The eventful year 1979 transformed the Middle East’s engagement with the global. In the previous two decades, anti-imperialist liberation movements and superpowers’ Cold War rivalries were familiar phenomena across the globe, connecting the region to the wider world through ideologies, ambitions, arms smuggling routes, and itinerant freedom fighters. With the waning of Cold War confrontations and the culmination of the Iranian revolution, the familiar scenery started to morph. Some factions of Iranian revolutions tried, and initially succeeded in, keeping liberational global ambitions alive for a few years. As new state apparatuses consolidated and the government defined a new regional agenda, however, those factions were pushed to the margins, sometimes brutally. This was not the end of the state’s global aspirations, however—they took a new shape in the decades following 1979. This round table discusses the transformation of the global through the events of 1979 in Iran and the neighboring countries. We ask which traces of pre-1979 globalist militancy were completely discarded, which were preserved, and in what form, and which new trends of global influence were initiated. We discuss the reverberations of this transformation in and beyond Iran.
To address these questions, we present findings on various aspects of the dissemination of Islamist ideology and militantism, and their links to pre-1979 ideas, actions, and institutions. We discuss the formation of the Liberations Movements Unit with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its roots in leftist guerrilla movements of the Middle East and beyond, and how its demise paved the way for the formation of the Quds Force in later years. We also address how this shift from the Liberation Movements Unit to the Quds Force sits in the larger organizational transformation of the IRGC; from an unruly revolutionary militia to an authoritarian military pursuing extraterritorial irregular warfare. As another aspect of the transformation of the global, we talk about the impact of the 1979 Iranian Revolution on Sunni Islamists—their views of revolutionary action and militantism, religious politics, and the role of the clerics. Relatedly, we follow Shi’a transnational networks for recruiting fighters, their roots in the Iran-Iraq war, and their underlying mechanisms. Together, the papers in this roundtable present new subject field for the study of the global as it transformed through 1979 and its aftermath.
This contribution will discuss the impact of the 1979 Iranian Revolution on Sunni Islamists. Often brushed aside as a footnote, the paper will argue that its impact was foundational and very influential for a number of key movements, for example in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, and perhaps even for their ways of doing politics and seeing the world. The paper will, for example, ask questions about the influence the revolution had on Sunni Islamists’ view of revolutionary action, both through street protests but also militant action, how it influenced notions of the ideal Islamic state, and the position of an Islamic state in the international system, and the role of clerics in it.
While a handful of scholarly works mention the general enthusiasm which the coming to power of a revolutionary Islamist government in Tehran initially drew from Islamist movements throughout the region, much of this literature is limited or outdated, and does not consider the revolution’s deeper, more long-term and multifaceted effects, including its impact on Sunni Islamic movements. This intervention is thus part of a wider reconsideration of both the origins of the revolution in the global radicalism of the 1960s and the 1970s, and its impact across the Islamic World immediately following 1979.
It is based on a rereading of movement literature, early publications sponsored by Iran and directed at an international Muslim audience (especially in Arabic), and interviews with participants and eye-witnesses to these processes.
This contribution tackles the familiar issue of the growth of jihadi foreign fighters (Byman, 2019; Hegghammer: 2010, Malet, 2013) in conflicts in the Muslim world, but from a new angle – examining the spread not only of Sunni but also of Shia Islamist transnational mobilization. Indeed, in spite of making up 15,000-25,000 militants in the ongoing Syrian civil war and of playing significant battlefield roles on the sides of the Assad regime, these other foreign fighters have tended to be ignored in the literature (although an exception is Reiff: 2020). What accounts for the transnationalization of Shia Islamist militancy, how far does this phenomenon date back to, and what are its underlying mechanisms? To what extent and how are thee Shia jihadi foreign fighters different from their Sunni counterparts?
