Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah
by baqer moin
London, I. B. Tauris, 1999. 352 pages. £24.95
What would the Ayatollah Khomeini have made of Iran’s current president, Mohammed Khatami, so different in personality but like him an immensely charismatic leader determined to transform his country? Would the founder of the Iranian Revolution, like the conservatives who claim to have assumed his mantle, have viewed as perilous Mr Khatami’s attempts to liberalise Iranian society and politics? For them, the student protests in July were proof that giving the people too much freedom will bring anarchy and destroy the Islamic system.
Or would Khomeini, as the president’s supporters insist, have accepted that reform is the only way to preserve Islamic rule? Otherwise, they argue, it will be swept away by a restless populace, most of whom were born after the 1979 revolution, are heartily tired of its restrictions and have no experience of life under the autocratic Shah.
This speculative question is not raised in an excellent new biography of Khomeini by Baqer Moin, head of the BBC’s Persian Service who has firsthand experience of Islamic seminaries. But his book, which is scholarly yet accessible, will nevertheless give both camps in Iran plenty of evidence to fight their corner. For the conservatives and fundamentalists there is the recalcitrant Khomeini who, just months before his death ten years ago, unceremoniously sacked the man he initially designated as his successor, the once revered Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. It was not that Montazeri ever challenged Khomeini’s cherished concept of rule by jurisconsult, or velayat e-faqih. His sin in Khomeini’s eyes was to urge a far more open Islamic government that allowed greater popular participation. Montazeri had made no secret of his belief that under Khomeini Iran had become a new kind of dictatorship, and he was bitterly critical of the reign of terror unleashed against political prisoners following the 1988 cease-fire with Iraq.
“Since it has become clear to me,” Khomeini wrote to him in March 1989, “that you are going to hand over this country, our dear Islamic Revolution, and the Muslim people of Iran to the liberals, you are no longer eligible to succeed me as the legitimate leader of the state” (p. 287). He advised the “gullible” Montazeri to confess his sins to save himself from “hell-fire”. Mr Khatami has been attacked by his critics, particularly in the powerful Revolutionary Guards, in remarkably similar language.
Yet Khomeini, a close observer of the media, also had his finger on the pulse of popular sentiment and would no doubt have felt an echo of the people power that swept away the Shah in this summer’s student demonstrations in favour of Mr Khatami’s reforms. “As a mystic,” observes Moin, “Khomeini was an elitist, but as a theologian he was expedient and as a politician he was a calculating populist to the point of being opportunistic” (p. 295). He also had the ability to shock with swift policy changes, none more unexpected than when, in July 1988, he drank “the chalice of poison for the Almighty” and agreed to a cease-fire with Iraq after eight years of devastating war.
Similarly, those hardliners who now oppose Mr Khatami’s cautious rapprochement with the “global arrogance”, America, would do well to have a second look at Khomeini’s twenty-nine-page will, passages from which are quoted by Moin. Certainly, there is the predictable invective against the “terrorists” in Washington. But the most virulent abuse is saved for the Saudi royal family, “these traitors to God’s great shrine, may God’s curse and that of his prophets and angels be upon them” (p. 305). Yet within two years of Khomeini’s death, his favourite lieutenant, the astute former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had mended relations with Saudi Arabia.
It is not only the cynics today who argue that had the conservatives’ man won the landmark presidential elections in May 1997, Mr Khatami’s opponents would by now have found a way to justify an honourable normalisation with the United States. For the hardliners, too, have a vested interest in solving the long-running economic crisis that is responsible for much of the disillusion with Islamic rule, and ending American hostility would go far towards meeting that goal. The end of US sanctions would open the doors to loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and boost foreign investment. Those attempting to scupper Mr Khatami’s cautious rapprochement with Washington are not driven by ideology, but by fear that his popularity would swell even more if ties were normalised with the superpower. America’s brash popular culture, disseminated via satellite television, the Internet and smuggled video and audio tapes, has seduced the younger generation of Iranians. Enticed by tales of wealth and personal freedom, many dream of moving to Los Angeles, dubbed “Irangeles” by its huge Iranian expatriate community.
