The World Today
12 June 2015 , Volume 71, Number 3

We examine our coverage of Iran's Islamic revolution in the light of US attempts to end decades of enmity. There is still a chasm to cross


Dr Ali Ansari is Professor of Iranian History at the University of St Andrews and Director of its Institute of Iranian Studies


In reflecting on the reaction to the ‘Great Revolution’ that shook France from 1789, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked: ‘What had, in the first instance, seemed to the rulers of Europe and the politicians an event not out of the ordinary in the life of nations, now appeared to be such a new event, in such opposition to all that happened before in the world, yet so widespread, so grotesque, so undecipherable, that the human mind looked upon it with open disbelief.’ 

The shock and awe of this Great Revolution would soon be absorbed into the intellectual debates of subsequent years such that it became ‘French’: limited, finite and above all contained. 

The reaction charted by de Tocqueville serves as a good template for that which confronted the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in Iran that erupted in 1978-9, overthrowing a seemingly stable monarchy whose roots were proclaimed to be deeper than anything the French might boast. Yet if the French Revolution had been since understood as a harbinger of modernity, the Islamic Revolution with its overtly religious ambitions seemed to presage a wholly unexpected reaction. 

While many commentators recognized the failings of the Shah and his inability or unwillingness to institute serious and meaningful political reform, few could explain the emergence of what by all accounts was a religious autocracy of equal if not greater ruthlessness; a ruthlessness that enjoyed an immediacy unprecedented in political revolutions through the medium of mass communications, most obviously television. 

Nowhere was this to be more consequential than in the United States, where near universal access to TV ensured that the anti-western temperament of the revolutionaries was seared into the American imagination. Indeed the trauma of the Iranian hostage crisis – lasting all of 444 days – ensured that from 1979, Iran ceased to be a simple issue of foreign policy for the United States; that boundary had been transcended such that, perhaps uniquely, Iran had become a feature of US domestic politics. Iranians might define the United States as the ‘Great Satan’, but for Americans there was no doubt where the madness lay, and this revolution, like others before it, had to be contained.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s revolutionaries had no such doubts as to the benevolence of their cause and if some saw in their movement the hand of divine providence, others more secular in outlook regarded their movement as neither reactionary nor anti-modern, but indeed, ‘post-modern’, bringing religion back into the human experience. 

For these, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was not a rejection of the French Revolution but its rightful heir, an Enlightenment project fulfilled. This was indeed the embodiment of the Khatami presi-dency, which thrust ‘reformism’ as a distinct political trend to the forefront of the revolution. For those inured to, and coming to terms with, years of anti-American Islamic autocracy, the sudden emergence of smiling Iranian cleric quoting de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, on the shared political values of Iran and the United States, confusion and incomprehension gave way to despair. In retrospect, it had been easier to understand the Iranians when they were ‘mad’; now they were talking sense they were truly incomprehensible.

Yet the reaction to Khatami, both regionally and further afield, hinted at broader problems and opportunities. It was clear – as his successor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would show only too well – that enmity was far easier to manage than engagement but perhaps more interestingly, that the enmity was predicated on a familiarity and shared consensus that was broader and deeper than the current antagonism might suggest.

The British Ambassador Sir Denis Wright, in returning to re-establish relations between Britain and Iran in 1954, had astutely observed that the two countries were like ‘estranged lovers’, bitter over a betrayal that hinted at the deeper affection that underpinned their relations. I have argued elsewhere that the analogy might be usefully taken further with respect to the United States, that the trauma that accompanied the breakdown in relations after the Islamic Revolution echoed the breakdown of trust that might accompany a divorce.

Yet deep down, an affection and affinity remained, and as Khatami pointedly noted, there were many continued shared values. For those who had reorganized their relations round a structured enmity – both inside Iran and beyond its borders – Khatami’s revolution posed a far greater threat than that of Ahmadinejad. As we face a renewed attempt to broker different relations, time will tell which of Iran’s revolutions will come to the fore. Though perhaps this time it will be events beyond the borders of Iran and the United States that will restore an intimacy long thought lost.

From the archive
The Shah’s place has been taken by a militant anti-western regime … Its Islamic militancy (part Shia, part pan-Islamic) threatens the balance in neighbouring states. The new republican regime presents a threat to the Gulf states in two distinct ways: its current internal pre-occupations change the balance of power in the Gulf and increase Iraq’s importance, while its potential activism bodes ill for the monarchical regimes of the region ... The Iranian revolution may encourage imitation in Shia communities, or in Islamic fundamentalist circles. 
The Northern Tier in Disarray, Shahram Chubin, December 1979
It is the successful use of Islam as an ideology of protest that proves the relevance of the Iranian revolution to the people of the Muslim world. The combination of authenticity, autonomy and radical social transformation is a very potent ideological mixture in a region where regimes either lack legitimacy or are themselves using some form of anti-status quo rhetoric to bolster their legitimacy. 
Between Khomeini and Begin: The Arab Dilemma, Mohammed Ayoob, July & August 1983 

In 1997, Mohammed Khatami was unexpectedly elected in Iran. It seemed likely that the country could move away from its more radical stereotype. However, Washington was in a very poor position to respond appropriately. This was not only because of the rhetorical overkill of the previous five years but also because the sanctions were by now law and could not easily be changed. 
The Ghost at the Table, Gary Sick, January & December 1999

It is Tehran’s clout in Iraq that concerns Washington most. The Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, stated that US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are merely the foundations of a broader expansionist US military strategy to subdue the entire Middle East. ‘If this strategy fails heavily in Iraq, it will undoubtedly stop.’
Brinkmanship, Alex Vatanka, January 2005