IRAN, 1978 — Millions took to the streets to protest Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s dictator. Liberals, communists, moderates, feminists, students, Kurds, Christians, Muslim radicals, and even Iranian Jews all had grievances against the shah.

Business owners and oil workers went on strike, crippling the economy. Demonstrations grew so large that the shah’s military and secret police could not quash the rebellion. Some soldiers even joined the protestors.

The shah’s grip on power deteriorated so rapidly that he fled Iran on January 16, 1979. A provisional government took over. And Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s most famous religious and political dissident, returned from exile. Iranians hoped that human rights would finally be upheld and democracy allowed to flourish. Instead Khomeini’s followers crushed all opposition and installed a strict Islamic government, the only such regime in the Islamic world to seize power through popular revolution.

Women were ordered to wear traditional garb and lost several legal rights. Independent journalists were tormented, even killed, and so were outspoken students and scholars. Thousands of people — mostly those deemed loyal to the shah — fled the country. Thousands of others were jailed or killed.

In November 1979, after President Jimmy Carter allowed the shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, Khomeini’s most virulent supporters captured sixty-six hostages from the U.S. embassy. New Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, whom Khomeini appointed, tried to get the hostages released, but Khomeini refused. Bazargan resigned. And U.S. citizens instantly threw their hate toward Khomeini.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith, ©2008 Endeavors.

Stateside, Charles Kurzman was a teenager back in 1979 when he gathered with classmates outside a Washington D.C. mosque. They waved signs: Honk if you hate the Ayatollah.

“Lots of drivers honked,” remembers Kurzman, now a sociologist at UNC.

But the D.C. mosque was not Iranian or even Shi‘i, the main branch of Islam in Iran. The mosque was Saudi-affiliated, a Sunni house of worship. So protesting outside that particular mosque was like protesting outside a Baptist church because of something the Pope did.

“I was embarrassed when a teacher pointed this out to me,” Kurzman says. He then learned that Khomeini wasn’t even an ayatollah, the title for high-ranking Shi‘i clergy. A year earlier, Khomeini had been promoted by his followers to the title of Imam, which set him apart from other leaders. “To religious Iranians, continued reference to the ayatollah was a sign of ignorance or hostility.”

As a Harvard undergraduate, Kurzman wrote his thesis on the Iranian Revolution, and continued his work as a Cal-Berkeley graduate student. He found plenty of reasons why Iranians would protest and strike in 1978. Pahlavi was a tyrant who suppressed political dissent and abolished Iran’s multi-party system. He actually said his people weren’t mature enough for democracy. He hoarded vast oil wealth while the lower class suffered. The reasons are endless. But protests, Kurzman knew, don’t usually lead to full-blown revolution.

In 1978, as the protests were in full swing, the shah’s regime remained strong. The United States fully backed it. His military was intact, his secret police still brutal. How exactly could protests and strikes lead to the shah’s ouster?

Today, anti-government rallies are popping up again in Iran. Could Iran undergo another revolution?

Sidling up to Iranians

In 1989 Kurzman applied for a visa to Iran to interview participants in the revolution, but his request was denied. Instead he went to Istanbul, where a large business district caters to Iranian importers and tourists. With a notepad and bulky tape recorder, Kurzman approached Iranians and gave his spiel in Persian: “Hello, I’m an American student writing a dissertation. Can I interview you about your experiences during the revolution?”

Kurzman conducted over one hundred interviews and compiled evidence that debunked some of the typical explanations for why the revolution had happened.

One historical explanation was that Khomeini called for protests and people flooded the streets in the name of Islam. Kurzman talked to one man who said that he didn’t attend a demonstration against the shah because he had previously planned a family picnic. “I was religious,” he told Kurzman, “but not blindly religious.”

Another explanation for revolution was that international pressure forced the shah to uphold human rights, which opened the door for people to organize and publicly protest the government. But Kurzman spoke to people who said they still feared retribution from the shah’s secret police despite international pressure.

Also, some sociologists assumed that revolutionaries met covertly in mosques to copy and distribute Khomeini’s pronouncements and to concoct plans for demonstrations. But one man told Kurzman that he and others could not gather in mosques because most senior clerics were opposed to such blatant activism. A lot of clerics didn’t even agree that the shah should be overthrown.

Kurzman found that a lot of people participated in the revolution because the crowds of demonstrators were already so large. One person told him: “I hadn’t planned on taking part in the demonstration; I just wanted to see what was going on. But when I came and saw so many people, I suddenly decided to join in.”

