Iran’s Protest Movement in 1978

CSPS Fellow James Suber discusses the characteristics of the Iranian Revolution and his novel dataset examining these protests.

Last month Iran celebrated the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Although hundreds of thousands celebrated across the country, just weeks earlier there were anti-government protests in over a dozen cities. The question arises: Is the increase in protests an indicator of a coming revolution? To better understand the parallels between current and past protests, I complied a custom dataset looking at anti-Shah protests from Jan. 1, 1978, to Feb. 1, 1979.[1] I then utilized this new dataset to conduct a preliminary analysis of the protest movement, including number of protests, locations, and level of participation. My research finds that protests were regular, large, diffuse, and catalyzed by government violence.

A “protest” is broadly defined as a gathering of demonstrators in a public place. To keep the analysis narrow, the dataset excludes pro-Shah demonstrations, unattributed violence, and other forms of resistance, such as labor strikes. It draws from Western news sources, primarily the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Associated Press, and the Washington Post. The dataset has several limitations, one being that it is undoubtedly incomplete. As a result, the protest statistics are conservative, low-end estimates.[2]

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the number of protests that occurred per month, illustrating the escalation that ultimately led to the Shah’s abdication. There were 326 protests in 13 months. A key characteristic of the protest movement is visible: the 40-day mourning cycle. This Shi’a practice of commemorating the dead acted as a recurring catalyst for the organization of additional protests against the government. The first such demonstration in the 40-day cycle occurred in February to commemorate the Qom protesters killed by security forces, the second demonstration in March, then in May, June, and July. Protests escalated further after two incidents in August and September that involved high numbers of civilian deaths. Future analysis should examine the role of the 40-day mourning cycle in today’s protest movement.

Figure 2

 ArcGIS Online

Figure 2 shows the 86 cities in which protests took place. This modern and urban, rather than agrarian, orientation sets the Iranian Revolution apart from many previous cases of revolution.[3] The cities with the most protests were Tehran (54), Mashhad (29), Isfahan (22), and Qom (21). Figure 2 also shows where the largest protest crowds gathered. There were at least six protests in Tehran that mobilized over 1 million people, including one estimated at over 2 million, which was close to half of the city’s population.[4] Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tabriz also had protest crowd sizes estimated in the hundreds of thousands. These cumulative crowd sizes, especially in Tehran, mean that Iran satisfied the “3.5% rule,” which is the minimum percentage of the population that must turn out to make success in nonviolent protests possible.

These preliminary findings provide a broad picture of the Iranian protest movement. The data shows how protests persisted for over six months before spiking and sustaining high volumes for another six months. Apparent is the impact of the 40-day mourning cycle, suggesting a correlation between government violence and higher levels of resistance. Protests also drew massive crowds, and they took place across scores of cities. This analysis provides a quantitative baseline that can be built upon. Future research should first integrate a deeper qualitative analysis, and then should conduct a comparative analysis to Iran’s modern protest movement.


James Suber is a second-year graduate student in the International Security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He received his bachelor’s degree in History with a concentration on the Middle East. He is currently a research intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Photo can be found here.

[1] The author became aware after the fact that Karen Rasler has a similar dataset used to conduct her analysis in “Concessions, repression, and political protest in the Iranian revolution,” American Sociological Review (Feb 1996). Other common datasets, such as GDELT Project, do not cover 1978.

[2] Other limitations include the lack of Iranian sources, the constrained timeframe, and the vagueness of source reporting.

[3] See Theda Skocpol, “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution,” Theory and Society Vol. 11, No. 3 (May, 1982), pp. 265-283.

[4] Ervand Abrahamian, “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution,” Radical History Review (Fall 2009), 14.