THIS month marks 40 years since the US-backed Shah was overthrown in Iran, to be replaced by a clergy-led combine that declared the end of the imperial order and the establishment of an Islamic Republic. For four decades, the ‘new’ Iran has weathered a number of storms, including wars, internal dissent and international isolation. Barely a year after the fall of the old order, the disastrous Iran-Iraq war was launched as Saddam Hussein — egged on by his Arab peers — attacked the Islamic Republic. That brutal conflict would drag on for nearly eight years. Iran managed to survive, while Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime would ultimately fall in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The Iranian revolution essentially changed the calculus of the region; while in the pre-revolution days Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel were the triple pillars of the US-backed Middle East order, after the events of 1979, Washington and Tehran became implacable foes due to a variety of reasons. This hostility survives, as the Trump administration’s recent torpedoing of the Iran nuclear deal demonstrates. Regional temperatures also rose as Iran sought to ‘export’ its revolution. In many states, particularly in the Arab world, Shia Islamist groups were emboldened, which led to apprehension among Arab potentates and strongmen and sparked a proxy war of sorts, with sectarian overtones, across the Muslim world. Pakistan has also not been immune from this wave. Elsewhere, Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that grew under Iranian patronage, has become one of Lebanon’s most powerful political actors, and was instrumental in taking back Arab land from Israel on the battlefield.
However, while revolutionary Iran has flexed its muscle across the region — most recently playing a central role in backing up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria — internally, it has faced accusations of suppressing dissent. The most perilous moment for the Islamic Republic came in 2009, with the Green Movement and the disputed presidential election. Interestingly, despite the flaws in Iran’s hybrid clerical-democratic system, the country has held regular elections and has a greater degree of democracy compared to most of its Arab neighbours. Looking ahead, the state of Iran must listen to the wishes of its people. It may not be prepared to jettison its ideology — as some critics in the West hope for. But the Iranian establishment must work harder to deliver on the promise of freedom and justice that was its rallying cry against the Shah’s oppressive regime.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2019