The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini means that his revolutionary and eccentric vision of Islam is much weakened, and this is good news for the bulk of the Iranian people. It is wonderful news for Americans. Ironically, one of the few people who has reason to regret his passing is the novelist Salman Rushdie.
Khomeini came to power just over a decade ago, in February 1979, and even by his own lights, the experiment with radical fundamentalist Islam that took place in Iran could hardly be called successful. At home, the leadership never figured out just what a revolutionary Islamic society should look like: Disputes about land distribution and the role of capital not only consumed enormous energies, but they 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 women and minorities.
Khomeini had even less to show in foreign policy. True, it was Saddam Hussein 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 about 300,000 lives and uncounted billions of dollars ended in ignominious failure for Khomeini who likened the decision to accept cease-fire to "drinking poison." Worse from his perspective, devoting so many resources to this war meant cutting back on spreading the revolution to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The passing of the 86-year-old leader 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 his totalitarian vision of Islam may not be imposed on them very much longer.
There is nothing surprising about this evolution. 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 exception of Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the minister of interior) who holds a vision even remotely like Khomeini's — certainly not Ali Khamenei, the president of Iran and now Khomeini's successor.
Although occupying a high position, Khamenei 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. It appears that he was picked to succeed Khomeini just because he is not controversial; this suggests to some observers that he may be no more than a transition figure.
The news is also welcome for Americans. While anti-Americanism is rife among the Iranian leaders, none has the disease quite so virulently as did the old man. Americans can look forward to less terrorism against themselves, and the hostages in Lebanon are more likely to be released. Relations between Washington and Tehran can only improve, and they almost certainly will, for the two countries share many interests.
A note of caution, however: Washington need not send cakes, Bibles or armaments to Tehran. The Iranians will come to us when they are ready to do so. And they may not be ready for a while because no politician wants to be accused of betraying Khomeini's legacy.
Finally, a word about Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and the victim of Khomeini's death "sentence" in February. 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.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia has just completed a book on the Salman Rushdie affair.