MERIP Reports no. 86, March/April 1980. Cover photo by Behzad Touhidi.

MERIP’s coverage of Iran from the organization’s founding in 1971 up through the 1979 revolution and the early years of post-revolutionary state formation remain an invaluable resource for understanding and teaching the history of Iran’s long 1970s. MERIP writers in this period were grappling with the meaning of Iran’s vast social movement as it barreled toward a revolution and in the process were giving shape to the events’ subsequent historiography. Over the course of about a decade of MERIP articles, it is possible to track how authors saw and identified nodes of discontent, highlighted contradictions and pressure points in the Pahlavi state, shed light on various oppositional social groups and their activities and often placed them within a broader regional context. By the late 1970s, this multi-stranded social movement, initially seen as a “political challenge,” evolved into a “revolution” that did not look like any previous textbook revolutions. The revolution led to wider and deeper coverage of Iran, particularly in the early 1980s when MERIP provided a unique space to scholars whose analyses became seminal in the emerging historiography of the Iranian Revolution. As such, MERIP’s articles on Iran over approximately its first decade also provide a fascinating snapshot into the real-time formation of an enduring academic narrative, much of which remains in circulation today. For precisely these reasons, I have used the occasion of MERIP at 50 to think critically about MERIP’s contributions to the historiography of Iran’s 1979 revolution and immediate post-revolutionary histories and also to delve further into questions about the legibility of revolutions as a whole.

The body of articles published by MERIP includes a wide range of topics, some of which were, in retrospect, prescient. Notable contributions include Ervand Abrahamian’s cogent and succinct analyses of what was initially seen as a political crisis before it morphed into a full-fledged revolution and Fred Halliday’s work linking developments in Iran to regional and global revolutionary movements. MERIP coverage in the 1970s is particularly strong in highlighting the weaknesses of “the modernizing monarchy” paradigm—at a time when mainstream coverage of Iran touted the strength and stability of Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule—as well as the consequences of land reform, US-Iran relations, Iran’s “economic contradictions” and testimonies of political repression. Three back-to-back issues devoted to the Iranian Revolution in 1980 capture the state of leftist forces, rural mobilization and workers’ movements during the first year post-revolution. The pages of the magazine also contain a treasure trove of information and primary sources on leftist groups, trade unions, workers’ groups and diasporic student opposition to the Shah.

The pages of the magazine also contain a treasure trove of information and primary sources on leftist groups, trade unions, workers’ groups and diasporic student opposition to the Shah.

Some of the most unique documents are early articles that focus more on the reporting part of MERIP’s mission. One example is Georgia Mattison’s report of reactions to Mohammad Reza Shah’s commemoration of 2,500 years of monarchy, which was published in 1971 in MERIP’s fourth issue. Mattison, who two years earlier had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a “small high desert town,” returned for a visit before the Shah’s (in)famous celebration at the ruins of Persepolis. Her article both hints at and explicitly mentions many of the factors that in later years came to be viewed as crucial to the development of the revolution: the extravagant style and in-your-face expenses of the celebration, the unintended consequences of the six-point state-led White Revolution—particularly water shortages and rural-urban migration as a direct result of the failures of land reform—and Iran’s development into a “classical model of neocolonialism.” But what stands out in her report are the details of everyday life, many of which became afterthoughts—if that—in the tsunami of books and articles that were published after the revolution. She records the “grumblings” among the villagers about the ostentatious celebrations. She relays her teacher friend’s anger at the building of the now-iconic Azadi Tower monument (known at the time as Shahyad) in Tehran when the money could have gone toward funding the literacy corps (another of the White Revolution’s points), and she conveys the rumors and reactions of a non-urban population in real time. The following observation stands in contrast to some of MERIP’s subsequent analyses of Iran:

Most Iranians are deeply religious Moslems. Five times a day wherever I was, I could hear the call to prayer. Last year the head of the Shi’ah Moslems was exiled to Iraq. His replacement was imprisoned and tortured to death. The Shi’ah leadership, believing that the Shah is only a temporary ruler until the return of the 12th Imam (prophet), has always been an anti-Shah element. However conservative their leadership might be, their elimination was seen as creating a horrifying vacuum of opposition.[1]

In some ways, Mattison was writing about and observing Iran at a global inflection point. By the early 1970s, some parts of the Iranian opposition, both the traditional left and the Islamic Marxist Mujahedin-e Khalq, had joined a global network of armed struggle. Those who were not part of the guerrilla movement were nonetheless tied to a wider leftist world of student activism both through their consumption of texts and through groups such as the Confederation of Iranian Students, which worked hard to bring the plight of Iran’s anti-Shah movement to the attention of the world, including in the pages of MERIP. It was not difficult, particularly for scholars observing from the outside, to see Iran’s political landscape within this global world of leftist student activism and to pay less attention to “the head of the Shi’ah Moslems,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who by fall 1978 had left Iraq for France. What stands out about Mattison’s piece is how clear-eyed her observation is and how early it comes in the decade and in the life of the magazine.

Nonetheless, MERIP did not truly begin to cover the importance of the Islamist forces in the 1970s until the summer 1978 issue when the editors reprinted an interview with Shi’i leader Ayatollah Khomeini from Le Monde. Beginning in 1978, Abrahamian’s writings for MERIP recognized the importance of a broad spectrum of forces and ideas, including religious ones. For example, in the same issue that reprinted the interview with Khomeini, Abrahamian—with the clarity and precision that is the hallmark of much of his writing—mentions both the October 1977 poetry reading in the Goethe Institute attended by university students (read secular and left forces) and the January 1978 Qom protests led by seminary students (in other words, religious forces) as similar examples of the “political challenge” confronting the monarchy. But overall, MERIP seemed to be grappling with how to fit these religious actors, who were at the very least equally important to the leftist forces, into its conceptual framework.

