JANUARY 1, 2010, 6:30 P.M. ET
If ever one year in recent times was a catalyst for change in the broader Middle East and Muslim world, it was 1979. One ray of bright light in that year of darkness was the signing of the historic Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Conversely, three events had dire consequences with which we live today.
First, there was the overthrow of the shah of Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Second, there was the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by a group of Islamic extremists. And third, there was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Each event fostered the forces of radicalization with implications far beyond the region’s borders.
• Iran becomes a theocracy. Khomeini’s revolution in the early months of 1979 established the wilayat al-faqih, or rule by a Muslim cleric who became the Supreme Leader. He, in effect, formed a theocratic system in Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, and declared the new regime to be “God’s government,” warning that subsequent disobedience was a “revolt against God.”
Ayatollah Khomenei called for Islamic revolutions throughout the region. When the deposed shah was admitted into the United States for medical treatment, Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, beginning the 444 day hostage ordeal. Khomeini set Iran on an adversarial course with America that continues to this day.
As a result of U.S.-led military action, two of Iran’s enemies have been overthrown—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein‘s regime in Iraq. Iran has been expanding its influence in the region. It is the most important patron of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it supports Hamas, thereby extending its reach into the Levant and the Arab-Israeli conflict. And, of course, Iran is the focus of international inquiry for its nuclear ambitions.
• Saudi Arabia embraces the Wahhabis. On Nov. 20, 1979, a group of Islamic extremists attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, and held it for two weeks. The extremists included Saudis and Egyptians who were disenchanted with the Saudi regime. They proclaimed that the “Mahdi,” the “Guided One,” had come to restore righteousness and redeem the world and form a just Islamic society.
The leader of the dissidents was a tribal preacher who opposed the conservative Saudi leadership as impious and in the hands of the West, especially the U.S. The seizure of the Grand Mosque was a blow to the Saudi regime’s legitimacy, and to its role as guardian of Islam’s holy places. It was only after a bitter armed confrontation and assistance from France’s elite Gendarmerie special forces unit that the Saudis were able to defeat these radicals.
In response to this crisis, the Saudi leadership perceived it to be in their interest to bolster their Islamic credentials by binding the regime even closer to the ultraconservative Wahhabis in the kingdom. The Saudi government upped its financial support for the spread of Wahhabi doctrine on a global scale, including assistance to some madrassas, such as those in Pakistan, that teach an extreme view of Islam and have trained militants that later swelled the ranks of al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups.
In recent years, however, and as a result of acts of violence and terrorism directed against targets in the kingdom, the Saudi government has begun to crack down on Islamic terrorist groups inside the country and on its borders—as evidenced by recent military actions against groups based in Yemen.
• The Soviets invade Afghanistan. In late December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded this mountainous, undeveloped nation, in order to maintain a pro-Soviet regime on their border in Central Asia. The invasion mobilized a whole generation of Muslims, and turned Afghanistan into a flashpoint in U.S.-Soviet relations.
I was the head of the political section of the U.S. embassy in Moscow at the time. I accompanied our ambassador, Thomas Watson Jr., who had been asked to come to the Soviet foreign ministry by Foreign Minister Gromyko’s deputy. He told us “that the Soviet government wanted the United States to be the first to be informed of the Soviet Union’s response to the Afghanistan government’s request for humanitarian assistance.”
We of course already had clear and timely information about the Soviet military action. Ambassador Watson turned to me and asked, rhetorically, “Is the translation correct” and I replied, “Unfortunately, it is.”
Watson glared at the deputy minister and asked in no uncertain terms, “Is this what you want me to report to my president [Jimmy Carter]? Do you understand the consequences of your military action on the relations between our two countries?” The startled man had no answer, and we got up and stormed out of the room.
The consequences were great. Under the Carter and Reagan administrations, a major effort was made to make the Soviets stand down. The U.S. supported the Afghans and the mujahedeen in a way that facilitated the Soviet defeat—a defeat that was a major factor in the demise of the Soviet Union.
There were other unintended consequences. Our support of the mujahedeen, followed by our virtual abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat, helped create a radical fringe of Islamist fighters and radicals, including Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Last year we celebrated the great historic achievements marked by the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification of Germany. But we should also remember that events in the broader Middle East of 30 years ago have left, in sharp contrast, a bitter and dangerous legacy.
Mr. Djerejian is the author of “Danger and Opportunity—An American Ambassador’s Journey Through the Middle East” (Simon & Schuster Threshold Editions, September, 2008.) A former ambassador to Syria and to Israel, he is the founding director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
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