Islamic Revolution in Iran remains an enigma: scholar

February 7, 2016

TEHRAN – A political and religious scholar says the 1979 revolution in Iran was “Islamic” and shared similarities to French and Russian revolutions.

The revolution also “remains an enigma”, Yuram Abdullah Weiler tells the Tehran Times.

The interview with Weiler comes as Iran is celebrating the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

This is the text of the interview:

Q: What were the main causes of Iran's revolution in 1979?

A: To begin, please allow me to congratulate the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei; the President, Dr. Hassan Rouhani; the Foreign Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif; and the heroic people of Iran on this momentous occasion of the 37th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As evidenced by the recent successful conclusion of the JCPOA with the U.S. and European powers, the Islamic Revolution in Iran is continuing to win victories.
While scholars have written numerous monographs for the purpose of investigating in depth the question of the causal factors behind the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the most frequently mentioned major causes, broadly speaking, are twofold: First, there was the ever-increasing repression of the Iranian people by the tyrannical, U.S.-supported Pahlavi regime, and second, was the regime’s futile attempts to replace the Iranian people’s centuries-old attachment and loyalty to Islam with some sort of western-style, state-focused, nationalistic fervor imbued with secular democratic overtones. An example of the latter can be seen in the former shah’s “White Revolution,” which was an attempt, among other things, to impose a distinctly western educational system upon Iranians, and to curb the influence of Islam and the ulema.
The enormity and barbarity of the despotic oppression of the Iranian people inflicted by the Pahlavi regime cannot be overstated. The CIA-trained SAVAK, the mainstay of the shah’s repressive security apparatus, had some 5,000 full-time operatives and an unknown number of part-time lackeys and informers. Some estimates suggest that one out of every 450 Iranian men was affiliated with the SAVAK, which carried out surveillance, investigations, censorship, torture, kidnapping, and extra-judicial trials and executions. There were, of course, a number of other contributory factors as well, such as the oil boom-bust cycle of the 1970s, which imposed economic hardships upon most Iranians by 1976 and led to increasing opposition to the shah and his policies by 1977. This is not to say that opposition to the shah suddenly arose in the 1970s, for Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, had expressed opposition to the shah and his policies in a tract named Kashf al-Asrar written in 1941 soon after Reza Pahlavi abdicated under western pressure and his son Mohammad Reza assumed power.
Nevertheless, a distinct sequence of events driving the revolution forward took place in 1978 beginning with a government-planted editorial defaming Imam Khomeini published in Ettela’at newspaper in January. This led to open protests from the ulema and students in Qom and subsequent brutal suppression by the shah’s security forces, which killed an estimated 70 among the protestors. What happened next were three cycles of 40-day mourning observances, in which the mourners used the occasions for voicing their opposition to the shah and his policies. Next, on August 19, the 25th anniversary of the 1953 CIA-engineered coup ousting the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, the Rex theater in a working-class district of Abadan caught fire, trapping and killing 400 people inside. A climax of events occurred on September 8th when hundreds of peaceful protesters—Michael Foucault reported 4,000—were gunned down by the shah’s forces at Jaleh (now Shohada) Square in Tehran.

Q: Why did the west, especially the U.S., show a negative reaction over Iran's revolution?

A: Former Iranian career diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian noted that, since the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran and the U.S. have been at an impasse perpetuated by a lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of western “experts,” mainly those within the U.S., of the complex interrelationships between Iran’s society, culture and its Islamic political system. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice actually admitted that she did not understand the Iranian political system and that within the U.S. government “we don’t really have people who know Iran.” And this dangerous state of affairs within the diplomatic ranks of the world’s sole superpower has been ongoing since the Carter administration and before.
I believe there are three main reasons for the negative reaction by the U.S. to the Islamic Revolution in Iran: First, the U.S. was caught by surprise by the rapid progress and success of the revolution, despite the fact that former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had predicted the shah’s downfall to U.S. president John Kennedy in1963; second, the U.S. had banked heavily on the former shah being the local enforcer of Washington’s policies in the Persian Gulf region; and third, the U.S. has held on tenaciously to a perception of itself as a victim of “a radical Iranian regime” following the U.S. embassy takeover by activist students and subsequent hostage situation. Washington’s enduring hunger for revenge over the hostages combined with an insistence on maintaining its ignorance concerning Iran’s Islamic culture and political system yield an extremely hostile political atmosphere, which renders U.S. policymakers virtually incapable of viewing Iran in a positive way much less interacting respectfully with the Islamic Republic. One can see that, in such a caustic atmosphere, American lawmakers see the passage of sanctions against Iran not only as a logical reaction, but also as a vital necessity.