Other researchers found similar accounts, which helped Kurzman conclude that massive numbers of Iranians joined the movement only when they decided there was enough safety in numbers and only when they began believing that daily protests and strikes could actually topple the regime.

Kurzman says that Khomeini called for widespread rebellion in 1977 but the people did not respond, much to Khomeini’s chagrin. An entire year passed before demonstrations and strikes attracted huge numbers of people. And this happened when Iranians began thinking that the movement could actually overthrow the regime. “Only then did a lot of people begin to consider the monarchy illegitimate,” Kurzman says. “Only then did they testify to the power of Islam.”

Today in Iran, demonstrations are relatively small — but so were the ones in 1977 before the revolution was in full swing.

Kurzman wrote his dissertation but didn’t publish a book on his theory until he caught a huge break. In 1999, as an assistant professor of sociology at UNC, Kurzman went to a conference in Iran. In a bookstore across the street from Tehran University he found an entire shelf of declassified documents, including detailed notes from the shah’s secret police about opposition meetings and memoirs from religious leaders, moderates, and liberal oppositionists. It was the mother lode, released to the public under Iran’s reformist president Mohammed Khatami.

Kurzman mailed the boxes of books to Chapel Hill, where he pored over the collection with a skeptic’s eye for two years. And with help from other scholarly works that had popped up since his dissertation, he published The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, a book that punches holes — lots of them — in the accepted explanations for the shah’s ouster.

The usual suspects

The sociologists were right. At first, international pressure caused the shah to loosen his stranglehold on political dissent. As a result, liberal activists published pro-democracy pamphlets and organized meetings. But Kurzman found that President Jimmy Carter did not push the matter when he met the shah in the autumn of 1977, after which moderate opposition leader Mehdi Bazargan said, “Repression again seemed the order of the day.” Sure enough, U.S. diplomats confirmed that the shah’s secret police “clamped down rather severely in late November 1977.” Liberals retreated back into silence.

“There was no political opportunity here,” Kurzman says.

Only after the shah’s secret police clamped down did radical Muslims begin to organize. But senior clerics wouldn’t allow them to use the mosques at first.

Other sociologists determined that revolution erupted because of Iran’s unique cultural and religious traditions. Kurzman says the opposite: revolutionaries subverted these traditions. For instance, radicals marched during Ramadan and women joined demonstrations. Both were traditional no-nos. Mourning ceremonies for martyrs had always been reserved for prominent figures, such as Khomeini’s son Mostafa, who died in 1977. But radicals began organizing such ceremonies for ordinary people. That was not traditional at all. Neither was setting up microphones for anti-government speeches during such religious processions.

Kurzman says that for decades, being religiously devout meant certain things, including supporting the shah. That changed during the revolution. All of a sudden being religiously devout meant that you were opposed to the shah.

Some sociologists say that Shi‘i Muslims were more willing than Sunni Muslims to die a martyr’s death.

“But self-described ‘fanatics’ who had pledged to give their lives for the cause told me they turned and ran when security forces arrived,” Kurzman says.

Click to read photo caption. Photo: Daniel Hassard; ©2008 Endeavors.

Most incredibly, extremists forsook centuries of religious tradition when they ordained Khomeini as divinely inspired and the leader of Iran. Revolutionaries wanted one religious authority to rule Iran. That was a new thought — Khomeini’s, actually.

The anti-explanation

It would be easy to assume that Iran’s set of novel circumstances — including a sluggish economy — formed a perfect storm for the shah’s ouster. But if so, why couldn’t the U.S. government see it coming?

In October 1978, during the heat of protest, a then-secret CIA analysis determined that the shah would remain in power: “The political situation is unlikely to be clarified at least until late next year when the shah, cabinet, and the new parliament…begin to interact on the political scene.”

The United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) agreed: “The shah is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years.”

One hundred days later, the shah was tossed out. Khomeini — a seventy-nine-year-old religious cleric who had been in exile for fifteen years — took over.

The CIA and DIA were not alone. For decades Iranians thought that supplanting the shah was unthinkable. Even Khomeini was doubtful, according to his letters.

But Kurzman uncovered a telling statement from U.S. diplomat John Stempel that sheds light on what was happening on the ground. In October 1978, Stempel said that common Iranians were giving “serious coffee-house thought to other possibilities” besides the monarchy for the first time in twenty years. Washington ignored his warnings.

