Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The year that haunts us

The year 1979, that ushered in the Iranian Revolution, continues to cast a dark shadow over the Middle East’s present and foreseeable future, writes Hussein Haridy

Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution last Friday, 1 February. Four decades ago, Ayatollah Khomeini had arrived in Tehran, coming from Paris, to lead the post-Shah Iran and establish a revolutionary theocratic regime, the first such system of political Islam in the 20th century. The irony was that the most conservative elements in Iran led the country on a revolutionary path that destabilised the Middle East ever since. Not only that, but it became an inspiration for generations of Arabs to follow suit, striving to take power in Arab capitals in order to establish regimes bent on following and imposing Islamic Sharia to the letter. The struggle has had its ups and downs in the last four decades, yet those political groups and parties that adhere to this archaic vision are still following in the footsteps of Khomeini.

No wonder that after one month of Khomeini’s return from exile, the first Iranian government of the “liberal” Mehdi Bazargan promised to “export” what it termed “Islamic Revolution” to Egypt. Two and a half years later, on 6 October 1981, a group of Islamist assassins shot dead late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was followed by another cataclysmic development in the Middle East, a development that, in retrospect, gave a huge boost to its appeal throughout not only the Middle East but also in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

On 26 March 1979, the leader of Egypt, the most populous Arab country that had carried the banner of preventing Israel from penetrating the Arab world since 1948 and had been in a state of war with Israel, signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state with the promise that self-rule would be granted to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and that after five years, the Palestinians would exercise their right for self-determination. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty ushered in a period of strategic instability in the Middle East for lack of any settlement of the Palestinian problem, or a withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab lands conquered in June 1967. This instability provided the revolutionary regime in Tehran with the Trojan horse that it badly needed to gain the minds and hearts of many Arabs and Muslims. The Palestinian question became the battle cry of the Iranians. And Israeli expansionism and aggressiveness in the Middle East in the wake of its first peace treaty with an Arab power did the rest in turning the Iran of the Ayatollahs into the undisputed champion of the Palestinian cause.

One other consequence of the treaty that Egypt signed with Israel, and no less destabilising than the absence of any significant breakthrough in carrying out UN Security Council Resolution 242 and other resolutions dealing with both the Palestinian question and the Arab-Israeli conflict, was the strategic entente between Syria and Iran. After the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt ceased to be the most important strategic ally of Syria. Damascus had no powerful ally to depend on to neutralise the Israelis save Iran. And the Syrian-Iranian entente became more and more solidly entrenched after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, an invasion that turned into an occupation that lasted 15 years. In the years of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, the Lebanese resistance movement was set up, aided, armed and financed by no other than Iran with direct help from the Syrians. This Lebanese national resistance movement became known as Hizbullah, the Party of God.

Another result of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was the severing of diplomatic relations between Egypt and all Arab countries save Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Oman. Not only this but the headquarters of the Arab League was transferred to Tunisia. It took eight years, from 1979 to 1987, to re-establish diplomatic relations between Cairo and Arab countries and another three years to bring the Arab League back to its original headquarters in the Egyptian capital.

Needless to say, the absence of Egyptian power and influence in the Middle East during those years of estrangement played into the hands of the Iranians. And they made the most of it to expand at the expense of Egypt’s role in the region. However, the Iraqi-Iranian War from 1980 to 1988 gave Cairo much-needed space to try to re-join the Arab fold. In fact, the Iranian threat and the role Egypt had played in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War proved to be one of the leading motives behind the Arab consensus in the Amman Arab Summit of 1987 for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Egypt.

If 1979 had begun with the Iranian Revolution, it ended with another strategic upheaval with devastating repercussions on the security and stability of Arab and Muslim countries, particularly leading nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Pakistan. On 27 December 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan and remained there till 1988. In between, the United States, under the Carter and Reagan administrations, turned Afghanistan into the Vietnam of the former Soviet Union. The foot soldiers who fought Soviet forces were not Americans nor from NATO, but Arab and Muslim youth, whom the CIA called “Al-Mujahedeen”. One of their leaders was Osama bin Laden. The “gentleman”, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of the Soviet Union, had come to the belief that if the rag-tag “armies” of “Al-Mujahedeen” succeeded in bringing down the Soviet empire, why on earth they could not target the United States with the aim of its “destruction”. Hence, 11 September.

The Arab “Mujahedeen”, known as the “Arab Afghans”, returned back to their home countries with the notion of launching a “jihad” against their governments, accused of not respecting Islamic Sharia. The struggle is still on, unfortunately while Israel is still occupying Arab territories and expanding its creeping annexation of the West Bank while imposing a siege around two million innocent and helpless Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The year 1979 still haunts us and it is doubtful that things will change for the better in the foreseeable future. Let us hope that they will not get worse.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister. 

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