Adapted and summarized from chapter 2 of my new book, The Shah and the Ayatollah (Praeger ,2003).
Permanence and Contuinity
Continuity is the hallmark of Iranian culture . Indeed many “constants” blaze the trails of the three thousands years of Iranian history . Present historians , as well as those of the past century , have often underlined what they call the “permanence of Iran” , meaning that old Iranian traditions have survived the many calamities and invasions that struck the Caspian Plateau . Curiously enough the mindset of Iranians has barely changed over the centuries . Many ancient beliefs that linger in their unconscious trigger sometimes reactions which seem incomprehensible to foreign observers .
I remember a French journalist friend of mine who , after a travel to Iran in 1981 , asked me : “Are you Iranians insane ? You stunned the whole world by overthrewing with your bare hands the powerful Shah . And now your compatriots voluntarily , if not enthusiastically , submit to another dictator, even more totalitarian and repressive than the Shah and his regime ! “. No : Iranians are far from being mad ; they only are , so to say , “prisoners” of their own “permanence” , of their own mores . Indeed , despite its indeniable material and technical development under the Shah , Iran , in 1978 , remained at heart a traditional society .
The Shah , prey to his own hubris , entertained the illusion that Iran had already broken the walls of backwardness and underdevelopment and become part of the modern and advanced world . Despite his deep-seated anti-marxist philosophy and his almost superstitious religious beliefs , material signs of progress dazzled him to a fault and blinded him to all other factors . For example in his 1978 “Toward the Great Civilization “he wrote :
“Tehran , which never appeared on the list of places in which world-wide economic activities occurred , became one of the most animated centers of the world for such activities . The Iranian industrial era started… Between the beginning of the (White) Revolution and today (1977) , the figure representing Gross National Product (GNP) ,at current prices , rose from 340 billion to 5,682 billion rials. In other words, the said production had increased more than 16-fold in the space of only 15 years. The volume of national savings , which is an index of the soundness of the state of the public economy , increased from 45 to 1,509 billion rials . The annual rate of growth of our country's economy , which for many years has figured at the head of the international list as the highest rate of economic growth in the world , is at present 13,8% . Average per capita income , which was at the beginning of the (White) Revolution 174 dollars , has reached 2,200 in the first half of the current year … Our country which until 1973 did not figure among the twenty wealthy countries which form the subject of studies by the International Monetary Fund , has occupied since 1974 the 13th place among them…”
It is true that in a matter of only 15 years a whole economic and social infrastructure had been built up , the solidity of which was proven by the long and bloody war provoked by Iraq (without such a backup , the Iraqi would have rapidly defeated Iran) . Yet , this modern and wealthy Iran whose rapid emergence had bewildered world experts in the 1970s , was only the tip of an iceberg , of which two thirds still steeped in the Middle Ages ! But blurred by the initial successes of the rapid economic progress and.his obssessive dream of “Great Civilization” , and also prodded by his terminal illness, the Shah could not or did not want to acknowledge reality in its entirety : Iran , despite its rapid and tangible progresses , largely remained a traditional society. Despite the advices of his aides and some foreign experts , he decided to gallop through his programs .
Iran as a traditional society
One characteristic of “traditional “societies is what specialists dub as “pre-modern ways of thinking” which prompt masses as well as elites to assume, among other things , that uncontrolable “forces” rule them (2) . This predisposition covers a vast gammut of beliefs starting with simple superstitions such as the “evil eye” and ending up with complicated elaborations like “satanic plots” by the great powers . Thus , Ayatollah Khomeini , like all other militant Muslim fundamentalists , Sunnite or Shiite (such as , for instance Sheikh Yassin the Spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas extremist group), was sincerely convinced of the existence of a conspiracy by Israel and the West aiming at erasing Islam from the surface of the planet . In the view of these militant fundamentalists , the “Crusades” never ended . They earnestly see “Great Satans” (and lesser ones ) around them !
In the absence of a criterion helping to separate facts from fiction and reality from legend , people of “traditional” societies are forced to speculate , to imagine and to fancy . They constantly sway from bewilderment to dread and vice versa . They resort to Heaven and rely on God . They abandon themselves to fate and destiny . Whatever happens to them comes from “outside” , from uncontrolable forces . They see everywhere signs from the “beyond” . Natural catastrophes are God's punitions imposed on men for their misconducts. Conversely , good happenings or successes are rewards from the Almighty . In 1979 , many Iranians , even highly educated ones , pretended having seen Khomeini's face on the full moon (event which in Iranians' belief “anoint” the person ) . In the same vein the masses firmly believed that Allah inspired Khomeini's actions and destroyed the American helicopters which landed in the Tabass desert .
