1978 and 2022: A second Iranian revolution? – 1 country, 40 years apart
On 13th September 2020, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality
police for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. She was
aggressively beaten up, causing her to fall into a coma, and eventually pass away in
police custody three days later. Her tragic death set the nation ablaze, provoking
protests in all 31 of Iran’s provinces where people from all walks of life demanded the
fall of the Islamic Republic and its repressive, patriarchal institutions. The movement is
currently posing the biggest challenge to the regime since its inception in 1979 and has
yet to cease despite the government’s crackdown attempts.
Yet this is not the first time the nation has seen such events. Iran has had a unique
history of revolution, including the one that brought to fruition the very government the
Iranian people are attempting to depose. But while today’s Iranian women are burning
their Hijabs on the street, 40 years ago, women marched donning the chador.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 is regarded as one of the most unique events in
recent history, inducing the end of a 2500-year-old legacy of monarchy and the birth of
the modern world’s first theocracy. It began as a result of numerous grievances against
the rule of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, including his use of brute
force, attempts to westernise the country, lack of democracy and political participation
and the growing exclusion of the Islamic Shiite clergy.
As the situation in Iran develops, many are turning to the past and noting striking
parallels between today and 1978-79. This raises many questions: Can the current
protests evolve into a revolution? Will Iran see a new regime in the near future?
This profile will capture one country, 40 years apart. It will discuss the similarities and
differences between the organisation and resistance of the Iranian people during the
revolution of 1978-9 and the present-day movement.
An interesting feature of the 1978-9 revolutions was the use of audio cassette tapes in
organising, recruiting and motivating the nation. So crucial was their role, that many
claim they were the technical symbol of the clerical movement. During his time in exile
from Iran from 1964 to 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leading figure and
founder of the Islamic republic, recorded religious speeches condemning the Shah’s
government, provided alternative information to state-controlled media – thus,
challenging official government narratives of demonstrations and shedding light on the
regime’s defects, corruption and cruelty. They were subsequently transmitted to Iran via
international telephone lines, duplicated by volunteers in makeshift studios and
distributed by clerics. By the end of 1978, an estimated 100,000 cassettes containing
Khomeini’s sermons were circulated in rural Iran, encouraging the usually apolitical
commoners of the countryside to “join in demonstrations, protests, and political
While the ideologies delivered are widely contrasting, technology is playing a similar
role 40 years later. In the context of the 21st-century digital age, the use of social
media in Iran is strikingly similar to the role of cassettes during Iran’s last revolution.
Iranians are spreading information online about government atrocities. In just one month
after her death, the hashtag #MahsaAmini was tweeted and retweeted over 250 million
times in Persian and over 50 million times in English. Moreover, leaked images and
videos of the conditions of Iranian prisoners and protestors being attacked and injured
(including the viral image of Mahsa Amini bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed) have
also effectively ignited outrage. Social media has also allowed women to display
resistance by posting images and videos of them dancing, cutting their hair and burning
Most strikingly, both cassette tapes and social media have made the respective
movements more inclusive. The widespread dissemination of Khomeini's cassettes
helped dissolve urban-rural divisions, permitting a nationwide revolution, and were
exported across borders to reach Iranians outside the country. Today, social media
apps like ‘Clubhouse’ are having a similar effect, allowing Iranians at home to
communicate with those in the diaspora, provoking widespread outrage and protest
across the US and Europe, where Iranians living abroad are taking to the streets in
solidarity against the regime and using their voices to urge their leaders to take action.
Furthermore, outside the dominant clerical movement, one of the most significant forms
of resistance in 1978 was the nationwide strikes in Iran’s crucial oil sector – “The
regime’s financial lifeblood”. Historian P. Jefari even claims that the five months of strike
action were the determining factor of the revolution’s success. Beginning on September
9th, 1978 amongst workers in the Tehran oil refinery, they gradually spread across the
country. In just one month, according to a first-hand account of the strike by the
Association of Oil Industry Staff, “oil production had been completely halted”. By the end
of November 1978, strike action had resulted in the loss of $1.5 billion, significantly
crippling the Iranian economy.
Today, oil workers are once again organising in protest against Mahsa Amini’s death
and other arrests and killings over the Islamic dress code. Beginning In October 2022 in
the Kangan oil refinery and the Bushehr Petrochemical Project in Asaluyeh County, they
have continued despite arrests. Some reports estimate that 4,000 employees have
joined by refusing to work, torching objects on the streets and ultimately, halting
production. Today, oil comprises 17.75% of Iran’s GDP, revealing the immense power
in the hands of the working class in bringing the regime to its knees, just as it occurred
40 years ago.
While present-day events may seem like a replica of those forty years prior, Iran today
is certainly not her past’s spitting image. As of now, there remain distinctions in the two
movements’ trajectories. Unless these conditions change, the current movement may
not yield the previous revolution’s results.
The first notable difference is the difference in the strength between the former Shah
and the current Islamic Republic. According to Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy
institute in Washington DC, the Shah’s over-reliance on SAVAK, his security apparatus,
which numbered just 15,000 operators, was “extremely overstretched”. At the same
time, the conventional army was growing increasingly demoralised and eventually, on
11th February 1979, mutinied, refusing to quell any further protests. This led to the
Prime Minister’s resignation, signalling the revolution’s success.
In contrast, the Islamic Republic’s defences appear to be iron-clad. Since its rise to
power, the regime has focused on building and maintaining strong institutions which, to
this day, remain intact despite the scale of the demonstrations. Arguably the most
notable example is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, composed of 200,000 men
who have sworn complete allegiance to the Ayatollahs running the nation, and show no
signs of breaking this oath.
Furthermore, today’s opposition lacks the leadership and precision that was present in
the previous revolution. While the 1978-9 movement was no doubt characterised by
various political factions, they were united under Khomeini’s ‘undisputed’ leadership.
Furthermore, the revolutionaries had a vision for their future Iran; for the clerics, they
envisioned an anti-monarchical, anti-Western theocracy based on Shi'ism and led by
Islamist jurists. Khomeini even developed an ideology on which his future state would
be built: ‘Velayat-e faqih’. Alternatively, leftist oppositionists desired a state based on
democratic-socialist principles, including the establishment of a secular constitution.
Moreover, several individuals and groups advocated for a fusion of Islamic and Leftist
We see almost the complete opposite happening today. Today's movement in Iran is
characterised by an absence of strong, charismatic leaders or political parties accepted
by the majority. Furthermore, in contrast to the numerous alternatives for succeeding
leadership in 1978, Iran currently faces a lack of viable political alternatives for a post-
Islamic Republic regime. As explained by Historian Pouya Alimagham, the current
uprisings advocate for human rights and women’s rights, without considering how they
may be realised and who will be responsible for upholding these ideals. The current lack
of direction may limit the opposition’s ability to deliver the ‘coup-de-grace’ to the regime.
As developments in Iran progress rapidly, looking back to the past may give us an
indication of the current movement’s fate. Nonetheless, we should be cautious of
jumping to conclusions– as of now, certain obstacles stand in the way of a successful
revolution happening anytime soon. While this may be the case, revolutions take time to
brew, and there is no telling what Iran may look like in a couple months.
Above all else, one thing is certain. If Iran is to experience its first 21st-century
revolution, its implications on the country, the balance of power in the region and
international foreign policy will be unrivalled. It will transform the world as we know it.