Khomeini’s Rule

Nikki Keddie

  • The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution by Shaul Bakhash
    Tauris, 282 pp, £13.95, January 1985, ISBN 1 85043 003 9
  • The State and Revolution in Iran: 1962-1982 by Hossein Bashiriyeh
    Croom Helm, 203 pp, £16.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7099 3214 6

To the student of revolution, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 must appear both strange and strangely familiar. It appears familiar because the revolution, in its causes and us course, fits largely into the pattern of ‘great’ revolutions set out by such students of comparative revolution as Crane Brinton. Brinton’s typology, more descriptive than explanatory, sees revolution as starting with an internal crisis in the old regime, proceeding to a government of moderate revolutionaries, then to a radical ‘reign of terror and virtue’, which leads to a ‘Thermidor’ in which order is restored but some gains of the revolution are maintained. Both books under review, Bashiriyeh’s explicitly and Bakhash’s implicitly, present the Iranian revolution as fitting into this general pattern – a pattern discerned by Brinton in the French, American and Russian revolutions, but which is also largely applicable to the English Civil War, for example, or the Chinese Revolution.

Bashiriyeh gives one of the best brief analyses available of the crisis within the ruling classes which preceded the Iranian revolution. He shows that the late Shah’s attempts in the Seventies to be popular both with the industrial working class, which he feared, and with the businessmen who employed them, resulted in a loss of confidence on two sides. Businessmen, including industrialists as well as bazaaris, were harassed and arrested at the Government’s instigation for profiteering and other newly-prosecuted crimes. Industrial workers were offered non-voting stock and shares in profits, so that they became a relatively privileged class, while nothing significant was done for the urban poor, largely of migrant background, who, along with the small bazaaris, were to form the backbone of the revolution in its early stages.

The crisis within the ruling classes was not only economic. For years before the revolution members of the Government had been critical of the Shah’s autocratic rule, of the hold he and his close associates had over all institutions, and of the prevailing corruption. Forced membership of the single Rastakhiz Party, created in the mid-Seventies, added to this high-level discontent. By late 1978 many people in important government positions were welcoming, or even actively supporting, the revolution, never dreaming that Khomeini’s version of clerical rule, which he toned down in most of the speeches and tapes he made during the revolution, could become a reality.

A second feature common to great revolutions is also noted, especially by Bashiriyeh – the tendency for revolutions to occur in times of rising prosperity. According to Davies’s J-curve theory, revolutions tend to arise when a considerable period of economic improvement is followed by a shorter period of rapid economic decline – hence the so-called J-curve. This upward and then brief downward trend was noted for the French Revolution by Labrousse many decades ago. Iran, after a period of rapid growth in which the oil price rises of 1973 played a major part, suffered a sharp downturn in employment and growth in the later Seventies. It could, however, be argued that the psychological effects of the downturn were greater than its straightforward economic effects. The Shah had predicted an unprecedented rise in the Iranian standard of living and it was easy for the masses of the poor to see that, while some Iranians had got much richer, the living standards of the majority had shown relatively little improvement.

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