The Iranian revolution that took place 40 years ago was a tidal wave that literally flooded its public square. People were outraged following a considerable period of economic growth, which was thwarted by the 1973 oil crisis, and eventually led to a short, sharp economic contraction and decline in 1977-78 that unleashed widespread social unrest. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—notwithstanding his modernist aspirations, Westernizing and secularizing efforts—was quickly deemed public enemy number one.

Pahlavi with his white and gold jackets, beautiful wives (first Fawzia Fuad of Egypt, then Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary, and finally, Farah Diba) and extravagant parties, where he spoke in several languages with diplomats from around the world, coupled with his pro-American posturing, invoked the ire of the crowds. They were convinced by the inflammatory speeches the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sent on tape from exile in Paris that he was a figure to be destroyed. Khomeini perhaps appeared to Pahlavi as a crazy old fool that he could simply exorcise by distancing him; maybe he even communicated that feeling to then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who didn’t worry too much about Khomeini’s autocratic and aggressive ideology and, in fact, favored him with an attitude similar to that of the Obama administration during the Arab Spring.

A demonstration in Iran on Sept. 8, 1978; the sentence on the placard read: “We want an Islamic government, led by Imam Khomeini.” Credit: Islamic Revolution Document Center via Wikimedia Commons.

“The shah was a complicated figure,” says journalist Ruthie Blum, author of the book To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the Arab Spring” who, side by side his repression, nevertheless cultivated an aspiration that was sinfully ignored by the democratic world: the Westernization of his country.” In order to implement the latter, Reza Pahlavi spared no harassment from his opponents, who were in great numbers imprisoned and tortured: “And yet he tried to pave the way,” insists Blum, “to emancipate woman, in which the Ayatollahs would later unleash their worst vengeance. More than anything, he tried to open Iran to the world, which the Americans didn’t understand and got wrong all the way up pushing the Shah out to make place for a foe regime; Carter was never able to understand what was going on, even with the seizing of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, when an era of open conflict began due to the imperialist aspirations of Khomeini’s Shia Islam.”

Khomeini, at that time, had already outlined in detail in his works what kind of society he intended to establish and how important it was for him to make Iran the basis of the Islamic conquest of the world. Almost the only person who came to understand this by reading his works in Farsi was the great late Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, whose words of caution fell on deaf ears.

However, popular uprisings in the streets don’t always bring about justice and freedom, as the progressive world thought. The correspondents of almost all international newspapers, including Italian ones, got carried away watching the Iranian people protesting throughout its squares as they demonized the Shah while praising the Khomeinist revolution. There was a lack of understanding vis-à-vis the Middle East to explain what was happening then and which later was destined to plague the Western world to contemporary times. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who today dominates the scene together with General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who is constantly waging war, and a president like Hassan Rouhani, with his disquieting smile after his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sneer.

Iranians are not Arabs, and therefore for them, unlike the Sunnis, the Jihiliyya, or pre-Islamic “age of ignorance,” is not a source of shame. For Iranian Shi’ites, the Arabs are “drinkers of camel-milk and eaters of lizards who dare to aspire to the divine throne.”

The ambitions of Shi’ite Islam that overwhelmed Iran’s streets 40 years ago was organized not only on religion, but also on the memory of the Persian Empire, especially the role that imperial Persia has played in their traditions, perspective and great ambitions as heirs of an imperial past with the cult of martyrdom, and also of Taqiya, i.e., dissimulation. This had made them very talented negotiators in front of former U.S. President Barack Obama and the rest of the international community in relation to the nuclear issue.

In 1979, Khomeini, already in his writing preparing a return to Tehran, established the Islamic Republic and with it, a constitution calling for the “continuation of the revolution at home and abroad.”

He explained: “For Patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” The Iran that ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did so in order to provoke an open confrontation with the West; for this reason, it uses terrorism as an international strategic weapon that it has never disapproved of, without actually taking credit for it. This plan extends to its ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons; it has deemed America, who supported the westernization of the Shah as its foremost enemy and its ally Israel—“the Little Satan”—as a country that must be destroyed.

I have had the opportunity to interview Reza Pahlavi, the current head of the exiled House of Pahlavi, who resides in the United States. He acknowledged, while being very proud of his heritage and responsibility, that his late father had been a controversial figure. Yet he rightly underlined that much more controversial was his removal while Iran was organizing its future on the basis of Khomeinism, and the intensive use of the Revolutionary Guards in order to conquer first and foremost the Middle East and then the entire world, in addition to repressing the Iranian people, who can no longer bear the current regime’s widespread subjugation. Women and dissidents suffer much more today than during the days of the Shah; hatred for the West is certainly much more dangerous; and Shi’ite militias have invaded Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In addition, Iran has stockpiled advanced weapons along Israel’s border, using its proxy Hezbollah to extend its nefarious reach. And the preparation of the atomic bomb remains on the stage.

Despite its enormous economic difficulties and the call by its leader to adhere to the permanent war, Iran is a country whose long history and proud population continues, even after 40 years under the Ayatollahs’ regime, to strive for change and a better future. Its civil rights—those of women, homosexuals and dissidents—cry out for justice. Wherever it’s possible, signs of insurgence flash, no matter how cruel the repression has always been. Perhaps even its soldiers and officers sent to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen would like to return home for the sake of their country, instead of carrying around the global Islamic revolution.

All this is called “regime change,” and certainly, a large part of the population wholeheartedly—after 40 years of social, political and militaristic nightmares—desires it.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Translation by Amy Rosenthal.