Khomeini’s Rule

Nikki Keddie

  • The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution by Shaul Bakhash
    Tauris, 282 pp, £13.95, January 1985, ISBN 1 85043 003 9
  • The State and Revolution in Iran: 1962-1982 by Hossein Bashiriyeh
    Croom Helm, 203 pp, £16.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7099 3214 6

To the student of revolution, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 must appear both strange and strangely familiar. It appears familiar because the revolution, in its causes and us course, fits largely into the pattern of ‘great’ revolutions set out by such students of comparative revolution as Crane Brinton. Brinton’s typology, more descriptive than explanatory, sees revolution as starting with an internal crisis in the old regime, proceeding to a government of moderate revolutionaries, then to a radical ‘reign of terror and virtue’, which leads to a ‘Thermidor’ in which order is restored but some gains of the revolution are maintained. Both books under review, Bashiriyeh’s explicitly and Bakhash’s implicitly, present the Iranian revolution as fitting into this general pattern – a pattern discerned by Brinton in the French, American and Russian revolutions, but which is also largely applicable to the English Civil War, for example, or the Chinese Revolution.

Bashiriyeh gives one of the best brief analyses available of the crisis within the ruling classes which preceded the Iranian revolution. He shows that the late Shah’s attempts in the Seventies to be popular both with the industrial working class, which he feared, and with the businessmen who employed them, resulted in a loss of confidence on two sides. Businessmen, including industrialists as well as bazaaris, were harassed and arrested at the Government’s instigation for profiteering and other newly-prosecuted crimes. Industrial workers were offered non-voting stock and shares in profits, so that they became a relatively privileged class, while nothing significant was done for the urban poor, largely of migrant background, who, along with the small bazaaris, were to form the backbone of the revolution in its early stages.

The crisis within the ruling classes was not only economic. For years before the revolution members of the Government had been critical of the Shah’s autocratic rule, of the hold he and his close associates had over all institutions, and of the prevailing corruption. Forced membership of the single Rastakhiz Party, created in the mid-Seventies, added to this high-level discontent. By late 1978 many people in important government positions were welcoming, or even actively supporting, the revolution, never dreaming that Khomeini’s version of clerical rule, which he toned down in most of the speeches and tapes he made during the revolution, could become a reality.

A second feature common to great revolutions is also noted, especially by Bashiriyeh – the tendency for revolutions to occur in times of rising prosperity. According to Davies’s J-curve theory, revolutions tend to arise when a considerable period of economic improvement is followed by a shorter period of rapid economic decline – hence the so-called J-curve. This upward and then brief downward trend was noted for the French Revolution by Labrousse many decades ago. Iran, after a period of rapid growth in which the oil price rises of 1973 played a major part, suffered a sharp downturn in employment and growth in the later Seventies. It could, however, be argued that the psychological effects of the downturn were greater than its straightforward economic effects. The Shah had predicted an unprecedented rise in the Iranian standard of living and it was easy for the masses of the poor to see that, while some Iranians had got much richer, the living standards of the majority had shown relatively little improvement.

The course of the revolution once it came to power has also followed the pattern of other great revolutions in many ways. The first phase, from February to November 1979, was one of official rule by bourgeois moderates under the prime ministership of Mehdi Bazargan. At the same time, radical organisations like the Revolutionary Guards and the Revolutionary Council (a largely clerical body) began unofficially to carry out the functions of government. The second stage – the triumph of the radicals – was precipitated by the taking of the American hostages on 4 November 1979. Bazargan’s government could not get Khomeini’s backing for a solution to the crisis and was forced to resign. The influence of the radical clergy was strengthened in the government which replaced it, even though Khomeini’s ruling that no cleric could run for President guaranteed victory in the presidential election to a non-cleric who had encouraged leftist and Third Worldist trends in Khomeini’s government – Abol Hasan Bani-Sadr.

