Small Wars Journal

Learning From Khomeini—Leadership, Coalitions, and Defeating the Instruments of Repression

Sat, 01/14/2023 - 3:49pm

Learning From Khomeini—Leadership, Coalitions, and Defeating the Instruments of Repression


By Major Nathaniel Martins

Despite remaining essentially leaderless, social unrest precipitated by death of Mahsa Amini in September continues at a scale and intensity in Iran unseen since the Revolution of 1979.[1] As the popular slogan “Death to the Dictator” indicates, many Iranians believe moderate reforms such as making the hijab optional will be impossible under the current theocratic regime.[2] The futility of reform efforts is further demonstrated by the litany of ineffective protests over the last 20 years.[3] Yet the overthrow of a regime that possesses a daunting security apparatus is easier said than done. Statistical and case study analysis by non-violent revolution experts Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan indicate that mass participation will be critical to success.[4] Accordingly, comparison of today’s protests to those led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 reveal a valuable commodity leadership might provide current protests—the ability to maintain the broad yet inherently precarious coalition necessary to defeat the state’s security apparatus.



How Khomeini Defeated the Instruments of Repression


Today’s protests face an adept police state. The Basij, the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), and police suppressed a number of nationwide protests including those in 1999, 2009, and 2017-2021. Similarly, the Shah’s regime used the Army, police, and SAVAK—an internal security organization originally trained by the CIA—to suppress large scale protests in 1963 over the arrest of Khomeini.[5]

Although some scholars assert that Marxist guerillas played a critical role in defeating the Shah’s security apparatus in February 1979, Khomeini achieved the decisive internal collapse of the military beforehand.[6] Indicators of the breakdown included the replacement of a division commander because of unit-wide dissent, a mass murder of officers of the Shah’s Imperial Guard committed by subordinates, and discussions between top-ranked generals and revolutionary leaders concerning impending regime change.[7] This military collapse instigated and permitted guerilla action prior to the Shah’s overthrow. On 10 February 1979, a group of Airforce technicians known as homafars initiated hostilities that guerillas later joined. Furthermore, the defection of an opposing commander undermined military efforts to subdue the revolt.[8] When Iran’s top generals met to declare their neutrality on 11 February 1979, a chief complaint was the assessment that the Shah’s military was no longer reliable.[9]

Khomeini deliberately pursued the internal collapse of the military. His guidance was “do not attack the enemy in its breast, but its heart…even if they fire on you and kill you.”[10] As protestors placed flowers on the rifles of soldiers and incorporated their grievances into their chants, Khomeini issued religious edicts threatening to declare jihad and demanding that soldiers defect.[11] US Ambassador William Sullivan observed the effect of Khomeini’s efforts when his guard force intentionally limited contact with protestors to prevent the defection of soldiers.[12]

Social commonalities enabled Khomeini’s overtures to the military. Most conscripts shared two characteristics with the average protestor—they were working class and devoted to the clergy. Understandably, poor economic conditions and Khomeini’s religious authority induced support for the revolutionary cause. [13]

The subversive pull of Khomeini’s movement also targeted senior ranking officers of the army, but from a different vector. Khomeini’s political allies included Mehdi Bazargan, a “lay-religious” political leader representing the middle class who was committed to democracy instead of the cleric’s brand of theocratic authoritarianism.[14] Often described as a moderate, Bazargan was an apt vehicle to encourage the defection of the affluent leadership of Iran’s security apparatus who would be concerned about their status upon regime change. Using military contacts and familial ties, Bazargan met with various generals to commandeer them to the revolutionary cause.[15] Ultimately, the differences between Khomeini’s supporters and Bazargan are what Chenoweth and Stephan describe as “thick social networks”—a web of diverse contacts, familial ties, and shared interest groups critical to compelling security forces to cooperate.[16]


