By Kevan Harris
Ask Iranians what caused their country’s 1979 revolution, and usually a little folk sociology comes out. Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy was a “pressure cooker,” they say, and the top eventually was blown off. Authoritarian political rule coupled with rapid social change meant the revolution was inevitable. Around the country, I have been told this story many times from academics and armchair intellectuals to aging aunties.
Of course, as Jeff Goodwin recently pointed out, no set of political opportunities existed under the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1970s which could have provided an opening for successful mobilization from below to trigger a revolution. Yet a series of widening protest cycles over 1977-78 eventually paralyzed the state’s coercive apparatus, forced a fissure among political elites, and engineered a fiscal crisis. It was state breakdown theory in reverse. Even Theda Skocpol admitted that if any revolution had ever been “made,” Iran’s came closest to the description. But as Charles Kurzman persuasively argued, not only is the 1979 Iranian revolution unexplainable with our current theoretical toolkit of social science, it was also “unthinkable” to most of the participants making it.