The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution of 1977-79

“The main actor of the Iranian Revolution was really the crowd.  One American sociologist has described it as ‘the largest protest event in world history’ . . . in fact it had more mass participation than any other major political crisis or revolution.  What is striking about the Iranian crowd is that it’s very, very much like the crowds described by two famous European historians: George Rudé and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.”

“The Iranians by 1979, even high school kids, were familiar with Iranian history, especially a  popular type of history produced by a famous Iranian historian Kasravi.   In this Iranian history, . . . invariably the major events in Iranian history occur as a result of protests in the streets, usually peaceful protests.  You can say protests, street protests, crowd protests were as Iranian as some people would consider apple pies are American. . . .

In 1891-92, it was crowds, crowds’ strikes, that forced the Shah to cancel a very controversial tobacco concession.  In 1905-1906, it was crowds that brought about the Constitutional Revolution.  In 1911, it was crowds that protested the Russian ultimatum and tried to oppose the Russian occupation of the north.  In 1919-1920, it was crowds that helped sabotage the Anglo-Iranian agreement which would have actually turned Iran into a British protectorate, much like neighboring Iraq.  In 1924, it was crowds that opposed the scheme to create a republic.  At that time, the crowds were actually monarchical and religious and opposed to any notion of republicanism because they were afraid that Iran would become a secular republic like in neighboring Turkey.  In 1951-1953, it was again crowds that brought about Mossadegh’s administration, and brought about the nationalization of the oil industry, probably the most significant event in the 20th century before the actual revolution.  Again in 1963, it was crowds that took to the streets to protest the Shah’s increasing power.  In fact, some people would say that the 1963 protests were a dress rehearsal to the 1977-79 revolution.  The crowd, in fact you can say, becomes the main actor in Iranian perceptions of Iranian history.”

“The final days of the revolution, February 9, 10, 11, also show the importance of crowds. . . .  In those final days, even though the Shah had left, there was a strong suspicion that hard-core elements in the military, especially the imperial guards — they were a sort of praetorian guard forces of the regime — would try to do a coup d’état by seizing Khomeini and his entourage. . . .  Khomeini knew something about Iranian history, especially the coup of 53.  The 1953 coup had succeeded mainly because of a major blunder of Mossadegh.  On August 18, 1953, Mossadegh had asked his supporters to stay home and not go into the streets.  He had vetoed any street protest in his support, because he had felt that he had control of the army and in fact the American ambassador had put conditions on him that he should clear the streets of crowds.  Mossadegh then had asked his supporters in those final days not to come out into the streets.  The result was that the imperial guards had taken that opportunity literally to roll tanks outside his house and bombard his house and arrest him.  Without the crowds, it was easy to carry out the coup.  Khomeini had learned a lesson from that.  The way you can prevent a coup is not to ask your supporters to stay home but to come out.  So he exhorted people to come out into the streets and to basically immobilize the whole of the military.  Literally hundreds of thousands of people came out, surrounded the barracks, surrounded the armories, surrounded the highways. . . .”

Ervand Abrahamian is Distinguished Professor of History, City University of New York, and the author of Iran between Two Revolutions, The Iranian Mojahedin, Khomeinism, Tortured Confessions, and Inventing the Axis of Evil among other publications.  This lecture was delivered at Portland State University on 17 April 2008.  The video was produced by the American Iranian Friendship Council.  The text above is a partial transcript of the lecture.

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