The Iranian Revolution at 40

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

February 14, 2019

Forty years ago the Islamic revolution profoundly changed the nation of Iran and the region around it. Commemorating the anniversary, Iranian leaders have channeled that revolutionary zeal, remaining bellicose and defiant about the country’s role in the world. Despite ongoing domestic and international pressures, Iran’s government has been keen to point to the country’s ability to forge an independent and  muscular foreign policy. But it is not surprising that a good number of Iran’s neighbors see the matter very differently. In fact, many regional op-eds and editorials have urged Iran’s religious and civilian leadership to change course and “mature” beyond their old revolutionary zeal as Iran’s Khomeinist regime enters its fifth decade.

Iran’s main daily, Tehran Times, celebrated the milestone by gleefully reminding Iran’s “enemies” of their failed predictions regarding the longevity of the Iranian regime: “As the revolution has entered its 40th birthday and certain extremists such as John Bolton, the national security advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, had claimed that the Islamic Revolution would not see its 40th anniversary. The rallies are also a show of strength and firmness that the Iranians will not give in under illegal and tough economic sanctions introduced against the country by the Trump administration in violation of the international 2015 nuclear deal….The Trump administration, encouraged by its regional allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ordered sanctions against Iran in May 2018 with the aim of inciting public protests inside the country. However, as the massive rallies are showing the pressures are backfiring against the United States.”

Meanwhile, the pro-Hezbollah website Al Manar noted the occasion by posting statements by Iranian military commanders aimed at Tehran’s adversaries, threatening the United States and Israel with destruction should they launch an attack: “ ‘The United States does not have the courage to shoot a single bullet at us despite all its defensive and military assets. But if they attack us, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground’, Yadollah Javani, the Guards’ deputy head for political affairs said during a rally celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution…. The commander’s statement comes after earlier in the day the IRNA cited an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spokesman who stated that Tehran’s military forces will ‘firmly punish’ aggressors who attack Iran. ‘Islamic Iran has reached a level… to protect its borders by effective military capabilities, and firmly punish any aggressor’, Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif, spokesman for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said during a rally celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.”

For Iran’s neighbors, such statements are as unsurprising as they are unwelcome and point to an “immature” regime. As Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel puts it, the 40th anniversary celebrations have come and gone “without sending to countries, near or far, any message stating that it has become mature enough to derive lessons from this experience. Its messages go in the opposite direction and stress its commitment to fuel the fire of the revolution…. Can Iran ever hold on to the same dictionary that Khomeini drafted, despite the great earthquake that struck the world of the two camps under which it was born? Does Iran’s interest lie in attracting new capitals to its orbit or catching up with the world’s scientific and technological revolutions that were achieved between the victory of the revolution and its celebration of its 40th anniversary? Is expansion through proxy and mobile armies better than belonging to the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Is the preoccupation with rocket development more important than engaging in the world of robotics, investment and prosperity?”

In an op-ed for the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, Hany Ghoraba writes that the Iranian regime is incapable of changing, characterizing the Islamic revolution and its aftermath as “one of the bloodiest chapters of the post-World War II world. It has been ongoing for the past four decades in Iran, with its poison spewing across the Middle East region. The Iranian mullahs have bragged for decades about how they managed to topple the ‘bloody’ regime of the former shah, but Khomeini’s reign of terror that followed the disposal of the shah can only be matched by Stalin’s Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The sad news is that while the latter regimes have been consigned to the dustbin of history where they belong, the four decades of aggression of the Iranian regime continue. The Iranian regime still has the power to spread mayhem in the region, squandering the oil wealth of a historic nation, destabilizing other countries and oppressing its own people through tyranny and persecution.”

Still, questions are being asked how much longer the Iranian regime can continue down this path. Of course, over the last few years, there have been plenty of signs that pressure is building domestically, not least because, as a recent editorial by The National asserts “as state-sponsored celebrations are held across Iran to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution, there will be precious little for ordinary Iranians to celebrate…. Since the revolution, Iran, a land where the hopes and dreams of individuals have been sacrificed for the totalitarian and ultimately self-defeating ambitions of a clique, has existed in self-imposed exile. As Iranians publicly ‘celebrate’ the 40th anniversary of that revolution, in private many will share the view of the international community, expressed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last November: it is time for Tehran to abandon its untenable Machiavellian path and start putting its own people first.”

Other editorials, like this one by Gulf News, try a gentler approach, even though in the end they can’t resist reasserting their demands for Iran to play by the rules: “Iran is an ancient civilization — it has a rich history and its place in the region is undeniable. Its people are talented and it has an abundance of natural resources. Given this, it is all the more unacceptable that the Iranian population should be subjected to such privations as a result of the destructive policies pursued by their government. Its unceasing interference in the affairs of neighboring states, and continuous destabilization activities in the region have become a very serious source of concern for Arab and international powers. For Iran to reclaim its place in the comity of nations, its government much learn to behave itself.”

For some Iranians, the revolution remains incomplete as long as the “theocracy” exists. Iranian academic and activist Majid Rafizadeh argues in an Arab News op-ed for, “reviving the original intent of the uprising…. Up until its final stages, the Iranian Revolution never intended to install an Islamist theocracy…. It seems that the legacy of that revolutionary resistance will not be complete until Iranian citizens bring about the collapse of the theocratic regime that was established by Khomeini in defiance of the overriding national will. It is an outcome that has been 40 years in the making but, depending in part on the actions of the international community, it is an outcome that may be close at hand…. With the moderate and hard-line factions of Iranian politics apparently working hand-in-hand to maintain the status quo, more and more Iranians are publicly endorsing the notion that their welfare and future prospects will be served only by removing the Shiite religious dictatorship from power.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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