Democracy. Russia. CIS.

Notes from “The Islamic Republic after 30 years.”

Posted by democratist on August 28, 2010

“The Islamic Republic after 30 years.”

Notes on the lecture given at the LSE on 23rd February 2009 by Professor Fred Halliday.

During the summer break Democratist has been watching the LSE’s podcast recording of our friend and mentor, Fred Halliday’s last public lecture in the UK, given at the LSE on the subject of “The Islamic Republic after 30 years.” (

We have enjoyed listening to it so much, and there is so much to be learned from what was said, especially in relation to the comparative study of revolutions, that we decided to make some (careful, but not verbatim) notes and present them here, along with a link to the podcast.

We hope that some readers might take an interest ın the lecture, and decide to explore some of Fred’s many published books (also mentioned in our other piece about him).

We especially recommend The World at 2000, and Rethinking International Relations, as introductory texts.

“We need both the heart and the intellect in order to understand revolutions”.

Hannah Arendt suggested that the twentieth century was a time of “wars and revolutions”. Both wars and revolutions pose the challenge of explaining their causes and outcomes.  Were these outcomes structurally inevitable, or politically contingent? Constructive or destructive? Positive or negative? An especially important question for Halliday (and IR theory); how far did international factors play a part in the onset of such conflicts, and what are their international consequences?

The ongoing debates and controversies surrounding recent major wars (WWI, WWII the Spanish Civil War) apply to an even greater extent to major social revolutions. Revolutions are in many ways similar to wars; times of mobilization combat, uncertainty. Revolutions exhibit the best and worst of human nature. They are times of aspiration and cruelty; times of hope, and of the destruction of millions of lives. Revolutions are times of idealism, but (in a usage of the term that contrasts with current concerns) we should recall that the term “terrorism” was originally invented by the Jacobins during the French revolution in 1792 to describe their own revolutionary violence;  a violence of the state against its own people.

Halliday points to the pathos of the hope and tragedy of revolutions: Few writers on the subject try to capture both sides: both the aspiration and the betrayal. The moments of emancipation and the recreation of repression.  Most who grasp this pathos have tended to express it through literature; Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Arguably the finest of all commentaries is Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951). Camus work, written more than 50 years ago, tells us as much as any particular account about what was to follow; in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Algeria and Iran. Camus also pointed out that the red flag (symbol of revolution throughout the twentieth century) was originally adopted as a banner justifying the application of martial law in 1792.

Herein, in the recognition of this necessarily dual moral and psychological character of  revolutions lies an important lesson for our own times. It has become much easier, since the collapse of communism in 1989 to argue that revolutions are illusions and are dangerous; gods that failed; utopian projects that, thank heavens, the world is now rid of.

But this is to mistake the two-sided dimension of revolutions, the profound and idealistic reasons why people engage in, and are willing to die and kill for them, and why there is a necessary place, as much in the unequal and uncertain world of the twenty-first century, as in the ideological set-battles of the twentieth, for the emergence of utopias and ideals: The age of ideologies may well (as Fukuyama has claimed) have passed away, but the age of human anger, of revolt, of the sense of injustice and entitlement, of peoples and classes, religious communities and others now driven by information technology and the fantasies of globalization, has not.

The academic analytic literature on revolutions does much to illustrate these points, but little to resolve them. Most accounts of revolutions are singular historical narratives. Little attention has been paid to the comparative sociology of revolutions. The rightly dominant example of existing comparative work is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1978).  This (and Halliday’s subsequent) Revolutions and World Politics (1999) highlighted that, for all their domestic causes and consequences, revolutions are necessarily international in four respects;

  • They have some international causes.
  • International influence on the formation and consolidation of post-revolutionary regimes (in the Iranian case, as a result of the Iraqi invasion).
  • The radical foreign policies revolutionary regimes pursue.
  • The inexorable constriction and decline of the revolution at home under international pressure.

Yet Skocpol’s central argument about the structural determination of revolutions was soon challenged by the examples of Iran and Nicaragua – (which both point to the importance of agents, not structures). Also her point about the international weakening of the state did not apply in the Iranian case – because the Shah’s regime was not challenged internationally.

The collapse of the most ambitious and sustained revolution of modern times (a collapse that was in its own way also revolutionary) that of the USSR was also a challenge for writers such as Skocpol and E. H. Carr, who had rested the main part of their arguments on the progressive role of revolutions as locomotives of history etc, and their presumed durability.

Halliday’s own Revolutions and World Politics puts forward his own comparative study of the “five great revolutions” –  France, Russia, China, Cuba and Iran; In this work he tried to set revolutions in their international context, and to assess the role of social Revolutions in the period 1789-1989. In some ways, his student’s Phds on the themes of this topic were more successful than his own work because they were more focused in approach, and more sensitive to the changes of historical context.

This lecture is therefore part of a much wider, and necessarily open work of research, comparison and evaluation, and is offered in that comparative, and analytic light.

Thirty years ago in 1979, the world witnessed with surprise, anxiety, and on the part of some, expectation the dramatic culmination of the Iranian revolution; with the collapse of the hitherto powerful regime of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the return from exile of ayatollah Khomeini, and the establishment in the following weeks of the Islamic republic and the ratification of a new constitution on 1st April 1979.

Thirty years is not a long time in the lifetime of a revolutionary regime. Cuba has just celebrated 50 years of revolution; the Russian revolution managed 70. But it is time enough to look with some calmer perspective at one of most unexpected, dramatic, and in the Middle East at least, influential events of modern times.

In dealing with social revolutions (also wars, terrorist attacks), it is often wise to begin with some comparison. Revolutions are in many ways often similar, not unique. They permit of broader causal explanation. Such comparison also allows to identify their truly unique and individual aspects.

