The Iranian Revolution Echoes in Egypt

Abbas Milani, like most educated Iranians, detested the Shah’s tyrannical regime that ruled over his homeland until it was overthrown in 1979 by a coalition of liberals, leftists, and Islamists. Unlike the vast majority of the liberals and leftists, however, Milani knew in advance what the Islamists were up to. The Shah had cast him into the dungeon at the notorious Evin Prison and for six months his cell mates were the ideological and physical brutes who later would found the Islamic Republic.
Today Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His new book The Shah was published a few weeks ago by Palgrave MacMillan. I sat down with him in his office at the Hoover Institution to talk about what’s happening right now in Egypt.
MJT: So why, when you published a piece in The New Republic a few days ago, did you compare the upheaval in Egypt to the Iranian Revolution 31 years ago rather than to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution that toppled Ben Ali less than 31 days ago?
Abbas Milani: Iran and Egypt are very similar. They have been, along with Turkey, the key bellwether states in the region. What happens in these three places has shaped what happens in the Middle East for a hundred years.
Tunisia–in terms of size, history, and trajectory–is far less like Iran than Egypt is. Egypt is the most important center of Sunni learning while Iran is the most important center of Shia learning. And the two countries have been very much in competition with each other for hegemony over the Islamic world. The Shah spent his last days in Egypt. There is a fifty year connection between the Pahlavi dynasty and Egypt.
Look also at the events themselves and the way the United States has tried to position itself. What’s going on right now in Egypt is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran in 1979. The United States supported Pahlavi and Mubarak overtly. In both cases there was behind-the-scenes pressure to democratize and open the system. The Shah resisted, claiming a communist threat. Mubarak resisted, claiming a Muslim Brotherhood threat.
After a while the Shah became impervious to American pressure because he had oil money. He had more money than he knew what to do with. During those very crucial years the Iranian middle class mushroomed. The educated class was increasing. These were the years when pressure for democracy was most urgent, but the Shah was impervious to it.
MJT: How big was the middle class in 1979?
Abbas Milani: It depends on how you define it. If you look at the income, the amount of urbanization, the number of educated people, the number of people who lived in their own domicile, the number of people who could travel outside the country–all these grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the push for industrialization that began in the early 1960s. It began before the oil money came in.
We had a class of brilliant Iranian technocrats, many of them educated in the United States, including right here at Stanford. They put into effect a remarkable process of industrialization that by 1970 was bearing fruit. These people demanded political rights, and the Shah, instead of opening the country, clamped down with the one-party system.
I am absolutely convinced that in 1975, when he was at the height of his power, if the Shah had made just a third of the concessions he later made in 1978, we would be looking at a very different Iran today.
MJT: It was too late in 1978.
Abbas Milani: What Mubarak and the Shah both failed to understand is that if you make concessions when you’re weak it just increases the appetite for more concessions. If they would have made concessions when they were in a position of power, they could have negotiated a smooth transition to a less authoritarian government.
In Egypt, when the US pressured Mubarak to announce that he would not run again, that he should come out publicly and say he has cancer and that there will be a free election soon, he instead tried to create a monarchy.
MJT: He wants his son to succeed him.
Abbas Milani: The reverse happened to the Shah. He also had cancer, but he hid it from everybody. He had a son who was then eighteen years old. If he had given up the throne and created a regency in 1977, as some had advised him to do, instead of making concessions under pressure in 1978 when all hell was breaking loose, I could easily imagine a different Iran.
I went back to Iran from the United States in 1975. I had just gotten my PhD and was part of the opposition to the Shah. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that change was coming, but Islamic revolution was absolutely not inevitable. This was partly the Shah’s fault for only allowing the clergy to organize. Not to give him credit, but in context this was the Cold War. Everybody was worried about communism, and he completely clamped down on everyone but the clergy.
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