Revolution at 40: Experts Reflect

The original co-authors of "The Iran Primer" book reflect on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s revolution. Their comments cover the diversity of analysis. 

Photo by Bokopix via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of The Intelligence Project, The Brookings Institution

“The Iranian Revolution is the most pivotal event in America’s relationship with the Middle East. Seven American Presidents had embraced the Shah as their guardian of the Persian Gulf. President Jimmy Carter has been blamed for ‘losing Iran.’  In fact, the Shah lost his empire because of his poor decisions, arrogance and weak leadership. Rather than the strong man Americans convinced themselves he was, the Shah was an indecisive person prone to avoiding decisions. In 1978 and 1979 he prevaricated. It cost him the throne.

“His opponent Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the decisive leader utterly determined to establish his Islamic Republic. He was determined to destroy the Pahlavi dynasty. He was equally determined to humiliate the United States and its President. He cost Carter his re-election and made a fool out of Ronald Reagan with his arms for hostages gambit.

“Forty years later the Islamic Republic and the United States are still antagonists, competing for power across the Middle East. But they also have some overlapping interests. The challenge for American Presidents now is to pursue aggressively counter terrorism against Iran and it’s protégés while managing the issues where we have common interests like fighting ISIS.  

“Instead the Trump administration is pursuing a regime change policy towards Iran. The keystone of his policy is abandoning the nuclear deal endorsed by the United Nations Security Council unilaterally. His CIA Director is on record reporting that Iran is abiding by the deal months after the President quit the agreement. Violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a fundamental and dangerous mistake, perhaps as foolish as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”


Abbas Milani, Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University, and Research Fellow, Hoover Institution

“The 40th anniversary of the revolution has become for the regime more a moment of reckoning than an occasion for celebration. There is now a virtual consensus—recently reluctantly joined by Mr. Khamenei who called for ‘structural changes’—that the status quo is untenable. Iran has witnessed 40 years of:

  • crony capitalism, 
  • parasitic intrusion by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the country’s economy, politics, and culture, 
  • systematic misogyny, 
  • preferential Apartheid-like treatment of the clergy and their children as “masters” (agha and aghazadeh), 
  • a political elite of about 2,300 men who for four decades have monopolized all top national leadership position, 
  • the virtual absence of women from that elite, squandering of the country’s natural, human, and financial capital (creating a Diaspora that now comprise nearly ten percent of the population and a water crisis of historic proportions), 
  • misguided regional politics that combines bombast, virulent anti-Americanism, strident anti-Zionism that often hides anti-Semitism with squandering billions in proxy wars, 
  • increasing isolation around the world and no less increasing dependence on Russia, and China, 
  • chronic double digit unemployment and inflation, 
  • a restive poor and an Internet-savvy society angry at the regime’s draconian efforts at censorship.

“These have all combined to make this the regime’s hour of reckoning. Positive changes in the society—increased literacy, electrification, urbanism, expanded internet access, increased number of university students and institutions of higher learning—have all been overshadowed by the structural obstacles to a genuine, democratic development of Iran—and the dream for that democratic transition was the main impetus of the 1979 revolution.”

David Albright, Founder/President, Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS)

Andrea Stricker, Senior Policy Analyst, ISIS

“Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, the regime has brought the people of Iran sanctions, oppression, and internal strife.  Aside from its regional malign behavior, Iran also created a poorly-considered covert nuclear weapons program that has resulted in further sanctions harm to the people. The regime should voluntarily open its nuclear program to more thorough international inspections to ensure its military intentions have truly ended. It should take steps to reduce the nuclear threat that will materialize following the end of the nuclear deal restrictions, and relieve sanctions for the benefit of the country.”   


Ellen Laipson, Professor, International Security Program Manager, Director for the Center of Security Policy Studies, George Mason University

“Reading Iran - the task of trying to understand the motivations, intentions and capabilities of the government in Tehran - has become harder since the U.S. Administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement. The JCPOA had created a channel for official contact, albeit on the specific issues related to Iran's nuclear activities. Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry had urged the incoming Trump Administration to maintain contact with Iranian counterparts during the 2016-17 transition, but was rebuffed by the new team's opposition to the JCPOA, and their belief that engaging Tehran was a feckless pursuit.

“Diplomatic contact with adversary states is not sufficient to build the complete picture of what is going on, but in the case of the long estrangement between Washington and Tehran, it was potentially an important way to deepen understanding, seek information or send messages, rather than through third parties or formal demarches.

“Other valuable channels that bring insight about Iran's intentions and likely behavior are intelligence, visits by former U.S. officials, consultations with friendly countries that have missions in Iran, and insightful writings by journalists and academic visitors to the country. At present, the atmosphere in Tehran is less congenial for journalists and other non-government visitors. The hostile and punitive approach to Iran taken by the Trump Administration has been met with a renewed mistrust of American intentions by Iran's officials, and their suspicions about foreign visitors make it a high risk endeavor for western experts to visit the country.

“Reading Iran remotely from analysis of media, emigre sources or governmental decrees is no substitute for direct contact. The history of U.S.-Iran relations is replete with misunderstandings and missed opportunities. After the brief respite provided by the JCPOA negotiations and implementation, the odds of Washington misreading Tehran are again quite high.”


Haleh Esfandiari, Public Policy Fellow and former and founding Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

“Forty years after the Iranian revolution finds the regime still bound by the slogans and founding pillars of the revolution. Two generations of Iranians have come of age since 1979, and they have little interest in the revolution or what it originally stood for. The young comprise almost 50 percent of the population and they have aspirations far different from the men who run their country. They desire an Iran that is part of the world of nations, that does not bully but gets along with its neighbors, that is inclusionist not isolationist in temperament, and that is respected and not a pariah among the community of nations. At home, they aspire to the rule of law and not the rule of the few. They look for economic well-being for all, not only for the few. The chasm between the younger generation and Iran’s rulers is wide. Given their past behavior and current priorities, it seems highly unlikely Iran’s rulers will be able to close it.”


Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan

“What I most regret is a missed opportunity of recent provenance. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had offered the Islamic Republic of Iran the prospect of rejoining the world community and greater integration of its economy with those of the industrialized democracies. There is no guarantee that this integration would have improved Iran's poor human rights record, but it was at least a possibility. With the Trump administration's petulant violation of the treaty signed by predecessor, the Obama administration, and the imposition of severe sanctions, Iran has again been pushed to the margins. This combined American fecklessness and aggressiveness is unlikely to produce significant changes in regime policy, and it could deeply harm other non-proliferation efforts by undermining the confidence of potential break-out states in negotiated outcomes. The U.S. about-face will certainly deeply harm the Iranian civilian population, and it could well end in further turmoil in a region that can ill afford it.”

Photo Credit: Khomeini ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)