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Student Paper: The Iranian Revolution: Comparing “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” by Charles Kurzman with “A History of Modern Iran” by Evrand Abrahamian by a Student…

March 26, 2015
Mohammed Mossadegh, Iranian prime minister who nationalized Iranian oil and was overthrown in an C.I.A. orchestrated coup d'etat in 1953

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iranian prime minister who nationalized Iranian oil and was overthrown in an C.I.A. orchestrated coup d’etat in 1953

(Note: What follows are a number of student papers from a class I taught “History of the Middle East Since 1800″ at the University of Denver – January 5 – March 12, 2015. Among them, were several I considered polished-to-publishable. The assignment was to compare two books on the same subject within the course’s framework. This paper by a student, compares two books on the Iranian Revolution:  Charles Kurzman’s , The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge with Evrand Abrahamian’s A History of Modern Iran. )


The Iranian Revolution

In his book, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, Charles Kurzman gives a detailed account of the Iranian revolution, specifically looking at the events of the two years leading to the revolution of 1979. Kurzman’s main argument is that no one predicted the Iranian revolution, not the stable government, not the Iranian people, and definitely not the CIA and Jimmy Carter’s administration. After all, how could a “stable regime, led by a monarch with decades of experience, buoyed by billions of dollars in oil exports, girded with a fearsome security apparatus and the largest military in the region, and favored by the support of the world’s most powerful countries” fall (Kurzman 1)? It was a revolution that remained unthinkable because the government was so stable and since it remained unthinkable, it remained undoable (Kurzman 172). In fact, Mohammad Reza Shah’s security chief recalled that the idea of a revolution in 1977 had become an inside joke and quite amusing (Kurzman 172). However, the revolution took everyone by surprise, because the Iranians began to ‘“think the unthinkable”’ and looking at the revolution as a viable movement (Kurzman 142). Once the revolution had occurred, everyone was preoccupied with understanding how this revolution had occurred. In a report after the revolution, internal State Department had argued that the U.S. was not prepared for the fall of the regime because the U.S. didn’t want to know the truth (Kurzman 4).

In addition to the confusion of the CIA and U.S. government, Charles Kurzman presents a detailed explanation of the revolution’s impossibility from a political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military perspective and how the Iranian revolution was of a different trend than the other famous uprisings, such as the French revolution. From a political perspective, Kurzman argues that revolutions occur when a government loosens its pressure and allows the oppositionists to successfully mobilize. In the case of Iran, this should have come after Jimmy Carter’s campaign for human rights and shah’s relaxed policies. On the contrary, the mobilization came after Muhammad Reza Shah rescinded his liberalization (Kurzman 6). From an organizational perspective, revolutions were supposed to happen when oppositional forces had preexisting organized resources to “contest the regime’s hold,” but in Iran, the “mosque networks” was not preexisting, rather they were constructed during the revolution (Kurzman 6). From a cultural perspective, revolutions happen when a movement can draw “upon oppositional norms, ideologies, beliefs, and rituals in a society” (Kurzman 6). In Iran, the movement was based on Shi’i Islamic ideologies and practices and was modified to fit the revolutionary ideas. Based on the economic perspective, revolutions happen when economic problems cause uproar. However, in Iran, the 1977 recession that came after the oil boom of 1973 wasn’t worse than previous ones (1975). Additionally, the people who were hit the hardest, wasn’t necessarily the most revolutionary (Kurzman 6). From a military perspective, revolutions took place when state’s military cracked down on opposition forces but in Iran, the shah didn’t break down definitively, rather suppressed the protests (Kurzman 6).

Contrary to Charles Kurzman, in his book A History of Modern Iran, Ervand Abrahamian gives a detailed explanation of the transformations that took place in the 20th century up until 2005-2006, when Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected as the president of Iran. Abrahamian begins his well-written book by looking at Iran under the Qajar dynasty and then moving on to the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power through a military coup in February 1921, when General Reza Khan took control of the country. Abrahamian then gives a comprehensive explanation of the nationalist interregnum period, which started with the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 and ended with another military coup in 1953 that was engineered by the Americans and the British in order to “reestablished royal authority” (Abrahamian 99). In this thirteen year period, Reza Shah was sent into exile and replaced by his son, Crown Prince Muhammad Reza.

