Iran’s Islamic Revolution took place 31 years ago today. The country’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, missed it. He had gone abroad in mid-January promising that, when he returned, he would only reign — not govern.
That wasn’t good enough for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, then living in exile in France. On February 1, he flew a chartered jet back to Iran where he was greeted by millions of supporters, many of whom believed he was, quite literally, the messiah, the “hidden imam” awaited by the Shi’a faithful for centuries. Less than two weeks later, the Shah’s government collapsed.
#ad#I was present at the creation — to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson, secretary of state to President Truman. Acheson, of course, was speaking of the origins of the Cold War. I am referring to the War Against the West that was sparked by the Islamic Revolution and which continues to this day with no resolution in sight.
I was a young foreign correspondent then, not wise to the ways of the Middle East. But I knew this about revolutions: Most fail. Life under the tsars had been hard; life under the commissars was exponentially harder. In China, the Communist revolution led to the Cultural Revolution, which led to tens of millions of deaths. The French Revolution deteriorated into The Terror.
The American Revolution is the great exception. It established a new nation based on the “self-evident” truths that those who govern require the consent of the governed; and that no government can legitimately deprive its citizens of rights endowed by “their Creator.”
Today, brave Iranians are protesting, joining the Green Movement, because they, too, want to choose their leaders and have those leaders respect their unalienable rights. To date, they have received little support from the United States and other free nations.
On Monday, the U.S. and the European Union did release a joint statement calling on the ruling regime “to end its abuses against its own people [and] to hold accountable those who have committed the abuses.” But what prevents President Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and other Western leaders from standing before the cameras and forcefully calling on Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei and Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to refrain from attacking Iranians peacefully demonstrating for democratic reform? How much effort would that require? How many lives might it save?
Iran’s rulers have never lacked for apologists in the West. As Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin note in Eternal Iran, in the years immediately preceding Iran’s revolution, Khomeini was making
Islam sound compatible with Marxism. Examples of his simple, direct rhetoric — delivered in emotionally powerful speeches — are ‘The lower class is the salt of the earth’; ‘In a truly Islamic society, there will be no landless peasants’; ‘We are for Islam, not for capitalism and feudalism.’ Khomeini changed traditional Shi’ite interpretations to make them revolutionary rather than quietist, to support the oppressed masses (the mostazafin) instead of the meek. This marriage of Third Worldism with Islam was the potent mixture that let clerical activists take charge of the opposition to the shah.
Many of my fellow reporters danced at that wedding. On Feb. 12, 1979, Time magazine reported
a sense of controlled optimism in Iran. . . . Iranians will surely insist that the revolution live up to its democratic aims. . . . Those who know [Khomeini] expect that eventually he will settle in the Shi’ite holy city of Qum and resume a life of teaching and prayer. It seems improbable that he would try to become a kind of Archbishop Makarios of Iran, directly holding the reins of power. Khomeini believes that Iran should become a parliamentary democracy, with several political parties.
A New York Times editorial reassured readers that “moderate, progressive individuals” were advising Khomeini. The Times predicted the Ayatollah would provide “a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”
#ad#Prominent politicians and diplomats were equally clueless. President Carter’s U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini “some kind of saint.” William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, compared Khomeini to Gandhi. A State Department spokesman worried about the possibility of a military coup, saying that would be “most dangerous for U.S. interests. It would blow away the moderates and invite the majority to unite behind a radical faction.”
I did not read the Islamic revolution as they did. It seemed to me unlikely that the moderates would prevail over the radicals, or that the true believers would be patient for very long with those they regarded as apostates.
I remember asking an Iranian journalist if he really thought the mullahs would permit criticism by secular types like him, and whether the kids now carrying AK-47s would quietly return to their schools, factories, and farms. He waved away my questions but I bet doubt crept up on him before the authorities shut down his newspaper and student supporters of Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy.
In the wider “Muslim world” there were many people who understood exactly what was happening. Steve Coll writes in Ghost Wars that although Khomeni was a Shi’a, and therefore “anathema to many conservative Sunni Islamists . . . his audacious achievements inspired Muslims everywhere.”
I would argue that beyond inspiration, there was rivalry: Iran was being transformed into the first, modern jihadi state. Where was the Sunni equivalent? Not Saudi Arabia: Despite the infidels-as-vermin sermons routinely preached in its mosques, members of the “royal family” were all too comfortable in the fleshpots of the West. Not Pakistan: Though increasingly Islamist, its Western-trained military officers were not about to lead a global insurrection. The seeds of a non-state, Sunni, jihadi/terrorist movement were soon planted. Watered with immense oil wealth, they would sprout from the deserts as al-Qaeda a few years later.
The Shah was a despot. But Iran’s ruling mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards have been far more brutal, oppressive, and lethal. The election results announced last June — so transparently falsified — only added insult to injury. Since then, Iranians by the tens of thousands have been putting their lives on the line, waging a revolution against the Islamic Revolution.
For more than three decades, I’ve hoped that one day I’d be able to return to an Iran that was not ruled by theocrats and thugs. That’s still possible — no thanks to Western leaders who so far have displayed neither courage nor convictions.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.