[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified text of responses to Javad Heiran-Nia’s interview questions that was published on 2 June 2020 in Mehr News. From the Iranian publication I received some criticisms to the effect that I failed to associate Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy with the repressiveness of the policies and practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I refrained from such commentary after some reflection as I consider that the political movement led by AK was under serious, credible, and continuous threat from the moment it challenged the Shah’s rule, and that in recent years that threat has been intensified by the aggressive coalition of anti-Iranian forces consisting of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
With the role of Ali Khamenei, as AK’s chosen successor, coming to an end, attention has again been given to upholding AK’s legacy and respecting his mentorship
In view of the Washington supported coup in 1953 that overturned the democratic election of Mohammad Mossadegh, it was reasonable to take exceptional steps to safeguard the new government, a process that became entangled with authoritarian and repressive features of governance, which certainly followed from AK’s leadership. How such an issue should be addressed is a complicated ethical and political matter that needs to be carefully contextualized. I will attempt to do this in a subsequent post.]
Revisiting Meeting Ayatollah Khomeini in January, 1979
1- A few days before the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, you had a meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. What memories do you have of that meeting and what conversations took place during that meeting?
The conversation took place a few days before Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after being resident in France during most of the revolutionary challenge directed at the Shah’s governing structure after being expelled by Iraq in 1978. It was for me a memorable meeting after spending. ten days in Iran on a factfinding mission to understand the revolutionary developments better. The three of us (Ramsey Clark, Philip Luce, and myself) were deeply impressed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s keenness of mind and clarity of vision about why a transformed Iran was necessary and desirable. I was particularly struck by the uncompromising nature of AK’s vision, which clearly rejected the reform of the old order and insisted on the establishment of a new order from top to bottom, starting with the institutions of the state. It struck me then and now as an unconscious embrace of Islamic Leninism in the context of building the new on the wreckage of the old.
I would stress a few themes from several hours of conversation:
–uppermost in AK’s mind in our meeting was the menacing prospect of a counterrevolutionary intervention organized by the United States so as to restore the Shah to the Peacock Throne. He seemed to be worried that what happened in 1953 to reverse the outcome of democratic elections that had brought the nationalist leadership of Mossadegh to power would be repeated. He sought our opinion as Americans, but we could only express our hope that such an intervention would not happen. We did indicate that the Carter presidency had important pro-interventionist high officials, thinking especially of Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski;
–AK also expressed the view that he hoped that normalized relations with the U.S. would become possible, but expressed his opinion that this could only happen if the U.S. refrained from interference in Iran and fulfilled existing state contracts, including those concerned with the national security of Iran, and most of all, AK stressed respecting the will of the Iranian people as embodied in the unfolding revolutionary process;
–AK strongly emphasized his insistence on comprehending the anti-Shah revolution as being in its essence Islamic, and not primarily a nationalist Iranian phenomenon. In general, AK expressed the view that the imposition of European style states on the region after World War I when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, distorted and disrupted the most fundamental affinities and identities of the Iranian people, which centered on belonging to the community of Muslim faithful, a non-territorial community that assigned only secondary significance to national boundaries and identities. AK conveyed his view that territorial sovereign states were not highest form of political integration, and regretted the termination of the Caliphate by Turkey as part of Kemal Ataturk’s conception of a modernizing, secular state, which broke its non-territorial bonds;
–AK also suggested to us that there should be accountability for the crimes committed by officials in the Shah’s government, and indicated his expectation that this challenge of political transition would be addressed by what he called ‘Nuremberg-style trials.’ It is has never been officially explained why this never happened, but there is speculation that public trials were abandoned because the accused Shah high officials would testify to CIA links of AK’s entourage, the disclosure of which would be awkward for the new leadership;
–AK also indicated that he hoped personally to resume a religious life upon returning to Iran leaving the government to be run by politicians and experts, expecting an Islamic orientation in a new post-revolutionary constitution, perhaps hoping for the application of his ideas about ‘Islamic Government,’ but he didn’t openly tell us this;
–AK also expressed open hostility to other instances of dynastic rule in the Islamic world, focusing especially on Saudi Arabia. He made clear that monarchy was inconsistent with the principles of Islam, and that the Saudi monarchy was no more legitimate as a source of governing authority than had been the Shah’s rule in Iran.