Abrahamian then talks in detail about the iron fist ruling of Muhammad Reza, 1983-1975, where the young shah basically continued where his father was forced to leave off in 1941 (Abrahamian 123). He discusses all the transformations and accomplishments that Muhammad Reza Shah achieved in this period, before his unpopular social and political measures led to an unexpected down fall of the regime in 1979. For example, thanks to the rising oil revenues, he was able to increase the military budget from $60 million in 1954 to $7.3 billion in 1977 (Abrahamian 124). Furthermore, he massively expanded the state bureaucracy. Over the years, he increased the number of ministries from twelve to twenty, including the new ministries of labor, higher education, social welfare, and tourism (Abrahamian 126). Abrahamian then talks about the Iranian Revolution from 1979 and the Islamic constitution and the transformations that came from having an Islamic Republic as the form of government, ending with the contemporary Iran and the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the new president.

Iranian Revolution: Significant Individuals, Conspiracy Theories, and Foreign Interference

Abrahamian’s piece pays a great amount of attention to significant individuals who have left their mark permanently and have made substantial contributions in shaping the history of modern Iran. One of these individuals was Ali Shariati, “a French-educated social scientist, highly popular among college and high school students” (Abrahamian 143). Shariati participated in demonstrations for Algerian and Congolese independence, wrote countless numbers of articles for the organ of the Confederation of Iranian Students, translated books, attended lectures presented by Marxist sociologists and orientalists, and taught at various lecture halls in Mashed and Tehran upon his return to Iran in 1965 (Abrahamian 143-44). The dominant theme in his work was “that the true essence of Shi’ism is revolution against all forms of oppression, especially against feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism” (Abrahamian 144). His ideas allowed everyone to have a new perspective of the everyday religious Shi’i traditions. As Abrahamian describes, Ali Shariati had “injected radical meanings into stock scriptural terms” (144). For example, he transformed shahed, martyr, into a revolutionary hero, jehad, struggle, into liberation struggle, and the story of Karbala into a “morality lesson on revolutionary self-sacrifice” (Abrahamian 145). He gave a contemporary aspect to religious concepts that one might have previously thought only belonged to 1400 years ago. He considered Imam Hussein as an early-day Che Guevara, and his sister, Zainab, as an exemplary woman who kept the message of the revolution alive (Abrahamian 145).  Ali Shariati had transformed Islam from a religion into a political ideology, known as Islamism, political Islam, or radical Islam in the West (Abrahamian 145).

As a reader, I very much enjoyed reading about Shariati’s different perspective, particularly his application and comparison of Islamic doctrines to recent events and history. I have always believed that Islam is an ever-changing religion, which evolves and adapts as time goes on. It is more than what some ulemas, clergies, regardless of whether they were Sunni or Shi’a, interpreted it to be. Therefore, his radical ideologies and criticism of conservative ulamas came as a breath of fresh air. It appears that for many youngsters, Shariati’s interpretation of real Shi’ism was more acceptable than what they had been previously told. In addition to reinterpreting Shi’i Islam, Shariati questioned the clerics and blamed them for forfeiting the “task of propagating the true message of Islam” and using fancy new titles in order to hide the “fact that their leader had been craftsmen, and farmers” (Abrahamian 146). This direct challenge was difficult for many people to comprehend, and maybe that’s why, Khomeini’s interpretation of Islam came to be accepted more among the common people.

While Charles Kurzman doesn’t go too much into detail on specific individuals, he does point out several interesting points, that aren’t discussed much by Abrahamian. One of these topics happens to be the farfetched conspiracy theories that circulated from 1977 to 1979. These were tactics either used by the regime, oppositions and revolutionaries, or ordinary people who lived through the revolution. I found these theories to be amusing because they seemed too absurd to be held as the truth. However, as it appears, many people either strongly believed in these theories or were taught to believe, such as those propagated by insiders. For example, on January 7, 1978, a newspaper in Tehran published an article insulting Ruhollah Khomeini. The article suggested that Khomeini was “prompted and paid for by British oil interest” for his opposition to the monarchy (Kurzman 33). The article had accused Imam of spending time in India and being in contact with the “institutions of English colonialism” (Kurzman 33). This obviously caused a stir among the revolutionaries, causing them to stage protests and believing that if they didn’t respond, it would be assumed that the regime had won (Kurzman 34).

