Ayatollah Behesti
Ayatollah Behesti; drawing by David Levine


The history of the Iranian revolution has been a history of misperceptions. The Shah was thought to run a tightly controlled autocracy and to command the most powerful military machine in the Persian Gulf region. Yet it required no more than thirteen months of largely peaceful demonstrations, Xeroxed leaflets, and crudely reproduced tapes to bring his regime down. His vaunted 400,000-man army collapsed in just two fateful days in February 1979.

Liberal and left-wing groups who joined with Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah believed, as did much of the European press, that the revolution would give birth to a liberal democracy. Instead, they have watched Khomeini’s followers create an Islamic theocracy. The most glaring misperception of all has been the failure to grasp the part that Islam would play in mobilizing the revolutionary opposition to the Shah and in shaping post-revolution Iranian society.

The misperception prevailed in Tehran and Washington and among both the Shah’s supporters and his critics. It was shared, surprisingly, even by the secular opposition groups that worked for revolution. Liberal and left-wing dissidents woke up late to the central part of religion in mobilizing the masses. Even after the “Black Friday” massacre on September 8, 1978, when it became evident that leadership of the movement had passed to Ayatollah Khomeini, the tendency remained strong to underrate religion and the implications of Khomeini’s Islamic ideology.

Khomeini had elaborated his concept of an Islamic state in a series of lectures delivered as early as 1970 during his exile in Iraq. These lectures were published, in both Arabic and Persian, under the title of Islamic Government. Khomeini made it unequivocally clear in these lectures that he intended to set up an Islamic state, one based on the Koran and modeled on the first Islamic community under the Prophet Mohammad in seventh-century Arabia. This government, he said, must be founded on Islamic law; and the leadership of the community must therefore fall to the clerical class, as experts in Islamic law and heirs to the mantle of the Prophet. Velayat-e Faqih, the Persian title of the book, means government by the faqih, the Islamic jurist.1

Yet the parties of the center left—Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom of Iran Movement, for example—chose to ignore both Khomeini’s published writings and his public pronouncements. Some believed that such views could not provide a serious program for government. Others, Khomeini’s explicitly stated intentions notwithstanding, assumed that the Ayatollah would retire from active involvement in political affairs, or could fairly quickly be shunted aside once victory had been achieved. A similar misreading of Khomeini and of the temper of the revolution was current among some academics and journalists abroad.

In Iran, the center-left parties underrated the appeal of Khomeini’s form of fundamentalist Islam possibly because they were themselves cut off from their traditional Islamic roots. Many subscribed to notions of a “reformed” Islam which presupposed a secular state and secularization of large parts of public life. They assumed all too easily that the masses in the streets shared their own political goals and aspirations. Many assumed that the revolution would recapture the prize denied them in 1953, when the Nationalist movement led by Mohammad Mossadeq almost overthrew the Shah, before being frustrated by a CIA-assisted coup.

Today with their remaining power rapidly slipping from their grasp, the parties of the center not surprisingly feel that the Islamic groups were able to “seize” the revolution by some accident of history. Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic (whose “resignation” Islamic militants arranged last November), told Oriana Fallaci in an interview in October:

There were sudden, unforeseeable developments, and the mullas rapidly succeeded in establishing control over the country…. We were so involved in difficulties and problems that we did not realize that the train had left the station, and that we had missed it.

One virtue of Michael Fischer’s Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution is that it directs our attention precisely to the religious “underpinnings” of the revolution. An American anthropologist who worked in Iran, Fischer describes the shrine city of Qum and its system of madrasas, or theological seminaries, focusing on Qum because it has served as the center both for conserving Shi’ite religious tradition and for training the students who keep this tradition alive, and because it has been the scene of conflict between the religious institutions and the Pahlavi dynasty. He concentrates on the seminaries because he believes all Iranians derive their religious attitudes from a common religious tradition for whose understanding, he writes, “the learning of the religious students is pivotal.”

Fischer also wants to show that despite such a shared tradition, the perception of Islam among different classes of Iranians varies considerably, that whether we speak of poor workers or middle-class professionals or bazaar people, we will find that striking reformulations of Islamic concepts have taken place within each class, each with political implications for understanding the revolution. Thus among the common people the theme of martyrdom was infused with new meaning and became a powerful instrument for sending young people against the Shah’s troops. Among the middle class the injunction of the Koran “to consult the people in affairs” was interpreted as underscoring the democratic character of Islam’s message and therefore its system of government.


