Con Coughlin

Iran will not unclench its fist, Mr President

On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Shah of Iran, Con Coughlin says that Iran’s rulers today are devoted to the same militant objectives that drove Ayatollah Khomeini

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On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Shah of Iran, Con Coughlin says that Iran’s rulers today are devoted to the same militant objectives that drove Ayatollah Khomeini

The heirs to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution have much to celebrate as they prepare to mark next week’s 30th anniversary of the fall of the Shah of Iran’s detested regime.

The last nails were hammered into the Pahlavi dynasty’s coffin on the morning of 11 February 1979 when the makeshift government that the Shah had set up under his reluctant prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, finally collapsed.

The Shah, who was already stricken with the cancer that would eventually claim his life 17 months later, still clung to the hope that the social unrest that Khomeini had managed to stir up from exile in Paris would subside if he took the pragmatic step of graciously withdrawing from Tehran’s turbulent political scene.

It was, after all, a tactic that had served him well the last time the Pahlavi dynasty had stared into the abyss of political annihilation, which was during the nationalist agitation of the early 1950s that was spearheaded by the anti-British populist Mohammed Mosaddeq. On that occasion the young Shah simply decamped to Rome with his Empress while Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, ably backed by Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s resourceful hitman, sorted out the mess. When news of Mosaddeq’s fall finally reached Rome, the Shah exclaimed to his Roman dinner guests: ‘I knew it, I knew it. They love me!’

The trauma of his near deposing only added to the young monarch’s paranoia, which in turn prompted him to create one of the most repressive autocracies of the modern age. But even as Khomeini’s campaign for the overthrow of the Shah’s despotic regime acquired an irresistible momentum, the Shah still entertained the hope that his American backers would somehow save the day.

Only the previous year President Jimmy Carter had declared the Shah’s regime to be an island of stability in an ocean of turmoil, while an experienced Iran-watcher like Sir Anthony Parsons, the British ambassador who was one of the Shah’s few remaining confidants, continued to cable London to the effect that reports of the Shah’s imminent demise were being greatly exaggerated in the Western press.

Thirty years later, the new Democratic president, Barack Obama, might ruefully reflect that the metaphorical roles described by Carter have been totally reversed and that wherever one looks these days at the landscape of the modern Middle East, most of the turmoil, whether in Gaza or Iraq, can be traced back directly to the activities of Khomeini’s heirs.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, whose creation Khomeini personally authorised soon after his triumphant return from exile in Paris, have spent the past three decades developing an elaborate network of alliances with militant Islamist terror cells that today stretches from the Horn of Africa to the lawless tribal areas of the Hindu Kush, from the barrios of Buenos Aires to the more radical mosques located in the British Isles.

Apart from safeguarding the principles of Khomeini’s uncompromising philosophy of Islamic government, one of the Guards’ sacred duties, which is enshrined in the constitution Khomeini helped draft, is to export his fundamentalist agenda throughout the entire Muslim world, irrespective of the historic division between Shias and Sunnis.

It is for this reason that, having successfully established the radical Shia Hezbollah militia on Israel’s northern border, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, which is specifically tasked with linking up with like-minded hardline Islamist groups, has now become the main benefactor and arms supplier of the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza, which has successfully terrorised Israel’s southern border for the past 18 months.

Similarly, the Iranians have managed to overcome their visceral hostility to the Taleban (the Revolutionary Guards came close to declaring all-out war against the Taleban in 1999 after they murdered 11 Iranian ‘diplomats’) to provide them with the sophisticated roadside bomb technology to kill and maim British troops serving in southern Afghanistan. There is even evidence to suggest the Guards’ have reached a modus operandi with al-Qa’eda, whereby the two terrorist organisations — at the very least — keep each other apprised of their respective terror plots so that there is no embarrassing overlap.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Guards’ influence among the various Shia militia groups is now so all-pervasive that many Iraqi politicians find it easier to go to Tehran, as opposed to Baghdad, to find out what is going on in the main Shia-dominated cities and towns.

Add to this the impressive progress Iran has made on the different aspects of its nuclear programme and you can see why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Revolutionary Guard commander who was elected Iran’s sixth post-revolutionary president in 2005, has been in such an upbeat mood since Iran began its 10 days of festivities — the ‘Ten Days of Dawn’ — with a nationwide ceremony to mark the anniversary of Khomeini’s return to Tehran on 1 February.

Even the sceptics in the Western alliance about Iran’s ultimate nuclear intentions concede that it will have sufficient quantities of enriched uranium to build an atom bomb by the end of this year, while Tehran’s successful launch of its first satellite this week is an impressive demonstration — if any were needed — of its ballistic missile capability. Forget Israel: with technology like this Iran could soon have the capability to threaten continental Europe.

Put in this context, you can see why Ahmadinejad confidently declared during the celebrations, ‘Today, the revolution is moving forward stronger than before.’

As a young student activist in Tehran at the time of the revolution, Ahmadinejad became a devoted follower of Khomeini, whom he got to know in his capacity as the link man between the students occupying the American embassy in Tehran and the ayatollah’s private office. Consequently, since becoming President, he has committed himself fully to implementing every aspect of the late ayatollah’s legacy, from exporting the revolution to pressing ahead with the development of the nuclear programme.

Certainly both Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei, the country’s highly influential spiritual leader, see themselves very much as the guardians of Khomeini’s revolution, a view that has been very much in evidence in their comments to mark the anniversary. Ahmadinejad, after paying homage at Khomeini’s tomb, pronounced that this was a time for Iranians ‘to renew allegiance to the late imam’s aspirations’.

It is difficult to see how this devotion to Khomeini’s legacy squares with the new American President’s appeal to Iran to unclench its fist and enter a new era of American–Iranian relations. Mr Obama might be keen to distance himself from the Bush administration’s uncompromising stance towards Tehran, but even he will find it difficult to establish a diplomatic dialogue when the mullahs refuse to give ground on the nuclear front.

For the chilling reality is that, so long as the guardians of Khomeini’s legacy of militant Islam hold sway in Tehran, there is little prospect that Iran will be able to provide the kind of radical change in policy that the new American President can really believe in.