The Iranian Revolution: Its Impact And The Future
Former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (1949-76) was once asked about the impact of the French Revolution in 1789, and he replied ‘It’s too early to say’. However, with today marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Shah of Iran, one thing that I can say with confidence is that the Iranian Revolution was a truly pivotal event in modern history, the impact of which is still highly relevant today. Here’s why:
• Iran’s post-revolutionary chaos and internal weakness facilitated the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in December 1979; this led to the US-backed Mujahideen’s jihad, the eventual defeat of the USSR, the Afghan civil war, the rise of the Taliban, 9/11, and the present Western quagmire there.
• Iran’s domestic turmoil encouraged an invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, leading to one of the 20th century’s longest interstate wars (1980-88); this strengthened Saddam at home and led to a substantial militarisation of Iraq, and ultimately the two Iraq Wars.
• The revolution inspired a major uprising in Mecca in late 1979, which was subsequently crushed with the assistance of French commandos; this gave the impression that the West would never allow a revolution against the monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
• The 444-day hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran from November 1979 dealt a fatal blow to Jimmy Carter’s presidency; this led to the election of Ronald Reagan, and the adoption of a much more aggressive strategic posture by the US after a decade of reversals.
• In response to the US’ weakened position, Carter promulgated a new doctrine in 1980, paving the way for the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM) and much greater direct military involvement in the Middle East.
• The revolution provided a massive boost to the forces of radical Islam, with Tehran providing assistance to such forces in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; the overthrow of the Shah remains a template for some of the Islamist political forces seeking power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries.
• To this day, the US and Iran remain bitter foes over a host of issues, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The revolution also provided a number of surprises to Western governments and policymakers:
• A popular uprising was able to overthrow the Shah, despite his possession of one of the most powerful militaries in the world, backed by all Western powers.
• The Shah’s 400,000-strong military crumbled, with top generals fleeing, and the junior ranks siding with the revolutionaries.
• The exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini was able to assume direct control of government, thereby defying the belief that he would be a Gandhi-like figure, or that secular nationalists would dominate the new government.
• Because the US was so reliant on the Shah and the pro-Western Iranian elite for intelligence on Iran, it was unable to predict the revolution, and thus was caught completely off guard by events.
Of course, the future is more important than the past, and Iran could find itself in a state of flux in 2009. There are several possible long-term outcomes:
• As a result of rising social and economic pressures, Iran could yet experience a liberal ‘counter-revolution’, especially if voters become increasingly dissatisfied with the cleric-dominated political system. Whether this would be peaceful or violent is impossible to predict.
• The clerics could gradually extricate themselves from politics, paving the way for more technocrats and business leaders to guide the economy. A reformist Iran could become a major emerging market along the lines of Turkey.
• The new US president could seek a ‘Grand Bargain’ with Iran, one that would acknowledge Iran’s nuclear prerogatives in a landmark summit held in Tehran.
• US-Iran disputes could prove intractable, leading to US military action and a general war – although this is unlikely so long as the US is beset by financial woes and is bogged down in Afghanistan.
Regardless of the outcome, I believe that the fate of Iran will be of crucial importance to the global system – for better or for worse.