Tumultuous run

Published : Mar 13, 2009 00:00 IST

MohammAd Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. A 1971 photograph.-AFP

MohammAd Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. A 1971 photograph.-AFP

ON February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made his triumphant return from exile to Teheran and sounded the death knell for the Western-backed monarchy. It was one of the epochal events of the 20th century. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had fled into exile in January that year. Very few people had foreseen such a dramatic change of events in the region. Until the late 1970s, Iran along with Israel was among the strongest allies of the United States in West Asia. Indeed, U.S. President Jimmy Carter described Iran as an oasis of stability in the region just a year before the Shahs downfall.

The upsurge of peoples power in Iran served as an inspiration to oppressed people all over the world. Many historians have compared Khomeini to Nelson Mandela, though their political visions differed significantly. Iranians had been trying to rid themselves of the imperialist yoke for a long time. In the past 200 years foreign powers have tried to dominate the country. In the late 19th century, imperial Russia and Britain divided Iran into their spheres of influence. Britain played a key role in installing Reza Shah on the throne in 1921. It was the secular forces led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh who first tried to chart out an independent course for the country. He tried to nationalise the countrys oil industry and curtail the Shahs unconstitutional powers. He was overthrown in a Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup in 1953.

Iran went on to become a bulwark of the American-imposed security structure in West Asia. The Shahs army was at the beck and call of Washington. In 1955, Iran joined the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), the U.S.-led Baghdad Pact, which was designed after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Along with Turkey and Israel, Iran safeguarded American interests in the region and helped quell many popular uprisings.

Domestically, the nationalists and the communists, who were leading the struggle against the despotic rule of the Shah, were joined by the influential Shia clerics and their followers. Khomeini was sent into exile in 1964. The Shahs draconian policies in his final years in power had driven the left-wing parties completely underground, giving the Islamists a clear political field. The clergy went on defiantly opposing the Shah from the sanctuary of the mosques while the urban intelligentsia, identified with the Left, became relatively inactive.

One of the first acts of the revolutionary government after it assumed office was to terminate the membership of Iran in the Baghdad Pact. U.S. policymakers viewed the events in Iran as a significant setback. Many commentators compared the fall of the Shah to the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital which was captured by the North Vietnamese army in 1975 and the fall of which signified the end of the Vietnam War. There was also the fear that the Islamic revolution would spread to other states in West Asia, especially those under the absolute rule of emirs and kings. President Carter reacted by stating that any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. Carters statement was also influenced by the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan at the time. Since Carter enunciated his doctrine, the U.S. has gone to war in the region three times to secure its so-called vital interests.

The first years of the revolution were characterised by violent chaos. The clerics, to consolidate their hold on power, ruthlessly subdued the left-wing and secular forces. The Iranian Communist Party, Tudeh, was suppressed and its top leadership sent to the gallows or incarcerated. Another left-wing group with Islamist underpinnings, the Mojaheddin-e-Khalq, tried to grab power by embarking on a terror spree. One serving President and Prime Minister were assassinated in the tumultuous years following the revolution.

The Mojaheddin-e-Khalq was designated a terror group by Washington and the European Union. However, the E.U. recently took the group out of its terror list. It is the first time that an organisation has been delisted by the E.U. The Iranian government has sharply criticised the move, describing it as another example of the double standards employed by the West on the issue of terrorism.

The seizure of the American embassy by a group of radical students in November 1979 exacerbated the relations between Teheran and Washington. The students held hostage 63 Americans working in the embassy, demanding the immediate return of the Shah to face trial for corruption and human rights abuses. On September 8, 1978, the Shahs police had shot down 1,600 demonstrators. The Shahs secret service, Savak, was especially brutal in its handling of political prisoners. The U.S. retaliated to the embassy attack by breaking diplomatic relations with and imposing sanctions on Iran.

Khomeini was anointed the Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader). The new Islamic Constitution gave the clerical establishment extraordinary powers, including powers to override un-Islamic laws and the nomination of impious candidates for Parliament and the presidency. Khomeini continued to play a larger-than-life role in the countrys politics until his death. He presided over the creation of the Islamic Republican Party and the Revolutionary Guards. He has been credited with introducing many populist policies that continue to this day. His main goal was the uplift of the barefoot masses. In his speeches, Khomeini always emphasised that the 1979 revolution was a revolution of the underprivileged. The Iranian government continues to subsidise the poorer sections of society. Iran is one of the few countries in the region to hold elections every four years to Parliament and the presidency.

