Ellen Wald: Has another revolution begun in Iran?

Summary: Iran’s protests begin what might be the next transformative event in the turbulent history of the Middle East, perhaps ending its four decades-long attempt to roll back the clock of history. An expert in the area, Ellen Wald, explains what’s happening and why.

Iran Protests
By Mohammadmosalman from Wikimedia Commons.

In place of ideology, today’s Iranian protests simply demand change

By Ellen R. Wald at the Arabia Foundation, 4 January 2017.

For Americans, the image of Iranians marching together on cold city streets and shouting slogans in Farsi drew immediate, hopeful comparisons to the 1979 revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah. Many are wondering whether today’s protests will also lead Iran into a revolution and, unlike 1979, toward a possibly friendlier government. After all, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was preceded by nearly two years of mass protests across the country by Iranians aggrieved by the shah, his Savak secret police force and many of his policies.

Yet a crucial difference exists between the protesters in the late 1970s and those marching today. The marchers in the late 1970s eventually unified around a shared, if loose, ideology and goal. They sought an “Islamic Republic,” although the meaning of that term was neither clear nor uniform at the time. The protesters and revolutionaries also rallied around distrust and antipathy toward the West and, in particular, the United States.

Today, however, the protesters in Iran appear to be driven not by ideology but by opposition to the regime alone. Their complaints include economic policies, decisions relating to foreign policy and military entanglements, and social and religious strictures. There are no clear shared end goals or ideological convictions around which to rally. Unless and until those develop, regime change appears unlikely.

Iran Protests
By Mohammadmosalman from Wikimedia Commons.

What does seem common between the 1970s protests and the ones today are the economic motivations driving both. In 1976, Iran’s economy began to stall.

The shah had embarked on a major modernization program that involved massive spending that the Iranian economy could not handle. Inflation hurt the purchasing power of average Iranians, and stalled growth led to widespread unemployment and a deepening economic divide between rural and urban residents. Bitterness and disappointment festered in a population that expected its government to deliver economic progress.

Moreover, the shah was perceived to have squandered Iran’s vast oil wealth, spending it on his own extravagance and buying expensive military equipment from the United States. Iran’s oil industry in 1977 pumped more than 5 million barrels a day. Coupled with high oil prices from the oil shocks of that decade, oil production brought the country significant revenue. In 1976 alone, Iran made $20 billion from oil sales.

But some of that oil wealth was being funneled back to the United States. A 1976 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report revealed that Iran was the largest single purchaser of U.S. military equipment that year and had the fifth-largest military in the world. The shah’s spending offended the revolutionaries who saw waste, especially as millions of Iranians suffered.

That discontent was sharpened by the revolutionaries’ vastly different foreign policy ideas. They bristled at the shah’s close ties to the West and what Iranian intellectual Jalal al-e Ahmad dubbed the “Westoxification” of Iran. Although many Iranians enjoyed Western-style clothes, Western popular culture, alcohol and economic and political alliances with the West, both secular intellectuals and traditionalists complained that Iran’s long history of involvement with the West — including British ownership over Iranian oil resources in the early 1900s, involvement by the CIA and MI6 in the coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in the 1950s and the shah’s reliance on the United States — had corrupted Iranian culture and society.

The series of demonstrations that led to the shah’s removal in 1979 began in May 1977 with a protest by middle-class intellectuals. University students picked up the demonstrations in November 1977. Protests next emerged among the Iranian clerics in their traditional seat in the city of Qom, then spread to the working class in the form of massive labor strikes in September 1978.

Eventually most demographic groups were inflamed and unified around the idea of ridding themselves of the Pahlavi monarchy and instituting an “Islamic Republic.”

Early in the protests there existed a strong Marxist component, but over time this element was largely fused with a Shiite Islamist segment of thought, in part because of the ideas popularized by the secular-intellectual Ali Shariati and his concept of “Red Shi’ism.” Shariati died in 1977, however, leaving Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the ideological face of the protests. After the revolution, Khomeini’s Islamist movement further consolidated power by largely excising the Marxist elements, sometimes with brutal purges.

