The Triple Shocks of 1979 and the Making of the Middle East

by Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai. He is a U.S. Army strategist who has served in assignments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Lt. Col. Pillai is a published author in a variety of journals and online forums to include and received his Master of International Public Policy (MIPP) degree from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The opinion in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government or the Department of Defense.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC (Photo: Oliver Contreras).

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC (Photo: Oliver Contreras).

Presently, tensions between the United States and Iran remain high and, despite the defeat of the physical caliphate, the Islamic State remains a constant danger as seen by the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. These facts, along with the return of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, can be traced back to three cataclysmic shocks that occurred 40 years ago, and which continue to reverberate today.

In 1979 the world witnessed the Iranian Revolution, the Siege of Holy Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These had and continue to have a profound impact on both the regimes and people of the region and global powers to this very day. These three shocks, more than the traumas of the 2011 Arab Spring or the demise of the Ottoman Empire over a hundred years ago, continue to influence the strategic calculations of the United States and its European allies. The region’s centrality for global energy security remains a core national interest of the United States, and increasingly that of China who has been expanding its overseas presence to secure access to energy and raw materials to support its expanding economy.

A brief review of the triple shocks will highlight their interconnectedness these past four decades to the present day.

Shock #1 – The Iranian Revolution
On February 11, 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown and replaced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic Islamic Government. The Shah had come to power in 1953 after the CIA and MI-6 orchestrated a coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Andrew Scott Cooper, in his book “The Oil Kings“, chronicles the Shah’s rule and demonstrates that the Shah was the centerpiece for the U.S. strategy to contain the Soviet Union in the Middle East.

While the Shah’s regime acted as the proxy for the U.S. in the Middle East, the Government was extremely repressive towards its people while it spent vast sums of money on its military buildup (see also Paul Iddon, “In the 1970s the Shah sought to make Iran a military superpower“,, 09.09.2018). Additionally, the Shah’s lavish lifestyle and attempts at forcing modernization reforms angered the traditional Shia clerics. Leading up to the 1979 revolution, Khomeini rallied the opposition against the regime. Eventually, the opposition to the Shah proved overwhelming, forcing him to flee Iran. Thousands hailed the Ayatollah’s return in Tehran as the remnants of the monarchy collapsed. To prevent another CIA-backed coup, the Ayatollah formed the Revolutionary Guards to crush dissent and western influence culminating in the November 1979 seizure of American hostages at the American embassy. The embassy seizure spawned 40 years of hostility between Iran and the United States.

Since 1979, Iran became the chief state-sponsor of terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world. It supported the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah during the Lebanese Civil War that led to the 1983 bombings of the Marine Barracks and U.S. embassy. In turn, Lebanese Hezbollah has become one of the most dangerous hybrid militant organizations in the Middle East that fought Israel to a draw in 2006 and served as a critical element in the preservation of the Assad Regime in Syria. However, from 1980-2001 and 2003, the Iranians were effectively blocked from expanding their influence in the region by Saddam Hussein and in the east by the prolonged conflict in Afghanistan to include the rise of the Taliban.

The events of 9/11 led to the fall of the Taliban, followed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, that effectively unshackled Iran and allowed it to expand its influence throughout the region dubbed the Shia Crescent by the King of Jordan in 2004. From 2003-2011, Iran waged an unofficial proxy campaign against the United States by supplying Iraqi insurgents material support – to include use of Explosive Formed Projectiles (EFPs) – which the United States claimed Iran was responsible for the deaths of over 600 service members. In 2011, Iran claimed a strategic victory as the United States abided by its agreement with the Iraqi Government to remove its combat forces and leave a small advisory force behind. In 2014, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria provided Iran the opportunity to further its influence as its forces moved to support the Shia-led Government in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria (see also Austin Michael Bodetti, “Iran Needs Afghans and Pakistanis in Syria“,, 16.04.2016 and Galen Wright, “Iran Expands Presence in Syria With Special Forces Deployment“,, 19.04.2016).

Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, checks what Saudi officials said were Iranian-made Huthi missiles and drones intercepted over Saudi territory and the remnants of a "cruise missile" that slammed into Abha airport, Saudi Arabia on June 12, during a visit to an army base in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 21, 2019 (Photo: Fayez Nureldine).

Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, checks what Saudi officials said were Iranian-made Huthi missiles and drones intercepted over Saudi territory and the remnants of a “cruise missile” that slammed into Abha airport, Saudi Arabia on June 12, during a visit to an army base in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 21, 2019 (Photo: Fayez Nureldine).

