Eternal Iran pp 87-113 | Cite as

Revolution and War, 1978–1988

  • Patrick Clawson
  • Michael Rubin
Part of the The Middle East in Focus book series (MEF)


The Islamic Revolution shook Iran to its foundations and had reverberations far beyond Iran. In early 1978, Iran was striving to become a European state. Within a year, Ayatollah Khomeini was transforming Iran into a theocracy. When President Jimmy Carter visited Tehran in January 1978, he toasted Iran as an “island of stability” and close friend of the United States. Within two years, millions of Iranians chanted “Death to America” as they paraded before its embassy where Khomeini supporters held American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Within another year, Iraq had invaded Iran, starting an eight-year war in which more than half a million Iranians were killed.’ After a quarter-century of rapid growth, Iranian income plummeted, falling by half over a decade.


Islamic Republic Islamic Revolution Iranian Revolution Regular Army National Security Advisor 
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  1. 1.
    The official Iranian figure for war deaths is 218,867 (172,056 killed in battle; 15,959 killed in cities; and 30,852 died later because of injuries); see By contrast, Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), p. 3, cite Iran’s war dead as between 450,000 and 730,000, using as their source an unclassified CIA estimate.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The poor fit between the Iranian revolution and most explanations of it is a theme developed at length in Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), in what is the single best book about the subject, based on an extraordinary wealth of source material. Page 121 is the source for the comparison between participation in the Iranian and other revolutions. The most famous example of a theorist of revolution presenting the Iranian revolution as an anomaly is Theda Skopcol, “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution,” Theory and Society, vol. 11, pp. 265–283.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The phrase is from Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 464. His analysis of Shariati continues on pp. 464–473 and 534 and in his essay “The Islamic Left: From Radicalism to Liberalism,” in Stephanie Cronin, ed., Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern Iran: New Perspectives on the Iranian Left (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), pp. 268–279.Google Scholar
  4. See also Ali Shariati, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies, Richard Campbell, trans. (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  5. The growth of Islamic associations among the intellectuals is analyzed in Said Arjomand, The Turban fbr the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York, Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 96–98.Google Scholar
  6. The complex politics in 1965–1979 among the religious current, including the tensions between Shariati and the clergy, are analyzed in Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy and State Relations in the Pahlavi Period (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980), pp. 142–180.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 22 has a particularly cogent analysis of how Khomeini changed traditional Shi’a language.Google Scholar
  8. The power of Khomeini’s rhetoric is analyzed in Peter Chellcowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1999), especially pp. 32–43.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Michael Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 104–135, describes Qom at this time, including details about the 1975 events. He also analyzes on pp. 12–103 the decline of the traditional clerical schools, the madrassas, and on pp. 136–180 he describes the character of Shi’a religious observance in Iran of the mid-1970s. Arjomand, The Turban fbr the Crown, describes what was happening at this time to the Iraqi Shi’ite centers.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    This Khomeini quote is from Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 193, the next is from Baqr Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (London, I.B. Tauris), p. 155. Both these works describe Khomeini’s political philosophy and activities.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    The most detailed chronological account of 1977–1985 is David Menashri, Iran: A Decade of War and Revolution (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990).Google Scholar
  12. Kurzman, Unthinkable Revolution, adds some important information from the wealth of material that became available after Menashri wrote. On the revolution against the backdrop of U.S. policy toward Iran under the shah, see Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience in Iran (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  13. Another good account of the unfolding of the revolution as seen by the U.S. embassy (in which he served at the time) is John Stempel, Inside the Iranian Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981). These accounts are the basic sources used for this account.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    This is nicely analyzed by Jahangir Amuzegar, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis’ Triumph and Tragedy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 295 and more generally pp. 269–304.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Kurzman, Unthinkable Revolution, pp. 37, 46, 71, 75, 109, and 176–177. The imperial government’s official death toll for September 8 is cited in Dilip Hiro, Iran Under the Ayatollahs (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 77 and 378. Hiro claims that the actual death toll in demonstrations that week was 4,000—a good reflection of the accuracy of his account of developments during the revolution.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    The account by the shah’s French cancer specialist, Dr. Jean Bernard, in William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pp. 230–238, suggests the shah may have not have realized how serious his illness was.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    See the accounts by National Security Council official Gary Sick, All Fall Down (New York: Penguin Books, 1985); Stempel, Inside the Iranian Revolution (especially good on the embassy’s lack of understanding of the political scene)Google Scholar
  18. and advocates of a hard-line crackdown (who blame Carter administration’s vacillation for the shah’s fall) Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, pp. 123–128. See also Hossein Ferdust, Zohur va Sequt-e Saltanat Pahlavi: Jeld-e 1, Khatarat-e Arteshbod Sabeq Hossein Ferdust (Tehran: Entesharat-e Etelaat, 1369 [1990/1991]), pp. 561–679.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    The record of the Bazargan government is analyzed in Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 52–70. The Bazargan quote is from his October 1979 interview with Oriani Fallaci, cited in Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, p. 137.Google Scholar
  21. 23.
