Forty years that changed Iran’s history

(Ayatollah Khomeini waves to followers from the balcony of his headquarters in Tehran, Feb 2, 1979, on second day of return from exile.)

The annual event known as the Ten Days of Dawn marking the political celebration of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on February 11 has begun. This year’s anniversary is a special occasion – the revolution completes 40 years. It becomes a defining moment.

Forty years ago, these ten days shook not only the Middle East but the Muslim world. The Islamic Revolution in Iran was a milestone for political Islam. It underscored that Islam and democracy are compatible. Iran’s electoral politics may have unique Iranian characteristics, which is only natural and far from unusual for other practitioners of democracy such as India or Brazil, for instance, but there can be no two opinions that Iran’s elected governments have acquired representative character and their legitimacy is not in doubt.

Basically, what irks many of Iran’s neighbours is also this compelling political reality of the empowerment of the people, which they themselves lack – be it Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt or Jordan. They are nervous that their own people chaffing under authoritarian rule might get wrong ideas from Iran.

Several cross currents went into the alchemy of Iran’s Islamic Revolution ranging from Persian nationalists to the Communist Tudeh Party, and from Grand Ayotallah Sayyid Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (who was at odds with Imam Khomeini’s interpretation of the concept of Vilayat al-faqih or ‘Leadership of Jurists’ and espoused that the clergy ought to serve society and remain aloof from politics) to the charismatic ideologue of ‘Red Shi’ism’ Dr. Ali Shariati (who argued that religion in its pure form is concerned with social justice and salvation of the masses and should dispense with idolatrous rituals and established clergy – an entire current of non-Marxian socialism.) That explains the large social base of the Iranian revolution and its capacity to withstand relentless assaults by the US and its allies to undermine the established regime of the Vilayat al-faqih.

The Ten Days of Dawn is an occasion to read again the classic 1978 essay chronicling the upheaval leading to the Iranian revolution authored by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, What Are the Iranians Dreaming About? Foucault concluded his essay like this:

One bears on Iran and its peculiar destiny. At the dawn of history, Persia invented the state and conferred its models on Islam. Its administrators staffed the caliphate. But from this same Islam, it derived a religion that gave to its people infinite resources to resist state power. In this will for an “Islamic government,” should one see a reconciliation, a contradiction, or the threshold of something new?

The other question concerns this little corner of the earth whose land, both above and below the surface, has strategic importance at a global level. For the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality. I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.

“Political spirituality” – that is what gives a particular coloration to the Iranian revolution and makes it virtually impossible to repeat anywhere outside Iran.

(Pilgrims visit Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb in Qom on Feb 2, 2019 to pay homage on 40th anniversary of his return from exile)

The festivities of the Ten Days of Dawn began on February 1, which was the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned home from France after 14 years in exile to be the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They conclude on February 11, which dates back to the collapse of the Shah’s regime following clashes between some army units and revolutionaries triggered by nationwide protests.

The chartered Air France plane, which brought Khomeini from Paris was half empty so that it could carry extra fuel lest Shah didn’t allow the aircraft to land in Tehran. Khomeini’s allies in Tehran feared for his life. A 50000-strong police force deployed in Tehran on that day but it lost control in no time as swirling crowds overwhelmed Shah’s security henchmen. An estimated 5 million people had lined the streets of Tehran to witness Khomeini’s homecoming. Read here a poignant BBC dispatch from Tehran on that historic day.

When the history of the decline of US influence in the Middle East gets written, the starting point has to be the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The US could never get over the “loss” of Iran as its key regional ally. An effective regional strategy became difficult to sustain. The consequent inability to let go of Iran accounted for much of the tensions in the Middle East politics in the past four decades. And, inevitably, the US kept losing ground while the Islamic regime in Iran gained in stature and influence as a permanent factor in the political life of the Middle East.

Suffice to say, it won’t be an exaggeration to estimate that the Iranian revolution has proved to be the nemesis of the Western political, economic, cultural domination of the Muslim Middle East. Having said that, it will be erroneous to estimate that the Islamic regime in Iran is locked in a mortal conflict with the West. Far from it. Iran is an ambitious regional power and it factors in that access to Western technology and capital is of crucial importance. Equally, the leadership is acutely conscious that for the preservation of the social base of the Islamic regime, economic development is critical, which again means trade and investment from the West. Iran’s middle class is heavily orientated toward ‘Westernism’.

The bottom line is that much as this may sound a paradox, the reality is that integration into the West is a core objective of the regime’s policies. Europe understands the complexity of Iran’s motivations. Interestingly, the European Union announced on January 31 (on the eve of the anniversary of Khomeini’s return from exile to Tehran) the creation of the so-called Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) as a channel for trade exchanges with Iran circumventing the US sanctions.

Tehran is delighted. Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif promptly tweeted, “Iran welcomes #INSTEX—a long overdue 1st step—in E3 implementation of May 2018 commitments to save JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) by ensuring dividends for Iranians after US’ illegal reimposition of sanctions. We remain ready for constructive engagement with Europe on equal footing & with mutual respect.”

The heart of the matter is that the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution would have been an occasion to bury the hostility between the US and Iran if only the Trump administration had the sense of history and political foresight to comprehend that Iran can be a factor for regional stability.  President Trump did not have to look beyond Iran for an effective partner to bring to a closure the “endless wars” in the Middle East.