Forty years ago, the dawn of the year 1979 inaugurated a series of events in West Asia the consequences of which continue to reverberate at a global level in contemporary competitions and conflicts.
On January 15, the Shah of Iran and his queen left Tehran airport and went into exile, ending two years of protests and street clashes which saw the mobilisation of millions of disgruntled youth ranged against the powerful war machinery of the monarch. The Shah’s autocracy had destroyed every avenue for secular protest in the country, leaving the field open to the clerics of the land to lead the opposition and assume power after the ruler’s departure.
Within just two weeks of the Shah commencing his exile, the same airport would witness the arrival of a very different personality—a bearded cleric, in long traditional robes and a black turban signifying his descent from the Prophet—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Khomeini had been in exile in Iraq and then Paris since 1965. But, from outside his national home, he continued his relentless opposition to Iran’s monarch, condemning him for his secular rule, the corruption that imbued every aspect of his government, his neglect of the poor, and above all, his subservience to the United States.
Khomeini described monarchy as un-Islamic and as “one of the most shameful and disgraceful reactionary manifestations”. As early as 1942, he had called for government based on God’s law, the Sharia, and the need for religious scholars to supervise it. This evolved later into the idea of the ‘vilayet-e-faqih’, the “Rule of the Just Jurisprudent” at the head of the state order.
This concept was later inscribed into the constitution of the ‘Islamic Republic’ of Iran that came into being on April 1, 1979, with Khomeini as the leader of the revolution.
But the revolution was not done: on November 4 that year, student activists stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two American diplomats as hostages. This was a “second revolution”, an effort to rid the country of American influence. Recalling the CIA’s role in the overthrow of a democratic government in 1953 and the restoration of the shah, the students described the embassy as a “nest of spies”. The diplomats remained in custody for 444 days.
The hostage-taking and the public humiliation of the US has left behind a legacy of deep hostility to the revolution and the Iranian people in large sections of the US political establishment and public opinion. This anger and revulsion have ensured that US-Iran relations be marked by mutual distrust and animosity. Sporadic attempts at a thaw have been quickly overturned by one side or the other. US President Donald Trump’s animosity for Iran is in line with this legacy.
The Islamic revolution had an immediate impact on its principal neighbour: Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Madina, and the accepted leader of the Arab and Islamic world, sensed a direct challenge. There was its own restive Shia population that saw in the revolution the possibility of Shia empowerment. Arab youth viewed the revolution—its republicanism, its democratic elections and its anti-West discourse—as a welcome change from the stultifying paternal rule of their monarchs and were allured by its exciting promise.
But what was of concern to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia most was the strident anti-monarchic position that Ayatollah Khomeini held, particularly his criticism of the wastage of oil revenues on defence contracts and denial of political participation to the population.
A new development, the second seminal event of that year, exerted fresh pressure on the beleaguered kingdom: a group of Islamic zealots from within its own Wahhabi establishment took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November. The former Saudi soldier and religious student Juheyman al Oteibi had a record of condemning the Saudi royal family for its avarice and corruption, its deviation from Islamic precepts and association with Western unbelievers. He saw his brother-in-law, Mohmmed bin Abdullah al Qahtani as the promised messiah, the mujaddid (the renewer) who would appear at the commencement of the new Islamic century.
Accordingly, as the new century dawned on November 20 according to the Islamic calendar, Juheyman and his followers, who had earlier stocked the mosque complex with weapons and food, forcibly occupied the mosque. It took Saudi forces, backed by US and French specialists, nearly two weeks to end the occupation; those captured, including Juheyman himself, were publicly executed in different parts of the country.
This shocking domestic challenge to the royal order, taking place within a few months of the Islamic revolution across the Gulf, compelled the kingdom to review its domestic scenario and regional security interests.
At home, Saudi Arabia vigorously described the Islamic revolution as “Shia” and a product of unique Iranian traditions. It also now enforced norms of ‘Islamic’ conduct—modest clothing for women, restrictions on women’s movement (including the ban on driving), strict gender segregation which limited women’s employment, and above all, the obnoxious ‘vilayet’ system that placed women under the “guardianship” of male relatives throughout their life.
The kingdom then sought to stem the tide of the Islamic revolution by encouraging the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, to launch a military assault on the nation in disarray and generously funded this initiative. What Saddam had imagined would be a quick capture of large chunks of Iranian territory and dictation of terms that would bring down the Islamic regime became an eight-year nightmare.
