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The Revolution Against Itself

Iran Since the Revolution

by Sepehr Zabih
Johns Hopkins University Press, 247 pp., $21.50

Iran: The Untold Story

by Mohamed Heikal
Pantheon, 217 pp., $14.50


When Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq guerrilla organization, fled Iran in July 1981 and arrived in Paris to establish their National Resistance Council and a government in exile, both men believed the fall of Ayatollah Khomeini to be imminent. Rajavi was then predicting the collapse of the regime in a matter of weeks. Today, more than a year later, Khomeini and his allies not only maintain their hold on the country but have survived a series of convulsions.

Since June 1981, the Mojahedin and other guerrilla organizations have killed hundreds of members of the Revolutionary Guards and committees, minor officials and clerics. They have assassinated religious leaders, government officers, and members of the ruling Islamic Republic Party (IRP). In addition to Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, Khomeini’s right-hand man, those killed have included a president, a prime minister, the revolutionary prosecutor-general, the chief of the national police, four cabinet ministers, some twenty parliamentary deputies, and six ministerial undersecretaries. Leaders of Friday prayers in four major provincial towns, Rasht, Tabriz, Shiraz, and Yazd, lost their lives. All four were part of the chain of command through which Khomeini’s writ is exercised in the provinces. Half the command staff of the armed forces was wiped out in September last year, when the chief of staff, the minister of defense, and two other top commanders lost their lives in an air crash.

None of this has caused the collapse of the regime. Shortages of basic necessities, food lines, nearly two million war refugees, a widespread sense of misgovernment and corruption, forced military conscription and alienation of the merchant and middle classes have not as yet led to the kind of mass strikes and protests that brought down the monarchy in February 1979. The regime has even had a number of successes.

Iranian forces earlier this year expelled Iraqi troops from Iranian territory, and in July, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the two-year-old Persian Gulf war, crossed the frontier and invaded Iraq. The glut in the oil market notwithstanding, Iran was able to increase its oil exports. While these fell back again recently, as a result of Iraqi harassment of tanker shipping at Iranian ports, the government has for the moment at least survived a severe shortage of foreign exchange. By exploiting differences among the Arab states, using trade as an incentive, and lobbying among the nonaligned countries, Tehran has to a degree emerged from its diplomatic isolation.

In Iran Since the Revolution, Sepehr Zabih, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College in California, seeks to explain the Khomeini regime’s seemingly remarkable staying power. Professor Zabih views the Iranian revolution as a good thing gone sour, “an authentic and anti-dictatorial popular revolution” that was “transformed into a fundamentalist power grab” by the men around Khomeini. Because he never provides an adequate analysis of the aims and relative strength of the members of the coalition that overthrew the Shah, Zabih does not really demonstrate, as he sets out to do, in what way Khomeini’s domination of postrevolution Iran was “unplanned and avoidable.” What he does provide, as others have done, is an account of the steps by which the clerics of the radical right and their allies came to control the institutions of the state.

Having consolidated his hold on the country, Zabih tells us, Khomeini has retained control partly through the “power of the purse” and complete domination of the press, radio, and television. He also relies on the Revolutionary Guards, on a network of village mullas, or preachers, who mobilize the masses, and on the hezbollahis, the “partisans of the party of God,” whose effectiveness in breaking up opposition rallies has deservedly earned them the label of chomaqdars, “the club-wielders.” These various “instrumentalities” (to use the political jargon that occurs throughout the book) have been backed up by the harsh justice of the revolutionary courts, the multiplying prisons and the firing squads.

According to Amnesty International, in the first twelve months following the impeachment and ouster of Bani-Sadr, there were nearly three thousand officially reported or confirmed executions. Hundreds of executions have been reported since June 1982. Many executions, moreover, are never publicized. Mistreatment and torture of prisoners is vicious and widespread. Since Zabih’s book was written, the instruments of control have grown more elaborate and more powerful.

The government has taken over much of the economy, including major industries, banking, insurance, and important sectors of foreign and domestic trade. Men beholden to the new order dominate the Tehran ministries, the provincial administration, and the universities. In factories and offices Islamic committees browbeat managers and fellow employees. The parallel government of revolutionary organizations, such as the revolutionary committees and guards, the Crusade for Reconstruction, the Martyrs Foundation, and the Center for Combating Sin, provide jobs, salaries, and often guns and influence to tens of thousands of young men recruited from the urban and small-town underclass.

The takeover of the legal and court systems by the clerics is not yet complete but is being pushed forward. At the military bases, clerics appointed by the “Political-Ideological Office” of the armed forces guard against ideological deviation. Under a bill euphemistically entitled the “Law for Reconstruction of Government Offices,” purge committees are again reviewing the status of government employees. The head of the civil service has said that those who stand against the revolution or who cannot be “corrected” will be dismissed.

