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How Khomeini Made It

The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution

by Shaul Bakhash
Basic, 276 pp., $18.95

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 the Jews, America and Israel, we must be jailed and killed; we must be sacrificed to the evil intentions of foreigners.” This marked the beginning of a series of speeches, sermons, and declarations in which he attacked the Shah in language of increasing violence.

In June 1963 Khomeini was arrested and detained at a military barracks. News of his arrest led to demonstrations and rioting which were suppressed only with considerable bloodshed. At first, the Shah seems to have hoped that he could deal with Khomeini by appeasement. A number of royal emissaries called on him in his place of detention, and tried to persuade him not to interfere in politics. Khomeini later related that one of his visitors, no less a person than the chief of the Savak, told him: “Politics is lies, deception, shame and meanness. Leave politics to us.” To which, according to his own statement quoted by Bakhash, Khomeini replied: “All of Islam is politics.” Ten months after his arrest Khomeini was released and allowed to return to his home in Qom. The authorities claimed that Khomeini had agreed to keep out of politics; Khomeini himself denied that he had ever given any such undertaking.

In either case, he did not observe it. Ten days after his return to Qom he gave a major address, which was followed by several others. Though somewhat more conciliatory in tone than his earlier pronouncements, the note of opposition was unmistakable, and his denunciation of the Shah and of his presumed foreign masters became ever more vehement. When the Iranian parliament in October 1964 passed a law granting extraterritorial status to Americans in Iran, Khomeini denounced this as “a document for the enslavement of Iran.” By this vote, he said, the parliament had “acknowledged that Iran is a colony; it has given America a document attesting that the nation of Muslims is barbarous.”

Through this campaign, Khomeini added an important new element to his supporters. In condemning the extension of political rights to women and non-Moslems, he expressed the sentiments of great numbers among the conservative merchant and artisan classes and the devout poor. In denouncing the granting of extraterritorial privileges to Americans, he was expressing feelings and opinions shared by liberals and nationalists, and more generally prevalent among the educated and modernizing classes. In November 1964 he was arrested again, and this time sent into exile, from which he did not return for fourteen years.

For Khomeini, the first step toward home was his removal from Iraq to Paris. Though the distance was far greater, the means of communication were incomparably better. When King Ibn Saud, in 1927, first introduced the telephone to his Arabian kingdom, there was a great theological debate before the ulema were persuaded of the lawfulness of this alien invention. Khomeini and the Islamic fundamentalists suffered from no such compunction. From the first, as Dr. Bakhash points out, they were ready to make the fullest possible use of modern technology, its military weapons and—in the early stages more importantly—its media of communication. The Islamic revolution of Iran is probably the first revolution in modern history that was inaugurated by telephone, television, and tape recorder.

In Najaf in Iraq, where Khomeini lived for many years, communications were technologically backward and politically censored. In France he enjoyed the full advantage of direct dialing and free speech. By telephone, he could contact and instruct his many followers and disciples in Iran. Through tape recordings, he could bring his ideas, resonantly spoken in his own familiar voice, to far greater numbers than could ever crowd into a mosque. And thanks to television, and the willing compliance of those who operate it, he was able to win at least the acquiescence and often the lively support of important sections of Western public opinion and even of Western governments.

His return in triumph to Iran early in 1979 was the culmination of a long process extending over many years, in the course of which the position of the Shah and his regime was thoroughly undermined both at home and internationally, while the revolutionary forces mobilized the hopes and aspirations of millions of Iranians, and enjoyed the sympathetic support of a very large part of the international community. In this he was greatly helped by his three Western-educated, leftist supporters, Yazdi, Qotbzadeh, and Bani-Sadr. In the words of Dr. Bakhash, “They helped produce the bland responses that persuaded a host of foreign journalists, unfamiliar with Khomeini’s own writings, that once in power in Tehran, the Ayatollah would withdraw from affairs and preside as the benign father of a liberal democracy.”

