Khomeini to IS: paths of revolution

The Middle East's political map survived decades of tumult. Its long-term unravelling began with Iran's uprising in 1979.

Hazem Saghieh
23 November 2014

In 1948, the establishment of Israel caused a major shock in the Middle East. But, alien state as it was, its impact was also limited. It did not destroy the region's state system, and the maps that had been drawn following the first world war continued to be usable and recognisable. Thus, despite mutual hostility and several wars, Israel integrated - albeit antagonistically - within the region’s geopolitics. 

In 1958, Egypt and Syria declared their unification in a single state. This was two years after the Suez conflict, at the high tide of Gamal Abdel Nasser's influence. But this unity - intended to remove borders between brotherly Arab states and reverse the “partitioned map” across the Arab world, itself collapsed before it could celebrate its fourth anniversary.The borders, after all, turned out to be much more strongly rooted than they appeared. Soon, a vicious conflict - the “first Arab civil war,” as some called it, broke out in Yemen. There too, borders were left unchanged, and - at least at that stage - north Yemen did not split.
In 1967, an event of seismic magnitude occurred: three Arab countries, including Egypt under Nasser, were routed by the Jewish state. It took only six days for the West Bank, Sinai, and the Golan heights to be conquered. Again, however,  the borders and the map did not collapse. The world agreed that the ensuing occupation of captured territory was an anomaly, and that normality would be its restoration in accordance with the initial map.

In 1975, after five years of a short-lived Palestinian-Jordanian rehearsal, the Lebanese and Palestinians ushered in the era of open-ended civil wars in the region. This lured in countless belligerents, occupation armies, cash, weapons, and intelligence services. Even all this could not divide Lebanon. From 1982-2000, its people sat waiting for the restoration of its occupied territories to its official map.

The survival of existing Arab states and their borders during these decades resulted not from any underlying cohesion or desire for coexistence. No, it was the cold war that above all ensured that a "happy ending" would arrive before the Arab states drew too close to the abyss. Both sides in the east-west geopolitical divide wanted change to affect regimes only, not borders. Thus, the just causes of the Kurdish and Palestinian peoples could not guarantee them a state - could not penetrate the infallible map. This principle applied beyond the region too:  the Biafran war of 1967-70 did not lead to secession from Nigeria, and the de facto partition of Cyprus in 1974 was prevented from becoming de jure.

In 1990, with the end of the cold war - and shortly before small and primordial identities exploded spectacularly - Saddam Hussein tried his luck by invading Kuwait. The disastrous attempt had disastrous results. It seemed to confirm that even in the new era, much more than a dictator's adventurism would be needed to amend the regional map. Instead, Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution in Iran in 1979 turned out to be - albeit belatedly - the most important response to the “stability” of the cold war.

A slow explosion

The fervent Khomeini revolution, claiming that it would carve out a “third way” for the region, did slice with unprecedented sharpness at the region’s map. Saddam responded by invading Iran in 1980, launching a war that lasted eight years. This only inflamed the Khomeinists' efforts to export the revolution, which merged with and amplified the sectarian (Shi'a-Sunni) and communal tensions in the wider region.

The combined long-term effects were manifold. Lebanon profoundly changed under the tutelage of the Syrian regime, and then Hizbollah. Yemen was unsettled, and today is again fragmenting under pressure from the Houthis. Iraq saw its sub-communities splinter. Bahrain's civil strife deepened. Everywhere, violence thwarted or blocked legitimate demands for change.

Thirty-five years lie between the Khomeini-inspired provocation of the Sunni world and the appearance of the Islamic State. By now, the map of the region is now drawn in ink so soluble that any liquid can efface it.

Khoemini's and now Khameini's Iran is far from having sole responsibility for the region's current predicament. Many other factors have contributed to the deep collapse of the Arabs' national fabrics. In the sweep of history, revolutionary Iran was little more than history’s instrument, exposing faultlines that made an explosion likely. Only a different  path could have postponed that outcome. As it was, 1979 proved to be the seminal event of the century, one the region could not accommodate.

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