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The last great revolution
Early passions have been replaced by a hard-earned pragmatism

By Robin Wright
January 19, 2000
The Iranian

Excerpt from Robin Wright's The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (2000, Knopf). Wright has reported from 120 countries as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CBS News, and The Sunday Times of London. She won the National Magazine Award for her reporting on Iran for The New Yorker. She is also the author of Flashpoints (with Doyle McManus) Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam, and In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade.

On the dusty highway south from bustling Tehran, an enormous gold dome rises importantly across the horizon. Heat from the surrounding desert makes it shiver like a mirage, even in winter. Four spiny minarets quiver rhythmically alongside it.

The most ornate shrine in Iran -- and one of the largest monuments ever constructed in the Muslim world over the past thirteen centuries -- was built in record time above the burial site of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after he died abruptly from a heart attack in 1989. Disgruntled Iranians complained at the time that its cost was greater than the annual budget of Tehran, a city of some 13 million people. Iran's devout boasted that it was finer than both the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the prophet Mohammad's tomb in Medina, Islam's two holiest sites. Their message was implicit.

The trip to Khomeini's tomb and the nearby Paradise of Zahra has always served as a barometer of Iran's revolution. I've stopped there on every visit. The last time was almost twenty years after the revolution -- and a decade after the ayatollah's death -- when I sat in the back seat of a boxy white Paykan taxi, a warm wind threatening to blow off the big scarf that hid my hair and a tape of the Spice Girls booming from the taxi's tape deck.

En route, my old friend Lily Sadeghi and I made plans to see a Molière farce that night at one of Tehran's new cultural centers. We regretted having missed a local production of Les Misérables, in Persian, that had just closed after a six-month run.

"We probably wouldn't have gotten in anyway," Lily said. "It was very popular. It was always sold out."

Then we laughed about all the American tourists who had started coming to Iran again. Another group had just checked into the Laleh Hotel, the former Intercontinental renamed for the tulip, a national symbol.

Until just a few months earlier, the Laleh and most other hotels had big signs emblazoned across lobby walls or on entrance walkways for visitors to tread on that declared, in English, "down with the usa." They'd been put up in the heady days of 1979 after the United States Embassy seizure, at the same time that Khomeini's pledge "America will face a severe defeat" was painted across the embassy's high brick wall.

But that morning, two decades after the revolution, I'd watched a group of American tourists assemble in the Laleh's redecorated lobby. They, too, were going to visit Khomeini's tomb.

Like the world around it, Iran has been -- and still is -- going through a transformation. Early passions have been replaced by a hard-earned pragmatism, produced in part by revolutionary excesses that backfired against the clerics and exhausted the population. Arrogance has given way to realism. The "government of God" is ceding to secular statecraft. The passage of time has also helped to restore perspective. The shift is visible even at the tomb of the soulful Imam [a term of reverence given a Shi'ite religious leader by popular consensus rather than by formal appointment or vote. Its use is rare] who in 1979 led a widely disparate movement that ended 2,500 years of monarchy and then, over the next decade, defined what would replace it.

The main chamber in the domed tomb is, indeed, magnificent. The foundation, walls and massive pillars are a polished white marble that reflects the light of chandeliers and gives the tomb an airy feeling. Persian carpets, all handwoven silks in richly textured designs denoting Iran's different provinces, adorn the floors.

In the center is a cage-like chamber of glass big enough to be a room. It is canopied in green, the color of Islam. Inside, the ayatollah lies under a six-foot-high block of marble, also covered by a green cloth. Next to the Imam, under a smaller block of marble, is his son Ahmad, who died in 1995. The official version is that Ahmad died of a heart attack, although the grapevine in conspiracy-crazed Iran claimed a variety of more sinister causes, each of which was fueled largely by the fact that Ahmad was only in his late forties.

The chamber's glass walls are covered with a silvery-metal grid, in no small part to prevent the large crowds that once assembled here from breaking through to the Imam's remains. The faithful still shudder at the memory of the chaos at Khomeini's funeral, when his shrouded body was uncovered and tossed around by mourners vying to get a last look or touch. On each side of the chamber, at eye level, is a slit through which to pass money. Rial notes used to be piled high inside around the edges. Inside the octagonal dome above Khomeini are somewhat incongruous stained-glass windows of giant red tulips with green stems crafted artistically in the simple modernistic style of New York City's "big apple." In Iran, the tulip is the symbol of martyrdom as well as the national flower.

