As happens every year this time too on February 11 the streets of Iranian towns were filled with people celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah regime. This year being the 40th anniversary was something special and the President, Hassan Rouhani, chose the occasion to mention that the Unites States’ sanctions would not break the Islamic republic and their attempts to isolate the country would never succeed. Amid rain and snow that covered parts of Teheran, demonstrators marched through major streets carrying anti-US and Saudi banners and signs. They also chanted, ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to the al-Saud’ family of Saudi Arabia.
‘The presence of the people on the streets all over Islamic Iran means that the enemy will never reach its evil objectives,’ Rouhani declared and affirmed that they were resolved to continue with their missile development programme. ‘We have not asked, and will never ask for permission in developing our missile arsenal as we continue to pursue our path to military might.’ He said. ‘This nation has managed to establish a system of Islamic Republic and an independent system of government,’ he continued, as he stressed that the country has also managed to ‘foil the conspiracies’ led by the US and Israel.
The event, known as the Ten Day Dawn, was to commemorate the violent protests in February 11, 1979, that marked the arrival of Ayatullah Khomeini which replaced Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government, as also of the 2,500 years of the great Persian Empire.
Security has been tightened this time because the previous year, gunmen dressed in fatigues had opened fire at a military march in Ahvaz marking the 30th anniversary of the end of the Iran-Iraq war that killed at least 29 people and wounded scores of others.
Four decades after the revolution, Iran is divided between hardliners and the reformists who are for opening up of the economy and economic transparency. They are also yearning for more freedom, especially for the younger generation. Evidence of this is the high rise buildings that are decorated with murals of the eight-year war with Iraq.
One consequence of the revolution has been the war that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, mounted on Iran that was to last eight years and devastate both countries. The ostensible reason for the attack was a territorial dispute over Shatt-al-Arab waterway that forms the border between the two countries, but it was the threat that the Islamic revolution posed to the region. That war of attrition cost one million lives and neither could Saddam nor Khomeini emerge winner. And their ‘war of tankers’ had international repercussions affecting the oil trade worldwide. Ten years later, in 1989, came the famous fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses.
The four decades since the revolution had been quite traumatic for the Islamic world, and its effects were felt elsewhere as well. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was as ill advised and after ten years they had to withdraw. It was the Soviet Union’s Vietnam war moment and had its consequences. The next year the Berlin Wall came down and with it seven decades of the Soviet experiment came crashing.
The Afghan war spawned the Mujahedeen in Pakistan, with the generous help of the Americans, and when the Russians retreated, these warriors had to find another battle field, and that was the genesis of the Kashmir crisis of 1991 that led to the exodus of the Pandits from the valley.
Meantime young Iranians, like the young everywhere, tired of the revolution, were seeking something more, a normal life and all that modernity could provide. Nearly one-third of Iranians had left their country, mostly young people, and the elite and the professionals. This brain drain was to have a devastating effect on the country’s economy. Meanwhile the youngsters who stayed back in the country were also yearning for something else. And thus it was that they began to look beyond their Islamic past and wanted to pay homage at the remains of Persepolis, the ancient city, which the dispensation considers as blasphemy. They also began to explore the early religions that originated in their country like the Bahaai and Parsi faiths and the possibility of exploring these pre-Islamic faiths.
A gifted, artistic people with a deep culture of story-telling and miniature painting they also began slowly to explore other avenues for giving expression to their creativity as well as their anguish. Though technically illegal, pop songs smuggled from Los Angeles, were adapted to craft Persian pop and these were played at little cafes by professional like accountants and doctors. Directors began making amazing movies with real time persons and real time situations and these were of an extraordinary calibre. Thus these young people lived in two worlds, switching easily from one to the other.
Simultaneously there has also been a move to bring back the Shah’s son and heir, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who had set up an opposition party, the National Council in exile. The yearning for the return of the dynastic rule and nostalgia for the past also seems to be a universal phenomenon.
Meanwhile discontent has been simmering within the country. The green revolution of 2009 when the people rose in revolt against the fraudulent election was one. This was suppressed with great vehemence. It was under these circumstances that in 2017, President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected in a vote seen as a litmus test for his major accomplishment – the landmark nuclear deal signed with world powers in 2015 and the subsequent lifting of tough economic sanctions that had long strangled Iran’s economy.
Last year, the US unilaterally abandoned the United Nations-backed multilateral nuclear pact, and re-imposed sanctions and adopted a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ towards Iran. This great power meddling in the region tended to destabilise the entire Islamic world with consequences that even the US cannot foresee or escape from, as happened during 9/11. That was a when they woke up to realise the demons they had reared and unleashed on the Islamic world. The US is not the only culprit the Soviet Union had also joined in this race and met with its nemesis in Afghanistan. The US that had encouraged and nurtured Sadam Hussein found that he was becoming unreliable and launched a campaign to ferret out the weapons of mass destruction that he was assembling. The end of Saddam, as also of Qaddafi of Libya earlier, even more destabilised the region. They might have been dictators but they didn’t destabilise the region and gave birth to the Islamist fervour without any clear focus or objective. The tulip and other revolutions and the Tahir Square also did not add up to much.
India which had much historic ties and bonds with Iran did not respond adequately with these developments. Except for the brief Narasimha Rao tenure when we focused on the ties with Iran and Far East, instead of the obsession with Pakistan the South Block mandarins were mostly Eurocentric in their approach. This is why the present government’s not responding to the anniversary of the four decades of the Iranian revolution did not come as a surprise. Neither did our historians or intellectuals take the pains to emphasise the age-old ties with Iran that goes back further than the Colonial ties.
That is also why it is necessary to go beyond the Chahabar port and the economic and development relations to establish the centuries-old ties with Iran. But that needs an approach that is beyond the immediate concerns and power equations.
Like the young and the thinking sections of Iran, people everywhere must also be tired of the conquests and power rivalry, and must be yearning for something more enduring like cultural ties and exchange of scholars and artists. If we consider how much India had benefitted by the Iranian interface of music, and cuisine and architecture and Sufi traditions, we would be making some slight course corrections to establish new and more lingering ties and linkages.
(The ideas expressed in the article are those of the author.)