Iran’s 1979 Revolution: 40 Years Onward


Written by Minahil Nawaz

In February of 1979, the tide of Middle Eastern history turned forever as a theocracy headed by Ayatollah Khomeini was established in Iran. 40 years later, Iran remains a nation of interest in the international community, calling for “Death to America” and supporting militant proxies across the Middle East. Yet, inside Iran, society has changed in often imperceptible ways, with Iranians carving out spaces for themselves and subtly defying rules and customs imposed by the regime.

On Thursday, February 7th, a panel of five experts on Iran convened as part of the MacMillan Center’s Iranian Studies Program, bringing fresh perspectives on Iran 40 years down the road.

Moderator Abbas Amanat, the Sumner Professor of History at Yale, began the discussion by outlining how domestically, the composition of Iranian society, economy and culture changed in 1979. Today, we can gauge the results of the revolution by analyzing the situation in the US. The revolution triggered Anti-Americanism in Iran, and such sentiments contributed to President Trump’s victory.

Professor Asef Bayat, the Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, continued the conversation by discussing the key slogans of the revolution: independence, freedom and an Islamic Republic. In that regard, the most important achievement of the revolution was that it allowed Iran to gain independence from the US. However, eventually, this idea of independence became the government’s pretext for restraining freedoms. To Iranian citizens, azaadi (freedom) meant the freedom of expression, the freedom to be included in political processes, and to be free from fear. The spring of 1979 was the spring of azaadi, but it ended soon with the hostage crisis and invasion of Iran by Iraq. Following these events, a broader process of individuation in Iranian society began, as people began to prioritize individual liberties over strict adherence to faith and loyalty to the concept of an Islamic Republic.

Following this discussion of the historical details of the Iranian revolution, Professor Mohsen Kadivar of Duke University focused on what went wrong in Iran due to the implementation of a theocracy with a misunderstanding of Islam and law. According to Kadivar, Iranian theocracy so far has been based on the ruler’s command, not the rule of law. As a result, the regime has used the slogan of Islam as the solution to everything. They have denounced the ideals of democracy, human rights, social science and empirical decision making as products of the West, and thus inapplicable to Iran. To Kadivar, Islamic thought in Iran needs deep reform, as Shariah law should be understood in a ritual-based, not law-based framework.

Focusing on the cultural shifts in Iranian society due to the revolution, Nahid Siamdoust, a cultural historian and journalist, spoke about the societal results of Iran’s independence from the West. She pointed out that 98% of the Iranian population voted in favor of establishing an Islamic Republic in a referendum back in March 1979. Since the referendum though, an exodus of nearly 5 to 6 million Iranians has taken place, large segments of the population have been disenfranchised, cinemas have been burnt down, professors have been fired from universities, and women have been marginalized. However, despite 40 years of Islamic governance, Iranians have managed to create new spheres for themselves in Iranian society, outside of the theocracy’s influence. One example is the recent campaign on social media that began with the hashtag #WhereIsYourChild, calling out Iranian leaders for chanting “Death to America” while their children study and work there. Social media in particular has become an alternative public sphere, allowing citizens to engage on a national level, but outside of state control. A new cultural revolution is taking place, as according to Siamdoust, the “politicization of Islam has damaged it as a way forward for Iran.”

These personal perspectives and understandings of Iranian society were then followed by Robin Wright’s commentary on the United State’s relationship with Iran today. According to Wright, for Iran, the US will continue to be a subtext for what plays out in domestic politics. The deepest diplomatic split in the world since World War II, is our policy on Iran. As a result of such tensions, particularly the reversal of the US stance on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran’s presence in the Middle Eastern region is much wider and deeper than it was before 2003. For the past four decades, the US and Iran have been completely out of sync, and as Wright points out, Iran has been a nemesis for seven US Presidents, and in turn, the US has been Satan for 7 Iranian Presidents.

40 years down, though Iran has achieved independence from the US and established an Islamic Republic, it has come at the cost of individual freedoms, as well as a dislike of the politicization of Islam as the rule of law. Tensions between Iran and the rest of the world will in part determine how the revolution plays out in the country over the next decade. One thing is for certain though, according to Siamdoust: if asked again in a referendum, no Iranian would vote for an Islamic Republic today. And in that sense, one might say with a hint of sarcasm, that Iran is ahead of the game in the Middle East.