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How would we know if we were witnessing a revolution in Iran?

Revolutions are unpredictable. But the Islamic republic itself came to power through a similar scenario.

- December 18, 2022

After weeks of protests in Iran in 2022, Iranians are asking the big question: Is the Islamic republic about to be overthrown? Some experts think it’s only a matter of time, but for all of our theoretical models and real-time news, the truthful answer is that nobody knows. Revolutions are inherently unpredictable.

Protesters in Iran have turned out for widespread demonstrations since September, when a young woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being detained for not wearing “proper” hijab — the mandatory head covering for women in Iran. In early December, strikes in solidarity shut down businesses in some cities, including in Tehran at the symbolically central bazaar.

It may seem hard to imagine that unarmed protesters, no matter how numerous, could possibly dislodge an ideologically committed and heavily militarized government. But that is exactly what everybody in Iran imagines. They know that the Islamic republic itself came to power through just such a scenario.

Revolutions are unpredictable

In mid-1978, protests against the monarchy in Iran looked similarly unlikely to succeed. As I document in “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” — based on oral histories, journalistic accounts and government documents from Iran and the United States — demonstrations had percolated around the country for months, but few of them were very large.

Then the strikes began. Security forces would make people at one job site go back to work, but once the forces moved on to the next location, the previous site would go back on strike. Even with the world’s fourth-largest military, Iran’s monarchy did not have enough security personnel to subdue everyone at once.

Sociologists have an analogy for this situation: Widespread protest is like a run on a bank. No bank has enough cash on hand to satisfy a large number of customers making withdrawals at the same time. Similarly, no government has enough coercive power to handle massive uprisings. Even if security forces kill or detain thousands of people, a government’s authority ultimately rests on persuading the rest of the population not to protest.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, began to recognize this pattern in October 1978. “You can’t crack down on one block and make the people on the next block behave,” he said in one interview. The U.S. ambassador to Iran reported that the shah’s supporters were “thinking the unthinkable” for the first time, and that “it is probably healthy to examine some options which we have never before considered relevant.”

Millions of Iranians participated in mass demonstrations and a general strike, perhaps the largest percentage of the population to engage in peaceful protest that the world had ever seen. The shah fled Iran in January 1979 and Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the symbolic leader of the opposition, returned from exile.

Still, Iran’s future was unclear. A newspaper columnist reported on the deep sense of uncertainty that characterizes moments of revolution: “In Tehran, conversations are limited to this: how will the revolution, which has gone half-way, deal with the fundamental power of the government? Will it resign? Will there be a fight? And how far would fighting go?”

Even Khomeini, serenely confident that God had willed a revolution to occur in Iran, acknowledged — the day before he took power in February 1979 — that he did not know when or how it would occur.

Iran is again in deep uncertainty

In 2022, Iranians once again have no idea what’s going to happen, or when. A large fire raged in October at Evin prison, a brutal detention site in Tehran with many political prisoners. Was the fire set by the opposition as part of a takeover, or a jailbreak? Was it set by prison officials to kill prisoners and intimidate the opposition? Few people I’ve heard from believed the official account — that nonpolitical inmates set off the fire while fighting with prison guards. And nobody knew whether this was an isolated incident or an escalation of conflict.

Confusion is a characteristic feature of any revolutionary moment, regardless of whether events lead to an actual revolution. People call routine behavior into question, and entirely new ways of being suddenly seem attainable. The situation can change from week to week, from day to day.

Social scientists and other experts cannot tell us how the current revolutionary moment will turn out, because Iranians themselves don’t know what they are going to do. After the fact, however, experts often make revolutions look retroactively predictable. We are better at explaining things when we know the outcome.

What experts might say

If the current protests end up overthrowing the Islamic republic or achieving significant government changes, experts will point to Iran’s suppression of competitive elections, which used to channel grievances into parliamentary politics. They will explain, quite rightly, that Iranians were outraged by security forces’ violence and appalled by corruption in a government that claims divine inspiration.

Iran’s economy, meanwhile, has collapsed under government mismanagement, pandemic disruptions and the long-standing U.S. embargo. A younger generation doesn’t share the governing ideology, despite being educated in the Islamic republic’s school system. And the republic’s own rise to power through mass protest has set a precedent.

But if the current protests don’t end up overthrowing the Islamic republic or achieving significant changes, experts will make that outcome seem retroactively predictable, too. There is no Khomeini to provide symbolic leadership for the current movement. The Islamic republic has had lots of experience weathering protest movements, including mass protest like the Green Movement in 2009.

Economic hardship may force people to abandon the protests and get back to work. The strikes to date have not affected government revenue from oil exports. Iran has cobbled together enough foreign partners to avoid total isolation. And security forces appear committed to the government.

Statistically, revolutions are rare, even in countries that seem “ripe” for revolution, so failure is usually a safe bet. Eventually, protests peter out, and public outrage enters historical memory.

But rare things happen, too. Just 100 days before the shah fled into exile in 1978, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency predicted that he would “remain actively in power over the next ten years.” Iranians know how that prediction turned out.

Charles Kurzman is the author of “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” (Harvard University Press, 2004) and a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.