(The IRANIAN REVOLUTION – continued)

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Power to the Clerics

Two men had been prominent in the rising against the Shah: the Ayatolah Khomeini and Ali Shariati. Khomeini's education had been parochial. He was Madrasa-trained. Shariati had both a traditional education in religion and he was also a sociologist with a PhD from France's Sorbonne University. In the earlier demonstrations against the Shah the portraits of both Shariati and Khomeini were carried on placards, and the portraits of both were displayed side by side in people's homes.

Shariati had been popular with students and Iran's religious communities, with thousands of students and non-students having flocked to his lectures fascinated by his point-of-view. He had been imprisoned under harsh conditions by the Shah's regime and in 1975 released following popular and international pressure.

Shariati favored a reinterpretation of the Islamic faith in order to take it back, he believed, to its true meaning, including its commitment to social justice. He was hostile to "Westernization." His mentor, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, said that if he were to choose a religion "it would be that of Shariati's." Shariati disliked US influence in Iran. He was driven into exile as Khomeini had been. In June 1977, three weeks after having arrived in England, he was found dead in his apartment. His followers suspected the Shah's security agency, SAVAK.

Power to the Ayatolah Khomeini

Some anti-Shah intellectuals believed that they were using the popular Khomeini and that he could be shunted aside as democracy was established. It was believed that with the success of the revolution the ulama (official community of scholars of Islam) and Khomeini would return to their mosques and schools and perhaps advise the government on Islamic matters. Some intellectuals considered religious traditionalism as something of the past and that Khomeini's view was contrary to the more modern outlook of Iran's Shia leaders, a dozen or so of whom outranked Khomeini and regarded him as their intellectual inferior.

From France, Khomeini denounced Prime Minister Bakhtiar for having accepted the Shah's appointment as head of the new government, and Khomeini called upon his followers to disobey the Bakhtiar government. Bakhtiar allowed Khomeini's return anyway. And on 1 February 1979, after nearly fifteen years in exile, Khomeini made his triumpant return.

Bakhtiar days as prime minister were numbered. He had ordered all political prisoners to be freed, lifted censorship of newspapers, relaxed martial law, ordered the dissolving of the secret police – SAVAK – and requested that the opposition give him three months to hold elections for a constituent assembly that would decide the fate of the monarchy and determine the future form of government for Iran.

Khomeini refused to collaborate with Bakhtiar, denouncing him as a traitor for siding with the Shah, labelled his government as "illegitimate" and called for an end to Iran's monarchy. Bakhtiar had only a few Shah loyalists and moderate pro-democracy supporters and was disliked by much of the public for his association with the Shah. Bakhtiar fled to Paris. In August 1991 he woud be murdered along with his secretary, Soroush Katibeh.

On 4 February 1979, Mahdi Bazargan replaced Bakhtiar and became the revolution's first prime minister. He was a prominent scholar, academic and pro-democracy activist. His revolutionary credentials included having been imprisoned several times during the 1960s and 1970s for non-violent opposition to the Shah's regime. As prime minister his power hardly existed. Governors and military commanders rejected the authority of officials Bazargan appointed.

Revolutionary committees were performing a variety of functions in major cities and towns. Various groups were pushing rival agendas and demanding immediate action. On February 11, government buildings and radio station were seized by bands of youthful revolutionaries. Huge quantities of arms had been seized, and armed militias roamed the streets and looted. Various factions tried to exercise power. The 40,000 or so Americans, who had been serving in various technical capacities in Iran returned home, fearing for their safety. The followers of Khomeini were more numerous and dominated. Khomeini was allied with a largely anonymous committee of clerics and civilians and in contact with local supporters, and he established what many recognized as legitimate authority.

Khomeini and his ulama allies wanted a judiciary government – rule by Islamic law: sharia. Something unprecedented was happening in the history of Islam. Scholars were the backbone of sharia, but scholars had not ruled. Noah Feldman of Harvard University writes that "scholars had traditionally functioned as a balance against the executive authority of the ruler and now the scholars for the first time actually were the ruling class. Feldman writes of a structure called the Council of Guardians, scholars who would "review all legislation for its Islamic content" and eventually "play a key role in vetting candidates for office and even selecting a new supreme leader after Khomeini's death." note40

On March 3, Khomeini announced that no judge was to be female. On March 6, he announced that women were to wear the hejab head covering.  Khomeini declared that all non-Islamic forces were to be removed from the government, the military, judiciary, public and private enterprises and educational institutions. Corrupt behavior and customs were to be ended. Alcohol and gambling were to be banned and so too were nightclubs and mixed bathing. Friday noon prayer and sermons were to be the focal point of the week. All Friday prayer leaders were to be appointed by Khomeini. Men and women were to be publicly segregated, women to enter busses through one door, men through another, each with a separate seating section. In school classrooms prayers were to become mandatory. Khomeini spoke of music corrupting youth, and he banned all music on radio and television and closed twenty-two opposition newspapers.

