migration to the cities despite early attempts to reverse the trends; growing corruption within the administration; underproduction and inefficient utilization of industrial capacity; failure to encourage farmers to produce more basic foods, especially wheat and rice. Some of these, in particular inflation and low grain production, are inheritances of the Shah’s period which the revolution has done little to remedy.

With oil prices falling, and its oil exports around a third of their pre-revolutionary level, Iran’s foreign exchange earnings are likely to remain low. Exhortations to boost non-oil exports has been heard as often under the mullahs as under the Shah and, while non-oil exports have risen, they show little prospect of being able to offset the overall fall in income.

Much as the regime has been able to stave off its problems, it will be more and more difficult to ignore them, not least because of the demographic explosion in Iran: from a population of 10 million in 1900 to 28 million in 1966 to 47 million in 1986 and to an estimated 65-70 million in 2000. These economic and social problems overlay an even broader problem, namely the inability of the regime to decide on the pattern of economic and social policy it will pursue, whether this is to be centralized and state-run or left to the preferences of the private sector. In broader terms, the question is how and to what extent Iran will be integrated into the international economy.

In these as in other matters, analysis of the Iranian revolution is made all the more difficult by the Islamist form that debates and policies take. Clearly Khomeini’s success rested in part on a successful populist mobilization under the influence of a mainly new Islamic theory, one that enabled his clerical supporters to argue that it was possible to call for Islamic government in the contemporary world, despite the “concealment” of the Twelfth Imam. In practice, the Iranian revolution legitimated an authoritarian system under the supreme religious rule of the faqih, Khomeini.

A Most Modern Revolution

Yet what made the translation of this theoretical innovation into social revolution possible were the very specific changes taking place in Iranian society in the 1970s. The prominent role of Islamist ideology has obscured some separate, equally important, features of the process and the degree to which the Iranian case shares many common features and dilemmas with other revolutionary upheavals.

Its “Islamic” character apart, perhaps the most striking originality of the Iranian revolution lay in the means by which the Pahlavi state was overthrown. This did not involve something that most theories of revolution regard as an essential prerequisite — namely, the weakening of the autocratic state in external competition. Nor did it rest upon the organizational capabilities of a revolutionary party. There was no resort to rural resistance and guerrilla war. The Shah’s regime had not been defeated or overstretched in foreign wars; indeed it had prevailed in the one contest in which it had been involved — in Dhofar. There had been some guerrilla resistance in the 1970s, but of minimal effect.

The revolution rested, rather, upon an astounding degree of political mobilization, through mass demonstrations and a protracted political general strike, that served to weaken the political capacities of the old regime. The Iranian revolution was distinct from most other Third World revolutions not by being more “traditional” but precisely by the more “modern” political mechanisms that it deployed to come to power.

After the regime consolidated itself and eliminated rival revolutionary factions in a manner similar to that of many other revolutions, some other distinctive elements of the Islamic revolution emerged. The absence of a party has continued: the Islamic Republic Party, set up by Ayatollah Mohamed Beheshti and his associates at the time of the revolution, never served as a cohesive ruling party and was dissolved in 1987. At the same time, there has been surprising continuity with the old, pre-revolutionary, political institutions, many of which remain in existence: the parliament, ministries and armed forces of the Pahlavi regime have not been abolished; even the titles of the main newspapers of the Pahlavi period continue, albeit with different orientations. In the field of social policy, there has been great emphasis on aspects particularly important in Islamist ideology, such as the position of women and the judicial system, but very little attention to other pressing areas. There has been a mass literacy program, something virtually all revolutionary regimes carry out as a means of extending control over the population. Here, too, the “Islamic” character of the revolution has been as evident in the void that seems to stretch across a wide range of policy questions as in the intervention into areas favored by Islamic thinkers.

These distinctive features of post-1979 Iran may be explained by a common factor — namely, the consolidation of the networks of Islamic institutions galvanized in the revolution itself. The reason why the old apparatuses of state can continue is that they have been taken over by the revolutionary regime’s forces; in addition, they are flanked by new networks of control and distribution: the system of Friday prayer leaders who act as commissars in cities and provinces; the committees that monitor various state activities; the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij mobilization forces within the coercive sectors. The Islamist networks serve the purposes of a ruling party in other revolutionary regimes. The forms of popular mobilization and ideological inculcation performed by literacy campaigns in China, Cuba or Ethiopia are in Iran carried out through mosques and associated institutions.

