Can the army be controlled?

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 2nd February, 1979</strong>

The overthrow of the Sha

The visage of Ayatollah Khomeini, bearded and frowning, has become the focus of the nationwide protest movement that forced the Shah into exile on January 16. Yet beyond his evident hostility to the Pahlavi dynasty and his emphatic invocations of a traditional Islam, this strange and long obscure 78-year old leader has evaded conventional categorisation. The roots of Khomeini’s personality and of his appeal lie in the history of the Shi’a brand of Islam to which an estimated 93% of the Iranian population subscribe, and in the intermittent history of opposition to the monarch which the Shi’a clergy, the mollahs or ulema, have shown in the past century. Given the absence of any authoritative hierarchy in Islam, the dominance of one or other leader depends on his personal influence and character and on shifts of power at any one time. The 180,000-odd mollahs have no coherent form of expression at a national level, but traditionally they have looked to the ten or so leading officials known as Ayatollah or Sign of God. These Ayatollahs, located in major cities such as Tehran, or in pilgrimage cities such as Mashad and Qom, are, for want of a better word, the cardinals of Shi’a Islam.

In the 1800s and again in the 1900s the mullahs played a significant role in Iranian politics. They ensured that the constitution promulgated in 1906 gave a special place to Islam, and that an Ecclesiastical Committee of five religious leaders could propose and veto all legislation relevant to their view of religion. At the same time they voiced the traditional Shi’a hostility to tyranny, and the demonstrators today who condemn the Shah as ‘Namrood’ are comparing him to the Pharoah Nimrod, renowned in the Koran for his despotism and for voicing the arrogant Pharaonic claim to divinity.

But the movements of the mullahs at that time also had a strong nationalistic element within them, and some of the revival in Islamic ideas in Iran must be due to a sense that Iran, for all its economic development, has become once again a victim of foreign powers. The presence of thousands of American advisors and the flow of oil revenues out of the country through various forms of what is politely called ‘recycling’ have over time aroused a latent laid and deeply felt nationalist response.

The irony is that the most noticeable nationalistic movement in Iran, that of Mossadeq in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was secular in character and owed very little to the ideas or institutions of Islam. Indeed the leading Ayatollah of that period, Kashani, broke with Mossadeq and ended up by backing the army and the Shah in the August 1953 coup. The rather simplified notion that Shi’a Islam is inherently anti-monarchical and anti-state does not, therefore, stand up in the face of Kashani’s record.

Khomeini himself was a political unknown until the fifties when the most influential Ayatollah was Sayyid Aqa Hussein Burujirdi, an apolitical leader known for his learning. On his death in 1961 there was no clear agreement amongst the mollahs as to who should now be regarded as his successor. But whilst two other Ayatollahs were judged superior in learning, Khomeini made his mark by political attacks on the regime. Himself the son and grandson of mollahs, he was teaching in the Faydiya Madrasah or Religious School in Qom and in 1962, as the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ was getting underway Khomeini began to make fiery sermons in the mosque and Madrasah against the tyrant Mohammad Reza.

In March 1963, a day celebrating the martyrdom of the sixth Imam, soldiers and SAVAK men broke into Khomeini’s Madrasah, killing a number of students and arresting the Ayatollah. The identification of Khomeini with the martyred Imam was quickly made, and after his release a short time later, Khomeini continued with his denunciations. Finally, after new clashes, he was arrested on June 4 1963 and exiled to Turkey. There he remained until 1965 when he took up residence in the Shi’a shrines of Iraq. He was to stay in Iraq until September 1978 when the Baghdad government, in a rather misjudged gesture of solidarity with the Shah, expelled him to Kuwait from where he made his way to the Parisian suburbs.

Much dispute surrounds the question of what Khomeini said in 1963. The main issues were secular. One was the granting of extra- territorial rights to US servicemen and their families serving in Iran, a move that was linked to a major US loan to the Shah and was very unpopular. The second was the issue of tyranny. In one sermon he took up a copy of the Koran in one hand and the 1906 constitution in the other and attacked the Shah for violating both. On another occasion he stated: ‘the constitution has been bought with the blood of our fathers, and we will not permit it to be violated. Our sole demand is the execution of law’.

