The Republic of Iran turns forty

A theocracy at the crossroads

In its 40th year, the Islamic Republic of Iran is in a state of disintegration, says one of the country's strategists. The theocracy has arrived at a crossroads and the world cannot be indifferent to its future direction. Essay by Ali Sadrzadeh

"Its demise is not probable, but certain": the end being forecast here is that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the man daring to make this bold prognosis is its first president, Abolhassan Banisadr.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently marking its 40th birthday, and its former president has been in Parisian exile for almost 39 years. Like many contemporary witnesses, the 85-year-old is currently in demand for all manner of media interviews: on the true nature of this unique revolution, on what became of it and above all, where it is now headed. All these interviewees – most of them male and elderly – are happy to talk in great length and detail, whichever side of the frontline they happen to be on.

Many fronts

And many fronts have arisen over these past 40 years. Small wonder then that for weeks now, Iranian media and websites have been full of reports, documents and interviews in which Revolution winners and losers are given their say, bringing to light many old and new truths from a dark time. Attentive historians will appreciate the value of these interesting accounts.

But much more important than the past history of the Islamic Republic are its precarious present situation and its uncertain future. We do not know what the coming weeks and months will bring. But there is no shortage of prognoses: further radicalisation or gradual moderation, rapid demise or slow disintegration – in the not too distant future we will see who is right.

What becomes of this nation is not just important to Iranians themselves, but also to the entire world. Regardless of the future path of this remarkable republic: the process will change the region and ultimately, the entire world – just as it has over the past 40 years.

Ayatollah Khomeini following his arrival in Tehran on 2 February 1979 (photo: Getty Images)
A thunderbolt that heralded a new era in the Islamic world: "1979 was the year when a political earthquake threatened the power of royal dynasties. The epicentre of this quake lay in Iran, where a popular revolution led by an Ayatollah (ʹsign of godʹ) put an end to the monarchy – a revolution that wasn't just fascinating, but also very dangerous"

Bin Salman yearns for the "good old days"

When Mohammad bin Salman, known as MbS, the omnipotent Saudi Crown Prince, was asked in October 2017 why he wanted to reform Saudi Arabia so quickly and thoroughly, the young firebrand replied that he wanted to return to the pre-1979 era.

Why does he want to go so far back? Because the year 1979 left a traumatic mark on the psyche of Saudi Arabia and the entire Islamic world.

This was the year when a political earthquake threatened the power of royal dynasties. The epicentre of this quake lay in Iran, where a popular revolution led by an Ayatollah ("sign of god") put an end to the monarchy – a revolution that wasn't just fascinating, but also very dangerous.

Its message could be summed up in one sentence: political Islam can change the world. And it did just that. Fundamentally, dramatically.

In other capitals, the powerful had to steel themselves against the danger ahead. As to Saudi Arabian efforts to counter the allure of the Iranian Revolution over the past 40 years, probably enough books and articles have been written on the subject to fill a medium-sized library.

Immunising Sunnis against the Shia revolutionary virus

The idea was to immunise the Sunni world against the Shia revolutionary virus. The Saudis set forth with billions of petrodollars and an army of propagandists and preachers. Religious schools, mosques and foundations were set up all over the world aimed at spreading Saudi Islam.

But the Saudis also created, intentionally and unintentionally, their own – Sunni-influenced – political Islam, one that stepped onto the political global stage with spectacular acts of violence. Terror groups emerged with the goal of shaking the world to its very core. Al Qaida, 9/11 and the ensuing wars, IS and the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are the aftershocks of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

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