Fischer has difficulty combining so many different themes. His prose is uneven and often careless;2 and the last chapter, on the revolution between 1977 and 1979, is merely a catalogue of events called from newspapers, lacking analysis and poorly integrated with the rest of the book. But he usefully poses a central problem—whether, as a result of the revolution, “the promise of progressive Islam can be fulfilled…a liberal civil order can be established.” He finds the heart of this problem in a debate currently taking place within the Islamic community itself, between the exponents of different and competing versions of Shi’ite ideology.

During the last two decades attempts have been made both within and outside religious institutions to redefine Shi’ite concepts so as to give Islam a sharper political edge, a more direct appeal to modern believers. Within the mosques and seminaries reformers, as Fischer shows, have called on the religious leaders to show that Islam is actively committed to social and political justice. While teaching in Paris during the 1970s, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr conceived an “Islamic economics” which sought to show that socialist and even Marxist ideas about property, wealth distribution, and economic justice could be derived from traditional Islamic ideas, while avoiding the unattractive features of Soviet state socialism. And the leftist religious reformer Ali Shari’ati, who died in London during the 1970s, had called for an Islamic protestantism that would bring together Islam and ideas of “third world” socialism; he taught his followers that the intelligentsia have a special responsibility to dedicate their lives to a struggle for the rights of the masses. During the 1970s the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a left-wing Islamic guerrilla organization espousing the ideas of Shari’ati, advocated armed uprising against the Shah and used Islamic ideas to develop a populist economic and political program under which wealth would be radically redistributed and power would be turned over to peoples’ councils.

Fischer gives a detailed account of the ideas of such people as Shari’ati. They were important because they helped to persuade a generation of Iranians that they could find in their own religious tradition ideologies that could accommodate characteristically modern needs for “development” and participation. These currents also helped to soften the anti-clericalism that has been common in Iran not only among the Western intelligentsia but in the higher ranks of bureaucracy and among the professional groups and the upper middle class generally.

Relations between such Westernized groups and the traditional and religious classes are complex, for, as Fischer points out, there is no simple division between religious and secular, traditional and modern. Many of the fiercest secularizers rose from the clerical class, as did for example the historian Ahmad Kasravi, to whose criticism of traditional religion, Fischer tells us, Khomeini made a vigorous reply during the 1940s. The religious milieu continued to provide the intelligentsia with some of its most prominent writers, such as Sayyid Muhammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, whose reflective essays and modern Persian short stories started to appear in the 1920s. Throughout the century there have been coalitions of the religious leaders, the merchants, and the elite professionals to achieve political goals, for example to force the cancellation of a monopoly over the tobacco trade granted to a British firm in 1890-1891, or to back the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, or to promote the movement to nationalize oil under Mohammad Mossadeq between 1951 and 1953.

Equally striking however is the way such cooperation between religious classes and the more Westernized secular groups has often broken down—as it has been breaking down during the last year. After the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, for example, a split took place between the advocates of a secular state and supporters of Islamic government. As one might expect, the intelligentsia and the more modern-minded members of the middle class tended to regard Moslem clerics as anti-intellectual, opposed to social reform and to nearly every sign of secularization.

When the members of the two groups opposed the Pahlavi dynasty they often did so for different reasons. The modern elites drawn from the bureaucracy and such professions as law frequently approved of policies that the religious classes strongly opposed. Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, denied the clerical classes their long-standing monopoly over education and judicial administration. He attacked their privileges and diminished their influence. He opened the schools and Tehran University to women and when he abolished the veil he ordered the police to enforce his ruling. In 1936, when the worshippers at the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad took part in a religious protest meeting, he sent in troops who violated the sanctity of the shrine and gunned the protesters down. The struggle against Reza Shah, as Fischer points out, was built into the history and memory of Qum.


Reza Shah left deep scars on the religious community. Khomeini’s speeches often refer to the humiliation suffered during his reign, whether in the form of personal insults to Shi’ite leaders or general restrictions on religious activity. In May, when Sadeq Khalkhali, the Islamic judge who has recently been responsible for numerous executions, led a battalion of militants to smash Reza Shah’s mausoleum near Tehran, he was explicitly taking revenge for this humiliation.

Mohammad Reza Shah was also a secularizer. Like his father, he was also able to call on the services of the elite professionals—Fischer calls them “potential opponents and unwilling accomplices”—until, again like his father, he alienated them by arbitrary rule, corruption, and his dictatorial style.

