Iran: Revolutionary Contradictions

Next Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Iran's revolution, the moment when religious clerics overthrew a monarchy that had ruled that country for 2,500 years and created the world's first Islamic republic. It's a moment that remade Iranian society, realigned the politics of the Middle East, and transformed Iran's relations with the West.


To understand what Iran's revolutionaries were rebelling against, we begin a generation earlier. In 1953, a Cold War-inspired CIA-backed coup toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to restore a monarchy led by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Over the next 26 years, Pahlavi promoted both economic modernization and intense political repression.

In 1979, opposition groups sensed an opportunity to take him down. A motley assortment of Marxists, nationalists, religious conservatives and student groups, fueled by audiotaped messages from the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, launched widespread strikes and protests that pushed Pahlavi from his throne. The charismatic Khomeini then returned to Iran from France and began to consolidate power, in part by jailing and executing thousands of people.

The revolution's primary impact:

Shifting alliances: After the Jimmy Carter administration accepted the exiled Shah for medical treatment in the United States, Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Hostility between the former allies has never really abated.

Iran's revolutionary export: The newly formed Islamic Republic then worked to spread its unique brand of conservative religious politics across the Middle East by supporting Shia militias, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hashd Shaabi in Iraq.

Saudi fear: The Saudi royal family, terrified by the toppling of the monarch next door and anxious to isolate a rival for leadership of the Islamic world, in 1981 founded the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Arab states, in part to isolate Iran. At home, Saudi royals launched a bid to bolster their Islamic credentials and placate religious conservatives by closing movie houses, banning concerts, and imposing strict new rules against the adoption of other Western customs.

Saddam's attack: Saddam Hussein, the secular Sunni leader of Iraq, feared Iran's revolution might inspire the Shia majority within his own country to rise against him. In response, and with the support of the US and Arab world, he waged an eight-year war on Iran that killed more than one million people.

Four decades later, Iran's revolution has a complex and contradictory legacy.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader since Khomeini's death in 1989, bases his right to rule on a revolution that more than 75 percent of Iran's 83 million people are not old enough to remember.
  • Iran is a democracy trapped inside a theocracy. Its politics are far more complex and represent a far broader diversity of views than can be found inside many of its Arab neighbors. It holds genuinely competitive elections, but its candidates for office are selected by a small group of unelected clerics and lawyers.
  • The Islamic Republic has a long history of brutally suppressing protests, but large public demonstrations remain common. For example, religious authorities continue to impose rules on female dress, yet Iranian women protest these restrictions in the streets and online.
  • Anti-Western anger remains an essential element of Iran's political culture, but the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal has incentivized Iran's government to pursue closer relations with the European powers who signed that agreement and oppose Trump's move.

In Iran today, a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has seen his reforms undermined by both hard-line supporters of the Supreme Leader and President Trump's decision to reimpose US sanctions. Recession looms and inflation rises.

For now, the clerical establishment remains firmly in charge, but public frustration with economic hardship, a Supreme Leader who will turn 80 in July, and uncertainty over succession leave us to wonder: How many more birthdays can Iran's current leadership celebrate? Can the Islamic Republic continue to adapt in order to survive?

Tomorrow, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV. For perspective: Consider these two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: Your iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.

This time the field is more crowded with China's growing ambitions throwing US and Russian space dominance into question.

Europe has selected a new president of the European Commission. Last night, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen won support from a majority of members of European Parliament to lead the executive body that shapes policy for the world's largest economic bloc. The final result was a close shave, however — she won by a margin of just nine votes out of 757 — and there's something in the outcome for everyone to hate.

For many anti-EU populists, von der Leyen's appointment confirms their view that the EU is undemocratic and doesn't respect ordinary citizens. Why? Because she wasn't selected by the voters who went to the polls in the recent EU parliamentary elections — or even indirectly by the lawmakers who won those seats. She was hand-picked by leaders of the 28 EU member states, who side-stepped parliament after better-known candidates chosen by various political factions within the legislature failed to attract enough support from the national governments. Anti-EU politicians like France's Marine Le Pen will spend the next five years reminding us that von der Leyen's presidency reflects everything that's wrong with Brussels.

For Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and other European leaders who backed von der Leyen, her narrow margin of approval gives her a weak mandate as she confronts huge challenges such as the EU's fraught relations with the US and China, showdowns over Italy's budget, erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the economic and political fallout of the UK's exit (or not) from the bloc, and the EU's drive to regulate Big Tech.

Von der Leyen herself, who is from the center-right, made significant concessions to get her nomination through with parties that are deeply suspicious of her. Those included a promise to propose a so-called "green deal" within her first 100 days in office, reform the minimum wage, and launch a push for EU-wide legislation on artificial intelligence. Von der Leyen also pledged to reform the process for selecting future candidates for Commission president and to give the EU Parliament a "stronger role in shaping and designing" the EU's future. Now that von der Leyen has secured the closest thing the EU has to a top job, she'll be spending much of her political capital trying to deliver on those promises.