Iran revolution

Celebrating a milestone

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President Hassan Rouhani at a ceremony in Tehran’s Azadi Square celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11. Photo: AFP/HO/Iranian Presidency

November 6, 1979: Students standing guard outside the entrance to the U.S. embassy in Tehran two days after they stormed the building and took the staff and others hostage. The “hostage crisis” lasted for 444 days. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Iran-Iraq war, which started when the Iraqi army invaded Iran in 1980 and lasted for eight long years, was the first baptism by fire for the Islamic Revolution. Here, an undated photograph showing soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on a battlefield during the war. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an October 1971 photograph. Photo: AFP

February 5, 1979: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, in Tehran shortly after his return from 15 years of exile. Photo: GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP

Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, the Republic of Iran has considerably expanded its diplomatic footprint and soft power.

MOST historians describe the February 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as one of the three important events in the 20th century that changed the course of international politics. The other two are the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the communist victory in China in 1949. Iran under the Shah was among the foremost allies of the United States in the region along with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Americans had trained the Iranian army and supplied it with the most sophisticated armaments available at the time.

The Shah reciprocated by acting as Washington’s gendarme in the region. After helping the Shah stage a coup against an elected government in 1953 and helping him consolidate his grip on the country, the U.S. and its allies were confident that the strategically located country with bountiful natural resources and a glorious history would forever remain in their sphere of influence.

The people’s struggle against the Shah was initially spearheaded by the Left, with the Communist Party of Iran, known as the Tudeh, at the forefront. It was the nationalisation of the oil sector and the growing strength of the Tudeh Party that led the Americans and the British to orchestrate the coup that overthrew the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The Tudeh Party and the Iraqi Communist Party were among the strongest Left parties in the region in the 1950s and the 1960s. Tudeh Party activists along with members of other progressive groups were ruthlessly targeted by the Shah’s secret police, known as the Savak. Many of its leaders were forced into exile.

Meanwhile, the influential Shia clergy, sections of which were complicit in the 1953 coup, were also active in mobilising public support for the overthrow of the Shah. Their influence and reach were underestimated by Iran watchers as the mostly urban-based left-wing groupings hogged the international limelight during the long struggle against the Shah. Various other Islamist groupings were also active. The conservative sections of Iranian society were disenchanted with the Shah for his top-down economic policies aimed at turning Iran into a copy of a westernised country. The Shah’s repressive apparatus had seemingly crushed all organised opposition. In 1963, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was forced into exile. But left-wing groups, many of them independent of the Tudeh Party, started staging attacks in Tehran and elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, the Savak increased its repression on left-wing activists. Many student leaders were either tortured to death or killed in staged encounters.

It is fair to say that Islamic groups and the various left-wing groups were united in their desire to see the speedy demise of the Pahlavi dynasty, which was put in place mainly by the machinations of the British colonial power eager to monopolise Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves. One of the most popular revolutionary slogans was “Let him [the Shah] go and let there be floods afterwards”. The revolutionary forces started gaining considerable traction in 1977. The writing was on the wall for the Shah and his supporters in the West by the next year.

After the Shah’s government finally collapsed on February 11, 1979, it was the mainstream Islamists led by the Shia clerical establishment that came up on top. The rapturous welcome extended to Khomeini on his return from exile in France 10 days before the revolution was a portent of things to come. After a popular revolution and the ascendancy of the clerical establishment, an Islamic Republic was established for the first time in the world. Many Iranians would have preferred an outcome different from the establishment of a theocratic republic. The brief period of violence that the country witnessed after the proclamation of the Islamic Republic was an illustration of this disillusionment.

But the Islamic Revolution had from the outset the support of the influential merchant class, the marginalised sections of the urban citizenry, and the rural populace. One of its professed goals was to deliver social justice to the poor. But the social policies of the government noticeably changed after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. After Hashemi Rafsanjani became President, the state has increasingly embraced neoliberal policies.

From day one, the Islamic Republic faced huge challenges and roadblocks that were put up by its enemies. Most of Iran’s neighbours viewed the new government with unabashed hostility. The Islamic Republic was born in the midst of the Cold War. “Neither East nor West” was the slogan the Islamic revolutionaries adopted as they sought to be equidistant from both sides. Iran labelled the U.S. as the “Great Satan” and the Soviet Union as the “lesser Satan”.

