The Year That Changed the World

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
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Though political Islam has been at war with the international system of states for many years, it was not until the opening of the twenty-first century that American leaders began to comprehend the sources, extent, and objectives of Islamism’s rise through the later decades of the twentieth century. In retrospect, 1979 was a turning point.

1979: Iran

The most significant turning point of 1979 was the Iranian Revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, a world-historical event possessing the ideological potential of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917—each one a fundamental challenge to the established international order.

How the year 1979 changed the world
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The Iranian Revolution brought to power for the first time in history an Islamist regime in full control of a state within the international state system and with a theologically grounded agenda which rejected every core principle of international order. And in gaining power, the ayatollah’s revolution had overthrown one of the most prominent, wealthy, and militarily powerful of America’s allies, a linchpin of "The Nixon Doctrine": the imperial kingdom of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. This was no ordinary revolution.

Consciously or not, the ayatollah’s governmental structure was designed in accord with that described in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, a manual for the revolutionary overthrow of all established governance and the creation of the world’s first ever "legitimate" society. Such revolutionary regimes relegate governmental ministries and the military to politically marginal roles. Above them are the ideologically empowered keepers of "the will of the people," which operate as duplicative, more potent versions of institutions below them (as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command does vis-à-vis the army). And at the very top is a single all-powerful figure who both transcends and permeates the entire society, a Great Helmsman, Maximum Leader, Dear Leader, or Supreme Guide.

Khomeini invented a new political philosophy for Shia Islam that legitimated a theocratic regime in Iran.

To gain this preeminent revolutionary status, Khomeini invented a new political philosophy for Shia Islam during his 1964–78 exile. In place of the doctrine that clerics should refrain from activism in government pending the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi in occultation), Khomeini promulgated the Velayat-e Faqih, the "Rule of the Jurists," which would legitimate a theocratic regime for Iran under a single supreme figure, the ayatollah himself.

Of the two "Rousseau-esque" levels of the Iranian polity, the greater theocratic level of power and the lesser one administering governmental agencies, only the latter would be allowed a semblance of democratic elections. The real power of the Islamic Republic was theologically legitimated, above and beyond the reach of voters.

The vivid marker of revolutionary Iran’s opposition to international order would be its 1979 seizure of the American embassy and hostage-taking in violation of the first principle of the Westphalian international system: diplomatic immunity. Then followed its secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons in violation of international law and its support for terrorist operations beyond its borders, all conducted under a rhetoric aimed at bridging the Sunni-Shia divide as a way to make Iran the sole hegemonic power over the entire region and all Islam beyond.

Kissinger, writing in 1979 just after the shah had been over-thrown and had fled to the United States and then Egypt, noted in sorrow that the shah’s Iran had been "one of America’s best, most important, and most loyal friends in the world." At the same time, Foreign Service Officer Henry Precht, the desk officer for Iran, spoke to a jam-packed auditorium at the State Department to assure the Foreign Service that the United States certainly could "do business" with the new regime. The Imperial Kingdom of Iran now would be the Islamic Republic of Iran. Neither ever had been nor would be a true member of the international state system.

1979: Saudi Arabia

In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by a fanatical Islamist group led by a charismatic figure representing a more primitively authentic version of the faith than that promulgated by the Saudi regime. Saudi authorities, with the hushed-up help of French commandos, brutally put down the uprising, but the incident induced the regime in effect to adopt the extreme agenda of the leader of the attack. The Saudi rulers sought to control the Islamists by imposing even more rigid religious strictures on the population and by providing abundant resources to subsidize Wahabi-Salafi Islamism in other countries around the region and the world. Incited by claims that the mosque seizure had been instigated by the United States, anti-American demonstrations took place in several Muslim countries and the American embassy in Islamabad was burned to the ground.

1979: Pakistan

The year 1979 also marked a major turn in Pakistan when President Zia ul-Haq ordered the judicial murder of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and began to stake his regime’s legitimacy and political survival on bringing Islamist factions into some key functions of government. By this decision, Pakistan abandoned the secular state vision of founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah. From 1979 on, every Pakistan government would be gravely strained by its need to both use and yet control its Islamist partners, and Islamist infiltration of supposedly off-limits governmental security agencies could not be halted. Pakistan’s leaders began to employ Islamist terrorists to challenge India in Kashmir and to gain strategic influence in Afghanistan.

