Protest, Rebellion, and Revolution from 1978-1979 Iran to the Arab Spring: Similarities and Differences

According to John Goodwin, a revolution broadly is “any and all instances in which a state or a political regime is overthrown and thereby transformed by a popular movement in an irregular, extra-constitutional and/or violent fashion”. In other words, it can be defined as the collapse of the political order and its substitution by a new one. Whilst political dynamics justify the social structure slump; the moral dynamics underpin its teleology. Notably, “social structure” encompasses the state and other institutions and independent corporate entities. Regarding the religious sphere, the hierocracy is the most important of them.

Generally, the factors shaping social structure collapse in revolutions entail three sets of causes.

Firstly, the immediate factors comprise internal weaknesses and vulnerabilities and the resulting concerted action of the social groups opposing it. These groups may embrace various purposes for opposing the regime concerning politics, morality, and class interests. Secondly, actors and components that shaped it, as the role of military apparatus, the significance of cities, and the communications channel for organizing and spreading the message. Eventually, ideological factors on political culture and international politico-military context provide significant points of reference for better comprehending causes and preconditions of revolutions (Ardiç, N., 2012).

Although the literature has always been more emphatic about the causes of the onset of revolutionary movements, this analysis highlights their aftermath.

Notably, this essay discusses the theoretical significance of the Iranian Revolution (1979) and the so-called Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening) through a comparative historical perspective. Whereas both have the same democratic aspirations, the former is generally qualified as a revolution, while the latter is broadly contemplated as a wave of rebellions and protests. To provide that, this paper will outline analogies and divergencies between them through certain of the factors previously mentioned, particularly insisting on the importance of the discrepancies.

Considering comparative method, while 1979 Iranian may postpone to 1798 French; 2011 Arabic is undoubtedly not 1789 French, 1917 Russian or 1989 Soviet.

Nevertheless, it is not even 1968, a culturally important phenomenon, politically insignificant though. According to Keith Simpson, “The historical parallel for the Arab spring is not 1989, it is 1848-51. It is the European revolutions that saw in some cases, regimes being overthrown and in other cases reactionary forces able to hold on to power. […] It is mixed”. In other words, 1848 Springtime in Europe, though defeated by violent repression and political regression, marked the beginning of a profound long-term process, a then irresistible advance of nationalism and, in perspective, democratic and republic furtherance (Zoja F., 2015).

Iran 1979

The return to power of Mohammad Reza stated the alignment of Iranian foreign policy with US interests in the Middle East. In order to guarantee the defence of the Middle East from the influences of Nasser’s radical Pan-Arab ideology in Egypt and the growing Islamism in the region, the Shah Pahlavi government the country in a authoritarian way.

At the international level, he sided with the United States in several operations. For instance, he assisted Oman in the repression of Marxist rebels in southern Yemen and supported pro-US Pakistan against Balkan rebels in 1973. In addition, he participated in the Ogden War, providing military aid to Somalia.

From the domestic policy point of view, the Shah initiated the so-called “White Revolution”, which increased social tensions and widespread resentment of the prominent Shiite clergy and many social strata. While the former rejected cultural reforms to westernize Iran, the latter, which comprised the traditional bourgeoisie (the merchants of the bazaar, the petty bourgeoisie of distributive trades, and the craftsmen of the bazaar guilds), was primarily interested in overthrowing the Shah due to the massive public intervention in the economy. Notably, these groups felt threatened by the developmental economic policies of the state. Moreover, they sensed a relative deprivation caused by the immense gains made by the court-connected industrialists (Zoja F., 2015).

All the abovementioned motivations provided fertile ground for a new power change, soon turning into a watershed event for the history of the contemporary Middle East.    

As a result, in the general discontent, the role of the Shiite clergy and the popularity of the Ayatollah Khomeini were progressively strengthening. The ulema, at first excluded, had become the main opposition block to the Shah.

Khomeini’s strategy developed during his permanence in France could depend partly on its family origins, little investigated by literature.

After having ruled for decades the Indian class, Khomeini’s family returned to Iran with the arrival of the British Crown. However, their imperial vocation remained.

