This blog is based on two lectures given at AACI Netanya by Eyal Offenbach, an Israeli lawyer who is also a historian and expert on the Middle East. His superb lectures covered the history of Iran from the Shah to Khomenei and from Khomenei to today.
He started with the origin of the Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran from 1921 to 1979. Reza Shah Pahlavi was a military officer who was greatly influenced by western ideas and the example of Kemal Ataturk in modernizing Turkey. He took the opportunity of the chaos in Persia after WWI with the help of the British to overthrow the Qajar dynasty and take power. He declared himself Shah (King) of Iran in 1925. But, he was influenced by fascism, and was toppled by the Allies in 1941 during WWII. The Allies replaced him with his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who called himself Shah-in-Shah, or King of Kings. Unfortunately, although this Shah also was a westernizer and a modernizer, he had no power base, neither in the army, the political class, the Shia clergy, nor even in the middle class. He was universally viewed as a usurper and a puppet of the West.
When there was a revolution against the Shah in 1951, led by Mohammed Mossadegh, he was forced into exile. But, in 1953, the revolution was defeated and the Shah was reinstated by the American CIA under the orders of Pres. Eisenhower. The Shah became increasingly remote from his people and indulged in the acquisition of ostentatious wealth from oil revenue. This led to the growth of a tremendous opposition to him, that included the Shia clergy as well as the educated middle class and the left. The Shah became more autocratic, but lacked the will to suppress the demonstrations that grew in size against him. He was reviled as a “stooge of the CIA.” When he was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1979, largely organized by the Shia clergy under Khomenei, US Pres. Carter failed to support him and the Shah was doomed to roam the world until he died soon after of cancer, a pathetic lonely figure.
The revolution wrought by Khomenei in Iran in 1979 was a true ideological revolution, not a simple coup that often happens in Arab countries when one military elite is replaced by another. In the Shia world it was an “earthquake.” The history of Shi’ism is replete with the concept that the Shia, who believe in the familial succession to the Prophet Mohammed, were the true believers, the good and noble Muslims, while the Sunni, who believe in the Caliphate, are heretics (and of course the Sunnis believe the opposite). But, from the beginning, when the grandson of Mohammed, Imam Hussein ibn Ali, rode out with 70 warriors to fight the army of the Caliph from Damascus with an army of 8,000 at Karbala (in present day Iraq) in 680 ce, Shi’ism was doomed to be a persecuted minority sect, in contradiction to their beliefs. This led to a religious philosophy teaching the Shia for pragmatic purposes to become passive, to “keep their heads down” and led to the belief in a series of hidden Imams, the twelth of whom was a young boy who disappeared in a cave and is supposed to reappear, like the Messiah. This Shia passivity in the face of Sunni Islam was overturned by Khomenei.
Khomenei had been a clerical trouble-maker in Iran and the Shah. instead of murdering him as he probably should have done, exiled him. He lived in Iraq for years, putting out very influential books, calling on the Shia to overthrow the Shah and take an active role to expand their sect in the world. He then moved to France, from where he influenced events through his contacts, by writing pamphlets and with cassettes. Many high ranking Shia clergy resented Khomenei, since he was not of the highest rank, we was not an Ayatollah and had been in exile. But, when he returned triumphantly to Iran after the removal of the Shah, he simply took over the revolution, and bloodily executed all those who stood in his way. Although the Shah had been repressive, Khomenei was ten or 100 times worse.
However, it is a mistake to conclude that Iran is a monolithic Shia state. There are definite factions within the regime. The most extreme are those represented by former Pres Ahmedinejad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), that is effectively the loyal Shia army, as opposed to the Iranian Army. There is also the Basij local armed militias. Pres. Rouhani represents a more moderate position. A way to characterize the difference, is that the extremists want no compromise with the USA and are prepared to use nuclear weapons, while the so-called moderates see the need to compromise and would prefer to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. It should be noted that all nuclear industry and advanced weapons are controlled by the IRG and not the Army. The IRG also control a large slice of the Iranian industry and economy.
The current inflation rate in Iran is 45% and getting worse, and this results from the sanctions that were imposed by the US, EU and UN. While the extremists may be against any compromise with the West, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (not to be confused with Khomenei) has sided with the moderates on the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries. His main aim is to ensure the survival of the regime, and he sees the economic situation as the primary threat. But, he has to placate the extremists, who want a nuclear weapon at any price as a means to challenge the superiority of the Sunnis, the West and Israel. It is primarily Israel, through its actions both secret and public, that has led the opposition to the Iranian nuclear threat. It is possibly the naivete of the West in dealing with Iran that fails to understand the truly aggressive nature of the Khomenei Shia revolution.