For all its splendor, the tomb is now a place of unusual informality. Non-Muslims and foreigners are welcome; unlike in mosques, men and women mix freely together here. Out of either reverence or curiosity, almost everyone who enters heads first for Khomeini's chamber.

As I peered inside it, a small middle-aged woman next to me wept softly, reciting a prayer and touching the metal with rough hands stained with henna. Then, having paid her respects, she walked over to join a group having a picnic lunch.

Throughout the cavernous tomb, groups were spread across the carpets, eating or chatting, while children played tag or raced to slide across the marble floor in their stocking feet; two boys even kicked around a small soccer ball. Some loners, mainly but not exclusively men, were curled up against the wall napping.

Outside, on the vast plaza that surrounds the tomb, the atmosphere was quite social, almost festive. A row of outdoor cafés offered an assortment of sweet delicacies. On the other side of the plaza, souvenir kiosks sold T-shirts, beach towels, key rings, pinup posters and even large bamboo blinds featuring Khomeini's image, as well as cassette tapes of the ayatollah's last will and testament -- in Persian, English, French, German and Arabic.

"With a tranquil and confident heart, joyous spirit and conscience hopeful of God's grace, I leave you, sisters and brothers, and depart for the eternal abode," one poster proclaimed, quoting Khomeini, who is depicted ascending to heaven on a rainbow.

Judging from the purchases, T-shirts were clearly more popular than the Imam's last will and testament.

Like the crumpled rials around the grave, profits from memorabilia were being used to expand the complex. Construction was already under way on an addition designed to spread across some five thousand acres and include an Islamic studies university as well as a seminary, hotels for pilgrims and a shopping mall, all at a cost of at least $2.5 billion. The tomb will eventually become the center of a suburb, complete with its own metro stop.

For a weekend afternoon, the tomb was lightly populated -- roughly two hundred people in a facility that could hold several thousand. The count went up when a class of preteen girls, just old enough to don the headscarf and body cover of Islamic modesty, filed in with their teachers. The tea men at the outdoor café said the tomb still bustled at holidays and revolutionary anniversaries and during various pilgrimages.

"They keep coming and coming," said one, shaking his head, in a tone of curious disbelief that once might have been considered dangerously irreverent.

The last stop for many visitors before leaving the plaza is a large chunk of smoothed white stone that features an embossed bust of Khomeini. The image is almost translucent. That day, a few Japanese tourists and several Iranian schoolgirls were lined up to have their picture taken in front of it. With the Imam peering across their shoulders and the domed shrine in the background, the photo is the ultimate souvenir in the Islamic republic. It captures what even the most dogmatic clergy now concede is part of Iran's past.

The passions once evoked by Ayatollah Khomeini may have waned, even withered, as the tough realities of running a large country with a complex economy have taken precedence. But the idea behind the revolution led by the Imam still had historic importance two decades later -- perhaps in some ways even more than when it started.

Its significance also extended far beyond Iran, the Middle East, the broader Islamic world and even the twentieth century, for one simple reason: It is the last great revolution of the Modern Era.

The singular political theme of the Modern Era -- and particularly the twentieth century -- has been empowerment, or the spread of political, economic and social rights to the earth's farthest corners, to all its diverse ethnic groups, races, religions and, perhaps last of all, to both genders. Dozens of countries can claim revolutions in the name of empowerment since the English Revolution of the 1640s created a modern precedent. But fewer than a handful represented seminal turning points. They set the pace, defined goals, provided justification and, most important, introduced a viable new idiom of opposition later adapted or imitated elsewhere.

Two revolutions particularly shook political conventions by introducing new ideologies: In toppling the Bourbons of France, the Jacobins of the eighteenth century introduced equality and civil liberty as the basis of modern democracy. In the early twentieth century, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Romanovs in favor of classless egalitarianism.

The ideas that emerged from both revolutions in turn helped to topple monarchies and petty tyrannies worldwide and then defined the political spectrum that replaced them. The pace accelerated as demand for political participation spread after World War II. However misguided in application, the empowerment embodied in democracy and socialism inspired popular uprisings from China to Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, independence movements from Algeria to Zambia in the 1960s and 1970s and, finally, the penetration of democracy from the Soviet Union to South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

But that pattern of global change has had one large gap: the Islamic bloc.

