Forty years ago, a revolution took place in Iran, which the world referred to as the ‘Islamic Revolution’. In some ways, the emergence of the Islamic State in the 2010s could be considered as a second, similar revolution. Despite all of the differences between Iran in the late 1970s and the broader Middle East today, we agree that Islamic (or more precisely, Islamist) revolutionaries have a common strategic goal: to reform society and the state, based on an Islamic foundation, i.e. to implement an Islamic alternative. And both the Iranian revolutionaries and the Islamic State have achieved that. However, the latter has only existed for a few years, while Iran is celebrating the 40th anniversary of their Islamic victory.
In 1979 and the very beginning of the 1980s, the majority of experts spoke about the ‘randomness’ of the Islamic revolution, and about the fact that for Iran, which was known as ‘Muslim France’, it was a deviation from the norm, and they predicted its rapid decline. But the decline has been a long time coming. In 1999, French scholar Olivier Roy and Iranian scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar wrote a book titled Iran: Comment sortir d’une révolution religieuse (Iran: How to get out of the religious revolution). The escape has not been managed yet.
What is the reason for the strength and endurance of the Iranian revolution, which continues to this day in Iran’s political practice and its official ideology? There are several reasons.
The first reason is that a significant part (possibly the majority) of Iranian society believes in the justice of the Islamic system, and in the possibility of organising state and society on the basis of Sharia. Iranian Muslims believe in what can be called the ‘Islamic path of development’, which in their eyes appears superior to all other possibilities.
In many ways this can be considered akin to religious fanaticism. However, the dream of a special, unique, and correct path of development should also not be ignored. The historical experience of many societies shows how profound and extensive the belief in utopia can be (the idea of building communism is only one example).
The second reason is that the state model that emerged as a result of the Islamic Revolution is not only a religious model, but also a national model. Its Shiite character is synthesised with ethno-cultural traditions and national mentality. At first glance, this is incompatible with Islamic dogma. However, in practice, the national factor strengthens the religious factor and vice versa. It is this combination that makes the Iranian Revolution particularly sustainable.
Unlike other radical Islamist movements – for example, the Islamic Stat, or Hizb ut-Tahrir – the Iranian Islamic revolutionaries were and are aware of the impossibility of spreading their experience to the rest of the Muslim world. Iran is a Shiite country, while the overwhelming majority of the Ummah are Sunnis.
The third reason is the rigidity of the regime, which often resorted to brutality immediately after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Materials about the methods used, including torture, in the post-revolutionary order are well-known.
The religious revolution was accompanied by a cultural revolution, during which all sorts of dissent was eliminated, and a blow to higher education was inflicted: 20,000 students and 2,000 professors were expelled from universities.
The Iranian regime was – and remains – authoritarian. At the same time, the degree of authoritarianism may vary from rigid to more liberal (liberal by Islamic standards). Conservative president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) was replaced by moderate Mohammed Khatami, who ruled until 2005, and then by radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was succeeded in 2013 by the current head of state, the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. It should be noted that all presidents were elected in the course of sufficiently democratic elections and in competitive conditions.
This alternation has been on the condition that the supreme power, according to Shiite tradition, belongs to the supreme ruler, the rahbar. In 1989 Khomeini was replaced by his close ally, Ali Khamenei, which is evidence of the stability of the political system, and its continuity of the Islamic revolution.
The fourth reason that Iran’s Islamic Revolution has prevailed over the decades is the ability of the ruling religious and political elite to consolidate society around them, suggesting to people that the country in an environment of constant external hostility. It is possible to discuss the extent to which such hostility is created by the West (primarily by the US) and neighbouring Muslim states, and the extent to which it is deliberately provoked by the Iranian government itself. In this case, we are simply stating the fact that constant foreign policy conflict contributes to strengthening a regime and its popularity.
A special role in the revolution’s endurance is played by the Iranian nuclear program, which allows the ruling class to position Iran as a world power, despite its rejection as such in the international community.
On the other hand, and this is the fifth reason for the Islamic Revolution’s longstanding success, the Iranian ayatollahs are given foreign policy flexibility. For example, despite the suspicion towards its nuclear program, Iran is developing contacts with Europe, Russia, and China. In 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Iran signed a nuclear programme agreement with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US. Even after the US withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018, the other signatories still remain within its framework and do not support the US sanctions.
As for Russia, it continues to participate in the energy production part of the Iranian nuclear programme, and maintains military-technical cooperation with Iran. In this context, Moscow’s support for the Islamic regime is particularly valuable, which is sometimes underestimated in Tehran.
Finally, the sixth reason is that Iran is by no means poor. It ranks 6th in the world in terms of oil production, 7th in terms of exports, and 3rd in terms of gas production. The ayatollahs have learned to use this wealth. Hydrocarbons and the resulting economic security provide leaders the freedom to conduct a variety of political and religious experiments. The Islamic Revolution is such an experiment.
The reader is most likely waiting for an analysis of economic difficulties, social tension, and the audacity of Iranian foreign policy. However, today we are talking about why, despite everything, the Islamic Republic of Iran is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Who could have imagined this in the early 1980s?
You can write as much as you like about the defeat of Islamism and political Islam, but as saying goes, “No matter how many times you say the word ‘halva’, it doesn’t get any sweeter in your mouth”. The potential of Islamist movements is great. There is every reason to believe that we will also witness the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.