Impact Of Iranian Revolution On Islam

What has been the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in world politics over the past three decades?
{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Iranian Revolution has been one of the most relevant political event occurred outside the Western and Soviet blocs during the Cold War. The end of a 2,500-year-old monarchy in that country, announced on the 11th February 1979 after eighteen months of mass demonstrations, huge industrial actions and general strikes which deeply shook the Iranian society as a whole, brought about the victory of the Islamic revolution. According to Sidel, the Iranian Revolution has been significant for three reasons: as the first, and politically successful, Islamic Revolution; as for as the global political context characterized by the Cold War and a first opposition to “The West” was concerned; finally, because such an upsetting unrest in the Persian Gulf used Islam as a mobilizational force for opposition against the monarchy and as the basis for Islamic republicanism likewise.[1]

On the one hand, the popular unrest in Iran was favoured by its “peculiar position within the geopolitical order and the particular form of authoritarian rule”[2] during the 1970s, when political and economic drivers led to an unsustainable situation: raising inflation provoked by the first oil shock in 1973; recession two years later and repression campaign promoted by the Shah against the social class of bazaaris, blamed for overpricing; destabilized alliance with the US because of the Carter commitment regarding protection of human rights, which was further reinforced by his election as President in 1976; party liberalization and court reforms in 1977, which created new channels for mobilization and more effective political association. On the other hand, an Islamic revolution in Iran was possible by virtue of the networking capacity and mobilizing role of religious publications and institutions, rather than their inherent ideological impact.[3] In fact, in the early 1970s, only a small group of the ulama, the most prominent Shiite authority in Iran and historically hostile to the Shah given his modernizing reforms, called for the establishment of an Islamic government.

The increase in the ulama followers against the Shah, that considered his overthrown as the primary political objective, was brought about by the afore-mentioned state repression of bazaaris and landowners, classes tied with the ulama. Against this background, the political theory, and not only the religion perspective, for an Islamic government gained attention in the Iranian society and it was the conceptual basis on which the revolutionary discourse was gradually shaped.[4]

In order to thoroughly understanding the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in world politics, is necessary analyzing it from a “macroscopic and historically grounded structural perspective”[5], examining the position of Iran in the international context in two different time spans: during and after the Cold War, when the aims of the Iranian political Islam have dramatically changed from a “revolution-exporting” approach to a more visible retrenchment for strategic concerns. A shift that, as it is going to be described, has been motivated by the same tenets of political realism and pragmatism: both of them considered essential for the survivor of the Iranian regime.

The Iranian Revolution and the Cold war

One could affirm that the first significant change of the Iranian Revolution on Islam is embedded in the Khomeini’s concept of world order. According to Roy, historically “the closer [the Muslims] are to power, the more Islamists use political tools to bring religion under their control”[6] and, as a result, the Iranian Revolution represents the most striking example. The central idea on which the Islamist Iran is based is the vilayat-e faqih (rule of the leading jurisprudent): the vilayat is a rulership that belongs firstly to God, followed by the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams and, finally, the pious faqih. In this list, the latter actoexercises the temporal and the spiritual authority, given the absence of the Twelfth Imam, and his main task concerns preparation for the ultimate establishment of an “Islamic world government”.[7] In this way, the Guide of the Islamic Republic (the ayatollah Khomeini himself), is one of the highest religious authority and the most relevant political leader at the same time, as borne out in the fifth article of the Iranian Constitution.[8] To draw a conclusion, in the Iranian Islamic revolution “the status and role of religion are defined by political institutions, not religious one. Politics rules over religion.”[9]

Since its inception, the Iranian Revolution has had an universalistic view of the world, characterized by a normative approach according to which the international system based on the bipolar blocs was essentially flawed: as for Khomeini, the superpowers were “illegitimate players” and the Islamic Iran had the political duty to offer an alternative perspective to the subjugated population of the world. Khomeini’s political doctrine did present itself as a powerful and attractive idea, sustained by religion and able to compete with the American and the Soviet ones.

In order to accomplish this demanding commitment, the Iranian clergy needed to institutionalize its power and the political effects of revolution, through the transformation of Iran form a monarchy to an Islamic republic endowed with its own constitution, laws, parliament, political party system and revolutionary committees.[10] Secondly, in order to make the world safe for Islam, the main objective of Iranian foreign policy was to lead the revolution abroad, in a strong effort of exporting its tenets and political features. Given that the use of armed force in war was permissible only in self-defense, the two major instruments to export revolution were culturally conceived: the first one was concerned with the spread of the “Islamic behaviour” abroad, aided by publicity and propaganda used in religious occasion and through radio station which broadcasted the new Iranian political faith to the Persian Gulf. The second instrument useful to export revolution was identified in the missionary work through ulama’s sermons.[11]

Despite this two-fold strategy, a couple of problems prevented from its own realization: the prevalence of Shi’i fundamentalism in the countries in which Khomeini’s followers attempted to spread his word; the lack of material and economic support by the Iranian regime, which caused a progressive decrease in supporting such propagandistic efforts.[12]

These restraints notwithstanding, the attempt to shape a revolutionary environment in the Gulf recorded a remarkable wave of unrests and sociopolitical turmoil throughout the Middle East. In Iraq, the Shiite Da’wah party radicalized its struggle and, along with the Mujahidin movement and both economically sustained by the new Iranian regime, launched a guerrilla attacks campaign on the posts of the police, the Ba’th party and the People’s Army.[13] Repressed and outcast by Saddam Hussein, more than 350.000 of these Shi’a revolutionaries were expelled from Iraq into Iran after the outbreak of the war in September 1980.[14] In addition, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain were significantly affected by the spread of the new Shi’a revolutionary thinking.