An Initial Comparison—Similarities and Shortfalls


Today’s protests in Iran are undeniably large, but do they possess the requisite social diversity to overcome Iran’s security apparatus? Chenoweth and Stephan note “the quality of participation …may be as important as the quantity of participation.”[17] As with the Iranian Revolution, current protests involve every economic strata. Compared to 1979, current strikes have been largely ineffective, but they also indicate support across several economic sectors.[18] The inclusion of ethno-religious minorities provides another similarity. In 1978, Kurds joined the revolutionary movement with a range of activity including violent protests and strikes.[19] Today Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish heritage has galvanized the Kurdish population, but current protests are mobilizing additional minorities, including the Baluch, Azerbaijanis, and Arabs.[20]

The economic and ethnic composition of today’s protests increases the likelihood of valuable social linkages with Iran’s security organizations, ultimately providing opportunities for subversive pull. As with the Iranian Revolution, working class participation likely mirrors the economic status of poorer conscripts. Middle and upper class protestors reflect the more affluent members of the officer corps. Although the regime has inflicted disproportional levels of violence against minorities and seeks to exploit ethnic divisions, the participation of these groups provides a clear advantage as well.[21] The fact that ethnic minorities represent half of Iran’s population means the military likely contains large numbers of minorities across its junior ranks, producing more social commonalities between protestors and Iran’s security apparatus.[22]

Despite their evident diversity, protests lack a prominent interest group from the Iranian Revolution—the clergy. The prominent slogan “Death to Ali Khameini” exhibits obvious hostility to Iran’s supreme leader. In November protestors reportedly set fire to Khomeini’s family home.[23] Revealing slogans like “mullahs get lost” display aggression towards the clergy writ large.[24] Finally, the new social trend of “turban tipping” in which people surprise Shia ulema in public and forcibly remove their headgear may be the strongest indicator of discontent with the clergy.[25]

Although the clergy are clearly an object of popular discontent towards the government, the ulema are not uniformly devoted to the country’s theocracy. In recent years, Iranian clergy have started to study at the holy city of Najaf, Iraq where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani advocates separation of religion and state.[26] Moreover, although clergy in Iran have refrained from supporting the protests, there are exceptions. Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani and Ayatollah Javad Alavi Boroujerdi recently made comments supporting the right to protest.[27] Despite these encouraging signs, there are significant obstacles to clerical participation in protests, including the ulema’s growing financial dependence on the Iranian government and religious sensitivity towards the wear of the hijab.[28] Overcoming these obstacles will require less hostility by protestors. Curbing hostility will require leadership that can influence protestors and avoid internal conflicts.


Khomeini’s Leadership and his Coalition of Convenience


Like today, Khomeini’s Iran contained a diverse array of interest groups, but he deftly avoided conflict between them to build a coalition with immense subversive pull on the Shah’s police state. These interest groups included the secular National Front, separatist minorities such as the Kurds, religious proponents of democracy like Bazargan, and even Marxists such as the Mujahidin and the Fedayeen. Historical interpretation of Khomeini’s approach to these groups falls into two camps. Some scholars argue that Khomeini made his concept of theocratic autocracy, velayat-e faqih clear to these groups, but they ignored Khomeini or believed they could manipulate him.[29] Others hold Khomeini was a shrewd politician that built a coalition of convenience to secure implementation of velayat-e faqih after the revolution.[30]  

The first theory undoubtably contains truth—the latter is supported by clear evidence, the most convincing of which is the membership of the Revolutionary Council. When Khomeini established the Revolutionary Council to direct actions against the Shah’s regime, he chose to include a variety of leaders representing other interests opposed to velayat-e faqih.[31] This group was not comprehensive and clerics loyal to Khomeini held a controlling majority, but it did contain moderates such as Bazargan, illustrating Khomeini’s willingness to temporarily accommodate disparate interests in pursuit of the Shah’s overthrow.

