The establishment of the Islamic Republic exactly 40 years ago was a revolutionary success and a resounding intelligence failure. Western intelligence agencies, among them the Mossad, which for years maintained close ties with the monarchist regime in Tehran, did not correctly assess the street’s disgust with the shah’s continued rule until the very last minute.
One can also assume that neither the Shah, who was forced to leave Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, nor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned to Iran less than two weeks later, expected things to develop so quickly. Two months after Khomeini’s return from exile, millions of impassioned Iranians voted to replace the monarchy with a revolutionary Islamic regime.
Khomeini offered Iranians the polar opposite of the royal regime. Instead of a secular, brutal, corrupt and repressive regime that ignored human rights and abused political opponents in prison basements, he promised a regime of Islamic revival, freedom, human rights, integrity, and above all else, economic welfare. Instead of continuing to serve as the “United States’ and the Zionists’ puppet,” he presented a worldview that stood in direct opposition to the “indecent values” of Western culture. But he never for a minute pretended that his ambitions did not extend far beyond Iran’s borders. Under the stated goal of “exporting the revolution,” Tehran in 1982 established Hezbollah in Lebanon as the arrowhead to “liberate the Islamic nation from the Zionist scourge.”
The decision to raise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the top of the Iranian Revolution’s agenda and enlist to assist the Palestinians with money and arms was no accident. Khomeini believed that the only way to turn Shiite Iran into the leader of the Islamic world was to look for the common denominator that could unite the Sunnis and the Shi’ites under one flag, and that was hostility towards Israel. Iran declared Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day an annual event, and late PLO leader Yasser Arafat was Khomeini’s first guest at his Tehran office.
But over the past 40 years, it has become clear to Iran’s citizens that while the radical and conservative religious ideology led by Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have remained intact, the same cannot be said of the revolution’s promises of reform and change. A majority of the country’s oil profits were pocketed by senior religious figures and members of the Revolutionary Guard Corp. A substantial amount of the money was also invested in the effort to develop nuclear weapons and subversive activity across and beyond the Arab world. But it did not make it way to Iran’s lower and middle classes.
Waves of protests against religious tyranny and the silencing of opposition and in favor of far-reaching reforms to the structure of power, like the Green Movement in 2009, were suppressed with an iron fist and were not given outside support from, say, former U.S. President Barack Obama.
From Israel’s perspective, the protests were different this time around in that alongside the calls of “Death to the dictator,” the public called for an end to Iran’s involvement in Syria, assistance to Hezbollah and instead called for funds to be allocated toward easing the country’s financial crisis. On social media, young Iranians insisted that “Israel is not the enemy.”
But the December 2017 protests suffered from a lack of unifying leadership and possibly concerns of entering a direct confrontation with security forces. But there is now a younger generation in Iran that was born after the revolution. Members of this generation are sick and tired of religion and want genuine freedom, without veils and limits on freedom of expression. They are interested in opening up their country to the West and the rest of the outside world.
At some point in time, this critical mass will burst out and try to bring about fundamental change to the regime.
As it stands, despite the financial crisis, the regime has shown no sign it intends to relinquish its efforts in Syria, which have cost the government billions of dollars and could escalate into a confrontation with Israel on Syrian soil.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.