Iran's Islamic Revolution: Lessons for the Arab Spring of 2011? Michael Eisenstadt offers an historic perspective.
"Iran's Islamic Revolution: Lessons for the Arab Spring of 2011?"
By Michael Eisenstadt
Strategic Forum #267
Iran’s experience in 1978–1979 and after highlights key factors that could shape the outcome of the political struggles defining the Arab spring of 2011: the quality of regime leadership; the nature of civil-military relations; the training, equipment, employment, and cohesion of regime security forces; and the extent of foreign support.
The recent emergence of popular protest movements that have overthrown authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt—and that are challenging similar regimes in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria—has revived memories of the Shah and his fall. These developments have again raised questions regarding the role of armed forces during revolutions and whether Iran’s experience during the Islamic Revolution and after holds relevant lessons for current developments in the Middle East.
The roots of the Islamic Revolution can be traced to developments that long predated it. In 1963, the Shah initiated his “White Revolution,” a series of farreaching reforms intended to modernize and Westernize Iran. While these reforms produced rapid economic growth, they also led to social dislocation, rapid urbanization, and the adoption by the ruling elite of Western habits and customs that alienated traditional and religious elements in Iranian society. The reforms also threatened to undermine the economic base and influence of Iran’s clerical establishment, alienating the clergy from the regime.
The spark that set off the revolution was the publication, on January 7, 1978, of an editorial in a government newspaper that defamed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who since 1963 had led the religious opposition to the Shah (for most of this time, from exile in Iraq). Two days later, police shot seminary students demonstrating in Qom against the editorial, killing six and wounding many more. Few if any Iranians or Americans grasped the importance of these events when they occurred; after all, Iran had weathered violent unrest in the past. Indeed, the regime’s success in dealing with the previous major episode of unrest in 1962–1963, in which the Ayatollah Khomeini also figured prominently, contributed to a sense of confidence.
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