Iran’s presence in Syria has escalated tensions with Israel as Israel has conducted military strikes against Iranian equipment and personnel. In 2015, Iran capitalized on the Yemen Civil War by supporting the Houthi rebels against the Royal Yemeni Government and their Saudi Arabian and Emeriti backers (see also Yara Bayoumy and Mohammed Ghobari, “Iranian Support Seen Crucial for Yemen’s Houthis“, Reuters, 15.12.2014). The war in Yemen has intensified with Houthi ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate, and attacks against shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb straits connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

In 2015, Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. In 2018, the United States withdrew from JCPOA and began to reinstitute sanctions against the Iranian regime for its malign activities in the Middle East. In 2019, the United States, as part of its Maximum Pressure Campaign, ended its waiver program for Iranian oil purchases to pressure the regime to re-negotiate JCPOA that would include rolling back its influence throughout the region. As a result, tensions have escalated recently with the United States enhancing its military presence in the area due to potential threats to the U.S. and its partner forces in the region.

Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, the United States and Iran remain one miscalculation away from war.

Shock #2 – The Siege of Mecca
On November 1979, Juhayman al-Otaybi and his band of radical extremists attacked Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca. The events of the Siege of Mecca were detailed in “The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine” by Yaroslav Trofimov. Juhayman al-Otaybi felt that the Saudi regime had become too decadent and had swayed from the strict interpretation of the Koran. The siege lasted 15 days and required the Saudis to seek support from France to reclaim its holy site. During the attack, Juhayman al-Otaybi declared himself the Mahdi, Islam’s religious redeemer who would appear at the “End of Days”. During the siege, tied with the recent unrest in the region, there were even moments when the Saudi Regime accused Iran of orchestrating the attack on the holy site highlighting the growing tension between the King of Saudi Arabia and the new Ayatollah. The Saudi Government executed al-Otaybi and his primary ring leaders at the end of the siege. Most of the rest of the extremists were jailed then released, and later joined or provided the inspiration for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. For the Saudi Regime, it was not the first, nor the last time they made a deal with the devil. However, the third shock, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, provided the Saudis the opportunity to re-direct the anger of the Wahhabist extremist in their country by supporting their efforts to join the mujahedeen against the atheist Soviets.

Picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah of arrested Moslem gunmen belonging to the group commanded by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who seized the Mecca's Great Mosque. Some arrested gunmen were later executed.

Picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah of arrested Moslem gunmen belonging to the group commanded by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who seized the Mecca’s Great Mosque. Some arrested gunmen were later executed.

The siege of Mecca can be linked directly to the events of 9/11 and today with the continued global threat from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The timeline of Islamic extremist leading up to 9/11 is laid out in the book “The Terror Timeline – Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11 – and America’s Response” by Paul Thompson.

The war in Afghanistan became fertile ground for extremists who became a pawn of the more significant geopolitical contest between the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States, as payback for Soviet support to the Communist Vietnamese, engaged in a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This covert war was detailed extensively in George Crile’sCharlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History” and Steve Coll’sGhost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001“. The CIA’s support for Islamic elements in Afghanistan would come back to haunt the nation first with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh”, who assisted in the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. The 1993 event became a prelude to a shadowy war against the United States led by Osama Bin Laden leading up to the 9/11 attacks. This shadowy war included Al-Qaeda’s alleged role in the incident of Black Hawk Down in Somalia, the 1998 attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 attack against the USS Cole in the Port of Aden, Yemen. Despite these events, the U.S. security apparatus missed the clues about an attack on the homeland as detailed in “The 9/11 Investigations Report” and “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and The Road to 9/11” by Lawrence Wright (also been filmed as a mini-series).

The American response to 9/11 would be America’s longest war in Afghanistan; however, it would be its invasion of Iraq in 2003 that would expand the war on terrorism regionally and globally. The war in Iraq gave rise to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the murderous leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. His psychological war against the West through videotaped beheadings would later inspire the Islamic State. Additionally, his attempts to ignite a sectarian civil war through targeted bombings of Shia holy sites gave Iran and Shia militia groups, to include those led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the rationale to persecute the Sunni community. Around this time, Al-Qaeda affiliates would form elsewhere in Africa and Yemen. In 2006 Zarqawi and then Bin Laden in 2011 were both killed by U.S. special operations, but their extremist ideology lived on and would morph into an even more ideological radical organization as a result of the Syrian Civil War and the Shia Government in Iraq’s crackdown on its Sunni minority.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and veterans of Al-Qaeda of Iraq reconstituted Al-Qaeda affiliate after the group’s defeat from the U.S. led counterterrorism campaign from 2006-2011. After the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, the Iraqi Government released large numbers of former Al-Qaeda members who proceeded to Syria to fight the Assad Regime. They became the core resistant elements fighting the Assad Regime and began imposing their will on the local Syrian population. Al-Baghdadi’s group’s extremist tactics led to their split with Al-Qaeda and the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State established its headquarters in the Syria city of Raqqah and began its infiltration of Iraq, leading to the capture of Mosul in 2014. The Islamic State’s rapid assault against the Iraqi Army led to its disintegration as it fled Mosul, Ramadi, and other major Iraqi cities. Their attacks against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and Baghdad led to an unusual situation where both the United States and Iran responded militarily to defeat their common enemy. In late 2014, Al-Baghdadi, taking a page from Juhayman al-Otaybi in 1979, declared himself the Mahdi in Mosul.