In order to fully understand the Khomeini’s concern for exporting revolution, it’s worth noticing its inherent strategic purpose, underpinned by the Iranian conception of security in the Persian Gulf. According to this approach, revolutionary Iran was deeply concerned about its own survival and its first political objective was to assure a real, true and genuine security in the region through a “true independence” for all the Gulf states as a condition for “true security” in the entire region (against the Great and the Lesser Satan); secondly, this kind of security was reachable only if the Arab states had established a “true Islamic government” in their societies, characterized by the same features of the Iranian one: a limited monarchy whose power were controlled by the clerical class; finally, the “real security” of the Gulf could not be achieved without the “religious and political primacy of Iran throughout the entire region, particularly at the Strait of Hormuz”.[15]

Applying this interpretative key, exporting the Iranian revolution was not only conceived as an ideological outgrowth but as a main political aim fostered by the Iranian national interest and leaned to build a Shiite sphere of influence in the Middle East. Embedded in this framework, it is easier to understand why, after the Cold war, Iran focused its efforts no more on spreading revolution, instead on a persistent attempt for acquiring a strategic advantage in the region by developing power capabilities and starting with building nuclear facilities.

Revolutionary Iran between political retrenchment and strategic concerns

During the first decade of its existence, the Shiite regime succeeded in institutionalizing revolution in the country but failed in successful spreading it abroad. As a matter of fact, a series of constitutional and political changes affected the Iranian state-system, like those regarding an enhanced control of the government and bureaucracy by the clergy and the suppression of domestic opposition. Eventually, also the Iranian society underwent to a radical transformation: pro-Westerns and modernized classes were outcast while foreign and capital investment were strictly allowed by the new state-economy.[16] Conversely, the original plan of exporting revolution showed to be ineffective: the impact of revolution on Islamic countries became more and more mitigated, rendering unsuccessful every attempt to establish new Shiite regimes in Lebanon or Iraq. For all these reasons, the second decade of the Iranian regime was characterized by a political retrenchment from revolutionary ideas (and political Islam as its main driver): indeed, it was marked by an increasing effort to developing economic ties with Western countries.

As a matter of fact, Rafsanjani and Khatami, both considered as reformist leaders, focused on strengthening Iran as a political and economic actor. Despite the new deal opened by their government, namely between 1989 and 2005 where Iranian economy tried to effectively recovery, the economic growth recorded between 1989 and 1994 was sustained only through “the accumulation of some 30$ billion in foreign debt”[17]. The economic recession which Iran suffered from in the following years was also worsened by the lack of foreign investments and, above all, by the American economic sanctions applied since 1995. Washington looked at Iran as a major threat in the Gulf region, especially after allegations of supporting terrorist groups and attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Despite the renowned approach to international politics which allowed Iran to establish friendly relations with China, India and a notable number of semi or under-developed countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba and North Korea by 2005, Iranian strategic concerns remained unaltered during those years.[18]

According to Rubin, Iran aimed to become the strongest state in the Persian Gulf region since the 1950s, when the shah launched a massive military build-up along with an ambitious nuclear power program. If the shah built his power aspirations on nationalism, since 1979 Khomeini carried on the same project prompted by Islamist radicalism.[19] Accordingly, also the main reasons which underpinned such plan dramatically changed: a powerful Iran ruled by the shah would have been the most loyal ally of the United States along with Israel, in order to unfold an offshore control over the region; conversely, a nuclear and heavily armed Islamic Iran was perceived as the most dangerous threat for the United States in that area, although Khomeini and his successors justified the military rearmament with security concerns.

By this token, the Iranian attempt to become a legitimate and international recognized political actor fell through: this political failure and the perception to be a semi-isolated country in the international realm, prevented revolutionary Iran from rising up as a convincing political and ideological centre for other Islamic countries in the last two decades. During this lapse of time, revolutionary Iran has gradually lost its original ideological and political attractiveness and, as a result, the clerical regime has been able to successfully supported only Shiite movements scattered in the Middle East, as Hezbollah in Lebanon, but leaving out its sphere of influence the large Shi’a Muslims groups in Iraq, Oman, Bahrain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.[20]

With the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, the Iranian political establishment has tried to restore the original ideological spirit of Khomeini.[21] Keeping on pursuing the realization of nuclear facilities, Iran has showed a renowned assertiveness in foreign policy during the Lebanon crisis of July-August 2006. In this case, Iran “supplied Hezbollah’s advanced arms, training, and sent advisors to Lebanon … [and] the conflict also knit Syria and Iran tighter together”[22]. At the same time in Iraq, the local government is currently increasingly worried about the growth in Iranian power among Shi’a Muslims, while Iran has expanded its influence also over Hamas and among the Palestinians. The objectives of the sole regional great power in the Middle East, along with its nuclear empowerment, have been summed up by Rubin: fomenting revolution in every existing Muslim majority state and expelling Western influence from the region.[23]

Conclusion

As broadly discussed in the previous paragraphs, the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Islam in shaping world politics in the last three decades as been a powerful one, although shaped by different political factors and directly linked to its economic situation and rulership.

