Iran after Khomeini
by Daniel Pipes
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[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini on June 4 was mourned by millions of his followers with an extravagance that surprised even the Iranian authorities. Time and again, funeral plans were disrupted by gigantic mobs unwilling to give way either to schedules or politicians. The scene in Tehran was one of unrelieved chaos. In the traditional Shi'i manner, men pounded their chests and flagellated themselves with chains. Some sacrificed sheep and some shouted, "We wish we were dead, so not to see our beloved imam dead." Others ran 25 miles to the cemetery. The grave dug for Khomeini's body was occupied by mourners who refused to leave. The authorities appealed to citizens to stay away from Khomeini's house and from the cemetery, but to no avail.
Fire trucks sprayed water on mourners in an effort to keep them from fainting in the intensity of the June heat and the press of humanity. According to official sources, 10,879 people were injured and received on-the-spot medical attention, 438 were taken to hospitals, and eight died in the crush to view Khomeini's body. In the cemetery, mourners climbed on buses the better to catch a glimpse of the body, and in one case the roof of a bus collapsed, injuring those sitting inside. 'Ali Khamene'i, the president of the republic, could not even reach the special stand set up for dignitaries. The special stand for state officials and foreign dignitaries almost collapsed under pressure of the crowd.
The height of frenzy occurred at the gravesite itself. Bringing the body by land vehicle was out of the question, so it arrived by helicopter. The first time the helicopter landed, the crowd swarmed in and grabbed pieces of the shroud, causing the corpse actually to fall to the ground. After fifteen frantic minutes, the coffin was put back on the helicopter, which then bore the body away. In an attempt to thin out the crowd, it was announced that the funeral had been postponed by a day. The trick worked, as many went home. Then, six hours after the first attempt, a second effort at a helicopter landing was made. This time more guards were around and the body was placed in a metal casket. Still, it was not easy. As the Iranian news agency described it: "The grave was only ten meters away but the pushing and shoving of thousands made it seem like kilometers. It took ten terrible minutes to be able to put the casket down near the grave." Once the body had finally been buried, concrete blocks were placed on top of it.
Clearly, a great number of Iranians lament the death of Ayatollah Khomeini with a deep fervor. Does that mean that Iranians universally approve the system he put into place? Hardly. The fundamentalists, the core of Khomeini's constituency, probably make up ten per cent of the population, which means that the vast bulk of the Iranian people find their freedoms unhappily restricted, their wishes ignored, and subject to a wide range of persecutions. In silent testimony to their misery, some three million Iranians have fled the country, and the number is constantly growing.
The hysteria of early June had to do with the death of a unique and irreplaceable leader, not with political attitudes. Twentieth-century history has repeatedly shown that the masses mourn dominant political figures, regardless of their record. Comparable outpourings of grief, after all, attended the deaths of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. In each case, many who suffered delude themselves into blaming evil lieutenants for the atrocities and assume the leader was in the dark. Some profit from the system in place. Others worry that the future will bring yet greater tribulations. It is has taken many years for Soviet and Chinese citizens to come to terms with their dictators, and to cope rationally with the enormity of these men's crimes -- and still the process is not completed.
The End of an Era
In short, whatever the size and zeal of the cemetery mobs, we can be sure that the bulk of the Iranian people will soon enough welcome the effects of Khomeini's passing. Foremost, it will mean the weakening of the eccentric vision of Islam that came to power with him just over a decade ago, in February 1979. The experiment with radical fundamentalist Islam that has taken place in Iran can hardly be called successful, even by Khomeini's own lights. Of course, he made brave efforts to claim otherwise -- his final testament referred to "huge results in a short period of time" -- but the facts speak for themselves.
At home, the leadership never figured out just what a revolutionary Islamic society should look like: disputes over land-distribution and the role of capital not only consumed enormous energies, but were never fully resolved. The leaders agreed on only one thing -- the need to impose Islamic norms, forcibly if necessary. This they did with enthusiasm, ignoring the intense opposition of many, including not only educated women and minorities, but also many ordinary citizens pleased with Iran's earlier efforts at modernization.
Khomeini had even less to show in foreign policy. True, it was Saddam Husayn of Iraq who started the Gulf War in September 1980, but Iranian forces went on the offensive in July 1982, and it was Khomeini who continued the fighting for another six years. The war, which cost some 300,000 lives and uncounted billions of dollars, ended in ignominious failure for Khomeini, who likened the decision to accept a cease-fire to "drinking poison." Worse, from his perspective, devoting so many resources to this war meant postponing the spread of the revolution to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The passing of the 86-year-old leader (89, in the Muslim lunar calendar) ends the permanent revolution of the past decade; in all likelihood, it begins an era of moderation and reconstruction. The lurch in Iranian politics that began in 1979 should soon come to an end, with the populace returning to a more normal life. The good news for Iranians is that the Lenin of Islam is gone, and that his totalitarian vision of Islam may not be imposed on them very much longer.
