Members of the Sandinista Army capture U.S. pilot Eugene Hassenfus after he was shot down during a mission over southeast Nicaragua in October 1986. The Iran-Contra affairs in Nicaragua during the 1980's was one of the more famous international political battlefields waged by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan during his presidency in the 1980s.

In the Islamic world the summer of 1988 evoked memories of another summer, 21 years before. In the summer of 1967 the hero-leader of Pan-Arabism and nationalizer of the Suez Canal, Gamal Abdel Nasser, acknowledging the force of facts, told his faithful that their dream of power, autonomy and radical nationalism had ended in bitter disappointment and defeat. He had stirred a storm; now he had to call it off. He had promised a bright new world, but the Arab defeat in the Six Day War showed up the inadequacy of so much of his labor.

In the summer of 1988 it was the turn of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: the believers of the Iranian Revolution were told that the war against Iraq, which the "armed imam" had vowed to prosecute to victory, would have to be written off. He would drink the "poisoned chalice" of accepting the peace. He was "ashamed," he said, before his nation and its sacrifices.

During the preceding decade, in his years of triumph, Khomeini had been a stern and remote figure to his people; he had righteously called for their obedience and submission. With his revolution on the ropes, he spoke to his "revolutionary children" in a different voice. It was hard for them, he knew, to accept what had come to pass. "But then," he asked rhetorically, "is it not hard for your old father?"

Obituaries of revolutions are hazardous affairs. The risks were pointed out long ago by Victor Hugo; after such a whirlwind, the great novelist told us, a "nation asks for nothing but repose. . . . In other words, it longs for tranquility. We have had enough of great happenings, great risks, great adventures, and more than enough, God save us, of great men. Now we are exhausted and each man seeks his bed." But something else goes along with this fatigue: "Certain facts emerge and call for notice by hammering on the door, facts born of revolution and war, newfound facts which demand guarantees. . . . Guarantees are to facts what rest is to men."

It is idle then to write of the "end" of a great revolutionary upheaval or to assign specific dates to that end. Even when "unfinished, bastardized and doctored" (the words are again Hugo’s), revolutions "nearly always retain sufficient sanity not to come wholly to grief. A revolution is never an abdication." By their very nature revolutions are brief affairs; then the world reconstitutes itself. What emerges is not quite the old world before the storm, but a hybrid, a jumble of old and new realities spawned by the revolutionary situation.

A transformed Iran has emerged after the appropriation of political power by the theocrats and their flock—the newly urbanized, the disoriented, the half-educated. Judging by its record over a decade, it is a revolutionary state with cunning to match its ferocity, a state capable of organizing great campaigns and retreats and adjusting to things that can and cannot be. And in the behavior of its custodians can be discerned both the zeal and audacity of revolutionary politics and the wily resourcefulness for which Iranian society has long been known. After a decade of exhortations and passionate proselytism, and a war they could not conclude on their own terms, the governors of that state must fully understand that their Pan-Islamic revolution did not catch hold.

Islam’s civil war, between the Iranian Revolution and its adherents in the Arab world on one side and the dominant status quo in the Arab states on the other, has issued in a standoff. The revolution frightened its enemies. Heady and seemingly triumphant a few years ago, the revolution worked with some deadly material: the wrath of the underclass in the neighboring Arab states; the sectarian split between the Sunni ruling classes in Iraq, and in the other states of the Gulf, and large Shia communities there and in Lebanon which had been left politically unincorporated and unclaimed; and the explosive question of the foreigner’s (read "the American") presence in the region, the attachment to the foreigner’s ways, the dependence on the foreigner’s power.

The revolution embarrassed and bloodied the status quo by appealing to the nativism and "authenticity" of traditionalists bent upon retaining their ways. But the revolution could not win; the armies of the modern-day Mahdi could not prevail. The Iraqi state—a patchwork of Sunni Arabs ruling over a large Shia majority and a minority of Kurds alienated from the political life of the country—withstood the buffeting of war. And the conservative states of the Gulf dug in and waited out the revolution’s moment of enthusiasm.

The revolution claimed a universal message, a broad Islamic mandate; its rivals depicted its unbounded claims as a cloak for Iranian hegemony, a bid for the mantle of the Prophet by a minoritarian Shia sect at odds with the ways of orthodox Islam. The revolutionary state promised utopia—a revenge against the mighty and the pampered, a social order more pure and authentic. But to the numb and the jaded and those sitting on the fence, the conservative rivals of the revolution offered the safety of routine, the comfort of what men knew and lived with.

Now both the status quo and the reconstituted revolutionary state return to the more "normal" ways of statecraft. The Iranian state retains some formidable assets, but the euphoria and exaltation are clearly a thing of the past, a product of an extraordinary decade in the region’s history.


