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The Geopolitical Impact of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: 40 Years On

The Quran marks 40 years as the age of maturity and the date beyond which accountability is inescapable [46:15]. Given that Iran’s revolution of 1979 claimed to be Islamic, as has the regime since then, it is somewhat surprising that Tehran is not indulging in a national muraqaba (retrospective) about the 40-year-old revolution. Certainly, there is no public-level national conversation in Iran about how truly Islamic the revolution and the subsequent regime were and what the benefits have been for the Iranian people. In this issue of the Navigator, I examine the international implications of the Iranian revolution.

Inspiration for Islamists

The biggest impact of the revolution was the “demonstration effect” it had. The emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran became an inspiration for Islamist movements in Arab and Muslim-majority countries. From the point of view of the Islamists, Iran had achieved two miracles. One, it had overthrown the pro-U.S. Shah regime and survived American efforts to contain the Islamist polity in Iran.

Second, the revolution was neither superficial nor simply regime-change. It was a comprehensive and sustainable transformation that survived a devastating 8-year conflict with Iraq, which was essentially a war with its regional and global rivals. In addition, it also had to weather long-term international sanctions, global marginalization and domestic terrorism by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) – initially sponsored by the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and with links to American conservatives. Iran establishing an “Islamic state”, the ultimate dream of all Islamists, has remained an inspiration for many within this broad ideological spectrum.

Decades later when the Muslim Brotherhood finally came to power in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s president at the time – visited Iran in August 2012. During his short-lived one-year term in office, Morsi also hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Feb 2013. Even though Iran’s revolution was based on Shiite Islamism, it had an energizing effect on Sunni Islamists. The 1979 revolution also established several precedents.

First, it demonstrated that Islam and democracy are not incompatible because the revolution replaced a monarch with a complex hybrid system consisting of elected clerics, president, and parliament. Second, the revolution established that Islamists were not just opposition groups but could also govern. Third, and most important, the revolution demonstrated that an ‘“Islamic state” is not merely a medieval dream but is possible in the modern world. Finally, the revolution showed Islamists that there can be an “Islamic foreign policy” that balances national self-interest and Islamic norms.

The Iranian revolution also affected nations and intellectuals in the broader developing world. Iran showed many nations and non-state actors that the hegemony of the west is not invincible. Even recently, after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions, Tehran has managed to divide the Western alliance through crafty diplomacy and resilience. The clerical regime has shown that the political-economic influence of the United States and its European allies can be resisted, making coercive diplomacy less effective for Washington and its partners.

Geosectarianism in the Middle East

A key initial impact of the revolution was Iran’s change in identity from a secular nationalist monarchy to an Islamist republic pursuing a pan-Islamic foreign policy agenda. There was a dramatic shift in how Iran viewed its national interests and its regional and global role. Before the revolution, Iran (along with Saudi Arabia and Israel) was one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East and kept the region firmly allied with the United States during the Cold War era. After Anwar Sadat’s pivot in the early 1970s, Egypt joined the region’s pro-American constellation.

But the 1979 revolution altered this security architecture by turning Iran into a counter-hegemonic pariah that challenged the regional order rather than preserving it. For the first 12 years, Tehran remained constrained because Baghdad supported by the energy-rich Gulf Arab states served as a check on the revolutionary regime, especially via the Iran-Iraq war. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s status as a buffer between Iran and the rest of the Arab world was severely weakened. The sanctions regime over the course of the next dozen years further undermined the Hussein regime and allowed Iran to enhance its ties Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish populations.

After the United States toppled the Hussein regime in the 2003 war, Iraq went from being an arrestor in the path of Iran to becoming an enabler of Tehran’s regional ambitions. A Shia-dominated Iraqi regime together with the Assad regime in Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Iran’s key regional asset), together formed an Iranian-led Shiite arc hemming in Saudi Arabia. Increasingly since regime-change in Iraq, Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Tehran’s premier proxy Hezbollah have threatened Israel and Saudi Arabia and engaged in sustained direct and indirect hostilities with these two U.S. allies from Syria to Yemen. Thus, the region is divided into an Iranian sphere of influence – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – and a Saudi sphere composed of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Jordan.

To a great extent the region’s geopolitics is now a contest between these two camps. CGP’s Kamran Bokhari has called this phenomenon geosectarianism, a type of geopolitical conflict amplified by sectarian differences. Besides regional security issues and balances of power, the geosectarian competition is one between regional powers using Islam as a source of soft power. Therefore, sectarian identities begin playing a bigger role in regional politics. One example of this is the competition to own the Palestinian problem as an Islamic cause. Iran and Turkey are currently competing to leverage this issue; in the past, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia exploited it to further their interests.

U.S. Foreign Policy Interests

U.S.-Iranian hostility has been one of the most contentious foreign policy issues for Washington for two generations now. During this time, the United States has adopted essentially three strategic approaches to countering Iran. The first is containment, a strategy that used Iraq to contain Iran’s expanding influence in the region before Iraq also became a problem for the United States. Second is regime-change, an endeavor to try and alter the nature of Iran’s government such that Tehran is ruled by a more moderate political elite. This was most vociferously supported during the heydays of the neoconservatives in Washington during President George W. Bush’s first term and was included in the “Axis of Evil” doctrine.

Both these strategies, which used sanctions and isolation as instruments, have failed. Under President Barack Obama, the United States tried a third way to manage Iran, resulting in the 2015 nuclear deal. This arrangement effectively put a halt to Iran’s nuclear project, which Washington and Israel considered the biggest threat from Iran. However, Tehran continued with its regional adventures and aggressive foreign policy. Under the Trump administration, the United States has returned to the strategy of isolation and sanctions, which has increased the risk of military conflict in the region.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the United States has shown considerable tolerance for the national interests of Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Washington has looked the other way even as the policies of these regional powers undermined U.S. interests. The most spectacular displays of this tolerance were continued support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi murder and close relations with Egypt even after accusations of egregious human rights violations and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s slide toward increased authoritarianism. Washington’s interests in the region will be better served if it can adopt a more nuanced approach and show similar flexibility vis-a-vis Iran’s needs.

The Middle East will not enjoy peace and stability without a mutually tolerant relationship between its two main rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which the United States can help shape. For this to happen though, Washington and Tehran must first sort out their own hostile relationship, which is now forty years old. Just as the Trump administration has diplomatically engaged with the North Korean regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan it needs to find a way to negotiate with the clerical regime in Tehran – something that President Trump – contrary to his anti-Iran rhetoric – has actually indicated he is open to doing.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow of the Center for Global Policy (CGP). His website is www.ijtihad.org and he tweets at @MuqtedarKhan. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.