According to Khomeinis biographers, the most painful decision he had to take was to agree to a ceasefire with Iraq in 1988 to end the long-running war. The Americans had convinced the Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to launch the ill-conceived war against neighbouring Iran. Saddam was lulled into believing that Iran, wracked by domestic violence, was a ripe fruit ready for the picking. In the eight years of war that followed, more than a million people on both sides lost their lives. The economies of the two countries were also wrecked.

Saddam immediately launched another misadventure, this time in Kuwait, while the Iranian leadership turned its attention to development. From the 1990s, Iran embarked on reconstruction and consolidation. It stayed neutral during the first Gulf war. The U.S., meanwhile, kept piling the pressure on Iran. In 1995, the Bill Clinton administration imposed additional sanctions on Iran, which adversely affected its trade and oil production. Any international firm investing more than $40 million in Iran was penalised heavily.

There was an effort by the reformist cleric Mohammed Khatami to build bridges with the West after he was elected to the presidency in 1997. He called for a new dialogue with Washington, but the Clinton administration spurned his gesture and accused Iran of involvement in the attack on the U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. That attack was carried out by groups affiliated to Al Qaeda. Irans offer to open a dialogue process had come without preconditions. In July 1988, during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war, an Iranian passenger plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf by the U.S. warship USS Vincennes, killing all 290 people on board. The U.S. has still not apologised to the Iranian people for that tragic incident.

Iran has cooperated with the U.S. on a few occasions. The most notorious instance is the Iran-Contragate affair, in which U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies used Iran as a conduit to supply arms to the counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. In the late 1990s, India, the U.S. and Iran cooperated to keep the Northern Alliance afloat as a counterweight to the Taliban, which was then in power in Kabul. Irans help was also crucial to the U.S. in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Now the U.S. is using all the leverage it has on friends such as India to keep them away from Iran. In recent years, under U.S. influence, India has gone to the extent of voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board meeting on the nuclear issue and in the process helped the United Nations Security Council rubber-stamp the U.S. blueprint for sanctions on Iran. India has cold-shouldered Iran on the gas pipeline deal too. Iranian officials complain that India is aggressively implementing banking-related sanctions on their country. The U.S. has blacklisted the Iranian state-owned bank from doing business internationally.

When George W. Bush took over the U.S. presidency, he elevated Iran to the axis of evil club along with Iraq and North Korea. Washington accused Teheran of having one of the most advanced and clandestine nuclear programmes in the world and of seeking missile-related technology from countries such as China and North Korea. Iran has been insisting that its nuclear programme is purely for civilian purposes. No clinching evidence has been obtained to prove otherwise. Iran has consistently called for converting the region into a nuclear-weapons-free zone. It has abided by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the safeguards agreement. The entire world is aware that the only country that has been amassing nuclear weapons in the region is Israel, a staunch U.S. ally.

During the eight years of the Bush administration, there was even talk of a tactical nuclear strike against Iran to take out its underground nuclear facilities. President Barack Obama has also reiterated that all options are open against Iran but has also signalled that his administration is open to direct talks with preconditions. Iran has said that the talks can only be conducted on the basis of mutual respect.

Despite the threats and increasing sanctions, Iran has continued on its development path undeterred. In the past 10 years, it made tremendous strides in all fields, including science and technology. Its recent launch of a domestically produced satellite is an illustration. The Iranian economy was also considerably buoyed by the dramatic rise in oil and gas prices. However, in recent months Iran too is feeling the impact of the drastic dip in oil prices. Oil prices, which reached above $150 a barrel in July last year, now hover below $50.

As Iranians celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolution, inflation has reached alarming heights. It currently stands around 24 per cent. The international financial crisis has affected the economy. The government is being forced to cut down on many of its welfare programmes for the poor.

President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad hopes that the Parliament will approve his economic revolution plan, which envisages the removal of subsidies for the poor and its replacement with cash handouts of between $40 and $70 a month. As the economy remains heavily dependent on oil revenues, Iranians may be in for a bumpy ride in the short term.

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