In six respects, the 1979 revolution in Iran bears comparison with its historic forbears; France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1948) and Cuba (1959).

  • First, the 1979 Iranian revolution occurred because a broad coalition of opposition forces came together to overthrow dictatorial and authoritarian regime. This built on longstanding social grievances, but also mobilized nationalist sentiments against a state or ruler seen as too compliant to outside influences (the Shah had been installed in a coup in 1953): It was a classic populist alliance.
  • Secondly, the victory of the revolution also required and was facilitated by the fragmentation of the leadership within the state itself; without this fragmentation the state could certainly have survived – but the Shah was ill, his advisors uncertain, the Americans were distracted. Hence the weakness of the state and the comparison with Louis XVI and Nicholas II. Many of the middle classes fled the country.
  • Thirdly, the revolution was not just political in the sense of changing the elite, but also had profound social and economic consequences. It is these social and economic changes that differentiate social revolutions from mere coups d’etat: Iran now has an Islamist nomenklatura (of about 5000 people), united by ties of power, business and marriage – who control state revenues and the armed forces.
  • Fourth, while the revolution proposed a new radical and egalitarian order – the “time of the Imam,”  it also drew on pre-existing ideas in Iranian history – above all secular nationalism – especially true after Iraqi invasion of 1980.
  • Fifth – the role of non-dominant (Persian) ethnic groups. Here there is a comparison with cases where the formation of revolution within the dominant ethnic group has encountered hostility among the smaller ethnic groups. An initial proclamation of the fraternity of all Peoples is often followed by violence as the result of the centralizing tendency of the center: There is a  near-universal tendency of revolutionaries to cast the leadership of smaller ethnic groups as agents of foreign powers. Examples can be found from Turkey (1908) and from Russia/Soviet Union (1917). Iran was a partial exception and has been a relatively successful multi-ethnic state. But the revolution has produced conflict with minorities. The main problems in the Iranian case have not been with the Azeris (who make up 25 percent of the population), but with the Kurds and Arabs.
  • Sixth. As with France and Russia in particular, the Iranian revolution, seeking to promote its state interests, and export revolution, soon acquired the characteristics of a revived empire, and in so doing, both mobilized support among some forces of the regime, and antagonized others. At the same time it was the International consequences of the revolution (especially the 1980-88 war with Iraq), rather than the revolution itself that shaped the politics and defined the state institutions of the Islamic republic, and steeled its will. It is clear that 20-30 years after the revolution, ıt (as ın other revolutions) comes into question. Ammedınajad is currently seeking to recreate and recapture the revolutionary purity of the early years of the revolution, which is now perceived to be lacking.

The foreign policy of the regime was (as E.H. Carr pointed out as common to revolutionary regimes) a dual policy; a mixture of both diplomacy and revolution. Revolutionary rhetoric, and an element of nationalist arrogance led the Iranian leadership to overplay their hand on three important occasions; firstly, the taking of the American hostages in 1979 which turned the US into an almost permanent enemy; secondly, the failure to accept Saddam’s peace deal in 1982, which would have led to a more advantageous peace for Iran, and third; the failure to support the Communist regime in Afghanistan which lead to the rise of the anti-Iranıan Taliban.

What are the unique features of the Iranian revolution? Most obviously in regard to the leadership, ideology and goals of the Islamic revolution. Here we did not have the secular radicalism of the earlier revolutions since 1789, but rather a revolution under the banner of Islam, with the goal of returning to the pure model of the time of the prophet. Unlike these other revolutions, the Iranian revolution did not promise material well-beıng; Khomeini stating, “We did make this revolution for melons!”. In that sense the apparent goal of the revolution contrasted with others.

But they did have the other following aspects in common with these other modern social revolutions;

  • An appeal to the mass of the poor against “the corrupt”.
  • The cult of the leader.
  • The mobilizing of nationalist sentiment in a country that had been invaded in both world wars.
  • The redistribution of wealth for social programmes.
  • Analysing the world in terms of “the oppressed” versus the dominant power (Khomeini did not use the word “imperialism”, but instead “global arrogance”).

For all the Koranic appearance, the message was a modern populist and nationalist one, in Islamic garb, and the same applies to other Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda. For all the apparent difference, the Islamic revolution of 1979 did what all revolutions do, namely after overthrowing an oppressive government to seize power and crush, not only their opponents, but all dissidents within the regime, and then impose an intrusive and authoritarian order.

This prevalence of secular, modern concerns is evident in other respects, and we can give an example here in terms of foreign policy; the constitution of Iran commits it to supporting struggling Muslims around the world, but where a clear state interest clashes with Islamic solidarity, it is state interests which prevail. Hence Irans support for India over Kashmir, for Beijing against the Muslims in Sinjan, for Russia over Chechnya, and for Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.


Against this background, in which is debated whether the Iranian revolution was, or was not similar to others, the Iran of today appears as another case of a revolution approaching its middle years but far from abandoned or defeated.

Domestically, in a post revolutionary climate freer and more diverse than that seen in any of the other revolutions discussed, but with violence and intimidation never far away, and political and social pressure growing, a wide range of opinions and interpretations of the revolutionary programme can be heard. The presidential elections this June will in this regard be important, but given the plurality of power centers and opinions, they cannot be definitive, even if Khatamı is re-elected.

Internationally, Iran, exactly like its other post-imperial counterparts; France, Russia and China pursues its dual foreign policy; one that combines aspirations of regional and military influence with the continued promotion of radicalism in neighbouring countries.

The people of Iran, of he Middle East and the world have not yet heard the last of the Islamic revolution, and of this great nation.

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