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Smooth Road to Revolution, Rough Road to Statehood | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iranians do not measure time in terms of days and months but in terms of decades and centuries. In a country with a history that dates back 2000 years or more, for some people in Iran, 30 years seems too short a time to try to assess the Iranian revolution that recently marked its thirtieth anniversary. In their opinion, the revolution is still in its early days, and all that will follow as a consequence of the revolution with respect to the Iranians, the region and the entire world, is yet to have crystallized.

Nevertheless, it is important to take a closer look at the Iranian revolution that changed a number of factors in Iran. Suffice it to say that the Iranians today celebrate only two kinds of holidays; national and religious holidays such as Nowruz (Persian New Year), Eid ul-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr, Ashoura, which marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, as well as holidays related to the Iranian Revolution such as Victory of the Revolution Day and Anniversary of the Islamic Republic. All other kinds of festivals have become a faint memory. Yet the impact of the Iranian Revolution goes far beyond the symbolism of these holidays to include everything from the nature of the political system and the state structure to public freedoms; from Tehran’s ties with the Qom Hawza to the ties between the Bazaar and the decision-making process and the new Iranian elite.

Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989 aged roughly 87. Under the dome of the Iranian parliament, Khomeini’s will was read out, not by his son Ahmed Khomeini, but by his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was promoted from Hujjat al Islam [meaning authority on Islam] to the rank of Ayatollah so that he could assume the post of Supreme Leader and State Commander after the death of Khomeini. A large picture of Khomeini was placed on the stand from which Khamenei was reading out the will.

In his final will, Khomeini said: “With a peaceful mind, a certain heart, a happy spirit, and a conscience hopeful for God’s mercy, I take my leave of all brothers and sisters to journey to the eternal abode. I need your prayers and I beseech Almighty God’s pardon and forgiveness for my inadequacies and my faults. I hope the nation will forgive my shortcomings and failings, and move ahead with power and determination. Know that the departure of one servant shall not leave a scratch on the steel shield that is the nation. Worthier servants of greater stature are in service and Allah preserves the nation and the oppressed people of the world. Peace be upon you.”

As he read out Khomeini’s will, Khamenei was overcome with emotion and found it difficult to continue reading. Hashemi Rafsanjani covered his face with his handkerchief. Khomeini’s death came nearly ten years after the Iranian revolution in February 1979. The revolution has been described as the third most prominent revolution in modern history after the French Revolution in 1789 and the October Revolution in 1917.

The leaders of the Iranian Revolution from Islamic, nationalist, leftist and patriotic currents were surprised at the smooth path to revolution, as millions of Iranians rallied to support it. However, these leaders were astounded by the rough path to statehood.

In the weeks and months following the success of the Iranian Revolution, Iran witnessed conflicts on the street between young turban-wearing supporters of the religious current and other supporters of the liberal and leftist currents who would hang pictures of revolutionary leader Che Guevara on their bedroom walls along with the state emblem of the former Soviet Union, the hammer and the sickle. During these conflicts, hundreds of revolutionary elements were killed, along with a large number of the leaders of the tight-knit circle of Khomeini’s friends and supporters that had formed around him during his exile in Turkey, Iraq and France.

Reminders of the bitterness of those days are still present today, as are the suspicions that have been sown amongst the different spectrums of the Iranian Revolution.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ibrahim Yazdi, the first Iranian Foreign Minister in the post-revolution cabinet of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan revealed that the problem was that all political powers were in agreement in ousting the Shah, but differed over everything else, including the nature of a state, the constitution, the governing laws, and foreign relations.

“During the revolution, all parties and political factions, whether right-wing or leftist, religious or non-religious, were unanimous on what they did not want; the Shah must go, his autocratic regime must be toppled. Yet this agreement did not exist regarding the most suitable way to replace the Shah’s regime. Consequently, conflict broke out immediately after the revolution. Prime Minister Bazargan and his cabinet members were under the impression that the destructive or negative phase of the revolution was over and that it was time to start the rebuilding or the positive phase. But the objectives of the second phase of the revolution were difficult to achieve, as it involved a great deal of planning. It was impossible to achieve this quickly. An implementation system was required. The post-revolution political atmosphere was highly volatile and the voice of reason and logic was absent,” said Yazdi.

These differences between the religious wing of the Iranian Revolution on one hand, and the liberal and leftist wing on the other, transformed into confrontations and conflicts that led to the marginalization of the liberal national current which had played an active part of the revolution while also having an impact upon the way in which the revolutionary state was formed. Suffice it to say that even today, not one road in Iran bears the name of Muhammad Mossadegh, the leader and founder of Iran’s National Front. Nevertheless, his image can still be seen in the homes of many Iranians today as he was elected prime minister in 1951 and occupied this position until 1953. He nationalized the Iranian oil industry before being deposed in a coup d’état organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] to reinstall the Shah.