As in the late 1970s, today’s protests have been driven in part by the country’s difficult economic situation. Like the shah, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embarked on an infrastructure program earlier this decade. He also contributed to extreme inflation by recklessly printing money.

The effects linger today. Unemployment in Iran is at 12.6%, and the economic growth that was expected after international sanctions ended two years ago has not materialized.

Reminiscent of the frustration over the shah’s military spending, many of today’s protesters are shouting their anger in the streets because the regime is spending Iran’s money on military engagements in Iraq and Syria and on supporting paramilitary groups, terrorists and radical organizations in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. It is not clear what foreign policy, if any, the protesters seek, but it is clear that they oppose the regime’s use of Iran’s resources on foreign causes before their own.

But while these grievances are similar to the 1970s, they are playing out in a very different Iran. The country has far less oil wealth than it did four decades ago. Today, Iran only produces about 3.8 million barrels per day, and oil prices are significantly lower than they were even three and a half years ago. The Iranian oil industry is still suffering from neglect due to the sanctions period.

Foreign energy companies and foreign investors are needed to refurbish Iran’s energy infrastructure, but the regime has made foreign involvement risky with unattractive terms and capricious detentions of foreigners. Moreover, Iran must still sell much of the oil it does export at below-market prices to attract customers. Nevertheless, the protesters today have not outlined a different oil policy; they have only stated that the government has been ineffectual in guiding the economy.

And although anti-Western sentiment has been a cornerstone of the regime and Iran since 1979, protesters today seem to be uninterested in the role of the West in their country.

Despite recent rapprochement with the U.S. and E.U., the Iranian regime continues to blame its economic failures on the West. It is not clear, however, exactly what the protesters today think of the West, specifically the U.S. — but they do not seem to buy the regime’s claims. Based on the slogans chanted by protesters, it appears they blame the regime, in particular Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, not the West, for their troubles.


Demographically, it seems that today’s protests have originated among more economically disadvantaged Iranians. So far it seems they have not spread to other segments of the Iranian population.

Today’s protests have also been greeted differently by the international press and community. In the 1970s, even after more than a year of intermittent protests, the world did not anticipate the fall of the shah. In August of 1978, just before Iran was gripped by massive anti-shah strikes, a CIA assessment deemed the government stable, asserting that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” Six months later, the shah fled Iran.

Conversely, while there was little indication over the last month that the Iranian government’s decision to end a popular cash transfer program and greater awareness of the government’s budget would spark mass protests against the regime, almost immediately upon the protests being noticed, the international media started breathlessly speculating about a revolution. It is still undetermined what international awareness and even support might mean for the protesters in Iran this time around.

In some sense, a comparison between the two protests is unreasonable. In 1979, the Iranian revolution was the culmination of over two years of regular criticism, intellectual discussion, protests and calls for a new system. Today, the protests are still young. They may evolve and mature into something larger with an underlying aspiration or multiple objectives. However, for the moment they appear mainly to be economically disadvantaged Iranians protesting an oppressive regime and its policies.

Revolutions can take time to form. Today, the protests are still taking shape, and as the regime responds violently, there is room for growth, exploration and expression of goals and ideologies that could lead to regime change and a new era for Iran.

This article was first published in The Washington Post.


Ellen R. Wald

About the author

“Ellen R. Wald is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation specializing in energy and geopolitics. Her forthcoming book, Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power, explores the central role of Aramco in Saudi history. Dr. Wald is an energy consultant, writes weekly columns on energy and geopolitics for Forbes, for Investing.com, and is also an adjunct professor of Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University in Florida.

“Previously, Dr. Wald held academic appointments at Boston University, Cambridge University (UK) the University of Wyoming, and the University of Georgia. She received a BA in history and Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and a PhD in history from Boston University.” {From the Saudi Foundation website.}

See her website. See her on Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy.