- That meeting was before the revolution was completed and the revolution had not yet reached a definite victory. What special feature of Ayatollah Khomeini attracted your attention? Was Ayatollah Khomeini sure of the victory of the revolution?
It was our impression that AK was very confident that with the abdication of the Shah, which had occurred a few days earlier, the victory of the revolution was assured, and only an intervention by the U.S. or NATO or a staged coup could alter this outcome. His focus was upon defending the revolutionary victory against future internal, as well as external attempts to reverse the will of the Iranian people and how to plan a smooth transition from the old imperial order of the Shah to some version of an Islamic republic. We did not sense an openness on AK’s part to political pluralism or dissenting. Views.
We were particularly struck by the moral and political clarity of AK, and to some extent by the severity of his demeanor, which seemed averse to any kind of compromise with respect to the transition from the old Iran to what he envisioned as the new Iran. It became evident to us that AK regarded the revolution as motivated by the desire to obtain deliverance of the Iranian people from corrupt, secular, modernizing, oppressive governance structures tied to the West. He expect that this discredit past would be replaced by institutions and practices rooted in Islamic values, assuring virtuous policies and a political process guided by religious leaders.
- In defense of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, you wrote an article in the New York Times that led.to attacks on you. What were the reasons for writing that article and what were the attacks?
I was encouraged to write the article by the Opinion Page Editor of the NY Times who acknowledged to me that very little was known about AK by the American people, and that their own coverage had been inadequate. I had the impression that this interest arose because of the growing understanding that the political struggle was over, and that the forces led by AK had prevailed. It was felt to be important to grasp this new reality in Iran so as to adapt to this unexpected nonviolent expression of the self-determination rights of the Iranian people. It should be recalled that this revolutionary challenge was confusing to Americans who in the dominant Cold War atmosphere had supported Islamic political aspirations, aside from in relation to Israel/Palestine, and were for the first time confronting a political development that was both anti-Marxist but also anti-West.
I was attacked because the article was critical of the Shah’s regime and expressed guarded optimism about the future of Iran under this new revolutionary leadership. The Times had titled the piece ‘Trusting Khomeini’ without consulting me. It was this title more than the content of the article that seemed to infuriate people who were either were loyal to the Shah or felt that America’s strategic interests suffered a serious and unacceptable setback when the Shah was overthrown. The Shah’s government was regarded as a strong regional ally, a source of oil for the West, a crucial element in the U.S. effort to contain Soviet expansion, and an ally willing to absorb political heat for exporting oil to Israel and apartheid South Africa.
4- In the conversation, you introduced Ayatollah Khomeini as a real and elite revolutionary. What was the difference between the Iranian revolution and the revolutions of the 20th century, and how much do you appreciate the role of Ayatollah Khomeini in leading the Islamic Revolution in Iran?
AK struck me as a true revolutionary, but not in the familiar modes of left secular politics, inspired by Marxist and Leninist thought. AK was definitely not a reformer, but someone who wanted an entirely new governing structure animated by Islamic values that was not oriented around Enlightenment rationalism, leftist proletarianism, and the values and priorities of modernity as it evolved in the West after the Industrial Revolution. Unlike other Western revolutions, AK had advocated and practiced a politics of revolutionary nonviolence in the manner of Gandhi throughout the political struggle, but it was pragmatically motivated. Unlike Gandhi, AK supported the violent defense of the revolutionary outcome in responding to internal and external enemies, and never urged the incorporation of nonviolent ideas into the new constitutional framework. It is tempting to speculate that Gandhi might not have been assassinated if he had followed AK’s manner of shifting from the revolutionary ethos of nonviolence to the post-revolutionary acceptance of internal and national security. Yet this might also have meant that India never became a constitutional democracy that accepted ideological diversity.