The third phase, the period of revolutionary terror, began with the events surrounding the fall of President Bani-Sadr and his flight to France in June 1981. From the first Bani-Sadr was largely immobilised by the clerics, whose Islamic Republican Party gained control of the elected Parliament and refused to endorse Bani-Sadr’s programme or cabinet choices. After Bani-Sadr’s fall, the Mojahedin-i Khalq, an Islamic leftist group, was responsible, though perhaps not exclusively so, for a series of spectacular assassinations of clerical political leaders. The Government cracked down ferociously with a wave of executions, – principally of suspected Mojahedin but many others were included – which far surpassed in numbers the executions of the early revolutionary period. Along with this went other forms of terror, which began to abate only in December 1982 when Khomeini was persuaded to issue decrees outlawing several forms of arbitrary behaviour on the part of government and other officials, and establishing complaint procedures and commissions. Although the reality that followed was far from meeting the letter of Khomeini’s decree, and Mojahedin as well as followers of the Bahai faith were still persecuted, there was a decline in impromptu gaolings and executions. The most recent stage of the revolution, which Bashiriyeh calls its ‘Thermidor’, has been characterised by a further decline in internal terror; by a successful effort to increase foreign trade and technological assistance; and by a growing conservatism in economic policy.

Bakhash is particularly enlightening on the economic aspects of the revolution: on the radical Islamic economic theories propounded by Bani-Sadr, by Ayatollah Taleqani, and by the Iraqi clerical leader, Muhammad Baqiral-Sadr, and on the conflicting economic realities within the Islamic republic. The grassroots radicalism of the revolution’s early phases, which included widespread land seizures and attempts at worker control, was largely crushed by government forces. After the fall of the Bazargan Government, however, those who believed both in a mote radical and egalitarian land reform than the Shah’s, and in more extensive nationalisation than Bazargan’s government had been forced by circumstances to carry out, became influential in parliament. The new parliament passed Bills for further land reform and for the nationalisation of foreign trade, but both were vetoed by the Council of Guardians, a body created by the revolutionary constitution to ensure that parliamentary measures were in accord with Islamic law and the constitution. These vetoes of measures backed by the populists but opposed by bazaar and business interests were among the signs of an economic Thermidor. Other such signs were the encouragement of foreign trade and technical ties with a number of ‘ideologically unreliable’ regimes, including Pakistan, Turkey and several European countries. For all the continued talk of Islamic economics, now rarely interpreted in its former egalitarian sense. Iran’s recent economic policies have been quite similar to those of other Third World countries with populist middle-class governments.

Whether or not one describes the recent phase as a Thermidor – which some hesitate to do because of Khomeini’s continuing power and active fundamentalism – it is clear that the normalisation of economic life has gone a long way. Also, foreign relations, aside from the war and the activities of a small number of revolutionaries abroad, are not so different from those of other populist Third World countries. In addition, a network of functioning institutions has been constructed, often with technocrats occupying important positions, which can meet Iran’s basic administrativemental and economic needs.

Although the Iranian revolution appears familiar in its passage through several stages which are by and large analogous to those seen in other great revolutions, it is nonetheless unique among the great revolutions in having as its dominant ideology a populist form of religious fundamentalism. Since the English Civil War, and especially since the French Revolution, great revolutions have been expressed in ideologies that were not primarily fundamentalist, even when, as in the English case, they were predominantly religious. From the French Revolution to the Chinese, revolutionary ideologies have been secular – often atheist. The Iranian revolution had its Marxists and its secularists, but its dominant ideology has been a populist and revolutionary version of Shi’i Islam, which had multiple roots, but was most effectively expressed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Not only was this the first great revolution with a revivalist religious ideology, it was also the first to reject all the ideologies of the West – whether democratic or Marxist – and to insist that an indigenous religious tradition had all the elements needed to run a just and egalitarian state.

Other Muslim countries had seen revivalist rebellions against Western conquest since the 19th century, but only in Iran have the clergy been sufficiently independent of the government to count as a major political force. They played a leading role in the successful movement against the British tobacco concession in 1891-92 and in the constitutional revolution of 1905-11. From the fall or the Safarid dynasty in 1722 to the 1920s, the Iranian clergy were centred in Ottoman Iraq, beyond the reach of the Iranian shahs. Unlike the Sunni clergy of other Muslim countries, they collected religious taxes themselves, which made them to a large extern financially independent of the Iranian government. Several politically-oriented clerics were able to translate this relative political and financial independence into ideological terms. Hostility to Western control of Iran, already expressed by ulama, bazaaris and intellectuals in 1891 and 1905, came to the fore again in the protests of 1963-64. Although some of Khomeini’s colleagues in 1963-64 focused their attention on the Shah’s land reform and his giving votes to women, Khomeini himself stressed concessions to the US and Israel. In so doing, he managed to keep the allegiance of the popular classes and some intellectuals, who partially favoured the reforms, and also of many bazaaris and landlords, who did not. During Khomeini’s exile, first in Iraq, then in France, he was in increasingly close contact with such radical Third Worldists as Bani-Sadr, Sadeq Qotbzadeh and Ibrahim Yazdi. Even before he went to Paris echoes of radical Third Worldism could be heard in the messages which he recorded on tape for distribution in Iran. Khomeini’s ideas can certainly be described as fundamentalist, but they are no more a simple restatement of a centuries-old tradition than are the ideas of contemporary Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. Dramatic evidence of this can be found in his idea of the ‘guardianship of the jurisprudent’, i.e. direct rule by one or more clerics – an idea for which there is no real precedent in Shi’i or in Sunni Islam.

