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What Khomeini Did

Millions of frenzied Iranians greeted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he returned in triumph to Iran in February 1979 to claim the leadership of the revolution he had set in motion. Frenzied millions mourned his passing last month, snatching at the shroud covering him in order to have a shred, a memento, of his supposed sanctity. For ten years, Khomeini dominated Iran. But like many other autocrats, before he could put in place the arrangements for his own succession, he died. The particular form of Islamic government of which he was the architect will probably not survive him.

Khomeini came to power with a vision. He wished to create an Islamic state modeled on the community the Prophet established in seventh-century Arabia, a community based on Islamic law and ruled by the clerics. Khomeini did not originate the concept that the clerics, as heirs to the mantle of the Prophet, have a mandate to rule. But the idea of the Islamic jurist as the regent of the Prophet, empowered to decide any issue of public life, was, until his time, only an idea. He articulated and elaborated it with great force; and he turned it into reality.

Since the Islamic revolution ten years ago, the clerics, astonishingly, have governed Iran. They hold the principal offices of the state and dominate parliament, the judiciary, the revolutionary organizations, and the state security apparatus. They watch over the technocrats and laymen who run the ministries. They conceive and formulate the ideology of the state. They decide issues of peace and war and of foreign policy. Clerics, as Khomeini’s personal representatives, sit in almost all major government organizations.

At the apex of the entire structure was Khomeini himself, the faqih, the supreme Islamic jurist. He exercised enormous power by virtue of his personality, the authority vested in him by the constitution, and the deference with which the increasingly sycophantic clerics and officials of the Islamic Republic treated him.

His lieutenants looked to him to resolve their differences on major issues of policy. His imprimatur was necessary before the war with Iraq could end or other major policy initiatives be undertaken. Senior clerics continued to elaborate the theories justifying Khomeini’s authority as supreme jurist until this authority seemed virtually limitless. Not only was he held to rule by divine mandate, but the legitimacy of parliament and its laws, of the constitution, of the Islamic state itself, all were said to derive from his “permission.” By implication, he could withdraw his sanction for the entire set-up whenever he saw fit.

Such exaggerated claims on Khomeini’s behalf were extended to international relations. President Ali Khamenei spoke of Khomeini as the leader not only of Iran’s Shi’ites but of Shi’ites everywhere. Others claimed for him spiritual leadership not only of all Shi’ites but of the worldwide Muslim community. “The hope of the world’s disinherited” was one of the many titles used to address him. Khomeini never discouraged such adulation. He took his role as spiritual leader of the Muslim world with great seriousness. In January, for example, he addressed a message to Mikhail Gorbachev, applauding the Soviet leader for abandoning the false god of communism but urging him to avoid the equally false god of capitalism. Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders, he advised, should reject materialism, return to God, read the Koran, and study the Islamic philosophers and mystics.

Iranian commentators made explicit the historic precedent implicit in this offer of guidance to the misguided. Legend has it that in the seventh century the Prophet sent a similar message of warning, and a similar invitation to follow the straight path, to the rulers of Iran and Byzantium. Again, it was as defender of the world Muslim community against the supposed insults and blasphemous content of The Satanic Verses that Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death. He addressed his last will and testament not only to the people of Iran but “to all the Muslim nations and the oppressed of the world.”

Khomeini believed Iran’s Islamic revolution could become the model for revolutions elsewhere in the Islamic world; they would be similarly directed against what he saw as autocratic rulers in domestic affairs and an exploitative, innately anti-Islamic West abroad. To this end he employed a highly emotive rhetoric, denouncing by implication the decadence and lack of pure faith of such countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He used the hajj, the great annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, for a similar purpose. Almost every year, his slogan-shouting followers helped foment clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi authorities at Mecca and Medina.

Like Nasser in the Arab world, Khomeini had a powerful impact on Muslim communities outside his own country. Protesters as far away as Lebanon and the Philippines have carried aloft his picture. But, like Nasser’s, his was always an impossibly ambitious vision. Iran lacked the means to win the war against the Baathist regime in Iraq; it could not impose the Islamic Republic on countries hundreds of miles away. Khomeini drained resources needed at home for these foreign adventures. Moreover, he and his followers in largely Shi’ite Iran were unlikely candidates for leadership of the worldwide Muslim community, which is mostly Sunni and greatly diverse. Iran’s international Islamic influence was already waning in the last year of Khomeini’s life. Except in a general way, it is unlikely to survive him.

