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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Iranian Revolution, 40 Years On: Oppression at Home, Aggression Abroad


After 14 years of exile, Ayatollah Khomeini speaks to followers at Behesht Zahra Cemetery after his arrival in Tehran, Feb. 1, 1979. (AP Photo, File)

“We are intent on tearing out the roots of corrupting Zionism, capitalism, and Communism in the world. We have decided to rely on God Almighty to destroy the regimes which are based on these three pillars, in order to spread the regime of the Islam of the messenger of God—peace be on him and his scion—in a world of arrogance.”

—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, July 20, 1988, quoted in The New York Times, July 23, 1988


Forty years ago this month, the secular, modernizing, pro-Western Iranian monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was toppled by the radical, totalitarian, anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran under Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By the end of 1979, the Islamic Republic had violently suppressed internal dissent, deprived the Iranian people—particularly women—of basic human rights, taken American diplomats hostage, and laid the foundations for a regime that would further intensify internal repression and commit worldwide acts of aggression designed to destroy Israel, make Iran a regional hegemon and challenge America’s global interests.


The Revolution: Exploiting Widespread Discontent to Establish Islamist Control

Nationwide demonstrations against the Shah began in October 1977, developing into a campaign of civil resistance that included both secular and religious elements, and intensified in January 1978. Between August and December 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country.

The Shah left for exile in January 1979. Khomeini was invited by the insurgents to return from his own 14-year exile, taking control on Feb. 11.

Beyond the expected suppression of supporters of the former Shah, particularly army generals and senior government officials, Khomeini’s Islamist regime betrayed its own partners in the insurrection: secular liberals, Communists, and members of reformist Islamic groups and leftist Islamic movements.

The regime summarily executed nearly 4,500 non-Islamists of all strands. A new theocratic constitution was approved in April, and in December Khomeini was declared the country’s Supreme Leader. By the end of 1979, the Islamist regime was firmly and exclusively in control.


Internal Oppression: A Fixture of the Islamic Republic

The Islamic Republic’s main tool of oppression has been its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), which has carried out imprisonment, torture or execution of anyone suspected of insufficient loyalty to the regime. Khomeini appointed Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, the “hanging judge,” as the Chief Justice of the Revolutionary Courts to provide a patina of legality to some of the executions, many of which were carried out in public. A common, particularly painful mode of public execution has been hanging from a crane. Beyond the court-approved executions, more than 3,000 political prisoners were murdered without even the pretense of legal proceedings.


When Khomeini died in 1989 and was succeeded as Supreme Leader by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, many hoped the regime would moderate. Those hopes were dashed. Peaceful protests continued to be violently suppressed, including a 1999 student protest at the University of Tehran, where protesting students were brutally murdered. In 2001, when crowds peacefully protested what was rumored to be a regime’s thrown international soccer game, many protestors were arrested and tortured in prison. And in 2009, large crowds protesting irregularities in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president were brutally repressed, including the arrest and torture of 1,000 protestors and murder of dozens. The government continues to similarly suppress ongoing countrywide protests, which began in December 2017. Thousands have been arrested and tortured, and dozens have been killed.

It is estimated that from 1979 to 2009 some 1.7 million people were arrested, jailed and sometimes executed in Iran’s notorious Evin prison alone.


Religious and ethnic minorities continue to face particular systematic oppression. Baha’is, a religious minority regarded by the regime as heretics and spies for Israel because Haifa, Israel, is their religious center, have suffered the most. They have experienced mass murders, arrests, torture, rape, destruction of temples and confiscation of properties. Within a few months of the revolution, their number in Iran had dwindled from 700,000 to 500,000. Among ethnic minorities, the regime has victimized mainly Kurds in the country’s northwest and Arabs in the southwest.


Women in Iran have also been subjected to intense oppression since the first days of the revolution. Most visibly, wearing a hijab in public is not a personal choice; it is imposed by the police. For any woman or girl over the age of nine, removing the hijab in public is a crime punishable by imprisonment. Iranian women cannot marry without the consent of their male guardians; married women cannot leave the country without their husbands’ permission. There are dozens of additional restrictions in Iran’s Sharia law on the rights of married women, including traveling outside the home, choosing where to live and being head of the household. Extramarital sex is punishable by stoning or slashing. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Iran 140th out of 144 countries for gender parity.


