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  • Chaiti Maheshwari

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


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

marches.”


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

their hijabs.


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

values.


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.

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