To draw a conclusion, during the Cold war “the most pervasive way in which revolutionary Iran has influenced the Muslim world [was] on the level of ideas and ideology”, providing the Muslims with a concrete alternative to the bipolar system. Overall, the ability of Iran to use Islam as a political tool, and to present it as a monolithic religion beyond the Sunni-Shi’a divide was witnessed by “the worldwide dissemination of the ideas of Sunni ideologues as the Egyptians Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the Pakistani Abul Ala Mawdudi, and the Indian Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi.”[24] In addition, this trend has been recently confirmed by the Iranian sponsorship of Hamas. On the other hand, Iran has gradually became the new regional power in terms of military capabilities in the Middle East, especially in the last decade: if its material strength will be associated with a seeping influence into its Muslim neighbors, as it has been occurring in Iraq, Iran’s growing power is going to become “the most dangerous situation that the world will face in the coming years”[25], envisaging a scenario in which Iran could play a central political and ideological role in the Muslim world.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

1 Sidel, John. Class Lecture, The Shi’i International and the Iranian Revolution, LSE, London, 24 November 2011.
2 Sidel, 24 November 2011.
3 Bayat, Asef, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Islamic Activism in Iran and Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 40, Number 1 (January 1998), p. 153.
4 Moaddel, Mansoor, “Ideology as Episodic Discourse: The Case of the Iranian Revolution”, American Sociological Review, Volume 57 (June 1992), p. 364.
5 Skocpol, Theda. “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution”, Theory and Society, Volume 11, Number 3 (May 1982), p. 268.
6 Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam – The Search For A New Ummah, Hurst & Company, London, 2004, p. 83.
7 Ramazani, R. K., Revoultionary Iran: challenge and response in the Middle East, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 19 – 20.
8 Sivan, Emmanuel, “Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 21, Number 1, February 1989, p. 10.
9 Roy, Olivier, ibidem, p. 85.
10 Esposito, John L., (ed.), The Iranian Revolution, its Global Impact, Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990, p. 3.
11 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, p. 26.
12 Sivan, Emmanuel, ibidem, p.22.
13 Batatu, Hanna, “Iraq’s Underground Shi’i Movements: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects, Middle East Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, Autumn 1981, p. 590.
14 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, p. 37.
15 Ramazani, R. K., ibidem, pp. 27 – 29.
16 Esposito, John L., ibidem, p. 317 – 318.
17 Khajehpour, Bijan. “Iran’s Economy: 20 years after the Islamic Revolution” from Iran at the Crossroads, edited by John Esposito and R.K. Ramazani, New York, Palgrave, 2001, p.98.
18 Keddie, Nikki, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 324.
19 Rubin, Barry, “Iran: The Rise of Regional Power”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 10, Number 3, September 2006, p. 142.
20 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 145.
21 Keddie, Nikki, ibidem, p. 329.
22 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, pp. 147- 148.
23 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 151.
24 Esposito, John L., ibidem, p. 323.
25 Rubin, Barry, ibidem, p. 151.

 

Batatu, Hanna, “Iraq’s Underground Shi’i Movements: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects, Middle East Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, Autumn 1981.

Bayat, Asef, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Islamic Activism in Iran and Egypt”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 40, Number 1, January 1998.

Esposito, John L., (ed.), The Iranian Revolution, its Global Impact, Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990.

Keddie, Nikki, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Khajehpour, Bijan. “Iran’s Economy: 20 years after the Islamic Revolution” from Iran at the Crossroads, edited by John Esposito and R.K. Ramazani, New York, Palgrave, 2001.

Moaddel, Mansoor, “Ideology as Episodic Discourse: The Case of the Iranian Revolution”, American Sociological Review, Volume 57, June 1992.

Ramazani, R. K., Revoultionary Iran: challenge and response in the Middle East, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam – The Search For A New Ummah, Hurst & Company, London, 2004.

Rubin, Barry, “Iran: The Rise of Regional Power”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 10, Number 3, September 2006.

Sidel, John. Class Lecture, The Shi’i International and the Iranian Revolution, LSE, London, 24 November 2011.

Sivan, Emmanuel, “Sunni Radicalism in the Middle East and the Iranian Revolution”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 21, Number 1, February 1989.

Skocpol, Theda. “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution”, Theory and Society, Volume 11, Number 3, May 1982.
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