Finally, the regime also has little tolerance for freedom of the press. It has taken control of virtually all print and electronic media in the country, has blocked access to foreign media, and is doing its utmost to restrict access to social media not approved by the government. As do other totalitarian regimes, the Islamic Republic uses modern technology to monitor its population and apprehend those it deems less than loyal. From 1979 to 2009, Iran arrested, imprisoned or executed at least 860 journalists.


Taking Americans Hostage

Fifty-two American diplomats and other citizens were held hostage in Iran for 444 days, from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1981, after a group of Iranian college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It stands among the longest hostage crises in recorded history.

Former hostages described threats, beatings and fear of death. Two of them recalled being paraded blindfolded before an angry, chanting crowd outside the embassy. Others reported having their hands bound day and night for days or even weeks, long periods of solitary confinement, and months of being forbidden to speak to one another or to stand, walk or leave their space except for bathroom breaks. All the hostages were threatened repeatedly with execution. Some hostage-takers played Russian roulette with their victims.


Since then, Iran has continued to imprison U.S. citizens on spurious charges and without due process for decades.


Violence Against Americans Continues

In the 40 years since the revolution, Iranian mobs have never tired of chanting “death to America,” the “Great Satan.” The abduction and horrific treatment of the American hostages during the Islamic Revolution set the stage for unending acts of violence and abuse against Americans by Iran and its proxies.


A member of Iran’s top proxy—Lebanese Hezbollah, which was created and is funded and armed by Iran—detonated a truck bomb at the Marines barracks in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 American service members. That was the highest single-day death toll for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II; the highest single-day death toll for the U.S. armed forces since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War; the deadliest terrorist attack on American citizens in general prior to Sept. 11, 2001; and the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American citizens abroad. Another 115 Americans were wounded in the Beirut blast. Consequently, the U.S. State Department designated Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in January 1984.


From 1982 to 1992, also in Lebanon, Hezbollah took 25 Americans hostage. All were subjected to physical or mental abuse, and five were murdered. In 1984, Hezbollah shot to death Professor Malcolm Kerr, President of the American University of Beirut and father of the Golden State Warriors’ current head coach, Steve Kerr.


In 1985, Hezbollah hijacked America’s Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 847 traveling from Cairo to San Diego. Some passengers were threatened, and some were beaten. Passengers with Jewish-sounding names were separated from the others. U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered, and his body was thrown onto the tarmac. Dozens of passengers were held hostage over the next two weeks until some of Hezbollah’s demands were met.


In 1996, Iran and Hezbollah Al-Hejaz—another Iranian proxy—orchestrated a truck bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a complex housing U.S. Air Force personnel, killing 19 Americans and wounding 372.


In 1997, the United States designated Hezbollah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; in 2018, Hezbollah was also designated as a Top Transnational Organized Crime Threat.


From 2001 to 2015, Iranians and their proxies killed well over 1,000 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian factories mass-produced roadside Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs)—shaped charges designed to penetrate armor—the explosives used to kill American soldiers in Iraq. Iran’s militia allies in Iraq continue to threaten violence against American troops. Iran also paid Taliban fighters $1,000 for each U.S. soldier they killed in Afghanistan. 

In return for the release of five Americans hostages, Iran in 2016 secured from the U.S. the release from jail of seven Iranians and the dropping of charges against 14 Iranian living overseas. The deal did not resolve the longest-standing case: former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who has not been heard from since he was arrested in Iran in 2007. In the year after the trade, Tehran arrested another five Americans—all of whom are still detained in Iran.


Despite the often-antagonistic relations between Shia and Sunni Muslims, Shia Iran has provided shelter and assistance to Sunni al-Qaeda in solidarity against their shared enemy, the United States. Cooperation between Tehran and al-Qaeda goes back to the 1990s and, according to an official U.S. intelligence report, continues to this day. Iran has additionally provided logistical support for several major al-Qaeda attacks in which dozens of Americans were killed.


Worldwide Murder Campaign Against Iranian Dissidents, Israelis and Jews

Iran has murdered Iranian dissidents overseas, and through its proxy Hezbollah has killed and wounded hundreds of people in its worldwide murder campaign against Israelis and local Jewish residents.


Iranian Dissidents Abroad:

Tehran’s ongoing campaign of assassinating Iranian dissidents abroad began soon after the revolution and has continued ever since. The most notorious assassination took place in 1992, when four dissidents were murdered at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. A German courtissued an international arrest warrant for then-Iranian intelligence minister Ali Fallahian after declaring that he had ordered the assassination with the knowledge of Supreme Leader Khamenei and then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani.


