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by Scott Savitz, Ph.D.

A think tank analyst, with on-the-ground experience in the Gulf, reflects on the 1979 revolution against the Shah in Iran and how that event–so unexpected by the U.S.–may through the five key “lessons learned” by that crisis, provide us with a better ability to anticipate future dramatic change in the region.–Ed.


The United States government has a short memory.  The rapid rotation of faces in and out of Washington ensures that anything that happened more than a quarter century before—even an event of singular importance—assumes the pale and distant appearance of ancient history.
Gary Sick, principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution, describing how Iran’s U.S.-backed coup of 1953 was ignored by US policymakers in the late 1970s1

The Iranian Revolution was undoubtedly one of the seminal events of the late twentieth century.  Perhaps its most startling attribute was its ideological novelty: in a world dominated by systems which defined themselves in economic and political terms, the Iranian Revolution shocked both the avowed atheists of the communist world and an increasingly secular West by establishing a seemingly anachronistic theocracy.  At a time when the adversaries of freedom were advancing across the globe—in the previous four years, Marxist forces had advanced rapidly in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia—the Iranian Revolution nonetheless took Washington and other capitals by surprise.

It is now thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, and twenty since the death of Khomeini.  A new generation of Iranians, born after the Shah’s departure, is seeking to change the system that began inside Khomeini’s mind.  Iran’s troubling economic situation, together with ethnic turmoil and numerous other internal stresses, may lead to the collapse of the revolutionary regime within the next few years.  Despite the regime’s vulnerabilities, we should remain cognizant of its ability to destabilize other nations, as well as to sow terror and fear far beyond its boundaries.  Even leaving aside the nuclear question entirely, it has the ability to menace security in Afghanistan, Iraq, the lower Gulf States, and the eastern Mediterranean.  Like a wounded beast, it remains a powerful threat to those within striking distance of its claws.  As American ships run the gauntlet of the Strait of Hormuz, or stand guard against daredevil actions by Iranian speedboats, we are reminded continually of the hazards posed by an angry, intense regime.

Iran’s internal weaknesses should not deceive us regarding the significance of its revolution.  The overthrow of the Shah was a profound blow to American interests, and its replacement by a militant theocracy was a greater one.  For over a quarter-century, Khomeini and his successors have represented a profound military and political challenge to American interests, and have inflicted numerous terrorist attacks against Americans and US allies.  Just as the French Revolution helped shape the nineteenth century, despite the defeat of its Napoleonic successor-state in 1815, so the Iranian Revolution remains relevant even as its government struggles to maintain its authority.  The Iranian Revolution, and the subsequent hostage taking which occasioned a second crisis for the United States, showed the limits of American power and of US support for regional leaders.  By so doing, it presented a potent example of how a superpower could be brought to its knees.  Moreover, the revolution directly fostered and inspired extremist Shia Islamic movements, which will remain a regional challenge for the foreseeable future.  Arguably, its initial triumph also encouraged the parallel growth of militant Sunni movements, who saw in Iran a concrete demonstration that fundamentalist Muslims could seize power, even in the teeth of a superpower’s opposition.  These Sunni fundamentalist movements—of which Al Qaeda is only one—are, like their Shia counterparts, likely to remain a force for decades to come.

Most importantly, the Iranian experience is relevant because it has the potential for repetition, particularly in the Gulf.  Shia majorities in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (along with Shia minorities in Kuwait and elsewhere) are discomfited by the Sunni domination of their societies.  Iran has been engaging with radical Shia elements in these countries, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere since the advent of its own revolution.  The Gulf States are also far from immune to radical Sunnism; even (or perhaps especially) those countries, like Saudi Arabia, most in the grip of Islamic fundamentalism are under attack for being insufficiently pious.  Overall, several of these countries—most importantly, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia—are vulnerable to revolutions of their own, or regional uprisings by discontented Shia populations.  The advent of hostile regimes on the lower side of the Gulf would pose a dangerous challenge to U.S. aims in the region, as would the prospective loss of basing that these states currently provide.  Greater cognizance of the threat this poses to U.S. interests may enable leaders to prepare for and mitigate its prospective impact.

