The Iranian revolution is not an isolated event, but part of an ongoing, century-old Islamic movement. And this Islamic movement, with or without support from Tehran - now pursuing peace in the Gulf war - will continue both in and outside Iran. The revolution in Iran is arguably the most significant Middle Eastern event in the past decade. It has taken on the symbolic status of the American, French, and Russian Revolutions and, like those, lives beyond the old regime's overthrow. That act will retain central significance in Iranian history, though the revolution has changed orientation and content, and will do so again.
Like the Islamic movement itself, Iran's revolution has three aspects: personal reform in adherence with Islamic laws; legislative and legal reform; and political activism. Weighing each aspect against the others has been the chief source of political debate in Iran. That debate will continue to guide politics, determining in part Iran's penchant for foreign adventures.
The Iranian revolution's impact is felt through the Islamic world, from Africa to the Philippines, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is revered. Yet fundamentalist Islamic leaders do not necessarily view Iran's government as an ideal model to copy.
This paradox is easily explained: For most of the Mideast, Iran's revolution is one event in a process of Islamic revolution that has lasted more than 100 years. What makes it the most significant event to date is that it is the first time an Islamic force has succeeded in ousting a Western-backed government.
Roots of revolution
The course of Islamic revolution goes back to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a 19th-century reformer. Barely known in the West, al-Afghani is arguably the most influential figure in modern Islamic history.
His philosophy of revolutionary reform has underpinned every important Islamic political movement - peaceful or terrorist - this century, including such disparate events as Iran's constitutional reforms of 1906, legal reform in Egypt in the 1920s, the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s, numerous acts of religious-based terrorism throughout the region, and the Iranian revolution of 1978-79.
Al-Afghani was born in Iran in 1838, but spent much of his early life in Afghanistan, hence his name. In the 1870s, he began to preach about the need to revitalize and unify the Islamic faith to resist colonial powers.
He attacked the European ``double standard'' whereby patriotism, national pride, and national honor on the part of Islamic nations were characterized as fanaticism, chauvinism, and xenophobia, according to Nikki Keddie, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the acknowledged authority on Afghani.
His message was also one of internal reform. Noting the need for Muslims to set their own house in order, Afghani called for a rigorous purification of religious belief and practice and, more important, a political reunion of Muslims in defense of the faith.
Later reformers, inspired by Afghani, elaborated his message. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, believed that Islam must also be militarily strong, and advocated the establishement of an Islamic army imbued with the spirit of ``jihad,'' meaning ``struggle'' in defense of the faith, rather than ``holy war,'' as it is commonly translated.
Islamic reform was conceived as a way to end the exploitation of the Middle East by Europe and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was only a small step from that to regarding the United States as the latest outside power engaged in political and economic adventurism at the expense of Islamic peoples.
Old message, new impact
Thus the Iranian revolution in fact broadcast a very old, familiar, and oft-repeated message for most Middle Easterners. The significance of Ayatollah Khomeini's actions is their unprecedented success.
Khomeini exploited the predilection of the Islamic world to view all Western powers as corrupters and exploiters. Painting the Shah of Iran as the agent of this corruption was the principal device Khomeini and his revolutionary allies used to persuade the Iranian public to support their revolt.
Reformers and revolutionaries in other Islamic nations have found a new source of rhetorical strength in the success of their Iranian brethren.
In the wake of the Iranian revolution, they are able to paint their current governments as corrupt remnants of the colonial era far more easily than before by merely pointing out parallels with the regime of the Shah. Although this characterization does not exactly fit in all cases, it fits closely enough to give Middle Easterners something to think about - and to worry their leaders considerably.
Extremists in Iran were able to ``export'' the ideas of the revolution because they found, throughout the region, a ready audience in Muslim reformers and oppressed peoples already primed to receive the message.
Lebanon takes lessons
Nowhere has the Iranian message been more potent than among the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, who are of the same Islamic sect as 98 percent of Iranians. The largest ethnic group in Lebanon, the Shiites are nonetheless the poorest and least powerful politically. The image of a Western-backed, oppressive, non-Islamic central government that should be overthrown fits the model of the Iranian revolution perfectly.
But Iranian influence is not the same as Iranian control: Lebanese Shiites have their own political agenda.
One important point is their holding of Western hostages against the release of 17 Lebanese Shiites held in jail in Kuwait for terrorist acts.
Iran has been able to pursuade the Lebanese Shiites to release a hostage from time to time. But they will not give up their present militant course until some resolution of the prisoner question is achieved, and more broadly until their political and social situation within Lebanon improves significantly.
After the onset of the revolution, internal governance in Iran was of little concern to Islamic reformers elsewhere. What they principally sought from the Iranians was a formula for governmental overthrow and reform.
The revolution as an ongoing symbolic force has changed course several times without losing its power to inspire.
It started with a broad base of liberal social reforms in the first six months; these were abandoned in favor of a militant fundamentalist pietism reminiscent of the Inquisition. This stance was later relaxed, as the nation got on a war footing and militant isolationism set in.
Finally, the Iranian revolution has become more pragmatic as it tentatively seeks to reestablish diplomatic and much-needed trade connections with the outside world. The abandonment of the Gulf war can be seen as part of this move.
Despite economic difficulties and the prospect of political unrest after Khomeini is gone, Iran's government looks increasingly stable and secure. It has withstood extraordinary stresses: eight years of war; financial stringencies; and virtual political isolation. It has survived despite American and Soviet displeasure.
The end of the war with Iraq is certain to turn Iranian energies toward internal rebuilding and reform. The parliament is already lively with many questions for officials to answer about the stagnant economy and oppressive legal policies.
Although the onset of peace will turn the revolutionary zeal of many Iranians inward, some firebrand activists will continue to press for missionary work among Islamic revolutionaries elsewhere. Khomeini's eventual passing will exacerbate the current internal power struggle, and further sap Iran's ability to carry out external adventures.
Thus the revolution will live within Iran, though it will continue to change. External to Iran, one must realize that Islamic reform is older than the venerable ayatollah by some decades, and has grown steadily without Iranian help elsewhere.
It thus becomes difficult to believe that the vision of Islamic revolution in the Mideast will die either with the end of the Iran-Iraq war, or with Khomeini.
William O. Beeman is Associate professor of anthropology at Brown University. He lived and worked in Iran for nearly a decade, and is author of ``Language, Status and Power In Iran.''