The year 2019 marks 40 years to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On February 11, 1979, the Islamic revolution won in Iran. The last shahinshah of the Persian Empire, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown. The 2500-year history of the Persian Monarchy came to a close.
Undoubtedly, the Islamic revolution in Iran marked a significant chapter in the history of the 20th century and can in fact be ranked on par with the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia, which, like the Iranian one, turned the whole country “upside down” and to this day continues to affect political processes in the region and worldwide.
The unquestionable leader of this revolution, who had been planning it for many years in exile, was Ayatollah Seyid Ruholla Mostafavi Mousavi Khomeini. He devoted his whole life to the struggle against the shah regime which repeatedly subjected him to arrest and persecution. In 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini was expelled from Iran and spent the next fifteen years in exile. For almost a year he lived in Turkey, another 13 years in Iraq and almost half a year near Paris.
However, throughout all those years Khomeini never stopped the political struggle, influencing the mentality of Iranians from abroad. In exile, Khomeini stepped up his opposition activities devising the theoretical foundations for a new Islamic state and at the same time preparing the Iranians for the overthrow of the Shah. His associates recorded his sermons and speeches on an audio tape and secretly shipped them to Iran to be distributed in Iranian mosques there.
The population of Iran knew Khomeini fairly well and were aware of his views on the domestic situation in the country and his plans for the country’s further development. His views were pretty radical. In his speeches, Khomeini lashed out at Shah’s leadership, the “comprador bourgeoisie,” the United States, and Israel. The USSR, as a major Communist power, came under fierce criticism as well. In one of his speeches, he said: “America is worse than England, England is worse than the Soviet Union, and the Soviets are worse than both of them !!!”
Whether accepted or not, Khomeini was in his own way a unique religious figure and politician. He was the one who put forward the idea of “velayat faqih”, that is, the principle of a sacred and politicized expression of religious spirituality, aimed at the absolute power of a fair legal theologian who would represent the highest level of spiritual Shiite authority – “marja e taglid”.
It was this principle that Khomeini chose to go into the basis of Khomeinism (or “neo-Shiism”) ideology he had elaborated and the principle of state-building. He combined Islam and politics, his major goal being a complete Islamization of the whole society by forcibly extending the sphere of influence of religion to embrace other sections, which in other societies are occupied by ideology, while simultaneously turning them into an instrument of political struggle. The slogan “Our religion is our ideology, our ideology is our policy” was put by the Ayatollah into practice. Thus, the boundaries between religious, ideological, and political activities in Iran were largely blurred and make up a single whole at present.
Naturally, comparison is always fraught with subjectivism. Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khomeini can be compared with Joseph Stalin. And not only because both were markedly ascetic, both expressed their thoughts simply and dogmatically, so those thoughts were clear to everyone, even the uneducated, both devoted themselves to fierce political struggle and both came to power, bringing an countless number of victims to the altar of victory.
Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary zeal did not subside after the fall of the Shah. Moreover, he did all he could to clear the way for a new, Islamic dictatorship under the republican slogans. The Shah’s institutes of power were destroyed in a matter of months.
On April 1, 1979, a referendum was held with only one question: “Do you support the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran?” And the majority said yes. On that day, Iran, which marked the 2500th anniversary of the monarchy only a few years before, became an Islamic republic.
In December the same year, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was adopted, which stipulated the supremacy of Islamic principles on the basis of Khomeinism.
The year 1980 marked the beginning of the rapid process of formation and institutionalization of the organs of the new theocratic power in the country. Khomeini was an Islamic innovator who put his idea of “velayat faqih” into practice.
This principle formed the foundation of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like in any republic, the Constitution of the IRI proclaims the separation of the legislative (parliament), executive (government) and judicial branches of government. However, above all these branches is the supreme leader of the country, selected by a narrow circle of Islamic clerical experts from among the highest-ranking Shiite clergy. He has the control of all kinds of power in Iran – the spiritual, state, political and military. As the country’s spiritual leader, he is called Faqih, the head of the Shiite community; as a nationwide political leader – Rahbar – the head of the country; as a military leader, the Supreme Commander of all Iranian armed forces. Naturally, the title of a supreme leader went to Ayatollah Khomeini.
At first, the supreme leader used revolution sympathizers in his own interests. In a peculiar situation of anti-Shah struggle, Khomeini turned out to be an ingenious politician who was able to successfully play with the left and the right, balancing between them, juggling them, elevating some, and then others. But all this was to come to an end.
Starting from the summer of 1980 and perhaps until 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini removed the “companions of the revolution” that stood in his way. That is, those forces that backed him but were alien to him.
All those who disagreed with the new ideology he had brought in faced the same lot.
Among them were equally authoritative religious figures who did not agree with the idea of
“velayat faqih”, with the unification of Islam and politics. Among them was Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. He and his associates were not repressed but deprived of the opportunity to act politically. They were put under house arrest. Some ayatollahs left Iran, some simply fell silent. Gathered in the city of Qum (the center of Shiism) they kept silent, without being engaged in any political activity against Ayatollah Khomeini.
But such a “humane” attitude on the part of the new authorities was not for everyone who disagreed. As any revolution, the Iranian revolution was accompanied by revolutionary terror. The wheel of repression was spinning.
Effectively using the Islamic Revolutionary Committees, the newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Hezbollah (Party of Allah), the new Shiite leadership of Iran, led by Khomeini, carried out a series of repressions. The repression campaign was launched on June 14, 1980, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree on the “Islamic cultural revolution” which proclaimed persecution of dissidents or a “witch hunt”. By the end of 1984, the total number of those executed in Iran was estimated at 40,000.
A powerful resistance to the Khomeini regime came from People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Founded in the sixties to fight the Shah regime, it occasionally resorted to terrorist methods. From the ideological point of view, the organization based its strategy on Islamism with Marxism.
Members of PMOI did a lot for the Islamic revolution, actively opposing any attempts to restore the monarchy. At first, they were on the side of Khomeini. But Ayatollah Khomeini, having sensed competitors in them, began to exert a strong pressure on them. As a result, the Mojahedin were removed from government, repressed (more than 3 thousand members were subjected to reprisals), and went into hiding.
The last force Khomeini struck at was the People’s Party of Iran (PPI), that is, pro-Soviet Communists, who supported Khomeini’s anti-Shah struggle in the first revolutionary years. Thus, in January 1979, PPI General Secretary N. Kiyanuri spoke favorably about Khomeini, stating that “scientific socialism and Islam do not contract one another,” and that “Communists and Khomeini can go together almost to the end”, “infinitely helping and assisting each other”. However, this did not stop the Ayatollah. More than 5,000 members and supporters of the party were arrested. From TV screens people could see high-profile trials against the left in which PPI leaders admitted that they had been fulfilling orders from the Kremlin and declared themselves agents of Moscow.
Affecting the nature of repressions in those years was the situation on the fronts of the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). All opposition representatives were viewed as traitors who were allegedly acting in the interests of Saddam Hussein.
The suppression of the opposition, including, above all, Khomeini’s former supporters of the anti-Shah struggle, was accompanied by the Islamization of all spheres of life: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, and military. Naturally, the repressive measures of the Islamic authorities caused massive — legal and illegal — emigration from Iran. More than three million Iranians left their country. By the end of 1983 dissent had been suppressed across the country, so Islamic rule could be considered valid. The Islamic Revolution won. The Islamic Republic of Iran became a political reality.
The internal political struggle in the IRI continued after the defeat of brothers in anti-revolutionary struggle — both in parliament, the Majlis, and among various political groups. Representatives of those groups did not question Khomeini’s course but among themselves they had conflicting views on how best to implement it. Their differences were substantial enough. However, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, remained above those frictions and never took sides. When he spoke, it became clear what everyone should do.
Ayatollah Khomeini continued to enjoy immense authority even after his death. In 1989, when the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed away on June 3, the author of the obituary article was in Iran. Mourning ceremonies that were held throughout the country are difficult to describe or impart in words. All of Tehran was clad in black: men in black shirts, women in black hijabs. Tehran is known for its heat. In an attempt to make it less of an ordeal for the mourners, volunteers and firefighters pour water on them, as they walk in grief in an endless stream that fills all the space in the streets and squares. Nearly all residents of Iran, several million people, came to Tehran to pay their last respects to Rahbar.