Khomeini does not seem to have made a great issue out of land reform, which anyway is now a dead issue. He is accused of having opposed the granting of votes to women in 1963, but his real, and documented, opposition to changes in the position of women came when he opposed the Family Protection Act of 1967 which ended the traditional Muslim male right to instantaneous divorce and terminated polygamy. His claim in recent interviews that Islam endorses the equality of men and women is evasive and finds no foundation in the Koran. The latter is clear on this point:

‘Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other’. Indeed, until the 1967 reform, the mollahs administered the system of sighe or temporary marriages, which amounted to a form of religiously sanctioned prostitution.

Most of Khomeini’s recent political statements have been of a rather generic kind. He certainly favours a reduction in Iran’s links with the west, although since early January he has toned down his criticisms of the USA. He is opposed to selling oil to or having diplomatic relations with Israel and in accordance with his prejudiced religious view of the matter he casts Jews as the 'enemies of Islam'. Yet despite alarm about the attitude of the opposition to the tens of thousands of Iranian Jews, there has been little overt friction between Muslims and Jews in the recent months. El Al planes sent to Tehran, to bring out members of the Jewish community, had to return to Tel Aviv empty.

Khomeini’s attitude to other political forces is one of suspicion. There is bad blood between himself and the National Front, at least partly because he claims the Front did not support him in his clash with the regime in 1963. Khomeini never mentions the name of Mossadeq who until the revival in support for the Ayatollah was the unchallenged symbol of nationalist and anti-Pahlavi feeling. Indeed, whether with Khomeini’s agreement or not, Muslim organisers of the recent demonstrations in Tehran have torn down pictures of Mossadeq, as they have those of urban guerrillas killed in clashes with the regime over recent years. This indicates a consistent policy of obscuring all political traditions that might provide an alternative pole of orientation to Khomeini’s.

Khomeini has consistently attacked Marxists in his statements, and claimed, inaccurately, that the Soviet Union has given as much support to the Shah as the west and China. He has also expressly forbidden his followers to co-operate with the Left, and amongst those believed to be on his proposed Islamic Council are individuals from the right-wing of the political spectrum. Khomeini’s main supporter in Iran, Mehdi Bazargan, took his Iran Liberation Movement out of the National Front precisely because it agreed to allow the Iranian Socialists League (a social-democratic body) to join, and his two main spokesmen in Paris, Ibrahim, Yazdi and Sadagh Chateb Zadeh, are veteran foes of the Left within the exile student community. Although Tudeh (communist) Party Secretary-General Ehsanullah Kianuri has recently stated that his party is willing to co-operate with Khomeini, the latter’s followers remain unimpressed. In the streets of Tehran and on the walls of the London underground, the slogan ‘Death to the Shah, Traitor and Seller of the Country’ has now been joined by the words ‘Death to the Central Committee of the Tudeh, Traitor and Seller of the Country’.

Khomeini's demand for a return to the 1906 constitution is, as far as it goes, one that commands virtually universal support in Iran but there are several major areas of ambiguity within this that will soon become evident. One is that Article Three expressly denies votes to women — in common with foreigners, murderers, bankrupts, thieves and criminals. Article Four also bans from standing for election anyone who cannot read and write Persian, a major consideration in a country where only half the population have Persian as their first language and where adult literacy is at most 40%. The 1906 constitution also allows a measure of power to the monarchy, whereas the call is now for a republic, an inevitable result of the monarch’s despotism over the past quarter-century.

The most immediate question concerning Khomeini now is whether he can convert his great achievement in forcing the Shah to leave into a permanent political victory. In particular, he seems to be underestimating the Iranian armed forces who, at 420,000 strong, are still a formidable repressive force. For the time being, under advice from the Shah and from Washington, the generals are holding their fire. They know the strength of the popular movement and the inroads that months of exposure to the streets have made on the lower ranks. But neither of these considerations will on their own hold the army back indefinitely and Khomeini’s oft-repeated pleas to the army not to fire on the population have already been drowned in a lot of blood. The news that since the Shah’s departure pro-Khomeini members of the air force are being taken from their beds at night and summarily shot should leave no-one in doubt as to the determination of at least some of the top generals. If Khomeini fails in the next few weeks to find an accommodation with the political forces in Tehran, then the army will almost certainly intervene much more decisively than it yet has and all that Khomeini’s followers have fought to achieve may yet be lost.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq