The Islamic Resurgence in Iran - Khomeini’s Revolt or a Popular Shiite Upheaval?

The Islamic Resurgence in Iran - Khomeini’s Revolt or a Popular Shiite Upheaval?

The Iranian Revolution has been one of the most shocking revolutions in recent history. Long viewed as a pillar of stability in the Middle East, Iran baffled the West when it rejected secular rule and became an authoritarian theocratic state. Few considered the rise of a theocracy in a modernized state possible, and even fewer thought it might come from a popular revolution. The modernizing Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings fled the country in humiliation. Moreover, the aim of the revolution seemed to be entirely different than others of its kind. Whereas most revolution are demands for the need of progress, the Revolution in Iran expressed the need for the preservation of religious and cultural identity. Indeed, the historical value of this revolution is undeniably relevant. As Arjomand, an Iranian sociologist of State University New York, puts it: “It is clear that the Islamic Revolution in Iran is a cataclysm as significant and as unprecedented in world history as the French Revolution of 1989 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.”

The direct impact of the Iranian Revolution could immediately be seen on the nations in the Middle East. For the first time in Middle Eastern history, a theocratic state had been born by rejecting western secularism through a popular revolution. Many Muslims in the Middle East saw the resurgence in Iran as a development to be repeated in their own country. Recently, this influence towards nations close to Iran has become more conspicuous, as neighbors of Iran are experiencing symptoms of civil unrest. Shiite terrorists receive ideological as well as financial aid from Tehran. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza and militant Islamists in Pakistan continue to rebel with Iranian aid. The influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran can still be seen in the societies of neighboring countries. This makes researching the Iranian Revolution evidently justifiable.

The discussion on the causes of the Iranian Revolution have resulted in analyses conducted by comparative sociologists. Theda Skocpol, renown for her States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, has contributed to the discussion on social revolutions as a structuralist. Skocpol tries to adapt her initial hypothesis of social revolutions to the Iranian Revolution in Rentier State and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution. Arjomand has a similar stand in The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. Arjomand refines Skocpol’s thesis by elaborating on the history of state-building by Persian Monarchs and on the development of political power of Shiite leaders. On the opposite side of this discussion, Khomeini biographer Moin defends something completely else. Moin follows the revolutionary leader in his oppositional role in Iranian politics in the 60’s and 70’s. He emphasizes the important role of Khomeini in the creation of the Islamic Republic. For Moin, Khomeini’s role in the revolution is decisive.

These two explanations show similarities but are overall very different. They are alike in their aim, namely both try to explain the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the subsequent creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this essay, it is attempted to describe these interpretations and to take a stand in the historiographical debate on the Iranian Revolution.

The Attack on the Establishment
The focus must be put on Theda Skocpol’s interpretation first, because with her interpretation, Moin can be understood better. Skocpol contends that social revolution are enormous in magnitude, as opposed to political revolution. Political revolutions only change the political structure of a country, whereas social revolutions transform society itself. Class structures, that had been established through many years, will change radically. Dominant ideologies related to these structures will get completely disordered and a new political balance will be created. As a consequence of the enormous impact of social revolutions, Skocpol argues that social revolutions cannot be brought about lightly. Lower class participants in social revolutions cannot hope for a political upheaval if they are not supported by various other groups or have a certain amount of resources or collective organization at their disposal. Before such a revolution can succeed, the repressive state in which revolutionary sentiments exist, must be weakened first. Mass based actions alone are not enough to force a repressive state to its knees. The state can be weakened through war with a foreign enemy or because of internal strife. Another important element in Skocpol’s theory is the basis of support for a social revolution of a popular group in society, especially peasants, that has something important to gain from an societal upheaval.

In any case, Skocpol opposes the view that any massive political movement or the leader of such a movement could have played more than a marginal role in social revolutions. Most of the time those groups are small in size or are even completely absent to play a major role in these revolutions. Simply focusing on the actions of charismatic revolutionary leaders, such as Lenin, Mao and Khomeini, will not give a thorough answer to the question why social revolutions occur. Skocpol denies that this theory could be adopted for all revolutions in the history of mankind. Instead, she argues that the basic framework of analysis remains the same. The Iranian Revolution has to be understood in an macroscopic and structural perspective, with emphasis on the interrelations of state, society and domestic and foreign politics.

