Pahlavi Achilles Heel: Illegitimacy

Iran's Islamic Revolution is best known outside of the country through the works of historian and New York City University lecturer Ervand Abrahamian. However, inside Iran, his works spark a lot of interest among Iranian readers. The Persian rendition of his "Iran between Two Revolutions" sold like hot cake in the Iranian book market even though Abrahamian has said that the book's target readers are western students with the least information about Iran's 1979 revolution. On the occasion of the anniversary of the victory of the revolution, we contacted Prof. Abrahamian in his New York residence to talk to him about the revolution. What follows is an excerpt from the interview:

-Let's begin with "Iran between Two Revolutions". In the book you have theorized that rash efforts by the regime to modernize Iran led to what became the Islamic Revolution in 1979. By that, did you mean that economic growth need not have been accompanied with cultural and intellectual maturity of the society for the revolution to reach its climax?
What I tried to challenge [in the book] was this widespread western fallacy that the Shah's efforts to modernize Iran caused the revolution to happen while the country was not ready for the change. I reasoned that people's protests were not necessarily directed at economic or social modernization; they objected the political structure of the regime. When looking at the political structure of Iran, we see that the political system of the country was far from ready for modernization, hence staying behind the developments in other fields. In other words, the revolution took place because the regime was not ready for modernization, rather than because of the regime's rash efforts for modernization of the society. If the regime had tried to create space for democracy, it could be said that it could have been able to resist protests somehow longer, at least on the paper. But what we saw was the failure of political modernization in Iran. Especially the formation of the Rastakhiz Party intensified opposition. My estimation is that, yes, what we had in Iran was industrialization devoid of mature political structures, which created an impasse where uprisings began to pile up against the ruling regime. I do not believe that we lacked intellectual modernization in Iran. What remained lacking was political and institutional modernization.

-What was the role of the bourgeois class in the revolution?
I view the revolution as a platform for various players at various times who play roles with various significance. No single class can cause a revolution. There are different social classes that form a revolution. Almost all social classes, maybe except serfs, rose against the Shah's regime. I have stressed in my book that, in effect, it was the intellectuals who lit the first flames of the revolution in gatherings at the Goethe Nights which then transmitted to the seminary in Qom and covered all other groupings and classes afterwards. I now prefer to think that we have to re-view the whole story. Reviewing the history, we see that factory strikes and uprisings even before Goethe Nights gatherings played a much more important part in the revolution's ignition. Even at the time of the so-called economic welfare and prosperity, the working class openly expressed their dissatisfaction. The class stepped into the revolution's cause in 1978. By 1979, almost all the social strata had entered into the revolution each for different reasons.
In Iran, unlike the bourgeois revolution in France, the revolution involved all the social classes, but this does not mean that the role of each class could be overlooked.

-How do you view the links between the bourgeois institutions in Iran with intellectuals?
Traditionally, the middle class includes people from the market, or in Iran, Bazaar, which had grave differences in thinking with intellectuals so long as they were neither too rich nor too poor. But, the two make up two different social classes. Intellectuals are culturally and historically different from Bazaaris. In Iran's revolution, another factor also played a part which was the neo-intellectuals who were mostly reared in traditional bourgeois families. A schism formed up between old intellectuals, who were mostly secular, and the radical and Islamist neo-intellectuals.

-Taking Iran's bourgeois class as the lever of the revolution, we can say that intellectuals were leftist. How do you think they led the middle class in the revolution? Or, do you think that it was the general culture that directed the cause?
I should say this again that every social class played a role at a different time. For example, it was lawyers, teachers and journalists who distributed opposition leaflets in 1977. Then it was intellectuals at the Goethe Nights who moves the revolution further. The intellectuals were not the only driving force behind the revolution because all other classes stepped in the cause as well.

-What kind of a working class are we dealing with in the 70s?
We had industrialization in major cities like Tehran at that time. The working class turned out to be a lethal force for the regime. The regime worried most about factory movements. In 1976 and 1977, many major strikes were held in factories than has ever been reported. The regime tried to clinch a deal with them by giving the strikers economic bonuses. The large number of strikes despite the economic wellbeing of the working class is an undisputable proof that working class dissatisfaction was prevalent before the revolution.

-Assuming that, the lack of political maturity was the major cause of the revolution, can we say that the lack of political institutions put revolutionary movements in motion? Could this also be the case with other societies other than Iran?
I belief that in the first step, we must acknowledge the political gap in Iran's developments. The second question is why? It seems that the Shah could have reached out for creating diplomacy rather than building up his tyranny so he could check on dissatisfaction and take up reformist considerations. Now we should ask why the regime did not do so? I think it didn’t do this because it couldn't. This was in fact the regime's Achilles heel: the lack of legitimacy. The Shah knew his rule was void of legitimacy and therefore shunned giving more space to opposition groups. He knew that as soon as he gave them space the immediate question would be the legitimacy of his rule over the country. Now, where the illegitimacy came from? It came from the 1953 coup d’état, I believe. I think the roots of the revolution should be traced back in the 1953 coup. The other source of illegitimacy for the Shah was that in the 20th century and following the WWII, nationalism, impartiality and non-alliance became the world's prevalent ideologies and the rule of tyranny was over. The more Shah tried to near his rule to western ideologies, the more his illegitimacy became manifest.
The Shah enjoyed a relative legitimacy by around 1961 as he had the support of clerics, but after June 5, 1963 demonstrations in Iran, he lost their support and had the pillars of his empire deteriorate and completely shattered by 1979.

Translated by: Abbas Haji Hashemi

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