What Khomeini Did

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.