In a nutshell, the Ayatollah considered the 1950s and 1960s Iranian politics non-functional to the country’s strategic interests. From the Achaemenid (550-330 BC) to the Parthians (247-224 AD), and Sassanid (224-637 AD) dynasties, Iran had never been an ally of its greatest Western enemy. Moreover, considering the universalist aims of the Shiite vision, Iranians – as a Persian population – necessarily had to embrace pan-Islamism and not pan-Arabism. Hence, he strategically leveraged the middle class dissatisfied with the Shah’s policies by influencing their opposition to the Shah in a theocratic key (Pedde N., 2020).

Nevertheless, the revolutionary strategy elaborated in France included a profound contradiction of terms: Khomeini always compared it to the French revolution of 1798.

Indeed, the French Revolution differed profoundly from the revolutionary idea advocated by the Ayatollah. While the former had determined the separation between state and church, the latter envisaged a total overlap between temporal and spiritual power.

To sum up, Khomeini strategy implied a new “theory of the jurist” (velayat-e faqih), which stipulated that the Shiite ulema, as always been “guardians” of religion in Iran, could rule in place of the Shah to ensure the protection of Shiite identity in the country. Nonetheless, most of the Shiite clergy did not share Khomeini’s revolutionary ideas, at least initially (Zoja F., 2015).

In this scenario connotated by social and civil tensions, Ali Shariati appeared. Describing Islam in strongly Marxist terms, he soon became the proponent of the so-called Red Shia. In this way, he allowed for the absolute convergence of the Banzai, the middle classes, the clergy, and the secular and leftist society[1]. Eventually, Marxist-style Shiism became the leading political vector of the revolution.

As a consequence of the gradual increase of protests within the country, the Shah called free elections and abolished the restrictive measures on the press. However, both political decisions proved futile. Khomeini returned to Tehran on January 31, 1979. Eleven days later, the army announced its commitment to the struggle: the revolution was complete.

In the end the national identity element – which ideally embraced all components of the anti-monarchist opposition – and the humiliation induced by foreign hegemony merged into a feeling of aversion to the Crown.

After the revolution triumph and the Islamic Republic’s birth, the theocratic authorities controversially managed the nationalistic narrative, though.

On the one hand, nationalism, conceived as exogenous and superior to the regional context in which it is geographically embedded, celebrates the glories of pre-Islamic Persia and it is characterized by a pronounced anti-Arab sentiment due to the perception of Persian identity and culture as superior. On the other hand, the Islamic Revolution’ ultimate objective implicates the progressive propagation of Shiite Islam within the entire Muslim world to emancipate the Iranian people from foreign influences (Toscano R., 2011).

 Lacking the transnational element that connoted the Revolution, nationalism is theoretically in contrast to Islamic ideology. Nonetheless, it was tolerated and widely nurtured to consolidate the new power system and suppress anti-monarchical ideologies (Pedde N., 2020).

Marking the beginning of the competition with the Saudis for hegemony in the Middle East, the Islamic Revolution determined two orders of consequences: Iran’s return on the international scene and the disequilibrium of power in the region.

In order to contain the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia acted strategically trough the World Islamic League (1962), financing onerously the Islamic umma to spread Wahabism. In this way, the Saudis became the hegemonic cultural nation in the Middle East, at least for that moment. In the following decades, hegemonic relations would have been reversed due to the new Islam Revolution propaganda, which appealed to Islam’s people as a whole and sought to overcome religious sectarianism.

Arab Springs 2011

Between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, several riots spread from Tunisia to Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Djibouti.

The Arab revolts have marked a watershed for contemporary Middle East history, leading to the deposition, and in some cases to the death, of four heads of state of the countries concerned: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen.

At first sight, this wave of reforms seemed to have triumphed towards autocratic regimes of the Middle East. At least, that is what the events in Tunisia and Tahir Square in Egypt showed (al-Rasheed, M., 2011).

People, especially youths, had taken to the streets clamouring to end authoritarianism and demanding greater justice and political and social freedom.

Just as in the case of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the first determining cause was the wearisome economic stagnation that did not allow the middle class – increasingly educated and aware – to find a worthy occupation.

People who took to the streets understood two things. First, even though authoritarian governments had enjoyed American and European support for decades, the rebellion had to be organized against the dictatorial regimes. Second, the Arabs had become aware that by creating fraudulent ideological hegemonies and false unanimity, anti-imperialism had historically been used to evade the fundamental questions of power and democracy (Shapiro J.L., 2017).

However, in a relatively short time, pre-existing political forces – such as the army or religious organizations in the countryside (Islam as a unifying factor) – proved to be much more influential than the confused multitude that had taken to the streets in the previous weeks.