Perhaps the shrewdest among the guardians and tribunes of the Iranian Revolution knew it all along—that "sister republics," to borrow the language of the French Revolution, or "potential capitals of our revolution" in Ayatollah Khomeini’s words, would be elusive. Even the Jacobins in their time knew that foreign revolutionaries were fickle friends, that foreign adventures were expensive endeavors, and that the world outside the borders of the revolutionary republic was a stubborn place. But the French Revolution had its wars nonetheless, and so did the Iranian. In both, the revolutionaries mixed passion with cunning politics; they declared the irrelevance of frontiers as they sought to divide their rivals and channel the unbridled enthusiasm of their true believers.

Some in the Iranian leadership were cautious, believing that what mattered most was Iran’s own course and welfare. They did not prevail. "We think of ourselves as primarily responsible and bound defenders of Iran, which is our place of birth," Khomeini’s first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, wrote to him in a celebrated "open letter" in 1986. "Our concern with the world outside our home and homeland and nation is clearly secondary." But this was the voice of the "loyal opposition"; Bazargan had been forced out of power less than a year after the revolution’s triumph. A different impulse prevailed in the conduct of Iran’s affairs.

In part it was the spirit of proselytism that seizes all revolutions—the hubris, the conviction that oppressed people everywhere should partake of revolutionary happiness. In part, the proselytism emerged out of Iran’s sense of excellence and superiority vis-á-vis its neighbors. Under the shah, that Iranian sense of excellence and racial pride had expressed itself in snobbery and hauteur. In Khomeini’s crusade, Iran’s sense of supremacy donned a religious guise. In its virtue and rectitude, and in the magnificent isolation of its embattled position, Iran evoked—and Khomeini has insisted on this—the solitude of the Prophet Muhammad’s mission. Then, too, the war that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched in September 1980 dictated the engagement of disciples—Lebanese, Iraqis, Kuwaitis and others—who would do Iran’s bidding, who would assist Iran in frightening the Arab world’s status quo.

The initial spectacle of the revolution was not without drama and appeal for Arab onlookers. There were wrongs to be righted and there was the vicarious satisfaction of seeing power and pretension get their comeuppance. But the revolution did not catch on in the conservative states of the Gulf—though these were the lands the Iranians targeted, and these were the lands that the pundits claimed were likely to fall. The forces that had brought about the Iranian Revolution had no equivalent in the less-developed states of the Gulf. There was a greater "fit" between the ruling dynasties of the Gulf and their citizen-populations than there could be in a vast realm like Iran.

The basic themes of the 1978-79 revolution and the patterns of the religious-radical alliance, the partnership of mosque and bazaar, were particular to Iran, a society known both for its long periods of submission to despotism and its recurrent rebellions. These large themes found no echo in the Arab realms nearby. The states of the Gulf were too small, their politics confined to the competition of clan, family and faction. Temperamentally, Iran has been a land susceptible to the power of ideas, to political and philosophical abstraction, to the pamphleteer. It has been called a "hotbed of philosophical systems." The Arab culture nearby, that of the Gulf states, has in contrast always been thoroughly empirical, bearing the imprint of the desert, where men, if they are to survive, must be able to discern between a mirage and the real thing.

The conservative Arab states of the Gulf had known no struggle between the religious class and the regime. Where the shah had sought to decimate the mullahs, the Saudi state, for instance, co-opted them, left them niches in the social order where they were supreme: religious ritual and observance, education, the judiciary. The Saudi realm has rested on a partnership: there has never been any doubt as to the unquestioned monopoly of the dynasty in matters of "high policy," such as defense, oil, finance, foreign affairs. But the religious functionaries have always had their prerogatives—and their compensation. They have been allowed access to the airwaves and to the printed media.

To be sure, religious protest—millenarian, speaking the language of fire and redemption—was heard in the Saudi kingdom in November 1979 when a band of rebels seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. But the zealots were soon subdued by the armed force of the state, and the official religious class soundly condemned the rebellious band, finding the rebels wanting in adherence to fine points of scripture and tradition.

Because the Iranian Revolution raised the complex question of the foreigner’s presence in the life of the region, the "American connection" to the Saudis was loosened a bit. The Saudi state drew closer to Syria. It declared its total opposition to the Camp David accords; it distanced itself from Anwar al-Sadat and his public embrace of America and the American presence; it refused to partake of Alexander Haig’s "strategic consensus" scheme, whereby the Reagan Administration proposed a sad replica of the defense pacts of the 1950s. And when the "green light" given by the Administration for Israel’s Lebanon war of 1982 became a source of trouble, the Saudis grew even more discreet in their relation to America, and more distant.

The Saudis and the small dynastic states of the Gulf drew the right lessons from the fall of the shah. They avoided the chaos that beset Iran in the 1970s, trimmed down their pretensions, sought ideological cover.