Arabia Foundation logo

About the Arabia Foundation

The Arabia Foundation is an independent, Washington, DC-based think tank focused on the geopolitics and socioeconomics of the Middle East with a particular focus on the states of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Established in 2017, our core mission is to provide insights and encourage debate on the domestic and foreign politics of key regional states and non-state actors as well as their relationships with the United States. We also aim to highlight and contextualize the significant social and economic transformations that are currently taking place within many of these countries.

“Our reports, analyses, commentary, and events are designed to be a resource for {those} who wish to better understand the complexities of an opaque part of the world that remains critical to global stability. The Arabia Foundation is …privately funded by corporate and individual donations. For more information, follow us on Twitter (@ArabiaFdn) and on Facebook.”

Note their all-star Advisory Board and the analytical depth of their professional staff.

For More Information

See this example of the mad response by US national security gurus to the Iranian protests: arm the protesters with explosives. Even for the warmongers at Lawfare, that’s a step too far.  Also see these posts at Moon Of Alabama (not a neutral source, regard its content with skepticism, the links are useful):

Ideas! For ideas about using your Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Iran, and especially these…

  1. Threats to attack Iran are smoke. Sanctions on Iran are our tool. Weakening Iran is our goal.
  2. Hegemon at work on Iran, doing what hegemonic powers do. No war needed – or likely.
  3. Stratfor: Iran’s Hard-Liners lose the election. Big changes ahead.
  4. Stratfor: Iran’s mullahs and the Saudi Princes fight to control the internet.
  5. Vital but lost history: how we overthrew Iran’s democracy.
  6. Stratfor: Iran’s leaders face their greatest challenge.
Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom's Pursuit of Profit and Power
Available at Amazon.

Ellen Wald’s new book about Saudi Arabia.

Pre-order her new book Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power. From the publisher…

A history of the most profitable company in the world, Saudi Aramco, and the story behind the family that ruthlessly maneuvered to control this multi-trillion dollar enterprise.

The Saudi royal family and Aramco leadership are, and almost always have been, motivated by ambitions of long-term strength and profit.  They use Islamic law, traditional ideology, and harsh justice to maintain stability and their own power, but underneath the thobes and abayas and behind the religious fanaticism and illiberalism lies a most sophisticated and ruthless business enterprise.  Today, that corporation is poised to pull off the biggest IPO in history.

Over more than a century, fed by ambition and oil wealth, al Saud, as the royal family is known, has come from next to nothing to rule as absolute monarchs, a contrast with the world around them and modernity itself.  The story starts with Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdul Aziz, a lowly refugee embarking on a daring gambit to reconquer his family’s ancestral home?the mud-walled city of Riyadh. It takes readers almost to present day, when the multinational family business has made al Saud the wealthiest family in the world and on the cusp of a new transformation.

Now al Saud and its family business, Aramco, are embarking on their most ambitious move: taking the company public and preparing the country for the next generation.

2 thoughts on “Ellen Wald: Has another revolution begun in Iran?”

  1. The Man Who Laughs

    I tend to take pieces like this with a couple of boxes of Mortons. I see a lot of commentary about the protests by people who strike me as unlikely to have good sources of information in country, My default assumption is that any analysis I read reflects the prejudices of the analyst and little else.

    My analysis (Or personal prejudices, if you prefer) is that the Tehran government probably can and will kill its way out of whatever immediate difficulties it may be in, and that no help we could hope to provide to the protestors is likely to change this. Whatever it is these protestors want, I think they are most unlikely to get it.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Man,

      “I see a lot of commentary about the protests by people who strike me as unlikely to have good sources of information in country”

      If you think the Saudi’s don’t have good sources of info in Iran, then you’re kidding yourself.

      “My default assumption is that any analysis I read reflects the prejudices of the analyst and little else.”

      That seems absurd. Analysis written by people ignorant of the subject is waste paper. But experts have opinions and biases — because they’re human. But that doesn’t mean that their analysis reflects only their bisas.

      “My analysis”

      What is the basis for your expertise and useful info, so that your analysis supersedes a report written by someone who has both?

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