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 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.

Yet the image of Khomeini as unshakably consistent, implacable once he had made up his mind, relentless in the pursuit of his goals (and he was undoubtedly all these things) is not entirely accurate. To maintain power, to preserve the Islamic republic he had founded, he was capable of setting aside his “principles” and of both tactical and large-scale retreats.

He gave up the American hostages, although none of the conditions he had insisted on for fourteen months were met. He “swallowed the cup of poison” and ended the war with Iraq, although for five years or more he had maintained there could be no peace until Saddam Hussein was punished and overthrown. He called for the elimination of Israel, but bought arms from the Israelis. He branded America the Great Satan, but agreed to trade arms for hostages and to permit an Iranian emissary to negotiate in the White House with Oliver North and another member of the Reagan administration.

Nor was Khomeini immune to the conflicting advice he received, to the importuning and the eager courting of his support by rival officials, clerical advisers, and members of his personal household. He was well aware that his lieutenants were of many minds on issues of policy; he knew the senior clerics were divided on how to apply Islamic law to the large and small questions of governing the country. He listened now to one faction, now to the other.

He repeatedly denounced the rich and the privileged; yet he gave no support to radical measures for wealth distribution. (A substantial transfer of wealth from the private sector to the state has occurred since the revolution as a result of seizure and expropriation, but that is a different matter.) He endorsed a radical program for redistributing land; then, when clerical opposition grew and disorder spread in the countryside, he abandoned the land reform.

He spoke at times in favor of state control of the economy, at others in defense of the private sector. He made extraordinary claims for the authority of the Islamic state (arguing, for example, that it could suspend even the essential requirements of Islamic law if necessary in the wider interest of the community), then retreated from such an extreme view. Repeatedly, he endorsed the resumption of normal relations with the West; repeatedly he personally undermined such initiatives or stood by as radicals in the leadership did so with impunity. Thus after the ceasefire with Iraq, he allowed the powerful speaker of parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to formulate a policy of rapproachement with the West. He then wrecked several months of painstaking efforts by Rafsanjani to mend relations with Europe by attacking Salman Rushdie and calling for his assassination.

He could be brutally decisive, but he left many essential issues of policy unsettled. His legacy to his successors is at once colossal and confused. Just as he proved difficult to bury as his followers snatched at his coffin and his shroud, so his legacy will haunt his successors for years to come. It is a legacy of fierce animosity to the West, a militant assertion of Iran’s Islamic identity, a conviction that only through a return to religion can Muslims end the humiliation and exploitation of their societies by the West, and a belief that Islam can successfully be applied to the problems of governing modern societies. This is basically the ideology embodied in his last will and testament, a document of many thousand words that was solemnly unsealed and read to the Assembly of Experts that selected his successor.

His heirs will continue to act, or pretend to act, in his name and in keeping with his principles. In a startling echo of the Muslim practice of drawing on the Traditions of the Prophet—the Prophet’s deeds and statements—as a source of the law and guidance for the community, three separate statements attesting to Khomeini’s approval of President Khamenei were delivered to the Assembly of Experts as it prepared to choose Khomeini’s successor. Khomeini’s implicit blessing paved the way for Khamenei’s selection. Not wishing to jeopardize his trip to the Soviet Union and the economic agreements previously negotiated and due to be signed in Moscow, Rafsanjani, at his press conference on June 8, conveniently remembered that Khomeini on his deathbed had urged improved relations with Russians.

However, Khomeini has bequeathed to his successors guidance only on the general principles that could apply to running the state, not on the details. His statements, like those of the oracle at Delphi, are capable of varying interpretations. His heirs will quarrel over the meaning of his legacy. They will continue to be divided by the same issues that divided them during Khomeini’s lifetime. These issues flared up with renewed vigor following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in July last year.

Differences emerged over the degree to which the state may tamper with private property to ensure social justice; the role to be allowed domestic private business and foreign capital in the Iranian economy; the desirability of relations with the West and with foreign satans, great and small; and finally, the vexed question of where, in an Islamic state, authority lies for deciding these and other difficult issues.

Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi, along with a majority of his cabinet, emerged as spokesman for a faction that favors considerable extension of state control over the economy and state- mandated measures to distribute wealth. Musavi and his associates are suspicious of private business; they oppose a role for foreign capital in postwar reconstruction and are trying to promote a version of economic self-reliance that sounds very much like economic autarchy. “Whenever you shake hands with the foreigners,” Musavi has remarked, “…be careful your fingers are not grabbed and left in the foreigners’ hands.” President Khamenei has described this vision of a self-sufficient Iran wholly independent of foreign suppliers as “the Molotov cocktail mentality.”

Musavi was able to strengthen his position through an alliance with Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, who became increasingly influential during the last few years, and with such powerful clerics as the minister of interior, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. Mohtashemi controls the ubiquitous revolutionary committees and used his position at the Ministry of Interior to secure the election of many protégés to the parliament in last summer’s election.

