The Return of the Radicals in Iran

Twenty-six years after the Islamic Revolution, just when the West had expected Iran to settle down and become more pragmatic, the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have lurched back toward radicalism. By looking at earlier revolutions, we can perhaps come to understand what is happening in Iran, for recent events there have clear historical precedents.

Many revolutions have passed through an initial “quiet” period after an early phase of radicalism, only to experience a resurgence of radicalism 15-25 years later. This is because the initial quiet period is often marked by corruption and a retreat from revolutionary goals, leading idealists to feel that the revolution is losing its way. Believing that stronger pursuit of revolutionary ideals is the only way to strengthen their country, these idealists seek to inspire a “return of the radicals,” triggering sharp conflict with their more pragmatic co-revolutionaries.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 began with a challenge to the dictator Porfirio Díaz that ignited peasant uprisings and worker revolts. The revolution’s radical phase seemed to end in 1920 when General Alvaro Obregón seized power; he limited land reforms and sought reconciliation with the United States. For the next 14 years, Obregón and his ally General Plutarco Calles ruled Mexico.

Then, in 1934, resentment against growing corruption led Calles to choose an “honest idealist” to become president, a young man who had fought for him early in the revolution, who he thought he could control but who would help the government regain popularity. That “honest revolutionary,” Lázaro Cárdenas, toured the country, building his popular support, and then turned on Calles, expelling him from Mexico.