Khomeini or Kim? Khamenei’s Real Teacher

According to the initial narrative of the Khomeinist ideology, the “perfect state” which Muslims should aspire was the brief period during which Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb exercised the Caliphate against a background of revolts and civil war. However, it now seems that Khomeinist zealots have found another “ideal model” outside the world of Islam.

That model is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, which Khomeinists present as living paragon of heroic resistance against the American “Great Satan.” The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently ran editorials praising North Korea’s “brave defiance of Arrogance” by testing long-range missiles in the face of “cowardly threats” by the United States. In one editorial last month, the paper invited those who urge dialogue with the US to learn from North Korea’s “success in humiliating the Great Satan.”

The editorial provoked some critical responses from the “reformist” wing of the ruling clique with President Hassan Rouhani’s unofficial spokesman expressing regret that Iran was being asked to downgrade to the level of “a pariah in a remote corner of Asia.”

Nevertheless, last month North Korea’s nominal “president” Kim Yong-nam whose official title is Chairman of the People’s Assembly was given red carpet treatment during a 10-day visit to Tehran at the head a 30-man military and political delegation. He was granted a rare two-hours long audience with Khamenei. During his stay, he inaugurated North Korea’s new embassy which includes an expanded military cooperation section.

At first glance, the Khomeinist “republic” and the Kimist regime in Pyongyang seem to have little in common.

The Khomeinists claim legitimacy in the name of the Hidden Imam who is believed to be preparing his return at an unspecified date. The Kimists, on the other hand, base their legitimacy on the “heroic victories” of Kim Il-sung, the proto-Communist leader who, with support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, carved out a fiefdom in part of the Korean Peninsula. Also at first glance, it might appear that the only thing the two regimes share is a primitive version of anti-Americanism, an affliction that affects many others even in Western democracies, albeit in milder forms.

Seen by Khomeinists, who pretend to be sole custodians of “The Only True Religion”, the Kimists, who regard religion as “confused mumbo-jumbo”, must be regarded as adversaries if not outright enemies. And, yet, such is their mutual attraction that the little matter of religion seems to have had no effect on their love fest. The Kimists have even allowed the Khomeinists to set up a mosque in Pyongyang provided they do not try to convert North Koreans.

In the spring of 1979, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dynasty and grandfather of the present Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was among the first to congratulate Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini on the seizure of power by mullahs.

A few weeks later, Khomeini, then stationed in Qom, broke his rule of not talking to foreign emissaries by receiving North Korean Ambassador Chabeong Uk for a long session during which the ayatollah dictated a message of friendship to Kim Il-sung, in which, he invited “the masses of Korea” to expel the Americans from the peninsula.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, Kim Il-sung was the first to offer assistance to the Islamic Republic by supplying its version of the Soviet SCUD missiles. In January 1981, invited by Iran, the North Koreans set up a military advisory mission in Tehran to help the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC) develop tactics and strategies in the war against Iraq.

One tactic quickly adopted by the Iranians was the sue of “swarm attacks” by masses of teenagers sent to clear Iraqi minefields at the cost of thousands of lives, a tactic that Kim Il-sung had developed in the Korean War against the Americans.

North Korea became one of only two nations to sign a military pact of sorts, including joint staff conversations, with Iran. (The other is in Syria which signed in 2007.)

Iran’s top contact man with the North Korean military mission was Khamenei then a mid-ranking mullahs operating as Deputy Defense Minister. The new friends started “military cooperation” in 1982 with special emphasis on helping Iran develop a range of missiles.

Getting to know the North Koreans, Khamenei developed a profound admiration for their “discipline and readiness to sacrifice for their struggle”. But it was not until six years later that Khamenei, by that time named President of the Islamic Republic, could express that admiration directly in a state visit to Pyongyang.

According to those who accompanied Khamenei in the visit, the future “Supreme Guide” saw North Korea as the “ideal state” that only lacked religious faith.

“Khamenei was impressed by how everything (in North Korea) worked like the clockwork,” says Hassan Nami, a member of the entourage. “The fact that in North Korea the individual was dissolved in the collective symbolized by the Supreme Leader overwhelmed Khamenei.”

Khamenei’s visit to North Korea, in May 1989, was the first to give him the feeling that he was the rising leader of a rising new power on the world scene. The North Koreans declared a holiday for schools and factories to mobilize a million people to line the streets to greet Khamenei. In a rare gesture, Kim Il-sung himself went to the airport to greet the visitor. The North Korean despot then chaired a special session of the People’s Assembly to hear Khamenei’s speech which included a thinly disguised invitation to Koreans to return to religious belief.

In the end, however, the North Koreans adopted nothing from Khomeinism while Khamenei adopted much of Kim Il-sung’s ideology.

Kim’s “juche” (self-reliance) shibboleth became Khamenei “eqtesad muqawemati” (Resistance Economics). Khamenei also adopted Kim’s reliance on missiles, caused by the fact that North Korean had no access to modern warplanes, as the main plank of his defense doctrine. The revival of the Shah’s nuclear program, scrapped by Khomeini but revived under Khamenei, was also inspired by Kim who believed a weaker nation enhances its position by owning “the ultimate weapon.”

When it comes to Khamenei’s rejection of compromise with domestic or foreign adversaries, again Kim was the teacher.

Kim preached “absolute independence” which meant total disregard for international law, something that Khamenei has made an article of faith for the Islamic Republic.

Going down the list of Khamenei’s beliefs, including his reliance on the military for the survival of the regime, one could see that in many cases the real teacher was Kim Il-sung, not Khomeini.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

More Posts