Rafsanjani, along with Khamenei, spoke for those favoring a quite different perspective: a larger role for both the domestic private sector and foreign capital in economic development, an increase in the supply of consumer goods, and an end to Iran’s diplomatic isolation. The Guardianship Council, a body of senior clerics empowered to veto measures deemed in conflict with Islamic law, emerged as the primary protector of property rights, the advocate of a strict interpretation of the constitution and Islamic law, and an opponent of excessive extension of state control over the economy. Parliament emerged from the 1988 summer elections almost evenly split on these and other issues. Just before the election, a division took place within the Association of the Combatant Clerics of Tehran, an umbrella organization of the capital’s clerics. Under the leadership of the deputy speaker of parliament, Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, and with Khomeini’s endorsement, clerics with more radical inclinations on economic issues broke away to form their own association.

The postwar debate was fascinating for what it revealed of the spectrum of opinion among Iran’s leaders and the propensity to rake up the mistakes of the past. Rafsanjani and the chief justice, Abdol-Karim Musavi Ardebili, both said that the war with Iraq had gone on too long for Iran’s good. Musavi Ardebili even suggested that Iran had allowed the American hostage crisis to drag on far longer than necessary. Moreover, Montazeri openly criticized the widespread postwar executions, and we now know he was even more bluntly critical in private letters to Khomeini. Montazeri, who maintained contacts with Mehdi Bazargan and members of his Iran Liberation Movement, also urged more press and political freedom and permission for nonofficial parties to participate in the political process.

Between February and March, Khomeini brought the discussion of widely different policies to a sudden end. He derailed Rafsanjani’s initiative in Western Europe when he injected himself into the Rushdie affair. Iran’s relations with England, France, and Germany have not yet recovered. He denounced the inclination to question past policies, and to emphasize the costs of the stubborn pursuit of the war with Iraq. By dismissing Montazeri, he showed disapproval of Montazeri’s political views and his budding alliance with Bazargan and members of the Iran Liberation Movement. Bazargan over the years has spoken out with great courage on the violation of civil rights and the concentration of power in Khomeini’s hands. (Relations between Khomeini and Montazeri were strained over a wide number of issues, and Montazeri had not always shown good judgment. But the contacts with Bazargan appear to have decided Montazeri’s fate.)

Ironically, in the very last weeks of his life, Khomeini thus contributed once again to the uncertainty of his legacy. The dismissal of Montazeri, moreover, set off a miniconstitutional crisis. Even as Khomeini lay on his deathbed, a twenty- five-man council appointed largely by Khomeini himself was considering revisions to the constitution to deal with the question of succession and to make changes in the government structure in preparation for the post-Khomeini era. These changes will not have the benefit of his approval.

Nevertheless, the transfer of power has so far been less traumatic than was anticipated. Rafsanjani has over the years displayed remarkable powers of political recovery (he survived both the revelations about his role in the Iran-contra affair and the setback his policies suffered when Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death), and he predictably emerged as the principal leader of the post-Khomeini regime. Significantly, it was Rafsanjani who held press conferences with the foreign journalists who descended on Tehran for Khomeini’s funeral. Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme jurist, stands close to Rafsanjani on most major issues. The army and Revolutionary Guards declared their loyalty to Rafsanjani as deputy commander-in-chief, a post to which he was named by Khomeini. He remains the only candidate for president and seems certain to be elected to the post on July 28.

His position will probably be further enhanced by the constitutional changes now being considered, of which three are particularly significant. Iran’s leaders attribute the seeming immobility of the government and their inability to reach decisions on major policy issues to the fragmentation of executive authority between the president and the prime minister. The prime minister’s position is therefore to be abolished (or his authority greatly reduced) in favor of the president. Judicial authority is now wielded by a five-member Supreme Judicial Council. It is to be concentrated in the hands of one man.

Finally, the qualifications required of the supreme jurist, the faqih, will be downgraded so that clerics who lack Khomeini’s high scholarly standing can be appointed to the office. At present, the supreme jurist is required to be a marja, a source of emulation, or guide, for Shi’ites generally in matters of religious practice and other affairs. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the supreme jurist need only be a mujtahid, a cleric with sufficient learning to issue rulings on matters of Islamic law. In fact, Khamenei does not qualify as a marja under the present constitution. Rafsanjani in a sermon on June 9 made a point of emphasizing Khamenei’s managerial and worldly abilities rather than his religious learning. The post-Khomeini period, of political leadership by clerics of diminished scholarly authority, has already begun.

