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  • What Was Revolutionary about the Iranian Revolution? The Power of Possibility
  • Eric Selbin (bio)

On the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution—the revolution that for some two hundred years has defined the term—Robert Darnton posed an excellent question: what was so revolutionary about the French Revolution?1 This question is neither small nor simple, though Darnton deftly deals with it and provides an answer, to which I return below. For now, any answer would do well to bear in mind a pointed, amusing, and almost certainly mythical anecdote: Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai, when asked in the early 1970s by a diplomat (or politician) about the importance of France’s revolution, responded that it was (much) too early to tell.2 Although only thirty years have passed since the events/process in Iran, ascertaining either their true import or their impact seems unlikely and should be approached with caution and without hyperbole.

In the annals and study of revolution, at least since the twentieth century, cases are abundant and agreement somewhat scarce; 3 one person’s social revolution is another person’s rebellion is another’s act of resistance. Once one moves beyond the “Big Three”—France (1789), Russia (1917), and China (1949)—relatively few cases garner much consensus.4 If one [End Page 33] pushed back a bit from France, England’s Glorious Revolution (1688) or the American Revolution (1776) may receive mention, though both are closer to political rebellions. Mexico’s revolution (1910–20) was the first really great social upheaval of the twentieth century and is sometimes invoked. But after China, and the occasional nod to Algeria (1962) or Vietnam (1975) aside, the cases most often considered are three: Cuba, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and Nicaragua and Iran, whose “twin revolutions” celebrate their thirtieth anniversaries this year.5

After fifty years, Cuba, it is safe to say, has achieved a status more or less comparable to the Big Three; only the most churlish student would be inclined to deny its place and presence.6 Nicaragua occupies a somewhat more complicated place, in part because the revolutionaries left power when they lost an election (their second; they had won their first) eleven years after the triumph. There is sometimes grudging inclusion in lists of revolutions, if in part only to provide a relatively neat end point to a (putative) era of armed revolution (1789–1979). Others seem to invoke it to convey a certain degree of degradation or debasement of the concept: how is it that the once noble revolutionary idea(l)s associated with the French Revolution have ended up in an obscure place such as Nicaragua; Paris-Managua, you make the call. Still, the consensus seems to be that Nicaragua was a major social revolution, and with the recent return of the revolutionaries to office via the ballot box, perhaps it is ongoing yet.

The Iranian revolution has come to occupy a somewhat different space, and while consensus is less apparent—in so many ways and on so many issues—it, too, has been accorded recognition, by and large, as a major social revolution. No one questions that something important, that mattered not just for Iran but also for the region and the world, happened in 1979. Yet Iran presents a problem, one prey to academic “orientalism” or ethnocentric “puzzlement,” given its complicated and convoluted nature; as Nikki R. Keddie notes, the “Revolution and its aftermath awakened . . . widespread public interest in Iran—and, to a large degree, bafflement and incomprehension. This revolution did not fit the patterns and expectations of even the relatively well informed.”7 Fortunately there is a broad and deep literature on both the event—which is how many people conceive of it, as a specific moment in a specific time and specific place—and the process, with roots as far back as at least 1905 (and perhaps the Persian Empires or the rise of Islam) and continuing to unfold with broad and deep implications and ramifications.

What happened in Iran has been hotly contested from the start and often framed as “distinctive,” “unique,” and even “unthinkable.”8 Yet every revolution is distinct to some degree, and...


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