Just last month, the U.S. intelligence community stated in its worldwide threat assessment that in mid-2018, Belgium and Germany foiled an Iranian MOIS plot to detonate an explosive device at an Iranian opposition group gathering in Paris—an event that included prominent American and European attendees.


The CIA has estimated that Iran mounted roughly 60 such attacks between 1979 and 1994, many of which were carried out or authorized by the MOIS. These assaults occurred in Austria, France and Germany, among other countries.


From 1979 to 2017, Iranian agents successfully murdered at least 18 Iranian dissidents abroad, including the July 1980 assassination of the president of the Iran Freedom Foundationin Bethesda, Maryland.


Murdering Israelis and Jews:

Twenty-nine people were killed and 242 were injured in a 1992 suicide bombing targeting the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. In 1998, Argentina expelled seven Iranian diplomats from the country, based on “convincing proof” of Iranian involvement in the bombing.


In an even deadlier attack, in July 1994, a suicide bomber blew up AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring more than 300. In 2006, Argentine prosecutors formally charged Iran and Hezbollah with the bombing, accusing Iranian authorities of directing Hezbollah to carry out the attack and calling for the arrest of former Iranian President Rafsanjani and seven others, including some who still hold official positions in Iran. Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi was accused of masterminding the attack.


In July 2012, a suicide bomber blew up an Israeli-operated bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing six and injuring 32. The New York Times reported that U.S. officials identified the bomber as a member of Hezbollah. A senior official told the paper that the attacker was “acting under broad guidance” from Iran to hit Israeli targets when opportunities presented themselves.

Also in July 2012, a Lebanese-born Swedish citizen was arrested in Cyprus. He admitted he was a Hezbollah member tasked with surveilling the activities of Israeli tourists on the island. He was sentenced to four years in prison. In the months preceding the disruption of the terrorist plot in Cyprus, Hezbollah and Iran were implicated in terrorist attacks and plots against Israeli targets in Thailand, India, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kenya.


Iran, Hezbollah Establish Terror Infrastructure in Latin America

Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have built a dense infrastructure in South and Central America. Tehran has established close ties with Latin American regimes that are hostile to the U.S.—including Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and particularly Venezuela, all of which have been repeatedly visited by senior Iranian officials.


Venezuela has granted Iranian military firms large tracts of isolated land to develop missile technology. A senior Venezuelan official sold nearly 200 passports to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups from 2008 to 2015 and was accused of developing financial networks to bring Hezbollah and other terrorists to Latin America and send illicit funds to the Middle East.

Hezbollah’s deadly attacks in Buenos Aires were made possible by the group’s establishment in the 1980s of a foothold in the lawless Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with its large Lebanese population. Since then, Hezbollah has built up its presence in Latin America, posing a wider danger to the Americas. The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2015 and 2016 said that Hezbollah “continued to maintain a presence in the region, with members, facilitators and supporters engaging in activity in support of the organization,” including efforts to build the group’s “infrastructure in South America and fundraising, both through licit and illicit means.” It noted that Hezbollah fundraising activities in areas of Latin America “remained an important regional nexus of arms, narcotics, pirated goods, human smuggling, counterfeiting and money laundering—all potential funding sources for terrorist organizations.”


In its most recent annual report on terrorism—for 2017—the State Department added: “A Hizballah operative was arrested by the FBI in the United States in June 2017. Among other accusations, he was allegedly involved in surveilling U.S. and Israeli targets in Panama. And according to early 2017 media reporting, the Bolivian security services previously uncovered and disrupted a Hizballah cache of explosive precursors in the La Paz area.” 


At least once, Iran tried to extend its terrorist activities from Latin America to the United States. In October 2011, two Iranian nationals were charged with a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. with a bomb at a Washington, D.C., restaurant and then bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies. One of the plotters was apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 25-years imprisonment.


Conclusion: Iran Needs to Be Curbed

The Islamic Republic of Iran—a repressor of its own people and aggressor against the United States, Israel and other U.S. allies—has not moderated its behavior since it came into being four decades ago. As the world’s top state sponsor of international terrorism, Iran remains a deadly foe with global reach, directly and through its main proxy, Hezbollah.

It is incumbent on the United States to do its utmost to curb Tehran’s aggression, help our allies confront the Iranian onslaught, and stand with the Iranian people against the brutal regime.


Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report