Since Khomeini’s return, Iran has gone through all the classical stages of a major revolution—upheaval and repression, terror and revolutionary justice, intervention and war, ideological debate and political conflict, and vast social transformations. Half a million Iranians, mostly middle class and professional, have left the country and live in exile. Some ten thousand, including women and sometimes even young children, have been put to death in successive waves of public and private executions, while rebellion, intervention, and war have cost half a million casualties and created two million refugees.

The price of revolution is familiar, and has been paid at a high rate. The returns are still unknown, and it will be a long time before they can be evaluated. Meanwhile an extensive literature has grown up, most of it dealing with the circumstances of the revolution and the events that led to it, and in particular with the international ramifications. Less attention has been given to the sequence and significance of events inside Iran from 1979 onward. It is these events that form the theme of Dr. Bakhash’s brilliant and profound book, a model of the difficult discipline of contemporary history.

Dr. Bakhash, who has worked as both journalist and scholar, combines the liveliness and the immediacy of the one with the meticulousness and restraint of the other. He commands a narrative style that is at once lean and elegant, vivid and powerful. His analyses, penetrating and well informed, are lucidly presented. Unlike so much writing on current affairs, both academic and journalistic, this book suffers from neither jargon nor bombast, neither apology nor denunciation—at the most there are some gently ironic contrasts, suggested rather than asserted, between the aims and the achievements of the revolutionary factions. Dr. Bakhash’s writing is informed both by intimate personal knowledge of the country, its people, and the events through which they have passed, and by a scholarly study of the printed evidence and especially of the extraordinarily informative Iranian press, from which he has been able to enliven his narrative and analysis with many apt and vivid firsthand quotations.

Dr. Bakhash’s history covers many aspects of the life of revolutionary Iran, including some that have received little attention in the West. Such for example are the somewhat arcane disputes between different schools of revolutionary theology. Sometimes these differences are formulated in relatively simple terms. Thus, for Rajavi, the Mojahedin leader, “the struggle is over two kinds of Islam, one an Islam of class, which ultimately protects the exploiter; and a pure, authentic and popular Islam, which is against classes and exploitation.” A religious judge in Kermanshah put it even more simply: “The Islam that fires the hearts of the feudal elements is an American Islam.”

These, together with the more sophisticated debates, and with their social implications and political consequences, are examined in some detail in Bakhash’s book, but at the same time with due reference to the effect of straightforward violence, both formal and informal, in determining the outcome of these disputes. Some of the more dramatic passages in the book deal with the administration of revolutionary justice, by the courts and the streets, against the successive groups and individuals identified and marked for destruction as enemies of the Islamic revolution.

Khomeini took the view that the insistence on open trials, defense lawyers, and proper procedures was a reflection of “the Western sickness among us,” that those on trial were criminals, and “criminals should not be tried; they should be killed.” He also believed that trials were an expression of the popular will. “If the revolutionary courts did not prosecute them,” he said of those brought to trial, “the people would have gone on a rampage and killed them all.” Radical clerics around Khomeini encouraged this view: “The revolutionary courts were born out of the anger of the Iranian people,” said Sadeq Khalkhali, “and these people will not accept any principles outside Islamic principles.”

Western criticism made the angry even angrier, and a prosecutor, rebuked and attacked when he showed some concern for legal procedures and the rules of evidence, asked: “Should we dance to the tune of Amnesty International, that asks why we kill and do not grant amnesty, or to the tune of these gentlemen, who ask why we grant amnesty?” The official newspaper of the Islamic Republican party expressed the prevailing view, when it described liberalism as “the bulldozer of colonialism and the steamroller of imperialism.”

