The Iranian Revolution created the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that republic was transformed by the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Without this combination of two national traumas, today’s Iran would be little different from today’s Pakistan.
Under the Shah’s rule, Iran resembled Pakistan. A privileged and educated elite conversant in Western languages dominated the government while the masses lived meager lives in thousands of villages that provided minimal access to education, health care, electricity, and transportation. Members of this privileged class rarely visited a village and treated poor villagers and servants with disdain. Senior military officers were personally vetted by the Shah and were part of the elite. Women outpaced men only in illiteracy.
The revolution’s greatest success was the systematic extension of education and social services to every part of the Iranian countryside. Its greatest initial failure was its attempt to instill religiosity into every aspect of Iranian life. This failure not only generated dislike of the clergy among many segments of the population, but it undermined every effort to normalize Iran as part of the international community.
Many foreign governments looked upon the war that began with Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 as a conflict that would sap the strength of two disreputable regimes. Who won? Who lost? In the long run, Saddam’s nationalist dictatorship would fall amidst the shock and awe of American invasion fifteen years after the war ended.
But what of Iran? Eighteen years after the war’s conclusion, the Islamic Republic is seen by many as an ambitious hegemonic power in the Middle East. It has not fallen apart internally, it has remained largely free of the terrorist scourge, it has carried out a series of credible elections, and it has negotiated a much-needed pause in its nuclear program.
Americans who visit Iran today enjoy touring historical monuments and are impressed by visible evidence of the country’s modernity. They take little notice, however, of the photographs of war martyrs that adorn light posts along the main streets of Iranian towns and cities.
From the outset of what the Islamic Republic terms “The Imposed War,” the country’s battlefield losses were publicly acknowledged and memorialized, while Saddam’s regime tried to conceal its own losses. The war brought Iranians together in a way that was unique in the country’s history. Patriotic pride, identity, and solidarity overtook and surpassed religiosity as the hallmarks of national character.
Compare this with World War II. In 1962, eighteen years after that war’s end, Americans seldom mentioned their war dead. Painful memories were repressed. Prosperity was abroad in the land, and the challenge of the student counterculture was just beginning. How different from the Civil War, Americans to this day remember and lament.
Russians, on the other hand, remained immersed in their memories of “The Great Patriotic War” and the tragic losses they sustained. For all his dictatorial ways, Stalin was remembered as the man who absorbed the worst the Germans could throw at his country, and prevailed. Veterans proudly show off their medals down to the present day.
Besides bolstering Iran’s national identity, the war with Iraq produced an equivalent to America’s G.I. Bill for educating returning veterans. Where the U.S. legislation benefited uniformed servicemen and women, the less formal Iranian system established university admission quotas for members of “martyr families.” This played a major role in channeling the sisters, wives, and mothers of slain soldiers into higher education, thus contributing to a majority of Iranian university students today being female.
In sum, the revolution exiled or retired most of the civilian and military elite, delivered social services to the masses, and established a regular and participatory governing system, albeit one that falls short of an ideal democracy. The downside? All this was done in the name of Islam, which raises the hackles of opponents inside and outside the country.
The war galvanized and unified the population behind an unprecedented patriotism, created a deep and lasting memory of the sacrifices made by the military, and incidentally helped stimulate an increase in female higher education. The downside? The Revolutionary Guard Corps acquired power and privilege.
Iran today is thus the product of two convulsive events and is much stronger and more unified that it would have been without either of them.
Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.
Copyright ©2016 Richard Bulliet — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 12 December 2016
Word Count: 709
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