To overcome Iran’s formidable instruments of repression, protests must win meaningful clerical support. The ethnic and economic diversity of today’s protests provide common social cleavages with the Army, IRGC, and Basij, but these organizations, especially the latter two, contain a strong religious identity. If protestors in Iran fail to accommodate the interests of moderate Shia clergy, there is little hope that the soldiers and police maintaining Iran’s monopoly of violence will ever align themselves against Iran’s theocratic regime. Khomeini was not altruistic in his approach to a revolutionary coalition—after the Revolution he quickly marginalized the power of political competitors. However, his method of defeating the Shah’s security forces was sound. Success in 1979 required a revolutionary movement that matched the social composition of the police state it needed to subvert. Today’s movement requires the same combination of interests. Without leadership that can assemble and maintain such a coalition, the outlook is grim.



[1] For a recent overview of the protests, including civilian casualties and the government's response see Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Turns to Public Executions, Enraging an Already Protesting Public,” The New York Times, December 12, 2022, sec. World,; For an overview of public grievances and the extent of protests see Natasha Turak, “Mass Protests in Iran, Sparked by Woman’s Death in Police Custody, Are the Regime’s Biggest Challenge in Years,” CNBC, sec. World News, accessed December 5, 2022,; On the leadership of current protests see Maryam Sinaee, “Iran Portests, A United Movement Without A Leader,” Iran International, accessed December 14, 2022,

[2] The slogan “Death to the Dictator” is widely observed through social media as reported in David Gritten, “Iran Hands out More Death Sentences to Anti-Government Protesters,” BBC News, November 16, 2022, sec. Middle East,

[3] For an overview of contemporary protests see Armani Syed, “Iran Has a Long History of Protest. Here’s What To Know,” Time, November 22, 2022,

[4] Chenowath and Stephan use the Iranian Revolution as a case study in their work. Although the Revolution contained frequent violence, they successfully argue that that it shared many of the characteristics of successful nonviolent movements. Similar arguments are made in subsequent paragraphs of this article. For the importance of “mass participation” see Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, UNITED STATES: Columbia University Press, 2011),

[5] Bahkash notes that in 1964 the Shah’s regime exiled Khomeini without popular protest, a clear indicator of the brutal efficiency of the regime’s memorable suppression of protests in 1963. Reference Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution, Rev. ed (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 34; For a description of the protests see Joseph Mazandi, “86 Killed and 150 Injured in Iran As Anti-Reform Riots Continue: University Closed,” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), June 7, 1963; SAVAK arrested Khomeini in 1963 as reported in “Iran Arrests the Agent Who Seized Khomeini,” New York Times, May 13, 1981.

[6] Abrahamian concedes that SAVAK’s targeting of guerillas in the early 1970’s forced Marxist groups to “reconsider their tactics.” This is a central argument by Chenowath and Stephan to explain why the Iranian Revolution qualifies as nonviolent. As referenced in Ervand Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963-1977,” MERIP Reports, no. 86 (1980): 3–15,

[7] For the murder of officers see Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran, Studies in Middle Eastern History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 121; For the replacement of the division commander see “Meshhad” in Gary Sick, All Fall down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, 1st ed (New York: Random House, 1985), 122; For unit wide dissent in Mashhad see “hundred of soldiers” in Raymond Walter Jr. Apple, “Shah’s Army Is Showing Stresses,” The New York Times, December 19, 1978; For discussions with generals see Bayandor’s summary of information gleaned from declassified state department files in Darioush Bayandor, The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States (New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media, 2018), 535.

[8] Arjomand and others draw this information from a translated account from General Gharabaghi as portrayed in Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, 127.

[9] For an account of the military’s declaration of neutrality based on translated memoirs of General Gharabaghi and General Fardoust see Bayandor, The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States, 554.

[10] Muḥammad Ḥasanayn Haykal, Iran, the Untold Story: An Insider’s Account of America’s Iranian Adventure and Its Consequences for the Future, 1st American ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 145.

[11] Steven R. Ward et al., Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces (Washington, UNITED STATES: Georgetown University Press, 2009), 217,

[12] William H. Sullivan, Mission to Iran, 1st ed (New York: Norton, 1981), 251.

[13] Hickman’s study notes the religiosity of conscripts but does not highlight the well documented economic conditions that fustrated the working class. As referenced in William F. Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, 1982 (Washington (D.C.): Brookings institution, 1982), 7.