The material for social revolution was missing in the Gulf states: the Khomeini revolution had to settle for something quite different and even parochial, a sectarian appeal to the Shia Muslims of the Gulf. These were the potential disciples. The symbols of Shi‘ism and the Iranian Revolution—the righteous opposition to power, the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet—were their sacred symbols. There were stirrings in 1979-80 among the Shia of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. In the latter country there was an Iranian-inspired scheme to capture power in 1981—for Bahrain, rather like Iraq, has a Shia majority with no political entitlement or power. But soon, by 1982, the hopes for Shia revolt peaked in the Gulf and were replaced, in what one scholar aptly described as a "passage to terror," by attacks on the French and American embassies in Kuwait in December 1983, an attempt on the Kuwaiti ruler’s life in 1985, and other deeds of sabotage and subversion. Terror, however, is merely a nuisance, not a revolution. And the terror fed a backlash; the Sunni found their own "fundamentalism," stressing the pristine and austere message of orthodox Islam as they saw it. And for them Iran’s ways and Iran’s Islam were beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Arab society turned the new revolution into something very old and familiar, something it knew how to handle: the feud of the sect and the clan.

Iran also had schemes for Iraq: were the Iraqi regime to stumble Iran’s leaders no doubt intended to put together a Shia republic in Iran’s image. But these hopes must have been tempered by sober calculations. Iranian religious leaders knew Iraq’s shrine cities and Iraq’s social situation. They knew the deep-seated pessimism and quiescence of the Shia of Iraq. Khomeini himself, after more than a decade of exile in Iraq, must have fully understood Iraqi politics. The Iranian revolutionaries had sponsored Iraqi Shia dissidents. But these dissidents could not overturn what historian Bernard Lewis had described as the "Sunni ascendancy" in Iraq.

From its beginnings as a modern state in the 1920s—under the monarchy until 1958, and then under the Baathist regime—Iraq has been ruled by a virtual Sunni monopoly disguised by a thin veneer of Pan-Arabism. This had continued the tradition of Sunni dominion which prevailed during the four centuries of the Ottoman Empire, the dominion of urban Sunni notables over the Shia tribes of the Euphrates and the tribes of Kurdistan. British power, which had put the modern state of Iraq together in the aftermath of World War I, had shored up Sunni hegemony by relying on the power of urban notables and ex-Ottoman officers and bureaucrats. Saddam Hussein and his generation maintained the same tradition of Sunni rule and Shia acquiescence.

The Shia clerical estate was too weak to mount a challenge to the Iraqi state. The Shia of Iraq had a beloved leader of their own, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a brilliant jurist and pamphleteer, the "Khomeini of Iraq." But he (along with his sister) was put to death by Saddam Hussein shortly before the Iraqi ruler launched his war against Iran. The war put the Shia of Iraq in an impossible situation. During the war, dissent against Saddam Hussein became tantamount to treason and the terror within the Iraqi polity reigned supreme.

It was only at some remove from Iran that the Iranian Revolution found ready adherents and enthusiasts, in the ruined slums of Beirut, the Lebanese lands to the south and the plains of the Bekaa Valley. To these places came a parody of the Iranian Revolution—armed mullahs, pamphleteers, religious processions, "Party of God" cadres, the entire trappings of Khomeini’s revolution. There, in the ruined city by the Mediterranean, Iran became a party to the affairs of the Arab world. The activity in Beirut’s southern slums and hinterland provided Iran with evidence that its revolution was on the march and, more important, with an opportunity for Western hostages to be held and traded on Iran’s behalf while Iran’s official innocence was maintained.

In Lebanon Iran found a real opportunity: the grievances of the Shia who had been the dregs of the country but had awakened to a sense of their own power; the absence of any state authority that could check Iran’s influence, and something of an Iranian alliance with Syria, which gave the revolution access to Lebanon. And Iran had going for it the age-old ways of Lebanon’s warring sects: their search for foreign patrons in pursuit of their own sectarian aims.

But the "sister republic" in Shia Lebanon proved an expensive endeavor that had to be subsidized with scarce treasure. At the height of its entanglement in Lebanon’s politics the Iranian revolutionary regime was paying its wards an estimated annual subsidy of $100 million. Everything in Lebanon’s politics always led to, and merged with, commerce. Iran began to pull back in Lebanon. The subsidy paid the Party of God lieutenants and cadres has now been reduced to a bare minimum. The Party of God is "going Lebanese, going local," as one astute observer put it. Utopia came to the shores of the Mediterranean from the east and then vanished, as it was bound to. There can be no "Islamic Republic" in the ruins of Lebanon.

An old game is played in Lebanon today, the only one that place knows: the sectarian game. And the Syrians who only yesterday, in 1983-84, were on the side of Iran in a campaign to drive America out of Lebanon have cast their lot, at least for the moment, with the Americans. Their hope is that a Syrian-American entente will bring a measure of peace to the country and shore up the Syrian position there, making it less exposed and costly. Under the terms of this Syrian-American understanding it is the American mission to deliver the Maronite Christians, to reconcile them to Syrian primacy in Lebanon. None of this has much to do with the politics of virtue and zeal.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the Iranian revolutionaries overestimated the centrality of their realm to the wider world of Islam. There was a time, in the high Middle Ages, when Persian civilization and language served as the elite culture of the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. But in the modern world this is no longer the case. For all the sound and fury of a revolution that asserted its relevance to others, its right to guide them, Iran remains a solitary society with a strong and unique national and cultural tradition. Shi‘ism, which the Iranian state adopted in the sixteenth century, is one factor in this isolation, and the country’s unique cultural traditions have compounded this sense of separateness.