Diversity and Paralysis

This may also account for one other distinctive feature of the Iranian revolution — namely, the degree of political diversity and uncertainty prevailing within it, compared to virtually all other revolutionary regimes except Nicaragua. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people have been murdered by the regime, and tens of thousands more tortured and imprisoned. Hundreds of political prisoners have been executed just since the ceasefire. Respect for human rights is abysmal, much worse than under the Pahlavis. But at the same time, and within the parameters of the regime, a substantial if limited degree of debate and criticism is permitted in the Majles and in the press. If the regime itself is not in question, the outcomes of elections are not foregone conclusions. Ratification of ministers by the Majles has turned out to be a controversial and unpredictable business. This means that it is unclear not only who but also which official position will be the main holder of power in a post-Khomeini Islamic Republic.

Opposition to clerical rule is not allowed, but there are evident disagreements within the regime and its following that find more open expression than in almost any other comparable case. It may well be that it is the position of Khomeini, reserved on many issues but arbiter of last resort, that enables this to continue and that his death will lead to a greater degree of centralization and control. It is nonetheless a feature of the Iranian revolution to date, side by side with the murder and imprisonment of so many. Ironically, of course, it is in part this considerable public debate on many areas of policy which has contributed to paralysis on so many social and economic issues.

The regime enters its second decade at a moment of great transition on the international front: a ceasefire with Iraq that will probably hold; the imminent endgame in Afghanistan; a new president in Washington; a rapprochement between the USSR and China, one of Iran’s few significant allies. There is much speculation about the degree to which Iran will now “settle down” to reconstruction and improve relations with the West. The pressure is certainly on Iran to be accommodating. Arab states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and Western European ones such as West Germany and France, are pushing to improve relations with Iran for a host of commercial and strategic reasons. The USSR is attempting to improve relations as well, in part to preclude a return of US influence on its southern frontiers, in part to contain Iran’s policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq, both Soviet allies. The constraints on US policy are likely to remain as long as Khomeini is alive, but Washington probably encourages the overtures which its NATO and Arab allies are making.

Taming Tehran?

There is, at the same time, more than a little uncertainty in this process. It is far too early to be confident that any such “socialization” or “taming” of the Iranian regime is taking place. In the first place, there is enormous disagreement within the country over international as well as domestic issues. Khomeini himself, and Prime Minister Mousavi, have spoken out against bringing Western experts into the country to help on reconstruction. International policies remain subject to internal factionalism, and this may well increase after Khomeini dies.

There is, secondly, the more than unresolved legacy of the war with Iraq. Iran agreed to peace on condition that, as stipulated in Article 7 of Security Council Resolution 598, an international tribunal would evaluate the origins of the war and, so Tehran assumed, find in Iran’s favor. If the delays in the negotiation over a troop withdrawal are anything to go by, it is going to be a long time before any satisfactory resolution of responsibility for the war is reached. Iran may not be in a position to respond immediately if the UN fails to settle this matter, but any such failure will, on the model of the German response to Versailles, lay the seeds for conflict years or even a decade or two in the future.

This leaves as a separate issue the broader international impact of the Iranian revolution. Immediately after Khomeini’s accession to power it was common to look for repeats of the Iranian upheaval in other countries and to speculate on the spread of the Iranian model. It has now become fashionable to say that the threat of such a spread of Islamic revolution is over as pro-Iranian groups have been defeated in a range of countries and Iraq has withstood the war.

This is a simplistic, or at least premature, conclusion. Iran remains an inspiration to Muslims in many societies, even when there is little that Tehran can do in practical terms to assist its supporters. In one crucial country, Lebanon, Iran has provided military and other assistance, and has built up a strong following among the Lebanese Shi‘a who, until a few years ago, were not a significant organized force. The Islamist component of the Palestinian intifada owes not a little to the Iranian example. The rise of Islamic sentiment in Turkey, hitherto the most stoutly secular of Middle Eastern states, and the force of Islamist movements in Egypt, also indicate that Islamist political currents remain strong whatever the role of Iran.

Perhaps the most bitter commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Iranian revolution has been the outburst of Islamic populist opposition against a secular modernizing regime in another large oil-producing state that has already been through a revolution: Algeria. It took not years but several decades for other revolutions — France, Russia and Cuba among them — to fulfill their international potential. The same may be true of the Islamic Republic. In this, as in many other matters, it has been rather more like other revolutions than many of its enthusiasts and its opponents would have us believe.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "The Revolution’s First Decade," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

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