The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution
In October 1962, the Shah’s government in Iran, as a step toward the extension of representative institutions, promulgated a law which provided for the election of representative local councils throughout the country. The religious leaders opposed the law, and raised three main objections. First, it gave women the vote, for the first time in Iran; second, it did not restrict eligibility or even the franchise to Moslems; and third, to show that this was no mere formality, it provided a formula of oath by which elected councilors would swear not on the Koran but on “the holy book,” a form of words clearly intended to accommodate elected councilors of other faiths.
The religious leaders were able to mobilize powerful support against the proposed law, which was opposed by preachers and teachers in mosques and seminaries, in petitions bearing thousands of signatures, and in meetings of protest and prayer. The prime minister wished to placate the opposition, first by trying to explain away the clauses that they disliked and offering to postpone the elections, and after that by sending telegrams and letters to the religious leaders informing them that the law had been suspended. Some of the religious leaders were content with this. Others, led by Khomeini, insisted that a private communication of a cabinet decision was insufficient and that a public announcement was required. This was made on December 1.
Khomeini’s arguments foreshadow his later views. Granting the vote to women was a violation of Islamic principles, and “an attempt to corrupt our chaste women.” The proposal to allow non-Moslems to vote or to be elected was part of a larger and deeper plot aimed at Islam and therefore ultimately at the independence of the country. The law, he said in a statement quoted in Shaul Bakhash’s book, “was perhaps drawn up by the spies of the Jews and the Zionists…. The Koran and Islam are in danger. The independence of the state and the economy are threatened by a takeover by the Zionists, who in Iran have appeared in the guise of the Baha’is.”
The incident, as Bakhash shows, was revealing in a number of respects. It revealed the nature of Khomeini’s concerns and perceptions; it demonstrated his skill both as a charismatic leader and as a political tactician; it illustrated the willingness of important parts of the Iranian population to respond to religious leadership in opposing the Shah’s government. The significance of these events was well understood by Khomeini. It was underestimated by both the Shah’s government and the liberal opposition, and it was entirely ignored in the West.
Encouraged by this victory, Khomeini launched a new attack in the following year, when the Shah’s government promulgated the land reform law. Khomeini was not impressed by the reform, which he denounced as a fraud. In general, he had little use for the Shah’s forced modernization, in which he saw the hidden hand of foreign enemies: “In the interests of …