President Bush has said the Shia strain of Islamic radicalism is “just as dangerous, and just as hostile to America, and just as determined to establish its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East.” And Shia extremists have achieved something al Qaeda has not: in 1979, they took control of a major power, Iran.
The importance of the Iranian revolution is hard to overstate. In the words of the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis (writing in Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005): “Political Islam first became a major international factor with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The word ‘revolution’ has been much misused in the Middle East and has served to designate and justify almost any violent transfer of power at the top. But what happened in Iran was a genuine revolution, a major change with a very significant ideological challenge, a shift in the basis of society that had an immense impact on the whole Islamic world, intellectually, morally, and politically. The process that began in Iran in 1979 was a revolution in the same sense as the French and the Russian revolutions were.” (emphasis added)
The taking of American hostages in 1979 made it clear that “Islamism represented for the West an opponent of an entirely different nature than the Soviet Union: an opponent that not only did not accept the system of international relations founded after 1945 but combated it as a ‘Christian-Jewish conspiracy,’” Mr. Kuntzel wrote in Policy Review recently.
Ayatollah Khomeini said in a radio address in November 1979 that the storming of the American embassy represented a “war between Muslims and pagans.” He went on to say this: “The Muslims must rise up in this struggle, which is more a struggle between unbelievers and Islam than one between Iran and America: between all unbelievers and Muslims. The Muslims must rise up and triumph in this struggle.”
A year later, writes Mr. Kuntzel, in a speech in Qom, Khomeini indicated the type of mindset we are facing: “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”
“Whether or not they share Teheran’s Shiite orientation,” Joshua Muravchik and Jeffrey Gedmin wrote in 1997 in Commentary magazine, “the various Islamist movements take inspiration (and in many cases material assistance) from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Indeed. As Lawrence Wright points out in his book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”: “The fact that Khomeini came from the Shiite branch of Islam, rather than the Sunni, which predominates in the Muslim world outside of Iraq and Iran, made him a complicated figure among Sunni radicals. Nonetheless, Zawahiri’s organization, al-Jihad, supported the Iranian revolution with leaflets and cassette tapes urging all Islamic groups in Egypt to follow the Iranian example.”
Today Iran is the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world. For example, it funds and arms Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist organization which has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization except al Qaeda. Hezbollah was behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans and marked the advent of suicide bombing as a weapon of choice among Islamic radicals.
The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has said this: “Let the entire world hear me. Our hostility to the Great Satan [America] is absolute… Regardless of how the world has changed after 11 September, Death to America will remain our reverberating and powerful slogan: Death to America.”
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also declared his absolute hostility to America. Last October, he said, “whether a world without the United States and Zionism can be achieved… I say that this… goal is achievable.” In 2006 he declared to America and other Western powers: “open your eyes and see the fate of pharaoh… if you do not abandon the path of falsehood… your doomed destiny will be annihilation.” Later he warned, “The anger of Muslims may reach an explosion point soon. If such a day comes [America and the West] should know that the waves of the blast will not remain within the boundaries of our region.”
He also said this: “If you would like to have good relations with the Iranian nation in the future… bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don’t accept [to do this], the Iranian nation will… force you to surrender and bow down.”
In Tehran in December, President Ahmadinejad hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers, and he has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map. “More than any leading Iranian figure since Ayatollah Khomeini himself,” Vali Nasr has written, “Ahmadinejad appears to take seriously the old revolutionary goal of positioning Iran as the leading country of the entire Muslim world–an ambition that requires focusing on themes (such as hostility to Israel and the West) that tend to bring together Arabs and Iranians, Sunni and Shia, rather than divide them…”