The Iranian revolutionaries did not really know the Arab society they sought to change. After a long fight with the shah they had had their revolt; they came to show the path to redemption and deliverance. But in the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt men had already experienced their moments of elation, their outbursts which passed for revolutions—the politics of the Baath and Nasserism—and they had seen these detours end in defeat or futility or sterile dictatorship. It was a cynical, weary region that the Iranians set out to transform.

In the early 1980s the belief spread that key Muslim and Arab states would fall to a fundamentalist upheaval. The panic was exaggerated. True enough, Islamic protest erupted in several Muslim societies and settings—Egypt, Syria, among the Shia of Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf, in semi-Westernized Tunisia, even farther afield in Indonesia and Malaysia. That protest conveyed the distress of critical segments of these societies; the young, the newly urbanized, those left out of the economic boom of an era of oil wealth, educated young men and women who took the scripture seriously. Wherever that protest appeared observers tended to see an Iran in the making. But the non-Iranian states withstood the assault of their zealous challengers and the "demonstration effect" of the Iranian Revolution.

In some countries (Saudi Arabia and the smaller states of the Gulf) the ruling classes commanded wealth which they used to conciliate the frustrated. In others (Syria, Iraq) the regimes resorted to outright cruelty to turn aside the challenge—from Sunni fundamentalist groups in Syria, from Shia groups in Iraq. In Egypt the state rode out the storm: its captain, Sadat, fell before a young band of Muslim believers, but the "pharaonic state" and its pillar, the armed forces, survived and put a more cautious successor at the helm. In Lebanon, where the protest was sectarian, Islamic protest meant the rise of the local Shia out of fear and acquiescence. But in Lebanon there was no state to conquer, and the movement only resulted in another of Lebanon’s tribes asserting its claim to a share of the ruined country.


The Pan-Islamic millennium did not materialize. The onset of the promised golden age was tied to the fortunes of the Iranian state and its success on the battlefield. Had Khomeini’s armies succeeded in overrunning Iraq, the Iranians would have altered the political balance in the region around them. But success proved elusive.

Khomeini, that presumably most Shia of men, had stripped Iranian Shi‘ism of its quietism and suspicion of political power. He had founded a state, Vilayat-e Faqih, "the State of the Jurist." But in due time believers elsewhere, beholding the Iranian model, were chastened. The regime’s terror against dissidents tarnished the image of the revolution among its more "liberal" enthusiasts. The excessive puritanism of the revolution and the repressiveness of its social code concerning relations between men and women, cultural expression and individual freedom deepened the disillusionment.

Muslim "modernists" had had a fantasy: Islam would do the hard work—overthrow stubborn regimes, combat the power of the foreigner—then religion and its representatives and claimants would step aside and leave those who really knew the world to rule. The Khomeini regime, the state that he built, shattered that illusion. The millennium has been brought down to earth, but there is no Pan-Islamic order—it is the Iranian state that the revolutionaries command. In early 1988 Khomeini issued a remarkable ruling: "Our government," he pronounced, "has priority over all other Islamic tenets, even over prayer, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca." Politics is clearly in command in Iran, and it is a formidable state that the revolutionaries have put together.

The irony has been noted by students of revolution: revolutionaries set out to destroy states, then capture them and build more formidable governments on the ruins of the ancien régime. For all the swagger and arrogance of the shah, his turbaned successor has been presiding over a far sturdier state. The theocratic republic has closed the paralyzing gap between state and society that previously had been the hallmark of Persian political life. It took precious little effort in 1953 to overthrow the government of Mohammad Mosaddeq; can anyone conceive of what it would take to overthrow this populist theocracy? We have a good measure of the growth of the new Iranian state, of the widening of the base of its power: the number of Iranians on the public payroll has gone from 1.2 million employees before the revolution to a little over two million at the present time. Larger numbers of Iranians have been drawn into the political life of the country and the populist state has assumed responsibility for them.

There is no need for guesswork about "radicals" and "moderates" in the ranks of the Iranian political class and the clerical estate. The country’s protean leadership makes a mockery of these false categories. What is easier to examine is the overall basis of the state and its political economy.

The leaders of the revolution originally talked of establishing an "Islamic economy." Treatises were written detailing what an Islamic economy would and would not be—after all, this was a textual crowd that believed in the word and the doctrine. Revolutionary theoreticians announced that an Islamic economy would be neither capitalist nor communist. But this was verbiage—the Iranian state has not pioneered a way out of the dilemma of developing states; it remains caught between populist pressures from below and powerful interests in the private sector. So far the oracle of the revolution has remained an arbiter of last resort, a broker between those in the political class urging a command economy, a populist state and a welfare economy, and those who have known only one type of society—an unregulated economy where wealth has its way.