The role of the peasants in Iran was less than marginal. Agriculture was not an important factor in the country’s economy, nor had the peasants any particular political power. Therefore, on the basis of Skocpol’s theory, another popular group must have been behind the revolutionary process. The urban enclaves of the Bazaar merchants comprised the largest segment of the revolutionaries in 1979. Their discontent with the Shah lay in the economic field. The vitality of the Iranian economy was based on large exports of oil, gas and traditional Persian trinkets, such as rugs and pistachios. The Shah tried to direct the traditional trade to a market economy, changing the fundaments to private enterprise. The economic policy of the Shah strangled the Bazaar merchants financially and socially by extending state influence in merchant councils and in wholesale and retail trade. Together with the clergy and the professional middle class, the Bazaar merchants in Teheran were able to amass followings through established social networks.

The modernization program of the Shah became known as the ‘White Revolution’. Starting in 1963, the aim of the White Revolution was to regenerate Iranian society and economy. Suffrage was extended to women, government owned enterprises were privatized and a program of legal and educational reforms was introduced. However, the most far-reaching aspect of the modernization was the land reform program. The Shah bought land from feudal land lords for a fair price and subsequently sold it to peasants quite cheaply. Given the fact that the average size of a peasant family was 5 people, land reform programs brought freedom to 40% of Iran's population. Obviously, the former land owners felt harassed and outstripped by these policies. They would become fierce supporters of the Shah’s adversaries.

The most striking characteristic of the Iranian Revolution is its adherence to Shi’a Islam. The fundamental difference of Shi’a Islam in respect to its dominant brother, Sunnism, is political involvement. Shiites claim it just to topple unjust authorities, those who are not connected to Islam and pose a threat to the establishment. During the 19th century, Shi’a clerical leaders, the ulema, had established a fairly independent state of existence. Mingled with landed aristocrats and Qajar landowners, they felt secure and protected. This independence was maintained until the second Pahlavi Shah broke completely with the ulema when he introduced the White Revolution. Together with the modernizations in rural areas, the Shah introduced educational, welfare and legal reforms, cutting the ties the ulema traditionally held with society. Only some religious centers of education in Qom remained intact.

Therefore, the attitude of the clerical leaders changed from cooperation with the Shahs, to opposition and finally towards revolutionary agitation. The attack on the ulema, the White Revolution, had been two-folded. First of all, they were attacked in their property by the introduction of land reforms. Second, the ulema lost privileges in educational, legal and social welfare matters. The reaction was fierce. The ulema formulated a new kind of aggressive populist traditionalism to combat the Shah. Under the banner of martyrdom and devotion to Islam, the clergy was able to put the revolution under a religious framework. Together with this ideology, the ulema used already present organizational structures, like mosques and the religious institutions in Qom, to produce effective opposition.

Finally, Skocpol explains the dominance and victory of traditional clerical leaders after the overthrow of the Shah’s regime as a logical consequence of the revolution. Already at the very beginning of civil unrest in Teheran, it had been the clerics and only the clerics that organized effective resistance. Communists, members of the Tudeh party and secular-liberals from the National Front did not have support from all classes of society. They only appealed to certain groups that had affinity with their ideologies, such as Marxist students in the Tudeh party and the professional middle classes in the National Front. On the other hand, however, Shiism was deep rooted with most Iranians. Even those affiliated with other movements, found strength in the idea of a combined religious unity against the heretic Shah.

The Variety of the Opposition
Moin acknowledges the influential position of the Bazaar merchants and the urban communities for the realization of the revolution. He subsequently discusses the attack of the Shah on traditional establishments, both in the Bazaar as well as in Iran’s rural areas, where the ulema was losing authority. However, Moin fiercely argues for a central role of the personality of Khomeini in explaining the Iranian Revolution. The Revolution had massed millions of people with different political ideas. It was only the binding power of Khomeini that made all these people work together and forget their internal strife. To fully comprehend the central role of Khomeini, it is important to make a distinction between the initial phase of the revolution where all opposition movements united against the Shah, and the second phase of the Revolution where Khomeini and his traditionalist clergy forced Iranian society to become Islamized. Both phases are characterized by the incredible diversity of the opposition groups.

