By: Uzair Salman
Analysing the Consequences
This year marks 40 years since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when 2,500 years of monarchy gave way to a Shiite Muslim-led theocracy. On Jan 16, 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his family left Iran. The US-allied Shah, fatally stricken with cancer, would never return. Several weeks later, on Feb 1, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile in Paris. Within a matter of days, the army declared neutrality, the royal regime collapsed, and new regime was established under the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (governance of the Islamic jurist). These events – from revolutionaries in the streets of Tehran to blindfolded American hostages in the US Embassy hostage crisis months later – not only changed Iran’s history but also helped shape today’s Middle East.
In 1979, after decades of royal rule, millions of Iranians took to streets in a popular movement against a regime that was seen as brutal, corrupt and illegitimate. Protesters from all social classes demanded the removal of Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s monarch since 1941. The Shah had long been criticised for his ties to Western countries, particularly Britain and the United States, as well as crackdowns by internal security forces on dissenting voices.
The Iranian Revolution was no less important than the Bolshevik Revolution. It was a genuine popular revolution that changed the face of the Middle East, the Gulf and the wider region, including Yemen on one side and Afghanistan, on the opposite side. Recalling those days still inspires us: scenes of comradeship despite the shortages due to long days of nationwide strikes, initiatives by ordinary people to run their communities and workplaces, mass demonstrations, resistance to sometimes brutal repression and the pinnacle of those events – an armed insurrection that overthrew the old regime of the Shah. However, the revolution did not end up as was expected. Due to this failure, Iran is standing at a crossroads where a deep resentment among the Iranians is more than visible and, Iran seems in a phase of transition.
If we analyze the world of that time, we find that the year 1979 was transformational for five countries – Nicaragua had its Sandinista uprising, Egypt had its peace with Israel, Marcos was booted out of power in the Philippines, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and waved goodbye to its colonial overseer, and Iran had its unique Islamic Revolution. Each in its own way has made a permanent mark, and ironically not a single one of these countries has settled down properly and been able to move into a state of political tranquillity, if not democracy. There are different reasons as to why this is the case, but in the case of Iran, we have the added dimension of politicized religion playing such a crucial part in shaping the state and state-society relations following the fall of the monarchy.
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