The demand for ideological conformity has grown more intense in recent months. Civil servants are continually pestered with questionnaires that probe into their family connections, political ideas, and revolutionary dedication. Applicants for entry into a three-year program to train university instructors are required to declare their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and the revolution, and to the principle of velayat-e faqih, or “the governance of the Islamic jurists,” the doctrine that accords primacy in the administration of the state to Khomeini and his clerical successors.

Applicants must also be practicing Moslems. Non-Moslems must be faithful to their own religions, must refrain from behavior “offensive to an Islamic society,” and are excluded from all fields of study except accounting and foreign languages. Such requirements have become common for many government jobs and training programs, and members or sympathizers of groups considered deviant are often barred from applying. Those suspected of ideological flaws are likely to find access to university places and even ration cards denied them.


These developments have not taken place without serious opposition. Several prominent religious leaders, including Ayatollahs Qomi-Tabatabai, Shirazi, Mahallati, and Zanjani, and the religious teacher Ali Tehrani, have spoken out and issued declarations against the excesses of the regime. In a typical statement, which Zabih quotes, Ayatollah Zanjani condemned, in January 1981, the arbitrary sentences handed down by the revolutionary courts, the unlawful confiscation of property, purges in the civil service, and rule through fear and intimidation. Yet, as Zabih pertinently points out, such statements do not seem to have evoked any response from significant parts of the population. On the contrary, any critical and independent voices, even among well-known religious leaders, were quickly silenced.

The case of the once powerful Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari provides a striking example, of which Zabih cites earlier instances, of the manner in which mosque, mulla, and the media have been organized to ruin the reputations of important opponents of the regime. The case also illustrates the helplessness of those against whom such tactics are used. Shariatmadari was a moderate among the clerical leaders. He opposed clerical involvement in political affairs and the extensive powers granted in the constitution to Khomeini under the principle of velayat-e faqih, and he has been more or less under house arrest in Qom since December 1979, when protests against the new constitution by his followers in Azerbaijan were suppressed. But he retains support in Azerbaijan and among the merchant community. Apparently some of the clerical leaders feared that should he survive Khomeini he would be able to reassert his influence.

The agent of the most recent attack on Shariatmadari was Sadeq Ghotbzadeh the former foreign minister and aide to Khomeini—one of the Westernized liberals who have been devoured by their own revolution. In May of this year he was arrested on charges of plotting with army officers and a number of clerics to overthrow the regime. As usual, the facts of the case as presented by the authorities were vague. When put on trial, Ghotbzadeh denied that he intended to overthrow the Islamic Republic or to have Khomeini killed. But he admitted that he hoped to unseat the current government, and he was executed in September.

During his testimony, Ghotbzadeh implicated Ayatollah Shariatmadari. He claimed that Shariatmadari was aware of his plan, provided financial assistance, and promised to bless the takeover of the government if it succeeded. Shariatmadari’s son-in-law is among those who have been put on trial. Whatever the truth of Ghotbzadeh’s allegations, they were used to organize an intense campaign against Shariatmadari. The government has released obviously doctored documents to suggest that in negotiations with the Shah’s representatives in 1978, Shariatmadari approved martial law, favored keeping radical members of the opposition in jail, and described himself as an opponent of Khomeini. In Parliament and from the pulpit, several younger clerics have accused Shariatmadari of treason. This summer a declaration issued in the name of seminary students from Azerbaijan stated that they would no longer accept study grants from him.

Shariatmadari’s center for Islamic study and publication in Qom has been shut down. The influential Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, in a move virtually without precedent, has demanded that Shariatmadari be deprived of his position as a marja-e taqlid (literally, “source of emulation”). This title is conferred by general consent on someone for his great learning, and it implies that the holder is qualified to act as a guide to members of the community in religious and other matters. No voice was raised against this treatment of an eminent religious leader.

Part of the explanation for the failure of even prominent religious leaders to protest lies in the pattern of repression that Zabih describes. But repression is not the whole story. Zabih refers only in passing to the social groups from which Khomeini draws his support and who share his particular Islamic vision. He tells us, for example, that the regime has acquired legitimacy through referendums and presidential and parliamentary elections. He notes that over a million people attended the funeral of Beheshti. He remarks on the village preachers and the “rag-tag” of Revolutionary Guards on whom Khomeini relies.

But if Khomeini’s supporters and the young men who staff the revolutionary organizations represent identifiable social groups, or if the extensive purges in the bureaucracy and the rise of a new bureaucratic elite amount to something more than mere replacements in jobs, we do not learn about this from Zabih. If the fierce struggle since the revolution over agricultural land, urban property, jobs, and the control of economic resources has social and economic roots, the author does not tell us about it. These omissions leave a gaping hole at the center of Zabih’s book, which tends too often to remain simply an account of political events.

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