If a westerner would have visited Iran in 1975, he would have had great difficulty to believe that the country was on the verge of a revolutionary upheaval. The Shah had just organized a celebration in honor of 2500 years of Iranian monarchy. Established in 525 B.C. by Cyrus the Great, the Iranian monarchy had resisted invasions of Scythians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols. The festivities were held to show the world and the Iranian people Iran’s long history and the advancements that had been made under the Pahlavi rule.
Underneath this extravagant party, lay the immense disorientation of Iranian society. As explained before, the Bazaar merchants in the cities had been attacked, the ulema in rural provinces had lost their privileges and the Shah’s state was ever expanding. The economic policy of the Shah made the already weak agriculture even more chaotic. The urbanization of Iran’s landscape had grown out of proportion and on top of that inflation had risen to a maximum, due to excessive spending of the government. The inflation reached a climax in 1977, when an economic depression caused massive unemployment to erupt. The situation in 1977 could be described as explosive; in the cities discontent with the status quo was ever imminent. Unemployment had risen and even people who had a job had difficulty making ends meet because of the inflation.

The Shah did not respond to all of these difficulties. A variety of opposition groups did. Among these, the National Front party seemed to be in the best position, due to its professional organization. Leadership of this liberal party lay in the hands of democrats, who wanted to reintroduce a constitutional check on the powers of the Shah. They rejected both the absolute monarchism of the Shah and the fundamentalist anti-secularism of Khomeini. Instead, they wanted to combine a modern version of Islam with secular democratic rule.

Next to the secular liberals, communists, Islamic democrats and the ulema also drew upon major support. Already at the beginning of civil unrest in Teheran, Khomeini was able to gather all of these oppositional groups under his banner. Leaders of the National Front visited Khomeini several time during his years in exile in Paris. Mehdi Bazargan, Abolhassan Banisadr and others already were well acquainted with Khomeini before he came back to Iran in February 1979. Especially Banisadr was really fond of the Ayatollah. The cooperation of the National Front leaders with their rival Khomeini is explainable by looking at the consideration that they did not want to lose the revolutionary momentum by emphasizing differences between their distinct political views. The liberals had the far-fetched presumption that they could use Khomeini in their advantage to force the Shah to concessions. Then, they would simply take over power. It was unthinkable for these liberal Iranians that clerics would take over total control.

During his alliance with the liberals in 1978, Khomeini also contributed to the maintenance of the pact. Khomeini toned his volume when the matter of post-Shah politics was addressed. His speeches were spread in tapes amongst the Iranian public. In these speeches, he rejected the heresy of the monarchial policies and denounced him as a selfish absolutist ruler, but he did not touch upon his stand regarding clerical rule. Although Khomeini promised heaven and earth to all that followed his lead, he did not mention his intentions to dominate politics after the fall of the Shah.

Synthesizing the two Interpretations
It is clear that Moin does not reject long term historical development that led to the fall of the Shah. The attack on the ulema and on the Bazaar merchants are both properly addressed in his book. Moin is convinced that the Shah’s policies contributed to the rise of Khomeini. However, Skocpol remains crystal-clear about Khomeini’s role. Her rigid denial of the eminent role of Khomeini and his associates sounds completely unbelievable. Only a synthesis of both interpretations can lead to a better understanding of the Revolution. This synthesis would emphasize Khomeini’s role in bringing about Islamic clerical rule in Iran, while structural causes made the fall of the Shah and the Revolution itself unavoidable.