It was announced that any spreading of corruption would be punished by death. A variety of the Shah's former friends, colleagues and generals were seized, and after trials of a few minutes they were executed – to prevent news spreading to the others who were detained. The bodies of the prisoners were loaded into meat containers and dumped into mass graves. Khomeini dismissed international protests, saying that criminals did not need to be tried, just killed.

On March 30-31 a national referendum was offered for choosing a political system, but the only form of government to appear on the ballot was an Islamic republic, and the voting was not by secret ballot. It was reported that over 98 percent voted in favor, and on April 1, Khomeini proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Bazargan government was almost dead. The clerics ran the revolutionary courts and had influence with the Pasdaran, the revolutionary committees, and the club-wielding "partisans of the party of God." The clerics are described as having deployed these forces to curb rival political organizations.

Newspapers were banned. Protests by a left-of-center political movement, the National Democratic Front, led to the clerics banning it. The Khomeini regime weakened Iran's bourgeoisie by nationalizing banks, insurance companies, major industries, expropriating some urban land and expropriating the wealth of some families and by appointing managers to various companies.

Students seized the US embassy on 4 November 1979. Khomeini wavered at first but then gave the students his support. Khomeini called the United States the "Great Satan" and the US embassy a "den of spies." Prime Minister Bazargan and his cabinet resigned two days later. Bazargan complained about the " atmosphere of terror, fear, revenge and national disintegration." Those occupying the US embassy held fifty-three Americans hostage and demanded that the US deliver to Iran the Shah as an exchange. The Carter Administration refused, and Americans were to remain as hostages until November 1980.

Carter's attempt to rescue the hostages in April, 1980, failed. The Shah died of cancer in July. The Khomeini regime began new negotiations to free the hostages. Ronald Reagan had won the US presidential election in November, and on the day that Reagan was inaugurated president, January 20, Iran agreed to free the hostages in exchange for $8 billion in frozen assets and a promise by the United States to lift trade sanctions.

Meanwhile Iran had held a referendum, and the results demonstrated public support for Khomeini's rule. A new constitution was created. Iran was to have a new prime minister, a president and a Consultative Assembly. The judiciary was to consist of experts on Islamic jurisprudence – government by faqih.

Abu'l-Hasan Bani Sadr was elected first president of Islamic Republic, having received 75 percent of the vote and the blessing of Khomeini. But democracy and power of the clerics didn't work well together. Sadr took office on February 4, 1980, and In June 1981 he was impeached by clerics wishing to exercise political authority. Bani Sadr went into hiding and in late July he was flown into exile by sympathetic persons in Iran's air force.

Other former supporters of Khomeini suffered ostracism. Former Khomeini aide and foreign minister, Qotbzadeh, was arrested with seventy military officers, some clerics and others charged with plotting a coup and the assassination of Khomeini. The respected religious leader Shariatmadari was arrested and executed. And a campaign to discredit Ayatollah Ahari'at-madari ended with his being "defrocked."

Tens of thousands of Iran's middle class had found it best to flee Iran. Stoning to death for adultery was in the offing, and death for homosexuality. Many films, Iranian and foreign, were banned or heavily censored. Movie theaters were denounced as channels for Western propaganda, and hundreds of theaters were burned to the ground. Patrols were formed to confront violations such as women showing their hair or wearing lipstick.

Khomeini and the Shia clerics around him relished the success of their return to what they saw as Islam's fundamentals, and they wished it to be an influence outside Iran. Many in the Middle East were enthusiastic about the creation of Khomeini's Islamic Republic – much as the Bolshevik capture of state power had encouraged socialists in the West. Half of the people of the region was under twenty-five years of age, and many tried shaming their parents into adopting Islamic dress. Sermons at Mosques increased the demand for militant action in behalf of advancing Islam.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had been the first foreign dignitary to visit Khomeini, back in 1979, greeted warmly by Khomeini. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was inspired and supportive of Iran's Islamic revolution. In Afghanistan beginning in 1980 Islamic militants, the Mujahadeen, were fighting Russian "atheist" forces. In Iraq, which had many Shia, the Sunni ruler, Saddam Hussein was maintaining a secular but strictly Sunni rule and afraid of Iranian influence. In 1980 he started a war with Iran.

International politics was changing. US foreign policy experts were hostile toward Iran – as were most Americans. These experts were supportive of what they saw as Saddam Hussein's resistance to Iranian influence, and material support and friendly relations with Saddam Hussein followed. 


"How Oil Money Polluted Iran,"  a book review in Business Week magazine., 1997

Defying the Iranian Revolution, by Manoucherhr Ganji, 2002

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, by Noah Feldman, 2010

Reader comment by AR Oveissi.

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