Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is seen by most Western governments as one of the greatest present threats to peace and stability in the Middle East – and rightly so. The country’s refusals to give up its nuclear ambitions, sponsoring international terrorism and severe human rights abuses have isolated Iran on the world stage. Especially since Ahmadinejad took over power from Khatami in 2005, the forces of conservatism have dominated the country’s internal and external policies and Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is arguably as aggressive and extreme as never before.
The birth of the Islamic Republic clearly was the beginning of the end. It turned Iran, a country that in the past was one of the West’s closest allies in the region, into a deadly enemy and pariah state. Before the US even had time to properly think through how to approach the new, theocratic regime in Teheran, an event took place in November 1979, which had a devastating effect on US-Iranian relations up to the present day.
President Carter had granted political asylum to his former ally, the Shah, to seek medical treatment for terminal cancer. This led to outrage in Iran and a violent student revolt ended with hijacking the American embassy. Early diplomatic talks failed and Khomeini began to use the situation for his own political ends. This was related to a war which broke out behind the scenes between the reformists and ultra-conservatives. The former believed that ‘Republic’ was the key word, while the latter were determined to re-build society on ‘Islamic’ principles.
The hardliners around Khomeini saw the hostage-taking as a legitimate, ideological act of aggression against an hostile, hegemonic power, but the moderates in his interim government rejected it, as it breached every, single international rule of diplomacy. They argued that while all Americans should be expelled from Iran, keeping them against their will was unacceptable. They understood that realism dictates having at least some minimum, political ties with the US was necessary to avoid isolation on the international stage. But Khomeini was at the peak of his power and Bazargan’s government had no other choice but to resign.
The ultra-conservatives were now in a position to initiate the second, more radical part of the revolution. In the referendum on the constitution, which took place in December 1979, the Iranians voted by a large margin for a constitution in the firm grip of the clerics, which gave supremacy to religious authority over anything else. The head of this new, clerical regime was Khomeini himself – the Supreme Leader. The consequences of the power struggle between ultra-conservatives and moderates have continued over the years.
The new system, with clerics as the highest authority in the country, changed Iranian society profoundly, as well as affecting Iran’s relation with the outside world. As much as many Arab states dislike the regime in Tehran, they could no longer ignore and dismiss it, as it was determined to spread its sinister ideology across the region. Examples are Iran’s influence in Sudan, relations with Palestine’s Hamas, or the carefully constructed alliance with parts of Afghanistan and the Shia population in Iraq, which played a major role in destabilising the country in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. But no other country was more affected by the ideological impact in the post-revolutionary period than Lebanon. With the help of Iran, Hezbollah – an Islamist terrorist group – was born, which still terrorises the region and kills innocent civilians on a regular basis.
Therefore, it is not surprising at all that the idea of Iran as a hostage-taking, terror-sponsoring crime regime is still deeply entrenched in the minds of Western governments. Rafsanjani’s and especially Khatami’s attempts to re-integrate Iran into the international community – as for instance via the ‘dialogue of civilisations’ - were constantly and indeed successfully undermined by those opposed to change, most notably the Supreme Leader himself. The effects of the Iranian Revolution were indeed seismic – in the most negative way imaginable, causing all that is wrong with Iran today.
Should the West allow such a regime to acquire nuclear capabilities? I do not think so.