The alliance that came together against the Shah was thus composed of many disparate forces. The ideas of the Islamic reformers such as Shari’ati and Bani-Sadr were quite different from Khomeini’s more strictly fundamentalist vision. But Khomeini, with his intense and simply expressed appeals to the urban crowds, became the symbol of relentless opposition to the Shah. His prestige was immense. He too was preaching the mission of a militant, activist Islam, and he used the language of justice and freedom. Differences of goals and ideology were thus submerged in a coalition under Khomeini whose one aim was to overthrow the Shah; it is this coalition that is now falling apart.


Since Khomeini returned in triumph to Tehran in February 1979, a fierce and often hidden struggle has been under way between rival groups for the control of the country’s major centers of power and institutions. The struggle is complicated by shifting factionalism and personal rivalries on all sides. But Khomeini’s single-minded pursuit of his vision of the Islamic state has tended to reduce the conflict to one between, on the one hand, his own Islamic followers—notwithstanding their differences—and, on the other, the secular parties of the center and the left.

Even before the Shah was deposed, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan as first prime minister of the Islamic Republic. Bazargan named a cabinet of ministers drawn largely from representatives of the center parties. But there immediately appeared a cluster of revolutionary organizations which, virtually on the morning after the fall of Bakhtiar, came to constitute a parallel government, standing against and above the regular governmental administration.

Supported by Khomeini, drawing strength from the revolutionary ferment in the streets, contemptuous of due process and regular procedures, these organizations rapidly absorbed the work of the regular government. The revolutionary guards took over the functions of the army and the police. Hundreds of revolutionary committees throughout the country became, in effect, the government of the municipalities and of the provinces. The revolutionary courts and the office of the revolutionary prosecutor continued to deal out revolutionary justice and they finally took over virtually all judicial functions. The Revolutionary Council appointed by Khomeini himself challenged the authority and duplicated the functions of the cabinet.

Gradually other organizations have been “infiltrated” by representatives of the religious party. Mullahs, acting as religious overseers, now have offices in many army barracks and have a say in the administration of army affairs. In other important organizations, such as the state-owned radio and television networks and the National Iranian Oil Company, complicated, usually unreported maneuvers have taken place, leading to the ouster of the incumbent director and the appointment of the candidate of the religious hardliners to replace him.

Some organizations were physically seized; others were taken over by administrative orders. Kayhan and Ettela’at, the two largest newspaper chains in Iran, were nationalized by order of the Revolutionary Council, and control over them was turned over to the Islamic “Foundation for the Oppressed.” In August 1979, Islamic militants occupied the offices of the influential left-wing newspaper Ayandegan. The paper was charged with having links with both Israel and the former regime, and was closed down. Several other newspapers were stopped from publishing soon afterward. Militant Moslem youths have frequently attacked offices of such leftist organizations as the Mujahedin and the Fadayan-e Khalq, a Marxist guerrilla group.

The Revolutionary Council, largely composed of religious leaders with hard fundamentalist views, thwarted the Bazargan government and its successors at every turn, and, after a series of confrontations, it has by now gained almost undisputed authority as the ultimate decision-making body in Iran. Bazargan described his powerlessness by referring to his own government as “a knife without a blade.” The country, he said, was like “a city with a hundred sheriffs.”

During the summer of 1979, Bazargan made a major effort to end this division of authority. He secured Khomeini’s approval for an arrangement by which a number of ministers would become members of the Revolutionary Council and members of the council would be assigned as undersecretaries to the ministries. The only serious result of this plan was that the representatives of the Revolutionary Council in such key ministries as interior and defense simply took over the minister’s functions. In November, the office of prime minister was “dissolved.” Bazargan was ousted and the Revolutionary Council absorbed the functions of the cabinet.

The parties of the center have not only been implacably pushed aside but, by fighting one another, they also seem determined to commit slow suicide. Although Bani-Sadr was seen as a modern Islamic reformer who might collaborate with the forces of the center, he connived at the overthrow of Bazargan. Now, as president of the Islamic Republic, he is himself the target of the Islamic militants and the Revolutionary Council. The militants at the American Embassy in Tehran disregarded his orders to put the hostages directly under government control. By opposing his policies even on unimportant matters the Revolutionary Council continues to make clear where the real power lies.

The leading member of the Revolutionary Council is Ayatollah Behesti, who has emerged as the most powerful of the religious figures involved in the daily administration of Iran since the revolution. Behesti is trusted by Khomeini. Unlike many of the other religious leaders, however, he is also a skillful administrator and understands the importance of embodying his power in working institutions.