This symbolic enmity between the religious current on one hand, and the liberal nationalist current on the other appeared soon after the Iranian Revolution. Following that success in 1979, Pahlavi Street was renamed Muhammad Mossadegh Street before being renamed once again as Vali Asr Street.

In Tehran, the majority of streets bear the names of martyrs such as Ashaheed Qurani Street named after a commander during the Iraq-Iran war, Ashaheed Hemat Street named after another prominent commander during the Iraq-Iran war, and Ashaheed Meftah Street, named after a symbol of the relationship between the university, the Hawza Ilmiyya and the revolution. A subway station and a library in Tehran have also been named after Ashaheed Meftah.

There is also Ashaheed Mathari Street named after one of Khomeini’s followers and a theorist of the revolution. Moreover, there is Taleqani Street named after a prominent theorist of the Iranian revolution, Mullah al Sadr Street named after Moussa Al-Sadr, and Hefti Tayr Street named in commemoration of Ayatollah Beheshti, Khomeini’s disciple and friend. Yet, no streets have been named after Muhammad Mossadegh. Even though as the Shah’s reign was coming to an end, demonstrators would take to the streets chanting “Death to the Shah,” as they raised pictures of Khomeini and Mossadegh side by side.

This symbolic enmity reflected the real hostility that had begun to surface among the political and intellectual currents of the revolution long before its success in 1979.

On the night of 1 February 1979, when approximately three million people headed out to the streets to welcome Khomeini, and on one hot afternoon in June 1989 when another large crowd marched in procession to bid him farewell, the Iran revolutionary state had experienced its share of ups and downs. It went from having a liberal constitution to the rule of a jurist; from dialogue with the US, which started when Khomeini was still in Paris, to the severance of ties with the “Great Satan”.

Mohammed Ali Mohtadi recalls the day Khomeini returned to Tehran on 1 February 1979. He was a journalist working for an Iranian television channel (today he heads the international news department for the Iranian daily newspaper Ettelaat). Mohtadi supported the revolution and was keen to see it succeed. The atmosphere was optimistic and there was a collective feeling that it was within the people’s ability to change the status quo. Large numbers of people took to the streets in a way that made it impossible for the Shah and the high ranking political and military officials around him to stand against.

“The streets were bursting as people demonstrated, whether in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz or Mashhad. However, the revolution was still a surprise. Nobody expected that it would succeed so quickly,” Mohtadi told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He added “Some people might have expected us to resort to military operations and armed revolution but this could have taken months or even years in order to bear fruit. There were plans for guerrilla warfare. No one but Khomeini was sure that this revolution would succeed through the masses and not through guerrilla warfare or military operations”

On the morning of 8 September 1978, thousands of people staged a demonstration in Tehran. The military governor of Tehran ordered police forces to open fire on the protesters and 4000 people were killed. This day came to be known as Black Friday. The angry crowds took to the streets shouting “We will kill those who killed our brothers.”

The Shah’s position was in serious danger. Khomeini – who was in exile in Paris – put his strategy into effect and aimed to neutralize the Iranian army. Khomeini’s slogan was, “Don’t attack the army’s chest, attack its heart.” In other words, appeal to the better nature of its soldiers and commanders. And so demonstrations took place where protestors carrying flowers and roses placed them in the muzzles of machine guns. Their slogan was “My brother in the army, why do you kill your fellow brothers?” And so when Khomeini called upon the military to put down their weapons and leave the army, their response changed Iran’s future. For the army was the only institution left under the control of the Shah after he had lost the Bazaar, the middle-class, the students, the juristic academy and the poor.

Khomeini called upon the Bazaar to go on strike, and so as a result of the strong traditional bond between the Bazaar and the juristic academy in the town of Qom, everybody went on strike. Iran was completely paralyzed. Khomeini then called upon oil workers to stop exporting oil, and instead only produce what would be needed for the daily consumption of Iran.

The Shah threatened oil workers saying “We will fire you and bring in foreign workers instead.” Khomeini answered by issuing a Fatwa permitting the blood of foreign oil workers to be spilled, and ordering that the wages of oil workers [who had been fired by the Shah] be paid by Islamic charity funds.

Students set fire to foreign interests in Iran, such as banks, airline companies and corporations. Finally, Khomeini declared a general strike on the anniversary of Ashoura to serve as a final message to the Shah. The Iranian Prime Minister Gholam Reza Azhari ordered the cancellation of the anniversary of Ashoura, even in mosques, as well as imposing a curfew. Khomeini responded by calling upon Iranians to stage a roof-top protest. Upon the curfew being lifted by the military governments, tens of thousands of Iranians rushed out into the streets chanting: “Treacherous Shah, we are ready to fight. You have destroyed this country. You have killed this country’s youth”

The Shah responded in a televised speech in which he said he would not repeat the mistakes of the past and would appoint a national government as soon as possible by conducting free elections in order to grant citizens their fundamental freedoms. The Shah disbanded the military government and appointed a government from the opposing national front which chose one of its leaders, Shapour Bakhtiar, as Prime Minister. Ironically, the declaration of Bakhtiar’s government took place in Washington and was blessed by then US President Jimmy Carter, rather than taking place in Tehran or in the presence of the Shah.

