Visiting author discusses history of the Iranian Revolution

March 22, 2019

A visiting professor from the London School of Economics spoke about human rights and the global history of the Iranian revolution, as part of the working process for his book to get reactions from the audience and collect ideas.

Professor Roham Alvandi is the Associate Professor of International History and Director of the Cold War Studies Project at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also a Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University.

Alvandi began by explaining the origins of his book, saying that the project grew out of his earlier work on Iran in the Cold War: he grew interested in the correlation between the time that major human rights movements were happening and the timing of the Iranian revolution. This brought him to global human rights and human rights in the Cold War, in connection to Iran.

Alvandi has two audiences: those that are interested in Iranian studies, as well as those who are interested in human rights and transnational history. He then proceeded to explain the historiography of the topic. When the revolution is looked at through the lens of human rights, two distinct narratives emerge.

The first narrative is U.S. President Jimmy Carter embracing human rights in the world, which undermined the Iranian leader, the Shah, and led to the revolution. The second narrative is one of a celebratory and romanticizing view on the revolution: the younger generation is able to identify with the cause of the revolution, which was fueled by the inequalities they faced. In Alvandi’s eyes, this is both a political and generational divide in opinions.

This brought Alvandi to two central questions: why was the Shah susceptible to pressure from this humans rights push, and in what way does the opposition instrumentalize human rights as well as its relationship with human rights?

Alvandi continued by saying that the protest started with 10 nights of poetry reading where poets openly criticize Shah: this was the first open public protest. What is still not understood, however, is why the Shah backed down, as everyone expected him to crack down on protests.

Another interesting aspect of this is the role that the opposition played in the outcomes of these events. The opposition did not write about human rights abuses in domestic papers, however they were widely mentioned in documents targeted at the international audience. This indicates that the issue of human rights abuses in Iran was aimed at the international community, rather than Iranian citizens, as the opposition never truly adopted the values of human rights.

A large concern for Iranian citizens, according to Alvandi, was westoxification, which in turn undermined the value of the liberal and social ideas in Iran, which were seen as the West’s attempt to control Iran. This also caused the rise of Iranian anti-imperialism.

Alvandi also highlighted the importance of the student movements in Germany and the United States to the Iranian Revolution. Iranian students in Germany were using the memory of the Holocaust as a way to push German students to support their issues. By making comparisons between the human rights abuses during the Holocaust and those that were occuring in Iran, the students were able to gather a large amount of support in Germany.

Gathering student protests in the United States was even more simple for the Iranian students because of the ongoing Vietnam War, which was a large concern for the American public. Other than the students, however, there was not much pressure on the Shah to change the way people are treated in Iran. According to Alvandi, Carter was not going to do much about the abuse of human rights in Iran.

Alvandi concluded by sharing his theory on the events with the audience. He believes that a large part of the problem was the idea of Iran being considered a part of the modern west. He also argued that the civilizational narrative was the most important, to weaken the power of the Shah. Just these factors alone were enough to cause the fall of the Shah.  

The event was sponsored by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, International and Global Studies Program, History Department and Politics Department.

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