What seemed at first to be a brilliant policy would eventually threaten Pakistan’s survival as a state.

1979: Afghanistan

In 1979, the Soviet Union seized Afghanistan, installed a puppet military regime, and declared it the "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan." This, one of the last acts of open warfare of the cold war, transmogrified in the years following into a signal propaganda victory for Islamists and their global cause. Military weaponry and training support given by Pakistan and the United States to Afghan tribesmen as "Freedom Fighters" against the Soviet army would bring victory to the Mujahidin, who would arouse Islamists all across the Muslim world and be seen as progenitors of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The latter’s leader, Osama bin Laden, would claim that the Mujahidin had defeated the stronger of Islam’s global adversaries, the Soviet Union, so Islamists now could confidently take on the weaker one, the United States.

1979: Egypt

In 1979, President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, causing Egypt to be deposed as the leader of the Arab world and Sadat to be assassinated by Islamists two years later. Egypt’s expulsion by the Arab League would be seized by Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to push his Iraqi regime to the forefront of the Arab world through anti-Israel, anti-U.S., and anti-U.N. actions.

1979: Saddam’s Iraq—Bonfire of the Pathologies

On National Day, July 17, 1979, Saddam Hussein declared himself president of Iraq, placing his predecessor under house arrest. Saddam then conducted his own version of "The Terror" of the French Revolution in a bloody purge of the Ba’ath Party. As Professor Bernard Lewis has pointed out, Saddam’s dictatorship presided over a political party that was an amalgam of the Nazi and Communist parties as viewed from the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century.

Saddam then proceeded to employ Iraq’s national powers as a constant menace to his neighbors in the region and as an ever-worsening adversary of the international system, soon becoming the major continuing preoccupation of the United Nations Security Council through his challenges to the maintenance of "international peace and security" as set forth in the U.N. Charter.

The case of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship is of immense significance. He perfected a strategy of having it both ways. On the one hand, he shielded his actions behind the privileges and immunities of the international system, such as non-intervention into the internal affairs of a sovereign state. On the other hand, he used the powers of the Iraqi state to violate the laws and principles of the international system in multiple ways. For years, the leading nations of the world let him get away with it.

After fourteen months of consolidating his power, Saddam on September 22, 1980, ordered his army to invade Iran, to weaken the ayatollah’s revolutionary attraction to Iraq’s Shia population. Thus was launched an almost decade-long war whose mutual slaughter would be compared to World War I’s trench warfare. In response, the United States pursued a strategy later called "dual containment" aimed at exhausting both sides while trying to contain the war from spreading to the rest of the region. In 1987, the fighting began to threaten shipping in the Persian Gulf to the point where the Gulf Arab states requested American naval protection. When oil tankers were "re-flagged" under American registry, the U.S. Navy escorted them up and down the Gulf. The reflagging operation was a diplomatic triumph supported by the first-ever 15–0 U.N. Security Council resolution, setting the stage for the United Nations to oversee an end to the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

Osama bin Laden claimed that the Mujahidin had defeated the stronger of Islam’s global adversaries, the Soviet Union, so Islamists now could confidently take on the weaker one, the United States.

Two years later, Saddam ordered his armed forces to invade Kuwait. He committed war crimes. He took hostages. He launched ballistic missiles against a third and then a fourth country in the region. The Kuwait war was unique in modern times because Saddam had totally eradicated a legitimate state of the international system and turned it into "Province 19" of Iraq. Aggressors in wars typically seize some territory or occupy the defeated country in order to install a puppet regime. Saddam erased Kuwait from the map of the world.

That got the world’s attention. That’s why at the United Nations the votes were wholly in favor of a U.S.-led military operation—Desert Storm—to throw Saddam out of Kuwait and restore Kuwait to its place as a legitimate state in the international system. There was virtually universal recognition that those responsible for the international system of states could not let one of its member states simply be rubbed out.

Saddam’s aggression was illuminated by two symbolic acts of Islamist significance. King Hussein of Jordan, Sandhurst educated and welcomed by the West as a sound and sympathetic statesman, suddenly declared his support for Saddam’s war and, separately, declared his claim to the title of Sharif of Mecca once held by his great-grandfather. Saddam Hussein then added Takbir—meaning the phrase, Allahu Akbar—in his hand’s own script to Iraq’s national flag. A monarch and a military dictator were announcing their submission to a new Islamist order subsuming the sovereign state.

