Iran's 40 years of strife
In 1971, world leaders as varied as Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and Soviet statesman Nikolai Podgorny gathered in the Iranian city of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the First Persian Empire. They were there to attend a sumptuous party, hosted by Shah Reza Pahlavi, to mark 2,500 years since the founding of the Imperial State of Iran. But less than eight years later, Iran had a new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who referred to this gathering as "the devilʹs festival".
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini had been living in exile (in Turkey, Iraq, and finally in Paris), owing to his denunciation of Iranʹs westernisation and dependence on the United States under Shah Pahlavi. In 1953, the U.S. and the United Kingdom had propped up Pahlavi by ousting the country's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised Iranʹs oil industry and had sought to reduce the Shahʹs powers.
That fateful episode – imbued with the logic of the Cold War – marked the first U.S. operation to depose a foreign leader during peacetime. But it certainly wasnʹt the last. Ever since, U.S. foreign policy has been characterised by a steady procession of "regime changes", which have poisoned Washingtonʹs relations with key regions of the world – perhaps most notably with the Middle East.
In the case of Iran, the 1953 coup eroded the Shahʹs domestic legitimacy and, along with his repressive temperament and insensitivity to demands for greater social justice, planted the seeds of the 1979 Revolution. Throughout the ensuing 40 years, Iran and the West have been estranged, to say the least.
The revolutionary turns conservative
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once quipped that "the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution." That was certainly true of Khomeini. After taking power by uniting forces adhering to vastly different ideologies, Khomeiniʹs flexibility suddenly evaporated.
He distanced himself completely from leftist movements, accused his opponents of subversion and repressed liberal voices with abandon, triggering four decades of tension between the Islamic Republicʹs theocratic and democratic elements.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations imploded. After laying siege to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, a group of Iranian students, with Khomeiniʹs connivance, held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. They demanded that U.S. President Jimmy Carterʹs administration extradite the Shah, who was in New York for cancer treatment.
In the end, the hostages were not released until minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as successor to Carter, who had been severely weakened politically by the crisis. By then, Pahlavi had died in Egypt, and Khomeini had consolidated the power of hardline theocrats over the revolutionʹs more secular factions.