From 2014 to the present, the United States led a global coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Simultaneously, Iran led its informal coalition by supporting Iraqi Shia militia, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shia foreign fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. This unusual effort by two coalitions all led to the physical collapse of the Islamic State. During this period, the United States, European Nations, and even Iran suffered from directed or inspired attacks by the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan remain active and contribute to the instability in both countries. Additionally, it continues to inspire others to continue the fight as seen by the recent Easter attacks against Christians in Sri Lanka.

The threat to the Assad Regime by Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups in Syria provided Russia the pretext needed to militarily intervene to defend its client state and critical interests in the region just as it had in 1979.

Shock #3 – The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet objective was to support its communist client Government that had assumed power in 1978 but had little support from most Afghans. From 1979-1989, the Soviet Union engaged in a bloody insurgency against the Afghan Mujahedeen chronicled in “The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan“. As described above, Islamic extremists from the Middle East joined the war against the Soviets that led to the rise of Al-Qaeda. These extremist elements were indirectly supported by America’s covert war that included the transfer of stinger missiles to the Mujahedeen that had a devasting effect on Soviet forces. The financial drain of the war and human toll would contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union two years after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan, 1988.

Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan, 1988.

The eventual withdrawal of Soviet and later Russian support for the Afghan Government led to an Afghan Civil War that saw the rise of the Taliban. In the 1990s, the Taliban went on a campaign to purge its enemies to include the Shia communities within Afghanistan. In 1998, the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats which almost provoked a war with Iran. During the same period, the Taliban was providing sanctuary to Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network when he was forced to flee Sudan after the 1998 Africa Embassy bombings. From 1998-2001, Bin Laden plotted further attacks the West culminating with the 9/11 attacks.

After 9/11, an unlikely trio formed when the Russians and the Iranians provided the U.S. aid to enter Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban according to “America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies” by George Friedman. Eighteen years later, this unlikely trio would be on opposing ends as Iran and Russia began to support the Taliban as the Islamic State Khorasan threaten the stability in Afghanistan and the U.S. and NATO contemplated withdrawal. Like the situation in Syria, the Russians feared that an embolden Islamic State in Afghanistan would spread into the Central Asian States and then into Russia’s Islamic population across its southern peripheral areas to include Chechnya.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union which Russian President Vladimir Putin said during its annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation 2005 was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. According to Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to NATO’s expansion right to up to Russia’s doorstep, military intervention in the Balkans, and America’s war of the Middle East since 1991. Since coming to power, Putin’s objective has been to re-establish Russia as a great power and push back against the United States and the West. Russia’s actions included the 2008 Russia-Georgia War and its recent campaign to annex Crimea and support separatist in Ukraine since 2014. The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya affirmed Putin’s suspicion of the West that later drove his decision calculus to intervene in 2015 to support the Assad Regime militarily. For Putin, the annexation of Crimea, intervention in Syria, and support for the Taliban are about expanding Russia’s sphere of influence driven by its historical fear of strategic encirclement and invasion by its enemies. This fear today, though misunderstood, is no different from the Soviet view during the Cold War. As Benn Steil wrote in his book “The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War” that for the West “this view presumed that the problem of the Cold War had been driven by Marx, and not Mackinder. Ideology and not geography.” For Putin, it is about geography and the vulnerability it represents.

Al-Sisi positively glows with happiness as Putin presents him his gift during his visit in Cairo in February 2015: a Kalashnikov.

Al-Sisi positively glows with happiness as Putin presents him his gift during his visit in Cairo in February 2015: a Kalashnikov.

It is this logic that drives Russia’s tacit support for Iran in Syria, support for the JCPOA, and Russia’s efforts to disrupts the United State’s actions in the UN Security Council. For Russia, Iran is a useful tool to balance the United States in the Middle East. Russia is also expanding its relations with other nations in the Middle East to include Egypt and both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whom both expressed interest in purchasing the Russia S-400 Air Defense System.

Forty years ago, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent 18-year American war in Afghanistan has provided Russia the space needed to rebuild itself and project its influence in the Middle East again.

The aftermath of the Triple Shocks
The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan coupled with threats to the energy supplies of the Middle East led to the Carter Doctrine where U.S.-President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States would use force to prevent a hostile power from controlling the Persian Gulf. These two events and the ongoing threat of terrorism influenced the creation of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. In 1991, the United States employed the Carter Doctrine to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to ensure Iraqi did not threaten Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. Finally, the triple shocks of 1979 continue to influence U.S. national security strategy. In the 2018 National Security Strategy, it clearly articulates the three core interest in the Middle East is a region that is “not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable global energy market.” (p. 48). The continued focus of the United States to counter the threat of terrorism, countering Iran’s malign influence, and compete against the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East are linked to triple shocks of 1979 continue to reverberate today and for the foreseeable future.

This entry was posted in Chad M. Pillai, English, History, International, Security Policy, Terrorism.

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