Another example of the conspiracy theories was one that was put forward by a common Iranian man, who was interviewed by Kurzman in Turkey. Ahmad, an activist in the religious movement against the regime, had said that President Jimmy Carter had wanted to throw out the shah, so he brought Khomeini to do it for him, not realizing that Khomeini was “righteous and divinely inspired and would turn out to be so powerful” (Kurzman 14). While it may not be fully true to generalize that everyone shared Ahmad’s view, it wouldn’t be too unrealistic either to assume that there might have been other commoners like Ahmad who shared his beliefs. Just like the author who was puzzled by this analysis, I was too puzzled. Clearly Ahmad and who ever sported the same ideologies considered Jimmy Carter as the reason behind the success of the revolution. I found this observation very strange, especially coming from a pro-revolutionary individual. I believe the Ahmad and other people who thought that United States was using Khomeini to overthrow the shah had clearly forgotten the whole trend of interfering attitude of the U.S. inside Iran in order to keep the monarchy intact. A great example would the response of the Carter administration after the event of September 8, known as the Black Friday, when “commandoes surrounded a crowd in Jaleh Square in downtown Tehran, ordered them to disband, and, when they refused to do so, shot indiscriminately” (Abrahamian 159). The United States turned a blind eye and continued their unwavering support for the shah. Contrary to the accounts of the eyewitnesses, the ambassador stated that the troops were attacked by stones and Jimmy Carter had called to reiterate his continuous support to the shah during the difficult times (Kurzman 75). This reaction of the U.S. government clearly showed how irrational this conspiracy theory sounded. In fact, this was just one instance of the U.S. support for the shah.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the United State and other Western countries have always worked for their self-interest in all the regions around the world, and Iran was definitely not an exception. In fact, a common theme, identified by both Abrahamian and Kurzman, is the interference of the foreign countries in the internal matters of the Iranian government. Abrahamian mentions the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 as one of the first accounts of foreign interference in Iranian history. The two Allies, joined by the U.S. in December of 1941, realized that in order to achieve the two goals that they had set out to achieve by this invasion, they had to preserve the Pahlavi dynasty but remove Reza Shah from power (97). Their goals were to have complete physical control over the Iranian oil and to use Iran as a land ‘”corridor”’ to the Soviet Union (Abrahamian 97). By removing Reza Shah and placing his son, the three countries basically controlled Iran. Furthermore, by staging the 1953 coup against Muhammad Mossadeq, who called for a mass movement for nationalization of oil, the United States and Britain clearly violated the sovereignty of the nation. Abrahamian suggests that one might even look at the coup of 1953 as the real roots of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which is a profound statement (122).

Besides mentioning the 1953 coup, Kurzman briefly mentions the efforts of the United States to stage another military coup in early January in 1979. President Carter had assigned General Robert E. Huyser to rally the Iranian military commanders for “a last resort coup d’état” (157). Before this, in the last months leading to the revolution, the Carter Administration had supported the use of force against the protestors and the instillation of a military government on November 6th (Kurzman 157). Additionally, riot-controlled equipment that was blocked on the basis of human-rights was shipped to Iran along with firm statements of U.S. support for the shah (Kurzman 157).  Clearly, the U.S. Department of States, who had predicted that the shah would “weather the current storm of protest” were caught off-guard and wanted to suppress the upraising as much as possible (Kurzman 2). They didn’t want the Islamic republic to replace the shah because if the revolution was to become successful, it was going to be one of the biggest economic and political blows to the U.S. interest.

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran and A History of Modern Iran: Strengths and Weakness

Both of the books were strong in their own ways, with concentrated details in different parts of history. Charles Kurzman presented the event of 1977 to 1979 in detail, whereas Abrahamian presented the whole history of Iran, starting with the Qajar dynasty in late 19th century and early 20th century until the early 2000s. Since I had no previous academic knowledge of the issue, these two books were a great start for me to better understand the history of Iran and the Islamic revolution. Unlike Kurzman, Abrahamian provided the reasons that led to the revolution in the events that happened decades earlier. On one hand, while explaining the transformations of Iran under the various shahs and regimes, Abrahamian also provides various predictions that foretell the events that caused/led to the revolution of 1979. He predicts the outing of Mohammad Mossadeq in the coup of 1953 as one of the reasons that led to the revolution. Also, he mentions the White Revolution, a land reform adopted in 1962, as another reason that pushed people closer to the Islamic ideologies and further away from the monarchy. Abrahamian mentions that while the White Revolution “had been designed to preempt a Red Revolution,” instead it “paved the way for an Islamic Revolution” (140) because it led to cultural and social tensions that led to political tension and shah’s repressive and controlling attitude (establishment of Resurgence Party). Finally, he mentions the 1975 crisis and struggle with the local bazaaris who had supported the regime, as another reason that led to the revolution. On the other hand, Kurzman focuses all his attention on two years leading to the revolution. Unlike Abrahamian, he doesn’t provide any event that could explain how the revolution happened. Rather, he goes into detail of already presented reasons (political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military) and shows how the usual trends and trajectory that predicted the happening of a revolution in any other country didn’t apply to the Iranian revolution.

