Revisiting Iran Revolution

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Iran is celebrating 30 years of its Islamic revolution. Al-Jazeera English, the Middle East’s favorite television network, has been running a great series based on interviews and first-person accounts to mark the occasion.

I guess I had been too young and too far to follow the cataclysmic events in Iran three decades ago. However, growing up in India, one had had the opportunity of watching people who were affected by the revolution. Hyderabad, a citadel of Muslim culture in India, is home to a large Iranian population and has had close, historical relations with Persia. Many young Iranians studied in Indian universities and colleges.

Even though one really didn’t grasp the significance of the fall of a 2,500-year-old monarchy at the time, it was great watching Iranian students, bursting with revolutionary fervor and idealism, pitch for a new world order inspired by Islam, rather than one dictated by ‘big Satan’ or ‘small Satan.’

They would organize photo exhibitions of the anti-Shah movement or screening of Mustapha Akkad’s classics like "Lion of the Desert" and "The Message." At times, they would turn to the heart-warming poetry of Iqbal, the great South Asian poet who wrote both in Urdu and Persian languages. Whoever thought revolution would be so much fun!

Today, as Iran revisits the revolution, all those childhood memories and images have come flooding back. And one realizes with a shock that it’s been three decades since those watershed events that left an imprint on many an impressionable mind at the time. How time flies! Perhaps 30 years are nothing in the history of nations. Besides, in these three decades, little has changed in Iran’s relations with the West, especially the United States. It’s as though time has stood still since 1979.

America has yet to get over its humiliation after its man, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was booted out. It continues to see the Islamic Republic as the fount of all problems and woes in the Middle East.

Under George W. Bush, this anti-Iran policy was taken to absurd lengths with the U.S. cowboy president condemning the country to the company of Iraq and North Korea. Iran has not been found wanting in reciprocating these sentiments. The superpower remains the Great Satan in the Islamic republic’s eyes – at least in official rhetoric.

The Iran-U.S. relationship serves as a case example for the rest of the Middle East. Islam’s teachings urging resistance against oppression and injustice did play a seminal role in spawning the movement that brought down Shah’s powerful but corrupt and totalitarian regime.

But America cannot disown its own role in sowing the seeds of change. Washington’s short-sighted policies, especially the CIA’s role in bringing down the elected government of Prime Minister Mossadeq – the region’s first – and propping up of the discredited monarch in the face of fierce popular opposition also paved the way for the rule of ayatollahs.

The more the shah tried to force his fiercely proud, patriotic and religious people into the ‘liberal’ ways of the West the more they turned to their faith and ancient culture and values.

While the Iranians identified with the Palestinians and Arabs, the shah was playing around with the Israelis. Savak, the dreaded secret service agency, was trained and aided by Israel’s Mossad.

And the more force he used to suppress dissent and democratic and religious forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the stronger they became. The kind of mass protests Iran witnessed in those months and years, with young men and women throwing themselves before the marching tanks were never seen in the Middle East before and haven’t been observed since.

By identifying itself with the shah and protecting his loathed regime, America invited upon itself the wrath and anger of the Iranian people. In a way, the Americans were right in standing by the shah. After all, he was paying for implementing policies that were dictated by the Americans and the West.

Even today, the West and Iran are not able to make peace with each other, because both find it difficult to let go of their unpleasant, shared past and come to terms with their present and future.

The United States still hasn’t forgotten how it had to leave Tehran in undignified haste after the 444-day long siege of the U.S. embassy by Iranian students. But more than the Americans, it’s the Iranian people who have reasons to be unhappy with Washington.

Iran continues to pay for the shah’s crimes against his people and the U.S. excesses. Even though the majority of the Iranian population today was born after the revolution and is under 30 years old, the West’s interventionist policies in the past as well as its current vilification of Iran have poisoned their view of the West. They blame all of their woes and international isolation on the United States – a view that is impossible to counter.

The late shah had plenty of warts and flaws. However, what really proved his undoing was his unquestioning fealty and abject loyalty to Uncle Sam, often at the expense of his people’s interests.

So if anyone was responsible for the monarch’s downfall and ignominious exit, it was Uncle Sam. Reza Shah’s nemesis was his own mentor and master. There are many Reza Shahs in the Muslim world today. Similar tales of exploitation and victimization at the hands of big powers are galore.

The United States has drawn no lessons from the Iran fiasco. Even though it claims to champion democracy and freedom, it continues to impose its own colonial agenda and writ on the Middle East against its people’s will.

The historical manipulation and maneuvering of Arab and Muslim states – from Palestine to Pakistan – while patronizing and pampering Israel continually fills and multiplies the ranks of America haters.

I don’t know if the new U.S. president could change this reprehensible history of his country’s engagement with the Muslim world. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for one term. But let’s hope he’d at least give it a try.

The hero’s welcome Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan received back home after he gave an earful to Israel’s President Shimon Peres in Davos and walked out of the World Economic Forum in protest over Gaza offers you an insight into how Muslims think.

Having long suffered spineless wonders, Muslims are positively elated when they spot a courageous and self-respecting leader – a rarity for them – who is not afraid of confronting big bullies and saying it as it is. Men like Erdogan give them hope, restoring their dignity and confidence in themselves.

If the West indeed wants things to change for the better in the Muslim world, it should encourage and engage leaders like Erdogan, rather than self-serving autocrats. For, as Santayana warned: "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Write to him at

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