Thirty years ago this week, a frail 77-year old cleric landed in Tehran, where he was welcomed by millions of enthusiastic Iranians. His revolutionary ideas about Islam’s place in political life and role in the world would soon transform his country into a bastion of Islamic radicalism.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sits today in the pantheon of revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, a man who inspired and guided from exile a revolution that brought down one of the Middle East’s strongest autocrats and who then returned to install a brutal theocratic system, the survival, workings and ambitions of which still confound many.
Iran’s revolution, like all others, is a tale of idealism mugged by the reality of power. And like all revolutions it has its share of glory, lies, myths, heroes, villains, and victims. Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, a weak character torn between modernist and autocratic instincts, was its first victim: with him went any chance of a return to monarchy. The real victims, though, were the liberal, leftist and nationalist factions that allied with the religious fundamentalists against the Shah, only to be consumed by them. In the ruthless battle for legitimacy and power during the first years, the fundamentalists proved better at using the mob and manipulating events.
What made Iran’s revolution so special was its blend of religion and populism. Popular uprisings elsewhere were all about reducing the power of the church. In reaction to decades of frenetic modernisation, Islam became the rallying cry of diverse factions in Iran, despite meaning different things to each. The most radical version of the mosque prevailed. Power was concentrated at the top through the velayet al-faqih, or rule of jurisprudence: the Supreme Guide has overriding authority over affairs of church and state, and oversees a system purposely fragmented to prevent the rise of powerful competitors.
Iran also became the best illustration of the “king’s dilemma”: when a leader shows vision and implements political, economic and social reforms, he can unleash the very forces that threaten his legitimacy and hold on power. So the memory of the Shah’s fate continues to impede reform elsewhere in the Middle East.
An anniversary is always a good time to reflect on achievements. By one measure at least, the Islamic revolution has been a success: the system it engendered has survived 30 years of war, isolation, internal intrigue, economic mismanagement and popular disenchantment. Some of those in power in today’s Iran belong to the first generation of revolutionaries, but the system has trained and empowered others, among whom the most famous is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has also emerged as the primary beneficiary of Middle East dynamics and the failure of US policies.
But contrary to the perception of an all-powerful Iran, the revolution has not given birth to a geopolitical or economic giant. You do not see people queuing outside Iranian embassies to relocate to Tehran. Instead, Iranians travel to Damascus, Dubai and other places to obtain visas for Europe or America. For the many Iranians needing time away from revolutionary rigour, Dubai has become a second, vibrant home. For a people of such pride and grandeur, there is a bitter realisation that other models have worked better.
Then there is the paradox of dropping religiosity in a theocratic state. The corruption and sordid episodes in which the clergy has been implicated have done enormous damage to clerical rule. Much of Iran’s economy is informal, with many government entities operating outside the purview of the state. Iran’s economic dislocation is massive, and its best measure is the inability to properly manage and capitalise on the windfall from recent high oil prices.
On the international level there is much talk about Iran’s resurgence. But while the alliances with Syria and Venezuela may be solid, they have no societal texture and are unworthy of a country that pitches itself as a regional power. Even in Iraq, where Iranian influence is certainly pervasive, there is no rush to adopt Islamic revolutionary tenets, especially the velayet al-faqih.
Hizbollah is probably Iran’s most tangible foreign policy success, an ideological ally that has made Tehran a power in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. But many Iranians are uncomfortable with an alliance with a tiny and troublesome partner that costs so much, alienates so many and tarnishes Iran’s image.
Many achievements of the revolution are also uncertain. Take velayet al-faqih. It is challenged from within (there is talk of transferring its powers to a Council after the death of Ali Khamenei) and without (Grand Ayatollahs Ali Sistani of Iraq and Mohammed Hussain Fadlallah of Lebanon dispute its religious basis).
Do not be fooled by Iran’s tub-thumping and Ahmadinejad’s bombast. Iran’s power is shackled by its internal weaknesses. Abroad, its appeal is limited because it is Persian and Sh’ite in a region dominated by Arabs and Sunnis, and its influence is checked by regional powerhouses such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Oddly, the US and others routinely inflate Iranian power. For the US it is routine to portray Iran as an existential threat to drum up support for its policies. For the rest of the world, it is part fascination (those who fall for the revolutionary romance), part fear (mainly Iran’s Arab neighbours) and part delusion (think of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro).
If anything the revolution has demonstrated the resilience of Iranian society. It has survived and adapted to many calamities, but remains vibrant and creative.
Henry Kissinger once said that Iran had a choice between being a nation or a cause. Clinging to the latter is doing enormous damage to the former. A nation is not built on slogans such as “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, but on national cohesion and purpose. So for all the confidence and pride on display this month, from the launch of a satellite to the inevitable military parades, the revolution is far from settled and victorious.