In the Revolutionary Council, Behesti tends to prevail. He heads the powerful Islamic Republic Party whose newspaper, Jomhuri-ye Eslami, acts as the voice of the Islamic hardliners and is harshly critical of the secular parties. Behesti is probably not by temperament as extreme a man as the policies of the party, the newspaper, and the Revolutionary Council—with their inclinations to identify as anti-Islamic those who are less than devout supporters of the party—would suggest. But he is a master at riding the revolutionary Islamic forces and yoking them to his ends, while avoiding the appearance of having taken power himself.

Though in effect he heads the Revolutionary Council, he has adopted the modest title of the council’s “secretary.” He does not make frequent public statements or give many press interviews. He may have hoped to be elected president of the republic last January but he did not flagrantly pursue the job. Then when his own candidate, Jalal ad-Din Farsi, proved controversial, he retreated. This permitted Bani-Sadr to be elected president by a majority that was announced to be 70 percent.

Bani-Sadr considered his election to be a conclusive mandate. He openly predicted that the influence of the Shi’ite clerics and the Islamic Republic Party would soon come to an end. In fact he misjudged both Behesti’s resourcefulness and the intensity of the Islamic ferment in Iran. The power of the Islamic Republic Party remained intact and in the second round of the parliamentary elections in early May the party secured control over the new legislature. Behesti’s influence is unimpaired. Khomeini only recently appointed him president of the Supreme Court under the new constitution, thus putting him at the head of the powerful judicial apparatus. The Revolutionary Council, under his direction, has continued to oppose Bani-Sadr in much the same way as it did the former prime minister.

Although early in his presidency Bani-Sadr persuaded Khomeini to name him head of the Revolutionary Council and to delegate to him Khomeini’s power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the Revolutionary Council and the army—also run, in effect, by a religious hardliner—have granted the president no such authority. The council also blocked Bani-Sadr’s attempt to appoint, with Khomeini’s apparent approval, a new prime minister before the convening of the new parliament, which will be controlled by the Islamic Republic Party. The president will now have to appoint a premier more to the party’s liking.

In mid-April, just before the attempt to rescue the American hostages, Islamic militants suddenly moved to take control of the universities. The universities had become centers for left-wing activity and strongholds of resistance to the idea of a theocracy. The militants violently attacked the campuses, aiming to expel left-wing teachers and students. Before they took over the universities, many students were killed and several hundred were injured. The buildings of the faculties that teach subjects considered offensive to Islam (such as fine arts) were reportedly damaged.

On April 20, a day after this “victory,” Bani-Sadr marched at the head of a group of militants into the campus of Tehran University where he made a speech to celebrate the occupation. He described the takeover as a preliminary step toward the transformation of the universities into centers of Islamic learning. Iran too, he said, would have a “cultural revolution.”

Bani-Sadr was in this way attempting to assume the leadership of at least one wing of the militant Shi’ite movement. This attempt is likely to fail and will in any case lose Bani-Sadr whatever credit he still retains on the campuses. But the call for a transformation of the universities, issued by Khomeini himself, is serious; it represents an extension to the universities of Khomeini’s program for recasting in an Islamic mold all governmental, judicial, economic, educational, and social institutions of Iran. The program, Khomeini has said, must continue until it embraces every sphere of public and intellectual life.

The regime’s intention to push ahead with this program can be seen in the new constitution of the Islamic Republic that was approved in a national referendum in December. The constitution embodied Khomeini’s vision of the Islamic state. Its drafting and ratification engendered a great deal of bitterness and division; its implementation should prove equally controversial.

The constitution gave rise to an extensive and intense debate that stretched over several months and continues to have grave consequences. In August, in Tehran, and in December, in Tabriz, fighting broke out between groups favoring and opposing the constitution’s theocratic tendencies. Differences over the constitution further exacerbated relations between leading religious figures, particularly between Khomeini and Ayatollah Shari’atmadari who, after Khomeini, is regarded as the highest-ranking religious figure in the country. Shari’atmadari’s Islamic People’s Republic Party went into eclipse as a result of disputes over the constitution. The fighting between the Kurds and the army in northwest Iran continues today in part because the constitution does not meet the aspirations of ethnic groups for local autonomy.

It was, moreover, largely because of the stand they took on the constitution that two prominent civil rights lawyers, Hasan Nazih and Hedayatollah Matin-Daftari, were forced to go underground. Nazih was president of the Iranian Bar Association and in the early days of the revolution had been appointed to the extremely important job of chairman of the National Iranian Oil Company. In a public speech he described a government based on Islamic law as “neither feasible, nor practicable, nor desirable.” A few weeks later he was accused of malfeasance, mismanagement, and treason, and was dismissed from NIOC.