The first decision made by Bakhtiar’s government was that the Shah must leave Iran. Just before taking off from Mehrabad Airport, the Shah made his last statement in Iran, saying “I said that I needed a rest, I was just waiting for stability to be achieved in the country.” The Shah left Iran thinking that he would return once stability was achieved by Bakhtiar’s government. But Khomeini called upon Iranians to carry on with their movement and overthrow Bakhtiar himself. And so the people took to the streets chanting: “Death to Bakhtiar,” as Khomeini turned against the national movement, declaring that he would return to Iran to form a different government.

Khomeini’s decision to return to Iran took Bakhtiar by surprise. He knew that there was a wide gap in popularity between him and Khomeini and so he resolved to close Tehran’s airports to prevent Khomeini from entering.

Days before being overthrown Bakthiar said “To turn this country into a republic or a sultanate or an Islamic or a democratic or a dictatorial or a fascist state is one thing, but what is happening now on the street is another. If Ayatollah Khomeini returns and proposes a platform or gives an opinion then we would be glad to listen. But if he wants to be prime minister or something like that, then I am very comfortable in my place here”

People took to the streets crying “Go, Bakhtiar, go!” for according to many, since Bakhtiar was appointed by the Shah he did not possess sufficient legitimacy. When Khomeini tried to return to Tehran he found that all of Iran’s airports were already closed. Yet the French allowed him to use Charles de Gaulle International Airport to charter an airplane. The plane took off with members of the Khomeini bureau, his family, and journalists he was close to in Paris, on board. All of whom were unsure whether the aircraft would actually be allowed to land in Iran. Nevertheless, the airport authorities in Tehran allowed the plane to land in Mehrabad Airport.

Khomeini returned to Iran and said that power ought to be assumed by the jurist who meets the criteria. Only minutes after arriving in Iran he said “I will be appointing the government with the support of the people. The people want me. Bakhtiar says that there cannot be two governments in one country. This is clear. I myself say that there cannot be two governments in country. But the illegitimate government must go. Your status (Bakhtiar) is illegal. A legitimate government should be based upon the choice of the people and the rule of God. You must be appointed by God or by the people.”

Bakhtiar’s government was overturned, yet the civil governments that replaced it were just as unfortunate. The “revolutionary” state was not as ideal as its creators thought it would be, whether they were liberal, religious or leftist leaders, or mere ordinary Iranian citizens.

The success of the revolution was an easy task in comparison to building a state, especially since the religious strategists did not have a precise concept with regards to how to form a state.

Hani Fahs, who was close to Khomeini and involved in the Iranian Revolution before and after its inception, as well as liaising between Iran and Yasser Arafat said that initially Khomeini “had no specific political plan” and that he was essentially a man of religion who opposed the policies of the Shah.

Fahs told Asharq Al-Awsat that Khomeini “Believed that he was concerned with the moral side of religion and of people’s lives, without necessarily having a substitute political plan. If we read the applied message, that is to say, the juristic record written by Khomeini as a practical guide for his followers and compare a lot of its content to what happened later on after the revolution and even while the state was under his supervision, we would be amazed. His message is non-revolutionary and very traditional on many sensitive issues, from Friday Prayer to the issue of monopolization. Khomeini’s post-revolution attitude was quite different from his approach during the uprising. In this message, he is no more than a juristic inciter who calls for opposition and resisting injustice. However in his subsequent speeches written directly for the revolution, we find him adopting a different approach”

Fahs went on to say “I think Khomeini was perplexed with the shift from revolution to statehood, the questions had changed, power had become distinct, reality had returned, and problems had become worse. The Imam had changed from his revolutionary status which focused on liberating society from the state, to working towards and for a unified state, to the point of the possible suspension of regulations in the interests of the state. It is my belief that Khomeini was a much better man as a cleric and a revolutionary; however as a statesman he became more complex, because he grew more complicated. I recall that since the first day after the revolution until the last day in his life, Khomeini was different with regards to his convictions, his vision, and his ambitions, just as his ideals were different from the reality. Yet he never separated himself from this fact, or denied it”

When thousands gathered in the streets of Tehran to commemorate the Iranian Revolution, there was a feeling that the merely surviving for thirty years is an achievement in itself, which is something believed by Mohammed Ali Mohtadi. But others, even among the revolution supporters, do not think the same. There are many who believe that the revolutionary state has yet to live up yet to the expectations of the Iranian public.