One can say that Iranians ( not unlike other Third world nations and sometimes groups of immigrants in the most advanced countries) , tow with themselves ,as it were , large chunks of medieval and even more remote concepts and beliefs . They are “prisonners” of their own mythology .I cannot take stock here of all the vast and extremely rich content of Iranian legends . I would instead concentrate on a few elements that might shed light on some unexplained aspects of the 1978/79 Iranian revolution.
One such element can be found , for instance , in the story of Jamshid and Zahak According to it , there was a time when Ahura Mazda (God in the Zoroastrian religion ) , upset by Humans' greedy and sinful behavior , withdrew “Light” from earth and in the ensuying darkness our planet became the realm of Ahriman ( the devil in Zoroastrianism) who supported tyrants .
Then , one day , Jamshid acceeded to the throne and started a rule of justice and progress . Ahura Mazda pleased by his behavior and deeds returned the “Light” , thus forcing Ahriman (the Prince of Darkness) to flee away . Jamshid could therefore reconstruct the country . He built Persepolis ( in Persian : Throne of Jamshid ) ; He set up a system of irrigation that revived arid lands ; he constructed roads that linked the cities and favored trade ; he helped peasants and artisans .
During a great part of Jamshid's reign , people enjoyed a healthy and comfortable life . The whole globe thrived under his reign . But , in the end , the monarch believed that his subjects' well-being and happiness proceeded from himself alone . Overwhelmed by hubris and conceit , he forgot his indebtness to Ahura Mazda . He assembled the people and told them : “I have given you all this wealth and comfort . You should therefore worship me as your King and the Master of the World ” .
Disapointed by these words ,Ahura Mazda once again withdrew “Light” and as a result all the earthly splendor faded away and the tongues of the people grew bold against Jamshid . Ahriman returned and helped Zahak to overthrow Jamshid and take his place . In order to prevent any good deed on the part of the new king and to ensure continuous tyranny , he kissed Zahak on his naked shoulders from which two black serpents sprang up . He told Zahak : “You must feed them daily the brains of young adolescents . Otherwise they will bite you “. A reign of terror started . People lamented and prayed Ahura Mazda to send them a saviour.
The parallel of this story with the events of the 1970s is remarkable . The program of reforms that started in 1963 was just beginning to yield its first fruits when the Shah , falling , as it were , into the sin of presumption , ordered the famous Persepolis festival of september 1971 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the Iranian Empire by Cyrus and to present himself as the heir and continuator of the great Aechemenian king . After the tripling of oil prices in 1974/75 , his arrogance became limitless . He adopted a “teaching” tone and in all his interviews gave lessons to the leaders of the world , including those of the well developed countries , and more particularly the superpowers ! (Khomeini followed a similar path , giving lessons to the Pope , to Gorbachev ,and many other leaders).
To come back to the Jamshid-Zahak legend , the people , as already indicated , suffering from the tyranny of the new monarch , were lamenting and praying Ahura Mazda to send a Saviour who would deliver them from the clutches of the bloody tyrant who killed everyday two adolescents in order tro feed the serpents on his shoulder. Pitying the wretched citizens , Ahura Mazda inspired the blacksmith Kaveh to bring back from the peak of Damavand the hero Fereidun and start a revolt against Zahak who was eventually dethroned …
Khomeini and his underlings seem to have followed (and continue to do so) the same mythological cycle even more quickly than the Shah did . Indeed ,in less time than the monarch , they turned out into unrelenting tyrants . It is of no importance that Khomeini and Khamenei refer themselves to Imam Ali rather than to Cyrus (as the Shah used to do). What is striking is that Iranian leaders as far back as history and legend go , have always become despots if they were not already so when they acceeded to power !
The Rostam Syndrome
The Iranian leader is in fact a kind of two-faced “father” : compassionate on the one hand , but also and more often than not , stern and even cruel .His mythological model is the legendary hero Rostam who inadvertently killed his own son Sohrab reverse of the Greek Oedipus legend !I have coined the phrase “Rostam Syndrome” , in order to underline the difference between European and Iranian fathers).
