What 1979 Can Tell Us About Iran Today

Geopolitical Futures

By George Friedman

History never repeats itself exactly. Or does it?

It’s no secret that Iran’s economy has faced severe strain this year, with the country’s currency plummeting and consumer prices soaring. Inflation has been one of the top concerns. It spiked once again last month, reaching 35 percent. Inflation has reached this level, and even higher, before. Still, at 35 percent, income growth starts to fall behind, basic commodities are priced out of the reach of the poor, and tremendous pressure is placed on the middle class. Hunger may not be a concern for this group, but access to basic goods and services needed to maintain their lifestyles becomes a struggle. Last month’s numbers were not a sudden shift; inflation has been a growing problem, gnawing away at crucial segments of society for quite a while. Certainly, U.S. sanctions are part of the problem, but Iran’s own internal dynamic has been the main contributor.

The main question here is what, if any, are the political consequences from all this. The 1979 uprising against the Shah of Iran may prove a useful comparison. Many of us (including myself) were surprised when the shah lost control – even though many Iranians resented him ever since the coup that ousted Mohammad Mosaddegh and brought the shah to power. For a long time, the political class controlled the system, including the economy, and the middle and lower classes were both excluded and willing to be excluded. They accepted the concentration of wealth in the elite, as well as the corruption that went with it, on the expectation that their own lives would be reasonably stable and even improve by maintaining the status quo. For a while, their expectations proved accurate, and the regime added to this mix an ideology of patriotism, comparing the growing wealth and power of Iran to that of the Persian Empire. The shah sat on the Peacock Throne of the Persian emperors, and the modest prosperity and sense of historical right was a stabilizing and at times heady mix.

Over the course of the 1970s, the situation deteriorated, less because of the structural weakness of the economy and more because of a sense that wealth was being accumulated by the elite, leaving the broader society out in the cold. This feeling was fed by opposition groups who argued that the shah’s invocation of the ancient empire violated the more immediate reality of Iran, as a Muslim country. A sense of illegitimacy grew around the regime for its values, corruption and brutal suppression of the population. Life was not yet unbearable for small-business owners, but the sense that it could be so much better ate away at the system.

The assumption of the shah, and those of us watching, was that the security services, army and intelligence services held decisive power in Iran. This was true, until it wasn’t. In 1979, the shah kept control of his security forces until nearly the very end. The unhappiness of the public was growing beneath the surface, until demonstrations of marginalized groups of clerics and students began. When individual merchants joined the protests, the security forces found themselves up against a huge swath of society. They opened fire on the protesters, but rather than forcing them back into their homes, the gunfire enraged them. The army, with a large number of conscripts, ultimately couldn’t hold back the protesters, and eventually, a large faction of servicemen joined the uprising. Fighting broke out among this faction, the SAVAK intelligence service and others, and the demonstrators became the backdrop of the end of the regime. Economic pressure and a radical new Islamic ideology broke the shah.

History never repeats itself precisely, but 1979 is one model of how dissent could threaten the regime in Iran. The main indicator of the viability of the regime was not the loyalty of the security forces but rather the sense of urgency among broad segments of the public and their willingness to accept casualties at the hands of the SAVAK and other institutions. 1979 is burned into the memory of all Iranians, even those who didn’t live through it themselves. Paradoxically, it was kept alive by the regime itself, which used it as a symbol of national pride the same way Americans use the American Revolution.

Average Iranians, therefore, will look at 1979 as the benchmark for action. At that time, an increasingly painful situation gradually eroded the legitimacy of the shah, who more and more seemed indifferent to the fate of the public and supportive of a class that had enriched itself at the expense of the country. Life was becoming intolerable, and the ideology of the shah and the power of his security forces could no longer sustain the regime. The ideological clerics, the unsophisticated students and the security forces did not define what happened in 1979; the middle class and the merchants did. When they were no longer able to bear the regime, and went into the streets to challenge it, the army crumbled and the remaining security forces either were liquidated or joined the resistance.

Today, Iran has 35 percent inflation, pockets of unrest and a growing sense among Iranians that the regime serves itself. The ideology of 1979 has lost its purity and failed to deliver a manageable life. It seems to me that the regime increasingly relies on the security forces, whose job it is to pacify the public by threat of force, rather than on political leaders, whose job it is to satisfy the public’s needs.

With all these internal pressures, it isn’t clear that the regime can solve the extreme economic problems it’s facing. In reading news from Iran, I’m looking for signs of an uprising among the business class and for indications that the economic deterioration is having an impact on the public mood. It’s possible that economic disruption of this sort, coupled with intensifying cynicism about the regime and its ideology, will have no significant political consequences, but it isn’t likely.

In 1979, most missed what was happening until the shooting began and even then believed that the uprising would be put down. It wasn’t. Society overwhelmed the regime, and this reality is burned into the minds of all Iranians. It was the foundation of the current regime’s legitimacy. Now the economic problems are mounting, as is the cynicism. The security forces are ready to act. But it was that action that triggered the fall of the shah. History may not repeat itself precisely, but it does have a way of showing a possible way forward.