Over the past week the Iranian authorities have marked the 36th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution by deploying the heaviest propaganda artillery at their disposal. The official narrative is that Iran, under its “Supreme Guide,” has the most perfect political and economic system known to mankind since the advent of Islam fifteen centuries ago. The only problem, official propaganda claims, is that “vicious powers” are trying to undermine the Islamic Republic by fomenting internal dissent combined with economic and diplomatic sanctions.
However, while cymbals of self-congratulation are crashed, voices could also be heard demanding a realistic assessment of the past decades. Nations that have experienced a revolution have often used the entry into the fourth decade of the new regime as a good point to take stock. In most cultures three decades is regarded as the lifespan of a generation, a vantage point from which a new generation can examine the record of the preceding one.
That self-examination, or self-criticism as Marxists have it, is not aimed at settling past scores with players who have either died or faded into oblivion. The aim is to achieve a better understanding of an experience that, because of its very nature, included tragic aspects. A revolution’s self-criticism does not always come in the same manner. Nor does it produce identical results.
In the case of the French Revolution the Thermidor episode just two years into the new era proved to be just a flash in the pan. France had to wait until the July Monarchy in 1830 to conduct the genuine self-criticism it needed. In Russia, the exercise took the shape of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, in which Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s “personality cult” and announced measures to undo some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of the revolution. Thanks to de-Stalinization millions of people, including whole nations such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars, were allowed to return home after years of exile in Central Asia and Siberia.
In Communist China, the break came in the plenum of the party’s Central Committee in July 1972. There, the blame for all that had gone wrong, including crimes committed in the name of revolution, was put on Lin Biao who had conveniently died, or been liquidated, in an air crash. By admitting the folly of such policies as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the party opted for de-Maoization while keeping Mao Zedong, the chief architect of the tragedy nominally in place.
Cuba had a similar experience in 1980 when the ruling Communist Party conducted its own version of de-Stalinization without jettisoning Fidel Castro, the man most responsible for the tragic mistakes of the regime. However, the “correction” enabled Cuba to disentangle itself from wars “to export revolution” to Latin America, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It provided a slight opening of the political space by recognizing the right of other parties to exist, though not to govern. It also ended the wave of executions that had marked the new regime since 1959.
Does Iran need its version of de-Stalinization? Many Iranians, including some within the regime, say “yes,” at least in private. Instead of burying its head in the sand of self-delusion, Iran would do well to carry out a serious examination of the past three decades, a move that could be labelled de-Khomeinization.
A decade ago, some had hoped that newly-elected President Muhammad Khatami would trigger such a process. He did not. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toyed with the idea but never went beyond rhetorical pirouettes. Both men lacked the courage to tackle the demons of the past. Though he lacks the stature and the charisma of Khatami and Ahmadinejad, the current president, Hassan Rouhani, faces the same challenge. If he leads a process of de-Khomeinization he might succeed. If he does not he will fail as his predecessors did.
In Iran, no-one can ignore the tragic record of the revolution. Over the past three decades some six million Iranians have fled their homeland. The Iran-Iraq war claimed almost a million lives on both sides. During the first four years of the Khomeinist regime alone 22,000 people were executed, according to Amnesty International. Since then, the number of executions has topped 80,000. More than five million people have spent some time in prison, often on trumped-up charges. In terms of purchasing power parity, the average Iranian today is poorer than he was before the revolution.
De-Khomeinization does not mean holding the late ayatollah solely responsible for all that Iran has suffered just as Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel Castro shared the blame with others in their respective countries. However, there is ample evidence that Khomeini was the principal source of the key decisions that led to tragedy. He triggered the wave of executions with little or no trial, often in writing as testified by the late Ayatollahs Sadeq Khalkhali, the Iranian version of Fouquier-Tinville, France’s Judge Blood.
Khomeini’s erstwhile successor and later adversary, Ayatollah Montazeri, has also released documents showing that the self-styled Imam was responsible for triggering the eight-year war with Iraq and the seizure of American diplomats as hostages. It was also Khomeini who insisted that a draft constitution be re-written to enshrine absolute rule by a mullah, meaning himself.
Memoirs and interviews and articles by dozens of Khomeini’s former associates—including former Presidents Abol-Hassan Banisadr and Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Premier Mehdi Bazargan—make it clear that he was personally responsible for some of the new regime’s worst excesses. These include the disbanding of the national army, the repression of the traditional Shi’ite clergy, and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, with targeted assassinations at home and abroad.
Khomeini has become a symbol of what went wrong with Iran’s wayward revolution. De-Khomeinization might not spell the end of Iran’s miseries just as de-Stalinization and de-Maoization initially produced only minimal results. However, no nation can plan its future without coming to terms with its past.