Many political changes, upheavals of one or the other kind, throughout the twentieth century have often been referred to as: “revolutions”. The term has been used loosely enough to refer to a pro-western change in Georgia, in 2003, as Rose Revolution and fall of Kyrgyz president in 2005 as Tulip revolution and recently the political upheavals in Tunisia, Libya and Syria have also been defined as revolutions.
Apparently, the word revolution has been used so frequently and so lightly that it has lost much of its sense, romance, respect or terror that was once associated with the term: French revolution.
But most historians will agree that the political upheaval – that rocked Iran in 1979, sent shock waves across the region and the world and set into motion a process of evolution that in many ways continues to this day, was a quintessential revolution. It rightly reminded many of the French revolution of 1789. In the context of 20th century, it was a phenomenon that warrants study along with the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and the Communist revolution in China of 1948.
Imam Khomeini: One Man Revolution?
Revolutions have layers of leadership and intelligentsia and scores of characters identified with them. French revolution brings to mind names like Rousseau, Mirabeau, Marquis de Lafayette, Robespierre, Jean Paul Marat, Danton and so on. But in case of Iranian revolution, one man stands out. Thirty years after his death; Muslim world remembers him merely as “Imam Khomeini”.
Arab monarchs did not or could not collect armies in the same way but its no secret
that Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the subsequent eight-year war
was supported and funded by several Arab states – and the goal was to strangulate
the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (4 Sept 1902 – 3 June 1989), known to the world as Ayatollah Khomeini, was the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States. This brought a symbolic end to 2,500 years of Persian Sassanid monarchy and turned Iran into an Islamist republic sending tremors across a region ruled by dynastic monarchies.
Where others feared, he was calm. Where they were hesitant, he was firm. The secret to Imam Khomeini’s amazing influence among Muslim nations was: selflessness, not acting for his own interests, witnessing God & purely doing jihad for His sake. June 4, 2007 pic.twitter.com/s4AWlfAoEj
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) June 3, 2019
What followed was a continuing conflict of ideas, ambitions and above all of fears and insecurities that have led to wars, massive killings and human right tragedies. It also created new political orders, stakeholders and communities across the region as far away as Lebanon in the west and Pakistan in the east. But the question arises: has the revolution of 1979 been finally accepted by the world around?
After the French revolution, kings and queens of Europe gathered armies to defeat dangerous ideas emanating from Paris. After the Bolshevik upheaval of 1917, Allied nations – including Japan, United Kingdom, United States – supported the anti-communist White Army to suppress a Marxist evil in the bud. Arab monarchs did not or could not collect armies in the same way but its no secret that Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the subsequent eight-year war was supported and funded by several Arab states – and the goal was to strangulate the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Has Iranian Revolution checkmated? Why?
French revolutionary wars (1792-1802) left France in control of most of western Europe and though Napoleon was finally defeated and monarchy returned to France, it can be said with a great degree of confidence that ideas emanating from Paris destroyed the institution of monarchy and transformed Europe forever. Today intelligentsia in all those countries – England, Austria, Prussia, Russia, etc. – that had fought to defeat the revolution remember the upheaval Paris generated in 1789 with admiration and respect. Can the same be said about the Iranian revolution?
Prime Minister Mosaddegh was overthrown in a CIA and MI6 managed political theater in 1953 and its brazen admission in declassified documents
It was inevitable that anti-monarchy ideas will travel outwards from Tehran in shock waves. Iranian revolution was immediately perceived as a challenge to the established political order across the middle east. While elite resented it, there is evidence to believe that Iranian revolution won popularity on the Arab street before other currents overtook it. Iraq’s attack on Iran – at the behest of Arab monarchies and western powers can only be understood as a counter-revolution.
French revolutionary wars against England, Austria, Prussia and Russia are a handy reference from history. It was almost textbook. But Iran’s revolution had additional complexities; it could be easily described or condemned as “Shia” in a Sunni dominated region, and it took a position against Israel to seek popularity at the Arab street – directly pitching it against the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington. Perhaps this can explain why Iranian revolution did not produce the impact its French cousin had – two hundred years earlier.
Much has changed since 1979. The power that was once Baghdad has been decimated, Syria lies in ruins, Libyan strongman Qaddafi was killed like a rat next to a sewer pipe, Egypt has lost its historic importance, Arab-Israeli conflict has morphed into an Iran-Israel conflict and Palestinians are mostly forgotten by the Arab nations – and even by the Arab street – who perceive Tehran as their enemy No. One. United States has become a permanent part of Persian Gulf’s security architecture and no one knows what may happen in the region between Washington and its allies and Iran before the next US elections.
Ironically Khomeini’s origins and initial life were much different than what the world remembers him for. He was a “marja” – meaning source of emulation – according to traditions of Twelver Shia Islam. He was thus a “Mujtahid” or faqi, an expert in Islamic Sharia, and author of more than 40 books on issues of religion and ethics but he is principally known to the world as inspiration for the 1979 revolution.
In his writings, he preached and expanded the theory of “Welayat-el Faqih” the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”. This principle became part of the new Iranian constitution after being put to a referendum. Though Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris and was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1979 for his international influence, but initial western appreciation could not materialize into any stable relations with the west. Imam became identified for his support of the hostage takers during the US Embassy hostage crisis, his fatwa calling for the murder of British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie and for referring to the United States as the “Great Satan”.
Iranian Revolution’s By-Products
Today, after 30 years of Khomeini’s death, to many Arab and western scholars, the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the moral boost provided to Shia forces in Iraq, the regional cold war against Saudi Arabia and Israel, lending an Islamic flavor to the anti-imperialist, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and inadvertently widening the Sunni-Shia cleavage, are the most important by-products of the Iranian revolution.
