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The West Failed To Anticipate Iran’s 1979 Revolution, But It Need Not Repeat Its Mistake

Thousands of Iranian expatriates from across the globe will convene Sunday in Paris to mark the anniversary of the Shah’s overthrow at the hands of a popular revolution that took much of the international community by surprise.

That they are expected to echo the sentiments of their compatriots inside the Islamic Republic who are actively seeking a new revolution to replace the existing theocratic dictatorship with a democratic form of government will hardly be lost on astute observers.

Democracy after all was the goal of most Iranian activists in 1979. The current rebellion inside the country is best understood as a continuation of the freedom movement that was hijacked by Ruhollah Khomeini.

If Western powers merely listen to voices on the Iranian street, they can avoid being caught off guard, as they were forty-four years ago, by the inevitable changes on the horizon. At that time, it was widely assumed that the Iranian people would never overcome the Shah’s repressive institutions, especially while he enjoyed full coffers resulting from decades-long foreign backing.

In the run-up to the revolution, the U.S. embassy sent a diplomatic cable to Washington that urged the U.S. government to start “thinking the unthinkable, an Iran without the Shah.” But by then it was too late. The Shah’s regime was beyond salvation – and it was too late for the U.S. or its allies to accommodate the realities of Iran’s domestic situation and the will of the Iranian people.

The Shah’s replacement by a clerical Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, was by no means inevitable. In fact, it was contrary to what most supporters of the Iranian Revolution wanted in the first place. Their ambitions were better expressed by the democratic platform of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), but the Shah’s repressive practice of targeting the democratic opposition led Khomeini to hijack the movement and seize power for himself.

Four decades later, the MEK stands atop the democratic alternative known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a movement prepared to oversee Iran’s transition to a modern and secular democracy. The NCRI has designated Maryam Rajavi to serve as president of a transitional government, and she in turn has presented a 10-point plan detailing the path Iran would take following its second revolution.

On Tuesday, more than 160 members of the House of Representatives sponsored a bipartisan resolution, which was submitted on the anniversary of the anti-dictatorial revolution of 1979. They expressed “support for the opposition leader Mrs. Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point plan for the future of Iran, which calls for the universal right to vote, free elections, and a market economy, and advocates gender, religious, and ethnic equality, a foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence, and a non-nuclear Iran.” Countless other lawmakers and scholars have long recognized this plan’s potential to make Iran a full member of the community of nations, but procrastination, cynicism, and inertia among Western leaders continue to hamper the group’s progress.

The irony is that faith in Iran’s political stability is even less defensible now than it was in the days leading up to the Shah’s ouster. The country has experienced dramatic, nationwide unrest for more than four months since the killing of Mahsa Amini by Tehran’s morality police, and the protests show no sign of stopping.

More than 750 people have been killed by the authorities so far, including 70 children. Yet a number of these killings have sparked new demonstrations, timed to coincide with funerals or memorial services and featuring slogans that promise hundreds of additional voices calling for regime change in response to each young person killed.

And regime change is undeniably the aim of these protesters, as it was in 1979. But in this case, it is being pursued with greater clarity of purpose, and with guidance from a network of “Resistance Units” throughout the country that the MEK has overseen since 2014.

Slogans like “down with the oppressor, be it the Shah or Khamenei (the supreme leader)” have made it clear that the Iranian people have no interest in returning to the dictatorship that they threw off in 1979 but are equally unwilling to suffer the current dictatorship any longer. They are crying out for a democratic, secular, republic.

Western governments failed to recognize the change that was brewing in Iran 44 years ago, but they need not make the same mistake again.

Today, the international community can do more than simply acknowledge the potential for a democratic transition. It can actively support the Iranian people in their efforts to achieve a free Iran by halting negotiations with the moribund clerical regime, isolating and sanctioning it to the greatest extent possible, and formally recognizing the rights of all Iranians to defend themselves.

As a crucial first step, the European Union and the United Kingdom can promptly designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

For four decades, the ayatollahs’ brutal repression has been incapable of extinguishing Iranians’ hopes for freedom. Today’s revolutionaries are determined to achieve what their forebears had in mind when they toppled the Shah and attempted to rid the country of despotism. A democratic, secular republic in Iran will transform the Middle East and contribute to the region’s peace and stability.

By choosing the right side of history and closing ranks with Iranians struggling for freedom, Western officials can seize a historic opportunity and advance global security interests. I cannot think of a better way to commemorate a pro-democracy revolution that was started but remains unfinished.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the associate dean of the College of Public Affairs and past executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan