WASHINGTON -- It is simply impossible to understand Iran today -- with its layer upon layer of advanced fanaticism -- without understanding the historic and spiritual chaos of 1978.
Washington's favorite, the Shah of Iran, had been ruling since the early 1950s, when the United States and Britain overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, a progressive reformer. To everyone's surprise, the Shah had been ruling Iran like an enlightened dictator. As the construction boom exploded in the cities, there were jobs everywhere for the village boys. Women were free. The Shah kept the Middle East safe for the West, and the Western powers dipped into the Iranian oil securely.
But all this time, in the small Iraqi city of Najaf, an old man with a long, unkempt white beard and the wraparound turban of the Iranian ayatollahs waited. True Shiite believers made hejiras to the grand Ayatollah Khomeini, seeking guidance. Meanwhile, in Iran, the progressive Shah had cut young male Islamists from educational promotion in the Islamic schools, so there was no future for them there.
In 1978, the Shah was diagnosed with cancer and Khomeini sensed the time was right to return to his homeland. He was barely on Iranian soil when he roiled the streets with massive demonstrations. Had the Shah shot into the crowds, he probably would have stayed in power, but an American military "adviser" counseled him strongly against that.
The Shah and his family went into nervous exile, first in Egypt, next in Morocco, then in Panama, and back to Egypt, where he died. America had once more forgotten one of its foreign friends. As for Iran, with Khomeini of the vivid dark eyes and his punishing Shia religion now in power, the country turned into the most backward, the most intolerant and the most hatred-ridden religious state in the world.
From the Strait of Hormuz to Aleppo, from Cairo to Riyadh and from Benghazi to Beirut, countries throughout the Middle East trembled with terror that they, too, could be made into a retrogressive religious state. It was the first fear of the threat now emanating from radical Islamists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and so many other troubled Arab states.
Yet something very curious indeed has happened. In only the last few months since the presidential election in Iran of Hassan Rouhani, a "moderate" Shiite clergyman, it looks as if Khomeini's grand experiment of punishing Islamism may be finally ending. If Rouhani really turns out to be the reformer he paints himself, international Islamism could go down in power as quickly and as totally as the Communist Empire in 1991.
Until that unexpected end, Moscow and the Soviet Union were the center of the Communist Internationale that was going to communize the entire world. Tehran and Iran likewise established the first religious Islamist state in our times, and in 1978 the intention was to create Islamist states all over the world.
Until the elections in June, there were few signs that Iran's clerical government would change, even though there were known to be liberals in the theocracy of power. Then suddenly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a country bumpkin without sophistication, lost the presidential election to Rouhani, who was backed by the nation's leading ayatollahs.
Still, foreigners wondered: Would Rouhani contradict Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust? (Answer: Yes, he did.) Would he meet with President Obama at the United Nations last week, or perhaps even shake hands? (Answer: No, he could not because of the many hard-liners still ensconced in positions of power in Iran.) Was Rouhani optimistic about a meeting soon between the two presidents? (Answer: Yes, he wants to meet with Obama within three months, within six months at the most.)
Tellingly, President Obama's words at the United Nations were considered by the Iranians to be both substantive and respectful.
Tellingly also, President Rouhani's words were considered respectful by the Americans. He promised that the Iranian state wanted a nuclear voice, but not a nuclear bomb. Rouhani also agreed to join a new round of Geneva negotiations for a political transition in Syria.
Lest you think that what is going on with Iran is not all that serious, remember that no U.S. president has met formally with an Iranian leader since the 1979 Khomeini revolution. Since that time, there have been the kidnapping of American diplomats and their release under President Ronald Reagan; at least a million killed in the 1980-'89 Iraq-Iran war; and Iran wrapped itself in anti-Americanism from the sidelines during several years of fighting in the Gulf War of 1991 and the bigger war that began in 2003. Finally, it now could actually be true that these two powerful countries, which badly need each other for their own good, will restart relations. It's about time.