Despotism in a New Guise

Thirty years ago, the liberal forces behind the Iranian Revolution hoped that the overthrow of the Shah would herald the democratic transformation of the country. Instead, the aging Shiite leader established an authoritarian theocratic system. By Arian Fariborz

Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (right) talking to Ayatollah Khomeini (photo: AP)
In order to secure control over the state, the Shiite leader initially cooperated with liberal Islamists such as Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (right</i>), seen here talking to Ayatollah Khomeini

​​ On 8 January 1978, an article appeared in the state-run Iranian newspaper "Ettela'at" sharply criticising and personally disparaging the Shiite leader Ayatollah Khomeini. This led to rioting in the city of Qom, the centre of Shiite spirituality, the first in a series of violent protests against the Shah's regime.

This event is regarded as having sparked the Islamic Revolution, one of the most significant political upheavals in world history, claims the Middle East expert Fred Halliday. "It gave rise to a number of mass demonstrations attended by more than two million people, which make them the largest non-orchestrated demonstrations in the history of mankind."

When the protests against the monarchist regime could not be quelled, Shah Reza Pahlavi was finally forced to leave the country on 16 January 1979. The revolution had triumphed. Within two weeks, Ayatollah Khomeini had returned from exile in France to the Iranian capital Tehran, where he was enthusiastically welcomed home by over four million people.

No sooner had the Shiite leader set foot on Iranian soil than he openly declared his political ambitions. "From now on, I will name the government!" he cried out to the jubilant crowd in Tehran.

The short spring of the revolution

Ayatollah Khomeini returning from exile in France on 1 February 1979 (photo: dpa)
"From now on, I will name the government!" declared Khomeini on his return from exile in France on 1 February 1979

​​ Four days later, he appointed the liberal politician Mehdi Bazargan head of an alternative government. After the resignation of the Shah's appointed prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, in February 1979, Bazargan became the first post-revolution prime minister.

What was initially taken to be a political concession by Khomeini towards the liberal middle class, was in reality nothing more than a clever move by the then 75-year-old ayatollah, writes Ghasem Toulany, journalist and Iranian specialist at the University of Göttingen. "From the very start, Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to set up a system that adhered to Islamic values. As such, he turned to the 'Velayat-e faqeeh' doctrine, i.e. the doctrine of rule by Islamic religious scholars."

This government model, which gave religious legal scholars the reins of absolute political power in both state and social spheres, had already been outlined by Khomeini in the 1960s. "Yet this Islamic doctrine was not taken seriously, either by the Shah or by the numerous democratic groups that were then fighting against the Shah," reports Toulany.

The fact that this was a grave mistake quickly became apparent after the hated Shah was toppled from his peacock throne. In order to build a functioning government and establish political unity in the country, Khomeini at first relied on the cooperation of those liberal and secular forces that had in fact carried the brunt of the revolution. Only in this way was it possible for the Shiite leader to attain step-by-step control over the state.

The suppression of ethnic minorities

He began by turning against the numerous minorities in the Persian multi-ethnic state, especially the Kurds and Turkmen. They had hoped the revolution would result in democratization and regional independence, and in February 1979 had threatened to split away from the central state.

Ryszard Kapuscinski (photo: DW)
Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was in Teheran in December 1979 and published his impressions of the Islamic revolution in his book "Shah of Shahs"

​​ In his book "Shah of Shahs", the Polish author and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski describes how the Islamic Revolution then took a radical turn. Khomeini embodied the stage of the Iranian Revolution in which the ruling nation becomes aware of an impending collapse of the state. Repression was employed to replace democratic slogans with those promoting national integration. Minorities were massacred in the name of preserving the unity of the state.

"This is why every democratic revolution in a multi-ethnic state is doomed to fail, because a prerequisite of democracy must be the liquidation of the state, which supports itself by suppressing minorities," writes Kapuscinski.

Double structure of the government apparatus

No sooner were the separatist insurrections put down than the Islamic forces turned against the liberals and communists. As a political tactician, Khomeini understood the importance of countenancing a double structure of political institutions for the interim period. On the one side was the liberal, democratic wing under the president and prime minister, and on the other were the Islamic clergy, which dominated parliament, the judiciary, and so-called "Council of Guardians".

However, the end of the formal alliance of these unequal partners was already in sight. The Bazargan government finally resigned and with its departure, the way was clear for a further radicalization of the Islamic Republic.

"Neither East nor West – only the Islamic Republic!" was now the battle cry of the radical Shiite organizations under the Hesbollahis and the "Pasdaran" militias – and one which became increasingly shrill from the end of 1979 onwards. Even Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the liberal-Islamic successor to Bazargan in the post of prime minister, could not resist the pressure from the street. In June 1981, when he warned of a creeping coup by the increasingly powerful Islamic Republican Party (IRP) of the ayatollahs, he was summarily replaced upon orders by Khomeini.

​​ But revolution devours its own children: in the years of terror between 1981 and 1985, thousands of regime opponents were brought before Islamic courts under summary proceedings and executed. Khomeini's absolute rule was further consolidated by the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted until 1988.

A permanent state of emergency and corresponding legislation finally put an end to the remaining underground opposition. The war and economic decline, however, took its toll on the regime. Oil exports collapsed and the years after Khomeini's death in 1989 were characterised by the shadow economy and inflation.

Economic stagnation and political isolation

Even President Rafsanjani, regarded as a pragmatist, did not substantially succeed in modernizing the country or opening it up to the West. The main reason was opposition from the bazaars and the conservative clergy, which feared for their economic power.

After 30 years, the Islamic Republic's economic success appears to have been less than modest. The claim that the revolution was "in the service of the barefooted and the have-nots" and that it supported poverty-stricken urban dwellers was already dubious during Khomeini's lifetime.

Instead, it has been bazaar operators and the religious foundations that have profited to this day from the country's economic riches, taking the place of the previous monopoly enjoyed by the Pahlavi Foundation under the Shah. Many Iranians find it shocking that their country, which is the world's fourth largest oil producer, still has to import fuel and subsidize its price.

The country's new leader, President Ahmadinejad, who claims to be the Khomeini's spiritual heir and rejuvenator of the original values of the Islamic Republic, has further isolated Iran both politically and economically, not least on account of the UN sanctions imposed on the mullah state following the nuclear conflict.

As a result, Khomeini's political system of rule by Islamic religious scholars, long favoured by the mullahs as an export model for other Muslim countries, is regarded by practically the entire world as more of a failure than a model worthy of imitation.

Arian Fariborz

© 2009

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