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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking Back to Find Lessons in Iran's Past

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Everybody is talking about Iran of late so, since I got my degree in the modern history of Iran and the Farsi language, so will I. But I want to talk not about the Iran of today, but about the lessons of 30 years ago, when I spent a year working as a translator in Tehran from late 1977 through late 1978.

It was an unusual year, as the shah's regime, which had seemed one of the region's most successful and stable, collapsed like a house of cards.

Using enormous revenues from oil exports in the 1960s and 1970s, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi began a broad program of economic reform to modernize the country according to the Western model.

When I first saw Tehran in 1977, it was entirely different from today. It was strikingly European in appearance. Abounding in picturesque green boulevards, the capital outshone Cairo and Beirut in its claim to be the Paris of the Middle East. Tehran's central streets sparkled with super-modern hotels, business centers and restaurants. The latest Hollywood films were shown in the theaters.

You could buy English, French and German-language newspapers and magazines at the newsstands the same day they went on sale in the West. Iranian beauties in European fashions flitted about the boutiques. Veiled women were a rarity, and usually found only in the old, poorer quarter on the southern edge of town. Men with traditional Muslim beards and open collars were also the exception. In the business quarter the men were clean shaven and wore expensive suits and ties. The streets were jammed with late-model cars.

But it was only the semblance of well-being.

The crises began to build by the end of the 1970s. Economic growth came solely on the back of higher oil output and prices. Most other sectors of the economy stagnated. State capitalism and control over the economy was accompanied by monstrous corruption. The rift between the rich and the poor, between urban and rural society, and between highly and poorly paid workers grew at a tremendous rate. Social mobility was minimal.

If not dictatorial, the regime was at least very authoritarian. Some opposition parties were banned and others were marginalized. Official political activity was only permitted where it showed complete support for the regime. In the mid-1970s, the government abandoned even the facade of a multi-party landscape, shifting to a single party system. The secret police, or SAVAK, persecuted the most active members of the opposition, and there were attempts on the lives of emigre opposition leaders in London and Paris.

But the West winked at this because Iran was one of the most important U.S. allies in the region and a stable source of oil. Even U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who won election on a platform calling for the protection of human rights worldwide, turned a blind eye to the Shah's activities.

Then, in late 1977, the student protests began. They were supported by traditional groups and strata in society -- tradespeople, craftsmen, workers in small businesses and the clergy. The West's reaction was anything but immediate. This was partly because it had been blinded by the showcase of the modern Iran and partly because the West had little information about opposition activities and the mood in anti-government circles. Foreign diplomats avoided speaking to even moderate critics of the Shah, afraid of upsetting the Iranian leadership. As a result, statements from opposition leaders were not taken seriously at first in Washington or European capitals. They thought the Shah's position was extremely solid. By the time the crisis erupted in 1978, it was already too late.

After the Islamic revolution, power was at first divided among liberal mullahs and moderate, pro-Western opposition figures. Two years later, not one remained in power. A radical, theocratic and anti-American regime was established, with a platform of exporting Islamic revolution in the region, undermining Israel's security and support of extremism terrorism. The regime trampled human rights no Shah had ever dreamed of violating.

Historical parallels, of course, are rarely 100 percent accurate. Russia is clearly not Iran. But Russian society is substantially traditional in many ways, and the level of traditionalism, especially in the regions, the outskirts of the big cities and the poorest parts of the population, is underestimated. In much the same way, I believe, that those in Iran underestimated the strength of aversion in some quarters, including the youth, toward the Western values accompanying modernization. Efforts to overcome the development gap with the West cause the same upsurge in anti-American and anti-Western feelings now as they did 30 years ago in Iran.

President Vladimir Putin's increasingly anti-Western, nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric could inflame these sentiments. In the Shah's Iran, nationalistic slogans were commonplace, trumpeting the need to revive its former imperial greatness and become a major regional power. It was to the accompaniment of just such slogans that the Shah began his nuclear program. Combined with the idea of exporting the Islamic revolution, this makes for a potentially explosive mix.

Today, Russia is witnessing the development of adverse social conditions on a scale never seen in Iran. Paradoxically, the greatest pressure is building up in Moscow, where the greatest prosperity can be found. The rift is growing between the rich and the poor, as the 10 percent of the population at the top of the income scale nationally earn 15 times more than the bottom 10 percent. In Moscow the top segment earns 52 times more than the bottom.

Millionaires spring up in Russia like mushrooms after rain, while at least one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line -- a poverty line that is set low in Russia to begin with.

A novel by Russian Booker Prize-nominated author Zakhar Prilepin, a member of the unregistered National Bolshevik Party, sheds some light on embittered youth who have lost faith in the future and who hate authority and wealth.

"Nowadays, if you were born where I was born -- in the Ryazan, or perhaps the Lipetsk or Nizhny Novgorod regions, you have only one chance, which is to die in the same village -- to become a drunk and smoke yourself to death -- because no kind of social conveyor from the Russian hinterland, which probably makes up three or four-fifths of the country ... -- nothing is going to pull you out of that place. It is simply the absolute bottom from which it is impossible to escape."

In 2002, we saw how embittered youth from among the millions in the suburbs trashed the center of Moscow after Russia lost to Japan in the football World Cup. There was no underlying political reason for the disorders. But if such reasons were to appear, nobody could brush them aside.

Some might accuse me of painting it on too thick. But there is another example from history. In 1913, during the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, Russia was on the upswing and the economy, science and arts were blossoming. The inveterate opponents of the regime had been crushed and an end put to terrorism. Political life had entered the long-awaited period of stability. Nobody would have guessed in their worst nightmares that, in just five years, the regime would fall and Russia would be awash in the blood of red terror and civil war.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.