In Brief

Will Khomeini’s Anti-American Vision Endure?

Since the shah’s ouster in February 1979, Iran’s Islamic regime has been propelled by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary vision and underpinned by its animus toward the United States.

As Iran marks forty years of revolution, it is in many ways far removed from the Islamic Republic it set out to be. But one constant has been the regime’s hostility toward the United States. A crucial core of believers remains animated by the revolutionary ideals of its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran’s Imperialist Foil

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Khomeini’s revolution was supposed to span the Muslim world. He viewed all Muslims in the Middle East as subjugated masses to be liberated. Arab monarchs and secular leaders were to be displaced by Islamist parties that shared his view that religion should inform politics. Khomeini’s vision needed a foil to define itself against. The United States fit the bill. For the ayatollah and his followers, the United States was a rapacious imperialist determined to exploit Iran’s wealth. In this view, the United States also sought to subjugate Muslims and impose its cultural template in the name of modernity.

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One purpose of the Islamic revolution was to expose the manner in which the United States operated through local proxies, including the shah. Disunity among Muslims, the prevalence of autocracies in the region, the failure of the clerical class to assume the mantle of opposition, and young people’s attraction to alien ideologies were all made out to be byproducts of a U.S.-led, Western plot to dominate Islam’s realm.

A Different Kind of Revolution

Many of the ayatollah’s revolutionary aims for the region have not been fulfilled, so why does his vision endure? The Islamic Republic is different from other revolutionary movements of the twentieth century because its ideological foundations rest on Shia Islam. For its supporters, the regime is still dedicated to realizing God’s will on earth. This is an unusually politicized version of Shia Islam; for much of its history, Shia clerics renounced formal roles in government. Khomeini upended that tradition and created a dedicated cadre that continues to adhere to his mission.

Although the regime has become unpopular with Iranians over the years, a small but fervent segment of the population believes the Islamic Republic is still an important experiment. This sector of society continues to produce leaders determined to return to the roots of the revolution. At home, it provides a pool of enforcers spread among such powerful bodies as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its paramilitary wings, including the Quds Force and the Basij Resistance Force. Abroad, it works with radical proxies, such as Hezbollah, to mount attacks against U.S. forces, as it has done in Lebanon in 1983, Saudi Arabia in 1996, and Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

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At the same time, the regime offers some release valves for popular expression, as it routinely holds elections for the presidency, parliament, and city councils. Clerical bodies vet candidates for their religious credentials, but still the regime offers its constituents a range of choices.

Critical Tests Ahead

Now the republic faces a restive population whose economic and political demands will not be met on the government’s current trajectory. The public has given up on the notion that the regime can reform itself. The government’s inability to clamp down on demonstrations and strikes augurs poorly for its future. The Islamic Republic and its constituents are on different wavelengths. The public would like more freedom and a less expansive foreign policy; the mullahs, just the reverse. But how long this incongruity can last is an open question.

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