The Muslim world is a vast and vital area that accounts for more than 50 of the world's 191 countries. It stretches from Indonesia on the Pacific Ocean to Morocco on the Atlantic, from Kazakhstan in chilly Central Asia to Saudi Arabia on the warm Persian Gulf, from Somalia in drought-plagued east Africa to Nigeria on Africa's fertile west coast and from Yemen on the Red Sea to Lebanon on the Mediterranean.

The Islamic bloc also accounts for one of every five people on earth -- or more than one billion who have been excluded from the political process for most of the Modern Era. As home to the final functioning monarchies and the largest number of authoritarian regimes, it is today the last bloc to hold out against the tide of democratic reform that has swept the rest of the world.

In this context, Iran's upheaval is arguably the Modern Era's last great revolution. It effectively completes the process launched in the West by other ideologies that were adopted by or adapted to all other parts of the world.

Like its earlier counterparts, Iran's Islamic revolution introduced a new ideology to the world's modern political spectrum. [In 1984, the State Department held a closed-door conference on Iran. Marvin Zonis, director of the University of Chicago's Middle East Institute, concluded at the time, "The message from Iran is in my opinion the single most impressive political ideology proposed in the twentieth century -- since the Bolshevik Revolution. And if we accept that Bolshevism is a remnant of the nineteenth century, then I argue that we've had only one good one in the twentieth -- and it's this one. . . . This powerful message will be with us for a very long time -- no matter what happens to Ayatollah Khomeini."] In a region where members of the opposition have often been imprisoned or exiled, it established the precedent of using Islam -- a familiar, legitimate and widely available vehicle -- to push for empowerment. It provided a format, if not a precise formula, for the last group of undemocratic regimes to make the transition. And despite Western portrayals of it as a force spinning Iran back thirteen centuries in time, the sixteen-month upheaval in Tehran demonstrated that Islam could be a distinctly modern idiom of political opposition in both tactics and goals.

The product has been unique: Although thoroughly Islamic with several unique twists, Iran has become a modern republic based on a unique blend of Islamic and European law, most notably borrowing ideas from France and Belgium. It calls for national, provincial and local elections in which all males and females vote as of age fifteen. It stipulates term limits for the presidency and allocates parliamentary seats for Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians -- at least token acknowledgment of individual or minority rights.

The impact of Iran's revolution on its brethren has also been obvious: It ignited the budding Islamic movement that emerged out of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars and spurred on opposition movements throughout the Muslim world. In the 1980s, the trend was most visibly linked to radicalism, from plots to overthrow the emir on the tiny Persian Gulf island of Bahrain to the Islamic takeover in Sudan, Africa's largest country, from the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in Egypt to the campaign against American diplomats and Marines in Lebanon.

Less visible and more important, however, were the quiet efforts to produce Islamic alternatives to failed state institutions, from schools and clinics to farm co-ops and welfare agencies. Islamic groups struggled to create a new civil society -- the network of associations, unions and clubs for workers, teachers, engineers, women, doctors, youth and other sectors that became a means of addressing problems their governments ignored.

In the 1990s, tactics among key political groups increasingly shifted from the bullet to the ballot, with the rise of political parties trying to work within the system rather than from outside it in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen and Kuwait.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the trend is far from climaxing. For years, empowerment in the Islamic world will be a major theme of political change -- be it peaceful as in Jordan, bloody as in Algeria, or tumultuous as in Indonesia. Iran's revolution may therefore not be the last revolution; other societies may well have national revolts that topple outdated ideological systems.

And in the end, no Islamic country is likely to duplicate the Iranian experience. Its excesses diminished interest in emulating Tehran, except among a tiny corps of extremists. The costs were too high, the results too controversial. The Shi'ite character of the revolution also makes it unlikely to be repeated among Sunni governments, which most other Muslim governments are. Finally, strong indications that the specific Iranian model may yet fail -- albeit for economic rather than ideological reasons -- will make other societies wary of imitating the Islamic Republic.

Yet whatever happens, Iran's revolution will still rank as the Modern Era's last great revolution, because Tehran paved the way for using Islam to push for empowerment -- not only politically. Just as the Reformation was critical to the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of modern democracy in the West, so too have Iranian philosophers advanced a reformation within Islam that is critical to lasting political change.

In some ways, Iran might seem an unusual place for the last great revolution. The Islamic world is as diverse as it is vast.

