The Iranian revolution at 40
How to deal with the mullahs
The Islamic revolution has failed, but Donald Trump’s sanctions could prolong it
The cry of “Death to America!” has rung out in Tehran every Friday since the Islamic revolution of 1979. But the ritual is hollow. The mullahs know they have failed their people. Iranians are much poorer than they should be; promises of justice have been drowned in the blood of enemies and supposed sinners; and theocracy has made Iranians less pious. Protests occur often, even among the poor who make up the regime’s base.
Yet the mullahs remain in charge, despite war, sanctions and decades of enmity with America—or perhaps because of them. To the alarm of Israel and many Arab states, Iran has spread its influence, helping save the odious regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and ensuring that the Saudis remain bogged down in Yemen. Its Lebanese client, Hizbullah, poses a grave threat to Israel. In Europe Iranian spooks are accused of plotting to kill dissidents.
For President Donald Trump, Iran is a unique menace. He has abandoned Barack Obama’s nuclear deal in favour of tight sanctions. His officials will try to forge an anti-Iran alliance at a conference in Poland on February 13th-14th. In seeking “maximum pressure”, America may hope to stir another uprising to reverse the one of 1979. But it will probably make things worse.
The mullahs have a woeful record. Their theocracy helped turn Islam into a tool of radical, and often violent, politics. But Iran’s was not the Middle East’s only convulsion in 1979. The siege of the grand mosque in Mecca stung Saudi Arabia into promoting its rival Sunni brand of ultra-puritanism at home and abroad. Together with America, the Saudis helped weaponise Sunnism by supporting mujahideen fighters against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Arabs who volunteered to fight with them became the godfathers of jihadism. America, pledging to protect Gulf oil against outsiders, was drawn deep into the region’s conflicts.