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The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran
by Charles KURZMAN
Harvard University Press, 2004
Paper: 978-0-674-01843-3 | Cloth: 978-0-674-01328-5 | eISBN: 978-0-674-03983-4
Library of Congress Classification DS318.8.K87 2004
Dewey Decimal Classification 955.0542


The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would remain on the throne for the foreseeable future: This was the firm conclusion of a top-secret CIA analysis issued in October 1978. One hundred days later the shah--despite his massive military, fearsome security police, and superpower support was overthrown by a popular and largely peaceful revolution. But the CIA was not alone in its myopia, as Charles Kurzman reveals in this penetrating work; Iranians themselves, except for a tiny minority, considered a revolution inconceivable until it actually occurred. Revisiting the circumstances surrounding the fall of the shah, Kurzman offers rare insight into the nature and evolution of the Iranian revolution and into the ultimate unpredictability of protest movements in general.

As one Iranian recalls, "The future was up in the air." Through interviews and eyewitness accounts, declassified security documents and underground pamphlets, Kurzman documents the overwhelming sense of confusion that gripped pre-revolutionary Iran, and that characterizes major protest movements. His book provides a striking picture of the chaotic conditions under which Iranians acted, participating in protest only when they expected others to do so too, the process approaching critical mass in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. Only when large numbers of Iranians began to "think the unthinkable," in the words of the U.S. ambassador, did revolutionary expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A corrective to 20-20 hindsight, this book reveals shortcomings of analyses that make the Iranian revolution or any major protest movement seem inevitable in retrospect.

Reviews of this book:
Sociologist Kurzman addresses five familiar sets of explanations about why the Iranian revolution took place--political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military arguments--and finds each valuable but flawed, offering instead an 'anti-explanation' that foregrounds anomaly and characterizes the revolutionary moment as confusing, unstable, and as unpredictable for participants as it is for outside observers. Despite this, optimism is in order; there is, after all, exciting potential in moments in which the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable.
--Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

Reviews of this book:
When Elias Canetti, the Nobel-prize winning theorist, spoke of a people's 'propensity to incendiarism,' he had in mind one of the most dangerous traits of mass gatherings: their potential for unpredictable combustibility. Iran's Islamic revolution, like many other uprisings, was a consummate instance of this, Kurzman argues, and he continues in Canetti's tradition by using the Shah's overthrow to engage in his own meditation on crowds and power. Kurzman's investigation propelled him to the Islamic republic, where he conducted countless interviews, in an attempt to chart the eddies and undercurrents of one of the world's most complex and sudden social upheavals...The result is a thought-provoking combination of journalism and analysis that offers an atypical juxtaposition of voices: shopkeepers, lawyers and high school students share their views on what happened, as do academics and policymakers.
--Publishers Weekly

In the world of politics, a true revolution is the perfect storm - rare and uniquely destructive. Can the social scientist comprehend and perhaps even predict the course of such a complex phenomenon? Charles Kurzman takes a cool, dispassionate look at the many explanations of the Iranian revolution and finds them inadequate. Drawing on an impressive range of original research, he argues that mass revolutionary movements become viable suddenly - and unpredictably - as perceptions of potential success acquire popular acceptance. This book is a major addition to the literature on the Iranian revolution - and revolution in general.
--Gary Sick, former member of the National Security Council staff, and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University

See other books on: Iran | KURZMAN, Charles | Middle East | Protest movements | Revolution, 1979
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