Khomeini’s rulings have been reflective of the ambiguity of the revolution itself on matters of equity. Native capitalists and the urban poor were both active in the revolution, and the revolutionary state has sought to conciliate both these groups. It is this schizophrenia, if you will, that explains some of Khomeini’s rulings: in January 1988 he sided with the planners on matters of labor laws and employer-employee relations; then in August he threw his weight the other way by advocating giving a greater role in foreign trade for the private sector. Iran’s governmental bureaucracy, as well as a clique within the leadership that has come to see itself as an expression and trustee of the underclass, have clashed and will continue to clash with the ancient traditions of a trading nation, a society where private property has strong cultural and religious foundations.

The talk of a "second revolution"—an anticapitalist economic revolution—among a portion of the clerical elite and the state bureaucracy is symptomatic of a certain political and ideological stalemate. For that kind of stalemate, "Islam" provides no answer; it speaks both ways. It is conceivable, the orientalist Maxime Rodinson once observed, that Islam could "give religious blessings to a society without privilege, if such a society is possible." But the same Islamic principles, he warned, "have up to now most often served to justify societies based upon privilege." There is scripture—and mullahs quoting scripture—supporting both sides in this ideological debate. The argument of economic conservatives that a graduated income tax is at odds with the teachings of Islam gives a sense of the difficulty of putting a command economy, and a thoroughly radical state, in place. The current Iranian Majlis, the parliament (elected in the spring of 1988), is tilted toward those favoring greater state intervention in the economy and more radical egalitarian measures. But the powerful Council of Guardians, charged with confirming an Islamic base for the laws of the land, has generally been on the opposite side of the ideological divide.

As matters stand there is a two-tier economy that muddles through—with subsidies for the poor and laissez-faire for the privileged. (Egypt and many other Third World states also have economies of this kind.) And the command economy favored by economic radicals will be harder to defend in light of an important change that has taken place in the sources of governmental revenues. The state has become more dependent on taxes for its revenues as its oil royalties have declined. This is no longer a "rentier state" living principally off foreign rents and oil income, nor an imperious treasury that can dispose of economic matters without considering the interests of taxpayers.

The proponents of an Islamic economy may insist on the primacy of the public sector, but the outcome of such systems is by now familiar: the public sector will be "raided" by skillful private entrepreneurs who feed off state enterprises, and it will be circumvented by black marketeers who fill the shortages left by the official economy. The revolutionaries have added a welfare burden to the Iranian state; this they will defend, and this explains the rise since the revolution of consumption as a percentage of national expenditures. But there is no "bolshevik" system at work in Iran.


More interesting still, the foreign links of the revolution’s political economy belie the image of a Spartan republic combating the "devourers of the world." As shown by a careful assessment of the Iranian economy by analyst Sohbrab Behdad, the revolution’s boasts of self-sufficiency have been misleading. The import dependence of the Iranian economy has not been reduced in the post-revolutionary period. The access of Americans to the Iranian market was severely curtailed, but the slack was picked up by West Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey and others.

Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, this has not been a revolution that has had to fight for its life against a foreign blockade. And already the revolutionaries have begun to prepare the ground for a more visible Western presence. "We must make use of the knowledge and expertise and resources of the foreigner," Iranian President Sayed Ali Khamenei declared in a recent sermon. "The enemy foreigner will break his ankle if he wants to come here. But the one who is a friend, the one we choose to be the right foreigner, well, let him come and work here." Even the "radical" prime minister, Hossein Musavi-Khamenei, a man counted among those who support a centrally planned economy, plows the same ground. There could be foreign expertise and foreign help, he has stated, as long as that expertise is in "production-oriented schemes." He has even conceded there could be foreign loans, providing they are "tied to specific projects."

There would be real political consequences to foreign borrowing, and to greater entanglement in the international economy. As Behdad writes, "Foreign borrowing will necessitate a substantial toning down of the belligerent foreign policy position of [Iran] as well as some guarantee of progress toward a free market condition in the internal economy." There is no easy escape from the net. The marching orders given the cabinet by the Majlis draw a line on foreign debts. But in a time of reduced oil income, economic facts will have a power of their own. The Iranians have emerged solvent after a decade of war and revolution, but reconstruction will test their abstinence as it was not tested during the years of scarcity and war.

Iran’s trading partners, the industrial democracies, will play a major role in the reconstruction. But presumably Iran’s present leaders, learning from recent history, will do a better job monitoring this involvement than the ancien régime did. Last time around, in the mid-1970s, the floodgates were thrown wide open. Iran was swamped and had to be rescued by men claiming Islamic authenticity and national culture as their banner and rallying cry. One extreme—the infatuation of the ancien régime with people and things Western—led to another: the revolt of the underclass, the reaction of the traditionalists. There is no assurance that the political class now at the helm can find the middle ground between these two extremes. But so far they have shown enough flexibility and enough shrewdness to suggest that they may be able to pull it off.

