The improbable revolt

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran
November 5, 2004

Charles Kurzman first became aware of Iran at high school, when in l979, in the aftermath of the revolution that toppled the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, young revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 49 American hostages. Shock and outrage led to curiosity about the country and its people; Kurzman learnt Persian, studied sociology and travelled in Iran, meeting Iranians of all classes. His book examines the Islamic revolution in the light of social sciences. It is a valuable insight into what he considers one of the most far-reaching events of the 20th century.

The title comes from William H. Sullivan, the US Ambassador in Iran at the time of the revolution. He wrote to President Jimmy Carter that it was time "to think the unthinkable" - that the Shah's seemingly invulnerable regime could fall before a popular revolt. Carter wanted to sack him for scaremongering.

Even now, social scientists regard the Iranian revolution as "deviant", for "according to social-scientific explanations of revolution it should not have happened". Afterwards, they studied the condition of the country to provide "retrospective explanations". Kurzman's thesis is that "massive change cannot be known in advance but as it is happening". His "anti-explanation" theory is an attempt "to understand the revolution in all its anomalous diversity and confusion". Each chapter examines one of the various social-scientific explanations and shows them to be only "partially valid".

Kurzman begins by refuting the "political explanation": that the first stirrings of protest began as a result of Carter's human-rights policy and of a measure of liberalisation by the Shah, which created the classic conditions for revolution - pressure from outside and relaxation within, as happened with the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions.

But Kurzman demonstrates that the situation was different in Iran: Carter's visit in l977 seemed to exempt the Shah from the US's human-rights policy and he clamped down on opposition; the liberal/nationalists backed down, but the religious groups took over the protest movement and led it to the final cataclysm. The "organisational explanation" that the revolution benefited from the network of mosques, is also weak, as the mosques were under the control of "quietist" clergy, suspicious of revolution.

Nor does the "economic explanation" that the oil boom of l973-74 led to recession, widening the gap between rich and poor, quite fit. These conditions existed elsewhere in the developing world without provoking revolutions. Similarly it is said that the military/security apparatus was weakened by the Shah's illness and his "refusal to order widespread slaughter". Kurzman believes the reverse - that it was weakened and overwhelmed by massive popular uprising.

All these explanations suffer from an "inversion of cause and effect", he says, that many of the causes proposed by social scientists were, in fact, its effects, and that "the role of anti-explanation theory is to understand the variety of responses to confusion".

But Kurzman omits other factors. For example, the Shah's army and security organisation lacked the technology and equipment for crowd control (they never thought they might need them); while the Shah's terminal cancer had exacerbated his innate indecisiveness. Kurzman also ignores what Carl Jung calls "collective psychosis", or mass hysteria - even some Iranian intellectuals were affected by it and joined the crowd. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the correct one: the personality of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the end, "the quiet certitude" of one old man prevailed.

Shusha Guppy is the author of The Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood .

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran: Charles Kurzman

Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 287
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 01328 X

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