The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran

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Harvard University Press, Jun 1, 2009 - History - 304 pages
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The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would remain on the throne for the foreseeable future: This was the firm conclusion of a top-secret CIA analysis issued in October 1978. One hundred days later the shah--despite his massive military, fearsome security police, and superpower support was overthrown by a popular and largely peaceful revolution. But the CIA was not alone in its myopia, as Charles Kurzman reveals in this penetrating work; Iranians themselves, except for a tiny minority, considered a revolution inconceivable until it actually occurred. Revisiting the circumstances surrounding the fall of the shah, Kurzman offers rare insight into the nature and evolution of the Iranian revolution and into the ultimate unpredictability of protest movements in general.

As one Iranian recalls, "The future was up in the air." Through interviews and eyewitness accounts, declassified security documents and underground pamphlets, Kurzman documents the overwhelming sense of confusion that gripped pre-revolutionary Iran, and that characterizes major protest movements. His book provides a striking picture of the chaotic conditions under which Iranians acted, participating in protest only when they expected others to do so too, the process approaching critical mass in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. Only when large numbers of Iranians began to "think the unthinkable," in the words of the U.S. ambassador, did revolutionary expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A corrective to 20-20 hindsight, this book reveals shortcomings of analyses that make the Iranian revolution or any major protest movement seem inevitable in retrospect.


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The unthinkable revolution in Iran

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The Iranian revolution not only transformed the country's sociopolitical structures; it rewrote the geopolitical map of the Middle East. In many respects, the trajectory of events that culminated ... Read full review

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This is perhaps the best work on the Iranian revolution that I have seen, in one way or another better than those of Misagh Parsa, Said Amir Arjomand, Mansoor Moaddel, Ervand Abrahamian, or Nikki Keddie, the best English-language social scientists and historians who have written book-length studies on the revolution. Of them all, Charles Kurzman's is the richest, most compelling account and interpretation, tapping more primary and hard-to-get sources than any other work on the revolution, and evincing a real gift for interpreting the meanings of people's acts and words. And make no mistake, this revolution presents multiple layers of [End Page 1773] complexity; as one Iranian woman put it, "If you ask a thousand Iranians about the revolution, you will get a thousand different stories and explanations, and each is correct in its own way" (84).
Kurzman's general narrative and organizational strengths shine throughout the book, which is innovatively written and organized around competing theories. The standard explanations stressing the significance of the condition of the economy, the role played by U.S. influence, the internal cultural and organizational work of mobilization, and the limits of military repression are considered in turn. Without discarding any of them entirely, each is subjected to a barrage of awkward data and recalcitrant anomalies to reveal their limitations. Therefore, and further, because all prediction of revolutions is retrospective, he feels he has undermined most of the existing explanations.
The book builds up to a great final chapter stressing the significance of individuals' perceptions in deciding to join mass movements, showing how these change in the face of uncertainty. The argument goes something like this: as the shah wavered in his will to carry out full-on repression of the protests, their size swelled as people felt there would be safety in numbers. The influential free-rider problem is turned on its head by Kurzman and other "critical mass" theorists who argue instead, "What if people want to engage in collective action but only let themselves do so when it looks safe and seems likely to succeed?" (132). The key to this opening up of the moment to hitherto unthinkable alternatives is a feeling of the viability of those alternatives, and the making of "a viable movement" (the title of the chapter): "The point is not for some social scientist to look back, after the fact, and declare a movement to have been viable. The point is that people make such judgments in real time, during moments of confusion, and that these judgments can be self-fulfilling" (136).
Kurzman considers this an anti-explanation because "[i]nstead of seeking recurrent patterns in social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. . . . What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding" (138). The theoretical implications are profound, centering the actors' perceptions and their agency as key principles of social life, and lending support to Giddens's notion of structuration, but going beyond the theorist's abstractions and untested theory by the force of a rich empirical analysis. Foregrounding the confusing anomalies of lived experience in times of change allows Kurzman to speculate even further that "viability offers a window onto the whole of social life" (170), including the reproduction of routine social reality, putting the reader in mind of the ways the current Bush regime preys on the public's desire for a viable way of life in troubled times. In the Iranian context, "So long as revolution remained 'unthinkable,' it remained undoable" (172). When enough people came to think the unthinkable, the revolution triumphed though no one had predicted it.
Kurzman's thesis is a strong one that takes on existing theories of revolution and dominant styles of sociology more generally in a way that will draw discussion


The Emergence of Protest Political Explanations 1977
Mobilization of the Mosque Network Organizational Explanations EARLY 1978
Shii Appeals Cultural Explanations MID1978
General Strike Economic Explanations FALL 1978
Failure of the Fist Military Explanations WINTER 19781979
A Viable Movement AntiExplanation WINTER 19781979
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About the author (2009)

Charles Kurzman is Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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