One of the challenges that both authors faced was the ambiguity surrounding numbers, especially the number of human causalities that occurred between 1977 and 1979. This challenge can’t be considered a weakness because there are no accurate data available to begin with. Because there was no one single source that reported on every single event, it is hard to gather valid data that is accepted by all. For example, in any case with a causality, there were reports from the regime, the opposition, the outside sources (CIA and news outlets), and the cemetery (number of people buried). Sometimes, numbers of casualties were skewed in order to push an agenda forward, whether that was by the opposition to rally supporters or the regime who wanted to hide the reality from the outside world. Unfortunately, sometimes the numbers reported were not even close. They had their differences in the hundreds and thousands.

A weakness that could be seen in the work of both authors is the absence of the gender aspect of the revolution, even though the Iranian revolution could be considered a “thoroughly gendered” movement (Kurzman 150). Kurzman briefly talks about the revolution and role of women, but Abrahamian doesn’t mention it at all. Kurzman states that because of the difficulty interviewing women, it was hard for him to gather enough information to write a more detailed analysis of feminism and the revolution. I am not sure how much I would accept that as an explanation or justification, because I have a different image of the Iranian society in my mind. I don’t think that one would have too much problem finding the right sources to interview, but I could be wrong as well. Kurzman states that the organized feminism had full support of the Pahlavi regime in the 1950s, but changed their support’s direction as the revolution proceeded in 1978 (151). When the regime decided to drop the cabinet position on Women’s Affairs, it further encouraged the women to gravitate toward the revolutionary movement (Kurzman 151). On the other hand, acceptance of women’s dedication and support to the revolution by Khomeini himself allowed the women to further think the “best of him” (Kurzman 151). It would have been great had both authors further mentioned the role of women in the revolution in detail.


The unpredictable Iranian revolution brought a tremendous change in history of Iran. As Kurzman states “a day and a half of street fighting ended centuries of Iranian monarchy and more than fifty years of Pahlavi rule, which had seemed so secure only months before” (163). In fact, the Defense Intelligence Agency of the United States, had predicted that the shah was going to remain in power for at least the next ten years (Kurzman 2) when the uprising first surfaced in early 1977.  No one had taken warnings seriously. John D. Stempel, a political officer, had presented a report to Washington, stating that after two decades, shah’s supporters were thinking the unthinkable and of other possibilities (Kurzman 2). Additionally, when Ambassador William H. Sullivan used the phrase “thinking the unthinkable” he was nearly fired. Not only the United States, but strong Iranian oppositionists like Mehdi Bazargan and hard-core revolutionaries too thought that a revolution was not possible and was surprised at the ‘“unexpected speed”’ of the movement (Kurzman 8). Despite the changes that came into every aspect of Iranian life (life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, modes of travel, etc…) as a result of the revolutions and transformation, Iran’s geography and identity (Abrahamian 1) has remained as stable and constant as ever. As for the future, one can only wait and watch what changes will occur in the country politically, socially, geographically, and economically in the face of extreme foreign political and financial pressures.


Works Cited

Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ambassador K P Fabian permalink
    March 26, 2015 7:06 am

    I was First Secretary in the Indian Embassy in Tehran from 1976 to 1979. There were signals of the approaching revolution….I reached on May 19, 1976. That evening a young lady, studying at Tehran University told me that she was prepared to die and to kill; she wanted the Shah out….I met at a cocktails party hosted by a Savak official… Others at the party told me that “the Shah was too kind to let them act against trouble makers and put an end to all that”, and that they had begged him again and again for permission.

  2. rehmat1 permalink
    March 26, 2015 10:44 am

    YES – Iran under Reza Shah was a “stable” regime because it was imposed and supported by both US and Israel against the wishes of Iranian people.

    Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a bold slap on the face of the Judeo-Christian imperialism. Rob Prince, I would recommend you to read fellow American Jewish scholar, Dr. Richard Falk, who met Imam Khomeini in exile in Paris, to understand the true nature of Iranian Revolution.

    As far Kurzman’s opinion is concerned, he is a known professional liar for Israel.

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