Book Review of Charles Kurzman’s The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran

In Charles Kurzman’s The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, the author proposes several theories that caused the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military causes are presented for the collapse of the Shah’s regime as Kurzman weaves the narrative of the revolution in each chapter.[1] With each event, Kurzman also provides interviews and quotes from those who participated in the revolution: government officials, military men, and ordinary citizens. Using primary sources and with close examination of the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution, Kurzman argues that none of the explanations that have described past revolutions in other countries perfectly fit Iran’s own revolution.[2] Instead, the author gives his own explanation, an “anti-explanation” to give his own theory of why the Iranian Revolution was different than previous revolutions in the past and why it succeeded while others have failed.[3]

In Kurzman’s anti-explanation, he explains that researchers and historians should not use their current knowledge of an event to explain the past.[4] Instead they should put themselves in the event as if they were living it and use primary sources during that time for their research.[5] Kurzman himself uses statistical data of Iran’s economic situation, primary sources of protesters and politicians, and countless examples of why protesters chose to be involved in the revolution. The author is uncertain of the direct cause of the Iranian Revolution but he gives reasons to why each explanation has its flaws.[6] The first revolution theory was that Jimmy Carter’s involvement in Iran and the Shah’s liberal policies were the chief causes of the revolution.[7] However it wasn’t until Mostafa Khomenini’s death that the Islamic revolutionists decided to start protesting against the Shah, with popular support that had not been present beforehand.[8] The second theory was that the system of mosque networks in Iran helped to fuel and organize the revolution.[9] However older religious leaders were cautious about revolutionary protests and demonstrations against the Shah.[10] So it wasn’t until the revolution gained popular support that the religious leaders became unafraid, making the mosque networks more effective.[11] The third theory was that Shi’i Islam gave protesters a way to protest according to cultural tradition, using holidays and mourning rituals as outlets of their frustrations with the government.[12] However religious holidays and rituals had never been used for protest in Iran before, so the culture changed with the times, rather than influencing the people directly.[13] It was a tool, not a driving force.[14] The economic theory suggests that it was Iran’s economic recession that led to the revolution.[15] However Kurzman points out that Iran’s economic situation was not worse than other countries and that those who protested were not, for the most part, the country’s poor.[16] The last explanation was that the military was weak under the Shah and emboldened protesters, leading to the fall of the Shah’s regime.[17] There were still violent military actions against protesters, so the military was not weak, but still fighting to every last man.[18] Kurzman simply explains that the Shah’s army was “overwhelmed” by the amount of revolutionary protesters.[19]

In his rejection of other theories, Kurzman offers his own explanation: “viability”.[20] His definition is that viability is the ability for protesters to predict how many of their countrymen will be involved in the revolution.[21] It is important because if protesters believe that others will join in a protest, the more people will actually participate and the more successful the protest will be.[22] As more and more people saw protesters in the street, they felt the safety in numbers, and the benefits of such a movement. Participating due to greater benefit than risk is what Kurzman calls the “critical mass” theory.[23] The benefits of protesting not only include the hope for a better future but also the approval of friends and family, and the satisfaction of being part of a life changing event.[24] It was also solidarity that brought people from all walks of life, merchants, workers, liberals, students, feminists, together.[25] They all had different motivations against the Shah’s government but it took the cooperation of multiple groups to topple the regime.[26] They were united and determined to see a new government in place.

Kurzman’s explanation of viability is universally true of all revolutions and is not unique to just the Iranian Revolution. It is human nature for people to want safety in numbers since it reduces risk and makes a protester anonymous in the crowd. Kurzman uses viability as a way to explain the revolution at the moment it took place and to avoid using current knowledge of the event after the fact.[27] However there are two problems with this approach. The first is that a researcher cannot look back on a historical event without thinking on it retroactively, since reflection is in itself a retroactive act. A person cannot reflect and ponder on the present or future, only the past. A historian can certainly collect primary sources and construct a narrative using those sources, but they cannot obtain a full picture of the event without analyzing data after the event has already taken place.

Kurzman’s goal of using viability as the only true element of the revolution also makes his anti-explanation weak and too simple. Although he disproves the various theories that might have caused the revolution, he also does not come up with his own theory of why the revolution took place. Naturally the explanation of the causes of the revolution would involve many elements, including changes in Iranian society, economic pressures, and political moves by the Shah’s government. However once Kurzman explains the individual theories and disproves them, he does not attempt to combine any of them, as if to propose that all of the theories are incorrect because they are independent from one another. The author’s conclusion leaves the reader with more questions than answers. His refusal to give his own theories after presenting so many others makes his viability anti-explanation weak as it seems more like common knowledge rather than an intelligent and complex explanation. Although simplicity was the author’s goal, it leaves the reader unsatisfied.

The questions that Kurzman raised was whether historians should try to analyze an event as if they were there at that particular moment of time. It also raises the question if historians and researchers should even attempt analyzing an event after the fact, as it would be impossible to explain something without knowledge of that event’s outcome. However it is a historian’s duty to take all data and facts into account, even if those materials came from the event after it had happened. To ignore such data would be rejecting the advantage historians have living in the present.

Revolutions have many causes behind them and although Iran is unique in the aspect that it was an Islamic inspired movement, it was still sparked by the same dissatisfaction of the government as in other countries. Although Kurzman failed to explain what combination of factors led to the Iranian Revolution, he was correct that more people are willing to protest when they feel like others will join them as well. The environment in Iran bred the perfect storm to evolve into one the biggest revolutions in human history.


  1. Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2004.

[1] Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2004), 6.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3]  Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 166.

[5] Ibid, 166.

[6] Ibid, 164.

[7] Ibid, 163.

[8] Ibid, 164.

[9] Ibid, 164.

[10] Ibid, 164.

[11] Ibid, 164.

[12] Ibid, 165.

[13] Ibid, 165.

[14] Ibid, 165.

[15] Ibid, 165.

[16] Ibid, 100.

[17] Ibid, 165.

[18] Ibid, 165.

[19] Ibid, 165.

[20] Ibid, 169.

[21] Ibid, 169.

[22] Ibid, 170.

[23] Ibid, 131.

[24] Ibid, 132.

[25] Ibid, 142.

[26] Ibid, 142.

[27] Ibid, 6.


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