When we met, the character of AK’s leadership role after the collapse of the Shah’s regime was very much in doubt. AK himself seemed ambivalent about his future role, stressing his intention to reside in Qom and resume his madrassa life after his return to Iran. It had seemed while in Paris that AK might be the face of the revolution but not necessarily the ultimate leader. When AK returned to Iran these perceptions changed, perhaps altering his own ideas about his preferred future role. First, was the dramatic evidence that AK enjoyed a fervent and mass following among the Iranian people, which no one else in the country could hope to match. Secondly, despite returning to Qom, AK still remained the ascendant political figure in the country with government officials making constant trips to visit him, and gain his advice and approval. AK was persuaded to make his home in Tehran rather than Qom, and take charge of the post-revolution state-building process and organizing responses to security challenges. AK’s. special role as leader became formalized in a religious idiom. He was not given any standard designation as president or prime minister, but the novel title of ‘supreme guide’ that expressed both the Islamic orientation of the government and the religious nature of his leadership that was vested with authority to override elected officials, including the president of the Islamic Republic. It was AK’s political supremacy, as well as the explicitly Islamic governance structures, which led outside commentators to regard Iran as a ‘theocracy,’ with features that have endured after AK’s death in 1989. I find it relevant that AK’s. successor, Ayatollah Ali Kamenei, always keeps the picture of AK by his side when he gives TV interviews as if to exhibit his deference to AK’s legacy and mentorship.
- In your opinion, what were the characteristics of Ayatollah Khomeini’s personality that attracted the people and revolutionary groups and ultimately led to the victory of the Islamic Revolution?
As I suggested earlier, AK conveyed a visionary confidence that what he proposed was the embodiment of Islamic virtue and teaching, and that this was the basis for carrying the revolution forward after the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty. Throughout the revolution when many believed that AK should accept a compromise, and if that was not done, his movement would be defeated and destroyed by a military coup or outside intervention, or some combination. As someone rooted in religious tradition and conviction, who had borne witness to his beliefs by accepting exile rather than defer to the authority of the Shah, AK never wavered in the course of prolonged exile in Iraq. AK remained firm in his belief that the Iranian people deserved a government that was not beholden to Western decadence and its hostility to Islam. In this sense, AK embodied an opposition leader who through ideas, vision, and personal courage inspired the people of Iran to risk their lives in fighting for a new political order, and adopted tactics that led to a surprise victory over what was regarded as the strongest and most ruthless regime in the Middle East, which enjoyed the unqualified backing of the United States.
6- What is the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini for the revolutionary and freedom-seeking currents of other countries?
The legacy of AK may be best grasped by comparing the fate of Egypt since the Arab Spring of 2011 with that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The overthrow of Mubarak by the Egyptian masses was followed by an accommodation with the governing structures of the old order, which directly led to tensions that generated a counterrevolution that restored the old regime to power in a harsher form than it had possessed before the Arab Spring uprising. In contrast, the clarity of AK’s practice and policies led to the durability of the Iranian revolutionary process in the face of many threats to weaken or destroy what Iran had become. This durability survived a Western- backed all-out military attack by Iraq on Iran in 1980 designed to weaken if not reverse the revolutionary changes brought about in 1979, and through continuous harassment and threats from such regional adversaries as Israel and Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons as well as geopolitical pressures mounted by the United States, backed by many threats and policies of ‘maximum pressure.’
The legacy of AK can also understood by his unconditional insistence on a clean break with Iran’s dynastic secularism and its replacement by a revolutionary new political order built on the firm foundation of Islamic principles, which not only constructed an Islamic state, but reshaped the education, social mores, and the economy of the country to harmonize with this pervasive Islamic profile. To realize this vision that would have seemed utopian until it became established in the first years of AK’s leadership was one of the great accomplishments of the last century in completing the work of decolonization. Meeting the many challenges directed at Iran’s political survival by internal, regional, and global adversaries should also be considered as one of the great de-westernizing achievements of the last 75 years. It was a largely unacknowledged contribution to the demise of European colonialism and Western imperialism. This remains an ongoing struggle that has changed its character over time, although not its essence, and is not fully resolved. A major dimension of AK’s legacy is that he managed to bring stability to the Islamic Republic by overcoming formidable obstacles during the first difficult decade of its existence. Unfortunately, for Iran the struggle goes on with no end in sight, and even intensified confrontation given the belligerent coordination of an aggressive anti-Iranian coalition of the governments of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.