As Iran marks the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought down the western-aligned Shah, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Islamic Republic is a dream that will never be realized.
The Iranian people are growing increasingly frustrated. The Islamic Revolution that promised them “bread and freedom” has failed to deliver. The price of bread and other staples continues to rise, while freedom remains elusive.
The clearest expression of their discontent is the decline in their religious observance. A survey shows that during the recent month of Ramadan, about half the respondents did not fast at all. Public trust in religious leaders is also significantly down.
Nonetheless, many Iranians see the revolution as the best thing that has happened to their country in a century. They credit it with connecting the periphery to the main highways and bringing electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes. The Middle East has undergone cataclysmic changes over the past decade, yet Iran has remained stable. When considering the alternatives, the citizens of Iran quickly conclude that things could be a lot worse.
In the early days of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s politics and economy were negotiated with the country’s major landowners and merchants. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the Shah established an absolute monarchy in which he and his heirs held all power. He knew that much of the nation would not go along with this, so he flooded the people with “Western-style openness” — in the form of a relatively open media, fully-stocked stores, upgraded medical services, and more — in the hope of winning their support.
But the opposite happened, and his White Revolution — so called because no violence was employed — became the cause of his downfall.
The shah’s new policies harmed the elites and widened the gap between rich and poor, sparking public protests. He used an iron fist to suppress protests and keep order, shooting and killing many and imprisoning tens of thousands. Realizing that the future of his reign was at stake, the shah employed his security forces ruthlessly against his people.
Ironically, at the heart of the White Revolution was the desire to create a liberal society run by a modern, enlightened government. It sought to reduce landowners’ power, improve workers’ status, break monopolies, open national markets to foreign investments, phase out ultra-religiosity and revive the pre-Islamic Iranian heritage. But to do this, the shah violently put down his opponents, and the old-time elites quickly banded against him, forming an alliance with Islamic religious leaders. Most of the citizenry was traditional and didn’t appreciate the shah’s attempts to put down their customs and beliefs.
The religious leaders claimed that the shah was part of an “American conspiracy” to “strengthen the dictatorial regime and Iran’s economic, political and cultural dependence on the international imperialistic order.” From there to actual revolution, the way was quite short.
At first, the Shiite religious leaders didn’t intervene. But as the White Revolution and the unrest it generated continued, they saw an opportunity to unite all the shah’s opponents in a large opposition force. The Shiites control tens of thousands of mosques and social centers throughout Iran, and these quickly became the command posts of an active political network against the shah.
Sheikh Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood at the helm of the Islamic Shiite religious leadership, correctly read the map. He turned to all those who felt aggrieved by the shah, especially the lower classes, and proposed a new governmental structure in the form of an “Islamic Republic.” This was seen by the masses as an alternative to the oppression and poverty they suffered at the hands of the shah.
And here we ask the ultimate question: Forty years later, can the Islamic Republic be said to have succeeded in its mission? Like other questions of this type, there is no simple answer. Some say it failed, others claim it succeeded. After generations of shuffling around at the bottom of the list of Third World countries, Iran, under the ayatollahs, began to climb the U.N.’s chart of developing countries.
In 1976, only 20% of Iranian women could read and write, but by 1996, the figure was up to 80%. Infant mortality, which used to be 104 deaths per 1,000 births, had gone down to 17 per 1,000 by 2015. Life expectancy — 55 prior to the revolution — now stands at over 76.
But this kind of progress has occurred over much of the world and it’s reasonable to assume it would have happened, to one extent or another, under the shah as well. And so the question remains open.
What is indisputable is that both the shah and the ayatollahs never hesitated to use brute force, the shah to ensure the stability of his regime, and the ayatollahs to take over half the world, beginning with the Sunni nations. Their goal is to renew the ancient Persian Empire that, as we well know, once ruled over “127 countries from Hodu to Kush.” To achieve this goal they are spending lots of money that could have been used for the benefit of ordinary citizens — those who seek not world dominion but bread on their table, a roof over their heads, and decent education and employment opportunities.
The Islamic reformers promised to put an end to the widespread corruption of the shah’s regime, and they succeeded in this — only to replace it with their own corruption. The difference is that, under the shah, only he and his immediate circles benefited from his corruption, while the fruits of today’s corruption are spread more evenly, especially among the lower classes.
In 2013, in a surprising political development, Hassan Rouhani was elected president, defeating a wealthy extremist Shiite candidate who had enjoyed special stature in Iran. Rouhani’s election did not return Iran to the era of close ties with the West and more secularization, since Rouhani was only a “moderate” reformist who actually supports the Islamic government structure. At the same time he seeks to stabilize the economy, make it more transparent, and reduce government intervention in citizens’ private lives.
