What started as series of public demonstrations and strikes across Iran nearly two years earlier peaked on 11 February, 1979, with the Islamic Revolution of Iran ending decades of oppressive monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born, shaking the region and humiliating the United States and Israel.
This seismic shift in regional politics caught Iran’s Arab neighbours by surprise. Many Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, saw the revolution as a threat just because the US saw it that way. With the exception of Syria, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), most Arab rulers started to view Iran as a potential enemy instead of an ally, alas for the wrong reasons.
As Iran celebrates 40 years of the revolution it is worth asking if the Arabs made revolutionary Iran an unnecessary enemy instead of a necessary ally, and why. Furthermore, what really changed in post-revolutionary Iran that convinced many Arabs to consider it as an enemy more dangerous than their historical enemy, Israel?
Prior to 1979, Iran under the Shah was a Shia majority Muslim country and a very close ally of the US and Israel. The Shah was nicknamed “the policeman of the Gulf”. Iran was viewed strategically as an outpost of America’s Middle East policy to counter Soviet influence, as well as an important ally of Israel.
Back then, Iran supplied 60 per cent of Israel’s oil needs in return for technical and security know-how. Israel, for example, helped to create the Shah’s monstrous internal security apparatus known as SAVAK, which drove the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into exile. Neither the Shah nor his Israeli friends ever thought that the exiled cleric would return to lead the masses and bring the Shah’s regime to an end.
During the Shah’s reign, many Arab countries, Gulf States included, were on good terms with Iran. Even Iraq signed the Algiers Accords, settling its territorial disputes with Iran in 1975. Only Libya, Syria and the PLO supported the exiled Khomeini in his efforts to topple the Shah because of the ruler’s support for the US and Israel. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi welcomed the Islamic Revolution as another blow to US regional hegemony, and in 1979 immediately dispatched his number two to congratulate the new leadership in Tehran.
Then, as it is today, Iran was a major regional power. During the time of the Shah and for the first decade after the revolution, Shi’ism was not an important factor in Iran’s regional policy.
As of February, 1979, Iran became a strong supporter of the cause central to the hearts of the Arabs: Palestine. Less than a month after the toppling of the Shah, the late Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, was the first foreign leader to be welcomed in Tehran by the revolutionary leadership. During his visit he was given the key to the closed Israeli Embassy and within a week the same building had become the PLO office in the Iranian capital. A jubilant Arafat said of the occasion that the Islamic revolution means “a new dawn and a new era” in the region. It could have been a positive development for Arabs and Iranians alike, but many of Arafat’s Arab colleagues made a strategic error of judgment by portraying Iran as an enemy and accusing it of spreading its Shia doctrine.
The first demonstration of Arab animosity came in September 1980 when Iraq attempted to capitalise on the post-revolution chaos, abandoned the Algiers Accords and invaded Iran with the intention of gaining as much territory as possible. Most Arabs, the Gulf countries in particular, supported Saddam Hussain’s Iraq (as did the US and its allies, by the way) instead of mediating to end the conflict. The war ended after eight bloody years and nearly two million casualties, as well as a huge economic cost for both countries. Iraq gained nothing.
Indeed, Iraq lost almost everything while Iran, despite its losses, can be said to have won the war. Following America’s shameful invasion of Iraq in 2003 courtesy of George W Bush, Iran went on to become a major player with enormous influence in its post-Saddam neighbour. Iraq’s majority Shia population were suddenly dominant in their country’s politics.
Revolutionary Iran delivered most of the promises it made with regard to regional affairs. It helped the Palestinians, particularly Hamas; has never recognised Israel; and initiated International Quds Day as an annual public event to denounce the Zionist state. That day is still observed in many Arab and Muslim countries on the last Friday of Ramadan.
Iranian support helped the government in Beirut to liberate Southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. It was the first time since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War that Israel was forced to leave Arab land without any peace deal.
Tehran’s support for Hamas was a practical refutation of the claim that Iran only supports Shia movements in the region and beyond. Conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, placing Tehran and Riyadh on opposing sides, was not one of revolutionary Iran’s regional ambitions. In reality, such conflict is a policy encouraged by Washington and adopted by Riyadh, and other Arabs, to divert attention from the strategic threat to the region represented by Israel. Now it is being used indirectly by Saudi Arabia to forge more ties with the Zionist state at the expense of the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
Making Iran an enemy does not benefit any Arab country, let alone its immediate neighbours. Iran will always be a neighbour of the Arabs physically, but when neighbours are shunned and vilified they tend to develop the potential to become a threat in the future. The Saudi-led boycott of Qatar and the war in Yemen have seen the government in Doha enjoying Tehran’s support, which could have harmful effects regionally, while the war in Yemen further entrenches Iran’s position in the Arabian Peninsula.
Iran inspires Shia Muslims in neighbouring states to rebel against their governments simply because they are usually oppressed and marginalised in their own countries. The Shia in Saudi Arabia, for example, owe no more loyalty to Iran than to their own country. The same is true in Iraq and Bahrain. Oppressed and neglected communities usually welcome support from any source. Such an issue can easily be settled with Iran the friend rather than Iran the foe.
Even Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is driven by strategic aims rather than sectarianism. Al-Assad may be a Shia himself but the war in Syria was never about religion. Iran with direct access to the Mediterranean is much stronger than without it, and supporting Al-Assad provides such access. The government in Tehran today, just like its predecessor before 1979, is building a network of allies, sometimes with non-state actors if other governments turn away. More allies means fewer enemies, which is a legitimate political objective.
The Arabs should rethink their policy towards Iran by making a simple cost benefit analysis, and the Arab summit to be hosted by Tunisia next month is a perfect opportunity to do it. Iran should be invited to the summit as a guest, and Arab-Iranian dialogue must follow to settle any grievances held by either side. Together, it is win-win situation; divided, the Arabs as well as the Iranians will be the losers, despite the short-term benefits of counting on allies from further afield.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.