Iran's Revolution Still Shapes the Middle East
Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 had already been bloody and significant. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had led the overthrow of the pro-West shah, his followers had opened the torture chambers of his hated security forces, and American diplomats were taken hostage.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But then came the order: Export the revolution. The result has electrified the Mideast, with an impact even greater than the landmark Israel-Egypt peace deal signed that year at Camp David.
Its legacy continues today, sowing fear among Iran's neighbors and commanding the loyalty of Islamic "revolutionaries" from Algeria to Afghanistan.
Portraits of a grandfatherly Khomeini long ago disappeared, replaced by stern shots of a Khomeini whose deeply lined face is set defiantly against the American "Great Satan."
No other country - not even Israel - is such a critical or unknown quantity for the defense strategies of Mideast nations as Iran. The behavior of Iran's theocracy will affect the region for decades.
But is Iran a diabolical threat to world peace, as so often portrayed in the West? Are the ruling clergy, or mullahs, bent on controlling the flow of oil and expanding their territory with nuclear weapons and terrorism?
The landslide election in May of relatively liberal Mohammed Khatami may signal a change in Iran, though the US is taking a wait-and-see approach. In late 1992, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin kicked off a campaign to convince the US that Iran was on a "megalomaniacal" quest to be a "Middle East empire."
Iran, though, has hardly helped its case. It opposes the US-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process; hundreds of exiled opponents of the regime have been assassinated; and there are signs it is trying to build nuclear weapons.
For the State Department today, Iran is the "premier" sponsor of terrorism worldwide.
But Iranians counter that their wishes are the same as American ones: peace in the region and the free flow of oil. Iran has no expansionist aims and wants peaceful coexistence, they say, and the devastating 1988 defeat in the Iran-Iraq war brought an end to dreams of exporting the revolution. Still, Iran is deemed so evil in some Washington circles that even Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been posited as a "useful" buffer against the spread of Iran's radical Islam.
"It seems this image of Iran as a monster in the region suits US interests," says a political adviser to Iran's government. "After the cold war, the US must find a new enemy to justify a $250-billion defense budget."
Iranians say Iraq's invasion of Kuwait clearly identified "who the real enemy is" in the Gulf. Iran has, in fact, gone out of its way to show that it is exporting peace. It has hosted peace talks for battling Afghans, Kurds, Tajiks, and Central Asian factions fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. And to keep on the good side of Russia, it has pointedly not backed Muslim separatists in Chechnya.
Still, Iran's military modernization appears aimed at controlling the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf's oil tap.