There is nothing surprising about this development. Two centuries of revolution has shown that world-shaking ambitions invariably fail, visionary leaders die off, and disillusion replaces faith. The romance with Communism is expiring before our eyes; and the fascination with fundamentalist Islam will probably follow.
Indeed, there are startling parallels between the situation in Iran today and China in 1976, at the moment of Mao Tse-Tung's death. Both Mao and Khomeini were the oldest, the most powerful, and the most radical political figures in their countries. Each had a uniquely far-reaching vision and a transcendent authority that could not be passed on. In the end, both were isolated from their supporters and frustrated in their efforts to find a like-minded successor. There is no potential leader in Iran (with the possible of exception of 'Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the minister of the interior) who holds a vision even remotely like Khomeini's -- certainly not 'Ali Khamene'i, the president of Iran and now Khomeini's successor.
Although occupying a high position, Khamene'i is little known to Americans, largely because he has had a minor role in foreign affairs. In domestic issues, however, he has staked out a position as an economic moderate, the leading advocate of the bazaar merchants in the councils of state. The man at the top, then, is not likely to provide a vital voice to counter the foreign policy radicals, led by Mohtashemi and Ahmed Khomeini, the late ayatollah's son. He seems to have been picked because Khomeini indicated on three occasions his feeling that Khamene'i would be a suitable successor. The fact that Khamene'i is a religious figure of only the third rank (a hojjatalislam) suggests that the first criterion for the job is political reliability rather than religious authority. To some observers, this suggests that Khamene'i may be no more than a transition figure.
The shift toward moderation seems almost inevitable; but it need not be smooth or immediate. As so often, the successors of an overpowering leader will attempt simultaneously to claim his legacy and to move away from it to pursue their own objectives. In the short run, not wanting to be accused of betraying Khomeini's policies might push Iranian politicians to even more extreme positions. This might mean even more severe application of Islamic punishments in Iran, a more perilous fate for the foreign hostages, and yet more strains in relations with foreign governments, especially the United States. But this shall pass as the new leaders establish independent bases of power. When that happens, a more normal existence will inevitably follow.
The Outside World
With the exception of one man, Khomeini's passing is also welcome to non-Iranians. Throughout the Middle East, there was muted satisfaction that Khomeini had finally left the scene. An Iraqi newspaper observed that "the departure of a rancorous tyrant" would facilitate improved relations. Similarly, Israelis hoped that Khomeini's death meant removing the main obstacle to more normal ties.
It is wonderful news especially to Americans. While anti-Americanism is rife among Iranian leaders, none has the disease quite so virulently as did the old man. Americans can look forward to fewer fulminations and less terrorism against themselves. Relations between Washington and Tehran can only improve, and they almost certainly will, for the two countries share a host of interests.
A note of caution, however: The Iranians will approach us when they are ready to do so and this may not be soon. Until then, Washington need not send cakes, Bibles, or armaments to Tehran. In James A. Phillips' words, "instead of seeking a fragile accommodation with Iranian 'moderates,' the U.S. should focus on blocking the ambitions of Iranian radicals." In policy terms, this means: continued pressure on Tehran to end its support for terrorism and for release of the hostages; calls on allies to reduce political and trade relations with Iran; and maintenance of a military option against Iran. Should the Iranians respond, then it can receive U.S. assistance, as well as assurances that the U.S. government will not support opposition groups.
Ironically, one of the few people who has reason to regret Khomeini's passing is the novelist Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and the victim of Khomeini's death "sentence" in February: For him, things look worse than ever. Only Khomeini could have repealed the edict, and he did not do so. Now, with his death, the edict has been set in stone and rendered unchangeable. Some of Khomeini's more fervent followers may see Rushdie's execution as the ultimate way to pay homage to their departed master. Even if the Iranian government distances itself from the edict, those loyalists may take personal responsibility for fulfilling his wishes.
This said, it seems likely that Rushdie will survive, and in the long run, with Khomeini's removal from the scene, the danger will diminish. Today he enjoys Scotland Yard's protection in a hidden location. Should the British government cancel this service, the huge sales of The Satanic Verses -- plus the guaranteed market for his future writings -- means that he has the funds to protect himself. To be sure, Rushdie will ever after live in fear and under heavy guard. However unpleasant, living with guards is by no means impossible, as mafia dons, Henry Kissinger, and the deposed shah of Iran can attest.
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