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40 years later, the many legacies of Iran’s revolution

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On Monday, authorities in Tehran will conclude their formal celebrations of the revolution that birthed the Islamic Republic 40 years ago. A huge state-sponsored procession will march through the capital to Azadi Square, where President Hassan Rouhani is slated to speak. The regime’s leaders are hailing the anniversary as a moment of maturity for the uprising that broke some 25 centuries of monarchic rule, sweeping away the reviled U.S.-backed shah and ultimately installing a theocratic state.

To that end, they have also persisted with some of their most familiar rhetoric. “As long as America continues its wickedness, the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America’,” the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said to a gathering of Iranian Air Force officers last week. He conceded, at least, that he didn’t wish “death to all Americans.”

“‘Death to America’ means death to [President] Trump, [national security adviser] John Bolton, and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. It means death to American rulers,” Khamenei said.

For these American rulers, the feeling seems mutual. The Trump administration has taken a tough line against Iran, reimposing sanctions on Tehran and ratcheting up its anti-Iranian messaging. In a recent tweet, Pompeo cast the 1979 revolution as a “betrayal” of the Iranian people, accusing Iran’s leadership of exporting terrorism abroad and deepening oppression at home.

Indeed, the events of 1979 are still being fought over four decades on. For Washington, the ousting of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a geopolitical wound that hasn’t healed. His government — including its notorious secret police — was cheered by former president Richard Nixon as one of America’s “cops on the beat” in the Middle East, helping steer the oil-rich region away from Soviet influence. In its place emerged a hostile power that took U.S. citizens hostage, engaged in deadly attacks on U.S. forces in the region, and styled itself as an anti-imperial “resister” to a hegemonic America.

For the rest of the Middle East, the arrival of a theocratic regime in Iran was a political bombshell, giving life to religious movements long stifled or overshadowed by the region’s secular, Pan-Arab authoritarians.

“The Iranian revolution played a significant role in the birth and the growth of the jihadist movements in the Arab World, as it raised the awareness of the role of religion in political change in the region,” Adnan Milhem, a Palestinian historian, said to the Associated Press. “The Iranian revolution affected the political thinking in the region in terms of introducing religion as a changing tool to fight oppression and corruption.”

Critics of Tehran blame it for all the ills of recent years — the deadly sectarianism inflaming the Middle East, the radicalism fueling its insurgencies. On his global media tour last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said it was the 1979 Iranian revolution that strengthened religious orthodoxy and extremism in his own country, including an attack on the Great Mosque in Mecca later that year. He argued that his program of changes, which includes a brutal crackdown on dissent, is necessary to unravel that Iranian legacy.

His opponents contend that’s a convenient story that ignores the kingdom’s own lengthy role in cultivating certain strains of political Islam. “MBS would like to advance a new narrative for my country’s recent history, one that absolves the government of any complicity in the adoption of strict Wahhabi doctrine,” wrote the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “That simply isn’t the case. And while MBS is right to free Saudi Arabia from ultraconservative religious forces, he is wrong to advance a new radicalism that, while seemingly more liberal and appealing to the West, is just as intolerant of dissent.” (Tragically, Khashoggi, who was abducted and murdered by Saudi agents in October, suffered directly from this “new radicalism.”)

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

For Iranians, the picture is gloomy. Though they were freed from an asphyxiating monarchy, they also endured a ruinous eight-year war with Iraq and then found an uneasy accommodation with rulers who still brutalize dissenters and curtail basic freedoms. And while the Islamic Republic’s leadership is marking its 40th anniversary with a show of bravado, it can’t hide the country’s mounting economic problems. These are due not just to U.S. sanctions, but also to mismanagement and alleged graft by regime elites.

“Iranians want a freer, secular future that’s integrated into the world order, specifically the global economy, but foreign adversaries and the regime’s domestic partners — a network of mini-oligarchs, essentially — are standing in the way,” wrote Post columnist Jason Rezaian, whom Iranian authorities infamously detained for 544 days.

Rezaian added that the Islamic Republic’s “misadventures abroad” — including its support for militant proxies in other parts of the Middle East — and the “obstinacy” of its leaders will only make things worse in the years ahead. But he doesn’t applaud the White House’s campaign against Tehran, either.

“The sanctions and screeds emanating from Washington — usually as uninformed as they are disingenuous — only compound the challenges ordinary Iranians face,” he wrote.

Indeed, there are many in Washington who seemingly want to reverse the course of events 40 years ago. Reza Pahlavi, the deposed shah’s son, swanned around Washington’s think tanks last year, calling for a “democratic revolution” in the land of his birth. In conservative media, nostalgic commentaries about the good old days of U.S.-Iranian relations proliferate.

“Some argue that if only the United States had more strongly supported the shah, or had intervened in some fashion, the revolution and all that ensued could have been averted,” wrote my colleague William Branigin, who was posted in Tehran four decades ago. He saw things differently: “The tide of history was turning — you could feel it — and nothing in the world was going to stop it.”

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