The image of a Spartan republic the revolutionary class put before the world—the hard, stern face, the granite-like orthodoxy—is part real, part a pose. This will continue. The Friday sermons will continue to preach the need for vigilance, for virtue. The clerical magistrates will still be in evidence. No one is going to make the vast clerical estate feel shabby or unwanted in its realm; the clerical estate is large, powerful and rooted enough to maintain its position.

But the ways of men and women being what they are, detours and end runs around the prohibitions and pretensions of the reign of virtue will be found. Vigilante groups and enforcers of morality will continue to operate; the media will still instruct the faithful in the proper ways of righteousness. But recent travelers tell us that the vigilantes can be conned and avoided, that there is good locally made moonshine and plenty of cocaine available. The official media drone on about religion, but there are enough VCRs around to relieve the monotony.

A wide chasm has opened between what men and women profess and what they do. This is something Muslim society is good at; that is one reason for the high walls of its private homes. Religion can be routinized, stripped of its zeal. "Saints" launch revolutions; worldly men inherit them. Clerics will rule the Iranian polity—this was the verdict of the revolution, this was the outcome of a political process that stripped the civil culture of any sense of its own worth and efficacy. But with clerical rule came its nemesis and its shadow: long-standing traditions of Iranian anticlericalism. Laymen know that mullahs hoard and scheme, and this sobers the believers. Ascetic work, "martyrdom" and vigilance have their place in a people’s history, but they cannot provide a steady and unrelieved diet.

In his reinterpretation of the past, Ayatollah Khomeini made of Imam Hussein—the grandson of the Prophet whose lonely death in a seventh-century battle in southern Iraq is a centerpiece of Shia belief—a willing victim who rode to a sure death. In this manner, the hero-martyr of Shia history was turned into a prototype of the "suicide driver." It was after Karbala, the site of Hussein’s last stand, that the desperate offensives against Iraq were named. But Khomeini’s overly political and unyielding interpretation of this Shia legacy has been challenged by other Iranian jurists and lay philosophers. It has been pointed out to the stern ruler that Hussein did not ride to the plains of Karbala to court death: Karbala was not even Hussein’s destination. It was where he was trapped while on his way to a worldly city, the city of Kufa in Iraq, whose emissaries had asked him to come and lead their city in its political struggle against Damascus, another center of Muslim power. Hussein was a political man, who lost an uneven battle, not a willing martyr. Khomeini has cast aside the historical restraint of Shi‘ism, its subtlety. By doing so, he has put that tradition at great risk. His successors will have to rediscover the balance in Shi‘ism between the millenarian tendency and the shrewd realization that the world yields less than total perfection and vigilance.

They will be lesser men, the ayatollah’s successors; they will have reduced power to demand obedience and sacrifice from the people. The bond forged between an imam, a savior, and his followers is the product of a very special historical situation. Khomeini’s successors will not have this special claim to an imamate and the sanctity that comes with it.

Moreover, Iran has no tradition of an orderly succession to power. But Khomeini and his lieutenants have put in place a working, collective system of power. The death of the ayatollah, it is true, will remove from the scene the authority of the final arbiter, the man in whose name binding decisions are made and conflicts are resolved. But the structure will hold. The clerical estate surely understands the consequences to its members of an all-out struggle over the succession, and it will seek to avoid one. The political inheritance of the ayatollah may be divided after he passes from the scene along lines that have evolved over the last couple of years. The speaker of the Majlis, Hashemi Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, would be a preeminent political heir. The role of faqih, or jurist, could remain that of the designated successor, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. Thus might this most theocratic of regimes acknowledge a split of sorts between the political ways of the state and the religious realm where jurists pronounce on the permissible and the impermissible. The arrangement would clearly favor Rafsanjani; it would also acknowledge that Khomeini’s primacy was unique and that henceforth authority must rest in the institutions of the theocracy that he put in place.

We should not be fixated on individual players in looking at the issue of succession in this constitutional theocracy. In 1981 the militant opposition Mujaheddin-e Khalq (People’s Warriors) launched a campaign of assassination against the theocratic rulers. Before it was snuffed out, the campaign had claimed the lives of the secretary general of the ruling Islamic Republican Party, Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti (then Khomeini’s principal lieutenant), the president of the republic, the prime minister, several of the chief ideologues and operatives of the IRP, and scores of other key players in the theocratic state. But the system survived. The elaborate structure of Iran’s constitutional theocracy—comprising the Majlis, the Council of Guardians, its mix of ministries and revolutionary institutions, and its large cadres of clerics and bureaucrats—has seen the polity through terrible times. And it is this structure which will survive the demise of its dominant leader.