By answering these questions, my contribution adds two elements to the literature. First, it illuminates the historical dimension of transnational Shia Islamist mobilization. It traces the Shia foreign fighters phenomenon back to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 by telling the little-known story of how thousands of Lebanese, Afghan, Iraqi, Bahraini and Saudi Shias travelled to Tehran to fight as part of Iran’s “holy defence” – over 3,000 of them were killed in battle. Second and at a more theoretical level, this paper questions the assumption found in the conflicts studies literature that “real” foreign fighters are necessarily “private” ones, and instead shows how state-sponsored foreign fighting is a category which, although working through different mechanisms, should be included when accounting for global militancy. On the whole, then, our paper tackles empirical and theoretical debates on militant Islamism.
Revolutionary regimes tend to use domestic resources to actively promote revolution through ideological, political, and military means in other countries. After the overthrow of the Shah, the export of the Islamic Revolution became a cause for Khomeini’s Iran. A few days after the collapse of the Pahlavi monarchy, Shaykh Muhammad Montazeri, a long-time anti-Shah activist, established the Revolutionary Organization of the Masses of the Islamic Republic, aka Satja (1979-1980) in Tehran to organize and assist international activists and liberation groups, from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Philippines and Eritrea. As a cofounder of the IRGC, he played a central role in establishing the Unit of Islamic Liberation Movements within the IRGC in November 1980, with the principal objective of embracing international liberation movements, backing the downtrodden (Mustazʿafin inPersian/al-Mustadʿafin in Arabic) across the world, and promoting the Islamic revolution abroad. When the unit was established, many individuals who had worked in Satja joined the IRGC. The controversial activities of the unit outside Iran led to its closure in late 1982. How were pro-Khomeini clerics and activists influenced by the ideas and movements of the global 1970s to internationalize the IRGC? How did they deploy the ideas and networks that were part of the global 1970s to launch the unit in the IRGC and spread the revolution? How did pro-Khomeini clerics understand and describe “exporting revolution” (sudūr-iInqilab)? Why did exporting revolution become a controversial issue amongst the revolutionaries?
To answer these questions, this contribution explores the trajectory of the unit in the context of clerical factionalism, the Iran-Iraq War, and the consolidation of the Islamic Republic. It seeks to shed light on how the initial failure to internationalize the IRGC influenced the formation of the IRGC’s Qods Force in the early 1990s and the course of the IRGC’s extraterritorial activities in the post-Khomeini era. This contribution also brings into focus the relationship between non-Iranian Sunni ulama and movements with the IRGC and challenges the dominant historiography which tends to ignore or downplay the revolution’s influence on Sunni forces.
Failed Globality: The Fate of the IRGC’s Liberation Movements Unit
The 1979 revolution in Iran came to fruition towards the end of a few decades of anti-imperialist armed activity around the globe. Militias that formed in Iran to advance the cause of the revolution and to defend it afterwards were far from isolated from this global trend. However, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a militia that the Iranian government organized to encompass all grassroots armed entities, initially incorporated the leftist, globalist, anti-imperial element in its structure, within a subchapter titled the Liberation Movements Unit (LMU). Today, however, the IRGC is known as the anti-thesis of liberation movements. Even though it still propagates “exporting the revolution,” the IRGC is infamous as a conservative military force operating both in Iran and the Middle East in service of Iranian Shi’a government’s geo-political interest. This article treats the formation and eventual demise of LMU as a platform to study the global origins of the IRGC and the traces it left within the organization as it was transformed.
I look at the brief history of LMU relying on published memoirs and documents. Consolidation of the post-revolutionary state and its new geo-political needs was the most obvious reason behind the IRGC’s change of international stance, from endorsing anti-imperialist guerrilla forces to supporting official and semi-official Shi’a militias in the Middle East in pursuit of the state’s interests. I argue that in addition to this explicit cause, two interconnected factors were behind the IRGC’s departure from LMU style of work and its eventual transformation. These include ideological frictions between LMU leaders and mainstream IRGC leaders and patrons; and the formation of a preferred organizational style of work within state apparatuses in general, and the IRGC in particular, with which the LMU did not comply.
Considered together, these two factors shed light on the IRGC’s trajectory and the internal dynamics it runs on, which heavily influence international relations in the Middle East today.