Iran’s 1979 Revolution: 40 years onward
On the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, the Program in Iranian Studies at the MacMillan Center hosted a panel on Feb. 7 to discuss the legacy of the Revolution. Speakers included Mohsen Kadivar, Mujtahed and Research Professor in Religious Studies at Duke University; Asef Bayat, Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Nahid Siamdoust, Ehsan Yarshater Postdoctoral Associate in Iranian Studies at Yale University; and Robin Wright, Contributing Writer for The New Yorker, Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Senior fellow for the U.S. Institute of Peace. The panel was moderated by Abbas Amanat, William Graham Sumner Professor of History and Director of the Program in Iranian Studies.
Bayat started out by giving the audience a sense of what life was like leading up to the Revolution. “For us, our country was dependent, dependent on the West… especially politically dependent on the United States,” he explained. As an example of Iran’s political dependence, he pointed to the 1953 coup d’etat staged by the United States that overthrew popular leader Mohammad Mosaddegh. Bayat described the political climate as “anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, distributionist with social justice impulses.” However, independence soon became “a pretext for restraining freedoms at home.”
As a result, people wanted “freedom of expression and inclusion, and freedom from fear.” Bayat argued that upon the invasion of Iran by Iraq, these ideals were pushed to the sidelines. When the ideals eventually reemerged, they had changed to include “personal, individual liberties.” He noted that these ideas were important for women in particular, who pushed for more individual independence. However, the desire for freedom “came to challenge the religious rule.”
Kadivar, who was once a devotee of the Revolution, talked about what went wrong with the Islamic Republic of Iran. “My response, briefly, is theocracy,” he said. Noting that the Islamic Republic is distinct from the 1979 Revolution, he argued that the Islamic republic lacked the rule of law, diminished the voice of its citizens, ignored modernity and science, and reduced the role of minority groups, as well as women. Describing sharia as a victim of Islamic governance, Kadivar said, “power, especially absolute power, destroys sharia and changes godliness and piety to hypocrisy and duplicity.”
Kadivar also argued, “the policies of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 against liberal, nationalist, secular prime minister at that time, Mohammad Mosaddegh, had the most important impact in preparing the context of Iran for the idea of Islamic governance.”
Wright, skyping in, then discussed the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. “These are two countries that once were totally in sync, totally interdependent, and are now out of sync for four decades,” she said. Regarding the current relationship between the U.S. and Iran, Wright argued that both countries are internally divided about how to treat the other. In addition to noting that Trump had tweeted a variety of different positions about Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, she highlighted how American intelligence agencies and the White House have opposite positions when it comes to whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Finally, Siamdoust discussed the Iranian Revolution as a cultural shift, noting that there was a “cleansing” that led to an ongoing mass exodus of Iranians. She described how tens of thousands of professors were fired, cinemas were torn down, and music was banned in order to remove western culture from Iran. She said, “the Shia political class pulled the plug of the Pahlavi Dynasty which had rooted its identity in Iran’s Persian heritage and within short order, dictated… a sort of ‘Iranian-ness’ that was defined within Islamic parameters and was more limited in its religious and other identities.”
Siamdoust then considered whether the Revolution led to “cultural independence.” She noted that while leaders still chant “death to America,” children of those leaders are attending U.S. universities and enjoying the very western culture banned by the state. The hypocrisy is not lost on the public, resulting in a #whereisyourchild movement forcing officials to reveal where their children studied, worked, and lived.
“While Iranian life has become officially and much more pervasively Islamized, the politicization of Islam in turn has damaged its standing among many Iranians as a path forward,” she stated. Pointing to the migration of half a million of people every year out of the country, Siamdoust argued that many Iranians perceive the greatest damage in the last forty years to be caused not to Western goods or pre-Islamic Persian culture but to Islam and the clerical class.
“They have lost hope for viable futures,” she said. “Hope, not unlike the arts, ultimately need greater freedom to thrive.”
Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.