The loyal citizens of Iran are currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of their 1979 revolution, when they defeated the unpopular Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced him with Ayatollah Khamenei, the religious zealot they soon learned to call their Supreme Leader. The Imperial Majesty of the shah was followed by a new kind of state, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
That was the beginning of events that drew the world’s attention to the capital of Teheran, where at times everything seemed to be happening. Khamenei called the U.S. “the Great Satan,” perhaps because the shah was installed in 1941 by a U.S. coup. (In the Cold War Khamenei called the Soviet Union “the Lesser Satan.”) Mobs obediently invaded the American embassy and held the staff hostage for months. Khamenei also declared a fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie, ordering his assassination for dishonouring religious beliefs in one of his books. He was never killed but was driven into hiding. One victim of the extended fatwa was his Japanese translator, who was murdered.
Pahlavi, while still shah, wrote a note to himself that revealed a remarkable ambition for Iran: “To be first in the Middle East is not enough. We must raise ourselves to the level of a great world power.” His imagination reaching those heights may have reflected his knowledge that he inherited the throne of Persian kings who once conquered much of the known world. But it was his successor, Khomeini, who led the regime that would greatly expand Iran’s status.
Khomeini, an expert in Sharia law and the author of more than 40 books, became renowned for his audacious political activities.
He was in exile for more than 15 years, tirelessly opposing the shah, preaching from exile in France by cassettes, spreading his theories on theocratic political rule by Islamic jurists. Most of the world ignored him but charisma made his ideas seem attractive.
He had nothing but disdain for democracy: he called it the equivalent of prostitution. He thought the Americans were not only hegemonic but evil. He became the face of Shia Islam. Of course he supported the hostage takers at the U.S. embassy. Shia scholars called him the “champion of Islamic revival,” a major innovator in political theory and religious-oriented political strategy. His gold-domed tomb in Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahrāʾ cemetery (he died in 1989) has become a shrine. He remains “inviolable,” meaning Iranians can be punished for insulting his memory.
The Islamic Republic might have fallen apart under the new rules he designed. Before the revolution, Iranian women were said to be as free as women in North America and Europe. Today, in the Islamic Republic they are required to wear hijabs in public. In an act of defiance hundreds of them send photos of themselves without hijabs to a special Facebook page. Since they may be arrested if identified, they replace their headscarves as soon as the photos are taken.
There have been many such indications suggesting the current regime is not totally popular.
But after four decades it has survived surprisingly well. Shortly after the revolution, Iraq started a war with Iran that ground on for eight bloody and painful years and ended in a stalemate. Iran has withstood isolation, massive student protests in 1999, and an uprising in 2017. Now it has spread its influence to several other states, including Lebanon and Yemen. Lately it’s been showing signs of planning a future adventure in Syria. And they are somewhere close to nuclear capability.
More than half of Iran’s population of 82 million is under 35, unemployment is high, and disappointed rumblings continue to be heard, however muted. Leftists who joined forces with Khamenei are still waiting for the economic development and social justice their parents were promised.