Khomeini’s emergence in the late 1970s as the undisputed leader of a vast revolutionary movement, one which included leftist, secular, national and religious forces in an unprecedented matter, muddied, to say the least, the era’s notions of what constituted a revolution.
The MERIP framework had been established in the magazine’s second issue: To present research and information about “revolutionary struggles in the area” in addition to the role of the United States in the region and the “Palestinian problem.” “Revolutionary struggles,” particularly for Marxist-leaning scholars, meant primarily a socialist revolution. Khomeini’s emergence in the late 1970s as the undisputed leader of a vast revolutionary movement, one which included leftist, secular, national and religious forces in an unprecedented matter, muddied, to say the least, the era’s notions of what constituted a revolution. To make matters more complicated, Khomeini had unequivocally announced in the Le Monde interview that, “No, we will not collaborate with the Marxists, not even to overthrow the Shah.” Of all the ways to bring Khomeini onto its pages, the decision to do so with this interview set the stage for MERIP’s subsequent struggles to make sense of the religious character and leadership of a revolutionary movement that up until then, had been framed and analyzed as Marxist or Marxist-adjacent.

The blind spot that such a framework created is particularly evident in the writings of Fred Halliday, who left his mark on MERIP’s coverage of Iran during this period as much as, if not more than, Ervand Abrahamian. (In Joe Stork’s obituary of Halliday, he notes: “Over the course of some 15 years, between 1976 and 1990, and a span of some 100 numbers of this magazine, Fred’s byline was in more than one out of every three issues.”) Halliday’s work is crucial to readers’ understanding of the revolution and revolutionary forces, particularly how he links regional revolutionary movements to each other, his interviews with various leftist leaders shortly after the revolution and the documents he curated for MERIP. But his contributions also demonstrate the limitations of an ideologically inflected scholarship and the fascinating ways in which he worked to come to terms with the Iranian revolution as it was and not how he, and so many others, had dreamt it would be. In his must-read account of a trip to the Caspian Sea region of Gilan during Ramadan in the summer of 1979, Halliday takes stock of public displays of political affiliations: what posters were on display, which newspapers were being sold, where there is “almost no sign of Khomeini,” where the guerrilla groups have a stronghold and the lack of vodka to accompany the sturgeon kabob. He writes that “the coastal area groans under the weight of Islam.” Yet he draws a picture of a country still in the throes of a multi-stranded and polyvocal revolutionary upheaval that was only slowly beginning to disaggregate in what became a bloody power struggle. It is also a picture of a country bearing the hallmarks of an Islamic identity, one that Halliday was only now seeing and, often, reducing to pro-Khomeini forces.

MERIP Reports no. 87, May 1980. Cover photo by Dorothy Grant.

Although most MERIP articles about the revolution analyze its urban aspects, the May 1980 issue, “Iran’s Revolution: The Rural Dimension,” stands out for its focus on rural participation and reactions to a decidedly city-driven revolution. The issue includes detailed and astute eyewitness accounts by Eric Hooglund and Mary Hooglund as well as Lois Beck’s article about the relations of tribally-organized populations with the Pahlavi state, the revolution and the post-revolutionary regime. It speaks to the depth of MERIP’s roster of authors on Iran that the issue also includes Abrahamian’s now-classic “Structural Causes of the Iranian Revolution,” which convincingly sums up the causes of the revolution as a contradiction between “socioeconomic development” on the one hand and “political underdevelopment” on the other. While scholars’ understanding of the causes of the revolution has deepened and widened over the years, Abrahamian’s seven-page floodlight onto the revolution, merely a year after its victory, is no small feat.

While this essay is not a review of MERIP’s extensive archive on Iran, it bears noting that the post-revolutionary decades have seen an increase in both its analyses of Iran and the diversification of the voices being published. The unpredictability of the revolutionary situation that persisted well into the 1980s and was compounded by the Iran-Iraq war is well captured by MERIP’s archive in its second decade and beyond. In the decades since the revolution, MERIP has continued to produce singular pieces from scholars and observers whose analyses of Iran’s social, urban, cultural, economic, and political landscapes go far beyond the simple reformist/conservative dichotomies that have flooded the media’s coverage of Iran from the late 1990s until today.

Fifty years later, MERIP’s articles on Iran during its long 1970s stand as a reminder that revolutions are some of the most difficult political and historical phenomena to foresee and, in their vastness and kaleidoscopic nature, even more difficult to categorize. Although much of what authors know and write are reflections of their own place and time, MERIP articles on Iran have left readers with a wealth of unique minutiae of the era, enduring analyses of factors that created the conditions for this momentous event as well as the knowledge—both in its primary and secondary forms—that has shaped the bedrock of historical narratives about the 1979 Iranian Revolution.


[Naghmeh Sohrabi is the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History and the Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.]




[1] Khomeini was exiled to Iraq in 1965. Her factual errors in this paragraph alongside not naming Khomeini reflects the ways in which the Islamist political groups were far off the radar of even observant writers such as Mattison and also quite possibly that this was the information circulating in the village she lived in and among her interlocuters at the time.


How to cite this article:

Naghmeh Sohrabi "MERIP’s First Decade of Iran Coverage from Political Challenge to Revolution," Middle East Report 300 (Fall 2021).

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