Q: How do western scholars reflect on Iran's revolution and assess this event?

A: British scholar Michael Axworthy credits the Islamic Revolution in Iran as being one of the three great revolutions of modern times, the other two being the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Interestingly enough, Axworthy points out that populists diverted the French Revolution from its goals of establishing a bourgeois class and capitalist economics and transformed it into a vehicle for terror and political repression. Likewise, Axworthy likens the Russian Revolution to a military coup d'état. However, in the case of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Axworthy comments that while the revolution was “Islamic,” and while it has similarities to the previously mentioned French and Russian revolutions, “it remains an enigma.”
Dr. Hamid Algar points out that western scholars focus on the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a reaction to modernity or western “modernization.” The main accomplishment of this phenomenon of so-called modernization was the transformation of the Pahlavi regime from a backward Middle Eastern monarchy, like its Qajar predecessors, into a full-fledged western-style tyrannical dictatorship with all the prerequisite military apparatus for suppression of dissent. And in Iran, the leaders of political dissent were almost always from the Shia ulema. For example, Shia clergy were at the forefront of the protests in 1890-92 against the tobacco monopoly granted by Qajar shah Naser od-Din to the British.
Western scholars are unable to assess the causes and significance of the Islamic Revolution in Iran primarily due to their inability to study the event other than through a lens of western secularism, which frequently appears in the characterization of the Iranian Revolution as religious and “fundamentalist.” Of course, Twelver Shi’a Islam, the official state religion of Iran, cannot be characterized as fundamentalist, particularly in view of the use of ijtihad, the derivation of Islamic laws based on logic and reasoning in the absence of specific hadiths addressing contemporary situations arising in our rapidly changing, technologically-oriented modern world. Likewise, the emphasis in the west on the secular myth of “separation of church and state” deprives western scholars of the necessary perspective to assess the Islamic Revolution, resulting in frequent futile attempts to separate the revolution from its Islamic context. Consequently, western scholars are unable to accept the reality that the Islamic Revolution in Iran has ushered in a stable, representative form of governance that recognizes the will of the people within the framework of values, principles and legal precepts of Islam.

Q: What was the impact of Iran’s revolution on libertarian movements around the world?

A: There is no question that the Islamic Revolution in Iran not only had a profound effect on Islamic political movements in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East, but also repercussions were felt as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps the best indicator of the broad impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on other awakening movements by peoples seeking self-determination is the massive effort exerted by the U.S. and its western allies in containment of Iran and even destabilization. Less than two years after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iraq invaded Iran and, with the help of the U.S. and its “partners,” imposed an 8-year-long war on the fledgling Islamic Republic in an attempt to contain the spread of the Islamic Revolution.
Least understood in the west, and in particular the U.S., is the concept of spreading the Islamic Revolution, that is to say the dominance of Islam meaning the rule of Islamic laws and precepts, and not the dominance of Iran. Article 154 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran expresses concern for “the welfare of humanity as a whole and takes independence, liberty and sovereignty of justice and righteousness as the right of people in the world over.” Likewise, Imam Khomeini viewed the revolution as pan-Islamic and not exclusively the domain of Iran. Imam called upon Sunnis and committed Muslims everywhere to join in the Islamic awakening and rebel against the “satanic superpowers,” namely the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Had those who heard the Imam’s message in 1980 heeded his advice, Daesh, Al Qaeda and other takfiri extremist groups would never have come into existence, nor would the Middle East and much of the world have found itself in this current chaotic condition of continuous conflict.
Regrettably, due to ignorance and obduracy in the west, the U.S. continues to enact containment and destabilization policies towards Iran in hopes of effecting eventual regime change. Washington’s continuing antagonistic policies towards Iran not only have exposed the sublime stupidity of western-style statecraft, but also have managed to destabilize the entire Middle East, which now poses a security threat to Europe and even to the U.S. itself.


Western scholars are unable to accept the reality that the Islamic Revolution in Iran has ushered in a stable, representative form of governance that recognizes the will of the people within the framework of values, principles and legal precepts of Islam.