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.
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 percent, 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.