It saw a to-and-fro movement of large armies across the border, missile attacks on cities, use of chemical weapons by Iraq and child soldiers by Iran, tanker warfare in the Gulf waters, and the shooting down of an Iranian passenger airplane by the US. It left nearly a million people dead. But there was no change on the ground as the traditional border was re-affirmed and the Islamic revolution was consolidated.
What changed came a little later when Saddam Hussein sought a “reward” for his nation’s sacrifices through the occupation of Kuwait, making it into an Iraqi province. This brought together a million-strong international coalition of Western, Arab and Islamic forces that liberated Kuwait, devastated his country and permanently crippled his regime. It also made the US a permanent military fixture in the Gulf, able to intervene militarily in support of US interests when required.
But, for Saudi Arabia, the ‘Islamic’ challenge from the Iranian revolution also needed an Islamic response, one that would burnish its credentials as the guardian of the holy cities and the leader of the Islamic world. The kingdom found this opportunity in the third important event that occurred in December that year—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
It was not enough that the Afghan populace was already robustly resisting the Soviet occupation; the kingdom allied with Pakistan and the US to shape this resistance as a “global jihad” that would mobilise Muslims from across the world in a divinely-sanctioned enterprise. About a hundred thousand Muslims responded to this call, half of them from Pakistan itself, a quarter from the Arab world and the rest from other Muslim communities.
This state-sponsored jihad was the result of short-sighted thinking, not a grand vision. For the US it was just one more front in the ongoing Cold War; for Pakistan it provided an opportunity for its military leader General Zia ul Haq to project his adherence to Islam and gain some credibility among his sullen countrymen, while for the kingdom it was a fitting riposte to Iran’s revolution.
The jihad, funded by the US and the kingdom and managed on the ground by Pakistan through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was led by a charismatic scion of a leading Saudi merchant family, Osama bin Laden, who used his own and state and donors’ resources to organise a committed cadre of Islamic zealots in Al Qaeda, that was trained in war and subversion and given battlefield experience, with some even enjoying the sweet taste of martyrdom.
What none of the state-sponsors anticipated was that the jihad would be so remarkably successful. The Soviet forces withdrew in defeat and soon thereafter the Soviet empire itself collapsed, giving Muslim forces their first major victory over a western foe in a few hundred years. Surely, this signalled that Allah was pleased with the faithful for they at last had joined His path.
Following this “victory”, the Afghan jihad again became “global” in that its veterans now led Islamic struggles in other violent theatres—Chechnya, Bosnia, Egypt and Algeria. The jihad also turned on its fathers, attacking targets in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and finally the US itself on September 11, 2001.
The attack on the US homeland unleashed the wrath of the American state and its people. Not recalling their own country’s role in the organisation of this global scourge, they sanctioned their president’s murderous attack on Afghanistan through carpet-bombing, and then, their bloodlust not assuaged, they allowed the might of their nation’s guns and bombs to turn on Iraq.
A hundred thousand Iraqis were killed in the military assault and perhaps a million died during the US occupation. A new incarnation of trans-national jihad emerged from this carnage, the Islamic State, more murderous than its predecessor and motivated as much by sectarian hatred as by opposition to Western occupation.
All this death and destruction can be linked to events that took place forty years ago. But regional stability has not advanced even an iota: Saudi Arabia saw in Shia empowerment in Iraq the strangling of its order by the Iran-led “Shia Crescent” and is now combating Iran in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, proxy conflicts that have left half a million dead, millions displaced and civic life devastated.
The events of 1979 have placed political Islam at the heart of West Asia politics as its different expressions—Wahhabiyya of Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood represented by Turkey and Qatar, the Iranian revolution and trans-national jihad—compete for space and influence. These contests have injected a deep sense of insecurity in the region, impelling the nations to mobilise support domestically and regionally on religious, sectarian and ethnic basis.
US policies under Trump have promoted further disruption through the shaping of a military coalition of itself, Israel and the kingdom to effect regime change in Iran.
But at the heart of these contentions is the regional leaders’ resistance to reform—the refusal to allow popular participation in governance when economies are under stress amidst oil price uncertainties and existing national institutions and leaderships are weary and incapable of reflecting the aspirations of their citizens. This aversion to change will ensure that contentions in West Asia will continue to remain conflicted and volatile in the fortieth anniversary of that extraordinary year—1979.
(The author is a former diplomat and holds the Ram Sathe Chair in International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)