The Iranian ruler is the “father-of-the-nation” and therefore supposed to provide for the well-being of his “citizens-children” ; but at the same time he is a very strict and adamant “father” who goes as far as putting them to death if they disobey him .He protects them as long as they submit to his commands , but do not hesitate to punish them severely when they fail to carry out his orders . He remains under the spell of the “Rostam Syndrome” ! Iran's history bear witness of numerous kings who massacred or blinded members of their own families or of their entourage as well as whole groups of citizens .
Replacing the Shahs , the mullahs followed suit . They were subjected to the “Rostam Syndrome” . Thus Khomeini did not hesitate to confirm the death sentence against Ghotbzadeh who had helped him to climb to power and stood at his side in exile like a son . Bani Sadr , the first President of the Islamic Republic , whom Khomeini considered as his “spiritual” son , had to flee away in order to escape the fate of Ghotbzadeh ! The mullahs execute daily droves of so-called drug “traffickers” and other “offenders” .
Khomeini calls his theory of governance : Velayate Faghih ( Guardianship of the Theologian) : indeed in the view of ayatollahs , Iranians are “children” in need of a custodian ! The very title of “Marja-e-Taghlid” (source of emulation) implies that the people are child-like!
Thus invisible “bonds of servitude” link all levels of Iranian society from roots to branches . The “supreme ruler” himself , in a way , is far from being completely “free” . Indeed he must submit to God's authority . I evoked earlier the question of a French friend returning from a 1981 visit to Iran : “Are Iranians mad ?” . The answer is obviously negative . Indeed Iranians abandoned the Shah only when he lost his “fathership” by becoming “weak” and fleeing the country and when they found a replacement in the person of Khomeini . Screaming the slogan of “Islam is in danger” the latter startled them and appeared to them with the aura as a “saviour” sent by God .
In february 1979 his plane landed in Mehrabad ‘s airport . He literally alighted from heaven !
Obviously democracy cannot take root and grow up in such a paternalistic and despotic environment . I remember my perplexity in History courses when I was attending high school . Why Persians and Greeks who both were Indo-European “cousins” did wage constant wars against each other ? The explications of my professors as well as that of historians refering to the character of the rulers and to economic arguments about trade routes and other features (such as exiled politicians of both sides) never totally convinced me . But now it seems clear to me that the systems of governance of the two nations constituted a permanent danger for each other . If the stern “father rule” spilled in Greek cities it would endanger democracy and vice-versa .
Today in the Middle East we witness something of that kind . Behind the bickerings and wars , mythologies and political systems loom large . Indeed , for one thing , Israel's “democracy” constitutes a constant danger for the Muslim “authoritarian” governments and vice-versa . At any rate , after several centuries of Greek interlude , Persians found nothing better than to reestablish their ancestral totalitarian political structures with the Sassanian empire which collapsed a couple of centuries later under the assault of Arabia's Muslim Bedouins!
The opposition of the clergy to democracy
In this perspective and to come back to the events that ended the Iranian monarchy and replaced it with Khomeini's Islamic despotic rule , one should remember that by 1977, under the pressure of the Carter administration , Muhammad Reza Shah , already deeply impressed by Juan Carlos' example in Spain , wanted to “liberalize” his regime . He envisaged to install a real constitutional monarchy , authorize all political parties and organize free elections , under international scrutriny , in june 1979 . This new trend in his reforms , much more than the “modernization” inaugurated with the “White Revolution” , constituted a direct threat to the influence of the Shiite clergy whose paternalistic structure could only tolerate (and thrive under ) the despotic-father-rule of the traditional system , despite occasional frictions between the monarch and high ranking mullahs .
Learning about the Shah's intentions , Khomeini who had already locked horns with him at several occasions in the fifties and sixties , acted immediately and fobbed both Iranian and Western liberals and secularists by his early “democratic” language . As soon as he arrived in Iran after the departure of the Shah , he unlimbered his batteries and put in place his absolutist medieval theocracy . That is why today Iranians should not be lured by the oxymoronic idea of “religious democracy” aired by the so-called “reformists” around Khatami.
Be this as it may , one should constantly keep in mind the eminent place of the “father” in order to understand the unfolding of events in Iranian society of the past as well as the present . The Iranian “father” is not a symbolic figure , a “father figure” (like general De Gaulle or chancellor Adenauer were in France and in Germany after World War II ) . To the contrary he considers himself as a real father .