Nothing better highlights the sea change in attitudes to America since Khomeini died than the strange plight of Abbas Abdi, one of the leaders of the militant students who stormed the American embassy in Tehran twenty years ago. Now balding, bespectacled and middle-aged, he is an outspoken editor of the pro-Khatami newspaper Salaam. It was the closure of that newspaper in July that led to the student demonstrations that erupted into violence when the protesters were attacked by police and Islamic vigilantes. Abdi was later charged by a hardline religious court with insulting the clergy and the Iranian people. His crime was to have described people shouting anti-American slogans as “bandits and outlaws” in a speech delivered in the holy city of Qom last year.
Khomeini’s endorsement of the US embassy takeover was, as Moin points out, more for reasons of domestic than foreign policy. It enabled him to associate Washington with opponents of the velayat-e faqih, whom “he damned with the claim that America, instead of intervening by force, was trying to infiltrate the country through the pen” (p. 227). It also helped to distract the then still powerful leftist guerrilla organisations for which the priority was to support Khomeini’s anti-imperialist stand. “We keep the hostages, finish our internal work, then release them,” he told his foreign minister, Abolhassan Bani Sadr. “This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us” (p. 228). Ten years later, he used the Rushdie affair in the same way. And today, the tradition continues with the arrest of thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Few informed Iranians believe the charges, but they understand the strategy of forcing Khatami to stand up for people denounced as Zionists.
With most levers of power, including the security forces and state broadcasting, still in the hands of Khatami’s opponents, his government has effectively assumed the role of opposition. That should change if his supporters win a majority of seats in parliamentary elections next March, an event that could permanently shift the balance of power in Iran. In the past, the balance between the liberal and reactionary tendencies in the regime has always swayed back and forth, with periods of co-operation following episodes of confrontation, robbing any grouping of absolute power. Were that to change with a lasting moderate victory, the political landscape of the entire Middle East could be transformed, particularly as Iran’s main Arab ally, Syria, is showing interest in forging peace with the new government in Israel. If so, it would be further evidence that Khomeini’s legacy has not been as enduring as once thought. The Islamic or secular liberals he cast aside after they helped him oust the Shah were never quite defeated. And the voices, albeit muffled by fear, of those clerics who would prefer a greater distinction between state and mosque are once again being heard.
Moin provides a comprehensive account of Khomeini’s life, covering his childhood in the town of Khomein, his years as a seminary student in Qom, his political radicalisation, his public opposition to the Shah and subsequent exile in Turkey, Iraq and Paris, his triumphant return as head of the Islamic Revolution, his time as war leader during the conflict with Iraq, and his final years and death.
Drawing on exclusive personal interviews with Khomeini’s associates and unpublished new material, Moin does more than portray the Ayatollah as a public, historical figure. Some of the most engaging parts of this biography are the quirky personal details that reveal Khomeini to have had an endearing side. He had just one wife who stayed with him for sixty-three years until his death. He wrote moving letters on the mystical path for his daughter-in-law. He haggled with taxi drivers, even though he was never short of money.
First impressions were not always favourable. In 1964 he was exiled to Turkey, where his minder and host was a Persian-speaking colonel of military intelligence, Ali Cetiner. The cultural clash between a secular middle class military family in Turkey and the man who wanted to oust the secular order in Iran is nicely observed by Cetiner’s wife, Melahat. When she sat at her own table without a headscarf, Khomeini “frowned and began shouting”, then asked her to leave the room. “I am the lady of the house,” she replied. “I could not leave my house even if I wanted to.” She did, however, start covering her head and wearing a long dress (p. 132).
Melahat also gives what must be the first account of Khomeini’s table manners: “He slurped the soup and belched at the table” (p. 134). He also, she observed, smacked his lips and chewed with his mouth open. Yet, within days, he chivalrously stood when Melahat entered the room and she soon regarded him as a “nice old man and very polite” (ibid.). When, after eleven months with the Cetiners, Khomeini left for further exile in Iraq, both he and the Turkish family were in tears (p. 139).
For any in the West who doubted the impact he had on both ordinary Iranians and the Iranian nation, spectacular proof came with his death in June 1989. Millions of distraught people, in a spontaneous outpouring of mass grief, turned the streets of Tehran into a river of black to mourn at what will go down as one of the best-attended funerals in modern history.