The term revolution has become a cliché — it is in such common usage that we have forgotten it started its linguistic life as a metaphor. The metaphor was that of a wheel turning upon its axis. The idea, derived from that, is of sweeping change, reminding perhaps of the older, medieval idea of the wheel of fortune (to be found on the tarot card with that name, for example); bringing the mighty low and raising the lowly up on high. Like earlier revolutions, this is precisely what the Iranian Revolution did — it raised some up, some dramatically, who had been socially lowly before; and it brought many down, some catastrophically, who previously had enjoyed privileged positions. This is what Dickens meant when he wrote of the French Revolution that it was the best of times, and the worst of times. In consequence, the Iranian Revolution prompts extreme opinions from its critics and defenders. Is it possible to strike a balance between such widely varying experiences?
When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from Paris to Tehran on February 1, 1979, he was greeted by enormous crowds, and a few months later, a referendum gave overwhelming support for his project of an Islamic republic. For those short few months of euphoria after the Shah’s departure, the revolution was genuinely a popular revolution, and appeared to be an authentic expression of the people’s will. But within a short time, as the reality of what Khomeini intended under the heading of the Islamic Revolution began to emerge, many became disillusioned. Within the country, many middle class supporters fell away, as newspapers were closed down, women’s rights were curtailed, and liberal politicians were marginalized and exiled. Outside the country, initial support for the removal of the Shah’s regime fell away, as the execution of the former Shah’s courtiers and officers continued week after week.
Since then, for critics of the revolution, the record has grown only blacker. In the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), Iranian casualties were enormous, partly because young conscripts were sent in waves in attacks on entrenched Iraqi forces that were normally better equipped. At the end of the war, thousands of political prisoners were murdered in prison. In more recent years, after an experiment with reform (1997-2005), the hardline elements of the regime have re-imposed the rigidities of the revolution’s youth, limiting and eroding ever more skillfully the democratic elements in the constitution. The economy is weak, unemployment is high, and hundreds of thousands of young Iranians leave the country each year (including some of the most intelligent and well educated), to join the millions that have left since 1979. Accusations of corruption are common, and feature in politics. The regime continues to abuse human rights and to bully and intimidate those who bravely still try to defend them, including dissidents like Akbar Ganji and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The regime has such a bad image in the West that almost anything can be laid at its door. For some, it is the prime supporter of terrorism in the world, an agent for destabilizing the Middle East as a whole, the hidden hand behind the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on track to acquire nuclear weapons. Not all these accusations are fair or well-judged, but the extremism of some of Iran’s politicians seems to legitimate them.
For some Iranians at least, there is another side to the story. The revolution gave many people opportunities that would probably never otherwise have come their way. It removed one elite and replaced it with another. It placed many clergy in powerful positions, and reconfirmed their authority as a class — an authority that had been steadily eroded over the previous hundred years as their responsibilities as teachers, arbitrators, and judges had been removed by Westernizing reforms. The influential bazaar traders and artisans, often very pious and closely linked as an urban elite with the clergy, also benefited greatly from the revolution; in fact, some have suggested that the country has been largely run for their benefit. But others benefited too. Pious families from poor backgrounds, if they were lucky, might find that the regime trusted their fathers and sons and put them in good jobs. This was particularly the case for some veterans from the Iran-Iraq War. This phenomenon was also facilitated by the success of the regime in spreading education, finally, to all — even to the remotest villages and to women.
For women the outcome of the revolution has been particularly paradoxical. Khomeini’s imposition of the veil meant that Iranian fathers felt able to let their daughters go to school. Those girls fed through the system and took to their educational opportunities to such an extent that over 65% of university entrants are now female, and many Iranian universities humanities classes are 80% or more female. Many of these educated women go on to take important jobs in the Iranian economy. Indeed, Iranian women are more active and visible in offices and businesses than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the Middle East (though many women graduates struggle, like other young Iranians, to find jobs). So women suffer restrictions in the dress code and at law (particularly over divorce and child custody), and are still kept out of many more important jobs, especially in government and in politics; but overall their position has improved in important ways since the revolution. Despite the many necessary caveats, the development in the social and economic role of women and their progress in education, in a country with a strong and deep-seated cultural respect for learning and intellectual attainment, is one of the positive aspects of contemporary Iran.
Despite the many failures, disappointments, and disillusionments since the revolution — especially with respect to economic development, given that large numbers of Iranians still languish in poverty — many Iranians, and even some exiles that bitterly oppose the Islamic regime, acknowledge that Iran, finally, has achieved real independence. To appreciate the importance of this achievement to Iranians, one has to have some sense of the past humiliations heaped on Iran in the 19th century by Britain and Russia, and in the 20th century by Britain and the United States (most notably, the British and American-inspired coup that removed the nationalist and constitutionalist Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953). An important part of the revolution was the feeling that the country needed once and for all to rid itself of foreign influence and manipulation. In the Iran-Iraq War (the significance of which in the contemporary Iranian psyche can hardly be overstated), imposed on Iranians by the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, that determination was tested almost to destruction. But (despite feeling with some justification that it was not fighting just Iraq, but almost the whole world) Iran emerged from that war undefeated, with her borders upheld. There was, and is, a pride in this accomplishment, irrespective of support for the regime, or an objective judgement about whether the regime ran the war sensibly.
The revolution and the Iran-Iraq War put Iran in a different place, and that is something separate and more important than the foolish confrontational populism of Mahmud Ahmadinejad or the cynical manipulation of politics by the ruling clique. If the West is to resolve its problems with Iran, whatever the difficulties of dealing with the regime, its representatives will have to recognize that Iran has grown up, and accord it the respect that they would give other serious interlocutors. If applied seriously and consistently, in public utterances as well as in private, that respect alone could help enormously to improve the situation for the better.