The Obama administration saw the bright side of Rouhani’s election and sought to bring him along a path he never intended to take, toward the West. The Americans sought to incentivize him with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement — one of the worst, most ill-considered agreements ever entered into by the U.S. It quickly became clear to almost everyone that the Iranians had no intention of living up to the spirit of the deal, but it fell to President Donald Trump to actually scrap it.
Rouhani’s weakness is now well understood. He has no intention of taking on the extremist regime of the ayatollahs, who have free rein to act as they please. Washington is trying to influence Iran via heavy sanctions, but they’re not enough to spark a popular uprising.
While the Iranian authorities blame President Trump for the country’s economic woes, much of the nation places responsibility at the door of their own government. An accountant living in Tehran recently told a Western reporter, “The economic war is a reality, and people are under extreme pressure. Government leaders keep telling us to be strong and endure the pressures, but we can already hear the sound of our bones breaking.”
When the nuclear agreement was signed, Iran’s currency traded at 32,000 rials to one U.S. dollar; today, the same dollar gets some 150,000 rials. Inflation is more than 40%, and over three million people, one eighth of all working-age citizens, are unemployed. Though Iran boasts the world’s fourth largest proven reserve of crude oil, as well as the second largest proven reserve of natural gas, the U.S. has cut off its ability to sell these resources on the global market.
Rouhani realizes that changes are critically needed — but he can do little about it, because the extremist camp blocks him at every turn. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said recently that any change is a dangerous opening to rock the revolution’s values.
Still, more and more citizens are criticizing the regime for using their money to export terrorism and spread Shiite Islam to the Sunni world and elsewhere.
How does Israel fit into the picture? It continues to attack targets under Iranian control, particularly those from which Iran seeks to threaten the Jewish State.
The attacks have two chief objectives: stymieing Iranian attempts to interfere in areas close to Israel and, even more importantly, sending a message to the Iranian people that their government is wasting billions in far-off places that give their country absolutely nothing in the end.
Israeli-Iranian relations have known ups and downs. Up until 40 years ago, they got along fine, but today Iran openly declares its desire to annihilate Israel. What changed? The answer, say veteran students of Jerusalem-Tehran relations, is that even when relations were good, they weren’t really good; the shah had an interest in remaining on Israel’s good side to receive its help. Once Iran’s interests changed, the hatred resurfaced.
The shah never had great confidence in his army, despite its large budget and Western-supplied equipment. He therefore paid Israel — in the form of oil, money and military cooperation — to protect him and his regime.
Topping the list of the shah’s fears was Iraq — and so he asked Israel to build a large, powerful army for the Kurds — an Iraqi minority that has sought independence — to be employed against then-dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime when needed. Israel provided the Kurds with weapons, ammunition and training.
At the same time, Israel’s security services were advising their Iranian counterparts on how to safeguard the shah from the overthrow he feared.
All this did not improve Israel’s image in the eyes of the many Iranians who hated the shah and the way he took advantage of the lower classes. Thus, when the revolution came, the old hatred of Israel flared.
There is another reason for the hatred. Shiite Muslims, who comprise close to 90% of Iranians, see the existence of the State of Israel in lands they feel are holy to Islam as an insult to the Shiite religion. They therefore will do anything to rid these lands of the Jews.
Likewise, the Iranians are not on good terms with the Americans, whom they see as the source of everything bad in anti-Muslim culture around the world. As Khomeini put it in his very first speech after overthrowing the shah, America is the “Great Satan” and Israel the “Little Satan.”
The main reason the ayatollahs are investing so much of their precious cash on a nuclear program is their belief that with such weapons in their hands they will be able to do as they please around the world. Their attempts to build long-range missiles attest to their plans to attack not just Israel, but even Europe and beyond.
Tehran also supports Hezbollah, its “long arm,” in the event Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear plants. Syria and Iraq, as well, serve Iran as forward bases from which to strike at Israel. In addition, Iran provides financial and other assistance to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and anyone else who employs terrorism against Israel.
Israel’s response, as we have often seen — even if Israel does not admit to it — comes in the form of military activity aimed at blocking Iran’s expansion. Of late, Israel has been focusing on neutralizing Iranian attempts to upgrade the outdated rockets the regime has supplied Hezbollah and others.
Is there any chance that popular unrest in Iran will lead to another revolution?
The Arab world was never too enthusiastic about the ayatollahs’ revolution, but these Islamic leaders know how to allow their citizens to let off steam when necessary and how to clamp down at the right time. Another revolution does not appear to be in the offing.