For all of these reasons, it is instructive to re-examine the Iranian Revolution from multiple perspectives.  Clearly, many volumes would be needed for a thorough investigation of any one aspect of the revolution.  This article focuses on one of the most striking attributes of the Iranian Revolution: the near-total surprise it presented to American military and political policymakers.  Their shock was not only at the unique ideological character of the revolution but also that a confluence of political, economic, and religious forces overthrew the seemingly invincible Shah.  The US government’s inaccurate assessment of Iran’s political evolution during the 1970s was the culmination of numerous errors by an array of agencies.  In reviewing the US’s lessons learned from that era, the aim is not to excoriate US authorities by wielding the omniscience of hindsight, but rather to find ways in which to prevent the repetition of these errors.  Misapprehending the Shah’s fate was a dangerous and costly mistake; applying lessons learned to the states of the lower Gulf could help military and civilian policymakers to make better decisions.

Many of the lessons learned may appear, at first glance, to be so straightforward as to be obvious to any casual observer.  However, American military and civilian policymakers in pre-revolutionary Iran did not heed these seemingly obvious insights.  In fact, much of the US analytical community made the case for their negation.1, 2 This suggests that they should be explicitly stated and discussed. The main lessons can be summarized as follows:

  • Political reform does not necessarily enhance stability, and may even exacerbate instability.
  • The apparent peacefulness of a society does not preclude the possibility of its being highly unstable.
  • A close US relationship with another nation can undermine, rather than strengthen, that nation’s stability.
  • Revolutions often occur without explicit prior indications.
  • Knowledgeable US agencies can often miss important insights into the workings of the societies with which they are engaging.

We will explore these lessons and how they emerge from American experiences in the Iranian Revolution.

Reform does not necessarily enhance stability
One of the most dangerously erroneous assumptions regarding Iran was that the Shah’s reforms would inevitably stabilize that country.  By fostering a more open society, it was believed that these reforms would undermine any residual opposition to his government.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that the Shah’s reforms during his last years in office actually accelerated his downfall.  To quote John D. Stempel, a U.S. Embassy official in Iran during the late 1970s:
“The Shah never developed a definite strategy to meet the difficult problems created by increased political activity that had been stimulated by his own half-hearted decision to allow more freedom.”2

Many of the Shah’s reforms were more cosmetic than real. Their primary aim was to appease both domestic and international critics, rather than to actually change Iranian government or society.  However, many of his reforms were quite genuine, and nearly all received hearty US endorsement.

The experience of Iran in the late 1970s, in which an authoritarian regime collapsed even as it tried to reduce the intrusiveness of its control, is a common pattern in the history of revolutions.  The collapse of the USSR is instructive: it was not under Stalin’s brutality, but Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies, that the fractious state collapsed under the weight of its contradictions.  Earlier revolutions adhere to the same pattern, as Crane Brinton noted in his seminal 1938 study, The Anatomy of Revolution: “One of the most evident uniformities is the effort made in each of our [pre-revolutionary] societies to reform the machinery of government.  Nothing can be more erroneous than the picture of the old regime as an unregenerate tyranny.”3

As a government expands the circle of what is permitted, friction emerges.  Restrained security forces become less able or willing to impose order, and small fires of dissent—previously extinguished by overwhelming force—become conflagrations.  The most radical members of society continually test any newly established boundaries.  They continue to press against these until the state is compelled to either absolve itself of authority or, by replying with limited force, expose itself to charges of hypocrisy regarding reform.  By showing a limited tolerance for dissent, the government appears weak or craven; by continuing to impose some restrictions, it appears duplicitous or even evil.  Old grievances are incompletely addressed, and continue to inflame anger.  The Shah’s inconsistent and even oscillatory responses to those who challenged his rule engendered an empowered, dangerous fury.

