Was the Iranian revolution really the catalyst for modern religious extremism? Nope.

In case you didn’t notice – or don’t care – today marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. It was this day in 1979 that the Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolt against the Shah of Iran consolidated victory in what became known as the Dah-e-fajr (the ‘ten days of dawn’ in Farsi, the period between Khomeini’s return from exile in France and the army’s stand down).

If you missed today’s significance it is nonetheless impossible that you know nothing about what has happened since that day in 1979. Iran has become a Shia theocracy and an international bad boy, responsible for everything from pursuing nuclear weapons (perhaps) to the sponsoring of terrorist groups such as Hizballah (no doubts there). Iran is regularly seen as one of the most significant threats to world security and George W. Bush even accorded it a place of honour in the ‘Axis of Evil’ in 2002 (the axis also included Iraq and North Korea).

I have read a lot of analysis over the past few days that maintains that the Iranian revolution was the catalyst for the current wave of religious terrorism we have been living through for decades (David Rapoport’s ‘fourth wave’ of terrorism). Senior US officials under the Trump Administration have raised Iran’s name with increasing regularity: is it just me or does this evoke memories of 2002-3 when Iraq received similar opprobrium which was capped by the US invasion? And look how that ended – will we see something similar in Iran (I for one hope not)?

I happen to believe that this analysis is wrong and I will try to outline why in this blog. But before I do maybe a little context would be helpful. From 1985 to 2005 I was one of the lead Iranian analysts within the Canadian intelligence community (both at CSE and CSIS). I was fluent in Farsi (or Persian) insofar as I could read anything written in that language. I also became a student of modern Iranian history, reading every decent book out there on the topic. So, I guess you could call me an expert on Iran of sorts (I no longer see myself as one though).

Those who maintain that Iran was behind religious extremism and in essence created jihadism and the conditions under which groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State were able to arise are guilty of flawed analysis. Here are a few reasons why:

  • people seem to forget that 1979 was the year of two other momentous events that are much more tied to the rise of Islamist extremism: the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The former was proof of a worrisome presence of Sunni extremism in the Kingdom – more on that later – and the latter gave rise to the birth of Al Qaeda and all that group represents.
  • Islamist extremism is largely a SUNNI, not a SHIA, phenomenon. In fact SUNNI extremists hate the Shia and seek to kill them at every turn in what is nothing more than a campaign of violence that dates back to 680 AD. There is very little Shia on Sunni terrorism and no honest analysis can equate the two.
  • The most significant Islamist terrorist groups are Sunni: AQ, IS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Tayba, Jemaah Islamiya, the list goes on and on. The only significant Shia terrorist group that comes to mind is Hizballah.
  • The one nation that has been trying to convince the world that Iran is the problem is…Saudi Arabia. This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Not only is the Saudi aberration of Wahhabi Islam the basis for much of today’s Islamist extremism but the Saudi regime continues to spread intolerant, hateful Islam throughout the Muslim world by sending preachers and literature that foment violence. The world needs to take all this talk about Saudi reform under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman with a whole mine of salt.

For the record I am not advocating seeing Iran as an international boy scout. There is much that Iran does that is not helpful at a minimum and worrisome at the other end, and we need to both keep an eye on it and thwart its efforts to cause trouble. But to say it is the reason for 9/11 and all the other mass casualty attacks and terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Allah is simply not true.

I do hope that the Iranian people will eventually get the regime they sorely want. But to blame Iran for all the world’s ills and more narrowly modern Islamist terrorism is just bad analysis.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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