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Iran: Islamic Revolution's Legacy Debated As Anniversary Marked

  • Heather Maher --> President Ahmadinejad speaks in front of a portrait of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (file photo) (epa) February 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Protesters today chanted "Death to America!" outside of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran in the midst of Iran's annual "10-Day Dawn" celebrations that mark the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The celebrations will reach their climax on February 11 with massive rallies across the country.

This year is the 28th anniversary of the revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy ruled by the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into a theocracy ruled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The revolutionaries who brought down the monarchy acted under the slogan, "Independence, Freedom, and an Islamic Republic." On April 1, 1979, after a public referendum, Khomeini declared the country an Islamic republic: Islamic laws came into force and an Islamic constitution was created, giving final authority on all matters to unelected religious leaders.

Different Expectations?

In the nearly three decades since, the face of the Middle East has changed dramatically and the consequences of the revolution are still debated both inside and outside the country.

Gary Sick, an American expert on Iran who has advised three U.S. presidents on Persian Gulf affairs, says few Iranians knew what life in an Islamic republic would actually mean when they took part in the revolution.

"There are very few places in the world today that would take the Iranian experience and try to imitate it," he said. "The Iranian experience, I think, for the most part is seen as a revolutionary success and a social failure. That is it has not produced the kind of results that most Iranians hoped to see when they supported the revolution in the first place."

The revolution has had both positive and negative effects on the country. Literacy has increased from 50 percent in 1979 to some 80 percent now. Annual gross domestic product now stands at $460 billion, up from $76 billion in 1979, while average personal income has risen from roughly $2,000 to $7,000.

On the negative side, democratic reformers have been blocked, newspapers and magazines have been closed, political prisoners and journalists languish in jail, and society is strictly segregated along gender lines. There are also problems among ethnic minorities, who often feel excluded from mainstream society.

Under Fire Internationally

Economically, there is high unemployment and inflation. There are also serious problems of illegal drug use.

Internationally, Iran was labeled part of an "axis of evil" by the United States, and its nuclear program -- which it says is for the peaceful production of energy -- has led to United Nations sanctions against it and to it being ostracized by most of the Western world.

John Esposito, a professor of Islam at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the editor of the "Oxford Dictionary of Islam: Past and Present," says despite the negatives, Iran today has considerable influence in the region.

A photo gallery of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return to Tehran on February 1, 1979.

"As the revolution unfolded and was seen as not as successful, then it lost some of its credibility," he said. "But Iran has continued to be a major player and certainly today it is -- if one looks at the situation in Iraq -- let alone in Lebanon, a major player in Muslim politics."

One of the indisputable results of the revolution is that it provided fertile ground for the growth of militant religious groups in the region. Esposito says that in this regard, the revolution has had a "significant impact."

Iran's Influence

"In a specific way, it helped generate Hizballah in Lebanon, and supported Hizballah for a long time, and continues to have close ties with Hizballah," he said. "The impact was twofold: one, very direct on the genesis of specific movements, and on the other hand, a more indirect, sort of inspirational...impact."

That view is shared by Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research Education. In addition to Hizballah, Gunaratna says Iran gives support to Palestinian groups deemed terrorist organizations and to Shi'a terrorist groups in Iraq. He says the Islamic Revolution was one of three key events in 1979 that emboldened jihadists and led to the current era of Islamist terrorism.

"There were three significant events that occurred: one was the Iranian revolution in 1979 that symbolized that even the United States could be threatened because the Iranians seized the U.S. Embassy and held American diplomats [hostage] for 444 days," Gunaratna said. "Secondly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December 1979. And the third thing, of course is the Camp David [Accords] (the Middle East peace agreement between Egypt and Israel). And these three events emboldened the jihadists. But the Iranian revolution was very significant."

Today, there is evidence that Iranians are growing impatient with the direction of things inside their country. The December elections for city councils around Iran and for the powerful Assembly of Experts revealed a drop in support for hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was facing the first popular test of his government's rule after 18 months in power.

Prominent Tehran-based journalist Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda that the results of the municipal votes were a sign of growing dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad.

Signs Of Dissatisfaction

"Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters have not even been able to capture the local councils," he said. "This signals that Iran's public is unhappy with his policies. This could even lead to opposition [against him] in the future. He took a hard-line on foreign policy and also on domestic issues -- on the economy, [social issues] where he made promises that he did not keep and actually did the opposite."

Indeed, Esposito says Iran's shift away from things like civil society and rule of law towards a hard-line, militant approach has not been welcomed by many Iranians, two-thirds of whom are under 30 years old.

"I think Iran has remained a major player and a major influence, but it's far more complex now than it was years ago," he said. "If you look at the years under [reformist] President [Mohammad] Khatami, Khatami's influence was as a voice for civilizational dialogue, a voice both within and outside Iran for the idea that one could be both Islamically oriented as well as have a modern government that had high political participation, that believed in civil society, the rule of law, et cetera. What we see now under the new president, Ahmadinejad, is a far more...militant, intransigent approach. Although we're now seeing that even his approach is being challenged."

The president's detractors seem to have had no effect on Ahmadinejad's plans to commemorate this year's anniversary of the revolution with "nuclear celebrations" in honor of Iran's controversial nuclear program. A "nuclear symphony" that Ahmadinejad himself commissioned will be played, and he has promised to deliver "good news" about the country's progress in the industrial and scientific fields.

(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this feature.)

The Iranian Revolution
Iranians demonstrate in Tehran on February 10, 1979, shortly after the return to Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (epa)

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran's 1979 revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchy and established the world's first modern theocracy. In February 2004, on the 25th anniversary of that event, RFE/RL produced a special report on how the ensuing years have measured up to the expectations of those times.

"I had been freed from jail in those days, and I hoped that the [revolutionary] forces would bring democracy and progress for the country, despite the religious leadership that caused some doubts, I hoped that the press would be free, the books would be published without censorship, [political] parties, associations and civil society organizations would be formed, and I hoped that I would be able to write freely. In fact, in these 25 years, I have not seen anything but the death and silencing of those beautiful hopes and dreams," Faraj Sarkouhi, an exiled writer and journalist, told RFE/RL....(more)


RFE/RL's reporting on Iran.

A tank bearing a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes up a position in Tehran on February 12, 1979 (epa)