Dr. Bakhash is particularly enlightening on the constellation of forces supporting different factions and adhering to different schools—the choices that they made, and the consequences that followed. Why, for example, did the bazaar merchants, who had benefited so greatly from the Shah’s economic modernization, turn against him and give crucial financial and other support to the revolutionaries—and how did they fare afterward? Dr. Bakhash’s explanation is worth quoting at length:

Merchants resented the import licenses and privileges granted to court favorites. Although some of the new industrial families emerged from the bazaar and there existed economic links between industrialists and merchants, the two groups tended increasingly to inhabit different worlds. The bazaar merchants seemed relegated to secondary status by a government which emphasized industrialization and the “modern” sector of the economy; they sensed exclusion from a social world in which Western-educated government ministers and technocrats mixed easily with their counterparts in industry and banking. Moreover, by the mid-1970s, the major industrial families appeared to have developed a powerful grip over the economy by combining interests in industry with interests in banking, insurance, and trade. Several of the largest trading companies developed alongside major industrial enterprises.

These powerful industrial groups, along with dozens of lesser domestic industrialists, increasingly threatened the role of the traditional merchants. They were not only edging the bazaar merchants out of the wholesale trade; by establishing their own retail network and outlets, they were threatening the bazaar hold on the retail trade as well. Their price policies cut into the profit margins of the bazaar traders. The brunt of the government’s 1976 campaign to control high prices and profiteering fell on the smaller merchants and traders, thousands of whom were fined, publicly humiliated, and in some instances jailed.

Dr. Bakhash also has much to say on such questions as the rise and fall of Bani-Sadr, the repression of the left, and the changing economic policies of the revolution, culminating in the economic Thermidor of recent years. Economic realities have already forced the revolutionary regime to reconsider some of its economic doctrines and, more especially, its practices. Political realities are taking somewhat longer.

Dr. Bakhash is not primarily concerned with questions of foreign relations, but does pay some attention to these, presenting them—a welcome change—within the setting of internal developments rather than, as most of his predecessors did, the other way around. The war with Iraq, relations with the superpowers, Iranian attitudes toward the Arab world and toward Afghanistan, are seen from the perspective of Iranian domestic politics, and in the light of statements made by Iranian leaders to their own people rather than to foreign journalists. On the hostage crisis, Dr. Bakhash notes the importance of this affair in the transfer of power from the moderates to the hard-liners. In discussing the final release of the hostages, he notes four reasons, mentioned by Iranian leaders, which impelled them to take this step—the war against Iraq, the need for access to their frozen financial resources, the belief, in the words of Behzad Nabavi, the chief Iranian negotiator, that “the hostages are like a fruit from which all the juice has been squeezed out,” and finally the fear of what the incoming President Reagan might do. Again, to quote Nabavi: Carter, he said, was just “a peanut farmer,” but Reagan was a man who came on the scene “with a six-shooter, like a movie cowboy.” Alarm at what the man with the six-shooter might do was clearly a factor in bringing the hostage crisis to a conclusion.

During the twentieth century the Middle East has known many movements that called themselves revolutionary and tried, with greater or lesser success, to gain political power and to initiate major changes. The first of these was the Iranian revolution of 1905, which served as the pattern for a series of constitutional movements in the Ottoman empire and, between the two world wars, in its Arab successor states. The first of the interwar revolutions, that led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, brought a doctrine of nationalism and secularism, and inaugurated major changes in Turkey. It was however only the nationalist part of its program that had impact in other Middle Eastern countries. The growing influence of the fascist powers and, after their defeat, of the Soviet Union reduced the appeal of constitutional democracy, which was already somewhat discredited by the failure of its local exponents, and in the years following the Second World War the new revolutions were conducted for the most part by military officers who seized power and then looked around for ideologies and programs.

Iran, for the second time in the twentieth century, has set a new pattern—by carrying through a revolution with long ideological preparation, careful and elaborate planning, and extensive popular participation. Compared with these events, earlier movements which claimed the name of revolutionary in neighboring countries pale into insignificance. It will be a long time before we can assess the meaning and results of this revolution for Iran, for Islam, and for the world. Meanwhile Dr. Bakhash has given us a major book on one of the major events of our time.

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