Nor will the claim that the clerics have a divine mandate to rule be sustained for long in the post-Khomeini era, even if the clerics, as a class, continue to dominate the organs of the state. No living cleric in Iran can conceivably fill Khomeini’s shoes as supreme jurist. None of his possible successors has his charisma, his certainty of mission, the immense authority he derived from having led the revolution. No foreseeable successor will have the necessary weight to impose his rulings on Khomeini’s divided lieutenants. Even during Khomeini’s lifetime, the assertion that the supreme jurist was owed unquestioning obedience was hard to sustain. Under any of his successors, including the successor-elect, Ali Khamenei, the claim will ring resoundingly hollow.

In pursuit of his goals, both at home and abroad, Khomeini was hugely indifferent both to human life and to material losses. The death sentence Khomeini pronounced against Salman Rushdie shocked the Western nations. But death—martyrdom for his followers, execution for his enemies—remains an indelible part of the Khomeini decade. Several hundred Iranians lost their lives in demonstrations during the hajj two years ago (partly because of the ineptness of the Saudi police). In the Iran-Iraq war a generation was wasted, hundreds of thousands were killed and maimed, and Iran’s cities devastated—first in legitimate defense, then in pursuit of an elusive victory over Iraq. The financial terms of the settlement that secured the release of the American hostages involved substantial losses for Iran as a result of the early repayment to American banks of loans that had been negotiated by the Shah’s government at highly favorable rates, and of the hundreds of lawsuits Iran had to face at the special claims settlement tribunal established at the Hague.

If the Shah was forever talking about steel mills, petrochemical plants, railways and ports, nuclear power stations, oil and gas exports, Khomeini never did. His eyes were fixed elsewhere. He cared little for the material symbols of modern economy or even the humble offerings of the traditional one. The people, he said, did not make the revolution for watermelons.

If he invited his followers to sacrifice and martyrdom, he pursued the real and supposed enemies of his Islamic vision with a terrible vengeance. The first executions by the revolutionary government—of military officers who had served the Shah—were carried out within a few days of the collapse of the monarchy on the roof of the very house in which Khomeini had set up his temporary headquarters. Hundreds, then thousands, passed before the firing squads, including officials of the former regime, members of the political opposition, and scores of supposed social misfits—drug dealers, prostitutes, adulterers, and the like.

In some years, the number of executions greatly diminished, but they invariably started up again, so deeply embedded in the revolutionary culture had they become. During the six months following the Iran-Iraq ceasefire in July 1988 alone, more than one thousand political prisoners and members of opposition groups, many mere youths, were put to death.

Khomeini was equally unforgiving in dealing with his own erstwhile political allies. The Iranian revolution was the work of a broad coalition of parties and groups. But Khomeini and his supporters tolerated no challenges to their supremacy, suffered no political rivals. One by one, the leaders of parties of the early postrevolution period—the National Front, the Mujaheddin, the Fedayeen, the Iran Liberation Movement, the Tudeh—were suppressed, driven into exile, or killed in Khomeini’s prisons.

He allowed a surprising amount of disagreement and discussion among the clerics in the revolutionary coalition. But he never allowed outright challenge to his authority. Few clerics were inclined to confront him in any case; and those who did quickly learned the limits of his loyalties and friendship. Ayatollah Mahmud Taleghani, who had spent years in the Shah’s jails and was hugely popular with the left-wing parties, flirted with a challenge to Khomeini during the early weeks of the revolution, then shied away from an open confrontation. Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari had a powerful base of support in Azarbayjan. But when his supporters rose in Tabriz to protest the new constitution, he practically disowned them, stood meekly by as the political party he had established announced its own dissolution, and in the end was “defrocked” and publicly denounced and humiliated.

Several other senior clerics were silenced or placed under house arrest. This past March, Khomeini dismissed his successor designate, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the man he had described as “the fruit of my life.” His letter accepting Montazeri’s “resignation” was contemptuous, and he allowed his son, Ahmad, to publish (in the form of another personal letter to Montazeri) a document listing Montazeri’s failings that was demeaning and humiliating to a senior ayatollah who had stood by Khomeini in the darkest times.

Khomeini’s early civilian allies also fell by the wayside. When his first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, came under attack from the Islamic radicals and the students who seized the American embassy in Tehran, he did nothing to save him. Bani-Sadr, an early and ardent Khomeini supporter and first president of the Islamic Republic, was impeached and fled into exile. Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, another of the Paris circle of Westernized Iranian exiles who in 1978 helped to persuade the Western press that Khomeini was some kind of a Jeffersonian democrat—an impression Khomeini helped to foster by briefly adopting a more tolerant tone—was executed for plotting against the regime. The fiercely emotional farewell given him by millions notwithstanding, the support and adulation he enjoyed throughout the country during the early years of the revolution had become a casualty of disappointed hopes by the time of his death.

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