Still, the ancient Iranian tradition is stronger than the criminal regime of the Islamic Republic. Everyone in Iran senses that the revolution has run its course, and that true freedom will come to Iran at some point.
There was only one time the Iranians were able to realize their dreams of economic prosperity after signing the nuclear agreement with the West. In 2016, inflation seemed to be stopping and prices dropped a bit — but even then, by the end of the year, things changed for the worse. Foreign investors not only did not come flocking to Iran, but many foreign companies that were there picked up and left.
Iran’s leadership did what it could to save the situation, but President Trump came along with his sanctions and dashed all dreams with finality. Unemployment once again rose to record highs, inflation was out of control, and oil and gas exports dropped by two thirds. The U.S. president also imposed measures that dissuaded Europe, Russia and China from doing business with Iran.
Iran’s leaders maintain that the united international front against them merely rallies its own citizenry in support of the regime. This may have been true long ago, but no longer.
It is now clear to all that the clock is ticking. No one knows how long it will take, but everyone knows that the end will come. Forty years after the revolution, Iran’s future looks bleak.
Two Thirds of Iran’s Jews Have Disappeared
Of the 30,000 Jews who lived in Iran before the revolution, just 10,000 remain. While they face no official persecution, they feel hostility from the government and their neighbors.
Thirty thousand Jews — some say 35,000 — lived in Iran in 1979, at the time of the Islamic Revolution. The Jews of Iran had known prosperity under the shah, and the revolution ushered in a period of great uncertainty. Many took advantage of the first few years of the ayatollahs’ rule to emigrate, mostly to Israel. These included many families with boys nearing the age of military conscription, saving them from the catastrophic Iraq-Iran war, which claimed over half a million lives.
“Whoever was able to leave, and understood that his family had no future in Iran, got up and left,” I was told by one of those who came to Israel in those years. Two of his brothers, however, stayed behind. One tried to leave two years ago, and narrowly avoided arrest and a long incarceration. He managed to make it to a country adjacent to Iran, from where he went to a former Soviet-bloc country, and from there on to Israel. The second brother remains in Iran, with no way out; if he somehow manages miraculously to get out, his property will be confiscated by the government.
The Jews of Iran sense the hostility of both the government and their neighbors. They are not permitted to work in government positions, their sons in the army cannot become officers, and they are prevented from becoming physicians in government hospitals. Jews in the outlying areas suffer even more, as they are considered “impure” and forbidden to work in jobs having to do with food or anything that must pass to Muslim hands from theirs.
They have undergone difficult periods during the past 40 years — especially during times of war between Israel and Arab countries, intifadas, and rounds of fighting in Gaza.
“There were days when we didn’t leave our homes,” says one Jew who arrived in Israel from Iran 10 years ago. “We felt the looks of hatred from every angle, and often were spat upon. Iranians would sometimes throw rocks and beat up our children. The situation has calmed down. The Jews can now go to synagogue and conduct classes in Torah and the Hebrew language. They celebrate holidays openly, mainly in the central synagogues in the large communities. Still, they try not to call attention to themselves, such as with notably Jewish clothing. They prefer to dress like Iranians, especially the women.”
When Jews are asked to comment by the local media on matters having to do with Israel, they are quite careful: They stick to the official Iranian position and make sure to add their hope that Israel will make peace with the Palestinians. In general, freedom of religion exists in Iran — a country that is over 99% Muslim — and there is even one Jew in the national legislature. Keep in mind, however, that the one Jewish legislator used to be a government minister as well — something that has not happened in the 40 years of the Islamic revolution.
The Jews of Iran used to communicate with relatives in Israel and around the world via expensive phone conversations. Today, social media has made things much easier, though conversations are still kept to a minimum for fear that the government is listening in.
From time to time, Jews are exposed to anti-Semitic comments by government officials or in media. This occurs mainly when the topic is the Holocaust and the six million Jewish victims — a topic that Iran does not like to recognize, even today. Iranians are considered among the greatest Holocaust deniers in the world.
Of late, the authorities have been even more insistent that government positions be held only by Shiite Muslims. On the other hand, Jews are permitted to live wherever they wish and may operate Jewish cemeteries alongside Muslim ones.
Jewish schools, however, are a different story. Barely any remain in the country, and Jewish children study in Iran’s public schools. It is no wonder, then, that they grow up with little knowledge of their heritage and that assimilation and intermarriage has risen dramatically in the past decade.
Without a backbone, Jewish communities simply cannot stand.