    Massoumeh Ebtekar (the hostage-taker’s spokesperson), Takeover in Tehran: The Inside Story of the 1979 U.S. Embassy Capture (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2000), p. 76. Cf. pp. 49–53 on the fear of a U.S.-led coup, pp. 75–77 on the aim of the takeover being to forestall Bazargan’s plans and p. 102 on how the seized embassy documents were selectively used to go after liberals.Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    Cited in Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, p. 150. For how the hostage affair appeared in the eyes of the Carter White House, see Gary Sick, All Fall Down, pp. 205–402. Warren Christopher, ed., American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), is an exhaustive and self-congratulatory treatment of U.S. policy about the embassy takeover by some of the key American actors involved, along with the text of the main documents and detailed information about the various negotiations.Google Scholar
  23. 26.
    Cf. Paul Ryan, The Iranian Rescue Mission: Why It Failed (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985)Google Scholar
  24. and James Kyle with John Eidson, The Guts to Try: The Untold Story of the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission by the On-Scene Desert Commander (New York: Orion Books, 1990)Google Scholar
  25. as well as Richard Thornton and Alan Capps, “New Light on the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission,” Marine Corps Gazette (December 1991), pp. 90–95 which argues that the mission was called off for political reasons.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    On the legal issues of the Algiers Accord (and its text), see Hossein Alikhani, Sanctioning Iran: Anatomy of a Failed Policy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), pp. 90–153.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    Bahman Baktiari, Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran: The Institutionalization of Factional Politics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 118; this is the basic source for the account of political infighting during this period, though Baktiari tends to downplay Khamene’i’s role.Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    For the full context of the Rushdie affair, see Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  29. 35.
    Cf Reza Afshari, Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), including pp. 121–122 on Baha’is, p. 136 on Jews.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. On Baha’is, see also Firuz Kazemzadeh, “The Bahai’s in Iran: Twenty Years of Repression,” Social Research, 67: 2 (Summer 2000), pp. 547–558.Google Scholar
  31. 36.
    Ayatollah Khomeini on Tehran radio, September 8, 1979, as translated by FBIS, September 10, 1979 and reprinted in Barry and Judith Rubin, eds., Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 35.Google Scholar
  32. On the divisions within the leadership on economics issues, see the interviews with six prominent economic decision-makers in Bahman Ahmadi Amoye-I, Egtesad-e Siyasi-ye jomhuri ye Islami (Tehran: Gam-e No, 1382 [2003/2004]), especially the interview with Nurbakhsh, pp. 59–139.Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    The economics of the early postrevolutionary period are analyzed in Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, pp. 166–194. The most detailed account of the economics of 1980–1988 are in Jahangir Amuzegar, Iran’s Economy Under the Islamic Republic (London: I.B. Tauris, 1993). He provides a solid if dense analysis of the economic changes and detailed tables of economic statistics, which are the source for all the data cited here.Google Scholar
  34. 38.
    For examples of the corrupting and debilitating influence of the economic policies, see Patrick Clawson (under the pseudonym Wolfgang Lautenschlager), “The Effects of an Overvalued Exchange Rate on the Iranian Economy, 1979–1984,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18: 1 (1986), pp. 31–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 39.
    A fascinating presentation of what the 1986 census data show about many social features, from mosques to housing, urban migration to education, with special emphasis on differences among the provinces, see Bernard Hourcade et al., Atlas d’Iran (Paris: Reclus-La Documentation Francaise, 1998).Google Scholar
  36. 40.
    This account draws heavily on Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 265–355.Google Scholar
  37. 41.
    The definitive study is Marie Ladier-Fouladi, Population et Politique en Iran (Paris: Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, 2003); birth and fertility data are given in the table on pp. 27 and 30 respectively.Google Scholar
  38. 42.
    This account of the war is heavily based on the definitive study by Cordesman and Wagner, The Lesson of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  39. as well as the excellent short summary by Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988 (Botley, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002).Google Scholar
  40. The widely used account by Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (New York, Routledge, 1991), is inconsistent, mixing solid research and significant errors.Google Scholar
  41. Iraqi military performance during the war-though not the war as a whole-is analyzed in Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948–1991 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), pp. 190–235.Google Scholar
  42. 45.
    Cf. Saskia Gieling, Religion and War in Revolutionary Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999).Google Scholar
  43. 47.
    The details of attacks on shipping throughout the war are in Martin Navias and E.R. Hooton, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran-Iraq Conflict, 1980–1988 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996).Google Scholar
  44. 48.
    Cf. Kenneth Katzman, The Warriors of Islam: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), especially p. 66.Google Scholar
  45. 49.
    Revolutionary Guards Political Department of the General Command Post, War Studies and Research, Battle of Paw (Valfajr Operations), 1988 (trans. and misdated in several places by Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), NES-94–076-S.Google Scholar
  46. 51.
    John Tower, Edmund Muskie, and Brent Scowcroft, The Tower Commission Report (New York: Bantam Books and Times Books, 1987), p. 64.Google Scholar
  47. 56.
    See the description of flagging morale in Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 202–212.Google Scholar
  48. 59.
    An account of this attack by a People’s Mojahedin participant is Masoud Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel (London: SAQI, 2004), pp. 273–290. Banisadr, who was an important People’s Mojahedin official from 1979 to 1996 when he left the group, provides the best account of what life inside the organization was like.Google Scholar

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© Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin 2005

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  • Patrick Clawson
  • Michael Rubin

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