“The outcome of the president’s policy review should be to determine that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution will not last until its 40th birthday,” said John Bolton, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, at a 2017 conference with members of Mojahedin-e Khalq that took place before Bolton’s appointment. “And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!”
The storm of applause came as no surprise. Mojahedin-e Khalq, a large and militant Iranian opposition organization that was on Washington’s terror-group list until 2012, has become America's chief ally in its war against the Iranian regime. Unlike Trump and Bolton, who have, at least officially, abandoned their desire for regime change in Iran, MEK still seeks it.
The same is true of leaders of the large community of Iranian exiles in Los Angeles, many of whom would like Iran to revert to being a monarchy with the former shah’s flaccid son, Reza Mohammad Pahlavi, on top.
But for now, Bolton and those who share his dream will have to postpone it. On Sunday, Iran will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the day the Islamic Revolution led by Khomeini declared victory. And despite the economic and political crises the country faces, its unique system of government shows no signs of disappearing.
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And this isn’t a system frozen in time; it’s capable of seeing and responding to both social changes and the diplomatic environment. The flexibility that has helped the separatist Shi’ite branch of Islam survive since the seventh century also characterizes Iran’s political and diplomatic behavior.
From its inception, the Islamic Revolution rested on a variety of groups, including the national movement, the Communist Party and the bazaar merchants who financed the revolt. It was backed by both women and men, by religious people and secular ones.
What they all had in common was their loathing of the shah, their fear of his reign of terror, the economic distress that afflicted most Iranians, and their hatred of the country’s dictatorship, which trampled freedom of expression, didn’t allow the establishment of political parties, nurtured a cult of personality around the shah and his family, and turned Iran, in the eyes of its people, into a satellite of the West in a way that reminded many of the colonialist era.
The strategic challenge for Khomeini, who was in exile first in Iraq and then near Paris, was to keep any alternative leadership from arising out of the protest movements that had roiled Iran for two years before the revolution. Any such leadership might prevent him from taking over and deny him the opportunity to implement his own political doctrines.
In the transition period between the shah’s departure from Iran on January 16 and Khomeini’s arrival in the country on February 1, he also had to ensure that the army would back him, and that the West, especially the United States, wouldn’t foil his plans.
He had no social media, faxes, smartphones or internet, but he made massive and effective use of tens of thousands of audio recordings. He also built a political opposition near Paris, which hosted intellectuals and activists from all the opposition movements. All this enabled him to build himself up as the only leader capable of realizing the dream of toppling the shah’s regime.
“Shi’ite flexibility” goes the narrative he nurtured in exile. According to this explanation, Khomeini sought to establish a democratic state that rested on Islamic jurisprudence but would grant human rights to everyone; women could even choose whether to wear a headscarf. In his recorded sermons, every political movement could find an expression of its own desires.
But to Khomeini’s religious disciples and Islamic clerics, his message was unequivocal: Iran would be a state governed by Islamic law. Government officials would have to know the foundations of this law and obey it, and the country’s leader would combine superior religious knowledge with outstanding political abilities.
Khomeini built a system of government that sought to combine certain democratic fundamentals – like a parliament, local councils and a president that are elected by the people – with the supremacy of Islamic law, and especially of the supreme leader. And upon victory, his flexibility evaporated.
With ruthless brutality, he instigated a “cultural revolution” aimed at eradicating any vestige of the shah’s reign, replacing the entire bureaucracy, writing new textbooks that would supplant the old curricula, and creating loyal forces to enforce the new regime. The shah’s terror was swiftly replaced by Khomeini’s terror, and the leadership of the revolution began plotting the next stage – exporting the revolution to all Islamic countries.
This was the turning point in relations between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam in the modern era. Arab regimes that had clashed with radical Islamist movements saw the success of the Iranian revolution as a call to arms meant to instigate religious revolutions, or at least threaten the fragile balance between governments and religion.
The Arab states rejected Iran’s proposal to build an “Islamic nuclear bomb,” out of fear that such a bomb would actually threaten them. And when the Iran-Iraq War broke out in August 1980, most Arab states sided with Iraq.
Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sobered up from the dream of exporting the revolution to other Islamic countries. But the revolution’s success has continued to nourish the dreams of both radical Iranian leaders and Sunni Islamist movements to this day.
The Islamic threat – and not necessarily the Shi’ite one – made revolutionary Iran a hostile and even threatening political entity from the standpoint of the Arab states. Meanwhile, Iranians increasingly felt that their country was imprisoned in an Arab and Muslim circle of hostility.
To its west were Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Turkey, which in the ‘80s defined Iran as a threat. To its east were Pakistan and India, which had nuclear weapons. And off its coasts were American warships and submarines, which carried nuclear missiles.
The Iranian regime needed to defend the state’s borders against this plethora of threats while preserving the foundations of the revolution and strengthening its religious principles, and all without causing a rift between the people and the leaders. Thus once again, the leadership of the revolution was forced to consider the limits of its flexibility.
Confusion and hesitation over how to achieve these fundamental goals created what the West describes as a battle between conservatives and reformists. But this is a misleading concept that doesn’t explain the state’s conduct.
The assumption is that this dichotomous division puts the reformists on the side of the West in general and the United States in particular, while the conservatives are anti-Western, reject democracy and oppose human rights.
But how does one define a leadership that executes drug dealers and gay men, imprisons human rights activists without trial and persecutes women whose headscarves aren’t put on “appropriately,” yet has developed a widely praised film industry, lets Western music be played and maintains an excellent education system?
How can a radical Islamic state celebrate the New Year holiday, Nowruz, which has pagan origins, or portray the 1953 ouster of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh by American and British intelligence as a national event that proves the West’s vileness, even though Mossadegh wasn’t religious and the very idea of nationalism is controversial in radical Islamic discourse?
The West, especially the United States, which shapes the discussion of Iran and defines its regime, isn’t exempt from doing some diplomatic and moral soul-searching. During the shah’s reign, Washington treated Iran as it did other countries ruled by dictators. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi received a free hand to do as he pleased to his own people as long as oil, construction, infrastructure and trade companies and cultural agencies from America, France, Israel and Germany were all making profits.
Under President Richard Nixon, Iran and the shah were seen as a bulwark against the spread of communism, and therefore as deserving of all support and assistance despite the country’s thuggish regime. And though President Jimmy Carter suddenly began talking about human rights violations and demanded that the shah change the way the regime treated its citizens, Carter called the shah a reformer who was advancing democracy.
Would tough American pressure that leveraged Iran’s dependence on the United States have changed history by diluting the anger and hatred for the shah and preventing the Islamic Revolution? This is neither an unanswerable hypothetical question nor one that’s already moot. Washington’s partnership with Saudi Arabia is reminiscent in many ways of its partnership with Iran under the shah.
Saudi Arabia seems tranquil. There are no stormy demonstrations in its streets, its economy is solid and its borders are well defended. It survived the Arab Spring revolutions and didn’t become another Syria, Yemen or Libya.
Nevertheless, the potential for a Saudi revolt periodically raises its head. There’s no guarantee that the Saudi government, which is nothing but a pro-Western dictatorship, carries an insurance card guaranteeing its continued existence.
But should Washington apply the lessons of the Iranian Revolution by putting pressure on Saudi Arabia? The question poses a dangerous dilemma.
President Barack Obama tried this tactic in his relations with Egypt. He supported the Arab Spring demonstrators, didn’t lift a finger to help Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and also didn’t rush to support President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi when the field marshal seized power in July 2013. As a result, Washington and Cairo had a severe falling out that healed only after Trump became president.
Is this dilemma valid regarding Iran? The threats and the talk of regime change certainly don’t help.
Withdrawing from the nuclear agreement or imposing ruinous sanctions may achieve specific goals like freezing Iran’s ballistic missile program. Yet forging a balanced relationship between Iran and the West that could reduce not just Tehran’s military capabilities, but also its motivation to use them, would require an intellectual and ideological revolution of the kind that made it possible to sign the nuclear deal.