Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah and established clerical rule in Iran, how do Iranians look back at this seminal moment in their past?
There is a popular saying among Iranians. It goes: Everywhere else in the world there are three main tenses – past, present, and the future – but in Iran there are four – the past, the Pahlavi era, the present, and the future. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was the last king of a long series of monarchs who ruled Iran for millennia. It has been more than three decades since his fall, but the truth is that many Iranians look back on his rule more fondly than you might expect. In Tehran taxis it is not uncommon to hear people curse Iran’s current rulers while praising the Shah. A common refrain is “God bless the Shah’s soul, he was a patriot; these ayatollahs, by contrast, are not Iranian.” Of course they are Iranian, but such proclamations tell us something important; people compare the Shah’s performance to that of his successors, and it is easy to see why Iranians look back on his rule with rose tinted glasses.
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Needless to say, people didn’t feel so positively in 1979 – his despotic rule, the ubiquity and brutality of his secret police, his garish lifestyle, all contributed to uniting Iranians of all walks of life against him. But what people fought for during the revolution – a more accountable, democratic, and just state – isn’t what they got. In the end, they got another king in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini, only this time he wrapped himself in clerical robes.
The two men hated each other, but the Shah and his successor had one thing in common; a disdain for democracy. Both were fond of saying that democracy is somehow foreign to Iran. The difference is that the Shah, who admired Western civilization generally, wanted to forcibly move Iran on the path to becoming a modern, industrialised, power, whereas Khomeini wanted to impose his personal vision of an Islamic utopia. Today, even traditional segments of Iranian society find Khomeini’s system unbearable.
So while we should be circumspect about the depth of pro-Shah sentimentality, the reasons for this nostalgia are understandable. At the end of the 1970’s, Iran had per capita income higher than Turkey and South Korea, robust development, and strong diplomatic, cultural, and economic ties with the West – all things that brought undeniable benefits to middle class Iranians. Iranian women also had full legal rights and freedoms, something that we can’t say today.
At the time the Shah’s opponents accused him of spending the country’s money on useless weapons in order to satisfy his masters in the United States. As a matter of fact, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, those useless weapons, still in use with Iran’s army, saved the Ayatollahs.
The Shah’s opponents also criticized Iran’s alleged alliance with Israel, a relationship that was severed immediately following the collapse of the Peacock throne. When the Islamic Revolution of 1979 happened, Yasser Arafat was the first dignitary to visit Iran and was welcomed and supported by the Ayatollahs. Three decades later, Iranians are tired of a foreign policy that is obsessed with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and just as the Shah’s spending on American arms became a source of popular discontent, the Ayatollahs financing of organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas has spurred its own resentments. When young Iranians took to the streets in 2009, “no to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life only for Iran” became a popular refrain.
The last thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s unnecessarily confrontational, aggressive, and destructive foreign policy has left Iranians hungry for a different approach. As Iranians we have to ask ourselves: What has Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah done for us? The answer is simple: nothing good.
More than three decades after its establishment, the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed us. It has nothing to show its people but ballistic missiles, alliances with terrorist groups, and international isolation. The difference between 1979 and now is that we know that our aspirations for a better future will not be fulfilled by replacing one form of despotism with another. Our task now is to establish a new system, one where there is no arbitrary injustice against ordinary citizens, where the rights of all are respected, and where liberal values are ascendant.
A popular revolutionary song says that when a demon leaves an angel arrives. The song was allegorical. The demon refers to the Shah and the angel to Khomeini. Thirty-four years later, we know that Khomeini was no angel. Hopefully we have also learned that the only way to defeat our demons, once and for all, is not to long for the past, but to create a system where Iranians can relieve their leaders of their duties through free and fair elections. We are tired of using violence to replace one demon with another.
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