For years, Kurzman says, Iranians had been asking themselves if the opposition movement had a chance of ousting the shah. The answer was usually no. He says that Iranians who lived through the protests and strikes could not afford to sit on the sidelines; they had to predict who to support and how to carry on.

For instance, many shop owners and workers went to work even though they knew Khomeini had ordered a nationwide strike. Many people decided to stay at work or return home based on what their neighbors did.

Iranians started making decisions on the fly, not necessarily because of politics, culture, or religion. Shopkeepers put photos of Khomeini in their windows not because they loved him, but because they thought revolutionary youths would shatter store fronts that had no photo of Khomeini.

And the more people that joined the strikes and protests, the better Khomeini looked. A lot of people supported Khomeini even though they didn’t like him.

Kurzman found this statement from a banker in 1978: “Right now, Khomeini is the best hope to get rid of the current leeches of society. For now, I support him.”

Another protester said, “I hate Khomeini…but I hate the shah even more.”

Opposition leader Mehdi Bazargan said, “I don’t believe that religious scholars can run a government.” A month later he changed his mind. Kurzman says that people from all walks of life began to see Khomeini as a viable alternative to the shah. And when they began believing that protests and strikes could actually dethrone the shah, the movement attracted more and more people who had been sitting on the sidelines. Then the rebellion reached a critical mass. Millions of Iranians brought their country to a screeching halt. The shah was forced to flee.

But why did so many Iranians support Khomeini?

“On the one hand, Khomeini downplayed his vision of an Islamic government during the protests and strikes,” Kurzman says. “He restrained himself in public pronouncements and said other things instead, things about democracy and anti-imperialism that people wanted to hear.” Khomeini even said that he would retire or play a small advisory role after the revolution.

“On the other hand,” Kurzman says, “the other groups — communists, liberals, moderates — felt that they could take advantage of this widespread movement, which they thought presented the best opportunity to overthrow the shah. Then they’d take advantage of Khomeini, whose rule they thought would be a short-lived transition to something else. And all these groups had a different vision of what that something else would be.” They were united in their hate for the shah, but not in their view of governance, and not organizationally. Khomeini’s supporters crushed them.

The hereafter

Today Iran is arguably the best example of a democracy in the Middle East outside Turkey and Israel; Iranians elect their Parliament and president. Even so, Iran is still ruled by a theocracy headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And no matter what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says — and he has said many outlandish things — he does not call the shots when it comes to foreign policy. Khamenei does.

The United States now has Iran in its crosshairs because of Iran’s alleged uranium enrichment program and military support of Shi‘a militia inside Iraq. But Kurzman doubts that the United States will attack Iran because he doesn’t think U.S. military and mid-level civil servants will go along with politicians who want all-out war with Iran. And Kurzman doesn’t think the odds for another revolution are very good, either.

There are signs, though, that Iranian society is evolving, he says. In 2003 Kurzman created a survey to study Iranian attitudes toward gender equality and hired a private research group in Iran to implement it. The results show that a majority of Iranians say they are feminists.

“Even a majority of men say they’re feminists,” Kurzman says. “Even a majority of older, uneducated men say they are. Something has changed over the past quarter-century.”

In 2007 a women’s rights campaign called Change for Equality sent women door-to-door seeking one million signatures for a petition demanding an end to discriminatory laws. Iran also has a vibrant democracy movement that speaks for the millions of disillusioned Iranians who weren’t happy with the changes brought by the revolution. There have been pro-democracy and women’s rights rallies at Iranian universities. And there is a strong reform movement, though political reformists in Parliament have been marginalized.

Iran may be at a crossroads. Sixty percent of Iranians were born after the 1979 revolution, and most students are not passionate supporters of their government. In one recent display of antagonism, Iranian students burned a photo of Ahmadinejad when he gave a talk at a school. But students do not burn pictures of the Supreme Leader. For that, they could be jailed or killed.

Kurzman is quick to point out that these examples don’t mean that a revolution is inevitable any more than massive U.S. peace protests will end the war in Iraq.

“Could any country have a revolution at any moment? Yeah,” Kurzman says. “There’s plenty of latent sentiment that can be used against a lot of governments. But revolutions are rare and they don’t usually happen when you want them or expect them.”

They’re unpredictable, and as Iran shows, so are their outcomes.