This limited lens often ignores the background of the revolution, decades of abuse felt by the Iranian intelligentsia at the hands of the US and other western powers especially the way Prime Minister Mosaddegh was overthrown in a CIA and MI6 managed political theater in 1953 and its brazen admission in declassified documents.
And it fails to do justice to the good revolution did to countless millions in terms of providing better education, health and political consciousness. Most importantly this narrow reflection ignores what the revolution could have done if several powers had not colluded in creating the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and had not fought so hard and so relentlessly to defeat the Islamic revolution of Iran.
The power that was once Baghdad has been decimated, Syria lies in
ruins, Libyan strongman Qaddafi was killed like a rat next to a sewer pipe, Egypt has lost its historic importance, Arab Israeli conflict has morphed into an Iran-Israel conflict and Palestinians are mostly forgotten by the Arab nations – and even by the Arab street – who perceive Tehran as their enemy No. One.
To what extent was it fear and insecurity of Arab monarchs, Israel and the United States and to what extent Tehran’s attempts to export its revolution, were responsible for the mess we see; this is difficult to judge. Debate continues endlessly on this question; one thing is sure that the region has changed and changed forever.
Some argued, like American author, and New York Times foreign correspondent, Stephen Kinzer, that the “The American political class has never recovered from the shock and humiliation of the hostage crisis. It cast Iranian regime as the face of evil in many American hearts. This anger is the main reason why the US has been so unrelentingly hostile to Iran over three decades”. Kinzer has been author of many books on the region – including the brilliant “Overthrow” that documents US interventions to overthrow foreign governments – but this kind of analysis too was a narrow interpretation – and has outlived its utility.
Read more: Forced hijab: Will Iranians ever accept it?
While Iranian Islamist rule cannot be described as a western-style democracy, but the revolution produced a system of politics in which governments came through reasonably fair elections, and if there is a stable system closer to democracy in the whole Middle East then it is Iran.
This was something that was gradually accepted by many in US politics, media and intelligentsia, and the thrust behind the Obama administration’s desire for JCPOA (US-Iran Nuclear Deal), was a deep-seated realization that pragmatic Iran offers that zone of stability in the Middle East that must be engaged for the spread of genuine modernity and democratic values in the region. Pragmatic Iran had earned that confidence after its quiet coordination with the US after 9/11, in Afghanistan and during the 2003 US invasion of Saddam’s Iraq.
Many US diplomats in Islamabad had quietly told this scribe that “engaging Iran is the most logical thing we have to do” Obama administration’s JCPOA had more than eight years of multilateral negotiations and confidence-building measures behind it. Trump administration’s unilateral pulling out of Iran-US nuclear deal, in 2018, can thus only be understood in the complex dynamics of Israeli and Arab insecurities – and is a testament to the power of special interest groups and lobbies in the US political system.
Received wisdom since the toppling of Afghan Taliban and Saddam Hussain regime has been that United States invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan has eliminated Iran’s two biggest rivals in the region – i.e. the Taliban and Saddam Hussein – and left Iran as the most important player. This narrative has perhaps received much resonance due to the writings of Dr. Vali Nasr, Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who robustly argued such notions in his book, “The Dispensable Nation”. In recent years this has given rise to the argument that it is that “powerful Iran” that is scaring Arabs.
Imam became identified for his support of the hostage takers during the US Embassy hostage crisis, his fatwa calling for the murder of British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie and for referring to the United States as the “Great Satan”.
Middle East: Rise of GCC as centers of power
Reality today may once again be different. Years of US sanctions have enfeebled Iranian economy, restricted its ability to maintain a regional influence commensurate with its size, history and political institutions, and has seriously demoralized its intelligentsia. Centre of gravity in the Middle East has decisively shifted in the favor of peninsular states of GCC.
Traditional centers of authority and influence – Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus – have lost their capacities and roles for one or the other reason; Tehran – notwithstanding its assets in Hezbollah and Hamas – has been curtailed and the world increasingly looks towards the GCC states being lead by Saudi Arabia – as brilliantly argued by Mehran Kamrava, a professor at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University, in his book, “Qatar: Small State, Big Power”
But there are rifts within the GCC as demonstrated by the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. And there are other issues: states like Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain are either too poor or politically fragmented, and the real players are three: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar. Tiny Qatar housing the largest US airbase at Al Udeid, owner of Al Jazeera, world’s largest exporter of LNG and running one of the biggest sovereign funds is an upcoming powerhouse in this changed scenario. In this changed Middle East, size of population is dwarfed by the importance of economic linkages. Doha that maintains a balancing act between the US, Iran, Israel and Palestinians is an interesting emerging center to watch.
Summing up, we can argue that Islamic Revolution of Iran is still continuing after almost 40 years of its upheaval, and after 30 years of Khomeini’s departure from the scene. It has transformed the region in ways altogether different than what its founding fathers might have imagined. And just like the French revolution of 1789, that kept the European pot on fire for the next 40 years – till at least Waterloo – it has created fault lines that are not healing.
Power dynamics of the region have changed, US has become a permanent part of its security architecture and the political balance of the region is far from settled. Obama administration’s quest supported by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China that led to signing of JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) – or the US Iran Nuclear Deal – was the best effort by a conscientious global elite to move beyond the schisms of a tortuous history but it ultimately failed and the future is now more uncertain than before.
Moeed Pirzada is the Editor of Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. Pirzada studied international relations at Columbia University, New York, and Law at London School of Economics, UK, as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks, including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute and many others. Twitter: MoeedNj