The annual Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) rallies across Iran held June 23rd not unusually featured chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” Since 1979, these annual events are a magnet for anti-Israel, anti-American protesters.
An ironic aspect of this year’s commemoration was a comment by Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, better known as Iran’s chief negotiator on its nuclear program. Larijani said on this occasion that in the “20th century there was no event more ominous than establishing the Zionist regime.”
On the one hand, such a statement coming from a leading official of a regime that at different times has either denied or diminished the import of the Holocaust, should not be shocking. The rise of the state of Israel, which to the Jewish people was a salvation after the nadir of the Shoah, is portrayed by the Islamic regime of Iran as a far worse event than the Shoah itself.
The ironic element of Larijani’s comment, however, lies in his projection onto Israel a theme that rightly belongs on the Iranian regime itself, but in slightly altered form. It can fairly be said that the Iranian revolution in 1979, and with it the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was the most ominous world development of the second half of the 20th century. And the world is living with its many disastrous consequences to this very day.
Here are just a few of the prices that we continue to pay as a result of that revolution:
- Islamic extremism, which always had a place within the Islamic world but was largely on the margins, now had a central address, in one of the most powerful and wealthy Muslim countries. The fact that the country and regime were Shiite was often seen as an inhibitor of the regime’s potential for spreading its extremist ideas in the region and beyond, but it is surely no coincidence that the rise of Islamic extremism coincided with the period of Islamic rule in Iran. Even for Sunnis who saw the regime in adversarial terms, the fact of its existence was a catalyst and model for other forms of Islamic extremism (Saudi Arabia obviously played an important role in this as well). It is no accident that Islamist parties have cropped up all over the world in Muslim-majority states, and the influence of Islamic parties in places as diverse as Pakistan, the Philippines and Libya is at least partially related to the success and example of the Islamic Republic.
- Terrorism, which existed long before the Islamic Republic came into existence, now had a very different kind of model and ally. Now a strong, large and wealthy nation was a leading sponsor of terrorism. Because the Iranians never saw their revolution as merely affecting Iran, they early on began to export their ideology through violence. The AMIA community center bombing in Buenos Aires, the support for the powerful terrorist organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and now the leading role of Iran in sustaining the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad through brutal force, in the name of countering ISIS terror, are all examples of Iranian state terror. The major terrorist groups in the region–Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, ISIS– each have their own origins and stories but the fact that they all arose in this era of a proud nation being ruled by the world’s major state sponsor of terrorism is a legacy of the revolution of 1979.
- Human Rights: Clearly, there were many violations of human rights in Iran under the Shah, but nothing comparable to the sustained denial of the Islamic regime. It is often pointed out that there is an element of democracy in Iran, as in the recent presidential elections, that does not exist in places like Saudi Arabia. True enough.
Still, when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, it was noted in a variety of Middle Eastern countries, from Egypt to Tunisia to Libya to Syria, that the populations had lost their fear of their corrupt rulers and were ready to go out on the streets in protest in the millions.
Not in Iran. The public was cowed by the level of brutality of the regime when demonstrations surfaced following the fraudulent election in 2009. To this day no one knows how many were taken away and murdered by the regime. The message got through, however, and when other countries saw publics demanding change, Tehran was quiet.
The list of prices paid for that revolution 38 years ago goes on. Iran expansionism is at a peak as it spreads its influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Its nuclear development, whether or not it has been halted by the international agreement of 2015, has frightened countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, making them more likely to seek their own nuclear solutions down the road.
And the Shiite-Sunni historic rivalry in the region, long on low boil, is now erupting throughout the region. There is enough blame to go around for this, but it is the growing power of the Islamic Republic which most puts the Sunni world on edge.
So yes, Mr. Larijani, you were right to inject the term ominous development about the rise of a state in the 20th century, but you misidentified that state.
It is your own, the Islamic Republic of Iran, that fills that bill.
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League