If ever one year in recent times was a catalyst for change in the broader West Asian 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. Each event fostered the forces of radicalization with implications far beyond the region’s borders.
• Iran becomes a theocracy. Ayatollah 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”. Khomenei called for Islamic revolutions throughout the region. When the deposed Shah was admitted into the US for medical treatment, Iranian students took over the US embassy in Tehran. Khomeini set Iran on an adversarial course with the US that continues to this day.
As a result of US-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. And, of course, Iran is the focus of international inquiry for its nuclear ambitions.
• Saudi Arabia embraces the Wahhabis. On 20 November 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. 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 US. 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.
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.
• 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 its border in Central Asia. The invasion mobilized a whole generation of Muslims.
US support of the mujahideen, followed by its 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 West Asia of 30 years ago have left, in sharp contrast, a bitter and dangerous legacy.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Edward Djerejian, former US ambassador to Syria and to Israel, is the author of Danger and Opportunity—An American Ambassador’s Journey Through the Middle East (2008). Comments are welcome at email@example.com