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Ibrahim Al-Marashi

1979: The Year that Made the Middle East

IBRAHIM AL-MARASHI, The Square Advisory Board Member

TRT World | February 22, 2019

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1979 not only transformed the region but led to global repercussions still being felt 40 years later.

In February 1979 the Shah of Iran’s regime fell as Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Iran. The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution serves a reminder of how much the region was transformed around this upheaval.

The revolution set off a chain of events that shifted the primary zone of armed confrontation in the Middle East from Arab-Israeli conflict to the Gulf. It also coincided with a series of events within the same year that had little to do with revolution, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, but nonetheless impacted the region to the present.

Indeed 1979 is the year that made the current Middle East in terms of the three Iraq wars that would begin with the 1980 invasion of Iran and the conditions that gave birth to Al Qaeda.

Key events of 1979

Laid out in chronological order after February, the major milestones are:  

26 March – signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty

30 March – elections in Iran for an Islamic Republic

4 April – General Zia ul Haq takes power in Pakistan

16 July – Saddam Hussein becomes president of Iraq

4 November – Seizure of the US embassy in Tehran

20 November – Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca

25 December – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Not all of the events are not directly related, nor have a causal relationship, but set in motion trajectories that would result in three Iraq wars and the emergence of Al Qaeda and its eventual splinter group, Daesh (ISIS).

Iraq as a theatre of conflict 

At the time, Egypt was the regional hegemon and paramount front-line state against Israel until it signed a peace treaty in 1979. Even though the two countries do not share a border, Saddam Hussein sought to replace Egypt as the new pan-Arab hegemon to balance Israel, in addition to Iran, whose revolutionary government threatened the Arab world’s status quo.

Saddam Hussein, then vice president, pressured his elder cousin General Hasan al Bakr to resign and became president in July. Saddam viewed Khomeini’s leadership of an Islamic Republic as a threat, as the Ayatollah urged the Shia of Iraq to overthrow his government and the monopoly on power held by the Arab Sunni-minority and secular Iraqi Baath Party.

By November Iranian students seized the US embassy inaugurating the enmity between the Islamic Republic and the US that endures to this day. With this rupture of the American-Iranian alliance that began with the Shah, Iran was internationally isolated, presenting an opportunity for the Iraqi president.

Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, assuming its military was eviscerated after the revolution. His assault sought to trigger a collapse of the Islamic Republic, allowing himself to project Iraq as the new pan-Arab hegemon. Saddam assumed the war would be a few months, but instead he ushered in an eight-year war, one of the longest conventional wars of the twentieth century. 

The debt Saddam incurred from Kuwait to finance this war led to the invasion of Kuwait itself in 1990 to erase that debt. America’s failure to remove Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War left unresolved issues which led to the 2003 Iraq War, which created the instability in the country that would lead to the emergence of Daesh.

The declaration of the Islamic State in 2014 represents the culminating point in the second series of interlinked events that also began in 1979.  

The rise of Al Qaeda 

The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in March by Shia revolutionaries inspired Sunni Arabs throughout the Arab world, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to more extreme and violent groups that would eventually form Al Qaeda. The revolution provided a model of overthrowing a strong government, despite being supported by the US.

In November, armed followers of Juhayman al Utaybi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, challenged the royal family’s religious credentials to rule over the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina. It was the first revolt from within Saudi Arabia by Saudis against the House of Saud since the failed Ikhwan rebellion in the twenties. 

The group that seized the mosque served an ideological precursor in the eighties for the Al Qaeda that would later emerge in the nineties.

Osama bin Laden was a young man in 1979, alarmed by the Saudi military desecrating the holy site with tanks and artillery to flush out the rebels. The royal family had to call in foreigners, French special forces to defeat the rebels, foreshadowing when the House of Saud would call in American forces to defend the Kingdom in 1990 when Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait. 

The latter event is often attributed as the motivating factor as to why bin Laden revolted against the Saudi royal family.

While Pakistan is not considered part of the Middle East, events there and in neighbouring Afghanistan would eventually impact the region. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, was executed in April after a military coup led by General Zia ul Haq. 

Zia would go on to help spread a foreign, and more extreme, interpretation of Islam in Pakistani society during his rule in the eighties. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, Zia supported the mujahideen resistance wholeheartedly. It was Pakistan and US support that allowed Bin Laden to set up shop in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the border with Afghanistan, where he used his connections to set up financial and moral support for the mujahideen. 

While Bin Laden’s network of foreign fighters played a marginal role in defeating the USSR, which withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the defeat of the Cold War superpower led to his belief that his network could bring down the remaining superpower, the US.

The Islamic Republic served as a model of power that threatened the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, leading it to export a more militant form of Wahhabism afterwards. Such ideology took root in madrassas and the clergy across Pakistan and Afghanistan, leading to the birth of the Taliban and its seizure of Afghanistan by the mid-nineties, providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda to plan the 9/11 attacks.

In a non-sequitur the Bush administration’s responded to the 9/11 attacks by including Iraq in its “War on Terror,” and America’s ensuing invasion allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to form in the chaos, eventually breaking away to become Daesh in 2014, a group that took more than four years to defeat, but still poses a threat.

The year 1979, like the Arab spring year of 2011, serves as a hallmark for the region. The year not only transformed the regional power structure but resulted in reverberations globally that still manifest 40 years later. 

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