Khomeini’s fundamentalism is thus a new politico-religious amalgam. There is no doubt, however, that its Islamic content gave it a hold on the urban masses and bazaaris which, in 1978, no purely secular ideology could have had. In Iran more than in most other Muslim countries Western secular ideologies had been tried and were considered to have failed. America’s association with the Shah helped to discedit both, and it was widely felt that Westernisation was inevitably allied with Western control. Before the revolution even liberal and leftist thinkers like Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati had begun to reject Westernism and to seek new values in Islam.

Fundamentalist Islam, especially in its Quranic punishments and Us treatment of women, may appear ‘backward’ to many Westerners, but it is worth taking seriously Ernest Gellner’s suggestion that, of all the great religious traditions, Islam is in many respects the one most open to modernity. Certainly, as Maxime Rodinson has demonstrated, Islam has long been favourable to economic activity. Those who saw in Khomeini a Gandhian who wanted to take Iran back to the spinning-wheel were always mistaken. However, it is important to remember that almost any broad tradition, religious or secular, can be adapted to a great variety of goals. Knowledge of Christian socialism and Liberation theology should make us realise how easy it is to find elements in religious tradition which support socialist, populist or even revolutionary interpretations. The anti-Western and anti-Israeli feelings characteristic of the post-war Middle East encouraged the attempt to build a populist, anti-imperialist Islam. In Iran this attempt had the special advantage of being espoused by leading clerics, who had more influence with the masses and with the petty bourgeoisie than did the intellectuals who presented new interpretations of Islam in other parts of the Middle East, and more independence of government than their clerical counterparts in other Middle Eastern countries.

The analysis of Islamic revivalism takes up a relatively small part of Bashiriyeh’s and Bakhash’s books, but they deal with this subject, and others, very lucidly. The two books are largely complementary. Bashiriyeh covers a longer period, with some discussion of Iranian politics since the early 20th century and a detailed analysis of the period between 1962 and 1982. Bakhash concentrates his background discussion on the years since 1962 and devotes most of his space to a well-reasoned, balanced and readable exposition of events since the victory of the revolution in February 1979. He is especially good on Islamic economics and on the long struggle over land reform since the revolution. Bashiriyeh has less detail on the post-revolutionary period and gives more social and sociological analysis. He is well read in the literature of revolution and makes judicious use of those theories that fit the facts without trying to force events into any predetermined framework. Relevant insights are drawn from a variety of writers, both Marxist and non-Marxist. Both books use original sources which have not been available In the West. As might be expected, neither is totally free of errors or debatable points. Bakhash at one important moment quotes directly a statement made to Bani-Sadr some years ago, which is taken from Bani-Sadr’s book published long after the event. Even if it comes from a diary, the chances of its being an exact quotation are small. His book lacks a bibliography, and the notes contain few references to non-Iranian secondary sources although their influence is reflected in his text. On the whole, however, the two writers have been very careful with their facts.

The picture of the Iranian revolution painted in most of the Western press – of gaolings, executions, and young boys sent to their death in battle – contains some important truth, but there is also a complex series of political and economic struggles going on within the country which is seldom noted in the press, and to which these two books provide excellent guides. The oppression of ethnic minorities, of Bahais, of women and of dissidents are all serious matters, though it is unfortunately not only in Iran that phenomena of this type occur. Less known are the continuing debates over economic and social policy, in which different groups of Islamic revolutionaries and technocrats opt for different approaches to development and the achieving of social equality. The revolution has belied the hopes of many, but it has not wholly turned its back on its populist origins. Indeed, it is largely because of this, combined with the Third Worldist appeal of its doctrines, that it continues to arouse support, as well as opposition, within and outside lran.