The dominant powers in the Middle East today are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. How they achieved this status, and why they are so classified, is a complex story. But the classification is at least roughly correct. Israel and Saudi Arabia have become the powers that they are largely because of U.S backing, at least in regard to the military equipment with which they are supplied. The difference is that Israel is essentially simply given the equipment, on the tacit condition that it will act in accordance with Washington’s wishes. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest nation in the Middle East, which is a large part of the explanation for why it is so powerful. It is not exactly a client state of the U.S., as Israel is, but the Kingdom tends to refrain from angering the U.S.
The explanation for why Iran is a major power in the region is more complex. It is not particularly wealthy, though it does have ample oil reserves. Moreover, so far from being favoured by the U.S., Iran is constantly vilified by America, at least since the 1979 revolution. Iran has also been economically crippled by U.S.-imposed sanctions. It remains a formidable power largely because of its sheer size, along with its intransigence with respect to the desires of Israel and the West. This paper will briefly discuss how the Iranian Revolution, and certain related events, can help us to understand Iran and its place in the contemporary world.
While the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is unquestionably the most important single event in shaping Iran today, and indeed the place it occupies in the wider world, we have to go back to 1953 to understand why the revolution occurred, and what it really meant. In that year, the U.S. led a small coalition to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was by far the most popular leader Iran had ever had, and probably that it will ever have. His “crime” was planning to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves, which greatly upset the British at the time. The British appealed to the U.S., which orchestrated the coup. It likely meant that Iran would never again have a democracy. The overthrow of 1953 is crucial for understanding Iran, and the Iranian Revolution, for two reasons. First, was the beginning of the anti-American sentiment that would blossom in the region for many decades to come. Second, there was growing recognition of the fact that the ruler put into place by the U.S.—Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—was something of a puppet for Washington. However this may be, it is unquestionable that he put other nations’ interests far ahead of those of the people of Iran.
None of this is to deny that the influence of Islam on Iran and its people has also been enormous. The various clerics were able to use the general civil unrest to advance their cause. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was interesting, at least in part, because it lacked so many of the usual features of revolutions. There was no war, for example, or peasant rebellion, or financial crisis (PPT, 2020). Iran was not economically devastated at the time. The revolution had substantial popular support, and it was relatively non-violent. The Shah who was deposed was correctly perceived as being pro-Western, and pro-U.S.; this was, indeed, why he was put into power in the first place. There were also external sources of dissatisfaction, principally the stagflation (combination of inflation with low economic growth) that plagued many Western countries in the 1970s. A chief cause of these economic problems was the rise in global oil prices supported by the Shah. Iranians also did not appreciate the fact that the Shah’s family was constantly being enriched irrespective of how the country as a whole was faring (PPT, 2020). In 1977, Iran got a taste of problems that would plague many nations, including wealthy nations, in the coming decades (Greece being the most obvious recent example). “Austerity” measures were implemented in order to combat inflation. These measures are essentially attempts to displace the economic burden from the actual sources of the problem onto the people who are hardest hit by the crisis. Thus, state spending on social programs is cut, despite the fact that this spending played no role in creating the crisis and further hurts those who were already most hurt by it.
We must also attend to the differences, ethnic and religious, between Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Unlike most other countries in the Middle East (setting Israel aside), Iran is populated principally by Persians rather than Arabs. At least as important as this, moreover, is the fact that Iranians are mostly Shiite rather than Sunni Muslims. The difference between the two is not wholly unlike the differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Finally, there is no denying that ideology played a large role in the 1979 revolution. The Shah and his supporters, both internal and external to Iran, at least implicitly equated Westernization with progress and social development. On the other side, there were factions who believed nearly the opposite, namely that radical Islam was the only way to free oppressed nations such as Iran from their colonial “masters”. In a word, an intolerant theocracy was deemed to be preferable to simply living in relative poverty and exclusively serving the interests of the West.
We now return to the place of Iran in the Middle East, on one hand, and in the rest of the world, on the other. For understanding Iran two proximate relationships are most important—its relation to Saudi Arabia, and its relation to Israel. When we think about Middle Eastern countries jockeying for supremacy, it is natural to leave Israel to one side since it does not play exactly this game. Iran is the closest competitor in the region to Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, it is not the Sunni/Shiite divide that is most crucial for understanding this competition, or at least not quite as the divide is usually understood. This is because the stare religion in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, which is a radical sect of Sunni Islam. Here is the source of one of the many great ironies concerning international rhetoric about the Middle East. Iran is constantly deplored as an oppressive, authoritarian nation. Little is said about the Saudi kingdom in the same conversations. However, as many have noted, compared to Saudi Arabia Iran is a liberal paradise. This fact, and also the double standard of the U.S., cannot be better illustrated than by pointing to the state sponsored execution of an American journalist in Saudi Arabia in 2018. This caused little more than a murmur in the Western press, excepting the Post where he had worked. If the same thing had happened in Iran it would likely have meant war.
We must also confront Iran’s fraught relationship with Israel. Along with the U.S. coup in Iran in 1953, it is U.S. support for Israel’s violent expulsion of Palestinians, its continued illegal occupation of their land, and Israel’s frequent military forays (invading Lebanon no fewer than nine times, for example) that is most responsible for the anti-American sentiment in Middle East in general, and in Iran in particular. Several issues must be understood. First, Israel constantly complains about certain Middle Eastern nations “recognizing its status” as a nation. What is absurd about this is that Israel is a nation. Recognition or lack of recognition of this fact is not particularly interesting or important. What is really at issue, of course, is whether other nations recognized the legitimacy of what Israel has done. Unsurprisingly, neither Arab Middle Eastern nations nor Iran is particularly eager to acknowledge the legitimacy of what Israel has done.
Second, there is the issue of Iran’s alleged eagerness to develop nuclear weapons. Several points are neglected here in the usual discussions. One is that Israel has nuclear weapons, though it is not supposed to and issues denials that it has them. Why should Iran not have such weapons, if Israel has them? The question is never posed, much less answered. A second point is that it is simply a fiction that Iran, even if it should develop nuclear weapons, would use them to harm Israel. In the very hour that any significant military action against Israel were ever launched by Iran, Iran would cease to exist. Iran knows this. It is not suicidal. Indeed, like North Korea, Iran wants nuclear weapons (to the extent that it wants them) only for self-defense. The U.S. does not invade and occupy nations that possess atomic weapons. Finally, in other parts of the world it is considered completely acceptable for two nations to possess nuclear weapons to defend each from the other. India and Pakistan have precisely this status. Yet, because of the pervasive Western double standard, it is somehow believed that it would be catastrophic to allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.
All of this begs the question of why Iran is so constantly vilified and made to seem the single evil power in the Middle East. There are many reasons for this. The most important one is that, after the 1979 revolution, Iran stopped following orders from Washington. This is the real reason for all the sanctions and all the rhetoric. It has become what is sometimes called a “pariah state”, like Cuba and Venezuela. What the three countries have in common is a refusal to do what the U.S. wants them to do. Another reason is that Iran offers support to some of Israel’s many enemies, principally Hezbollah. A further reason is that China, the only great power in the world somewhat immune to U.S. petulance, is pursuing substantial investments in Iran. Other nations and companies are prevented from doing this by the threat of sanctions or other forms of economic excommunication.
- PPT. (2020). Revolutions and Ideologies—(ii) Iran. Sessions 9 & 10.