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True relevance of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution

  • Paula
This week, 40 years ago, Iran’s military stood down, guaranteeing the Islamic Revolution’s success.
by PAULA SLIER | Feb 14, 2019

After months of unrest and protests in cities across the country, a secular monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, colloquially known as the Shah, was overthrown.

This dramatic turn-of-events would reshape the Middle East for decades to come, introducing a string of events, the implications of which are still being felt today.

Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah used much of the country’s oil and gas money to modernise the capital, Tehran. He largely ignored those living in the countryside, and came under increasing criticism for being out of touch with citizens, and serving as a puppet of Western governments.

It was a recipe bound for failure. The devout and the clergy became increasingly frustrated with his changes, and the expectations of the burgeoning middle class, especially students, could never be completely fulfilled.

In spite of the many reforms the Shah introduced, he could not stem the nationwide protests. In response, government forces killed thousands of demonstrators.

Although the unrest was initiated by radical student groups, religious fundamentalists gradually gained the upper hand. They rallied around the Shah’s primary critic, Islamic cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood for everything the Shah did not. Khomeini envisaged an Iranian government founded on the principles of Islam, which was deeply opposed to the West. When he returned to Tehran from exile on 1 February 1979, he received a rapturous welcome.

Understanding what led to the revolution and the changes the country has undergone since is important in trying to map out future relations between Iran and Israel.

In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”

The cornerstone of the Iranian revolution, and one of its most important goals was the exportation of Shia Islam outside the country’s borders. Becoming a regional powerhouse remains one of the Islamic Republic’s overriding priorities. Even today, in spite of the country’s massive economic problems, in an effort to gain regional hegemony, it continues to prop up its proxies in Lebanon via Hezbollah (which it created), and in Gaza via Hamas.

This is also the most opportune way to attack Israel, a country Khomeini described in 1971 as having “penetrated all the economic, military, and political affairs” of Iran and turning it into “a military base for Israel”. The Iranian regime is relentlessly devoted to the destruction of the Jewish state.

It’s a far cry from pre-revolution days. Like the United States, Israel was closely allied to the Shah and before February 1979, the countries shared diplomatic and even some national security relations. Khomeini used this relationship to his advantage, arguing that Israel was a Western intrusion, and he was freeing the region from “imperialist” Israeli oppression. One of the first things he did after assuming power was abruptly to sever diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

This past Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the country’s streets to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, while burning US and Israeli flags. A commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” in the event of an American attack on the country.

Quick to respond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that this would be Iran’s last anniversary of the revolution if it attacked any Israeli cities.

This trading of barbs is nothing new. The question, of course, is whether either side is willing to make true on its threats.

Some experts say Iran is willing to risk its own destruction to fight Israel. Others believe Tehran would never go that far and would rather continue to pour money into its proxy armies.

These experts back up their arguments by pointing out that in spite of the recent humiliations Tehran has suffered in Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it has avoided any major confrontation with the Jewish state.

In its heyday, the relationship with Iran formed part of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s, vision of cultivating relations with the non-Arab, mostly Muslim, enemies of its enemies.

Known as the “periphery doctrine”, chief among these Israeli partners were Turkey and pre-revolution Iran.

Nowadays Israel has a “reverse periphery doctrine”, forging alliances with major Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The logic is the same – but in reverse. These countries share a common enemy in Iran.

But, it doesn’t alleviate the very real threat Tehran continues to pose. The country is developing longer range and more sophisticated missiles that can reach American and Israeli targets. It is building weapons factories in Syria in the hope of establishing a permanent military presence near Israel’s northern border. Like the revolution that heralded the current leadership four decades ago, Iran’s rulers are intent on sponsoring their proxies, and destroying Israel.

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