Therefore, it can be argued that the Arab Spring – a simplified term used by the Western media – was not a new event but rather dynamics repropose that had characterized the Middle East history since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (Poulis S.S., 2017).

In order to understand the structural reasons for the 2011 uprisings and protests, it is necessary to consider the background, i.e. the influence of Islam on local political culture and the international military-political context. While the former seems to have played a role of ideological unifier of the protesting masses, the latter is exhausted in the so-called paradigm of legitimate power that recognizes the inescapability of the unravelling of state power in the Middle East area (Noueihed, L. and Warren, A., 2012).

In a nutshell, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Western powers redesigned the region through the archetype of the European nation-state, endowing it with power but not legitimacy due to the absence of common cultural roots. The legitimacy’s absence led to the failure of subsequent attempts to separate spiritual and temporal power in the whole Muslim world. In addition, the non-existence of valid institutional alternative to the dictatorial form, resulted in the failure of the Arab revolts.

Moreover, the nation’s absence is undoubtedly one of the main differences that justify the success of the Iranian revolution and the failure of the springs. The Persian people are precisely a people with an imperial conception and a millenary tradition. As far as the Arabs are concerned, we cannot speak of a nation but a clan/tribe at most (Palma L., 2018).

In recent time, the most recent international reference coincides with the end of the Cold War and the polarization of the two superpowers. The constitution of the subsequent unipolar order determined the crisis of legitimacy and the absence of economic, political, and military support for the dictatorial regimes of the Arab world, which for a long time had guaranteed the protection of the strategic and economic interests of the powers in the Middle East region.

Another helpful element in the comparative analysis between the Iranian revolution (1979) and the wave of Arab counterrevolutions (2011) is the army’s role; the role of the military is essential for the success or failure of the revolution itself.

Firstly, following Ayatollah Khomeini return to Iran (1979), the military declared itself neutral, thus sanctioning the beginning of the Islamic Revolution.

However, in the case of Arab Springs, concurred different situations. In Yemen, security forces opened fire on rebel bands with the support of Saudi Arabia (interest in maintaining influence on Yemen). According to UN statistics, the army responding to Al-Assad’s orders claimed 7,500 civilian victims in Syria. In Libya, the internal army fractional determined the start of the civil war. In Tunisia, the army declared itself neutral, thus allowing the victory of the revolts – at least in the short term – and the subsequent free elections. In Egypt, just as in the Tunisian case, the increase in corruption had alienated the military force. However, through its attempts to block the democratic transition, the Egyptian army has never wanted to give up power. They were even reserving the use of violence, as in the famous case of Tahrir Square (Ardiç, N., 2012).

To conclude then, adopting a perspective of comparison in a historical key again, the wave of Arab rebellions of 2011 can be assumed at most as counter-revolution. Except for Tunisia and partly Egypt, the pre-existing military or political institutions repressed the revolts.


The Arab Springs can at best be compared to the European Springs of 1848, when the rulers brutally suppressed revolts throughout Europe. Nevertheless, they marked the beginning of a profound process, which would result in nationalism at first and then in democracy and republic. However, it is hard to state that this will occur for the Arab Springs, at least if the current authoritarian regimes hold power, not legitimacy (Palma L., 2018).

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 is intended a unique event in history because it unifies the temporal and spiritual power in the same person’s hands, unlike the French case of 1789.    

One thing is sure: the hundreds of thousands of citizens who took to the streets and squares were moved by feelings not dissimilar to those that animate protests and rebellions in the rest of the world, even in the West.

Just as Napoleon failed in exporting French Revolution to Spain or Southern Italy, and the Soviet Union fell in its attempt to modernize Afghanistan with weapons, the United States and Europe cannot exploit military force to guarantee prevalence of freedom over tyranny in Meddle East and North Africa (Pedde N., 2020).

It is only fair that the people of the Middle East should become the true and sole architects of their own revolutions (Hessler P., 2011).

Alice Tommasi


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[1] During the ’70s, the protests the Shah were characterized only by a strong presence of lower-middle classes, secular intellectuals, young students of socialist orientation. Therefore, the secular middle class lacked a leader that could represent it: on the one hand the Marxist movements, exhausted by 20 years of repression by the Shah, were too weak; on the other the National Front could not express any suitable leadership role.


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