When the American-led coalition forces drove Saddam’s army back into Iraq, President Bush could not order the U.S. Army to drive on to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam’s dictatorship because the diplomacy which built the coalition had been predicated on agreement to liberate Kuwait, nothing more.

So in 1991 a cease-fire was put in place. Then the U.N. Security Council decided that, in order to prevent Saddam from starting more wars or committing further crimes against his own people, he must give up his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Here is how it was supposed to work. If Saddam cooperated with U.N. inspectors, produced his weapons, and facilitated their destruction, then the cease-fire would be transformed into a peace agreement, ending the state of war between the international system and Iraq. But if Saddam did not cooperate, and materially breached his obligations regarding his weapons of mass destruction, then the original U.N. Security Council authorization for the use of "all necessary force" against Iraq—an authorization suspended but not canceled at the end of Desert Storm—would be reactivated and Saddam would face another round of U.S.-led military action. Saddam agreed to this arrangement.

Through all these changes, the Arab Middle East resolutely remained the one region in the world without a single democratic government.

In the early 1990s, U.N. inspectors found plenty of material in the category of weapons of mass destruction and dismantled a lot of it. They kept on finding such weapons, but as the pressure of force declined, Saddam’s cooperation declined. He began to play games to obstruct and undermine the inspection effort.

By 1998, the situation had become untenable. Saddam had made inspections impossible. President Clinton in February 1998 declared that Saddam would have to comply with the U.N. resolutions or face American military force. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad and returned with a new promise of cooperation from Saddam. But Saddam did not cooperate. The U.S. Congress then passed the Iraq Liberation Act by a vote of 360 to 38 in the House of Representatives; the Senate gave its unanimous consent. Signed into law on October 31, 1998, H.R. 4655 supported the renewed use of force against Saddam with the objective of changing the regime. By this time, Saddam had openly rejected the inspections and all the U.N. resolutions.

In November 1998, the Security Council passed Resolution 1205 declaring Saddam to be in flagrant violation of all U.N. resolutions going back to 1991. This terminated the cease-fire and reactivated the original authorization for the use of force against Saddam. President Clinton ordered American forces into action in December 1998 in an operation called "Desert Fox."

But the U.S. called off its military operation after only four days—at first stating respect for Ramadan, then apparently because President Clinton did not feel able to lead the country into war at a time when he was facing impeachment.

So inspections stopped. The United States ceased to take the lead. But the inspectors reported that, as of the end of 1998, Saddam possessed major quantities of weapons of mass destruction across a range of categories, particularly in chemical and biological weapons, and the means of delivering them by missiles. The intelligence services of the world agreed.

In The New Republic of December 21, 1998, former inspector Scott Ritter wrote that Saddam’s Iraq as of then had:

  • Its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure intact
  • Components for up to four nuclear devices and the ability to produce a highly enriched uranium fissile core
  • Long-range ballistic missiles and mobile launchers
  • An extensive covert procurement network for prohibited capabilities
  • Anthrax, botulinum toxin, and clostridium perfringens to fill bombs and missile warheads
  • Tons of VX nerve gas and mustard gas
  • The infrastructure and "cookbooks" to reconstitute large-scale chemical and nuclear weapons quickly

Saddam was left undisturbed to do as he wished with this arsenal of weapons and to rule Iraq as a rogue state. The international system had given up its responsibility to monitor and deal with this major threat.


Through all these changes, the Arab Middle East resolutely remained the one region without a single democratic government. Looking back on these decades, the Arab Human Development Report of 2002—an "unbiased, objective analysis" by "a group of distinguished Arab intellectuals," as the U.N.-published document stated—found that the region was uniquely impaired by its own bad governance. For generations, the report found, people of the Arab world have been hindered from acquiring information and have been denied freedom of expression.

Beyond that, Arab governments have suppressed the intellectual and social capabilities of half the population—Arab women. The report put it starkly: "The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab states. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development. . . . Fate has not decreed that political power in the Arab world should permanently exclude participation by citizens."

The varieties of Arab misrule over the decades since the end of the First World War produced economic, social, and political pathologies that provided fertile ground for the steady growth of a revolutionary religious ideology bent on taking command of the Middle East and turning the region as a whole against the rest of the world.