As for Matin-Daftari, the National Democratic Front, the liberal-left organization of which he was head, had issued an open letter to Khomeini questioning whether “interference” by the religious leader in governmental affairs was desirable. Within weeks, the NDF was charged with fomenting disorder on the streets (it had called a demonstration to defend freedom of the press), and Matin-Daftari, under a warrant for his arrest, also went into hiding. The NDF, the National Front, and almost all the center and left-wing parties have boycotted both the elections last August for the assembly of seventy-three experts who were charged with working on the constitution and the referendum in December on the constitution itself.

These boycotts become more understandable when we see that the drafting of the constitution was almost exclusively the work of the “Assembly of Experts” who, with only a few exceptions, were drawn from the religious authorities. Ayatollah Behesti was the acting chairman, and it was he who guided the work of the members. The assembly produced a constitution designed to guarantee the supremacy of the Shi’ite clerics over the institutions of the state, the armed forces, and the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches of government.

The constitution states that all of the country’s laws, in every branch, and all institutions must be based on Islamic principles. It creates a twelve-man Guardianship Council empowered to declare void any laws considered to be in violation of constitutional or Islamic principles. Six of the twelve members of the council must be mujtahids, or religious leaders who are sufficiently learned to deliver opinions in matters of Islamic law and theology; the other six must be Islamic lawyers. This body, dominated by members of the religious classes, will thus stand over and above the legislature.

The constitution vests supreme power in the hands of Khomeini. It designates him the faqih, the “just, pious, learned, capable, and courageous jurist” who will act in all affairs as leader of the community. As faqih, Khomeini will dominate the military and the judicial branch. He will supervise the work of the executive branch and will be in a powerful position to influence the activities of the assembly. Khomeini appoints all the principal military commanders. He appoints six of the twelve members of the Guardianship Council, and these six alone will rule on the conformity of the laws to Islam.

Khomeini also appoints the country’s two most important judicial officials, and the constitutional arrangements are such that the clerical classes will dominate all the major judicial committees and perhaps hold all the judgeships. The drafters of the constitution have sought to ensure the clerical classes’ continuing domination by providing for the selection of another Islamic jurist to succeed the Ayatollah should he die. If a religious leader of sufficient standing to replace Khomeini cannot be found a group of three or five jurists will take his place.

Guarantees for individual rights are more limited than supporters of civil liberties had hoped. Unlike the old constitution of the Shah’s regime, the new constitution provides for the writ of habeas corpus and requires that people be charged within twenty-four hours of arrest. It forbids torture to exact a confession. It also provides for freedom of thought in that individuals may not be prosecuted for their beliefs. But there is a catch. The freedom of press, assembly, speech, and association provided in the constitution may not be exercised in violation of Islamic principles. And as in the Shah’s time, the constitution also permits legislation that could further circumscribe these freedoms.

In practice, even these constitutional principles have been violated. Both leading religious figures and political leaders such as Mehdi Bazargan have protested against the arbitrary arrests that have taken place and against the procedures of the revolutionary courts, including the executions they have ordered and their failure to accord a speedy trial to people who have been held in jail for long periods. And, as already mentioned, not only have newspapers been closed down but meetings of leftists have been violently attacked, most recently at the cost of many lives.

Bani-Sadr was elected president of the Islamic Republic in January. The second round of elections for the legislature was carried out May 9. The process will be formally complete when the president picks his prime minister and the premier wins a vote of confidence from the assembly. The first constitutional government of the post-revolution era will then get to work. However, unless a wider consensus on constitutional arrangements can be reached the new constitution does not promise the stability Iran so badly needs.

The constitution, in fact, is being used to institutionalize the power of one class. This generates a great deal of opposition. The new constitution does not take account of the aspirations of the educated and middle classes. These groups, though unable to muster large blocs of votes at the ballot box, nevertheless have a claim to a voice in national affairs, if only by virtue of their skills, education, and the need for their help. The attempt to exclude them from power accounts for some of the current turmoil in Iran. The low turnout for the second round of voting in the recent parliamentary elections may suggest a growing disillusion with the aggressive tactics of the Islamic clerics.

Any attempt to reconstruct the judiciary, the schools and universities, or the economy along strictly Islamic lines would be such a departure from the existing system that it will mean institutional upheaval. In addition, the relations among the various organs of the state envisaged in the constitution are both cumbersome and fragile, and once Khomeini’s authority is no longer there to hold the various elements together, they may fall apart. Predictably the center and far left parties have consistently challenged the new constitution, calling into question the very concept of a theocracy, and Khomeini’s role in it. And interestingly enough, some of the criticism of the new constitutional arrangements has come from within the religious leadership itself. This criticism is still muted, because Khomeini’s prestige remains immense.