"Our guys . . . got taken to the cleaners." The words are those of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz summing up the dealings of the Iran-contra affair. No starry-eyed idealists, the custodians of power in the Islamic republic. They fought the "Great Satan" and dealt with it behind closed doors; they declared that the road to Jerusalem passed through Baghdad and obtained weapons from Israel; they proclaimed their adherence to the Pan-Islamic ideal and made common cause with a Syrian regime noted for its brutal opposition to Islamic movements; they resorted to terror against American and French targets, then called off the terror when weapons were provided them and outstanding debts repaid. Their republic was alternately the "redeemer nation" conducting a holy war against the wicked and, then, a very cool and traditional player of the game. The "infidels" were expelled; but later the "friendly foreigners" returned—the Canadians, the French, the British, many others. Even the Kuwaitis who invited a vast American armada to the waters of the Persian Gulf in 1987 are back in their embassy in Tehran.

The return of the Americans will, of course, be a more tangled matter. In an interview in September 1988 Prime Minister Musavi-Khamenei said that the restoration of Iranian-American relations is not in the cards, "not even in the next ten years." But there are grounds for skepticism about the prime minister’s prognosis. The clerical regime possesses the latitude to restore official ties with America. This could be done by Ayatollah Khomeini himself; the authority of the man who led so great a revolt against America and the West could easily sanction a revived relationship with a more "humble" America. It was Khomeini himself, it should be recalled, who gave his blessing to the traffic with America during the Iran-contra affair and who placed the matter, when it was exposed, beyond discussion. Or the return of the Americans—a modest return, nothing comparable to the power and visibility of the American presence under the shah—could take place, after a decent interval, under Khomeini’s successors. The imperial power onto which Iranians had grafted a web of neurotic attitudes—the attachment to a foreign redeemer, the fear of foreign devils who seduced and spoiled the realm—has been cut down to size. A regime sure of itself and its "authenticity" could present the return of the superpower from afar as an act of contrition on the part of that power.

What of the other superpower, the one nearby? While the tribunes of the Iranian Revolution have been passionate about American matters they have had relatively little to say about the Soviet Union. All along, the custodians of the revolution have given every indication that their society possessed the wherewithal to keep Russia at bay; what has worried them has been their vulnerability (cultural and ideological) to the superpower from afar. No special opening, though, has been provided the Soviet Union by the Iranian Revolution’s anti-American obsession. The Russians had entertained early hopes "for nourishing a pro-Soviet Iranian foreign policy," Professor Galia Golan observed in a recent essay in this journal. But these hopes came to naught. And by early 1982 the Soviets had cast their lot with the Iraqis.

For their part the Iranian theocrats exacted their revenge against the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party. Early in the revolution, the Tudeh had supplicated itself to the fundamentalists. It had joined them in their campaign against the liberal wing of the revolution and in the terror they unleashed against the fundamentalists’ major challengers, the Mujaheddin. But the Tudeh Party was not spared, and in 1983 it was banned.

The clerics were bent on monopolizing power, and the Soviets understood that the theocratic revolution had arrived to stay. That is why the Soviets kept their heads in dealings with Iran even as they armed the Iraqis. The small Iranian provocations—an attack by Revolutionary Guards against a Soviet freighter in May 1987, a mine explosion that damaged a Soviet vessel not long afterwards—were overlooked.

Buffs of the "Great Game" may still conjure up the image of Russia overrunning the Persian realms, setting up puppet republics, picking up the fragments of an Iran torn asunder by ethnic rivalries. But this specter is one of the past. Burned in its venture into Afghanistan, the Soviet Union is unlikely to tackle the republic of the theocrats. This is not what Mikhail Gorbachev has in mind for his regime. The Iranian Revolution has presented no particular threat to Soviet interests. There have been speculations that Iran’s ideological message could spread to Muslims in the Soviet Central Asian republics, but this, too, has been exaggerated. We have romanticized the matter of Islam in the Soviet Union; it has ceased to be a living force in the Soviet realms. The last decade has produced no Muslim stirrings in the Soviet republics. It is a manageable relation, then, that obtains between Iran and its northern neighbor. The guardians of the clerical state are faithful inheritors of a time-honored Persian tradition—the search for internal and external ways of maintaining the integrity of their realm against Russian designs, and Russian power.

In the Gulf, Iran’s immediate habitat, the return to patterns of the past may be easier than the ideological war of the last decade would lead us to expect. The rulers of the Gulf states fully understand that the weight of the Iranian state cannot be ignored. Political scientist R. K. Ramazani has made the right call on this issue: "The Iranian claim to primacy is nothing new to the rulers of the Gulf states. They lived with it during the shah’s days and they can live with it now." What was troubling to these states was Iran’s ideological crusade, the principle of revolutionary intervention. Without these revolutionary principles being forcefully spread, primacy of the more traditional sort is easy to cope with.

The conservative states of the Gulf were never of one mind about the Iranian Revolution to begin with. Even at the height of the war between Iran and Iraq, and the overall ideological struggle between Iran and the status quo states around it, there was a split of sorts among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Three of these countries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain—generally took a harder line against the Iranian Revolution; the three more southerly states of the Gulf—Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar—were more conciliatory toward the Iranian regime. Throughout the war, dhows from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, plied the waters of the Gulf, doing business with the Iranians as merchant vessels had done for centuries. And Iranians lucky enough to have access to foreign currency turned Dubai into a thriving entrepôt.