But Iran is particularly unique. It is the only overwhelmingly Shi'ite country in a bloc that is some 85 percent Sunni Muslim. It is an aberration from both the Middle East and south Asia, the two regions it bridges. It is the only Muslim state of Aryan people, the Indo-European race whence Iran gets its modern name.

Ethnically it also stands alone, with Arabs to the west, the Central Asian mix to the north, Indo-Afghan-Pakistanis to the southeast and assorted Asian Muslims to the far east. Even Tajikistan, a northern neighbor and the only other Farsi-speaking country in the world, is Sunni Muslim.

Iran stands apart geographically, too, because of two great mountain ranges, the Alborz and the Zagros, and three great bodies of water, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Yet those attributes are also reasons why Iran was a logical place for such sweeping political innovation.

First, Shi'ite Islam demands that the faithful fight against injustice and tyranny, even if it means certain death. Islam's so-called second sect was born out of a sense of persecution by a seventh-century dynasty that usurped leadership of the new Islamic world -- and spawned a sense of outrage that lives on today. Shi'ite clerics also have a mandate to mobilize and direct their flocks into action, not just to advise them. That power explains why Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as a natural leader to unite both secular and religious opposition against a twentieth-century dynasty.

Islam, which makes no distinction between the powers of Caesar and God, had also long been a nationalist force in Iran. Shi'ism had been a source of national identity -- even among those less than devout -- since it was introduced in 1501 by the new Safavid Dynasty to create a sense of common identity separate from the Ottoman Empire, which was ruled by Sunni Muslims. And even into the twentieth century, Iran was a country of feudal fiefdoms, tribes and ethnic groups whose rivalries ran deep -- hence the historic need for strong leadership or a binding social force, or both.

Second, Iran was politically more experienced than virtually any other Muslim state. Most countries were created or gained independence from European colonial powers only in the twentieth century. But Iran had a long, if somewhat varied, history of sovereignty.

Third, with more than 2,500 years of civilization, Iranians have a sense of historic importance and of a role in shaping the world. Iran has produced centuries' worth of great writers and philosophers. It also had the intellectual environment that stimulated questioning, new ideas and, eventually, a revolutionary spirit.

Fourth, as a crossroads between East and West and a target of invading armies from ancient Greece to contemporary Britain, Persia had long exposure to ideas from the outside world. Iranians absorbed and adapted many of the traditions, ideas and skills from other cultures to their own ways, from the early medicine of the Jews and the religion of the Arabs to English as a second language. Along the way, they were also influenced by the Greco-Roman legacy and the Judeo-Christian values that, together, formed the basis for Western revolutions since the Age of Enlightenment.

Fifth, the quest for empowerment in Iran did not simply explode unpredictably in 1979. The trend of the entire century, particularly two earlier upheavals, centered on ending dynastic rule.

The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 was sparked by the weak Qajar Dynasty's decision to dole out political and economic concessions to Britain and Russia. Britain won the exclusive right to tap Iran's oil.

To curtail powers that allowed the king to give away the country and to rid Persia of foreigners who challenged religious and social traditions, a powerful alliance of the clergy, the intelligentsia and the bazaar merchants launched a protest. Prolonged instability forced the Qajar monarch, in 1906, to accept demands for Persia's first constitution and its first parliament -- both of which limited the king's powers.

In 1953, the last Pahlavi shah, also weak and also heavily influenced by foreign powers, faced a similar challenge from the National Front. The front, led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, was a four-party coalition that advocated constitutional democracy and limited powers for the monarchy. But the shah's attempt to have Mossadeq dismissed backfired, forcing the monarch to flee to Rome. The last dynasty looked as if it had fizzled -- until the CIA and British intelligence orchestrated riots that forced Mossadeq to resign and allowed the young king to return to the Peacock Throne for another quarter century.

The revolution was thus an extension of earlier challenges. With attempts at evolutionary change repeatedly blocked, revolution became the alternative route to empowerment.

But the political endgame in 1979 marked the Modern Era's last great revolution not only because of its success in scrapping one of the world's oldest kingdoms. What happened after the revolution may be even more important, particularly the way Iranians, often in defiance of the government, adapted the Islamic system in creative and progressive ways.

During the Islamic republic's first two decades, new approaches to everyday issues produced everything from an internationally acclaimed cinema to an alternative press, from novel family-planning programs to women's activism. These nonpolitical innovations are virtually certain to produce the revolution's real legacy -- and to have a far more enduring impact in the wider Islamic world than Iran's political system will have.

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