As the future of both Pakistan and its president, Pervez Musharraf, wallow in uncertainty in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, parallels are being drawn to the 1979 fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Once again, a “pro-American” autocrat seems to be rapidly losing his grip on power, with his US ally only half-heartedly standing by him. The liberal elite and intelligentsia rail against the dictator, confident that their country is primed for secular democracy.
The obvious lesson to be drawn from 1979 is that America unwisely rested its entire strategic relationship with Iran on the shoulders of an unpopular dictator. When his regime crumbled, so did America’s ability to realize its interests there.
But the Iranian revolution holds another lesson for Pakistani liberals: obsessed with evicting the Shah, Iran’s intelligentsia was delusional about their own society and their potential to emerge victorious via an abrupt political upheaval. Once the Shah left, the radical minority that was willing to fight and die for its cause devoured the “moderate majority,” establishing Islamist rule in short order.
To be sure, profound political and cultural distinctions exist between Iran in the 1970’s and contemporary Pakistan. Iran lacked an independent judiciary, basic press freedoms, and civil society organizations. Contemporary Pakistan has, to varying degrees, all of these. More importantly, Iran’s Shia clerics were both organized and politically active in a way that Pakistan’s Sunni clergy have not been. Indeed, Pakistan’s Islamist parties have never won more than 12% of the popular vote.