Iran's 1979 Revolution Is A Cautionary Tale

Steve Inskeep talks to Dr. Abbas Milani about how events in Egypt compare to the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and has just finished a biography of the Iranian monarch called The Shah.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The popular protests sweeping the Arab world have now spread beyond it. The Islamic Republic of Iran stands just at the edge of the Arab nations of the Middle East. And in Tehran yesterday, thousands of people marched in favor of democratic reforms. Security forces dispersed the protestors with tear gas.

INSKEEP: Iran's Islamist leaders came to power themselves through revolution. The Ayatollah Khomeini emerged on top in 1979. And for Abbas Milani, this is a cautionary tale worth recalling amid today's protests. Milani was a professor at Tehran University when the shah of Iran fled the country.

Now he has written a biography of the Shah. He recalls a broad democratic opposition in Iran until clerics began taking over.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Author, "The Shah: A Biography"): They began to take over, initially, by Khomeini returning to Iran.

INSKEEP: Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Paris and he dramatically returned a few weeks after the Shah left.

Mr. MILANI: Precisely. He returned to very jubilant celebration, delivered a very tough message and said I will punch this government in the nose, literally. This is his famous words. And he said I will appoint a new government. And he appointed a very soft-spoken liberal figure as the head of the Provisional Transitional government of Iran.

And the cabinet that he introduced, it was not at all a clerical regime. Immediately, of course, Khomeini appointed for each of these ministries his own representative. So you had, virtually, from moment one, kind of a dual power. The government officially in charge of the ministry, but a clergy representing Khomeini meddling in every affair, learning the rope, learning where they could take over, which happened about a year from the time of the revolution.

INSKEEP: Do you think Ayatollah Khomeini always knew what he wanted to do or that he simply got into a situation, saw an opportunity, saw a chance for power and couldn't turn it down.

Mr. MILANI: I think he knew, very clearly, what he wanted. He had talked about this form of government in many of his earlier writings. But in '79, in the month before the revolution, he realized that what the people of Iran want is democracy. That's why he hid his intention.

And because his books were banned by the secret police - Shah's secret police, Savak, there was no chance for the Iranian intellectuals to seriously know what the man stood for.

INSKEEP: I suppose Ayatollah Khomeini's story is one of the reasons that people are disturbed when they see popular revolutions in Egypt. But I wonder if Khomeini's story is also a reason not to worry too much about Egypt, because it is hard to see the colossal religious figure in the Egyptian story that would be the parallel of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr. MILANI: You're absolutely right. There is no charismatic leader like Khomeini who could take over this movement, but there is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is well organized and has deep roots in Egyptian society.

But I think, even Egyptian Islamists, have been trying to stay clear of giving the sense that they're trying to repeat in Egypt what has happened in Iran. Khomeini's name, I think, has become almost radioactive for Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood has been very gingerly trying to say this is not an Islamic revolution. This is a democratic revolution. So...

INSKEEP: Do you believe them?

Mr. MILANI: No, I don't, to be honest with you. I think Muslim Brotherhood has an established record of wanting to create a government based on Sharia, and to me...

INSKEEP: Islamic law.

Mr. MILANI: Islamic law. And to me, you cannot have a government based on Sharia that is democratic, because in any society - Egypt included - there are people who are not believers.

My hope is that the Muslim Brotherhood has, in fact, learned the lesson of Iran and has decided to stay the course of democracy and see whether they can win a fair election and convince people that they will walk away when they lose an election.

INSKEEP: What advice would you give to someone like you who's on the streets of Cairo today?

Mr. MILANI: Well, my primary suggestion to them would be, be very deliberate in what you do. Do not get caught in the euphoria of simply getting rid of the bad guy without having some kind of a sense of how you're going to transition to the post bad guy day. Otherwise, you will be caught unready by those who have designs on your democracy.

INSKEEP: Abbas Milani directs the Iranian studies program at Stanford University and is author of "The Shah: A Biography."

Thanks very much.

Mr. MILANI: It's been a pleasure, sir.

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