Finally, as Brinton argues, elements of the ruling class simply give up.  Some sympathize with ideologies that question their right to rule, while others feel that the state has been so corrupted by reform (or by the forces that occasioned it) that they lose the will to exert their power.  Mercantile classes perceive that the present form of government—including the discord that it is perceived to engender—impinges on commerce, and become less resistant to change.  All of these phenomena were visible among leading Iranians.1, 2, 3, 4

At the present time, several Gulf States are showcasing their commitment to political reform.  The U.S. rightly applauds any effort to make these societies more open, tolerant, and liberal than before.  However, such reforms inevitably create risks to political stability.  U.S. political, economic, and military planners need to take these risks into account, recognizing that seeming linchpins of the region may be rapidly transformed into hostile entities.

Apparent peacefulness may conceal instability

Iran is not in a revolutionary or even “pre-revolutionary” situation.
-An August 1978 CIA report1

President Carter’s infamous toast on New Year’s Day, 1978—in which he praised Iran as an “island of stability”—was a public and diplomatic statement, but also reflected U.S. government views at the time.1 Despite economic strains and growing discomfort with his militant secularism, it was widely believed that the Shah was both beloved and invincible. Demonstrations and other expressions of discontent were readily dismissed as the work of a few radicals. The ability of radicals to set the political agenda, regardless of their limited numbers, was largely overlooked. Secular American observers, primarily concerned about communist threats, were inattentive to strong religious undercurrents in Iranian society (few of which were visible among the Iranians with whom they interacted).

The states of the lower Gulf appear largely peaceful—in some cases, due to the heavy-handed actions by security forces—but reminders of popular discontent should not be overlooked.  The region’s explosive fertility has created a vast cohort of young people, whose inadequate educations leave them with few marketable skills.  The extractive nature of the local economy—with some exceptions—creates revenue without many corresponding jobs, or at least jobs that locals are both capable of and willing to do.  Make-work schemes are unlikely to be able to make up the difference in the several countries with a limited ratio of fossil fuel revenues per citizen.  Masses of young, unemployed individuals with doubtful prospects and time on their hands are a danger in any society. When their ire is exacerbated by religious grievances (or perhaps socioeconomic grievances in a religious guise), as is the case among many of the Gulf’s Shia populations, the long-term result is likely to be unrest.  The existence of supportive, radical Shia havens in Iran and Lebanon can only fan the flames of anger.  National chapters of Hezbollah pervade the Shia populations of a number of states; Bahrain’s Shia majority has rioted repeatedly against its Sunni rulers, notably in 1995-97 and 2002.  Young Sunnis in several countries—disaffected by their elders’ perceived impiety, driven by an adolescent need to rebel, and fundamentally bored by their environments—may also pose a threat.  Romanticized, religiously sanctioned violence has a particular appeal to young men who lack other outlets for their ardor.  If revenues grow more slowly than populations, annoyance at the resulting austerity can expand sympathy for such activities.  U.S. policies that are predicated on these countries’ stability—ranging from assumptions of free-flowing oil to maintenance of basing rights—should be reconsidered in light of these issues.

Close relationships can undermine stability
Perceptions of the Shah as an American puppet disillusioned Iranians about both their ruler and his supposed masters. The substantial American community in Tehran was viewed—with some justification—as being disdainful of Iran’s culture, history, and people.  Increased interaction between Iranians and Americans did not (as is often assumed in intercultural exchanges) result in mutual understanding and toleration; rather, it inflamed Iranians’ sense of being imposed upon by people who did not respect them.  Khomeini played upon this as a key issue in some of his early comments on the regime, arguing that a status of forces agreement, which granted immunity to Americans, trampled on the nation’s sovereignty.

The U.S. has tried to maintain a limited human footprint in several of the Gulf States, though Kuwait’s outlying regions are notably replete with American basing and personnel. This presence—though obviously tied to the war in Iraq—may give some credence to the specious argument that Americans came not to liberate Kuwait, but to occupy it.  Most of the states hosting American forces try to minimize their visibility.  Still, the sheer number of Americans in the region poses an annoyance to local patriots, as would the stationing of a comparable number of Middle Eastern forces in the U.S.  The yawning gulfs between Arab and American cultures, notably regarding gender roles, can contribute to both sides’ sense of being continually insulted. U.S. engagement and presence—two cornerstones of our policies—are potentially counterproductive.