Still, Ayatollah Qomi, the leading religious figure in Mashad, has said he cannot accept the new constitution in its present form because he questions the process of its ratification. More important, the Ayatollah Shari’atmadari, whose followers in Azarbayjan mounted serious demonstrations in Tabriz in December to protest the new constitution, has questioned the validity of the authority conferred on Khomeini as faqih.

Shari’atmadari asserts that Islamic traditions and theory do not confer on the faqih the wide powers given him under the constitution. In the absence of the Hidden Imam—who will return one day to establish the kingdom of God on earth—the exercise of sovereignty should, Shari’atmadari argues, devolve on the entire Islamic community. The powers of the faqih cannot be so designed that they violate the sovereignty of the people as recognized by the constitution. Shari’atmadari seems to be trying to find in Islamic law a new concept of legitimacy, one that will avoid the pitfall of autocracy and satisfy both Islamic requirements and the aspirations of other constituencies to have a part in the national political life.


Few outside Iran have been able to follow such dialogues as this one or to assess their importance for Iran’s future. Here we can see the value of Michael Fischer’s attempts to elucidate the differences among the various classes of Iranians by examining their religious beliefs, and particularly by concentrating on Qum because it is from the traditional expositions of religious ideology there that the various schools of Shi’ite ideology derive.

In Fischer’s analysis Qum and its network of madrasas is a study in contradictions. When he visited the city in 1975, he found that it had become “an educational backwater.” “No longer,” he writes, “does the madrasa system supply the teachers, notaries, judges, lawyers, scientists, or physicians of society.” Under the Shah, the seminary students had become “a small and isolated minority,” cut off from the booming, modern educational system that had sprung up around them.

Yet Qum, he argues, retained a special mystique. A center of Shi’ite learning and pilgrimages for centuries, it has a prickly history of resistance to outside authority. Under the two Pahlavi rulers, it became a center for the defense of religious orthodoxy and tradition. Before he ascended the throne, Reza Shah was forced by the religious leaders of Qum to abandon his original aim of following Turkey’s example and establishing a Republic. It was from Qum that Khomeini in 1963 launched his first thundering challenge to the Shah and suddenly became a national figure.

Qum was thus a “backwater” that also helped to make the revolution, and although Fischer senses this enigma he does not unravel it. He describes well the city itself with its network of seminaries and the powerful ayatollahs who run the schools and exercise influence through the patronage and financial support on which the students often depend. But Fischer does not fully explore the web of connections linking Qum and its seminaries with the world outside the shrine city. Had he explained the process by which the seminary graduates move out of Qum to fill religious appointments throughout Iran, we might have better understood the mosque communications network that proved so effective during the revolutionary movement and Qum’s share in directing it. Because the sources of madrasa funds are not adequately analyzed, we learn less than we should about the important links between the religious leaders and the merchants and trades people of the bazaars who felt victimized by the regime and became increasingly active against it.

When Fischer comes to reformist ideologies taught in Qum, we encounter some of the religious ideas that helped create the climate for revolution. He paraphrases, for example, Ali Shari’ati’s view that:

One should beware of Western arguments to give up religious fanaticism (ta’assub, “tenacity of belief”): ta’assub is our integrity. The West wants us to accept a division between politics and religion; that is a way of making us impotent.

But as before, the problem is that important themes are not pursued far enough. The more traditional thinkers and the conservative reformers such as Shari’atmadari and Taleqani are mentioned but not examined. Islamic economics are only sketchily discussed, as are Khomeini’s theories on the state. In fact there are blurred and conflicting analyses throughout Fischer’s book, particularly in its conclusions.

Fischer seems to share the belief of Iran’s intelligentsia and its center parties that the revolution was essentially a movement to create a liberal, bourgeois order, an uprising that could bring to fruition the unfinished Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the abortive nationalist movement of 1951-1953. For this reason, he talks about the promise of “progressive” Islam; he seems to hope that Khomeini has created a bourgeois revolution.

At times he also seems to share the widespread conviction of the Iranian middle class that religion during the revolution provided only the outward trappings for protest, while the real issues were not religious. He writes that protest was expressed in a religious idiom not because of any general religious revival but because the door to political protest was closed. Islam, he says, brought people together “as a political vehicle” and not “as a ritual system.”

The causes of the revolution, its timing, were economic and political; the form of the revolution, and its pacing, owed much to the tradition of religious protest.

But this argument fits uneasily with Fischer’s basic contention elsewhere in his book that Shi’ism informs every part of Iranian life and that all Iranians draw on a common religious tradition that, as it has been preserved and elaborated in Qum, has its own intrinsic value.

Political and economic considerations no doubt influenced most of those who took part in the revolution. Some Iranians obviously viewed religion as merely a “vehicle” or as an “idiom” for protest. But it has been the fallacy of the Iranian middle class, its persistent misperception, to believe that religion is seen in such a light by all or most Iranians and that the mass of the people on whose behalf they believe themselves to be acting share their vision of the future. For Ayatollah Khomeini and the religious leaders closest to him, however, Islam does not represent merely a vehicle; it represents a complete system of thought and a set of defined goals, and ways of behaving, that rise out of this system. Islamic law, unlike Western civil and penal laws, bears on practically every aspect of public and private life. That is why Khomeini and other jurists hold that such prohibitions as the ones against drinking alcohol or charging interest must be enforced. The Islamic state, in their view, is responsible for creating conditions in which such laws will be observed and infractions punished; the rules of Islam are matters of law, not personal choice.

In accepting the leadership of Khomeini and the clerical classes, the common people seem implicitly to share in this vision. It is from them that Khomeini draws his strength. A fundamental difference in perspective thus accounts for the deep political conflicts in Iranian society today.


The question of religion hardly figures in the books by Fereydoun Hoveyda and Amin Saikal, who seek, in different ways, to describe the system of rule that the Shah developed and explain why it collapsed. Hoveyda was the Shah’s ambassador to the United Nations during the 1970s. His brother, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, was the prime minister of Iran for thirteen years, then briefly a court minister before he fell from favor shortly before the revolution. In The Fall of the Shah, Hoveyda attempts to explain the Shah’s fall from power as a matter of his psychological failings and character, while also defending the record of his brother, who was executed by firing squad on the order of Iran’s revolutionary court in 1979.

No doubt the former prime minister himself could have told us much but his brother was not an insider and the few anecdotes in this book—about a meeting with the Shah and conversations with his brother—are inconsequential. From what he writes here Fereydoun Hoveyda was not in close touch with what happened in court and in government circles during the last hectic months and weeks. What he does is give us a glimpse into the fierce rivalries and hatreds that plagued the cabinet and the higher officials of the Shah’s administration. His own bête noire is Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah’s son-in-law and his ambassador to the United States. As a result of the rivalry between Zahedi and Hoveyda’s brother, Zahedi was replaced as foreign minister and sent as ambassador to Washington.

For Hoveyda, Zahedi was the evil spirit of the last months of royal rule, the man who gave the Shah consistently bad advice, including the plan to arrest his brother in October, so as to deflect criticism from the Shah himself. That imprisonment probably cost the former prime minister his life. He was in his cell when the revolution came. The bureaucratic infighting that Hoveyda describes was characteristic of a system which required every senior official to seek the ear and favor of the Shah. It helps explain why the ruling class was divided and impotent when the challenge came from the streets.

Hoveyda describes the Shah as vain, vindictive, small-minded, erratic, obsessed with the question of his family’s dynastic legitimacy—a portrait that should not surprise those who have spent time in Iran. The Shah’s megalomania and delusions of grandeur were, Hoveyda feels, exacerbated by three events—the spectacular celebrations of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy at Persepolis in 1971, Nixon’s visit to Iran in 1972, and the rise in oil prices in 1974. “It is clear now that the Shah’s character became deeply split after the famous Persepolis celebrations,” Hoveyda writes. There was “a certain rigidity in his decision-making, a separation from reality, and an insensitivity to human factors.”

From this analysis Hoveyda constructs a defense of his brother’s thirteen years as prime minister. Until 1975, he claims, the record of economic and social achievement is plain enough, although in fact his account of this period is highly selective. It was after 1975, as the oil money came in and the Shah’s delusions grew, that the problems began to mount. Hoveyda describes his brother during the last two years as advising the Shah to reduce military expenses, cancel showy projects, control corruption, and spend more on social welfare. He quotes his brother as saying in 1976: “Every night when I go to bed I pray to the Almighty to recall me to Him during my sleep. I’ve had enough. The Shah overloaded the ship of state. He wants me to take it in tow, but I can’t; it is too heavy.”

Hoveyda’s book suggests that the Shah’s highest officials did not believe in the system they were serving. If so, why did they serve it in the first place? Why did they not resign? He answers these questions only obliquely, and without much conviction. “The group of friends,” he writes, “to which I myself belonged reckoned that real economic development would necessarily bring democracy. Hence the thing to do was to support the Shah’s reforms and give some impetus both to economic progress and liberalization.” As to resignation, he quotes his brother as saying bitterly in 1977: “In this country you can’t resign. You have not to get involved in the first place.”