With the death of Khomeini and the projected revision of the constitution, it seems inevitable that a separation will take place between the offices of senior marja and the faqih and therefore in the spiritual and political leadership of the community. This was not an eventuality contemplated by the constitution’s framers. While it is not unusual for there to be more than one marja at any one time, cracks are already appearing among the senior clerics regarding the designation of a successor to Khomeini purely in his capacity as a spiritual guide. On June 12, six senior clerics associated with the Khomeini regime declared for Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Araki, a ninety-five- year-old cleric who can be counted on not to cause problems for Khomeini’s successors. The move is designed to preempt any wholesale defection to Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpagani, the most senior of the clerics in Iran. The suggestion is certain greatly to displease him, his followers, and other prominent clerics.

If all goes according to plan and Rafsanjani is elected president with increased authority he will also be able to select his own cabinet. This will in theory bring an end to the divided counsels that have prevailed between the prime minister and the president, the cabinet and the speaker of parliament. For example, an appointee of Rafsanjani, rather than an independent cleric with a direct line to Khomeini, will control the powerful Ministry of Interior.

However, if predictions of breakdown and civil war in Iran in the post-Khomeini period were exaggerated, expectations of a rapid return to normalcy are likely to prove premature as well. The divisions within Iran’s leadership have persisted over many years because they reflect divisions within Iranian society as well as personal rivalries. Powerful constituencies take seriously the revolutionary slogan “neither East nor West,” as well as the need for Islamic militancy, export of the revolution, and for supporting the cause of the disinherited, to mention only a few of the vague but highly emotive formulas that have become current among shifting groups during the last two years.

When Rafsanjani last month called on Palestinians to kill five Americans, Frenchmen, or Britons for each Palestinian killed by Israelis, and to hijack aircraft and take hostages in the furtherance of their cause (he subsequently slightly retreated from this position), he was speaking to some of these domestic constituencies. American visitors to Tehran in June were amused to discover that they were greeted warmly by the same persons who were a moment earlier passionately crying out “death to America.” It would be comforting to think that the greeting was the real thing and the sloganeering merely for show. In fact, it is the duality that is real, and it is reflected, in different form, in virtually every aspect of the revolutionary culture.

Iran’s improving oil revenues will help ease immediate shortages, but they will remain inadequate to the immense task of postwar reconstruction that faces the government. The experience of other countries suggests that even with the best will in the world, Rafsanjani will find it difficult, and politically risky, to dismantle the cumbersome system of state controls over virtually the entire economy—including manufacturing, imports, prices, and distribution of goods—that were imposed by the revolution.

During the Khomeini period any legislation on economic policy and social welfare was made immensely difficult by the likelihood of vetoes by the Guardianship Council and disagreements among senior clerics regarding the application of Islamic law to public policy. These problems will not disappear. In fact, the absence of Khomeini’s authoritative presence will permit many senior clerics to speak up more strongly on matters of public policy. Clerical opinion is likely to appear even more fragmented than in the past.

Still, a surprising amount of freewheeling politics has taken place among Iran’s ruling elite. Parliament is on many questions a genuine forum for debate. But this elite politics should not be mistaken for an open system. There is little tolerance for dissent. Nor is any easing of political controls likely for the simple reason that Iran’s leaders cannot permit a public accounting of the repression, the executions, the widespread corruption, and the sheer mismanagement of the past decade.

Moreover, Khomeini’s clerical lieutenants have shown they are made uneasy by the kinds of bargaining, compromise, coalition building, and search for parliamentary majorities that are necessary if the interest groups and factions in the Iranian leadership are to coexist. Mechanisms for resolving conflicts have not worked well in the past; they are unlikely to work well in the future.

The prospects for post-Khomeini Iran are therefore neither for a breakdown of order nor for a steady march toward pragmatic, “rational” policies at home and abroad. More likely are continuing muddle and inconsistent domestic and foreign policies. An attempt will probably be made to ease up on the private sector even as the state extends its strangle-hold over the economy. Militancy abroad may continue at the same time as a search for accommodation, factional politics at home, and continued disputes about the meaning of Islam and the legacy of the revolution for future policy.

Khomeini’s successors will also have to face the deeper problem of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. For ten years, Iran’s clerical leaders have insisted that the legitimacy of the state derives from the divine mandate granted not only to the Islamic jurists as a community but specifically to the supreme jurist of the age, in light of his superior learning, grace, and sanctity. The authority of the faqih was made the basis of the very legitimacy of the state, and no doubt this formula will continue to be repeated.

But the constitution of the Islamic Republic, as Bazargan once remarked, was a suit of clothes tailored specifically to Khomeini’s measure. As the qualifications required for the office of faqih are downgraded and the emphasis turns increasingly to managerial ability and worldly knowledge, so the force of the religious legitimacy of the state must diminish. The possibility that the supreme leader will no longer be treated as God’s chosen instrument may prove a source of general relief. But Iran’s clerics will need to find a redefined source of legitimacy for their claim to govern and they may discover that such sense of relief will be the beginning of their real difficulties.

June 22, 1989

This Issue

July 20, 1989