Revolutions may occur without explicit prior indications
It is often difficult to determine when a revolution is underway.   Such determinations are best made in retrospect.  The Americans who sank tea in Boston Harbor did not think that they were undertaking a revolution, nor did the French who demanded greater representation for the Third Estate in 1789.  As Brinton notes, “The actual revolution is always a surprise.” 3 A few radicals are forever proclaiming revolution, but these are readily (and rightly) dismissed in most cases.  Revolutions, including that in Iran, are rarely presaged by formal announcements.  The absence of a highly visible revolutionary movement in the Gulf region does not comprise evidence of future stability (even leaving aside the revolutionary aspirations of local Hezbollah and Al Qaeda chapters).

U.S. agencies can often miss important insights
The Iranian Revolution, above all, demonstrates the limits of knowledge.  The U.S. was caught unawares, for several reasons.  The Americans in Iran interacted primarily with an English-speaking elite; at any given time, only about half a dozen resident embassy personnel spoke Farsi.1 While Americans might have sensed the elite’s loss of confidence or will, they were unlikely to gather a complete understanding of society through this filter.  Moreover, a casual disbelief in the importance of religion as a political ideology contributed to the missteps.2 Mutual reinforcement of views regarding the Shah’s stability could make a case study for inclusion in a new edition of Irving Janis’s Victims of Groupthink.5 Above all, there was an unwillingness to consider the possibility of a disastrous outcome.

These deficiencies should be rectified in our current discourse and plans.  In facing potentially disagreeable outcomes, we must play devil’s advocate, and above all, recognize that the “inconceivable” isn’t.  Imagining and anticipating hitherto unexpected developments is critical to addressing the dynamic nature of any policymaking, but particularly in a region that may be afflicted by revolution.

On a separate and longer-term track, we must expand the number of Americans with critical language and cultural skills.  Opportunities to listen to ranting taxi drivers, to read graffiti (taking “the writing on the wall” in a literal sense) and to understand chanting protesters should not be overlooked. By better comprehending specific societies, and speaking with a broad spectrum of the public, we can potentially improve our ability to anticipate prospective threats.

Three decades have passed since the Iranian Revolution, an eternity by the standards of American policymaking.  However, we do ourselves a grave injustice by dismissing as “mere history” an episode that is replete with relevant lessons for today’s leadership. Understanding the region’s history (on the scales of both decades and millennia) is important for three reasons: it provides examples of useful and dangerous ways in which to address challenges, it helps to characterize present-day societies based on their origins, and regional actors themselves are acutely conscious of history, acting in response to its rhythms.  Indeed, Revolutionary Iran itself remains a threat and understanding its origins and ideological underpinnings is important to countering the “long arm of Tehran” that stretches menacingly from Lebanon to Afghanistan and beyond.  (Khomeini’s utter abhorrence of monarchy, for example, should give pause to those who believe that Shia populations inspired by him can be reconciled to their hereditary rulers.)  To paraphrase the title of the recent book Reading Lolita in Tehran, it would be helpful to read Khomeini in Washington.  The lessons identified from the Iranian Revolution—we can only call them “lessons learned” if we have the wisdom to avoid repeating them—are particularly poignant with regard to the stability of several lower Gulf States.  By reacquainting ourselves with the dynamics of revolutions, we can aim to mitigate the threat they pose to the United States and its interests. Recognizing the potential for instability in the lower Gulf is critical to preventing recurrent lack of preparation for dramatic change.End.

1. Sick, Gary.  All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.  New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
2. Stempel, John D.  Inside the Iranian Revolution.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
3. Brinton, Crane.  The Anatomy of Revolution.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1938.
4. Mackey, Sandra.  The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation.  New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
5. Janis, Irving.  Victims of Groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972.


Dr. Scott Savitz is a senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security’s think tank, the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute.  Dr. Savitz deployed to Bahrain in support of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) for two years after September 11.  He advised NAVCENT’s leadership on political-military affairs, including regional actors and ideological dynamics, as well as counterterrorist measures.  He has published articles on British diplomacy in China, Cold War intelligence in Berlin, and other topics.  He earned a B.S. at Yale University and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.


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