The Arab lands of the Gulf are no undifferentiated coalition of conservative states. The domestic structure of each of the Gulf states determined its response to the turmoil of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Kuwait, which committed vast resources in Iraq’s support and eventually threw caution to the wind and invited the Americans into the Gulf to reflag its vessels, was driven by its desire to keep Iraqi aggression directed away from itself, and by the depth of the sectarian antagonism between its Sunni and Shia citizens. Bahrain responded with similar zeal: with a decided Shia majority and a renewed Iranian claim to sovereignty over the island, what else was Bahrain expected to do? Saudi Arabia, in a league by itself, was committed to an ideological quarantine of the Iranian Revolution: between these two states lay a struggle over Islam itself, over such basic Islamic tenets as the pilgrimage to Mecca. For the Saudis the pilgrimage was a "pillar of the faith," a religious observance and a confirmation of their place in Islam as guardians of its holiest places. For the Iranian revolutionaries the pilgrimage, like so much of Islam, became thoroughly political. Inevitably, the Saudis were drawn into the Gulf war on Iraq’s side. But even then the Saudis hedged their bets, as they always do, and probed for an accommodation with Iran.

Shrewd men, the rulers of the Gulf knew the Iraqi state and the man at its helm. They knew that he would claim the conflict as his war when it was going his way, as it did for its first two years or so. And they were not surprised when Saddam Hussein presented the war as an "Arab war" after the tide turned in Iran’s favor. They were sure that, were the Iraqi state to emerge intact from the war, they would have a bully on their hands again. Saddam Hussein fought a war which the conservative states of the Gulf could not fight: but he was not of them and his regime was of an entirely different ilk than theirs. Kuwait paid Iraq what it had to pay to ward off troubles: but the chiefs of the Kuwaiti principality know their history and their Iraqi neighbor. Twice within the last three decades, Iraqis attacked Kuwait (in June 1961 and March 1973). Two of Kuwait’s islands, Warbah and Bubiyan, have been claimed by Iraq. The subsidy given Iraq’s war effort was part extortion, part conviction.

From the vantage point of the Gulf states, the war between Iran and Iraq was a war between a revolutionary state and a revisionist power. Now the Iranian Revolution has acknowledged its limits. But the revisionist power lucky enough to have escaped defeat—shored up along the way by Arab oil wealth, American intelligence, virtually unlimited access to French and Soviet weapons, and a publicity campaign presenting it to the world as a dike against the forces of darkness—is strutting around the Gulf. This gives Iran space to work with. In its very "Persian-ness," its linguistic and cultural difference from the Gulf Arab states, Iran is a reassuring counter to an Iraqi regime destined to fall back on the only ideological prop it knows: militant Arab nationalism.

The dynastic states of the Gulf dread that kind of ideology, and the extortion and hegemonism that come with it. Their hope is that the heavily indebted Iraqi state—owing $70 billion by most estimates—will maintain some of the moderation it discovered during those desperate years when it fought for its survival. And just to keep the Iraqis honest, the diplomatic and commercial bridges linking the Gulf states to Iran will be repaired. "We want to forget the past," said a Kuwaiti minister, in a commentary on the return of Kuwaiti diplomats to their embassy in Tehran, which was ransacked by rioters in 1987. That dreaded past was of course the revolutionary era. A return to the ways of a more distant past, when Gulf politics made sense and Arabs and Iranians bargained together, is what the players in Kuwait and the other dynastic states have in mind.


The Iranian Revolution was born of excess: the shah’s excess, the madness of an era of wealth and plunder, the undue pretensions of powerful Iranians assuming Western airs, and the great wrath of those watching their world become increasingly difficult to comprehend. The confusion threw up a messiah: Ayatollah Khomeini. His successors approach the stage as fatigue has set in both in Iran and in the states around it. The editors of The Economist are right in their judgment that "a revolutionary country that has just failed to win a revolutionary war is an unpredictable place." There must surely be plenty of kick left in the beast—accounts remain to be settled by a nation which was so recently engaged in a war, with its sacrifices, sermons and exhortations. But it is a cynical and weary state that Khomeini’s lieutenants will inherit.

On one occasion after his capture of power Ayatollah Khomeini observed that economics was no concern of his: his revolution, he said, was about Islam, not about the price of melons. But, ironically, a reawakening to mundane reality is where Iran’s impossible revolution ends. Such is the cold fate of all revolutions and utopias. But for Iran’s clerical rulers there is one consolation in this sobering descent: on the very borders of Iran, in the sprawling empire to the north, another revolution is even now discarding its own metaphysics and taking up the price of melons.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at The School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. His latest book, with photographer Eli Reed, is Beirut: City of Regrets.
  • More By Fouad Ajami