Islamic Revolution in Iran: 40 Years Later

The revolution in Iran in February 1979 toppled the Shah and put an end to US domination in that country. In Moscow the revolution was called anti-imperialist, while in Europe it was called democratic. In Iran itself, it was declared Islamic. While all these names are fair, the Iranian revolution was, primarily, a people’s revolution. Almost all strata and groups of the population took an active part in it, regardless of political and ideological views, or ethnic and religious affiliation. United by a single goal and a will to win, they quickly overcame the resistance of the Shah's regime with its powerful army, extensive SAVAK secret police network and the seemingly unconditional support of the United States.

However, immediately after the monarchy fell, it became clear that different participants in the revolution had different goals for post-revolutionary Iran and saw the country’s future differently. The bourgeois and nationalist circles were quite happy to see Iran become a parliamentary republic and preserve the current constitution with minor changes. Left-radical organizations and groups advocated more fundamental changes and advocated turning the country into a democratic republic with strong elements of popular rule. Representatives of ethnic minorities sought increased local autonomy and greater rights for themselves.

However, the revolutionary element of the Iranian clergy had decisive influence on the future state system and the organization of power in the country. It not only unconditionally recognized the leading role of Ayatollah Khomeini in the revolution, but were guided in their actions by his idea of creating a theocratic state.

Having proclaimed the slogan of “neither East nor West-but the Islamic Republic”, Khomeini’s supporters first removed even from formal power the liberals represented by the provisional government led by Mehdi Bazargan, who was in favor of normalizing relations with the United States. To this end, they took advantage of the fact that the US embassy employees had been taken hostage in Tehran by the revolutionary youth. The diplomatic correspondence that ended up in the hands of “the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam Khomeini Line” revealed the provisional government’s close contacts with the US embassy. That was enough to discredit Iranian liberals and sideline them from politics.

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The next blow was dealt to the left forces represented by fedai guerillas, the mujahideen and the communists. Despite their sizable contribution to the success of the revolution, they were methodically ousted from the spontaneously created revolutionary committees and local governments. Their representatives were not allowed to participate in the newly formed state bodies, elections to parliament or the presidency. Launching a campaign to paint the left democratic forces as “godless” and susceptible to “communist influence,” the Islamic authorities opted for violent suppression. The response came in the form of terrorist attacks against Islamic organizations and representatives of the ruling clergy.

Not all Iranian religious figures and prominent Islamic figures who traditionally distanced themselves from politics shared the idea of ​​Islamic government as conceived by Khomeini. But they were ultimately neutralized.

The Khomeini and his supporters’ struggle to fully consolidate their grasp on power lasted for over two years and involved not only the suppression of the right- and left-wing opposition, but also fierce fights between rival factions within the clergy itself. Ultimately, Khomeini’s indisputable authority backed by his many years of uncompromising battle against the Shah's regime and US domination, as well as his skillful use of Shiite religious customs and traditions, cemented Iranian society within the theocratic state. The war with Iran unleashed by Saddam Hussein rallied the nation even more around the ruling clergy on powerful religious and nationalist grounds. Even though the Iran-Iraq war did not end in victory for either side, Iran, which suffered enormous losses, emerged as the moral winner.

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Despite many years of harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and other international actors, and being treated as an outcast amid unfriendly Sunni regimes, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated enviable resilience and an ability to survive in the most difficult circumstances during the four decades of its existence. A well-built system of checks and balances between elected authorities and institutions controlled by the clergy, as well as adherence to the principle of social justice in the form of billions in government subsidies to individuals for purchasing essential goods, medical care and other vital needs, largely soothed the periodically recurring socioeconomic and domestic political tensions in the country. Thanks to constant pressure and threats from all US administrations without exception, the regime’s anti-Western ideological paradigm remained effective, and Iran preserved its strong anti-American sentiment.
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Tehran has no control over what happens in relations between Washington and Beijing, Washington and Brussels or Doha and Riyadh, though it plays a major role in Iran’s economic and political planning. The country has found itself in a tight spot. Despite the sympathy demonstrated by the international community and official statements by a majority of the world’s governments, at the end of the day Tehran is left to its own devices, and Javad Zarif surely understands this.
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Of course, Iran is in for a change. The generation of revolutionaries and followers of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, is on its way out. Several new generations of Iranians have grown up who have not been forged in revolution like their predecessors. Today’s youth, which constitutes the most active and the most significant segments of the population, has its own ideas about the country’s future. It does not want to live in economic, cultural or any other form of isolation from the outside world, but would like to realize its aspirations through evolutionary change, without revolutionary upheaval.

The Iranian reformers and liberals who support the government of Hassan Rouhani also strive to break out from the economic and political blockade the country has lived under. The signing in 2015 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to settle the Iranian nuclear issue seemed to have opened up the way to gradually normalize Iran’s relations with the United States, integrate Iran into the global economic system, and involve it in international activities. However, the wilful withdrawal of the United States, on the initiative of President Trump, from the nuclear deal and the abrupt tightening of anti-Iranian sanctions marked another setback. Radical circles in Iran reared their heads after receiving this latest confirmation of their claims that the United States cannot be trusted or negotiated with. Iran’s religious leadership has become even more entrenched in its determination to never renounce its principles or make any concessions to the Americans. The United States has yet again demonstrated its inability to overcome the painful humiliation it experienced in Iran 40 years ago. All this does not bode well and has the potential to seriously complicate the already tense situation in the Middle East.

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