The several USA citizens of Iranian background recently released after imprisonment on contrived charges in Iran coincidentally, or not, arrived home just before the 35th anniversary of the freed USA hostages from the 1979-1981 Teheran Embassy crisis. There was also, the week before the prisoners’ release, the brief incarceration of USA Navy personnel whose craft wondered into Iranian waters. Photos of them on their knees with hands behind their heads were hyped by Iran, whose chief Ayatollah hailed the humiliation as “God’s deed.” Undoubtedly the nuclear deal with Iran will not reduce the volume of Iranian anti-American vitriol, which is intrinsic to the the ruling mullahs’ ideological identity.
Iran’s 1979 Islamist revolution was one of the late twentieth century’s most momentous and darkest events, the kickoff for a new modern era of militant political Islam. The mullahs and their supporters from the start appreciated their historical significance, styling themselves the third great revolution of modernity after the French and Bolshevik, all three of which unleashed rivers of blood across decades. The Bolshevik experiment mercifully ended only two decades after the Iranian Revolution, which itself may plague the world for much of the rest of this century, especially when Iran deploys nuclear weapons.
Unlike the Anglo-American revolutions of 1776 and 1688, which aspired to law and liberty, the French, Bolshevik and Iranian revolutions defined themselves by eternal antipathy to perceived oppressors, chiefly the bourgeoisie, and by hostility to Christianity. I recall the “death to the Shah” and “death to America” chants of Iranian “students” in the USA and in Iran in the late 1970s. Remarkably, the same chants in Iran continue, though those “students” would now be grandparents. But the chant is part of the permanent liturgy of Iran’s sclerotic but still potent theocracy, whose lifeblood is hatred and resentment, both of which are essential for the mullahs to retain power.
After the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 began, United Methodist bishops and other officials began urging USA apologies to Iran for American support of the Shah. We’re sorry! Forgive us, and love us! This same attitude in religious and secular circles persists, most recently accompanying religious support for the nuclear deal. If only the USA had not supported the restoration of the Shah in 1953, Iran and America would be friends!
Count me skeptical. The few thousand opponents whom the Shah’s regime executed across 35 years are a fraction of the current regime’s endless sea of murdered and tortured victims. In retrospect, by comparison to his successors, the Shah’s years seem almost arcadian and innocent. Like King Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II, the Shah’s biggest sins were fecklessness and indecision, which ensured his doom, and the doom of his nation, for which the world will continue to pay a grievous price.
The Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis showcased the worst naïveté and self hatred of declining Mainline Protestant political witness, which assumed every global upheaval was traceable to American moral failure. Those same events helped fuel the rise of a new religious conservative activism that recoiled at the ongoing humiliation at the USA embassy in Teheran and helped ensure Ronald Reagan’s election. Sadly, the Reagan years, so victorious against the Soviet Union, failed to contend very successfully with Iran, the arms for hostages scandal of the Iran-Contra affair just one troubling example.
So the Iranian threat, both spiritual and strategic, continues, not nearly so large as the Soviet Cold War threat, but persistent, sinister, and maybe ultimately longer lasting. The Iranian Revolution’s red hot Islamist narrative rejects root and branch the Anglo-American revolutions’ more benign political theology. Unlike the materialistic Bolshevik Revolution, Iran’s is tethered to the transcendence of a powerful religion and likely will not deflate as quietly as did ultimately the Soviet Union.
American Christian political witness can contribute to a thoughtful and effective USA policy towards Iran by avoiding apology tours and credulity from the left or overly apocalyptic scenarios from the right. Instead, there should be a sustained confidence that American strength, resolve, patience, and the transcendent truths that inform our own political order, despite its faults, will prevail.