[14] Although not a member of the clergy, Islam played a central role in Bazargan’s political outlook, but unlike Khomeini he believed Islam and democracy were reconcilable as described in Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 46.

[15] Ambassador Sullivan recalls that Bazargan “indicated that he and [General] Gharabaghi were friendly” and that Bazargan would attempt to contact him. As referenced in Sullivan, Mission to Iran, 238; For the Bazargan's overtures towards the military see Bayandor, The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States, 522-524 and 536.

[16] Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 40.

[17] In addition to diversity, quality also includes the decisions made by participating groups and their creativity. As referenced in Chenoweth and Stephan, 30.

[18] For an overview of the economic classes and strikes involved in the 1979 protests see Ervand Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions, Princeton Studies on the Near East (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1982), 510, 517; For an overview of current Iranian strikes and their challenges see “Oil, Steel Industry Workers Join Strikes In Iran,” Iran International, accessed November 30, 2022,; “Furious Iranians Are Too Poor to Strike,” The Economist, accessed December 1, 2022,; Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Zep Kalb, “Why Won’t the Workers of Iran Unite?,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed November 30, 2022,; “Iran’s Shopkeepers Strike in Support of Protest Movement - WSJ,” accessed November 30, 2022,

[19] William Branigin, “Kurdish Unrest Adds to Woes of Iran’s Military Rulers,” The Washington Post, November 21, 1978,

[20] Maha Amini’s kurdish name is Jina. As refrenced in Jiyan Zandi, “It’s Vital to Center Jina Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish Identity,” Time, Ideas, November 23, 2022,; For the ethnic composition of current protests see Brenda Shaffer, “How Iran’s Ethnic Divisions Are Fueling the Revolt,” Foreign Policy, Analysis, accessed December 14, 2022,; Michael Georgy and Tom Perry, “Sunni Cleric Challenges Iran’s Leaders as Protests Rage,” Reuters, October 26, 2022, sec. Middle East,

[21] For violence against minorities see Shaffer, “How Iran’s Ethnic Divisions Are Fueling the Revolt.”

[22] For Iranian ethnic demographics see Brenda Shaffer and Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Iran Is More than Persia Ethnic Politics in the Islamic Republic,” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, April 2021; Conscription for all males in mandatory in Iran as referenced in Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance (Washington, D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2019).

[23] Robert Plummer, “Iranian Protesters Set Fire to Ayatollah Khomeini’s House,” BBC News, November 18, 2022, sec. Middle East,

[24] Mary Kay Linge, “Two Killed as Iranians Protest Regime, Chanting ‘Mullahs Get Lost!,’” New York Post, December 8, 2022,

[25] “Tossing Turbans Of Clerics Becomes A New Protest Act In Iran,” Iran International, accessed November 14, 2022,

[26] “Battle of the Ayatollahs,” The Economist (London, United Kingdom: The Economist Intelligence Unit N.A., Incorporated, May 4, 2019), 47,

[27] Pia Krishnankutty, “Some Iranian Clerics Are Speaking out against Regime’s Crackdown on Protests. What It Could Mean,” ThePrint (blog), November 23, 2022,

[28] For analysis of the financial dependence of Iran’s Shia clergy on the government see “The Last Marja: Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism,” The Washington Institute, accessed December 3, 2022,; Several anonymous interviews with Iranians feed analysis on why moderate clergy are not participating in the protests in “Iran’s Qom Clerics Draw Ire for Studious Silence over Mahsa Amini Protests,” Middle East Eye, accessed November 14, 2022,

[29] Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown, 137.

[30] Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions, 532.

[31] For a description of the members of the Revolutionary Council derived from a translated account by Bazargan see Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, 51.

About the Author(s)

Major Nathaniel Martins is a Masters in Defense Analysis Candidate at the Naval Post Graduate School at Monterey, CA. Major Martins previously served as a Special Forces Detachment Commander in 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) with a focus on operations by, with, and through partner forces. He has served in Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are the authors alone.