The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran Compared to Reza Shah's Monarchy
Feb 17, 2011

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran Compared to Reza Shah's Monarchy

The 2011 Egyptian revolution saw a largely secular youth movement demanding freedoms and quality of life improvements from an autocratic state. This has been compared to the Islamic Revolution in Iran which occurred in a similar situation with similar popular pressures but resulted in an Islamic Republic that is consistently criticized in our media and purported to be a big threat. The worry claimed is that Egypt might become another Iran, perhaps with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt coopting the reform movement much like happened in Iran. The question, raised sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, asks whether the 1979 revolution was better or worse?

The short answer is: it depends on who you are talking about, and what one means by "better". It is truly very multifaceted and this post won't come close to demonstrated how unanswerable this question actually is. Large themes involved are more than simply replacing the supreme leader from a monarch to an ayatollah, but questions of democracy vs autocracy, the role of the state in many areas, quality of life according to many metrics, communism/socialism vs capitalism both at the level of the state and at the level of communities as well as outside economic, political and militaristic pressures. 

Many of the changes that occurred were quite independent of the Islamic nature of the republic and related to various political pressures of the day, and there was also striking continuity in some aspects - both for the good and for the bad. For examples, perhaps the dominant theme in Iranian society since the 1921 coup of Reza Shah has been the dramatic increase in a pervasive and centralized state. This continued after the 1953 CIA/SIS coup that installed the monarch's son, Muhammed Reza Shah, who further expanded the state in many ways and after 1979 the Islamic Republic essentially transplanted themselves on the existing state and increased it further. The consequences, good and bad, of this is probably the most important factor that dominated Iranian life beyond even the Islamic nature of the state or the total war of the Iran-Iraq war. 



It should be established at the outset that we shouldn't assume a priori that because it is an Islamic revolution it is necessarily bad - even for women. By 2000, women made up an amazing 64% of university students and 45% of doctors. There was womens suffrage, over 5000 female elected officials and even women in the judiciary. After a reversal in 1988 discouraging the rapid population growth of the earlier years, the basic tenets of womens liberation were widely spread: condoms, birth control pills, sexual education, equal validity under the law, raising the marriage age, discouraging polygamy, allowing women custody rights and even encouraging women to sign prenups. Amazingly, Iran managed to ratify under Khatami (although it was subsequently overturned) the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women while the US has not. Of course, discrimination is far from removed and there were setbacks during certain portions such as increased usage of the chadour, but it is far from unilateral. 


It should also be noted that the objectives of the revolution and the outcomes of it were significantly different. The revolution was not just an islamic revolution, but a populist one against the oppression by the shah and demanding many things such as representation, increases to quality of life and the like. Secularists, leftists and intelligentsia all got behind the revolutions. In the battles after and during it, Khomeini managed to overcome the parliamentary forces and dominated the writing of the constitution. It is very plausible the outcome would have been significantly different were it not for the Iran-Iraq war which, through the massive increase in a military/intelligence/police state managed to silence much of the leftist movement in the revolution. 


The resulting state is something of a contradiction. Compared to under the shah it was simultaneously more autocratic and more democratic. The constitutional powers of the supreme leader relative to the shah was increased, but the level of democratic involvement also increased. This is why we have seen 9 parliamentary elections and 7 presidential ones in this time with fairly smooth transitions of power...and particularly at the local level there was an up tick in local involvement many of which made legitimate and significant changes. Compare this to the latter years under the shah were while he had less direct powers, he abolished the multi-party parliament and installed a single party that tried to push top down into all aspects of life from the bazaaris to the ulama (clergy). It is a sad irony that the worst of the autocratic components of the shah's regime got repeated in the Islamic Republic even as it was precisely this oppressive autocracy that sowed the seeds of the revolution. 


There are many arguments that egalitarianism increased after the revolution. For example, the wealth divide was enormous under the shah and was the result of a patronage system with a small privileged class with enormous economic ownership. Basic modern amenities such as health care and sewage stayed out of many villages and landownership was low among farmers in favour of vast land ownership by the privileged class. The statistics show this number significantly increasing among the top decile in terms of percent of the total wealth, although the number is far worse among the top 0.1%. Neoliberal reforms suggested by the US and British, much like in South America, resulted in increases in GDP with decreases or stagnation for the quality of life of the bottom 50%. In contrast, after 1979 some 220,000 families received redistributed land - often organizing into agricultural communes. An entire class of peasants transformed into landowning farmers. 


The quality of life metrics are impressive. Life expectancy changed from 56 to 70, infant mortality dropped from 104 to 25 per 1000, the literacy rate doubled, children in school went from 60 to 90 percent and the result was that nearly all people under 29 were capable of reading and conversing in Persian for the first time in history. College attendance rose to the highest in the islamic world, and the highest for women. 


Having seen that there absolutely were some considerable measurable benefits, it must be obviously stated that in certain ways, both regimes were brutal with regards to their opponents. Perhaps 2500 people were slaughtered in a politically motivated bloodbath after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Both regimes engaged in, periodically, imprisoning of dissidents, closing of newspapers and significant pressures to get what they wanted. If you were an opponent of either regime, then the regimes was likely very harsh on your. 


It should be noted that the resulting regime is hardly monolithic. The entirely free election of Khatami at the end of the nineties saw two terms of significant movement towards secular left ideals recapturing much of this movement that was snuffed out in the early parts of the revolution. Many of our western values were on the road to being reestablished, although they faced considerable opposition and were partially prevented by the veto of the Supreme Leader. Ironically, the US invasion of major countries on both sides of Iran as well as Bush's infamous claim that Iran was a member of an axis of evil (perceived very clearly as a threat) was probably the key events that pushed the establishment and popular support to swing back towards conservatism and the 2005 election of ahmadinejad. Today the left is pushing back with significant youth protests that, while being heavily cracked down upon, give the same hope for a better future that was felt during the Iranian revolution and Khatami's election. 


The larger perspective is that the centralized state of Iran has increased consistently throughout this period to be the dominate force in the lives of its citizens - far more so than most states. As long as the oil revenues flow which have funded the regimes and contributed to the CIA/SIS 1953 coup, the shahs patronage system and the autocracy of the subsequent Islamic Revolution, this extensive state will continue to be a relevant force. However, we must acknowledge that the quality of life and even the freedoms enjoyed by its people are not that of a failed state but of a state breaching the developing/developed gap - and it has done this despite US coups, US backing the opponents in total war against it and decades of US sanctions. Importantly, the country is far from monolithic and has considerable diversity both among its population and in its political system. Opposed to villainizing and threatening the country, we should pursue a policy of rapprochement and engagement that allows for the socioeconomic interconnectedness of peoples that has been the driving force behind liberalization and freedom for the people around the world.

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