When a group of armed men attacked Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, the country was struck with the realisation that it was no longer safe from terror attacks that have disturbed most other countries of the region. Despite being involved in the conflict in Syria, Iran is the only country that had been largely insulated from terror attacks for over a decade. With ISIS claiming responsibility of the assault on Wednesday that killed 12 and wounded 42 others, the Islamic Republic, was made aware of its vulnerability.
Iran’s position in world politics has largely been shaped by the fact that it is the country where political Islam asserted itself for the first time. As noted by historian H.E Chehabi, “Although Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and the Jamat-i-Islami in South Asia predate Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement by a few decades, it was in Iran that political Islam first succeeded in overthrowing the existing order and establishing an Islamic State.” For a country where religion and politics have fused with each other in a rather unique fashion, a sudden terror onslaught, claimed by the ISIS, can best be understood by placing it in context with the long history of religio-political disturbances in the country and the impact they had on the larger global order.
From Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to post-Ayatollah Khomeini
Formerly known as Persia, the West Asian region was at various moments attacked by the Turks, the Mongols and the Arabs. It was in the early 20th century however, that Iran caught the fascination of the Western powers, particularly the United States, largely due to the discovery of oil reserves in its territory. As a result of the newfound economic interests, the latter half of the 20th century saw Iran’s politics being shaped to a large extent by America.
In 1953 America along with the British ousted the then Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq and brought to power Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was known for his pro-Western ideologies. In the ensuing decades, owing to the large amount of Western support, Iran derived a host of economic and military benefits rose to become one the strongest military powers in the region.
However, it was not long before the weaknesses of the Shah’s regime became evident to the Iranians. For many, Pahlavi came to represent Western interests at the cost of national ones. Further, his style of governance had managed to alienate those who were considered as pious Muslims. On the other hand, even those who were supportive of the Western inclination were deeply saddened by the corruption in his reign. When the Shah attempted to liberalise his regime in 1977, all kinds of disappointments came to the surface in the form of a broad oppositional movement. Millions came out onto the streets in opposition to the Shah’s reign in the autumn of 1978 and the aggressive protests resulted in the Shah leaving the country in 1979.
The exile of the Shah left a wide political gap in the country and there was barely any consensus over what should fill it. Apart from antipathy towards the Shah, there was hardly anything that held together all the protesting groups. It was Ayatollah Khomeini who managed to rise above the dissenting groups by virtue of his charismatic personality.
Under Khomeini, the political structure of Iran was given a largely Islamic superstructure to hold it together. Since the early 1980s Islam had completely taken over the public life of Iran, with women being forced to cover their hair and bodies, alcohol and pork banned and public spaces being segregated according to sex.
In the meanwhile another political upheaval took place when the deposed Shah was admitted into the United States. Islamic students in Iran held an agitation demanding the trial of the Shah inside the country. The protesting students took hostage more than 50 people at the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 for about 444 days. The hostage taking incident resulted in the bittering of relations between the West Asian country and America, and the tension remained in place till the time Ronald Reagan took over the presidential role of the States.
It was during the same time that the country got into a vehement conflict with the neighbouring country, Iraq over the border in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway area.The war that lasted for the next 8 years went a long way in not just eroding both the countries of its economic resources, but also played a huge role in defining relations among the countries of the region.
The Iran-Iraq war, the death of Khomeini in 1989 and the accession to the presidency of Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, went a long way in eliminating radicalists from having a complete hold over Iran. For Rafsanjani, the economic makeover of the country, post the war was the topmost priority. However, despite the continued efforts by succeeding presidents to modernise Iran’s economy in the following decades, radical groups have consistently played a role in thwarting such efforts.
he religious revolution in Iran and the war with Iraq went a long way in isolating the country from majority of the Gulf countries, who came together in unison to avoid a spillover over Islamic revolutionary tendencies into their own countries. While for a long time, the political processes of the Gulf nations were decided by Shia doctrinal practices, the revolution in Iran came as a shock to most other countries who saw in Shiism the potency to shake the political structure in their countries. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, comprising of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, was a direct result of the Shia revolutionary trends in Iran. At the same time however, a major impact of avoiding radical Shia elements was that it created a ground ripe enough for radical Sunni trends to develop, something that has been causing distress to the region for a while now.
The terror attack on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Khomeini comes just a couple of days after Saudi Arabia along with UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait decided to cut off ties with Qatar on grounds of the latter’s alleged support to radical Islamic terrorism and that the country was warming up to Iran. While the attack has been claimed by ISIS, many in Iran have connected it to Saudi Arabia who they accuse of sponsoring radical Sunni based terrorism. There are others who have also pointed their fingers at another radical Islamic group called the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which is an Iranian left wing terrorist organisation that has been in operation since the revolutionary days in the Republic and has been actively advocating the violent overthrow of the government of Iran.