The Transnational Legacy of the Iranian Revolution on its 40th Anniversary
by Dr. Pouya Alimagham
The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution is upon us, and supporters and detractors alike are busying themselves with articles that expound their worldviews. What is lost in the cacophony of polemics, however, is the revolution’s impact beyond Iran’s borders. Iran’s 1979 revolution both empowered oppressed Shi’ite Muslims across the Middle East, and prompted a Saudi-led sectarian backlash—the modern roots of today’s Shi’ite-Sunni divide.
Like all great revolutions of the 20th century, Iran staked a claim that transcended its borders. At a time of East-West rivalry, the Persian Gulf country in 1979 posited an alternative to the bipolarity of the Cold War—an authentic, homegrown Islamic way forward.
The revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called upon the Muslim faithful—irrespective of sect—to heed Iran’s example by rising up and toppling what he believed were their godless, puppet rulers.
While the Iranian Revolution inspired Shi’ites and Sunnis alike, Khomeini’s message especially resonated with the former. Vastly outnumbered across the Muslim world, Shi’ites were often oppressed, disenfranchised, and subjugated. In the few places where they constituted the majority, such as in Iraq and the tiny island country of Bahrain, they were ruled over by Sunni-led governments that frequently discriminated against them, especially in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
In Lebanon, Shi’ites came to comprise the largest confessional group but mainly lived in the most underdeveloped parts of the country. The central government cared little to ameliorate their dire straits. When the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, different factions received backing from foreign powers while the Shi’ites had to fend for themselves with limited resources.
Iran, the most populous Shi’ite majority country in the world, paid scant attention to these oppressed Shi’ites—except when they started gravitating towards ideologies that spoke to their economic plight, such as Marxism. It was only then that Iran before its revolution—as part of its anti-communist alliance with the United States—came to nominally care about its Shi’ite brethren.
Everything changed, however, with the triumph of the modern period’s first Islamic Revolution. As both a political and religious leader, Khomeini used his stature to call upon all Muslims to revolt—and revolt they did, especially the already restless Shi’ites in Iraq, Kuwait, and eastern Saudi Arabia. There was even a failed coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981 that was blamed on Iran. Revolutionary Iran served as an exemplar for action—it demonstrated to peoples across the region that it was indeed possible to overthrow dictatorships through popular uprising.
This very source of inspiration threatened all the despots of the region—none more than Iraq, Iran’s neighbor and home to one of the oldest Shi’ite Islamist opposition groups. On September 22, 1980, in an effort to eliminate the threat posed by Iran, Iraq capitalized on the country’s upheaval and internal disarray by invading Iran. Arab governments, most notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as Western countries, funded Iraq to the tune of billions of dollars and supplied the most advanced military hardware to ensure that the Iranian Revolution was defeated—or at least blunted.
The Saudi role in helping Iraq in its attempts to put down Iran’s Islamic Revolution is mirrored in its response to the Arab Spring uprisings more than three decades later. Just as in 1979, the Arab revolts of 2011 and onwards similarly served as exemplars for action—but this time in a more burning fashion. Tunisia’s revolt spread like wildfire to Egypt and Yemen, then to Libya, Bahrain, and eventually Syria and again to Saudi Arabia’s eastern regions.
Saudi Arabia fought for counterrevolution with its checkbook and the shipment of arms—and in the case of Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia, a direct military crackdown. The only exception was in Syria, where the Saudis did not try to put down the uprising but instead actively worked to co-opt it by bankrolling retrograde jihadists in what was initially a multi-faceted rebellion.
Two legacies endure from Iran’s revolution that transcend the country’s borders. The first is how the revolutionary government empowered Shi’ite allies across the world. Iran presented its revolution as pertinent to all of the Muslim world, but downtrodden Shi’ites were its most receptive audience. Most consequentially, it co-founded Hizbullah in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to uproot armed Palestinian groups. In the subsequent decades, with Iranian training, arms, funds, and ideological footing, the Shi’ite Islamist Hizbullah emerged not only as the most powerful unconventional military force in the world, but also as a dominant player in Lebanon’s government—the same government that had neglected its Shi’ite constituents in the decades before. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond, disenfranchised Shi’ite Muslims found in revolutionary Iran a patron that uplifted them.
The second legacy of the Iranian Revolution, one that is greatly to the detriment of the Iranian government and Shi’ites all over the world, is the Saudi response to Iran’s revolution. Not only did Saudi Arabia finance Saddam’s invasion of Iran, but it also sought to ensure that Iran’s revolutionary message fell on proverbial deaf ears. To that end, the Saudis deployed billions in petrodollars in a soft war against Iran via sectarianism—an ideological cold war infused with a dangerous religious dimension that became increasingly hot after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and inadvertently paved the way for Iran’s allies to come to power.
From transnational Arabic media, much of which is controlled by Saudi Arabia, to Sunni mosques across the Muslim world, Saudi-funded analysts, commentators, and preachers preyed on Iran’s Achilles’ heel—that it hails from the minority branch in Islam. They presented Iran’s leaders as heretics, the country’s branch of Islam as a heresy, and the revolution as a perversion not to be emulated but to be destroyed, all to make certain that Khomeini’s call for Islamic Revolution went unheeded both abroad and at home in the Arabian Peninsula. Integral to the strategy was the cultivation of Sunni extremism that rendered Shi’ites as “the Other.”
Whereas before 1979, Saudi Arabia and Iran were two pro-American kingdoms that worked in tandem with each other to combat shared threats of Marxism and Republicanism, Iran after its revolution called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. As a result, the Saudis responded with vitriolic sectarianism. Thus, today’s Shi’ite-Sunni divide is not necessarily rooted in a timeless theological dispute, as U.S. policymakers, most recently Senator Rand Paul, have argued, but in power politics between two influential regional rivals going back 40 years.
In considering the legacies of the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, an observer should look as much abroad as within Iran for a panoramic understanding of one of the 20th century’s most impactful revolutions. It inspired Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, especially empowering the latter, and for such reasons it engendered a Saudi sectarian response that explains today’s Shi’ite-Sunni war.
Courtesy of Mohammad Akhlaghi for Tasnim News / Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he specializes on Iran, Iraq, and the Levant in the 20th century.
Dr. Alimagham focuses on such themes as revolutionary and guerrilla movements, imperialism, Political Islam, and post-Islamism. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press).