February 11 marks 35 years since the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic Republic of Iran. Looking back at the Jewish community’s public statements from the time, it is striking how many of the concerns expressed about the region-wide implications of the Iranian Revolution are still relevant today.
In an op-ed published in January 1979, the Anti-Defamation League examined the impact of the Iranian crisis on Israel and the West at a moment when it was unclear who would govern Iran: a fundamentalist Islamic government, right-wing military rule or a leftist-Communist oriented regime.
Not unlike the sentiment expressed following the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, in 1979 there was great fear of the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to a similar revolution. Should that happen, ADL wrote, “the fate of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman would most likely be sealed if the Shah is deposed and if Saudi Arabia experiences similar troubles.”
And as today, when analysts and even some Middle East leaders have accused Washington of misreading and misplaying regional developments in Iran, Syria, Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, ADL criticized the longstanding U.S. policy which relied on the stability of Saudi Arabia and Iran:
“The assumption has been that if Saudi Arabia and Iran were heavily armed with both U.S. political support and American-made weapons, they could withstand any and all attempts at overthrow and invasion by neighboring Soviet-backed enemies of by internal radical insurrectionists. As the Shah loses his grip over Iran, the reasoning behind America’s Persian Gulf policy appears to have been specious.”
In a line which could easily have been written during any point over the past 35 years, our op-ed posited: “In an era that is experiencing a rise in radicalism and instability, Israel is the only stable nation. If, as some Administration and State Department officials acknowledged recently, American intelligence had misread and underestimated the threat to the Shah, could it be that it is misreading the current situation of the Saudi royal family or underestimating Israel’s strategic importance?”
Even as we enter an era of growing energy independence in the U.S. and rising hopes about significant Israeli fuel sources, the strategic implications of a shut-off of Middle Eastern oil still leads to great global anxiety. In 1979, the specter of losing Iranian oil was a calamity for the West and Israel. As we wrote: “Twelve percent of American foreign oil imports and five percent of its total consumption are Iranian. The figure for Western Europe and Japan are even more imposing: 16% of oil consumption in Japan is from Iranian oil fields, 15% in Italy, 14% in Britain, 11% in West Germany and 10% in Canada. And for Israel, the figures go even higher – fully 60-80% of Israel’s oil comes from Iran.”
Most tragically, our op-ed highlighted fears for the welfare of the venerable Jewish community of Iran, which then numbered over 80,000: “While some Moslem religious leaders have issued statements assuring Iranian Jewry that they would be able to live as a ‘protected minority’ under an ‘Islamic Republic,’ it is clear that any change in government would raise questions about the future viability of a community that dates back 25 centuries…Recent revelations about anti-Semitic speeches delivered by Khomeini in Iraq have only served to confirm Iranian Jewry’s apprehension about living under an ‘Islamic republic.’”
Today, with a fraction of that community remaining in Iran, Jews worldwide still worry about their security and well-being.
Thirty-five years ago, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its sponsorship of international terrorism, and support for the perpetuation of the brutal Assad regime in Syria weren’t quite on the radar screen. Yet it is striking that Iran and the region’s instability and unpredictability remained a constant over the years.