Hostage crisis

Just nine months after the revolution, a group of Iranian students entered the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the staff and others hostage. The “hostage crisis”, which lasted for 444 days, jump-started moves in the West to engineer regime change in Tehran. Khomeini’s undisguised contempt for the Gulf monarchies and their dependence on the U.S. did not endear the Islamic Republic to the other governments of the region, which found a useful ally in President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Almost immediately after the 1979 Revolution, the Iraqi President reneged on a deal he had signed with the Shah of Iran to resolve the dispute on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, which at one point flows between Iran and Iraq. Egged on by the Americans and their oil-rich partners in the Gulf, Saddam Hussein decided to defeat the Islamic revolutionaries militarily. When the Iraqi army invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein and his advisers had expected the Iranians to capitulate within months. The top leadership of the Iranian army had been purged after the fall of the Shah as the new government did not have full faith in an army that had been at the beck and call of the Shah and trained by the Americans.

The war with Iraq, which lasted for eight long years, was the first baptism by fire for the Islamic Revolution. More than a million Iranians may have died in that war. Iran had to create a separate armed force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to do most of the fighting alongside a depleted army. Ayatollah Khomeini finally agreed to sign a ceasefire with Iraq after concluding that an outright victory was not possible. “Taking this decision was more deadly than taking poison,” he had said. At the beginning of the war, he had pledged that Iran would only end the war after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Interestingly, it was the U.S. that finally realised Khomeini’s long-cherished dream of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, though it happened some 14 years after his death. Today, thanks to a great extent to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there is a government in Baghdad that is friendly to Iran. Shia-majority Iraq has now become a “natural ally” of Iran. Many in the current Iraqi political establishment spent many years in exile in Iran when their country was under Saddam Hussein and the ideologically secular Baath Party. Iran’s foreign policy has been guided by pragmatism. At the height of its conflict with the “Great Satan”, when Ronald Reagan was President, Tehran received arms shipments from the U.S. under the so-called “Iran-Contra” deal. Iran tacitly supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the events of 9/11. Iran had been on the verge of going to war with the Taliban before that.

‘Axis of resistance’

Forty years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has considerably expanded its diplomatic footprint and soft power. It always had excellent relations with Syria even though that country has been under secular Baath Party rule for a long time. Syria was the only Arab country that stood by Iran during the long war with Iraq. For the last decade and a half, the two countries along with the Hizbollah movement have branded themselves as the “axis of resistance” in the region, fighting for the Palestinian cause.

Iran’s help to Syria during the civil war there, instigated by the West and its proxies, has been invaluable. Iran’s influence, once constrained by the sectarian divide and American meddling, has today expanded significantly. The Arab street and the Muslim world know that Iran is among the last major countries in the region that cares for the fate of the Palestinian people. The Islamic Republic has been a consistent supporter of liberation movements worldwide and is a pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Huge crowds turned out for the 40th anniversary celebrations in all the major Iranian cities on February 11. It was a show of determination and a message that Iran would not bow down to the diktats of the U.S. The problems in the daily life of Iranians caused by the draconian sanctions that the U.S. reimposed on Iran in 2018 seem to have only further strengthened their resolve to resist.

In his speech to mark the occasion, President Hassan Rouhani said that the huge turnout in the rallies across the country “means that the enemy will not achieve its evil goals” and that the revolution will carry on in its path “like it did for the past 40 years”. Ali Akbar Velayati, former Foreign Minister and now an influential adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stressed that the people were loyal to the Islamic Revolution despite “the hardships”. He said that the Islamic Revolution brought independence back to the country after 200 years “and we must value this independence, security and freedom”.

Anti-Iran meeting

Even as the Iranian people were celebrating, their enemies were busy trying to destabilise their country. On February 13, a suicide bomber killed 27 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps near the border with Pakistan. The victims were in a bus travelling between the towns of Zahedan and Khash. The attack coincided with an anti-Iran meeting organised by the U.S. in Warsaw, Poland. Among the prominent participants were Israel and Saudi Arabia. Also in attendance were representatives of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), which until recently was considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S. The MEK is responsible for many acts of terror inside Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has been close to the MEK, which brands itself as an Islamic-Marxist grouping. “It is no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror the day the Warsaw circus began,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted.

Although most of the Gulf Arab countries sent high-level delegations to the Warsaw meeting, countries such as Germany and France preferred to send very low-profile ones. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly threatened war against Iran. Germany, Britain and France are signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and want the U.S to restore it first and then start negotiating with Iran on their new demands. The three countries are trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran by using the INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) mechanism. Sanctions are no doubt biting the ordinary Iranian on the street. But under no circumstances, if past history is any guide, is the Iranian nation on the verge of capitulating.

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