Amin Saikal’s The Rise and Fall of the Shah is concerned much more with the rise than with the fall of the Shah. He tells the story of the “rise” in seven carefully written and not especially hostile chapters, the story of the “fall” in a final chapter that seems hastily added on. Saikal, an Iranian who teaches in Australia, writes that he wants to examine “the case of Iran largely on its own terms.” What were the Shah’s aims at home and abroad? What resources could he command? How far did he succeed?

Saikal begins his account just after the CIA’s coup against Mossadegh restored the Shah to the throne in 1953; he describes how during the next four years the Shah depended on the US for economic and military aid, and eventually joined John Foster Dulles’s CENTO alliance. Saikal argues that the Shah, facing opposition at home, and feeling shaky on the throne, sought visible evidence of US support to strengthen his position domestically. He criticizes the Shah for not making approaches to the USSR; for locking himself into a state of “dependence” on the US. Perhaps Saikal overestimates the Shah’s freedom to maneuver during the 1950s. He rightly points out that the Shah was hostile to Nasser and the more radical regimes in the Persian Gulf partly because they posed threats of subversion and even military invasion. But the Shah’s foreign policy was also linked to his difficulties at home. To put the point bluntly, Nasser was popular with many people in Iran who saw the Shah as an American lackey.

For Saikal, the Shah was driven by two aims from the 1950s on: to secure the position of his family on the throne and to make Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. He argues that the land reform and other measures of the so-called “white revolution” were “politically rewarding” in expanding his narrow base of support. Most notable of all, he tells us, was the Shah’s oil policy, which by 1973 gave him control over the Iranian oil industry and unexpected power in international affairs. He came close to being the dominating power in the Persian Gulf region, maintaining good relations with the other Gulf states, mending his fences with Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s, even managing to seize islands in the Gulf and send troops into Oman without straining his relations with the Arab states.

Saikal is not uncritical. He remarks that Iran’s ambitious policy toward the Persian Gulf nations undermined the prospect of stability for the entire volatile region; but he does not show how in fact Iran did this. He writes that in carrying out his social and economic programs the Shah denied his people political and civil liberties, that SAVAK suppressed and tortured people who opposed him, but he does not make much of this. His main criticism seems to be that the Shah had foreign and domestic ambitions for which Iran lacked both skilled manpower and adequate administration. Still, from the first seven chapters of Saikal’s book one has the impression of a ruler fairly successfully shedding foreign tutelage, strengthening domestic support, pursuing a rewarding oil policy, and getting on well with his neighbors.

Against this background, Saikal’s concluding chapter is somewhat jarring. For suddenly we discover that things are not what they seem to be. It turns out that the economic outlook was “grim,” that the Shah lacked a base of political support, that public resentment was widespread, that even in foreign policy he managed to alienate his neighbors. The Shah, he writes:

…successfully denied Iranians not only the basic political freedoms and civil liberties, but also the rights and opportunities to fulfil themselves to the best of their abilities and to participate creatively in building a modern society. The end result was an expanded and costly but, as in the past, very top-heavy, incompetent, and corrupt state machinery and a repressed nation, which was dominated by increasing class consciousness and socio-economic inequalities and injustices.

This nation, where the people were forced to respect the Shah and his policies, and where the cost of the administrative, security, and military apparatus exceeded the amount spent on social welfare by a large margin, was largely governed by the Shah’s notorious secret police, SAVAK. The government was dominated by the personalization rather than the institutionalization of politics. The country lacked the necessary safety valves whereby its people, individually or collectively, could lawfully voice their grievances, demands, and expectations. By 1977, a national tragedy had occurred: SAVAK had become so pervasive that a majority of Iranians could not even trust each other, let alone the government. They had become increasingly resentful of the Shah’s system, with which they could not identify themselves.

“In conclusion,” Saikal writes, “it needs to be stressed that the Shah’s domestic and regional achievements appeared more impressive on paper than they were in reality.” Since Saikal evidently wrote most of his book from the perspective of the government officials who made policy in Tehran it is perhaps inevitable that his last chapter should come as a suprise. The real oddity, however, is that, aside from noting that many people who followed Khomeini were not practicing Moslems, Saikal has little indeed to say about the people who now run Iran or their religious ideas and political passions. Until these are better understood neither Iran’s revolution nor its past under the Pahlavis will emerge from the modern myths that have surrounded them.

May 22, 1980

This Issue

June 26, 1980