Khomeini’s ideas continue to form the basis of the political doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which determines the external and internal policies of the clerical leadership. An important place in the doctrine is occupied by the principles of Islamic internationalism, developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates; the principles of Muslim unity; ideas about the special mission of the Muslims; about the messiah role of Islam and Iran; the theory about the permanent nature of the Islamic revolution; about the antagonism between “the oppressed (the destitute)” and “the oppressors (the arrogant)”; the theory of the “bipolar world” and the division of the world along the South-North axis. The latter theory was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates on the basis of the Islamic dogma that divides the world into “areas of faith” and “areas of war” and is designed to meet global changes and serve the strategic goals of the Iranian policy.
The leading role in this Islamic revolutionary process should be assumed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is set on forcing its religious and ideological theories on the rest of the world. Here lies the main political core of Khomeinism of the official ideology of Iran – the “export of the Islamic revolution”. Along with it being part of official ideology, this concept is a legal one, since it is enshrined in the Constitution of Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini positioned himself no more than a global Islamic leader with radical views. In his speech in March 1980, he said: “We must work to incite revolution all over the world and we must preclude any thoughts of abandoning it. Iran not only refuses to recognize any differences between Muslim countries, it also acts as an intercessor for all oppressed peoples. We must make clear our stance on powers and superpowers and voice our protest to them, despite the difficulties that we experience. Our attitude to the world is dictated by our beliefs».
From time to time, Iranian officials recall about the “global and historic importance” of the Islamic revolution. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013), speaking at a ceremony in honor of the Iranian Basij militia in December 2008, said: “You all understand that the Islamic revolution was a movement that cannot be confined to the territory of Iran. This movement was aimed not only at creating a new system, but also at materializing the promises of God. The Islamic revolution was a fundamental and decisive movement for all humanity, following the path of divine prophets ”. And this naturally gives rise to questions from most politicians and countries that do not share these radical views.
Of course, 30 years after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran has undergone significant changes. The current regime in Iran, which came into being thanks to the Islamic revolution, is constantly evolving and this evolution, proceeding under the motto of the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, has been spiraling.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) undermined the economy of Iran. The “Tawhid economy» model developed by the Khomeini team while still in exile (the Islamic analogue of the War Communism economy) could not save the country. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the death of Khomeini (1989-1997), said good-bye to the “Tawhid economy” and made a sharp turn towards the market. He initiated economic market reforms, which made it possible to liberate the Iranian business and overcome the post-war crisis. It dealt a serious blow to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The next president, Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), while pursuing economic reforms, introduced elements of liberalism into domestic and foreign policy, which triggered an outrage from the radicals. And this is understandable: although carried out under the slogans of Khomeini’s teachings, the social and political reforms (whether their architects wanted it or not) inevitably took the country and society further and further away from the general concept of Khomeinism. The conservative-minded Iranian clergy could not let it happen. They wanted restoration of the Khomeinist regime, they needed a change in the policies of the two presidents to maintain their power.
President Ahmadinejad was expected to fulfill the mission of returning to the ideology of Khomeini. This he did with great enthusiasm, bringing the nuclear conflict on the verge of a war with the United States and Israel, and throwing the economy into the abyss of the most severe international sanctions.
President Hassan Rouhani (2013 – present), a liberal-reformist politician, saved the situation. However, the provocative policy of President Trump towards Iran and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal have given Iranian conservatives and radicals a new chance to return to the ideological principles of the time of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has gone through various stages of its development: revolutionary terror, war, a thaw, and a cold spell. But it would be quite correct to assert that the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran boils down to expanding or narrowing the limits of the permissible across a vast variety of dogmatic political, economic, and social restrictions. At the same time, all evolutionary processes in the Islamic Republic of Iran have proceeded under the portrait of Khomeini, with quotes from his works, to his, in fact, personality cult.
Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has become a kind of laboratory, in which political Islam for the first time in global practices has turned into a means of resolving problems that confront the Islamic civilization in the present-day world.
Khomeinism never restricted itself to Iran. The theory and political practice of Ayatollah Khomeini have in many ways encouraged politicians in a number of Islamic countries to use political Islam for their own purposes. Over time, there appeared special terms that reflect the essence of Khomeini’s policy – the “Khomeini effect”, the “Khomeini model” and even the “Khomeini world plan.” But the practice of pursuing one of the basic principles of Khomeinism – the export of the Islamic revolution on the model of Iran – alarmed many Islamic (and not only Islamic) countries, particularly those in which a significant number of Muslims are Shiites. But what is clear is that Khomeinism never developed to become a global doctrine or a major political practice, neither in the region, nor elsewhere in the world.
First published in our partner International Affairs