The same can be said of the ayatollahs and Imams . Shah , Imam or simple head of an ordinary family , the Iranian “father” possesses an absolute power over his “children” in his particular realm . He is invested with such a limitless power by God or by Tradition and he exerts it with the utmost harshness and severity . Nothing stops him in yielding it . In a way , he is an “atavic killer” , as if he were seeking revenge for all he had suffered as a “child” before acceeding to “fathership ” . He recites the Koranic formula : “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful” without paying attention to its real meaning . He is much more interested by the decriptions of God's punishments than by that of the delights of Paradise . When he is not wielding the sword , he handles the whip .
In any case , the dread of the father is not fictional . Iranian history abounds in bloody episodes in which “fathers” literally kill their children and subjects . Since its inception , Iranian society has been based on a blanket delegation of limitless power to the “father” and on a total submission of the children . The Shah in the past and the Ayatollahs today turn up their noses to the protests based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which they consider as contrary to many teachings of Allah's laws as edicted by the Koran or interpreted by the Islamic Jurisprudents . In their views it threatens both Muslim and traditional Iranian identity.
What confused outside observers as well as some Iranians about the Islamic revolution , is that , save a limited group of intellectuals and educated members of society , the bulk of the Iranian citizens were not yearning for freedom , but rather looking for another “father” . The Shah with his so-called “liberalizing” program was softening his repressive rule . Under pressure by the United States and non-governmental Human Rights organizations (such as Amnesty International ) he pardoned some of his enemies (including Rajavi the head of the Mujahiddins who had been condemned to death ) . In 1978 he did not react harshly against his opponants and to the contrary accepted all their demands … He showed weakness and therefore ceased to be a true “father” in the traditional sense .
Moreover the “complexities” of modern societies which were stealthily inching into the country with the reforms of the so-called “White revolution” , frightened the masses still accustomed to the “simplicity” and “efficacy” of traditional ways . Khomeini , aware of the dismay of the ordinary citizen in face of change , used to a maximum pitch their creeping fears . For instance , he repeatedly criticized the civil courts that had taken over from clerics the dispensation of justice . He would say in this respect : “It would take a civil court sometimes several years before ending a case and pronouncing a verdict , while Islamic tribunals would decide in two or three days “.
In more general terms he used to affirm : “If a government applied Islamic criminal law during one single year , it would uproot all injustices and immoralities . Crimes should be punished by the Talion (law of retaliation) : sever the hand of a thief , put to death a murderer instead of imprisoning him , whip or stone the adulterous . So called humanitarian scruples are rather childish . According to Koranic law , any person filling up the seven conditions ( being male , pubescent, believer , cognizant of Islamic law , fair ; and not illegitimate or amnesiac) is habilitated to be judge in any law-case . He can thus judge in one day twenty different cases while Western justice takes years to tackle only one of them “. He contended that all the reforms introduced by the so-called “White Revolution” were nothing but “westoxication” !
Such a simple language was indeed soothing to the masses , bewildered by the sudden irruption of spates of novelties in their traditional environment . The Shah who was acting like foreigners and speaking a complicated language ceased to be a “father” to them . They felt like orphan children in need of a protector , of a custodian . They feverishly looked for a “real father” . And the new “father” revealed himself in the person of Khomeini whose religious aura compensated for his frailty : he possessed the title of Imam and had proved his endurance and force in past battles against the Shah . One day he descended from Heaven in a Boeing 747 and appeared to the throngs in the full light of noon's sunshine . Order was restored , as a new “shah” , a high ranking religious one to boot , came to sit on the throne vacated by his runaway predecessor . The social “pyramid” far from crumbling down was rather reinforced .
Shall we conclude that Iranians will never escape from the closed circle in which their traditions and mythology has imprisonned them ? I don't think so . Not only many things have changed in Iranian society (and behavior) since the mullahs despotic regime took over , but our Mythology contains many hopeful elements which have been , as it were , kept in slumber and which can be reactivated by the younger generations .
I personally believe that the legends of Kaykhosrow and Simorgh , to quote only these two , contain the seeds of democracy . We must reactivate them at all levels of the Iranian society . The only positive lesson of Khomeini's Islamic revolution nightmare is that it proves that tradition can be changed. Indeed the overnight overthrow of traditional monarchy was easily accepted by the people . In my opinion the vast majority of Iranians are now ready to step into a democratic system . The time is now .