Perhaps Khomeini in person did not create the Revolution, but it is short-sighted not to consider the possibility of an alternative outcome of the revolution in 1978-1982. Civil unrest started in January 1978 and Khomeini consolidated his rule in December 1982. Iranian history in these years could have had an alternative outcome. Two possibilities immediately spring to mind. First of all, the first phase of the Revolution could have been unsuccessful. Developments that led to the Shah’s departure could have unfolded differently. Second, the Islamization of Iranian society after the fall of the Shah’s regime in February 1979 could have been unsuccessful. In that case, other oppositional groups could have achieved the upper hand in the power struggle that erupted after the fall of the Shah.

Khomeini and his Pre-Revolutionary Tactics
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is the main character in Moin’s work. Born in 1900 in the rural village of Khomein, Khomeini was raised by his aunt. His parents had been murdered by an escaped convict. As a boy of a clerical family, it seemed that he was almost destined to become an Islamic cleric. At the age of 18, Khomeini started his educational career in Qom, the capital of Islamic Shi’a law. During his education, Khomeini’s attitude towards policies of the secular Shah had been fiercely antagonizing. In 1961, Khomeini finalized his study and became an ayatollah, the highest clerical position in Shi’a Islam. With the new power of his appointment, Khomeini made it his duty to battle the principles of the White Revolution. During the years 1961-1963, the criticism worsened.

Khomeini was exiled in 1963 after attacks on the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ in a Friday prayer speech. It was the first time after the Mossadeq debacle in 1951-53 that anyone had raised the sound of criticism to the Shah in person. The Shah was called an infidel Jew, not worthy of leadership. Khomeini received the death sentence for these comments, but in a seemingly clever move by the Shah, the Shah changed the sentence in life-long banishment. Khomeini chose to reside in Najaf in Iraq, one of the holiest cities for Shi’a Muslims. Although the Shah thought he had severed the link between the Ayatollah and the Iranians, Khomeini remained known in Iran by the activities of his clerical students. Recorded lectures were spread by these students and kept his message alive.

In the economic malaise of 1977, Iranian society was on the verge of revolution. When riots eventually began, the nature of the demonstrations went from peaceful to increasingly aggressive. The indecisiveness of the Shah did not contribute to the situation. On the one hand, the Shah could have quelled the demonstrations quite effectively. General Oveissi urged the Shah repeatedly to pull the lever on the demonstrators. The military remained surprisingly loyal to the Shah, both high officials as well as common soldiers did not defect in high numbers. These soldiers had been armed and trained in the most sophisticated and modern methods. They were perfectly capable of handling the situation if asked to do so. However, the Shah did not retaliate decisively after each demonstration. He hoped to regain control of the situation by making enormous concessions as well as restricting the movement of the demonstrators as much as possible. To put it popularly, he was betting on two horses.

It seems that the focus on the indecisiveness on the Shah makes the assumption plausible that next to Khomeini the Shah himself was essential in the outcome of the Revolution. This assumption is in accord with Moin’s interpretation on the Revolution, namely that the role of individuals must be considered. The reason why the Shah did what he did remains rather blurry. However, it is safe to say that the Shah’s judgment and decisiveness might have been affected by the prospect of death. Early in 1978, the Shah received the news that he suffered from cancer. Naturally, it is possibility that such news about his health might have made him a bit irresponsible.
Not only the Shah can be called indecisive; the political stand of the National Front in this period was also vague. The liberals had acquired what they wanted with the concessions of the Shah in the winter of 1978. However, they were absolutely horrified by the prospect of losing supporters in favor of Khomeini. In order to remain reliable to the demonstrators, they continued to oppose the Shah and demanded even more concessions. The mere presence of Khomeini made sure that oppositional forces like the National Front were not sufficiently nourished by the knee-falls of the Shah. Without a hardliner Khomeini-style, massive demonstrations could have stopped when the Shah reinstalled the constitution of 1907 and had implemented a constitutional check on his powers.

But the demonstrations kept on going. Unemployed workers of the economic depression, the Bazaar merchants and ideologically motivated students rallied together in masses. Clerics of all kind, Khomeini and non-Khomeini supporters, urged the demonstrators to continue their civil disobedience. By promising the demonstrators a martyr’s death, they ensured that the demonstrations had a religious character. In the meantime, strikes in the oil refineries brought the Iranian economy to its knees. During the chaotic winter of 1978, when the situation seemed utterly hopeless for both sides, the Shah made a master move by persuading a prominent member of the National Front to join him in his attempt to quell the demonstrations. This member was Shapour Bakhtiar.

Shapour Bakhtiar had joined the National Front to bring a more democratic political process in Iran into being. When this objective was largely fulfilled by the reinstallation of the 1907 constitution in the winter of 1978, Bakhtiar and many other liberals turned their eye towards the clerical fundamentalist of Khomeini, acknowledging their danger. The Shah appealed to this fear and convinced him to take the position of prime minister. Bakhtiar agreed on one condition; the Shah had to leave the country (it was called a vacation at that time) to give Bakhtiar more political movement. The National Front was discredited publicly by the most fundamental supporters of Khomeini. However, again the liberals remained supportive of Khomeini as all other opposition movements and denounced Bakhtiar as a traitor to the cause.

It remains very plausible that demonstrations would have quieted down, if the National Front had supported Bakhtiar swing. Indeed, for the second time they had the opportunity to choose a more moderate road and stop the radical change of Khomeini. Fear of the loss of supporters made them back down. Bakhtiar’s new government was doomed without the support of his own party.

Khomeini and his Post-Revolutionary Takeover
Bakhtiar’s failure to unite his party against radical change destroyed the credibility of the liberals. They were of no threat for Khomeini anymore. However, suddenly Khomeini had to deal with western educated Muslims in the People’s Mujahedeen who, together with the communist parties, demanded free elections. The fall of Bakhtiar and the subsequent fall of the military provided the opportunity for just that. The People’s Mujahedeen would be disappointed.

Khomeini was by no means the only authority among the radical ulema. Other ayatollahs were consulted when big decisions were taken. To name a few: Ayatollah Borujerdi who was already active in domestic politics at the time of the first Pahlavi Shah, Ayatollah Taleqani who had communist sympathies and professor Beheshti who was thought to be the architect of the newly formed Islamic Republic. It is clear that these authoritative figures could not have stayed united. As Islamic teachers, they were able to call upon their students when something undesirable happened. However, Khomeini urged for one clerical block to remain victorious in the post-revolutionary struggle.
After the fall of the Shah, the first prime minister of the newly formed Republic became the liberal Mehdi Bazargan. During the summer of 1979, Iran had to make fundamental choices about its future path. The liberals quickly saw that their secular aims were never going to be adopted by the clerical establishment of Khomeini. In protest, Bazargan left the government. However, the People’s Mujahedeen granted their support to a more Islamist liberal, Abolhassan Banisadr. During his presidency in 1979-1982, the country underwent periods of enormous chaos, almost to be called a civil war. Supporters of clerical leaders against those of the People’s Mujahedeen fought a bitter struggle over political power. The People’s Mujahedeen derived support from the educated masses that feared clerical rule, even if it would be under Khomeini. The clerical leaders and Khomeini himself decided to put aside their internal strife to combat the Mujahedeen, while gaining support from the illiterate rural masses. They succeeded in just that. Banisadr was impeached in 1982 and fled the country to avoid prosecution. Khomeini’s dominant position in the post-revolutionary struggle in Iran again had proven itself. The People’s Mujahedeen was defeated by the charisma of Khomeini.

In short, it must be said that only a synthesis of Moin’s and Skocpol’s view can produce the reasons why the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 succeeded. Khomeini gained support from the traditional establishment and the masses in the cities because of the policies of the monarch (Skocpol). However, if it wasn’t for the role of Khomeini, the Islamic Revolution at various points could have failed to proceed and could have an alternative outcome (Moin).

Amirsadeghi, Hossein. Twentieth Century Iran. Chapter 6: Persian society, Transformation and Strain. Ed. Michael Fischer. London: Heinemann, 1977.
Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Cleveland, William. A History of the Modern Middle East. Chapter 20: The Iranian Revolution and the Resurgence of Islam. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: Taurus, 1999.
Skocpol, Theda. “Rentier State and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” Theory and Society. Volume: 11 Issue: 3, 1982.