Thirty-one years ago this week a coalition of religious and secular Iranians ousted the pro-US Shah. The move from the Shah’s superficially modern, Western-centric monarchy to an independent Islamic theocracy in 1979 marked one of the biggest geopolitical shifts in the Middle East in recent history.
But the Islamic Republic of Iran that was created under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini — the man known most widely in the West for his 1989 fatwa calling for author Salman Rushdie’s head — was not an immediate consequence of the revolution. Rather, as with all revolutions, it was the final result of a chaotic and violent period in the modern history of an ancient society.
History weighs heavily on Iran. Perhaps that is why, even now, historians continue to argue over the true significance of 1979. For some Iranians, last year’s country-wide protests following a widely disputed election represented the bridge between the promises of 1979 and the disappointments of the intervening decades. The Government’s heavy-handed response led to comparisons with the regime it succeeded three decades earlier.
The odds have not generally been in Iran’s favour.
Even in 1979, the new republic attracted widespread animosity in the region and internationally. It did not help that Khomeini decided to take the US embassy staff hostage for 444 days. That folly aside, the revolution was greeted with fear. Shia Iran’s neighbouring Arab regimes — themselves autocratic dictatorships and monarchies with sizeable Shia populations — feared they were next in line. Along with the US, many of them rushed to support Saddam Hussein’s hubristic decision to invade Iran in 1980 on the assumption it would fall flat.
It didn’t. The Iran-Iraq war only strengthened the theocracy’s hand and rallied Iranians against a common foe and left around a million people dead. The international community’s role in arming both Iran and Iraq should rank among the most shameful acts of criminality of the post-World War II era.
Instead this context, and how it might help to understand today’s deeply suspicious and autocratic regime, has largely been expunged from the record. It has been replaced by the monotonous refrain that Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear menace.
Although this year and last year many Iranians have taken to the streets demanding greater freedoms, there is deep cynicism regarding international pressure ostensibly aimed at dissuading Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Add to this the fact that the Iranian Government is far from universally loathed within the country. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to speak in Tehran’s Freedom Square this week, he may not have been greeted by "millions" of supporters as officials claimed. Nonetheless the turnout was large — as were the pro-regime rallies organised last year in response to election protests.
Since last June’s elections many of the leaders and ordinary members of the protest movement — dubbed the Green Movement — have been jailed. According to Human Rights Watch, the movement has given Iranian authorities cause to unleash a "human rights disaster".
The clampdown continued this week as authorities prevented protesters from congregating or shouting pro-Opposition slogans while a huge blackout of the nation’s media and telecommunications networks was under way. Stalwarts of the Green Movement from within the establishment, including a former Presidential candidate and senior clerics, were reportedly attacked by security forces while attending rallies in Tehran.
Diplomatic pressure from the US and the international community hasn’t helped. The highly confrontational approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a boon for hardliners who have been all too happy to label the Green Movement a foreign conspiracy to destabilise the country.
There is plenty of fuel for the claims of the clerics. While the world’s attention is squarely focused on Iran, there is virtually no discussion of Israel’s already existent nuclear stockpile, or attempts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect them.
While many countries decry the oppression in Iran, other Middle Eastern states guilty of similar restrictions — like Saudi Arabia and Egypt — face no diplomatic repercussions and are, on the contrary, termed "moderate" states and key allies.
Most ominous of all, however, is the similarity between the treatment of Iran today and that of Iraq in the lead up to its invasion in 2003.
The US recently called for a new raft of sanctions against Iran for continuing to enrich uranium, a move seen as a major step toward the development of nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration has said it wants to compel Tehran to stop its nuclear energy program and not punish the people of Iran. Using language that could well have been broadcast from the UN building in New York before the invasion of Iraq, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates referred to the "multiple opportunities" the international community had given Iran to stop its nuclear program leaving no option but to use sanctions. Washington’s words and actions are, in the words of academic Jake Lynch, "reminiscent of the squeeze on Iraq" from 1998 until its invasion five years later.
These parallels — not to mention the recent very public decision of the US to establish a missile shield in several Arabian Gulf states aimed at protecting against an Iranian missile strike — only give Iranian leaders extra incentive to increase their stockpiles of missiles and other weapons.
And as this international drama plays out, ordinary Iranians continue to struggle under the weight of a regime that can’t come to terms with the demands of an open, modern society.
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