Iran on Monday marked the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, when the Pahlavi dynasty collapsed, paving the way for the founding of the Islamic Republic.

Around the world, pundits and academics are passionately debating the events of 1979 in think-tanks, universities, and media outlets. The US government will convene a conference this week attacking the Islamic Republic from Warsaw, Poland.

And the Iranian government is marking the anniversary in its own way: bombarding citizens with programs on state television about the breakthroughs of the Islamic Republic, inaugurating roads, hospitals and schools across the country and organizing feasts and speeches in villages, towns and large cities featuring special speakers to tell people about the blessings of the revolution. But amid the celebrations, the unfulfilled goals of the original movement cannot be ignored. 

At the outset of the 1979 movement, Iranians chanted, “Neither East, Nor West, [but the] Islamic Republic.” Forty years on, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have failed to maintain the independence that motto had promised.

Eastern dependence

Iran, far from being independent of the East, is today reliant on Moscow and Beijing for many of its economic needs and as a result, has made many concessions to them.

It was in August of last year when the five littoral states of the Caspian Sea, including Iran, signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. In return for some assurances by Russia that it will help Iran survive the new US sanctions introduced by President Donald Trump, Tehran forwent its 50% share of the Caspian Sea’s seabed resources and littoral waters in favor of Russia and agreed to a mere 11% portion.

China remains the largest buyer of Iran’s crude even as the Islamic Republic looks for new clients to purchase its oil. This traditional customer of the Persian Gulf nation’s crude is now faced with a hard choice: whether to turn to alternative suppliers in order to evade the penalties of the US government, which sanctions countries doing business with Iran, or to be loyal to Tehran. One-fourth of Iran’s oil exports currently go to China. 

Tehran has grown accustomed to betrayal by these powerful Eastern capitals, including when it needed them most.

Russia and China did not use their veto power to shield Iran from international sanctions when the UN Security Council decided to punish Iran over its nuclear activities in the late 2000s. The administration of former US president Barack Obama claimed it was these sanctions that forced Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program.

Deepening isolation

Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a popular movement against the autocracy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose crackdown on civil liberties, censorship of the media and failed economic policies had disillusioned millions of Iranians. The prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini won hearts and minds with promises of winning Iran’s independence from global superpowers.

The 1979 revolution brought about a significant change in the values and norms of Iranian society. Similarly, it transformed the paradigms and foundations of Iran’s foreign policy.

Before the revolution, Iran was on good terms with almost every country in the world. It was the chief Middle East ally of the United States, famously dubbed by President Jimmy Carter as “an island of stability” in one of the most troubled areas of the world. It maintained close relations with Israel and was on friendly terms with Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi traveled to Saudi Arabia to reciprocate a visit paid by King Faisal to Iran in 1966, and the Iranian monarch was supportive of King Faisal’s efforts to advocate Islamic solidarity in the framework of organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. 

The 1979 Islamic Revolution wrecked all of these bonds and Iran emerged with a new face.

Opposition to the West and rejection of liberal values became paramount in Iran’s foreign policy decision-making. Since the early days of the revolution, the slogan “Death to America” became a mainstay and Friday prayer gatherings and pro-revolution rallies turned into venues for expressing abhorrence toward the United States, mostly for its backing of the former regime.

In the aftermath of the toppling of the secular government of the shah, Iran developed a policy of exporting its revolution. By shaping alliances with Shiite factions in Muslim-majority countries, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran attracted spiritual devotees and supporters. But it also gained the ire of regional governments. 

The former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 with the aim of overpowering and toppling the newly-born revolution. Dozens of countries, including the United States and Britain, supported Saddam in his deadly campaign against Iran. Iran was left to fend largely for itself.

The Iranian government’s anti-Western aggression of the 1980s, 1990s and 2010s, reflected in a number of diplomatic spats between Iran and Western countries, only deepened the country’s isolation.

Death to America

Forty years on, Iran’s Friday prayers leaders across the country continue agitating their audience with anti-US, anti-UK and generally anti-Western dogmas. State TV runs programs with anti-Western themes on a regular basis. “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” is heard even from the parliament floor.

Universities host events featuring speakers who ferociously and openly attack the government of President Hassan Rouhani for signing the nuclear deal with six world powers and for curbing the country’s nuclear capabilities.

The oil-rich nation appears to be better at creating adversaries than making friends.

Iran currently has no diplomatic relations with Washington, its relations with Arab neighbors are unsteady, and it does not recognize Israel, either officially or tacitly as some of its Persian Gulf states do. Dr Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project director, told Asia Times, “The ideological aspects of Iran’s foreign policy, namely its enmity towards Israel, has often undermined the pragmatic elements of its relations with the outside world.”

The Islamic Republic meanwhile faces a number of serious foreign policy quizzes. It suffers from mounting pressure resulting from the economic sanctions of the Trump administration. The INSTEX special purpose vehicle developed by three major European countries to facilitate humanitarian and legitimate trade with Iran has not met the expectations of Iranian officials. And it is involved in proxy conflicts across the Middle East.  

Whether or not Iran will be victorious on these fronts depends on many factors. Most importantly, it depends on whether Iranian leaders are willing to embrace pragmatism and get rid of the ideological idealism that has been the cornerstone of their decisions since 1979.

The majority of Iranians, especially the youth, are in favor of open and unobstructed relations with the international community. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal undercut these voices and empowered the hardliners who assert that the United States and its European allies are not trustworthy. However, the whole reality of Iran, a highly polarized and divided society, is not the “Death to America” slogan the state encourages the public to uphold. 

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